Monthly Archives: February 1997

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The underrated Albert Lewin (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Moon and Sixpence), a sort of Val Lewton who had the run of the MGM back lot, adapted Oscar Wilde’s novel and directed his own script in a skillfully somber and haunting version of the metaphysical fable about a man whose painting ages and records his moral corruption while he retains his youthful appearance. With Hurd Hatfield memorably playing the title part, the 1945 film also includes juicy performances by George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Donna Reed. Deeper and creepier (that is to say, better) than anything turned out by Merchant-Ivory, this is both very Hollywood and very serious in a manner calculated to confound the “Hey, it’s only a movie!” crowd. This screening of a 35-millimeter print is tied to the Art Institute’s retrospective of painter Ivan Albright–who executed the extraordinary portrait of Dorian Gray’s rotting corruption, which appears in the black-and-white film as one of its only color shots (hey, it’s only a painting!)–and will be graced by a personal appearance by Hatfield, who’ll discuss both the movie and painting, and hopefully the novel as well. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 1, 8:00, 312-443-3737.… Read more »

Dubbed and Dubber (CAN DIALECTICS BREAK BRICKS?)

From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). — J.R.

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Rene Vienet (and Doo Kwang Kee)

Written by Vienet (and Ngai Hong)

With Pai Paiu, Chan Hung Liu, Ingrid Wu, and the voices of Jacques Thebaut, Patrick Dewaere, Michelle Grellier, and Dominique Morin.

“This is a situationist film. This is not a situationist film,” begin Keith Sanborn’s notes to Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — a French film in color being shown at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday in a subtitled, black-and-white, letterboxed video version. I think Sanborn, an experimental filmmaker, is referring to the fact that Vienet’s film was made in 1973, the year after the Situationist International disbanded and two years after Vienet — who joined the situationists in 1963 — resigned from their ranks.

I don’t know much about the situationists, but according to critic Peter Wollen they formed out of a split within an earlier radical artistic and political group, the lettrists, who sort of took over the mantle of the French avant-garde from the surrealists after World War II under the leadership of Isidore Isou. The “dissident Revolutionary Lettrists,” as Wollen called them, were led by two young filmmakers, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, who went on to become situationists.… Read more »

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums

Though not the best known of Kenji Mizoguchi’s period masterpieces, this 1939 feature is conceivably the greatest. (For me the only other contender is Sansho the Bailiff.) The plot, which oddly resembles that of There’s No Business Like Show Business, concerns the rebellious son of a theatrical family devoted to Kabuki who leaves home for many years, perfects his art, aided by a working-class woman who loves him, and eventually returns. Apart from the highly charged and adroitly edited Kabuki sequences, the film is mainly constructed in extremely long takes, and an intricate rhyme structure between two time periods is developed by matching camera angles in the same locations. Never before or since (apart from The 47 Ronin) has Mizoguchi’s refusal to use close-ups been more telling, and the theme of female sacrifice that informs most of his major works is given a singular resonance and complexity here. Demonstrating an uncanny mastery of framing and camera movement, the film also has a complexity of characterization that’s shown with sublime economy. Radically structured and exquisitely detailed, this is certainly the most powerful of Mizoguchi’s prewar films. (JR)… Read more »

Absolute Power

Clint Eastwood as producer-director-star strikes out in a rather slack thriller that oddly recalls a couple of Hitchcock’s lesser movies, To Catch a Thief and Topaz. This combines the mythological jewel thief of the former and the disgust for political hypocrisy of the latter, but with none of Hitchcock’s humor or stylistic flourishes. The William Goldman scripta piece of cheese without much flavoradapts a novel by David Baldacci, and part of the problem appears to be that the story calls for someone like Cary Grant. A debonair burglar inadvertently spies the U.S. president (Gene Hackman) having sadistic sexual foreplay with the young wife of his political mentor, which leads to her getting killed. Something’s already awry in this would-be set piece, which has too many reaction shots of Eastwood, and things get worse when Eastwood as director has to plow through the laborious consequences. Generally resourceful in such matters, though always at the mercy of the scripts he selects, Eastwood has to contend here with unpleasant and uninteresting characters that even Hackman, Scott Glenn, Judy Davis, and E.G. Marshall can’t bring to life, and the halfway likable putative romantic leads, Ed Harris (detective) and Laura Linney (the burglar’s daughter), have to take a backseat to the machinations of the others.… Read more »

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Though I haven’t heard Richard Einhorn’s new oratorio Voices of Light — which was a brisk seller on Billboard‘s classical charts early last year, written to accompany Carl Dreyer’s last silent film — I have seen the original version of Dreyer’s masterpiece, rediscovered in a Norwegian mental asylum during the 80s after having been lost for half a century. (The other prints were lost in a warehouse fire, and the two circulating versions since then have both consisted of outtakes.) Considering that this film’s beautiful original score resembled an oratorio at certain moments, I suspect that this rare opportunity to see the greatest of all Joan of Arc films in optimum conditions shouldn’t be passed up. (Anonymous 4 performs Joan’s voice in both alto and soprano, and Lucinda Carver conducts the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra and the Zephyr Chorus.) Joan is played by Comedie-Francaise member Renee Falconetti, and though hers is one of the key performances in the history of movies, she never made another film. (Antonin Artaud also appears in a memorable cameo.) Dreyer’s radical approach to constructing space and the slow intensity of his mobile style make this a difficult film in the sense that, like all the greatest films, it reinvents the world from the ground up; it’s also painful in a way that all of Dreyer’s tragedies are.… Read more »

Metro

Apart from a few wisecracks Eddie Murphy plays it straight, as a hostage negotiator working for the San Francisco police force in a loud and often stupid action thriller in which director Thomas Carter (Swing Kids) has every screaming psycho killer and every hysterical hostage behaving identically. Lots of car crashes, one superb explosion, and the fleeting charms of Carmen Ejogo (Absolute Beginners) hardly compensate for the overall unpleasantness, in which sadism is taken for granted and no character is allowed to develop. The idiotic script is by Randy Feldman. Michael Rapaport plays Murphy’s partner; the most prominent leering villainwho actually chains the heroine to a buzz saw in the final showdownis Michael Wincott. (JR)… Read more »

The Ceremony

Not to be confused with features of the same title by Nagisa Oshima or Laurence Harvey, this expertly contrived and ultimately shocking 1995 psychological thriller is the best feature by New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol since 1971′s Just Before Nightfall. A mysterious, haunting tale, the plot centers on a sullen if dutiful maid (Sandrine Bonnaire), a postal worker who becomes her best friend (Isabelle Huppert), and a likable bourgeois family (Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, A Single Girl’s Virginie Ledoyen, and Valentin Merlet) that the two women are fated to despise. Adapted from Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgment in Stone and coscripted by a psychoanalyst, Caroline Eliacheff, this film unfolds with the rigor of a dream. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 7 through 13.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

Salvatore Giuliano

Set just after World War II, Francesco Rosi’s 1961 feature about a Sicilian outlaw hero brought Rosi international fame. Clearly it’s one of his bestalthough his later films used variations on its flashback structure again and again, ultimately making some of it seem less fresh. Still, this is arguably as good as or better than anything Rosi has done since. (JR)… Read more »

Selena

Gregory Nava’s 1997 biopic about the Mexican-American pop star Selena Quintanilla Perez, killed at the age of 23 by the president of her fan club, is typical of the genre’s excesses, but I enjoyed quite a bit of it, in large part because of the energy and charisma of Jennifer Lopez in the title role. The film adeptly points to the contradiction inherent in being Mexican-Americantoo Mexican for white Americans but too American for Mexicans, as Selena’s cantankerous father and manager (Edward James Olmos) explains. The handling of the musical numbers through split-screen and crosscutting techniques is also effective. What doesn’t work at all is the treatment of Selena’s murder and the events that lead to it. Even if one discounts the rumor that her death grew out of a lovers’ quarrelwhich, if true, would make nonsense of much of this movie’s touching love storythe motivation offered here is cursory and unconvincing. With Jon Seda, Jacob Vargas, Lupe Ontiveros, and Jackie Guerra. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

Three Lives And Only One Death

Perhaps the most accessible movie of the Chilean-born Raul Ruiz (who has some 90 titles to his credit)a sunny showcase for the charismatic talents of the late Marcello Mastroianni, who plays four separate roles, as well as a testament to Ruiz’s imaginative postsurrealist talents as a yarn spinner and a weaver of magical images and ideas. Mixing ideas borrowed liberally and freely from stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Isak Dinesen with whimsical notions that could belong to no one but Ruiz (such as the tale of a millionaire who willingly and successfully turns himself into a beggar), this 1996 French comedy with a Paris setting often resembles a kind of euphoric free fall through the works and fancies of a writer like Jorge Luis Borges. Among the spirited cast members are Mastroianni’s daughter Chiara, Melvil Poupaud (City of Pirates), Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, and Arielle Dombasle. Pascal Bonitzer is the cowriter. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Malady Of Death andblack Sheep Boy

Two medium-length experimental films dealing with the male body that seem derived from nearly antithetical aesthetic positions. Jeffrey Skoller’s 1994 The Malady of Deathadapting a characteristic Marguerite Duras story that’s read offscreen by J.D. Trow, about sexual encounters between a man and womanexplores the male body like a landscape, softly intercutting ocean waves, a bit of found footage, and a lot of very Durasian black leader; the overall effect is legato, lyrical, hypnotic, and incantatory. By contrast, Michael Wallin’s 1995 Black Sheep Boywhich also has an offscreen commentary about desire and is much more blatantly homoeroticis all staccato jump cuts, hard surfaces, and leering poses for the camera. (JR)… Read more »

Murders In The Rue Morgue

A 1932 creeper very loosely based on the Poe story, with Bela Lugosi in his first horror role after Dracula and Caligari lighting by Karl Freund. Robert Florey directed, and John Huston was one of the writers. With Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, and Arlene Francis. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ivan The Terrible

Sergei Eisenstein’s controversial, unfinished trilogy, with a Prokofiev score and a histrionic, campy (albeit compositionally very controlled) performance in the title role by Nikolai Cherkassov (1945). The ceremonial high style of the proceedings has been interpreted by critics as everything from the ultimate denial of a cinema based on montage (under Stalinist pressure) to the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made. Thematically fascinating both as submerged autobiography and as a daring portrait of Stalin’s paranoia, quite apart from its interest as the historical pageant it professes to be, this is one of the most distinctive great films in the history of cinemafreakishly mannerist, yet so vivid in its obsessions and expressionist angularity that it virtually invents its own genre. 184 min. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)

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Across The Sea Of Time

This technically impressive if dramatically hokey 3-D Imax film about the American immigrant experience and New York City, at the turn of the century and in the present, requires the use of a helmet for maximal sound and image impact. Fine as a novelty, dubious as much else. Pedophiles may get a special kick out of having the boy hero (Peter Reznik) virtually seated in their laps through the magic of 3-D. Directed by Stephen Low from a script by Andrew Gellis. (JR)… Read more »

Seven Chances

Buster Keaton is a bachelor who stands to inherit a fortune if he finds himself a bride by seven o’clock in this 1925 silent feature, which Dave Kehr has described as a cubist comedy . . . based on a principle of geometric progression from the number seven. Adapted from a stage-bound play by David Belasco, it takes off into the stratosphere only at the climax, but that outlandish chase sequence alone is well worth the price of admission. 56 min. (JR)… Read more »