I don’t believe in fixing things that aren’t broken. Sandra Nettelbeck’s wholly accessible Mostly Martha (2001) is one of the most delightful comedies of recent years, so the idea of a remake with English instead of German dialogue is already pretty dubious, an insult to the capacities of both audiences and the original filmmakers. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a neurotic chef trying to get along with both her eight-year-old niece (Abigail Breslin), whose mother has been killed, and a sous chef (Aaron Eckhart) who joins her kitchen staff. She’s miscast, but she can’t be blamed for lacking the verve and smarts Martina Gedeck showed in the original: Carol Fuchs’s silly, mushy script has her character swerve without warning between obtuse rigidity and sweet normalityto make her believable would have been all but impossible. Scott Hicks directed, and even the usually adept Patricia Clarkson as the heroine’s boss is set adrift. PG, 103 min. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: July 2007
For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller–rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later–as Cukor’s fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. Screening in 16-millimeter; 95 min. Admission is free. a Sat 7/28, 7 and 9 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films. –Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 26, 2007). — J.R.
The raison d’être for this three-part 2004 anthology was finding a project for ailing Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, in his early 90s, whose segment, The Dangerous Thread of Things, is drawn from three sketches in his book That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. It’s clumsily acted and closer to standard porn than anything else he’s done, though it’s also characteristic of his late work in its sensitivity to modernist architecture and its fascination with the silences and antagonisms of an unhappy couple. The one masterpiece here is Wong Kar-wai’s moving The Hand, a visually exquisite and highly erotic period piece about a prostitute (Gong Li) and her tailor (Chang Chen). The complete washout is Steven Soderbergh’s flashy Equilibrium, a heartless, unerotic, and ultimately pointless black comedy with a 1950s setting. I guess one out of three ain’t bad. In English and subtitled Mandarin and Italian. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
I’m pretty sure that this was the first submitted draft of my commissioned Op Ed piece for the New York Times, written in late July, 2007. It comes far closer to what I felt at the time than the version that emerged after three separate rewrites were requested by my editor, Mark Lotto, which was published on August 4, and which I haven’t much desire to reprint. Typically, the title that was run with the piece, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” wasn’t mine, yet paradoxically (if understandably) this was what many readers seemed to find most objectionable.
I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to illustrate the attic scene that I describe in The Magician, so I’ve substituted a still from Sawdust and Tinsel at the head of this piece that suggests some spatial disorientation. [2015 postscript: a generous reader, Dan Roy, has helped me out with the attic scene.] –- J.R.
If memory serves, my first taste of Ingmar Bergman was The Magician, seen at the 5th Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, en route from a New England boarding school to my home in Alabama during spring break. The key moment for me in this 19th century tale was when the title hero — the mute Vogler (Max von Sydow), one of Bergman’s many ironic self-portraits of the artist as resentful outsider — takes revenge on a skeptical patron by submitting him to a series of harsh spatial confusions in an attic.… Read more »
My Afterword to the second edition (paperback) of my 2004 collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.
“Unwitting omissions —- films I’ll eventually hate myself for having overlooked — are inevitable,” I wrote in December 2003, introducing my list of 1,000 personal favorites, “largely because I haven’t come up with any sure-fire method of recalling or tabulating everything I’ve seen, or even everything I can remember seeing.” Even when I wrote this, I could scarcely imagine I’d omit a film as important as Chimes at Midnight (1966) from my list —- an oversight that illustrates my point all too well. No less vexing was the absence of Flaming Creatures (1963), a film celebrated elsewhere in the same book, and the silly blunder of renaming Crimson Gold (2003) Crimson Red – though at least I was able to correct these latter gaffes, as well as restore a missing accent to Tangos volés (2002), in the book’s second printing. (In the case of Flaming Creatures, this addition was managed ecologically by omitting The Disorderly Orderly  from my list on the same page.)
I discovered the omission of Chimes at Midnight later, from a blog, while cruising the Internet.… Read more »
Writer-director Steve Buscemi fulfills a cherished project of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 2004, with this English-language remake of van Gogh’s hastily done two-hander Interview (2003), written by van Gogh’s friend Theodor Holman. Van Gogh was a deliberately unpleasant provocateur, and his hand is evident in this playlike encounter between a political reporter (Buscemi) and the schlock TV actress he’s assigned to interview (Sienna Miller). But the good direction and performances seem wasted on limited material; despite a few interesting twists and ambiguities, the main revelationthat the reporter is an insufferable snobdoesn’t seem worth the 84 minutes devoted to spelling it out. R. (JR)… Read more »
For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thrillerrather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century lateras Cukor’s fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
Paul Giamatti plays a stuttering everyman, an apartment-building janitor who’s itching for redemption and finds it in the shape of a new age allegory by M. Night Shyamalan. More specifically, he finds a fairy-tale nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living under the building’s swimming pool and menaced by occult beasties until the tenants join forces against them. It’s hard to think of a deadlier shotgun marriage than Jacques Tourneur’s poetry of absence and Spielbergian uplift, but Shyamalan has patented the combo, adding pretentious camera movements that are peculiarly his own–even the jokes are pretty solemn. But count on Christopher Doyle’s lush cinematography and a lively cast to take up the slack. With Bob Balaban, Jeffrey Wright, Sarita Choudhury, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Jared Harris, and Shyamalan, playing a writer. PG-13, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »
This 2001 German feature is the fourth adaptation of Erich Kastner’s 1928 novel, about a 12-year-old boy who gets robbed en route to Berlin and enlists a team of street kids (the detectives of the title) to recover his money. I haven’t seen the celebrated first version, released in Germany in 1931, though I suspect its time and place are more hospitable to the tale’s collectivist feeling (the plot has some interesting parallels to Fritz Lang’s M). This version favors action and sight gags over characters or milieu, and it updates the story to include skateboarding, hip-hop, and a different family setup for the young hero. It’s a pretty good kids’ movie, nothing more. In German with subtitles. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »
D.H. Lawrence wrote three versions of the novel that we know as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Pascale Ferran adapts the second version, John Thomas and Lady Jane (the pet names of Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper lover for their sex organs) into a masterful 168-minute piece of storytelling (2006) that never ceases to be gripping in spite of its measured pace. Ferran proves that a distinction between sensual and sexual art is worth making. There are also class issues: the heroine (Marina Hands) is happily married to an invalid, impotent war veteran (Hippolyte Girardot) who signals his acceptance of someone else from the same class fathering his heir. But since it’s his gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), the affair’s kept secret. Ferran’s sureness in charting every step in the couple’s discovery of each other never falters; when they eventually find the opportunity to remove their clothes before having sex, it’s a major achievement, and celebrated as such. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
A 1928 silent feature by Mikhail Kalatozov, who years later directed the remarkable I Am Cuba and The Letter That Was Not Sent. In Russian with subtitles. 55 min. (JR)… Read more »
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color feature (1964) uses colors expressionistically, and to get the precise hues he wanted, he had entire fields painted. The film came at the end of his most fertile period, just after L’Avventura, La Notte, and Eclipse, and it isn’t as good as the first and last of these, but the ecological concerns look a lot more prescient today. Monica Vitti plays a neurotic married woman briefly attracted to industrialist Richard Harris, and Antonioni does eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround her; she walks through a science fiction landscape dotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities. Like any self-respecting Antonioni heroine, she’s looking for love and meaning and mainly finding sex. But the film’s most spellbinding sequence depicts a pantheistic, utopian fantasy of innocence, which she recounts to her ailing son. In Italian with subtitles. 118 min. a Sat 7/14, 3 PM, and Thu 7/19, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »
This is the second of my bimonthly columns written for Cahiers du Cinéma España, which ran in their third (July-August 2007) issue. It seems fitting to post it now, three years later, because I’m back at the same festival again, serving again on the FIPRESCI jury. It’s hard not to feel an immense sadness about the intervening death (by murder, in Manila, along with his Slovenian partner Nika Bohinc) of Alexis Tioseco, my fellow juror, who can be seen here in the first photo, on the far right. This was most likely taken by Olaf Möller, one of the festival’s programmers, who can be seen in the second photo below, taken by Alexis.
Amit Dutta, incidentally, whose Kramasha won our FIPRESCI prize three years ago, will be attending the festival for the first time this year, and presenting a program tomorrow night. (Update, a day later: Unfortunately, Dutta had to cancel his visit due to health reasons, but two programs of his films will still be presented.) – J.R.
The prospect of attending a festival of short films has always seemed difficult to me because of the number of aesthetic gear changes involved in moving from one film to the next.… Read more »
From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.
The Triumph of the American Imagination
by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.
This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.
Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »
Ironically, the feeling of almost random drift that periodically recurs in Michelangelo Antonioni’s filmsbringing mysterious density and poetry to his narratives even when the source of this drift appears to be touristicbecomes disastrous when it forms the shaky basis for his only extended documentary. His three-part 1972 miniseries about China, attacked by the Chinese government at the time for both defensible and indefensible reasons, looks rather formless today because it lacks a coherent agenda. The best sequence, in part one, shows a successful cesarean section performed on a cheerful, conscious woman, with acupuncture used as the sole anesthetic; the one with least point, in part three, shows acrobats and jugglers performing onstage. Made at the onset of what now seems like Antonioni’s artistic decline, this documentary can’t hold a candle to Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s less politically skeptical but more focused How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976). In Italian with subtitles. 217 min. (JR)… Read more »