From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1994). — J.R.
Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène
With Omar Seck, Mame Ndoumbe Diop, Thierno Ndiaye, Ndiawar Diop, Moustapha Diop, Marie-Augustine Diatta, Samba Wane, and Joseph Sane.
We like to think that the essential works of any art form are readily available to everyone; but when it comes to film we still aren’t within hailing distance of that goal, even if we agree to the debatable proposition that a film’s transfer to video equals its availability. The canons of film history taught in film departments across the country are based almost entirely on the titles that film, video, and laser disc companies choose to place or keep on the market, which is all that most film professors have seen in the first place. And now that 16-millimeter film distribution is already on its last legs, the history and breadth of the medium, even for most film students, is quickly being reduced to what can be found at local video stores.
Among the many key items that can’t be found there are virtually all the major African films, including the seven features and four shorts of Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène, by most accounts the greatest African filmmaker.… Read more »
Reportedly the longest single film ever made, Edgar Reitz’s 13-part, nearly 26-hour “chronicle of a generation” (1992)–set in Munich during the 60s and only nominally a sequel to his 15-hour Heimat (1984)–mainly focuses on the experiences of one young man, a classical musician and composer named Hermann Simon (Henry Arnold) who moves from the small village of Shabbach (where Heimat was set) to find a new life and, echoing the title, a second home. Alternating masterfully between black and white and color, Reitz conveys a novelistic sweep as he deals with artistic and romantic ferment in 1960 and ’61 in the first two episodes, “The Time of the First Songs” and “Two Strange Eyes.” Among the other major characters are the hero’s best friend, a Chilean musician; a beautiful cellist they’re both drawn to; a lonely female law student; a couple of ambitious filmmakers; a jazz drummer; a crazed landlady and former singer; and two avant-garde composers. Reitz’s feeling for period and milieu are so good and his characters so rich and appealing one feels one could climb inside this movie and stay a long, long while. On the basis of the four hours I’ve seen so far, I suspect The Second Heimat offers the most comprehensive and persuasive grasp of the experience of the 60s we have on film, with the possible exception of Jacques Rivette’s nearly 13-hour Out 1, which has never been shown in the U.S.… Read more »
Adapted from a successful play, this tense and effective Venezuelan political thriller (1992), directed with craft and discretion by Alejandro Saderman, follows the principled decision of a nun to shelter a fugitive from armed rebels during a state of civil war, the ambivalent cooperation she elicits from a fellow nun, and the price they both have to pay for their courage. Saderman sticks to the claustrophobic feeling I assume the original play had, while still conveying a detailed sense of the surrounding community, from mayor to bishop to shopkeeper. And wisely, he tends to veer away from close-ups when he wants certain dramatic points to register; indeed, many of this film’s finest moments–most of them related to the performance of Veronica Oddo, who plays the more committed nun–transpire in long shot. Three Penny, Saturday, April 23, 6:30; also Facets Multimedia, Monday, April 25, 7:00.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 2002). — J.R.
The whiff of amateur theatricals in The Phantom Menace, imparting a personalized clunkiness to the proceedings, is back in force in this aptly titled fifth installment, but this time the exposition is so thick that everyone except acolytes may tune out. Though the look aspires as usual to be both otherworldly and familiar, there’s nothing that doesn’t reek of southern California plastic, including the characters. Whatever showmanship director George Lucas brought to the earlier episodes has been paved over by calculation (Christopher Lee is about the only actor who looks comfortable). But Lucas is enough of a businessman to know that the earlier chapters helped foster the celebratory mood that greeted the previous gulf war (mainly by promoting the glee to be extracted from supposedly bloodless annihilation, delivered chiefly to faceless reptiles in desert settings), and the livelier final stretches here seem designed to help pave the way for more. PG, 138 min. (JR)
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It’s a matter of some dispute whether Roman Polanski’s letter to the darker side of the romantic impulse–a French-English production made in 1992–represents him at his best or worst (I’d say the former), but there’s little question that this is his most emotionally complex movie to date. With its American, English, and French characters representing the three cultures Polanski has known since he left Poland, it’s also quite possibly his most personal film–and certainly his most self-critical. The major focus of the plot, told in flashbacks, is the perverse relationship that develops in Paris between a failed, well-to-do American writer (Peter Coyote) who becomes crippled and a young French dancer (Emmanuelle Seigner); their encounter with a British couple (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott-Thomas) on a luxury liner on the Black Sea forms the present-tense story. This uneasy combination of comedy and tragedy, frank pornography and caustic antipornography, sexual fun and games and mental cruelty doesn’t allow the audience a comfortably detached viewpoint from which to judge the proceedings. Chances are you’ll either love it or despise it. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, April 15 through 21.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1994). — J.R.
** SERIAL MOM
Directed and written by John Waters
With Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Patricia Hearst, and Suzanne Somers.
“Outside it’s hot and muggy. I buy a carton of cigarettes, ever bitter that I’m taxed so highly (11) on the one purchase that actually brings me happiness. They ought to tax yogurt (12); that’s what causes cancer. A neighbor, who always seems too familiar for her own good, passes me and makes the mistake of saying, ‘Good morning.’ ‘Shut up!’ I snap, making a mental note of her hideous tube top (13) and ridiculous Farrah Fawcett hairdo (14), so popular with fashion violators. And then I see it, a goddam ticket on my car, even though the meter (15) has only been in effect ten minutes. I have to take my rage out on someone! I run toward this fashion scofflaw as she gets into the most offensive vehicle known to man, “Le Car’ (16), and yank her door open as she frantically tries to lock it. ‘Not so fast, miss,’ I bark. ‘There’s a certain matter of this ticket you’ll have to take care of — $16 for gross and willful fashion violations!’ She gives me the finger and peels out, turning up the radio so I hear the voice of the worst-dressed man in music, Stevie Wonder (17), braying in my ears.” — John Waters, “Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)” (1985)
Neither as energetic and assured as his Hairspray (1988) nor as lackluster and formulaic as his Cry-Baby (1990), John Waters’s Serial Mom alerts us to the fact that the impresario of outrage is getting older and wiser, without ever letting us forget that he still has some fight in him.… Read more »
Perhaps the most intriguing fact about this clever, touching, and well-directed independent feature is that the script was written by the late Endre Bohem in 1935 and revised by his son Leslie only a few years ago–a form of generational continuity reflected in one of the delayed revelations of the plot as well. The story–set in the present, though one can imagine it set during the Depression–concerns the fate of a single $20 bill that’s dropped on a city street, picked up, spent, given away, lost, and pursued by many people for multiple reasons, always gaining new significance with each new setting. Most of the resulting miniplots are self-contained, but the script also gracefully brings back characters, making a roundelay exercise like the recent Chain of Desire look fairly crude by comparison. Documentary filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld has switched to fiction with a great deal of craft and assurance, never allowing the large number of characters to seem top-heavy or confusing. The able cast includes Linda Hunt, Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Steve Buscemi, Brendan Fraser, Gladys Knight, Melora Walters, and Kamal Holloway. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, April 8 through 14.… Read more »
With the possible exception of Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) is the greatest living Japanese filmmaker. Unfortunately, the U.S. distributor of most of his early work has made very little of it available on video, which means that most Americans’ knowledge of the modernist Japanese cinema doesn’t include Death by Hanging, Boy, The Man Who Left His Will on Film, The Ceremony, and many other Oshima masterworks. Max Mon Amour (1986), his most recent feature, here receiving its belated Chicago premiere, isn’t as good as those movies, but then what is? This dry drawing-room comedy about an English diplomat’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) who has a “serious” affair with a chimpanzee was produced by Serge Silberman, producer of Bunuel’s last films, and written by Bunuel’s cowriter on the same films, Jean-Claude Carriere. Much of this film’s ongoing humor derives from the human couple’s sense of decorum; in a game effort to preserve his marriage, the diplomat (Anthony Higgins), who has a mistress of his own, arranges to have the chimp moved into their flat. Even for a filmmaker who essentially changes style with each picture–and has a reputation as a taboo breaker–this is uncharacteristic: the poker-faced surrealism of “civilized” people attempting to be mature about a woman’s passion for a chimp seems, not surprisingly, more like Bunuel than Oshima.… Read more »
It’s a matter of some dispute whether Roman Polanski’s letter to the darker side of the romantic impulsea French-English production made in 1992represents him at his best or worst (I’d say the former), but there’s little question that this is his most emotionally complex movie. With its American, English, and French characters representing the three cultures Polanski has known since he left Poland, it’s also quite possibly his most personal filmand certainly his most self-critical. The major focus of the plot, told in flashbacks, is the perverse relationship that develops in Paris between a failed, well-to-do American writer who becomes crippled (Peter Coyote) and a young French dancer (Emmanuelle Seigner); their encounter with a British couple (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) on a luxury liner forms the present-tense story. This uneasy combination of comedy and tragedy, frank pornography and caustic antipornography, sexual fun and games and mental cruelty doesn’t allow the audience a comfortably detached viewpoint from which to judge the proceedings. Chances are you’ll either love it or despise it. (JR)… Read more »
James Whale’s brilliant and surprisingly delicate 1936 rendition of the Kern and Hammerstein musical, which was based on an Edna Ferber novel, is infinitely superior to the dull 1951 MGM Technicolor remake and, interestingly enough, less racist. The rendition of Old Man River by Paul Robeson, magnificent throughout, is a high point, occasioning a montage sequence that shows Whale at his most expressionistic and inventive. With Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan, and Charles Winninger. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »
The usual stuff. Some promising material about totalitarian maximum-security imprisonment in the year 2022 is quickly succeeded by OK action a la The Road Warrior on a remote island; the all-male cast begins to pall after a while, though Ray Liotta (hero), Stuart Wilson (villain), Lance Henriksen (father figure), and various others (Kevin Dillon, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ernie Hudson, Ian McNeice) do their best to keep you from nodding off. Martin Campbell directed from a screenplay by Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross that’s based on Richard Herley’s novel The Penal Colony. (JR)… Read more »
Two wartime propaganda shorts in French, directed by Alfred Hitchcock for the unoccupied French colonies: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (both 1944). Neither was shown much at the time, but both are interesting as period pieces and minor Hitchcockian narrative exercises. 57 min. (JR)… Read more »
A Harvard senior on scholarship (Brendan Fraser) has a rude encounter with a homeless wino (Joe Pesci) camped out in the basement of the campus library. The student and his three roommatesMoira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey, and Josh Hamiltonlearn a lot about how the other half lives, while the hero winds up with a surrogate for the father he never had. A good deal of this can be read as a Clinton-administration update of The Paper Chase (a Nixon-administration movie), with Gore Vidal enlisted to do a rough equivalent of John Houseman’s cameo in the earlier picture; otherwise, it’s a fairly effective tearjerker with a smidgen of social conscience, despiteor is it because of?the compulsive Hollywood gloss. Truth or Dare’s Alek Keshishian directed (with distinction if not honors), which helps explain why Madonna furnishes the movie’s theme song, and the better-than-average script is credited to William Mastrosimone, though both playwright Israel Horowitz and novelist Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) are said to have worked on it. (JR)… Read more »
It’s been suggested by the editor of the Budapest Daily News that one reason this 1993 Hungarian comedy, set during the 60s, was the most popular local movie ever released in Hungary is that Hungarian audiences are tired of films that are forever digging up the policies and social issues of the past. There’s clearly no threat of that happening here. This is a jaunty account of a wooden-hanger salesman (played by director and cowriter Robert Koltai, his first feature) taking along his awkward teenage nephew on trips to various trade fairs and the racetrack, and cluing him in to the facts of life, sexual and otherwise. The uncle has been compared to a life force like Zorba the Greek and Auntie Mame, and if you love those characters I guess you’ll enjoy this too; I was much more intrigued by the ambiguous nature of the character’s ethnic background. (JR)… Read more »
By reputation at least, this is a seminal early work (1978) by Peter Greenaway45 minutes long, involving the jokey reconstruction of an imaginary film. (JR)… Read more »