Peter Byrne | Chicago Reader

Recent Reviews

Re: “Roma

In Mexico City 1970 our attention fixes on a young woman, Cleo, who works as a live-in maid. She is one of three servants, all of indigenous blood, working for a middle-class family of European stock. The family is young too, with four small children. Cleo, reliable and loving, is happy in her job though it's not easy. She shows no resentment at being a servant. The family also leads a happy life complete with the ups and downs that growing children bring. Abrupt change comes when Cleo, innocent and open, gets pregnant by her first lover who quickly abandons her. At the same time the couple she works for breaks up, the husband deserting.

So we have two women, each with a problem, and will learn how each reacts to her predicament. The brilliance of Alfonso Cuaron's storytelling is that everything that happens will be seen from Cleo's vantage point. In her simplicity and seriousness, she clings to her experience, standing above Mexican events of the year, student revolt, Beatles' songs, political sleaze, and incipient Fascism.

A poor girl from the country, easy-going but not loose, Cleo takes her role in life as well as the role of the middle-class that employs her as givens, inalterable, the work of fate or God, never questioned. To her problem, pregnancy, Cleo has a visceral relation. It is tragic, life-shaping and will mark her forever, be her destiny.

The deserted wife, on the other hand, has money and connections. She can get a well-paying job if necessary. Moreover, a middle-class woman isn't doomed by the mistakes she makes. She can always survive them, even make them again. Her freedom in this regard makes her short on seriousness in the way she lives. She can play life as a game.

Now, as a social critic Cuaron doesn't oppose good people to bad people. That's why Kathleen Sachs calls him "ambiguous". He doesn't see anyone in particular as responsible for there being rich and poor. It's simply the system and taken for granted. Cleo's employer actually wants to help her, considers her part of the family. She's not an evil woman but merely a foolish one. We see this in her carelessness that forces Cleo to risk her life, saving the children at the seaside.

As a director, Cuaron likes big scenes. The forest fire, the students' riot, Cleo's giving birth, her combat with the surf are all impressive and make us forgive him for his quirky, pet passages like that big 70s car endlessly trying to get into a space too small for it.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 12/12/2018 at 12:42 PM

Re: “The Leopard

Reading this review over, I'm amused to see the Ambersons, small town-big shots, considered the opposite numbers of the centuries-old Lampedusa line. Tarkington and Welles surely used 'Magnificent' with a twist of irony. Giuseppe Tomasi Lampedusa was telling the story of his great-grandfather, Prince Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, in the novel and film, Prince Fabrizio Salina. The author's full titles were 12th Duke of Parma, 11th Prince of Lampedusa, Baron della Torretta and Grandee of Spain, first class. So he knew what he was talking about. In this context, we can see the significance of Claudia Cardinale's vulgar peel of laughter at the aristos' table. Their world was over.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 12/08/2018 at 3:19 PM

Re: “

The recent restoration of 'The Apartment' spreads a snack of nostalgic tidbits. Despite the timid recall in 'Mad Men', we might have forgotten the drunken blur that ended the mid-century office year. The Xmas Christmas party was the suburban execs' suit-and-tie orgy. Bologna worked on the fresh version of the movie and I saw it with an Italian audience. The scene of the bachelor preparing spaghetti drew more moans of pain than laughs. It wasn't so much that he used a tennis racket to strain the pasta. That would have done on a desert island like Manhattan. But when he dropped the meatballs on the mess like spent golfballs, it hurt.

Jack Lemmon worries us by beginning with such contorted body language we fear that we shall all be physical wrecks in the next hour or so. However, as he gets involved dramatically with calmer actors he pulls his character together and stands up straight like any leading man. We try throughout to keep from asking what was so good about Shirley MacLaine.

Built around I.A.L. Diamond's dialogue and static situations, this was a script for the stage. It could have been done in a single set--apartment and hallway. Plaudits to Billy Wilder for an opening-out job that didn't call attention to itself.

'The Apartment' scooped up honors and Oscars in 1960. But Wilder never got the grand career prize he should have. That would have been for the director with the best nose for corruption who was also the best at capping an exposure of deceit with a final curtain that let the mindless go home pleased with themselves. Wilder could put a happy ending on a funeral. He was surrounded by directors who might root out nastiness. Unfortunately, they always made the public regret having coughed up for their ticket. This is a story of pimping for promotion that some critics have called sentimental, which proves just how good Wilder was at polishing turds.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 12/04/2018 at 5:45 AM

Re: “On Chesil Beach

Why does the prospect of another British movie based on a quite decent novel make us shudder? After all, there will always be those pretty shots of the countryside, maybe a stop at a rustic pub, and of course seasoned performances from a reservoir of accomplished actors? The short answer is that cinema isn't literature and that a novel can be the worst sort of script material. Moreover, the better the novel, the more elements of it we won't be permitted to discard.

'On Chesil Beach' is the perfect example. The fact that Ian McEwan, author of the 2007 novel, did the script means he can't shift the blame. The story begins in the early 1960s which are, according to the cliche, 'lovingly' reconstructed. In fact 'obsessively precise' would be exact. The former imperial power (see Brexit) has a thing about the past. What British movies that refigure bygone days are actually doing is simply celebrating the reconstruction itself. (Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's detail is impeccable, but so what?) An able director can do as much harm as good. For, as with Dominic Cook in this case, he will often have gained his spurs directing stage productions.

One doesn't expect historical veracity. Why should we in a dramatic medium? Nevertheless, when the plot turns on a change in manners, how-things-were has to be respected. The story called for a couple of virgins (Billy Howle and an excellent Saoirse Ronan) marrying in 1962 without any knowledge at all about how sexual congress can be effected. A year or two passes, the Beatles perform, and the separated couple and the general population become adept in bed or on the greensward of the Sceptred Isle. The wonder is that children were ever conceived before marijuana came in.

Such brutal time shifts can be softened in a novel, a form that is all about passing time. A movie, unlike a short story, can't manage it. That's why the transformation of the ex-bridegroom, in the space of five cinema minutes, from a suit-and-tie stick-in-the-mud to a bleary-eyed hipster is ridiculous. Even more so, is the jump into old age of the failed couple that tidies up the story at the very end.

McEwan's novelist's way of storytelling can be annoying. He offers us the fiasco of the couple's first and only night as a great tease. While they are on the hotel bed struggling without success to get their clothes off flashbacks rain down in a cloudburst. All that must have looked good on the page. Each word they utter introduces a return to incidents in their earlier life. We are more impatient than they are to see the business in hand climax.

The moral clangs down at the movie's end. The too-demanding young male should have accepted the no-sex neutrality his one-day bride offered. Love is greater than sex. But wait a minute...Is that what the Beatles were going on about?

Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/21/2018 at 4:49 AM

Re: “Rocco and His Brothers

Restored by the Cinematheque of Bologna, Luchino Visconti's 1960 'Rocco e I suoi fratelli' has been available since 2016. It gleams again with all the black-and-white splendor imparted by the cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Moreover, it includes what was removed by various censors. A half-hour had been cut from the American version where the thrusts of the knife in the film's one murder were considered excessive and reduced from thirteen stabs to three. So we missed Visconti's point that with a small knife it's a long job to kill someone. The effort involved reveals the killer's character. But the film was a moralist's playground. The city of Milan, for instance, banned the film even after forty-five minutes had been cut.

The city fathers were right to have their feelings bruised like any slighted person portrayed in a work of art. A mother and five sons arrive in its bosom from the dirt-poor and archaic far south. They want to participate in the economic miracle that Italy boasted for a few years before and after 1960. Milan and its new-found energy will be an actor in the family drama. It should be remembered that Italy's transition to modernity was so swift as to be traumatic. In a sense, the whole country suffered the same cultural shock that matriarch Rosaria's brood did. The entire peninsula felt an unease bordering on guilt for leaving the old ways. Prosperity and plenty seemed not altogether legitimate.

This explains the commercial success of 'Rocco' in Italy. So somber and cruel, it seemed like anything but a crowd pleaser. However, because it was an epic of the present that everyone was going through, its appeal was enormous. Adjusting to the new ways was everybody's problem. One family was shown at grips with it. That Visconti had used Dostoyevski's 'The Idiot' and Thomas Mann's 'Joseph and His Brothers' to shape his script was no matter to this public. They were riveted by how the Italian earth mother and each of her five bumptious boys would cope with the new life.

American film critics surprisingly failed to see the parallel between Italy's internal migration and the great upheaval earlier in the century that brought north so many poor from the southern states. The motivations were, after all, the same. Industry needed hands and the impoverished needed jobs. There were many differences of course but one stands out. Italians as a whole, not only the migrants, felt they were losing something in the move to modernity. In America, no-one but the migrants themselves cared about what they were losing. White northerners considered the newcomers at best a necessary evil and at worst social pariahs. They were black.

Some American critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum among them, also surprised us by finding misogyny in the film. This would presumably be based in the main on the character Nadia, a prostitute the family comes up against in the city. Two sons claim her in love, one of them murders her. Now Nadia is among Visconti's greatest creations. Naturally, she is nobody's role model. She's a human figure that glides through the film like a serpent, embodying, along with her own doubts and contradictions, the danger awaiting these immigrants from another culture in their new habitat. She's what Italians felt about the boom: It wasn't quite legitimate and had no lasting foundation.

The other women of the story are realistic portraits reflecting the manners of the time: The Queen Bee and Mater Dolorosa Rosaria (Katrina Paxinou, the great Greek tragedian); Ginetta, the disquiet family-ridden young woman of the new generation unable to step beyond a housewife-mother role (Claudia Cardinale); the flock of girls employed in the laundry and their matron boss who offer themselves as victims to any male wandering like a fox into the chicken coop. One could wish that all these women would have been more demanding and independent, but Visconti has drawn them as they were.

Not enough has been said of Visconti's ability to bring actors to a higher level. Annie Giradot (Nadia) and Renato Salvatori (Simone), never better than here, were often mediocre under other directors. Alain Delon (Rocco) may have been miscast, but Visconti obtained more from him than the actor would ever give elsewhere. The cast appeared seamless though it was in good part foreign. The French had to be dubbed by Italian actors. (Even Italian speakers were overdubbed by other Italian actors, a general practice in Italy then.)

Did Rocco sew the seeds of "the casual conceptual misogyny of Scorsese, Coppola, and Cimino"? That seems a tall order and an exaggeration of the power of influence. What we can say is that Coppola's takeaway from this film was to hire its remarkable composer Nino Rota for 'The Godfather'. That moments of "homoerotic intensity" crop up in Visconti's work is natural enough. He was homosexual. "Quasi-incestuous delirium" has to be understood in the context of Visconti's style. You could say it of most operas and Visconti's approach was operatic. Opera is always overheated, that's its nature. The important thing for one adopting the style is to make it pay and sustain it throughout, which he does as always to the last frame, you could almost say with a vengeance.

1 like, 0 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/14/2018 at 8:38 AM

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Recent Comments

Re: “With Bill Daley running for mayor, it’s good to remember what happened the last time we turned Chicago over to the Daleys

Jeffrey W.: Here we go again. The old Chicago refrain, They're the devil, but the devil we know, because they've made use of us before. Besides, it's a scary world out there beyond Daleyville. Lil' children are safer in a hereditary monarchy.

0 likes, 1 dislike
Posted by Peter Byrne on 12/09/2018 at 9:43 AM

Re: “A.O. Scott's criticism colloquium comes to Seminary Co-op

"Better Living Through Chemistry
By A.O. Scott (Penguin)"

So that's it. The Reader is replacing criticism with chemistry.

Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/29/2018 at 4:09 PM

Re: “Writer A.S. Hamrah on the crisis in film criticism


Your disquiet is understandable. No more J. R. Jones and Ben Sachs less present. Instead of these superb writers, we have a long chat on the crisis in film criticism. Ominous and ironic. The only appeal of the Reader beyond the city limits is in its tradition of good writing on movies.

6 likes, 4 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/29/2018 at 10:50 AM

Re: “Writer A.S. Hamrah on the crisis in film criticism

The death knell for film critics that runs through this interview is invigorating. We don't need them. When Hamrah or Rosenbaum write what they like or dislike about a movie, they are writers, not film critics. We don't want their balanced judgments or "recommendations". We want their enthusiasm or lack of it in prose that moves us one way or another. When they pinpoint distinctions between film buffs, cinephiles, and the ignorant of film history, or weight up the difference between film and movie, then they are film critics, parasites in a non-profession. The names and dates, cast lists and dribbles of biography they truck in could be delivered by some database or sleepy robot. So R.I.P. film critics, you are well out of it. Listen to Joan Didion and risk full-time writing:
"Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiriting self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place."

3 likes, 7 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/27/2018 at 12:16 PM

Re: “Dovlatov and Outlaw King take pains to present the past as their audiences would prefer to see it

So you're nationalistic about beer too? I'd like to see Scotland independent and adding its many accomplishments to the European Union. But let's stop trying to resuscitate romantic tribalism with takes on 14th-century events. That only encourages scare-mongering populism.

2 likes, 1 dislike
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/26/2018 at 8:16 AM

Re: “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes place in the Harry Potter universe, but it lacks the magic

Sure, and kids love Santa Claus. Let's launch a franchise about him and his beard.

"Pointless banter"=Other people's opinions.

5 likes, 2 dislikes
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/26/2018 at 7:45 AM

Re: “Goodbye to Tony Adler, the best weekly theater critic Chicago's ever had

Tony Adler was always worth reading. So was J. R. Jones. That's the best compliment you can pay a writer.

29 likes, 1 dislike
Posted by Peter Byrne on 11/26/2018 at 7:09 AM

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