Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in. — J.R.

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.

I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks.… Read more »

Let’s Make Love

From the November 25, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Although this 1960 movie is usually accorded a low place in the Marilyn Monroe canon — understandably so, because the comedy and musical numbers never quite take off the way they’re supposed to, and the central plot premise is more than a little labored — it deserves to be reevaluated for the intelligence of Monroe’s performance and the rare independence of her character; this one was made after her brush with Actors Studio, and she isn’t playing a bimbo. Yves Montand costars as a reclusive billionaire who discovers he’s being parodied in an off-Broadway revue; he tries out for the part himself, incognito, and she’s the chorus girl who helps him along. George Cukor directed, in ‘Scope, and lent a certain glamour and polish to the proceedings. With Tony Randall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughan (whose number, “Incurably Romantic,” isn’t half-bad), and bits by Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly; Norman Krasna wrote the querulous script. 118 min. (JR)

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The “Definitive” Jacques Tati?

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Six years have passed since I wrote six essays on each of Jacques Tati’s features for Taschen’s recently released and massive five-volume book package The Definitive Jacques Tati, which actually includes eight contributions by me by reprinting my 1972 interview with Tati for Film Comment without its introduction and my 1983 essay “The Death of Hulot” for Sight and Sound. But I’m credited for nine items, because volume #2, Tati Writes, containing eight screenplays or treatments, includes the never-made Confusion, which erroneously lists me as one of Tati’s three coauthors, along with Jacques Lagrange and Dominique Bidaubayle.

Truthfully, I read this treatment, or some version of it, in French after a few sessions of working with Tati, when I was lent a copy to read overnight, but there’s absolutely nothing in it that can be attributed to me. It occurs to me, however, that my being falsely credited with its coauthorship must correspond to the way a lot of film history gets erroneously recounted and then repeated — basically because such misinformation invariably comes from institutions such as studios or publishers that try to rationalize gaps in knowledge and understanding — and because authorship is routinely assigned on the basis of who gets paid.… Read more »

Cukor and Sensuality

Recently reseeing George Cukor’s scandalously neglected Travels with My Aunt (1972) helps to clarify how central self-images and sensual discoveries are to his best as well as his most personal films. Travels with My Aunt isn’t on  the same level as Sylvia Scarlett (1935), A Star is Born (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1955), probably my favorites, but it often seems just as personal, and it does have some of the superbly intricate and dispersed ‘Scope compositions that one often finds in the latter two, as well as in Les Girls (1957) and Let’s Make Love (1960), with their own mottled lighting schemes.

(Too bad that Les Girls, also recently reseen, is so unpleasant apart from its choreography and compositions. All the characters are monstrous and the plot is absurd. Why does the Rashomon theme, both here and in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depend mainly on odious people and motives — unlike Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, which uses a modified version of the same theme and is much kinder to its characters?)

Travels with My Aunt can also be read as a kind of response to the free-wheeling 60s and early 70s, much as Sylvia Scarlett celebrated certain aspects of the free-wheeling and footloose 30s.… Read more »

Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

This was originally published by the French film magazine Trafic in April 1997. (For a later commentary about episode 4a of Histoire(s) du cinéma, which focuses on Alfred Hitchcock, go here.) –J.R.

Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma

The following text derives from two particular film festival encounters: (1) a roundtable on the subject of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, held in Locarno in August 1995; (2) some time spent with Godard in Toronto in September 1996. I participated in the first event after having seen the first four chapters of Godard’s eight-part video series; unlike the other members of the roundtable — Florence Delay, Shigehiko Hasumi, and André S. Labarthe — I’d been unable to accept Godard’s invitation to view chapters 3a and 3b, devoted to Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, in Switzerland a few days prior to the event. A little over a year later, Godard brought these chapters and a still more recent one — 4a, on Alfred Hitchcock — with him to Toronto, where he was presenting For Ever Mozart, and showed me these three chapters in his hotel room over two consecutive evenings. We also had some opportunities to discuss the series (in English); some of our conversation was recorded, but much of it wasn’t.Read more »

EIGHT OBSTACLES TO THE APPRECIATION OF GODARD IN THE UNITED STATES

From Jean-Luc Godard: Son-Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). -– J.R.

“Jean-Luc cultists,” complains Judith Crist in the World Journal Tribune. God bless them! They constitute a line of defense against every manipulative insult the entertainment business throws out, there are more of them each year, and they may even be winning. — Roger Greenspun (1)

Greenspun’s rallying cry of a quarter of a century ago testifies to the passion and debate that used to be stirred up in the United States when Godard’s name was mentioned. The gradual phasing out of that debate and the depletion of that passion cannot be explained simply, and to understand it at all requires some careful thought about how American culture as a whole has itself changed in the interim. For a director still closely identified with the sixties in American film criticism, Godard is regarded today with much of the same fear, skepticism, suspicion, and impatience that greet many other contemporary responses to that decade. And his status as an intellectual with a taste for abstraction may make him seem even more out of place in a mass culture that currently has little truck with movie experiences that can’t be reduced to sound bites.… Read more »

Plumbing the Shallows [THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS]

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). I think I underrated The Five Obstructions, which I now regard as my probable favorite of von Trier’s films, after having reseen it, remastered,  on the DVD recently released by Kino Lorber. One obvious advantage to seeing it on DVD is that Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, is included in its entirety as an extra, and even though I find it less interesting than the various “remakes” included in The Five Obstructions, finally getting a chance to see it in its entirety makes the Leth and von Trier feature a lot more satisfying and interesting. — J.R.

The Five Obstructions

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier

With Leth, von Trier, Claus Nissen, Maiken Algren, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Patrick Bauchau, and Alexander Vandernoot.

What the Bleep Do We Know?

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz

Written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman

With Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Robert Bailey Jr., Barry Newman, and Larry Brandenburg.

When is an “experimental film” not an experimental film? This might seem a niggling matter to the ordinary paying customer, but it’s a serious issue for artists who’ve devoted their careers and lives to experimental filmmaking, knowing that they’ve given up the possibility of a wide audience by doing so.… Read more »

The Gaze of Antonioni

 Written for Rouge No. 4 (2004). The film can be accessed here. — J.R.

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The Gaze of Antonioni

Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Surfacing without press screenings at a few theatres in the Landmark arthouse chain in the US for two weekend screenings in mid-August, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 17-minute Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo may conceivably be his most interesting film since Red Desert (1964). It’s hard to be sure of this after only one look at it – the film was abruptly withdrawn after qualifying for an Oscar nomination – but I thought afterwards that I might have just seen one of the first truly durable reflections to date on digital cinema.

The Gaze of Antonioni

Mislabelled Michelangelo Eye to Eye in English when a more accurate English title might be The Gaze of Michelangelo, this beautifully filmed meditation is preceded by an intertitle – the only words in the film apart from the credits – explaining that Antonioni has been confined to a wheelchair since his stroke in 1985, but through the ‘magic of movies’ shows himself visiting the sculpture on foot. The action consists of Antonioni – walking without a cane, and looking like Antonioni prior to his stroke – entering the St. Pietro church in Rome to look at and then touch and caress portions of the restoration of Michelangelo’s Moses, then leaving again.Read more »

Charming Curse [THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION]

From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2001). Today (September 2, 2014), having recently reseen this movie, I’d probably give it a higher rating. — J.R.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Elizabeth Berkley, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, and David Ogden Stiers.

I don’t want to oversell Woody Allen’s 31st feature, which I happen to like. The script is full of holes, most of the one-liners are weak and mechanical, and the plot — a nightclub magician gets two of his hypnotized subjects to steal jewels for him — is so deliberately stupid and contrived that one can probably enjoy it only by pretending it’s a routine, low-budget second feature on an old-fashioned double bill, which is obviously what Allen intended. Yet it’s possible for a picture to be not very good and still be likable — something that doesn’t happen very often for me with Allen’s pictures. (It happened, momentarily, in Everyone Says I Love You — when Allen exposed his vulnerability by singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love.”)

The problem with most escapism nowadays is that even if it makes you forget who and where you are, it doesn’t really detach you from norms of the world you’re living in.… Read more »

Best Films of the Decade (2010-2019, for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine)

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1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011)
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2. Margaret (186-minute version, Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
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3. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018)
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4. Adieu au Langage (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
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5. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
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6. Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)
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7. Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)
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8. A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang, 2018)
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9. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
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10. I, Dalio (or The Rules of the Game) (Mark Rappaport, 2015)
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The World in a Village [GUELWAAR]

From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1994). — J.R.

*** GUELWAAR

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène

With Omar Seck, Mame Ndoumbe Diop, Thierno Ndiaye, Ndiawar Diop, Moustapha Diop, Marie-Augustine Diatta, Samba Wane, and Joseph Sane.

We like to think that the essential works of any art form are readily available to everyone; but when it comes to film we still aren’t within hailing distance of that goal, even if we agree to the debatable proposition that a film’s transfer to video equals its availability. The canons of film history taught in film departments across the country are based almost entirely on the titles that film, video, and laser disc companies choose to place or keep on the market, which is all that most film professors have seen in the first place. And now that 16-millimeter film distribution is already on its last legs, the history and breadth of the medium, even for most film students, is quickly being reduced to what can be found at local video stores.

Among the many key items that can’t be found there are virtually all the major African films, including the seven features and four shorts of Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène, by most accounts the greatest African filmmaker.… Read more »

May the Force Leave Us Alone [on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK]

From The Soho News, May 21, 1980. — J.R.

The Empire Strikes Back

Story by George Lucas

Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan

Directed by Irwin Kershner

Let’s face facts. Whether you or I love, hate or feel indifferent to The Empire Strikes Back — or any of the seven sequels and “prequels” to Star Wars slated to interfere with our lives over the next two decades — doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in the long run, on the cosmic scale of things. Nor does it matter all that much in the mundane short run, either. Even if you stay away from the movie, manage to shun the novel and T-shirt and comic, avoid the soundtrack album and toys and video cassette, you can bet that a skilled team of disinterested humanitarians and technocrats, working round the clock with computers has decided that it’s so good for you and your kids that there’s no way you can prevent it from being crammed down your throats, in one form or another.

You’d better grin and bear it, if you know what’s good for you. The celestial machinery that has already turned Star Wars into the biggest grosser to date (“of all time” might seem a little excessive in forestalling the future) isn’t taking any chances in its investment by branching our or experimenting much.… Read more »

The Milagro Beanfield War

From the March 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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TMBW

Robert Redford’s second feature as director (after Ordinary People) describes the elaborate consequences when a Chicano handyman in New Mexico (Chick Vennera) illegally irrigates his parched bean field with water earmarked for a major development. Fairly choked with good intentions, whimsy, touches of fantasy, and cardboard liberal stereotypes, this 1988 release does for Mexicans what Louis Malle did for Jews or Walt Disney did for mice — slowly, and at great length. The results are a bit like a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism by Mortimer Snerd, with pretty landscapes. John Nichols adapted his own novel, assisted by David Ward; with Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, James Gammon, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)

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Driver’s Fantastique

Commissioned by MUBI for late October, 2019. — J.R.

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In Sara Driver’s too small yet varied filmography, her two fiction features, both poetic fantasies — Sleepwalk (1986) and When Pigs Fly (1993) — are bracketed by two other longer films, the 48-minute You Are Not I (a brilliant adaptation of a Paul Bowles story about sisters, narrated by a schizophrenic, 1981) and the 78-minute documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017). Sleepwalk stars Suzanne Fletcher, who also played the schizophrenic sister in You Are Not IBoom For Real portrays both a highly interactive community and an eclectic artist inside it, which might also describe When Pigs Fly, a comedy inspired by Topper about a jazz pianist (Alfred Molina) living in an east coast port town populated by barflies and ghosts. Moreover, the community in Boom is basically Lower East Side Manhattan and more specifically the Bowery, the setting of Sleepwalk, as well as the New York neighborhood where Driver has lived with Jim Jarmusch for well over three decades. (She produced his first two features, and plays one of the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die.)

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I’ve known Driver since the 1980s, and suspect that one reason why she hasn’t become better known is that she’s both a woman and a surrealist, a combination that isn’t widely recognized in this country. … Read more »

The Quiet American [1958] & The Quiet American [2002]

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). — J.R.

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel certainly makes hash of its anti-American, procommunist elements, but this story about a disillusioned British journalist (Michael Redgrave) and an idealistic American (Audie Murphy) battling over the heart, mind, and body of a Saigon woman was sufficiently provocative for Jean-Luc Godard to declare it the best film of the year. The fact that Mankiewicz cast Italian actress Giorgia Moll as the woman suggests how remote he was from Vietnam, yet the scene in which the American asks the Brit to translate his marriage proposal into Vietnamese must have struck Godard: five years later he cast Moll as an interpreter in Contempt. Though The Quiet American may seem a curious cold war artifact today, it embodies Mankiewicz’s talky cinema in all its measured ambiguity. 120 min. (JR)

Quiet American, The (1958)

 

***

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2002). — J.R.

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Phillip Noyce’s first-rate adaptation of Graham Greene’s interesting 1955 anti-American novel about Vietnam, scripted by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, was held back by Miramax, its U.S. distributor, for over a year because of September 11 — apparently on the assumption that Americans who considered the terrorist attacks unprovoked would find any criticism of their country’s overseas behavior in the 50s unwarranted and unnecessary.… Read more »