Monthly Archives: September 2017

Make No Mistake: The Day the Towers Fell

This was written exactly one week after September 11, 2001, at the invitation of the Chicago Reader‘s editor, but this is the first time it’s ever been published anywhere (on March 11, 2010). — J.R.

 

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I was having breakfast in the restaurant of my Toronto hotel on September 11 when I heard President Bush on TV making his first statement of that day, from Florida. I saw the World Trade Center towers in flames, but it wasn’t until I resumed watching the coverage in the film festival’s press office a few blocks away that I actually saw them fall. It was an event that registered in increments for the remainder of the day and the remainder of the week — something that’s still going on. And evaluating whether the prospects of adjusting to the shock and horror are grim or hopeful seems largely a matter of thinking in short or long terms.

***

“Pearl Harbor” as a reference point is a good example of the grimmest and least helpful short-term thinking, literally predicated on a world that hasn’t existed for 60 years. (One variation, sadly coming from one of my brightest and most progressive friends: to compare what we’d like to do to Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to what we did to the Japanese, by dropping Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — i.e., getting them to stop.… Read more »

Patience Pays Off [I'M GOING HOME]

From the Chicago Reader (September 13, 2002). — J.R.

I’m Going Home

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira

With Michel Piccoli, Antoine Chappey, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Leonor Baldaque, and Sylvie Testud.

It seems entirely fitting that I’m Going Home — a beautiful feature by Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 94 this December and is still going strong — should open in Chicago, at the Music Box, just after September 11. This 2001 French film by a Portuguese master who occasionally makes films in France is the kind of quiet masterpiece that fully registers only after you’ve seen it — a profound meditation on bereavement and other kinds of loss (including losing one’s way) as well as on everyday life and things right under our noses that we accept as “other,” including old age and art and different cultures.

The French DVD of this film has an interview with Oliveira in Portuguese, subtitled in French, in which he explains what this movie means to him. He speaks alternately about the film’s plot, which he calls a tragedy, the real incident that inspired it (a famous actor in his 70s forgot his lines while shooting a film), and what he calls the “tragedy of our civilization.” He speaks about globalization and modernization, ecological destruction, dehumanization, and people’s dependence on gadgets and objects — the last two epitomized by a man he saw speaking on a cell phone.… Read more »

Fear of Feeling [THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST]

From the Chicago Reader (January 13, 1989). — J.R.

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Written by Frank Galati and Kasdan

With William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr., and Bill Pullman.

Why is the inability to feel such a popular and respected subject in contemporary American movies? William Hurt makes his way through most of The Accidental Tourist, the new Lawrence Kasdan film based on Anne Tyler’s novel, like a human slug, devoid of energy, emotion, or much thought — a freeze-dried mass of nerveless inertia — and audiences appear to be cheering him on, as if there were something intrinsically noble about his condition.

A relatively serious, relatively realistic soap opera, The Accidental Tourist has scant stylistic or formal interest, so how one responds to it depends on how one responds to the story and characters. John Williams’s lush, romantic score asks us and evidently expects us to feel a great deal of tenderness toward its oatmeal hero, and I suspect that many members of the New York Film Critics’ Circle did, for they recently voted this movie the best of the year. But my main response was halfhearted respect (for the script and performances more than for the hit-or-miss direction) tinged with boredom, and a certain curiosity about what all the fuss was about.… Read more »

Split-Level Comedy [THE 'BURBS]

This appeared in the February 24, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE ‘BURBS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Dana Olsen

With Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, and Courtney Gains.

Director Joe Dante is the perfect refutation of the idea that popular American comedies have to be simple. His movies are never pretentious or difficult to follow, but embedded in each of them are a sophisticated understanding of popular culture and an awareness of the multiple stances and positions that are possible within the confines of supposedly simple genre movies.

Gremlins offered an ambiguous cluster of proliferating beasties to illustrate a cautionary moral fable about magic; it also managed to be an amoral satire of the same facets of the American dream exalted in the fable. Innerspace postulated the injection of a miniaturized Navy test pilot (Dennis Quaid) into the body of a hypochondriac (Martin Short), leading to simultaneous and parallel narratives as each character’s progress influenced the other’s.

A knowledgeable connoisseur of the American cartoon, Dante makes movies that take place in the kind of manic world where anything can happen. This sensibility bore particular fruit in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (set in a universe ruled by the mind of a vindictive little boy who loved cartoons) and the climactic sequence of his Explorers (a nightmarish Mixmaster version of American TV strained through the sensibility, body, and technology of an extraterrestrial mimic); both of these segments anticipated the subversive universe that other filmmakers developed on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.… Read more »

My Ten Favorite American Films and Capsule Reviews of Two of Them (for BBC.com)

Capsule reviews of two of my favorite American films, both commissioned by BBC.com, who previously asked me to name my ten favorite American films. (For some reason, my computer can’t handle their own web site and link, which is why I’m posting this material here.) I responded to their first request with these choices:

 

1. GREED (Stroheim, 1924)

2. SUNRISE (Murnau, 1927)

3. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (Welles, 1942)

4. CITY LIGHTS (Chaplin, 1931)

5. LOVE ME TONIGHT (Mamoulian, 1932)

6. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (Wyler, 1946)

7. STARS IN MY CROWN (Tourneur, 1950)

8. LOVE STREAMS (Cassavetes, 1984)

9. A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

10. WHEN IT RAINS (Burnett, 1995)

 

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Greed

Other truncated masterpieces (most notably Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) tend to be appreciated in spite of their flaws, but Erich von Stroheim’s Greed maintains its strength and intensity and even much of its density in its surviving form. The characters are rich and complex and the mise en scène fully serves both the power of the performances and the richness of the world depicted. The overall fidelity to Frank Norris’s McTeague is matched by a highly personal and inventive dedication to its meanings and resonance, and the overall vision of what money does to disfigure and destroy human personality is unequaled.… Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS: A Preview

This originally appeared in the twelfth issue of Camera Obscura (Summer 1984). I’m delighted that a DVD of Sally Potter’s overlooked, neglected, and scandalously undervalued masterpiece is finally available, from the British Film Institute. I wrote a short essay for the accompanying booklet. –J.R.

The Gold Diggers: A Preview

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sally Potter’s much heralded British Film Institute production has been encountering a lot of resistance since it premiered at the London Film Festival late last year. When I saw it at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early February, its presence even there was regrettably nominal: screened only once, and in the Market rather than as a festival selection, it was received rather coolly, and many of the critics present left well before the end. Finding the film visually stunning, witty, and pleasurably inventive throughout, I can only speculate about the reasons for the extreme antipathy of my colleagues.

Historically, The Gold Diggers demands to be regarded as something of a proud anomaly. While it contains many familiar echoes of avant-garde performance art (including music, dance, and theater), its only recognizable antecedent in the English avant-garde film tradition appears to be Potter’s own previous Thriller. (An English language film which is international in conception as well as execution, it is marginal in the best and most potent sense of that term.) Beyond that, the formal and stylistic eclecticism of what Ian Christie aptly calls “a post-modernist musical” seems part and parcel of the film’s overt feminist aggression.… Read more »

Jazz: The Intimate Art (1977 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977. — J.R.

U.S.A., 1968
Director: (not credited)

Dist–TCB. p.c–Drew Associates. For the Bell System. p–Robert Drew, Mike Jackson. assoc. p–Harry Moses. p. co-ordinator–Jean Swain. sc–(not credited). ph–Abbot Mills, Juliana Wang, Ralph Weisinger. asst. ph–Bill Hanson. In color. ed–Naomi Mankbwitz. m.d–Donald Voorhees. songs–fragments of “When the Saints Go Marching fn”, ”Hello Dolly”, “Rose”, “The Kinda Love Song” by George Weiss, performed by Louis Armstrong; “Con Alma”, “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” performed by Dizzy Gillespie; “I’m in a Dancing Mood” performed by Dave Brubeck; “Light in the Wilderness” by Dave Brubeck; ”Forest Flower”, performed by Charles Lloyd. sd–Dave Blumgart, Stan Agol. narrator–Don Morrow. with–Louis Armstrotrg, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Iola Brubeck, Matthew Brubeck, Michael Brubeck, Catherine Brubeck, Christopher Brubeck, David Brubeck, Darius Brubeck, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, George Weiss. 1,921 ft. 53 mins. (16 mm.).

Interviews with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Charles Lloyd, interspersed with snatches of their music in rehearsal or performance.

An appalling example of how appreciation of jazz can be summarily crushed in the process of supposedly trying to promote the music, this American TV documentary follows the fatal course of rarely letting the music speak for itself for more than a few bars at a time, while encouraging each of the four musicians to pontificate at length about his life and art.… Read more »

Crimes of Passion [POISON]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1991). — J.R.

POISON

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons, John R. Lombardi, Tony Pemberton, and Andrew Harpending.

“The whole world is dying of panicky fright,” reads the title that opens Todd Haynes’s startling and original Poison. It’s a correct and judicious observation, one that helps to “explain” a fascinating and provocative movie, particularly if one sees it alluding directly to the specter of AIDS.

But if one starts to enumerate the symptoms produced by panicky fright in our culture, I’m afraid that the usual set of liberal grievances — greed, intolerance, xenophobia, repression, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, war fever, and flag waving — doesn’t quite exhaust them. Some of the most cherished and least controversial emblems of postmodernist discourse — irony, stylistic pastiche, and a foreshortened sense of history and politics, all of which are usually employed together — may be symptoms of panicky fright as well. While the list of liberal grievances points to a fear of the world (especially the social world) as it is, postmodernist discourse suggests a fear of discourse (especially art) as it used to be and as it might be once again — a fear of unambiguous self-expression that implies another way of refusing to confront the present directly.… Read more »

A Fine Madness (The Legacy of Mad Comics) (1980)

If I’d had to depend entirely on the quality and interest of the films released in any given week, I probably wouldn’t have remained a movie reviewer for several decades. Luckily, I often found ways of writing about other topics, using the film or films being released as excuses. This was especially true during my extended stint of writing for Soho News almost every week for about about a year and a half (1979-1981), reviewing books (mainly fiction and literary criticism) as well as movies, and during my more than twenty years of writing about films for the Chicago Reader, I usually had the same freedom, at least as long as I had a fair amount of length at my disposal. Perhaps the most obvious example of this freedom at Soho News was the following piece about Mad that I did in 1980, for the July 16 issue, occasioned by a very forgettable comedy released that week. — J.R..


A Fond Madness

Though the ads for the crude, uneven Up the Academy are at some pains to link the movie to Mad — a publication (first a comic book, then a magazine) –- now in its 28th year, the connection clearly has more to do with packaging than with contents.… Read more »

Questions in and about AVA

How much of the pain of Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature — winner of one of my Fipresci jury’s two prizes at the Toronto International Film Festival, a film from Iran — is the pain of being a teenager, and how much is it being a teenager at a particular place and time? How much is personal and how much is institutional, familial, cultural, social, political, architectural?

These are the questions raised by Foroughi’s exquisite, unorthodox framings and reframings of her characters, each one posing a separate inquiry. [9-20-17]

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 … Read more »

FILM SOCIALISME, etc., 40 Years Ago and Now

The outrage of the mainstream press in Cannes about Godard’s Film Socialisme was quite predictable. In his Scanners, Jim Emerson has even gone to the trouble of compiling excerpts from 15 New York Times reviews of Godard’s films, spread out over half a century and all offering variations on the same complaint: “[approaching] the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be ‘solved’), then [blaming] Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they’re too hard.” And it was apparent even to me, witnessing everything from Chicago, that this anger was only intensified by the minimalist pidgin-English subtitles and Godard’s last-minute cancellation of his press conference. I was reminded of the near-riot once occasioned by a screening of his Un Film comme les autres (perhaps the emptiest and the most talkative of all of Godard’s films to date),  in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1968, thanks in part to an attempt at adding an English voiceover on the spot that made the French and English equally incomprehensible. Which suggests that Godard’s aesthetic and ideological provocations often help to clear the way for still other sources of anger that may or may not be related to them.… Read more »

Sex Games (on Polanski’s BITTER MOON)

From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.

For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon. And certainly his most masterful. — J.R.

**** BITTER MOON

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross

With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.

Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands. Immediately recognizing the piece, she joins him, performing the bass part. After a rose petal drops from a bowl of flowers on the piano onto the keyboard, which also happened before, the wide-eyed heroine has an epiphany:

“It’s so strange — this keeps happening to me more and more often.… Read more »

High Infidelity [OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS]

This review of Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared in the February 13, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’m not positive that the second image I’ve used to represent Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy actually comes from that video and not from another Sokurov work, but it evokes my memory of that video so well that I hope I can be granted poetic license for this. – J.R.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

0 (worthless)

Directed by David Rocksavage

Written by Sara Flanigan and Rocksavage

With Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Thomson, David Speck, April Turner, and Frank Taylor.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I cannot tell a lie: my first exposure to two great tragic novels, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), was the dreadful Hollywood adaptations released during my teens, both of which had happy endings. As silly as these movies were — Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts (1958) and Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959) — they piqued my interest in the original novels, and I discovered, among many other things, the blatant inadequacy of the movie versions.

The same thing could happen to a teenager attending the dreadful film adaptation of Truman Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — not a novel of the same caliber as West’s and Faulkner’s, though still a work of real distinction, from his best period — but the odds are slim.… Read more »

Modern Messiah [JESUS OF MONTREAL]

From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 1990). — J.R.

JESUS OF MONTREAL

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Denys Arcand

With Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Remy Girard, Robert Lepage, Gilles Pelletier, Yves Jacques, and Arcand.

It must have been about 30 years ago that I saw Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die, a popular art-house movie at the time and one of my first foreign films. Dassin, an American expatriate chased to Europe by the Hollywood blacklist, was a highly skilled film noir director whose best efforts included The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. He Who Must Die, set on Crete in 1921, was a French picture based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Greek Passion, concerning the performers in a passion play whose theatrical roles take over their real lives as they suffer from Turkish oppression; the theme was that if Christ came back today, he would be crucified all over again.

I was a teenager at the time, and being none too versed in what was considered sophisticated in film in 1959, I was moved to tears. This was at a time when the French New Wave had barely made a ripple in the American consciousness, and shortly before Dassin’s film was ridiculed by critics I admired, like Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald, as the acme of arty pretension.… Read more »

Through the Past, Darkly [GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI & THE CRUCIBLE]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1996). — J.R.

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Ghosts of Mississippi

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by Lewis Colick

With Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Ladd, Bonnie Bartlett, Bill Cobbs, William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen, and Michael O’Keefe.

The Crucible

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Written by Arthur Miller

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughan, and Karron Graves.

“This story is true,” reads the opening title of Ghosts of Mississippi, a movie about the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, and the conviction of his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, which took a little more than 30 years.

“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian,” Arthur Miller wrote in a note prefacing his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicts events that occurred in 1692, and which has now been turned into a movie adapted by Miller. Miller went on to detail the ways he’d changed history — he sometimes fused many people into one character, and he made a central character, Abigail, older.… Read more »