I’ve never thought that Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954), a New York whodunit in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, was a masterpiece, either at the age of 11 when I saw it in first-run or tonight, when I saw it on Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray, even if it held my interest both times, and even moved me at times (especially Reginald Gardiner’s character and performance). But I have to admit that the single thing I found most memorable about it in 1954 — the brassy yet awkward sort of intermission grinding the story to a halt in the eleventh hour in order to dare or challenge the audience to solve the mystery before the movie itself does — is oddly missing from the Blu-Ray.
Is this because 20th Century-Fox decided to delete this intertitle at some later date, or because Twilight Time decided it was too corny to keep? I hope it’s the former, because this label is usually pretty scrupulous about history and sticking to original versions, and indeed, part of what makes this movie watchable now (if not then) is how outlandishly dated it all is — its embarrassment about an unmarried woman’s pregnancy (which oddly places her boyfriend of roughly the same age completely beyond suspicion when she winds up murdered), its totally implausible bitch-goddess mythology (which Peggy Ann Garner can’t be blamed for, given the lines that writer-director Johnson handed her), its equally overdone diva misogyny (which Ginger Rogers arguably makes even worse than it has to be), the bored indifference of both script and direction shown towards Gene Tierney as the dutiful spouse, the goody two-shoes rectitude of Van Heflin playing Van Heflin, and the sheer palatial breadth of its Manhattan apartments (cf.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope No. 15 (Summer 2003). Needless to say, a good deal of this is dated now, and I’ve mainly left this in its original form for historical purposes, apart from deleting a few errors. (At least most of the links still work.) — J.R.
It was a tip from filmmaker Françoise Romand that led me to search out Agnès Varda’s “DVD store” on Paris’s Rue Daguerre early last February, with Australian film critic Adrian Martin along for the adventure. Not knowing quite what to expect, we found ourselves at Varda’s storefront editing studio, with an ad in the window for the video and DVD of her wonderful 2000 documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) and a note on the door to ring the doorbell across the street if no one was around. Feeling as if we were in a small town rather than on a street in Montparnasse, we were greeted by Varda at the front door of her house, and a moment later led back across the street by her, where she proceeded to demonstrate the special features of her DVD.
I hasten to add that both The Gleaners and I and its amiable hour-long 2002 sequel Deux ans après (Two Years Later) are readily available from Zeitgeist in North America, but without the extra features —- mainly, I suspect, because Zeitgeist hasn’t access to the sort of state funding that has made Varda’s deluxe edition possible.… Read more »
Query: How do you make a satire about contemporary corruption in the U.S. Congress, much of it based on real-life abuses, with a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale (executive producer Marty Kaplan) as cowriter, and somehow ensure that it never intersects with reality? Answer: Cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Murphy plays a con artist who scams his way into the Senate, then (you guessed it) belatedly develops a conscience; the filmmakers treat all the characters, not to mention the audience, as sitcom puppets. Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny) directed, and the costars are Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Joe Don Baker, Victoria Rowell, Grant Shaud, Kevin McCarthy, and Charles Dutton (1992). (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.
Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.
Fritz Lang’s first real blockbuster was this 1924 two-part silent epic — Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge — based on the 13th-century German legend that also inspired Wagner’s Ring cycle. In part one, Siegfried (Paul Richter), the son of a Norse king, wins the hand of the beautiful maiden Kriemhild (Margarethe Schon) and uses a magic sword to battle a fire-breathing dragon in the forest. Part two occurs after the death of Siegfried, when his widow accuses her half brother Hagan of murdering him. Her revenge entails marrying the king of the Huns and bearing him a son, and culminates in a bloody feast. These stunning, seminal features, restored to something resembling their original form and length in 35-millimeter by the Munich Film Museum (part one is 143 minutes, part two is 129), are even more impressive in their mythical splendor than Lang’s much better known Metropolis, anticipating everything from Fantasia (one lovely segment in Siegfried is animated) to Batman to Star Wars while showing Lang’s plastic gifts at their most impressive. Very highly recommended. David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment, though unfortunately he won’t be performing the stirring 1924 score by Gottfried Huppertz.… Read more »
Part of what makes this wartime Hollywood drama (1942) about love and political commitment so fondly remembered is its evocation of a time when the sentiment of this country about certain things appeared to be unified. (It’s been suggested that communism is the political involvement that Bogart’s grizzled casino owner Rick may be in retreat from at the beginning.) This hastily patched together picture, which started out as a B film, wound up getting an Oscar, and displays a cozy, studio-bound claustrophobia that Howard Hawks improved upon in his superior spin-off To Have and Have Not. Then again, we get Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio, and S.Z. Sakall, and Dooley Wilson performing “As Time Goes By”. PG, 102 min. (JR)
Andrei Konchalovsky’s feature — about inmates in a Russian insane asylum near the Chechnyan border who become further disoriented when Chechen soldiers take over the establishment as their temporary headquarters — is said to be based on a true story, but the writer-director is clearly pursuing some higher, allegorical truth. His lead actress, the freckle-faced Yuliya Vysotskaya, is good as a delusional patient who believes herself engaged to Canadian pop singer Bryan Adams (who plays himself in her dreams) and later transfers her fixation to one of the occupying soldiers, but her performance can’t compensate for all the pat ironies of the plot. Still, this is obviously a sincere undertaking, and there’s a certain homemade charm to the special effects used in the combat scenes (2002). 104 min. In Chechen and Russian with subtitles. (JR)
Originally entitled The Story of Asya Klachina, Who Loved a Man but Did Not Marry Him Because She Was Proud, Andrei Konchalovsky’s remarkable 1967 depiction of life on a collective farm, one of his best films, was shelved by Soviet authorities for 20 years, apparently because its crippled heroine is pregnant but unengaged and because the overall depiction of Soviet rural life is decidedly less than glamorous. (The farm chairman, for instance, played by an actual farm chairman, is a hunchback.) Working with beautiful black-and-white photography and a cast consisting mainly of local nonprofessionals (apart from the wonderful Iya Savina as Asya and a couple others), Konchalovsky offers one of the richest and most realistic portrayals of the Russian peasantry ever filmed, working in an unpretentious style that occasionally suggests a Soviet rural counterpart to the early John Cassavetes. Many of the men in the cast relate anecdotes about war and postwar experiences that are gripping and authentic, the interworkings of the community are lovingly detailed, and the handling of the heroine and her boyfriends is refreshingly candid without ever being didactic or sensationalist. Episodic in structure and leisurely paced, the film is never less than compelling.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 2004). — J.R.
A newly appointed homicide detective in San Francisco (Ashley Judd) tracks a serial killer whose victims are all men she has slept with. Director Philip Kaufman, who usually writes his own scripts, works with a cliche-ridden screenplay by Sarah Thorp, and his personal touches mainly seem to consist of selecting fashionable North Beach bars as locations. His usual flair for erotic detail largely deserts him here, and this thriller seems most interested in lingering over battered and bloodied male faces. Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia costar. R, 97 min.
An updated revision of a 1999 essay, commissioned by and posted on Slate on May 24, 2017. — J.R.
One of the paradoxes of conspiracy thrillers is that seeing the world as if it were as orderly and coherent as a work of art is both satisfying and terrifying. If everything makes sense, then it’s hard to avoid the premise that someone somewhere is creating that coherence–either God or an equally unseen puppet master. And the fact that we don’t see the strings being pulled means that our imaginations are invited to sketch them in, making us co-conspirators in the process: And opting out of this creative participation means accepting chaos: “If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia,” declares Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”
It’s a tradition that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s silent serial of 1915-1916, Lesvampires, about a gang of ingenious working-class criminals headed by a beautiful woman and preying on the rich—a crime thriller evoked in Olivier Assayas’ 1996 dark comedy about a contemporary remake, Irma Vep.… Read more »
With Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Brenda Blethyn, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan, Sam Ball, Harry Lennix, and Nina Foch.
When the New German Cinema started overtaking the French New Wave as a fashionable movement 30 years ago I felt alienated, as if someone had declared a major source of my moviegoing pleasure out-of-bounds. Taking the place of joie de vivre and jazzy invention were cynical disillusionment and cookie-cutter formal patterning — a new kind of style and content that its champions called subversive and its detractors (including me) called defeatist. Whether the mood was sarcastic (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), flamboyant (Werner Herzog), lyrical (Wim Wenders), or hieratic (Werner Schroeter), the overall message seemed to be that people and social conditions were doomed to remain mired in ruts and that hope was for suckers. The 70s were supplanting the 60s, and being glad you were alive was suddenly seen as wimpy and naive.
Little did I realize that this pessimism would remain in the culture while the German films heralding it would be forgotten even faster than the earlier French ones.… Read more »
I don’t get it. As Dave Kehr has noted, the 1962 original was an audacious mix of cold war paranoia and twisted cabaret humor. Any remake that scuttles both had better have something good to replace them with; this offers only a vague retread of anticorporate thrillers from the 70s. The story’s been updated to the first gulf war (Manchurian is now just the name of an evil conglomerate) and deprived of its major shocks (involving formal inventiveness, over-the-top dialogue, and the way the incest is presented). Oddly, it does retain some of the original’s political murkiness — the right-wing villainess (Meryl Streep) resembles Hillary Clinton — but there’s no mythic or comic payoff. If you don’t care much about the first version, or what director Jonathan Demme’s name once meant, the cast does an OK job with Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris’s routine thriller script. But the bite found in the best recent political documentaries is missing. With Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, and Jeffrey Wright. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »
Absorbing and instructive, this 2003 Canadian documentary tackles no less a subject than the geopolitical impact of the corporation, forcing us to reexamine an institution that may regulate our lives more than any other. Directors Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent) and Jennifer Abbott and writer Joel Bakan cogently summarize the history of the chartered corporation, showing how it accumulated the legal privileges of a person even as it shed the responsibilities. This conceit allows the filmmakers to catalog all manner of corporate malfeasance as they argue, wittily and persuasively, that corporations are clinically psychotic. The talking heads include not only political commentators like Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and Howard Zinn, but CEOs such as Ray Anderson, Sam Gibara, Robert Keyes, Jonathon Ressler, and Clay Timon, whose insights vary enormously. This runs 145 minutes, but it’s so packed with ideas I wasn’t bored for a second. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (April 2, 2004). This wonderful documentary, incidentally, is now available on the Criterion DVD of Pickpocket. One of its most fascinating paradoxes for me is that Mangolte, a friend, isn’t a religious person, but this documentary strikes me as profoundly spiritual; Lasalle’s home is even treated as a sacred shrine. — J.R.
Les modèles de “Pickpocket”
Directed and written by Babette Mangolte
With Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green, and Martin Lasalle.
Not until he was in his late 90s did Robert Bresson get the recognition he deserved. He died in 1999 at the age of 98, living long enough to see his work affirmed by a retrospective the Toronto Cinematheque’s James Quandt organized that traveled around the world to full houses.
For years mainstream critics regarded Bresson as esoteric, pretentious, even something of a joke. “The chief fault is that the hero is a vacancy, not a character,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in one of the more sympathetic reviews of Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket, a free adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “Martin Lasalle, who plays the part, has a bony, sensitive face, but no deader pan has crossed the screen since Buster Keaton. The besetting fallacy of modern French films and novels is the belief that nullity equals malaise and/or profundity.”… Read more »
David Mackenzie’s compelling and authoritative adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s 1953 novel revolves around a nihilistic bargeman (perfectly embodied by Ewan McGregor) who works the canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow and spends all his free time reading and screwing (often adulterously). This emotional detachment is often treated as an existential position, so the story occasionally suggests a beat version of Camus’ The Stranger, with the images’ sensual and erotic power often superseding any literal meaning. Despite the flashback structure, this is a film in which mood matters more than plot, while the hero’s heroic stature steadily shrinks. All in all, a very impressive second feature. With Tilda Swinton (The Deep End), Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe), and Emily Mortimer. NC-17, 93 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley.