This appeared in the May 14, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader, and occasioned one of the few thank-you notes I’ve received from a filmmaker for a review. I hope both Guy Maddin and those reading this will forgive me for immodestly reproducing his email: “Dear Jonathan: I usually try to avoid setting precedents that violate what should be a no-fly zone between critics and filmmakers, but I must say that your review of Saddest Music left me feeling understood at last!!! What a feeling. Thank you for supplying this euphoria. You also win bonus points for the Laura Riding discovery — I always liked her characters’ names. George Toles, who is terrified of reading reviews, will be thrilled to see his unsung name given its proper due. Not only that, you disabled Anthony Lane’s stinkbombs. A million thanks, Jonathan!! Warmest, Guy” — J.R.
The Saddest Music in the World
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by George Toles, Maddin, and Kazuo Ishiguro
With Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros,
David Fox, and Ross McMillan.
To Guy Maddin, every contemporary story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story. — screenwriter George Toles
When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity.… Read more »
From the March 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The year is supposed to be 1958, but because the filmmakers are Fargo’s Joel and Ethan Coen — the Beavis and Butt-head of starstruck independents, who clearly consider themselves better than history — what we get are various elements swiped from other movies made between 1929 and 1994, the year this was released. These massive borrowings, many from the screwball comedies of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Terry Gilliam (plus a giant clock from Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight), are mixed together with fancy sets to yield a jeering, dreamlike comedy with nothing much on its mind except how neat the Coen brothers are and how stupid or contemptible everybody else is, including everyone in the audience. This is a fantasy about the invention and mass marketing of the hula hoop as seen through the absurdist rise to executive power of a midwestern hayseed (Tim Robbins) gulled by both a cynical vice president (Paul Newman) and a cynical reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh). At its best it’s a free-form fantasy with glitzy, well-executed effects and assorted metaphysical conceits but little feeling for any of the characters apart from derision (with a few touches of racism here and there).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.
Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 4, 1994). — J.R.
A powerful, provocative, and highly disturbing Austrian film by Michael Haneke that focuses on the collective suicide of a young and seemingly “normal” family (1989). Prompted by Austria’s high suicide rate and various news stories, the film’s agenda is not immediately apparent; it focuses at first on the family’s highly repetitive life-style, taking its time establishing the daily patterns of the characters. The roles of television and money in their lives are crucial to what this film is about, but the absence of any obvious motives for the family’s ultimate despair is part of what gives this film its devastating impact. Its tact and intelligence, and also its reticence and detachment, make it a shocking and potent statement about our times — to my mind a work much superior to the two other films in Haneke’s trilogy about contemporary, affectless violence, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. With Birgit Doll, Dieter Berner, Leni Tanzer, and Udo Samel. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, November 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, November 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »
From the June 22, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Ontario Film Review Board has banned this history of U.S. marijuana laws because it contains 20 seconds of archival footage showing rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees smoking dope in a lab experiment. Apparently this violates the Ontario Theatres Act, which forbids abuse of an animal in making a film, although the board showed no concern about mice falling off a table or fish swimming sideways in the same sequence (at least the simians seem to be enjoying themselves). A better example of animal abuse might be compelling a filmmaker to submit his work to censors or incarcerating untold thousands of kids for having harmless fun while hypocritical state agents and presidents show an almost total lack of interest in the truth or falsity of their own antidrug propaganda. Director Ron Mann specializes in documentaries celebrating countercultural forms and practices (Comic Book Confidential, Twist, Poetry in Motion, Imagine the Sound); this hilarious yet frightening piece of agitprop, using found footage, period music, jaunty animated titles, and narration by Woody Harrelson (written by Solomon Vesta), is as entertaining and informative as anything Mann’s ever done and as good an example of grass humor as you’re likely to find.… Read more »