Written for Frank Tashlin, edited by Roger Garcia (Éditions du Festival international du film de Locarno in collaboration with the British Film Institute [London]/Editions Yellow Now [Crisnée, Belgium], 1994). -– J.R.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Clearly Tashlin’s most avant-garde feature, and probably his most political, thus his most misunderstood. Retaining the title, Jayne Mansfield, and advertising from George Axelrod’s Broadway play, but reportedly little else, Tashlin mounts a thoughtful and multifaceted polemic against the success ethic itself. (A key line: “Success will fit you like a shroud.”) The consequences are dazzling for his art but disastrous for his career. Made at Fox on the heels of The Girl Can’t Help It, the film provides a textbook illustration of George S. Kaufman’s maxim, “satire is what closes in New Haven.” Fortunately, before the balance sheets are counted, 50s America receives one of its two most devastating caricatures on film; the other is Chaplin’s A King in New York, made the same year. Paraphrasing Rossellini, both are the films of free men; fully anticipating Godard’s journalistic directive that you can – and must – place everything in a film, both filmmakers hit on nightmarishly topical New York dystopias set un the present, where, thanks to TV and advertising (rightly perceived as synonymous), the divisions between public and private are now fully obliterated.… Read more »
I was afraid I’d find this Swedish period piece by Ake Sandgren cutesy, but I wound up liking it quite a bit. Based on an autobiographical novel by Roland Schutt, it’s set in Stockholm in the 20s. The ten-year-old hero’s mother is a Russian Jew, his father’s a revolutionary socialist, and his older brother, an aspiring boxer, keeps punching him in the nose. The anti-Semitism of Roland’s teacher and schoolmates and the illegal activities of his parents–which include distributing condoms to workers and attending incendiary political meetings–make him something of a defiant outcast. All the characters are treated with a fair amount of humor and affection (the father, played by Stellan Skarsgard, is indelible), the period details are well handled, and the episodic story line is fairly engaging. The film doesn’t dig too deep, but it might make you feel pretty good. With Jesper Salen and Basia Frydman. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 29 through August 4.… Read more »
This originally appeared in the June 24, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader, with a slightly different title (“Can Film Be Fascist?”) —J.R.
** THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL
Directed and written by Ray Muller.
*** THE EYE OF VICHY
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Jean-Pierre Azema and Robert O. Paxton.
Last year, about the time that Ray Muller’s mediocre if watchable three-hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl was getting widespread coverage in New York, a European friend thoughtfully sent me a tape of Looking at “Triumph of the Will”, an excellent 45-minute BBC program designed to introduce Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film to a contemporary audience. Interviewing such commentators as Hugh Hudson, Annette Insdorf, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Budd Schulberg, and Brian Winston, the program offered diverse historical, ideological, and aesthetic perspectives without privileging any single point of view. Riefenstahl herself refused to be interviewed, yet her own self-serving interpretation of her career was included, as well as that of one of her American apologists — David Hinton, the author of a book about her, who argues, as Riefenstahl does, that Triumph of the Will should not be regarded as propaganda.… Read more »
In my review of Blown Away last week, an editing error made it sound as if an Irish wedding takes place as Tommy Lee Jones is blasting his way out of a prison cell at the beginning of the movie, and as if Jeff Bridges appears in the opening sequence. In fact the wedding and Bridges’s first appearance take place later in the movie.
Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.
The second installment (1992) in Eric Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” centers on a young Parisian woman, aptly called Felicie, who fluctuates between two suitors — a pensive local librarian and the owner of a chain of beauty salons who’s moving to Nevers and wants her and her young daughter to come live with him. But in the back of her mind she’s holding out for the return of a former lover, the father of her daughter, whom she lost track of after they spent a summer holiday together; she accidentally gave him the wrong address when he moved away and she never heard from him again. The conception may be a little too rigorously Catholic for some tastes (including mine), but Rohmer has become such a master of his chosen classic genre — the crystalline philosophical tale of character and romantic choice — that this is a nearly perfect work, in performance as well as execution, with an apposite if ambiguous extended reference to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale in the penultimate act. With Charlotte Very, Frederic Van Dren Driessche, Michel Voletti, and Herve Furic. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 15 through 21.… Read more »
As far as I know this is something of a first, at least since the 20s or 30s: a movie predicated on film theory playing in a commercial theater. Written, directed, and produced by American independents Scott McGehee and David Siegel, this odd black-and-white ‘Scope thriller (1993) about identity and social construction concerns a young man named Clay who becomes briefly acquainted with his half-brother Vincent. Vincent, who wants to flee the country for various reasons, secretly arranges to have Clay blown up in Vincent’s car wearing Vincent’s clothes; with everyone believing he’s dead, Vincent can easily disappear. But Clay survives the explosion, though he has amnesia, and with the help of a plastic surgeon and a psychoanalyst is “restored” to an identity that was never his–Vincent’s. A subversive spin is given to this material: Clay and Vincent are said by all the characters to be dead ringers, yet Clay is played by a black actor and Vincent by a white one–and no one ever comments on it. The film may be at times a little too smart (as well as a little too drab and mechanical) for its own good, but the witty, provocative implications of the central concept linger, and the story carries an interesting sting: this is a head scratcher that actually functions.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.
A first feature by American independent writer-director David O. Russell, this traps its hero, a premed college freshman, in his family’s suburban home for the summer. Forced to give up an internship to take care of mother (laid up with a broken leg) while his philandering father, a traveling video salesman, is out on the road, the not very likable hero finds himself in one tragicomic mishap after another involving his father’s convoluted instructions, care of the family dog, making out with a high school senior, and a growing sexual involvement with his desperate mother. Despite a certain originality, the movie isn’t really a success, not only because the plot bites off more than it can chew (the film doesn’t conclude; it simply stops), but also because, like its hero, it has some trouble distinguishing between petty irritations and cataclysmic traumas. But at least the performances are fresh and fairly nuanced. With Jeremy Davies, Elizabeth Newitt, Benjamin Hendrikson, Alberta Watson, Carla Gallo, and Richard Husson (1994). (JR)
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Jim Carrey stars in this 1994 retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story that makes particular reference to The Nutty Professor. There are also multiple flourishes borrowed from Tex Avery cartoons, Gremlins, Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, and other standbys. The results are easy to watch, though awfully familiar and simpleminded. Directed by Charles Russell from a script by Mike Werb; with Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, and Amy Yasbeck. (JR)… Read more »
Eschewing fairy tales and other literary sources, Disney’s usual bread and butter for cartoon musicals, this animated feature about animal life in an African forest (1994) is based on an original script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton. The result is a step toward multiculturalism and ecological correctness, though not without a certain amount of confusion. The movie is not quite as entertaining as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, but it’s nice for once to see the Disney studio steering clear of the white-bread xenophobia typified by Aladdin and seeking to enlarge its stylistic palette as well as its thematic address. The songs are by Tim Rice and Elton John, and some of the actors supplying the characters’ voices are Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Moira Kelly, and Cheech Marin; Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff directed. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »
Derek Jarman’s kaleidoscopic experimental film (1987)a dark, poetic meditation on Thatcher Englandis visionary cinema at its best. Shot in Super-8, transferred to video for additional touches and processing, then transferred back to 35-millimeter, this work combines more than half a century of home movies of Jarman’s family, a documentary record of industrial and ecological ruin, and sustained looks at Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Spencer Leigh. The often astonishing results become increasingly spellbinding as the work proceeds. Over an evocative narration by Jarman (which includes apocalyptic quotes from such poets as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and stirring use of music and sound effects, images in black and white, sepia, and color explode and merge with mesmerizing intensity and build toward a powerful personal statement. (JR)… Read more »
Comedy writer-director Andrew Bergman only directs this timethe script is by Jane Andersonand the results, though watchable, aren’t nearly as funny as So Fine, The Freshman, or Honeymoon in Vegas. Still, there’s plenty of his sweetness as well as his feeling for Depression-style comedy (evident in his critical book We’re in the Money) in this tale about a good-natured good-guy cop (Nicolas Cage) giving a greasy-spoon waitress (Bridget Fonda) half of a lottery ticket in lieu of a tip, then having to confront his nagging, egocentric wife (Rosie Perez) when the ticket wins a jackpot. There’s something less than sweet about Perez’s character, but if viewers decide to take this all as a fairy tale it’s easy enough to see her as the wicked witch and rationalize all the ugliness. Bergman has better luck with Cage and Fonda, who manage to ooze charm despite the simplicities of the script. With Wendell Pierce, Seymour Cassel, Isaac Hayes, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, and Red Buttons. (JR)… Read more »
This extraordinary 1992 French documentary by Nicolas Philibert, which plunges the viewer into the world of deaf sign language, required Philibert to rethink such basic documentary techniques as framing, editing, and sound recording and mixing. All the sign language is subtitled in English, but the text seems to offer only a fraction of what’s being said: the men, women, and children are so expressive and personal in their beautifully orchestrated gestures and facial expressions that few professional actors could match them. Part of what’s so wondrous here is the spectacle of sign language itself, but equally fascinating is what’s being said about the language and its possibilities. By the end of this film one feels that people who communicate in sign language are capable of expressing thingsand expressing them in waysthat are beyond our grasp. 99 min. In French and sign language with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
With a running time of 124 minutes, Taiwanese writer-director Ang Lee’s mildly charming 1994 follow-up to The Wedding Banquet may overstay its welcome a bit. The soap-opera plot concentrates on a master chef living in Taipei with his three grown daughters, and there’s a lot of food preparation along with traces of the sweet humor that made The Wedding Banquet a success. (The style, unlike that of such Taiwanese masters as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, is fairly westernized, which undoubtedly explains why Lee’s film was distributed here.) In Mandarin with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
One of the most interesting and effective aspects of this prizewinning documentary by Arthur Dong about gay men and lesbians in the military during World War II is the fact that it’s in black and white. Among other things, this puts contemporary interviews and archival footage on an equal footing. (Mark Adler’s serviceable score strengthens this continuity by playing over portions of both kinds of footage.) Adapted by Dong and Allan Berube from Berube’s 1990 book of the same title and narrated by Salome Jens, this informative and intelligent work provides a comprehensive historical context for the debates stirred up by Clinton’s efforts to allow gay men and women to serve in the armed forces. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). Perhaps my biggest error in this review is my assumption that all the leading characters in Metropolitan are male. — J.R.
The second comedy feature (1994) of neocon writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), who shares with Eric Rohmer a talent for literate and witty dialogue and a fascination with photogenic young women but has a somewhat less confident sense of milieu and story construction. As in Metropolitan, the leading characters and principal source of amusement are wealthy, self-absorbed, and virtually interchangeable American males (in this case a salesman and his cousin, a naval officer), though here they’re transplanted to the Barcelona jet-set nightclub scene, where they explain to their girlfriends and each other (as well as to the audience) how misinformed the Spanish are about the U.S. Considering how successfully they seem to colonialize all the young Spanish women in sight, regarded by heroes and movie alike as obliging pieces of furniture, one subtext seems to be that Europeans are basically first-draft Americans hungrily awaiting stateside revision. Still, this is fairly amusing stuff — brittle, fresh, and impudent –if you can stomach all the upscale arrogance. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino, Pep Munne, and Hellena Schmied.… Read more »