From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.
Alain Resnais’ first feature in English (1977, 110 min.) focuses on the imagination, dreams, and memories of an aging British novelist (John Gielgud) over one night as he mentally composes and recomposes his last book, using members of his immediate family — Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner, and Elaine Stritch — as his models. Although David Mercer’s witty, aphoristic script can be British to a fault, the film’s rich mental landscape is a good deal more universal, with everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s werewolves to a painted seaside backdrop providing the essential textures. Like all of Resnais’ best work, this is shot through with purposeful and lyrical enigmas, but the family profile that emerges is warm and penetrating, recalling the haunted Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night rather than the pieces of an abstract puzzle. The superb performances and Miklos Rozsa’s sumptuous Hollywood-style score give the film’s conceit a moving monumentality and depth, and Resnais’ insights into the fiction-making process are mesmerizing and beautiful. This is showing in a 16-millimeter print, but later in the evening the Film Center will present 35-millimeter prints of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Along with Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Melo (1986), these three powerful works are Resnais’ greatest features. Gene Siskel Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, October 28, 3:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
The angels are newDrew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liubut the mythology of the old TV show, with John Forsythe intoning the offscreen Voice of God (i.e., Charlie), remains the same. The first third or so offers all the dominatrix fantasies one might wish for, but then fantasy gives way to the aggressiveness of the special effects and optical effects, which reflect the background of the director, McG, in commercials and music videos and offer something like mild but frequent electric shocks. The plot fluctuations guarantee a costume change every few minutesat least until the closing stretch, when the movie becomes simply another James Bond derivativeand they might be enough to keep you interested. Bill Murray makes a fairly funny Bosley, and Tim Curry, Kelly Lynch, and Crispin Glover all do pretty well as heavies. The script is credited to Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August. 92 min. (JR)
With no prior training in film, 21-year-old Londoner Marc Singer set out to make this 16-millimeter black-and-white documentary about the homeless people living in the tunnels under New York’s Penn Station. Singer’s six-year quest–including a brief stint of being homeless himself–deserves notice, and in a way I’m disappointed that the film omits it. But what’s most remarkable and fascinating here are the squatters, who do a pretty good job of explaining themselves without any outside narrator (and who, in countless ways, assisted Singer in shooting the film). The lives of these people inside their shacks are full of surprises (one keeps several dogs as pets, another shaves with an electric razor and a broken mirror) as well as grim confirmations (the self-loathing misery of a crackhead who lost her children in a fire), but the things we don’t know about them also significantly shape our experience of the film. Their underground sojourn came to an end when Amtrak evicted them and the Coalition for the Homeless found them normal housing. Despite its title, the film seems excessively (or at the very least prematurely) cheerful in its closing stretch. Still, this is an eye-opening tale of how part of our population lives, and as an authentic image of material suffering it makes something like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark seem even more dubious. 84 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, October 20 through 26.
I had fun with this Harold Ramis remake of the 1968 Stanley Donen comedyabout an obnoxious nebbish who strikes a Faustian bargain with the devilas long as I didn’t worry about the character of the nebbish, played by Brendan Fraser, who starts off unbelievably stupid and winds up ridiculously enlightened. Much more believable and witty is the devil, incarnated by Elizabeth Hurley as a steamy babe, while the beautiful and ethereal woman the nebbish dreams about, adequately played by Frances O’Connor, isn’t much more than a prop. Each of the seven wishes the nebbish is granted yields a separate comic sketch in which he fulfills his fantasy but doesn’t gain his prizethe same structure as the original, which was British and basically consisted of sketch humor by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. The only washouts are the sketches in which the hero is supposed to be sensitive or intelligent and witty, these being nothing but assemblies of stupid stereotypes. In other words, this is well crafted and mindless in the best Hollywood tradition. Larry Gelbart and Peter Tolan collaborated with Ramis on the script. 93 min. (JR)
Last week I congratulated the Chicago International Film Festival for failing to attract more Hollywood studio interest, thereby making it easier for us to see good movies without being pressured by hefty advertising budgets. But this week I feel obliged to point out that the Chicago festival’s organizers probably wouldn’t have minded more Hollywood hoopla. I’ve noticed over the past several years that they tend to hold most of their high-profile events during the opening weekend, reserving many of the less glitzy items for the second week. Perhaps they believe that if they can persuade the public to come to something in the first few days, the remainder of the festival will take care of itself.
As a sworn opponent of this kind of “opening night” snobbery, I can’t help noting that some of the most significant, if less glamorous, movie events occurring in town this week have nothing to do with the festival. Two of Alain Resnais’ lesser-known experiments with musical form are playing at the Film Center; one of them, the 1984 Love Unto Death, has never been shown in Chicago before. Two even more scarce and seminal French experimental films, both from 1968, are playing at Facets Multimedia Center: Jackie Raynal’s Deux fois and Philippe Garrel’s La revelateur–neither of which is likely to come this way again. And there’s a preview of the new Abbas Kiarostami feature, The Wind Will Carry Us, at the Film Center. Love Unto Death happens to be a failure, but I’d gladly swap the complete oeuvres of Claude Lelouch and Lena Wertmuller–two Chicago festival favorites–along with this week’s A Belly Full, The Yards, and Captain Pantoja and the Special Service for any Resnais film, even this one. Resnais’ rarely screened Life Is a Bed of Roses is also at the Film Center; I saw it 17 years ago and am dying to take a second look.
These five nonfestival works are important in the history of film. If I were to try to decide which new films at the festival that I’ve seen belong in their company, I’d pick only a couple of those showing this weekend, Chantal Akerman’s The Captive and Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. Neither has a high-profile Hollywood star or director–which may have something to do with why they didn’t play last weekend. But the locations in the first are positively luscious, and the female lead in the second is Hanna Schygulla; she’s one of the greatest stars discovered by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and hasn’t been seen in movies for years.
The Chicago festival’s idea of what’s important to film history–when it bothers to consider it–is rather weird. In its program it describes its “Critic’s Choice Series” (which I’m participating in, having chosen the remarkable original version of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) as follows: “We set loose six of Chicago’s top critics upon the history of world cinema. Here are their picks.” I wasn’t asked to pick something that represented the history of world cinema, but if that’s the way they want to characterize the choices, half of them were made this year, none was made prior to 1968, and four are in English–a pretty confined definition of the history of world cinema. The problem here isn’t so much Chicago as it is contemporary film festivals in general. Reexamining or rediscovering great films from the past is currently seen, alas, as the province of museums, video rental stores, and cable TV–unless live musical accompaniment can be added to a silent feature and the package sold as a “special event,” which the Chicago festival has rarely shown much interest in. These films simply don’t have what I’ll call “moneyed importance,” in terms of media positioning and promotion–something lousy contemporary movies unfortunately have just because they’re current.
Screenings this second and final week are being held at the Music Box (3733 N. Southport), at 600 N. Michigan (entrance at the corner of Rush and Ohio), and at the University of Chicago Doc Films, at the Max Palevsky Cinema (1212 E. 59th St.). Single ticket prices are $5 for weekday matinees (Monday through Friday before 5 PM); $6 for weekend matinees (Saturday and Sunday before 5 PM); $10 for all shows after 5 PM, $8 for Cinema/Chicago members. Passes that are good for everything but closing night, awards night, critic’s choice programs, and special presentations are also available, and are good for up to two tickets per screening; they cost $50 (six tickets, seven for Cinema/ Chicago members), $110 (16 tickets, 18 for Cinema/Chicago members), or $250 (50 tickets). For $54 you can see the four remaining critic’s choice offerings, which are otherwise $15 each, the same price as awards night. Special presentations are $13, $11 for Cinema/Chicago members. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office at least 15 minutes prior to screening; they can also be ordered by mail (Cinema/Chicago, 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601), by fax (312-425-0944), or by phone (312-332-3456; Ticketmaster, 312-902-1500). For more information call 312-332-3456.