Written in May 2021 for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s July catalog. — J.R.
Traditionally, history in China is something that belongs only to the emperor (or to his latter-day near-equivalents, such as Mao). So it isn’t surprising that a yearning for a lost past can be felt in much of Chinese art cinema, whether it comes from Taipei (City of Sadness), Shanghai (Spring in a Small Town), Hong Kong (In the Mood for Love), or Beijing (Farewell My Concubine). And even though cinema offers us an imperfect means of capturing and preserving part of that past, few film subjects are more fragmentary yet fragrantly suggestive than that of silent star Ruan Lingyu, the glamorous working-class “Chinese Garbo” who committed suicide before reaching her 25thbirthday, and whose funeral drew a larger crowd than Valentino’s.
Director/cowriter Stanley Kwan, who worships female stars and is mesmerized by the ways they view themselves as much as George Cukor was in Sylvia Scarlett, Camille, A Star is Born, It Should Happen To You, and Bhowani Junction, confronts our incomplete grasp of Ruan by creatively miscasting comic action star Maggie Cheung (as a last-minute replacement for Anita Mui) in the title role, by enlisting film historian Peggy Chiao to collaborate on his script, and by combining biopic fiction with exploratory documentary.(Cheung Read more
A “critic’s choice” from the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1996). — J.R.
This 1995 film is the only feature by Hal Hartley that has the same degree of formal playfulness as his overlooked short films — perhaps because it was made as if it were three separate shorts, all recounting the same story but set in different cities (New York, Berlin, and Tokyo) and told mainly in different languages, with certain differences regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and milieu. Though it lacks some of the behavioral charms of Hartley’s Trust and The Unbelievable Truth and even announces its own likelihood to fail as an experiment in the second episode, this is in some ways my favorite Hartley picture — not only because it takes the most risks, but also because it gives the mind more to do in the process. The actors include Martin Donovan and Parker Posey in New York, Dwight Ewell, Geno Lechner, and Elina Lowensohn in Berlin, and Miho Nikaidoh, Kumiko Ishizuka, and Hartley himself in Tokyo. The whole thing unfolds in an economical 85 minutes. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 8 through 14.
From the February 18, 1994Chicago Reader. I wrote this before I had a chance to see the film’s original rough cut, when it was still a musical, which I continue to regard as far and away James L. Brooks’ best movie, more than twice as good as what he finally released.. By contrast, the release version reminds me of Erich von Stroheim’s comment about the release version of his Foolish Wives: “They are showing only the skeleton if my dead child.” [2021 afterthought: This now strikes me as more than a little hyperbolic. Some of the musical version of the film is great, but a fair amount of it is weak and/or doesn’t work very well. For more on the subject, go here.] — J.R.
** I’LL DO ANYTHING
Directed and written by James L. Brooks
With Nick Nolte, Whittni Wright, Julie Kavner, Albert Brooks, Joely Richardson, Tracey Ullman, Jeb Brown, and Angela Alvarado.
First riddle: How can a movie about Hollywood professionals also be a movie about learning to be a parent? Answer: When all the Hollywood professionals in the movie act like kids or parents.
However disjointed it felt the first time I saw it, James L. Read more
Conceivably the most anti-American Hollywood picture ever made — I certainly can’t think of any competitors — Cy Endfield’s brilliant and shocking thriller (originally known as The Sound of Fury) was adapted by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned, which was inspired by a lynching that occurred in California in the 30s. A frustrated and jobless veteran (Frank Lovejoy), tired of denying his wife and son luxuries, falls in with a slick petty criminal (Lloyd Bridges), and the two work their way up from small robberies to a kidnapping that ends in murder. Apart from an unnecessary moralizing European character, this masterpiece is virtually flawless, exposing class hatreds and the abuses of the American press (represented here by Richard Carlson as a reporter) with rare lucidity and anger. At once subtle and unsparing, this may be the best noir thriller you’ve never heard of, perhaps because Endfield’s American career was cut short by the blacklist the same year it was released (1951). With Kathleen Ryan, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, and Art Smith. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 17, 7:45, 443-3737)