From the May 6, 2005 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Take No Prisoners: The Bold Vision of Kira Muratova
at the Gene Siskel Film Center
The most original filmmakers working today tend to be identified more with their respective national cultures than with the world at large. The work of directors such as James Benning, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Abbas Kiarostami, Kira Muratova, Jafar Panahi, Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, and Edward Yang is seen as specialized, local, and esoteric. But I’d argue that what they have to say about their countries is secondary to their larger concern: the bewildering, tragicomic, and often disastrous effects of modernity on traditional modes of life and thought.
The dozen obstinately weird and wild films of Kira Muratova, seven of which are playing this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center, are described by some critics as Russian to the core, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call her the greatest living Russian filmmaker. (I’d link Alexander Sokurov’s work to the 19th century rather than to the 20th or the 21st.) Yet I’m not entirely sure what “Russian” means these days or how it applies to her.
Born in 1934 in Romania to a Romanian mother and a Russian father, Muratova went to both Romanian and Russian schools, often hiding her Russian identity at the former and her Romanian identity at the latter.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). I was very touched when, over a dozen years later, and quite recently, in Lisbon, Nicoletta Braschi (who was performing Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days there) thanked me for this piece. — J.R.
The worst movie I saw all year was the dubbed and recut version of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, hastily released by Miramax on Christmas Day. Yet I could easily have placed Benigni’s subtitled original in my top 50, if not top 40.
The late-19th-century source novel, Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, is so quintessentially Italian that adaptations lose flavor and meaning if they don’t include that aspect. Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature also failed to include the original’s sense of poverty, its cosmic vision of brutality, and many other disturbing elements, then heaped on the sentimentality; the studio got away with it because the film at least had a style and an occasionally disturbing vision of its own.
Benigni’s adaptation replicates more of the Disney sentimentality than I would have liked, but it returns to the Italian original, altering it mainly to fit Benigni’s irreverent and very Italian sense of comedy. (Federico Fellini had hoped to adapt the story with Benigni as the lead, and this film reflects some of Fellini’s broadness and comic-strip floridity.) Benigni’s performance, to which his voice is critical, acknowledges the weirdness of having a middle-aged man play the title role (in the original he’s more like an Italian version of Pee-wee Herman).… Read more »
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 (December 1, 1995). — J.R.
The Voice of the Moon
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ermanno Cavazzoni
With Roberto Benigni, Paolo Villaggio, Nadia Ottaviani, Marisa Tomasi, and Angelo Orlando.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese
With Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, and L.Q. Jones.
If I had the choice of seeing either Martin Scorsese’s latest (Casino) or Federico Fellini’s last (The Voice of the Moon) a second time, I’d opt for the Fellini. Both films are relatively minor works by relatively major filmmakers, though Scorsese has described The Voice of the Moon as one of Fellini’s “better pictures.” But Fellini’s swan song has a sweetness and sadness because it represents a kind of local — that is to say national — filmmaking that seems to be quickly vanishing from the mainstream. It isn’t hard to understand why no U.S. distributor has picked up this 1990 movie: it’s too Italian, and it isn’t at all easy to follow as storytelling, because it digresses all over the place. Yet these qualities, which are part of the film’s charm and poetry, might have worked in its favor outside Italy 30 years ago, when audiences tended to be more curious about other cultures and other forms of storytelling.… 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 June 5, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Truman Show
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, and Ed Harris.
Undeniably provocative and reasonably entertaining, The Truman Show is one of those high-concept movies whose concept is both clever and dumb. Let’s start with the clever part. A 29-year-old insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives in a seemingly utopian small town named Seahaven on an island off the coast of somewhere like Florida or California, gradually discovers that he’s the unwitting star of a TV show — a show that’s been running 24 hours a day since his birth. Everyone else on the island is an actor or an extra — including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and his mother (Holland Taylor) — and 5,000 hidden cameras are planted all over town to record his every movement. The show has no commercials in the usual sense, subsisting instead on product placements accompanied by advertising patter from Seahaven residents, including Truman’s wife, who extols the virtues of a new gadget she bought at the supermarket or recommends that he try a new brand of cocoa.… 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 »
On January 3, 1978, during what must have been my first visit back to London after moving from there to San Diego in early 1977, I attended a private screening at the British Film Institute of glorious new prints of Fritz Lang’s Indian films. Over four years later, when I was invited to program “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, I was delighted to be able to book these prints and thus hold what I believe was the North American premiere of Fritz Lang’s penultimate films in their correct versions, uncut and subtitled in English rather than dubbed. Luckily, Film Forum’s Karen Cooper attended this screening, and two years later, when she booked these prints for a theatrical run, she commissioned me to write program notes, reprinted below. — J.R. THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR/THE INDIAN TOMB (1958, 1959/101, 97 min.) Directed by Fritz Lang. Exec. Producer: Arthur Brauner. Screenplay by Lang & Werner Jorg Luddecke from a novel by Thea von Harbou & a scenario by Lang & von Harbou. Photographed by Richard Angst. Art direction by Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz. With: Debra Paget (Seetha), Paul Hubschmid (Harald Berger), Walter Reyer (Chandra), Claus Holm (Dr. Rhode), Sabine Bethmann (Irene Rhode), René Deltman (Ramigani).… 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 »
I’ve taken this text and these photographs from The Point‘s web site, correcting the grammar of their transcript in a couple of places to clarify my meanings. — J.R.
The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Jonathan Rosenbaum at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014. Mr. Rosenbaum and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.
I’m the odd person out in this gathering because I’m not an academic, although I teach periodically in various, most often relatively unacademic, situations. And plus, I could be described as a failed academic. Before I came to Chicago I was teaching for four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but prior to that I actually began my failed academic career in the U.S. where Robert Pippin had his background, at UC San Diego. And in between I was an adjunct at NYU and at the School of Visual Arts, etc.
My academic background, actually, was in English. I was an English major as an undergraduate and in graduate school I did everything but a dissertation in English and American literature. But then I went to Europe and ended up being a journalist.
… 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 »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 496). Blythe Danner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, where I had the privilege of seeing what a gifted actress she already was (I remember especially her performance of one of the lead roles in Jean Genet’s The Maids) and the pleasure of accompanying her once or twice on the piano when she performed as a jazz singer (in particular, on “‘Round Midnight”). — J.R.
U.SA., 1973Director: Sidney Lumet
Bastrop, Texas. The lives of three characters, narrated by each in
turn. 1925, Gid (Anthony Perkins): Gid and Johnny (Beau Bridges)
are friends whocompete for the favors of Molly (Blythe Danner),
who likes themboth. When Gidproposes to Molly, she replies
that she’d rather have sex with him for its own sake, not as part
of a marriage contract, and invites himto join her in a nude swim,
but he refuses. She goes to a dance with Eddie (Conrad Fowkes),
another local boy, and Johnny picks a fight with him. Gid sleeps
with her for the first time, and is shocked to discover she isn’t a
virgin. On a train to the Panhandle to sell his father’s cattle, Gid
attacks Johnny for sleeping with Molly and not proposing to her, but
then discovers that Eddie slept with her first.… 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 »