Yearly Archives: 2020

JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1973 review)

From The Real Paper (January 17, 1973).

As I recall, this was my only contribution to this Boston alternative weekly, commissioned by the late Stuart Byron. He asked me to review the film because I was the only colleague of his who defended it when it was shown at the 1972 New York Film Festival, where everyone else, at least within his earshot, considered it an unmitigated disaster — which probably accounts in part for my defensive, almost apologetic tone, which I now regret. I suspect that part of my  problem with conceptualizing the film came from my confusion of “science fiction” with the French category of “fantastique,” which incorporates Surrealism and its tolerance for fantasy as well as science fiction. So it’s gratifying to see Manohla Dargis declaring the film a masterpiece at the time of its early 2014 run at New York’s Film Forum, and doing an infinitely better job of saying why than I was able to muster 40-odd years earlier, writing from Paris….Fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are urged to check out this film, in many ways its major inspiration. –  J.R.

 

At first glance, Alain Resnais’ fifth feature seems as sharp a decline from La Guerre est finie, his previous film, as that one was from Muriel.… Read more »

The Second Civil War

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 2006). — J.R.

The2ndCivilWar

Properly speaking, this skillful made-for-cable satire (1997, 100 min.) directed by Joe Dante qualifies as the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy, preceded by Matinee (1993) and followed by Small Soldiers (1998). Viewers who consider it the best of the threesome may have a point, though its lack of a theatrical run in this U.S. makes it somewhat better known overseas. Beau Bridges plays the governor of Idaho who decides to close his state borders to a plane full of Pakistani orphans fleeing a nuclear disaster, and the action is crosscut with national government deliberations (James Coburn as a Presidential advisor) and various kinds of frantic media spin (Dan Hedaya as a network news director). Barry Levinson set this project in motion, so the parallels with Wag the Dog aren’t accidental, but one of the essential ingredients brought to it by Dante, the least Swiftian of satirists, is that nobody’s a villain, even when behaving like an idiot and/or a hypocrite. (The governor, for instance, plays shamelessly to his xenophobic constituency while remaining smitten with his Mexican mistress, a reporter played by Elizabeth Pena, and the movie is determined to view him simply as a lovable asshole.) With Joanna Cassidy, Kevin Dunn, James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, the late Phil Hartman, Brian Keith, and other Dante regulars, including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, and Roger Corman.… Read more »

Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91). -– J.R.

It’s no secret that serious film criticism in print has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while ‘entertainment news’, bite-size reviewing and other forms of promotion in the media have been steadily expanding. (I’m not including academic film criticism, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field which has developed a rhetoric and tradition of its own-the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating recent book, Making Meaning) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, and in some cases supplanting the sort of work which used to appear only in print.

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran. The problem with these efforts is that they further blur the distinction between advertising and criticism, and thus make it even harder for ordinary viewers to determine whether they are being informed about something or simply being sold a bill of goods. What I have in mind are films about films and film-makers which seriously analyse or document their subjects.… Read more »

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: Jerry Lewis’s Masterpiece

It seems that I wrote (or completed) this in October 1999, for the American Movie Classics monthly magazine (I don’t recall which issue). — J.R.

 

The Nutty Professor (1963) — Jerry Lewis’s fourth and in some ways best constructed feature as writer-director-performer — is one of the finest versions of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story that we have, and not only because it happens to be the funniest. (It’s also the one with the best music: Les Brown’s band, and memorable versions of both “Stella by Starlight” and “That Old Black Magic”.) A good deal subtler than the raucous Eddie Murphy remake (1996), it illustrates the troubling perception that most of us prefer egotistical bullies to shy, sweet-tempered klutzes. It also provides us with an excellent opportunity for reassessing a multifaceted artist who has seldom received his due in this country.

Critical opinion has often described the overbearing Buddy Love, Lewis’s Mr. Hyde, as a reincarnation of Dean Martin, six years after the decisive breakup of the Martin and Lewis duo. Superficially this sounds like an ingenious notion, but in fact it misses the mark. Part of what’s so disturbing about Buddy Love — making his belated entrance about a third of the way through The Nutty Professor as a romantic stand-in for Julius Kelp, Lewis’s bumbling version of Dr.… Read more »

West Beirut

From the November 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WestBeirut

Quentin Tarantino’s cameraman, Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, wrote and directed this autobiographical first feature (1998) about his early teens in Beirut — set in 1975, during the onset of the country’s civil war — and cast his younger brother Rami as himself. In fact, Doueiri scores with every member of his wonderful cast, which consists of nonprofessionals in the child roles and seasoned veterans playing the grown-ups. This is one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen, largely because the characters are so full-bodied and believable without falling into predictable patterns. The excellent score is by Stewart Copeland. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)

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Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose unexpected death was a grievous loss.  …I’m sorry that I forgot to mention The Young One, surely one of the most neglected and overlooked of all great Southern films, explored in detail elsewhere on this site. — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Written for the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June-July 2017). — J.R.

asphalt01

It might be excessive to claim that The Asphalt Jungle (1950) invented the heist thriller (also known as the caper film), but at the very least one could say that it provided the blueprint for the most successful examples of that subgenre that would follow it, including (among others) The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956), Seven Thieves (1960),  The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Reservoir Dogs (1992)—not to mention  such parody versions as Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and most of the latter films of Jean-Pierre Melville, including Bob le flambeur (1956), Le deuxième souffle, (1966), and Le cercle rouge (1970). Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle was regarded as such a master text by Melville that one isn’t surprised to find over a dozen references to it in Ginette Vincendeau’s book about him. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, Melville once “declared that…there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in [John Huston’s masterpiece].”

In short, the reverberations in this MGM A-feature are multiple, although that doesn’t prevent it from still seeming fresh today.… Read more »

Vietnam: Long Time Coming

A Critic’s Choice from the April 9, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

vietnam_ltc

Essential viewing. This documentary about a group of American and Vietnamese war veterans, many of them disabled, bicycling 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is many things at once — act of witness, account of a multicultural exchange, sports story, journalistic investigation, and mourning for the devastation of war. Ultimately it may be too many things to yield a cumulative effect, yet its scenes of former soldiers struggling with the meaning of the war are the most moving ones on the subject since Winter Soldier (a wartime agitprop film in which Vietnam veterans confessed their “war crimes”). The corporate sponsorship of the bicycle marathon adds many ironic layers, but the emotional encounters it permitted seem more important than anything else I’ve seen about our involvement in Vietnam. Coproduced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films and directed by Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn, and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams). Three Penny.

– Jonathan Rosenbaum

Vltc

 

Bellissima

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Luchino Visconti’s early films is this hilarious 1951 comedy, tailored to the talents of Anna Magnani, about a working-class woman who is determined to get her plain seven-year-old daughter into movies. A wonderful send-up of the Italian film industry and the illusions that it fosters, delineated in near-epic proportions with style and brio. With Walter Chiari and Alessandro Blasetti. (JR)… Read more »

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

This appeared originally in the July 23, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Eyes Wide Shut

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Madison Eginton, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Sherbedgia, Leelee Sobieski, and Abigail Good.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: “Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life — especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had” — i.e., at least since 1968, when he asked his wife to read it. This more or less matches the opinion of Frederic Raphael, Kubrick’s credited cowriter, as expressed in his recent memoir, Eyes Wide Open. But I would argue that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece worthy of resting alongside Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kafka’s The Trial, and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.… Read more »

The Limey

Many of Steven Soderbergh’s better films seem to exist in the shadow of their predecessors. For all its freshness, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his first feature, was a replay of many self-referential movies about movies dating from the 60s and 70s. The Underneath was a more direct remake, of the 40s noir Criss Cross, and it was an interesting variation rather than any sort of improvement. Yet part of what’s so good about The Limey (1999, 91 min.), a contemporary thriller starring Terence Stamp as an ex-con avenging the death of his daughter, is the way it evokes Point Blank, which is still John Boorman’s best movie. The complex play with time, the metaphysical ambiguity, the stylish wit and violence, and the cool sense of LA architecture all evoke that singular Lee Marvin vehicle. For that matter, a lot of flashback material about the hero as a young man comes straight out of Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967). But with or without a sense of where it all comes from, this is a highly enjoyable and offbeat thriller — better to my taste than Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, though similarly quirky in how it sets about telling a story.… Read more »

Mind Wide Open

I can’t recall when this was written or what occasioned it (apart from the initial reviews of Eyes Wide Shut when it opened in 1999). — J.R.

Much of the negative critical response to Eyes Wide Shut came from indignant New Yorkers who felt their city had been misrepresented — worst of all, by a native of the Bronx and onetime Manhattan resident who had dared to expatriate himself. “It’s difficult to make a movie about a city you last set foot in 35 years ago,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice, sidestepping the hypothesis that Kubrick’s last film might be about something else — some elusive, shifting city of the mind, perhaps, as shared by the fearful dreams and imaginations of a married couple. Similarly, Stuart Klawans’ complaint in The Nation that he couldn’t buy “a Village jazz club with a tuxedoed headwaiter and a last set ending at midnight” overlooks the possibility that Kubrick couldn’t either, any more than he could believe in an intersection in that same Village of Miller and Wren — two nonexistent streets even when he lived in the city.

The film is full of such “off” details, and not simply because all of it was shot in an English studio.… Read more »

True Enough (BOYS DON’T CRY & THE STRAIGHT STORY)

From the October 22. 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boys Don’t Cry

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

With Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, and Jeannetta Arnette.

The Straight Story

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, James Cada, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The docudrama may be the key dramatic form of the 90s because of the extent to which its simplifications influence the way we make sense of the world around us. Not that we didn’t already have a habit of simplifying and therefore fictionalizing facts. There are perfectly good reasons most of us prefer to believe that one day in December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because her feet were killing her, thereby launching the civil rights movement. This story has a germ of truth, but Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had mapped out their basic strategy for the Montgomery bus boycott at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee well before this incident. Still, the more folkloric, more dramatic version of the episode is the one that sticks — and the one that’s repeated by people who want to explain the civil rights movement in more forcible, more legible terms.… Read more »

Defenseless [THE LUZHIN DEFENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 2001). — J.R.

The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris

Written by Peter Berry

With John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson.

In Slate last March two film critics with literary backgrounds, Phillip Lopate and A.O. Scott, argued about Terence Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth – an exchange that only illustrated how hard it is to settle questions about fidelity to novels. Lopate, who’s been involved with film much longer than Scott, called it his favorite American film of 2000. Scott, whose readiness to bone up on movies since he started reviewing them for the New York Times has been invigorating, didn’t seem blind to some of the film’s virtues, but he was much more concerned with what seemed reductive about it.

Having read Edith Wharton’s novel for the first time just before I saw the movie, I found myself agreeing to some extent with both critics. The film is inferior to Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible, all three of which strike me as essential works, though they’ve received much less attention from the mainstream, perhaps because they’re further from conventional narrative.… Read more »

French Revelations [on LE DIVORCE]

From the August 8, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Le Divorce

*** (A must-see)

Directed by James Ivory

Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory

With Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Thierry Lhermitte, Leslie Caron, Melvil Poupaud, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Matthew Modine, Jean-Marc Barr, Nathalie Richard, Bebe Neuwirth, and Stephen Fry.

Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and their regular screenwriter-adapter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem to have a special affinity for Americans in Paris, the subject of three of their five most recent films – Jefferson in Paris (1995), A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), and now Le Divorce. The first of these is one of their worst features, while the second and third are among their best. So their special affinity doesn’t seem to matter as much as the quality of their material and their particular feeling for it. In the case of Le Divorce, their fidelity to the civilized attitudes of Diane Johnson’s novel makes this one of their most sophisticated and entertaining features to date.

The novel is narrated by Isabel, a 19-year-old film-school dropout from Santa Barbara who’s gone to Paris to visit her older stepsister Roxy, a poet married to a French painter and pregnant with their second child.… Read more »