Yearly Archives: 2017

Unified Theory [METROPOLIS]

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.

Metropolis

**** (Masterpiece)

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 »

HEARTS OF THE WEST (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 509). — J.R.

Hollywood Cowboy

U.S.A., 1975
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 »

Besides Sideways

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 »

The Grandfather [INTIMATE STRANGER]

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.

INTIMATE STRANGER

*** (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 »

Recommended Reading: CINEASTE on Film Criticism, Programming, and Preservation in the New Millennium

 

Cineaste

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 »

A Few Ways of Looking at MIDNIGHT RUN

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.

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (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

Review #1

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 »

Unsafe at Any Size [THE CORPORATION]

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 2004). — J.R.

http://thecia.com.au/reviews/c/images/corporation-1.jpg

The Corporation

**** (Masterpiece)

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 »

A Different Kind of Thrill (Richet’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13)

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 »

Straight Ahead, on the Left

In my original review of this documentary, I cited and recommended some writing by Eliot Weinberger that three of my editors regarded as irresponsible and unreliable and therefore something that shouldn’t be mentioned, along with some of my own pronouncements. Readers who would like to judge this matter for themselves can read my unedited draft, which I’ve added below the published version. The edited version appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times

*** (A must-see)

Directed by John Junkerman.

As a work of cinema, John Junkerman’s documentary about Noam Chomsky doesn’t set the world on fire. The film is a prosaic compilation of interview footage of the linguist and political analyst in his office at MIT intercut with footage of him speaking in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and the Bronx last spring. He’s also shown chatting with students about U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terrorism,” and representations of both in the American media. Unlike Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), a Canadian film that’s well over twice as long, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times doesn’t try to offer a comprehensive portrait of its subject or a wide-ranging survey of his thought.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Sites, Sounds, and Subtitles (4th column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #17 (Winter 2003). Over a decade later, much of this is clearly out of date, including some of the links, but it seems worth acknowledging that the Internet, like everything else, has a history of its own.  — J.R.


I’d like to begin this installment by alerting readers to a couple of excellent online tools that I’ve recently discovered, both of which are indispensable to anyone interested in tracking down the best DVDs of the greatest films: Masters of Cinema and DVD Beaver.

The first of these, at www.masterofcinema.com, is an ongoing international newsletter in English maintained by four rotating editors, with regular updates, devoted to what’s coming out, when and where, and in what condition and with what features. The moment you get to their home page, you see all their regular features, including The News Fountain, a “worldwide DVD calendar” with upcoming releases listed by months, a few discerning articles, and a column of links. The latter is especially valuable, the pièce de résistance comprising a list of directors that at last count included 85 web sites devoted to no less than 76 directors. (In case you’re curious, the directors that have two web sites apiece on this list are Tex Avery, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chuck Jones, Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, F.W.… Read more »

The Pajama Game

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2001). — J.R.

The Pajama Game, 1957

Film scholar Jane Feuer has argued that the Hollywood musical is a politically conservative genre, a notion challenged by the Warners musicals of the 30s, Bells Are Ringing (1969), and this exuberant, underrated 1957 movie. Adapted from George Abbott’s Broadway hit, it concerns a strike in a pajama factory, with Doris Day as the shop steward and John Rait as her boss. Though the sexual politics are far from progressive, this is the sort of labor musical that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s admiration. Bob Fosse’s airy choreography is terrific, and so is the score, which includes “Seven and a Half Cents” and a steamy “Steam Heat”. Stanley Donen directed with verve and energy. 101 min. (JR)

the_pajama_game_042Read more »

The Three-Dimensional Contrivances of AZAR

 Commissioned by Iranian Film Magazine in early December, 2017. — J.R.

Azar

 

It might be argued that domestic melodramas are often based on contrivances. This is true of both Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016) and Mohammed Hamzei and Ehsan Biglari’s Azar (2017), two of the better Iranian domestic melodramas that I’ve seen in recent years. But the different ways in which these films handle their contrivances is instructive.

The-Salesman-Photo-2

Farhadi — whom I tend to regard as the Elia Kazan of Iranian cinema, for better and for worse, typically generating more heat than light in his most popular works, as Kazan did in On the Waterfront and East of Eden — is more conventionally skillful with his Big Scenes than the team of Biglari (writer) and Hamzei (director) are with theirs. This is because Farhadi knows how to disguise his contrivances so that they don’t seem contrived at all, but dramatically inevitable, such as the sexual impropriety that spurs most of the action in The Salesman as well as the various dramatic confrontations that result from this.

AZAR7

By contrast, the Big Scenes in Azar tend to be awkwardly unconvincing (notably, the accidental death of Saber from a brief scuffle with his cousin Amir arising from a financial dispute), or played down (the uncle of Amir smashing windows in his nephew’s pizzeria with his fist), or else omitted entirely (the pivotal meeting between Amir and his uncle in prison).… Read more »

Daney in English: A Letter to Trafic

 

Written for and originally published (in French translation) in Trafic no. 37 (printemps 2001); also reprinted in my 2010 collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

Chicago, November 13, 2000

Dear Jean-Claude, Patrice, Raymond, and Sylvie,

Trying to find a useful way to discuss Serge Daney in an Anglo-American context, it’s hard not to feel a little demoralized. I recently looked up the letter I wrote to a university press editor in early 1995, not very much shorter than this one, enumerating -– to no avail -– all the reasons why bringing out a collection of Serge’s film criticism in English was an urgent matter and a first priority, almost comparable in some ways to what making Bazin available in English had been in the ’60s.

I believe this might have been the longest “reader’s report” I’ve ever written for a publisher. I was trying to persuade the editor to publish a translation of Daney texts that in fact had already been commissioned and completed in England, but, for diverse reasons, had never appeared in print. All the texts chosen came from Ciné journal and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. I thought this translation needed some revision to make it more graceful and user-friendly, and I would have preferred a broader selection.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents: Tenant Filmgoing

From The Soho News (May 20-26, 1981). I’m sorry that I still haven’t managed to see Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes, a 1963 film made by a childhood friend of mine — and that I haven’t been able to find any more illustrations for the small-gauge films that I wrote about here….My expressed feeling of solidarity with Squeeze Play was no doubt inflected by the fact that I was living in Hoboken at the time. — J.R.

May 8: At Anthology Film Archives, to see a program in “Home Made Movies: 20 Years of American 8mm and Super-8 Films” — an intriguing and varied series selected by Jim Hoberman that runs through the end of next month, warmly recommended to everyone without money who nurtures fantasies about taking over the media. I learn straight away that Linda Talbot’s Vermont in 3 1/2 Minutes is being replaced by Bear and Jane Brakhage’s Peter’s Dream, a title glossed by Jonas Mekas as referring to Peter Kubelka.

This reminds me of a somewhat troubled notion that first reared its inglorious head when I had the occasion to view all the films in the Whitney’s previous Biennial. The idea is simply that a surprising number of North American avant-garde films seem to center on the same general obsession as The Deer Hunter or Manhattan — namely, a boastful inventory of male possessions: This is my hometown, my house, my rifle, my dog, my Bolex, my woman, my art.… Read more »

Paris Journal (May-June 1973)

From Film Comment (May-June 1973). — J.R.

LES IDOLES, Marc’O’s film version of his theater piece, originally opened in Paris in May, 1968, when many of its spectators were out in the street and presumably had other things to think about. It was released again early this year; but after a nominal run in one of several new mini-cinemas that have springing up lately all over the Left Bank, it seemed to vanish into oblivion a second time, only to re-emerge in a neighborhood house in early February, where it is currently playing. Talent does usually seem to find a way to reassert itself. Marc’O’s sarcastic parody about the making and merchandising of pop has nothing particularly profound or original to “say” about its subject, but it happens to have three of the liveliest performances in the modern French cinema.

Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Pierre Clementi, as the three pop stars, dive into their parts with such enthusiasm and expertise that the screen comes alive with their electric energies, and one can only speculate on how much more spectacular they must have been on the stage. (Despite some clever attempts at adaptation, LES IDOLES stubbornly remains another variant of filmed theater — a good thing to have, under the circumstances, but like Shirley Clarke’s ingenious recording of THE CONNECTION, it cannot really offer an equivalent to the excitements of a live performance.) A theoretical problem about parodying French rock is the fact that, at least to American ears, most of it tends to sound like parody anyway; but Ogier, Kalfon, Clementi overcome this obstacle with dazzling variations on the very notion of Star Presence.Read more »