Part of what makes James Benning’s masterpiece such a satisfying culmination of his prodigious work in 16-millimeter is the way it both clarifies and intensifies the tension in his work between formal and political preoccupations, which could also be described as his love-hatred for industrial waste–a near-constant in his work.
You can find an excellent account of many of this film’s formal preoccupations from Kristin Thompson, who has just posted her comments on RR (seen at the same festival). [2020: I can’t easily provide a link anymore, but go to davidbordwell.net and search from there.] The political preoccupations of the film are partially outlined in Mark Peranson’s interview with Benning in Cinema Scope; they figure in some of the added sound materials (most obviously, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Our Land”), but even more crucially in the way many of the images (perhaps most notably the very last) manage to be both nostalgic and apocalyptic in the way they sum up what trains mean and have meant in relation to both American life and the American landscape. (As the interview suggests, sometimes the trains have to be understood not as parts of the landscapes but as despoilers of them.)
After one viewing, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what seems somehow part of American literature–akin to the work of writers like Sandburg, Wilder, and Dos Passos as well as that of American painters and musicians. Read more
A failure, but an endlessly fascinating one. Between making his only SF film (The Damned) and his first successful art movie (The Servant), blacklisted expatriate Joseph Losey directed this 1962 film, adapted by Hugo Butler and Evan Jones from a James Hadley Chase novel, about a washed-up Welsh novelist of working-class origins (Stanley Baker) who unsuccessfully pursues a high-class hooker (Jeanne Moreau) while effectively driving his wife (Virna Lisi) to suicide. The film is pretentious and plainly derivative; I’ve always regarded as unwarranted and philistine Pauline Kael’s ridicule of Antonioni, Resnais, and Fellini in an article of the period called “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties”, but she might well have included Losey’s film, with its clear debt to all three. It’s a painful testament of sorts (Losey himself can be glimpsed in a bar during a pan that also introduces the hero, showing his personal stake in the proceedings from the outset), though it makes wonderful use of locations in Venice and Rome and features an excellent jazz score by Michel Legrand (with a pivotal use of three Billie Holiday cuts). A decadent period piece and a sadomasochistic view of sexual relations, this singular, resonant, and at times even inspiring mannerist mess is far more interesting than a good many modest successes. Read more
An uncharacteristically somber and mainly straightforward 1997 drama by prolific Chilean-born French postsurrealist Raul Ruiz (Three Lives and Only One Death). Catherine Deneuve plays a defense lawyer whose young client (Ruiz standby Melvil Poupaud) has murdered his aunt. (The aunt had belonged to a psychoanalytic group that believed criminal tendencies form by the age of five, an issue prominently debated throughout the film.) Over time the young man begins to associate the defense lawyer with his dead aunt while she identifies him with her dead sona relationship that grows even stranger once the two become lovers. The film has strong performances by Deneuve and Poupaud as well as by Monique Melinand (as the lawyer’s mother), Michel Piccoli (as the head of a psychoanalytic group), and Bernadette Lafont. Beautifully shot and relatively concentrated for Ruiz — who usually prefers to ramble, constructing baroque visual tangents to his fictions — it delivers the sting of a sharp novella. (JR)
For my money, this is funnier than both Naked Guns combined, even down to the final joke-strewn credits. Putatively a parody of Top Gun, it also includes send-ups of Dances With Wolves, Full Metal Jacket, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Superman, and even Gone With the Wind. Directed and cowritten (with Pat Proft) by Jim Abrahams, one of the three writer-directors who launched Airplane!, this shares more with that 1980 laugh getter than an exclamation point and Lloyd Bridges; there’s also much of the same pleasure in milking cliches and ridiculing poker-faced straight men with their own compliance (Charlie Sheen is every bit as well cast here as Leslie Nielsen is in the Naked Gun movies), and the airborne antics are realized with a lovely sense of craft. With Cary Elwes, a very sexy Valeria Golino, Kevin Dunn, Jon Cryer, William O’Leary, Kristy Swanson, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Webster Place, Ford City, Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Golf Mill, Lincoln Village, Water Tower)
A rather novel Flashdance spin-off, this coming-of-age dancing romance (1987) is set in a Catskills resort during the summer of 1963. What sets it apart from others of its ilk is that some of the leads — notably Jennifer Grey, who achieves her apotheosis by learning the mambo, and Jerry Orbach — actually resemble real people rather than actors. The plot hinges on class differences between resort customers and staff members (dirty dancing is what the latter do at their own parties), and before the movie collapses into the utopian nonsense that seems obligatory to this subgenre, a surprising amount of sensitivity and satirical insight emerges from Eleanor Bergstein’s script and Emile Ardolino’s direction. There’s also a memorable use of the resort location, and while the music on the soundtrack is predictably overloud, the period detail is refreshingly soft-pedaled. PG-13, 97 min. (JR)
Written in March 2011 for Madman Entertainment, an Australian DVD company.
One couldn’t say that there’s any firm consensus that Frank Tashlin’s dazzling 1957 satire about advertising and television is his greatest film. Some Tashlin fans would opt for either of the two late Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicles that he directed for Paramount, Artists and Models (1955) or Hollywood or Bust (1956), or else would select his earlier CinemaScope vehicle for Jayne Mansfield at Twentieth Century-Fox, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). But there’s certainly no doubt that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? stands apart from the rest of his work, as the freest and the most deconstructive of all his comedies — and it’s worth adding that Tashlin himself cited it to Peter Bogdanovich (who interviewed him in 1962, during the shooting of It’$ Only Money) as the film he was “most satisfied with”. (In another interview, he suggested that The Girl Can’t Help It was his other personal favorite; it appears that the role played by executive producer Buddy Adler in granting Tashlin an unusual amount of freedom and leeway on both pictures had a lot to do with these judgments.) In keeping with George S. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 1994). — J.R.
A powerful, provocative, and highly disturbing Austrian film by Michael Haneke that focuses on the collective suicide of a young and seemingly “normal” family (1989). Prompted by Austria’s high suicide rate and various news stories, the film’s agenda is not immediately apparent; it focuses at first on the family’s highly repetitive life-style, taking its time establishing the daily patterns of the characters. The roles of television and money in their lives are crucial to what this film is about, but the absence of any obvious motives for the family’s ultimate despair is part of what gives this film its devastating impact. Its tact and intelligence, and also its reticence and detachment, make it a shocking and potent statement about our times — to my mind a work much superior to the two other films in Haneke’s trilogy about contemporary, affectless violence, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. With Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer, and Udo Samel. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, November 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, November 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114. Read more
Marlon Brando is pitted against Anna Magnani in this 1960 adaptation by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts of Williams’s play OrpheusDescending, and as Dave Kehr once remarked in these pages, It’s the biggest grudge match since King Kong met Godzilla. Unfortunately, director Sidney Lumet, who’s sometimes out of his element when he leaves New York, seems positively baffled by the gothic south and doesn’t know quite what to do with the overlay of Greek myth either. With Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, and Maureen Stapleton. 135 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1988). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue
With Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, and Alfre Woodard.
It must have been in the late 50s or early 60s when, as a teenager, I happened across a story in a movie fan magazine, probably Photoplay, about the pop/movie star Fabian. Fabian, the magazine explained, was getting so popular that he couldn’t go out on a date without being besieged by reporters and photographers. Recently, however, he’d eluded them and been able to take out a lovely lady; the magazine was celebrating the event — I swear I’m not making this up — with a two-page spread of photos and captions that chronicled the evening from beginning to end, from the moment he called on his date to the good-night kiss on her doorstep. “An intimate look,” I think they called it.
A comparable game for the gullible is performed by Scrooged, which attempts to obfuscate its own apparatus as thoroughly as that magazine did 20-odd years ago. I know we’re all supposed to be more knowledgeable and therefore more cynical about the media today. Read more
The year is supposed to be 1958, but because the filmmakers are Fargo’s Joel and Ethan Coen — the Beavis and Butt-head of starstruck independents, who clearly consider themselves better than history — what we get are various elements swiped from other movies made between 1929 and 1994, the year this was released. These massive borrowings, many from the screwball comedies of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Terry Gilliam (plus a giant clock from Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight), are mixed together with fancy sets to yield a jeering, dreamlike comedy with nothing much on its mind except how neat the Coen brothers are and how stupid or contemptible everybody else is, including everyone in the audience. This is a fantasy about the invention and mass marketing of the hula hoop as seen through the absurdist rise to executive power of a midwestern hayseed (Tim Robbins) gulled by both a cynical vice president (Paul Newman) and a cynical reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh). At its best it’s a free-form fantasy with glitzy, well-executed effects and assorted metaphysical conceits but little feeling for any of the characters apart from derision (with a few touches of racism here and there). Read more
A conclusive demonstration that it’s possible to speak French, be obsessed with excretion, vomit, masturbation, obesity, and broken noses, treat the viewer to glimpses of a dead dog, dead flies, and an abused cat, and still not have an ounce of poetry in your soul. But if you’re sufficiently cowed by the relentless will to poetry of French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Claude Lauzon (Night Zoo), you may wind up acceding to his self-definition if only through exhaustion; once you’ve learned to expect the unexpected and unpleasant you won’t find much to keep you interested in this 1992 look at the fantasies of a 12-year-old boy (Maxime Collin) as recalled by his offscreen narrating adult counterpart (Gilbert Sicotte). The fantasies include the boy and his grandfather trying to murder each other and the boy’s descent from a Sicilian tomato sprayed with sperm. Maybe if you’re in the right frame of mind you’ll find the spirited ugliness and cruelty enjoyable for its audacity; I couldn’t wait for the damn thing to be over. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
Roman Polanski’s first thriller after Chinatown — set in Paris, and cowritten with Polanski’s usual collaborator, Gerard Brach — describes the puzzling adventures of Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) after his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) disappears from their hotel room. It opens promisingly, with a fine sense of the disorientation of a monolingual tourist abroad and in trouble. But instead of things building from there, the energy gradually dissipates, and by the time the mystery is solved, it’s difficult to care very much. Polanski seems to have something in mind about American innocence and international power (the Statue of Liberty is used as a significant icon), but his usual surrealism is almost completely absent, and most of the visual motifs — the collection of garbage in the morning, the matching red dresses of Sondra and Walker’s loyal sidekick Michele (Emmanuelle Seigner) at the climax — register mainly as empty signifiers (1988). 120 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.
Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective
at the Gene Siskel Film Center
It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.
One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist. Read more
Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) being taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece, but one of the great love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s–subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield; Stanwyck and Asther, both extraordinary, have perhaps never been better. A newly struck 35-millimeter print will be shown. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday and Sunday, March 10 and 11, 4:15, 443-3737)