From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 2001). — J.R.
Signs & Wonders
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
Written by James Lasdun and Nossiter
With Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Dimitris Katalifos, Ashley Remy, and Michael Cook.
The Fourth Dimension
Rating *** A must see
Directed, written, and narrated by Trinh T. Minh-ha.
Broadly speaking, Signs & Wonders, an ambitious thriller set in contemporary Athens, and The Fourth Dimension, a documentary about Japan, derive most of their strengths from being meditations by American tourists. Signs & Wonders, running this week at Facets Multimedia Center, is a 35-millimeter feature shot on digital video, and it’s directed by Jonathan Nossiter, a quirky and talented son of a journalist who grew up in France, England, Italy, Greece, and India and has made only one previous narrative feature, Sunday (1997). Nossiter wrote both films with James Lasdun, a Londoner now based in the U.S. who also wrote the story on which Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1998 Besieged was based.
It’s a gorgeous mess of a movie, brimming with provocative ideas about the state of the planet, multinational corporations, political amnesia, American idealism, and some of the monstrous ways love can turn sour, and demonstrating how these ideas can converge and inform one another.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1992); also reprinted in Movies as Politics. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Arnold Perl and Spike Lee
With Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, and Spike Lee.
“At the top of 1968, over the vehement protests of my family and my friends, I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My family and my friends were entirely right; but I was not (since I survived it) entirely wrong. Still, I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure — not, luckily, that I will ever be allowed to repeat it: it is not an adventure which one permits a friend, or brother, to attempt to survive twice. It was a gamble which I knew I might lose, and which I lost — a very bad day at the races: but I learned something.” — James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976)
“If the complexity that was Malcolm X survives this moment as only a T-shirt or a trademark, then it is no wonder that Clarence Thomas has emerged as the perfect cooptive successor–an heir-transparent, a product with real producers; the new improved apparition of Malcolm, the cleaned-up version of what he could have been with a good strong grandfather figure to set him right.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 6, 1989). — J.R.
THE LITTLE THIEF ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Claude Miller
Written by Annie Miller, Claude Miller, and Luc Beraud
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bezace, Simon de la Brosse, Raoul Billerey, and Chantal Banlier.
The French cinema has perhaps never been more desperately in the doldrums than now, and this slump is best represented by the trips down memory lane that seem to be a major preoccupation in current French movies. Never entailing research or reevaluation, these simplified, nostalgic foreshortenings of the past often pare away much of what makes that past interesting.
Claude Miller’s The Little Thief (La petite voleuse) is a case in point because it purports to be, at least in this country, the last work of the late Francois Truffaut. (I’m told that no such claims were made about the film when it opened in France, and can understand why; even French amnesia doesn’t ordinarily extend quite as far as our own.) The film was developed out of a long-nurtured Truffaut project that Truffaut considered filming at various points throughout his career; a 30- or 40-page treatment (accounts differ) he wrote with Claude de Givray served as Miller’s starting point, although by all accounts this story has been extensively reworked and embellished, and even given a new ending.… Read more »
From the July 30, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.
The Third Man
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene
With Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ernst Deutsch, Siegfried Breuer, and Erich Ponto.
Ironically, the most successful and beloved movie Orson Welles was ever associated with — and the one that may have had the most significant effect on the remainder of his career — has not been one of his own. Admittedly, Citizen Kane has more prestige, but that’s a relatively recent development; for the first quarter of a century after it was made, it was criticized as “uncinematic” in the few standard works of film history available, such as The Liveliest Art and The Film Till Now. Instead it was The Third Man (1950) that was most often cited with pleasure when Welles’s name came up. “Didn’t he direct that?” was something I used to hear a lot. Today I hear “Didn’t he direct at least some of the scenes?”
From the testimony of everyone involved, including Welles, we know that he wrote one brief and highly memorable speech comparing Italy and Switzerland (which he once claimed he cribbed from an old Hungarian play) and rewrote a couple of his other lines in the same scene.… Read more »
From Cinema Journal 26, No. 4, Summer 1987. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum Responds to Robin Bates’s “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences” (which appeared in Cinema Journal, Winter 1987)
Having been invited to respond briefly to Robin Bates’s “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences” in the Winter 1987 Cinema Journal, I should stress at the outset my sympathy with the main objectives of this essay, particularly as they are expressed in the closing paragraph. While my own recent Welles-related research has concentrated more on films and scripts that are not yet part of the public record,’ readers of my book Moving Places (Harper & Row, 1980) will know that I am also deeply concerned with the personal and historical dimensions of reception. Arguing that Citizen Kane in general and Rosebud in particular had “healing powers” in 1941 which are less available to us now, and that “audiences of the past … were no less sophisticated than audiences of today,” Robin Bates affords us a number of valuable historical insights, but his argument also raises certain methodological issues which I would like to explore. Although Bates has a commendable desire to open us up to the potential wisdom of the past (as exemplified by a retrospective statement about Rosebud from his father, Scott Bates, which opens his article), his means of fulfilling that desire depend on various forms of closure which I find problematical.… Read more »
This is the first ten-best round-up I ever did for the Chicago Reader, which ran in their January 8, 1988 issue. Having recently been reading the Library of America’s mammoth collection of Manny Farber’s film criticism (which is coming out in September), I’ve become especially aware of how much one’s taste and preferences tend to change over time. Today, for instance, I suspect I would have placed Mélo in the number #1 slot, and probably wouldn’t include House of Games or Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen in the also-rans but would move them both up to the main list. The first photo, incidentally, directly below, is from Godard’s still woefully neglected King Lear.-–J.R.
What is the meaning of a ten best list? For me, at any rate, it means a list of movies with the highest possible mystery quotient — the movies that fascinate me the most because they still have secrets to withhold. And the best litmus test that I know for determining this quality is repeat viewings. If a movie that knocked me out seems less mysterious after a return visit — as was the case with Broadcast News, Cross My Heart, and Orphans — then it doesn’t belong on the list.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1989). I reviewed the film a second time several weeks later. — J.R.
DO THE RIGHT THING **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Spike Lee
With Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Savage, and John Turturro.
I can’t say that I’ve been an unqualified Spike Lee fan. His flair for publicity has tended to overwhelm his talents as a writer-director-actor, and the fact that he remains better known to the general public for his TV commercials than for either She’s Gotta Have It (1986) or School Daze (1988) points to an adeptness at working both sides of the street that has made it difficult to assess his work. More generally, the fact that he’s a black filmmaker whose first two features had all-black casts has undoubtedly made him overrated in some quarters and just as surely underrated and/or misunderstood in others.… Read more »
This review, originally published in August 3, 1990 Chicago Reader, was one of my first sustained efforts to write about the employment of jazz in movies. The movie isn’t as good or as entertaining as Lee’s latest messy Brechtian musical, Chiraq, although the latter film suggests once again that he still doesn’t have a clear sense of how to use music. — J.R.
MO’ BETTER BLUES ** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Spike Lee
With Denzel Washington, Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Bill Nunn, Dick Anthony Williams, and John Turturro.
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
First the good news: strictly as an exercise de style, Spike Lee’s fourth joint is in certain respects the liveliest and jazziest piece of filmmaking he’s turned out yet. From the arty close-ups behind the opening credits of — and liquid pans past, and dissolves between –- trumpet, lips, and lovers’ grasping hands in blue, yellow, amber, and green to the matching semicircular crane shots that frame the story, this is a movie cooking with ideas about filmmaking. Bringing back a good many of the featured players in Do the Right Thing, and introducing to the Spike Lee stable the highly talented Denzel Washington, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and Dick Anthony Williams (among others), it’s a movie bursting with personality and actorly energy as well.… Read more »
Written for Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], and posted there, as “Obscure Objects,” on June 19, 2008. — J.R.
He’s hardly a household name anywhere, yet there’s still a striking discrepancy between the profile of filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier (1890-1979) in France and everywhere else —- almost as if a “not for export” label had been stamped on his forehead. Founder and head of l’IDHEC (l’Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques), the most famous French film school, for over a quarter of a century (1943-1969), as well as onetime director of the Cinémathèque Française (1941-1944), author of hundreds of articles, and a pioneer in French television who produced over 200 documentaries, he’s still better known today as the writer-director of about 50 films, mostly features. Yet none of these is easily obtainable in the U.S.
Probably the best known, formerly on VHS, is La nuit fantastique (Fantastic Night, 1942), a fantasy with Fernand Gravey as an innocent student literally pursuing the woman of his dreams (Micheline Presle) in his dreams. Both whimsical and disturbing —- with a happy ending even more troubling than anything that precedes it —- this nocturnal adventure conveys the dark, cavernous underside of the German occupation almost as pungently as Cocteau’s Orphée did retrospectively, eight years later.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1991). — J.R.
Directed and written by Spike Lee
With Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, and Anthony Quinn.
Trusting to luck means listening to voices. — Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s
Compared to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is inspired overreaching, an exciting mess — and conceivably even more important. If the earlier movie somehow marshaled its sprawling elements into a single story in a single setting with a single theme, this one has two settings (Harlem and Bensonhurst), three plot lines, and at least four themes (interracial romance, breaking away from one’s family, crack addiction, and corporate advancement for blacks), all of which are crammed together more willfully than logically, yielding a misshapen story that is neither singular nor plural in focus, but somewhere obscurely in between.
First plot: Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an upscale Afro-American architect with a wife and daughter living in Harlem, starts an affair with his new temp secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), a single Italian American who lives with her working-class father and brothers in Bensonhurst. Flipper tells his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), who tells his wife (Veronica Webb), who tells Flipper’s wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), who responds by throwing Flipper out.… Read more »
It’s really sad: Wikipedia had listings for no less than eight different men named John Berry when I originally posted this article, but the film director (1917-1999) wasn’t one of them (fortunately, this is no longer the case); and you won’t find an article about him in Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors, either. I can’t say I knew the man well. but I consider myself fortunate to have spent some time with him in a variety of places — including film festivals in Rotterdam and Vienna, in Paris, and even one enjoyable evening at a jazz disco in Taipei. His accounts of his experiences with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater -– which included several hours of holding up scenery during the shooting of Too Much Johnson — were priceless.
The following comes from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Boesman & Lena ***
Directed by John Berry.
Written by Athol Fugard and Berry.
With Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, and Willie Jonah.
Director John Berry got his big start as an actor in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles then introduced him to film in 1938 when he hired him as assistant director on a silent slapstick film made to accompany and introduce portions of the stage farce Too Much Johnson.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 2003). — J.R.
Stuck on You
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Written by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Charles B. Wessler, and Bennett Yellin
With Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes, Wen Yann Shih, Cher, Seymour Cassel, Griffin Dunne, and Meryl Streep.
One of my all-time favorite Japanese movies is Yasuzo Masumura’s A Wife Confesses (1961), which I’ve been able to see only once, in Tokyo with a live English translation. It’s a courtroom thriller about a young widow who’s being tried for her part in the death of her abusive older husband while they were mountain climbing, and it hinges on the haunting question of what she was thinking when she made the split-second decision to cut the rope connecting the two of them. She was attached at the other end of the rope to an attractive young man who had business ties to her husband and with whom she was in love, and she had to cut one of the men loose to prevent all three of them from plummeting to their deaths.
The story is a tragic allegory about the interdependence of individuals in Japanese society and how this conflicts with individual choice and desire, and I can’t imagine it being remade in this country, where the rightness of the heroine’s choice would more likely be regarded as self-evident.… Read more »
From American Film (November 1981). — J.R.
Old Wave Saved from Drowning
By Sandy Flitterman and Jonathan Rosenbaum
Think of French cinema, and the New Wave springs immediately to mind. This association is hardly accidental. History, it is often said, gets written by the victors. And the victories recounted in the standard film histories — whether they are critical successes or box-office triumphs — are inevitably at the expense of other movies, individuals, or social trends that presumably failed to scale the same heights.
But the New Wave, like other movements in film history, is significant not only for what it gave us — films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour — but also for what it took away, for the films it rebelled against, repudiated, buried in the dustbin of history. Now a fascinating new program of forty-six subtitled French films made between 1930 and 1960 helps sketch out the rudiments of just such an alternative history.
This group of films, appropriately entitled “Rediscovering French Film,” has been put together by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with the French government and, after premiering in Manhattan this month, is scheduled to travel next year to Washington, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 5, 1991). –J.R.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by James Cameron
Written by Cameron and William Wisher
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Earl Boen, and Joe Morton.
As much a remake as a sequel, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day begins, like The Terminator (1984), with a postnuclear Los Angeles in the year 2029, a world ruled by deadly machines where a few scattered remnants of humanity struggle to survive. Then the film leaps backward in time — not to 1984, when most of The Terminator took place, but to 1997, when the Terminator materializes in virtually the same mythic fashion, crouched naked like a Greek god, before rising and setting about finding the proper attire. This time he enters a bikers’ bar, where he quickly appropriates the clothes, boots, and bike of one tough customer and the shades of another, blithely smashing the skulls of whoever happens to get in his way.
The thrill and beauty of the Terminator, both as a character and as a concept — the ultimate Schwarzenegger role, against which all his other roles must be measured — resides in the excitement of witnessing a brutal, dispassionate machine, a weapon slicing impartially through metal, flesh, or bone en route to its unambiguous goal.… Read more »
This article appeared in the October 9, 1987 issue of the Chicago Reader, and one good reason for reviving it now is to point up how out of date some of its remarks about Feuillade’s invisibility have become almost 31 years later. Back then, I noted, there was only one book about Feuillade; today I have seven more (all in French) of diverse sizes and scopes, and I’m sure my collection is far from exhaustive. Two full serials, Les vampires (1915) and Judex (1916), are available in the U.S., as is an excellent restoration of the multichaptered Fantômas (1913-1914) on Blu-Ray, so I’m still hoping that Tih Minh (1918), still my favorite, not to mention Barrabas (1919) and even La nouvelle mission de Judex — a 1917 crime serial I’ve never seen which is reputed to be inferior to the others — will also surface eventually. Also, Kino International has released Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, with one of its three discs devoted to Feuillade short films made between 1907 and 1913, as well as a documentary “featurette” about him. – J.R.
Directed and written by Louis Feuillade
With Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Delphine Renot, Stacia Napierkowska, Fernand Hermann, Renée Carl, Louis Leubas, Louise Lagrange, Moriss, and Bout de Zan.… Read more »