From the January 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Sara Driver
Written by Driver and Lorenzo Mans
With Suzanne Fletcher, Ann Magnuson, Dexter Lee, Steven Chen, Tony Todd, Richard Boes, and Ako.
The French term fantastique — which emcompasses science fiction, comic strips, Surrealism, sword and sorcery tales, and many other forms of fantasy — suggests an attitude toward the imagination that is distinctly different from the Anglo-American model. In our more empirical culture, reams of verbiage are devoted to distinguishing science fiction from fantasy, and legislating certain laws of etiquette to govern both — rules of internal consistency and narrative coherence decreeing that all breaches with recognizable reality stem from the same premises, whether these premises be scientific, purely fanciful, or some mixture of the two.
The French tend to be freer and looser about such matters, which helps to explain why such films as Les visiteurs du soir, Picnic on the Grass, Last Year at Marienbad, Je t’aime, je t’aime, Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451, Celine and Julie Go Boating, and Deathwatch pose to English and American temperaments certain problems that are not posed by The Wizard of Oz, Things to Come, It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner.… Read more »
The boldest and arguably the best of Peter Greenaway’s fiction features to date, this extremely odd and perverse conceptual piece certainly isn’t for every taste, although Sacha Vierny’s cinematography makes it so luscious that you may find yourself mesmerized in spite of yourself. The title refers to a European zoo; the curious plot involves two brothers who work as the zoo’s curators and who lose their wives in a freak auto accident. Only partially a narrative film, this elegant puzzle also involves amputees, painting, a menage a trois, and decomposing animals–along with many other things–which are intricately interrelated thanks to Greenaway’s icy brilliance. Definitely a one-of-a-kind movie and experience. With Andrea Ferreol, Brian and Eric Deacon, Francis Barber, and Joss Ackland. (Music Box, Tuesday and Wednesday, February 2 and 3)… Read more »
This was originally published in the January 22, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
HOUSEKEEPING **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Bill Forsyth
With Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill, Anne Pitoniak, Margot Pinvidic, and Bill Smillie.
Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping is virtually defined by its slow, swirling rhythms, but one of the first things that is apparent about Bill Forsyth’s passionate, faithful film adaptation is that, as story telling, it starts out with a hop, skip, and jump; and although an idea of leisurely pacing is sustained throughout, the movie never dawdles, stalls, or grinds to a halt. Like the magical opening of Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands and the no less incandescent ending of his 1978 Days of Heaven –- two more films in which the heroine’s offscreen narration plays a musical role in the narrative structure -– the story unfolds with the combined immediacy and remoteness of a fairy tale. An elliptical stream of details and events spanning three generations flows by in minutes, without imparting any feeling of haste.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1988). — J.R.
While this isn’t quite the return to form for satirist Michael Ritchie (Smile, Semi-Tough) that he apparently meant it to be, given his many years in the wilderness as an anonymous contract director, it’s funny enough in spots to suggest the possibility. Dan Aykroyd shines as a clever inmate at a Chicagoland mental hospital who contrives to escape, fly to LA, and take over the job of a wealthy Beverly Hills psychiatrist (Charles Grodin), who is flipping out and has temporarily retreated to London. The movie gets some nice laughs at the expense of exploitative shrinks, and develops a Capraesque scenario as Aykroyd proceeds to show up his predecessor with brassy nerve and populist wisdom. Unfortunately, what appears to be studio tampering makes the movie steadily lose coherence, and a couple of important secondary characters — Donna Dixon (another psychiatrist) and Walter Matthau (a con artist along for the ride) — seem to get shortchanged in the process. Still, this is agreeable fun while it lasts, and what remains of the script — by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, and Sean Stein, adapted from a Ken Kolb novel — is satirically convincing much of the time.… Read more »
Good, corny fun develops when Italian-American widow Loretta Castorini (Cher) falls in love with her fiance’s brother Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage). Director Norman Jewison and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley milk the New York settings, accents, and folkways for all they’re worth–although those familiar with certain Manhattan locations may be dismayed to find them transplanted in Brooklyn–and the broad Italian family humor gets so thick at times that you could cut it with a bread knife. Among the “adorable” secondary cast are Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, and Feodor Chaliapin, but most of the show belongs to Cher and Cage, both of whom are at their energetic best. Dick Hyman is in charge of the hyperbolic music, which starts off with “That’s Amore” to clue us all in to what we should expect. (Hillside Square, Old Orchard, Norridge, Chicago Ridge, Grove, Ridge, River Oaks, Woodfield, Ford City East, Yorktown, Deerbrook, Water Tower)… Read more »
Stylistically distinctive (with a rhythmically inventive use of jump cuts), impressively acted (by Jean-Francois Stevenin, Yves Afonso, and Carole Bouquet), and simultaneously unpredictable and rather bewildering as narrative, Jean-Francois Stevenin’s second feature, made in 1986, looks like nothing else in contemporary French cinema. Stevenin, who is mainly known as a rather ubiquitous actor, plays a character who accidentally runs into a boyhood chum (Afonso); together they decide to pay a surprise visit to another mutual childhood friend who now lives outside Grenoble–a mysterious figure who never makes an appearance and the film basically charts their long wait together, largely in the company of the missing friend’s wife (Bouquet). Arresting visually as well as aurally (the film is in direct sound), Double Messieurs manages to make all of its characters and their behavior sad as well as mysterious; a sense of broken dreams and an irretrievable past lurks behind the fitful, random actions and picturesque settings. Crew members are utilized in the cast, and Stevenin’s bizarre notations on the “buddy” movie stay firmly lodged in one’s memory. A Chicago premiere. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
Probably the most ferociously effective and polemically potent women’s prison film ever made, John Cromwell’s 1950 melodrama charts the gradual hardening of an innocent 19-year-old (Eleanor Parker) in relation to the brutality of her surroundings. Parker and Hope Emerson (as a sadistic prison guard) both received Oscar nominations for their roles here; others in the cast include Agnes Moorehead as the warden, Ellen Corby, Jan Sterling, Jane Darwell, and Gertrude Michael, all of them impressive. In many respects, this Warner Brothers film resembles the best and toughest socially conscious movies turned out by that studio during the 30s; a rare 35-millimeter archive print will be shown. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, January 12, 8:00, and Wednesday, January 13, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
This is the first ten-best round-up I ever did for the Chicago Reader, which ran in their January 8, 1988 issue. Having recently been reading the Library of America’s mammoth collection of Manny Farber’s film criticism (which is coming out in September), I’ve become especially aware of how much one’s taste and preferences tend to change over time. Today, for instance, I suspect I would have placed Mélo in the number #1 slot, and probably wouldn’t include House of Games or Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen in the also-rans but would move them both up to the main list. The first photo, incidentally, directly below, is from Godard’s still woefully neglected King Lear.-–J.R.
What is the meaning of a ten best list? For me, at any rate, it means a list of movies with the highest possible mystery quotient — the movies that fascinate me the most because they still have secrets to withhold. And the best litmus test that I know for determining this quality is repeat viewings. If a movie that knocked me out seems less mysterious after a return visit — as was the case with Broadcast News, Cross My Heart, and Orphans — then it doesn’t belong on the list.… Read more »
Sara Driver’s first featurea luminous, oddball comic fantasy about ancient Chinese curses and Xerox machines, set in Manhattan’s Chinatown and its immediate environsmay well be the most visually ravishing American independent film of its year (1986). Set in an irrational, poetic universe that bears a certain relationship to Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, this dreamy intrigue breaks a cardinal rule of fantasy by striking off in a number of directions: an executive barks in the street, a young Frenchwoman (Ann Magnuson) loses her hair, and machines in a copy shop start to purr and wheeze on their own initiative. The moods that are established are delicate, and not everyone will be able to go with them, but Driver, the producer of Stranger Than Paradise, sustains them with beauty and eccentric charm. Suzanne Fletcher, who also starred in Driver’s previous 50-minute You Are Not I, makes a compelling (if unconventional) heroine, and Lorenzo Mans’s screwball dialogue develops some engaging hallucinatory riffs. (JR)… Read more »
Research hasn’t been able to uncover the director of this 1958 short documentary feature, a German-American coproduction that includes interviews with Eva Braun and narration by Westbrook Van Vorhees (The March of Time), but the fact that the title misspells its subject’s first name isn’t very promising. (JR)… Read more »
To celebrate its fourth anniversary of screenings, the Experimental Film Coalition at Randolph St. Gallery is presenting a lively and varied program of (mainly) comic shorts. Leading off the evening is Paul Bartel’s paranoid black comedy The Secret Cinema (recently remade by Bartel as an Amazing Stories episode), to be followed by Germaine Dulac’s seminal and silent avant-garde masterpiece The Smiling Madame Beudet, a brand-new animated film by Sally Cruikshank called Face Like a Frog, Ramon Rivera Moret’s comic Cha Cha Cha, the latest film by Midwest animator Christopher Sullivan (Master of Ceremonies), Two Films I Never Made by Berkeley filmmaker Herb de Grasse, and Watersmith by the late Will Hindle, to whose memory the entire program is dedicated.… Read more »
A peculiar and neglected early Hitchcock stage adaptation (1932), notable because it was intended partly as an absurdist send-up and none of the contemporary reviewers got the point. (The opening sequence suggests a kind of delirium of continuity that the picture periodically returns to.) Most of the film is set in an abandoned house, where enjoyably murky intrigues abound, and the last ten minutes feature a chase sequence with miniatures that is almost as much fun. 63 min. (JR)… Read more »
Take Annette Funicello, add Dwayne Hickman, sprinkle bits of Brian Donlevy, Buster Keaton, and Mickey Rooney, and stir very, very slowly; bake for 90 minutes. William Asher directed, or claims he did (1965). (JR)… Read more »
In his first American picture (1987) Scottish director Bill Forsyth adapts Marilynne Robinson’s much-acclaimed novel about two orphaned sisters (played by Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill) who share their ramshackle house with their eccentric aunt (Christine Lahti). The setting is the Pacific northwest in the 1950s, and Forsyth does a remarkable job with period detail and the beautiful natural settings, assisted by his own UK crew of cinematographer Michael Coulter, production designer Adrienne Atkinson, costume designer Mary-Jane Reyner, and editor Michael Ellis. But the most impressive thing about this haunting fable is Forsyth’s fluidity and grace as a storyteller, which gives this understated tale some of the resonance one associates with Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven. The story suggests a kind of feminist version of Huckleberry Finn, with the sisters playing Huck and Tom to their aunt’s Jim; the performances by all three actresses are impeccable. A film to be savored rather than gulped. (JR)… Read more »
While not really a success, Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about urban Gypsies in color and ‘Scope, made between two of his masterpieces (Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life), has its share of interesting moments and vibrant energies, many of them tied to Ray’s abiding interest in the folkloric. In some respects this comes closer to the musical that Ray always dreamed of making than any of his other movies: there’s a defiant dance performed by Cornel Wilde on the street, a dynamic whip dance between Wilde and Jane Russell that’s even more kinetic, and a Gypsy chorus that figures in other parts. Definitely one of the more intriguing and neglected of Ray’s second-degree efforts. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »