From the Chicago Reader (January 31, 1992). — J.R.
Ever since he moved to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has been an invaluable presence not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Still, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters may diminish the film’s overall accomplishment but shouldn’t be allowed to serve as an excuse to overlook it; as he puts it, the film’s “intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable.” Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev.… Read more »
What produces a skinhead is the subtle subject of Mike Leigh’s powerful and mysterious feature for British TV, though it may take you most of the film to realize it. We’re treated to the bitter inertia of a family on the dole in a cramped high rise in London’s East End, with particular emphasis on a raspy layabout (Phil Daniels) who berates and undermines his nearly catatonic kid brother (Tim Roth, who played van Gogh in Vincent and Me); a street punk; a young woman in the neighborhood; and the boys’ aunt, who has married into the middle class. Watch for an interesting early performance by Gary Oldman, as well as contributions from Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina (1983). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 24, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
Jacques Rivette’s greatest film since the 70s is one of the most penetrating examinations of the process of art making on film. It concerns the highly charged work of a figurative painter (Michel Piccoli, giving the performance of his career) with his beautiful and mainly nude model (Manon of the Spring’s Emmanuelle Beart), but also the complex input and pressures of the painter’s wife and former model (Jane Birkin), the model’s boyfriend (David Bursztein), and an art dealer who used to be involved with the painter’s wife (Gilles Arbona). The complex forces that produce art are the film’s obsessive focus, and rarely has Rivette’s use of duration to look at process been as spellbinding as it is here. The film runs for four hours, but the overall effect is mesmerizing and perpetually mysterious (as Rivette always is at his best), and not a moment is wasted. Rivette’s superb sense of rhythm and mise en scene never falters, and the plot has plenty of twists. Freely adapted from Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette, with exquisite cinematography by William Lubtchansky, beautiful location work in the south of France (mainly a 19th-century chateau), and drawings and paintings executed by Bernard Dufour.… Read more »
A fascinating if numbing feature-length narrative video by David Blair with remarkable computer graphics and other special effects. The intricate science-fantasy plot, which is narrated in an offscreen monotone by Blair, involves, among many other things, a beekeeper and cinematographer (represented by a photo of William S. Burroughs) who films “the moving spirits of the dead” circa 1914; his grandson (played by Blair), half sister, and brother-in-law; the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, including the Trinity nuclear test site; the moon; the “planet of television”; the Tower of Babel; the “Garden of Eden Cave” (“a town the size of Manhattan beneath the New Mexican desert”); and the gulf war. The images obliquely illustrate the narrative, and the constant visual flux often suggests a graphic novel translated into MTV, which helps to account for the numbing effect. The results are highly watchable, though more intellectually than emotionally involving (1990). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18, 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, January 19, 5:30 and 7:30, 281-4114.… Read more »
A fascinating postmortem on the making of Francis Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, mainly consisting of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in the 7Os that has been intelligently selected, augmented, and arranged by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Like the Coppola film itself, this documentary at times seems to value self-styled profundity and rhetoric over observation and common sense–one especially regrets the absence of any thoroughgoing political or historical critique of Apocalypse Now in relation to the Vietnam war–but the various personalities involved–including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Coppola himself–keep this compulsively watchable. Too bad that Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse’s effective narration after the film was shot, is overlooked in the kaleidoscopic clashes of male egos, but it’s nice to see that Orson Welles’s radio and screenplay adaptations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are acknowledged as precedents and probable influences. (Fine Arts)… Read more »
A bored festival report that I did for Cinemaya, Winter 1991-1992. -– J.R.
The Chicago International Film Festival is now 27 years old, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the U.S. because its founder, Michael Kutza, has remained its director, it might be said to have retained its overall focus — or, in fact ,the lack of focus – since the beginning, which might be described as an emphasis on quantity rather than a discernible critical position. (Having moved to Chicago in 1987, I’ve been present only for the last five festivals, but local critics who have been around much longer assure me that it hasn’t gone through any radical changes.)
To cite one instance of what I mean, it is the only festival that comes to mind that has consciously and deliberately programmed bad films on occasion for their camp appeal. Certain other titles often appear to be picked at random, and the festival has at times shown enough inattentiveness to various year-long non-commercial film venues in Chicago to reprogram certain films that have already been shown at the Art Institute’s Film Center or Facets Multimedia Center.
One hundred and twenty features were scheduled at the festival in 1991, and while a few of these never turned up, there were still many more films shown over 15 days in mid-October than the critics knew what to do with.… Read more »
A knockout thriller that succeeds brilliantly at just about everything Scorsese’s Cape Fear only tries to do. It’s another revenge plot in which the villain (Rebecca De Mornay) attempts to destroy a family (Annabella Sciorra, Matt McCoy, Madeline Zima) from within, but there’s no pretentious art agenda on the filmmakers’ minds; they merely work the genre for all it’s worth, which proves in this case to be plenty: the suspense is masterfully controlled, and the story, which makes effective use of Seattle locations, builds to a terrifying climax. Curtis Hanson’s direction and Amanda Silver’s screenplay are both models of no-flab craft and intelligence, and all the actors (who also include Ernie Hudson and Julianne Moore) are believable from the first frame to the last. (Burnham Plaza, McClurg Court, Lincoln Village, Golf Mill, Evanston, Norridge, Hyde Park, Webster Place, Ford City)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1992). — J.R.
David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece since Videodrome breaks every rule in the book when it comes to adapting a literary classic — perhaps On Naked Lunch would be a more accurate title — but justifies every transgression with its artistry and sheer audacity. Adapted not only from William S. Burroughs’s free-for novel but also from several other Burroughs works (e.g., Exterminator and the introduction to Queer), it pares away all the social satire and everything that might qualify as celebration of gay sex, yielding a complex and highly subjective portrait of Burroughs himself (expertly played, under his William Lee pseudonym, by Peter Weller) as a tortured sensibility in flight from his own femininity, who proceeds zombielike through an echo chamber of projections (insects, drugs, and typewriters) and disavowals. According to the densely compacted metaphors that compose this dreamlike movie, writing equals drugs equals sex, and William Lee, as politically incorrect as Burroughs himself, repeatedly disavows his involvement in all three activities. Maybe it’s Cronenberg himself who’s doing all the disavowing; like David Lynch, his imagination seems to depend on ideological unawareness, but here, at least, it produces the most ravishing head movie since Eraserhead.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, January 10, 1992. — J.R.
THE FILMS OF MIKE LEIGH
Among the buzzwords Marshall McLuhan coined in the 60s, “global village” has always seemed one of the more dubious. The naive notion that TV brings the whole world to our doorsteps — and presumably our doorsteps to the rest of the world — seems founded on assumptions that don’t bear close scrutiny. What do we mean by “the world,” for instance? And what do we mean by TV? TV may afford us some touristic glimpses of elsewhere, along with all the usual ideological baggage of the tourist, but when it comes to closer and better understandings of foreign cultures, I suspect TV may do more harm than good by fostering complacent illusions of knowledge: images wrapped in tidy American sound bites for easy consumption, postage-stamp peeks into worlds often defined in part by what we still don’t know.
What TV seldom offers us — unless we understand other languages and possess satellite dishes — is the rare privilege of overhearing other cultures talk to themselves, experiencing them from within rather than on our terms. To be on the inside looking out offers a different kind of knowledge, attained more by osmosis and intuition than by simplification, translation, or exegesis.… Read more »
King Vidor’s 1940 adaptation of Kenneth Roberts’s book about Rogers’ Rangers opening up a trade route and triumphing over fatigue, hunger, rage, insubordination, weakness, and even cannibalism as they slaughter Indians. (The grim violence and outright racism may remind you in spots of the Vietnam sections in The Deer Hunter.) Spencer Tracy is effective as the leader and all-purpose daddy figure; Robert Young and Walter Brennan are among the greenhorn recruits. Much of this is effective in terms of action and adventure, and the color cinematography is memorable, but don’t expect an enlightened historical view. With Ruth Hussey. (JR)… Read more »
A genuine oddity: a 1950 adaptation of Richard Wright’s great novel of black Chicago, with the author himself as the hero, Bigger Thomas, shot in Buneos Aires by French director Pierre Chenal. Wright is clearly too old for the part, and there are many other ways in which the film can’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary power and density of the original, but it’s still a noble and interesting if highly uneven effort. With Jean Wallace, Gloria Madison, and Nicholas Joy. (JR)… Read more »
A fascinating 1991 postmortem on the making of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), mainly consisting of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in the 70s that has been intelligently selected, augmented, and arranged by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Like the Coppola film itself, this documentary at times seems to value self-styled profundity and rhetoric over observation and common sense; one especially regrets the absence of any thoroughgoing political or historical critique of Apocalypse Now in relation to the Vietnam war. Moreover, this movie only compounds the self-satisfied myopia that regards peasants of the Philippines (where Apocalypse was shot) and those of Vietnam as interchangeable. But the various personalities involvedincluding Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Coppola himselfkeep this watchable. Too bad that Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse’s effective narration after the film was shot, is overlooked in the kaleidoscopic clashes of male egos, but it’s nice to see that Orson Welles’s radio and screenplay adaptations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are acknowledged as precedents and influences. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
Mike Leigh’s first TV film (1973) concentrates on the dreary existence of a middle-aged maid (Liz Smith) and her relationships with her well-to-do employers, her insensitive and demanding husband (Clifford Kershaw), her unsympathetic children, and a cynically unconcerned priest. As usual with Leigh, there’s some bite and vision behind the gloom, and the talented castincluding Alison Steadman, Ben Kingsley, Polly Hemingway, and Bernard Hillmakes it lively and interesting. (JR)… Read more »
A fascinating if numbing independent feature by David Blair, transferred from video to film with remarkable computer graphics and other special effects. The intricate science-fantasy plot, which is narrated in an offscreen monotone by Blair, involves, among many other things, a beekeeper and cinematographer (represented by a photo of William S. Burroughs) who films the moving spirits of the dead circa 1914; his grandson (played by Blair), half sister, and brother-in-law; the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the Trinity nuclear test site there; the moon; the planet of television; the Tower of Babel; the Garden of Eden Cave (a town the size of Manhattan beneath the New Mexican desert); and the gulf war. The images obliquely illustrate the narrative, and the constant visual flux often suggests a graphic novel translated into MTV, which helps to account for the numbing effect. The results are highly watchable, though more intellectually than emotionally involving (1990). (JR)… Read more »
Wim Wenders’s most ambitious feature (1991), budgeted at $23 million and shot in no fewer than nine countries, certainly qualifies as a failure, but it’s also well worth seeing for its often stunning cinematography (by Robby Muller) and some of its SF notions about life on this planet in the near future. The first part of the film follows Solveig Dommartin as she rushes across Europe on the heels of a hitchhiker (William Hurt) who’s stolen money she’d been carrying to Paris for some bank robbers; she is followed in turn by a sympathetic former lover and novelist (Sam Neill). The second part, restricted to the Australian outback, deals with the scientific experiments Hurt needs the money for, which will enable his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau) to see visual recordings of the remainder of her family. Scripted by Wenders and Australian novelist Peter Carey and based on an idea by Wenders and Dommartin, the film fails largely because of the flatness of its characters and the awkwardness of its dialogue (though there’s a likable turn by Rudiger Vogler as a German Hammett-style gumshoe); the SF experiments in Australia also borrow rather heavily and gracelessly from the work of Chris Marker (e.g., La jetee and Sans soleil).… Read more »