From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2005, slightly tweaked in 2014). Now that this is out on Blu-Ray, the Technicolor seems every bit as luscious to me as it must have when I was age six, and the periodic prophecies (“His name will be written in the Book of Judges”; “Men will tell his story for a thousand years”) are no less indelible. — J.R.
If you can tolerate the hokeyness and appreciate the unabashed sado-masochism and bondage fantasies, you’re likely to find this 1949 feature one of Cecil B. De Mille’s most enjoyable sword-and-sandal epics, delivered with his characteristic showmanship. Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr are the title characters, backed by George Sanders and Angela Lansbury, but the real attractions are the kitschy spectacle (lions, collapsing temples) and De Mille’s special way with religion, sex, and violence. 128 min. (JR)
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Upon learning that her promiscuous folksinger mother has died, an 18-year-old dropout (Scarlett Johansson) leaves the Florida panhandle for New Orleans and moves into her mother’s house, which has been willed equally to her and a couple of alcoholic deadbeatsa former English professor (John Travolta) and his teaching assistant (Gabriel Macht). This is mainly the girl’s story, though the numerous southern archetypes out of Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers (who’s explicitly referenced) keep threatening to overwhelm her. Travolta in particular chews the scenery as the pontificating (and sometimes folksinging) Bobby Long, commanding attention despite his shopworn character. First-time director Shainee Gabel adapted a novel by Ronald Everett Capps called Off Magazine Street. With Deborah Kara Unger. R, 119 min. (JR)… Read more »
Inspired partly by King Vidor’s The Champ, this silent 1933 masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu takes place in a Tokyo slum, where a slow-witted, good-hearted, heavy-drinking day laborer (Takeshi Sakamoto) tries to deal with his rebellious son (Tokkan Kozo). It opens with one of the funniest stretches of slapstick Ozu ever filmed, though the remainder is colored by Chaplinesque pathos. As the loving and lovable father, Sakamoto creates one of the most complex characters in Japanese cinema, and Kozo (who played the younger brother in I Was Born, But…) isn’t far behind. The milieu they inhabit is perfectly realized, making this a pinnacle in Ozu’s career. In Japanese with subtitles. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »
Does this mean a second rebirth? Whatever. Kunio Miyoshi directed this 1997 Japanese feature, also known as Mothra 2: The Undersea Battle. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »
Some key works of the British Free Cinema movement of the mid-1950s, which combined elements of cinema verite and naturalism: Lindsay Anderson’s O Dreamland (1953), Karel Reisz’s Momma Don’t Allow (1956), Lorenza Mazzetti and Denis Home’s Together (1956), and Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner’s Nice Time (1957). 102 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2005). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Godard, Rony Kramer, Mahmoud Darwich, Jean-Christopher Bouvet, Simon Eine, Juan Goytisolo, Peirre Bergounioux, George Aguilar, Leticia Gutierrez, Jean-Paul Curnier, and Gilles Pequeux.
Jean-Luc Godard has had a tendency to be combative and obscure. He’s a lot calmer and steadier in his latest feature, Notre musique, opening this week at the Music Box. He’s also been making an effort to express his intentions clearly and simply in interviews, including those with the mainstream American press. Yet some viewers will probably still feel excluded and puzzled by his methods as a filmmaker and his habits as a thinker, however beautiful and powerful the results.
Even if one can deal with Godard’s compulsive use of metaphor and abstraction and his Eurocentric perspective — all standard in much of his late work — there’s something morose and emotionally remote about this film. Around a sense of futility, a disenchantment with the world, he builds a kind of poetics that’s akin to some of the excesses associated with German romanticism. The issue isn’t whether such despair is warranted, but what one does with it.… Read more »
Perhaps the most delightful of Yasujiro Ozu’s late comedies (1959), this very loose remake of his earlier I Was Born, But . . . (1932) pivots around the rebellion of two brothers whose father refuses to buy a TV set. The layered compositions of the suburban topography are extraordinary, as are the intricate interweavings of the various characters and miniplots. The title is Japanese for “good morning,” and the film’s profound and gentle depiction of social exchanges extends to the farting games of schoolboys. The color photography is vibrant and exquisite. In Japanese with subtitles. 93 min. Sat 1/29, 3 PM, and Thu 2/3, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »
Jean-Luc Godard isn’t being as hard on his audience this time around, and it seems to have paid off: I’ve yet to encounter any hostile critical response to this feature, a mellow and meditative reflection on the ravages of war. Set in Sarajevo and structured in three parts after Dante’s Divine Comedy, this beautiful film centers on a young French-Jewish journalist based in Israel who’s attending the same literary conference as Godard. The wars it contemplates through a montage of documentary and archival footage include those waged in Algeria, Vietnam, Bosnia, and the Middle East; Native American victims also make an appearance in Sarajevo, alongside certain others. In French with subtitles. 80 min. (Reviewed this week in Section 1.) Music Box.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.
Rarely shown in the U.S. these days, this 1941 film of the wildly deconstructive stage farce with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson is still regarded as a classic in Europe, and it lives up to its reputation. The credit sequence establishes the wartime mood with its vision of hell as a munitions factory (where demons preside over the packaging of Canned Guy and Canned Gal), which is shortly revealed as a movie soundstage, the first of many metafictional gags. Very belatedly the movie gets around to telling a spare musical-comedy story (with swell numbers by Martha Raye and the jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and “Slam” Stewart, and some very acrobatic jitterbugging), but the main bill of fare is manic nonsense that almost makes the Marx Brothers look sober. H.C. Potter directed; with Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, and Elisha Cook Jr. 84 min. Sun 1/23, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.
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An essay commissioned by Masters of Cinema in the U.K. for their DVD of Fritz Lang’s Spione, released in 2005. This is reprinted in my recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago, 2010). — J.R.
If Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) anticipates the pop mythologies of everything from Fantasia to Batman to Star Wars, his master spy thriller of four years later seems to usher in some of the romantic intrigues of Graham Greene, not to mention much of the paraphernalia of Ian Fleming, especially in their movie versions. No less suggestively, the employments of paranoia and conspiracy by less mainstream artists such as Jacques Rivette (Out 1) and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) seem rooted in the seductively coded messages, erotic intrigues, and multiple counter-plots of Spione.
One is also tempted to speak of Alfred Hitchcock, who certainly learned a trick or two from Lang —- though in this case the conceptual and stylistic differences may be more pertinent than the similarities. One could generalize by saying that Hitchcock is more interested in his heroes while Lang is more interested in his villains, and the different approaches of each director in soliciting or discouraging the viewer’s identification with his characters are equally striking, especially if one contrasts the German films of Lang with the American films of Hitchcock.… Read more »
Though it didn’t turn a profit, Joseph H. Lewis’s low-budget masterpiece Gun Crazy (1949) won him an MGM contract, and his first assignment there was a documentary about illegal immigration that quickly turned into this routine actioner (1950) once someone decided that Hedy Lamarr should star in it. Lewis called the movie a stinker when he was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich; it’s less than inspired, but it’s better than Lewis implied. His flair for foggy atmospherics and location shooting (in Havana and the Florida Everglades) is intermittently evident, and there’s a very convincing overhead view of a plane crash. John Hodiak plays an immigration inspector who goes underground to catch smugglers like George Macready but falls for the title lady (Lamarr), a Hungarian refugee trying to sneak into the U.S. 72 min. (JR)… Read more »
Suffocatingly corrosive and misanthropic, this 1943 thriller was shot in occupied France by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear), and its story of a small town terrorized by anonymous poison-pen letters so effectively captures the national paranoia that after the war Clouzot was unjustly persecuted as anti-French. The outstanding cast includes Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. Otto Preminger remade this effectively in 1951 as The Thirteenth Letter, though his Quebec locations lack the earlier film’s period interest. In French with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). Alas, I’ve never been any sort of Shakespearean scholar, and if I’d read the devastating take-down of this film by Ron Rosenbaum (no relation) in The Shakespeare Wars, published the following year, I’m sure I would have been far less tolerant….It’s worth adding, however, that Ron Rosenbaum isn’t any sort of Orson Welles scholar when he accepts the 1997 version of his Othello as a “restored” version — or when countless other commentators call the 2014 perpetuation of that version, with Welles’ own choices of music and sound effects replaced by uninformed simulations, any sort of “restoration”. (As things stand today, Welles’ own version of Othello – that is to say, with his own soundtrack — has been thoroughly suppressed.) — J.R.
Director Michael Radford (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Il postino) begins his adaptation of the Shakespeare play with a precise date and a brief documentary about anti-Semitism in 16th-century Venice; this doesn’t have much to do with the playwright or his audience, but it provides a social context for what follows. Al Pacino avoids his usual bombast, giving his Shylock some shading, and Jeremy Irons is fine as Shylock’s legal opponent, Antonio.… Read more »
To enjoy this mediocre John Grisham drama (1996), you’ll have to accept a cartoonish version of the deep south taken intact from Hurry Sundown and Mississippi Burning and believe passionately rather than reluctantly in justifiable homicide. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Mississippi factory worker who kills the racist rednecks who drunkenly rape and maul his little girl, and young lawyer-hunk Matthew McConaughey, sweating like Michael Caine in Hurry Sundown, is eager to prove how right he is. Sandra Bullock is a liberal law student along for the ride, Kevin Spacey is the mean prosecutor, and Donald Sutherland plays the Arthur O’Connell part from Anatomy of a Murderwhich you should see, or see again, instead of this silly overblown movie. Joel Schumacher directed a script by Akiva Goldsman; with Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick McGoohan, and an uncredited, as well as wasted, M. Emmet Walsh. R, 149 min. (JR)… Read more »
Director Jimmy Murakami and screenwriter Raymond Briggs’s English 1986 animated feature gets us to think the unthinkableto imagine the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaustby creating a very funny and believable elderly English couple, still mired in memories of World War II. Rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, the filmmakers make all their essential points by sticking to the isolated couple in their country cottage, aided by a realistic style of animation that incorporates some live action, by occasional stylistic changes that allow for more abstraction in some fantasy interludes, and by the speaking voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft. It’s rare that a cartoon carries the impact of a live-action feature without sacrificing the imaginative freedom of the pen and brush. Comedy and horror intertwine in this domestic, kitchen-sink version of Dr. Strangelove, and our involvement in the two characters keeps us helplessly glued to the screen. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »