From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995); corrected and updated in September 2012. — J.R.
Writer-director-star Elaine May’s first feature (1971). Not all of it works, and the studio cut some of the darker elements (including a murder sequence that May avows was one of the funniest things Jack Weston ever did), but it’s still an often brilliant and frequently hilarious comedy. Walter Matthau, cast wildly against type, plays a spoiled playboy suddenly deprived of his wealth who plots to marry and murder a wealthy, klutzy, and clueless botanist (May, playing sort of a female Jerry Lewis). May’s savage take on her characters irresistibly recalls Stroheim; she’s at once tender and corrosive (as well as narcissistic and self-hating). This is painful comedy, to be sure, but there’s a lot of soul and spirit behind it. With James Coco, George Rose, and William Redfield. (JR)
Written for Moving Image Source‘s “Moments of 2012”, posted January 10, 2013. — J.R.
This holiday season, part of my light reading has consisted of browsing through two new doorstop-size books, each over 600 pages long, Selected Letters of William Styronand The Richard Burton Diaries. The differences between them have been both telling and surprising, at least to me. Both men were heavy drinkers and literary pontificaters who spent much of their social lives hanging out with celebrities, but Styron—the more prestigious and respectable of the two, and admittedly the one I respected more before broaching these two volumes — proves to be an utter, sanctimonious bore, seemingly more interested in career management than in life, while Burton, forever the shameless hack actor, has both an interest in life and a wry sort of humor about it that sparkles on every page.
Admittedly, there’s not necessarily much correlation between artistic talent and the way one communicates with one’s self or with friends, acquaintances, and relatives. My own semi-admiration for Styron stems mainly from what I remember favorably about Set This House on Fire and Sophie’s Choice — two of his less respectable efforts, according to this country’s literary tastemakers, but possibly more because of their perceived subject matter than because of their dramatic achievements.… Read more »
I’m immensely grateful to Thomas Frank in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s — an article you can’t access online unless you subscribe, so please, run out and buy this issue if you can (if you don’t already have it), and turn to “Team America” on pp. 6-9 — for clarifying how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2005 best seller and prizewinner that Spielberg and Kushner credit as their main source. When I gave Lincolnone of its few negative reviews in the Forward last year, I only had a short time to write my review after seeing the film and before I flew to the Viennale, and despite the fact that I already had Goodwin’s doorstop/monolith within my clutches by then, there wasn’t enough time for me to dope out how much of what bothered me about the film was ascribable to her book. Frank’s column, even though it doesn’t mention the ideological similarity of Lincoln and Schindler’s List that I’ve written about elsewhere (both movies, as I see them, are ultimately defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism, corruptions and all, and not only defenses of corruption in politics), leaves little doubt that the popularity and prestige of Goodwin’s book aren’t simply matters of rewarding intellectual integrity and/or historical perspicacity.… Read more »
My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.
The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters.I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret.… Read more »
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh
Because we were faced this year with an embarrassment of riches, we adopted a few new procedures. Apart from creating three new categories for awards, we more generally selected eleven separate releases that we especially valued and only afterwards selected particular categories for each of our choices. We also decided to forego our usual procedure of including individual favorites because doing so would have inflated our choices to seventeen instead of eleven, which is already two more than we selected last year.
Our first new category is the best film or program at this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato that we would most like to see released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Our selection in this case is the French TV series Bonjour Mr Lewis (1982) by Robert Benayoun.… Read more »
A reprint from the Taipei Times (October 13, 2014), with different illustrations. For the record, I don’t think it was betel nuts that I was chewing at Hou’s 1991 party; what I recall was a kind of barklike Taiwanese form of speed. — J.R.
Narrating Taiwanese identity
The Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image educates American film buffs about Taiwanese history and identity
By Dana Ter / Contributing reporter in New York
The year was 1991. American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was experiencing his first authentic night out in Taipei at a late night karaoke party hosted by renowned Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢). Fueled by bottles of cognac and a generous supply of betel nuts, the duo belted out Beatles songs until 3am before stumbling home.
Having reviewed Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, 1986) and A City of Sadness (悲情城市, 1989) for the Chicago Reader, long-time film critic Rosenbaum was no stranger to Hou’s work. But being in Taipei for the Asia-Pacific Film Festival gave him a better appreciation of the local culture, history and setting.
“I was able to spend my 19 days there less as a tourist than as a part of everyday life in Taipei,” said Rosenbaum, who was in New York this past week for the retrospective “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien” at the Museum of the Moving Image.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 27, 1997). — J.R.
Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss’s chances for reelection. He flies to southern California, engaging a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, reportedly lampooning Robert Evans) to help fake a war in Albania that will make the president shine again. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s script is gleefully hyperbolic without ever straying from its political target — the gulf war is repeatedly cited as the conspirators debate what the American public will swallow. Wag the Dog falters only in coming up with an adequate curtain closer (and in keeping both public response and the president out of frame, which makes the proceedings more theoretical than is necessary). Otherwise this is hilarious, deadly stuff, sparked by the cynical gusto of the two leads as well as the fascinating technical display of how TV “documentary evidence” can be digitally manufactured inside a studio. Barry Levinson directed with a reasonable amount of panache; with Kirsten Dunst, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, and Willie Nelson. Starts next Friday, January 2. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sight and Sound commissioned the following from me for its “Home Cinema” feature in its September 2013 issue, but then, without telling me (or explaining why), decided not to use it. — J.R.
I haven’t yet caught up with Jerry Lewis’ spotty directing for TV, such as his episodes for Ben Casey (1964) and The Bold Ones (1970) or — more intriguing — L’uomo d’oro, fifteen two-minute sketches made for Italian TV in 1971. But there’s no doubt that his main creative bond with television is from live broadcasts — chiefly appearances with Dean Martin between 1948 and the mid-1950s in which the cascading, anarchic improvs, significantly erupting during one of America’s most repressive periods, made the whole notion of any plotted mise en scène superfluous. Luckily, I did get to see a late manifestation of this tendency in the mainly live segments of the 90-minute L’invité du dimanchein 1971, when Lewis, using hardly a single word of French, held a large audience captive (including Jean-Pierre Cassel, Louis Malle, and Pierre Etaix, virtually at his feet) with his prolonged and highly inventive antics. Just as no one turns toJo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) for proof of Richard Pryor’s genius, or even cares about who directed Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Lewis’s distinction as an auteur, both dangerous and enduring, is founded on the threat of his physical presence.… Read more »
One of the joys of living in Chicago is the special quality of its scruffy storefront theater, although I must confess that during my 20 years here as a film reviewer, I took advantage of this resource only rarely, apart from a few intermittent discoveries over the years (such as the 21-year-old Theatre Oobleck, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon and savor in some of its earliest productions). More recently, since my retirement from the Chicago Reader, I’ve happily come across no less than four separate theaters of this kind in my own neighborhood so far, and over the past two Friday evenings I’ve had the pleasure of attending very impressive productions of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Strawdog (on 3829 North Broadway) and, tonight, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at the Oracle just a few doors down from there (on 3809 North Broadway).
The Strawdog’s funky and entertaining version of Brecht (see above) has had the benefit of a thoughtful and passionate rave from the Reader’s Albert Williams, so the performance I attended was nearly sold out. But the Oracle’s Strindberg, despite a mainly favorable capsule in the same paper from Kerry Reid, shockingly had only seven customers at the performance I attended tonight, making us a slightly smaller crowd than the production’s able cast of eight.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). I’m delighted that Criterion recently invited me to retool this review for a new edition of this film, scheduled to appear in November. In some ways, I like Ghost Dog more now than I did 20 years ago. — J.R.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.
Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.
Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons.… Read more »
Written for a collection edited by Adam Cook, Making the Case: Contemporary Genre Cinema, whose publisher belatedly changed his mind about publishing. This is the article’s first appearance, although it’s also reprinted in my latest book, Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics. — J. R.
Out of his half-dozen comedy features to date as producer-writer-director — Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987), I’ll Do Anything (1994), As Good as It Gets (1997), Spanglish (2004), and How Do You Know (2010) — James L. Brooks has had three big commercial successes (the first two and the fourth) and three absolute flops (the third, fifth, and sixth). And because all six of these movies are concerned equally with personal failure and personal success, functionality (emotional and professional) as well as dysfunctionality (emotional and professional), it somehow seems fitting that each one has represented a highly ambitious as well as a highly risky undertaking.
The above paragraph has the disadvantage of making Brooks seem so unexceptional as a commercial filmmaker that one might wonder, on the basis of this description, whether he’s worth examining at all. Some might also question whether all six of his movies qualify as comedies, despite Brooks’ own insistence that they do.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2001). — J.R.
One of the great transgressive moments in 50s Hollywood was Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” playing over the opening credits of this black-and-white melodrama (1955, 101 min.) about unruly boys in a slum high school. This was released a year before the movie Rock Around the Clock, and the fact that the earlier film was an MGM release only added to the punch. A crew-cut Glenn Ford, the squarest of teachers, tries to tame Vic Morrow and Paul Mazursky, among other hoods, and win over Sidney Poitier (in one of his best early roles). As Dave Kehr suggested in his original Reader capsule, the kids are better actors than the adults (who also include Anne Francis, Louis Calhern, and Richard Kiley). Writer-director Richard Brooks had a flair for sensationalism, and his adaptation of Evan Hunter’s novel is loads of fun as a consequence, but don’t expect much analysis or insight. (JR)
My column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, adapted from a longer piece written for The Chiseler and submitted in August 2020. — J.R.
En movimiento: Herzog’s Tweet Factor
When I first saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God, setin 16th century Peru, what impressed me the most was what Werner Herzog cheerfully but cynically revealed about his opening intertitle: “A large expedition of Spanish adventurers led by Pizarro sets off from the Peruvian sierras in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal.” At his Cannes premiere in 1973, Herzog admitted that this was a total lie, invented because he reasoned that people wouldn’t accept the film’s premises otherwise.
His Family Romance, LLC (2019) employs the same ruse. The real Tokyo company that this film is about rents out actors to play the roles of family members, friends, or functionaries for lonely individuals — e.g., a divorced father whom a 12-year-old girl hasn’t seen since her infancy, or a bullet-train worker who needs to be shamed by his boss for bungling a precise train schedule. The resulting feature has been described as a mixture of documentary and fiction, but apart from the company’s founder, playing himself, the entire film is fictional—scripted by Herzog and shot by him with a tiny camera, with actors playing all the characters.… Read more »
(1981), C. Director: Dennis Hopper. With Linda Manz, Dennis Hopper, Sharon Farrell, and Raymond Burr. 94 min. R. Media, $59.95.
When it was released, a friend wittily and succinctly described Out of the Blue as “Dennis Hopper’s Ordinary People.” Though this film didn’t start out as a Hopper movie (he signed on as an actor and took over direction after shooting started), it certainly has the Hopper flavor: relentlessly raunchy and downbeat, and informed throughout by the kind of generational anguish and sense of doom that characterizes both of his earlier films [Easy Rider and The Last Movie].
Hopper, one should recall, is a figure identified with the 1950s. He made his acting debut alongside James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Conceived as a kind of punk remake of Rebel set in a contemporary working-class environment, Out of the Blue centers around Cindy “CeBe” Barnes (Linda Manz), an alienated 15-year-old punk who perpetually mourns the deaths of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), is a junkie who works at a cheap restaurant; her father, Don (Hopper), is a former trucker and an alcoholic finishing off a five-year stint in prison when the film opens.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 31, 1992). — J.R.
Ever since he moved to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has been an invaluable presence not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Still, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters may diminish the film’s overall accomplishment but shouldn’t be allowed to serve as an excuse to overlook it; as he puts it, the film’s “intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable.” Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev.… Read more »