Yearly Archives: 2017

…and what about FOXTROT?

FOXTROT1

I face the same dilemma every year: multiple requests for lists of my favorite films of the year, all of them due before I’ve had a chance to see all the contenders. And it looks like the biggest casualty of this process in this year’s roundup has to be Samuel Maoz’s provocative, original, and creatively vexing (at once hilarious and devastating) Israeli feature, FOXTROT, which for me very easily surpasses many of the more popular favorites such as THREE BILLBOARDS… and NORMAN, which I find quite dull, unchallenging, and conventional in comparison. [12/27/17]

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A Few Ways of Looking at MIDNIGHT RUN

I’m mainly reprinting this early review for the Chicago Reader, run in their July 22, 1988 issue, for theoretical reasons rather than because of any intrinsic or enduring interest in the movie involved —- which may well limit or even eliminate the piece’s interest for some readers. When I started reviewing for the Reader and discovered that I had to assign a rating, from one to four stars, to all the films I reviewed at any length, a longstanding Chicago custom, my impatience with this requirement, which struck me as both arbitrary and absurd, is part of what yielded the following. Another part is the sometimes necessary pretense of knowledge by reviewers about matters they know little about. –- J.R.

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by George Gallo

With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.

by Jonathan Rossenbaum

Review #1

There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Sites, Sounds, and Subtitles (4th column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #17 (Winter 2003). Over a decade later, much of this is clearly out of date, including some of the links, but it seems worth acknowledging that the Internet, like everything else, has a history of its own.  — J.R.


I’d like to begin this installment by alerting readers to a couple of excellent online tools that I’ve recently discovered, both of which are indispensable to anyone interested in tracking down the best DVDs of the greatest films: Masters of Cinema and DVD Beaver.

The first of these, at www.masterofcinema.com, is an ongoing international newsletter in English maintained by four rotating editors, with regular updates, devoted to what’s coming out, when and where, and in what condition and with what features. The moment you get to their home page, you see all their regular features, including The News Fountain, a “worldwide DVD calendar” with upcoming releases listed by months, a few discerning articles, and a column of links. The latter is especially valuable, the pièce de résistance comprising a list of directors that at last count included 85 web sites devoted to no less than 76 directors. (In case you’re curious, the directors that have two web sites apiece on this list are Tex Avery, Jean-Luc Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chuck Jones, Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, F.W.… Read more »

The Pajama Game

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

The Pajama Game, 1957

Film scholar Jane Feuer has argued that the Hollywood musical is a politically conservative genre, a notion challenged by the Warners musicals of the 30s, Bells Are Ringing (1969), and this exuberant, underrated 1957 movie. Adapted from George Abbott’s Broadway hit, it concerns a strike in a pajama factory, with Doris Day as the shop steward and John Rait as her boss. Though the sexual politics are far from progressive, this is the sort of labor musical that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s admiration. Bob Fosse’s airy choreography is terrific, and so is the score, which includes “Seven and a Half Cents” and a steamy “Steam Heat”. Stanley Donen directed with verve and energy. 101 min. (JR)

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FILMMAKERS UNITE (FU): A COLLECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT REGIME OF THE U.S.

Filmmakers Unite

It’s the last day of the Cine Palium Fest in Palo del Colle, a medieval

village in southern Italy, where I’ve been serving on one of the juries,

and for me the highlight of the week has been the world premiere this

morning of an omnibus feature coproduced by Jay Rosenblatt and

Ellen Bruno consisting of thirteen very diverse but entertaining

pieces of anti-Trump agit-prop by seventeen filmmakers, in the

following order: Sarah Clift (a charming fiction about a Mexican

mother riding on her motorbike to a remote cave to acquire a huge

Trump doll from a mysterious shaman to serve as her little boy’s

birthday piñata), Pacho Velez and Nicole Salazar (the Trump

Inauguration as seen or ignored at the Tijuana border control), Kate

Amend and Pablo Bryant, Shy Hamilton, Ferne Pearlstein, Rosenblatt

(a characteristically Rosenblattian creepy and funny reworking of found

footage), Kris Samuelson and John Haptas, Usama Alshaibi (a scary look

at and listen to what American talk radio sounds like to someone with a

Muslim background who’s driving), Chel White, David Sampliner and

Rachel Shuman, Alan Berliner (a succinct way of summarizing what a

divided country consists of and feels like), Eva Ilana Brzeski (heart-

stopping portraiture of fellow Americans that reminds me of both

Dovzhenko and Costa), and Jeremy Rourke (reminding us of how joy

can be an empowering form of resistance).… Read more »

The Promise

Chen Kaige clearly intended this Chinese fantasy-action spectacle to top Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and I must admit that I prefer it to the earlier movie: the digital effects are sometimes excessive, yet Chen’s story of a loyal slave, his master, and a wealthy, seemingly doomed princess is more affecting, especially in the closing stretch. Chen’s original U.S. distributor, the Weinstein Company, ordered him to shorten the movie from its original running time of 128 minutes and then dropped it. (It’s worth recalling that his 1996 feature Temptress Moon was severely damaged by Miramax’s recutting.) Now Warner Independent Features is releasing the abbreviated, 102-minute version, and it’s well worth checking out. PG-13. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.

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Under the Sign of Sontag

This book review, which I’ve alluded to previously on this site, appeared in the November 2, 1980 issue of The Soho News. —J.R.

Under the Sign of Sontag

Under the Sign of Saturn

By Susan Sontag

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.95

If, dialectically speaking, every book can be said to have an unconscious — a repressed subtext — one can find glimpses of the unconscious of this one in the misleading flap copy  that quotes from an interview (“Women, the Arts, and the Politics of Culture,”  Salmagundi 31-32) and mentions the inclusion of a “famous exchange on fascism and feminism” (apparently with Adrienne Rich, in the March 20, 1975 New York Review of Books), both regrettably missing from this slim volume of seven essays.

These omissions betray the absence of a gritty, indecorous social context — a sense of Sontag existing in the world, not merely staging grand Platonic shadow-plays in the theater of her mind. Much as Illness as Metaphor (1978) was partially structured around her refusal to allude once to her own personal struggle, this book discreetly, indirectly dances around the notion that the subject of every essay proposes a different kind of mirror to the author, a speculative self-portrait.… Read more »

Deep Blues

From the Chicago Reader (January 15, 1993). — J.R.

DeepBlues

Blues buffs have some genuine cause for rejoicing: Robert Mugge’s 1991 documentary about blues performers in the Mississippi Delta, made for England’s Channel Four, contains some of the best blues I’ve ever heard or seen on film. Using blues critic and historian Robert Palmer — accompanied by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) — as tour guide, the film proceeds from a sadly gentrified Beale Street in Memphis to funky Mississippi outposts like Holly Springs, Greenville, Clarksdale, and Betonia, where we’re treated to brief interviews with and extended live performances by Booker T. Laury, R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Junior Kimbrough, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes and the Playboys, “Big” Jack Johnson, Jack Owens, Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford. Palmer wears his erudition lightly, but he’s very good on the African origins of such things as the word “juke” and the homemade blues instrument called the diddly bow. This isn’t anything special as cinema, but if you’re into blues it’s a bonanza. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 15 through 21)

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On the Denied Politics of THE HURT LOCKER

I’m really tired of hearing from American reviewers that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “isn’t political”. This specious and even insulting claim is clearly part of their effort to convince people to see the movie, and I’m at least sympathetic to that part, since the film is far and away the best new American commercial feature I’ve seen in months — the best constructed and the most thoughtful and entertaining. It’s also the best commercial American film about the so-called “war in” (I prefer “occupation of”) Iraq, at least since In the Valley of Elah, on which writer Mark Boal also furnished much of the material.

First of all, the notion that any American film made today with an Iraqi setting could possibly be apolitical in any shape or form strikes me as being extremely naïve and myopic. Secondly, I can’t imagine what could make the notion of an apolitical film on this subject sound even remotely attractive. Are we really that helpless and hopeless?  And are we so blinkered in our perceptions of what politics consists of that we think it’s limited to how we vote in elections? (Spoiler ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.)… Read more »

Commercial Correctness

I can happily report that some portions of the following — which originally appeared in the December 24, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader—are out of date, because all the films reported here as unavailable (I Want To Go Home, The Decalogue, The Lovers of Pont-Neuf) have subsequently become available. —J.R.

We all know what political correctness is — though the nuances of the term may vary depending on whether you’re inside or outside academia and whether or not you regard it as exclusively the preserve of the left. (Personally, I consider Rush Limbaugh and Andrea Dworkin both charter members of the club.) Commercial correctness in movie ideology, however, has yet to be defined, even though it currently engulfs both the entertainment industry and the audience.

Political correctness can be defined as the demand by members of an oppressed minority—or at least those like Limbaugh who consider themselves equivalent to members of an oppressed minority—to be treated with respect. Commercial correctness, on the other hand, can be defined as the demand of members of a reigning majority—or at least those who consider themselves equivalent to members of a reigning majority—that minority works and positions be treated without respect.… Read more »

The Example of KATZELMACHER

This is the last in a series of four essays I wrote in 2008 about Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The others, on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha, have already been posted on this site. — J.R.

Katzelmacher is only the second feature of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet the gulf that separates it from its predecessor, Love is Colder Than Death, is enormous. His first feature, shot over 24 days in April 1969, was later described by its writer-director as the first of his “cinema” films, apparently because its minimal story about petty gangsters seems conceived in relation to genre films. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June, where it was roundly booed and received mixed reviews; it seems fairly safe to conclude that if Fassbinder had made nothing else, most of us would never have heard of him.

This is no doubt why Fassbinder’s somewhat mysterious epigraph for Katzelmacher, credited to his friend and collaborator Yaak Karsunke, reads like a directive to himself: ”It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” Another directive, more ironic, crops up in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue — “We need a bit of order here” —- which has formal as well as political implications.… Read more »

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: half a dozen responses

In my more than 20 years at the Chicago Reader, whenever an old film came to town that had a Reader capsule on file by Dave Kehr, my long-term predecessor at that paper (who left the paper in the mid-1980s), I always had the option of either using that old capsule or writing a new one. On almost every occasion when this happened, I opted for the former — for my money, Dave was and is the best capsule reviewer in the business, bar none. But when it came to The Best Years of Our Lives, I eventually decided that I had to write a new one. Below are the two capsules in question:

Perceived in 1946 (to the tune of nine Academy Awards) as a sign that the movies had finally “grown up,” William Wyler’s study of a group of men returning to civilian life after the war was a tremendous commercial success and helped to create Hollywood’s postwar highbrow style of pseudorealism and social concern. The film is very proud of itself, exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can, thanks to accomplished performances by Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, who keep the human element afloat.… Read more »

Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958 (2-CD set, Gambit Records 69265).

 

You may have to be an Ahmad Jamal completist like myself to take notice of this 2007 expanded edition, which adds three 1958 Chicago studio cuts, totaling about eight minutes, to the 25 live ones that have already been available. The latter tracks appeared on two well-known Jamal LPs, Ahmad Jamal and the two-disc Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal, both recorded in September 1958 at Washington, D.C.’s Spotline Club in September 5 and 6, 1958.

If memory serves, the first of these was the first Jamal record I ever bought, when I was 15 or 16, and it’s never gone stale for me —- despite the scorn heaped on Jamal by sophisticated jazz critics such as Martin Williams in Downbeat. There’s always been a curious split between the Jamal idolatry of Miles Davis –- who joined forces with Gil Evans on their first joint album to virtually steal (rather than simply play homage to) two tracks from Jamal’s 1955 Chamber Music of the New Jazz, “New Rumba” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed,” and based his Quintet’s arrangement of “All of You” in ‘Round Midnight on Jamal’s on the same LP —- and the disdain of most jazz critics, who seemed to regard Jamal’s popularity with seething resentment, much as they resented Dave Brubeck during the same period.Read more »

The Virgin Suicides

From the Chicago Reader (March 27, 2000). — J.R.

virgin-suicides-prom

A very curious and eclectic piece of work — fresh even when it’s awkward — that’s built around an unsolved mystery, like Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adapted from a Jeffrey Eugenides novel by director Sofia Coppola, and set in small-town Michigan a quarter of a century ago, it focuses on five teenage sisters as perceived by some of their male classmates; James Woods and Kathleen Turner play the girls’ parents and Giovanni Ribisi narrates. With Kirsten Dunst, Hanna R. Hall, Chelsea Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Josh Hartnett, Danny DeVito, and Scott Glenn. 96 min. (JR)

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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 »