Geishas Without Diaries

From the February 24, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Late Chrysanthemums

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Mikio Naruse

Written by Sumie Tanaka and Toshiro Ide

With Haruko Sugimura, Sadako Sawamura, Chikako Hosokawa, Yuko Mochizuki, Ken Uehara, Hiroshi Koizumi, and Ineko Arima

Depressing movies with unhappy endings are often seen as offering a bracing contrast to the standard Hollywood fare. This may help explain the appeal of Brokeback Mountain, whose drafts of misery are seen by some people as daringly honest and authentic.

I wonder. Some lives are full of misery, but this doesn’t mean movies that reflect them are automatically more truthful. If the shepherds played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had sustained a happy, loving relationship over several decades in spite of everything, Brokeback Mountain might have been truly daring — and it wouldn’t have been less believable. The impulse to privilege the dark is hardly new; in prerevolutionary Russian cinema, tragic plots ending in suicide were so common and popular that some Hollywood imports with happier endings were revised to make them more “commercial.” I would argue that a certain complacency surrounds some of these doom-ridden scenarios, especially ones that suggest social change is impossible — a vested interest in the status quo, even conservatism, seems to lurk behind the apparent apoliticism.… Read more »

The Bicycle Thief

From the Chicago Reader, March 1, 1999. (This is erroneously dated in October 1985 on the Reader‘s web site, about two years before I joined the staff.) — J.R.

An unemployed worker (Lamberto Maggiorani) in postwar Rome finds a job putting up posters for a Rita Hayworth movie after his wife pawns the family sheets to get his bicycle out of hock. But right after he starts work the bike is stolen, and with his little boy in tow he travels across the city trying to recover it. This masterpiece -– whose Italian title translates as “bicycle thieves” -– is generally and correctly known as one of the key works of Italian neorealism, but French critic Andre Bazin also recognized it as one of the great communist films. (The fact that it received the 1949 Oscar for best foreign film suggests that it wasn’t perceived widely as such over here at the time; ironically, the only thing American censors cared about was a scene in which the little boy takes a pee on the street.) The dominance of auteurist criticism over the past three decades has made this extraordinary movie unfashionable because its power doesn’t derive from a single creative intelligence, but the work of screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, director Vittorio De Sica, the nonprofessional actors, and many others is so charged with a common purpose that there’s no point in even trying to separate their achievements.… Read more »

Kiarostami at Work [10 on TEN]

From the Chicago Reader (October 29, 2004). — J.R.

10 on Ten

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami’s recent features satisfy few of the usual expectations about narrative films. Yet in 10 on Ten – a documentary about his most recent feature, 10, showing twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center–he appears to be slavishly living up to those expectations.

Like 10, 10 on Ten is split into ten chapters, the last nine of which have labels that suggest topics in a master class: “The Camera,” “The Subject,” “The Script,” “The Location,” “The Music,” “The Actor,” “The Accessories,” “The Director,” and “The Last Lesson.” Kiarostami implies that this film — made for the French DVD of 10, released last summer (the U.S. version will be out November 2) — is his attempt to explain the rationale behind his working methods. The film never becomes as far-fetched as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which purports to explain rationally how he made creative decisions in composing “The Raven.” Yet there’s something suspect about Kiarostami’s cookbook-style lucidity — he may be sincere, but he seems to be overestimating the role rationality plays in his decisions.… Read more »

Restored to Power [NIGHTS OF CABIRIA]

This appeared in the August 21, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Nights of Cabiria

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Federico Fellini

Written by Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Pier Paolo Pasolini

With Giulietta Masina, Franca Marzi, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari, Dorian Gray, and Aldo Silvana.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Reporting on the response to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria at Cannes in 1957, François Truffaut wrote, “Let us deplore the fad that seems to be shared equally by the audience, producers, distributors, technicians, actors, and critics who fancy that they can contribute to the ‘creation’ of the films being shown by deciding how they should have been edited and cut. After each showing, I’d hear things like ‘Not bad, but they could have cut a half-hour,’ or ‘I could have saved that film with a pair of scissors.’” As festival responses to more recent masterpieces like Taste of Cherry and The Apostle have shown, this fad is still very much with us. Another, more recent fad is to release longer versions of films that were butchered on their release. Too often these so-called director’s cuts — such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the forthcoming Touch of Evil — can’t qualify as restorations, however, because the directors were never accorded final cut in the first place.… Read more »

SHIRIN as Mirror

Written in 2010 for the Cinema Guild’s DVD release of Shirin. — J.R.

It doesn’t do justice to Shirin to call it the most conceptual of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. But it probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it the most paradoxical. Not the least of its paradoxes is the way that it simultaneously confronts and defies the specter of commercial cinema, qualifying at once as his most traditional feature and his most experimental. By focusing almost exclusively on the fiction of women watching a commercial feature that we can hear but never see — a feature that in fact doesn’t exist, apart from its manufactured soundtrack — one might even say that Kiarostami, an experimental, non-commercial filmmaker par excellence, is perversely granting the wish of fans and friends who have been urging him for years to make a more “accessible” film with a coherent plot, a conventional music score, and well-known actors.

What’s perverse about this is that the plot in question, while drawing from a traditional epic, a medieval romance widely known in Iran, belongs to an unseen and imaginary film whose on-screen spectators are precisely those well-known actors. (Both men and women comprise this imaginary audience of 110 individuals, although the only viewers featured in close-ups are women.) Yet despite the uses of a conventional plot and music and well-known actors, none of the usual commercial rules for commercial movies are met.… Read more »

Fill in the Blanks

From the May 29, 1998 Chicago Reader. I’m in the midst of updating the filmography and bibliography for the second edition of my book with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa about Abbas Kiarostami, which should be out next spring, and which has prompted reposting a few of my pieces about him.  — J.R.

Taste of Cherry

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolhossein Bagheri, Ali Moradi, Hossein Noori, and Ahmad Ansari.

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act. — Orson Welles, 1938

Much of what’s been called innovative in the art of movies over the past half century has at first been seen by part of the audience as boring or as representing a loss — usually because it has somehow redefined the shape and function of narrative. When Jean-Luc Godard introduced jump cuts in Breathless (1959) some viewers saw a loss in continuity; and when he got actors to spout literary quotations — which sometimes undercut the verisimilitude of his characters and plots — many thought he was opening the door to chaos.… Read more »

Shouts and Murmurs [MONDAY MORNING & CHIWASEON]

From the Chicago Reader (June 6, 2003). — J.R.

Monday Morning

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Otar Iosseliani

With Jacques Bidou, Anne Kravz-Tarnavsky, Narda Blanchet, Radslav Kinski, Arrigo Mozzo, and Iosseliani.

Chihwaseon

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Im Kwon-taek

Written by Kim Yong-oak and Im

With Choi Min-sik, Han Myung-goo, Yoo Ho-jung, Ahn Sung-ki, Kim Yeo-jin, and Son Yae-jin.

I haven’t attended the Cannes film festival in five years, but one thing that keeps it fascinating from a distance is the ideological tension that gets exposed there. The Americans display a sense of entitlement, which tends to irritate representatives of other countries. And the conflict is played out in the form of rants from both sides about what’s shown in competition and what wins prizes.

The usual hyperbolic level of the discourse was exacerbated this year by the war in Iraq. American critics — especially in the trade press, which tends to have the highest profile at Cannes — expressed the same sort of disdain for French critics as other American journalists had for French politicians just before and after the invasion. In turn the French and British media bashed Hollywood studios and their flacks, just as they’d bashed the U.S.… Read more »

Three on a Mensch [on ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY]

From the January 19, 1990 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

Written by Roger L. Simon and Mazursky

With Ron Silver, Anjelica Huston, Lena Olin, Margaret Sophie Stein, Alan King, Judith Malina, and Mazursky.

It’s a truism of film criticism that the best movie adaptations of novels usually aren’t taken from the best novels. A good novel, like a good movie, has its own raison d’être, and attempting to translate one person’s novel into another person’s movie usually entails removing the novel’s raison d’etre or at least transmogrifying it beyond recognition. A classic example of misplaced piety, in the sense of a movie trying to follow a novel too closely, is Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967): despite the fact that characters, settings, and entire textual passages from Joyce are all dutifully delivered and rendered, Joyce himself is absent from the movie. The personal, historical, and formal determinations of the book have nothing to do with those of the director of the film, working almost half a century later. The gap between Joyce’s reasons for writing Ulysses and Strick’s reasons for adapting it is so cosmically wide that the two sets of motivations aren’t even on speaking terms.… Read more »

High Attitude [TRUTH OR DARE & DICE RULES]

From the Chicago Reader (May 24, 1991). What prompted me to repost my thoughts about Andrew Dice Clay was, oddly enough, the Summer issue of the French quarterly magazine Trafic, which arrived in yesterday’s mail and where the lead article, about our Madman-in-Chief, cites J. Hoberman’s excellent analysis of Trump, which alludes pertinently to Clay. — J.R.

TRUTH OR DARE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alek Keshishian

With Madonna.

DICE RULES

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jay Dubin

Written by Andrew Dice Clay and Lenny Shulman

With Andrew Dice Clay.

“I know I’m not the best singer or the best dancer. I’m interested in pushing other people’s buttons.”

– Madonna in Truth or Dare

“I have no tolerance for anyone or anybody.”

– Andrew Dice Clay in Dice Rules

Madonna’s Truth or Dare and Andrew Dice Clay’s Dice Rules are performance films about sex and defying taboos that are clearly conceived as statements from and about their stars. The movies are radically different, but they have a few things in common: an adolescent sense of outrage spurred by adolescent fans and energies, a postmodernist reliance on movie-star models, a preoccupation with narcissism and masturbation, and a painstaking effort on the part of their stars to “explain” themselves.… Read more »

Lost in Translation [THE LOST CITY]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2006). — J.R.

The Lost City

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Andy Garcia

Written by G. Cabrera Infante

With Garcia, Steven Bauer, Richard Bradford, Nestor Carbonell, Lorena Feijoo, Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman, Tomas Milan, and William Marquez

An intellectual initially associated with Castro’s revolution, G. Cabrera Infante (1929-2005) founded the Cuban Cinematheque and was known as both the Cuban James Joyce and the Cuban Laurence Sterne. He spent his final 39 years in voluntary exile in London, and his last screenplay was for The Lost City, the first feature directed by Andy Garcia. Among his works available in English are the novels Three Trapped Tigers, View of Dawn in the Tropics (the most succinct and measured, and my favorite), and Infante’s Inferno; his nonfiction includes Holy Smoke (a tribute to Havana cigars, his first book written in English) and A Twentieth Century Job, a collection of film criticism published under the pseudonym G. Cain (derived from his first initial and the first two letters of Cabrera and Infante). And there’s the screenplay for the 1971 Hollywood thriller Vanishing Point, also credited to Cain.

Sixteen years ago Garcia decided he wanted to adapt Cabrera Infante’s unadaptable, pun-packed, joyfully multicultural Three Trapped Tigers, an epic about Havana nightclub life during the late Batista period.… Read more »

Adrift in the Wasteland (NAKED)

From the February 25, 1994 Chicago Reader. It seems that a good many colleagues have ranked this film higher in Mike Leigh’s oeuvre than I did at the time; perhaps today I’d agree with them. — J.R.

*** NAKED

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Mike Leigh

With David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregg Cruttwell, Claire Skinner, Peter Wight, Deborah Maclaren, and Gina McKee.

Mike Leigh’s virtuosity as a writer-director and the raw theatrical power of David Thewlis, his lead actor, combine with the sheer unpleasantness of much of Naked to make it a disturbingly ambiguous experience. The apocalyptic, end-of-the-millennium rage of Thewlis’s Johnny — an articulate, grungy working-class lout on the dole who abuses women and spews negativity — registers at times as Leigh’s commentary on the bleak harvest of Thatcherism. But at other times it registers as the ravings of a malcontent too frustrated and paralyzed to even know what he wants. Sorting out the intelligence from the hysteria is no easy matter, and the picture rubs our noses in this uncertainty so remorselessly that we sometimes forget that what we’re watching is largely a comedy.

The first glimpse we get of Johnny, he’s having some very rough sex with a nameless woman in a Manchester alley.… Read more »

Iranian Sights [LIFE AND NOTHING MORE]

From the October 23, 1992 Chicago Reader. This represents my very first attempt to write about Kiarostami’s cinema in a longer review, while I was still beginning to get acquainted with it, and I very much regret my serious underestimation of  Where is The Friend’s House? (whose title I and others also got wrong at the time). On the matter of Tati and Kiarostami, Kiarostami has always denied having heard of him whenever I’ve brought up the name, but his former collaborator Amir Naderi affirmed that Kiarostami certainly knew who he was, having been present at the Children’s Film Festival in Tehran when Tati headed the jury there in the mid-1970s (and in fact, I was reminded by Amir’s remarks that Richard Combs, my boss at the time in London, served on the same jury). In fact, I’ve learned from Ehsan Khoshbakht that this festival was sponsored by Kanun, where Kiarostami was employed at the time. — J.R.


- J.R.

AND LIFE GOES ON . . . (LIFE AND NOTHING MORE)

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Farhad Kheradmand and Pooya Pievar.

It’s fascinating to consider the ideological factors that influence how film canons are formed, especially when it comes to films that depict unfamiliar cultures.… Read more »

Neither Noir [KISS OF DEATH & THE UNDERNEATH]

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 1995). I’ve just reseen The Underneath, for the first time in 16 years, and it still looks good — indeed, possibly even better than any other Soderbergh film I’ve seen since then (although reportedly he dislikes it himself). More recently, it seems that cynicism of various kinds tends to engulf  most of his films — perhaps making his filmmaking more appealing to some of my colleagues for this reason, but also making it less appealing to me. — J.R.

Kiss of Death Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Written by Richard Price and Eleazar Lipsky

With David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicolas Cage, Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, Michael Rapaport, and Ving Rhames.

The Underneath Rating *** A must see

Directed by Steven Soderbergh Written by Sam Lowry (Soderbergh) and Daniel Fuchs

With Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott, William Fichtner, Adam Trese, Joe Don Baker, Paul Dooley, and Elisabeth Shue.

Sound-bite explanations are the media’s preferred means for tackling (i.e., buying and selling) the past as well as the present. Growing up on media images of the end of World War II that evoke relief and euphoria as well as exhaustion, I was hardly prepared for the discovery, in the spring issue of the academic journal October, that according to the respected German filmmaker Helke Sander, approximately 1.9 million women were raped in the territories of the former Third Reich between March and November 1945.… Read more »

A Few Words on Behalf of Uggie

Okay, even though I’ve refused to place The Artist on any of my lists of end-of-the-year favorites, I’ve just finished reseeing it, and I have to admit that if I were a member of the Academy and could offer write-ins, Uggie the dog would be somewhere near the top.

Let’s be frank: we all have different thresholds when it comes to shameless bids for our affection, and these thresholds are invariably matters of taste. While I haven’t been able to forgive The Artist for pilfering and then brandishing a sizable chunk of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score near its closing stretches to impart a sense of tragedy — even after I’ve forgiven Michel Hazanavicius for all his other outrageous breaches of period and silent movie syntax (in short, his diverse and mutifaceted ahistorical outrages), not to mention his abject appropriations of diverse narrative chunks from Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and Citizen Kane – I’m still periodically won over by some of his audiovisual ideas as acts of audacity and stylistic flourishes in their own right.

Above all, I’m flabbergasted by the performance of Uggie the dog, mutt extraordinaire, which has got to be one of the best canine turns in the history of cinema.… Read more »

Wild Wild West

From the June 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WildWildWest

I never saw The Wild Wild West, a comic SF western series about two undercover agents working for President Grant that ran on TV from 1965 to 1970, but from the look of this sprightly spin-off it must have been pretty good. The director (Barry Sonnenfeld) and costar (Will Smith) of Men in Black join forces with Kevin Kline and half a dozen writers to yield an entertainingly offbeat blend of 19th-century science fiction and Hope and Crosby Road comedies (with Salma Hayek in the Dorothy Lamour part). The putative plot involves a mad scientist and Confederate sore loser reduced to an upper torso (Kenneth Branagh) who’s contriving to take over the United States with the aid of an 80-foot mechanical tarantula. Though the movie is as gadget happy as any Bond flick, the pictorial pleasures deriving from Bo Welch’s production design and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography are central to its charms. This is even lighter stuff than Men in Black, but Sonnenfeld’s cheerful irreverence keeps it reasonable. (JR)

WWWestRead more »