The Nibelungen

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 »

Casablanca

From the April 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R,

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)

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House Of Fools

From the Chicago Reader (July 11, 2003). — J.R.

HouseOfFools

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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)

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Asya’s Happiness

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

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 »

Twisted

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.

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Paranoia Rising: Origins and Legacy of the Conspiracy Thriller (2017 revision)

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.

les vampires speeding car

 

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It’s a tradition that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s silent serial of 1915-1916, Les vampires, about a gang of ingenious working-class criminals headed by a beautiful woman and preying on the richa crime thriller evoked in Olivier Assayas’ 1996 dark comedy about a contemporary remake, Irma Vep.Read more »

Endless Possibilities [on PUMPKIN]

From the July 26, 2002 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Pumpkin

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams

Written by Broder

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 »

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 2004). — J.R.

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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 »

The Corporation

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

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)

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Defending Bresson

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 »

Young Adam

From the Chicago Reader (April 30, 2004). — J.R.

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.

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Reality Shows

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 2004). — J.R.

Ford Transit

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer.

Super Size Me

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Morgan Spurlock.

What do we expect from documentaries? Do we seek to be informed by them or merely entertained? If it’s the former, do we expect some guidance about how to process the information?

The documentaries I’ve seen lately have made me ponder these questions. For example, last week at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film I saw a fascinating Palestinian feature called Ford Transit (showing twice this week at Facets Cinematheque) that freely mixes fiction and nonfiction as if they were alternate routes to the same goal. I also attended the world premiere of a more conventional documentary, The Take, which was made for Canadian TV and may never screen here. Finally, there’s Super Size Me (which opens at the Landmark this week), a film that has been getting considerable attention since it premiered at the Sundance festival last January.

Let’s start with The Take, which was directed by Avi Lewis and written by Naomi Klein, who’s a columnist for the Nation and the Guardian and author of the international best seller No Logo, a journalistic account of the worldwide antiglobalization movement.… Read more »

Two Neglected Filmmakers

These two short articles were written for the catalogue of the fifth edition of the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2004. Both are about neglected filmmakers who are or were also longtime friends of mine–although neither, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seen any films by the other, and they met for the first time at the festival, where complete retrospectives of both filmmakers were being presented. (I first met Eduardo in Paris in 1973, shortly after he’d finished working as a screenwriter on Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, and I first met Sara about ten years later in New York, shortly before I saw her first major film, You Are Not I, and decided to devote a chapter to her in my book Film: The Front Line 1983.) Her complete works apart from her 2017 Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat are now available in a wonderful two-disc package, which can be found here.


When I was asked to write these two pieces for the BAFICI catalogue, I opted to make them each exactly the same length (942 words) and to make them rhyme with one another in various other ways.
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Reflections on September 11 and its Aftermath

From the online Australian web site Senses of Cinema, November 2001. Some of this piece recycles some bits from “Make No Mistake: The Day the Towers Fell“, commissioned but not published by the Chicago Reader a couple of months earlier. — J.R.

Like many other Americans lately, I’ve been scared -– but like only some Americans, I’ve been scared both of Middle Eastern terrorists and those whom I regard as American terrorists, almost in equal measure. For what can be truly terrifying on occasion is how alike these two kinds of myopic, intolerant individuals can seem to be: not just religious fanatics, but ordinary Americans who all of a sudden start thinking of the vanished World Trade Center as their own private property and the terrorist attacks of September 11 as simply and unambiguously an “attack on America” –- thereby allowing the Middle Eastern terrorists and their assumed positions to set the terms of the discussion and automatically dismissing the many non-Americans who were destroyed in the attacks as irrelevant.

Three disparate yet characteristic examples of everyday American “terrorism”: (1) A headline recently blazoning Chicago’s only tabloid (Roger Ebert’s paper), the Sun-Times, announcing that the Taliban was poisoning U.S.… Read more »

PARADE

Written in 2013 for a 2019 Taschen volume. — J.R.

 

Parade

Parade poster

1.Why is Parade Tati’s least known feature?

Parade-fishing

It’s surprising how many of Jacques Tati’s fans still haven’t seen his last feature, and in some cases don’t even know about its existence. Yet the reasons for this neglect aren’t too difficult to figure out.

For one thing, Parade is the only Tati feature apart from Jour de fête in which his best known and most beloved character, Monsieur Hulot, doesn’t appear. For another thing, it was made on an extremely modest budget, and shot mostly on video for Swedish television; it never received even a fraction of the advertising and other forms of promotion, much less distribution, accorded to his five earlier pictures. And some of those who have seen it don’t even regard it as a feature, but think of it merely as a documentary of a circus performance in which Tati appears only as an emcee and as one of the performers, doing some of his more famous pantomime routines. It doesn’t have a story in the sense that all his previous films do on some level, including even his early short, L’école des facteurs (1947).

On the other hand, what we mean by “story” is already a bit different in the work of Tati than it is in the work of most other important filmmakers, comic and otherwise.… Read more »