Strangers in Elvisland [MYSTERY TRAIN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 9, 1990). — J.R.

MYSTERY TRAIN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles.

Mastery is a rare commodity in American movies these days, in matters both large and small, so when a poetic master working on a small scale comes into view, it’s reason to sit up and take notice. Jim Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1984 and catapulted him from the position of an obscure New York independent with a European cult following — on the basis of his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) — to international stardom.

As the first — and so far only — filmmaker informed by the New York minimalist aesthetic to make a sizable mainstream splash, Jarmusch had a lot riding on his next films, and he has acquitted himself admirably. He hasn’t sold out to Hollywood or diluted his style, and, unlike most of the few other contemporary American independents to make it big, he has managed to maintain rigorous control over every aspect of his work, from script to production to distribution.… Read more »

Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films

From DVD Beaver (posted December 2007). — J.R.

sheworeayellowribbon1

The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.

Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.

 

The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down.Read more »

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

TheSearchers-winter

It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

 

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

thebigsky1

1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952). This isn’t simply the only Hawks western that doesn’t star John Wayne (not counting his uncredited and piecemeal work on Viva Villa!

Read more »

Movie Heaven [DEFENDING YOUR LIFE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1991), and reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Albert Brooks

With Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry.

From the very titles of his four comedy features, we know that Albert Brooks is both a serious and an honest filmmaker, because each one is a precise and accurate indication of what the movie is about: Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. But what makes Brooks funny is much harder to get at or agree on.


You can’t demonstrate how funny Albert Brooks is by quoting any of his one-liners, the way you can the vastly more popular and respected Woody Allen. And you can’t say that Brooks is funnier than Allen if you’re measuring by the average number of laughs produced. (I find most of Modern Romance too painfully accurate to laugh at, although the comic conception remains flawless; and even though the laughs come more readily in Brooks’s other pictures, the degree of emotional pain being seriously dealt with is well beyond Allen’s range.) Nevertheless, I think Brooks is the best comic writer-director-actor we have in this country at the moment — certainly the most original and thoughtful, and the one who has the most to tell us about who we are.… Read more »

Worlds Apart (on MOTHER and EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU)

This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Mother
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.

Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.

Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma.… Read more »

The Studly American [APARTMENT ZERO]

From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1989). — J.R.

APARTMENT ZERO

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Donovan

Written by Donovan and David Koepp

With Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, and Francesca d’Aloja.

Although it qualifies technically as an American movie, Martin Donovan’s ambitious, disturbing thriller Apartment Zero is one of those international hodgepodges that are somewhat disorienting almost by definition. Set in Buenos Aires, made with actors and technicians from three continents, and filmed in English by an Argentinean director who has lived mainly in Italy and England since the 70s, it has the sort of multinational sprawl that only a strong script and a forceful style could hold together. Fortunately, Apartment Zero has both script and style in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it’s an exciting piece of controlled cinematic delirium.

I first encountered this movie at a midnight screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, having been guided to it by a perceptive rave in Variety by Todd McCarthy. Ever since then I’ve been wondering when and how it would eventually turn up in Chicago. It lacks most of the usual commercial calling cards (big stars, lovable nerds, genre cliches, babies, body switches, Spielberg lighting), it was passed up by the New York and Chicago film festivals, and it didn’t seem the sort of picture that Vincent Canby would like.… Read more »

Buried Clues (LA PROMESSE)

From the Chicago Reader (August 22, 1997). — J.R.

La promesse

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

With Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo, Frederic Bodson, Rasmane Ouedraogo, and Hachemi Haddad.

I’d never heard of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne before I saw La promesse (1996), an important and highly involving movie playing at the Music Box this week. But given that they’re regional filmmakers working in an unfashionable country, this isn’t surprising. Based in Liege — a city in French-speaking western Belgium — the two brothers, both in their mid-40s, started out in the 70s as assistants to Belgian director and playwright Armand Gatti. They then made leftist videos about local urban and labor issues, followed by documentary films for TV about local anti-Nazi resistance, local workers’ struggles in the 60s, and a history of Polish immigration between the 30s and early 80s. In 1986 they turned to fiction, filming a play called Falsch, and their film made the rounds of a few international festivals. In 1991 they did a more experimental feature, Je pense à vous (“I’m Thinking of You”), cowritten by the distinguished New Wave screenwriter Jean Gruault, that apparently sank without a trace after playing at a few French festivals and being slaughtered by the Belgian press.… Read more »

THE KID WITH A BIKE and Some Other Recent Art Movies

Le gamin au vélo/The Kid with a Bike

 

I’ve recently been thinking that a considerable portion of what I find the most detestable in contemporary commercial filmmaking can be summed up in a single trend: exploitation movies that go out into the world as “serious” art movies,. Admittedly, two very early examples of this trend in talkies, Lang’s M and Hawks’ Scarface, are two of the greatest movies ever made, though neither of these can be accused of stroking and glorifying the audience’s hypocrisy. But ever since the Godfather pictures, it seems, artiness has been working overtime as a kind of built-in alibi for many of the baser impulses in the audience –- various kinds of cynicism viewing corruption as inescapable, everyday, and deeply profound (e.g., Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, Contagion), extreme violence as a function of specious and hypocritical morality (or, even worse, “sensitivity,” as in Drive or, for that matter, The Passion of the Christ), gimmicky temporal structures (e.g., Tarantino, Memento, Babel) or fatuous psychologizing that are somehow supposed to dignify various forms of boorishness or nastiness (ranging from McQueen’s sexist complacencies and brutalities in Shame to von Trier’s dubious and ongoing validation of his own depression as a practical tool for coping with glitzy catastrophes and atrocities of his own making), and even the sort of Oscar-mongering that can cast a liberal activist (Woody Harrelson) as a racist thug (Rampart) to show us how “complex” the modern world is supposed to be.Read more »

Review of ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND FILM-PHILOSOPHY

 From the April 2017 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

9780748699902_1

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI AND FILM-PHILOSOPHY _________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

By Mathew Abbott. Edinburgh University Press. 167 pp. UK£70.00. ISBN 9780393243123.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

 

 

It isn’t only the hefty price that makes this volume look forbidding to most readers of this magazine. However inviting it might seem to regard the features of Abbas Kiarostami as genuine works of philosophy—not merely as philosophical statements but as brazen acts that challenge viewers into making them rethink and reformulate many of their assumptions about both life and cinema—the academic etiquette of tracing this concept through a labyrinth of other philosophers and other Kiarostami critics may often prove to be less user-friendly to the lay reader.  And it must be admitted that for readers more accustomed to journalistic paraphrase than to the rigours of scholarly hair-splitting and jargony word-spinning, a bumpy ride is in store. Mathew Abbott’s Introduction pivots on page 4 from Kiarostami to Stanley Cavell, but by this time the author has already had recourse to the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy on the previous page, and he will be chasing after Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Descartes soon afterwards

 

Even so, this book is after much bigger game than a daunting bibliography.… Read more »

True Grit [ROSETTA]

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2000); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Rosetta

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

With Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux, Olivier Gourmet, and Bernard Marbaix.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I saw Rosetta three weeks ago, and haven’t recovered from it since. In fact, I didn’t see any film since the Dardennes’, except films for work. It moves me to the heart of my heart, this film about the necessity of life, the impossibility of morality, the soil of human experience. [A teaching colleague] told me that he couldn’t watch it because he thought too much about [Robert Bresson's] Mouchette, but precisely, it’s at last Mouchette today, our Mouchette, the one we deserve, without any heaven and any transcendence. Her scream, ‘Mama! Y’a d’la boue! Y’a d’la boue!’ ['Mama! It's full of mud! It's full of mud!'] haunts me, I can’t forget it, it’s exactly the despair of being in life without any pathos, any margin, just real life in the immediacy of the impulse. — E-mail from film critic Nicole Brenez

The 80s practically ended with the euphoric takeover of Tiananmen Square by more than a million demonstrators led by students, many with access to fax machines, though a brutal government crackdown followed.… Read more »

Lost Intervals, Doomed and Waiting Souls: Pedro Costa’s HORSE MONEY

From the Summer 2015 Artforum.(This version is slightly different.)  — J.R.

Vitalina

Ventura

Doctor (off): Has this happened to you before?
Ventura: It will happen again, yes it will.

horse-money

Trying to rationalize Pedro Costa’s Horse Money in terms of a synopsis is ultimately a fool’s game, but connecting it to recent Portuguese history is a necessity. The April 25, 1974 military coup known today as the Carnation Revolution, led by the leftwing MFA and ending the Estado Novo dictatorship that lasted almost half a century, took place when Costa was in his early teens. Ventura, Costa’s slightly older principal protagonist in practically all of his other recent films — a Cape Verdean immigrant and construction worker, always playing himself and scripting his own dialogue — was around in Lisbon too. But as Costa told Mark Peranson in an interview in Cinema Scope, Ventura’s experience of the same events was radically different:

I was very lucky to have been a young man in a revolution, really lucky….And I was discovering a lot of things, music and politics and film and girls, everything at the same time, and I was happy and anarchist and shouting in the streets and occupying factories and things like that — I was 13 so I was a bit blind.Read more »

What Dope Does to Movies

The following essay was commissioned by Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in 1992 for the book-spinoff of his documentary Grass. I wrote this around the same time that I reviewed Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai for the Chicago Reader, which helped to focus my conclusion; for more aspects of this argument, see “International Sampler”.—J.R.

What Dope Does to Movies

By Jonathan Rosenbaum


To the memory of Paul Schmidt

Consider how the camera cuts from Richie Havens’s face, guitar, and upper torso during his second number in Woodstock (1970) to a widening vista of thousands of clapping spectators, then to a much less populated view of the back of the bandstand, where there’s no clapping, watching, or listening — just a few figures milling about near the stage or on the hill behind it. What’s going on? This radical shift in orientation and perspective—a sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation — is immediately recognizable as part of being stoned, and Michael Wadleigh’s epic concert film, which significantly has about the same duration as a marijuana high, is one of the first studio releases to incorporate this experience into its style and vision.

Or think of the way that Blade Runner (1982) starts: a long, lingering aerial view of Los Angeles in the year 2019, , punctuated by dragon-like spurts of noxious yellow flames, with enormous close-ups of a blue eye whose iris reflects those sinister, muffled explosions.… Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »

Jarmusch in the American Weeds

From The Guardian, August 27, 2004, where this appeared under the title “Independence Day”. — J.R.

It’s an enduring and endearing paradox of Jim Jarmusch’s art as a writer-director that even though it may initially come across as a triumph of style over content, it arguably turns out to be a victory of content over style. The humanism of this mannerist winds up counting for more than all his stylistic tics, thus implying that his manner may simply be the shortest distance between two points.

Maybe it’s the ultimate paradox of minimalism: the less your work does and is, the more these things matter. In Jarmusch’s case, this partially means that the very notions of hipness and independence that originally defined his stylish filmmaking in the 80s — with Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984) Down by Law (1986), and Mystery Train (1989) — started working against his public profile in the 90s, especially once being outside the mainstream started being regarded with greater suspicion.

Furthermore, around the time of Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1992), released the same year as Reservoir Dogs, hipness and independence as values within American culture had both become somewhat muddled and coarsened in the process of becoming mainstreamed.… Read more »

DEAD MAN in 2010: A Czech Preface

This was written in September 2010 to introduce the Czech translation and edition of my book about Dead Man (BFI, 2000), which I believe has just been published. — J.R.

During the fifteen years that have passed since Jim Jarmusch’s sixth and most ambitious feature premiered in Cannes, it’s been gratifying to see its critical reputation steadily rising, especially in the U. S.And during the last two-thirds of this period, after this book made its first appearance, I’ve been pleased to see its constituency growing. It has subsequently had a second edition in English, which appeared in 2008, and a French translation, by Justine Malle, published by Les Éditions de la Transparence in 2005. Now that it’s coming out in a Czech edition, it’s worth mentioning (but not dwelling too much on) the fact thatJarmusch’s paternal grandparents were Bohemian, although they never spoke any Czech in his presence. (He also told me, with some hesitation, that his mother’s parents may have been Irish; he isn’t even sure about this.) I was in Cannes in 1995, and the several walkouts during the picture that I witnessed were hardly unprecedented, especially for a demanding film of this kind at this festival. But for many years afterwards, the film qualified as a film maudit, and not only because its own American distributor, Miramax, appeared to want it to fail, after it became clear that Jarmusch had no intentions of following any of its suggestions for re-editing (specifically, those of Harvey Weinstein) — an attitude in striking contrast to that of Weinstein protégé Quentin Tarantino, misleadingly identified as an independent filmmaker, who seemed quite happy to forego final cut in exchange for getting Weinstein’s unlimited support.… Read more »