Yearly Archives: 2020

Global Discoveries on DVD: Diverse Kinds of Do-it-Yourself Subterfuge, Mainly American

My summer 2020 column for Cinema Scope. — J.R.

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Well before the coronavirus pandemic kicked in, I’d already started nurturing a hobby of creating my own viewing packages on my laptop. This mainly consists of finding unsubtitled movies I want to see, on YouTube or elsewhere, downloading them, tracking down English subtitles however and whenever I can find them, placing the films and subtitles into new folders, and then watching the results on my VLC player. The advantages of this process are obvious: not only free viewing, but another way of escaping the limitations of our cultural gatekeepers and commissars— e.g., critics and institutions associated with the New York Film Festival, the New York Times, diverse film magazines (including this one), not to mention the distributors and programmers who pretend to know exactly what we want to see by dictating all our choices in advance. (I  hasten to add for the benefit of skeptics that my interest in subtitling unsubtitled movies has nothing to do with liking certain films because they’re neglected: I’ve been employing the same practice lately with some of the films of Carol Reed, largely because I like combining the pleasures of reading with those of film watching.)… Read more »

Stromboli

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J.R.

Roberto Rossellini’s first filmic encounter with Ingrid Bergman, made in the wilds in 1949 around the same time the neorealist director and the Hollywood star were being denounced in the U.S. Senate for their adulterous romance. Widely regarded as a masterpiece today, the film was so badly mutilated by Howard Hughes’s RKO (which added offscreen narration, reshuffled some sequences, and deleted others) that Rossellini sued the studio (and lost). The Italian version, which Rossellini approved, has come out on video, and this rarely screened English-language version is very close to it. A Lithuanian-born Czech refugee living in an internment camp (Bergman) marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) in order to escape, but she winds up on a bare, impoverished island with an active volcano, where most of the locals regard her with hostility. The film is most modern and remarkable when the camera is alone with Bergman, though Rossellini wisely shows neither the wife nor the husband with full sympathy. Eschewing psychology, the film remains a kind of ambiguous pieta whose religious ending is as controversial as that of Rossellini and Bergman’s subsequent Voyage to Italy (though its metaphoric and rhetorical power make it easier to take).… Read more »

Cabaret

From the December 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Bob Fosse pretends to be doing a Brecht-Weill while actually further sentimentalizing and glamorizing Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin –adapted by Jay Presson Allen, and apparently closer to the play I Am a Camera than to the Broadway show. Whatever this 1972 feature is, it’s entertaining and stylish, though maybe not quite as serious as it wants to be. Liza Minnelli stars at her near best, and Joel Grey is the caustic nightclub emcee; both won Oscars along with Fosse, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and music director Ralph Burns. With Michael York, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem, and Fritz Wepper; John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the salty songs. PG, 128 min. (JR)

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Involuntary Geniuses [THE TIC CODE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J.R.

The Tic Code

**

Directed by Gary Winick

Written by Polly Draper

With Gregory Hines, Draper, Christopher George Marquette, Desmond Robertson, Carol Kane, Carlos McKinney, Dick Berk, John B. Williams, and Tony Shalhoub.

 

Writing about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s most musical book, the late William Troy had the perspicacity to point out that “a word, in the terminology of modern physics, is a time-space event. It is not too much to say that for the poet no word in a language is ever used twice exactly in the same way.” Since a musical note is also a time-space event — repeatable on paper, CD, or tape but not in live performance — existentially speaking an improvised jazz solo is a journey, a dramatic and social act that can happen only once.

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It’s possible to capture certain aspects of jazz performances in words, as critic Whitney Balliett and novelist Rafi Zabor (in the wonderful The Bear Comes Home) have amply demonstrated. But what film can do poetically with jazz solos is much less certain. It might be argued that most films and most jazz solos have stories to tell, but getting their stories to coincide is not an easy task.… Read more »

Charlotte Gray

From the Chicago Reader (December 26, 2001). — J.R.

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This movie reveals something interesting: during the occupation of France, Nazi officers and French peasants all spoke English with English accents, as did English resistance fighters — aside from the occasional spurt of French and German to identify who’s who. I never thought that a thoughtful director like Gillian Armstrong would get trapped in such Euro-nonsense, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. Jeremy Brock wrote the script, and the landscapes are attractive. Under the circumstances, the omnipresent Cate Blanchett does pretty well in the title role. With Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, and Rupert Penry-Jones. 121 min. (JR)

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Code Unknown

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

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Aptly subtitled Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, the best feature to date by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.) is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment. The second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always get what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. The title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses in Paris — a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues. In subtitled French, Malinke, Romanian, German, Arabic, and sign language– and also, occasionally, English. (JR)

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A Free Man [Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART]

Posted in Moving Image Source, December 1, 2009. This is the second time I wrote at length about White Hunter, Black Heart, and this essay was reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinema; the earlier piece, written 19 years earlier, is available here. [August 31 footnote: After watching Eastwood’s embarrassing and often fumbling impromptu speech at the Republican National Convention last night, I treasure his performance in this spectacularly underrated movie even more.] — J.R.

“It’s the film of a free man.” Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated defense of Charlie Chaplin’s most despised film, A King in New York (1957) — a film so reviled that it goes unmentioned in Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography — is a sentence that frequently comes to mind about some of the features directed by Clint Eastwood, especially over the past couple of decades. Eastwood has in fact carved out a singular niche for himself that affords him the sort of artistic and conceptual freedom that no one else in Hollywood can claim. Starting with the fact that he doesn’t test-market his movies and indulge in the sort of hasty post-production revisions that limit the range of his colleagues, he’s a director who can choose both his subjects and how he deals with them.… Read more »

Ritalin Rebellion [CHARLIE BARTLETT]

From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 2008). I believe this was my last long review before I left my staff job there. — J.R.

CHARLIE BARTLETT ***

Directed by Jon Poll

I just rewatched Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, a radical and rebellious teen movie I gave four stars in 1990. I think it holds up, and apparently I’m not the only one: the average rating of the 62 customer reviews it has on Amazon.com is four and a half out of five stars.

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The new rebellious teen movie Charlie Bartlett isn’t as good or as radical; it’s more an edgy comedy than a rabble-rouser. But it reminded me of Pump Up the Volume in many ways: it’s one of the first features for a middle-aged director; it captures teenage despair leading up to a suicide attempt (successful in Pump Up the Volume, unsuccessful here); one of its lead characters has a school administrator as a father (the hero in Pump Up the Volume, the heroine here); and it depicts a general disgruntlement about the way schools are run, culminating in a student uprising. The movies are even comparably derivative of others: Pump Up the Volume plundered some of its best ideas from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band, Network, and Talk Radio, while Charlie Bartlett seems especially indebted to Mumford, all the way down to its final blackout gag.… Read more »

A Fuller Understanding: Revisiting the Life of Sam Fuller

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2003). — J.R.

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A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Thank God for Beethoven’s music. Ludwig got me though a lot of rough times. He said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” Holy cow, was he right! — photo caption in A Third Face

Checking my appointment book for 1980, I see that I met Sam Fuller for the first time on June 19, in New York. It was in a suite at the Plaza, where I went to interview him about The Big Red One for the Soho News, and from the moment a publicist opened the door and I was greeted by this short, peppy firecracker, he was already outlining a movie sequence in which I was being kidnapped by a team of Amazons, with the publicist instantly cast as one of the members of the team.

The interview itself was a collection of comparable verbal cadenzas, about life and commerce as well as cinema — with occasional off-the-record asides, like asking me at one point if I’d seen Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA, and what I thought of it.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomalies and Experiments (my 9th column)

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2005, issue 22). The down side of reproducing my old DVD columns is that many of the links are bound to be out of date and no longer functional; the up side is that they offer some kind of history of what used to be available (or unavailable). — J.R.

With the exception of a few film buffs at some of the more discerning labels, and still fewer at the major studios, decisions about what older films to release on DVD, as well as when or why, are often capricious to the point of absurdity. So asking why some things are readily available and some things aren’t is a bit like asking an illiterate about his or her reading taste. Some time ago, I was contacted about contributing to the extras of an ambitious DVD being planned for Elaine May’s infamous and underappreciated Ishtar — a project developed with loving care by some maverick film buffs at Columbia/Tristar over many months, eventually soliciting the unprecedented cooperation and input of May herself.

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It seemed like a golden opportunity for some thoughtful studio revisionism — especially in light of how much this prescient farce has to say about the dangerous blunders of American innocence and stupidity in the Middle East and how blind American reviewers were to this aspect of the movie back in 1987.Read more »

Purple Noon

From the June 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A very elegant and watchable 1960 French thriller starring Alain Delon in his prime, this film was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by director Rene Clement and screenwriter Paul Gegauff, best known as Claude Chabrol’s key script collaborator in the 60s and 70s. The Hitchcockian theme — transference of personality — is given almost as much mileage here as in Hitchcock’s own Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, as Delon decides to take over the identity of a spoiled, wealthy playboy he’s been hired to bring home to his father. Henri Decae’s color cinematography is dazzling, and the Italian and Mediterranean locations are sumptuous. With Marie Laforet, Maurice Ronet, and PlayTime‘s Bill Kearns. 118 min. (JR)

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Red Psalm

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East Side Story, a recent documentary about communist musicals, assumes that communist-bloc directors were just itching to make Hollywood extravaganzas and invariably wound up looking strained, square, and ill equipped. But Red Psalm (1971), Miklos Jancso’s dazzling, open-air revolutionary pageant, is a highly sensual communist musical that employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the singing, dancing, and nature; within its own idioms it swings as well as wails. Set near the end of the 19th century, when a group of peasants have demanded basic rights from a landowner and soldiers arrive on horseback, it’s composed of less than 30 shots, each one an intricate choreography of panning camera, landscape, and clustered bodies. Jancso’s awesome fusion of form with content and politics with poetry equals the exciting innovations of the French New Wave in the 60s and early 70s. The music, ranging from revolutionary folk songs to {Charlie Is My Darlin’,} will keep playing in your head for days, and the colors are ravishing. The picture won Jancso a best director prize at Cannes, and it may well be the greatest Hungarian film of the 60s and 70s, summing up an entire strain in his work that lamentably has been forgotten here.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK

Recommended Reading: DANCING IN THE DARK: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Morris Dickstein, New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 598 pp.

How refreshing it is to encounter a treatment of Busby Berkeley’s Depression musicals as something other than escapism — as genuine engagements with their own period and audience. Part literary criticism, part film and art criticism, part history of popular as well as intellectual culture, Morris Dickstein’s magnum opus is full of sensible revisionist observations of this kind to counter received wisdom, and it’s always a pleasure to read. Even if he doesn’t always accord full justice to the ideological and ethical underpinnings of some Depression novels (I’m perhaps the only one on the planet who regards Faulkner’s 1932 Light in August, my supreme favorite, as a communist novel, at least existentially), Dickstein is almost always deepening my understanding of whatever he happens to be writing about. [9/28/09]… Read more »

On Alain Resnais

Written to introduce a dossier in Farsi on Alain Resnais prepared by Ehsan Khoshbakht in March 2012. — J.R.

Alain Resnais is clearly one of our greatest living filmmakers. But he’s also one of the most elusive, for a number of reasons. He started out as the most international of all the French New Wave artists, at least in his early features (especially Hiroshima mon amour,Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre est finie,Je t’aime, je t’aime, and Providence), but then went on to become the most French of French directors (not only in obvious cases such as Mon oncle d’Amérique, Stavisky…, Mélo, Same Old Song, Not on the Lips, and Wild Grass, but even in films derived from English or partially American sources, such as I Want To Go Home, Smoking, No Smoking, and Private Fears in Public Places). Even before he got around to making features, he made by far the greatest films in the history of cinema about racism and colonialism (Statues Also Die), the Holocaust (Night and Fog), plastic (La Chant du Styrène), and libraries (Tout la mémoire du monde).Among… Read more »

Jonathan Rosenbaum Interview by Noel King (2002), Part 2

From Framework (volume 45, number 1, Spring 2004). Because of its length, I’m running this in two parts. — J.R.

 

This interview took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 20, 2002 — if memory serves, at the Abasta shopping mall, where the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film was then being held.

 

 

NK: How did you come to film criticism and film journalism? You start out in the States and have some years in Paris and then London and then back to the States.

JR: Like most other film critics of my generation I didn’t set out to be a film critic. I was a writer from very early on and my family was involved in the film business but my initial interest was in being a fiction writer. I wrote fiction in high school and in college and was hoping, very unrealistically, to have a career as a novelist.

NK: The fiction writer aspect survives into the opening page of Moving Places where you riff on the opening of William Faulkner’s Light in August.

JR: My MA thesis was on Light in August. At the time I got fed up and quit graduate school I was working on a novel and somebody I knew from college offered me a job editing a collection of film criticism.… Read more »