Monthly Archives: March 2005

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

If memory serves, the following review, written in mid-February 2005, is the only submitted film review  I ever wrote for the Chicago Reader during my more than 20 years on the staff which the paper’s editor chose not to run. I’m posting it now not in order to contest in any way her judgment in this matter — given the possible unwitting offense that this short article might have caused, it was probably sound — but for the (admittedly limited) documentary interest of such a review in its own right.  For the record, my capsule review of the same movie appeared in the Reader on February 25, 2005. — J.R.

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN  *
DIRECTED BY DARREN E. GRANT
WRITTEN BY TYLER PERRY
WITH KIMBERLY ELISE, STEVE HARRIS, PERRY,
CICELY TYSON, SHEMAR MOORE, TAMARA TAYLOR,
AND LISA MARCOS

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Once I started recovering from the shock of the hyperbolic jive of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, I had the the sensation I’d just been eavesdropping on a subculture and a franchise I previously knew nothing about —–a discourse in which a particular audience was being knowingly stroked, serviced, and gratified. As playwright, producer, performer, and sometime director, Tyler Perry belongs to that branch of ethnic theater scornfully known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” aimed almost exclusively at black audiences.… Read more »

Give Up the Gimmick [MELINDA AND MELINDA]

From the March 25, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Melinda and Melinda

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, and Larry Pine

Brainteaser movies have been enjoying a certain vogue in the past few years. The taste for them can be traced back to at least 1994 and the jigsaw-puzzle narrative of Pulp Fiction. But the trend got started in earnest in 2000, with the release of Memento, which tells a complicated story backward, and it gained further momentum two years later when the same gimmick was combined with sex and violence in Irreversible. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Kill Bill have more substantial characters than either of those films, yet part of their appeal lies in the challenge of putting scrambled narrative pieces together.

There are people who say they don’t like to read or write but spend plenty of time doing both on the Internet. Similarly, there are people who say they don’t like to think while watching movies yet don’t mind using their brains when it comes to “puzzle” movies. But there are different kinds of thinking.… Read more »

Don’t Bother To Knock

DontBotherToKnock

Unusually seedy and small-scale for a Fox picture of 1952, this black-and-white thriller is set over one evening exclusively inside a middle-class urban hotel and the adjoining bar. The bar’s singer (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut) breaks up with her sour pilot boyfriend (Richard Widmark), a hotel guest. He responds by flirting with a woman (Marilyn Monroe) in another room who’s babysitting a little girl (Donna Corcoran), but the babysitter turns out to be psychotic and potentially dangerous. Daniel Taradash’s script is contrived in spots, and the main virtue of Roy Ward Baker’s direction is its low-key plainness, yet Monroe — appearing here just before she became typecast as a gold-plated sex object — is frighteningly real as the confused babysitter, and the deglamorized setting is no less persuasive. With Jim Backus as the girl’s father and Elisha Cook Jr. as Monroe’s uncle, the hotel elevator operator. 76 min. (JR)

DontBotherToKnock2

 … Read more »

MELINDA AND MELINDA (a pre-edited review)

This is the pre-edited version of a review published in its post-edited form elsewhere on this web site, as well as in the March 25, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MELINDA AND MELINDA*

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY WOODY ALLEN WITH RADHA MITCHELL, WILL FERRELL, CHLOE SEVIGNY, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, JONNY LEE MILLER, BROOKE SMITH, WALLACE SHAWN, AND LARRY PINE

Amongst a democratic population, all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to…two objects: he strives to invent methods which may enable him not only to work better, but quicker and cheaper; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made which are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

De Tocqueville’s 170-year-old account of why Americans  often blanch at intellectual abstraction and art-for-art’s-sake — and prefer accessibility over complexity when it comes to both thought and art  — still seems pretty up to date.Read more »

Up and Down

Chosen to represent the Czech Republic at the Oscars, this Altman-esque fresco by Jan Hrebejk (Divided We Fall) offers a provocative and entertaining satirical account of intersecting lives, classes, and subcultures in contemporary Prague. At first it seems to be about immigration, but eventually it becomes a wry commentary on racism and xenophobia as manifested in every reach of society, from the violence of soccer hooligans to the more genteel prejudice of intellectuals. Along the way Hrebejk delivers caustic ironies about the postcommunist world, though his movie is limited by the rather dubious suggestion that race hatred is a specifically Czech problem. The large cast of characters allows for many strong performances, especially Jiri Machacek as a security guard and Petr Forman (son of director Milos) as a young man estranged from his professor father. In Czech with subtitles. R, 108 min. Music Box.… Read more »

Don’t Bother to Knock

Unusually seedy and small-scale for a Fox picture of 1952, this black-and-white thriller is set over one evening exclusively inside a middle-class urban hotel and the adjoining bar. The bar’s singer (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut) breaks up with her sour pilot boyfriend (Richard Widmark), a hotel guest. He responds by flirting with a woman (Marilyn Monroe) in another room who’s babysitting a little girl (Donna Corcoran), but the babysitter turns out to be psychotic and potentially dangerous. Daniel Taradash’s script is contrived in spots, and the main virtue of Roy Ward Baker’s direction is its low-key plainness, yet Monroe–appearing here just before she became typecast as a gold-plated sex object–is frighteningly real as the confused babysitter, and the deglamorized setting is no less persuasive. With Jim Backus as the girl’s father and Elisha Cook Jr. as Monroe’s uncle, the hotel elevator operator. 76 min. Also on the program: episode ten of the Crash Corrigan serial Undersea Kingdom (1936). Sat 3/26, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.… Read more »

Not On The Lips

From the Chicago Reader (March 18, 2005). — J.R.

pas_sur_la_bouche_01

Alain Resnais’ best work since Mélo (1986) is, like that film, an eccentric and highly personal adaptation of a 1920s French stage hitin this case, a farcical 1925 operetta with a jubilant and inventive score by André Barde and Maurice Yvain. A happily married society lady (Sabine Azema) is terrified that her industrialist husband (Pierre Arditi) will discover that his new American business partner (Lambert Wilson) was her first husband; a subplot charts the coming together of two other couples (including Audrey Tautou and Jalil Lespert). The actors do their own singing, and the theatrical trappings of the original — including lavish sets and asides to the audience — are embraced rather than avoided. As lush as an MGM musical, this 2003 feature is both moving and very strange, with one of the funniest ever French portraits of a prudish American. In French with subtitles (often rhyming couplets). 117 min. (JR)

pas-sur-la-boucheRead more »

Me And You And Everyone We Know

Fresh, likable, and stylishly low-key, this wistful and sexy romantic comedy marks the feature-directing debut of conceptual artist Miranda July. There are a lot of strong performances by relative unknowns, but what really holds things together is a certain sustained pitch of feeling about loneliness. July plays a shy video artist, supporting herself as a cabdriver for the elderly, who becomes interested in a recently separated shoe clerk (John Hawkes) with two sons. The movie’s flirtatious roundelay also includes the clerk’s coworker, an art curator, and a couple of teenage girls. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc

Carl Dreyer’s last silent, the greatest of all Joan of Arc films. (Lost for half a century, the 1928 original was rediscovered in a Norwegian mental asylum in the 80s; other prints had perished in a warehouse fire, and the two versions subsequently circulated consisted of outtakes.) Joan is played by stage actress 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 difficult 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 Dreyer’s tragedies are, but it will continue to live long after most commercial movies have vanished from memory. In French with subtitles. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous

Sandra Bullock returns as klutzy FBI agent Gracie Hart and as producer in this sequel to Miss Congeniality, though with all her grotesque disguises, this often suggests a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire. Screenwriter Marc Lawrence (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice) delivers plenty of gender humor, including attitude from a black agent named Sam Fuller (Regina King), wisecracks from a gay personal stylist (Diedrich Bader), and a grand climax at a Las Vegas drag show. Among the casino-size product placements are such familiar faces as Ernie Hudson, Treat Williams, William Shatner, and Eileen Brennan in a cameo. John Pasquin directed. PG-13, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Rouch In Reverse

Though not entirely satisfying, Manthia Diawara’s 1995 video documentary about innovative French anthropological filmmaker Jean Rouchwhich intermittently attempts to practice a reverse anthropology on Rouch himselfis an invaluable introduction to the great late filmmaker. Diawara, a critic and film professor at New York University who hails from Mali, knew Rouch for years and struggles admirably to balance the filmmaker’s unquestionable achievements (including his role as a precursor of and guru to the French New Wave) with his paternalism toward Africansan attitude that was arguably progressive 20, 30, or 40 years ago, when most of Rouch’s masterpieces were made, but is harder to rationalize today. Diawara fails to resolve the conflict, but he articulates it as honestly as possible. 52 min. (JR)… Read more »

Melinda And Melinda

Two theater people in lower Manhattan (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) argue about whether the story of a troubled single woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) qualifies as tragedy or comedy, and writer-director Woody Allen cuts between the tragic and comic versions, with different locales, characters, and plot details. But the tragic version isn’t very painful and the comic version, aside from a few one-liners, isn’t very funny. This is mainly a narrative brainteaser like Memento or The Jacket; merely keeping up with the game requires so much energy that the thinness of the material becomes fully apparent only toward the end. With Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Amanda Peet, and Brooke Smith. PG-13, 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hostage

The title of this brainlessly efficient action thriller should be plural: one family is held hostage by hoods in its deluxe southern California home, while another, belonging to the local police chief (Bruce Willis), is kidnapped to force him to retrieve incriminating evidence from the site of the standoff. (I’m not even counting another hostage in the prologue.) Director Florent Emilio Siri increases the bombast with a particularly pretentious use of slow motion, and Willis, who doubled as executive producer, seems at pains to underline his character’s sanity and sensitivity in contrast to the subhuman demeanor of most of the villains. (The worst wear black masks and headdresses, faintly suggesting Arabs once the action reaches war-movie proportions.) Doug Richardson adapted a novel by Robert Crais; with Kevin Pollak, Jonathan Tucker, Ben Foster, Michelle Horn, and Willis’s daughter Rumer playing the cop’s daughter. R, 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

Heaven Can Wait

Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it’s about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary castGene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byingtonis wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Past Recaptured

Not on the Lips

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Andre Barde and Maurice Yvain

With Sabine Azema, Isabelle Nanty, Audrey Tautou, Pierre Arditi, Jalil Lespert, Daniel Prevost, Lambert Wilson, and Darry Cowl

Alain Resnais’ latest feature, Not on the Lips (2003), apparently won’t be shown in commercial theaters in this country. I can’t think of another French movie that’s given me as much pleasure in years—it’s his best since Melo (1986) and surely his most accessible to American audiences. It is showing twice this week in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union festival, and its U.S. distributor, Wellspring, will bring it out on DVD on March 22. DVDs are now more profitable than ticket sales, so I suppose it’s understandable that Wellspring doesn’t want to spend a fortune on a theatrical release. But this movie’s gorgeous visuals are still best seen first on a big screen.

In any case, this delightfully eccentric film of a 1925 French operetta, with its English subtitles laid out in rhyming couplets, can be enjoyed in any format. It has a harmonically rich score, which Resnais calls “brisk and hilariously jubilant,” and it’s brilliantly orchestrated by Bruno Fontaine, featuring counterpoint by Maurice Yvain that’s as lively as the wordplay in Andre Barde’s lyrics.… Read more »