From the Summer 1972 issue of Sight and Sound. This was my first contribution to that magazine. — J.R.
Godard’s collected criticism (1) is many things at once: informal history (1950–1967) of the arts in general and film in particular, spiritual and intellectual autobiography, a theory of aesthetics, a grab bag of puns. For those who read the pieces when they first appeared — chiefly in the yellow-covered Cahiers du Cinéma and the newspaper format of Arts — it was frequently ill-mannered gibberish that began to be vindicated (or amplified) when the films followed, retrospectively becoming a form of prophecy:
Each shot of MAN OF THE WEST gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the Western, exactly as Matisse’s portraits reinvent the features of Piero della Francesca . . . in other words, he both shows and demonstrates, innovates and copies, criticizes and creates.
For those who encounter the films first, it is likely to seem like an anthology of footnotes serving to decipher and augment what may have once seemed like ill-mannered gibberish on the screen. But for those more interested in continuity than cause and effect, it rounds out a seventeen-year body of work — from an article on Joseph Mankiewicz in Gazette du Cinéma to the “Fin du Cinéma” title concluding WEEKEND — that has already transformed much of the vocabulary and syntax of modern narrative film, further illustrating a style that has passed from avant-garde to neoclassical in less than a decade.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope issue issue 60, Fall 2014. — J.R.
DVD AWARDS 2014
XI edition (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna)
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON BLU-RAY:
Late Mizoguchi – Eight Films, 1951-1956 (Eureka Entertainment). The publication of eight indisputable masterpieces in stellar transfers on Blu-ray is a cause for celebration. If Eureka is not exclusive in offering these individual titles, what makes this collection especially praiseworthy and indispensable is the scholarship, imagination and care that went into the accompanying 344-page booklet. Over 60 rare production stills are included, many featuring Mizoguchi at work. Striking essays by Keiko I. McDonald, Mark Le Fanu, and Nakagawa Masako are anthologized along with extensively annotated translations of some of the key sources of Japanese literature that inspired some of Mizoguchi’s late films. The volume closes with tributes to the great director written by Tarkovsky, Rivette, Godard, Straub, Angelopoulos, Shinoda, and others. Tony Rayns provides spoken essays and some full-length commentaries.
BEST SPECIAL FEATURES ON DVD:
Pintilie, Cineast (Transilvania Films). An impeccable collection devoted to eleven films by an important and neglected maverick Romanian filmmaker, masterful and acerbic, with invaluable contextualizing extras concerning his life, work, and career drawn from ten separate sources.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 510). — J.R.
Mes Petites Amoureuses
Director: Jean Eustache
Southwest France, circa 1950. Daniel, a schoolboy living with his grandmother, recalls hitting a schoolmate gratuitously, and getting his first erection as a candle-bearer during Mass. Impressed by a sword-swallower in a circus who lies down on broken glass, he duplicates this feat with artifice and fake blood to impress his friends, but later is overcome by a local girl who forces him to the ground and sits on hirn. After he has passed his entrance exams, his mother arrives on a visit with her lover José, a Spanish labourer. Eventually he moves to the city to join his mother and José, but the former forbids him to attend school and has him work without pay as an apprentice to Henri, José‘s brother, at a bike repair shop. Spending much of his time looking at women, he goes to see Pandora and the Flying Dutchman at a local cinema where, imitating another boy in the audience, he kisses and caresses a girl seated in front of him, but then leaves the film before it is over.… Read more »
In some respects this is my favorite of Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott westerns (1958, 78 min.), though it’s usually considered a minor work next to Ride Lonesome and The Tall T. After becoming innocently involved in a revenge killing in a small border town, Scott is robbed of his money and ordered away at gunpoint; he decides to go back for his money without really understanding all the local intrigues. Boetticher’s acerbic humor, always his strong point, is given more edge than usual here through an intricate Charles Lang script. With Craig Stevens, Barry Kelley, and Tol Avery. (JR)… Read more »
THE LAST HUNT (Richard Brooks, 1956, 108 min.)
A very dated but absorbing – and, in its own terms, effective – liberal CinemaScope western, all the more interesting for its dated qualities. In anticipation of Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN, an explicit correlation is made between genocide of Native Americans and the decimation of buffalos, personified in this case by a racist and wanton killer played by Robert Taylor -– contrasted with the humane, reluctant buffalo killer played by Stewart Granger, who grew up with Native Americans and respects both them and their own respect for white buffalos, unlike Taylor. Lloyd Nolan plays the Walter Brennan part, a drunken old geezer who also comes along on the last hunt and winds up siding more with the good guys (i.e., everyone except Taylor, a dyed-in the-wool villain throughout).
The politically incorrect monkey wrench tossed into this scheme, at least by today’s standards, is the fact that the two major Native American characters are played by Russ Tamblyn (a half-breed) and Debra Paget, who function as Granger’s son figure and romantic interest, respectively. In short, no real Native Americans to be seen anywhere, making this movie a good target for the kind of conservative, anti-liberal scorn that a critic like Manny Farber might have had towards such a film.… Read more »
From the July 1, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Overrated in France and underrated in the U.S., writer-director Richard Brooks thrived on sensationalism (Blackboard Jungle, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) but generally faltered when he tried for art (The Brothers Karamazov, Sweet Bird of Youth). One of his better 50s efforts was this 1956 CinemaScope western with Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger, about the disappearance of the buffalo in the 1880s. With Debra Paget, Lloyd Nolan, and Russ Tamblyn. 108 min. (JR)
From the October 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An aging burglar (Burt Reynolds) takes on and trains a younger partner (Casey Siemaszko) in a quirky and likable 1989 comedy directed by Bill Forsyth and scripted by John Sayles. This film lacks the ambition of Forsyth’s earlier Housekeeping, but it’s warm, engaging, and very agreeably acted (Reynolds hadn’t been this good in ages); most of the focus is on the warmth that develops between the old pro and his student in crimea little bit like the rapport between older and younger men found in some of the movies of Howard Hawksand Sayles’s refreshingly nonjudgmental script has plenty of small-scale pleasures of its own. With Sheila Kelley, Lorraine Toussaint, and Albert Salmi. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1997). — J.R.
Compiling a list of the best new (or “new”) movies that opened in Chicago in 1996, I’ve come up with 40 titles, half of which are foreign-language pictures. Many of my colleagues would regard choosing so many foreign movies as perversely esoteric, but it’s hard for me to fathom why. I willingly concede that this country has one of the strongest national cinemas in the world — probably the greatest, which is fully reflected in my including 19 American films in my list and only 5 from France; 3 from Taiwan; 2 apiece from England, Hong Kong, and Iran; and 1 each from mainland China, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Vietnam.
Of course I haven’t seen nearly as many non-American films as American, but I’ve made a stab at seeing those that have made it to Chicago. I have long been bewildered by how the majority of my colleagues almost never mention any cinema that isn’t English-language when they draw up their end-of-the-year lists. Is American cinema really that wonderful and non-American cinema really that awful? Of course not; the reason most reviewers don’t include foreign pictures on their lists is that they don’t see them.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1996). — J.R.
A well-constructed but rather unthrilling mystery thriller (1996) by John Sayles, filmed on location in a Texas border town, with a likable lead performance by Chris Cooper as a laid-back sheriff. The plot is intricate and ambitious, with nine other major characters (played by Elizabeth Peña, Kris Kristofferson, Miriam Colon, Frances McDormand, Joe Morton, Matthew McConaughey, Ron Canada, Eddie Robinson, and Clifton James), various flashbacks, and an exploration of history, corruption, racial persecution, and multiculturalism. The whole thing’s so worthy that I wish I liked it more. It makes time pass agreeably, but Square John still seems about as innocent of fresh ideas (aesthetically and otherwise) as most of his characters, and for this kind of leftist multiplot I found his City of Hope (1991) more engaging. Anecdotal aside: all the black extras in this movie had to be bused in for the filming. 134 min.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 16, 2004). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and Written by John Sayles
With Danny Huston, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, James Gammon, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, Mary Kay Place, Billy Zane, Sal Lopez, Ralph Waite, Miguel Ferrer, and Michael Murphy
Almost 60 years ago, in the essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made observations about bad writing that have lost none of their relevance. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” he wrote. “The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.”
Ready-made phrases in the news — “smoking gun,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “war on terror” — tend to hurry listeners or readers along instead of encouraging them to think.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1989). — J.R.
Ron Kovic’s autobiography, which recounts his conversion from patriotic enlisted marine to crippled demonstrator against the Vietnam war, isn’t a very literary book, although it uses some very literary devices (frequent time leaps, switches between first and third person) to approach the intensity of the traumas it deals with. Oliver Stone’s well-intentioned but faltering 1989 adaptation, scripted by Stone in collaboration with Kovic and starring Tom Cruise, eschews this approach for an episodic linear plot that doesn’t allow us to see Kovic’s conversion develop with any complexity. (As he showed in Platoon, Stone knows a lot about fighting in Vietnam, but he knows much less about being an antiwar activist, which is equally important to Kovic’s story; the movie’s demonstrations tend to be as blurry and as cliched as its nostalgic evocations of the American dream.) Stone’s unfortunate penchant for psychologizing leads to a number of murky suggestions here, such as the notion that Kovic’s warmongering instincts were somehow tied to the refusal of his mother (Caroline Kava) to let him read Playboy. Worst of all, the movie’s conventional showbiz finale, brimming with false uplift, implies that the traumas of other mutilated and disillusioned Vietnam veterans can easily be overcome if they write books and turn themselves into celebrities.… Read more »
The central and irreducible insight of James Poniewozik’s brilliant book — making it for me the only account I’ve read of Donald Trump that makes his poisonous career both legible and explicable — is to view that trajectory as part of the tainted history of television, and to see Trump as a hapless victim of that history as well as a sinister perpetrator.
This is an insight that I’ve already had glimmers of whenever I’ve blanched at how much ungodly fun Rachel Maddow has been deriving from the cornucopia of Trumpian horrors, and how creepily her nightly boasts about what a “big” show she has in store for us replicates the weekly promises of Ed Sullivan on his variety show between 1948 and 1971. But the fact that I’ve never watched “reality TV” means that I need someone like a New York Times TV critic to show me how dutifully and consistently Trump has replicated its gestures, assumptions, and attitudes as President, and how doggedly both Fox TV and MSNBC have remained in sync with and in thrall to its very fibers.
This is also part of the persuasive thrust of Matt Taibbi’s recent Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, which claims to be inspired by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.… Read more »
From the January 17, 2008 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY JOHN SAYLES
It may seem like dirty pool to begin a discussion of one of my favorite John Sayles movies by zeroing in on its weak points. But writing about Honeydripper recently in the New Yorker, David Denby noted that “moviemaking seems to have become almost magically easy for this independent writer-director,” and that’s absurd, since Sayles himself wrote in the introduction to his story collection Dillinger in Hollywood that “getting a movie made resembles the passage of a bill through Congress.”
Denby concedes that Sayles’s virtuosity as a writer-director “is rhetorical rather than visual.” And Sayles himself says that when he gets a story idea that “seems best expressed in fiction, I feel it in words, not pictures.”
The brief flashback in the middle of Honeydripper’s climactic sequence is a good indication of how labored Sayles’s treatment of images continues to be. The flashback — it comes when Tyrone “Pine Top” Purvis (Danny Glover) is about to break up a fight between a couple of angry customers in his Honeydripper Lounge — isn’t just clunky as visual storytelling and phony in its florid, bloody action and garish setting, it’s seriously underimagined.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1993). — J.R.
The second feature in Sergei Eisenstein’s controversial, unfinished trilogy, also known as The Boyar’s Plot, with a Prokofiev score and a histrionic, campy (albeit compositionally very controlled) performance in the title role by Nikolai Cherkassov (1946). The ceremonial high style of the proceedings has been interpreted by critics as everything from the ultimate denial of a cinema based on montage (under Stalinist pressure) to one of the most courageous acts of defiance in film history (Joan Neuberger and Yuri Tsivian) to the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made (my own estimation). The second part climaxes in a dazzling, drunken dance sequence that features Eisenstein’s only foray into color. Thematically fascinating both as submerged autobiography and as a daring portrait of Stalin’s paranoia, quite apart from its interest as the historical pageant it professes to be, this is one of the most distinctive great films in the history of cinema — freakishly mannerist, yet so vivid in its obsessions and expressionist angularity that it virtually invents its own genre. (JR)
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Written for the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray of this film, released in September 2019. — J.R.
Let me start with a confession about the ways that both fashion and one’s age can affect one’s taste. My first acquaintance with writer-director Claude Sautet (1924-2000) came when I was a hippie and cinephile in my late 20s living in Paris in the early ‘70s, a follower of Cahiers du Cinéma in my viewing preferences more than a follower of its leading monthly competitor, Positif, although I usually purchased both magazines. Back then, Sautet’s The Things of Life (1970), and César and Rosalie (1972) struck me as the epitome of well-crafted, genteel yuppie navel gazing, especially for what I took to be their uncritical embrace of the upper middle class. He was clearly a skilled director of actors, but the overall whiff of his milieu seemed complacent to a fault. Consequently, I steered clear of his 1974 Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others, one of his biggest hits, and when, five years later, back in the U.S., I wrote an article about Chantal Akerman, Jean-Luc Godard, and the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet for the mainstream and middlebrow American Film, I was mortified when my editors condescendingly changed my title to “Jean-Luc, Chantal, Danièle, Jean-Marie, and the Others,” which led Akerman herself to reproach me for the piece, assuming that I’d dreamed up that title myself.… Read more »