Since writing this for the April 27, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, I’ve become an even bigger fan of Charles Willeford’s four Hoke Moseley novels; some of their virtues remind me of John Updike’s novels about Rabbit Angstrom. My favorite of these Moseley novels remains Sideswipe. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by George Armitage
With Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nora Dunn, Charles Napier, Obba Babatunde, and Shirley Stoler.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Sidney Lumet
With Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Patrick O’Neal, Lee Richardson, Luis Guzman, Charles Dutton, Jenny Lumet, and Paul Calderon.
The ambiguous power and image of the policeman stand at the center of two better-than-average crime pictures playing at the moment, both of them the work of writer-directors adapting novels by others. Part of the merit of these two otherwise very different movies is that neither one depends on either of the compulsively overworked subgenres that currently dominate the scene — the cop-buddy action thriller derived from TV or the hunt for the serial killer derived from Dirty Harry.
I have less of an aversion to the cop-movie genre per se than to what this genre has become.… Read more »
Part of the brilliance of Raul Ruiz rests in his capacity to take on routine documentary assignments for French television and turn them into mind-bending fictions. That’s what happened with this provocative hour-long 1984 film about an actor at the 1983 Avignon Theater Festival; it ingeniously balances reporting on an actual event with Ruizian yarn spinning. Even more impressive is the accompanying 20-minute 1980 short Le jeu de l’oie (Snakes and Ladders) — which was commissioned to promote a map exhibition at Paris’s Pompidou Center — an awesome and hilarious metaphysical fantasy with the tattiest special effects this side of Edward D. Wood Jr., and one of the most purely pleasurable works in the Ruizian canon. Taken separately or together, these gems provide a perfect introduction to the imaginative and labyrinthine universe of a prodigious filmmaker. Ruiz, a graceful and easygoing commentator on his own work, will introduce the films and answer questions at the Saturday screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, April 20, 6:00, and Saturday, April 21, 6:15, 443-3737)
From the Chicago Reader (April 13, 1990). — J.R.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Peter Greenaway
With Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, and Tim Roth.
On the face of it, this movie seems to have a good many things going for it. Although he was born in 1942, Peter Greenaway is still probably the closest thing that the English art cinema currently has to an enfant terrible. A former painter and film editor who started making experimental films in the mid-60s, he achieved an international reputation with The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982; he went on to become a star director and cult figure in Europe with several TV films and three more features that had considerable success in both England and France as well as on the international festival circuit — A Zed & Two Noughts (1986), The Belly of an Architect (1987), and Drowning by Numbers (1988) — although they have had only limited circulation in the U.S. A fair number of my film-buff friends swear by him, and he is commonly regarded as the most “advanced” art-house director currently working in England.
Greenaway’s latest feature makes sterling use of many of his longtime collaborators: Sacha Vierny, one of the best cinematographers alive (working here in ‘Scope), whose credits include Hiroshima, mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Belle de jour, and Stavisky, as well as films by Raul Ruiz and Marguerite Duras; composer Michael Nyman, a sort of neoclassicist who has worked for everyone from the Royal Ballet to Steve Reich to Sting; and production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, former interior designers who have worked in the Dutch film industry since 1983.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound (Spring 1990). -– J.R.
ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY
‘Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust, Isaac Bashevis Singer ironically begins his Author’s Note, ‘I have lived for years in New York with refugees from this ordeal. I therefore hasten to say that this novel is by no means the story of the typical refugee, his life, and struggle. Like most of my fictional works, this book presents an exceptional case with unique heroes and a unique combination of events. The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates. If they fit into the general picture, it is because the exception is rooted in the rule. As a matter of fact, in literature the exception is the rule.’
Forewarned is forearmed: Singer’s tragi-comic 1972 novel is a holocaust story, but a far from typical one. Set in New York in 1949-50, it focuses on a Jewish survivor named Herman Broder who finds himself living what amounts to three separate, if sometimes distractingly overlapping lives as a direct consequence of the holocaust’s traumatic upheavals. In Coney Island, he is married to Yadwiga, his former maid in Poland, a non-Jew who kept him alive during the war by hiding him in a hayloft, and who now happily waits on him hand and foot.… Read more »
This appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. Although my favorite Cecil B. De Mille film is the talkie version of Dynamite (1929) — I still haven’t seen the silent version, released around the same time — The Ten Commandments (1956) is probably the film of his that I’m most familiar with, along with the somewhat underrated Samson and Delilah (1949).
Part of what’s so remarkable about the scandalously underrated and neglected Dynamite [see still, above] is how real and serious it contrives to make the marital pairing of a coal miner (Charles Bickford) and a spoiled city heiress (Kay Johnson), even though brought about through preposterous plot contrivances, and how, in spite of De Mille’s conservative social and political biases, it assigns equal amounts of dignity and vulnerability to both classes. It’s also one of the most suspenseful and charged melodramas to have ever come out of Hollywood. — J.R.
The Power of Belief
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Cecil B. De Mille
Written by Aeneas Mackenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank
With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, and Vincent Price.… Read more »
The first feature of Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (Poetry in Motion, Comic Book Confidential) may be the best documentary on free jazz that we have. Produced with Bill Smith, editor of Coda magazine, the film consists mainly of interviews with and performances by four key musicians: solo pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, trumpet player Bill Dixon (performing with a trio), and tenor saxophone player Archie Shepp (playing with a quartet); Taylor and Shepp also read some of their poetry. Mann is attentive to the visual impact of the music (Taylor’s piano playing, for instance, virtually qualifies as a form of dancing) and its diverse biographical, musical, and ideological underpinnings (the musicians are all highly articulate). Essential viewing and listening for free-jazz devotees (1981). (Southend Musicworks, 1313 S. Wabash, Sunday, April 8, 7:00, 939-2848)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). — J.R.
People like myself who often despair of finding a cop-and-crime movie that isn’t encrusted in cliches should take to this wonderful sleeper by writer-director George Armitage (Vigilante Force), based on a novel by Charles Willeford (Cockfighter) and coproduced by Jonathan Demme. A small-time thief and ex-con (Alec Baldwin) arrives in Miami, latches on to a local hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and winds up stealing the gun and badge (along with the dentures) of police detective Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) in order to pose as a cop while pulling off more thefts. Some of the characters and situations, such as the thief’s stylish chutzpah and his relationship to the hooker, recall Godard’s Breathless, but Armitage’s handling of the material is consistently fresh and pungent. The three lead actors all manage to be terrific without showing off — Leigh, in the course of an exquisite performance, does one of the best impersonations of a country southern accent I’ve ever heard — and the use of Miami locations is a consistent delight. The late Willeford wrote four Hoke Moseley novels, and this crisp, funny, grisly, and perfectly balanced adaptation makes me yearn for Armitage to film a few more of them.… Read more »
Richard Brooks’s 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was somewhat bowdlerized, but at least it’s intelligent and entertaining within its chosen limits. His second Williams adaptation (1962) is literally a form of emasculation that offers little indication of what made the original play interesting (especially in Elia Kazan’s stage production), despite the fact that Paul Newman and Geraldine Page are called on to reprise their original roles — as a hustler returning to his southern hometown and a Hollywood has-been — and do a fair job with Brooks’s hopeless script. With Rip Torn and Ed Begley (both encouraged to overact stridently), as well as Shirley Knight and Mildred Dunnock. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »
One of Raul Ruiz’s earliest French features an adaptation of Pierre Klossowski’s autobiographical novel about the conflict between rival doctrinal factions within the Catholic Church — this is also one of his most intractable, though some critics regard it as one of his best. It takes the form of a film within a film, involving the making of a film in 1971 that is an amalgamation of two earlier unfinished films made in 1942 and 1962. Alternating between black and white and color, and shot through with Ruiz’s deadpan humor and his taste for labyrinthine structures, it addresses the quintessentially Ruizian theme of institutions — how they function and how they survive (1977). (JR)… Read more »
Soviet filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin’s last silent film (1928, 144 min.) focuses on a Mongolian uprising against British occupation forces. Like most of the other Pudovkin silents, this shows much more narrative flow and sweep than the contemporary films of Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, but it tends to look a bit more rickety today. One has to turn to Pudovkin’s first sound film, the relatively scarce (but much more interesting) Deserter, to encounter experimentation and poetry that still look radical. (JR)… Read more »
A fascinating documentary portrait of the remarkable Philippine filmmaker Lino Brocka by Christian Blackwood. Considering how articulate Brocka is about his own lifehis impoverished background, his work as a Mormon in a Hawaiian leper colony, his homosexuality, his growing activism as an opponent of the Marcos regimeand his films, Blackwood has wisely chosen to make the most of this a self-portrait, with Brocka describing his life and work, and lucidly commenting on (and often translating) clips from his films (1987). (JR)… Read more »
Dabney Coleman plays a Seattle cop on the verge of retirement who, because his urine sample gets switched with that of a black bus driver, believes that he has only two weeks to live. Hiding this from his family (Teri Garr and Kaj-Erik Erikson), he is determined to die in the line of duty so that they can collect on his hefty life insurance, but naturally he keeps failing to get killed. This tacky premise, which encourages us to be indifferent to the fate of the dying bus driver, is actually just an excuse for a couple of fair chases and some unfelt stretches of Capracorna thoroughly soulless romp that is distinguished neither by its script (John Blumenthal and Michael Berry) nor its direction (Gregg Champion). With Matt Frewer and Barry Corbin. (JR)… Read more »
Indescribably awfula serving up of Beatles tunes by Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees with the ugliest visuals imaginable, directed with more glitz than good sense by Michael Schultz. It also features such hands as George Burns, Donald Pleasence, Steve Martin, and Earth, Wind & Fire. If you like the Beatles and you like movies, do yourself a favor and stay away (1978). (JR)… Read more »
An energetic, silent World War I comedy-drama by Raoul Walsh that focuses on the rivalry between officers Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in France, adapted from a popular play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson. A lot better than John Ford’s 1952 remake, this is Walsh at his spunkiest. With Dolores Del Rio, William V. Mong, and Phyllis Haver (1926). (JR)… Read more »
Your Schubert is a pain in the ass! Gerard Depardieu declares at the end of Bertrand Blier’s latest comedy drama about amour fou, remorse, and jealousy, meaning that the sadness of the music is more than he can bear. The problem is, in spite of all the stylishness that makes this one of Blier’s most accomplished films, the fundamentally antiartistic attitude underlying it makes his Schubert a pain in the ass too, if only because this reading of the composer is so mechanical. Car dealer and garage owner Depardieu, married to a beauty (Carole Bouquet), falls madly in love with his plain-looking temporary secretary (Josiane Balasko), and, as in Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Menage, the pain and irrationality of passionate love is the main bill of fare. What’s different this time is that Blier tells the story in a highly fragmented, partially achronological and subjective mannera bit like early Resnais, but without the radical implications, the beauty, or the accomplished writing that made Resnais’ early features so remarkable. Flashbacks dovetail into fantasy sequences and flash-forwards function like reveries, with the camera gliding past dinner tables like a busy bee. It’s not always easy to tell which scenes are real and and which ones imagined, but none of this matters very much in the long run.… Read more »