Monthly Archives: December 2019

Judex (1917)

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 »

What’s Up, Doc?

From the February 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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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)

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Not the Same Old Song and Dance

  • From the Chicago Reader (November 27, 1998), and reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema and on the BFI Blu-ray of the film. In his audiovisual essay on the latter release, Geoff Andrew rightly corrects my error, below, of describing the ax murder victim as Demy’s Lola, not von Sternberg’s Lola Lola. — J.R.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Geneviève Thénier, Henri Crémieux, and Jacques Riberolles.

As eccentric as this may sound, Jacques Demy’s 1967 Les demoiselles de Rochefort is my favorite musical. Yet despite my 30-year addiction to the two-record sound track, the first time I was able to see the movie subtitled was a couple of weeks ago — helpful considering my faltering French. It’s certainly the odd musical out in terms of both its singularity and its North American reputation — a large-scale tribute to Hollywood musicals shot exclusively in Rochefort in southwest France, and an unabashedly romantic paean to American energy and optimism that’s quintessentially French. It has a score by Michel Legrand that’s easily his best, offering an almost continuous succession of songs with lyrics by Demy, all written in alexandrines (as is a climactic dinner scene that’s spoken rather than sung); choreography that ranges from mediocre (Norman Maen’s frenchified imitations of Jerome Robbins) to sublime (Gene Kelly’s choreography of his own numbers); and perhaps the most beautiful dovetailing of failed and achieved connections apart from Shakespeare and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, shot during the same period.… Read more »

Robin Hood: Men In Tights

From the July 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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More mud pies and occasional musical numbers from Mel Brooks in his parodic Blazing Saddles mode (has he any other?) — predictably slapdash but indefatigably good-natured and sometimes funny to boot. Completely disregarding the PC guidelines of left and right alike, this medieval romp features gags about Jews, blacks, gays, blind people, and the clergy, among others, but none of it seems mean spirited. Dom DeLuise does a very funny impersonation of Brando impersonating Don Corleone; with Cary Elwes, Amy Yasbeck, Isaac Hayes, Roger Rees, Tracey Ullman, and Brooks himself as a rabbi. Evan Chandler and J. David Shapiro collaborated with Brooks on the script. (JR)

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Cheap Thrills [ROAD TO PERDITION]

From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 2002). — J.R.

Road to Perdition

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by David Self

With Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dylan Baker, and Liam Aiken.

It’s based on a graphic novel, which automatically precludes charges of arty pretension — something we all know is found only in literary works and foreign films, not Hollywood movies and comic books. It aims to do for Irish-American crime in the midwest what the Godfather trilogy did for Italian-American crime on the east coast (it uses Rembrandt lighting and fancy period decor, and it aims to be a grand metaphor for the American experience and family ties in general). It offers an array of primed-for-Oscars performances, two of them by former Oscar winners (Tom Hanks and Paul Newman). It recounts a classic tale of revenge, a classic coming-of-age story, and a classic account of bonding between fathers and sons. It dishes up gobs of carefully choreographed, deliberately excessive violence and bloodshed, and then, in the 11th hour, repudiates both — which calls to mind a touchstone like Bonnie and Clyde, as does its populist celebration of Good Country People.… Read more »

BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

On the Riviera, an American multimillionaire (Gary

Cooper) with many ex-wives meets and romances the

daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a ruined Marquis

(Edward Everett Horton) and proposes marriage;

after she accepts, she learns about his former wives

and refuses to consummate their marriage, baiting

him with a string of pretended infidelities (including

one with a very young David Niven). This is an uncharacteristic

comedy of Ernst Lubitsch by virtue of its relative cruelty

and unpleasantness, both of which seem ascribable in

part to the writing team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

-– who would later show similar traits in their scripts for

such noncomic films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and

Sunset Boulevard (1950) -– adapting here a not-very-

well-known French farce by Alfred Savoir, La huitième

femme de Barbe-Bleue. Paradoxically, 34 years later,

working with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder would remember certain

aspects of this film -– above all, the depiction of an

obnoxious and wealthy American abroad and a tense

romantic dialogue conducted on a float in the Mediterranean

— in the much sweeter and clearly Lubitsch-inspired

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Tommy

From Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 495). — J.R.

Tommy

 

Great Britain, 1975                                        Director: Ken Russell

Cert-AA. dist-Hemdale. p.c—The Robert Stigwood Organisation.

exec. p-Beryl Vertue, Christopher Stamp. /;Robert Stigwood, Ken

Russefl. assoc. p-Harcy Benn. p. manager-John Comfort. asst. d-

Jonathan Benson. sc-Ken Russell. Based on the rock opera by Pete

Townshend and the Who. addit. Material–John Entwistle, Keith Moon.

ph–Dick Bush, Ronnie Taylor. In colour. sp. ph. effects–Robin Lehman.

ed—Stuart Baird. a.d–John Clark. set dec–Paul Dufficey, Ian Whittaker.

sp. Effects–Effects Associates, Nobby Clarke,_Carygra Effects. m/songs–

“Captain Walker Didn’t Come Home”. “It’s a Bov !” “’51 is Going to be a

a Good Year”, “What About the Boy ?”, “See Me, Feel Me”, “The

Amazing Journey”, “Christmas”, “The Acid Queen”, “Do You Think

It’s All Right?”, “Cousin Kevin”, “Fiddle About”, “Sparks”, “Pinball

Wizard”, ‘Today It Rained Champagne” ,”‘There’s a_Doctor” , “Go to the

Mirror”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me !’” “Smash the Mirror”, “I’m Free”,

“Miracle Cure”, “Sensation”, “Sally Simpson”, “Welcome”, “Deceived”,

“Tommy’s Holiday Camp”, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “Listening to

You” by Pete Townshend and The Who [Roger Daltrey,John Entwistle,

Keith Moon, “Eyesight to the Blind” by Sonny Boy Williamson. m.d–

Pete Townshend. musicians-Elton John, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon,

John Entwistle, Ronnie Wood, Kenny Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Chris

Stainton , Fuzzy Samuels, Caleb Quayle, Mick Ralphs, GRaham Deakin,

Phil Chen, Alan Ross, Richard Bailey, Dave Clinton, Tony_Newman,

Mike Kelly, Dee Murray, Nigel Ollson, Ray Cooper, Davey_Johnstone,

Geoff Daley, Bob Efford, Ronnie Ross, Howie Casey.… Read more »

The Delmer Daves Problem

Written for my En movimiento column for the September 2013 issue of Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. – J.R.

“Many of Delmer Daves’s films are beloved, but to say that he remains a misunderstood and insufficiently appreciated figure in the history of American movies is a rank understatement.” This is how critic Kent Jones begins the second of his two essays accompanying the simultaneous Criterion releases on DVD and Blu-Ray of Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), the first two in a string of three Westerns that Daves made with Glenn Ford. (The third was Cowboy in 1958.)

I saw the two Blu-Rays, in reverse order, on the same day, and I agree entirely with Jones that 3:10 to Yuma (ignoring its reportedly lamentable recent remake) is a remarkable achievement — as much for Glenn Ford’s performance as a charismatic villain as it is for the diverse dramatic and visual nuances of Daves, working in black and white and widescreen. Speaking as someone for whom Glenn Ford’s heroism in my youth was as important as that of James Stewart or Cary Grant, I was also astonished by the unpredictable and multileveled killer-hipster and delicate gangleader-womanizer he creates here (and also grateful for a fascinating interview with his son and biographer Peter Ford, included as a bonus).… Read more »

Zardoz

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

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Probably John Boorman’s most underrated film — an impossibly ambitious and pretentious but also highly inventive, provocative, and visually striking SF adventure with metaphysical trimmings (1974). Set in a postapocalyptic society in 2293, it stars Sean Connery as a warrior and noble savage with dawning awareness; interestingly enough, the plot in many ways resembles that of Boorman’s best film, Point Blank. (JR)

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Beautiful and Barbaric

This appeared in the June 11, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve also appended an irate response from a reader that appeared in a subsequent issue, along with my response. –J.R.

CLIFFHANGER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone

With Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Leon, Paul Winfield, and Ralph Waite.

Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations. For the sensibility it has that arbitrariness and importance which works take on when they are no longer noticeable elements of the environment. In America kitsch is Nature. The Rocky Mountains have resembled fake art for a century.

There is no counterconcept to kitsch. Its antagonist is not an idea but reality. To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito. –Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (1959)

Cliffhanger #1 (rating: four stars): Towering mountain ranges, yawning chasms, awesome expanses of stony matter, endless reaches of empty space, daunting inclines, imposing immensities that cause your jaw to drop and freeze into a painful rictus.… Read more »

The Color of Pomegranates [Sayat Nova]: The Director’s Cut

From the Chicago Reader (July 16, 1993). — J.R.

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The late Sergei Paradjanov’s greatest film, a mystical and historical mosaic about the life, work, and inner world of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, has previously been available only in the ethnically “dry-cleaned” Russian version — recut and somewhat reorganized by Sergei Yutkevich, with chapter headings added to clarify the content for Russian viewers. This superior version of the film, recently found in an Armenian studio, shouldn’t be regarded as definitive (some of the material from the Yutkevich cut is missing), but it’s certainly the finest we have and may ever have: some shots and sequences are new, some are positioned differently, and, of particular advantage to Western viewers, much more of the poetry is subtitled. (Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell why the “new” shots were censored.) In both versions the striking use of tableaulike frames recalls the shallow space of movies made roughly a century ago, while the gorgeous uses of color and the wild poetic conceits seem to derive from some utopian cinema of the future, at once “difficult” and immediate, cryptic and ravishing. This is essential viewing (1969). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, July 16 and 17, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, July 18, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, July 19 through 22, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Jacquot

From the Chicago Reader (September 3, 1993). — J.R.

Jacquot

Originally known in French as Jacquot de Nantes, this is a loving and lovely reenactment of the wonderful French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s childhood in Nantes, made by his wife Agnes Varda while Demy was dying of AIDS. Brief glimpses of Demy’s movies and Demy himself are craftily woven in to show us how his mainly happy childhood and his early efforts as a filmmaker and animator tended to nourish all his subsequent work. He brought an enchanted fairy-tale sensibility to such features as Lola, Bay of Angels, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and Donkey Skin, and Varda does a fine job of showing the roots of this work without succumbing to easy sentimentality. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 3 through 9.

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The Ghost Ship

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 1993). — J.R.

The_Ghost_Ship

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The least known, though far from least interesting, of producer Val Lewton’s exemplary, poetic B-films, this was withdrawn from circulation for nearly half a century due to an unjust plagiarism suit that Lewton had the misfortune to lose. Like many of Lewton’s best efforts (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man), this is a taut thriller promising fantasy in its title but offering a dark look at human psychology that becomes even more disturbing through what’s left to the viewer’s imagination. The plot concerns a young third mate (Russell Wade) on a cargo ship who’s befriended by a lonely captain (Richard Dix), whom he gradually discovers is a disturbed tyrant with little of the self-confidence he initially shows — a cracked father figure whose crew is mysteriously loyal in spite of his weaknesses. Like Lewton’s other early pictures, it’s carefully scripted (by Donald Henderson Clarke), efficiently directed (by Mark Robson), and evocatively shot (by Nicholas Musuraca). This 1943 “second feature” boasts a large and well-defined cast of characters and a very involved plot, though it lasts only about 70 minutes — there’s scarcely a wasted motion, a bracing object lesson to nearly all feature makers today.… Read more »

Brand New Angles [2/DUO]

From the February 26, 1999 Chicago Reader. July 2014 postscript: This fascinating and neglected film, still my favorite among the Nobuhiro Suwa features that I’ve seen, has become available on a French DVD released by Capricci see the first image below — albeit with (optional) French subtitles only. — J.R.

2_Duo DVD

2_Duo-reverse

2-Duo

2/Duo

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nobuhiro Suwa

Written by Suwa, Eri Yu, and Hidetoshi Nishijima

With Yu, Nishijima, and Makiko Watanabe.

The first feature of Nobuhiro Suwa, a director of TV documentaries in his mid-30s, 2/Duo (1996) is the penultimate work in the Doc Films series “Japanese Cinema After the Economic Miracle: Masaki Tamura, Cinematographer.” Having seen only one other film in the series — Shinsuke Ogawa’s remarkable two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the lives of farmers protesting the construction of Japan’s biggest airport, Narita: Heta Village (1973) — I can’t give a comprehensive account of Tamura’s work. But judging from these two very different features, I suspect I might recognize his shooting style without seeing his name in the credits. Though Narita: Heta Village is a documentary and 2/Duo a fictional narrative, the style of both displays a highly intuitive engagement with the characters, expressed most clearly in the way Tamura places and moves his camera in relation to them, neither anticipating their actions nor dogging them, but navigating the spaces they occupy with an intelligence that manages to project empathy as well as independence — a rare combination.… Read more »

MASTER OF THE HOUSE

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s new dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.

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Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)

MOTH3

***

It’s all a matter of exquisite balance — between one shot and the next, between the first half of the film and the second half, between screen left and screen right.

Criterion’s dual-format edition of Carl Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House scores as a modern film because Dreyer always knows how to modulate all his characters, and his actors’ beautiful performances, even when they’re at their most archetypal, whether in domestic tableaux or in climactic close-ups.… Read more »