Four Corners

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1997). — J.R.

four-corners

The ninth feature of experimental filmmaker James Benning (11 x 14, One Way Boogie Woogie, Landscape Suicide, Deseret) is one of his most ambitious and powerful. Four Corners takes as its jumping-off point the famous tourist spot where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, but as a complex meditation on landscape, history, and painting, its subject is really the entire country (one of the longest passages deals with Milwaukee, where Benning grew up). The film examines four paintings by very dissimilar artists (Monet, Jasper Johns, a black man from Alabama, and a first-century Native American); presents biographical sketches of each painter; explores migration history, ethnic displacement, and conflicts in particular areas of Milwaukee or Four Corners; includes 13 fixed (and beautifully composed) shots of each area; and records two pieces of ethnic music (by a Navajo band and a prerap Harlem group). But Benning convinces us that nearly all these things are part of the same story, a politically potent one that brims with a sense of everyday life. (JR)

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The Sweet Hereafter

From the Chicago Reader (December 28, 1997). — J.R.

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Adapting a beautiful novel by Russell Banks, Atom Egoyan (Exotica) may finally have bitten off a little more than he can chew, but the power and reach of this undertaking are still formidable. At the tragic center of the story are the deaths of many children in a small town when a school bus spins out of control and sinks into a frozen lake (depicted in an extraordinary single shot that calls to mind a Brueghel landscape) and what this threatens to do to the community, especially after a big-city lawyer (a miscast, albeit effective, Ian Holm) turns up and tries to initiate litigation. Egoyan restructures Banks’s novel (which is narrated by several characters in turn and proceeds chronologically) into the kind of mosaic narrative used in his recent features and in most of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novels (in which several different time frames and narrative lines are intercut and proceed simultaneously). He also adds some material about the Pied Piper, capturing the essence of some parts of the book but simplifying most of the characters and making the mountainous setting more mythical. Virtually all of Egoyan’s features revolve around emotional traumas, but this one seems less obsessive — for good and ill.… Read more »

Heartbreak Motel [on TAPE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.

Tape ***

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Stephen Belber

With Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.

Tape

It seems that the less we know about a subject, the likelier we are to be assertive about it. And journalists play a big role in making people feel knowledgeable about what they don’t know. That’s why we keep encountering more and more twaddle about the state of world cinema even though the growth of digital video makes it impossible for anyone to keep up with the state of local cinema in any large city, much less any country, still less the world. All journalists can honestly say is that more and more works are being made and that keeping up with them is no longer possible. It was only days after an Iranian friend and I completed a book about Abbas Kiarostami that a New York critic E-mailed us about two new Kiarostami works we hadn’t even heard of — a ten-minute short for an episodic feature and a fiction feature in DV that he’s in the final stages of editing.

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DV equipment is so easy to shoot with –it’s compact, light, inexpensive, unobtrusive — that it’s hard to keep up with how filmmakers are using the technology.… Read more »

Wonders of the World [The Ten Best Films of 1997]

From the Chicago Reader (January 9, 1998). — J.R.

Do movies come from the tooth fairy? When you consider the way that they’re often treated in this culture — in particular, what films are made available and are therefore considered “important” — the working hypothesis appears to be that movies magically appear and disappear. The general idea is that the designated tooth fairies of product flow — producers, directors, distributors, exhibitors, and critics — make things happen and the only thing viewers are supposed to do is show up for the movie, rent the video, or decide to do neither.

Most viewers understandably don’t want to be bothered with the machinations that determine which movies turn up and which don’t. To tell the truth, most critics don’t want to be bothered with these matters either. But sustaining such innocence may involve too high a price. Readers who complain that 1997 was a mediocre year for movies are probably counting only the multiplex entries, only one of which made it onto my ten-best list — though why anyone would eliminate everything else in a city like Chicago remains a mystery, perhaps explainable by saturation advertising, mass-media complicity in making everything but multiplex movies look unimportant, and the supposed inconvenient locations of some theaters.… Read more »

Hamlet

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.

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It’s fitting that the most existential of plays should function as a kind of test, and fortunate that the first Michael Almereyda picture to get full mainstream exposure should also turn out to be his best to date. But what’s being tested isn’t either Shakespeare or Almereyda but the present moment: that is, the film asks how and how much we’re capable of living in the world Shakespeare wrote about. Wittily and tragically updating the play’s action to corporate America in general and New York in particular, Almereyda is no Orson Welles, but he begins to seem like one when he’s castigated for not doing his Shakespeare like Kenneth Branagh; the censure recalls all the times square and professional Laurence Olivier was used as a reproach to Welles’s hip “amateurism.” This is gloriously amateurish, the way all of Almereyda’s best movies are, so it’s rewarding to see how Julia Stiles’s Ophelia harks back to Suzy Amis in Almereyda’s Twister, how some of the intimate interiors recall Another Girl Another Planet (his second-best movie), and how the use of video as a kind of Greek chorus to the action, an Almereyda specialty, bears special fruit in a postmodernist climate where “To be or not to be” is recited in the action section of a Blockbuster and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, better than you’d expect) lards his video production of The Mousetrap with all sorts of found footage.… Read more »

Man on a Shoestring: An On-Location Report on Mark Rappaport’s IMPOSTORS

From American Film (October 1979). -– J.R.

 

The actors playing Chuckie and Mikey, a sinister vaudeville team dressed in matching tuxedos, top hats, and capes, are pretending to walk toward the camera. They move their feet without advancing anywhere. Behind them, a gigantic black-and-white blowup of a garden at Versailles, mounted on a platform, is slowly rolled away to further the partial illusion. Then they turn around and pretend to walk away from the camera, and the Versailles backdrop is slowly wheeled toward them. All this time the characters discuss a woman they have killed in Budapest.

“Think of it, ” Mikey says wistfully in a Russian accent. “I could have married a princess. ”

“All bourgeois dreams end the same way,’’ Chuckie replies in a disdainful tone. ”Marry royalty and escape.”

“OK, cut!” says Mark Rappaport, concluding the fifth and final take.

It’s the first day of shooting on Impostors, a macabre comedy by the Brooklyn-born independent filmmaker. The movie, Rappaport’s fifth feature, is being shot in his loft in the SoHo section of Manhattan, and spirits are running high. A young crew of about twenty persons — fifteen of them on the regular payroll — are clustered on one side of the loft.… Read more »

Belle de jour

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

belle-de-jour

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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