From Take One (January 1979). — J.R.
In order to do justice to the mesmerizing effectiveness of Halloween, a couple of mini-backgrounds need to be sketched: that of writer-director John Carpenter, and that of the Mainstream Simulated Snuff Movie — a popular puritanical genre that I’ll call thw MSSM for short.
(1) On the basis of his first two low-budget features, it was already apparent that the aptly-named Carpenter was one of the sharpest Hollywood craftsmen to have come along in ages — a nimble jack-of-all-trades who composed his own music, doubled as producer (Dark Star) and editor (Assault on Precinct 13), and served up his genre materials with an unmistakably personal verve. Both films deserve the status of sleepers; yet oddly enough, most North American critics appear to have slept through them, or else stayed away. Somehow, the word never got out, apart from grapevine bulletins along a few film-freak circuits.
Dark Star proved that Carpenter could be quirky and funny; Assault showed that he could be quirky, funnu, and suspenseful all at once. Halloween drops the comedy, substitutes horror, and keeps you glued to your seat with ruthless efficiency from the first frame to the last.… Read more »
From the June 6, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Le samourai Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville
With Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier, Jacques Leroy, Jean-Pierre Posier, and Catherine Jourdan.
The Birth of Love Rating *** A must see
Directed by Philippe Garrel
Written by Garrel, Marc Cholodenko, and Muriel Cerf
With Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Johanna Ter Steege, Dominique Reymond, and Marie-Paule Laval.
If much of French cinema can be said to derive from the famous Cartesian phrase “I think, therefore I am,” why does it yield so many realistic movies? Certainly fantasy remains central to a good deal of French art, past and present, but if you compare the films of early pioneers like the Lumiere brothers to those of Thomas Edison, you might conclude that the French have a certain edge in seeing clearly what’s right in front of them. I found that of the dozen French movies I recently saw in Cannes and Paris, six were strictly realist in a way that few American features are: a cheerful Pagnolian hand-me-down (Marius and Jeannette), a Blier road movie for grown-ups (Manuel Poirier’s Western), Manoel de Oliveira’s moving French-Portuguese self-portrait, which features Marcello Mastroianni’s last performance (Voyage to the Beginning of the World), an experiment in first-person camera involving adultery (La femme defendue), a mysterious meditation on rural French punks (deceptively titled The Life of Jesus), and a spirited comedy by and with Brigitte Rouan (Post-coitum, animal triste).… Read more »
The following article was written for the June 8, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader, to coincide with the release of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle in Chicago — although a differently edited version was published. This is my original version, which I included in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 collection I coedited with Adrian Martin. (Lamentably but unsurprisingly, this was the only section of the book that was left out of the Persian translation of the book, published in 2015; no less lamentably, the outrageous overpricing of this book on Amazon functions as a kind of capitalist censorship.)
One indication of Panahi’s extraordinary courage, after his appalling incarceration in Tehran’s Evin prison back in March, was the fact that he expressly requested not to be accorded “special” treatment because of his status as an artist and filmmaker. It seemed worth reposting this article on December 21, 2010, not only because of the shocking sentence received by Panahi after his trial, but also to correct the original misdating of this article on this site and in Movie Murtations, which I learned about via David Bordwell’s site. — J.R.
Squaring The Circle
Last month, I was taken aback by an email from a colleague — not a cranky stranger — waiting for me at my office computer one morning.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 28, 2006). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Scarlett Johansson, Allen, Ian McShane, Hugh Jackman, Fenella Woolgar, and Julian Glover
Unlike some of his more commercial contemporaries — including Harvey Weinstein pets Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — Woody Allen has always had the final cut on his movies. But then what are the corporate honchos risking with this indulgence? They know familiarity is one of many things that draw us to movies, and they know with Allen not to expect any surprises. Unfortunately the industry often behaves as if familiarity were the only attraction.
Match Point, Allen’s best movie to date, was criticized in some quarters because it transplanted many of his concerns from New York to London and because it had an uncharacteristic seriousness and precision. Scoop, its lame successor, is also set in London and also costars Scarlett Johansson as another American greenhorn (a journalism student instead of an aspiring actress) who becomes involved with another wealthy Englishman who has a country estate. And once again there’s the plotting of the murder of a girlfriend that calls to mind Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.… Read more »
From the Summer 2010 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. 63, no. 4). — J.R.
The typical challenge of any film festival report is to create a fictional narrative out of thin air, or a meaningful proposition out of chaos. And this becomes even harder in an era when layoffs of various film reviewers have coincided with a continuing erasure of any clear line separating criticism from advertising in most mainstream venues. The task isn’t far removed from the sort of pretense routinely made by reviewers, myself included, who presume to write ten-best round-ups at year’s end, overlooking the pre-selections already made by distributors and marketers and often arriving at unwarranted global conclusions based on the very finite sampling of what one has seen. This becomes only more obvious and arbitrary when it comes to generalizing about the handful of films one sees at a festival out of several dozens or hundreds, and then creating a narrative thread or some sort of thesis that can connect them all like beads on a string — a process that for me stands out in even greater relief since I retired from regular reviewing in early 2008.South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, commonly known as SXSW, is a combined film festival and “interactive” media conference held for both cinephiles and film professionals, followed immediately by a music festival that’s even bigger.
… Read more »
Written in November 2017 for my “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein
Although we routinely assume that social trends have a rational basis, the processes by which irrational forms of displacement also affect those trends are no less routinely ignored. For instance, it’s commonly thought that the Watergate scandal leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation as U.S. President was merely a matter of exposing his crimes, but it could also be argued that many of these crimes were already evident to U.S. citizens before Nixon won his last Presidential election. As Mary McCarthy would later theorize, it was because the public needed a scapegoat for the U.S. debacle in Vietnam that the Watergate crimes belatedly became important. And one might similarly theorize that the recent public exposure and condemnation of producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, which has led to many similar exposures of predatory sexual behavior by others in the film world (such as James Toback and Kevin Spacey) as well as in separate fields, has been a displaced response to the debacle of Donald Trump’s Presidency, not to mention his own primitive sexual politics, which were exposed by the release of a private tape during the Presidential campaign.… Read more »
From Scenario, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1998. –- J.R.
“Hitchcock lives!” I was inspired to write at the head of my review of House of Games, David Mamet’s first feature, in 1987. Ten years later, Mamet’s fifth feature, The Spanish Prisoner, boasts plenty of Hitchcockian elements of its own. But this time I’m not as prone to employ the same assertion.
The difference has less to do with Hitchcockian influence than with the use of that influence — the issue of whether Mamet is borrowing something substantive from the Master of Suspense, or drawing upon Hitchcock only when it suits his strategies. But one of the salient differences I find between reading the script of The Spanish Prisoner and seeing it realized is the difference between finding a Hitchcockian thriller on the page and not quite seeing one on the screen. Both are clearly Mamet creations, but the first comes closer to showing Hitchcock’s special qualities in tandem with Mamet’s, whereas the second shows them shooting off in separate directions.
Put somewhat differently, the distinction has a lot to do with issues that seem central to any evaluation of Hitchcock as well as Mamet -– namely, the ethics and aesthetics of deception, which are intimately tied to the ethics and aesthetics of representing a real world where deception becomes possible.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1995). — J.R.
The neglected Canadian animator Richard Williams directed and coscripted this mind-boggling London- made cartoon musical feature (1995), the first to be made in ‘Scope since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959. It’s a movie that’s been in and out of production since 1968, apparently because Williams mainly worked on it as a labor of love in between more lucrative projects (such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Eventually he lost creative control, and it’s impossible to say whether the movie would have been more or less coherent without the postproduction interference: the storytelling is perfunctory, but the imaginative animation, which revels in two-dimensionality, is often wonderful — an improbable blend of Escher, op art, Persian miniatures, and Chuck Jones that shoots off in every direction and seems great for kids. Arabian Knight is a lot more memorable than either Aladdin or Pocahontas (though its cultural references are much more varied and confused). The cast of offscreen voices includes the late Vincent Price as the main villain, Matthew Broderick as the hero, a humble cobbler, Jennifer Beals as the princess, Eric Bogosian, Toni Collette, and Jonathan Winters as a disreputable thief. Margaret French collaborated on the script, and Robert Folk and Norman Gimbel wrote the songs.… Read more »
I’ve never thought that Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a New York whodunit in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, was a masterpiece, either at the age of 11 when I saw it in first-run or tonight, when I saw it on Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray, even if it held my interest both times, and even moved me at times (especially Reginald Gardiner’s character and performance). But I have to admit that the single thing I found most memorable about it in 1954 — the brassy yet awkward sort of intermission grinding the story to a halt in the eleventh hour in order to dare or challenge the audience to solve the mystery before the movie itself does — is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray.
Is this because 20th Century-Fox decided to delete this intertitle at some later date, or because Twilight Time decided it was too corny to keep? I hope it’s the former, because this label is usually pretty scrupulous about history and sticking to original versions, and indeed, part of what makes this movie watchable now (if not then) is how outlandishly dated it all is — its embarrassment about an unmarried woman’s pregnancy (which oddly places her boyfriend of roughly the same age completely beyond suspicion when she winds up murdered), its totally implausible bitch-goddess mythology (which Peggy Ann Garner can’t be blamed for, given the lines that writer-director Johnson handed her), its equally overdone diva misogyny (which Ginger Rogers arguably makes even worse than it has to be), the bored indifference of both script and direction shown towards Gene Tierney as the dutiful spouse, the goody two-shoes rectitude of Van Heflin playing Van Heflin, and the sheer palatial breadth of its Manhattan apartments (cf.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1995). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Written by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, and Pillip LaZebnick
With the voices of Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Linda Hunt, Russel Means, Christian Bale, Billy Connolly, and Joe Baker.
American history without Smith and Pocahontas is hard to imagine. If the void were there, something else — yet something similar — would have to fill it. — Bradford Smith, Captain John Smith: His Life & Legend
I assume we’re still some years away from the abolition of state-supported schools and the gleeful handing over of our entire system of education to the Disney people. But some of the studio’s clever promotions for Pocahontas might make you conclude that some such changes have already taken place.
Consider the “special collector’s issue” of the kids’ magazine Disney Adventures devoted to “Pocahontas: The Movie, The Stars, The Real-Life Story,” complete with ads for some of the spin-off products. It afforded me almost as much food for thought as the two hours I spent in a library reading through historical accounts of what “really” happened in the wilds of Virginia in the early 17th century.… Read more »
From The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 1998. –- J.R.
Ever since a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened in my neighborhood in Chicago, I’ve been cultivating the habit of hanging out there, a bit like the way I used to frequent the public library in my hometown as a teenager. I often stop there not with a particular purchase in mind, but on my way to someplace else – a movie at the same shopping center, a nearby restaurant — or on my way home from work. The relaxed idleness offered by the roomy store and the various incentives to linger — the generous selection of hardcovers and paperbacks, the current magazines, the tables where you can spread your stuff out and read for as long as you want to, the Starbucks coffee bar, not to mention various appearances by authors and periodic meetings of discussion groups — create an alluring kind of community space.
It’s a kind of space that I haven’t found in public libraries in recent years, especially since the removal of card catalogues and easy chairs. Some younger people I know, who harbor no fond memories of public libraries, are enjoying visits to places such as Barnes & Noble as a new kind of experience altogether, a theme park that features words instead of rides.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 22, 1992). — J.R.
THE 4TH ANIMATION CELEBRATION: THE MOVIE
*** (A must-see)
Finding out what’s happening in the world these days is no easy matter. Turn to a newspaper and we may learn what American business wants to know — or thinks it wants to know — but not much else; check out what’s on TV and chances are that the state of the world will get less attention than the current Hollywood releases. Even when there is expanded coverage we often can’t be sure that the journalists understand what they’re reporting or that what they’re saying encompasses all that they understand.
I suppose this has always been true to some extent, and maybe it only seems worse nowadays because we no longer have newsreels. Recently some fascinating “March of Time” shorts have come out on video — newsreel “essays” produced by Time-Life and released in movie theaters by Twentieth Century-Fox in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. What seems most quaint and touching about them is how easily people (both famous and ordinary) were induced by the camera to play fictional versions of themselves that they and everyone else were persuaded to think of as real.… Read more »
From the Summer 2018 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
1. Second Thoughts First
In the introduction to my forthcoming collection Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues, I make the argument that although Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock doesn’t qualify precisely as film criticism, it nonetheless had a decisive critical effect on film taste. By the same token, on Criterion’s very welcome Blu-ray edition of Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1958), Peter Cowie’s interview with Borzage critic/biographer Hervé Dumont — whose book on the director should be shelved and considered alongside Chris Fujiwara’s book for the same publisher (McFarland) on Jacques Tourneur — primed me perfectly for my second look at this masterpiece, and made it register far more powerfully this time. It certainly performs this task better than Philip Kemp’s accompanying essay, which, in spite of much useful information, falters in its insistence on framing Moonrise through the lens of film noir, and even more when, while rightly praising the character of Rex Ingram’s Mose, the author remarks that “It would be hard to think of another American film of the period where a black man acts as adviser and mentor to a white Southerner.” It’s not so hard, really, if one thinks of Clarence Brown’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) and/or Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950); and it’s even quite easy if, following Dumont’s lead on Moonrise, one regards the Tourneur masterpiece neither as a noir (a lazy escape hatch) nor as a western (as Jacques Lourcelles does), but as a discreet form of German Expressionism, implicitly favouring thoughtful philosophy and metaphysics over simple gloom and doom.… Read more »
Written for a tribute to Danièle Huillet in Undercurrent, on the FIPRESCI web site, in March 2006. — J.R.
One thing worth mentioning about Danièle: I’ve never known anyone who knew her and Jean-Marie well enough to know absolutely for sure whether or not they were literally husband and wife. This might strike some as a mere technicality, but I think it signifies something more. Whether they went through an actual wedding ceremony or wound up living together; whether they considered having children; whether it was inaccurate or precise, impolite or perfectly okay to refer to them as “the Straubs”: these are all basically questions about how they defined themselves in relation to society. And the fact that most of us don’t know the answers points towards a larger uncertainty about whether they were true bohemians or eccentric traditionalists (not necessarily the same thing), or some combination of the two. (Danièle only began to be credited as coauteur belatedly, after their first few films. But was this because she gradually became more active as a filmmaker or because the two of them began to place a higher value on her participation? Again, I have no idea.)
I think the fact that their work provokes silence more often than discussion — a tribute in some ways to its continuing radicality and difference — may be partly to blame for this.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1993). — J.R.
Director Tony Bill (My Bodyguard, Five Corners, Crazy People, Untamed Hearts) brings a lot of feeling and detail to this sort-of-true-life tale written by executive producer Patrick Duncan. It’s about a single mother (Kathy Bates) with no savings who leaves Los Angeles with her six kids for rural Idaho in 1962, and much of the family’s saga is very moving. (Duncan himself, who actually grew up with 11 siblings, corresponds to the oldest child and narrator here, played by teenager Edward Furlong.) Along the way the film loses some of its conviction; it winds up trying too hard and pushing some of its effects. Even so, the depiction of poverty has plenty of grit and flavor, and the cast — which also includes Soon-teck Oh and Tony Campisi — does a creditable job. (JR)
… Read more »