This is an expanded version of an article published originally (on October 8, 1993) in the Chicago Reader; the Australian DVD label Madman commissioned this longer piece in the summer of 2009. — J.R.
Let’s start with a dream scenario, a movie that might have been. What if Luis Buñuel made a picture with an American producer, American screenwriter, and American actors during the height of the civil rights movement and set it in the rural south? What if the main character were a jazz musician from the north fleeing from a southern lynching, falsely accused of raping a woman? And, to make a still headier brew, what if Buñuel decided to work in the theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a recent best-seller — the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man?
As a piece of exploitation, this hypothetical project fairly sizzles; yet in the hands of a poetic, corrosive, highly moral filmmaker like Buñuel, it might conceivably transcend this category. Allowing for the strangeness that naturally arise from a foreign director taking on such volatile American materials — indeed, a strangeness that might enhance the freshness of his treatment -—one could well anticipate the beauty and excitement such an encounter might produce.… Read more »
From Projections 8, edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, 1998. Subtitled Film-makers on Film-makers, this issue of the periodic Faber and Faber publication was devoted specifically to what it called ‘criticism,’ spurred jointly by a brief declaration by Bruce Willis at Cannes in 1997 (‘Nobody up here pays attention to reviews…most of the written word has gone the way of the dinosaur’) and a lengthy essay by François Truffaut, ‘What Do Critics Dream About?’, introducing his 1974 collection The Films of My Life. As nearly as I can remember, I was one of the nine critics (along with Gilbert Adair, Geoff Andrew, Michel Ciment, Peter Cowie, Kenneth Turan, Alexander Walker, Armond White, and Jonathan Romney) asked to respond to these two declarations of principles. (I haven’t been able to find Truffaut’s essay online, but an excerpt from it can be found here: https://www.lostinthemovies.com/2009/04/what-do-critics-dream-about.html.)
If my comments about the Truffaut essay sound harsh, I hasten to add that I still regard his early criticism as seminal—perhaps even the most seminal that was written by Bazin’s younger disciples, as Godard, among others, has suggested. -– J.R.
I welcome the prospect of an issue of Projections devoted to `the art and practice of film criticism’, though given the present climate that circulates around film discourse in general — a climate at once pre-critical and post-critical in which the static produced by commerce tends to drown out most of the murmurs associated with criticism — I’m more than a little fearful about what results such an inquiry is likely to yield.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1993). — J.R.
THE GOOD SON
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Written by Ian McEwan
With Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood, Wendy Crewson, David Morse, Daniel Hugh Kelly, and Quinn Culkin.
The innocent-looking child who’s really evil incarnate is a natural idea for a horror movie, but getting us to believe in such a character isn’t as simple as it might sound. Ray Bradbury had a relatively easy time of it in “The Small Assassin,” a short story first published back in 1946 about an infant who murders people, because babies are somewhat mysterious and hence easier to project abstract notions on. In The Good Son, a mainly unconvincing thriller offering us 12-year-old Macaulay Culkin as evil incarnate, there are actually two problems — accepting Culkin as a child and accepting him as evil. Perhaps what we mean today by both “child” and “evil,” ideologically speaking, is at the root of the problem.
The hero of The Good Son is another boy of roughly the same age, Mark (Elijah Wood), living in the southwest, who has been traumatized by the recent death of his mother. Shortly before she dies she tells him, “I’ll always be with you,” and Mark interprets this to mean that she’ll come back to him as someone else.… Read more »
From the May 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Gus Van Sant adapts Tom Robbins’s comic, countercultural novel of the 70s by boiling away half of the subplots, eliminating the interpolated essays, and upgrading the lesbian romance, and while the results are both cheerful and occasionally inventive, they can’t hold a candle to his previous features (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho); too many jokey asides and cameos — not to mention an overdose of plot — keep getting in the way. Sissy Hankshaw (Uma Thurman) puts her abnormally large thumbs to use in hitchhiking and winds up at a ranch in Oregon among a band of renegade cowgirls. With John Hurt, Angie Dickinson, Pat Morita, Lorraine Bracco, and Rain Phoenix. (JR)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 19, 1993). — J.R.
FIRE IN THE SKY
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Robert Lieberman
Written by Tracy Torme
With D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Craig Sheffer, Peter Berg, and James Garner.
“Based on the true story,” crows Paramount in the ads, and the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen right after the opening credits. Under the circumstances — Fire in the Sky being the story of one Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), who was allegedly knocked to the ground by a ray from a UFO in an Arizona forest on November 5, 1975, then whisked away by the same UFO only to be spat out five days later minus his clothes and sanity — these are clearly fighting words.
I came to this movie fully prepared to execrate it, but on reflection I’m more inclined to congratulate Paramount on its ability to get people like me riled up with its Barnum-like come-on — a good way of getting all of us to pay attention. In fact, considering that the encounter with extraterrestrials is couched in subjective rather than objective terms, “based on the true story” doesn’t seem such an outrageous tag. Furthermore, some of the implications of the line are partially undercut, or at least displaced, by a quotation that appears on-screen before the credits: “‘Chance makes a plaything of a man’s life’ — Seneca, First century A.D.”
Personally, I think that all movies are fantasies to begin with — documentaries and so-called true stories most of all — so the issue of being a “true story” seems moot.… Read more »
Slightly tweaked from its original appearance in the Autumn 1975 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.
‘A dialectic collage of unreality,’ remarked pop singer Brenda Lee, emerging from the Nashville premiere in August. After a summer full of humourless rhetoric in the American press about ‘the true lesson of ‘Watergate’, ‘the failure of our civilization,’ ‘the long nauseating terror of a fall through the existential void,’ and equally grave matters — most of it implying that a movie has to be about ‘everything’ (i.e., the State of the Union) before it can be about anything – it was refreshing to discover that someone, at long last, had finally got it right. Even if Lee’s comment was intended as a slam, it deserves to be resurrected as a tribute. For if Nashville is conceivably the most exciting commercial American movie in years, this is first of all because of what it constructs, not what it exposes.
From the moment we begin with an ad for the film itself — a blaring overload of multi-media confusion — and pass to a political campaign van spouting banalities, then to a recording studio where country music star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is cutting a hilariously glib Bicentennial anthem, Nashville registers as a double-fisted satire of its chosen terrain, and it would be wrong to suggest that its targets of derision are beside the point, even if the angle of vision subsequently widens to take in more than just foolishness.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1977. — J.R.
Director: Michael Schultz
Chicago, 1964. Cochise, Preach, Pooter and another friend, students at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School, sneak out of class one Friday and visit the Lincoln Park Zoo; afterwards they play basketball, and Preach, who has been dating Sandra, flirts with the aloof Brenda. At home, Preach finds a letter informing him that he has received a scholarship; that night, he attends a party with his friends and re-encounters Brenda, who warms to him when she discovers his interest in poetry. After the party is broken up by a fight provoked by Damon, Preach and Cochise join Stone and Robert to go joyriding in a stolen car; Preach takes the wheel and drives recklessly, eluding the police after an extended chase. On Saturday, Preach and his friends study briefly for a history exam before going to the movies, fleeing the cinema after Pooter unwittingly provokes a fight. On Sunday, Preach takes Brenda home and they make love; after he casually lets drop that he bet Cochise money that he could sleep with her, she runs away and the next day at school kisses him in front of Sandra.… Read more »
THE RACK, written by Stewart Sterm and Rod Serling, directed by Arnold Laven, with Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman (1956, 100 min.)
TIME LIMIT, written by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, directed by Karl Malden, with Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, June Lockhart, Rip Torn, Martin Balsam, Carl Benton Reid, and James Douglas (1957, 96 min.)
I’ve recently reseen these two taut black and white 50s melodramas about the impending courtmartials of American POWs in North Korea who broke under torture, including brainwashing, and became traitors–characters played respectively by Paul Newman and Richard Basehart, and interrogated by Wendell Corey and Edmond O’Brien in the first film, Richard Widmark in the second. Indeed, there are so many close similarities and parallels between these films and their existential issues that I’ve often mixed them up in my memory, although it’s now clear after reseeing them that Time Limit, the only film ever directed by Karl Malden, is by far the better of the two. The Rack is adapted by Stewart Stern from a 1955 TV drama by Rod Serling that aired on the United States Steel Hour; Time Limit is adapted by Henry Denkler from a 1956 play that he coauthored with Ralph Berkey.… Read more »
It’s possible that I overrated Twilight and underrated The Big Lebowski in this Chicago Reader piece (March 6, 1998); I’d have to resee both these films in order to be sure. —J.R.
The Big Lebowski
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, and Jon Polito.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Benton and Richard Russo
With Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and Giancarlo Esposito.
It’s purely a matter of chance that two neo-Chandler mysteries with contemporary Los Angeles settings are opening this week. But although Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and Robert Benton’s Twilight differ in tone, style, milieu, and generational perspective, both films arrive at their private-eye stories through the unorthodox detour of the western. In Benton’s case the western reference is harder to detect but central to the conception throughout; the film even climaxes with the equivalent of a western showdown and shoot-out. In the Coens’ case it’s much more blatant but proves to be window dressing.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1995). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Robert Benton
With Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy,
Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith,
Dylan Walsh, Pruitt Taylor Vince,
Gene Saks, Josef Sommer,
and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Since most Hollywood movies of the 90s offer unabashed fantasies, the hero’s success has become something of a given. Regardless of the odds against him (seldom her), one feels sure that he’ll emerge unscathed — triumphant over his enemies, often rolling in wealth, and with the lady of his choice at his side. Of course people often go to movies in order to bask in a universe of wish fulfillment, and most of our contemporary films are roughly akin to the fantasies of opulence and goodwill offered to Depression audiences 60-odd years ago (though it’s hard to think of many recent parallels, apart from a few TV docudramas, to Warner Brothers’ gritty, socially conscious melodramas of that period).
So when a Hollywood movie about failure comes along, it has the unexpected ring of authenticity: for all its sentimental safety nets, Nobody’s Fool looks and feels a good deal like much of U.S. life as it’s currently being lived: virtually everyone qualifies as an ornery fuck-up, complains incessantly about his or her lot, and sees no practical way out of life’s morass of everyday complications.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1995). — J.R.
This is the first Robert Benton movie I’ve really liked — and possibly my favorite Paul Newman performance since The Hustler. Based on a Richard Russo novel and set in upstate New York, it has both the poetry and the authenticity of failure, describing a community of fuckups headed by a 60-year-old part-time construction worker (Newman) who left his family decades earlier, and including his pathetic assistant (Pruitt Taylor Vince), his mean-spirited occasional employer (Bruce Willis at his best), the latter’s neglected wife (Melanie Griffith), and an ineffectual one-legged lawyer (Gene Saks). Conceived somewhat in the spirit of Chekhov’s stories, this 1994 feature ambles along semiplotlessly, focusing on the petty love-hatreds that link people together in small towns and the everyday orneriness that keeps them alive; it becomes only slightly less compelling when it develops a plot about the hero belatedly making peace with his abandoned son and one of his two grandsons. For better and for worse, it’s still a Hollywood movie (and a white boys’ movie to boot), but one with a more alert eye and feeling for American life than most of its competitors. With Jessica Tandy (in one of her last performances) and Dylan Walsh.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 9, 2000). — J.R.
The Edge of the World
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Michael Powell
With John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric Berry, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, Grant Sutherland, Campbell Robson, and Powell.
In a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement, American sociologist and historian Richard Sennett examined the failure of socialism in the United States and argued that Americans seem to have a different take than people in England and continental Europe on collectivity itself. One reason he suggests for this difference — that slavery confused and perhaps even undermined our overall sense of the dignity of labor, ultimately altering our sense of collective labor — is both provocative and debatable. But whether or not one buys into his theory, it’s hard to deny that Americans practice and relate to groupthink somewhat differently than Europeans. “The herd of independent minds” was the late Harold Rosenberg’s memorable phrase describing us in all our paradoxical singularity.
I happened to read Sennett’s words a few hours after seeing the restoration of Michael Powell’s beautifully archaic and mystical 1937 epic about communal life on Foula — the Shetland island farthest from the coast of Scotland — which is playing this week at the Music Box.… Read more »
From the December 7, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Band of Outsiders
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Daniele Girard, Louisa Colpeyn, and Ernest Menzer.
To gauge the historical significance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) — getting a week’s run in a lovely new print at the Music Box — it helps to know that it was made four years after François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and three years before Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Both Band of Outsiders and Shoot the Piano Player are low-budget black-and-white French thrillers adapted from American crime novels translated into French for the celebrated Serie Noire collection, and they were abject box-office flops on both sides of the Atlantic — though today they embody the glories of the French New Wave in a good many people’s minds. By contrast, Bonnie and Clyde, a Hollywood movie in color that was profoundly influenced by these two films, was a huge success, and its lyrical depictions of violence changed the direction of American cinema.
All three films are mixtures of tragedy and farce, violence and romance, with an uncertain emotional tone. When Band of Outsiders and Shoot the Piano Player were first released, audiences didn’t know what to make of this mix, but when they saw Bonnie and Clyde they were exhilarated by its ambiguities.… Read more »
In this breezy, dreamlike 1917 French serial, an enormous pack of hounds runs with the car of the dorky title hero (René Cresté) as he drives around the Paris suburbs in his flowing black cape, righting wrongs and generally taking care of business; one of these dogs even rings the gate bell for him at one of his stops. These glorious, goofy mutts are emblematic of what makes Louis Feuillade a greater director of popular cinema than Spielberg or Lucas; his serials from the teens may be the greatest of all adventure films, representing the essence and peak of fantasy filmed on real locations. Less sublime or mysterious than Les vampires or Tih Minh (which is even better), Judex proved to be a bigger hit than either, and even spawned an inferior sequel. The surveillance camera/TV/mirror inside Judex’s secret cave, relentlessly tracking the banker villain in his cell, presaged Lang’s Mabuse, Orwell’s Big Brother, and all the versions of Batman, and marks the genteel Feuillade, a spiritual contemporary of Lewis Carroll, as one of the inventors of 20th-century paranoia. It all runs more than six hours, but there’s not a better movie in town.… Read more »
From the February 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Peter Bogdanovich’s bright 1972 screwball comedy, patterned after Bringing Up Baby and decked out with lots of references to silent slapstick, plants dim musicologist Ryan O’Neal and freewheeling kook Barbra Streisand in San Francisco and then piles on the comic complications, with assistance from Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, and Kenneth Mars. Much of the slapstick is deftly executed, but there is one unfortunate undertone — ordinary, unassuming workers tend to be the fall guys more often than the pompous rich (a factor that distinguishes this comedy from most of Bogdanovich’s classic sources), although O’Neal’s character, who stays at the Hilton, certainly has his share of pratfalls. Streisand sings a fabulous version of “You’re the Top” behind the credits, and the busy script by Buck Henry, Robert Benton, and David Newman keeps things moving, but the spirit of pastiche keeps this romp from truly rivaling its sources. G, 94 min. (JR)
… Read more »