Monthly Archives: October 2019

Parenthood

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.

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This movie has its share of laughs, but it’s also Ron Howard’s most personal film, and clearly his most ambitious — a multifaceted essay in fictional form about the diverse snares of child rearing. The movie tries for so many things in so many different registers — there are a number of fantasy interludes and raunchy gags along with an overflowing cast of characters (including Steve Martin, Tom Hulce, Rick Moranis, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, and Dianne Wiest) — that the results are often unwieldy, but they’re certainly heartfelt: Howard’s grown-up sentimentality is the perfect antidote to the infantilism of Spielberg and Lucas and their disciples. The film never shies away from real problems, and the complex mix of comedy and seriousness in its treatment of the pitfalls of parenthood steadily grows in feeling and power. The movie may wind up being as messy as it argues that family life is, but it commands admiration and respect. The screenplay is by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story that they wrote with Howard (1989). (JR)

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Whose Current American Cinema?

Commissioned by and written for the Italian web site 8 1/2, published in September 2017. — J.R.

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When asked what I think about current American cinema, my first response is to ask another question: whose American cinema?  Because given the splintering of both the audience and all the possible venues for what we now call American cinema, it’s no longer possible to describe it as a single homogeneous entity.

Perhaps it was always wrong to describe it as such, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was still an American cinema that appeared to belong to everyone. Today we have only a series of separate niche markets and venues that seem to exist independently of one another. For the sake of both clarity and candor, I should confess that from 1987 through 2007, I was the principal film critic for the principal alternative newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Reader, which meant that I was professionally obliged to keep up with what was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as “current American cinema”. Since my voluntary retirement from that post, I’ve been a cinephile with no professional obligations, and my preferences in that capacity have been to systematically avoid films featuring superheroes, most horror films and war films, sports films, blockbusters, and most of the other releases mainly targeted for teenage and preteen boys.… Read more »

When Harry Met Sally . . .

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.

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Fans of Billy Crystal’s amphibian qualities may be amused, but the rest of us have to contend with a slavish Woody Allen imitation in this New York comedy scripted by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner (1989). Everything from the background music to the jogging dialogue strains to create the atmosphere of an Annie Hall or a Manhattan, with Meg Ryan in the Diane Keaton part, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as the best friends/other couple, and half a dozen elderly New York couples periodically discoursing cutely about how they met. The title couple meet on a drive from the University of Chicago to Manhattan in 1977, and the movie charts their gradual and grudging bonding up to the present. Very slickly and glibly put together, with a sharp eye for yuppie decor and accoutrements; even Woody’s habitual, fanciful vision of an all-white New York is respected. 95 min. (JR)

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The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). — J.R.

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John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller, a postnoir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when first released in 1976, and a recut, shorter version released two years later didn’t fare much better. This is the first, longer, and in some ways better of the two versions; it’s easier to follow, despite reports that — or maybe because — Cassavetes had less to do with the editing (though he certainly approved it). A personal, deeply felt character study rather than a routine action picture, it follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint — simultaneously an asshole and a saint — who recklessly gambles his way into debt and has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a personal testament; what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is its alter-ego relation to the filmmaker — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered showbiz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama.… Read more »

Noises Off

From the Chicago Reader (March 27, 1992). — J.R.

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Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie made me laugh more and much harder than What’s Up, Doc? ever did, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed “Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines,” “Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach,” and “Props in Revolt in Cleveland”; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easier to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »

Rocco And His Brothers

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1992). — J.R.

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An epic (1960) from Luchino Visconti about five brothers (Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Spiros Focas, Rocco Vidolazzi, Max Cartier) who, with their widowed mother (Katina Paxinou), leave their impoverished farm in southern Italy for the corruptions of Milan. This looks like a primary sourcebook for the overheated operatic styles, homoerotic intensity, quasi-incestuous delirium, and casual conceptual misogyny of Scorsese, Coppola, and Cimino — and you may have to value the ranker elements of those filmmakers more highly than I do to consider this precursor more than a mannerist touchstone. Visconti is an incontestable master in films as diverse as La Terra Trema, Senso, The Leopard, and The Innocent, but those films don’t employ women as unconvincingly or as insultingly as this one does. Still, you may be swept along by the sheer grace and stamina of the mise en scene and Nino Rota’s music. With Annie Girardot, Roger Hanin, Suzy Delair, Claudia Cardinale, and, in a smaller role, Adriana Asti. In Italian with subtitles. 180 min. (JR)

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Ten Best List for Sight and Sound, 2019

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1.    Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

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2.    Transit (Christian Petzold)

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3.    It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

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4.    Flannery (Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco)

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5.    Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz)

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6.    Conrad Veidt—My Life (Mark Rappaport)

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7.    Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer)

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8.    If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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9.    Ad Astra (James Gray)

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10.  Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

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Bad Lieutenant

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1993). — J.R.

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The able Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45, King of New York) goes arty, which means that a corrupt cop and guilty Catholic (Harvey Keitel) cries and apologizes personally to Jesus Christ after swiping, smoking, and snorting every drug in sight, compulsively betting on ball games and losing, ripping off thieves and the grocer they hold up, shooting his car radio with his pistol, jerking off in front of teenage girls, and lots of other fun activities. What transports him even more, it seems, is his outrage that a nun raped in a church decides to forgive her two rapists and refuses to identify them. There’s an undeniable formal elegance in the way Ferrara, who coauthored the script with Zoe Lund, frames and holds certain shots, and Keitel certainly gives his all in this 1992 entry in the Raging Bull redemptive sweepstakes. But I must confess I kept thinking of a friend’s response to this movie — that it made him feel glad, even proud, not to be straight. With Victor Argo, Paul Calderone, Leonard Thomas, Robin Burrows, Frankie Thorn, Victoria Bastel, and Paul Hipp. 98 min. (JR)

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Groundhog Day

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1993). — J.R.

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Groundhog Day movie image Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell

Bill Murray plays an obnoxious TV weatherman from Pittsburgh forced to relive the same wintry day in a small Pennsylvania town over and over again until he gets it right, in an unexpectedly graceful and well-organized comedy (1993) directed and cowritten by Harold Ramis. While the movie’s underlying message is basically A Christmas Carol strained through It’s a Wonderful Life – hardly a recommendation in my book — the filmmakers mercifully spare us the speeches and simply demonstrate their thesis; as they do they reveal their true virtue: a fluid sense of narrative that works the story’s theme-and-variations idea with a glancing and gliding touch. Considering that none of the characters is fresh or interesting, it’s a commendable achievement that the quality of the storytelling alone keeps the movie watchable and likable. With Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott. PG, 103 min. (JR)

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My Movies, Myself [VENICE/VENICE]

From the Chicago Reader (January 22, 1993). –J.R.

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VENICE/VENICE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Henry Jaglom

With Jaglom, Nelly Alard, Suzanne Bertish, Melissa Leo, Daphna Kastner, David Duchovny, and Diane Salinger.

Quite early in Venice/Venice writer-director-actor Dean (Henry Jaglom, transparently standing in for himself) tells an interviewer at the Venice film festival that there are two kinds of narcissists. The bad kind love only themselves, but the good kind use their self-love as a stepping-stone to loving others.

Dean (and Jaglom) obviously regards himself as the good kind of narcissist, and clearly we’re supposed to agree. But what about a third kind of narcissist, a kind Dean doesn’t mention — the narcissist whose self-love is a stepping-stone to loving others but who loves others only because he regards them as versions of himself? This is the universe of Henry Jaglom, a new-age, touchy-feely universe where everyone — everyone who matters, that is — talks and thinks and loves and hangs loose in the same manner.

The giveaway of this kind of narcissism is a series of talking-head montages of real-life interviews with women discussing the ways that movies have affected their fantasies about romance. One such montage begins the picture, and others occur again and again throughout.… Read more »

War Fever [on MATINEE]

This review appeared in the Chicago Reader on February 5, 1993. —J.R.

 

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*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Charlie Haas and Jerico

With John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, and Robert Picardo.

I suggested a few new promotional gimmicks for the play — a closed black coffin outside the theater and Oriental incense to get the audiences in the mood. The stage manager agreed to try another of my ideas — Count Dracula would vanish on stage in a cloud of smoke, then suddenly reappear in the audience. Snarling at the frightened spectators, he would again vanish and appear back on stage. I began to learn firsthand the value of good publicity and showmanship.

Adolf Hitler was unwittingly to teach me the lesson again nine years later. Hitler was indirectly responsible for opening the doors of Hollywood for me. — William Castle, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul

It’s not the Russians — it’s Rumble-Rama. Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) in Matinee

As luck would have it, I saw Joe Dante’s ferocious and lighthearted new comedy, Matinee — about John F.… Read more »

PARADE

Written for Criterion’s laserdisc release of Parade and apparently posted on its web site (criterion.com) — at least if it had a web site that early — on March 31, 1991. — J.R.

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It seems incredible that it’s taken seventeen years for a film as truly great as Parade — Jacques Tati’s final work — to become available in the U.S., and that it’s reaching the public, for the first time, on laserdisc. But old habits die hard, including our biases about technology as well as spectacle. Tati was the first major filmmaker to shoot a feature in video, and he brought to this challenge the same sort of innovative craft that he brought to the movie — although the technical options available in video in 1973 were far from what they are today. He began by shooting with an audience at a circus in Sweden for three days, using four video cameras. Then, he spent 12 days in a studio reshooting portions of the stage acts on film.

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The first “gag” in Parade takes place in front of a theater and is so subtle it hardly qualifies as a gag at all. A teenager in line picks up a striped, cone-shaped road marker on the pavement and dons it like a dunce cap; his date laughs, finds another road marker, and does the same thing.

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Werckmeister Harmonies

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). — J. R.

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A chilling, mesmerizing, intense account of ethnic cleansing (in spirit if not in letter) from Hungarian master Bela Tarr (2000, 145 min.), set in virtually the same overcast, rural black-and-white world as his Damnation and Satantango (both also cowritten by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). As in Satantango, Krasznahorkai worked with Tarr in adapting his own novel — in this case the first to be translated into English, The Melancholy of Resistance, elaborately restructured here in terms of narrative sequence and viewpoint so that it’s mainly limited to the experience of a simpleminded messenger and artist figure. A decrepit circus (actually a huge truck) in an impoverished town displays the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world while spreading rumors about but failing to deliver a foreign prince. Eventually the unemployed male locals head for the local hospital like a lynch mob and proceed to devastate the premises. Krasznahorkai’s parallels with southern gothic fiction are as striking as those with other eastern European allegories, yielding cadenced prose as monotonously grim as Thomas Bernhard’s. The long takes following characters — the structural equivalent of the novel’s Faulknerian sentences, though the content recalls Beckett’s comedy of inertia — underline our easy complicity with these monsters, and the actors, including Hanna Schygulla in a welcome comeback, are riveting.… Read more »

Vietnam Under Glass [THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA]

From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1994). — J.R.

*** THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-khe, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hoi, and Tran Ngoc Trung.


Until fairly recently, films from the Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking world have had next to no distribution here; so it’s worth noting that three such movies have been nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: Farewell My Concubine from Hong Kong, The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan, and The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam. The first two of these have already opened in Chicago, and the third — in some ways my favorite in the bunch — is starting a run this week at the Fine Arts. What overlapping interests — economic, cultural, artistic, ideological — are being served by this sudden upsurge in attention?

Interestingly enough, none of these Oscar nominees qualifies purely and unambiguously as a movie representing the country officially attached to it. Though Farewell My Concubine was produced in Hong Kong, all its action takes place in mainland China, and it was directed by a celebrated “Fifth Generation” filmmaker, Chen Kaige. The Wedding Banquet, a Taiwanese-American coproduction, has a Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, but it’s set in New York City and much of its dialogue is in English.… Read more »

Response to Patrick McGilligan’s Woody Allen Poll

Preparing a book about Woody Allen, biographer Patrick McGilligan sent out a poll to me and many others, and here are my responses to his questions:

THE WOODY ALLEN POLL

1.  What five Woody Allen films do you hold in the highest regard?  

(List the five in any order.   One equal point will be assigned to each of your choices for the cumulative total to be listed from 100 participating critics and scholars.)

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What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

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2.  What do you believe about the allegation by Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, that he sexually molested her?   

            c.  Undecided.

3.  Have the Dylan Farrow allegations, or his marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn – either or both – affected your view of his film?

No.

4.  How has his over-all legacy been affected?  Comments are welcome.

I’ve always thought he was overrated (cf. my “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen”). If his reputation and legacy as an artist have been tarnished by these unconfirmed charges or his marriage, this only illustrates the public’s lack of seriousness about art. I find Allen’s far more confirmable shame and embarrassment about his working-class origins and his middle-class values far more relevant to the importance and (lack of) depth of his work. Read more »