From the Chicago Reader (November 14, 1997). –J.R.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Errol Morris
With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks.
To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest…that is the dream. –Stéphane Mallarmé
If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea of what poetry should be: an obscure object shaped and defined in successive increments by the reader’s perception and imagination.
Four men are interviewed separately in Morris’s film — a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) — and they recount the origins as well as some of the development of their passion for their work. Who they are apart from their work almost never comes up. Read more
Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas — about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland — is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed — as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter) — what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering — like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America — is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show. Read more
With Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher.
As its lowercase title suggests, sex, lies, and videotape is an example of lowercase filmmaking: lean, economical, relatively unpretentious (or at least pretentiously unpretentious), and purposefully small-scale. Its having walked off with the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or — making first-time writer-director Steven Soderbergh at 26 the youngest filmmaker ever to win that prize — saddles it with more of a reputation than it can comfortably live up to. In a time of relative drought, it’s certainly a small oasis, but the attention it’s been getting befits something closer to a breakthrough geyser.
All the fuss may be a sign of panic over more than just movies. Sexual repression is reflected in various ways in current pictures, but this is the only one that deals with it forthrightly as its central subject — specifically, as the main preoccupation of its two leading characters — and broaches sexual problems such as impotence and frigidity in the bargain. I haven’t heard such giddy, unnatural-sounding laughter in a movie theater since The Decline of the American Empire hit the art-house circuit a few years ago — the same sort of forced, hyped-up hilarity at the mere mention of words like “fucking” and “penis” and “getting off.” Read more
From the January 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Films by Robert Bresson
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, directors, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create….Cinematography: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling. — Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography
Among the people of my acquaintance who know a lot about film, most — perhaps all — consider Robert Bresson the greatest living filmmaker. Because he’s in his early 90s, the possibility of his making another movie — his last was L’argent (“Money”) in 1983 — is remote. (Most biographical sources place his birthdate in 1907, but reliable informants have told me that this very private individual shaved at least a couple of years off his age some time ago, apparently to extend his credibility as a working director with insurance companies.)
In spite of its importance, his work may have difficulty surviving, because most of it doesn’t “translate” to video. The reasons are complex, but for starters I would suggest that two central factors involved are sound presence and the framed image. Read more
The least that can be said for Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, made nine years earlier than his 1980 masterpiece, Out of the Blue, is that no other studio-released film of the period is quite so formally audacious. After the surprise success of Easy Rider, Hopper was given carte blanche by Universal Pictures to make this disjointed epic in Peru; although it was given a special prize at the Venice film festival, the film was withdrawn from circulation in the U.S. after a couple of weeks and has rarely been screened since. After working in a western directed by Samuel Fuller (playing himself), during which one of the lead actors (Dean Stockwell) has been killed, an American stuntman (Hopper) remains behind with a Peruvian woman. He is eventually drafted into an imaginary movie being made by the Indian villagers; before or after this — the film isn’t very explicit about chronology — he is enlisted in a scheme to find gold in the mountains. The curious thing about this freewheeling allegory is that it is simultaneously about many things (the fakery of moviemaking, mutual exploitation, ugly Americans in the third world, Hopper as Jesus) and nothing at all. Read more
With Eastwood, Wanda De Jesus, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, Tina Lifford, Igor Jijikine, Alix Koromzay, Dylan Walsh, and Paul Rodriguez.
Clint Eastwood’s latest slugfest, Blood Work, is ultimately just another Dirty Harry opus. And by now Harry has become boring, not because Eastwood keeps trying to redefine the character the public tends to remember him for, but because he doesn’t try to redefine the punk villains who keep Harry busy and dirty.
In Blood Work — not technically but generically and existentially a Dirty Harry adventure — the villain is a standard-issue serial killer. It’s a truism that there are more serial killers in movies than there could possibly be in life, and what keeps them mythic seems to have less to do with the world we live in than with the sadistic and infantile ways we like to think about that world. I have come to associate pleasure in cinema with the absence of serial killers, and the pleasure I associate with Blood Work includes everything that doesn’t relate to the silly one lodged near its center. Read more
With Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Dana Delany, Julie Harris, Donald Moffat, Peter MacNicol, Richard B. Shull, Laurel Cronin, Roy Cooper, and Christopher Durang.
I’ve seen previews of two summer comedies so far — Sister Act and Housesitter — that have elicited gales of hysterical laughter from their mainly young audiences. In both cases the hysteria and volume of the laughter seemed a bit out of proportion. The one-joke premise of Sister Act — that there’s something indescribably hilarious about nuns behaving slightly irreverently — smacks more of quiet desperation growing out of repression than of something to feel happy about. I suspect that if I were a Catholic I’d feel more offended than charmed by the complacency of this running gag, whatever Emile Ardolino’s efficiency as a director. There’s a certain darkness behind many of the laughs in Housesitter, too, but at least they relate to a zeitgeist I can feel part of.
The main comic staple of Housesitter, apart from the enjoyable physical clowning of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, is a theme I associate especially with the comedies of Billy Wilder: the baroque complications that grow out of elaborate lies. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 2000). — J.R.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Written by Dick Beebe and Berlinger
With Kim Diamond, Jeffrey Patterson, Erica Geersen, Tristine Ryler, and Stephen Ryan Parker.
Call me naive, but unlike many of my colleagues I thought the unexpected runaway success of The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999 was encouraging, not depressing. I saw it as an indication that contemporary teenagers are far from the hardened cynics media “experts” make them out to be and that special effects and a handful of stars aren’t their sole reasons for wanting to see a movie. Its appeal offered a clear challenge to the studios and even forced the film industry to let it play in malls — an astonishing accomplishment for an independent pseudodocumentary that cost only $30,000.
I don’t consider the movie any sort of masterpiece and fully acknowledge its primitive conceptual and technical aspects, but I still think it expresses something about its young fans that’s authentic and powerful: a feeling of helplessness about their isolation and ignorance in relation to the world that’s central to its impact as a horror movie. If that isolation and ignorance led some viewers to initially see it as a real documentary, this is a tribute to the movie’s effectiveness — which makes it similar in some respects to Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, a 1967 low-budget pseudodocumentary that also fooled many young viewers. Read more
This new comedy by writer-director Michael Tolkin (The Rapture), which reunites the leads of Naked Lunch, Peter Weller and Judy Davis, as fashion-plate yuppies in Los Angeles who have spiritually lost their way, keeps promising to be a great satire. But the promise is only half kept; each time one expects some follow-through on a fruitful conceit (e.g., the couple opening a new boutique called Hipocracy, Patrick Bauchau as a mysterious guru), the movie stops dead in its tracks, just like the woeful couple. This is still great fun as far as it goes;, and serious as well; just don’t expect any structure. With Adam West as Weller’s father, John Diehl, Paula Marshall, and Samuel L. Jackson. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Stephen Belber
With Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.
It seems that the less we know about a subject, the likelier we are to be assertive about it. And journalists play a big role in making people feel knowledgeable about what they don’t know. That’s why we keep encountering more and more twaddle about the state of world cinema even though the growth of digital video makes it impossible for anyone to keep up with the state of local cinema in any large city, much less any country, still less the world. All journalists can honestly say is that more and more works are being made and that keeping up with them is no longer possible. It was only days after an Iranian friend and I completed a book about Abbas Kiarostami that a New York critic E-mailed us about two new Kiarostami works we hadn’t even heard of — a ten-minute short for an episodic feature and a fiction feature in DV that he’s in the final stages of editing.
DV equipment is so easy to shoot with –it’s compact, light, inexpensive, unobtrusive — that it’s hard to keep up with how filmmakers are using the technology. Read more
With Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Merriman, Whoopi Goldberg, Cory Buck, John Kapelos, and Michael McElroy.
The two best reasons for seeing The Deep End of the Ocean are the story and Michelle Pfeiffer, not necessarily in that order. But these two calling cards are sometimes at odds, so the film’s virtues and problems grow out of the same source. On the one hand, you’ve got the star system creating certain expectations about the story’s focus; on the other, you’ve got a narrative about a 12-year-old boy trying to figure out his identity by reconciling two sets of parents. Because these two factors are at cross-purposes, you start out watching a star vehicle and wind up watching a coming-of-age story; the transition from one to the other is what makes The Deep End of the Ocean feel somewhat uncertain.
Certainly one can rationalize this shift of gears. The late Dwight Macdonald — the film critic for Esquire back in the early 60s, when it was still possible to write for that magazine about movies as an art form rather than as a combination of sport and business — suggested in one of his columns that a shift of focus from one character to another is often a good thing. Read more
From the November 7, 1995 Chicago Reader. To my amazement, I just saw this spiffy thriller on Hulu, believing throughout that I was seeing it for the first time, until I stumbled upon this capsule afterwards — a sobering example of how much amnesia can affect film reviewers. — J.R.
Unfolding in real time, from the moment a CPA (Johnny Depp) arrives at Los Angeles Union Station with his little girl to the moment 90 minutes or so later when a political assassination is supposed to occur in the Westin Bonaventure Hotel a few blocks away (the same hotel, if memory serves, that provided the climax for In the Line of Fire), this crackerjack paranoid thriller (1995) is a skillful example of what Hollywood used to do so well in the 40s and 50s, in sleepers like The Window and Don’t Bother to Knock. Working with a script by Patrick Sheane Duncan and Ebbe Roe Smith, producer-director John Badham, in his best film since Saturday NightFever, does an able job of moving around his actors (including Christopher Walken, Charles S. Dutton, Peter Strauss, Roma Maffia, Gloria Reuben, and Marsha Mason). Despite a few lapses in judgment, this is a well-crafted exercise — and one, incidentally, that packs a pointed if unobtrusive punch about how both gubernatorial campaigns and fancy hotels are run. Read more
Written forThe Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.
One reason I took so long getting to see this movie (2003) was the number of friends who assured me it was nothing special. Most of them seemed to go along uncritically with the publicists’ claim, echoed by reviewers, that it was a simple point-by-point pastiche of three late-50s and early-60s comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Tony Randall: Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). These films have never appealed to me in the slightest, though Mark Rappaport did an expert job of unpacking them in his 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. But Down With Love is also an affectionate satire of late-50s and early-60s studio glitz that often contradicts the pastiche. The filmmakers, who were too young to experience this era themselves, make plenty of errors, starting with a Fox CinemaScope logo (wrong studio and too late for that logo) and the snazzy rainbow credits (too hyperactive for the time). Then we get palatial Manhattan apartments (much more identified with How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953 and The Tender Trap in 1955) and bubble-gum-colored media blitzes (as in Funny Face and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more
These exceptional personal documentaries add up to a potent double bill; of the nonfiction films in the festival that I’ve seen, these are in many ways the best. Deborah Hoffman’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, which deals only in passing with the fact that the director’s a lesbian, is a beautifully precise, acute, intelligent, practical, touching, and even (at times) comic record of how she copes with her discovery that her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Using video and audio recordings of her interactions with her mother and some on-camera statements of her own, Hoffman charts in haunting detail precisely what memory loss entails, not only for her mother but for herself as she adjusts to the situation. Full of wisdom and insight, this 44-minute essay film is far from depressing. The same is true of Gregg Bordowitz’s 54-minute, deconstructive Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), an autobiographical essay about the filmmaker’s 1988 discovery that he’d tested HIV-positive and his subsequent life, including his decision to quit drugs and drinking and come out to his mother and stepfather. Making semi-ironic use of silent found footage and Jewish music, Bordowitz speaks about his late father and his sex life; he also includes conversations with various friends (including filmmaker Yvonne Rainer), his own documentary footage of AIDS rallies, a tour of his bookshelves, and a bitter parody of the way the media have treated AIDS. Read more
I haven’t been much of a John Woo fan, and war films aren’t my cup of tea, but this World War II epic made me reconsider both biases. The masterful storytelling, which doesn’t seem overextended even at 134 minutes, focuses on the unlikely friendship between a shell-shocked marine (Nicolas Cage) returning to combat in time for the battle of Saipan in 1944 and the Navajo Indian he’s assigned to guard (Adam Beach of Smoke Signals), who’s been trained to transmit messages in a code based on his native language. The material yields a powerful story more realistic in premise and treatment than Woo’s usual fare (the depiction of American wartime racism is especially sharp), yet it’s clearly a personal project that gratifies his penchant for both male bonding and dramatic action sequences. Despite some of the sentimentality that is also Woo’s stock-in-trade, I was moved and absorbed throughout. Written by John Rice and Joe Batteer; with Peter Stormare, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Martin Henderson, Roger Willie, Brian Van Holt, Frances O’Connor, and Christian Slater. Century 12 and CineArts 6, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Esquire, Ford City, Gardens 7-13, Golf Glen, Lake, Lincoln Village, Norridge, Three Penny, Village North. Read more