Monthly Archives: August 2019

Poto And Cabengo

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1988). — J.R.

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Jean-Pierre Gorin’s first solo effort as a filmmaker after a long period of collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard surpassed all of his previous work hands down. The putative subject is a pair of young female twins in southern California who have apparently invented their own language, and while this personal documentary explores this subject in some detail, it proves to be about a great deal more: Gorin’s own exile, the lower-income white culture of San Diego, the American Dream, and language itself. A memorable, innovative effort, packed with wonder and invention (1979). (JR)

A Second LookRead more »

Burden Of Truth [SLING BLADE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 25, 1997). — J.R.

Sling Blade

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton

With Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, J.T. Walsh, Natalie Canerday, Lucas Black, James Hampton, Rick Dial, and Robert Duvall.

There is no point in rendering something realistically unless it is to make it more meaningful in an abstract sense. In this paradox lies the progress of the movies. — Andre Bazin

In one of the unfortunate casualties of film history and criticism, writer-director-performers are generally approached as performers and/or directors first and as writers second, yet it’s often the writerly impulse that gives birth to both the performance and the direction. Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin are seldom regarded as the writers of Foolish Wives and City Lights respectively, but without their scripts neither the performances nor the films themselves would exist. Orson Welles, habitually described as a director and actor, insisted throughout his career that he always started with the written word, not with free-floating ideas for “shots.”

So it was a matter of some satisfaction to me that Billy Bob Thornton wound up getting an Oscar last month not for his lead performance in Sling Blade or for its direction but for his script.… Read more »

Toddler Time (THE WHITE BALLOON)

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1996). — J.R.

The White Balloon

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi, and Parviz Shahbazi

With Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Anna Bourkowska, Aliasghar Samadi, Mohammad Shahani, and Mohammad Bahktiari.

In Iran the first day of spring is New Year’s Day, the celebration of which starts at a different time of day every year, and among the objects used in the celebration is a goldfish, which symbolizes life. The plot of Jafar Panahi’s extraordinary first feature, The White Balloon (opening this week at the Music Box), involves the adventures of Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), a seven-year-old girl who has her heart set on buying a new goldfish for the celebration, insisting that the ones her family already has are “too skinny.”

Only 85 minutes long, the film unfolds in real time and almost exclusively in exteriors along a few blocks of Tehran the morning of the New Year. The film opens in a market, where Razieh’s mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) is shopping; she collects Razieh, who’s carrying a blue balloon, and they walk home together. Nearly all of the film’s other major characters — and even a couple of minor ones — are fleetingly glimpsed during this prelude, though we don’t recognize any of them yet.… Read more »

Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France.… Read more »

Revenge Is Bitter [BUFFALO '66]

From the Chicago Reader (August 7, 1998). — J.R.

Buffalo ’66

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Vincent Gallo

Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall

With Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara, Kevin Corrigan, Mickey Rourke, Roseanna Arquette, and Jan-Michael Vincent.

Vincent Gallo has proved himself a good actor in many films — in Arizona Dream, The Funeral, and several Claire Denis movies. But the first feature in which he functions as director, cowriter, composer, and star is a pathological curiosity. Candidly and painfully personal, Buffalo ’66 seems to spring from the kind of fantasies that inform movies almost exclusively — though vanity publishers offer similar opportunities. For me the film creates more embarrassment than sympathy, but at least it’s a kind of embarrassment that’s instructive. Its genre — narcissistic self-hatred reconfigured as a sense of entitlement — is far from exclusive to American movies, though it’s especially common in American independent efforts. Part of the self-hatred comes from the sense that it’s a disgrace to be poor, a sense more common in this country than in most other places, and poverty gives the film a distinctive musty odor — an ambience evident in such settings as a bowling alley and a cheap motel room.… Read more »

Crap Shooting [SNAKE EYES]

From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1998). — J.R.

Snake Eyes

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp and De Palma

With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, and Luis Guzman.

For me, part of the fun of Snake Eyes is the genuine satisfaction of seeing Brian De Palma finally arriving at his own level. Whatever the merits of his imitations and appropriations — of 50s Hitchcock in Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double, 60s Antonioni in Blow Out, and 30s Hawks in Scarface – and his inflations of TV standbys (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), they’ve always suggested he was riding into town on somebody else’s horse. Now, however, he seems more apt to make the 90s equivalents of B movies: such films as Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Snake Eyes are generic stylistic exercises that reveal he’s digested his sources rather than simply devoured and regurgitated them. Though he remains too much of a mannerist to approximate the modest craft of Roy Ward Baker in Don’t Bother to Knock or Richard Fleischer in The Narrow Margin -- thrillers of 1952 that in their adept use of real time and limited settings suggest parallels withSnake Eyes – De Palma’s technique seems more focused for a change.… Read more »

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about “remakes” of independent documentaries, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. – J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

Two Movies for the Price of None [James Benning's UTOPIA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.

Utopia title

Utopia

Rating *** A must see

Directed by James Benning

what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks.… Read more »

En movimiento: A Reconstructed Diary of Cinematic Highpoints

An “En movimiento” column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written in July 2014 for their October 2014 issue. — J.R.

TheOwners

the_owners

the_owners1

12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a “mentor” to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate. Unlike the hyperbolic violence that brutalizes the characters of Jia Zhange’s A Touch of Sin by reducing their humanity, Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.

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kimiavi_mongols

21 & 23 June (Edinburgh): The two high points of my six days here are two very different masterpieces from the first Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) and Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973).  … Read more »

A SEPARATION: The Unspoken Subject in Iranian (and American) Cinema

Written in early February 2012 for “En Movimiento.” my bimonthly column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?

I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East).… Read more »

THE HOUSE IS BLACK

The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.

thehouseisblack-mirror

The House is Black is the most acclaimed of all Iranian documentaries. It was directed by Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), widely regarded as the greatest of all Iranian women poets and the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century, who died in a car accident when she was only 32. It was Farokhzad’s only film, produced in 1962 by her lover Ebrahim Golestan (an important filmmaker in his own right, for whom she also worked as an editor, and who serves as one of the film’s narrators). The film observes the tragic life of lepers in an isolated leprosy hospital (a hell on earth and a nest of suffering and death) near Tabriz in northwestern Iran. The Society for Assisting Lepers commissioned the film, and the director’s intention was “to wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims.”

thehouseisblack2

Farrokhzad avoids infringement by creating a close relationship with the lepers, and by searching for the seeds of joy and vitality within the hopelessness. She depicts the inhabitants in their daily occupations, having meals, praying, the children playing ball and attending school.… Read more »

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Single-Disk DVDs

From DVD Beaver, posted in November 2008. A few of the links may be out of date by now.  — J.R.

The following selection is not only personal but very eclectic. It’s not exactly a list of my favorite films: I prefer Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) to his Blind Husbands (1919), for instance, and if I had to take one Anthony Mann film along with me to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be The Naked Spur (1953) rather than his Man of the West (1958). Similarly, my favorite films by Nicholas Ray are probably Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bitter Victory (1957), even though Party Girl (1958), for all its flaws, is still a Ray film that I’d describe as sublime. But I’ve opted in these cases for the DVDs devoted to Stroheim, Mann, and Ray that I cherish the most, and the reasons why I cherish them are stated below.

A few other caveats:

(a) There are at least two other editions of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) —- the U.S. one from Criterion and the English one from the British Film Institute—- that are top-notch, and they’re probably easier to come by in the Western hemisphere than the Australian edition on the Madman label that I cite.… Read more »

Death and Life [on Alexander Dovzhenko]

From the June 7, 2002 Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Landscapes of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko

When I speak of poetry, I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality….Think of Mandelstam, think of Pasternak, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, and you’ll realize what tremendous emotional power is carried by these exalted figures who soar above the earth, in whom the artist appears not just as an explorer of life, but as one who creates great spiritual treasures and that specific beauty which is subject only to poetry. Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life. — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

It is possible that we are still in a pre-historic stage of cinema, for the great history of cinema will begin when it leaves the frame of ordinary artistic representation and grows into a tremendous and extraordinarily encompassing perceptive category. — Alexander Dovzhenko, 1933

Ukrainian writer-director Alexander Dovzhenko may be the most neglected major filmmaker of the 20th century.… Read more »

The Heart of an Enigma [BARTLEBY]

From the May 24, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Bartleby

** (Woth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Parker

Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli

With David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Cassel.

Jonathan Parker’s first feature adapts Herman Melville’s eerie 1853 novella “Bartleby” (also known as “Bartleby the Scrivener”) with the kind of fidelity to mood and feeling that’s rare among movie adaptations of literary classics. The action has been updated roughly a century and a half, the setting transferred from Wall Street to a building perched on a hilltop over a freeway in an unnamed American location. Characters have been added, significant plot details altered, and a strategic part of the exposition shifted from the end of the tale to near the beginning. Yet the story still has much of the same maddening mystery, conviction, and unsettling comedy that Melville gave it.

The added epilogue is harder to justify and much less successful, and the filmmaking throughout, starting with the early use of slow motion, is needlessly fussy and self-conscious. But these are forgivable flaws in a first feature, one that updates Melville’s story and conception without betraying it.

The nameless narrator of the original is a lawyer on the verge of retirement looking back on the events he describes from a distance of many years.… Read more »

Penn & Teller Get Killed

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1989). — J.R.

PENN&

Whether this goofy 1989 black comedy is a total success is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s different. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising, which is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (JR) 90 min.

P&TGKRead more »