Monthly Archives: September 1999

Getting It Both Ways (AMERICAN BEAUTY)

From the September 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

American Beauty

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Alan Ball

With Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, and Allison Janney.

American Beauty is a brilliant satirical diagnosis of what’s most screwed up about life in this country, especially when it comes to sexual frustration and kiddie porn. Or American Beauty is a hypocritical piece of kiddie porn, brilliantly exploiting an audience’s sexual frustration and turning it into coin. Take your pick.

Paradoxical as it sounds, both of these statements may be true. American Beauty is, after all, a Hollywood movie, like The Graduate (1967) and Risky Business (1983), two somewhat comparable historical markers that gleefully conflate social criticism and fantasy wish fulfillment so you can’t tell them apart. Whether American Beauty will become a hit like those earlier movies is hard to predict, but if it doesn’t it won’t be for lack of trying. Like The Graduate, it sympathizes with rebellion and satirizes complacency, but that doesn’t stop it from taking digs at sexually deprived middle-aged women as if they were somehow the root of all evil.… Read more »

American Beauty


An unusually clever and shrewdly corrupt first feature (1999) by English stage director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, this deftly juggles satire about contemporary consumerist America (sexual obsession, gun worship, working out, capitalism) and fanciful wish fulfillment in the duplicitous Hollywood manner of The Graduate and Risky Business. Kevin Spacey, at his best, plays the disgruntled hero whose lust for his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari) gives him a new lease on life; Annette Bening does her best with the more caricatured part of his shrewish wife. But the moral heroes here are their teenage daughter (Thora Birch) and her weird and secretive next-door neighbor (Wes Bentley), both thoroughly and understandably disgusted with the adult world. Mendes uses the superlative cinematography of Conrad Hall to excellent advantage, has a sharp sense for how to employ pop music, and moves back and forth between reality and fantasy without missing a beat; Ball has an uncanny ability to make disparate characters suddenly rhyme with one another. With Chris Cooper and Peter Gallagher. R, 121 min. (JR)

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Hoodlum Soldier

From the Chicago Reader. I’ve lost track of when this was published, but I know it wasn’t in October 1985, which is listed on the Reader’s web site — over two years before I joined the staff there.  I would guess this probably appeared around fourteen years later. — J.R.


I’ve seen about a dozen of the 57 features directed by the fascinating and criminally neglected Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), and while no two are alike in style, many are socially subversive and most skirt the edges of exploitation filmmaking. This 1965 black-and-white ‘Scope comedy is also known as Yakuza Soldier; Shintaro Katsu, star of the popular Zatoichi films, plays an amiable, earthy yakuza thug drafted into Japan’s war with Manchuria prior to World War II, during which his main companion, the story’s narrator, is an intellectual with a similarly jaundiced view of military discipline. Made a year before the even more remarkable violent antiwar film Red Angel, this film features a lot of slapping and bone crunching, all of it administered by Japanese against other Japanese; significantly, the violence involving Manchurians is ignored. The irreverent ambience at times suggests Mister Roberts, with the pertinent difference that desertion is regarded as a sane and reasonable response to a soldier’s life.… Read more »

Voyage to the Beginning of the World

Voyage to the Beginning of the World

Born in 1908, Manoel de Oliveira is the only working director anywhere in the world who started his career in the silent era. For this meditative feature he enlisted the somewhat younger Marcello Mastroianni–in what proved to be Mastroianni’s last performance–to play someone very much like de Oliveira, an aging film director named Manoel setting out on a car trip with a few of his coworkers. Basically an exploration of the director’s Portuguese roots and the French and Portuguese roots of one of the actors, the film is laden with memories both personal and historical, and associations both cultural and familial; a moving (as well as slow-moving) road movie, it resembles many of de Oliveira’s other works in its paradoxical combination of 19th-century modernism and aristocratic Marxism. Not the least of its oddities is the fact that it starts out as a film about Manoel, then shifts focus halfway through to the French actor Jean-Yves Gautier, whose father was Portuguese and who’s meeting his Portuguese aunt for the first time. On the basis of a single viewing, I wouldn’t call this a great film on the level of de Oliveira’s Doomed Love or his recent Inquietude, but it’s one of his best since Valley of Abraham and one of his most accessible.… Read more »

Les bonnes femmes

Les bonnes femmes

Arguably the best as well as the most disturbing movie Claude Chabrol has made to date, this unjustly neglected 1960 feature, his fourth, focuses on the everyday lives and ultimate fates of four young women (Bernadette Lafont, Stephane Audran, Clotilde Joano, and Lucile Saint-Simon) working at an appliance store in Paris and longing for better things. Ruthlessly unsentimental yet powerfully compassionate, it shows Chabrol at his most formally inventive, and it exerted a pronounced influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz two decades later. A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, September 11, 4:00, 6:00, and 8:00, and Sunday, September 12, 8:15, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

Red Angel

From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1999). — J.R.


A shocking and controversial masterpiece, Yasuzo Masumura’s no-bullshit antiwar film tells of an army nurse (Mizoguchi discovery and Masumura regular Ayako Wakao) in the Sino-Japanese war who sexually services an amputee and falls in love with a drug-addicted surgeon. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope, this 1966 feature can’t be recommended to the squeamish or to viewers bound to the politically correct, but neither its nuanced eroticism nor its passionate, unpredictable moral focus can be easily shaken off. Roughly contemporary with M*A*S*H (as in Altman’s film, scenes of war-front surgery provide a corollary to Vietnam), it sometimes suggests a less comic treatment of the same theme — how to preserve one’s humanity amid impossible circumstances — but its ethics are considerably more developed. This single screening of a 35-millimeter print is an encore to Facets Multimedia Center’s revelatory Masumura retrospective last year, an opportunity equal to discovering Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, or Douglas Sirk. In some respects Red Angel is the strongest Masumura film I’ve seen, and on September 25 Facets will screen his Hoodlum Soldier (1965), which I haven’t [yet] seen; both screenings are part of an ongoing series, “The Return of the Japanese Outlaw Masters.” Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1999). — J.R.



Pushing 100, Portuguese writer-director Manoel de Oliveira is our oldest living film master, which makes it all the more astonishing that he’s averaged one feature a year since the ’80s. His finest work is bound to literature and theater, and this eccentric triptych (1998) is one of its absolute peaks. It consists of a one-act play (Prista Monteiro’s The Immortals) and a story by Antonio Patricio about four people who attend it, one of whom recounts the third story, Agustina Bessa-Luis’s The Mother of the River. The theme of this exquisite masterpiece, linking all three parts, is existential identity, played out in each case by two characters — father and son, playboy and prostitute, young village woman and ancient witch. The witch is played by Irene Papas, and de Oliveira can be seen dancing with his wife in the middle episode. In Portuguese with subtitles. 114 min. (JR)


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Folk wisdom is sprinkled immoderately into this comedy by writer-director-producer Lawrence Kasdan, about a popular psychologist named Mumford (Loren Dean) solving everyone’s problems in a small town of the same namethe old-fashioned charm and sweetness may remind you at times of stuff by John Ford starring Will Rogers. But the impression doesn’t last long, because most of the wisdom and the characters attached to it start to seem phony as soon as the movie’s over. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this while it lasted, especially for the cast: Jane Adams, Ted Danson, Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, David Paymer, Martin Short, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Alfre Woodard, and even Robert Stack in a funny cameo. (JR)… Read more »

For Love Of The Game

Near the end of his career, star pitcher Kevin Costner hurls a masterpiece while reviewing his life. Among the things he has to think about are Kelly Preston as the woman he loves and is losing, Jena Malone as her teenage daughter, and the serious hand injury he’s had to come back from. I can’t imagine what baseball fans will make of this protracted tearjerker and its tortured flashback structure, but fans of director Sam Raimi who welcomed his recent impulses to diversify (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan) after making his name as a horror specialist may have second thoughts. The actual culprit may be Costner, so bent on giving himself maximum screen time that I doubt even Carl Dreyer could have made much of the results, though I’m told that Universal reedited Costner’s version after he reedited Raimi’s. For the first 100 minutes or so I found this hokey but serviceable; after that my watch became more meaningful than anything I could locate on-screen. Adapted by Dana Stevens from a novel by Michael Shaara; with John C. Reilly and Brian Cox. (JR)… Read more »

Desert Blue

Despite a good cast including Christina Ricci and amiably laid-back plot development, this feature by young writer-director Morgan J. Freeman (Hurricane Streets)not to be confused with the actor Morgan Freemandidn’t really grab me when I watched it on video. Set in and around a California road stop with a population of 89, the story focuses on an unexpected romance between a young local (Brendan Sexton III) and a TV actress (Kate Hudson) stuck in town when a tank truck crashes and the FBI, fearing a toxic spill, quarantines the area. There’s more charm than momentum, but maybe it works better on the big screen. With John Heard, Casey Affleck, and Sara Gilbert. (JR)… Read more »

Absentor Something Like That

An interesting, varied, and often appealing program of experimental short films and videos. Shuk-Shan Lee’s The Sky When It Is a Sunny Dayat 18 minutes, the longest entry in the bunchis a lyrical look at the lives and hobbies of a few blind people, and I especially liked one of the music videos by Kirstin Grieve, made for the band Low, which mixes close-ups of musical details with slow-motion footage of boys playing in piles of autumn leaves. Also on the program, Andy Grieve and Justin Allen’s Red Breath; Carolyn Faber’s Iota (1998); Mary Roland’s The Cabbie (1998); Akiko Iwakawa’s Swing/Everything I Wanted (1997); Amie Siegel’s silent Inclusum Labor Illustrat (1996), which is mainly about fetuses; and Chris Eichenseer’s Goodbye and Rewind (1998). (JR)… Read more »

The Raven

Bela Lugosi has an obsession with Poe (apparently the main excuse for the title) and Boris Karloff is the criminal he treats to a nasty face-lift. The direction of this clammy 1935 horror item is credited to Louis Friedlander, which is actually Lew Landers in hidingperhaps understandably. 62 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mad Monster Party

This 1967 spoof features stop-motion animation and the voices of, among others, Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller; Jules Bass directed. 94 min.… Read more »

Finger Of Guilt

The fourth feature directed in England by American Joseph Losey (1956), credited pseudonymously to Joseph Walton due to the Hollywood blacklist, this serviceable but rarely screened thriller was released overseas in a version ten minutes longer as The Intimate Stranger. Scripted by Casablanca’s Howard Koch (another blacklisted expatriate at the time, signing himself Peter Howard) and shot on a shoestring in a dozen days, it concerns an American film producer (Richard Basehart) working in London whose job and marriage are threatened by an American actress (The Wild One’s Mary Murphy) claiming to be his mistress. It’s less effective than the English thrillers made during the same period by the similarly blacklisted Cy Endfield, though the uses made of an English filmmaking milieu are both convincing and fascinating, and it’s interesting to see Roger Livesey, a Michael Powell regular, turning up in a central part. It seems a Losey specialty to make almost all of his characters unpleasant, but the assured engagement of his best American work and subsequent English films like The Damned is only fitfully apparent here. With Mervyn Johns and Constance Cummings. (JR)… Read more »

Late August, Early September

What’s unexpected as well as moving about this 1998 film by Olivier Assayas, at least in relation to his other recent features (Cold Water, Irma Vep), is how sweet tempered most of it is. Split into six chapters, with several weeks or months separating one section and the next, it follows a group of close friendsmainly a novelist who’s just turned 40 (Francois Cluzet) and is becoming ill, a writer-editor in his 30s (Mathieu Amalric), and their current and former lovers (Virginie Ledoyen, Jeanne Balibar, Arsinee Khanjian, and Mia Hansen-Love). What we don’t know about these charactersand what we don’t see in certain scenesis often as interesting and as important as what we know and see, and Assayas’s sense of how relationships evolve between people over time is conveyed with a rich and vivid novelistic density. With Nathalie Richard and Alex Descas. In French with subtitles. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »