Monthly Archives: August 2020

To Sleep With Anger

From the Chicago Reader (May 10, 2001). — J.R.

It seems scandalous that Charles Burnett, the most gifted black American director offering purely realistic depictions of black urban life, was able to make this 1990 feature only because Danny Glover agreed to play a leading role. Harry Mention (Glover), an old friend from the rural south, arrives on the doorstep of a Los Angeles family, wreaking subtle and not-so-subtle havoc on their lives. The family is headed by a retired farmer (Paul Butler) and his midwife spouse (Mary Alice), whose two married sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) are in constant conflict. Burnett’s acute and sensitive direction is free of hackneyed movie conventions; even something as simple as a hello is said differently from the way you’ve heard it in any other movie. All of Burnett’s features have the density of novels, rich with characters and their interplay, and this one is no exception. 102 min. (JR)

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Calle 54

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 2001). — J.R.

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This no-nonsense documentary (2000) by the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (an Oscar winner for Belle Epoque) is a welcome primer on Latin jazz, an expansive genre that can range from a Dizzy Gillespie big-band arrangement to a Charlie Haden ballad. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the minimal exterior footage of musicians, shot in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Sweden, is digital video while the much slicker footage in simple studio settings is on celluloid — an appropriate combination, even if there’s a bit too much restless MTV-like cutting and angle changing. Much more importantly, Trueba’s commentaries are brief and to the point, and are never delivered over the music. A celebration of visual as well as aural delights, the film amply demonstrates how playing certain percussive instruments — conga drums, vibes, even piano — is much like dancing (though Trueba also provides actual dancing to go with Chano Dominguez’s jazz-flamenco fusions near the beginning and some Afro-Cuban drumming near the end). Apart from the percussiveness, the music is extremely varied, running the gamut from Eliane Elias’s lyrical piano to Gato Barbieri’s gruff but tender tenor sax to Chico O’Farrill’s wonderful big-band scoring; among the many other featured players are Paquito d’Rivera, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, and a couple of the latter’s relatives.… Read more »

In Neuroses Begin Responsibilities— and Movies

Part of a roundtable discussion with David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott in Slate, December 26, 2001. Sorry that I can’t furnish the post from David that led to it. Note: let your cursor hit the first illustration below.  — J. R.

Dear David (and Roger, Sarah, and Tony),

I appreciate your evocation of Sept. 11 at the start of your letter — a defining moment for us all — as well as your conflicted thoughts about vigilantism, and how these impact on your movie tastes. For me, there’s no conflict of this kind, because I’m afraid revenge strikes me as something less than an adult aspiration or concern — accounting both for why I think Mandela’s South Africa is far ahead of the United States in this respect and why In the Bedroom, a very well-made film, doesn’t interest me much. (The only moment I recall making my pulse race was when Spacek slapped Tomei.) As you’re the first to point out, Osama Bin Laden is also obsessed with vengeance  —  though surely not just for “slights against his brand of Islam.” Other beefs might include the deaths of about a million innocent Iraqis (the American Friends Service Committee’s estimate last spring) — collateral damage that Madeleine Albright told us she had no regrets about, despite the fact that it arguably only strengthened Saddam Hussein  —  as well as many other lethal forms of meddling in the Middle East, some of them slights against both humanity and common sense.

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Bullet on a Wire

From the June 22, 2001 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

This peculiar, locally made black-and-white feature by Jim Sikora premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996 and surprisingly it’s been screened here only once since then, despite the fact that it’s enjoyed well-received runs in both New York and Los Angeles and played at European festivals. Apart from John Terendy’s effective cinematography, the film is notable for its impressive leads: Jeff Strong is creepily enigmatic as a misfit whose gratuitous phone prank, referred to in the title, leads to a murder and the subsequent incarceration of a young woman (a superbly composed Lara Phillips) who was the patient of his sister (Paula Killen) at a health clinic. The style is mainly classic low-rent noir, but Sikora adds a few interesting touches, such as Strong evaporating from certain shots rather than making conventional exits, a few striking freeze-frames toward the end, and some odd uses of music by the Denison-Kimball Trio. Joe Carducci collaborated with Sikora on the script; with David Yow and Richard Kern. 83 min. Showing as part of “Starring Chicago!,” the Film Center’s retrospective of films shot or set in Chicago; Sikora will attend the screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N.… Read more »

Mulholland Drive

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2001). — J.R.

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I’m still trying to decide if this 146-minute piece of hocus-pocus (2001) is David Lynch’s best feature between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. In any case, it’s immensely more likable than his other stabs at neonoir (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway), perhaps because it likes its characters and avoids sentimentalizing or sneering at them (the sort of thing that limited Twin Peaks, at least in spots). Originally conceived and rejected as a TV pilot, then expanded after some French producers stepped in, it has the benefit of Lynch’s own observations about Hollywood, which were fresher at this point than his puritanical notations on small towns in the American heartland. The best-known actors (Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Dan Hedaya) wound up relatively marginalized, while the lesser-known talents (in particular the remarkable Naomi Watts and the glamorous Laura Elena Harring) were invited to take over the movie (and have a field day doing so). The plot slides along agreeably as a tantalizing mystery before becoming almost completely inexplicable, though no less thrilling, in the closing stretches — but that’s what Lynch is famous for. (JR)

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The Best of Both Worlds [A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 2001). For more recent thoughts about this film, please go here. — J.R.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Spielberg and Ian Watson

With Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Jake Thomas, and the voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, and Chris Rock.

If the best movies are often those that change the rules, Steven Spielberg’s sincere, cockeyed, serious, and sometimes masterful realization of Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious late project deserves to be a contender. All of Kubrick’s best films fall into one vexing category — they’re strange, semi-identified objects that we’re never quite prepared for. They’re also the precise opposite of Spielberg’s films, which ooze cozy familiarity before we’ve figured out what they are or what they’re doing to us. If A.I. Artificial Intelligence — a film whose split personality is apparent even in its two-part title — is as much a Kubrick movie as a Spielberg one, this is in large part because it defamiliarizes Spielberg, makes him strange. Yet it also defamiliarizes Kubrick, with equally ambiguous results — making his unfamiliarity familiar. Both filmmakers should be credited for the results — Kubrick for proposing that Spielberg direct the project and Spielberg for doing his utmost to respect Kubrick’s intentions while making it a profoundly personal work.… Read more »

Pleasures and Perils: Improvisation in OUT 1

Commissioned by MUBI Notebook and posted there on June 19, 2020. — J.R.

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There’s a lot of confusion about what improvisation in movies consists of — when it is or isn’t used, and sometimes what it means when it is used. Those who think that the dialogue in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is improvised don’t realize that the screenplay by Welles and Oja Kodar with that dialogue was published years ago, long before the film’s posthumous completion. It’s worth adding, however,  that the film’s mise-en-scène was improvised by Welles on a daily basis. Similarly, those misled by director Robert Altman’s dreamy pans and seemingly random zooms in The Long Goodbye into concluding that the actors must be inventing their own lines are ignoring the careful work done by screenwriter Leigh Brackett, not to mention Raymond Chandler.

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Many of those who associate improvisation with John Cassavetes — ever since he brazenly concluded his first feature, Shadows, with the printed title, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation” — don’t seem to realize that, long after the actors did their initial improvs in Cassavetes’ Manhattan acting workshop, most of the lines were set and even written down before the cameras started rolling.… Read more »

Irreversible

From the Chicago Reader (March 7, 2003). — J.R.

Gaspar Noé’s 2002 follow-up to his remarkable I Stand Alone is stupid, vicious, and pretentious, though you may find it worth checking out if you want to experiment with your own nervous system. As in the overrated and similarly misanthropic Memento, the episodes of the story play out in achronological order, from violent murder in a gay S-M club called the Rectum toward the rape and beating that motivated it and beyond that to earlier and happy times for the heroine (Monica Bellucci) and two of her lovers (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel). The dialogue is mainly improvised, the sequences are mainly ten-minute takes (either real or simulated), and the aggressive 360-degree camera movements at the beginning are so disorienting that one can barely follow the action — though Noé grinds to a respectful halt to contemplate the rape and brutality. In French with subtitles. 99 min.

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Mortu Nega

From the August 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

One of the best contemporary war films I know is this singular 1988 feature, the first by Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes (Po di sangui). The first half, as elemental and as unadorned as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, concentrates on women fighting alongside guerrillas at the end of Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence in 1973, attacked by Portuguese helicopters as they travel on foot close to the border. The second half, more diffuse and at times more rhetorical, deals with the ambiguous conditions of the war’s aftermath. The title means those whom death refused, and true to that notion the heroine (Bia Gomes) has been fighting for about a decade. Gomes (no relation to the director) manages to convey the loss of her children in a wordless and underplayed moment that shook me to my core. Flora Gomes appears in a cameo as president of a postwar sector. 93 min. (JR)

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Lolita

From the Chicago Reader (October 13, 1998). — J.R.

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Though Adrian Lyne’s clodhopper direction, underlined by a mushy Ennio Morricone score, predictably runs the gamut from soft-core porn in the manner of David Hamilton to hectoring close-ups, this is perhaps Lyne’s best movie after Jacob’s Ladder — a genuinely disturbing (if far from literary) adaptation of Nabokov’s extraordinary novel, written by former journalist Stephen Schiff and starring, predictably, Jeremy Irons. It shines in the areas where Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation is deficient: Dominique Swain, the actress playing Lolita here, actually looks 14, making this much more a story about corrupted innocence, and it unfolds in American locations in the late 40s. In every other respect, however, Kubrick’s version is superior and will clearly endure as the better movie: Frank Langella as Quilty can’t hold a candle to Peter Sellers, and Melanie Griffith plays a poor second to Shelley Winters as the heroine’s mother. Your time would be better spent reading or rereading the novel than seeing either film version, but this overproduced 1998 art film has its moments. (JR)

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Shulie

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1998). — J.R.

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For the most part, this is a precise, shot-by-shot video “remake” of a little-known half-hour documentary film made in Chicago in 1967. The original film, made by Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig, was a portrait of 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone as she was earning a BFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute, working for the postal service, and taking photographs (three years later she would publish The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution). The “remake” was made by Elisabeth Subrin (Swallow), a former grad student at the School of the Art Institute who worked with actors and detailed reproductions of Firestone’s paintings and drawings. This fascinating attempt at duplication ultimately has more to say about the 90s than the 60s: though it has some impact of its own as a document about prefeminist awakening, it?s more valuable as a commentary on what separates the past from the present. Kim Soss gives a good performance as Firestone, but her style of speaking is noticeably more guarded and unemotional, telling us a great deal about differences in everyday speech and body language 30 years apart.… Read more »

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

From the November 20, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A good reason for including the name of the original author in the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious version of the famous vampire story is that most previous film versions have been based not on the 1897 novel but on Hamilton Deane and John Balderston’s 1927 stage adaptation. This version, written by coproducer James V. Hart, brings back the multiple narrators of the novel, leading to a somewhat dispersed and overcrowded story line that remains fascinating and often affecting thanks to all its visual and conceptual energy. (Some of this derives from the filmmakers’ musings about what was going on culturally in Europe at the turn of the century, including the decadent art of people like Beardsley, Klimt, and Huysmans and the birth of both movies and psychoanalysis.) Still the overreacher, Coppola suffers at times from a surfeit of ideas (rather than a dearth, like most of his colleagues); there are times when he squanders his effects (as he did in Rumble Fish), or finds some of them in unlikely places. (Murnau’s Faust has apparently exerted more of an influence than his Nosferatu, for instance.) But this is still the best vampire movie in ages — a visual feast with ideas, more disturbing than scary, though a rich experience in many other respects.… Read more »

Chekhov’s Motifs

Members of a farming family incessantly repeat the same lines of dialogue while a student prepares to leave home for school; guests at an interminable wedding cackle maniacally while the ghost of the groom’s lover interferes with the ceremony. Now over 70, the great Russian filmmaker Kira Muratova (The Asthenic Syndrome) seems to get wilder and more transgressive with every passing year. This updated merging of two early Anton Chekhov texts (the short play Tatiana Repina and the story Difficult Natures) veers closer to the mad lucidity of Gogol than to the wry realism of The Cherry Orchard. I found the extreme stylization mesmerizing, hilarious, and ultimately closer to hyperrealism than absurdism, though if you enter this without any warning you might wind up fleeing in terror. In Russian with subtitles. 120 min. (JR)

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The Fugitive Kind

From the March 20, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Marlon Brando is pitted against Anna Magnani in this 1960 adaptation by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts of Williams’s play Orpheus Descending, and as Dave Kehr once remarked in these pages, It’s the biggest grudge match since King Kong met Godzilla. Unfortunately, director Sidney Lumet, who’s sometimes out of his element when he leaves New York, seems positively baffled by the gothic south and doesn’t know quite what to do with the overlay of Greek myth either. With Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, and Maureen Stapleton. 135 min. (JR)

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Three Sequences from DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES [WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, PISTOL OPERA, & THE WORLD]

Here are three of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). Each one of these entries devoted to “scenes” has something to do with imaginatively combining animation with live-action. — J.R.

***

1957 / Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? –– Rock Hunter dances through his empty office at night to an offscreen chorus (“Mr. Successful, You’ve Got it Made”).

U.S. Director: Frank Tashlin. Cast: Tony Randall.

Why It’s Key: In a key satire of the 50s, a Hollywood dream overtly springs to life inside a Hollywood dream.

Madison Avenue adman Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) signs movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse Stay-Put lipstick, thereby making his company a fortune and eventually turning him into first a first a vice president at the ad agency with a key to the executive washroom, then the new president. Before long, even though his alienated fiancée has broken off with him in disgust, he’s clearly “got it made” —- a phrase that he and this movie keep repeating so many times, in so many different ways, like a desperate mantra, that it begins to sound increasingly sinister. Perhaps the most pertinent gloss on this is offered to him by the company’s former president (John Williams), who has meanwhile happily left advertising for horticulture and offers his gloss as a kind of warning: “Success will fit you like a shroud.”… Read more »