Monthly Archives: November 2016

Anna Biller in Torino (a 2007 Reader Movies blog post)

A Chicago Reader blog post, dated Saturday, December 1, 2007, 1:46 PM. — J.R.

Two of the more interesting programs that I saw at the just-concluded Torino Film Festival consisted of films by LA filmmaker and Cal Arts alumnus Anna Biller, who writes, directs, stars in, designs the costumes and sets for, and sometimes helps to perform the music in her films, none of which has a distributor at this point. Her first feature, Viva (2006), is a pastiche of 1970s soft-core porn, theoretically reconfigured to support a woman’s viewpoint — an interesting curiosity, but a bit long for my taste (at 120 minutes, longer than any ’70s soft-core flick that I’m aware of), and perhaps not sufficiently aware of its own grotesqueness to qualify as either a critical commentary on its elected genre or as a wholly convincing entry in that genre.

I found her program of earlier 16mm shorts more interesting: Three Examples of Myself as Queen (1994), The Hypnotist (2001 — her only film in which she doesn’t act and which she didn’t write herself, written instead by her partner and frequent collaborator Jared Sanford), and, above all, A Visit from the Incubus (2001, see photos above), a 27-minute horror-western-musical that I regard as her masterpiece.

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Discovering MARGARET

Written for FIPRESCI’s web site (fipresci.org)  on November 7, 2012. — J.R.

The potential everyday glibness of journalism is surely one of the key factors that distinguishes film reviewing from film criticism. This was painfully brought home to me shortly after reseeing at the Viennale the 150-minute version of Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret, the winner of my jury’s FIPRESCI prize, almost a year after first encountering the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. In between these two viewings, I saw Lonergan’s 186-minute cut of the same film on a Blu-Ray containing both versions of the film, prompting me to write the following paragraph in my latest column for the Canadian quarterly Cinema Scope:

“I’m grateful to Kenneth Lonergan for clarifying in interviews that the 150-minute Margaret, which I saw in December 2011 and the 186-minute cut, which I saw in July, are both ‘director’s cuts,’ and now that Fox has released both in one Blu-Ray package, it’s hard to say which version I prefer. Both are brilliant messes and finely distilled renderings of the New York Jewish upper-middle-class zeitgeist circa 2003, regardless of whether one regards Anna Paquin’s teenage heroine as someone to identify with (apparently the writer-director’s position), or as monstrous, or as both (my position).Read more »

Black-And-White World [BLACK GIRL]

From the Chicago Reader, April 21, 1995. It’s lamentable that, although Black Girl is now available on DVD from New Yorker, the color sequence in it appears in black and white. (In fact, I only saw this sequence in color for the first time when I showed this film in a course on world cinema of the 60s that I taught in Chicago in 2008.) To see this sequence in color, order the film’s BFI edition from Amazon UK. — J.R.

Black Girl

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène

With Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Momar Nar Sene, Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine, Ibrahima Boy, and the voices of Toto Bissainthe, Robert Marcy, and Sophie Leclerc.

If you trace African film back to its first fiction feature, it is only 30 years old. Yet far from being underdeveloped, it begins on a more sophisticated level than any other cinema in the world. By some accounts Ousmane Sembène’s hour-long Black Girl was made in 1965, by others 1966, a characteristic ambiguity when it comes to African movies. Do you date them according to when they were made or when they were first shown? And given the scant and largely unreliable print sources that we have to check, how can we be sure about either date?… Read more »

Inside Pitches

This appeared in the March 20, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

 

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Michael Paxton

Narrated by Sharon Gless.

Primary Colors

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Elaine May

With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Larry Hagman, and Maura Tierney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Two highly partisan political movies are opening this week, a right-wing independent documentary and a left-wing Hollywood feature — though it’s not clear that the filmmakers of either would categorize their work in this way. Certainly it wouldn’t be any exaggeration to call both films the efforts of special interest groups — a movie about Bill Clinton put together by people who mainly qualify as his supporters and friends and a sincere hagiography of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand fashioned by many of her disciples and acolytes. How far they actually carry their respective loyalties is a different matter, however. Ultimately both movies flounder as well as triumph because of their insider points of view, though not always for the same reasons.

Whenever Ayn Rand’s name comes up, I have an impulse to scoff, an impulse I think is shared by many others.… Read more »

Wind from the East (A TALE OF THE WIND)

From the Chicago Reader (May 29, 1992). . — J.R.

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A TALE OF THE WIND

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan

Written by Loridan, Ivens, and Elisabeth D.

With Ivens, Loridan, Han Zenxiang, Liu Zhuang, Wang Delong, Wang Hong, Fu Dalin, Liu Guillian, Chen Zhijian, Zou Qiaoyu, and Paul Sergent.

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The Old Man, the hero of this tale, was born at the end of the last century, in a country where man has always striven to tame the sea and harness the wind. Camera in hand, he has traversed the 20th century in the midst of the stormy history of our time. In the evening of his life, at age 90, having survived the various wars and struggles that he filmed, the old filmmaker sets off for China. He has embarked on a mad project: to capture the invisible image of the wind.”

That’s my translation of the French opening title of A Tale of the Wind. It follows the credits, which accompany shots of a plane flying through the clouds and Michel Portal’s primitive-modern jazz score for woodwinds and percussion. After the opening passage the giant blades of a Dutch windmill fill the screen, followed by shots of a little boy in an aviator suit on a windswept lawn, apparently preparing to fly away on a small plane to China, calling to his mother.… Read more »

Joris Ivens’s Labor-Intensive Industrials

From the Chicago Reader (May 10, 2002). — J.R.

Cinema Without Borders: Films by Joris Ivens

A word of advice to film artists who want to get ahead: don’t move around too much. Film history often gets subsumed under national film history, so filmmakers who keep moving risk getting lost. And stay out of politics, since getting into them invariably puts you on either the winning or the losing side. If you’re on the losing side, many national film histories will write you out entirely; if you’re on the winning side, chances are your film will date faster than last week’s newspaper.

These somber reflections are prompted by what I’ve been able to piece together about the extraordinary career of the Dutch-born leftist documentary and experimental filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989) — who lived in so many places, did so many things, and made so many films he’s come dangerously close to being shut out of history. From the vantage point of America in 2002, I suppose he’d have to be assigned to the losing side, as mainly a mouthpiece for Marxist party lines from the 30s onward, though that would grossly oversimplify his career. Some of the causes he devoted part of his life to, including Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, are now discredited, with good reason, but that doesn’t mean the films he made on their behalf can simply be dismissed or are without interest.… Read more »

Eric Hobsbawm on American Empire

The following, though written five years ago, still seems relevant enough today to merit quoting. It comes from my favorite contemporary historian, Eric Hobsbawm — specifically his short book On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (New York/London: The New Press, 2008):

“Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy. I believe it indicates a growing crisis within American society, which finds expression in the most profound political and cultural division within that country since the Civil War, and a sharp geographical division between the globalized economy of the two seaboards, and the vast resentful hinterland, the culturally open big cities and the rest of the country. Today a radical right-wing regime seeks to mobilize “true Americans” against some evil outside force and against a world that does not  recognize the uniqueness, the superiority, the manifest destiny of America. What we must realize is that America global policy is aimed inward, not outward, however great and ruinous its impact on the rest of the world. It is not designed to produce either empire or effective hegemony.… Read more »

Dragged Under [The Unmaking of Roberto Begnini's PINOCCHIO]

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). I was very touched when, over a dozen years later, and quite recently, in Lisbon, Nicoletta Braschi (who was performing Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days there) thanked me for this piece. — J.R.

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The worst movie I saw all year was the dubbed and recut version of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, hastily released by Miramax on Christmas Day. Yet I could easily have placed Benigni’s subtitled original in my top 50, if not top 40.

The late-19th-century source novel, Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, is so quintessentially Italian that adaptations lose flavor and meaning if they don’t include that aspect. Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature also failed to include the original’s sense of poverty, its cosmic vision of brutality, and many other disturbing elements, then heaped on the sentimentality; the studio got away with it because the film at least had a style and an occasionally disturbing vision of its own.

Benigni’s adaptation replicates more of the Disney sentimentality than I would have liked, but it returns to the Italian original, altering it mainly to fit Benigni’s irreverent and very Italian sense of comedy. (Federico Fellini had hoped to adapt the story with Benigni as the lead, and this film reflects some of Fellini’s broadness and comic-strip floridity.) Benigni’s performance, to which his voice is critical, acknowledges the weirdness of having a middle-aged man play the title role (in the original he’s more like an Italian version of Pee-wee Herman).… Read more »

Pieces of Masterpieces [MEDEA & SUNDAY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 26, 1997). — J.R.

sunday-1997

Medea

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Lars von Trier

Written by Carl Dreyer, Preben Thomsen, and von Trier

With Kirsten Olesen, Udo Kier, Henning Jensen, Solbjaig Hojfeldt, and Prehen Lerdorff Rye.

Sunday

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

Written by James Lasdun and Nossiter

With David Suchet, Lisa Harrow, Jared Harris, Larry Pine, and Joe Grifasi.

sunday2


It’s been disconcerting to read, over the past several weeks, of no fewer than four Hollywood projects in the works that purport to be by and/or about Orson Welles. Three of these are based on Welles scripts that he never found the money to produce: The Big Brass Ring (an original with a contemporary setting), The Dreamers (an adaptation of two Isak Dinesen stories), and The Cradle Will Rock (an autobiographical script set in the 30s). Yet all have been extensively rewritten, and the fourth — as recently reported by Todd McCarthy in Daily Variety – is a series of whole-cloth inventions about the making of Citizen Kane, presumably with a few facts thrown in, called RKO 281, written by Chicago playwright John Logan.

Why is all this money, effort, and media attention being expended on “celebrating” Welles when nobody is showing the slightest interest in making available unseen Welles features like Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind?… Read more »

Consider the Source

From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 2001). — J.R.

The Pledge

***

Directed by Sean Penn

Written by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski

With Jack Nicholson, Patricia Clarkson, Benicio Del Toro, Dale Dickey, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Shepard.

Blooper Bunny

***

Directed by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon

Written by Ronnie Scheib, Ford, and Lennon

With Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Yosemite Sam.

The Wedding Planner

**

Directed by Adam Shankman

Written by Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis

With Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, Bridgette Wilson- Sampras, Justin Chambers, and Judy Greer.

Shadow of the Vampire

*

Directed by E. Elias Merhige

Written by Steven Katz

With Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, and Udo Kier.

I can’t say that The Pledge, The Wedding Planner, Blooper Bunny, and Shadow of the Vampire have much in common, apart from the fact that they’re showing in Chicago this week. Yet all four do, to different degrees, feed off other movies. Frankly, that’s what I like most about The Wedding Planner – a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey that aspires to and achieves the goofiness of a studio musical of the early 50s.… Read more »

Antz

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

If one can accept the revolting notion that ants are just like people — rather than the more demonstrable premise that some film workers, film publicists, and filmgoers are a little like ants — then one might easily find this 1998 computer-animation effort from Dreamworks as cute as its title. The real premise is that ants are just like superstars — people like Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, and Jennifer Lopez, all of whom have lent their voices and screen personalities to ant characters. For example, Allen, in truth an emblem of herd instinct, inevitably is employed to represent individuality — in the form of an ant named Z who resembles E.T. and kvetches a lot. Disneyfied anthropomorphism is the name of the game here, and I was left wondering whether Pepsi paid for the use of Give Peace a Chance (rendered here as Give Z a Chance). I suspect an account of all the complex business transactions would be more fun than anything in the movie, where you can’t see a blue sky that doesn’t resemble the Dreamworks logo. PG, 83 min.… Read more »

The Eyes of the World [SEPTEMBER 11]

From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 2003). — J.R.

September 11

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, Claude Lelouch, Youssef Chahine, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Amos Gitai, Mira Nair, Sean Penn, and Shohei Imamura

Written by Makhmalbaf, Lelouch Chahine, Tanovic, Ouedraogo, Paul Laverty, Vladimir Vega, Gonzalez Inarritu, Gitai, Marejos Sanselme, Sabrina Shawan, Penn, and Daisuke Tengan.

It was probably inevitable that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were immediately seen as a blow against America rather than as crimes committed against humanity, the world community, or even just the people, many of whom were not American, who happened to be occupying three particular buildings. We deduced from the reported beliefs and intentions of the terrorists that America and what it represented to them was the desired target. But the willingness to privilege this vision over every other possible understanding of the tragedy may be dangerous. It even suggests a certain ideological defeat, because it has allowed the enemy to set the terms of the conflict.

The reflex is understandable. “Humanity” and “world community” are abstract. “America” is also abstract but feels closer to home. Because it’s familiar, it’s treated as if it were the only reality, as if it were, in fact, the world.… Read more »

Chains Of Ignorance [NIGHTJOHN]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1996). — J.R.

Nightjohn

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Charles Burnett

Written by Bill Cain

With Carl Lumbly, Lorraine Toussaint, Beau Bridges, Allison Jones, Bill Cobbs, Kathleen York, Gabriel Casseus, Tom Nowicki, and Joel Thomas Traywick.

Words are freedom, old man. ‘Cause that’s all that slavery’s made of: words. Laws, deeds, passes: all they are is words. White folks got all the words, and they mean to keep them. You get some words for yourself and you be free. — the character Nightjohn

I think a strong case can be made that Charles Burnett is the most gifted and important black filmmaker this country has ever had. But there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him because he isn’t a hustler, he’s never had a mainstream success, and all his work to date has been difficult to pigeonhole. Born in Mississippi in 1943, though raised since infancy in Los Angeles, he was one of several key black filmmakers — including Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodbury — to attend UCLA’s graduate film program in the 60s and 70s. His first film to circulate widely, the remarkable 1977 Killer of Sheep, won prizes in 1981 at Berlin and Sundance (before it was known as Sundance) and was one of the first titles selected for the Library of Congress’s Historic Film Registry.… Read more »

The Black Man’s Burden [BOYZ N THE HOOD]

From the Chicago Reader (July 19, 1991). — J.R.

BOYZ N THE HOOD* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by John Singleton

With Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, and Tyra Ferrell.

It’s been estimated that at least 19 pictures by black directors will be released in the U.S. this year. That’s less than 5 percent of the total number of features, but still more than the entire output of black-directed movies of the 80s. So far we’ve had New Jack City, The Five Heartbeats, A Rage in Harlem, Jungle Fever, Up Against the Wall, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and now Boyz N the Hood; still to come are Livin’ Large, Talkin’ Dirty After Dark, Hangin’ With the Homeboys, True Identity, House Party 2, Juice, Go Natalie, Daughters of the Dust, Street Wars, Chameleon Street, Perfume, and The Three Muscatels.

Some reviewers have been treating this wave of black pictures as some sort of Golden Age. In terms of the actors, life-styles, slang, and neighborhoods hitting the screen, they may have a point. It’s also true that a sense of urgency in getting a message out gives some of these pictures a vitality and authenticity that they wouldn’t otherwise have; even a movie as technically feeble as Straight Out of Brooklyn has some claim on our attention for this reason.… Read more »

Ghetto Theater [HANGIN' WITH THE HOMEBOYS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 1991). — J.R.

HANGIN’ WITH THE HOMEBOYS **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Joseph B. Vasquez

With Doug E. Doug, Mario Joyner, John Leguizamo, Nestor Serrano,

Kimberly Russell, and Mary B. Ward.

Sometimes wonderful movies just don’t have a chance. Hangin’ With the Homeboys is more truthful, more fully realized, and more densely felt than Jungle Fever, Up Against the Wall, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Boyz N the Hood, and Livin’ Large. But it’s turned up after these others, and it has fewer calling cards: no stars, no violent deaths, no preachy slogans, no film-festival hoopla or media hype. And it has a lousy title to boot, one that sounds like a movie you’ve already seen but remember only vaguely. (I wanted to give this movie a better chance by making it a “Critic’s Choice” last week, but the paper was already loaded with them.)

After Dave Kehr’s rave review in the Tribune a week ago, however, I had some hopes for the film’s chances. And wanting to take a second look, I caught the late show at the Broadway the same night. The others who were there seemed to love the movie as much as I did, but there weren’t very many of us.… Read more »