Screwball Squirrel (1976 review)

The following was written for the May 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.

Screwball Squirrel

U.S.A., 1944
Director: Tex Avery

Cert—U. dist—Ron Harris. p.c—MGM. p—Fred Quimby. story—Heck Allen. col—[originally made in Technicolor]. anim—Preston Blair, Ed Love, Ray Abrams. m—Scott Bradley. 248 ft. 7 min. (16 mm.).

After beating up Sammy Squirrel — an effeminate Disney-like creature who purports to be the hero of the cartoon — Screwy Squirrel enters a phone booth and calls Meathead the dog to get another plot going. After an extended chase, Meathead tries to end the cartoon, but Screwy offers him one more chance to catch him. The results are immediately complicated by the fact that both confess to have been twins all along; a revived Sammy joins the group.

 

As Joe Adamson had ungrammatically but aptly noted, “Screwy Squirrel is Daffy Duck taken one step further that he absolutely has to.” A thoroughly demented character who lasted through five cartoons in the mid-Forties (Screwball Squirrel, Happy-Go-Nutty, Big Heel-Watha, The Screwy Truant, and Lonesome Lenny), he seems important in Avery’s career not so much for his own intrinsic qualities — monotonously aggressive mania and not much else — as for the wild bouts of anti-illusionist high jinks and comparable assaults on the audience that he provoked in his creators.… Read more »

Wholesale Memories [TOTAL RECALL]

From the Chicago Reader (June 8, 1990). — J.R.

TOTAL RECALL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill, and Gary Goldman

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Mel Johnson Jr., and Marshall Bell.

The most influential SF movies of the past two decades are still very much with us, not only as landmarks but as continuing influences on newer release. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) gave us a whole slew of standbys, from the use of familiar brand names in outer space to a sense of visual design that, as critic Annette Michelson once put it, dissolved the very notion of the “special effect” as it was previously understood. In 1977 Star Wars popularized the notion of SF adventure as continuous action; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same year brought a certain pop religiosity (or perhaps one should say pseudoreligiosity) back to the genre, a combination of De Mille and Disney that sanctified Spielberg lighting as a means of bestowing halos on deserving characters, creatures, or locations.

Alien (1979) revitalized the claustrophobic horror-film dynamics of The Thing (1951), internalizing the monstrous and echoing David Cronenberg’s feature of 1975, They Came From Within.… Read more »

Telling Lies in America

From the October 24, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

TellingLies

Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas — about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland — is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed — as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter) — what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering — like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America — is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show.… Read more »

Showgirls

From the September 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)

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The Black Man’s Burden [BOYZ N THE HOOD]

From the Chicago Reader (July 19, 1991). — J.R.

BOYZ N THE HOOD* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by John Singleton

With Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, and Tyra Ferrell.

It’s been estimated that at least 19 pictures by black directors will be released in the U.S. this year. That’s less than 5 percent of the total number of features, but still more than the entire output of black-directed movies of the 80s. So far we’ve had New Jack City, The Five Heartbeats, A Rage in Harlem, Jungle Fever, Up Against the Wall, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and now Boyz N the Hood; still to come are Livin’ Large, Talkin’ Dirty After Dark, Hangin’ With the Homeboys, True Identity, House Party 2, Juice, Go Natalie, Daughters of the Dust, Street Wars, Chameleon Street, Perfume, and The Three Muscatels.

Some reviewers have been treating this wave of black pictures as some sort of Golden Age. In terms of the actors, life-styles, slang, and neighborhoods hitting the screen, they may have a point. It’s also true that a sense of urgency in getting a message out gives some of these pictures a vitality and authenticity that they wouldn’t otherwise have; even a movie as technically feeble as Straight Out of Brooklyn has some claim on our attention for this reason.… Read more »

The Truth About Charlie

From the October 25, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The_Truth_About_Charlie_2002_Thandie_Newton_-_Video_Clip_03.mp4

I’ve never regarded Stanley Donen’s romantic thriller Charade (1963) as a classic, but at least it has Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, and Paris. Jonathan Demme’s flat-footed remake has Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, Tim Robbins, and Paris, none of them used very well. The various references to the French New Wave (appearances by Charles Aznavour, Anna Karina, and Agnes Varda, and a scene at Truffaut’s grave site) don’t help much either. But if Wahlberg in a beret is your idea of fun, don’t let me get in your way (at least no one ever says Ooh-la-la). The script, adapted from Peter Stone’s 1963 original, is by Demme, Steve Schmidt, Peter Joshua (Stone’s pseudonym), and Jessica Bendinger. 104 min. (JR)

TheTruthaboutCharlieRead more »

UNCUT GEMS and The Messes We Make of Our Dreams

Commissioned and published by New York’s Metrograph Chronicle in mid-December 2019. — J.R.

Uncut-Gems-Movie-Cast-Adam-Sandler-Martin-Scorsese

“Would you forgive me if I die?”                                                                                   — Question asked in the first scene of Heaven Knows What

Safdies

The movies of Josh and Benny Safdie are dominated by compulsively impulsive hustlers who continuously revise their own lives as well as those of everyone else in their immediate vicinities, most often with chaotically disastrous consequences for everyone concerned. Maybe because these scheming and prevaricating characters know how to tell lies and (somewhat less often) how to apologize for or cover up their various messes, they also qualify, at least some of the time, as skillful escape artists as well as stylish con men. They exasperate their colleagues, spouses, and other family members, who almost invariably wind up forgiving these crumb-bums for their lies and deceptions after hearing their shame-faced apologies, which are typically followed by further deceptions. This dizzying pattern seems to culminate in their new film Uncut Gems, which registers at times as a slapstick remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) — at least if one can allow for a substitution of a certain amount of manic Jewish optimism for depressive Catholic despair.

HeavenKnowsWhat

Less persuasive, at least to me, are the young junkies, both female and male, playing themselves in the 2014 Safdie opus Heaven Knows What.… Read more »

Fury

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1989). — J.R.

fury_mob

Sylvia-Sidney-in-“Fury”-1936

Unjustly accused of a crime, a man (Spencer Tracy) barely escapes a lynching and returns to wreak vengeance on the mob that nearly killed him. Fritz Lang’s first American film, made in 1936, remains one of his most powerful and fully achieved; the pitiless overhead camera angle, which carries such force in many of his other films, has a particular impact here when it appears in an impromptu documentary, a film within the film, of a near lynching that is used as courtroom evidence. Sylvia Sidney plays the hero’s fiancee, and the strong secondary cast is headed up by Walter Abel, Bruce Cabot, Edward Ellis, Walter Brennan, and Frank Albertson. Essential viewing, however bitter the aftertaste. 90 min. (JR)

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Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy

From the Summer 2004 issue of Cineaste. — J.R.

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy

by Colin MacCabe. Filmography and picture research by Sally Shafto. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 432 pp, illus. Hardcover: $25.00.

This isn’t an authorized biography of Jean-Luc Godard. But it appears to have qualified briefly as a book that might have become one after Colin MacCabe first embarked on it in the mid-Eighties. “Two years later,” he reports in his Preface, “he” — meaning Godard — “asked me how the work was progressing and this encouraged me to bury my own doubts and to prepare a very detailed treatment. By the early nineties, however, it was clear that Godard no longer had any faith in the project.”

MacCabe says nothing to explain this change of heart and loss of faith. A look, however, at one version of his detailed treatment — “Jean-Luc Godard: A Life in Seven Episodes (to Date),” published in Raymond Bellour’s 1992 Museum of Modern Art collection Jean-Luc Godard Son + Image, 1974-1991 – provides a plausible reason, especially if one zeroes in on the following passage in the second episode: “The South American journey came to an end [in Rio] when Godard’s father once again refused to support his son any longer.… Read more »

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

From The Village Voice (May 13, 2008). — J.R.

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

By Richard Brody

Metropolitan Books, 701 pp., $40

Will we ever get a critical biography of Welles, Kubrick, or Eastwood as good as Brian Boyd’s two volumes on Vladimir Nabokov? Probably not. Novelists basically have friends, relatives, and editors to be interviewed, but with high-profile movie directors, one also has to contend with countless employees, potential as well as actual. And the complications introduced by showbiz gossip about mythical and controversial figures are endless: While these stories make for compulsive reading, they interfere with criticism and scholarship.

With all that extra and unwieldy baggage in tow, a biographer may find it impossible to create a critical through-line that’s both persuasive and comprehensive. Even in the best books of this kind, either the life overrides the films (as in Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) or the criticism trumps the biography (as in Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall). And taking on a maven as prolific, innovative, and constantly changing as Jean-Luc Godard, biographer Richard Brody is clearly asking for trouble.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is that it’s 700 large-format pages long, yet winds up seeming too short — a tribute to both the author and his 77-year-old subject.Read more »

When Is a Musical Not a Musical?

From the Chicago Reader, July 25, 2003. Having just reseen Coppola’s One From the Heart (1982) for the first time since it came out, I experienced a similar ambivalence to this subsequent anti-musical, for related reasons.  – J.R.

A Woman Is a Woman

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Marie Dubois.

Even after 40 years I’m still not sure how I feel about A Woman Is a Woman (1961), Jean-Luc Godard’s third feature. The first time I saw it, as a college junior in New York, it was an unmitigated delight. But that had a lot to do with its arrival at a time when it seemed to validate ideas I and other cinephiles had about French and American film culture. It was the fourth Godard feature to open in New York (after Breathless, Vivre sa vie, and Contempt, his first, fourth, and sixth films), and the second in color and ‘Scope (after Contempt). The very notion of someone subverting the way big-budget Hollywood used canvas and palette while also taking pleasure in those elements carried an enormous charge (Contempt had been a bit too close to big-budget Hollywood to look like subversion).… Read more »

Review of SPEAKING ABOUT GODARD & NEGATIVE SPACE

From Cineaste, Fall 1998. –J.R.

Speaking About Godard

by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki; foreword by Constance Penley. New York/London: New York University Press, 1998. 245 pp., illus. Hardcover: $55.00, Paperback: $17.95.

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies (expanded edition)

by Manny Farber; preface by Robert Walsh. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Paperback: $15.95.

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s dialogues about eight features by Jean-Luc Godard, stretching from Vivre sa vie (1962) to Nouvelle vague (1990), is a book I’ve been awaiting ever since coming across its sixth and seventh chapters, on Numéro deux (1975) and Passion (1981), in issues of the journals Camera Obscura and Discourse, respectively. The two best critical studies I’ve encountered anywhere of these difficult, neglected masterworks, they manage to account for a great deal of what’s going on in them, metaphorically, ideologically, and intellectually, and the graceful division of labor between the two critics as they proceed through the films — roughly speaking, a dialectical exchange between Freud (Silverman) and Marx (Farocki) — makes the process of their exploration all the more illuminating. Silverman, a film theorist who teaches at Berkeley, and Farocki, a German essayistic filmmaker with over seventy films to his credit, are both primarily concerned with what these two films mean, and they attack this question with a great deal of lucidity and rigor.… Read more »

Catching Up with the World

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 2001). My thanks to [email protected] in Chile for reminding me that I wrote this. — J.R.

I periodically get letters from readers complaining that I write too much about movies they’ve never heard of, some of which come from countries they know little about. A good many examples of these kinds of films are playing over the next couple of weeks at the 37th Chicago International Film Festival.

The reason you haven’t heard of most of the 80-odd features on the schedule is that they don’t have multimillion-dollar ad campaigns designed to make them seem as familiar as trees — or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Warners was doing a big campaign for his latest action flick, Collateral Damage, which is about international terrorists who kill his wife and child with a bomb. Before September 11, it was scheduled as the festival’s opening attraction, but Warners belatedly came to its senses and decided not to release it (David Mamet’s Heist was abruptly coughed up as a replacement). There were times in August and early September when posters for Collateral Damage seemed almost as prevalent as American flags have been the past few weeks.

One of the American dream bubbles pricked on September 11 is the idea that we really aren’t part of the world — a delusion that seems inextricably tied to the conviction that we’re safe and invulnerable compared to other countries.… Read more »

André Delvaux’s Buried Treasures

This was written in late 2012 and early 2013 for Film Comment, but this magazine’s editor at the time loved to improvise the contents of every issue at the last moment, and this article had already been edited, scheduled, and then pulled from two separate issues. For me, it had currency and some immediacy because of the release of a Delvaux box set in Belgium; from the editor’s more land-locked Manhattan perspective, it could be published any time without making much difference. Rather than run the risk of this delay happening a third or even fourth time over the remainder of that year, and because I believed that jonathanrosenbaum.com (now jonathanrosenbaum.net) may have had a larger readership than Film Comment anyway, I decided to make a last-minute editorial decision of my own and posted it there, originally in August 2013, forfeiting the expected fee for the piece. (Like all my other texts, it subsequently got transferred here half a year later, at jonathanrosenbaum.net.)   — J.R.

Part of the strength of André Delvaux (1926-2002) as a filmmaker is that, like the otherwise very different Samuel Fuller and Jacques Tati, he was already pushing 40 when he directed his first feature — having by then studied music, German philology, and the law, and also taught Germanic languages and literature before he became a pioneer in teaching film at Belgian state schools, where Chantal Akerman and Hitler in Hollywoods Frédéric Sojcher (who has written a short book on Delvaux) were among his pupils, meanwhile playing piano to accompany silent films at the Brussels Cinémathèque.… Read more »

In Loving Memory (THE SON OF GASCOGNE)

From the August 14, 1998 Chicago Reader. I can happily report that this film is still available on DVD. — J.R.

The Son of Gascogne

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Pascal Aubier

Written by Patrick Modiano and Aubier

With Grégoire Colin, Dinara Droukarova, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Laszlo Szabo, Pascal Bonitzer, Otar Iosseliani, Alexandra Stewart, and Jean-Claude Brialy.

It’s been a full quarter of a century, but I still harbor fond memories of a low-budget French comedy called Valparaiso Valparaiso, a first feature starring Alain Cuny and Bernadette Lafont that I saw at Cannes in 1973. A lighthearted satire about the myopia of romantic French revolutionaries, it details an elaborate hoax perpetrated on a befuddled leftist — a character so absorbed in the glory of departing for Chile to fight the good fight as a special agent that he doesn’t even notice the political struggle going on around him on the French docks when he leaves.

The film was so marginal that two years passed between its completion and its modest premiere at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and you won’t find it mentioned in any of the standard reference books. No, I take that back: Jean-Michel Frodon gives it a third of a sentence in his over-900-page L’Age moderne du Cinéma Français de la Nouvelle Vague à nos jours (1995), linking it with two other films of the early 70s inspired by the French Communist Party and critical of leftists.… Read more »