From the Chicago Reader (April 2002). — J.R.
The whiff of amateur theatricals in The Phantom Menace, imparting a personalized clunkiness to the proceedings, is back in force in this aptly titled fifth installment, but this time the exposition is so thick that everyone except acolytes may tune out. Though the look aspires as usual to be both otherworldly and familiar, there’s nothing that doesn’t reek of southern California plastic, including the characters. Whatever showmanship director George Lucas brought to the earlier episodes has been paved over by calculation (Christopher Lee is about the only actor who looks comfortable). But Lucas is enough of a businessman to know that the earlier chapters helped foster the celebratory mood that greeted the previous gulf war (mainly by promoting the glee to be extracted from supposedly bloodless annihilation, delivered chiefly to faceless reptiles in desert settings), and the livelier final stretches here seem designed to help pave the way for more. PG, 138 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 2007). — J.R.
I haven’t seen David Mamet’s controversial two-character play on the stage, but his own film adaptation (2007) is easily his best movie since House of Games. The two characters are a pontificating, bullying male college professor (William H. Macy) up for tenure and his initially cowed, eventually empowered female student (Debra Eisenstadt), who winds up charging him with sexual harassment. The stage versions have often been attacked for siding with the professor, but what seems most impressive about the movie, which may have benefited from certain refinements in the material, is that the two characters are so evenly matched by the dramaturgy that they become Strindbergian antagonists in a life-and-death struggle — equally odious in their authoritarian reliance on institutions to define their own identities and equally crippled by what might be described as their political impotence, which drives them to reach desperately for whatever institutional weapons are available to them. Within this context, education becomes as much an alibi as political correctness, and the most telling aspect of the struggle is that the two characters, even in their carefully coded sexual roles, become two different versions of the same blocked individual.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1994). — J.R.
Writer-director Ron Shelton’s fourth feature (Bull Durham, Blaze, and White Men Can’t Jump are the other three) is a shambles, but it’s such a potent and courageous wreck of a movie that it’s worth more than most successes. Only obliquely a sports story, and missing most of Shelton’s usual humor, this is a troubled portrait of an odious Ty Cobb, possibly the greatest of all baseball players, from the vantage point of the last year or so of his life. Based on the recollections of Al Stump, who ghosted Cobb’s self-serving and unreliable 1961 autobiography, the film fails to make either Cobb or Stump fully believable, despite a towering performance by Tommy Lee Jones as the former and a perfectly adequate one by Robert Wuhl as the latter. In part that’s because Shelton, hampered in his efforts to shift between the two characters’ points of view, is actually after bigger game: a critique of the American success ethic and the preference for legend over truth. (In many ways, the story has more in common with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance than with any other sports biopic.) The sheer, dark unpleasantness of what emerges is such that at certain moments even Shelton backs away from it and tries to wring out a sentimental tear or two (along with a belated Freudian revelation).… Read more »