From the Jewish Daily Forward (November 9, 2012, for their November 16 issue). — J.R.
My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.
Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.
Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985).… Read more »
Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, February 16, 2007. It’s nice to report that both Pete Kelly’s Blues and Too Late Blues are now readily available, on both DVD and Blu-Ray. — J.R.
The market value of a missing movie
Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb. (When a flapper played by Leigh says to Kelly that April is her favorite month, he replies, “If you like it so much, I’ll buy it for you.”)
It seems that Webb was as passionate a jazz buff as Clint Eastwood, and this movie is at least as much of a labor of love as Bird.
… Read more »
This appeared in the Chicago Reader‘s February 3, 2006 issue. Tommy Lee Jones’ subsequent feature, The Homesman, confirms the talent, originality, and boldness of Jones as a director, even if it may also come across at certain junctures as less lucid than its predecessor. — J.R.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written bu Guillermo Arriaga
With Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo
At last year’s Cannes film festival, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada walked off with the prizes for best actor (Tommy Lee Jones) and best screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga). It’s often hard to disentangle story, acting, and direction when they’re working together as well as they are here, but I would have honored Jones for his direction. That prize went to Michael Haneke for Caché, his eighth theatrical feature. This is Jones’s first, though he directed (and cowrote and starred in) a made-for-TV western, the 1995 The Good Old Boys.
Both Haneke’s and Jones’s films are political. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a western, protests the abusive treatment of Mexican immigrants in west Texas, and Caché, an anxiety-ridden crime thriller, protests the abusive treatment of Algerians in France.… Read more »
This originally appeared in the January 10, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. It seems worth reprinting as a kind of adjunct to my overview piece about Oshima, written for Artforum in 2008 and also available on this site. –J.R.
Directed and written by Nagisa Oshima
With Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, and Yoichi Sai.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Mark your calendars. Over the next six weeks, the Music Box is offering three eye-popping masterpieces from Asia. This is a welcome sign–-as is the popularity of the breezy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the multiplexes–-that American theaters and audiences are finally recognizing that a lot of the best movies come from the other side of the planet and that there’s as much diversity among them as there is among ours.
Yi Yi, which opens March 2, is a three-hour feature set in contemporary Taiwan. It was just voted best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, the first foreign-language picture to receive this honor since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran 15 years ago. Its writer-director, Edward Yang, is one of the two or three undisputed masters of Taiwanese cinema, and the Film Center gave us a full retrospective of his work in 1997.… Read more »
I was shocked to learn today that Harun Farocki (January 9, 1944 – July 30, 2014) died yesterday, at the age of only 70. According to Artnet, he made over 90 films. He will be sorely missed.
From the Chicago Reader (February 14, 1992). — J.R.
FILMS BY HARUN FAROCKI
The paradox is that Farocki is probably more important as a writer than as a filmmaker, that his films are more written about than seen, and that instead of being a failing, this actually underlines his significance to the cinema today and his considerable role in the contemporary political avant-garde. . . . Only by turning itself into “writing” in the largest possible sense can film preserve itself as “a form of intelligence.”
— Thomas Elsaesser, 1983
The filmography of Harun Farocki — a German independent filmmaker, the son of an Islamic Indian doctor — spans 16 titles and 21 years. To the best of my knowledge, only one of his films (Between Two Wars) has ever shown in North America before now. A traveling group of 11 films put together by the Goethe-Institut began showing in Boston last November and this April will reach Houston, the last of the tour’s ten cities.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 19, 1996). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Ben Burtt
Written by Susanne Simpson, Burtt, and Tom Friedman
Narrated by John Lithgow.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Harold Ramis
Written by Ramis, Chris Miller, Mary Hale, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel
With Michael Keaton, Andie MacDowell, and Harris Yulin.
Rating — Worthless
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh and Jackson
With Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, and R. Lee Ermey.
The Nutty Professor
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Written by David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, Shadyac, and Steve Oedekerk
With Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett, James Coburn, Larry Miller, Dave Chappelle, and John Ales.
Looking around at the big summer movies, I see reason to assume that the state of the art of film art now equals the state of the art of special effects. The belief in capitalist growth as spiritual progress that permeates this culture seems to have been given particular currency: as film technology becomes more and more sophisticated, the art of film can only rise accordingly.
But does the development of morphing automatically make the Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor more artistic than the Jerry Lewis Nutty Professor (1963)?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 8, 1993). — J.R.
A few years ago, world cinema received a shot in the arm from so-called glasnost movies from the former Soviet Union — pictures that had been shelved due to various forms of censorship, mostly political, and were finally seeing the light of day thanks to the relaxation or near dissolution of state pressures. The thought of an American glasnost may seem a little farfetched. But if we start to look at the awesome control exerted by multinational corporations over what we see, particularly in mainstream movies, the definition of what is and isn’t permissible — or, in business terms, what is “viable,” which in this country often comes to the same thing — may seem comparably restricted.
The best movies of 1992 weren’t exactly censored; but given the profound lack of media attention they received they would have achieved much more reality in most people’s minds if they had been. And nothing short of an American-style glasnost would give these films the cultural centrality they deserve. Only three of them received extended theatrical runs in Chicago, and perhaps only one or two got so much as a mention on Entertainment Tonight or in Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly.… Read more »
For the first part of this article, go here. For the second part, go here.
Unfortunately, Richie’s division of Ozu into successive stages of ‘creation’ inevitably leads to the erection of a Platonic ideal, an all-purpose model of ‘the’ Ozu film — an unrigorous model indeed when what one concretely has to contend with are films, each with its own peculiar set of conditions and stresses. Since Richie has more production details about the later films, these tend to dictate most of the dimensions of the model, and the lost films implicitly become subsumed in the same homogenising process whenever Richie speaks about the entire body of the work. The usual approach is to lump together examples of certain aspects or procedures, leading to the formulation of such generalities as ‘the Ozu family’. This results in a profusion of catalogues, some quite nonsensical in presumed meanings and applications: ‘Another pastime to which the Ozu family is addicted is toenail cutting, an activity which seems worth mentioning because it occurs possibly more often in Ozu’s pictures (Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn) than in Japanese life.’ In the long run, individual works are made to seem important or unimportant insofar as they help or fail to exemplify the hypothetical model.… Read more »
For the beginning of this article, go here.
While one could hardly claim that Days of Youth is a major work, it is at the very least an arresting one, and some of its comedy is on a par with the wonderful opening sequence of Passing Fancy (1933) at a naniwabushi recital (when a stray purse gets surreptitiously picked up, investigated, and tossed around like a beanbag by various spectators until the. entire assemblage, reciter included, is dancing about from an attack of lice). One would expect, then, that any serious Ozu scholar would pay some heed to it. Yet all that Richie has done in Ozu — apart from noting at one point that, like all of Ozu’s subsequent films, it shows actors directly facing the camera — is to expand his original commentary on the film (in Film Comment, Spring 1971) from five words (‘A student comedy about skiing’) to seven: ‘Another student comedy, this one about skiing.’ And if one searches in his book for something about Tatsuo Saito — an actor who went on to play the father in I Was Born, But . . . (1932), and figured centrally in several of the twenty other Ozu films where he appeared — one finds that he isn’t even listed in the index; in fact, the only reference to him in the entire book is the observation that he ‘keeps rubbing his hip during various scenes’ in Tokyo Chorus. … Read more »
From the Summer 1975 issue of Sight and Sound. Due to the length of this piece, I’m running it in three parts. I’ve hesitated for years about reprinting this because of its harshness towards the very amiable and sweet-tempered Donald Richie (1924-2013), whom I eventually met and befriended in Tokyo a quarter of a century after writing this piece (and who generously forgave me for having written it after I offered an apology). Even though I can’t say I agree with everything I wrote here — I’m especially dubious about some of Burch’s arguments (and many or all of the passages I quote here from To the Distant Observer, which he was writing at the time, subsequently got edited out of the manuscript) — it holds up better than I suspected it would, which is why I’m posting it here. I tend to think now that the failings of Richie’s book on Ozu are more institutional than personal — that is, a reflection of his unfortunate virtual monopoly on critical discourse in English about Japanese cinema during that period. — J.R.
A few years ago in New York, a lecture by Henri Langlois was announced at the Museum of Modern Art under the rough heading — I quote from memory — of ‘Why We Know Nothing About Cinema’.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 2001). — J.R.
Talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices, says a middle-aged heist artist and Montreal jazz club owner (Robert De Niro) to his prickly young assistant (Ed Norton). These words of wisdom might have been heeded by the filmmakers — four credited writers, director Frank Oz, and undoubtedly countless others, including four producers — who have needlessly inflated a modest thriller into a top-heavy monolith of wasted secondary actors (Angela Bassett, Gary Farmer, and even to some extent Marlon Brando, who manages to give something approaching a real performance this time rather than a specialty cameo) and fussy details. John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Jules Dassin (Rififi), and Stanley Kubrick (The Killing), working on two separate continents in the 50s, with many more characters and shorter running times, did much better jobs with heist thrillers, perhaps because they were creating movies rather than packages. This one’s slightly better than average these days, which means slightly diverting. Howard Shore, who’s done fine work in the past for David Cronenberg, did the derivative pseudojazz score, and there are brief musical cameos by Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 14, 2003). — J.R.
David Cronenberg isn’t credited often enough for his literacy, which anchors him as a filmmaker much as Method acting can anchor some performers: he seems to immerse himself so deeply in the warped visions of certain writers that he re-creates their work whereas most literary filmmakers would simply imitate it. This tour de force, which Patrick McGrath adapted from his own novel under Cronenberg’s supervision, draws us into the consciousness of a schizophrenic (Ralph Fiennes) who’s been incarcerated for most of his life and whose boyhood traumas merge seamlessly with his current existence in an east London halfway house; apparently Cronenberg’s model is not only McGrath but Samuel Beckett in his early novels. The film asks us to piece together what really happened in the past, and even after two viewings I haven’t entirely succeeded, but I was floored by Cronenberg’s mastery of the material. Fiennes gives one of his finest performances; Miranda Richardson, playing at least three characters in the protagonist’s twisted vision, is no less impressive; and Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, and John Neville do excellent backup work. A lean and densely packed 98 minutes, this minimalist chamber thriller is at once hallucinatory and terrifyingly real.… Read more »
Published in Contrappasso, coedited by Matthew Asprey Gear and Noel King, in 2015. — J.R.
AN INTERVIEW WITH
Matthew Asprey Gear
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM is one of the most respected film critics in the United States. His many books include Moving Places: A Life in the Movies (1980/1995), Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1995), Movies as Politics (1997), Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films You See (2000), Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004), and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010).
Rosenbaum has also been a lifelong champion of Orson Welles. Many of his writings on Welles are collected in Discovering Orson Welles (2007). He also edited and annotated This Is Orson Welles (1992/1998), an assembly of the legendary Peter Bogdanovich-Orson Welles interviews.
This brief conversation for Contrappasso, an update on Rosenbaum’s recent activities, was conducted by email in early 2015.
ASPREY GEAR: Jonathan, you retired from your position as film critic at the Chicago Reader in 2008. You now teach, write as a freelancer, and republish your voluminous archive at www.jonathanrosenbaum.net. How have your priorities changed since 2008?
ROSENBAUM: I’m no longer a regular reviewer, and therefore I no longer have to keep up with current releases and see films that I don’t want to see (the majority of what I was seeing at the Reader).… Read more »
From Film Comment (September-October 1975). Some of this article, especially the early stretches, embarrasses me now for its pretentiousness, but I think it still has some value as a period piece.
A few brief footnotes to my interview with Chaplin: (1) We shared a joint at one point while doing it; (2) her comments about working with Rivette made it seem a lot less fun and more difficult, at least for her, than working with Altman (she described it at one point as having to show Rivette various kinds of acting like a rug merchant to see which one he liked); and in fact (3) a few decades later, when I met her again at a film festival, reminded her of our interview, and asked her what she thought of Noroit, she told me that she’d never seen it. — J.R.
Or should I call this my NASHVILLE Journal? On March 19, I saw a monaural print in London at a private screening. Writing over three months later, shortly after its New York opening and a projected five before it’s supposed to surface in the rural West End, I can only wish it well on its way. Regular readers of this column may froth at the mouth if I drag Tati and Rivette into the case once more; in that case, froth away, folks — I’m sorry, but it’s Altman’s doing, not mine.… Read more »
From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
LET’S GET LOST ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Bruce Weber.
“Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.”
This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker.… Read more »