Monthly Archives: November 2017

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

The Unmaking of I’LL DO ANYTHING

From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.

“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”

I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature.Read more »

An Epic of Understanding: John Gianvito’s WAKE (SUBIC)

Posted on Film Comment‘s blog, February 2, 2016. — J.R.

Wake (Subic)

Consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and  L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking. By the same token, film history in the present should be divided between important filmmakers skilled and successful in hawking their own goods, from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Lee to Lars von Trier, and those who, for one reason or another, aren’t — a less definitive roll call that includes, among many others, Charles Burnett, Ebrahim Golestan, Luc Moullet, Peter Thompson, Orson Welles, and John Gianvito.

I haven’t seen Gianvito’s early shorts, one of which is called What Nobody Saw (1990), but its very title seems emblematic of his career — as does the epigraph from Cesare Pavese opening the first part of his first feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), which introduced me to his work and remains my favorite: “Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it.” His second and best known feature, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), testifies to the same conviction, and his nine-hour documentary diptych, For Example, The Philippines, which he has working on for the past decade, is a epic demonstration of the wisdom of Pavese’s remark; Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010, 264 minutes) and now Wake (Subic) (2015, 277 minutes) concentrate on the human ravages left by the Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base — for almost a century, the two largest U.S.… Read more »

Lost in the Woods [BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2]

From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 2000). — J.R.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

rating: 0

Directed by Joe Berlinger

Written by Dick Beebe and Berlinger

With Kim Diamond, Jeffrey Patterson, Erica Geersen, Tristine Ryler, and Stephen Ryan Parker.

Call me naive, but unlike many of my colleagues I thought the unexpected runaway success of The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999 was encouraging, not depressing. I saw it as an indication that contemporary teenagers are far from the hardened cynics media “experts” make them out to be and that special effects and a handful of stars aren’t their sole reasons for wanting to see a movie. Its appeal offered a clear challenge to the studios and even forced the film industry to let it play in malls — an astonishing accomplishment for an independent pseudodocumentary that cost only $30,000.

I don’t consider the movie any sort of masterpiece and fully acknowledge its primitive conceptual and technical aspects, but I still think it expresses something about its young fans that’s authentic and powerful: a feeling of helplessness about their isolation and ignorance in relation to the world that’s central to its impact as a horror movie. If that isolation and ignorance led some viewers to initially see it as a real documentary, this is a tribute to the movie’s effectiveness — which makes it similar in some respects to Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, a 1967 low-budget pseudodocumentary that also fooled many young viewers.… Read more »

The Exorcist

theexorcist-poster

“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)

ExorcistRead more »

Saying It With Stars

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 2005). — J.R.

Crash

*** (A must see)

Directed by Paul Haggis

Written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco

With Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Dashon Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Nona Gaye, and Michael Pena

Mindhunters

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin

With Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Val Kilmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Kathryn Morris, Christian Slater, LL Cool J, Patricia Velasquez, and Cassandra Bell

Monster-in-Law

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Robert Luketic

Written by Anya Kochoff and Richard LaGravenese

With Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, and Wanda Sykes

We tend to make trade-offs between reality and fantasy when we watch movies, buying into some questionable premises because we want to honor others. Despite shared assumptions and conventions, we have different thresholds for what we find believable — or an acceptable version of what’s real. We’ll settle for a certain amount of contrivance, but our tolerance has limits, determined in part by age, taste, and experience and in part by whether we like the rest of the movie enough to stretch our standards.… Read more »

Pola X

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). — J.R.

PolaX

I haven’t read Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities, but it’s reportedly director Leos Carax’s favorite novel. What there is of a plot to this 1999 modern-dress adaptation, which Carax wrote with Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Pol Fargeau, concerns a wealthy author (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard) living in Normandy in semi-incestuous contentment with his mother (Catherine Deneuve). Upon encountering a soulful eastern European war refugee (Katerina Golubeva) who claims to be his half sister, he runs out on his wealthy fiancee (Delphine Chuillot) and retreats to a funky part of Paris to write another novel. There’s clearly some sort of self-portraiture going on here. A 19th-century romantic inhabiting a universe as mythological as Jean Cocteau’s, Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood, The Lovers on the Bridge) has a wonderful cinematic eye and a personal feeling for editing rhythms, and his sense of overripeness and excess virtually defines him. He’s as self-indulgent as they come, and we’d all be much the poorer if he weren’t. Characteristic of his private sense of poetics is this film’s dedication, near the end of the closing credits, “to my three sisters” — it appears on-screen for less than a second.… Read more »

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.

Read more »

Horror Show [CYCLO]

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1996). — J.R.

Cyclo

Cyclo

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, and Ngo Vu Quang Hai.

Tran Anh Hung’s first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, redefined what we mean by “inside” and “outside,” architecturally as well as socially and psychologically. The same could be said about the vastly more ambitious and even more impressive Cyclo, which was shot in Ho Chi Minh City — unlike The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in a studio outside Paris — and is set in the present.

The Scent of Green Papaya — the first and so far only Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award — was inspired by the filmmaker’s memories of his mother and was set in 1951 and 1961. Tran said that his next feature would be based on recollections of his father. This led me to expect another period film, which Cyclo isn’t — but there’s no question that it’s a film about patriarchy. The first and last things the 18-year-old hero (Le Van Loc) says offscreen concern his late father — a pedicab driver who was run over by a truck — and there’s the sense throughout that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.… Read more »

A Walk on the Wilde Side [AN IDEAL HUSBAND]

From the Chicago Reader (June 25, 1999). — J.R.

An Ideal Husband

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Oliver Parker

Written by Oscar Wilde and Parker

With Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, John Wood, Lindsay Duncan, Peter Vaughan, and Jeroen Krabbe.

Reviewing a collection of Oscar Wilde’s critical writings almost 30 years ago, Cyril Connolly made a useful distinction between “Wilde” and “Oscar,” the two sides of the same man. “Wilde is Wilde in these essays and seldom ‘Oscar,’” Connolly noted with justifiable admiration. “The change is beneficial. In some cases he is both: thus The Soul of Man Under Socialism in places seems almost inspired; it is a breath of fresh air in which the idealistic aspects of Socialism (or Christian Democracy) have seldom been so well expressed — in his denunciation of private property for example.

Then ‘Oscar’ intervenes. ‘There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.‘”

Connolly goes on to explain, “When I think of ‘Oscar,’ it is against a background of servants, of butlers announcing him and footmen with salvers, of a hansom cab hired by the day, the driver nodding under his tarpaulin while Wilde and Bosie display far into the night.”

I’ve seen An Ideal Husband, writer-director Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, twice — once before reading the original and once after.… Read more »

The Plain Truth [WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE & NELLY AND MONSIEUR ARNAUD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1996). — J.R.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Todd Solondz

With Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Telly Pontidis, Herbie Duarte, Daria Kalinina, and Matthew Faber.

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Claude Sautet

Written by Sautet, Jacques Fieschi, and Yves Ulmann

With Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Serrault, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Claire Nadeau, Francoise Brion, Michele Laroque, and Michael Lonsdale.

It’s hard to think of two stark depictions of blocked libido more dissimilar than Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. But they share at least one trait that deserves to be cherished — a trait that sets them apart from most other new movies. Both offer lively alternatives to the current lackluster, middlebrow exemplars of “literary” cinema — Cold Comfort Farm, The Horseman on the Roof, The Postman, Sense and Sensibility – clogging up our art theaters, beckoning us to feel more educated and civilized and thereby keeping out other movies that might address our everyday lives more directly. (I haven’t seen Moll Flanders, but I suspect that it and the horrendous Disney animated feature Hunchback of Notre Dame are mainstream versions of the same spreading disease.)

To be fair, all four of the pedigreed period pieces named have their merits, but they’re associated more with the illustrations and texts of coffee-table books than with the experience of reading novels and poems.… Read more »

Four Rooms

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 1996). — J.R.

Four Rooms

no stars

Directed and written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino

With Tim Roth, Sammi Davis, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino, Madonna, Ione Skye, Jennifer Beals, David Proval, Antonio Banderas, Lana McKissack, Danny Verduzco, Bruce Willis, Paul Calderon, and Tarantino.

Fair is fair. Though I’m calling Four Rooms worthless — an opinion that’s uncontroversial — it’s a better picture than, for example, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. In fact Four Rooms is rather interesting in spite of — or perhaps because of — its disturbing awfulness. Declaring a movie worthless usually means something beyond a strictly aesthetic evaluation; there’s something punitive and moralistic, even tribal about our disapproval and rejection. (The same sort of thing often happens when we call a movie “great”: the longtime absence of any movie for and about black women obviously has influenced the recent success of Waiting to Exhale.)

Maybe calling a movie worthless is a way of getting even. Many reviewers, myself included, were excessively dismissive of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — backlash against the media hype around David Lynch (including an appearance on the cover of Time) that built up expectations and could only lead to his immolation as a sacrificial victim.… Read more »

60s Wisdom [CANDY MOUNTAIN]

It seems like one way of characterizing a Robert Frank film nowadays would be to say that it’s likely a film for which it’s almost impossible to find any adequate illustrations on the Internet. This is why I’m mainly had to depend on a couple of posters here, as well as the book jacket for the recent reprint of Rudy Wurlitzer’s first novel. –J.R.

CANDY MOUNTAIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer

Written by Wurlitzer

With Kevin J. O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, Roberts Blossom, Leon Redbone, and Dr. John.

Is it my imagination, or has “60s” become less of a dirty word lately? Appearances can be deceptive, but in recent movies as diverse in quality (as well as in subject matter) as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Young Guns, and Tucker, we seem finally to be acknowledging that certain 60s values persist in our minds and habits as something more positive than war wounds. The recognition comes slowly and begrudgingly, though — almost as if the Reagan era has kept it under lock and key, and plastered it over with warnings about freak-outs, burnouts, and death. So when something that might be called 60s wisdom makes an appearance in our midst, it deserves to be treasured and savored rather than hastily filed away.… Read more »

Foreword to Dave Kehr’s MOVIES THAT MATTERED

Commissioned by the University of Chicago Press and written in September 2016; published in November 2017. — J.R.

MoviesThatMattered

For all the differences between the history of cinema and the history of the Internet, one disturbing point they have in common is the degree to which our canons in both film and film criticism are determined by historical accidents.  Thus we’ve canonized F.W. Murnau’s third American film, City Girl (1930), ever since a copy was belatedly discovered in the 1970s, but not his second, The Four Devils (1928), because no known print of that film survives. Similarly, we canonize Josef von Sternberg’s remarkable The Docks of New York (1928), but not the lost Sternberg films that preceded and followed it, The Dragnet (1928) and The Case of Lena Smith (1929). And it’s no less a matter of luck that all my long reviews for the Chicago Reader, published between 1987 and 2008, are available online, but none of Dave Kehr’s long reviews for the same publication, published between 1974 and 1986—a body of work that, together with Kehr’s columns for Chicago magazine in the 1980s, strikes me as being the most remarkable extended stretch of auteurist criticism in American journalism.

I hasten to add that, unlike the missing films of Murnau and Sternberg, Kehr’s writing for the Reader and Chicago has never been lost.… Read more »

LE VRAI COUPABLE: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

This was originally a lecture given at a conference on Godard held in Cerisy, France on August 20, 1998. It subsequently appeared in a printed form somewhat closer to that found below, in Screen magazine (vol 40, no. 3). in Autumn 1999, as part of a Godard dossier assembled by the estimable Michael Witt. But, if memory serves, it took about a year of correspondence and wrangling before anyone on the magazine’s staff agreed to send me any copy of the issue. (Note: for a more general essay and interview with Godard about Histoire(s) du cinéma, go here.) —J.R.

Le Vrai Coupable: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Since the outset of his career, Godard has been interested in two kinds of criticism — film criticism and social criticism — and these two interests are apparent in practically everything he does and says as an artist. The first two critical texts that he published–in the second and third issues of Gazette du cinéma in 1950 — are entitled “Joseph Mankiewicz” and “Pour un cinéma politique”, and his first two features, A bout de souffle and Le petit soldat, made about a decade later, reflect the same dichotomy.… Read more »