Monthly Archives: June 2020

Brightness

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1989). — J.R.

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Souleymane Cisse’s extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing fantasy is set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) long before it was invaded by Morocco in the 16th century. A young man (Issiaka Kane) sets out to discover the mysteries of nature (or komo, the science of the gods) with the help of his mother and uncle, but his jealous and spiteful father contrives to prevent him from deciphering the sacred rites and tries to kill him. In the course of a heroic and magical journey, the hero masters the Bambara initiation rites, takes over the throne, and ultimately confronts the magic of his father. Apart from creating a dense and exciting universe that should make George Lucas green with envy, Cisse has shot breathtaking images in Fujicolor and has accompanied his story with a spare, hypnotic, percussive score. Conceivably the greatest African film ever made, sublimely mixing the matter-of-fact with the uncanny, this wondrous work provides an ideal introduction to a filmmaker who, next to Ousmane Sembene, is probably Africa’s greatest director. Not to be missed. Winner of the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 6, 7:30; Saturday, January 7, 4:00 and 7:30; and Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, January 8, 10, and 12, 6:00; 443-3737)

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Eclipse

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

The conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s loose trilogy (preceded by L’Avventura and La Notte), this 1961 film is conceivably the best in Antonioni’s career, but significantly it has the least consequential plot. A sometime translator (Monica Vitti) recovering from an unhappy love affair briefly links up with a stockbroker (Alain Delon) in Rome, though the stunning final montage sequence — perhaps the most powerful thing Antonioni has ever done — does without these characters entirely. Alternately an essay and a prose poem about the contemporary world in which the love story figures as one of many motifs, this is remarkable both for its visual/atmospheric richness and its polyphonic and polyrhythmic mise en scene (Antonioni’s handling of crowds at the Roman stock exchange is never less than amazing). In Italian with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)

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When the Wind Blows

From the Chicago Reader (February 3, 1989). Twilight Time has recently¬† (2014) released this film on Blu-Ray, with many extras. — J.R.

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The point of director Jimmy Murakami and screenwriter Raymond Briggs’s rather original English animated feature is to get us to think the unthinkable — to imagine the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust. But rather than force this bitter pill on us, they create a very funny and believable elderly English couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. These two are still mired in memories of World War II, but when nuclear war hits they are eager to do all the proper things and to follow the instructions in the government booklets correctly. Rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, the filmmakers make all their essential points by sticking to this isolated couple in their country cottage, following them step-by-step through the experience. Aided by a realistic style of animation that incorporates some live action, by occasional stylistic changes that allow for more abstraction in some fantasy interludes, and by the expert speaking voices of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, the movie succeeds impressively. It’s rare that a cartoon carries the impact of a live-action feature without sacrificing the imaginative freedom of the pen and brush, but this one does — and does so well that we are even persuaded to accept the didactic framework.… Read more »

The Palm Beach Story

From the Chicago Reader (February 10, 1989). — J.R.

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The all-time best Rudy Vallee performance is as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker in this brilliant, simultaneously tender and scalding 1942 screwball comedy by Preston Sturges — one 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 getting 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), her European boyfriend of obscure national origins (Sig Arno), and many others. Hackensacker may be the closest thing to a 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; not to be missed. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by Virginia Keller. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, February 14, 6:00, 443-3737)

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Funny Face

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

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Writer Leonard Gershe, director Stanley Donen, and producer Roger Edens take on French existentialism in this colorful and sumptuous 1957 musical, set largely in Paris and starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, with a dreamy Gershwin score. Although the anti-intellectualism gets thick in spots, the visuals are consistently stylish. Astaire is a fashion photographer (Richard Avedon supervised his photo sessions), Hepburn a Greenwich Village bookworm transformed into a model (clothes by Givenchy), and Kay Thompson plays their fashion editor. The film’s sophistication is compromised by the rather dumb plot, but some of the numbers — especially “Think Pink” and “Bonjour Paris” — are standouts. 103 min. (JR)

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Star Wars, Episode 5: Attack Of The Clones

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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Redeemable for Cash: The Damned and the Saved

A special sort of Christmas essay from the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1994). — J.R.

Over the past year we’ve been hearing a lot about the theme of redemption in current movies. Actually the seeds of this trend were probably sown back in 1980, when Raging Bull came out, but now “redemption” is becoming something of a buzzword. I recall being taken slightly aback when I heard Harvey Keitel, speaking at the 1992 Toronto film festival, employ the term without any trace of irony in regard to Reservoir Dogs. And since then I’ve been hearing it more and more, mainly in relation to movies associated with Quentin Tarantino (not only Reservoir Dogs but also True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Killing Zoe, and Pulp Fiction) and such varied films as Cape Fear, Cliffhanger, Forrest Gump, The Professional, and even Heavenly Creatures.

What’s surprising is not only the odd assortment of movies in this new canon but those that are automatically excluded. Looking over last year’s releases, one might logically conclude that movies dealing with the spiritual redemption of their lead characters would include, say, Schindler’s List, Little Buddha, Savage Nights, The Shawshank Redemption, Bill Forsyth’s grossly neglected Being Human, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White, and Red.… Read more »

Oleanna

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 »

Cobb

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1994). — J.R.

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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 »

That Man From Rio

From the Chicago Reader (Mar 1, 1998). — J.R.

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After his first two features in the early 60s (The Love Game, The Five-Day Lover), Philippe de Broca, a former assistant to Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, was taken by some to be a member of the French New Wave — an impression that was quickly undermined by the glossy commercial fare that followed, including this enjoyable 1964 thriller romp with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. If memory serves, this is swell light entertainment — there’s a nice score by Georges Delerue, and the original screenplay was nominated for an Oscar — designed to autodestruct as soon as you see it. (JR)

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Underground

From the Chicago Reader (February 6, 1998). — J.R.

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Though slightly trimmed by director-writer Emir Kusturica for American consumption, this riotous 167-minute satirical and farcical allegory about the former Yugoslavia from World War II to the postcommunist present is still marvelously excessive. The outrageous plot involves a couple of anti-Nazi arms dealers and gold traffickers who gain a reputation as communist heroes. One of them (Miki Manojlovic) installs a group of refugees in his grandfather’s cellar, and on the pretext that the war is still raging upstairs he gets them to manufacture arms and other black-market items until the 60s, meanwhile seducing the actress (Mirjana Jokovic) that his best friend (Lazar Ristovski) hoped to marry. Loosely based on a play by cowriter Dusan Kovacevic, this sarcastic, carnivalesque epic won the 1995 Palme d’Or at Cannes and has been at the center of a furious controversy ever since for what’s been called its pro-Serbian stance. (Kusturica himself is a Bosnian Muslim.) However one chooses to take its jaundiced view of history, it’s probably the best film to date by the talented Kusturica (Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream), a triumph of mise en scene mated to a comic vision that keeps topping its own hyperbole.… Read more »

Modern Messiah [JESUS OF MONTREAL]

From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 1990). — J.R.

JESUS OF MONTREAL

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Denys Arcand

With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Remy Girard, Robert Lepage, Gilles Pelletier, Yves Jacques, and Arcand.

It must have been about 30 years ago that I saw Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die, a popular art-house movie at the time and one of my first foreign films. Dassin, an American expatriate chased to Europe by the Hollywood blacklist, was a highly skilled film noir director whose best efforts included The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. He Who Must Die, set on Crete in 1921, was a French picture based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Greek Passion, concerning the performers in a passion play whose theatrical roles take over their real lives as they suffer from Turkish oppression; the theme was that if Christ came back today, he would be crucified all over again.

I was a teenager at the time, and being none too versed in what was considered sophisticated in film in 1959, I was moved to tears. This was at a time when the French New Wave had barely made a ripple in the American consciousness, and shortly before Dassin’s film was ridiculed by critics I admired, like Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald, as the acme of arty pretension.… Read more »

Speechless

From the December 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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An exasperating demonstration of what’s wrong with contemporary Hollywood and what’s wrong with contemporary American election campaigns, pitched in the form of a cutesy romantic comedy that should set your teeth on edge. Loosely inspired by the well-publicized romance of Mary Matalin and James Carville during the 1992 presidential election, with Ron Underwood (City Slickers) directing a script by Robert King (Clean Slate), this throws together a Republican speechwriter (Michael Keaton) and a Democratic speechwriter (coproducer Geena Davis) during a senatorial campaign in New Mexico and watches their love blossom as they proceed to work competitively. The movie’s smart enough to offer a jaded portrait of the way such campaigns operate, but the hackneyed love story repeatedly relegates it to the back burner, and matters weren’t helped by test-market previews that led to a new and exceptionally stupid feel good ending. Ultimately, for all its fancy footwork, this movie winds up being even sicker than what it’s looking at. With Christopher Reeve, Bonnie Bedelia, Ernie Hudson, Charles Martin Smith, and Gailard Sartain (1994). (JR)

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Reveries and Elegies

From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 2002). — J.R.

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Like Yasujiro Ozu’s features with seasonal titles, Alexander Sokurov’s hallucinatory video elegies tend to be so similar, even in their running times, that they blur together in memory. Elegy of a Voyage (2001, 47 min.) — which might be more idiomatically titled Elegy for a Voyage — is a journey, a dream, a first-person narrative (visibly as well as audibly) that evokes the 19th century, and a hypnotic study in textures relating to fog, snow, and water that often entails a breakdown in the usual divisions between color and black and white (as well as fiction and documentary). It was commissioned by the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, which asked Sokurov to look at a work of art in their collection “like a night watchman in a deserted museum.” By the time Sokurov creeps into the museum to reflect on Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel and seven other paintings, he seems to have trekked across substantial portions of his native Russia as well as the Helsinki harbor. I was less captivated by Laura Waddington’s minimalist video diary Cargo (2001, 29 min.), which uses many still and slow-motion shots and similarly fragmented narration to illustrate a trip she took from Venice to the Middle East on a freighter whose exploited crew was an international assortment of men without landing papers.… Read more »

Barcelona

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). Perhaps my biggest error in this review is my assumption that all the leading characters in Metropolitan are male. — J.R.

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The second comedy feature (1994) of writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), who shares with Eric Rohmer a talent for literate and witty dialogue and a fascination with photogenic young women but has a somewhat less confident sense of milieu and story construction. As in Metropolitan, the leading characters and principal source of amusement are wealthy, self-absorbed, and virtually interchangeable American males (in this case a salesman and his cousin, a naval officer), though here they’re transplanted to the Barcelona jet-set nightclub scene, where they explain to their girlfriends and each other (as well as to the audience) how misinformed the Spanish are about the U.S. Considering how successfully they seem to colonialize all the young Spanish women in sight, regarded by heroes and movie alike as obliging pieces of furniture, one subtext seems to be that Europeans are basically first-draft Americans hungrily awaiting stateside revision. Still, this is fairly amusing stuff — brittle, fresh, and impudent –if you can stomach all the upscale arrogance. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen, Mira Sorvino, Pep Munne, and Hellena Schmied.… Read more »