Monthly Archives: June 2017

Lost In Translation

From the August 29, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LostinTranslation

The Virgin Suicides (2000) revealed writer-director Sofia Coppola to be a genuine original, and now that she’s working with her own material the freshness of her vision is even more apparent. This second feature traces the brief romantic friendship between a jaded movie star and family man (Bill Murray), who’s in Tokyo shooting a whiskey commercial, and a bored young newlywed less than half his age (Scarlett Johansson), who’s waiting for her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to return from a trip. Coppola does a fair job of capturing the fish-tank ambience of nocturnal, upscale Tokyo and showing how it feels to be a stranger in that world, and an excellent job of getting the most from her lead actors. Unfortunately, I’m not sure she accomplishes anything else. R, 105 min. (JR)

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Sexual Healing [ROMANCE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 12, 1999). — J.R.

Romance

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Catherine Breillat

With Caroline Ducey, Sagamore Stevenin, Rocco Siffredi, and Francois Berleand.


I’ve never put much stock in my powers of prophecy, but it seems I was more off the mark than usual nine months ago when I emerged from the world premiere of Catherine Breillat’s Romance, in Rotterdam, thinking it would create a sensation if it reached the U.S. I somehow forgot that most movie sensations are the fabrications of publicists. Audiences can create sensations – The Blair Witch Project proves that — but reviewers, who are usually closer to publicists than to audiences, are often the last people to notice. So maybe Breillat’s seventh feature did cause a sensation with audiences when it opened in New York several weeks ago, but if so, I don’t think it’s been reported.

Nine months ago I decided that Romance was a pretty reactionary movie for France — mainly because of an offscreen statement made by the heroine near the end (“They say a woman isn’t a woman until she’s a mother; it’s true”). But I still thought it might be seen as progressive in America, especially because its rare confluence of cinematic taste, literary intelligence, and hard-core sex might undercut the crippling puritanism of our movie codes, which usually equate eroticism with porn, sleaze, and stupidity rather than, say, art, health, and intelligence.… Read more »

Seeing Right Through Us [HOLLOW MAN]

From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Hollow Man

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Andrew Marlowe

With Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, and William Devane.

Apart from Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s enjoyably auteurist swan song, Paul Verhoeven’s latest feature, Hollow Man, was the only summer Hollywood release I’d been looking forward to. For one thing, I’d hoped it would give me an opportunity to reassess his previous works, most of which I now think I underestimated when they were released.

I was pretty hospitable to Total Recall (1990), but I awarded a black dot to Basic Instinct (1992), mainly because I was incensed about the calculations of Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million script (I’m leaving aside Verhoeven’s Dutch movies because the only one I’ve seen is The 4th Man). I declined to review Showgirls (1995) at length, noting somewhat puritanically toward the end of my capsule: “I suppose the overall theory is that male spectators will tolerate any amount of stupidity and unpleasantness for the sake of acres of tits and ass, but you’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for putting such a theory to the ultimate test: if anyone emerges from this with a smile on his face he must hate women as much as this movie does.” More equivocally, I accorded two stars to Starship Troopers (1997); I was fascinated with what wasn’t American about this allegedly all-American blockbuster, but I may have underrated some of the ways it was actively anti-American in its ridicule of American clichés, tastes, racial preferences, and archetypes.… Read more »

Kim Novak/Middle of the Night

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, written by Paddy Cheyevsky, directed by Delbert Mann, with Kim Novak and Fredric March (1959, 118 min.)

Just a brief postscript to my recently posted “Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent”. If memory serves, I hadn’t seen this profoundly depressing piece of New York Chayevsky realism since I was 16, when it came out. Now it comes across, for better and for worse, like another version of Mikio Naruse depicting the shallow rewards and prospects of the urban, aging lower-middle-class. What’s distinctly un-Naruse-like, though, is Kim Novak, who brings a nervous, almost hysterical energy to her part as the divorced, 24-year-old secretary, girlfriend, and fiancée of a middle-aged widower and garment-industry worker (Fredric March), almost as if she were trying her hand at a Method performance. The fact that I can only believe in her character part of the time stems from the fact that I can so easily see her trying. Still, the mood swings of her character are often terrifying and believable in a way that even seems to go beyond the demands of the material –- as if she were constantly trying on the part for size and then immediately changing her wardrobe in a fit of impatience.… Read more »

Dialogue Between Shigehiko Hasumi and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Howard Hawks and Yasuzo Masumura (Tokyo, 3 December 1999)

This dialogue is part of a section called “Two Auteurs: Masumura and Hawks,” included in Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), a volume I co-edited with Adrian Martin. It was preceded by my essay, “Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress,” and, before the “epilogue,” it was followed by Hasumi’s own essay, “Inversion/ Exchange/Repetition: The Comedy of Howard Hawks”. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum: When did you first write about Howard Hawks?

Shigehiko Hasumi: In 1977, just after he died. At that time, Hawks was so underestimated in Japan that no film magazine wanted an article on him. I published it in a literary magazine.

JR: And is there a particular period in his career that you prefer?

SH: Yes, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to His Girl Friday (1940). Of course, his two films noirs with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), impress me deeply. But the comedies in this period seem to me the highest accomplishment of his mise en scène. For me, Hawks is essentially a filmmaker of comedy. In that sense, I could say also that my preference goes to the period between Twentieth Century (1934) and Monkey Business (1952).Read more »

Where They’re Coming From [WESTERN]

From the Chicago Reader (April 9, 1999). — J.R.

Western

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Manuel Poirier

With Sergi Lopez, Sacha Bourdo, Elisabeth Vitali, Marie Matheron, and Basile Sieouka.

The other day I received an E-mail from someone wanting to know how I could have described The Tree of Wooden Clogs as Marxist when it was so clearly a religious film. Actually Dave Kehr had written the capsule review of Ermanno Olmi’s feature 14 years ago, but I hastily E-mailed back that any Italian could tell you that Marxism can easily be seen as a form of religion. Afterward I realized that this response was flip. It would have been better to say that Catholicism and Marxism have had a long and complex coexistence in Italy, and that it was unrealistic to expect that they would be mutually exclusive as systems of belief; the career of Pier Paolo Pasolini is proof of how intimately the two can be intertwined, regardless of the contradictions involved. That led me to think about how the simple characterizations of European Marxism in this country foster such confusion. Shortly after this I happened to read Andre Bazin’s description of The Bicycle Thief as one of the great communist films — an aspect of the film I suspect couldn’t have been apparent to American audiences when it won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1949.… 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 »

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 »

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.



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 »