Malick’s Progress

From the January 15, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Thin Red Line

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Terrence Malick

With Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen, Dash Mihok, John Savage, John Travolta, and George Clooney.

the-thin-red-line-jack-fisk

Last week the National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the year’s best picture, also awarding it best screenplay and best direction. If this baffles or bemuses you, you should know that the awards in each category are chosen by multiple ballots listing three titles in order of preference. What now seems like a collective preference for a sexy thriller over more ambitious pictures was in effect a tie-breaker between two irreconcilable positions.

As a participant in the meeting I saw partisans of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan square off against partisans of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s first film since Days of Heaven (1978). Practically no one voted for both — only Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind — so Steven Soderbergh lurched forward as a second choice, finally copping 28 votes while Spielberg and Malick tied for second place with 25 votes apiece.… Read more »

Time of the Wolf

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 2004). — J.R.

Time-of-the-Wolf

Michael Haneke’s best films — like The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown — tend to create their own world and their own rules, whereas others — like Benny’s Video, Funny Games, and this postapocalyptic tale — offer variations on films others have already made. But Haneke is still a masterful director, and his authority carries this well-acted and attractively shot account of a family from an unnamed city trying to survive in the sticks after an unspecified catastrophe. (Some have criticized the lack of explanation, but the relatively lame and familiar backstories of most such movies hardly seem an improvement.) We’ve seen much of this before, but Haneke’s theme of civilization gradually sliding away remains timely. With Isabelle Huppert and Patrice Chereau; most of the dialogue is in subtitled French. 110 min. A 35-millimeter ‘Scope print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Short Cuts [COFFEE AND CIGARETTES]

This appeared in the May 28, 2004 issue of Chicago Reader. Coffee and Cigarettes, incidentally, proved to be one of the surprise hits of Jarmusch’s career — not as commercially successful as the subsequent Broken Flowers (though I prefer it to that), but more popular than anticipated. The overhead shots of expresso cups in a more recent Jamusch feature, The Limits of Control, recall those in Coffee and Cigarettes — providing even more of a contrast with some of the weird, transgressive, and uncharacteristic camera angles in the more recent film, starting with the very first shot. (Note: the first photograph below is by Jean-Daniel Beley, who has requested a credit.)—J.R.

Coffee and Cigarettes

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, and Taylor Mead.

At first Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, made over a span of 17 years, looks like a departure for him. It consists of 11 entertaining, mainly comic short films in black and white that show people mainly sitting around in coffeehouses mainly drinking coffee, mainly smoking cigarettes, and mainly talking.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Items That You May Not Know About

From the Spring 2012 issue of Cinema Scope. Some of the facts here may be out of date, so prospective customers should proceed with caution. — J.R.

The arrival on DVD of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three solo features — Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) — has been long overdue, and it’s possible that part of the delay can be attributed to how unclassifiable and original these nonfiction films really are. The first of these has something to do with young twin sisters who were believed to have developed a private language between them, the second has something to do with both Manny Farber (as both a painter and a film critic) and a group of model train fans, and the third has something to do with the members of a Samoan street gang. But apart from Gorin’s presence and (quite diverse) Southern California settings, they’re very hard to describe or encapsulate, much less generalize about as a “trilogy” in any ordinary sense, which is part of their enduring fascination. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil [1982], which roams freely across the planet, already available with La jetée [1962] on a Criterion DVD and now out on a Criterion Blu-ray with the same materials — including terrific monologues by Gorin about both films that show how finely attuned he is to their special qualities, both as a friend of Marker and as a film essayist in his own right.) Criterion’s Eclipse has now issued all three as its 31st package, but in a refreshing departure from its usual “no-frills” format, this set includes three essays by Kent Jones — a longer one included with Poto and Cabengo about all three films, and shorter pieces with and about the other two — that are thoughtful explorations and meditations in their own right.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Mostly About Extras

My column from the Fall 2015 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

 

Practically speaking, we should invent our own extras, not necessarily or invariably depend on those that are made on our behalf. To cite four examples of what I mean:

a-marcel

a) According to normal usage, Icarus Film’s DVD of Frédéric Choffat and Vincent Lowy’s 44-minute Marcel Ophüls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais contains no extras. But according to my own usage, this DVD itself functions as an extra to a 100-page book that I own, Dialogue sur le cinéma: Jean-Luc Godard & Marcel Ophüls, published by Le Bord de l’Eau in 2011. That book — which is prefaced by short essays by Lowy and André Gazut and concludes with Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s essay for Le Monde, “Mon ami Godard” — transcribes two encounters between Godard and Ophüls held in 2002 and 2009 (the first of these focusing more on Marcel’s father Max), whereas the DVD includes most (but not all) of the second of these dialogues, and somehow manages to leave out some of the more interesting parts, either through cuts or incomplete subtitles. Which doesn’t mean that the Icarus release isn’t worth having, only that its contents are worth contextualizing beyond the material offered by Icarus.… Read more »

Double Dealing [THE FISHER KING]

From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). This film is now available on a Criterion Blu-Ray. Although I still have some issues with the film, after reseeing it on this edition, Terry Gilliam’s audio commentary is terrific, and his own enthusiasm for the film is often compelling. — J.R.

THE FISHER KING

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Richard LaGravenese

With Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, and Tom Waits.

Terry Gilliam’s elephantine yet breezy The Fisher King is a gripping new-age extravaganza, visually splendid and adroitly paced. But some gross conceptual cheating — presumably the fallout of commercial ambitions — makes the film a little hard to swallow. Gilliam’s fifth feature (he also directed Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) revels in duality — everything comes in twos — so it’s little wonder it indulges in both duplicity and outright doublethink; the film is also littered with internal “rhymes,” both significant and gratuitous. This duality may come partly from the fact that for the first time Gilliam has not written the script himself — it’s by talented newcomer Richard LaGravenese. At any rate the duality echoes Gilliam’s well-advertised desire to make this both an artistic and commercial success — to prove he can turn out a money-maker (after the box-office flop of Baron Munchausen) and yet retain his reputation as an overachiever in the grand style, a director known for his quirky humor and ravishing visual conceits.… Read more »

Critical Distance [on CONTEMPT]

From the Chicago Reader (September 5, 1997). — J.R.

Contempt

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, and Godard.

Almost exactly 33 years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard’s widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt, showing this week at the Music Box, is being rereleased as an art film — in a brand-new print that’s three minutes longer — the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It’s tempting to say in explanation that we’re more sophisticated in 1997 than we were in 1964 — that we’ve absorbed or at least caught up with some of Godard’s innovations — but I don’t think this adequately or even correctly accounts for the difference in critical response. Despite all the current reviews that treat Le mépris as if it were some form of serene classical art, it’s every bit as transgressive now as it was when it first appeared, and maybe more so. But because it’s being packaged as an art movie rather than a mainstream release — because Godard is a venerable master of 66 rather than an unruly upstart of 33 — we have different expectations.… Read more »

What is Cinema? (and, if you know what that is, What is Film Study?)

Cinema. Film Study. What a pity that the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing, and vice versa.

Thanks to the generosity of Girish Shambu, I’m the happy owner of a copy of Timothy Barnard’s retranslated, reselected, and annotated edition of André Bazin’s What is Cinema?, recently published in a handsome hardcover by www.caboosebooks.com, based in Montreal, with Varvara Stepanova’s 1922 woodcut of Charlie Chaplin, Sharlo Takes a Bow, gracing the cover.

First, here is the selection: “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “On Jean Painlevé” (a short fragment that Barnard has translated for the first time), “An Introduction to the Charlie Chaplin Persona,” “Monsieur Hulot and Time,” “William Wyler, the Jansenist of Mise en Scène,” “Editing Prohibited,” “The Evolution of Film Language,” “For an Impure Cinema: In Defense of Adaptation,” “Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style,” “Theatre and Film (1),” “Theatre and Film (2),” and “Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation”.

Regrettably, the 354-page book, with a ten-page Publisher’s Foreword, the aforementioned 13 essays by Bazin, 61 pages of helpful annotation, a combined 19-page Glossary of Films and Film Title Index, and a six-page Index of Names, is unavailable to most people outside of Canada, and for legal reasons, including copyright laws, you can’t even order this from Canadian Amazon.… Read more »

Merry Widow [THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 2001). — J.R.

The Widow of Saint-Pierre

**

Directed by Patrice Leconte

Written by Claude Faraldo

With Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Emir Kusturica, Philippe Magnan, and Michel Duchaussoy.

http://parkcircusblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/la-veuve-de-saint-pierre.jpg?w=415&h=220

I find that some movies change more than others over repeated viewings, and after three screenings Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre slid all the way from near masterpiece to effective piece of distraction. I saw it three times only out of professional duty — after seeing it at a press screening several weeks ago, I led two discussions about it for the “Talk Cinema” film series. I would have been happier seeing it only once, and if you don’t intend to spend a lot of time reflecting on it afterward, The Widow of Saint-Pierre could add up to one good evening.

That may sound condescending, but some moviegoers — including, on occasion, myself — have the attitude that “I don’t like to think when I go to movies; I want to have fun.” It’s depressing that there are people who are willing to say they can’t have fun while they’re thinking — that is, if they’re telling the truth, since I suspect some of them are fibbing, even if they don’t know it.… Read more »

Too Horrible [LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN]

From the Chicago Reader (May 11, 1990). — J.R.

LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Uli Edel

Written by Desmond Nakano

With Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach, and Alexis Arquette.

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After making the rounds of Europe late last year, this West German feature, an adaptation in English of Hubert Selby Jr.’s famous short-story collection of 1964, has finally reached our shores, and it proves to be at least as much of a mixed blessing as the book itself was a quarter of a century ago. Although shot on location in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district, adapted by an American (Desmond Nakano, who scripted Boulevard Nights about a decade ago), and featuring an all-American cast, this is very much a European picture in style and ambience, with more emphasis on mood and atmosphere than on plot and action.

Uli Edel, the director, whose best-known previous effort in the U.S. is Christiane F. (1980), and who has been interested in adapting this book since the early 70s, employs a somewhat distanced theatrical style in lighting, production design, and staging that registers a bit like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s did, though without the political irony that gave Fassbinder’s style its edge.… Read more »

Adolescent Sex in Oberhausen [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Adolescent sex in Oberhausen

Posted By on 05.10.07 at 08:19 PM

 Schnabi

I’ve just returned from the 53rd International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, where I was invited to serve on the jury of FIPRESCI, the international film critics organization. My work, apart from participating in a panel about the privatization of film experience, consisted of seeing the 64 short films in the international competition and, along with two other jurors (Oliver Baumgarten from Cologne and Alexis Tioseco from Manila), awarding one of them a prize. We picked Amit Dutta’s 22-minute Kramasha from India — a dazzling, virtuoso piece of mise en scene in 35-millimeter, full of uncanny imagery about the way the narrator imagines the past of his village and his family.

kramasha_01

 

The Festival had 14 prizes in all, gave a total of 30,000 Euros to many of the winning filmmakers, and concluded with a ceremony that lasted well over two and a half hours. Part of what made the event interesting was the same default position that sustained me through the 64 shorts I saw: the notion that at a festival as genuinely international as this one, a certain education was possible, however limited, in how people in other parts of the world were living and thinking — all of which provides a potential context for better understanding some of the choices involved, conscious or otherwise, in how Americans live and think.

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State of the Art [on TIME CODE & KHROUSTALIOV, MY CAR!]

From the April 28, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. There’s a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of Khroustaliov, My Car! just out from Arrow Academy. Please note that they spell the title differently: Khrustalyov, My Car! – J.R.

Fun and infuriating in roughly equal proportions, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is an unusually bold experiment for a major studio. Its plot is outlandish and its characters the most overblown parodies this side of Robert Altman. In some respects, it’s even more cockamamy than James Toback’s Black and White and its sensationalist riffs. So you can’t laugh at much of it without feeling either self-satisfied or stupid.

The silliness and the daring of Timecode are often made to seem like opposite sides of the same coin — a kind of cagey self-protection that cheerfully self-destructs to ensure that the movie poses little threat to anyone. Back in the 60s, critic Noël Burch tartly observed that there would always be an to provide a refuge from the implications of a Last Year at Marienbad. Timecode suggests an unlikely synthesis: a flamboyantly obvious and carnivalesque satire of Tinsel Town and its excesses tied to an open-ended, highly interactive, and somewhat abstract form. It isn’t nearly as good as either predecessor.… Read more »

Dim Wits, Small Potatoes

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by James Bridges

Written by Jay McInerney

With Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, John Houseman, Dianne Wiest, and William Hickey.

Considering the thinness of Jay McInerney’s 1984 best-seller, one might imagine that the movie version would stretch out the material, or at least fill in some of the blanks. But by and large, the original text is treated as if it were engraved in marble, and I doubt its fans will have any cause for complaint.

If Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Algren, Updike, and Styron have never received a tenth of the respect from Hollywood accorded here to Jay McInerney, this may be because, unlike McInerney, they are writers whose styles and formal structures are easily lost in translation. McInerney’s book, written in the present tense and in the second person, is already aiming for the immediacy and easy identification available from a movie, so most of the work of the filmmakers in putting it across is relatively sweat-free. In fact, given the charisma of Michael J. Fox and the spit and polish of director James Bridges — not to mention the music of Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and the cinematography of Gordon Willis — it could easily be argued that the movie fulfills the novel’s designs better than the novel does.… Read more »

10 From ’87 (1st 10-best list for the Reader)

This is the first ten-best round-up I ever did for the Chicago Reader, which ran in their January 8, 1988 issue. Having recently been reading the Library of America’s mammoth collection of Manny Farber’s film criticism (which is coming out in September), I’ve become especially aware of how much one’s taste and preferences tend to change over time. Today, for instance, I suspect I would have placed Mélo in the number #1 slot, and probably wouldn’t include House of Games or Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen in the also-rans but would move them both up to the main list. The first photo, incidentally, directly below, is from Godard’s still woefully neglected King Lear.-–J.R.

 

What is the meaning of a ten best list? For me, at any rate, it means a list of movies with the highest possible mystery quotient — the movies that fascinate me the most because they still have secrets to withhold. And the best litmus test that I know for determining this quality is repeat viewings. If a movie that knocked me out seems less mysterious after a return visit — as was the case with Broadcast News, Cross My Heart, and Orphans — then it doesn’t belong on the list.… Read more »

End or Beginning: The New Cinephilia

Published in Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema, coedited by Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, and Simon Rothoehler and published by the Austrian Film Museum in 2012. A year later, this is already out of date in some particulars, but I haven’t attempted to update it.  — J.R.

ShoalsTheatre

Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 1948

ShoalsTheatercirca2008

Shoals Theater, Florence, Alabama, 2008

         
                         

            It’s a strange paradox, but about half of my friends and colleagues think that we’re currently approaching the end of cinema as an art form and the end of film criticism as a serious activity, while the other half believe that we’re enjoying some form of exciting resurgence and renaissance in both areas. How can one account for this discrepancy? One clue is that most of the nay-sayers tend to be people around my own age (66) or older whereas most of the optimistic ones are a good deal younger (most of them under 30).

            I tend to feel much closer to the younger cinephiles on this issue than I do to the older ones. But I must admit that much of the confusion arises from the fact that the two groups typically don’t mean the same things when they use terms like “cinema,” “film,” “movie,” “film criticism,” and even “available”.… Read more »