Monthly Archives: July 2006

America: Freedom To Fascism

Provocative but also infuriating, this alarmist documentary argues that the levying of a federal income tax in 1913 was unconstitutional and set America on the road to fascism. Filmmaker Aaron Russo (Bette Midler’s former manager and the producer of Trading Places) shows no interest in the social, cultural, medical, or educational benefits of the income tax, or in the world outside the U.S., which he seems to regard as tainted by communism in the past and the international banking community in the present. He lacks the humor and polemical skill of Michael Moore as he ambushes some of his interview subjects, and he uses far too many intertitles and epigraphs. But his crude agitprop clearly identifies the threat to civil liberties posed by the Patriot Act, electronic voting, national ID cards, and implanted microchips, and his sense of urgency is contagious. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Scoop

Woody Allen follows up his best film (Match Point) with another story set in London and starring Scarlett Johansson as an American greenhorn among the English gentry, but this mystery comedy is tired, labored, and lazy. A journalism student (Johansson), drafted by a stage magician (Allen) to take part in a vanishing act, winds up in a hidden compartment and meets the ghost of a journalist (Ian McShane), who informs her that a wealthy playboy (Hugh Jackman) may be a notorious serial killer. This is hardly Allen’s worst film (I might go with Shadows and Fog or Hollywood Ending), but he’s definitely going through the motions. The score consists of classical chestnuts (Grieg and Tchaikovsky), which Allen seems vaguely to associate with upper-class Brits. PG-13, 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

John Tucker Must Die

Three teens (Ashanti, Sophia Bush, Arielle Kebbel) discover they’ve been sharing the same boyfriend (Jesse Metcalfe) and conspire to make him fall for a reclusive pal (Brittany Snow) who’s bound to break his heart. Betty Thomas, directing a script by TV veteran Jeff Lowell, seems uncertain whether to sympathize with her three heroines or with the title cad, but there’s something mildly charming about this cheerful revenge comedy’s lack of any straightforward moral agenda. PG-13, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hotel Des Ameriques

After an anesthetist in Biarritz (Catherine Deneuve) accidentally runs down a local layabout (Patrick Dewaere), the two edge uncertainly toward romance, though it’s periodically blocked by the former’s grief over a dead lover and the latter’s ambiguous friendship with a self-involved musician (Etienne Chicot). French director Andre Techine has called this 1981 feature his first to break free of film references and explore emotions directly; the bisexual issues and Bergman-esque psychodrama that characterize his later work are all evident here, though the characters’ novelistic backstories are less assured than in the magisterial My Favorite Season (1993) or Thieves (1996). The use of ‘Scope is resourceful, and Deneuve, in her first collaboration with Techine, is impressive. Techine cowrote the script with Gilles Taurand. In French with subtitles. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cartoons By Frank Tashlin

Tashlin’s live-action comedies reflect his earlier career as a studio animator, and this program of Warner Brothers items, dating from 1937 to 1944, recalls live-action features of the same period (racial stereotypes and all). Porky’s Double Trouble (1937) references gangster pictures and Mae West; The Major Lied ’til Dawn (1938) lampoons the Gary Cooper drama The General Died at Dawn; Speaking of the Weather (1937), which charts the interactions among magazine covers on a newsstand, includes Tarzan and the Thin Man; and the cavorting book jackets of Have You Got Any Castles? (1938) feature Cab Calloway, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and two John Ford movies. Most of the other cartoons reek of their wartime context, with depictions of Churchill (Brother Brat) and Hitler (Plane Daffy). Total running time is about 90 minutes. (JR)… Read more »

Bachelor Flat

Critic Andrew Sarris labeled this 1962 comedy Frank Tashlin’s best, probably because its tone is so warm and its characters so likable, though it lacks the satirical edge of his 50s classics. A British professor of archaeology (Terry-Thomas), staying in the Malibu beach house of his fiancee (Celeste Holm), finds himself chaperoning her teenage daughter (Tuesday Weld), who’s being romanced by a handsome neighbor (Richard Beymer of West Side Story). Meanwhile a dachshund’s fondness for a huge dinosaur fossil provides Tashlin with an ideal comic use for the CinemaScope frame. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Familiarity Breeds Contempt [SCOOP]

From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2006). — J.R.

Scoop

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Scarlett Johansson, Allen, Ian McShane, Hugh Jackman, Fenella Woolgar, and Julian Glover

Unlike some of his more commercial contemporaries — including Harvey Weinstein pets Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — Woody Allen has always had the final cut on his movies. But then what are the corporate honchos risking with this indulgence? They know familiarity is one of many things that draw us to movies, and they know with Allen not to expect any surprises. Unfortunately the industry often behaves as if familiarity were the only attraction.

Match Point, Allen’s best movie to date, was criticized in some quarters because it transplanted many of his concerns from New York to London and because it had an uncharacteristic seriousness and precision. Scoop, its lame successor, is also set in London and also costars Scarlett Johansson as another American greenhorn (a journalism student instead of an aspiring actress) who becomes involved with another wealthy Englishman who has a country estate. And once again there’s the plotting of the murder of a girlfriend that calls to mind Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.… Read more »

Artists and Models

The best Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie (1955) is also Frank Tashlin’s best feature at Paramount, a satire about the comic book craze with explosive uses of color and VistaVision, better-than-average songs, and much-better-than-average costars, especially Dorothy Malone and Shirley MacLaine (the latter giving Lewis a run for his money in terms of goofy mugging). Martin and Malone are comic book artists, MacLaine is a model for the Bat Lady, and Lewis is a deranged fan whose dreams wind up inspiring (or is it duplicating?) comic book stories and the coded messages of communist spies–or something like that. Five cowriters are credited along with Tashlin, but the stylistic exuberance is seamless, and this film eventually wound up providing the inspirational spark for Jacques Rivette’s late, great New Wave extravaganza Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). With Eva Gabor and Anita Ekberg. 109 min. Archival IB Technicolor print. Sun 7/30, 3 PM, and Tue 8/1, 7:45 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Miami Vice

There’s not much Miami but loads of vice in Michael Mann’s big-screen adaptation of the 80s TV series he created with Anthony Yerkovichin particular the vice of a gifted director letting his talent go to seed. The pacing and proportion of Heat (1995) and the feeling for place and character evident in Collateral (2004) have been tossed aside for a routine plot in which vice cops Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx pose as drug dealers. Mann creates some arresting ‘Scope compositions, but he’s so addicted to close-ups here, especially erotic ones involving Gong Li (hot) and Farrell (not), that he tends to neglect their visual contexts. Apart from a few sleek shots involving boats or helicopters, the action eventually devolves into a standard war-movie shoot-out. With Naomie Harris. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Descent

A half-dozen women friends meet in the Appalachians to explore a remote cave, hoping their outdoor adventure will rejuvenate one of them after a tragic accident a year earlier, but they’re attacked by blind subterranean beasties. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, this intermittently effective UK horror thriller carefully establishes the psychological relationships among the women, then squanders this calibrated and generally plausible setup with a series of crude, implausible, and scattershot horror effects. The two strains are supposed to merge but mix like oil and water as the narrative grows increasingly incoherent (the fact that so much of it transpires in darkness doesn’t help). Marshall changed the film’s ending after its successful British run, reportedly to dumb it down for the American audience. With Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, and Nora-Jane Noone. R, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

My Super Ex-girlfriend

The tagline for this tolerable comedy, directed by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) from a script by Don Payne (The Simpsons), could be Hell hath no fury like a superwoman scorned. Uma Thurman plays a neurotic female version of Clark Kent who has trouble holding her superhero powers in check. A lot of superwimp gags executed by Luke Wilson grow out of this premise, as do some tacky 50s-style special effects. The movie’s too slapdash to keep its characters consistent, but this has its moments. With Anna Faris, Rainn Wilson, Eddie Izzard, and Wanda Sykes. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

David Lynch’s Short Films

This 100-minute DVD includes seven shorts, from Lynch’s earliest filmsSix Men Getting Sick (1967, 1 min.), The Alphabet (1967), and The Grandmother (1970, 34 min.)through the previously unreleased video The Amputee (1973, shown in two separate versions) and two French commissions, coyly quaint (The Cowboy and the Frenchman) and nightmarishly baroque (a contribution to the 1998 feature Lumiere and Company that runs less than a minute). I still regard Eraserhead (1977), Lynch’s first feature, as the summit of his work to date, and the best of these sketches have a similar if cruder hallucinatory and metaphorical power; the others are stray oddities. All are arguably better without Lynch’s homespun autobiographical introsbuy the boxed version and you can skip them. (JR)… Read more »

Western Culture Coming and Going [THE CASE OF THE GRINNING CAT & WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?]

From the July 21, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Case of the Grinning Cat

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Chris Marker

Narrated by Gerard Rinaldi

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Frank Tashlin

With Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, and Mickey Hargitay

Two cheery, even hilarious works that are informed by a surrealist spirit are showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Each says plenty about what’s wrong with the world, yet neither has a villain.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is a wise, somewhat whimsical hour-long video — a political commentary on Western culture by independent French writer-director Chris Marker, who turns 85 next week. From 2001 to 2004 he taped ephemeral phenomena on the streets of Paris — graffiti, posters, political demonstrations, glimpses of cats and musicians in metro stations — as he explored issues ranging from 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq to more local concerns. It’s all framed by a reverie about cartoon Cheshire cats that mysteriously appear in unexpected places, rather like the proliferating post horns in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?Read more »

The Case of the Grinning Cat

I can’t think of a better portrait of contemporary Paris or the zeitgeist of 2001-’04 than Chris Marker’s wise and whimsical 58-minute 2004 video. Marker, now in his 80s, shot the images on the streets of Paris and in its metro stations: graffiti, posters, demonstrations, musical performances, cats (real and cartoon). The original conveys Marker’s commentary only through pithy intertitles, but the English version screening here has an unfortunate voice-over delivered in a heavy French accent by actor Gerard Rinaldi that tries to explain as well as translate these titles. Still, no one can film people in the street better than Marker or combine images with more grace and finesse. Screening with Alice Arnold’s 30-minute To Be Seen (in Beta SP video), about “the battle between guerrilla art and corporate ads on the walls and sidewalks of New York.” Reviewed this week in Section 1. Gene Siskel Film Center. … Read more »

Monster House

Leave it to the nakedly cunning executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to fashion a digitally animated scare show for kids predicated on what may be the most blatant evocation of vagina dentata in movie history: a spiteful, devouring haunted house driven by the angry spirit of a circus fat lady. The three neighborhood kids who venture inside this toothy trap are wittily conceived (as are other characters, like a goth babysitter), but though the overall conception suggests Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, the frenetic pacing seems as American as an apple pie in your face. Gil Kenan directed; among the voices are those of Steve Buscemi, Nick Cannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Kathleen Turner. PG, 87 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Ford City, Gardens 1-6, Lake, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, Pickwick, River East 21, 62nd & Western.… Read more »