These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the second dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece, about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to sit down and have a meal together, is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and executed of all his late French films. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams, dreams within dreams, and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with the very processes of narrative illusion and narrative continuity themselves — their rewards as well as their compulsions, their pleasures and their frustrations.
Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious, the various episodes involving these and other characters (including Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur) are like an anthology of Buñuel’s themes, favorite gags, and recurring nightmares. The film was produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, perhaps the two most essential friends and collaborators in the flowering of Bunuel’s late period, though Buñuel regulars Rey, Frankeur, and Julien Bertheau might also be cited.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 27, 1997). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Victor Nunez
With Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel, Christine Dunford, J. Kenneth Campbell, Steven Flynn, Dewey Weber, and Tom Wood.
The character-driven stories in all four of writer-director Victor Nunez’s features to date — Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green, his masterpiece Ruby in Paradise, and now Ulee’s Gold – are defined by their regionalism: Nunez operates exclusively as a Florida independent. Whether he’s adapting a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings short story set in the 20s or a John D. MacDonald novel (his first two films) or writing an original script (the second two), Nunez bases his art on a sense of place so solid that the texture of the settings is part of his subject.
The fact that all his films are relatively slow moving also has something to do with the Florida settings. Former residents of that state have told me that his movies capture not only a sense of the place but its rhythms, and judging from the novels with Florida settings I’ve read in recent years — John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest and the three wonderful Hoke Moseley novels of Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, and New Hope for the Dead) — this isn’t just Nunez’s take on the region.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). For the record, I regard Downsizing as Payne’s best film to date, even if it’s less perfectly shaped than Election, but representing as much of a leap from About Schmidt as that film was from Citizen Ruth. — J.R.
I was so offended by the cynicism and class condescension of Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne’s first feature, that I’ve remained suspicious of his work even as he’s emerged as a more skillful director in Election and this still more ambitious and accomplished film. It’s a very free adaptation of a Louis Begley novel, transposed from Manhattan to Payne’s native Nebraska, in which Jack Nicholson has been asked to put on some weight and finally act his age. The problem is he’s still Jack Nicholson, exuding his know-it-all charisma even when playing a clueless asshole and not nearly as inventive as he was in a much less showy part in The Pledge. The contrivance here by which he bares his soul — by mouthing letters to an African boy he’s helping to support from afar — is bogus and forced, and even the more observant moments in this odyssey of a bored and boring widower can’t entirely escape the jeering tone that remains Payne’s stock-in-trade.… Read more »
This appeared in the August 27, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges, Mark Feuerstein, Stacey Travis, and Steven Wright.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Muse made me laugh, but not as much as the five Albert Brooks movies preceding it. It also made me think less, and that’s more of a problem. I don’t care whether Mel Brooks makes me think, but Albert’s a different matter. He’s a conceptual filmmaker unlike any other — a Stanley Kubrick among comedians whose premises need to be pondered, not simply accepted or rejected.
The Muse is a somewhat flimsy high-concept movie whose ultimate justification is that its subject is the manufacture of flimsy high-concept movies. It isn’t so much about a muse as about the apparent need for one. Steven Phillips (Brooks) is a well-to-do Hollywood screenwriter with a wife (Andie MacDowell) and two daughters — the first Brooks hero to have children — who’s desperate because everyone tells him he’s “lost his edge.” What does that mean? The movie doesn’t say, and Brooks, as usual, doesn’t spell it out.… Read more »
This appeared in the April 4, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Rating * (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Alexander Payne
With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren.
Inventing the Abbotts
Rating *** (A must see)
Directed by Pat O’Connor
Written by Ken Hixon
With Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Will Patton, Kathy Baker, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joanna Going, Barbara Williams, and Michael Sutton.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The best insight into 20th-century repression I’ve encountered recently is contained in Sidney Blumenthal’s piece about Whittaker Chambers in the March 17 issue of the New Yorker. Chambers “lived in a time when it was easier to confess to being a [communist] spy than to confess to being a homosexual,” Blumenthal notes. He also remarks that Chambers’s behavior as a spy — “furtive exchanges, secret signals, false identities” — resembled his behavior as a homosexual, and that he “and a pantheon of anti-Communists for whom conservatism was the ultimate closet — J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Francis Cardinal Spellman — advanced a politics based on the themes of betrayal and exposure, ‘filth’ (as Hoover called it) and purity.… Read more »
This appeared in the August 16, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. I more recently had occasion to return to this film and some of my thoughts about it when I joined David Kalat to do an audio commentary on the expanded (and now nearly complete) version of Metropolis for the forthcoming English DVD of Masters of Cinema. In fact, the essay below was used by Masters of Cinema in the accompanying booklet of their previous edition of the film, and an updated version of this piece appeared in the next one. — J.R.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou
With Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, and Heinrich George.
The internationalism of filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages. To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us.
We will realize it! — Fritz Lang, in an article published in 1926
Lang’s utopian rallying cry, written in Germany during the editing of Metropolis, is well worth recalling today.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 509). — J.R.
Director: Howard Zieff
Cert–A. dist–ClC. p.c–MGM. A Bill/Zieff production. p–Tony Bill. p. manager–Clark L. Paylow. asst. d–Jack B. Bernstein, Alan Brimfleld. sc–Rob Thompson. ph–Mario Tosi. col–Metrocolor. ed–Edward Warschilka. a.d–Robert Luthardt. set dec–Charles R. Pierce. m-Ken Lauber. m. sup–Harry V. Lojewski. special musical artists–Nick Lucas, Roger Patterson, Merle Travis. cost–Patrick Cummings. choreo--Sylvia Lewis. Titles/opticals–MGM. sd–Jerry Jost, Harry W. Tetrick. sd. effects–John P. Riordan. l.p–Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Blythe Danner (Miss Trout), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Donald Pleasence (A. I. Nietz), Alan Arkin (Kessler), Richard B. Shull (Stout Crook), Herbert Edelman (Polo), Alex Rocco (Earl), Frank Cady (Pa Tater), Anthony James (Lean Crook), Burton Gilliam (Lester), Matt Clark (Jackson), Candy Azzata (Waitress), Thayer David (Bank Manager), Marie Windsor (Woman at Nevada Hotel), Anthony Holland (Guest at Beach Party), Dub Taylor (Nevada Ticket Agent), Raymond Guth (Wally), Wayne Storm (Zyle), Herman Poppe (Lowell), William Christopher (Bank Teller), Jane Dulo (Mrs.… Read more »
The following was commissioned in 1999 by Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, which decided not to run it because Brooks’s agent refused to let me see The Muse in advance for this article unless a “cover story” was promised. Written By, to its credit, refuses to make deals of this kind. So the magazine paid me for the article and didn’t run it, which I hope made Brooks’s agent properly proud of his efforts. — J.R.
You may recall him as the wealthy convict in Out of Sight, or, prior to that, as Cybill Shepherd’s wisecracking cohort at the campaign headquarters in Taxi Driver, as Holly Hunter’s best friend in Broadcast News, or as the neurotic Hollywood producer in I’ll Do Anything. Maybe, if you’re luckier, you’ve seen his five underrated and highly durable comedies – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), and Mother (1996) — which will be succeeded later this year by The Muse.
Albert Brooks has so far taken solo writing credit only on Defending Your Life — sharing script credit with TV comedy writer Monica Johnson on the other four (as well as on The Scout, a disappointing 1994 baseball movie he didn’t direct), and also with Harry Shearer on Real Life, the first and probably the funniest of the lot.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 2005). — J.R.
Ten film critics’ polls in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., have named Sideways the best movie of the year. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s not that I have anything against comedies; last year Down With Love was second on my ten-best list. Besides, Sideways has a dark side — its infantile hero (Paul Giamatti) steals from his mother, and his infantile sidekick (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to be married, compulsively cheats on his fiancee. They behave as if the world beyond southern California doesn’t exist, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. And like most American mainstream movies, it dances around class issues without ever facing them.
If my colleagues who love this movie, many of whom I admire, are implying that it contains valuable life lessons, I wish they’d tell me what they are. Giamatti is an acerbic loser hero who’s eventually given a ray of hope, like the Woody Allen hero of 20 or 30 years ago but without the wisecracks. So is regressing to that moviemaking model the proudest achievement of world cinema in 2004? Did the critics find something comforting, even affirmative, about its provincialism?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 19, 1992). There’s a new DVD box set devoted to five Berliner documentaries, including this one, that’s recently come out. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Alan Berliner.
The subject of Alan Berliner’s remarkable hour-long documentary, showing Friday night at Chicago Filmmakers, is his maternal grandfather, Joseph Cassuto — a Jew born in Palestine in 1905 and raised in Egypt, where he started working for the Japanese Cotton Trading Company in his teens. He moved his family to Brooklyn in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor, and after the war spent nearly all his time — roughly 11 months out of every year — in Japan, until late 1956, when he transferred to the New York office. He died in 1974.
Considering Cassuto’s globe-trotting, it’s hard to imagine most Americans being interested in Intimate Stranger. It’s taken the better part of a year for it to reach Chicago, after premiering last fall at the New York film festival. After all, this is a country so uninterested in the rest of the world that the foreign policies of its presidential candidates barely seem to matter — and when they do matter, you can bet it’s the welfare of this country rather than the planet that’s at issue.… Read more »
Can I help promote a collection of symposia, two of which I participated in, as well as several interviews ? Why not? This is fun to browse and useful as well as instructive to read. The symposia are conducted with exemplary breadth and thoroughness (the one on international film criticism, for instance, takes in no less than twenty countries), and although the interviews are mostly with critics (Pauline Kael, John Bloom, Peter von Bagh, Mark Cousins), a good many programmers and film preservationists are also surveyed. Editors Cynthia Lucia and Rahul Hamid have done a careful and conscientious job and produced a very handsome book. Need I say more? [12/16/17]… Read more »
I’m mainly reprinting this early review for the Chicago Reader, run in their July 22, 1988 issue, for theoretical reasons rather than because of any intrinsic or enduring interest in the movie involved —- which may well limit or even eliminate the piece’s interest for some readers. When I started reviewing for the Reader and discovered that I had to assign a rating, from one to four stars, to all the films I reviewed at any length, a longstanding Chicago custom, my impatience with this requirement, which struck me as both arbitrary and absurd, is part of what yielded the following. Another part is the sometimes necessary pretense of knowledge by reviewers about matters they know little about. –- J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Martin Brest
Written by George Gallo
With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.
by Jonathan Rossenbaum
There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 2004). — J.R.
Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks, and Achbar
Narrated by Mikela J. Mikael.
A month ago I attended back-to-back press screenings of two major documentaries, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Corporation, which finally opened here last week. Though it would have broken with industry protocol to have said so at the time, before both movies had opened, it was clear that The Corporation — a 2003 Canadian film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan — was a better film, and second looks at both movies has only confirmed this impression. Michael Moore’s movie probably startles people who rely mostly on TV for their news, but The Corporation will shock even those who keep close track of newspapers and magazines. In fact, it goes beyond shocking in obliging us to ask ourselves how far we’re all prepared to go in our defense of capitalism.
Far enough to jeopardize our health and the survival of the planet? Maybe not, but at the moment it’s corporations that appear to have the power to decide. And the stories this film uses to demonstrate that are chilling.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 2005). — J.R.
Assault on Precinct 13
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet
Written by James DeMonaco
With Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Gabriel Byrne, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Drea de Matteo, and Ja Rule
John Carpenter’s first solo feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), is an effective low-budget genre piece — a perfectly proportioned, highly suspenseful action story about a few individuals under siege. It’s derived in part from Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo: Carpenter directly quotes from the dialogue and action, and he jokily adopts the pseudonym of John T. Chance, the name of John Wayne’s character, as the credited editor. The film is also influenced by claustrophobic horror movies such as The Thing (which Carpenter subsequently remade), The Birds, and Night of the Living Dead, especially their depiction of how unstable group dynamics are affected by an impersonal menace.
After most of the employees of a police station in a Los Angeles ghetto have moved to a new building, the station is attacked by a vengeful gang that uncannily expands into a mob, to the accompaniment of Carpenter’s relentlessly minimalist, percussive synthesizer score. A black rookie named Bishop and two white secretaries are the only remaining staff, and once Bishop realizes they can’t survive without help, he frees two prisoners, one black, one white — both hardened criminals en route to the state pen.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly, Fall 2008 (Vol. 62, No. 1). I’ve recently watched Curtis’s powerful and eye-opening Bitter Lake (2015) as well as his somewhat more paranoid HyperNormalisation (2016), also readily available for free on the Internet, which generally maintain the high level of the work discussed here. — J.R.
There’s been a steady improvement over the course of the three most recent BBC miniseries of Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self (2002, four hour-long episodes), The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004, three hour-long episodes), and The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007, three hour-long episodes) —- both in terms of their intellectual cogency and persuasiveness and in terms of the interest of Curtis’s developing, innovative style of filmmaking. One might even contend that each remarkable series has been twice as good as its predecessor. Even so, a closer look at Curtis’s filmmaking style starts to raise a few questions about both the arguments themselves and the way that he propounds them. (Regarding Curtis’s earlier TV series — such as the 1992 Pandora’s Box and the 1999 The Mayfair Set, which I’ve only sampled, and won’t be discussing here —- one can already see some of the thematic and stylistic seeds of his more recent work there.)
I’m certainly not the first one to address these issues arising out of Curtis’s work.… Read more »