Monthly Archives: September 2018

Bucking the Remake-and-Sequel Syndrome: The 40 Best Movies of 2002

From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003), where it was printed under the title “Against the Tide”. — J.R.

While putting together a collection of my film pieces for an upcoming book I included an appendix listing my 1,000 favorite films and videos made between 1895 and the present — features and shorts, live action and animation, narrative and experimental. The point was to cite not the works I consider the most important historically but the ones that still provide me with the most pleasure and edification.

This took more work than anticipated because I didn’t have a surefire method of recalling all the possible candidates. I worried about the inevitable oversights, including even ones from 2002. I also worried that I’d wind up weighting the list with more old than recent films — a fear that proved to be mainly groundless. The year between 1924 and 2002 for which I listed the fewest titles — five — was 1937. Four other years — 1926, 1939, 1942, and 1945 — yielded only six apiece. The peak year was 1955, with 21 titles. Generally speaking, there was a steady rise through the 50s, a decline in the 60s, then a leveling off: 17 items in the teens, 72 in the 20s, 95 in the 30s, 103 in the 40s, 160 in the 50s, 133 in the 60s, 130 in the 70s, 129 in the 80s, and 125 in the 90s.… Read more »

Life of a Salesman [DIAMOND MEN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). — J.R.

Diamond Men

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Daniel M. Cohen

With Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy, George Coe, Jeff Gendelman, Nikki Fritz, and Shannah Laumeister.

It’s astonishing how few Hollywood movies tell us anything about the way we spend a third or more of our lives — at work. Maybe this is because the standard industry perception is that people don’t like to think about that part of their existence when they go to movies, that people want to keep their professions and pleasures separate and mutually alienated. The assumption seems to be that work isn’t supposed to be fun but movies are.

Since I don’t have this bias, I found myself uncommonly excited watching Diamond Men, an independent first feature by writer-director Daniel M. Cohen that stars Robert Forster and is playing this week at the Music Box. I have no particular interest in the diamond trade, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see a movie that taught me something about what it’s like to drive through small towns in Pennsylvania selling diamonds to jewelry stores — especially since its lessons are being propounded by someone as knowledgeable about the subject as Cohen (who, reports Philadelphia Inquirer film reviewer Carrie Rickey, is a third-generation diamond man from Lancaster) and articulated by an actor as likable as Forster.… Read more »

Nick’s Kicks

From The Soho News (November 24, 1981). — J.R.

Nick’s Movies (Nicholas Ray retrospective)

The Public Theater through December 13

Fantasy and counter-fantasy are perpetually at war in the films of Nicholas Ray — accounting in no small measure for the highly charged heat, light, fury, beauty, and pain that most of them project. In its most brilliant representations — the separate divisions of Vienna’s saloon  in Johnny Guitar (1954), an almost surrealist Western; the house and mind of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), an almost expressionist domestic melodrama —  this graphic warfare actually becomes expressed in terms of discrete zones of action and confinement. “Down there I sell whisky and cards,” announces the imperious Vienna (Joan Crawford) on a stairway, gun in hand, to an itchy search party below that’s somewhere between a lynch mob and a sheriff’s posse. “All you can get up these stairs is a bullet in the head.”

Or consider another scene, one of the most memorable jaded love duets in movies, again spelled out through architecture and spatial balances as well as words and faces. Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) sits at a kitchen table, drink in hand, while Vienna stands behind him, on the other side of a serving window, also facing us.… Read more »

Introduction to the Chinese Edition of MORE THAN NIGHT

The following essay was both commissioned and written in early June 2009. My thanks to the Chinese translator Zhanxiong Xu for giving me permission to publish the original English version here.

I’m also pleased to announce that a Chinese translation and edition of one of my own books, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See,  is reportedly in the works. — J.R.

Introduction to the Chinese Edition of More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

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“The Chinese don’t accord much importance to things of the past,” Maggie Cheung maintained in an interview with a French magazine roughly a decade ago  (1), “whether it’s films, heritage, or even clothes or furniture. In Asia nothing is preserved, turning towards the past is regarded as stupid, aberrant.”

Interestingly, this statement helps to explain why so many of the most important Chinese films, at least for me, are concerned with the discovery of history, and represent various attempts to reclaim a lost past. I’ll restrict myself to a short list of a dozen favorite Chinese features, all of which exhibit these traits: Fei Mu’s Xiao cheng zhi chun (Spring in a Small Town, 1948); Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Bei qing cheng shi (City of Sadness, 1989) and Xi meng ren sheng (The Puppetmaster, 1993); Wong Kar-wai’s A Fei zheng  chuan (Days of Being Wild, 1990) and Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love, 2000); Edward Yang’s Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991); Stanley Kwan’s Ruan Lingyu (1992); Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan feng zheng (The Blue Kite, 1993); Li Shaohong’s Hong fen (Blush, 1994); and Jia Zhangke’s Zhantai (Platform, 2000), Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006), and Er shi si cheng ji (24  City, 2008).… Read more »

Liberals in Hiding [RUNNING ON EMPTY]

From the Chicago Reader (October 11, 1988). — J.R.

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RUNNING ON EMPTY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Naomi Foner

With Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Martha Plimpton, Jonas Abry, Ed Crowley, and Steven Hill.

It’s a truism that the distant past is easier to see clearly than the more recent past, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that current movie depictions of the 40s and 50s — Tucker, to name just one — tend to be more accurate, at least about the dreams and fantasies of those periods, than movies about the 60s and 70s. Paul Schrader’s recently departed Patty Hearst offers a salient case in point: it can only broach the early 70s through a sitcom or comic-book reduction of the way that radicals talk and think — a myopic 80s reading of the period that leaves a number of gaps in the picture. Schrader fills in some of these gaps by clever employments of style and attitude, the stock-in-trade of any current music video, but in the end one huge gap remains: Who was Patty Hearst? What was the Symbionese Liberation Army? Why should anyone be concerned with them? The attention-getting nowness of the film blots out any possibility for history or social observation; just as Schrader’s earlier Mishima seemed to have more to do with Las Vegas than with any reading of Japanese history or culture, his take here on 60s/70s radicalism seems mired exclusively in the preoccupations of the present.… Read more »

GARBO TALKS (1985 review)

From the August 1985 issue of Video Times. — J.R.

(1984), C, Director: Sidney Lumet. With Anne Bancroft, Ron Silver, Catherine Hicks,  Carrie Fisher, Howard Da Silva, Hermione Gingold. 104 min. PG-13. Hi-Fi, CBS/Fox, $79.98. Three stars.

Perhaps the most delightful single aspect of thus warm, contemporary New York comedy is the degree to which it suggests anything but a movie of the present. From the animated cartoon behind the opening credits to the winsome conclusion in central Park, Garbo Talks registers more like a Hollywood film of the sixties or seventies than an expression of today’s sensibilities. (Where’s Poppa?, an absurdist comedy of 1970, provides a useful cross-reference.) The fact that scriptwriter Larry Grusin and director Sidney Lumet both seem perfectly aware of this adds a tang of irony to the film’s pleasure. They know, as we do, that lovable, eccentric radical like Estelle Rolfe (Anne Bancroft), who would have seemed almost commonplace in a movie 10 or 15 years ago, comes across as an audacious concept in the mid-eighties.

The plot of Garbo Talks is built around Estelle, and the role fits Anne Bancroft like a glove. The movie manages to milk the maximum out of her performance — one of the best in her impressive career — without keeping her onscreen any longer than is absolutely necessary.… 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 »

Disposable Heroes [BREAKDOWN & NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN]

From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 1997). — J.R.

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Breakdown

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Written by Mostow and Sam Montgomery

With Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn, Ritch Brinkley, and Moira Harris.

Night Falls on Manhattan

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Sidney Lumet

With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, James Gandolfini, Lena Olin, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Colm Feore, Ron Leibman, and Richard Dreyfuss.

About three-quarters of the way through Breakdown – the well-crafted theatrical-feature debut of director and cowriter Jonathan Mostow, a thriller offering more bang for your buck than almost any other recent release — I started to feel nauseous. It’s a problem I encounter during a lot of commercial American movies these days, usually for more or less the same reason; if I had to encapsulate this reason in a single phrase, I’d say it’s the way they turn people into garbage. By “people” I mean mainly fictional characters, but also filmmakers and filmgoers, because when people on-screen are treated like garbage and the movie “works” — clicks, delivers, offers more bang for our buck — the filmmakers are turning themselves and us into garbage as well.… Read more »

Doing the Hustle [DANCER IN THE DARK]

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.

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Dancer in the Dark

**

Directed and written by Lars von Trier With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and Jean-Marc Barr.

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To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d’Or and best actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson — one of the only Europudding directors who’s both crass and clever enough to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around — it has provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras) as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous detractors come from this country too. It’s not too surprising considering that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one you’d expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50 years ago.… Read more »

Touch of Class [TITANIC]

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 1997). — J.R.

Titanic

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Cameron

With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, and Suzy Amis.

I suppose there’s something faintly ridiculous about a $200-million movie that argues on behalf of true love over wealth and even bandies about a precious diamond as a central narrative device — like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud — to clinch its point. Yet for all the hokeyness, Titanic kept me absorbed all 194 minutes both times I saw it. It’s nervy as well as limited for writer-director-coproducer James Cameron to reduce a historical event of this weight to a single invented love story, however touching, and then to invest that love story with plot details that range from unlikely to downright stupid. But one clear advantage of paring away the subplots that clog up disaster movies is that it allows one to achieve a certain elemental purity.

This movie tells you a great deal about first class on the ship, a little bit about third class, and nothing at all about second class. According to Walter Lord’s 1955 nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember, which includes a full passenger list, 279 of the 2,223 passengers were in second class, and 112 of them survived.… Read more »

Hack Attack [THE SECRET WINDOW]

From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 2004). — J.R.

Secret Window

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by David Koepp

With Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, and Len Cariou.

I’ve seen four movie adaptations of Stephen King books that have writers as heroes — The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), The Dark Half (1993), and now Secret Window – and I know of a few others. This isn’t necessarily self-indulgent on King’s part. An author this prolific would eventually run out of material if he didn’t use his own experience as a writer, and besides I happen to prefer the plotlines of The Shining and Misery to those of other King stories I know. He understands what it means to be a writer driven crazy by his own demons (in The Shining) as well as by some version of his public (in Misery), and even though he makes the heroes in both cases fairly dislikable, we wind up ensnarled in their dilemmas anyway. He also seems to have an astute take on writer’s block, suggesting that writing too much and repeating oneself can be as much a form of creative blockage as writing too little.… Read more »

Crimes of Passion [POISON]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1991). — J.R.

POISON

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons, John R. Lombardi, Tony Pemberton, and Andrew Harpending.

“The whole world is dying of panicky fright,” reads the title that opens Todd Haynes’s startling and original Poison. It’s a correct and judicious observation, one that helps to “explain” a fascinating and provocative movie, particularly if one sees it alluding directly to the specter of AIDS.

But if one starts to enumerate the symptoms produced by panicky fright in our culture, I’m afraid that the usual set of liberal grievances — greed, intolerance, xenophobia, repression, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, war fever, and flag waving — doesn’t quite exhaust them. Some of the most cherished and least controversial emblems of postmodernist discourse — irony, stylistic pastiche, and a foreshortened sense of history and politics, all of which are usually employed together — may be symptoms of panicky fright as well. While the list of liberal grievances points to a fear of the world (especially the social world) as it is, postmodernist discourse suggests a fear of discourse (especially art) as it used to be and as it might be once again — a fear of unambiguous self-expression that implies another way of refusing to confront the present directly.… Read more »

Hooey for Hollywood [on THE PLAYER]

This ran in the May 1, 1992 issue of Chicago Reader. Criterion brought out a new Blu-Ray edition of this film yesterday, with many extras, so I’ve just looked at it again, and enjoyed it somewhat better this time, particularly for its pacing. My piece strikes me now as unduly peevish in spots, in part because I was reviewing the hype as much as the movie (I especially regret my swipe at Terrence Rafferty), although I still agree with much of it — and am pleased that Sam Wasson’s essay for the Criterion release agrees with one of my major arguments when he writes, “Far from making the trenchant, bitter satire so many critics would describe even after they saw the movie, Altman bypassed The Day of the Locust for Our Town and actually made a charmed, even gleeful movie about his so-called nemesis. That’s why so many people in Hollywood love The Player.” — J.R.

THE PLAYER

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Michael Tolkin

With Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, and Dean Stockwell.

Movies-about-moviemaking tend to come in two flavors: the celebratory (Day for Night, Singin’ in the Rain) and the sardonic (Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, Barton Fink).Read more »

Celebrity Guest [MISERY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 7, 1990). — J.R.

MISERY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by William Goldman

With James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, and Lauren Bacall.

Although it didn’t impress me too much when I first saw it, The King of Comedy has gradually come to seem the most important and resonant of Martin Scorsese’s features, largely because of all it has to say about the values we place on both stars and fans in contemporary society. Part of what makes it so pungent is the casting: by all rights, talk-show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) should be the “hero” and his crazed kidnapper-fans Rupert and Masha (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) the “villains”; but De Niro after all is a charismatic star in his own right, while Lewis has long been someone Americans love to hate. The same kind of twist on stereotypes occurs in the story: Rupert is an obnoxious loser and Masha a borderline psycho, but Langford’s offstage persona is so morose and unpleasant that next to him they seem like models of humanity. To make matters even more disturbing, Masha clearly regards Langford as a substitute for her own neglectful parents, and Rupert’s climactic stand-up comedy debut, won as a ransom for kidnapping Langford, largely consists of contemptuously trashing his own family and background.… Read more »

Hack Job [The PSYCHO remake]

There are few films of the past decade that have irritated me quite as much as Van Sant’s idiotic remake of Psycho, and in some ways I was irritated even more by the rationalizations some cinephiles came up with in their tortured efforts to justify it. I tried my best to behave like a gentleman towards Lisa Alspector, the Reader film reviewer whose capsule sparked my longer review in the December 25, 1998 issue, but I don’t know whether or not I succeeded. — J.R.

 

 

Psycho

Rating — Worthless

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Written by Joseph Stefano

With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, Ann Haney, and Chad Everett.

 

Psycho has never been one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures. The first time I saw it, during its initial release in 1960, I’d already read the Robert Bloch novel it’s based on, a fairly routine horror thriller, so the surprise ending was anything but surprising. I saw the movie back-to-back with Let’s Make Love, which I liked a lot more. Yves Montand spoke English awkwardly, but Marilyn Monroe was irresistible — for practically the only time in her late career, she played a character who was smart and feisty.… Read more »