I probably could enjoy Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes performing the Manhattan phone directory—which might be almost as edifying as this partly fictionalized HBO movie about Doris Duke, the socialite and philanthropist who died in 1993, and Bernard Lafferty, the gay Irishman who became her butler and best friend. Director Bob Balaban, known mainly as an actor, performed wonders with his features Parents (1989) and The Last Good Time (1994); he’s been directing TV ever since, and he does what he can with Hugh Costello’s arch script. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: January 2008
Just as Woody Allen now omits the early What’s Up, Tiger Lily? from his filmography, Japanese director Shohei Imamura might have been insulted by the idea that anyone could prefer this modest farce (1958) to his vastly more ambitious comedy The Profound Desire of the Gods, made a decade later. But its story about the dream life of a henpecked nerd who works at his wife’s Tokyo pharmacy is perfectly suited to the director’s high-spirited vulgarity. The performances of the title pop tune, with its borrowings from the Western alphabet, are especially giddy. Also known as Nishi Ginza Station. In Japanese with subtitles. 52 min. (JR)… Read more »
One of the best and most ambitious features by Shohei Imamura, this farcical fable (1968), set on a tropical island, probably won… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2008). — J.R.
The fifth feature by Jia Zhang-ke, China’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, is set in the vicinity of China’s immense Three Gorges, where the ongoing construction of the world’s largest dam has already forced the relocation of almost two million people. Against this epic canvas, their paths crisscrossing but never intersecting, a coal miner and a nurse (both from Jia’s home province of Shanxi) search for their former mates. This 2006 drama may seem to be worlds apart from the surreal theme-park setting of Jia’s previous film, The World, but there are similarities of theme, style, scale, and tone: social and romantic alienation in a monumental setting, a daring poetic mix of realism and lyrical fantasy, and an uncanny sense of where our planet is drifting. In Mandarin and Shanxi with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)
Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem has a feel for the light, shade, colors, and textures of a scenic mountain village, which he shoots gracefully in ‘Scope, often following people along various passageways. He also has a leisurely and not always convincing way of dealing with the troubled lives of three village kids, and his taste for pretentious music and portentous section headings suggest he doesn’t always know when to leave well enough alone. This 2006 feature works better in terms of mood than storytelling. In Turkish with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jia Zhang-ke’s touching and accomplished first feature (1997), cast entirely with nonprofessional actors, is somewhat uncharacteristic in that it’s basically a character study. Set in Jia’s Chinese hometown (Fenyang in Shanxi province), it focuses on a rather pathetic pickpocket who runs a small gang of younger thieves. His profession makes him an outcast and his romantic and social possibilities are steadily shrinking. Though the film lacks the epic sweep of Jia’s subsequent features (Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life), it imparts much about the provincial town, and it’s so impressive in its own right that I can understand why some prefer it to his later work. In Shanxi with subtitles. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »
Chicago Reader Blog post and some responses about OPERA JAWA and its review in the New York Times (January 16-21, 2008)
The following blog post provoked 68 comments, 16 of which I’ve elected to retain here. — J.R.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The New York Times returns to its philistine roots
Posted by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Wed, Jan 16, 2008 at 4:11 PM
I’ve been reflecting lately that the film coverage these days in the New York Times — thanks to the lively prose of Manohla Dargis, the literary intelligence (if not the film background) of A.O. Scott, and the critical and scholarly chops of Dave Kehr — may be better than it’s ever been before. But then I read the ugly, xenophobic, tossed-off review of Opera Jawa by Jeannette Catsoulis in today’s paper, and I realize that in some ways we might as well be back in the 60s, when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost.
I saw the world premiere of this audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde masterpiece by Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho at the Venice International Film Festival in 2006, along with my esteemed colleague and friend Olaf Möller, a critic based in Cologne who writes columns for both Film Comment and Cinema Scope. (I’m sorry to say that Olaf’s review of the film for the former isn’t available online, but he aptly called it an “honest-to-God masterpiece of mad invention.”) If memory serves, Olaf has seen most or all of Nugroho’s previous features and understandably regards him as a master, so he had much more context for this film than I did.… Read more »
This was written for a brochure to accompany a retrospective held
by Northwestern University’s Block Cinema in January 2008.
ZHANGKE JIA, POETIC PROPHET
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
What is it about Zhangke Jia that makes him the most exciting
mainland Chinese filmmaker currently working? It might be
oversimplifying matters to describe this writer-director, born in
1970, as a country boy. But the fact that he hails from the small town
of Fenyang in northern China’s Shanxi province clearly plays an
important role in all his features to date. (I’m less certain about what
role it plays in his two recent documentaries, Dong  and
Useless .) Like William Faulkner and Alexander Dovzhenko,
Jia is a hick avant-gardist in the very best sense — someone whose
outsider/minority status enhances both his humanity and his art.
Working in long, choreographed takes, and mixing realistic accounts
of working-class life with diverse forms of cultural shock and fantasy
ranging from animation to SF to rock, he already qualifies as a poetic
prophet of the 21st century, and not only for China.
He attended the Beijing Film Academy, where he
completed his first film, the one-hour Xiao Shan
(Going Home, 1995).… Read more »
From the January 17, 2008 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY JOHN SAYLES
It may seem like dirty pool to begin a discussion of one of my favorite John Sayles movies by zeroing in on its weak points. But writing about Honeydripper recently in the New Yorker, David Denby noted that “moviemaking seems to have become almost magically easy for this independent writer-director,” and that’s absurd, since Sayles himself wrote in the introduction to his story collection Dillinger in Hollywood that “getting a movie made resembles the passage of a bill through Congress.”
Denby concedes that Sayles’s virtuosity as a writer-director “is rhetorical rather than visual.” And Sayles himself says that when he gets a story idea that “seems best expressed in fiction, I feel it in words, not pictures.”
The brief flashback in the middle of Honeydripper’s climactic sequence is a good indication of how labored Sayles’s treatment of images continues to be. The flashback — it comes when Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover) is about to break up a fight between a couple of angry customers in his Honeydripper Lounge — isn’t just clunky as visual storytelling and phony in its florid, bloody action and garish setting, it’s seriously underimagined.… Read more »
After making his best and smoothest drama (Match Point) in England, Woody Allen returns there for one of his most clueless and awkward, outfitted with a standard-issue Philip Glass score. In both cases Allen’s usual hang-ups about class and money lead to conventionally complicated murder plots. Two economically challenged cockney brothers in south Londona garage mechanic and compulsive gambler (Colin Farrell) and a more settled sort who runs the family restaurant (Ewan McGregor)get pushed into killing a businessman who’s threatening to expose their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson). With Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
Shohei Imamura’s fourth feature (1959) was his last assigned project before the more personal Pigs and Battleships. Based on the diary of a ten-year-old Korean girl, which became a best seller in Japan, it focuses on her and her three siblings’ impoverished life in a coal-mining town. Imamura shot in black-and-white ‘Scope, doing a great deal with the scenic mountain and seaside settings, but he also lays it on rather thick at times with melodramatic overacting, especially among the adults. A former assistant to Yasujiro Ozu who often tried to be as unlike his former master as possible, Imamura tended to revel in excess of this kind even with relatively impersonal projects. I might have appreciated the social nuances more if I… Read more »
As the title suggests, this video documentary about Elias Syriani, a North Carolina man who stabbed his wife to death in 1990, and his four children, who forgave him years later and appealed his death sentence, has all the makings of a real-life soap opera. Yet despite its force as a polemic against capital punishment, and for all the public displays of emotion, I came away feeling that parts of this potent story weren’t being told. Syriani, a devout Catholic from Jordan, isn’t among the storytellers, so his emotional problems and religious awakening are left to others to explain (or not). And on two occasions video maker Linda Booker employs piano music when one daughter starts to cry, which suggests she isn’t sure when or how to let the story speak for itself. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »
This short article was written for the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia and published there in Spanish on January 9, 2008. More recently, I’m happy to report, Portabella’s 1970 Vampir-Cuadecuc was written about by James Naremore in the Summer 2008 issue of Film Quarterly as his second favorite film of 2007. And Portabella, who has recently established his own web site, is currently in the latter stages of putting together a sizable DVD box set devoted to his work, to be released next year in Spain by Sherlock Films — a massive package including nine discs and a book that I’m contributing an essay to — and is also planning subsequently to make his work available for downloads on the Internet. — J.R.
Portabella in the U.S.
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
It was over 36 years ago, in Cannes, that I first encountered the singular cinema of Pere Portabella, a revelation that came via his second feature, Vampir-Cuadecuc. Living at the time in Paris, I knew absolutely nothing about Catalan culture under Franco, and had only the film’s sounds, images, and Portabella’s wit in juxtaposing the two as my guides. The only contextual information I had was that Portabella was one of the producers of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, and that he couldn’t be present because the Franco government had taken away his passport as punishment for this caprice.… Read more »
After reading a news story about the death of another woman filmmaker, Revital Ohayon, during a terrorist attack on an Israeli kibbutz, experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs made this 2005 documentary, in which she exchanges thoughts about Ohayon with an Israeli friend, interviews members of the woman’s family, incorporates excerpts from Ohayon’s films, and shows her own children and home in the U.S. The film has many strengthsbeautiful shots, poetic insights, moving details, original modes of expressionbut with no unifying strategy, these elements often compete with or undermine one another. In English and subtitled Hebrew. 63 min. (JR)… Read more »
Two European documentaries from 2005 about the construction of two large, innovative, and controversial buildings. Fredrik Gertten’s 59-minute The Socialist, the Architect, and the Twisted Tower, in English and subtitled Swedish, concerns the Turning Torso, a residential high-rise by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in Malmo; it has the more interesting subjectconflicts between class and aesthetic issuesbut the filmmaking is dull. Dutch director Mirjam von Arx’s 52-minute Building the Gherkinin English, about Norman Foster’s pickle-shaped office tower on the site of an IRA bombingis something of an industrial, but it’s an adept and entertaining one. (JR)… Read more »