I. Good Things About the Chicago Film Festival
1. Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, any film festival that can boast films from 35 countries and encompass 70 years of filmmaking is performing an invaluable cultural service. The xenophobic and antihistorical cast of most pop culture in this country is such that the more the media expand, the narrower our sense of reality generally becomes, and any institution that can allow us glimpses of cultures and eras other than our own is bound to teach us something more than the average TV news broadcast. (The sharp moral distinction that we usually make between news and fiction–designating the first as “serious” and the second as “entertainment”–overlooks the fact that both are usually designed as narrative entertainment, offering consumable, hence disposable, stories with larger-than-life characters.)
2. Out of the 20 films in the festival that I’ve so far managed to see, more than half are eminently worth seeing, and roughly a third qualify as first-rate. If that’s a somewhat lower batting average than either Facets or the Film Center, it’s still a much higher one than what is achieved by the usual run of commercial mainstream releases.
3. Show a foreign film with no recognizable names attached to it and no obvious box-office value as an ordinary release, and few spectators are likely to go to see it.… Read more »
As a bracing alternative to the steady diet of straight story films and talking-heads documentaries of the Chicago Film Festival–as well as the hit-or-miss selection that makes random viewing a very high risk venture–the experimental shorts at the fourth annual Onion City Film Festival offer a breath of fresh air. Apart from the intriguing-sounding Chicago-Frankfurt Film Exchange, which is being offered as a separate special event (see listings), two three-hour programs have been put together representing work all across North America, and the overall quality and diversity of talents on display are impressive indeed. Judging from the ten films I’ve seen, comprising about a third of the selections, there are no major breakthroughs, but a lot of interesting and energetic forays. Today Is Sunday, a lovely black-and-white, elliptical seminarrative by Chicago performance artist Jean Sousa, gravitates around a beachside location and is punctuated by suggestive, free-floating intertitles and isolated bursts of music. Chick Strand’s Artificial Paradise, shot over three years in Mexico, interweaves a kaleidoscope of colorful visual and aural textures in dancelike rhythms; Alex Prisadsky’s short and silent Dmitri and Ramona performs a sprightly jig of its own using only printed words. Domenic Angerome’s Continuum does wonderful things with tar, paint, and other aspects of urban street work in striking high-contrast black-and-white photography that evokes the 30s, while Scott Guitteau’s Advanced Civilized Nation makes politically provocative use of found footage.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1987). — J.R.
Edgar Neville — an aristocratic Republican filmmaker and writer who was friends with everyone from Lorca and Chaplin to Ortega y Gasset and Lacan — is one of the great undiscovered auteurs of the Spanish cinema. This remarkable turn-of-the-century fantasy, which suggests an eerie encounter between the tales of Borges and the early melodramas of Feuillade and Lang, starts off as a supernatural mystery as the hero (Antonio Casal) is persuaded by a one-eyed ghost to solve the case of his murder. This leads him first to the ghost’s niece (Isabel de Pomes) and eventually to a hidden underground city beneath the old section of Madrid that contains an ancient synagogue and is presided over by hunchbacked counterfeiters. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, this hallucinatory fiction ends rather abruptly and never manages to account for all the mysteries it uncovers, but as pure, primal storytelling it is as creepy a spellbinder as one could wish for (1944). (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1987). — J.R.
John Huston devoted the better part of his career to a sort of intelligent second-degree cinema predicated on the adaptation of literary worksa practice informed by crafty casting and fluid storytelling, but often limited by the fact that his attraction to heavyweights (The Maltese Falcon, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby-Dick, The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, and Under the Volcano, among others) guaranteed faithful reductions at best. His last film (1987), which adapts the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, represents the apotheosis of this position — isolating the story from the rest of Dubliners (which gives it much of its resonance) and most of its perfectly composed language, and then doing his best with what remains. Scripted by his son Tony and starring his daughter Anjelica, the film hews to the original plot and much of the dialogue. The results are leagues ahead of Joseph Strick’s unfortunate Joyce adaptations, but inevitably leagues behind the original story. That said, the film’s concentrated simplicity and purity achieve a kind of perfection. The uniformly superb cast includes Donal Donnelly, Cathleen Delany, Helena Carroll, Ingrid Craigie, Frank Patterson, Dan O’Herlihy, and Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy; the lilting Irish flavor is virtually decanted, and Fred Murphy’s gliding camera movements are delicately executed.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 23, 1987). — J.R.
Genre specialist John Carpenter returns to the principle of confined space that he used as a disciplinary structure in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing in this horror thriller set in an abandoned church. The main difference here from earlier Carpenter films is the heavy metaphysical baggage: a team of graduate students and teachers (including Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, and Jameson Parker) in physics and science is summoned by a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) to study an ancient religious manuscript that proves to contain differential equations (long before such equations were developed), and a canister containing a green liquid that proves to be seven million years old. Mathematics combines with demonology to produce a variant on Night of the Living Dead, and while the church is playfully called Saint Godard’s, the pivotal use and significance of mirrors spawned by the canister liquid might make Saint Cocteau’s a more appropriate appellation. While the dense significations of the script (credited to one “Martin Quatermass”) may get a bit thick in spots, Carpenter’s handsome ‘Scope images generally make the most of them, and some haunting poetic notions — such as video images from the future that appear as recurring dreams dreamt by the church’s inhabitants — figure effectively in the plot.… Read more »
The 23rd Chicago International Film Festival, running from Monday, October 19, through Sunday, November 8, promises 131 separate programs, not counting repeats. As a newcomer to this event who has attended about a dozen other international film festivals, most of them several years in a row, I can offer at this point only a single, broad generalization about what seems to make Chicago’s relatively pluralistic and amorphous, for better and for worse.
Although film festivals come in all shapes and sizes, one can generally make a loose distinction between the free-for-alls, where anything and everything is likely to turn up (Cannes, London, Los Angeles’s Filmex), and the ones with a more discernible selection process that tend to project a more critical and polemical profile (Toronto, New York, Rotterdam). By reputation and to all appearances, Chicago belongs more in the first category than in the second. What this means in practice is that the shopping spectator has to become his or her own critic while browsing through the festival schedule, rather than trust in either fate or some imagined philosophical unity in director Michael Kutza’s selections.
Practically speaking, with a festival this size, taking some initiative is what everyone has to do anyway.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 16, 1987). — J.R.
Hitchcock lives! David Mamet’s first time out as a director is a thriller about compulsive behavior and con games, done with a sureness of touch and taste that shows a better understanding of Hitchcockian obsessions than the complete works of Brian De Palma. The viewer has to adjust to Mamet’s theatrical reflexes, which impart a certain strangeness to both the performances and the staging — such as confidential conversations held within earshot of characters who don’t hear them, because the conventions of theater space are employed rather than the usual conventions of filmic space. But once past this barrier, one is easily seduced by Mamet’s storytelling gifts, which deliver a shapely script (developed with Jonathan Katz), full of its own con games and compulsions, with an adroit grasp of emphasis and pacing. Lindsay Crouse (Mamet’s wife) plays a successful upper-crust psychiatrist and author whose feelings of frustration in treating her criminally involved patients goad her into a walk on the wild side, beginning with the eponymous gambling den, with Joe Mantegna as her guide. Apart from uniformly fine performances — with Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala, and J.T. Walsh among the major secondary parts — the film has striking hard-edged photography by Juan Ruiz Anchia, and a good score by Alaric Jans that nimbly integrates a Bach fugue.… Read more »
The nice thing about Rob Reiner’s friendly fairy tale adventure, with a script by William Goldman adapting his own novel, is how delicately it works in irony about its brand of make-believe without ever undermining the effectiveness of the fantasy. The framing device is a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a favorite book aloud to his skeptical grandson (Fred Savage), and it’s the latter’s initial recalcitrance that the movie uses both as a challenge and as a safety net. In the imaginary kingdom of Florin, the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) gets separated from the farmhand whom she loves (Cary Elwes) and betrothed to the evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), until the nefarious Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) sprints her away. The colorful characters and adventures that ensue are, at their best, like live-action equivalents to some of the Disney animated features, with lots of other fond Hollywood memories thrown in: Andre the Giant is like a cross between Andy Devine and Lumpjaw the Bear, while Mandy Patinkin’s engaging Inigo Montoya conjures up Gene Kelly in The Pirate. Every character, in fact, is something of a goofball, and while the film is inexplicably saddled with a PG rating, it delightfully cuts across age barriers to keep everyone charmed.… Read more »
Louis Feuillade’s extraordinary ten-part silent serial of 1916, running just under eight hours, is one of the supreme delights of film–an account of the exploits of an all-powerful group of criminals called the Vampire Gang, headed by the infamous Irma Vep (Musidora), whose name is incidentally an anagram for “vampire.” Filmed mainly in Paris locations, Feuillade’s masterpiece combines documentary with fantasy to create a dense world of multiple disguises, secret passageways, poison rings, and evil master plots that assumes an awesome cumulative power: the everyday world of the French bourgeoisie, personified by the hapless sleuth hero, during the height of World War I is imbued with an unseen terror that no amount of virtuous detection can ever efface entirely. (Significantly, as in many of Feuillade’s other serials, the villains are a good deal more fascinating than the relatively square hero, although a comic undertaker and the leader of a rival gang are periodically on hand to help him out.) Because none of Feuillade’s complete serials is available in the U.S., this special screening helps to fill an enormous gap in our sense of film history. One of the most prolific directors who ever lived, Feuillade is today arguably a good deal more entertaining than Griffith, and unquestionably much more modern: his mastery of deep-focus mise en scene is astonishing, and its influence on Fritz Lang as well as Luis Bunuel and other Surrealists remains one of his major legacies.… Read more »
Cantonese director Yim Ho’s delicate and touching film charts the return of Coral (Josephine Koo), an attractive Hong Kong businesswoman in her thirties, to her native village in southern mainland China. Staying with her childhood friend Pearl (Si Quin Gao Wa)–now a school principal married to a farmer, with a daughter-she discovers that her urban life and problems have irrevocably estranged her from the ways and attitudes of the village, although she and Pearl make many heartfelt efforts to bridge their differences. Kong Liang’s screenplay eschews melodrama and big events for quiet insights, and a remarkably dense portrait of the village emerges, framed by Ho with a distinctive grasp of composition, landscape, and personal detail that occasionally evokes the complexity of a Brueghel. The performances are nuanced and moving, and one comes to know these people–not only the heroines, but Pearl’s defensive and tongue-tied husband, an unruly and mercenary little boy, a man who can’t read the letters in English his son sends him from UCLA, a wise uncle, and many others–on a first-name basis. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday, October 3, 6, and 8, 9:00, 281-4114)… Read more »
There are many pleasant surprises in this collection of 18 animated shorts from ten countries, but perhaps the biggest one is that the range of influences informing animation seems to be getting wider. While the terminal cuteness of Disney and the gallows humor of Eastern Europe have tended to dominate in the past, and are far from absent here, the more vernacular genius of Tex Avery also seems to be making some headway–in such diverse works as Bon Kurtz’s parodic Drawing on My Mind from the U.S., Guido Manuli’s Plus One, Minus One (a screwball remake of It’s a Wonderful Life) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Baeus (a doodle-bug variation on Avery’s King Size Canary) from Italy, and Joanna Quinn’s Girl’s Night Out from Great Britain, which plays with some Averyesque gags on striptease and libido from a female Cockney point of view. There’s also striking hyperrealist computer animation from the U.S., clay animation from the Soviet Union and Hungary, and the usual batch of glum parables from all over. But my favorites in this batch strike out freshly on their own: Susan Young’s semiabstract Carnival, which beautifully evokes a London ethnic street fair; Academy Leader Variations, the most avant-garde selection which combines the giddy talents of 20 animators from the U.S., Poland, Switzerland, and China; Bob Stenhouse’s The Frog, the Dog and the Devil from New Zealand, which uses exciting forms of illumination and transition to carry a straight narrative; and Bill Plympton’s American Your Face, which features some nightmarish facial contortions worthy of David Lynch.… Read more »
A fair to middling liberal courtroom thriller set in Washington, D.C., this Peter Yates picture takes a while to get started, and never tells us as much about its major characterspublic defender Kathleen Riley (Cher), juror and lobbyist Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid), and derelict and murder suspect Carl Wayne Anderson (Liam Neeson)as we’d like to know. But there’s some interesting material about the plight of the homeless (a subject not broached by many 80s movies), and effective performances by Joe Mantegna (as the prosecuting attorney) and John Mahoney (as a stern judge). (JR)… Read more »
Talk about meeting cute: a much-divorced best-selling novelist (Michael Caine) and a production-line painter of tacky hotel room landscapes (Sally Field) both turn up at an art museum benefit, where a gang of terrorists orders them to strip and ties them together for several hours. She lives with a vegged-out yuppie boyfriend (Steve Guttenberg) and paints her own stuff in her spare time; the novelist has been through so many costly divorces that he’s reluctant to reveal his professional identity. Written and directed by TV veteran Jerry Belson, this light and sexy romantic comedy starts off as a fairly witty satire of southern California folkways (including styles of conspicuous consumption and dating), but eventually succumbs to complacency and a string of improbable plot twists. In between, Caine, Field, and Guttenberg put on a pretty good show, assisted by the owlish Peter Boyle as the writer’s lawyer and best friend, and Jackie Cooper as the painter’s country-club father. (JR)… Read more »
Ridley Scott’s 1987 feature takes a conventional romantic police thriller script, written by Howard Franklin, and dresses it up like a Christmas tree. A happily married rookie police detective from Queens (Tom Berenger) is assigned to protect a wealthy and attractive Manhattan woman (Mimi Rogers) who is the material witness to a homicide by (you guessed it) a psycho who’ll stop at nothing (Andreas Katsulas). Despite class barriers and the detective’s devotion to his plucky wife (Lorraine Bracco), he and the witness fall in love and have an affair. While the actors show some sensitivity and Scott works up a modicum of suspense and involvement, the real interest of this picture is the radiance of the imagesa mastery of lighting and decor second only to Scott’s Blade Runner, with atmospheric textures so dense you can almost taste them. Unfortunately, this mastery bears only the most glancing relationship to the story at hand, and Scott becomes guilty of the sort of formalism that used to be charged (less justly) against Josef von Sternberg. But even though the movie doesn’t leave much of a residue, it looks terrific while you’re watching it: Manhattan has seldom appeared as glitzy or as glamorous. With Jerry Orbach, John Rubenstein, and a nice rendition of the Gershwin title tune by Sting.… Read more »
Despite the apparent havoc wreaked on this film by David Begelmanwho eliminated 29 minutes from Michael Cimino’s cut and reedited the remainder more for action than for the meditative rhythms the director (who reportedly used Visconti’s The Leopard as a model) had in mindthis is one of Cimino’s best films, with a fine sense of spectacle and landscape, following the bloody career of Salvatore Giuliano (effectively played by Christopher Lambert), the violent and idealistic Robin Hood of the Sicilian peasantry in the 40s. The rhetorical self-importance of Cimino’s films makes them resemble Stalinist epics, and the nonstop wallpaper music of David Mansfield certainly doesn’t help this one. But the uncredited dialogue of Gore Vidal has a cynical, bantering polish that helps to keep things in perspective, and the film’s visual sweep commands respect even when it becomes hyperbolic, which is fairly often. (Steve Shagan receives sole credit for the script, adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel.) What emerges might be described as great moments from Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian. With Terence Stamp, Joss Ackland, John Turturro, Richard Bauer, and Barbara Sukowa in her first English-speaking role. (JR)… Read more »