From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2000). — J.R.
This ambiguous comic masterpiece (1999, 118 min.) could be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancee milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem that gives the movie its title. Over half the major characters — including the crew, the dying woman, and the digger — are kept mainly or exclusively offscreen, and the dense and highly composed sound track often refers to other offscreen elements, peculiarities of Kiarostami’s style that solicit the viewer’s imaginative participation. What’s most impressive about this global newspaper and millennial statement is how much it tells us about our world — especially regarding the acute differences in perception and behavior between media experts and everyone else.… Read more »
From the December 22, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
“If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level.” Edith Wharton’s encapsulation of the narrative form of her tragic (and sexy) 1905 novel, describing the progressive defeat of socialite Lily Bart by the ugly indifference of Wharton’s own leisure class, is given an extra touch of Catholic doom in Terence Davies’s passionate, scrupulous, and personal adaptation, which to a surprising degree preserves the moral complexity of most of the major characters. It’s regrettable if understandable that the Jewishness of social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is no longer an issue, and Lawrence Selden, Lily’s confidante, is somewhat softened by a miscast Eric Stoltz, but the cast as a whole is astonishing — especially Gillian Anderson as Lily and Dan Aykroyd in his finest performance to date. Davies feels and understands the story thoroughly, giving it a raw emotional immediacy that would be unthinkable in the shopper-friendly adaptations of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators, and the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite.… Read more »
Le gamin au vélo/The Kid with a Bike
I’ve recently been thinking that a considerable portion of what I find the most detestable in contemporary commercial filmmaking can be summed up in a single trend: exploitation movies that go out into the world as “serious” art movies,. Admittedly, two very early examples of this trend in talkies, Lang’s M and Hawks’ Scarface, are two of the greatest movies ever made, though neither of these can be accused of stroking and glorifying the audience’s hypocrisy. But ever since the Godfather pictures, it seems, artiness has been working overtime as a kind of built-in alibi for many of the baser impulses in the audience –- various kinds of cynicism viewing corruption as inescapable, everyday, and deeply profound (e.g., Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, Contagion), extreme violence as a function of specious and hypocritical morality (or, even worse, “sensitivity,” as in Drive – or, for that matter, The Passion of the Christ), gimmicky temporal structures (e.g., Tarantino, Memento, Babel) or fatuous psychologizing that are somehow supposed to dignify various forms of boorishness or nastiness (ranging from McQueen’s sexist complacencies and brutalities in Shame to von Trier’s dubious and ongoing validation of his own depression as a practical tool for coping with glitzy catastrophes and atrocities of his own making), and even the sort of Oscar-mongering that can cast a liberal activist (Woody Harrelson) as a racist thug (Rampart) to show us how “complex” the modern world is supposed to be.… Read more »
A chapter from Film: The Front Line 1983. — J.R.
Born in Konstanz, Germany, 1942.
What do I know about Ulrike Ottinger? Not much, but enough to make me want to know more. Admittedly, I’ve seen only her last two features. And on the basis of a single viewing about a year ago, Freak Orlando is a decidedly uneven film, definitely hit-or-miss in its overall thrust, and conceivably full of as many misses as hits. Like it or not, though, the film can be regarded as a kind of climactic summa of the performance-oriented European avant-garde film, from Carmelo Bene to Philippe Garrel to Marc’O to the collaborations of Pedro Portbella* to Christopher Lee – to cite the names of four leading figures of excitement and interest in this category whose careers I lost track of after moving back to the U.S. from Europe in 1977. Insofar as Freak Orlando can be regarded as the Monterey Pop or Woodstock of the European avant-garde performance movement, it’s a valuable and fascinating document to have, and one therefore has reason to look forward to its release in this country…Ticket of No Return, on the other hand, strikes me as a fully achieved work — one of the few true masterpieces of the contemporary German avant-garde cinema – making Ottinger an obligatory inclusion for this book.… Read more »
From the January 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
French movies about sexual and romantic obsession may be a dime a dozen, but what’s exceptional about Cedric Kahn’s 1998 film — apart from the fact that it’s a comedy — is its overall sense of sanity. A 40ish philosophy professor (Charles Berling) encounters the chunky, easygoing teenage model (Sophie Guillemin) of a recently deceased painter and starts meeting her for sex on a daily basis; gradually he becomes obsessed with her normality, trying to turn her into a femme fatale. Part of what makes this so funny is Guillemin’s unforced performance, which makes her imperturbable directness as believable as the professor’s neurosis. The sex scenes are fairly explicit, but to his credit Kahn doesn’t allow them to mythologize the characters. With Arielle Dombasle (sporting an uncharacteristic Louise Brooks hairdo) and the late Robert Kramer. In French with subtitles. 122 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 1999). — J.R.
James Bond will return, says the closing title of this somewhat better than average 007 adventure, but the bottom line is that he’s never been away. The cold war may be dead and buried, but British intelligence needs to be kept busy, even if this means — as the script briefly and wittily suggests — creating its own enemies. With an appropriately imperialistic title (does it apply to the villains or to Anglo-American intelligence? does it matter?), a better than average director (Michael Apted), and locations ranging from Spain to Azerbaijan to Turkey, this keeps one reasonably amused, titillated, and brain-dead for a little over two hours. The principal Bond babes this time around are Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards, not counting Judi Dench as Bond’s boss; Bruce Feirstein and Michael France had something to do with the script (1999, 127 min.). (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1989). — J.R.
Rudy Vallee turns in his best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker in this brilliant, simultaneously tender and scalding 1942 screwball comedy by Preston Sturgesone of the real gems in Sturges’s hyperproductive period at Paramount. Claudette Colbert, married to an ambitious but penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by Hackensacker. When McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother. Also on hand are such indelible Sturges creations as the Weenie King (Robert Dudley), the madly destructive Ale and Quail Club, Hackensacker’s acerbic sister (Mary Astor), and her European boyfriend of obscure national origins (Sig Arno). The Hackensacker character may be the closest thing to self-parody in the Sturges canon, but it’s informed with such wry wisdom and humor that it transcends its personal nature (as well as its reference to such tycoons as the Rockefellers). With William Demarest, Jack Norton, Franklin Pangborn, and Jimmy Conlin. 90 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 19, 1999). — J.R.
Winner of the 1998 Palme d’Or at Cannes, this rambling but beautiful feature by Theo Angelopoulos may seem like an anthology of 60s and 70s European art cinema: family nostalgia from Bergman and seaside frolics from Fellini; long, mesmerizing choreographed takes and camera movements from Jancso and Tarkovsky; haunting expressionist moods and visions from Antonioni. Yet it’s so stirring and flavorsome — far richer emotionally and poetically than Woody Allen’s derivations — that I was moved and captivated throughout its 132 minutes. Bruno Ganz is commanding as a Greek writer who’s recently learned that he’s terminally ill; the part was conceived for the late Marcello Mastroianni, yet Ganz seems perfect for it (though he’s dubbed by a Greek actor, as Mastroianni undoubtedly would have been). Brooding over the loss of his seaside retreat and family home in Thessaloniki, the hero meets an eight-year-old illegal alien from Albania (Achilleas Skevis) and spends the day crisscrossing the past and visiting his familiar haunts, sometimes in the flesh and sometimes in his imagination, and Angelopoulos is masterful in orchestrating these lyrical and complex encounters. With Isabelle Renauld. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 19 through 25.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1999). — J.R.
Writer-director Anthony Minghella and critic Frank Rich, both sounding like ventriloquist’s dummies for Miramax’s publicity department, touted this as an uncommercial movie that says something profound about the 90s. Yet their adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is commercial to the core. Ripley (Matt Damon), a young man on the make, is sent to Europe to retrieve a tycoon’s errant son; he winds up killing the son and assuming his identity, and Damon plays the character as a closeted homosexual and potential serial killer, which makes him about as salable as a movie hero can get these days. Rene Clement filmed Highsmith’s novel in 1960 as Purple Noon; that version was more conventional and derivative of Hitchcock, but at least it didn’t inflate the story, as Minghella does, to the proportions of Ben-Hur. As in Clement’s film, the Mediterranean settings are sumptuous, and Minghella has updated the novel’s action from the early to late 50s and made the errant son (unconvincingly played by Jude Law) a jazz musician, which allows for a pleasant if unadventurous score by Gabriel Yared and many familiar tracks. Familiarity is the watchword of this overblown opus, which neglects holes in the plot to play up its postmodern theme of identity as pastiche — a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
For all his versatility as a writer-director, I was surprised to learn that Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies) had made a film about the genesis of Gilbert and Sullivan’s mid-1880s comic opera The Mikado. Yet this 160-minute backstage musical is about something he knows intimately — the complex of personal, organizational, artistic, and cultural factors that go into putting on a show. Leigh begins with leisurely character sketches of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), two very different men whose collaboration appears to be at an end. Only after Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) drags him to a Japanese exhibition in London does The Mikado (and this movie) begin to take shape, and after that the film keeps getting better and better. The actors and actresses in the stage production, including Leigh regular Timothy Spall, all sing in their own voices, and Leigh’s flair for comedy and sense of social interaction shine as he shows all the ingredients in The Mikado beginning to mesh. Thoroughly researched and unobtrusively upholstered, this beautifully assured entertainment about Victorian England is a string of delights. With Ron Cook, Wendy Nottingham, Eleanor David, Kevin McKidd, Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson, and many Leigh standbys, including Alison Steadman and Katrin Cartlidge.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
Alain Resnais, probably the greatest living French filmmaker, has never made an indifferent or unadventurous film, and he’s much more talented and innovative than Francois Truffaut. On connait la chanson (1997, 120 min.), a more accurate translation of which might be I Recognize the Tune, was inspired by British screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven); its characters frequently break into lip-synched French pop songs, which serve as cross-references to their moods and aren’t always bound by gender. (When Resnais made similar use of French film clips in Mon oncle d’Amerique, contemporary actress Nicole Garcia was cross-referenced with Cocteau’s actor Jean Marais.) A comedy about real estate and class differences, Same Old Song was the biggest hit of Resnais’ career in France, superbly capturing Paris in the 90s; it’s less popular among viewers unfamiliar with the music, but even if you can’t follow all the nuances, this is fun and different and at times mysterious (periodically revealing Resnais’ surrealist roots). Written by and costarring the talented couple Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, who previously scripted and acted in Un air de famille (and wrote Resnais’ previous two features), this also has graceful performances by Resnais regulars Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, and Andre Dussollier.… Read more »
From the August 28, 1992 Chicago Reader; reprinted in my collection Placing Movies. — J.R.
THE PANAMA DECEPTION
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Barbara Trent
Written by David Kasper
Narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Bill Duke
Written by Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin
With Larry Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Victoria Dillard, Charles Martin Smith, Sydney Lassick, Clarence Williams III, Gregory Sierra, and Roger Guenveur Smith.
I wonder how many people under 35 know that one of the most frequent taunts hurled at President Lyndon Baines Johnson during antiwar demonstrations at the height of the Vietnam war was, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson did considerably more than any other U.S. president of this century to turn the civil rights movement into law — even going so far as to appropriate the movement’s theme song, “We Shall Overcome,” for a speech to Congress. But because of his behavior regarding nonwhites overseas, especially in Southeast Asia, a considerable part of the youth of the late 60s regarded him as a mass murderer, and told him so on every possible occasion. It seems plausible that Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968, announced only four days before Martin Luther King was assassinated, had more than a little to do with the repeated sting of that relentless chant.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.
A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »
It would obviously be hyperbolic for me to claim that the editorial evisceration originally suffered by this article was comparable to some of the curtailments experienced by Richard Pryor when he appeared on TV or in the Hollywood mainstream, but that’s more or less what it felt like to me at the time. I recently and very belatedly uncovered all but the last paragraph or so of my original version (after posting mainly the published version several months earlier), which I’ve reinstated here [on November 14, 2011]. The fact that the editor who placed this article in a lead section of Film Comment’s July-August 1982 issue entitled “The Coarsening of Movie Comedy” also changed my title to “The Man in the Great Flammable Suit” may give some notion of what his evisceration felt like at the time.
My working assumption in restoring original drafts on this site, or some approximation thereof, isn’t that my editors were always or invariably wrong, or that my editorial decisions today are necessarily superior, but, rather, an attempt to historicize and bear witness to my original intentions. It was a similar impulse that led me to undo some of the editorial changes made in the submitted manuscript of my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980), when I was afforded the opportunity to reconsider them for the book’s second edition 15 years later (now out of print, but available online here) — not to revise or rethink my decisions in relation to my subsequent taste but to bring the book closer to what I originally had in mind in 1980.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2007). This film is currently available for free on YouTube. — J.R.
This 2006 feature is my favorite to date by English writer-director Christopher Petit (Radio On). Subtitled both On Stalking and Being Stalked and A Story of Obsessive Passion, it’s about a young woman (Rebecca Marshall) stalking a London academic (Gregory Dart, author of the source novel) who is himself obsessed with a woman in Leipzig. Both paranoid and lyrical, the movie visualizes its strange tale mainly through ersatz surveillance footage, and the music is appropriately Hitchcockian. To complicate matters, the first-person voice-over is shared by Marshall and Petit himself (his portion is full of film references). Formally this is a dazzler. 77 min. (JR)
… Read more »