Monthly Archives: July 2019

Recycled Cinema [DIVERTIMENTO & NATURAL BORN KILLERS]

This appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.

*** DIVERTIMENTO

(A must-see)

Directed by Jacques Rivette

Written by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette

With Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt, and the hand of Bernard Dufour.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS

(No stars–Worthless)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Stone, and Quentin Tarantino

With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Sean Stone, and Russell Means.

One of the more deceitful explanations for the compulsive repetition that informs most contemporary movies is that Hollywood is simply giving the public what they want. The idea that they even know what they want is pretty dubious to begin with — especially if one factors out all the publicity and hype that supposedly speaks for them. And the argument that moviemakers have any better sense of what the public wants is usually self-serving propaganda.

A more likely explanation for all the recycling is that it serves business interests — and contrary to what you read in Variety and Premiere, that is not necessarily the same thing as serving the public.… Read more »

The Comedy of Narcissus

Written for Cinema Narcissus, a collection put together for the Rotterdam International Film Festival in early 1992….One of the regular visitors to this site, Barry Scott Moore, has reminded me that in 2013, Ehsan Khoshbakht pointed out to me that Lewis’s first use of the video assist was actually in The Bellboy, his first feature. (He also drew my attention to several typos, now corrected below.) — J.R

The total film-maker is a man who gives of himself through emulsion, which in turn acts as a mirror. What he gives he gets back. — Jerry Lewis

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It was Jerry Lewis who first had the idea of installing a video monitor on a soundstage while shooting a picture. The feature in question was THE LADIES MAN (1961), most of which was shot on a single set, a four-storey, open-faced building that stretched across two soundstages on the Paramount lot. The reason for this video monitor? To allow Lewis to see what a particular camera setup looked like at the same time that he was acting in the shot.

Directing and acting at the same time in comedies is a practice that can be traced back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century.… Read more »

Four Rooms

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 1996). — J.R.

Four Rooms

no stars

Directed and written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino

With Tim Roth, Sammi Davis, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino, Madonna, Ione Skye, Jennifer Beals, David Proval, Antonio Banderas, Lana McKissack, Danny Verduzco, Bruce Willis, Paul Calderon, and Tarantino.

Fair is fair. Though I’m calling Four Rooms worthless — an opinion that’s uncontroversial — it’s a better picture than, for example, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. In fact Four Rooms is rather interesting in spite of — or perhaps because of — its disturbing awfulness. Declaring a movie worthless usually means something beyond a strictly aesthetic evaluation; there’s something punitive and moralistic, even tribal about our disapproval and rejection. (The same sort of thing often happens when we call a movie “great”: the longtime absence of any movie for and about black women obviously has influenced the recent success of Waiting to Exhale.)

Maybe calling a movie worthless is a way of getting even. Many reviewers, myself included, were excessively dismissive of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — backlash against the media hype around David Lynch (including an appearance on the cover of Time) that built up expectations and could only lead to his immolation as a sacrificial victim.… Read more »

Rendez-vous à Bray (Rendezvous at Bray) (1976 review)

As much as I revere some of the Belgian films of Chantal Akerman, if I had to choose only one Belgian film to take with me to a desert island, I’d have a pretty rough time forsaking this 1971 masterpiece by André Delvaux, which I seriously, even spectacularly, underrated when I reviewed it for the Monthly Film Bulletin (in their April 1976 issue, vol. 43, no. 507) — although paradoxically I seemed pretty well attuned to its special enchantments even when I kept finding ways to undervalue them, perhaps because I couldn’t find adequate ways to account for them. Happily, I’ve been able to rediscover this film thanks to a sublime Belgian box set  that I reviewed some time ago in my DVD column for Cinema Scope.  – J.R.

Rendez-vous à  Bray (Rendezvous at Bray)

France/Belgium/West Germany, 1971
Director: André Delvaux

Cert—A. dist—Essential Cinema. p.c—Parc Films/ORTF (Paris)/Studios Arthur Mathonet/Ciné Vog (Brussels)/Taurus Film (Munich). p—Mag Bodard. assoc. p—Philippe Dussart, Pierre Gout. asst. d—Charlotte Fraisse, Michel Rey. sc–André Delvaux. Based on the story Le Roi Cophétua by Julien Gracq. ph—Ghislain Cloquet. col—Eastman Color. ed—Nicole Berckmans. a.d—Claude Pignot. m—Frédéric Devreese;  excerpts from the works of Brahms (including Intermezzos Nos.… Read more »

Recommended Reading: Daniel Mendelsohn on the New Tarantino

Recommended Reading: “When Jews Attack” by Daniel Mendelsohn, a two-page spread in the August 24 & 31 issue of Newsweek, begins to help me account for what I find so deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid about Inglourious Basterds [sic sic -- or maybe I should say, sic, sic, sic]. A film that didn’t even entertain me past its opening sequence, and that profoundly bored me during the endlessly protracted build-up to a cellar shoot-out, it also gave me the sort of malaise that made me wonder periodically what it was (and is) about the film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial, even though it proudly claims to be the opposite of that. It’s more than just the blindness to history that leaks out of every pore in this production (even when it’s being most attentive to period details) or the infantile lust for revenge that’s so obnoxious. When Mendelsohn asks, “Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into Nazis, that makes Jews into `sickening’ perpetrators?”, he zeroes in on what’s so vile about this gleeful celebration of savagery. He also clarifies the ugly meaning of Tarantino’s final scene when he points out that Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them — a fact I either hadn’t known before or had somehow managed to suppress.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: From Dreyer and Welles to Rappaport and Kastle (my 3rd column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #16 (Fall 2003). — J.R.

One of the more fascinating things about the linguistic options of DVDs in relation to their nationality is how often they confound expectations. It would appear that few countries show more indifference to other countries and their languages than the U.S., yet the DVDs with the greatest number of subtitling and dubbing options are often those on American labels. Conversely, when I visited Japan twice in the late 1990s, I was impressed by the cottage industries devoted to teaching foreign languages, which ranged from prime-time TV shows teaching conversational “business” English and Spanish to bilingual movie scripts sold in bookstores, some of them packaged with videos of the same films. But my recent efforts to hunt for Japanese DVDs with English or French subtitles have been in vain -— which is all the more frustrating when I come across listings for box sets devoted to Kiarostami and Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma.

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WhatsUpTL3

Attending Cinema Ritrovato, an archival film festival, in Bologna last summer, I went hunting for Italian DVDs and quickly discovered that those with Italian movies almost never come equipped with English subtitles (the restoration of The Leopard, which I noted in my last column, is a rare exception).Read more »

1984 (1985 review)

This review was published in the June 1985 issue of Video Times. Criterion has just brought out an excellent Blu-Ray edition of this film that I can highly recommend — along with Thomas Pynchon’s Foreword to the 2003 Penguin edition of Orwell’s novel. — J.R.

 

1984

(1984), C, Director: Michael Radford. With John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, and Cyril Cusack [see below]. 110 min. R. USA, $79.95.

***½

 

Director Michael Radford’s 1984, filmed in England between April and June of 1984 (the same period during which the action of George Orwell’s famous 1949 novel takes place), is a film adaptation that succeeds brilliantly. In one fell swoop, it repoliticizes the novel — translating it into terms that speak directly to the present. Paradoxically, it pulls off this singular feat not through any spurious “updating” of Orwell’s terrifying novel but by situating the novel squarely in its own period. Consequently, the film’s action can be said to unfold simultaneously in three separate time frames: the past (specifically the 1940s, during which Orwell conceived and wrote his novel), the future (as we postulate it in this decade), and the present (the mid-1980s).… Read more »

Synecdoche, New York

From the Chicago Reader (October 16, 2008). — J.R.

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Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes his directorial debut with this feature, but it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realize his surrealistic conceits. Tortured and torturous, it centers on a theater director from Schenectady (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wins a MacArthur Fellowship but whose wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him; in response he tries to create a play that will represent his entire life experience, building a replica of New York City inside a warehouse. The usually resourceful Hoffman can’t sustain interest even after developing a receding hairline to make him resemble Jack Nicholson, and the other able players — Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh — mainly tread water. R, 124 min. (JR)

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Pulp Fiction

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

pulpfiction-travoltaontoilet

Quentin Tarantino’s second feature (1994), a chronologically scrambled collection of interlocking crime stories, extracts most of its kicks from other movies and TV shows. Despite all its thematic nudges about redemption and second chances its true agenda is the flip side of Forrest Gump: to make the media-savvy viewer the real hero of the story. A wet dream for 14-year-old male closet queens (or, perhaps more accurately, the 14-year-old male closet queen in each of us), this smart-alecky movie sparkles with canny twists and turns. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel vibrate with high-voltage star power, while Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Maria de Medeiros, Tim Roth, and Amanda Plummer amply fill out the remaining scenery. The overall project is evident: to evict real life and real people from the art film and replace them with generic teases and assorted hommages. Don’t expect any of the life experiences of the old movie sources to leak through; punchy, flamboyant surface is all. R, 154 min. (JR)

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Splitting Images [THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH & LOST HIGHWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

Three Lives and Only One Death

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Ruiz and Pascal Bonitzer

With Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Arielle Dombasle, Feodor Atkine, and Lou Castel.

Lost Highway

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by Lynch and Barry Gifford

With Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Michael Massee, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Robert Loggia, and Richard Pryor.

By coincidence, two major features by two of the most talented postsurrealist filmmakers open this week, both convoluted parables about heroes with multiple identities. Though Raul Ruiz and David Lynch are separated by a world of differences — political, cultural, national, intellectual, and temperamental — both are expanding the options in filmmaking as well as filmgoing. Each offers a different kind of roller-coaster ride that manages to be bewildering, provocative, kaleidoscopic, scary, visually intoxicating, and funny.

Ruiz — a Chilean who moved to Paris in 1974 and who makes movies all over the world (in France, Italy, Taiwan, and the U.S. in the past year alone) — has made 90-odd films and videos to date, though he’s only five years older than Lynch.… Read more »

Being John Malkovich

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

being-john-malkovich

This outrageous comic fantasy may not sustain its brilliance throughout its 112 minutes, but it keeps cooking for so much of that time that I don’t have many complaints. The first feature of both screenwriter/executive producer Charlie Kaufman (who’s written for several TV series) and director Spike Jonze (who’s directed commercials, music videos, and short films), it charts the complications that ensue when an out-of-work puppeteer (John Cusack) gets a filing job on the surrealistically cramped seventh and a half floor of an office building, where he discovers a hidden tunnel that allows its occupant to become actor John Malkovich (playing himself, natch) for 15 minutes before being ejected onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Things get even wilder when the filing clerk and his wife (Cameron Diaz as a pet-store employee) both get the hots for the same woman (Catherine Keener), who has comparable lust for the wife as long as she’s inside Malkovich. What’s great about this lunatic farce isn’t only its premises about sexual and professional identity but also the spirited way the actors and filmmakers flesh them out. With Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place. (JR)

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60s Wisdom [CANDY MOUNTAIN]

From the August 11, 1988 Chicago Reader. It seems like one way of characterizing a Robert Frank film nowadays would be to say that it’s likely a film for which it’s almost impossible to find any adequate illustrations on the Internet. This is why I’m mainly had to depend on a couple of posters here, as well as the book jacket for the recent reprint of Rudy Wurlitzer’s first novel. –J.R.

CANDY MOUNTAIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer

Written by Wurlitzer

With Kevin J. O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, Roberts Blossom, Leon Redbone, and Dr. John.

Is it my imagination, or has “60s” become less of a dirty word lately? Appearances can be deceptive, but in recent movies as diverse in quality (as well as in subject matter) as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Young Guns, and Tucker, we seem finally to be acknowledging that certain 60s values persist in our minds and habits as something more positive than war wounds. The recognition comes slowly and begrudgingly, though — almost as if the Reagan era has kept it under lock and key, and plastered it over with warnings about freak-outs, burnouts, and death.… Read more »

Reservoir Dogs

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1993). — J.R.

reservoir_dogs_1992_8

A stunning debut (1992) from writer-director Quentin Tarantino, though a far cry from Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, to which it clearly owes a debt. Like The Killing, it employs an intricate flashback structure to follow the before and after of a carefully planned heist and explores some of the homoerotic allegiances, betrayals, and tensions involved; unlike The Killing, it never flashes back to the heist itself and leaves a good many knots still tied at the end. The hoods here — including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, and (in a bit) Tarantino himself — are all ex-cons hired by an older ex-con (Lawrence Tierney) who conceals their identities from one another by assigning them the names of colors. Our grasp of what’s going on is always in flux, and Tarantino’s skill with actors, dialogue, ‘Scope framing, and offbeat construction is kaleidoscopic. More questionable are the show-offy celebrations of brutality: buckets of blood, racist and homophobic invective, and an excruciating sequence of sadistic torture and (offscreen) mutilation that’s clearly meant to awe us with its sheer unpleasantness. It’s unclear whether this macho thriller does anything to improve the state of the world or our understanding of it, but it certainly sets off enough rockets to hold and shake us for every one of its 99 minutes.… Read more »

En movimiento: Two Views of America, Two Views of Cinema (spoiler included)

My forthcoming column for the Spanish monthly Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted on July 25, 2019. — J.R

crazyexgirlfriend

ouatih-poster

“The strongest argument for the unmaterialistic character of American life,” Mary McCarthy wrote in 1947, “is the fact that we tolerate conditions that are, from a materialistic point of view, intolerable.” Two kinds of doublethink fantasy emanating from this, both deriving from media tropes, can be found in the best and worst examples of recent American cinema that I saw in Chicago in July. These are, respectively, the four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019), a musical sitcom created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, which I saw alone on Netflix via my laptop, and Quintin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I saw in 70mm at the Music Box with a full audience shortly afterwards. Significantly, deranged women are the basis of what I find exhilarating in the former and despicable in the latter.

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The deranged woman in the first is a high-powered, neurotic Jewish lawyer (Bloom) in New York who rejects her firm’s partnership offer in order to move to a nondescript California suburb “four hours from the beach” to work for a mediocre firm and chase after a former boyfriend, whom she met at a camp as a teenager, meanwhile remaining in denial that her romantic obsession motivated her move.… Read more »

Mandingo

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1998); updated and upgraded in December 2012. — J.R.

One of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era, Richard Fleischer’s blistering and undeniably lurid 1975 melodrama about a slave-breeding plantation in the Deep South, set in the 1840s, was widely and unjustly ridiculed as camp in this country when it came out. But apart from this film, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1969 Slaves, and Charles Burnett’s 1996 Nightjohn, it’s doubtful whether many more insightful and penetrating movies about American slavery exist. (2012 note: Quentin Tarantino’s thigh-slapping Django Unchained — a film so historically whimsical that it can show us a slave who’s an expert marksman, can read, and even puts on sunglasses after he becomes a free man — clearly isn’t one of them; at best it’s another Tarantino True Life Adventure for ten-year-old boys — ten-year-old girls need not apply.)  Scripted by Norman Wexler from a sensationalist novel by Kyle Onstott; with James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, and Ken Norton. (For further and much more detailed edification on this subject, check out Robin Wood and Andrew Britton.) (JR)

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