From New York Newsday (Sunday, August 28, 1991). -– J.R.
WOODY ALLEN: A Biography, by Eric Lax. Knopf, 384 pp., $24.
BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
How does one write the biography of an untouchable? Without touching him –- or at least by handling him with kid gloves. When it comes to dealing with America’s favorite comic spokesman for the urban middle class, Eric Lax does a fair job of plotting out both the apprenticeship and the career moves of Woody AIlen as he gradually worked his way up from gag writer to stand-up comedian to increasingly ambitious filmmaker (from “Bananas” to”Hannah and Her Sisters” to “Another Woman”), with various side trips –- as jazz clarinetist, playwright and literary humorist — along the way. But when it comes to separating the Woody persona from the actual person, or the mystique from the life, Lax’s agenda goes soft. Devoted fans may discover a few unmined nuggets here, but for skeptics like myself the experience is as unreflective as any of Allen’s movies.
After an introduction that briefly chronicles Allen’s tortured
23-hour trip to the Soviet Union in 1988, Lax begins with the
birth of Allan Stewart Konigsberg in 1935 and the creation of
his familiar stage name 16 years later.… Read more »
From the August 23, 1991 Chicago Reader. This review is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies (1995). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
With John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Jon Polito.
I’m not one of the Coen brothers’ biggest fans. I walked out of Blood Simple, their first feature. The main sentiment I took away from Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – their second and third efforts, both of which I stayed to the end of — was that at least each new Coen brothers movie was a discernible improvement over the last. Raising Arizona may have had some of the same crass, gratuitous condescension toward its country characters as Blood Simple, but it also had a sweeter edge and more visual flair. In both craft and stylishness, Miller’s Crossing was another step forward, and even if I never really believed in either the period ambience or the characters — the dialogue bristled with anachronisms, and Albert Finney’s crime boss seemed much too blinkered and naive for someone who was supposed to be ruling a city — the film nevertheless demanded a certain attention.… Read more »
From Cinematograph, vol. 4, 1991; reprinted in both Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism and Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.
I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.
– Orson Welles, quoted in Collier’s, 29 January 1938
1. One of the most progressive forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.
2. One of the most reactionary forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.
How can both of these statements be true — as, in fact, I believe they are? In the final analysis, the issue is an ethical one. In support of 2, there are docudramas that use spurious means to grant bogus authenticity to fiction (MISSISSIPPI BURNING is a good example), and documentaries that employ fictional devices in order to lie more effectively (e.g., the studio retakes in Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, which are well documented in Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich).… Read more »
Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable first feature takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (all of it scripted by Linklater, though it often seems improvised). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation on The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,” remarks Linklater himself to a poker faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly localized sense of community. I’ve never been to Austin, but this movie certainly makes me want to pay a visit (1990). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 23 through 29) … Read more »
When a repressed criminal psychologist (Jeff Fahey) loses his right arm in a car accident and it’s replaced by the arm of a mass murderer, he discovers to his horror that his new limb seems to have a will and personality of its own. This provocative and effective thriller, directed by Eric Red (who coscripted and coproduced Near Dark), loses some steam, focus, and coherence in its final reels because of what appears to be clumsy studio recutting, but it’s full of directorial savvy and sharp performances. (The always-interesting Brad Dourif is especially good as a painter who winds up with the mass murderer’s left arm, and the fact that Fahey’s hero is more creepy than charismatic at the outset makes for some interesting ambiguities throughout that aren’t lost on the filmmakers.) Based on the novel Choice Cuts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the same writing team that provided the source novels for Vertigo and Diabolique, and intelligently written for the most part by Red, Norman Snider, Patricia Herskovic, and Joyce Taylor. It’s a pity that Paramount shoved thi’s one out without benefit of press screenings or other tokens of studio confidence; it deserves much better. With Lindsay Duncan, Kim Delaney, Zakes Mokae, and Paul Benvictor.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1991). — J.R.
MY FATHER’S GLORY
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Yves Robert
Written by Jerome Tonnere, Louis Nucera, and Robert
With Philippe Caubere, Nathalie Roussel, Didier Pain, Julien Ciamaca, Therese Liotard, and Victorien Delmare.
Though I’ve had only limited acquaintance with Marcel Pagnol’s work as a filmmaker, it’s clear to me that he was an important if neglected figure in French independent cinema. He was not only a forerunner of the Italian neorealists and a playwright-turned-filmmaker who set up his own studio in Marseilles in 1933, but also an unusually devoted director of actors. He liked to film his favorites — people like Raimu, Fernandel, Alida Rouffe, and Pierre Fresnay — in static camera setups with lots of dialogue, theoretically ending a shot only when he ran out of film. It may seem a limited aesthetic, but for passionate proactor directors like Jean Renoir (whose 1934 Toni was produced by Pagnol) and Orson Welles it carried the force of a revelation, and the sunny Provencal settings provided a relaxed airiness and earthiness to the extended talk fests.
Pagnol’s output as a writer has become fashionable again, thanks to the popularity of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring – both based on Pagnol novels and directed by Claude Berri.… Read more »
Jennie Livingston’s exuberant and loving documentary about “voguing” and the drag balls of Harlem is both a celebration and a canny commentary. Delving into the dance poses and acrobatic moves of black and Latino gay men, she enters this highly ritualized subculture with a genuine sense of curiosity and discovery, and is wise enough to let the participants themselves do most of the explaining. One emerges from this film not only with a new vocabulary and a fresh way of viewing the straight world, but with a bracing object lesson in understanding what society “role models” are all about. See it (1990). (Fine Arts) … Read more »
The last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors (he didn’t live long enough to make sound films, as he died in an auto accident only a few days after work on the musical score of this masterpiece was completed). Filmed entirely in the South Seas with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby (fully evident in this fine restoration), this began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still shares credit for the story, though clearly the German romanticism of Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. The simple plot is an erotic love story complicated by the fact that the young woman becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder (one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom) to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. The two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” and another theme is the corrupting power of “civilization”–money in particular–on the innocent hedonism of the islanders. (Murnau himself was in flight from the Hollywood studios when he made the picture, although Paramount wound up releasing it.) However dated some of this film’s ethnographic idealism may seem today, the breathtaking beauty and artistry make it indispensable viewing, and the exquisite tragic ending–conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo–is one of the pinnacles of silent cinema (1930).… Read more »
I’ve been getting a lot of pleasure lately from the new Blu-Ray Mel Brooks box set, especially in catching up with the two Brooks features I hadn’t seen before, The Twelve Chairs (1970) and Silent Movie (1976). The only gaping absence for me in this deluxe collection isn’t so much The Producers (1968), his first feature, and certainly not his most recent and weakest, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), but Life Stinks (1991), which in retrospect I may have underrated — and which Kino Lorber is bringing out this July. Which is largely why I’m resurrecting my mixed review of it. This originally appeared in the Chicago Reader’s August 2, 1991 issue. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Mel Brooks
Written by Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Steve Haberman
With Mel Brooks, Lesley Ann Warren, Jeffrey Tambor, Stuart Pankin, Howard Morris, and Rudy De Luca.
“Tragedy is if I cut my finger. . . . Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die.” —Mel Brooks
For a long time now Mel Brooks has been one of my guilty pleasures. It’s difficult to refute the protestations of friends and colleagues about the general feebleness of History of the World–Part I and Spaceballs — his previous two features as writer-director, and the only ones that appeared in the 80s — but there are moments in both films that I deeply treasure, not so much as evidence of a writer’s, director’s, or performer’s craft, but rather as moments that make me laugh hard and long and make me feel good afterward.… Read more »
For my money, this is funnier than both Naked Guns combined, even down to the final joke-strewn credits. Putatively a parody of Top Gun, it also includes send-ups of Dances With Wolves, Full Metal Jacket, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Superman, and even Gone With the Wind. Directed and cowritten (with Pat Proft) by Jim Abrahams, one of the three writer-directors who launched Airplane!, this shares more with that 1980 laugh getter than an exclamation point and Lloyd Bridges; there’s also much of the same pleasure in milking cliches and ridiculing poker-faced straight men with their own compliance (Charlie Sheen is every bit as well cast here as Leslie Nielsen is in the Naked Gun movies), and the airborne antics are realized with a lovely sense of craft. With Cary Elwes, a very sexy Valeria Golino, Kevin Dunn, Jon Cryer, William O’Leary, Kristy Swanson, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Webster Place, Ford City, Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Golf Mill, Lincoln Village, Water Tower) … Read more »
Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable second feature (1991, 97 min.) takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (which often seems improvised, though it’s all scripted by Linklater, apparently with the input of some of the participants, as in his later Waking Life). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation of The Phantom of Liberty or Playtime. Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality, remarks Linklater himself to a poker-faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly realized sense of a specific community. (JR)… Read more »
Sigmund Freud refused to have anything to do with this early (1926) silent attempt to deal with psychoanalysis via German expressionism, directed by G.W. Pabst. The results are dated, but this is still an intriguing period piece. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »
Perhaps the first movie ever to incorporate two product plugs in its title (apparently without the approval of either company in question), not to mention two additional ones in the cast (Virginia Slim and Jack Daniels), this egregious collection of cock-waving cliches is the silliest piece of macho camp since Roadhouse. Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson play the shit-kicking bikers of the title; Simon Wincer directed the Don Michael Paul script. (JR)… Read more »
Apart from featuring a bit more weirdness than usual (Chel White’s Photocopy Cha Cha, Henry Selick’s Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, and David Fain’s Oral Hygiene are among the best), this is pretty much like previous editions of the International Tournee, so how you respond may depend on how many of these annual collections you’ve seen. (I’ve had enough of Bill Plympton’s poker-faced anatomical black comedynot to mention John Lasseter’s cutesy Luxo Jr.to last me several lifetimes.) But the last and longest of the shorts hereGarri Bardin’s Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, a macabre Soviet Claymation musical with familiar Western melodies and gruff asides on Walt Disney and Edith Piafis a special treat. Long on humor and short on beauty (with the exception of Daniel Suter’s Les saisons quatre a quatre), this package is otherwise easy to watch but not likely to be remembered. (JR)… Read more »
Hal Hartley’s second feature (1990), a decided improvement over his first (The Unbelievable Truth), returns to the same turf (a Long Island commuter town) and features the same lead actress (Adrienne Shelly) as an alienated teenager. This time around, Shelly plays a high school student who finds herself pregnant, provokes her father’s fatal heart attack, gets unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend and kicked out of the house by her mother (Merritt Nelson), is assaulted, witnesses a kidnapping, and meets an angry and disgruntled electronics whiz (Martin Donovan) all in the same day. It’s a credit to the film that this overflow of incident neither strains credibility nor becomes exploited for facile comedy; in fact the real story only begins once she and the electronics whiz become involved and their mutual adjustments (including the strains represented by their difficult parents) gradually transform both of them. Unpredictable while remaining honest to both its characters and its milieu, this flaky comedy-drama improves as it proceeds; with John MacKay and Edie Falco. (JR)… Read more »