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 »
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 »
From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1984). –- J.R.
D.W. GRIFFITH: An American Life
by Richard Schickel
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 »
Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links. — J.R.
| 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”.
… Read more »
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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
From The Soho News (February 25, 1981). One can trace some updates on my thoughts about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One over 17 years later and Killer of Sheep over 26 years later by following the links provided here. — J.R.
Feb. 16: A double feature of two class-conscious films directed by Carol Reed , The Stars Look Down (1939) and Kipps (1940), at Theater 80 — my first look at either movie. Trying to arrive at a plausible reverse-angle for the first movie — that is, a precise sense of its audience and context in early 1940, when Graham Greene wrote for The Spectator, “Dr. Cronin’s mining novel has made a very good film — I doubt whether in England we have ever produced a better” — I find myself hopelessly hamstrung, stuck in a narrow sort of timewarp called the present.
The problem is, I can only come up with a romantic, movie version of an English movie audience three years before I was born, a Thomas Pynchon fantasy à la Gravity’s Rainbow (whose sexy, existential London is itself very much a pungent blend of remembered movies from that period). Admittedly, Greene’s oddly familial use of first person plural tells me a little something, too.… Read more »
From The Soho News (September 22, 1981). – J.R.
Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste By John Waters Delta, $9.95
If conventional means wedded to conventions, then John Waters, amiable sleaze director of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester. is as conventional as you or I, maybe even more so. The not-so-surprising thing about Shock Value, a “tasteful” (meaning cautious) memoir about his special brand of bad taste, is that it proves him to be literary, too — at least in a minor Mark Twain vein. Pithy aphorisms rub shoulders with sly asides and wry homilies. Here are a few jewels among gritty jewels:
All people look better under arrest.
I never watch television because it’s an ugly piece of furniture, gives off a hideous light, and, besides, I’m against free entertainment.
Since the character [in Female Trouble] turns from teenage delinquent to mugger, prostitute, unwed mother, child abuser, fashion model, nightclub entertainer, murderess, and jailbird, I felt at last Divine had a role she could sink her teeth into.
Sometimes I just sit on the street and wait for something awful to happen.
The more obscure a town I visit, the greater appeal it has for me, since I figure there’s an audience for anything in New York, but if you can get a following in, say, Mobile, Alabama, you really must be doing something right.… Read more »
| Commissioned by DVD Beaver, and published by that site in February 2010. I’ve updated or added a few links, delighted to report that all the unavailable items can now be accessed in some form or another.I was inspired to repost this after just reseeing Sternberg’s sublime Dishonored in Criterion’s handsome new Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood box set. I’ve also just reseen the lovely if politically incoherent Shanghai Express in the same package, and I wonder if it’s possible that the relative neglect accorded to Dishonored, by cinephiles and academics alike, may have something to do with the fact that it’s the Hollywood feature of Dietrich and Von Sternberg that has the most to say about the real world — not only because it begins and ends in Vienna, but also because, as an antiwar statement that a prostitute can do more for her countryman than a female spy can do for her country, it has the most effective strategies for combining genre elements with personal fantasies and moral convictions, in part through its diverse metaphors regarding art (Dietrich’s piano playing as it serves both passion and state) and glamor (a sword blade used as a makeup mirror in the final scene).
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 2006). — J.R.
My Dad Is 100 Years Old
*** (A must see)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by and starring Isabella Rossellini
In May 1948 Ingrid Bergman wrote a letter to director Roberto Rossellini: “Dear Mr. Rossellini, I have seen your films Rome, Open City and Paisan and I enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, has not forgotten her German, is barely comprehensible in French and who can only say ‘I love you’ in Italian, I am ready to come to Italy to work with you.”
She was the biggest female star in Hollywood at the time, and the films she mentioned were art house hits. She and Rossellini were married to other people, and the scandal of their subsequent affair led Colorado senator Edwin Johnson to try to bar her from appearing in movies, declaring on the floor of the Senate, “No one can reflect upon her sudden plunge from the highest pinnacle of respect to the gutter without feeling that she is the victim of some kind of hypnotic influence. . . . RKO publicity brazenly termed Rossellini inspired. If this swine is inspired, he is inspired by the devil.” The couple stayed together for seven years, had three children, and collaborated on five features.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1994). — J.R.
** SERIAL MOM
Directed and written by John Waters
With Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Patricia Hearst, and Suzanne Somers.
“Outside it’s hot and muggy. I buy a carton of cigarettes, ever bitter that I’m taxed so highly (11) on the one purchase that actually brings me happiness. They ought to tax yogurt (12); that’s what causes cancer. A neighbor, who always seems too familiar for her own good, passes me and makes the mistake of saying, ‘Good morning.’ ‘Shut up!’ I snap, making a mental note of her hideous tube top (13) and ridiculous Farrah Fawcett hairdo (14), so popular with fashion violators. And then I see it, a goddam ticket on my car, even though the meter (15) has only been in effect ten minutes. I have to take my rage out on someone! I run toward this fashion scofflaw as she gets into the most offensive vehicle known to man, “Le Car’ (16), and yank her door open as she frantically tries to lock it. ‘Not so fast, miss,’ I bark. ‘There’s a certain matter of this ticket you’ll have to take care of — $16 for gross and willful fashion violations!’ She gives me the finger and peels out, turning up the radio so I hear the voice of the worst-dressed man in music, Stevie Wonder (17), braying in my ears.” — John Waters, “Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)” (1985)
Neither as energetic and assured as his Hairspray (1988) nor as lackluster and formulaic as his Cry-Baby (1990), John Waters’s Serial Mom alerts us to the fact that the impresario of outrage is getting older and wiser, without ever letting us forget that he still has some fight in him.… Read more »
How film history gets rewritten
I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.
What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor!
… Read more »
The first and last parts of what follows are taken (and in a few cases adapted) from my book Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.
In spite of my five years of living in Paris, my grasp of French has always been mediocre — a weakness that over the years I’ve come to regard as a sort of disability, because I’ve made many efforts to overcome it. That François Truffaut had a similar (and similarly embarrassing) problem with his English set the stage for a rather awkward and uncomfortable afternoon in London between the two of us — with his assistant Suzanne Schiffmann often serving as mutual interpreter – after I’d signed with Harper & Row to carry out a translation of Bazin’s book on Welles, as well as a new Foreword to that book that Truffaut was writing. Truffaut undoubtedly came away from that afternoon with some understandable skepticism about why I’d been hired to do this job, while I emerged, somewhat defensively, with the impression that he was closer to being a nervous and irritable businessman than the sort of critic and director that I had formerly revered.
I hasten to add that I wasn’t bluffing when I’d praised in print Bazin’s 1950 monograph on Welles in 1971 as the best criticism published about him —- or at least not entirely.… Read more »
From the August 17, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Apocalypse Now Redux
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by John Milius and Coppola
With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Christian Marquand, and Aurore Clement.
It’s hard to think of many movies where the great, the not so great, and the simply awful coexist quite as brazenly as they do in Apocalypse Now. This was true in 1979, when the movie clocked in at 150 minutes, and it’s true 22 years later, when the new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, runs a third longer.
If anything, the longer version — not so much a rethinking of the material as an expansion, with a minimum of reshuffling, by the adept Walter Murch, who also worked on the original — is better and worse, emphasizing both the ambitious scope and the fatal flaws of Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement. Among the more substantial additions are a ghostly sequence set on a French plantation (featuring Aurore Clement and the late Christian Marquand) that tries, with mixed results, to poeticize the futility of outsiders, French or American, getting involved in the Vietnam war and a silly and rather inconclusive sequence involving a couple of Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp) that adds nothing.… Read more »