Monthly Archives: November 2019

Intolerable Cruelty

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2007). — J.R.

intolerable-cruelty

If you were delighted by the euphoric cynicism about corruption in L.A. Confidential and Chicago (I wasn’t), you probably should make a beeline for Joel and Ethan Coen’s brittle farce about corruption in divorce proceedings, in which hotshot lawyer George Clooney and professional divorcee Catherine Zeta-Jones are too busy screwing each other in the courts to show much interest in actual sex. Buffing up a script they’d worked on eight years earlier with Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano, the Coens do an efficient job of stamping their signature grotesquerie on sumptuous Beverly Hills and Las Vegas settings and ladling on gallows humor and malice, sometimes with the verve of early Robert Zemeckis. Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton, Edward Herrmann, and Richard Jenkins round out the gallery of cartoon fools. PG-13, 100 min. (JR)

Intolerable_cruelty

A Serious Man

Since I’m no longer a regular reviewer and never have been much of a fan of the Coen brothers’ special brand of scornful, smart-ass caricature, I’ve been slow in catching up with A Serious Man, which turns out to be one of their most interesting (not to mention most serious, or at least most “serious”) movies. Even though they’ll never come nearly as close to Franz Kafka as Kubrick does in the costume-shop sequences of Eyes Wide Shut, there’s something about their taste for surrealist nightmare that flourishes here when it’s tied to a sense of Jewish misery and doom; and even though their sense of period here is as post-modernist-faulty as it’s ever been, and some of their weirder forays are plainly misfires (e.g., the precredits sequence), their personal take on what it meant to be Jewish in Minneapolis in the 60s still carries a certain charge.

As for their penchant for stylistic pastiche, what’s most striking to me about the behavioral freakishness and geekiness on display here is the degree to which they seem to derive in this case from a non-Jewish model — specifically, David Lynch’s very WASPy Eraserhead. (If memory serves, the only other time that the Coens went in for Jewish stereotypes was in Barton Fink, and then their principal stylistic guides, Polanski and Kubrick, were both Jewish and specifically Eastern European in their gallows humor.) The clearest sign of this appropriation is the way Amy Landecker’s super-seductive Mrs.… Read more »

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

This essay was written for That Magic Moment: 1968 Und Das Kino Eine Filmschau, a film program and publication organized by the Viennale and Stadtkino in late May and early June, 1998. Like some of the other pieces reproduced on this site as featured texts, this has various passages that have been recycled elsewhere in my work — in this case, both in the Chicago Reader and in my book Movie Wars – but it still seems worth reprinting, chiefly for its personal reflections on film history and, more generally, the 60s. — J.R.

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 1968, the year I turned 25, I bought my first appointment book — or at least the first appointment book that I’ve bothered to save, and I’ve saved all 30 of the appointment books that I’ve bought and filled since then. For the most part, I use these appointment books to list appointments of various kinds: meetings with friends, planned trips to other cities and countries, classes I plan to teach or lectures I plan to attend or deliver. But most of the entries concern films I plan to see and when or where they’re playing.… Read more »

In Defense of Non-Masterpieces

From the April 17, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eighteen Springs

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ann Hui

Written by John Chan

With Leon Lai, Wu Chien-lien, Anita Mui, Ge You, Annie Wu, and Huang Lei.

I don’t know exactly what I think about Ann Hui’s 12th feature, playing twice this weekend at the Film Center. At this point I don’t think it’s a masterpiece — though that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t see it. Arriving at these two conclusions is something of a professional necessity for me, because whenever I write a long review for this paper I have to assign the film a certain number of stars; if you look at the box headed “film ratings” the meaning of those ratings is spelled out, from “masterpiece” (four stars) to “worthless” (none). But sometimes this necessity presents me with a dilemma, because my better instincts tell me that it’s often impossible to know immediately after seeing a film whether it’s a masterpiece or not. And while I’m at it, let me confess to another doubt, one that relates to the general inflation of rankings that infects my profession, whether critics are reviewing a Hollywood blockbuster or a Hong Kong art movie: I fear that if I tell people that Ann Hui’s Eighteen Springs (or the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski) is only “worth seeing,” a lot of them won’t bother to go — even if maybe some of them should, for their benefit, not mine.… Read more »

Reality Bites [THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR]

From the June 4, 1999 Chicago Reader. A lot of the material here subsequently turned up in my book Movie Wars. — J.R.

The Thirteenth Floor

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Josef Rusnak

Written by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez

With Armin Mueller-Stahl, Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, and Steven Schub.

“I think, therefore I am,” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596-1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters barely think, much less exist, but not too surprising given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform virtual-reality thrillers.

This is the fourth such thriller I’ve seen in as many weeks, and if any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — it might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, for filmmakers stumped by the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed to be escaping from, virtual-reality thrillers seem made to order.… Read more »

Menopause and Racism [PRIVILEGE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1991). — J.R.

PRIVILEGE

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Yvonne Rainer

With Alice Spivak, Novella Nelson, Blaire Baron, Rico Elias, Gabriella Farrar, Dan Berkey, and Yvonne Rainer.

Approached as a narrative, Yvonne Rainer’s sixth feature takes forever to get started and an eternity to end. In between its ill-defined borders, the plot itself is repeatedly interrupted, endlessly delayed or protracted, frequently relegated to the back burner and all but forgotten. All the way through, the action proceeds like hiccups.

Yet approached as an essay, Privilege unfolds like a single multifaceted argument, uniformly illuminated by white-hot rage and wit — a cacophony of voices and discourses to be sure, but a purposeful and meaningful cacophony in which all the voices are speaking to us as well as to one another.

Everything in the movie can and should be experienced as part of an ongoing dialogue, and it’s no small tribute to its overall coherence and impact that one wants to have an ongoing dialogue with the movie–talk back to it, argue with it — and that one has to if the movie is going to make any sense at all. The dialogue may deliberately go in and out of sync with the on-screen characters, the characters may be periodically played by different actors, and the shots may shift without notice between color and black and white.… Read more »

Anthony Mann/THE FURIES

THE FURIES, directed by Anthony Mann (1950, 109 min.), in a Criterion box set.

 

Last night, I saw this grand, exciting, unruly failure, Mann’s first western, for the first time, thanks to the timely arrival of the DVD from Criterion, handsomely boxed with the Niven Busch novel that Charles Schnee (and Mann, uncredited) adapted it from. I haven’t yet sampled the Jim Kitses commentary, but there’s also an excellent new essay by Robin Wood that’s very attentive to both the strengths and weaknesses of the film, cross-referencing KING LEAR in all the right ways. And on the same disc, a Paul Mayersburg interview with Mann shortly before his death that was recorded for British television–the first I’ve ever seen–as well as a no less revealing interview with Mann’s daughter Nina, which introduces me to certain relevant aspects of Mann’s childhood: specifically, growing up mainly without parents in a Theosophical Institute in San Diego where there was an outdoor amphitheater that produced Greek tragedies, among other things.

My only complaint, really, is that there’s no allusion in the booklet to Arthur Hunnicutt’s uncredited appearance in the film––the same year he appeared as Chloroform Wiggins in Jacques Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN.… Read more »

Prisoners of War

This appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Bitter Victory

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Written by Rene Hardy, Ray, and Gavin Lambert

With Richard Burton, Curt Jurgens, Ruth Roman, Raymond Pellegrin, Anthony Bushell, Andrew Crawford, Nigel Green, and Christopher Lee.

Jane Brand: What can I say to him?

Captain James Leith: Tell him all the things that women have always said to the men before they go to the wars. Tell him he’s a hero. Tell him he’s a good man. Tell him you’ll be waiting for him when he comes back. Tell him he’ll be making history. Bitter Victory

This week, as part of its series devoted to war films, the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a restored version of Nicholas Ray’s little-known masterpiece Bitter Victory—a powerful, albeit flawed, black-and-white CinemaScope feature set mainly in Libya during World War II. This 1957 film offers a radical reflection on war, and its relevance to the current war in Iraq goes beyond the desert settings and references to antiquity.

Many films are regarded as antiwar, including ones that proceed from antithetical premises; in the 60s a popular revival house in Manhattan liked to run a double bill of Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory.… Read more »

Kurtsploitation [LAST DAYS]

From the Chicago Reader (August 12, 2005). — J.R.

Last Days

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, and Thadeus A. Thomas.

A film about a junkie rock musician, played by Michael Pitt at his most narcissistic, doing nothing in particular for the better part of 97 minutes isn’t my idea of either a good time or a serious endeavor. Yet a few of my colleagues seem to be responding to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days the way some responded to The Passion of the Christ – taking it without a grain of salt or an ounce of irony. But it’s the grunge version of the Christ story, so that makes it hip.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes that it’s about the “resurrection of Gus Van Sant,” the “mystery of human consciousness,” the “ecstasy of creation,” and “how sorrow sometimes goes hand in hand with the sublime.” Even a compulsive jokester like the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane sounds like he just stepped out of Sunday school, writing, “Some of the motion has a hypnotizing grace,” and when the camera retreats from a house where Blake (Pitt) is noodling distractedly on his guitar, “We might as well be overhearing him at prayer.” When Blake finally dies we see “his soul, as naked as a baby, rise languidly from his broken body and clamber out of the frame.” All of which, I suppose, adds up to Mel Gibson lite.… Read more »

Anthony Mann/Victor Mature

THE LAST FRONTIER, directed by Anthony Mann, with Victor Mature (1955, 97 min.)

Spurred by the enthusiasm of Jean-Pierre Coursodon, posting in the chat group “a film by,” I follow his lead and also see Anthony Mann’s THE LAST FRONTIER for the first time, and I wind up basically agreeing with him: the film is a lot better than its reputation warrants (for one thing, some of the CinemaScope landscapes are breathtaking), and Victor Mature is especially good in it. In fact, it seems pretty clear that the fact that this movie has such an unfashionable cast -– not just Mature, but also Guy Madison, Robert Preston, and James Whitmore, which the relatively fashionable Anne Bancroft can’t quite offset -– has something to do with its apparently low place in the Anthony Mann canon. (The fact that the film has an imposed and unsatisfying ending doesn’t help either, but this is so perfunctory that I find it easy to overlook; Mann almost seems to glide right past it.)

LastFrontierMature

Mature plays a Noble Savage here (a trapper who joins the U.S. Cavalry as a scout), and many people either forget or don’t know that he virtually began his career as a D.W.… Read more »

Horace Liveright/Noel Coward/Ben Hecht

THE SCOUNDREL, written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with Noel Coward (1935, 76 min.)

Interesting to discover from Alfred Kazin’s AN AMERICAN PROCESSION -–specifically, from the beginning of his chapter about AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and THE SOUND OF THE FURY -– that Horace Liveright, the onetime publisher of Dreiser, was “the model for Ben Hecht’s maliciously engaging film THE SCOUNDREL“. Having recently reseen and again hugely enjoyed the second feature codirected as well as cowritten by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, starring Noel Coward in the title role as Anthony Mallare (apparently his first film part, unless one counts his uncredited cameo in Griffith’s 1918 HEARTS OF THE WORLD), I’d been wondering how much of this memorable antihero was attributable to the imaginations of the writer- directors and how much came from life.

Hecht directed or codirected seven features in all, starting with the equally mannerist CRIME WITHOUT PASSION (with its deliriously campy avant-garde prologue) in 1934 and concluding with the rather awful ACTORS AND SIN (codirected by Lee Garmes) in 1952. All of them are difficult to find nowadays, though I’ve managed to track down a few from various Mom and Pop operations on the Internet.… Read more »

Performance Art [TORCH SONG TRILOGY & TALK RADIO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1988). — J.R.

TORCH SONG TRILOGY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Bogart

Written by Harvey Fierstein

With Harvey Fierstein, Anne Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, Brian Kerwin, Karen Young, Ken Page, and Eddie Castrodad.

TALK RADIO

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Eric Bogosian and Stone

With Bogosian, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, and John Pankow.

As different as they are, Torch Song Trilogy and Talk Radio, both movie adaptations of plays, have several striking things in common. Each was written by and stars the author of the original play — Harvey Fierstein and Eric Bogosian, respectively. Both deal with marginal aspects of American life that seldom find their way into the commercial mainstream, which makes them new and vital in ways that most other recent releases are not. Both are effectively (if not literally) one-man shows whose auteurs are more their Jewish writer-stars than their directors, and the impact of each is directly tied to the uncommon theatrical skills of these individuals. And perhaps most significantly, both are a good deal more professional, entertaining, intense, and compelling than any other new Hollywood releases around, even if their commercial fates are substantially more precarious than those of most of their competitors.… Read more »

Reign Of Terror (aka The Black Book)

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1990), tweaked in April 2014.  This film is finally available now in a DVD that does its visuals (and John Alton’s cinematography) something approaching full justice. One of the juicier actors in this action romp that I should have mentioned is Arnold Moss, seen in the first still below with Robert Cummings. — J.R.

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BlackBook-mirror

Along with James Whale’s The Great Garrick, this 1949 melodrama about the French Revolution, also known as The Black Book, is one of the few period pictures that qualify as film noir; Anthony Mann directed it with sumptuously arty chiaroscuro (cinematography by John Alton). With the two leads (Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl) periodically steering it in the direction of camp, this film is loads of fun. Richard Basehart also stars  (as Maximillian Robespierre, no less); Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie coscripted. 88 min. (JR)

BlackBook-blinds

BlackBook-paranioia

THE WHITE BUFFALO (1978 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, February 1978 (Vol. 45, No. 529). If memory serves, this was the last review I ever wrote for MFBdone on a trip back to London after I had moved to San Diego, although I believe I may have written a few features for the magazine after this, following its change of design and format somewhat later. (Postscript: This time, I’m afraid, my memory didn’t serve. I’ve just come across two more reviews I published in the MFB in 1984.) –- J.R.

White Buffalo, The

U.S.A., 1977Director: J. Lee Thompson

Cert–AA. dist–EMI. p.c–Dino De Laurentiis Corporation. p–Pancho Kohner. p. co-ordinator–Virginia Cook. p. manager–Hal Klein. location manager–R. Anthony Brown. asst. d–Jack Aldrvorth, Pat Kehoe. sc– Richard Sale. Based on his own novel. ph–Paul Lohmann. col–Technicolor; prints by Deluxe. process co-ordinator–Bill Hansard. ed—Michael F. Anderson. assoc. ed–Terence Anderson. p. designer–Tambi Larsen. set dec–James Berkey. sp. effects–Richard M. Parker. production sp.  effects–Roy Downey. m/m.d–John Barry. cost–Eric Seelig. set cost– Dennis Fill. make-up–Phil Rhodes, Michael Hancock. titles–Dan Perri. sd. rec–Harlan Riggs. sd. re-rec–William McCaughey, Lyle J.… Read more »

The Future is Here

Commissioned by BFI Publishing and published in the November 2014 Sight and Sound. This version is slightly tweaked. — J.R.

These-are-the-damned2

 

In an amusing, satisfying, and highly persuasive rant in Time Out in 1977, J.G. Ballard took on the cultural phenomenon of  Star Wars (1977), including some of its historical and ideological consequences. Noting that “two hours of Star Wars must be one of the most efficient means of weaning your preteen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others”, he also reflected on the overall impact of George Lucas’s blockbuster on science-fiction movies:

“The most popular form of s-f — space fiction –- has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr. Strangelove, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella, and Solaris — and the brave failures, such as The Thing, Seconds, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit, and fantasy.… Read more »