Belle de jour

From the Chicago Reader (July 14, 1995). — J.R.

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Though it may not reach the level of sublimity of his three last features, Luis Buñuel recounts the story of a frigid upper-class housewife (Deneuve), devoted to her husband (Jean Sorel), who secretly works at a high-class brothel every weekday afternoon in order to satisfy her masochistic impulses. Placing the heroine’s fantasies, dreams, and recollections on the same plane as her everyday adventures, Buñuel comes closer to the French New Wave than he did before or after, and much of his secondary cast reinforces this association (including Michel Piccoli, Macha Meril, and, most memorably, Pierre Clementi as a dandyish gangster), but there are also many explicit visual and aural echoes of his surrealist beginnings (Un chien andalou and L’age d’or). Haunting, amusing, provocative, teasing, and elegant in its puzzlelike ambiguities, this is essential viewing. With Genevieve Page, Francisco Rabal, Georges Marchal, and Francoise Fabian (a couple of years before Eric Rohmer “discovered” her in Ma nuit chez Maud). Fine Arts.

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The Bible

From the December 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Not nearly as bad as it could have been. John Huston finally wound up as the director of this Dino De Laurentiis blunderbuss (1966), and the overall ambience is much closer to Huston’s high-toned literary adaptations than to Cecil B. De Mille’s biblical epics. Despite the title, the story only makes it through the first 22 chapters of Genesis. The script is credited only to Christopher Fry, but Orson Welles wrote most of the Abraham and Jacob episodes, removing his name from the credits after his ending to the Abraham episode was altered. Probably the best performance is given by Huston himself as Noah, in what is probably also the best segment; other actors include Michael Parks, Ulla Bergryd, Richard Harris, Stephen Boyd, George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, Peter O’Toole, and Franco Nero. 174 min. (JR)

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Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University

From the Autumn 1977  Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Perhaps it is time to study discourse not only according to its expressive values, or in its formal transformations, but also according to its modes of existence: the modes of circulation, attribution and appropriation of discourse vary with each culture. . . . [T]he effect on social relationships can be more directly seen, it seems to me, in the interplay of authorship and its modifications than in the themes or concepts contained in the works.
— Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”

Movies and Methods

It seems likely that Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 and Movies and Methods[*] are the two most interesting anthologies of writing about film recently published in English. Each marks a substantial foray beyond the standard recycling operations of most anthologies, making available a wealth of helpful material that is otherwise hard to come by. An easy enough assessment, on the face of it, yet one that conceals a nagging question: what do we mean by “interesting” and “helpful”? In what way can both books be considered deserving of the same ambiguous adjectives? How far do they allow themselves to be considered within the same universe of discourse?

First, a few basic distinctions.… Read more »

Emotional Striptease [EXOTICA]

From the Chicago Reader, March 17, 1995. — J.R.

Exotica

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mia Kirshner, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanjian, and Sarah Polley.

The saddest parts of Exotica — Atom Egoyan’s lush and affecting sixth feature, a movie inflected like its predecessors by obsessive sexual rituals and desperate familial longings — are moments when money awkwardly changes hands. This film is every bit as allegorical as his Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Calendar — and every bit as concerned with a need for family surrogates as Next of Kin and Family Viewing – but it is only incidentally a movie about capitalism and its ability to pervert personal relationships. It does involve voyeurism, corruption, and a form of prostitution; all these things are conventionally associated with capitalism, but they’ve been around much longer.

Exotica has plenty to say about the modern world, including the psychological, social, and racial (even colonial) ramifications of “exotic” sexual tastes, but class difference isn’t a significant part of its agenda either. The personal and professional links forged between individuals — and there are very few relationships in this movie that aren’t both personal and professional — all seem predicated on forms of barter, as well as the assumption that everyone is, or eventually becomes, either a substitute for a missing family member or a virtual double for someone else.… Read more »

A Beauty and a Beast

From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 1995). — J.R.

Arabian Knight

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Richard Williams

Written by Williams and Margaret French

With the voices of Vincent Price, Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals, Eric Bogosian, Toni Collette, and Jonathan Winters

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

No stars (Worthless)

Directed by Beeban Kidron

Written by Douglas Carter Beane

With Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Arliss Howard, Jason London, and Chris Penn.

It might be argued that a talent for abstract thought defines the radically different achievements of Arabian Knight and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. In Arabian Knight–a wildly imaginative and somewhat delirious animated feature that’s reportedly been in the works for over a quarter century — it’s a talent for graphic abstraction, a talent that is its own reward; this movie takes the highly dangerous step of pursuing formal beauty above all else, story and characters be damned. By contrast, in To Wong Foo — a terribly written, terribly directed, terribly designed, and for the most part terribly acted (if nobly intentioned) comedy –i t’s a talent for pure concept: three drag queens driving from New York to Hollywood enlighten bigoted middle Americans on the subjects of style and beauty.… Read more »

Films of 2006

A response to a poll, from Sight and Sound (January 2007). – J.R.

In order to write briefly about five films that I first saw in 2006 that are especially important to me, I have to violate a taboo against acknowledging works that aren’t (yet) readily available. More specifically, the first two on my list haven’t yet been seen very widely outside of film festivals and/or the countries where they were made, while the last two, even more rarefied, have only been shown under special circumstances, in both cases because their filmmakers are under no commercial pressures to release them and would like to oversee and monitor their exhibition. Although I’m aware that this may irritate some readers, I’d rather address them like adults than succumb to the infantile consumerist model of instant gratification, according to which works should be known about only when they can be immediately accessed. After all, some pleasures are worth waiting for.

Coeurs

Alain Resnais’ dark, exquisite, and highly personal adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears of Public Places, which I saw at film festivals in Venice and Toronto, is eloquent testimony both to how distilled his art has become at age 84 and how readily Ayckbourn’s examples of English repression can be converted into French equivalents.Read more »

An Unidentified Subject (Egoyan’s CHLOE)

I’d like to suggest that the theme of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe –- a woman’s midlife crisis –- hasn’t been identified by any of the film’s reviewers that I’ve read so far. Many of them have been calling the movie a hoot (Jim Hoberman, meet Anthony Lane) and perhaps just as many have been reaching for Fatal Attraction as their principal point of comparison and abuse. Since that crude shocker isn’t a film about a woman’s midlife crisis, I assume they’re misreading Chloe, which is easy enough to do if you’re mainly restricting the story to — that is, viewing most of it through — its bombastic penultimate scenes.

Disregarding the Anne Fontaine movie that served as this movie’s basis, which I haven’t seen, I think what’s sneaky and deliberately misleading about the story is that it starts off pretending to be a movie about a husband’s midlife crisis and then winds up as a movie about his wife’s midlife crisis. (If this constitutes a spoiler, tough luck; all I can say as a rejoinder is that comparing the movie to Fatal Attraction is a spoiler as well.) So some viewers must feel cheated.… Read more »

Two Weeks In Another Town

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

Though crippled by studio recutting that tried to adjust this neurotic 1962 melodrama for the family market, Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s novel is one of his last great pictures, reversing the Henry James model of innocent Americans encountering corruption abroad — it’s the Americans who are decadent here. Intelligently scripted by Charles Schnee, the film reunites the director, writer, producer (John Houseman), star (Kirk Douglas), and composer (David Raksin) of The Bad and the Beautiful, describing the attempted comeback of an alcoholic ex-star (Douglas), asked to help a director friend (Edward G. Robinson) with a new picture in Rome, who encounters both his destructive ex-wife (Cyd Charisse) and a redemptive young Italian woman (Daliah Lavi) in the process. George Hamilton plays a spoiled young actor who falls under Douglas’s tutelage, and Claire Trevor plays Robinson’s wife. The costumes, decor, and ‘Scope compositions show Minnelli at his most expressive, and the gaudy intensity — as well as the inside detail about the movie business — makes this compulsively watchable. 107 min. (JR)

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The Willow And The Wind

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J. R.

Willow and Wind

Abbas Kiarostami wrote the story for this charming Iranian suspense picture (1999), reportedly for director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), though it was eventually realized quite competently by Mohammad Ali Talebi. A variation on The Wages of Fear, it follows a schoolboy assigned the task of carrying a plate-glass window several miles through a windstorm to his schoolroom to replace one that’s broken. The landscape is beautiful, and the tale itself is pretty mesmerizing. 88 min. (JR)

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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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