Monthly Archives: August 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 »