Lost In Their Parts [THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 22, 2001). — J.R.

The Anniversary Party

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming

With Leigh, Cumming, John Benjamin Hickey, Parker Posey, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Denis O’Hare, Mina Badie, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, Matt Malloy, Michael Panes, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Anniversary Party was written and directed by two actors, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who created all the parts specifically for themselves and actors they knew. So it’s no surprise that a handful of the characters at this dusk-to-dawn Hollywood party, celebrating the sixth wedding anniversary of Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh), are themselves professional actors (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Adams, Kevin Kline, and Phoebe Cates, the latter two a real-life couple whose son and daughter are also featured). The other guests are different sorts of people: a film director (John C. Reilly), Joe and Sally’s business managers (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey), a photographer (Jennifer Beals), a musician (Michael Panes), and the next-door neighbors (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare), awkward mixers who’ve been invited mainly because they’ve been threatening to sue Joe and Sally. (The husband, a novelist, claims that the barking of their dog disrupts his work.)… Read more »

Werner Herzog Takes Us All On the Bad Faith Express: Reflections on FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC

Commissioned by The Chiseler, and posted there on July 4, 2020. — J.R.

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My first encounter with Werner Herzog was at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1973, where I first saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God in an English-dubbed version that included, if memory serves, a few Brooklyn accents in 16th century Peru. (This is why it took some rethinking and retooling before the film could be successfully exhibited in the U.S., in German with subtitles.) But what flummoxed me the most–in spite of the film’s awesome visual splendor and its crazed poetic conceits–was what Herzog revealed about the opening intertitle when I asked him about it during the Q & A.

Aguirre

The intertitle: “After the conquest and sack of the Incan empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon tributaries. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers led by Pizarro sets off from the Peruvian sierras in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gaspar de Carvajal.” Herzog’s cheerful admission: the bit about thedocument and the diary was a total lie, invented by him because he reasoned that people wouldn’t accept the film’s premises otherwise.… Read more »

Make Way for Tomorrow

From the February 24, 2oo6 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

With the possible exception of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, this 1937 drama by Leo McCarey is the greatest movie ever made about the plight of the elderly. (It flopped at the box office, but when McCarey accepted an Oscar for The Awful Truth, released the same year, he rightly pointed out that he was getting it for the wrong picture.) Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play a devoted old couple who find they can’t stay together because of financial difficulties; their interactions with their grown children are only part of what makes this movie so subtle and well observed. Adapted by Vina Delmar from Josephine Lawrence’s novel Years Are So Long, it’s a profoundly moving love story and a devastating portrait of how society works, and you’re likely to be deeply marked by it. Hollywood movies don’t get much better than this. With Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, and Porter Hall. 91 min. 16mm. Also on the program: McCarey’s silent comedy short Be Your Age (1926), with Charley Chase. Sat 2/25, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.

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My Contributions to DVDs and Blu-Rays

A fairly complete and reasonably up to date checklist. All of the printed essays listed here are (or will be) available on this site. – J. R.

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

BIGGER THAN LIFE (BFI DVD, U.K.; video conversation with Jim Jarmusch)

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THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

BLACK TEST CAR & THE BLACK REPORT (Arrow Blu-Ray: scripted and narrated audiovisual essay)

A BREAD FACTORY (Grasshopper Film DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.; video conversation with writer-director Patrick Wang)

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BREATHLESS (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.; scripted video essay)

CASA DE LAVA (Second Run Features DVD, U.K.: original essay; reprinted in Grasshopper Film DVD in the U.S.)

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CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (BFI Blu-Ray, U.K: reprint of “Work and Play in the House of Fiction”)

LA CÉRÉMONIE (Home Vision Entertainment DVD, U.S.: reprinted essay)

CHANTAL AKERMAN: FOUR FILMS [FROM THE EAST, SOUTH, FROM THE OTHER SIDE, DOWN THERE] (Icarus Films DVD boxed set, U.S.: original essay)

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CLOSE-UP (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray; audio commentary with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa)

THE COMPLETE JACQUES TATI (Criterion Blu-Ray boxed set, U.S.: original essay)

THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN (Criterion DVD boxed set, U.S.: original essay & audio commentary with James Naremore)

CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (Madman DVD, Australia: original essay)

CRUMB (Criterion DVD & Blu-Ray, U.S.:Read more »

The American Gaze

From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 2001). — J.R.

Signs & Wonders

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

Written by James Lasdun and Nossiter

With Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Dimitris Katalifos, Ashley Remy, and Michael Cook.

+

The Fourth Dimension

Rating *** A must see

Directed, written, and narrated by Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Broadly speaking, Signs & Wonders, an ambitious thriller set in contemporary Athens, and The Fourth Dimension, a documentary about Japan, derive most of their strengths from being meditations by American tourists. Signs & Wonders, running this week at Facets Multimedia Center, is a 35-millimeter feature shot on digital video, and it’s directed by Jonathan Nossiter, a quirky and talented son of a journalist who grew up in France, England, Italy, Greece, and India and has made only one previous narrative feature, Sunday (1997). Nossiter wrote both films with James Lasdun, a Londoner now based in the U.S. who also wrote the story on which Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1998 Besieged was based.

It’s a gorgeous mess of a movie, brimming with provocative ideas about the state of the planet, multinational corporations, political amnesia, American idealism, and some of the monstrous ways love can turn sour, and demonstrating how these ideas can converge and inform one another.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Diverse Kinds of Do-it-Yourself Subterfuge, Mainly American

My summer 2020 column for Cinema Scope. — J.R.

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Well before the coronavirus pandemic kicked in, I’d already started nurturing a hobby of creating my own viewing packages on my laptop. This mainly consists of finding unsubtitled movies I want to see, on YouTube or elsewhere, downloading them, tracking down English subtitles however and whenever I can find them, placing the films and subtitles into new folders, and then watching the results on my VLC player. The advantages of this process are obvious: not only free viewing, but another way of escaping the limitations of our cultural gatekeepers and commissars— e.g., critics and institutions associated with the New York Film Festival, the New York Times, diverse film magazines (including this one), not to mention the distributors and programmers who pretend to know exactly what we want to see by dictating all our choices in advance. (I  hasten to add for the benefit of skeptics that my interest in subtitling unsubtitled movies has nothing to do with liking certain films because they’re neglected: I’ve been employing the same practice lately with some of the films of Carol Reed, largely because I like combining the pleasures of reading with those of film watching.)… Read more »

Stromboli

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J.R.

Roberto Rossellini’s first filmic encounter with Ingrid Bergman, made in the wilds in 1949 around the same time the neorealist director and the Hollywood star were being denounced in the U.S. Senate for their adulterous romance. Widely regarded as a masterpiece today, the film was so badly mutilated by Howard Hughes’s RKO (which added offscreen narration, reshuffled some sequences, and deleted others) that Rossellini sued the studio (and lost). The Italian version, which Rossellini approved, has come out on video, and this rarely screened English-language version is very close to it. A Lithuanian-born Czech refugee living in an internment camp (Bergman) marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) in order to escape, but she winds up on a bare, impoverished island with an active volcano, where most of the locals regard her with hostility. The film is most modern and remarkable when the camera is alone with Bergman, though Rossellini wisely shows neither the wife nor the husband with full sympathy. Eschewing psychology, the film remains a kind of ambiguous pieta whose religious ending is as controversial as that of Rossellini and Bergman’s subsequent Voyage to Italy (though its metaphoric and rhetorical power make it easier to take).… Read more »

Cabaret

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

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Bob Fosse pretends to be doing a Brecht-Weill while actually further sentimentalizing and glamorizing Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin –adapted by Jay Presson Allen, and apparently closer to the play I Am a Camera than to the Broadway show. Whatever this 1972 feature is, it’s entertaining and stylish, though maybe not quite as serious as it wants to be. Liza Minnelli stars at her near best, and Joel Grey is the caustic nightclub emcee; both won Oscars along with Fosse, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and music director Ralph Burns. With Michael York, Marisa Berenson, Helmut Griem, and Fritz Wepper; John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the salty songs. PG, 128 min. (JR)

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Involuntary Geniuses [THE TIC CODE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J.R.

The Tic Code

**

Directed by Gary Winick

Written by Polly Draper

With Gregory Hines, Draper, Christopher George Marquette, Desmond Robertson, Carol Kane, Carlos McKinney, Dick Berk, John B. Williams, and Tony Shalhoub.

 

Writing about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s most musical book, the late William Troy had the perspicacity to point out that “a word, in the terminology of modern physics, is a time-space event. It is not too much to say that for the poet no word in a language is ever used twice exactly in the same way.” Since a musical note is also a time-space event — repeatable on paper, CD, or tape but not in live performance — existentially speaking an improvised jazz solo is a journey, a dramatic and social act that can happen only once.

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It’s possible to capture certain aspects of jazz performances in words, as critic Whitney Balliett and novelist Rafi Zabor (in the wonderful The Bear Comes Home) have amply demonstrated. But what film can do poetically with jazz solos is much less certain. It might be argued that most films and most jazz solos have stories to tell, but getting their stories to coincide is not an easy task.… Read more »

Charlotte Gray

From the Chicago Reader (December 26, 2001). — J.R.

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This movie reveals something interesting: during the occupation of France, Nazi officers and French peasants all spoke English with English accents, as did English resistance fighters — aside from the occasional spurt of French and German to identify who’s who. I never thought that a thoughtful director like Gillian Armstrong would get trapped in such Euro-nonsense, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. Jeremy Brock wrote the script, and the landscapes are attractive. Under the circumstances, the omnipresent Cate Blanchett does pretty well in the title role. With Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, and Rupert Penry-Jones. 121 min. (JR)

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Code Unknown

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2002). — J.R.

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Aptly subtitled Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, the best feature to date by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.) is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment. The second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always get what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. The title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses in Paris — a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues. In subtitled French, Malinke, Romanian, German, Arabic, and sign language– and also, occasionally, English. (JR)

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A Free Man [Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART]

Posted in Moving Image Source, December 1, 2009. This is the second time I wrote at length about White Hunter, Black Heart, and this essay was reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinema; the earlier piece, written 19 years earlier, is available here. [August 31 footnote: After watching Eastwood’s embarrassing and often fumbling impromptu speech at the Republican National Convention last night, I treasure his performance in this spectacularly underrated movie even more.] — J.R.

“It’s the film of a free man.” Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated defense of Charlie Chaplin’s most despised film, A King in New York (1957) — a film so reviled that it goes unmentioned in Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography — is a sentence that frequently comes to mind about some of the features directed by Clint Eastwood, especially over the past couple of decades. Eastwood has in fact carved out a singular niche for himself that affords him the sort of artistic and conceptual freedom that no one else in Hollywood can claim. Starting with the fact that he doesn’t test-market his movies and indulge in the sort of hasty post-production revisions that limit the range of his colleagues, he’s a director who can choose both his subjects and how he deals with them.… Read more »

Ritalin Rebellion [CHARLIE BARTLETT]

From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 2008). I believe this was my last long review before I left my staff job there. — J.R.

CHARLIE BARTLETT ***

Directed by Jon Poll

I just rewatched Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, a radical and rebellious teen movie I gave four stars in 1990. I think it holds up, and apparently I’m not the only one: the average rating of the 62 customer reviews it has on Amazon.com is four and a half out of five stars.

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The new rebellious teen movie Charlie Bartlett isn’t as good or as radical; it’s more an edgy comedy than a rabble-rouser. But it reminded me of Pump Up the Volume in many ways: it’s one of the first features for a middle-aged director; it captures teenage despair leading up to a suicide attempt (successful in Pump Up the Volume, unsuccessful here); one of its lead characters has a school administrator as a father (the hero in Pump Up the Volume, the heroine here); and it depicts a general disgruntlement about the way schools are run, culminating in a student uprising. The movies are even comparably derivative of others: Pump Up the Volume plundered some of its best ideas from Rebel Without a Cause, Citizens Band, Network, and Talk Radio, while Charlie Bartlett seems especially indebted to Mumford, all the way down to its final blackout gag.… Read more »

A Fuller Understanding: Revisiting the Life of Sam Fuller

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2003). — J.R.

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A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Thank God for Beethoven’s music. Ludwig got me though a lot of rough times. He said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” Holy cow, was he right! — photo caption in A Third Face

Checking my appointment book for 1980, I see that I met Sam Fuller for the first time on June 19, in New York. It was in a suite at the Plaza, where I went to interview him about The Big Red One for the Soho News, and from the moment a publicist opened the door and I was greeted by this short, peppy firecracker, he was already outlining a movie sequence in which I was being kidnapped by a team of Amazons, with the publicist instantly cast as one of the members of the team.

The interview itself was a collection of comparable verbal cadenzas, about life and commerce as well as cinema — with occasional off-the-record asides, like asking me at one point if I’d seen Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA, and what I thought of it.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomalies and Experiments (my 9th column)

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2005, issue 22). The down side of reproducing my old DVD columns is that many of the links are bound to be out of date and no longer functional; the up side is that they offer some kind of history of what used to be available (or unavailable). — J.R.

With the exception of a few film buffs at some of the more discerning labels, and still fewer at the major studios, decisions about what older films to release on DVD, as well as when or why, are often capricious to the point of absurdity. So asking why some things are readily available and some things aren’t is a bit like asking an illiterate about his or her reading taste. Some time ago, I was contacted about contributing to the extras of an ambitious DVD being planned for Elaine May’s infamous and underappreciated Ishtar — a project developed with loving care by some maverick film buffs at Columbia/Tristar over many months, eventually soliciting the unprecedented cooperation and input of May herself.

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It seemed like a golden opportunity for some thoughtful studio revisionism — especially in light of how much this prescient farce has to say about the dangerous blunders of American innocence and stupidity in the Middle East and how blind American reviewers were to this aspect of the movie back in 1987.Read more »