From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2001). — J.R.
Like John Singleton’s other features, this is far from flawless; at 129 minutes it’s longer than it needs to be, and the music hits you like a sledgehammer at moments when any music at all is redundant and something of an insult. But the characters are so full-bodied and the feelings so raw and complex that I’d call this the best thing he’s done to dateby which I mean the most convincing and serious, telling us at least as much about everyday life in South Central Los Angeles as did Boyz N the Hood, his first movie. The title character, well played by Tyrese Gibson, is a 20-year-old with a pronounced Oedipus complex who lives with his 36-year-old mother (A.J. Johnson), has fathered two kids with separate girlfriends (Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass), and starts to feel crowded when his mother falls for a reformed gangster (Ving Rhames, also especially good). Sexually explicit both visually and aurally, this shows rare inventiveness in exploring one character’s fantasies during an orgasm. With Omar Gooding and Snoop Dogg. (JR)… Read more »
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 »
This essay was commissioned in fall 2018 for an exhibition devoted to Michelangelo Antonioni in Tehran curated by Sami Astan. — J.R.
[Antonioni’s] trilogy was concerned with differing aspects of love as the medium of hope in our world. This film [Red Desert] is stripped to naked essence — hope or nonhope unadorned: the prospect of human life in the midst of whirling changes. We live, as we know, in the age of the swiftest transition in history, and all indications are that the speed of change will increase: in everything from household appliances to concepts in philosophy, the whole architecture of thought. Antonioni seems to be saying, without effervescent cheeriness, that what was valuable can be preserved or can be transmuted to a new viability: that the future may contain new, at present inconceivable, values. — Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, March 23, 1963
There seems little doubt that Red Desert (1964) represented a major turning point in both the art and the career of Michelangelo Antonioni, and not only because it was his first film in color. It also concluded his collaborations with Monica Vitti as his lead actress — in L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962) — apart from the sole and significant exception of The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) sixteen years later, which also worked with image (including color) manipulations.… Read more »
From Film Comment (July-August 1977). After I returned to the U.S. early that year after seven and a half years of living in Europe (Paris and London), my “Paris Journal” and “London Journal” column in Film Comment became “Moving,” a preoccupation that eventually yielded the title of my first book, Moving Places.
Note: the 35 mm screening of JEANNE DIELMAN alluded to here was set up by Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson on the University of California, San Diego campus while they were working on the last of their essays. -– J.R.
How to keep moving in the same way that this column must travel — from La Jolla, to Richard Corliss in Cannes, to Film Comment in New York, to wherever you happen to be reading it? Now that TV Guide generally has to take the place of Pariscope, [London’s] Time Out, the New York newspapers, shall I write about the breathneck beginning of Sirk’s SLEEP, MY LOVE, the parallels with Preminger’s WHIRLPOOL,a wonderful exchange between Don Ameche and Hazel Brooks (”Doesn’t sound like my girl…” “You have a lot of girls. This is one of them”), or scenes that unexpectedly and mysteriously take place in the rain?… Read more »
From The Soho News (September 3, 1980). –- J.R.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Written and directed by Fred Schepisi
Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally
For a good 80 percent or so of its running time, the experience
of seeing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith affords a
salutary, beautiful shock. Films that are even halfway honest
about racism — Mandingo and Richard Pryor Live in
Concert are the most recent examples that spring to mind
– are so unexpected that they’re often accused of being racist
themselves, perhaps because of the deeply rooted taboos that
they expose and violate.
There’s no question that Fred Schepisi’s powerhouse Australian
movie — adapted from a novel by Thomas Keneally (who plays a
small but significant role as a lecherous cook), and “based on real
events that took place in Australia at the turn of the century”
(just before the federation of Australian colonies) – is agit-prop,
ideologically slanted. But then again, it’s hard to think of any
other current release — including, say, The Empire Strikes
Back and Dressed to Kill -– that isn’t.
The aforementioned hits perform in part the not-so-innocent
task of turning contemporary objects of confusion and disgust
(recent architecture and sex, respectively) into occasions for
exhilarated lyricism.… Read more »
Written for the Library of America’s web site The Moviegoer. The version published there on May 3, 2017 differs somewhat from the original version posted here, especially the ending. — J.R.
No less than seven features to date have been based on works by Philip Roth, and three of these have been directed by first-timers, all of whom previously made their cinematic mark in other professional capacities. Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) had a long and distinguished screenwriting career before directing his own adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1972, and Ewan McGregor acted in over four dozen features before directing American Pastoral 44 years later. James Schamus, a film professor at Columbia University, had over fifty producing credits — plus writing and producing credits on all but three of Ang Lee’s features — before he added direction to his producing and writing on Indignation. This has yielded what Stephen Holden in the New York Times has called “easily the best film made of a Roth novel, which is saying a lot.”
Schamus’s dexterity in navigating both commercial film production and academia has served him well on this project, enabling him to honor his source while rendering it both accessible and personal.… Read more »
Written in late July, 2014 for this recently published volume. — J.R.
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: Having by now covered practically all of the films of Abbas Kiarostami between us — starting with our book about him published in 2003, which dealt with all the films up through 10 (2002), and then continuing with further articles and dialogues since then, all the way up through Like Someone in Love (2012) -– it’s hard to know what we can add in the form of a Preface to the Persian translation of all of the above. Broadly speaking, I suppose one could say that over the past decade, Kiarostami has shifted from being an arthouse director to being a sort of gallery artist who worked in both film and still photography before finally, in more international and less Iranian terms, becoming an arthouse director again. Does this overall description of his evolution strike you as being accurate? And do you think Kiarostami has gained or lost anything in the process?
MEHRNAZ SAEED-VAFA: Your description sounds accurate to me, and I think Kiarostami has definitely gained something. He’s made several shorts and features going in different directions and styles that continue to challenge the expectations of his fans and followers. … Read more »
This was originally published in Cineaste in June 2003. —J.R.
It’s astonishing how little we still know about Soviet cinema in general and Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990) in particular, and it’s possible that Soviet history has something to do with this —- a desire not to remember pointing to an even more basic desire not to know. Considering what a teller of tall tales Paradjanov was himself, it seems inevitable that he would only add to the confusion while he was alive rather than clear up most of the muddle. Writing about three Paradjanov features that were showing in Chicago 13 years ago, I noted that his name couldn’t be found in Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia or in the indexes of books by Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, or John Simon (among many others), and lamented that as far as I knew, no one anywhere had yet written a book or monograph about him. I was writing only a month after he visited the west for the first time —- attending the Rotterdam Film Festival, where I was fortunate enough to be present —- and this was only four years after he resumed work as a filmmaker following something like 16 years of enforced silence, either as a prisoner or as a director whose proposed projects since Sayat Nova in 1969 had all been rejected.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). It’s worth noting that Japanese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, so that the film is also known as The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, which is an equally accurate translation. – J. R.
Though not the best known of Kenji Mizoguchi’s period masterpieces, this 1939 feature is conceivably the greatest. (For me the only other contender is Sansho the Bailiff.) The plot, which oddly resembles that of There’s No Business Like Show Business, concerns the rebellious son of a theatrical family devoted to Kabuki who leaves home for many years, perfects his art, aided by a working-class woman who loves him, and eventually returns. Apart from the highly charged and adroitly edited Kabuki sequences, the film is mainly constructed in extremely long takes, and an intricate rhyme structure between two time periods is developed by matching camera angles in the same locations. Never before or since (apart from The 47 Ronin) has Mizoguchi’s refusal to use close-ups been more telling, and the theme of female sacrifice that informs most of his major works is given a singular resonance and complexity here. Demonstrating an uncanny mastery of framing and camera movement, the film also has a complexity of characterization that’s shown with sublime economy.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). — J.R.
Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Rene Vienet (and Doo Kwang Kee)
Written by Vienet (and Ngai Hong)
With Pai Paiu, Chan Hung Liu, Ingrid Wu, and the voices of Jacques Thebaut, Patrick Dewaere, Michelle Grellier, and Dominique Morin.
“This is a situationist film. This is not a situationist film,” begin Keith Sanborn’s notes to Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — a French film in color being shown at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday in a subtitled, black-and-white, letterboxed video version. I think Sanborn, an experimental filmmaker, is referring to the fact that Vienet’s film was made in 1973, the year after the Situationist International disbanded and two years after Vienet — who joined the situationists in 1963 — resigned from their ranks.
I don’t know much about the situationists, but according to critic Peter Wollen they formed out of a split within an earlier radical artistic and political group, the lettrists, who sort of took over the mantle of the French avant-garde from the surrealists after World War II under the leadership of Isidore Isou. The “dissident Revolutionary Lettrists,” as Wollen called them, were led by two young filmmakers, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, who went on to become situationists.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1996). — J.R.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s major work (1990) consists of ten separate films, each running 50-odd minutes and set mainly around two high-rises in Warsaw. The films are built around a contemporary reflection on the Ten Commandments—specifically, an inquiry into what breaking each of them in today’s world might entail. Made as a miniseries for Polish TV before Kieslowski embarked on The Double Life of Veronique and the “Three Colors” trilogy, these concise dramas can be seen in any order or combination; they don’t depend on one another, though if you see them in batches you’ll notice that major characters in one story turn up as extras in another. One reason Kieslowski remains controversial is that in some ways he embodies the intellectual European filmmaking tradition of the 60s while commenting directly on how we live today. The first film, illustrating “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” is about trust in computers; the often ironic and ambiguous connections between most subsequent commandments and their matching stories tend to be less obvious. (One of the 60s traditions Kieslowski embodies is that of the puzzle film, though he takes it on seriously rather than frivolously, as part of his ethical inquiry.) The fourth (“Honor thy father and mother”), for instance, one of my favorites, pivots around the revelation of feelings between a young acting student and the architect who may or may not be her real father, and the eighth (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”) focuses on the investigation of an American Jewish academic about why she was denied sanctuary from the Nazis when she was a little girl.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 14, 1997). –J.R.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Errol Morris
With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks.
To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which is composed of the pleasure of guessing little by little: to suggest…that is the dream. –Stéphane Mallarmé
If narratives are arrangements of incidents with precise beginnings, middles, and ends, then Errol Morris’s exciting and singular Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn’t really qualify. You can’t even call it a documentary in any ordinary sense, because you often can’t say exactly what’s being documented. I suspect that poetry offers a better model for what Morris is up to, particularly Mallarmé’s idea of what poetry should be: an obscure object shaped and defined in successive increments by the reader’s perception and imagination.
Four men are interviewed separately in Morris’s film — a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialist (Ray Mendez), and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) — and they recount the origins as well as some of the development of their passion for their work. Who they are apart from their work almost never comes up.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 25, 1999). — J.R.
An Ideal Husband
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Oliver Parker
Written by Oscar Wilde and Parker
With Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, John Wood, Lindsay Duncan, Peter Vaughan, and Jeroen Krabbe.
Reviewing a collection of Oscar Wilde’s critical writings almost 30 years ago, Cyril Connolly made a useful distinction between “Wilde” and “Oscar,” the two sides of the same man. “Wilde is Wilde in these essays and seldom ‘Oscar,’” Connolly noted with justifiable admiration. “The change is beneficial. In some cases he is both: thus The Soul of Man Under Socialism in places seems almost inspired; it is a breath of fresh air in which the idealistic aspects of Socialism (or Christian Democracy) have seldom been so well expressed — in his denunciation of private property for example.
“Then ‘Oscar’ intervenes. ‘There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.‘”
Connolly goes on to explain, “When I think of ‘Oscar,’ it is against a background of servants, of butlers announcing him and footmen with salvers, of a hansom cab hired by the day, the driver nodding under his tarpaulin while Wilde and Bosie display far into the night.”
I’ve seen An Ideal Husband, writer-director Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, twice — once before reading the original and once after.… Read more »
Eyes and Ears Have It
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Dec 28, 2005 5:14 PM
Here’s my promised list: 25 films in 20 entries, allowing for five ties. I’ve made it somewhat different from my Village Voice ballot and my forthcoming Chicago Reader list by changing some of the ground rules: The only criterion for inclusion is a public screening somewhere in the United States, and the order is strictly alphabetical rather than hierarchical. I’ve appended comments to each entry, including some remarks about performances (good idea, Tony) and some responses to other comments. Tony’s point that more films are becoming easier to see, at least on DVD, is well taken; this means that most (if not all) of my choices will be obtainable that way in the coming year, if they aren’t already.
Café Lumière and Fear and Trembling. Two first-rate alternatives to the dubious Lost in Translation, both showing how one can view Japan from a foreign viewpoint with some nuance and a bit more sensitivity than simple class blindness. Politesse isn’t the issue. Though I’ve yet to find a Japanese person who can bear Sofia Coppola’s film, I don’t know if Alain Corneau’s even more unflattering Stupeur et tremblement — about the suffering of a Belgian woman (Sylvie Testud) working for a corporation in Tokyo and trying to conform to the local protocol — has even shown in Japan.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
Seeing this singular 1968 American experimental feature by William Greaves a second time (on video; the first time was in 1981, in its original 35-millimeter format) has led me to value it more, though arguably the fact that it loses relatively little impact on video constitutes one of its limitations. Greaves, a pioneering black actor whose career stretches back to postwar films made for black audiences as well as the underrated Hollywood feature Lost Boundaries, went on to direct over 200 documentaries, host and executive produce NET’s Black Journal, and teach acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For this eccentric venture, he got two white actors to play a quarreling couple in Central Park and proceeded to film not only them (in both rehearsal and performance) but also himself and his camera crew and various other people in the vicinity, often juxtaposing two or three camera angles simultaneously in split screen in the final edit. The crew’s own doubts and speculations about the film being made were also recorded later and edited into the mix. The couple’s quarrel is vitriolic and singularly unpleasant, the acting variable, the collective insight into what Greaves is up to mainly uncertain.… Read more »