From the Chicago Reader (June 19, 1998). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Christopher Scott Cherot
With Chenoa Maxwell, Cherot, Tammi Catherine Jones, Robinne Lee, and Reginald James.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Noah Baumbach
With Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, Carlos Jacott, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brian Kerwin, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bridget Fonda.
Two eclectic, youthful, and surprisingly upbeat romantic comedies open this week, both by writer-directors; both about blocked novelists, relationships, fear of commitment, jealousy, self-torturing neurosis, betrayal, and ultimate fulfillment; and both set in upscale, urban east-coast milieus. I had a good time at Christopher Scott Cherot’s Hav Plenty and Noah Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy both times I saw them, though I couldn’t believe in either all the way through, and neither made me laugh out loud very often. Presented as hand-crafted self-portraits that have agreed to play by certain commercial rules and genre conventions, both teem with eccentric tics and personal energies, giving us the pleasure of contact with an individual intelligence — something that seldom happens with bigger-budget fare.
The eccentric tics in Hav Plenty begin with the title — which conflates the first name of heroine Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell) and the last name of hero Lee Plenty (Cherot) — and include Philippians 4:12 (“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.… Read more »
This article appeared in the Winter 2008-2009 issue of Film Quarterly. I’m delighted that both of the films I write about here are available on DVD, although regrettably the current prices, at least on Amazon, are quite hefty. My suggestion is to keep looking for better deals elsewhere; The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein remains for me one of the key American independent American features of the past decade or so, and it’s hard for me to think of another that’s more personally important to me. — J.R.
HISTORICAL MEDITATIONS IN TWO FILMS BY JOHN GIANVITO
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
It’s been gratifying to see the almost instant acclaim accorded to John Gianvito’s beautiful, fifty-eight-minute Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), especially after the relative neglect of his only previous feature-length film, the 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001).
The more recent film — a meditative, lyrical, and haunting documentary about grave sites that won the grand prix at the Entervues Film Festival in Belfort in 2007 and both a Human Rights Award and a special mention at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2008 — also received an award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio and was named the year’s best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics.… Read more »
From Written By 3, no. 11, November 1998. — J.R.
Let me start this off with an update: a plug for Wurlitzer’s most recent novel, a sort of Buddhist Western that grew out of an unrealized script, and a truly haunting page-turner. — J.R.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know how to answer that.”
I was suddenly afraid of losing the anonymity that existed between us, as if once we knew our names the erotic focus we were falling into would dissolve. I curled my lower lip.
“We’re overloaded as it is.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said.
– Rudolph Wurlitzer, Quake (1972)
SQUIER We must move southward. Only by expanding can we hope to avoid a civil war and save those in
situtions we hold most precious.
DR. JONES I assume you are including slavery?
SQUIER I certainly am. We must not be sentimental if we wish to preserve that which is most precious to
us. The camera cuts to Ellen, enraged by the conversation. As her eyes dart around the room, she and Walker begin to move their hands in sign language. We see for the first time that Ellen is deaf.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 1996). — J.R.
A Family Thing
Directed by Richard Pearce
Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
With Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Michael Beach, Irma P. Hall, David Keith, Grace Zabriskie, Regina Taylor, Mary Jackson, Paula Marshall, and James Harrell.
If good quiet movies seem as rare as hen’s teeth nowadays, one reason is that they’re gone before most of us get around to seeing them. As a rule, it’s the loud movies, good and bad (usually bad), that claim our attention first — the ones that yell at us from afar through monster ad campaigns tricked up with socko clips and hyperbolic quotes. Those that speak to us in a normal tone of voice, without flash or filigree, seep into our consciousness more gradually — and gradual discoveries are fast becoming impossible given that the commercial fate of a new feature is often sealed the opening weekend.
The first time I saw A Family Thing — not only the best but pretty nearly the only good quiet Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year — was at a press show in late February, back-to-back with The Birdcage. It took me completely by surprise — unlike The Birdcage, which had been shouting from the rooftops for months — and when I finally got around to seeing it a second time I found it every bit as affecting.… Read more »
From Moving Image Source (May 18, 2009). — J.R.
I wouldn’t say that video art per se makes me break out in hives. I even like some examples of it, including work by Thom Andersen, Gregg Bordowitz, Joan Braderman, Pedro Costa, Adam Curtis, Steve Fagin, Jean-Luc Godard (for me, his best work over nearly the past two decades), Ken Jacobs, Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Kluge, Mark Rappaport, Raúl Ruiz, Aleksandr Sokurov, Michael Snow, Leslie Thornton, and Bill Viola. But when it comes to most early American video art, I have an allergic reaction. A dozen years ago, while co-teaching a course with video artist Vanalyne Green at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called “Film and Video: What’s the Difference?” I even tried -— without much sustained success — to combat this allergy homeopathically.
More recently, I’ve tried again by attempting to come to terms with the Video Data Bank’s multiregional DVD box set, Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U.S. — a mammoth compilation curated by Christine Hill, encompassing eight discs, 68 titles, and over 16 hours, produced for institutional rather than consumerist use. (The cost is otherwise prohibitive: $1,350 before September 1, $1,500 afterward, and postage is extra.) And once again I’ve failed, though not without some edification and enlightenment along the way.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 6, 1999). — J.R.
The Thomas Crown Affair
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Alan R. Trustman, Leslie Dixon, and Kurt Wimmer
With Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Frankie R. Faison, and Faye Dunaway.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Seeing an original movie and its remake in reverse order is a bit like reading a novel (as opposed to a novelization) after you’ve seen the movie. It usually distorts your sense of priorities, forcing you to see the ideas and images of the original in terms of the remake. That’s why I suspect I’ll never know whether the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is inferior to the 1968 original. Both are entertaining pieces of trash, but look at them in succession — in either order — and they start to undermine each other.
Both are about a classy investigator for an insurance company (Faye Dunaway in 1968, Rene Russo in 1999) going after a debonair zillionaire (Steve McQueen then, Pierce Brosnan now) who pulls off elaborately planned, outrageous robberies with hired helpers just for the fun of it. In the original, set in Boston, he robs a bank; in the remake he steals a Monet from New York’s Metropolitan Museum and then, just to show how cool he is, replaces it without getting caught.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 13, 1992). This film can now be accessed online. — J.R.
THE FAMINE WITHIN
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Katherine Gilday.
Some theorists believe it is the larger North American society that needs healing, that women’s bodies today are the symbolic area in which a larger drama of cultural values is played out. — narrator, The Famine Within
Siskel and Ebert, among others, have been arguing that the documentary nominating committee of the Academy Awards needs a major revamping. Their beef is that the most popular and widely discussed documentaries of the past few years — like The Thin Blue Line, Paris Is Burning, Roger & Me, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — never get nominated. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the most popular movies are usually the best, a notion that the awarding of most of the remainder of the Oscars is predicated upon. To accept any serious challenge to this sacred premise would be to undermine our faith in distributors, exhibitors, critics, publicists — the film industry itself. Perish the thought: if we lost our faith in all of the above, we might actually have to start thinking for ourselves.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 2, 1998). — J.R.
Un Air De Famille
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Cedric Klapisch
Written by Agnes Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri, and Klapisch
With Bacri, Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine Frot, Claire Maurier, and Wladimir Yordanoff.
Foreign-film distribution in this country often operates on the brand-name principle — as is apparent with Un air de famille (1996), playing at the Music Box this week. Director and cowriter Cedric Klapisch had considerable commercial success here with his third picture, the 1995 When the Cat’s Away (this one is his fourth). I haven’t seen Klapisch’s first two; what I know about him mainly is that he received a degree from New York University’s graduate film school and worked as a director of photography on a dozen short films in New York before returning to France to make his own films.
When the Cat’s Away is an intelligent enough movie, but the adjectives I’d apply to it are “charming” and “slight”; Un air de famille, which I like a good deal more, is neither. The most significant aspect of the film is the couple, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who wrote the very successful play on which it’s based.… Read more »
[2017 Preface: I'm reposting this article less than a month after its last posting on this site because Powerhouse Films in the U.K. has just sent me, at my request, its impressive "Limited Dual Format Edition" of this remarkable movie, and so far, the only complaint I have relevant to its riches is that they didn't access this 1978 article about it any sooner. If they had, some of the uncertainties and/or wrong guesses made by Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton in their often informative audiocommentary probably wouldn't be there. For the record then--to cite only a couple of matters not covered in the article below that conflict with their suppositions (apart from the mispronounciation of La Jolla)--in 1953, at age ten, I already knew who Dr. Seuss was because many of his books were already widely available but, even as a devoted radio listener, I didn't know who Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy were.]
The principal source of this article — written for American Film, and published in their October 1978 issue — was a fairly lengthy phone conversation I once had with Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, when I was living in San Diego.… Read more »
Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. Because of the length of this chapter, I’m posting it in two parts. — J.R.
TRANSATLANTIC REALITY AVOIDANCE: A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (MAY 1999)
“ ‘I think, therefore I am,’ ” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, the fourth virtual‐reality thriller I saw in Chicago in as many weeks in the spring of 1999, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596–1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters scarcely think, much less exist, but not an unexpected one given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform these thrillers.
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 a lot more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — this 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, the virtual-reality thriller seems to solve 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.… Read more »
Chapter Seven of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. Because of the length of this chapter, I’ll be posting it in two parts. — J.R.
Is it possible that because of the rise of the new media, which have given us the ability to manufacture what we call virtual reality, we are now able, without quite knowing what we are doing, to create a secondary world that we are liable to mistake for the primary world given to our senses at birth? If so, the prime need it serves is probably not political at all but the one Freud identiﬁed as the chief motive for dreaming: wish fulﬁll-‐ ment—a need catered to both by our luxuriously proliferating sources of entertainment and the means of their support, namely, advertisement of consumer products. In our variant of self-‐deception, pleasure plays the role that terror plays under totalitarianism.
— Jonathan Schell, “Land of Dreams,” The Nation, January 11/18, 1999
This chapter and the next explore complementary and mutually alienating attitudes: the desire to keep out foreign inﬂuences in order to preserve American “purity,” and the fact that what we consider American “purity” is often composed of foreign inﬂuences.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 2001). — J.R.
Directed by Sean Penn
Written by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski
With Jack Nicholson, Patricia Clarkson, Benicio Del Toro, Dale Dickey, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Robin Wright Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Shepard.
Directed by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon
Written by Ronnie Scheib, Ford, and Lennon
With Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Yosemite Sam.
The Wedding Planner
Directed by Adam Shankman
Written by Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis
With Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, Bridgette Wilson- Sampras, Justin Chambers, and Judy Greer.
Shadow of the Vampire
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
Written by Steven Katz
With Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, and Udo Kier.
I can’t say that The Pledge, The Wedding Planner, Blooper Bunny, and Shadow of the Vampire have much in common, apart from the fact that they’re showing in Chicago this week. Yet all four do, to different degrees, feed off other movies. Frankly, that’s what I like most about The Wedding Planner – a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey that aspires to and achieves the goofiness of a studio musical of the early 50s.… Read more »
This appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. This was long before the silent version of Blackmail was rediscovered and restored. — J.R.
Great Britain, 1929 Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The extraordinary plateau attained by Hitchcock’s first sound film in relation to his overall development is the sum of many accomplishments: above all, a decisive mastery in moving back and forth between objective and subjective narrative modes. If the point-of-view is one of the cornerstones in Hitchcockian syntax, the film quite likely represents the first time in the director career that it is woven so seamlessly into a plot that all notions of stylistic “touches” gives way to a sustained psychological density. Beginning virtually like a documentary, Blackmail provides a quick foretaste of subjective truth in its early glimpses of the anonymous criminal, which subtly veer from the police’s viewpoint to his own – shifting, that is, from one kind of fear and apprehension to another. The complex overtones and ambiguities of the film are informed throughout by this kind of duplicity and intimacy, which oblige us to identify with rapist along with potential victim, murderer along with corpse, and detective along with blackmailer, at the same time as we are asked to regard them all with a certain amused skepticism.… Read more »
From the February 3, 1995 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
In the Mouth of Madness
Rating *** A must see
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Michael De Luca
With Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, and Charlton Heston.
In the Mouth of Madness isn’t John Carpenter’s best horror movie to date, but it may well be his scariest. What makes it nightmarish isn’t so much its premise — a man set loose inside the mind and writings of a crazed hack novelist — as the many elliptical details that the premise occasions: things that go bump in the head, fleeting suggestions of horrors that brush the edge of our attention and perceptions, like the peripheral events in bad dreams.
In this respect, Carpenter seems to have entered David Lynch territory — an unlikely development, but then Carpenter’s career has been full of unlikely developments. In early features like Dark Star (playing this Tuesday at the University of Chicago) and Assault on Precinct 13, he was a playful auteurist making the rounds of popular genres, nodding to masters like Hawks and Hitchcock along the way. After establishing himself as a suspense and horror specialist in Halloween, his first hit, he took an abrupt right turn into gritty (and implicitly libertarian) action kicks in Escape From New York, then virtually drowned in special effects in his remake of The Thing.… Read more »
This appeared in the November 18, 1988 Chicago Reader. I’d probably rank this film higher now. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by “Frank Armitage” (John Carpenter)
With Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, and Raymond St. Jacques.
John Carpenter has managed to remain one of the few genuinely personal writer-directors left in genre moviemaking, having returned to relatively low-budget features with last year’s Prince of Darkness after the debacle of Big Trouble in Little China. From his clean ‘Scope compositions to his throbbing minimalist scores, he projects a simplicity of conception and a usually deft approach to story telling and straight-ahead action that are both refreshing and reassuring in an era of filmmaking when these modest virtues can no longer be taken for granted. As a disciple of Howard Hawks, he might even be said to preserve a scaled-down version of some of the familiar Hawks trademarks: cranky individualist heroes, flaky male/female relationships, camaraderie among professionals, confined spaces, and usually clear lines of demarcation between friends and foes.
All of these qualities are present to some degree in They Live, a paranoid science-fiction thriller about alien invaders loosely based on a short story by Ray Nelson.… Read more »