QUACKBUSTERS

From the Boston Phoenix (September 15, 1989). — J.R.

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Recyclings of Hollywood history are very much with us, but this postmodernist conflation of seven vintage Chuck Jones cartoons, one each by Friz Freleng (Hyde and Go Tweet) and Robert McKimson (Prize Pest), and with 60 percent new animated material masterminded by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon, succeeds where such previous compilations as Bugs Bunny, Superstar and Daffy Duck’s Movie fail. In an attempt to revive the long-dormant Warners cartoon tradition, Ford and Lennon wrote two new Daffy Duck cartoons, Night of the Living Duck and Duxorcist. Drawing on the currently popular horror genre, they expand these two with vintage Warners cartoons deftly woven together. And so, in lieu of Ghostbusters, they offer Quackbusters.

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The new material suggests they may have been a little anxious about tampering with the sacred Warners animation vaults. Daffy inherits the fortune of millionaire I.B. Cubish and starts a ghostbuster business, hiring Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig as “associates” (read: “dupes”) to carry out all the dirty work, with Porky’s cat Sylvester brought along as an office pet. But Cubish’s ghost expects Daffy to be an honest businessman (businessduck?) and public benefactor, so every time Daffy displays unethical, venal behavior, the cash in his Acme safe dwindles.

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COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL

From the Boston Phoenix (September 15, 1989). — J.R.

comic book confidential

This enjoyable documentary about American comic books takes up a subject so fruitful and entertaining, it’s surprising no one has ever made such a film before. Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann — whose previous cultural investigations include feature-length documentaries about avant-garde jazz (Imagine the Sound) and North American poets who sing and chant their works (Poetry in Motion), and who is currently preparing a feature about the Twist — dives into his chosen turf with the zeal and affection of a voracious fan.

Starting out with the inception of comic books, in 1933, Mann gives us breezy surveys of the superheroes (such as Superman, Batman, and the Fantastic Four), EC Comics (which produced the best horror and sci-fi comics in the 50s and spawned the original version of Mad), the underground artists (such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodrigues) who emerged in the 60s, and more recent figures such as Art Spiegelman, Sue Coe, and Lynda Barry, as well as the deliberations and operations of Raw, a contemporary publicatiin with a somewhat more self-conscious notion of the comic book as art.

Some of Mann’s funniest material is archival footage of anti-comic-book propaganda from the 50s, when Dr.… Read more »

Quack to the Future

From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 1989). — J.R.

DAFFY DUCK’S QUACKBUSTERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Greg Ford and Terry Lennon

With Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Pie, Sylvester the Cat, J.P. Cubish, and the voice of Mel Blanc.

It seems more a matter of confusion at Warner Brothers than either poetic justice or business acumen that has denied this triumphant new cartoon feature a theatrical opening in Chicago, although it has recently become available here on video. After a limited if successful run in a New York theater last fall and several scattered theatrical play dates elsewhere in the U.S., Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters has entered the vast no-man’s-land of new features that are available for the most part only on tape, never having received the mainstream attention routinely accorded to other, mainly inferior, Hollywood releases.

Recycled Hollywood classics are very much in evidence right now, in a variety of forms, but this postmodernist conflation — consisting of nuggets from nine earlier Warner Brothers cartoons, two more-recent ones, and a generous amount of new material — displays a critical intelligence and a creative energy that were not apparent in such previous compilations as The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie, The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales, and Daffy Duck’s Movie: Fantastic Island.… Read more »

The Gaze of Antonioni

 Written for Rouge No. 4 (2004). — J.R.

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The Gaze of Antonioni

Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Surfacing without press screenings at a few theatres in the Landmark arthouse chain in the US for two weekend screenings in mid-August, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 17-minute Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo may conceivably be his most interesting film since Red Desert (1964). It’s hard to be sure of this after only one look at it – the film was abruptly withdrawn after qualifying for an Oscar nomination – but I thought afterwards that I might have just seen one of the first truly durable reflections to date on digital cinema.

The Gaze of Antonioni

Mislabelled Michelangelo Eye to Eye in English when a more accurate English title might be The Gaze of Michelangelo, this beautifully filmed meditation is preceded by an intertitle – the only words in the film apart from the credits – explaining that Antonioni has been confined to a wheelchair since his stroke in 1985, but through the ‘magic of movies’ shows himself visiting the sculpture on foot. The action consists of Antonioni – walking without a cane, and looking like Antonioni prior to his stroke – entering the St. Pietro church in Rome to look at and then touch and caress portions of the restoration of Michelangelo’s Moses, then leaving again.Read more »

Debra Paget and Mark Rappaport, For Example

 Commissioned by Fandor Keyframe in late January 2016. — J.R.

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Mark Rappaport and I have been friends for well over three decades. He’s a year older than me, and even though our class and regional backgrounds differ, we’re both film freaks and film historians who grew up with the same Hollywood iconographies, for better and for worse. How these experiences might qualify as better or worse have been the source of countless friendly arguments, all the more so when they converge on the same objects of fascination — as the title of his latest video puts it, Debra Paget, For Example.

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Thirty-six minutes and thirty-six seconds long, this juicy video about the 15-year screen career of Debra Paget (1948-1963, ages 14 to 29, including a busy eight-year stretch as contract player at Fox, 1950-1957) seems at times to cover almost as much material and as much cultural ground as Rappaport’s two star-centered film features, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies  (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), both of which I’ve reviewed in the past. (See www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1992/11/rock-criticism and www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1996/01/riddles-of-a-sphinx for specifics.) It might even be called a compendium of Rappaport’s rhetorical strategies, such as using an actor to play the star in question — as in those two features, although here only offscreen (as was also done in his brilliant recent video I, Dalio, or The Rules of the Game), with Paget voiced by Caroline Simonds — and using Rappaport’s own voice, as in another recent video, The Circle Closes.Read more »

APARTMENT ZERO

From the Boston Phoenix (September 8, 1989). — J.R.

Apartment-zero

I haven’t seen Martin Donovan’s first feature, 1984′s State of Wonder, but his eclectic background in both fikm and theater suggests that a baroque thriller like Apartment Zero isn’t coming out of nowhere. Born in Argentina, Donovan began his overseas career in Italy, as an actor (Fellini’s Satyricon) and an assistant to Luchino Visconti (on Ludwig and Conversation Piece). Then he founded his own theater company in England, Nuvact Studio Inyternational (where his productions included Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and his own play, Osterich), before writing and directiung State of Wonder.

Apartment Zero marks Domnovan’s return to Argentina, and the film’s multinational cast and crew bring together co-workers from three continents. Its disquieting suspense plot begins with the bizarre bonding of a reclusive, repressed eccentric named Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth), who operates a film club in Buenos Aires, and a charismatic, mysterious American named Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), whom LeDuc takes on as a tenant to help cover his mother’s hospital expenses.

The movie takes its time developing its perverse plot — which involves a series of serial murders in Buenos Aires and the employment of foreign mercenaries in Argentina’s death squads.… Read more »

Plumbing the Shallows [THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS]

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). I think I underrated The Five Obstructions, which I now regard as my probable favorite of von Trier’s films, after having reseen it, remastered,  on the DVD recently released by Kino Lorber. One obvious advantage to seeing it on DVD is that Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, is included in its entirety as an extra, and even though I find it less interesting than the various “remakes” included in The Five Obstructions, finally getting a chance to see it in its entirety makes the Leth and von Trier feature a lot more satisfying and interesting. — J.R.

The Five Obstructions

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier

With Leth, von Trier, Claus Nissen, Maiken Algren, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Patrick Bauchau, and Alexander Vandernoot.

What the Bleep Do We Know?

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz

Written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman

With Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Robert Bailey Jr., Barry Newman, and Larry Brandenburg.

When is an “experimental film” not an experimental film? This might seem a niggling matter to the ordinary paying customer, but it’s a serious issue for artists who’ve devoted their careers and lives to experimental filmmaking, knowing that they’ve given up the possibility of a wide audience by doing so.… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [CHILDREN OF MEN & PAN'S LABYRINTH]

Children of Men ***

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Written by Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby with Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Pam Ferris, and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Pan’s Labyrinth ****

Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro

With Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones

Over the past few years three highly talented and ambitious young Mexican film directors — Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — have made their way into the American mainstream. All three seem to have managed this trick by defining themselves mainly in terms of genre, which isn’t surprising given the industry’s insistence that everything be defined according to pitches and formulas, all in 25 words or less — the consequence of a desire to exhaust existing markets rather than attempt to nurture or create new ones.

Cuaron’s done some children’s fantasy (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and literary adaptation (Great Expectations), a sex comedy/road movie/coming-of-age story (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and now an action-adventure/SF/war movie (Children of Men). His most ambitious movies seem to cram together several genres — or at least the suits’ notions of genres.… Read more »

On the Denied Politics of THE HURT LOCKER

I’m really tired of hearing from American reviewers that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “isn’t political”. This specious and even insulting claim is clearly part of their effort to convince people to see the movie, and I’m at least sympathetic to that part, since the film is far and away the best new American commercial feature I’ve seen in months — the best constructed and the most thoughtful and entertaining. It’s also the best commercial American film about the so-called “war in” (I prefer “occupation of”) Iraq, at least since In the Valley of Elah, on which writer Mark Boal also furnished much of the material.

First of all, the notion that any American film made today with an Iraqi setting could possibly be apolitical in any shape or form strikes me as being extremely naïve and myopic. Secondly, I can’t imagine what could make the notion of an apolitical film on this subject sound even remotely attractive. Are we really that helpless and hopeless?  And are we so blinkered in our perceptions of what politics consists of that we think it’s limited to how we vote in elections? (Spoiler ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.)

This is a film whose most courageous character is shown to be myopic to the point of insanity when it comes to perceiving Iraqi people in his midst — or at least one Iraqi kid in particular whom he supposedly knows and has some fondness for.… Read more »

Action and Distraction (STRANGE DAYS)

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 1995). — J.R.

Strange Days

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks

With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, and Richard Edson.

In the introduction to his recently published first draft of the Strange Days screenplay, James Cameron offers a candid, suggestive description of what working on the script was like: “The problem was I had never written anything remotely this densely plotted and character driven. I circled and circled the computer, like a dog slinking around trying to work up the courage to steal food from a sleeping drunk.”

Cameron’s simile could be seen to apply not so much to Strange Days and other overhyped media events as to the sort of measures our legislators have been pushing through Congress lately. These measures more or less state that we can no longer afford to coddle criminals, the elderly, crack babies, the poor, the sick, or the homeless or support art, culture, or education — not because we’re living through any kind of depression but because millionaires still aren’t making as much money as they want to. Assuming that we’re the sleeping drunk in this scenario, it’s worth asking what sort of dreams we could possibly be having that would allow those congressional canines to find the courage to slink around us with this kind of hope.… Read more »

Expatriate Filmmaking, For Better and For Worse

From Stop Smiling, issue 36, 2008. — J.R.

It’s easy to argue that most of the greatest filmmakers in the history of movies can’t be reduced to single nationalities, and that an uncommon number of them worked as expatriates. “I’m not at home anywhere,” declares Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau), the expatriate director-hero in Wim Wenders’ underrated The State of Things (1982) — shooting an apocalyptic SF film in a remote corner of Portugal until money suddenly runs out and he has to chase down the producer (Allen Garfield) in Hollywood, who appears to be fleeing from the Mafia. This line is actually a quote from a real-life, very great German expatriate director with a similar name, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. And it might be argued that a condition of homelessness has helped more major filmmakers than it’s hurt, maybe because it’s forced them to reinvent themselves — a process that has also often entailed reinventing their cinema.

Some examples of this tendency may not be immediately obvious. Luis Buñuel is usually regarded as quintessentially Spanish, yet he only made three films that fully qualify as Spanish — a short documentary called Land without Bread (1932) and two features, Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970).… Read more »

Sexual Repression and Rebellion in the Early 1950s: Philip Roth’s INDIGNATION

 

Written for the Library of America’s web site The Moviegoer. The version published there on May 3, 2017  differs somewhat from the original version posted here, especially the ending. — J.R.

No less than seven features to date have been based on works by Philip Roth, and three of these have been directed by first-timers, all of whom previously made their cinematic mark in other professional capacities. Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) had a long and distinguished screenwriting career before directing his own adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1972, and Ewan McGregor acted in over four dozen features before directing American Pastoral 44 years later. James Schamus, a film professor at Columbia University, had over fifty producing credits — plus writing and producing credits on all but three of Ang Lee’s features — before he added direction to his producing and writing on Indignation. This has yielded what Stephen Holden in the New York Times has called “easily the best film made of a Roth novel, which is saying a lot.”

 

Schamus’s dexterity in navigating both commercial film production and academia has served him well on this project, enabling him to honor his source while rendering it both accessible and personal.… Read more »

Millers’ High Life

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1990). — J.R.

HENRY & JUNE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Philip and Rose Kaufman

With Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Maria de Medeiros, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey.

“There are larval thoughts not yet divorced from their dream content, thoughts which seem to slowly crystallize before your eyes, always precise but never tangible, never once arrested so as to be grasped by the mind. It is the opium world of woman’s physiological being, sort of a show put on inside the genito-urinary tract. There is not an ounce of man-made culture in it; everything related to the head is cut off. Time passes, but it is not clock time; nor is it poetic time such as men create in their passion. It is more like that aeonic time required for the creation of gems and precious metals; an embowelled sidereal time in which the female knows that she is superior to the male and will eventually swallow him up again. The effect is that of starlight carried over into day-time.”

This elegant huffing and puffing belongs to Henry Miller, writing about the journals of Anais Nin in a 1939 essay called “Un Etre Etoilique” (A Starlike Being), collected in The Cosmological Eye.… Read more »

Two Weeks in Another Town

My 1973 Cannes coverage for London’s Time Out (which ran in their June 8-14 issue, about a year before I moved to London from Paris), slightly tweaked. I’m pretty sure I submitted something longer and more detailed (judging from my penultimate sentence, my account of Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow must have been one of the several things that was cut),  but I no longer have the original version to verify this. — J.R.

 

May 11: Discounting Godspell, the opening film, which I avoided seeing yesterday both for its sake and for mine, the festival got off to a rousing start today with two strong and absorbing films.

Joseph Losey’s A Doll’s House -– shown in the official festival, out of competition — cannot however be considered a successful embodiment of the Ibsen play. The authorial agendas of Ibsen, Losey, and [Jane] Fonda ultimately diverge more than combine, and we arrive at an abrupt impasse – a torso of the play that’s still missing a head.

‘To waken the sleeping beauty,’ says a carnival barker in James B.… Read more »

Talking Back to the Screen (Toronto 1992)

From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.

My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good.… Read more »