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]
Yearly Archives: 2017
From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). I was very touched when, over a dozen years later, and quite recently, in Lisbon, Nicoletta Braschi (who was performing Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days there) thanked me for this piece. — J.R.
The worst movie I saw all year was the dubbed and recut version of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, hastily released by Miramax on Christmas Day. Yet I could easily have placed Benigni’s subtitled original in my top 50, if not top 40.
The late-19th-century source novel, Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, is so quintessentially Italian that adaptations lose flavor and meaning if they don’t include that aspect. Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature also failed to include the original’s sense of poverty, its cosmic vision of brutality, and many other disturbing elements, then heaped on the sentimentality; the studio got away with it because the film at least had a style and an occasionally disturbing vision of its own.
Benigni’s adaptation replicates more of the Disney sentimentality than I would have liked, but it returns to the Italian original, altering it mainly to fit Benigni’s irreverent and very Italian sense of comedy. (Federico Fellini had hoped to adapt the story with Benigni as the lead, and this film reflects some of Fellini’s broadness and comic-strip floridity.)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). For the record, I regard Downsizing as Payne’s best film to date, even if it’s less perfectly shaped than Election, but representing as much of a leap from About Schmidt as that film was from Citizen Ruth. — J.R.
I was so offended by the cynicism and class condescension of Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne’s first feature, that I’ve remained suspicious of his work even as he’s emerged as a more skillful director in Election and this still more ambitious and accomplished film. It’s a very free adaptation of a Louis Begley novel, transposed from Manhattan to Payne’s native Nebraska, in which Jack Nicholson has been asked to put on some weight and finally act his age. The problem is he’s still Jack Nicholson, exuding his know-it-all charisma even when playing a clueless asshole and not nearly as inventive as he was in a much less showy part in The Pledge. The contrivance here by which he bares his soul — by mouthing letters to an African boy he’s helping to support from afar — is bogus and forced, and even the more observant moments in this odyssey of a bored and boring widower can’t entirely escape the jeering tone that remains Payne’s stock-in-trade.… Read more »
This appeared in the April 4, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Rating * (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Alexander Payne
With Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, M.C. Gainey, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren.
Inventing the Abbotts
Rating *** (A must see)
Directed by Pat O’Connor
Written by Ken Hixon
With Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Will Patton, Kathy Baker, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joanna Going, Barbara Williams, and Michael Sutton.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
The best insight into 20th-century repression I’ve encountered recently is contained in Sidney Blumenthal’s piece about Whittaker Chambers in the March 17 issue of the New Yorker. Chambers “lived in a time when it was easier to confess to being a [communist] spy than to confess to being a homosexual,” Blumenthal notes. He also remarks that Chambers’s behavior as a spy — “furtive exchanges, secret signals, false identities” — resembled his behavior as a homosexual, and that he “and a pantheon of anti-Communists for whom conservatism was the ultimate closet — J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Francis Cardinal Spellman — advanced a politics based on the themes of betrayal and exposure, ‘filth’ (as Hoover called it) and purity.… Read more »
Recommended Reading: CINEASTE on Film Criticism, Programming, and Preservation in the New Millennium
Can I help promote a collection of symposia, two of which I participated in, as well as several interviews ? Why not? This is fun to browse and useful as well as instructive to read. The symposia are conducted with exemplary breadth and thoroughness (the one on international film criticism, for instance, takes in no less than twenty countries), and although the interviews are mostly with critics (Pauline Kael, John Bloom, Peter von Bagh, Mark Cousins), a good many programmers and film preservationists are also surveyed. Editors Cynthia Lucia and Rahul Hamid have done a careful and conscientious job and produced a very handsome book. Need I say more? [12/16/17]… Read more »
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.
** (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
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 »
In my original review of this documentary, I cited and recommended some writing by Eliot Weinberger that three of my editors regarded as irresponsible and unreliable and therefore something that shouldn’t be mentioned, along with some of my own pronouncements. Readers who would like to judge this matter for themselves can read my unedited draft, which I’ve added below the published version. The edited version appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times
*** (A must-see)
Directed by John Junkerman.
As a work of cinema, John Junkerman’s documentary about Noam Chomsky doesn’t set the world on fire. The film is a prosaic compilation of interview footage of the linguist and political analyst in his office at MIT intercut with footage of him speaking in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and the Bronx last spring. He’s also shown chatting with students about U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terrorism,” and representations of both in the American media. Unlike Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), a Canadian film that’s well over twice as long, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times doesn’t try to offer a comprehensive portrait of its subject or a wide-ranging survey of his thought.… Read more »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 2001). — J.R.
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)
From the Chicago Reader (April 22, 1997). — J. R.
Despite its sentimental aspects, this youthful, semitragic tale of two Chinese mainlanders in Hong Kong — the wonderful Maggie Cheung (Actress, Irma Vep) and pop star Leon Lai — and their fluctuating relationship as friends and lovers is the most moving film I’ve seen yet about that city’s last years under colonial rule (though the film’s final sections are set mainly in New York, where both characters emigrate). I suspect many Chinese viewers feel the same, because the film cleaned up at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping no less than nine categories (including best director, film, screenplay, and actress). Set between 1986 and 1996, and visualized by director Peter Chan with a great deal of inventiveness and lyricism, this movie is full of heart and humor, capturing the times we’re living in as no Western film could. Watch for a charming cameo by Christopher Doyle, the premier cinematographer of the Hong Kong new wave, as an English teacher. Film scholar and former Chicagoan Patricia Erens, now based at Hong Kong University, will introduce the Friday screening. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 22, 6:00; Saturday, August 23, 8:00; Sunday, August 24, 4:00; and Tuesday, August 26, 7:30; 312-443-3737.… Read more »
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 »
“Doubtless this tale of spirit possession in Georgetown packs a punch, but so does wood alcohol,“ wrote Reader critic Don Druker in an earlier review of this. I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive: as a key visual source for Mel Gibson’s depiction of evil in T as well as an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. This 2000 rerelease runs 132 minutes, 11 minutes longer than the original; with Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb. R. (JR)
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.
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1997). I had a great time talking to Varda about this film at Chicago’s Music Box on October 14, 2015. — J.R.
Agnes Varda’s 1961 New Wave feature — recounting two hours in the life of a French pop singer (Corinne Marchand) while she waits to learn from her doctor whether she’s terminally ill — is arguably her best work, rivaled only by her Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000). Beautifully shot and realized, this film offers an irreplaceable time capsule of Paris, and fans of Michel Legrand won’t want to miss the extended sequence in which he visits the heroine and rehearses with her. The film’s approximations of real time are exactly that — the total running time is 90 minutes — but innovative and thrilling nonetheless. Underrated when it came out and unjustly neglected since, it’s not only the major French New Wave film made by a woman, but a key work of that exciting period — moving, lyrical, and mysterious. With Antoine Bourseiller. In French with subtitles. (JR)
My column for the Spring 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
Let me start with a correction and adjustment to the final entry in my last column, furnished by Chris Fujiwara and relating to the appearance of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 131-minute The Honey Pot (1967) on a Kino Lober Blu-ray:
“When I did my stint at the Frieda Grafe favorite films series at Arsenal in Berlin two or three years ago, they showed a good 35mm print of The Honey Pot that ran about 150 minutes. It had a BBFC [British Board of Film Censors] card on it and it came from Park Circus. (By the way I took detailed notes of the differences from the DVD version, which I had recently watched several times.)….The cutting that was done to the film to get it down to 131 minutes was quite extensive and elaborate. In a few cases whole scenes were cut out (including scenes with the three ex-lovers, and a scene showing Cliff Robertson at work as a male escort). But a good deal of the shortening was done by cutting out individual shots or parts of shots from scenes that are otherwise kept in. Not only the rhythm but also the tone and the thematic content of these scenes are changed, sometimes drastically….It’s… Read more »