Monthly Archives: November 2017

Comrades, Almost a Love Story

From the Chicago Reader  (April 22, 1997). — J. R.

ComradesAALS

Despite its sentimental aspects, this youthful, semitragic tale of two Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong — the wonderful Maggie Cheung (Actress, Irma Vep) and pop star Leon Lai — and their fluctuating relationship as friends and lovers is the most moving film I’ve seen yet about that city’s last years under colonial rule (though the film’s final sections are set mainly in New York, where both characters emigrate). I suspect many Chinese viewers feel the same, because the film cleaned up at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping no less than nine categories (including best director, film, screenplay, and actress). Set between 1986 and 1996, and visualized by director Peter Chan with a great deal of inventiveness and lyricism, this movie is full of heart and humor, capturing the times we’re living in as no Western film could. Watch for a charming cameo by Christopher Doyle, the premier cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave, as an English teacher. Film scholar and former Chicagoan Patricia Erens, now based at Hong Kong University, will introduce the Friday screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 22, 6:00; Saturday, August 23, 8:00; Sunday, August 24, 4:00; and Tuesday, August 26, 7:30; 312-443-3737.… Read more »

Kazan on Directing

From Film Comment (July-August, 2009). — J.R.

Kazan on Directing

Elia Kazan

Alfred A. Knopf, $30.00

This is a class act, given something like the Library of America treatment. The editor, Robert Cornfield, is similarly credited not on the title page but two pages later, and similarly provides a Chronology and Notes at the end (as well as an Introduction and Afterword). Extra boosts come from a canny Foreword (John Lahr) and fleeting Preface (Martin Scorsese). Virtually all the plays and films in Kazan’s oeuvre get entries, chronologically placed, apart from some of the less canonical items, accorded “Short Takes” at the end of each section.

But apart from some letters and notebook entries, this is a recycling operation — and that includes the final 40-page stretch, “The Pleasures of Directing”, the only portion not assembled by Cornfield (though no other editor gets mentioned). Even though this book was started by Kazan himself in the 1980s, it was always a paste-up job. On many occasions when the prose moves into high gear, a quick look at the Notes reveal that it comes from either Kazan’s autobiography (A Life) or An American Odyssey (a collection of his writing edited by Michel Ciment), both published in 1988.… Read more »

Guys And Dolls

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

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Conceivably the best picture Sam Goldwyn ever produced, this 1955 blockbuster musical has an undeservedly bad rep, largely because the two leads — Marlon Brando as professional gambler Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army recruiter Sarah Brown — aren’t professional singers. In fact, they both do wonders with Frank Loesser’s dynamite score because they perform their numbers with feeling and sincerity, and their efforts to live up to their material are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of their characters (as well as the songs themselves). In short, this may be the only Method musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a creditable job with the stylized, stagy sets and the pungent vernacular of the original Damon Runyon material (which he also adapted). Also on hand, and at their very best, are Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit), Vivian Blaine (as Adelaide), Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Veda Ann Borg, and Johnny Silver. 150 min. (JR)

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Potamkin (in more ways than one, a preliminary report)

It’s hard to think of a major American film critic who’s more flagrantly neglected than Harry Alan Potamkin (1900-1933), a globetrotting Marxist poet and intellectual whose prodigious output as a critic, found in the over 600 pages of The Compound Cinema (New York and London: Teachers College Press [Columbia University], 1977) — a posthumous collection edited by Lewis Jacobs — covered only the last six years of his life (1927-1933).

Compound

It seems that this neglect can be attributed to such interlocking factors as Cold War mentality (Potamkin was a Communist, albeit not a Party member), anti-intellectualism, pro-Hollywood bias, and a reluctance to deal with silent cinema, all of which place Potamkin firmly at loggerheads with the overrated Otis Ferguson (1907-1943), who typically gets thirty pages in Philip Lopate’s boringly mainstream American Movie Critics anthology versus Potamkin’s measly eight. But Potamkin, who could be as witty as Ferguson on occasion, was also an angry polemicist who made a few enemies (check out his vitriolic pan of Shanghai Express as racist and fascist claptrap, for New Masses, or see Jay Leyda’s rave review of The Compound Cinema), which probably didn’t help matters. Whatever the causes, the fact that I can’t even find a photograph of Potamkin on the Internet (including the one by Irving Lerner included in The Compound Cinema) or a Wikipedia entry for him seems entirely characteristic.… Read more »

FILMMAKERS UNITE (FU): A COLLECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT REGIME OF THE U.S.

Filmmakers Unite

It’s the last day of the Cine Palium Fest in Palo del Colle, a medieval

village in southern Italy, where I’ve been serving on one of the juries,

and for me the highlight of the week has been the world premiere this

morning of an omnibus feature coproduced by Jay Rosenblatt and

Ellen Bruno consisting of thirteen very diverse but entertaining

pieces of anti-Trump agit-prop by seventeen filmmakers, in the

following order: Sarah Clift (a charming fiction about a Mexican

mother riding on her motorbike to a remote cave to acquire a huge

Trump doll from a mysterious shaman to serve as her little boy’s

birthday piñata), Pacho Velez and Nicole Salazar (the Trump

Inauguration as seen or ignored at the Tijuana border control), Kate

Amend and Pablo Bryant, Shy Hamilton, Ferne Pearlstein, Rosenblatt

(a characteristically Rosenblattian creepy and funny reworking of found

footage), Kris Samuelson and John Haptas, Usama Alshaibi (a scary look

at and listen to what American talk radio sounds like to someone with a

Muslim background who’s driving), Chel White, David Sampliner and

Rachel Shuman, Alan Berliner (a succinct way of summarizing what a

divided country consists of and feels like), Eva Ilana Brzeski (heart-

stopping portraiture of fellow Americans that reminds me of both

Dovzhenko and Costa), and Jeremy Rourke (reminding us of how joy

can be an empowering form of resistance).… Read more »

Raúl Ruiz’s Interactive Testament: MYSTERIES OF LISBON

Written in October 2011 for the Blu-Ray released by Music Box Films. It seems like the gift of Ruiz never stops giving: a film cosigned by him and his widow Valeria Sarmiento suggestively called The Wandering Soap Opera has turned up on a few South American ten best lists for 2017 as well as MUBI. —  J.R.

MysteriesofLisbon1

It was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article of mine about Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) quoted in some of his mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1999) and Klimt (2006).

Mysteries-of-Lisbon

This is why some of these latter films disappointed me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself frankly described to me in a 2002 interview as a “capitulation”. But Mysteries of Lisbon shows that he may have gained as much from these bigger budgets as he lost, and I’m not speaking about pocket change. What he actually broadened was his film vocabulary, especially his employments of long takes and camera movements.

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The Exorcist

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“Doubtless this tale of spirit possession in Georgetown packs a punch, but so does wood alcohol,“ wrote Reader critic Don Druker in an earlier review of this. I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive: as a key visual source for Mel Gibson’s depiction of evil in T as well as an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. This 2000 rerelease runs 132 minutes, 11 minutes longer than the original; with Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb. R. (JR)

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The Promise

Chen Kaige clearly intended this Chinese fantasy-action spectacle to top Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and I must admit that I prefer it to the earlier movie: the digital effects are sometimes excessive, yet Chen’s story of a loyal slave, his master, and a wealthy, seemingly doomed princess is more affecting, especially in the closing stretch. Chen’s original U.S. distributor, the Weinstein Company, ordered him to shorten the movie from its original running time of 128 minutes and then dropped it. (It’s worth recalling that his 1996 feature Temptress Moon was severely damaged by Miramax’s recutting.) Now Warner Independent Features is releasing the abbreviated, 102-minute version, and it’s well worth checking out. PG-13. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.

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Stillness and Life: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Published online on October 12, 2017 by the British Council. — J.R.

Stillness and Life: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames

By Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

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24 Frames (2017), the last film by Abbas Kiarostami, is a feature length experimental work comprising twenty-four vignettes, each four-and-half minutes long and shot mostly in black and white. The majority of these vignettes take place in natural surroundings. In fact, the first shot, of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565), establishes the template for most of the following scenes, which portray different kinds of animals and birds moving around in snowy landscapes. Elsewhere in the film, hunters are kept offscreen but we hear their gunshots. In one instance, they kill a bird and in another, a peaceful fawn. Other segments of the film focus on interior spaces, represented by large, dark windows that reveal only a limited view of the natural world beyond them (birds, or trees, or their shadows). With the exception of the homage to Bruegel, all of the segments are based on Kiarostami’s own photographs.

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In 2015, Kiarostami confirmed that he was working on the project, which he began after completing his previous feature, Like Someone in Love (2012).

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