From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1988). — J.R.
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman
With Bob Hoskins, Joanna Cassidy, Christopher Lloyd, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, and the voices of Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner.
Imagine, if you can, that the characters who appear in animated cartoons actually exist. A repressed minority and endangered species known as Toons, they live on the fringes of Hollywood in 1947 in a ghetto known as Toontown; when they aren’t working for Disney or the other cartoon studios, they take on menial positions as waitresses, bartenders, cigarette girls, bouncers, and entertainers — at a segregated club called the Ink and Paint. (Among the acts at this dive are Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, who perform a duet on two pianos, and a vocalist named Jessica, a curvy vamp who’s a human Toon, accompanied by the bebop crows from Dumbo.)
Imagine, as well, that the live-action 40s Hollywood that these Toons are working in is the world of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or at least that world as it was revised and “updated” by Robert Towne when he scripted Chinatown in the 70s. In the place of Chandler’s Marlowe and Towne’s Jake Gittes is Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a gumshoe whose jobs are mainly Toon-related, and whose partner and brother Teddy was killed a few years ago when an unknown Toon dropped a piano on the brothers, considerably dampening Eddie’s sense of humor and appreciation of Toons in the process.… Read more »
The mukhtar (chief) of an occupied Arab Palestinian village (Ali Mohammed Akili) wants to hold a traditional full-scale wedding for his son (Nazih Akly), but the Israeli military governor will allow it only if he and his officers are the guests of honor. As the ceremonies and festivities gradually unfold over a tense day and night, writer-director Michel Kleifi, who grew up in Nazareth and is now based in Belgium, paints an intimate and multilayered view of the village and its various factions, including the three generations of the mukhtar’s family. Beautifully filmed and edited, and effectively acted by nonprofessionals, the story moves between an alienated grandfather, a group of flirtatious teenage girls, an angry group of young male terrorists, an impotent groom and a resourceful and beautiful bride (Anna Achdian) who are expected to offer proof of their marriage’s consummation in the form of a bloody sheet, a horse that has strayed into a mine field, an Israeli woman soldier who changes into Arab clothes, and other diverse centers of interest, with the mukhtar in most cases providing both the narrative linkage and our sense of how the village is run from within. Eschewing propaganda for an in-depth portrait, this is a fluid and lovely film that speaks volumes about a subject–Palestinian life–that most of us know next to nothing about.… Read more »
Clare Peploe’s accomplished and intelligent first feature is a sunny tale of expatriates set on the Greek island of Rhodes, with a cast of characters and a set of crisscrossing destinies that occasionally suggest Graham Greene in one of his happier moods. The people include a talented professional photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) faced with the possibility of having to sell her house, her teenage daughter (Ruby Baker) and ex-husband (James Fox), an art historian who is her oldest friend (Sebastian Shaw), a tradition-minded Greek peasant (Irene Pappas) and her rebellious son (Paris Tselios), and an English couple on holiday (Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville). Many of these characters are not who they initially seem to be, and there are various forms of comedy in how they relate (or fail to relate) to one another. For spectators who recall Mazursky’s Tempest of a few years back, this is a much better and smarter handling of many of the same elements, but done this time for grown-ups–pleasurable and diverting throughout. (Chestnut Station, Oakbrook)… Read more »
For once, a Hollywood entertainment that lives up to all of its advance hype. Set in Tinseltown in 1947, this zany detective story follows the efforts of gumshoe Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to clear the name of cartoon character Roger Rabbit when the latter becomes the main suspect in a murder case. The movie, which combines live-action and animation with breathtaking wizardry, was coproduced by the studios of Disney and Spielberg, and although Robert Zemeckis is the director, and the script is by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman (based on a novel by Gary K. Wolf), another way of interpreting the title is to read it in cartoon terms as an inquiry into how one makes an old-style studio blockbuster without an auteur. In this respect, the “framer” of Roger Rabbit is a platoon of committed and talented individuals united by their love for both film noir and the Hollywood cartoon. As a tribute to the lost splendors (and characters) of both forms, this labor of love is deeply moving: in the world of the film, cartoon characters are treated like a repressed minority threatened by genocide, and gumshoes out of Raymond Chandler (or even Robert Towne) are almost equally archaic.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1988). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jim Abrahams
Written by Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel
With Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Michele Placido, Daniel Gerroll, and Barry Primus.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Harry Kleiner, Hill, and Troy Kennedy Martin
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Larry Fishburne, and Gina Gershon.
The silly season of summer releases is fully upon us, that time of year when expensive potboilers tend to be the only movies out there demanding our attention. Two interesting-sounding films that might have enlivened this year’s doldrums – Zelly and Me and Stars and Bars, both associated with David Puttnam’s brief stint as head of Columbia — have been unceremoniously dumped by their distributors in suburban Hillside. Paul Mayersberg’s perversely fascinating Nightfall — a head-scratching, low-budget blend of Isaac Asimov, Raul Ruiz, Jasper Johns, and psychedelic Corman movies of the 60s — departed for oblivion (or perhaps for video) before I could review it. What’s left on the table, apart from the delightful Bull Durham, are two mindless romps, each of which makes use of that veritable standby, the double plot.… Read more »
My favorite Czech film, and surely one of the most exhilarating stylistic and psychedelic explosions of the 60s, Vera Chytilova’s madcap and aggressive feminist farce explodes in any number of directions. Featuring two uninhibited young women who are both named Marie–whose various escapades, which add up less to a plot than to a string of outrageous set pieces, include several antiphallic gags, and a free-for-all with fancy food rivaling Laurel and Hardy that got Chytilova in lots of trouble with the authorities–this is a disturbing yet liberating tour de force from a talented director showing what she can do with freedom. A major influence on Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, this is chock-full of female giggling, which might be interpreted in this context as the laughter of Medusa: subversive, bracing, energizing, and rather off-putting (if challenging) to most male spectators (1966). (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Monday through Thursday, June 20 through 23, 7:00, 281-4114)… Read more »
One singular virtue of the French cinema compared to our own is the possibility of low-budget, offbeat projects that well-known actors are willing to participate in. Michel Deville’s very theatrical adaptation and direction of a whodunit novel by Franz-Rudolf Falk isn’t especially compelling as story telling, but it allows one to see eight of the best movie actors in France–Fanny Ardant, Daniel Auteuil, Richard Bohringer, Philippe Leotard, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Claude Pieplu, and Jean Yanne–acquitting themselves honorably; Ardant and Piccoli are particularly delightful. Better yet, it permits the neglected and prolific Deville to forge an interesting stylistic exercise in mise en scene, restricting most of the action to a cavernous bar resembling a warehouse. The dialogue bristles with breezy wordplay that is not easily translated (the title means “the nonentity,” and refers to Piccoli’s ambiguous role as bartender), but Deville’s ingenious use of ‘Scope framing in charting out the space keeps things lively, fluid, and unpredictable (1986). (Facets Multimedia Center’, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11, 9:00; Sunday, June 12, 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, June 13 through 16, 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »
One of the more delightful things about this sharp baseball comedy is that you don’t have to be a sports fan to have lots of fun with it. Written and directed by rookie Ron Shelton, the movie evokes Howard Hawks (in spirit if not in letter) in its tight focusing on a snug, obsessive world of insiders and camp followers where the exchanges between buddies and sexes both have a euphoric stylishness and a giddy sense of ritual. Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon make an appealing triangle: an overlooked, smarter, and older catcher (Costner) is hired by the Durham Bulls mainly to coach a more successful, dumber, and younger pitcher (Robbins); Sarandon is a groupie who believes in “the church of baseball” and is drawn to both of them. On the level of plot, this movie somehow loses itself before the final inning, but there’s loads of laughter and enjoyment on the way to the lockers. (Starts Wednesday, Golf Glen, Biograph, Water Tower, Ford City East, Deerbrook, Yorktown)… Read more »
An unpublished essay written in June 1988 for the Chicago Reader. One of my few regrets about my 20 years at the Reader, unlike the year and a half I spent (1979-1981) at New York’s Soho News, was that whereas the latter allowed me to review books and movies concurrently, the Reader was interested in me only as a film reviewer, so any attempt to write about books for them was discouraged. I did make a point of reviewing two of Thomas Pynchon’s late novels for them (Vineland and Against the Day) –- having previously reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow for the Village Voice and having much later reviewed Mason & Dixon for In These Times between the two Reader reviews (all four of these reviews, incidentally, plus my earlier review of The Crying of Lot 49 for a college newspaper, can be accessed on this site).
I wrote the piece below on spec when Michael Lenehan was the paper’s editor and he told me I’d have to do a lot of rewriting before it could be published, so I bowed out.… Read more »
This is an intriguing mix of materials drawn from Video Data Bank’s What Does She Want series, which centers on art by women. Julie Dash’s Illusions, the only full-size film (as opposed to video) in the bunch, is an effective narrative about racism in 1942 Hollywood. The videos include Cecilia Condit’s nightmarish fairy tale fantasy Possibly in Michigan, Max Almy’s SF fever dream with fancy graphics Leaving the 20th Century, and Martha Rosler’s rather humorless Semiotics of the Kitchen. Rounding out the program are a TV ad for Kleenex and a promotional short for General Motors, both from the 1950s, and Carole Ann Klonarides and Michael Owen’s deadpan parody John Torreano: Art World Wizard, which incorporates some jazzy special effects. This is a mixed bag, like many such collections, but one that jingles. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Wednesday, June 8, 6:00, 443-3793)… Read more »
The conceit of Ken Russell’s version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome is that Wilde’s favorite London brothel is staging a version just for him (Nickolas Grace) in 1892, with his male lover Bosie (Douglas Hodge) playing John the Baptist and the brothel keeper (Stratford Johns) Herod. (Glenda Jackson plays Herodias, Imogen Millais-Scott is the rather unexciting Salome, and Russell himself turns up in an uncredited cameo as a photographer who helps with the sound effects.) Perhaps the biggest problem with this rather static (if mainlyand, for Russell, uncharacteristicallystraightforward) version of the play is that it tries too visibly to be outre, what with Jewish midgets cavorting, one character belching or farting whenever the action flags, and everyone else straining hard to be lewd and decadent. (In that department, as well as lushness, the unfortunately unexported Day-Glo version of the play by Italian avant-garde director Carmelo Bene in the 70s makes Russell’s efforts look even more feeble.) The tacky score, which runs the gamut from Schubert to Satie to Hollywood schmaltz, seems emblematic of the overall uncertainty. (JR)… Read more »
The mukhtar (chief) of an occupied Arab Palestinian village (Ali Mohammed Akili) wants to hold a traditional, full-scale wedding for his son (Nazih Akly), but the Israeli military governor will allow it only if he and his officers are the guests of honor. As the ceremonies and festivities gradually unfold over a tense day and night, Belgian-based writer-director Michel Khleifi, who grew up in Nazareth, paints an intimate and multilayered view of the village and its various factions, including the three generations of the mukhtar’s family. Beautifully filmed and edited, and effectively acted by nonprofessionals, this 1987 feature moves between an alienated grandfather, a group of flirtatious teenage girls, an angry group of young male terrorists, an impotent groom and resourceful and beautiful bride (Anna Achdian) who are expected to offer proof of their marriage’s consummation in the form of a bloody sheet, a horse that has strayed into a minefield, an Israeli woman soldier who changes into Arab clothes, and other diverse elements, with the mukhtar in most cases providing both the narrative linkage and a sense of how the village is run from within. Eschewing propaganda for an in-depth portrait, this is a fluid and lovely film that speaks volumes about Palestinian life.… Read more »
Kenji Mizoguchi’s first postwar film (1946), made under the censorship pressure of the American occupation, might be interpreted as a story about the director’s own artistic confinement as well as that of the great 18th-century wood-block printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). (A less offensive and more accurate translation of the title would be Five Women Around Utamaro, which is what the film is called in England.) The film isn’t without its difficulties — a plot with no easy identifications due to a virtual absence of close-ups, a large cast of characters, and a periodic displacement of narrative centers — but these are all intimately related to the its uncommon achievements. Significantly, Utamaro’s artistry only becomes visible at any length in the film’s final shot, and many of the moments of greatest beauty and power take place in the margins of the story proper. A neglected and important film by one of the supreme masters. With Minosuke Bando and Kinuyo Tanaka. In Japanese with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)
… Read more »
This awkward title is attached to a new Japanese feature by a 26-year-old director, Kaizo Hayashi, that sounds quite fascinating. An intricate detective story involving a mysterious couple’s kidnapped daughter leads the two heroes toward and apparently into a silent sword fight scene that was shot in 1915 but that can only be completed with their involvement. Hayashi created the silent footage himself. The film also features one of the few surviving benshisthe live, offscreen commentators of silent films in Japan who were often more popular than the films they accompanied, and whose influence delayed the coming of sound in Japanese cinema (1986). (JR)… Read more »
Juzo Itami’s third featureafter The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1986)follows the fanatical efforts of a dedicated tax official (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, who also played the female lead in Tampopo) to catch a variety of individuals who cheat on their tax forms, ranging from middle-income businessmen to big-time crooks. Although the action covers about a year and is partially a string of vignettes, much of it concentrates on the official’s attempts to nail down a ruthless real estate speculator who runs a clandestine adult hotel (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Lacking most of the comic gusto of Itami’s previous films, this one has a pretty icy objectivity, and whether the director sympathizes more with his determined heroine or with her various antagonists remains an open question; there’s a fair amount of unpleasantness on both sides. The result is a thoughtful film about a lively subject in Japanso successful in its native country that a sequel was madethat is still less compelling than Itami’s previous features (1987). (JR)… Read more »