Monthly Archives: July 2019

TV Guise [AS GOOD AS IT GETS]

From the Chicago Reader (December 29, 1997). To tell the the truth, over 17 years later, I’m a little embarrassed about having given this movie four stars. For all my affection for James L. Brooks, in spite of everything (and including his most recent picture, the much-reviled How Do You Know), this is far from being his best work. — J.R.

As Good as It Gets **** Masterpiece

Directed by James L. Brooks

Written by Mark Andrus and Brooks

With Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Jesse James, and Jill.

As a TV illiterate who probably hasn’t watched a sitcom regularly since The Honeymooners, who’s never seen Taxi, Rhoda, Lou Grant, Room 222, or The Tracey Ullman Show, and caught only the final episode  of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I don’t know much about the world James L. Brooks sprang from as an artist. In fact, apart from several episodes of his two cartoon series, The Simpsons and The Critic, I don’t know his TV work at all. And as someone who regards movie test-marketing as one of the sleaziest, most destructive practices in Hollywood, I’m more than a little skeptical about a writer-director-producer who believes in it so religiously that after the previews of his previous feature, the musical I’ll Do Anything, he recut it so extensively he made it a nonmusical.… Read more »

The Decade’s Finest [The Ten Best Movies of the 90s]

From the December 24, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Ten Best Movies of the 90s

(not including but with notes on Cradle Will Rock)

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.  – From the preface to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

A lot of havoc is wreaked by the usual annual ten-best lists. For starters, there’s the hard-sell behavior of publicists trying to get critics to see every major year-end release before December 31, even though most of these features won’t open in Chicago until at least January. This results in two time frames — one for national releases and another for local releases — which confuses everyone. If you play by the rules of the Chicago Film Critics Association (which should really be called the Chicago Film Publicists Association), you’re encouraged to act like a publicist and promote features on your ten-best list that haven’t opened in Chicago — but you’re strictly forbidden to act like a critic and review any of them.… Read more »

Kiss Me Kate

From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1990). — J.R.

One of the classiest and most experimental 3-D efforts from Hollywood — as well as one of the best MGM musicals of the 1950s that didn’t come from the Arthur Freed unit. Adapted by Dorothy Kingsley from the successful 1948 Cole Porter stage musical and directed by the underrated George Sidney, this 1953 feature does interesting things with mirrors, windows, and the relationship between stage and audience, playing on the differences between theatrical and film space and, paradoxically, exploiting 3-D as an artificial and antirealistic effect. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel play an estranged couple who uneasily join forces in a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with much comic confusion between life and art. The cast (including Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, Bob Fosse, and Carol Haney) and score are consistently pleasurable. 109 min. (JR)

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Artful Imitations

From the Chicago Reader (July 17, 1992). — J.R.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Written by Richard Rothstein, Christopher Leitch, and Dean Devlin

With Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Ally Walker, Ed O’Ross, Jerry Orbach, Leon Rippy, Tico Wells, and Ralph Moeller.

UNLAWFUL ENTRY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Written by Lewis Colick, George D. Putnam, and John Katchmer

With Kurt Russell, Ray Liotta, Madeleine Stowe, Roger E. Mosley, Ken Lerner, Deborah Offner, Carmen Argenziano, and Andy Romano.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Penny Marshall

Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

With Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Megan Cavanagh, and Rosie O’Donnell.

PRELUDE TO A KISS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Norman Rene

Written by Craig Lucas

With Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Sydney Walker, Ned Beatty, Patty Duke, Kathy Bates, and Richard Riehle.

Out of all the genres represented by this summer’s crop of movies, there are at least three that haven’t yet been officially recognized. There are sequels like Lethal Weapon 3 and Batman Returns whose true genres are not so much old-fashioned categories like police thriller and fantasy adventure as “this summer’s Lethal Weapon movie” and “this summer’s Batman movie.” Then there are strictly-by-the-book imitations like Universal Soldier and Unlawful Entry whose true genres are not so much science-fiction action adventure or romantic horror thriller as “this summer’s Terminator rip-off” and “this summer’s Fatal Attraction rip-off.” Finally, there are movies that, consciously or not, represent throwbacks to genres or cycles of other eras — specifically A League of Their Own, which resembles 40s musicals, and Prelude to a Kiss, which resembles supernatural comedies and dramas of the early 40s.… Read more »

Paris Journal, September-October 1972 (ENTHUSIASM, TOUT VA BIEN, THE ENCHANTED DESNA) — with a recent update

Here is another one of my Paris Journals for Film Comment – the first one, I believe, after the magazine shifted from being a quarterly to a bimonthly publication. Once again, I think part of the reason for reproducing this now is its value as a period piece.

2019: A fascinating footnote about Solntseva: at a film festival in Spain a few years ago, Sergei Loznitsa told me that thanks to an opening of some of the KGB’s old files for public scrutiny, it was revealed that she had been a longtime member. Most of us know far too little about the Russian and Soviet past to begin to understand the reasons for this, but it seems possible that Solntseva may have actually joined the KGB in order to help protect her Ukrainian husband, who was reportedly under Soviet surveillance for most of his life. It does help to explain, in any case, how, after Dovzhenko failed to get so many of his own personal projects like Desna produced, Solntseva was able to direct three of them with lavish budgets and immense technical resources after his death. — J.R.

April 23: A screening of Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM (1930), organized by the magazine Cinéthique, at  Residence de l’École centrale in Chatenay Malabry, a suburb of Paris.… Read more »

Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s ORDET

Like my essay on Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, this essay was written for an Australian DVD, which came out in 2008  on the Madman label. (One can order these and many other DVDs, incidentally, from Madman’s site.) My thanks to Alexander Strang for giving me permission to reprint this. (It’s also reprinted in my most recent collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia.  —J.R.

Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s Ordet

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Ordet (The Word, 1955) was the first film by Carl Dreyer I ever saw. And the first time I saw it, at age 18, it infuriated me, possibly more than any other film has, before or since. Be forewarned that spoilers are forthcoming if you want to know why.

The setting and circumstances were unusual. I saw a 16-millimeter print at a radical, integrated, co-ed camp for activists in Monteagle, Tennessee — partially staffed by Freedom Riders, during the late summer of 1961, when we were all singing “We Shall Overcome” repeatedly every day. So the fact that Ordet has a lot to do with what looked like a primitive form of Christianity — combined with the particular inflections brought by the black church to the Civil Rights Movement, including one of its appropriated hymns — had a great deal to do with my rage.… Read more »

Among the Missing (Malraux’s ESPOIR versus Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS)

It’s a pity that André Malraux’s only film, a pre-neorealist feature about the struggle of his own Republican squadron in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, with a stirring original Darius Milhaud score — started in Barcelona in July 1938 (a few months after publishing his novel of the same title in France), suspended in January 1939 after the Franco Nationalists seized Barcelona, completed in the French Joinville studios just ahead of the German occupation, and finally released only after the Liberation, in 1945 — is virtually unknown today in the English-speaking world, even though a DVD of the restoration with English subtitles is available in France. James Agee compared its poetry to that of Homer, but it seems to have become a forgotten film in the U.S. since then.

I showed a couple of clips from the film in my World Cinema of the 1930s course last night, as a kind of irreverent and dialectical contrast to Howard Hawks’ dark and beautiful Only Angels Have Wings, shot almost simultaneously in Hollywood. Much as I love the Hawks film, which I would describe as profound hokum, I don’t think its ideological and colonialist trappings should be entirely ignored.… Read more »

Barcelona Boogie and Pittsburgh Punk

From The Soho News (June 4, 1980). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Jackie Raynal was and is one of my dearest friends. — J.R.

 

Deux Fois

A Film by Jackie Raynal

Bleecker Street Cinema, June 9

Debt Begins at Twenty

A Film by Stephanie Beroes

Millennium, May 24

Recalling my four successive visits to the Cannes Film Festival in the early ’70s — when the daily glut of movies and accompanying hardsell was already enough to turn a hardened film freak into a deflated beachball — I still harbor fond memories of the kind of movies that used to spend my days looking for, and the ones that would savor for days more, days on end, once I found them. They were movies that allowed me and Cannes to slow down and linger a bit and regain our strength, and afforded us that pleasure by refusing to hype us into or out of anything that denied either of us the solipsistic joy of total self-absorption.

By taking their own sweet time (all the time in the world) to explore their own bittersweet fantasies, and allowing us to follow them only if we insisted, these movies were like little self-contained oases conjured up and plunked down improbably in the midst of camel stampedes, which is probably why so many of my colleagues hated them — and why most of you, in turn, have heard of so few of them, if any at all.Read more »

For Your Eyes Only [on Beatty's DICK TRACY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 1990).

Regarding Peter Biskind’s hyperbolic overestimation of Beatty, then and now — matched in a way by Beatty’s own jokey comparison of Biskind to Trotsky, as reported by Biskind in his recent and sometimes unwittingly hilarious Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (2010) — it seems that this has only grown over the past 20 or so years. In his Introduction, Biskind rhetorically asks, “how many defining motion pictures does a filmmaker have to make to be considered great?” and then rhetorically answers, “very few,” going on to assign only one or two each to Welles, Renoir, and Kazan, and just one to Peckinpah, but no less than five to Beatty, evidently regarding Bugsy as a towering achievement alongside such trifles as The Magnificent Ambersons, French Cancan, or Wild River. But this is the same writer who can call Kaleidoscope “James Bond lite,” allowing one to ponder what he might actually regard as James Bond heavy — or even as James Bond normal. — J.R.

DICK TRACY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

With Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, and Charles Durning.… Read more »

Still Circling [PUSHING TIN]

From the Chicago Reader (April 30, 1999). — J.R.

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Mike Newell

Written by Glen Charles and Les Charles

With John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Jake Weber, Kurt Fuller, Vicki Lewis, Matt

Ross, Jerry Grayson, and Michael Willis.

The following notice recently appeared on the Internet Movie Database:

“In an unprecedented action, MGM said…that it is recalling all video copies of The Basketball Diaries (1995), in which Leonardo DiCaprio in a dream sequence is depicted shooting a teacher and students while wearing a long, black trenchcoat. The decision was prompted by the shootings in Colorado and references to the movie in numerous news reports. The movie was recently acquired by MGM as part of the PolyGram film library that it bought from Seagram in January. ‘We are going to attempt to get as many of these videos off the shelf as possible,’ a studio spokesman told today’s [April 22] Wall Street Journal. ‘We think it’s the responsible thing to do under the circumstances.’ He said retailers and distributors would be offered full refunds. News reports also observed that the current hit movie The Matrix also features numerous scenes of gun violence in which the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, also wears a black trenchcoat.Read more »

DW Griffith: An American Life, by Richard Schickel

From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1984). –- J.R.

D.W. GRIFFITH: An American Life

by Richard Schickel

Pavilion, £15.00

Arriving on the heels of Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock and Richard Koszarski’s Stroheim, Richard Schickel’s massive biography of Griffith manages to steer a middle course between the compulsive narrative thrust of the former and the more scholarly negotiation of diverse hypotheses pursued by the latter. Grappling with a life and personality that surprisingly proves to be no less private and elusive than Hitchcock’s, Schickel confidently leads the reader through over six hundred pages of text without ever resorting to Spoto’s questionable tactic of baiting one’s interest with the promise of scandalous revelations. And if his scholarship in certain areas raises more questions than Koszarski’s -– see the helpful remarks of Griffith scholar Tom Gunning in the June American Film, particularly about the Biograph period -– he can still be credited with plausibly ploughing his way through an avalanche of contradictory and incomplete data.

Schickel’s task is, of course, more formidable than Spoto’s or Koszarski’s, encompassing some seventy-odd years and nearly five hundred films. Earlier efforts by Barnet Bravermann and Seymour Stern to compose a Griffith biography never reached completion (although Schickel has relied heavily on Bravermann’s material).… Read more »

Ten Favorite Offbeat Musicals

Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links.  — J.R.

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Consider the following not so much a definitive list — offerings and preferences keep changing — as a starting point for checking out some of the weirdest and most pleasurable musical comedies in my personal pantheon. The order is chronological.
(CLICK COVER FOR MORE) Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) A controversy used to rage about whether this was “imitation Lubitsch with too many camera angles” (as Andrew Sarris once put it) or a lighthearted send-up of Ernst Lubitsch (as Tom Milne argued in his book on Mamoulian). Since the movie costars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, the same leads as Lubitsch’s previous The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch himself was production chief at Paramount when it was made, these issues can’t be resolved simply. But my own preference for this masterpiece over the Lubitsch films that influenced it comes easy, and not only because it’s appeared on DVD ahead of them. It has a wonderful Rodgers and Hart score and a singular impulse to encompass nothing less than the entire world in its musical numbers. Towards the beginning, “Isn’t it Romantic?” passes from Chevalier (a tailor in Paris) to a customer to a composer passing on the street to a cab driver to soldiers on a train to a Gypsy fiddler in the countryside to MacDonald singing on a distant balcony; and plenty of non-singers are allowed to take over bits of subsequent songs, like the reprise of “Mimi”.

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for films that have subsequently become available; there are in fact quite a few of these, and, unless I’ve missed something, only one title that isn’t currently available, The Argyle Secrets. — J.R.

Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.

MySonJohn-Jeffersonmemorial

OddManOut

pointblank-hallway

party-girl-club


It’s also important to stress that “noir” isn’t a genre; it’s a category that’s applied retroactively to films with certain traits in common — a practice started by French critics and eventually continued by us Yanks and others. (Check out James Naremore’s definitive 1998 book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.) This makes it something more flexible than a genre, and I’ve tried to honor this factor in some of my choices.


In the following list I’ve managed to make peace with myself by appending one
SBA title (which stands for “should be available”) to each one that you can currently buy, in the same general category, with brief explanations added.Read more »

Let the Music Do the Talking [on JAZZ '34]

This defense of what I consider Robert Altman’s most neglected major work appeared in the May 8, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. I’ve deliberately refrained from including any stills from Kansas City — its “parent” film, which I continue to dislike. –  J.R.

Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Robert Altman

With Jesse Davis, David “Fathead” Newman, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Tyrone Clark, Don Byron, Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Victor Lewis, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Craig Handy, David Murray, Joshua Redman, Curtis Fowles, Clark Gayton, Olu Dara, Nicholas Payton, James Zollar, and Kevin Mahogany.

The best Robert Altman feature in more years than I care to remember isn’t playing at a theater anywhere. A shortened version aired on PBS’s “Great Performances” series last year, but the movie only recently came to my attention when a video copy (distributed by Rhapsody Films) arrived in the mail. A fascinating adjunct to Altman’s much more ambitious and much less successful Kansas City (1996), Jazz ’34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing is one of the best jazz films I’ve ever seen. It’s what its parent film promised but failed to deliver — all the more interesting because it’s neither a documentary nor a narrative but an eccentric hybrid.… Read more »

Die Marquise von O… (1976 review)

This review appeared in the December 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. For whatever it’s worth, my favorite among Rohmer’s features remains, alas, his most unjustly neglected — Perceval le Gallois (1978), the feature he made immediately after Die Marquise von O… –J.R.

Marquise von O…, Die

West Germany/France, 1976
Director: Eric Rohmer

Probably the most faithful of all the disciples of André Bazin, Eric Rohmer has shared his mentor’s philosophical fascination with “ambiguity” in his criticism and films alike. A position derived from Catholic existentialism which adheres to a “realist” aesthetic whose prime model is the naturalistic novel as exemplified by Dos Passos, Hemingway and Hammett, this orientation is clearly at the root of his version of Kleist’s masterpiece, which subtly betrays the awesome energies of the original while maintaining an overall fidelity to its plot and characters that is rare in contemporary cinema. Widely and justifiably praised for its immaculate direction, acting, and visual sophistication, it can none the less be regarded as a Jamesian re-write of the novellas that dims the passion of the latter with a form of delicate detachment quite in keeping with the tenor of Rohmer’s Contes Moraux. A minor omission like the very Kleistian blood “gushing” from the mouth of a would-be rapist whom the Count “smashes” in the face with the hilt of his sword — a detail which the film tastefully keeps off-screen -– reveals this strategy on a rather trivial level; and the splitting in half of the Count’s childhood anecdote about the swan of which he is reminded by the Marquise -– so that its conclusion now comes at the end of the plot -– can easily be defended as a sensible dramatic expedient.… Read more »