From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1987). — J.R.
Stanley Kubrick shares with Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer the role of the Great Confounder — remaining supremely himself while frustrating every attempt to anticipate his next move or to categorize it once it registers. This odd 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, with script-writing assistance from Michael Herr as well as Hasford, has more to do with the general theme of colonization (of individuals and countries alike) and the suppression by male soldiers of their female traits than with the specifics of Vietnam or the Tet offensive. Elliptical, full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second), and profoundly moving, this is the most tightly crafted Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove, as well as the most horrific; the first section alone accomplishes most of what The Shining failed to do. With Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey. R, 116 min. (JR)
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On Criterion’s recent and very attractive DVD release of Alex Cox’s Walker, there’s a pretty funny bonus feature consisting of Cox reading aloud from the almost exclusively negative and dismissive U.S. reviews that the film received when it came out in 1987. I’m sorry that he doesn’t read from — and apparently wasn’t aware of — my near-rave in the Reader, written during my first year at the paper, so I’m reprinting it here.
For me, this ties in with the surprisingly warm and appreciative welcome accorded to William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1967) when I showed it in my 60s world cinema course a few years ago. It even sold out every ticket at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s larger auditorium, which I doubt would have happened even in the 60s. I guess it takes a George W. Bush or a Donald Trump to make 60s radicalism both fashionable and available again.
(For more on William Klein, go here.)
Walker is scripted by the novelist Rudy Wurlitzer — who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop (also recently released on an excellent Criterion DVD set) and has recently published his first novel in almost a quarter of a century, The Drop Dead of Yonder, a sort of Buddhist Western which I strongly recommend.… Read more »
This was written for Artforum‘s web site, and appeared there April 3, 2009. — J.R.
A considerable part of what’s most fascinating and enjoyable about Jim McBride’s early films is also what’s most dated and therefore forgotten about them. So it seems pertinent that McBride’s first two films, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969), an especially (and provocatively) dialectical twosome, are available on a DVD released in the UK by Second Run (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes) but can’t be found on their home turf.
The first of these movies virtually launched the American pseudo-documentary long before postmodernist skepticism ungracefully redubbed the form “mockumentary” (and only a couple years after Peter Watkins’s more earnest pseudo-documentaries Culloden  and The War Game , made for the BBC). The title hero (L. M. Kit Carson) — a compulsively diaristic filmmaker who offers his own life for inspection, scaring away his girlfriend in the process — is, like McBride himself, smitten with the textures of the present moment, which ultimately makes him a doomed figure. Some 1960s audiences found him so compellingly believable that they could even accept Holzman, in the final sequence, having lost his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade — even though it is left unexplained how these abject substitutes could get conveyed to us on film.… Read more »
The following was written for the Monthly Film Bulletin (April 1976, vol. 43, no. 507) — a publication of the British Film Institute, where I was serving at the time as assistant editor — and it follows most of the format of that magazine by following credits (abbreviated here) with first a one-paragraph synopsis and then a one-paragraph review. — J.R.
Director: Jim McBride
Cert—X. dist—DUK. p.c—Extraordinary Films. exec. p—William Mishkin. p—Lew Mishkin. assoc. p/p. manager/asst. d—Jack Baran. sc—Jim McBride. ph—Affonso Beato. col—Eastman Color. ed—Jack Baran. sd. rec—Nigel Noble. sd. re-rec—Jack Cooley. l.p—Henry Cory (Archie Anders), Gail Lorber (Ronnie), Amy Farber (Bette), Steve Curry (Mughead), Bob Lesser (Coach/Guru’s Voice), Clarissa Ainley (Kate, Gloria’s Mother), Bonnie Gondell (Gloria), Bette Muir (La Conchita), Jack Baran (Cab-driver Alex “Bushmaster” Mogul-muph), Lorenzo Mans (Jesús, La Conchita’s “Nookie Bookie”), Irving Horwitz [Mel Howard] (Director Potemkin), Rick Ross (Reggy), Jim McBride (Man at Elevator), Adrienne Mania (Archie’s Mother), Pious Applebaum (Dr.… Read more »
This book review was the first thing I ever wrote for The Soho News, a small-time weekly competitor of The Village Voice that I wrote for every week for about a year and a half (1980-81), reviewing books as well as movies on a fairly regular basis. I did 68 pieces for them in all, and this first effort, as I recall, was a kind of trial balloon. — J.R.
The Greening of Switzerland
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party
By Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, $9.95
“The meat is excellent, but I have no appetite,” remarks the noble, grief-stricken narrator of Graham Greene’s opulent 21st novel — plain old Alfred Jones, a middle-class voyeur like us — at the climactic title party, in response to a query from the wealthy title host and villain. Then he adds more confidentially, to the reader, “I helped myself to another glass of Mouton Rothschild; it wasn’t for the flavor of the wine that I drank it, for my palate seemed dead, it was for the distant promise of a sort of oblivion.” The same sort of delicious oblivion, one might add, that we normally expect from a new Greene novel — which is the sort that the latest one amply supplies.… Read more »
Written in August 2016 for my November 2016 “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
Do we value actors for their visible and audible skills, or for their capacity to make us forget that they’re actors? Over the past month, both at the Melbourne International Film Festival and back in Chicago, at cinemas or watching home videos, I’ve been asking myself this question in relation to such new films as Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Albert Serra’s La Mort de Louis XIV, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, and Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, and such older films as Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, and Jerry Lewis’s Smorgasbord. And, needless to say, my answers to this question differ enormously, mainly according to how familiar I am with the actors involved — which doesn’t necessarily mean how many times I’ve seen them before. For instance, prior to Paterson, I’d already seen Adam Driver in J. Edgar, Frances Ha, Lincoln, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Midnight Special, but I only know this now because I just looked up his credits.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 12, 1988). — J.R.
The fourth and least successful movie version — after Lewis Milestone’s (1931), Howard Hawks’s (1940), and Billy Wilder’s (1974) — of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s by now overrated farcical play The Front Page. In fact, by following Hawks’s His Girl Friday in making the leading character a woman, this updating by screenwriter Jonathan Reynolds and director Ted Kotcheff qualifies as a remake of a remake. The setting is now a cable news network instead of a big city newspaper, and there are many smaller substitutions (e.g., a copy machine in place of a rolltop desk). But despite a lot of overstrenuous efforts, the grafting of an 80s context onto a 40s adaptation of a play from the 20s mainly adds up to incoherence; the original’s treatment of journalistic behavior and ethics isn’t so much rethought as clumsily transposed, depriving it of any polemical bite and placing it miles away from the knowing details of Broadcast News. Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, and Christopher Reeve are the leads; Henry Gibson is the hapless victim slated to die in the electric chair; and Ned Beatty is the corrupt politician who wants him to fry.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 29l, 1987). — J.R.
I. Good Things About the Chicago Film Festival
1. Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, any film festival that can boast films from 35 countries and encompass 70 years of filmmaking is performing an invaluable cultural service. The xenophobic and antihistorical cast of most pop culture in this country is such that the more the media expand, the narrower our sense of reality generally becomes, and any institution that can allow us glimpses of cultures and eras other than our own is bound to teach us something more than the average TV news broadcast. (The sharp moral distinction that we usually make between news and fiction–designating the first as “serious” and the second as “entertainment”–overlooks the fact that both are usually designed as narrative entertainment, offering consumable, hence disposable, stories with larger-than-life characters.)
2. Out of the 20 films in the festival that I’ve so far managed to see, more than half are eminently worth seeing, and roughly a third qualify as first-rate. If that’s a somewhat lower batting average than either Facets or the Film Center, it’s still a much higher one than what is achieved by the usual run of commercial mainstream releases.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 27, 2004). — J.R.
Star Spangled to Death
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Ken Jacobs
With Jack Smith, Jerry Sims, Cecilia Swan, Gib Taylor, Bill Carpenter, Laurie Taylor, Reese Haire, Bob Fleischner, Jim Enterline, and Jacobs.
Young man, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. — opening intertitle of Star Spangled to Death
Ken Jacobs’s 1969 Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son – a 115-minute visual analysis of a 1905 short film with the same title, probably directed by D.W. Griffith cameraman Billy Bitzer — introduced me to the modernist appreciation of so-called primitive cinema, teaching me with its seven swarming tableau-like shots that these films were rich and complex and in no way deserving of the term “primitive.” When I saw his 1978 short The Doctor’s Dream, which intricately reedits a trite educational narrative with sound, it too knocked my socks off. The only other Jacobs works I’ve seen are a couple of “film-performance” pieces that use early documentaries projected in 3-D, and Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (1963), shorts devoted to the cavortings of performer and future filmmaker Jack Smith and a few of his cohorts in run-down Manhattan locations.… Read more »
From Film Comment (January-February 1975). An expanded version of an entry for Richard Roud’s 1980, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. (“Dream Masters I,” incidentally, which appeared in the same issue of Film Comment, is devoted to Walt Disney — a much longer essay that can be accessed here.) I was delighted to receive a handwritten letter of thanks from Avery himself sometime after this was published which I still have in one of my scrapbooks. And, for the record, despite my gripes here about the unlikeliness of a Paul Fejos Festival, I did actually attend a Paul Fejos retrospective at the Viennale in 2004, almost 30 years after this was written. — J.R.
Paris, late January, my deadline a week away (later postponed).… Read more »
My column for the April 2016 issue of Caimán Cuadenos de Cine. — J.R.
1. I can easily understand why some of Abel Ferrara’s biggest fans have certain reservations about his Pasolini, available now on a splendid region-B Blu-Ray from the BFI. Even if it’s a solid step forward from the stultifying silliness of Welcome to New York, it lacks the crazed, demonic poetry of Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and New Rose Hotel; most disconcertingly, it’s a responsible, apparently well-researched treatment of one of the most irresponsible of film artists, made by another film artist generally cherished for his own irresponsibility. And stylistically, it’s almost as if Ferrara has moved from being the great-grandson of F.W. Murnau to being the grandson of Vincente Minnelli — although one could argue, more precisely, that this isn’t really an auteur film at all. Yet as a portrait of the great and uncontainable Pier Paolo Pasolini, filtered through the last day of his life –- a day focused on new creative work (a novel in progress and a film in preproduction) as well various other activities, at home and on the street -– it carries an undeniable conviction and emotional authenticity in which the prosaic strengths of Lust for Life may finally be more relevant to this film’s serious ambitions than the poetic flourishes of a Faust or a Tabu.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1991). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jim V. Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, and Nick Castle
With Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Caroline Goodall, and Charlie Korsmo.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by James Toback
With Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, and Bebe Neuwirth.
Wistful self-portraits of their respective stars — Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty, two aging boy wonders lusting after the old magic — Hook and Bugsy are also lengthy meditations on investments, financial as well as spiritual. Coincidentally both projects were conceived seven years ago and have been gestating ever since: Spielberg started planning a straight version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in 1984, then decided to concoct an updated sequel set in the present, and the same year Beatty commissioned James Toback to write an original screenplay about Bugsy Siegel, which started out as an epic about his entire life and was gradually whittled down to cover only the end of his life in the 1940s. Hook is contrived to move from gloom to joy, while Bugsy charts a slow downward spiral into melancholy; but both movies leave one with a sense of failed purposes — and of an obstinate will to believe that exceeds the meaning or logic of any actual belief.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.
Postmodernism with a vengeance. This 1988 Australian comedy made some tidal waves on its home turf — perhaps because, like the subsequent and even more enjoyable Children of the Revolution, it offers a cheerful alternative to the usual Australian self-hatred. A distant cousin of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it has the charm and advantage of a genuine visual style of its own, both laconic and witty, as well as a likably dopey plot and cast of characters. Directed, written, coproduced by, and starring Yahoo Serious, the movie follows the adventures of a teenage Tasmanian apple farmer named Albert Einstein, who splits the atom in order to produce a beer that contains bubbles, falls in love with Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio) and follows her to Paris, meets Charles Darwin, and invents rock ‘n’ roll in the process of draining off the atomic energy in a nuclear beer keg fashioned by the villain (John Howard). Invert the auteur’s name and you get a partial notion of what he’s up to — which is not exactly serious in its own right, but is at least serious from a yahoo standpoint. 90 min.… Read more »
Written for Chantal Akerman: Four Films, a DVD box set released by Icarus Films on March 29, 2016. — J.R.
“When you try to show reality in cinema, most of the time it’s totally false. But when you show what’s going on in people’s minds that’s very cinematic.”
If I had to describe the art of Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) in a single word, I think I’d opt for “composition”. This is a term that needs to be understood in its plastic as well as its musical meanings: a visual object that has to be framed in space, a musical object that has to be composed in time. And if we factor in the implied definitions offered above by Akerman regarding what’s reality and what’s cinematic, what’s going on in people’s minds and what’s going on in front of a camera and microphone, then we have to acknowledge that what she chooses to compose represents a kind of uneasy truce between all four elements (or five elements, if we regard sound and image as separate). How much she and we privilege mind over matter and cinema over reality — or vice versa — has a lot of bearing on what’s derived from the encounter.… Read more »
Here, for a change, is a double header — reviews of two films I’m especially fond of, both by Bob Balaban, made and reviewed about six years apart, Parents and The Last Good Time.
From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1989). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Bob Balaban
Written by Christopher Hawthorne
With Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky, Sandy Dennis, Juno Mills-Cockell, Kathryn Grody, Deborah Rush, and Graham Jarvis.
Having already opened and speedily closed in both Los Angeles and New York, Parents arrives in Chicago under a bit of a cloud. Brilliant but uneven, this ambitious feature doesn’t have a script that’s worthy of its high-powered direction, doesn’t build as dramatically as it might have, and clearly bites off more than it can chew. But it is still the most interesting and exciting directorial debut that I have encountered in some time – a “failure” that makes most recent successes seem like cold mush. Choosing a movie to take with me to a desert island, I would opt without a second’s hesitation for Parents over such relatively predictable Oscar-mongering exercises as Rain Man, The Accidental Tourist, or Dangerous Liaisons, because it’s a movie that kept me fascinated, guessing, and curious — even when it irritated me.… Read more »