Monthly Archives: June 2020

Vanilla Sky

From the December 1, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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If you’ve ever wanted to bust Tom Cruise in the chops when he’s brandishing that self-infatuated, shit-eating grin — a desire even his hardiest fans must occasionally feel — then this is the movie for you. Cruise plays a Manhattan zillionaire who’s inherited a string of successful magazines; after screwing Cameron Diaz four times in one night (this is supposed to be the realistic part) he falls in love with another woman (Penelope Cruz) and winds up in an accident that leaves him disfigured like some character out of Victor Hugo. Director Cameron Crowe adapted the screenplay from Open Your Eyes (1997), a highly successful Spanish fantasy thriller by the talented Alejandro Amenabar, and while remaking a four-year-old film may seem silly, it perfectly fits the subject, remaking one’s life. Of course this version is much slicker, upgrading the original in some ways (if you prefer having everything spelled out) and overextending it in others (including the 130-minute running time); it reeks of unearned profundity, but I found it entertaining. With Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, and Noah Taylor; incidentally, Cruz played the same role in the Spanish film. (JR)

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The Shanghai Gesture

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1991). — J.R.

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Not exactly Josef von Sternberg in his heyday (1941), but still choice goods — a perverse dream bubble adapted by Sternberg, Jules Furthman, and others from a creaky but serviceable John Colton play about the madam of a Shanghai brothel (Ona Munson) taking revenge on a British official and former lover (Walter Huston) by corrupting his daughter (Gene Tierney). Victor Mature is also around, and surprisingly effective, as a decadent bisexual; other exotic cameos are doled out to Maria Ouspenskaya, Albert Bassermann, Eric Blore, Phyllis Brooks, and Mike Mazurki. Given the censorship of the period, much of the decadence is implied rather than stated. But Sternberg’s adept handling of claustrophobic space and sinister atmospherics made this melodrama an understandable favorite of the Surrealists, and the icy tone cuts through the funk like a knife. (JR)

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The Wedding March

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2002). — J.R.

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I seem to be in the minority in considering Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 extravaganza to be less than a masterpiece. It’s a bit obvious and redundant (apart from a brilliantly edited and extended mutual flirtation sequence), and it doesn’t compare with Blind Husbands, Foolish Wives, Greed, The Merry Widow, or Queen Kelly. But it’s exceptionally subtle and witty at times (one highlight is an early sequence in two-strip Technicolor), and even minor Stroheim is considerably better than most other filmmakers’ major work. The director, also one of the great silent actors, plays the lead, a flirtatious prince who agrees to marry for money to help his parents (ZaSu Pitts is the expectant bride, a crippled heiress) but falls in love with a poor woman (Fay Wray) shortly before the wedding. At great expense Stroheim re-created the decadent splendor of the Vienna of his youth, then saw his film mutilated by Paramount; the first half of the story is all that survives today in any form. 113 min. (JR)

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Collected Consciousness [on MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON]

From the March 22, 2002 Chicago Reader. I’ve seen a good many more Apichatpong Weerasethakul films since then, including many of his early shorts, and he continues to amaze me with his range, versatility, and poetics. — J.R.

Mysterious Object at Noon

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Written by Thai villagers

With Somsri Pinyopol, Duangjai Hiransri, To Hanudomlapr, Kannikar Narong, Kongkiert Komsiri, and Mee Madmoon.

In America the cultural objects we know consist mainly of things publicists know how to advertise, journalists know how to describe, and teachers know how to classify. This might not be so bad if publicists, journalists, teachers, and the organizations they work for didn’t have fairly rigid ideas about cultural objects — about where they come from and what we’re supposed to do with them. Movie entertainment, we’re told, is produced in this country and Hong Kong; movie art is more apt to be produced in Europe. So when Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar makes an arty thriller — such as the 1997 Open Your Eyes – it gets shown here in a few art houses; when his film is remade as an even artier, though not as good, Hollywood thriller — last year’s Vanilla Sky — it winds up in thousands of shopping malls.… Read more »

The Screening Process [NO SUCH THING & THE SLEEPY TIME GAL]

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 2002). — J.R.

No Such Thing ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Hal Hartley

With Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke, Helen Mirren, Baltasar Kormakur, Paul Lazar, Annika Peterson, and Julie Christie

The Sleepy Time Gal *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Christopher Munch

With Jacqueline Bisset, Martha Plimpton, Nick Stahl, Amy Madigan, Frankie R. Faison, Carmen Zapata, Peggy Gormley, and Seymour Cassel.

On March 29 two new American independent features of some importance will debut. Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing — not one of his best movies — will open at Pipers Alley, and Christopher Munch’s The Sleepy Time Gal, which I prefer, will premiere exclusively on the Sundance cable channel. Chances are, a lot more people will see the Munch film, though they’ll have to be subscribers to the Sundance Channel or have a friend who is.

Considering these two films together is a breach of reviewing etiquette: movies that premiere in theaters are supposed to be in a different category than movies that premiere on TV. I first saw the Munch film, about a woman dying of cancer, last fall on video at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I remember looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.

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Annie Get Your Gun

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2002). — J.R.

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This was my favorite movie the year it came out (1950), when I was seven years old, and I’ve gone back to it repeatedly since — partly because of its swell Irving Berlin score, partly because of Betty Hutton’s gender-bending embodiment of Annie Oakley, and partly because the spirited vulgarity of director George Sidney often makes a perfect match with the tailored opulence and slickness of MGM musicals during that era. It still holds up as splashy fun of a sort, if you can handle its sexual politics and its depictions of Native Americans (including J. Carroll Naish as Annie’s benign father figure). With Keenan Wynn, Howard Keel as Frank Butler, and Louis Calhern as Buffalo Bill. 107 min. (JR)

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Dancer In The Dark

From the April 1, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Disgusting yet interesting, Lars von Trier’s much heralded musical (2000) — or, more precisely, feature-length music video with interspersed dialogue — deserves to be seen because it’s a freakish provocation, not just because it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. A Czech immigrant working at a factory in rural Washington State in the early 60s (Icelandic pop star Bjork) is going blind and knows her son will too if she can’t save enough money for an operation; the story gets even more melodramatic once a murder trial takes over. Reportedly shot with 100 digital video cameras (very few of which manage to find a good angle), the film reprises the sadomasochistic celebration of female suffering in Breaking the Waves, and with it von Trier affirms his solidarity with America’s impoverished and downtrodden people (apparently a diversion from his career in Denmark as a porn producer). The musical numbers are a weird blend of rock video and Jacques Demy postmusicals, with lousy songs and choreography and a distance between the music and the action that suggests an amateur remake of Pennies From Heaven. But in spite of everything, Bjork’s absolute dedication and submission to the material periodically blew me away.… Read more »

Used Innocence

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.

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James Benning’s 1988 feature, a substantial letdown after his Landscape Suicide, charts the filmmaker’s involvement with Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Milwaukee policewoman who, despite her persistent claims of innocenc, was convicted of killing her husband’s first wife in the early 80s. (Her case led to articles in Cosmopolitan and People, in part because of her achievements in prison reform while serving a life term.) Although several commentators have compared this film to The Thin Blue Line, there are many crucial differences: Benning’s friendship with his subject, a more extensive use of actors, and Benning’s background as an experimental filmmaker who generally uses narrative only in a skeletal and simplified form. (Bembenek’s own voice — like Benning’s — is used throughout, but an actress plays her on-screen.) Perhaps the principal problem lies in Benning’s failure to set down all the relevant facts of the case in an easily digestible form; he chooses, rather, to introduce them out of chronological sequence. In addition, his own semi-maudlin confessional letters, which are read offscreen (along with Bembenek’s terser ones), keep clouding the various issues raised. As in Benning’s earlier and better films, long takes that focus on midwestern landscapes are often employed, but without the sense of mystery and provocation that they usually have.… Read more »

Hollywood Confidential [THE CAT'S MEOW]

From the Chicago Reader (April 26, 2002). — J.R.

The Cat’s Meow

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Written by Steven Peros

With Kirsten Dunst, Cary Elwes, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Tilly, Victor Slezak, James Laurenson, and Claudia Harrison.

ORSON WELLES: In the original script [of Citizen Kane] we had a scene based on a notorious thing Hearst had done, which I still cannot repeat for publication. And I cut it out because I thought it hurt the film and wasn’t in keeping with Kane’s character. If I’d kept it in, I would have had no trouble with Hearst. He wouldn’t have dared admit it was him.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Did you shoot the scene?

ORSON WELLES: No, I didn’t. I decided against it. If I’d kept it in, I would have bought silence for myself forever.  — This Is Orson Welles

I edited This Is Orson Welles, a series of interviews Peter Bogdanovich did with Welles, at the request not of Bogdanovich but of Oja Kodar, Welles’s companion and collaborator for the last 20-odd years of his life, to whom Welles had willed the rights. The incident Welles alluded to in this exchange is the subject of The Cat’s Meow, directed by Bogdanovich and adapted by Steven Peros from his own play.… Read more »

Texasville

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1990). — J.R.

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One of the most surprising things about Peter Bogdanovich’s bittersweet, touching comedy sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971) — based, like its predecessor, on a Larry McMurtry novel — is that, far from being a trip down memory lane, it’s largely structured around historical amnesia. The hero walks with a limp and has grown estranged from his wife, and his former girlfriend has lost her husband and son, though the reasons and circumstances behind these and other essential facts go unmentioned: they’re buried somewhere in the forgotten past. The people we last saw in the small town of Anarene, Texas, are now 30 years older, and the only one mired in the past is Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), the town’s mayor, a self-confessed failure and something of a lunatic. His best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), whose point of view shapes the action — he’s an adulterer who hasn’t slept with his wife Karla (Annie Potts) for some time, and whose main sexual competitor is his own son (William McNamara) — has struck it rich in oil and subsequently run himself millions of dollars into debt while Karla continues to buy condos for their children.… Read more »

SPIONE (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 508). Many years later, I revised and expanded this review for an essay commissioned by the Masters of Cinema DVD of Spione, called “Inside the Vault”. –- J.R.

Spione (The Spy)

Germany, 1928Director: Fritz Lang 

An unidentified European country. After two treaties are stolen by a spy ring, and all the best agents of Burton Jason, head of the Sectet Service, have been killed while attempting to recover them, Jason summons detective Donald Tremaine, who arrives disguised as a tramp. The master-mind of the thefts, Haghi — an apparent cripple who runs a bank and has built a spy ring mainly out of criminals he has secretly sprung from prison — assigns Sonia to find out from Tremaine when a new treaty is to be signed. Rushing into Tremaine’s hotel suite after shooting a man whom she claims attacked her (and who survives thanks to a wallet in his breast pocket which stops the bullet), she gets Tremaine to hide her and quickly charms him. Charmed herself, she begs Haghi to take her off the case, but he forces her to write Tremaine a letter, which he dictates. Tremaine comes to her house and they make a date for dinner, but she is called away from the restaurant by Haghi.… Read more »

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2004). — J.R.

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If Rushmore (1998) recalls J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) offers a touch of Franny and Zooey, this Wes Anderson feature suffers from the mannerist self-consciousness of Seymour: An Introduction. Each successive movie seems further removed from real human behavior, though the attitudes here — mainly invested in Bill Murray as the title character, an over-the-hill filmmaker-oceanographer — seem as authentic as ever, and the fantasy trimmings are noticeably more lavish, drawing on the resources of Italy’s Cinecitta studio and recalling Fellini in their cartoon colors. The secondary eccentrics — Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort — resourcefully juggle about two character traits apiece, and the climactic rescue sequence is characteristically underplayed. Noah Baumbach collaborated on the arch script, whose bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates. R, 118 min. (JR)

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A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

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It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

 

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

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1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This isn’t simply the only Hawks western that doesn’t star John Wayne (not counting his uncredited and piecemeal work on Viva Villa!

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At Long Last Love

From the April 1, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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A daring experiment that failed (1975), this direct-sound musical set in the 30s — with Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn and Duilio Del Prete doing what they can (as singers and dancers) with and to Cole Porter — is probably Peter Bogdanovich’s worst film, but it’s perversely fascinating for its art-deco trimmings as well as its rather frightening coldness. I suspect that what makes it so hard to take is less its awkwardness as a musical (which could theoretically carry a certain charm) than its shocking sense of class snobbery and upper-class entitlement, which played a lesser role in Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and which registers here as an eccentric misreading of Lubitsch. Ironically, this was made when Bogdanovich was at the height of his power as a studio director, before he developed the craft and sensitivity that characterize some of his later work. (JR)

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Insignificance

Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play — about Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) converging in New York City in 1954 — has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their cliched media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon. The Monroe-Einstein connection isn’t completely contrived. Monroe once expressed a sexual interest in him to Shelley Winters, and a signed photograph of Einstein was among her possessions when she died. But the film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail — sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one. (JR)… Read more »