From the Chicago Reader (May 31, 2002). I’m pleased to remember that Studs Terkel, who knew Nick Ray, wrote me a friendly letter about this review shortly after it appeared — and that, years earlier (1995), when my first collection, Placing Movies, came out, he invited me to appear as a guest on his radio show. — J.R.
A kind of litmus test for auteurists, this philosophical adventure story set in turn-of-the-century Florida (1958, 93 min.) was Nicholas Ray’s penultimate Hollywood assignment, though he was fired before the end of shooting and barred from the final editing by screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd), who produced the film with his brother Stuart. (In his introduction to the published screenplay, Schulberg doesn’t even mention Ray.) An ecological parable, it pits an earnest schoolteacher turned game warden (Christopher Plummer) against a savage poacher of wild birds (Burl Ives) heading a grungy gang in the swamps. Ray’s masterful use of color and mystical sense of equality between the antagonists (also evident in Rebel Without a Cause and Bitter Victory) are made all the more piquant here by his feeling for folklore and outlaw ethics as well as his cadenced mise en scene.… Read more »
In Paris in 1969, a young American film editor (Jeremy Davies) works on a dumb European SF thriller set in the year 2000 while trying to film his own life in his spare time; he lives with a French stewardess (Elodie Bouchez), but spends a lot of time fantasizing about the lead actress in the thriller (Angela Lindvall), who plays a secret agent. Asked to replace the director of the thriller (Gerard Depardieu), he goes into overdrive. Writer-director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) may rely too much on David Holzman’s Diary (a key pseudodocumentary of the 60s) for the hero’s own film — a debt he seems to acknowledge by casting that film’s writer and lead actor, L.M. Kit Carson, in a bit part — but he has a field day with the tacky SF movie. It’s sort of a blend of Barbarella, the Matt Helm movies, and Modesty Blaise, and Coppola imagines it in hilarious detail, bringing it the same kind of devotion shown the equally imaginary Hotpants College II in Love and Death on Long Island. As energetic silliness, this gave me a good time. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »
Juan Jose Campanella, who splits his time between making features in Argentina and directing TV episodes in the U.S., cowrote and directed this Oscar-nominated comedy-drama, about the midlife crisis and diverse family dealings of a restaurateur (Ricardo Darin). (There are a few anticipations of Argentina’s current economic crisis in the plot, but they’re incidental to the sitcom situations.) The other characters include his girlfriend, estranged wife, remote daughter, mother (in a nursing home, afflicted with Alzheimer’s), and father (who sentimentally wants to renew his wedding vows). This has the sort of good-natured mildness I would associate with Paul Mazursky on one of his less energetic outings; I didn’t feel I was wasting my time but I started looking at my watch long before it was over. With Hector Alterio and Norma Aleandro. In Spanish with subtitles. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the May 24, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
** (Woth seeing)
Directed by Jonathan Parker
Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli
With David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Cassel.
Jonathan Parker’s first feature adapts Herman Melville’s eerie 1853 novella “Bartleby” (also known as “Bartleby the Scrivener”) with the kind of fidelity to mood and feeling that’s rare among movie adaptations of literary classics. The action has been updated roughly a century and a half, the setting transferred from Wall Street to a building perched on a hilltop over a freeway in an unnamed American location. Characters have been added, significant plot details altered, and a strategic part of the exposition shifted from the end of the tale to near the beginning. Yet the story still has much of the same maddening mystery, conviction, and unsettling comedy that Melville gave it.
The added epilogue is harder to justify and much less successful, and the filmmaking throughout, starting with the early use of slow motion, is needlessly fussy and self-conscious. But these are forgivable flaws in a first feature, one that updates Melville’s story and conception without betraying it.
The nameless narrator of the original is a lawyer on the verge of retirement looking back on the events he describes from a distance of many years.… Read more »
Jacques Demy’s first and in some ways best feature (1961, 90 min.), shot in exquisite black-and-white ‘Scope by Raoul Coutard, is among the most neglected major works of the French New Wave. Abandoned by her sailor lover, a cabaret dancer (Anouk Aimee) brings up their son while awaiting his return and ultimately has to choose among three men. Chock-full of film references (to The Blue Angel, Breathless, Hollywood musicals, and the work of Max Ophuls, among other things) and lyrically shot in Nantes, the film is a camera stylo love letter, and Michel Legrand’s lovely score provides ideal nostalgic accompaniment. In his third feature and biggest hit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy settled on life’s disappointments; here at least one major character gets exactly what she wants, and the effect is no less poignant. With Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, and Elina Labourdette (the young heroine in Robert Bresson’s 1945 Les dames du Bois de Boulogne). A restored 35-millimeter print will be shown. In French with subtitles. Music Box, Friday through Monday, May 24 through 27.… Read more »
This poetic masterpiece (1988) is the crowning work of Joris Ivens, the great Dutch documentarian and leftist, who made it in collaboration with his companion, Marceline Loridan, shortly before his death at age 90. (In fact there’s reason to believe the film was mainly written by Loridan, though this makes it no less Ivens’s own testament.) Neither a documentary nor a fantasy but a sublime fusion of the two, it deals in multiple ways with the wind, with Ivens’s asthma, with China, with the 20th century (and, more implicitly, the 19th and the 21st), with magic, and with the cinema. Ivens was born only two years after Georges Melies screened his first work, and this imaginative, freewheeling, and often comic film reflects on that fact, and on the near century of intertwining film, political, and personal history that made up Ivens’s life. For all its cosmic dimensions, it’s funny and lighthearted rather than pretentious and ponderous; it may even renew your faith in life on this planet. In French with subtitles. 78 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday, May 24, 8:00, 312-846-2800.… Read more »
Aside from a tacky epilogue, this is a surprisingly faithful (albeit updated) adaptation of Herman Melville’s eerie yet funny 1853 story about a Wall Street drudge who unexpectedly refuses to work or do anything else, meeting every request with the response, I would prefer not to. Crispin Glover seems born to play such a part, though Jonathan Parker, in his first feature, transfers the character to a drab office building on a hill overlooking a freeway, and, in keeping with the spirit of the original, makes the story just as much about the narrator, the hero’s boss (effectively played by David Paymer). The secondary castGlenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Casselis equally good, and the degree to which Melville’s story registers as a kind of satire about capitalism, alienated labor, and the resistance engendered by both, hasn’t escaped anyone. Catherine di Napoli collaborated with Parker on the script. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »
Paul Fejos’s exquisite, poetic 1928 masterpiece about love and estrangement in the big city deserves to be ranked with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd from the same period, though it’s not nearly as well-known. Equally neglected is Fejos himself, a peripatetic Hungarian who made striking films in Hungary, Hollywood, Austria, and France in the late silent and early sound era before becoming an anthropologist — and making a few ethnographic films that are even harder to find. Lonesome, which has some dialogue, begins with a dazzling evocation, using superimpositions and diptychs, of the hero and heroine, who haven’t yet met, as they wake and pursue their morning work routines. They meet at Coney Island that afternoon, lose track of each other in a crowd, then are reunited back in the city in a surprising diptychlike scene. Fejos was already interested in ethnographic archetypes when he made this picture, which makes city life seem like a labyrinth in a fairy tale — as intricate and inscrutable, but also as enchanted. 69 min. The opening event of the weekend symposium “Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”; a 35-millimeter print will be screened. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th St., Friday, May 17, 6:00, 773-702-8575.… Read more »
It’s been more than a while since I’ve seen this, but I’m more grateful than sorry that I don’t remember it well. Drug thrillers and revenge plots bore me, and producer Frank Darabont, writer Tony Gayton, and director D.J. Caruso couldn’t convince me to make this an exception. Val Kilmer plays a jazz musician who penetrates the crystal meth underworld to avenge the death of his wife (Chandra West) and give the filmmakers lots of opportunities for neonoir artiness. But the biggest show-off here is Vincent D’Onofrio as a deranged, sadistic, noseless drug baron named Pooh-Bear. Oh God, I’m starting to remember! Some of the more familiar faces include Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger, Anthony LaPaglia, Doug Hutchison, Adam Goldberg, Meat Loaf, and Luis Guzman. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jennifer Lopez, the star of this rather primitive thriller, has compared Nicholas Kazan’s script to Rocky, and since producer Irwin Winkler also gave us that slugfest, perhaps it was the model from the outset. A diner waitress (Lopez) marries a wealthy Prince Charming (Billy Campbell) who turns out to be a philandering wife beater with homicidal tendencies and who wants custody of their little girl; Lopez learns martial arts, becomes an expert lock picker and cat burglar, and ultimately beats the shit out of him. This comeuppance takes a very long time to arrive, as Campbell chases Lopez up and down the west coast; the movie is more interested in standard thriller effects than in giving us human beings to contend with. The audience I saw this with seemed to want to feel insulted, and this piece of crap delivered. Michael Apted, of all people, directed; with Juliette Lewis and Fred Ward. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »
Since I regard Claude Chabrol’s quintessentially French La femme infidele (1968) as one of his greatest films — making it all the more unfortunate for us (and fortunate for the authors of this remake) that it’s been unavailable for years — I was fully prepared to detest the Adrian Lyne version. Yet for roughly the first half of this 124-minute feature, I was pleasantly surprised, especially by the decisive shift in emphasis from husband to wife. Diane Lane, as the unfaithful wife of Richard Gere, gets to show off her magnificent legs at every opportunity — especially but not exclusively on her trips from her suburban home to the Soho loft of a young French hunk (Olivier Martinez) who sells rare books — and Lyne’s fancy cutting, honed on and still often resembling TV commercials, keeps this sensual in a way that the Chabrol movie never was. But then violence, guilt, and the husband’s viewpoint take over, Lane’s legs are sheathed, and the movie doesn’t have a clue about how to proceed. The original was a classically balanced and ultimately very satisfying work held in place by Chabrol’s love-hatred for bourgeois domesticity; the remake doesn’t reflect anyone’s love or hatred for anything, just a lot of anxiety about test marketing, which means it takes a nosedive when it goes shopping for an ending (I counted several, all of them ham-fisted).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 6, 2002). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Dudley Nichols
With Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Heather Thatcher, and Frederick Worlock.
A sparkling new 35-millimeter print of Fritz Lang’s 1941 Man Hunt is running at the Gene Siskel Film Center all this week, and I can recommend it without reservation. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it’s considerably more entertaining than any new thrillers I’m aware of.
Man Hunt‘s status within Lang’s body of work is somewhat ambiguous and contested. Ten years ago one of France’s major film historians, Bernard Eisenschitz, wrote a 270-page book on the film in which he pored over many of the production materials as if they were holy writ. Yet Tom Gunning’s authoritative recent critical study, the 528-page The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, scarcely deals with the film at all, apart from mentioning that it “would reward close analysis” and contending that it, like Lang’s three other anti-Nazi films — Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946) — is limited by its propagandistic qualities.
I only half agree with Gunning.… Read more »
Michael Moore’s best film to date (2002) is this comic and grimly entertaining reflection on America’s gun craziness and why we kill one another. It’s closer to speculative editorial than investigative journalism, and the shrewdness of most of its arguments has enraged some reviewers as much as its occasionally questionable methodology. They’ve dismissed the 135-minute polemic as an ego trip and called it anti-American, though Moore proves how American he is every time he conflates the U.S. and the planet, as when he sarcastically includes It’s a Wonderful World on the sound track. He also takes unfair, unfunny swipes at a few hapless working people, most notably an LA cop trying to do his job. But despite these faults, the movie says, with wit and passion, truthful things no other film is saying. (JR)… Read more »
Four Seattle teenagers die exactly one week after watching an eerie experimental video and receiving phone calls that predict their deaths. A newspaper reporter (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend (Martin Henderson) watch the same video and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. But either there’s no bottom or this 2002 movie lost me long before it got there. A remake of Ringu, a Japanese film by Hideo Nakata that I wish I’d seen instead, this moodless version is pushed along by the slick and mechanical direction of Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt, The Mexican) and a by-the-numbers script by Ehren Kruger (Scream 3). It’s a treasure hunt reduced to isolated jolts and more clues than you can shake a stick at (every fly on the wall and child’s drawing bristles with unholy significance), and an utter waste of Watts; there’s not a trace here of the talent on display in Mulholland Drive, perhaps because the script doesn’t bother to give her a character. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
Orson Welles’s second feature (1942, 88 min.) is in many ways his most personal and most impressive, but of his Hollywood films it’s also the one most damaged by insensitive reediting (like the sublime and personal Don Quixote is among his independent features); in his absence RKO cut the movie by almost 45 minutes and tacked on a few lamentable new scenes (including the last one). For the most part, this is a very close adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s underrated novel about the relentless decline of a wealthy midwestern family through the rise of industrialization, though Welles makes the story even more powerful through his extraordinary mise en scene and some of the finest acting to be found in American movies (Agnes Moorehead is a standout). The emotional sense of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is so palpable you can taste it. With Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Ray Collins, and Richard Bennett. (JR)… Read more »