From Cinema Scope No. 34, Summer 2005. — J.R.
As an avid collector of Hollywood musicals, I’ve recently been checking out which items in my collection with optional French dialogue also have French versions of the songs. My father used to teach himself foreign languages by reading translations of some of his favorite English and American novels (e.g., Light in August in German). It’s recently occurred to me that watching favorite Anglo-American movies with foreign subtitles —- something closer to reading a bilingual text —- might also be helpful, though watching a foreign-dubbed version undoubtedly helps even more when it comes to improving one’s speaking knowledge of a particular language. This is one of the many resources afforded by DVDs that most people ignore, myself included. Just as it never occurs to most North American DVD watchers to spend the minimal amounts of time and money needed to acquire a multiregional player and order DVDs from abroad, the linguistic extras available on a good many DVDs slip past most people’s ken because taking advantage of them lies outside their usual habit patterns.
In any case, once I started examining the fine print on the boxes of the musicals in my collection, I discovered that optional French dialogue is fairly common, though whether this includes French versions of the songs is something one can only learn by playing the DVD.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 27, 1997). — J.R.
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Victor Nunez
With Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel, Christine Dunford, J. Kenneth Campbell, Steven Flynn, Dewey Weber, and Tom Wood.
The character-driven stories in all four of writer-director Victor Nunez’s features to date — Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green, his masterpiece Ruby in Paradise, and now Ulee’s Gold – are defined by their regionalism: Nunez operates exclusively as a Florida independent. Whether he’s adapting a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings short story set in the 20s or a John D. MacDonald novel (his first two films) or writing an original script (the second two), Nunez bases his art on a sense of place so solid that the texture of the settings is part of his subject.
The fact that all his films are relatively slow moving also has something to do with the Florida settings. Former residents of that state have told me that his movies capture not only a sense of the place but its rhythms, and judging from the novels with Florida settings I’ve read in recent years — John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest and the three wonderful Hoke Moseley novels of Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, and New Hope for the Dead) — this isn’t just Nunez’s take on the region.… Read more »
This was written for Film Comment in 2002, but only the first part was published in their September-October issue that year, under the title “Enlightened Madness”. This was designed to be accompanied by a sidebar highlighting ten of Masumura’s films, but the editor, Gavin Smith, after proposing the sidebar and thereby getting me to revise the first piece accordingly, subsequently decided to place the sidebar only on the magazine’s website, thereby sabotaging my plan for the two pieces to work together, as a two-part unit, and reducing much of the sidebar, as a stand-alone unit, to gibberish.
Much of both parts got recycled years later in an essay included in Movie Mutations, a collection I coedited with Adrian Martin. – J.R.
To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research.” Considering that he made 58 films between 1957 and 1982, none of which has ever had a normal commercial run in this country, that may even be putting it mildly. But so far I’ve managed to see 38, all but one over the past four years, and though the range in quality is enormous, I’d swear by at least half of them.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December1, 1990). — J.R.
John Ford’s first film in ‘Scope also happens to be one of his major neglected works of the 50sa biopic of epic proportions (138 minutes) about West Point athletic instructor Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), who was a mess-hall waiter before joining the army but returned to West Point to become a much-beloved teacher — an example of the sort of victory in defeat or at least equivocal heroism that comprises much of Ford’s oeuvre. Adapted by Edward Hope from Maher’s autobiography, Bring Up the Brass, the film is rich with nostalgia, family feeling, and sentimentality. It’s given density by a superb supporting cast (including Maureen O’Hara at her most luminous, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr.) and a kind of mysticism that, as in How Green Was My Valley, makes the past seem even more alive than the present. Clearly not for every taste, but a work that vibrates with tenderness and emotion (1955). (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1988). — J.R.
Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director’s working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover’s neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It’s typical of Almodovar’s wit that he casts a man as the little girl’s real mother and a woman as her false one. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 7, 1989). — J.R.
GREAT BALLS OF FIRE
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jim McBride
Written by Jack Baran and McBride
With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Trey Wilson.
Given that Jim McBride’s film debut was a pseudodocumentary designed to look real (David Holzman’s Diary, 1968), and was followed by an actual diary film that was made to seem fictional (My Girlfriend’s Wedding, 1969), it should be no surprise that Great Balls of Fire, which purports to be a biopic of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, is actually a musical-comedy fantasy about virtually imaginary characters.
For those who accept the a priori assumption that most movies are simply dreams and lies, this is only business as usual; in fact, in playing fast and loose with the facts McBride and his longtime collaborator Jack Baran are working in a grand tradition peopled by the makers of most other simpleminded Hollywood biopics. The difference here is that the falsity of their concoction is made nakedly apparent: at least two-thirds of the picture resembles a feature-length music video, patterned in some ways after the rock musicals of 30 years ago.… Read more »
I’ve been haunted lately by a very moving and eloquent comment made last Saturday at a panel discussion which I participated in, held at the Smithsonian. The occasion was a screening of a restoration of Hai Ninh’s lovely 1974 North Vietnamese feature The Little Girl from Hanoi, a film so scarce that I can’t find any stills from it on the Internet to illustrate this post. [Update, 6/13/12: Some stills have subsequently appeared and have been posted with my review of the film, here, as well as on this page.]
After one of my (American) copanelists remarked that even though “we [sic] lost the war in Vietnam,” the country had a thriving market economy today, and then either he or someone else alluded to America “winning” the Cold War (which provoked an angry riposte from me that if the Cold War had any “winners” at all, these were gangsters on both sides), a Vietnamese diplomat in the audience, who said he was speaking not as a diplomat but simply as a Vietnamese, stated that he thought it was inappropriate to claim that anyone “won” the war in Vietnam. He was right, of course, which got me thinking that the American compulsion to see all of life (and death) in the simplistic terms of sports and games has a lot to answer for.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1989). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Donovan
Written by Donovan and David Koepp
With Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, and Francesca d’Aloja.
Although it qualifies technically as an American movie, Martin Donovan’s ambitious, disturbing thriller Apartment Zero is one of those international hodgepodges that are somewhat disorienting almost by definition. Set in Buenos Aires, made with actors and technicians from three continents, and filmed in English by an Argentinean director who has lived mainly in Italy and England since the 70s, it has the sort of multinational sprawl that only a strong script and a forceful style could hold together. Fortunately, Apartment Zero has both script and style in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it’s an exciting piece of controlled cinematic delirium.
I first encountered this movie at a midnight screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, having been guided to it by a perceptive rave in Variety by Todd McCarthy. Ever since then I’ve been wondering when and how it would eventually turn up in Chicago. It lacks most of the usual commercial calling cards (big stars, lovable nerds, genre cliches, babies, body switches, Spielberg lighting), it was passed up by the New York and Chicago film festivals, and it didn’t seem the sort of picture that Vincent Canby would like.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 10, 2002). — J.R.
Cinema Without Borders: Films by Joris Ivens
A word of advice to film artists who want to get ahead: don’t move around too much. Film history often gets subsumed under national film history, so filmmakers who keep moving risk getting lost. And stay out of politics, since getting into them invariably puts you on either the winning or the losing side. If you’re on the losing side, many national film histories will write you out entirely; if you’re on the winning side, chances are your film will date faster than last week’s newspaper.
These somber reflections are prompted by what I’ve been able to piece together about the extraordinary career of the Dutch-born leftist documentary and experimental filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989) — who lived in so many places, did so many things, and made so many films he’s come dangerously close to being shut out of history. From the vantage point of America in 2002, I suppose he’d have to be assigned to the losing side, as mainly a mouthpiece for Marxist party lines from the 30s onward, though that would grossly oversimplify his career. Some of the causes he devoted part of his life to, including Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, are now discredited, with good reason, but that doesn’t mean the films he made on their behalf can simply be dismissed or are without interest.… Read more »
In Neuroses Begin Responsibilities—and Movies
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Dec 26, 20016:19 PM
Dear David (and Roger, Sarah, and Tony),
I appreciate your evocation of Sept. 11 at the start of your letter—a defining moment for us all—as well as your conflicted thoughts about vigilantism, and how these impact on your movie tastes. For me, there’s no conflict of this kind, because I’m afraid revenge strikes me as something less than an adult aspiration or concern—accounting both for why I think Mandela’s South Africa is far ahead of the United States in this respect and why In the Bedroom, a very well-made film, doesn’t interest me much. (The only moment I recall making my pulse race was when Spacek slapped Tomei.) As you’re the first to point out, Osama Bin Laden is also obsessed with vengeance—though surely not just for “slights against his brand of Islam.” Other beefs might include the deaths of about a million innocent Iraqis (the American Friends Service Committee’s estimate last spring)—collateral damage that Madeleine Albright told us she had no regrets about, despite the fact that it arguably only strengthened Saddam Hussein—as well as many other lethal forms of meddling in the Middle East, some of them slights against both humanity and common sense.… Read more »
Film Four Reasons Not to Trust Ten-Best Lists
One of the most cherished fantasies in the world of movies is that around this time every year we critics are all dying to think about the best films of the past 12 months — as if listmaking represented some particular populist need for consensus rather than the industry’s desire to resell goods that have already been sold to us again and again (or, in this neck of the woods, to presell goods that haven’t arrived yet).
I’ll admit that one list engenders another, and that once the game starts in earnest, every critic wants to be part of the discussion. But consider some of the drawbacks:
(1) Piles of movies getting released at the end of this year in such a manner that critics (and some audience members) don’t even have time to take them in, much less think about them. (Maybe that’s exactly what the studios want–snap judgment is another practice that serves the industry more than the audience.)
(2) Contortions by critics outside New York and Los Angeles who don’t want to come across as rubes and so vote for movies that most of their readers can’t see yet.
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From Film Comment, September-October 1978. — J.R.
#1. The bias against sound thinking is so deeply ingrained that it shapes and invades the most casual parts of our speech. Whenever we ask “What movie did you see?”, or discuss film as a visual medium, or refer to viewers or spectators, we participate in a communal agreement to privilege one aspect of a film text by masking another, identifying the part as a whole. Some might argue that this bias is a carryover from the silent era; yet once we acknowledge that silence is as integral to sound as empty space is to image – not so much a neutral terrain as a variable to be defined and/or filled in relation to an infinite variety of contexts – we can’t really claim that the problem started with the “talkies.” Indeed, we can’t even allude to “talkies” without agreeing to privilege speech over silence, sound effects and music, thereby participating in a related form of suppression.
#2. The point is that none of the terms we use are innocent, and the ones we have for discussing sound still aren’t far removed from Neanderthal grunts. Consider the brutal inadequacy of “sound effects”: it would seem barbaric if we spoke of visual composition in Eisenstein or Renoir as “visual effects,” if only because we perceive composition as a complex of interrelated decisions.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.
THE WAR OF THE ROSES
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Danny DeVito
Written by Michael Leeson
With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.
The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.
Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 1991). — J.R.
PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Christian Blackwood.
I’ve never seen Volker Schlondorff’s 150-minute made-for-TV film of Death of a Salesman (1985), which Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies awards high marks: “Stunning though stylistic remounting of [Dustin] Hoffman’s Broadway revival of the classic Arthur Miller play with most of the cast from that 1984 production. A landmark of its type. Executive-produced by Hoffman and Miller. Hoffman and [John] Malkovich both won acting Emmys. Above average.” But a friend who has seen it, and who loves the play, tells me that she disliked the film: all the actors seemed to be off on their own tangents, she said, and there was little interplay between them.
Whether the Schlondorff film is good or bad, Private Conversations: On the Set of Death of a Salesman, the 82-minute documentary that Christian Blackwood made about the making of it, is endlessly fascinating, for reasons largely irrelevant to the worth of the Miller play or this particular production of it. Part of the open-endedness of Blackwood’s film comes from the fact that if Schlondorff’s film works the reasons are here, and if it doesn’t work the reasons are here — perhaps in the same circumstances.… Read more »
Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them. — J.R.
Love Me Tonight
There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls —- the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers — the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.… Read more »