Monthly Archives: June 2017

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 »

My 25 Favorite Films of the 21st Century (so far)

Not so long ago, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis decided to name their 25 favorite films of this millennium so far. More recently, J. Hoberman decided to play the same game.

I’ve decided to play as well. My only rule in this game, not followed by Hoberman, was to restrict my favorite filmmakers on the list to only one film each –- not always easy, and sometimes downright agonizing. (How, for instance, could I have left out Costa’s Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?, Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Jia’s Platform and Still Life, Linklater’s Waking Life?)

I haven’t provided links here to my writing about these films, but using this site’s search engine should turn up texts about practically all of them. (The only exception that comes to mind is The Clock.)

 

The order below is alphabetical.

 

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg/Kubrick)

Bernie (Linklater)

Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

The Circle (Panahi)

The Clock (Marclay)

*Corpus Callosum (Snow)

The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)

Down There (Akerman)

Down with Love (Reed)

Farewell to Language (Godard)

Horse Money (Costa)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki)

Inland Empire (Lynch)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Andersen)

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (Gianvito)

Operai, Contadini (Straub-Huillet)

Paterson (Jarmusch)

Pistol Opera (Suzuki)

RR (Benning)

The Silence Before Bach (Portabella)

Son of Saul (Nemes)

The Trap (Curtis)

The Turin Horse (Tarr)

The World (Jia)

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais) [6/21/17]… Read more »

Hollywood From the Fringes [INLAND EMPIRE]

From the January 25, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

INLAND EMPIRE ****

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY DAVID LYNCH WITH LAURA DERN, JUSTIN THEROUX, JEREMY IRONS, KAROLINA GRUSZKA, HARRY DEAN STANTON, AND GRACE ZABRISKIE

David Lynch’s first digital video, almost three hours long, resists synopsizing more than anything else he’s done. Some viewers have complained, understandably, that it’s incomprehensible, but it’s never boring, and the emotions Lynch is expressing are never in doubt. Asked many years ago about the origins of the nightmarish Eraserhead (1978), his first and best feature, he forthrightly replied, “Philadelphia.” If asked the same thing today about the no less nightmarish Inland Empire, he might say, “Hollywood.”

Many of my colleagues believe Lynch’s best early feature is Blue Velvet (1986), which I regard as a gripping but limited piece of designer porn. Like his more offensive Wild at Heart and his more charming TV series Twin Peaks (both 1990), Blue Velvet offers a vivid illustration of how a man can turn his most lurid puritanical obsessions into clout and big money — and get an audience to wallow in those obsessions without thinking about them very hard. It has little of the meditative integrity and private intensity of Eraserhead, but then little in his work before Inland Empire did.… Read more »

Adolescent Eye [on TWIN PEAKS, the first season]

The following article, which originally appeared in the April 20, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, without any star rating, is the only time I can recall writing at length in the Reader about an American TV series. (An edited version of this piece appears in a 1995 collection edited by David Lavery for Wayne State University Press, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, under the title “Bad Ideas: The Art and Politics of Twin Peaks“.) From a vantage point of almost two decades later, I wouldn’t be as quick today to insist that David Lynch’s work is devoid of any social commentary. What he has to say about the Hollywood community alone, especially in Inland Empire (2006), shows that he’s no longer as detached as he was.

Another invaluable tool for re-evaluation is the recent and superbly appointed Blu-Ray box set devoted to Twin Peaks. Despite some misgivings abiut the show’s second season (see, for instance, Martha Nochimson’s demurrals in her 1997 The Passion of David Lynch about some of the ways the show “perverted” Lynch’s original designs and conceptions), I continue to find much of it very absorbing. The same is true, so far, about the so-far uneven third season, despite the brilliance of the third episode.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)

tumblr_n3hkkfy8ug1qk7oe7o1_1280Read more »

Lost In Translation

From the August 29, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LostinTranslation

The Virgin Suicides (2000) revealed writer-director Sofia Coppola to be a genuine original, and now that she’s working with her own material the freshness of her vision is even more apparent. This second feature traces the brief romantic friendship between a jaded movie star and family man (Bill Murray), who’s in Tokyo shooting a whiskey commercial, and a bored young newlywed less than half his age (Scarlett Johansson), who’s waiting for her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to return from a trip. Coppola does a fair job of capturing the fish-tank ambience of nocturnal, upscale Tokyo and showing how it feels to be a stranger in that world, and an excellent job of getting the most from her lead actors. Unfortunately, I’m not sure she accomplishes anything else. R, 105 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 »

Kiarostami at Work [10 on TEN]

From the Chicago Reader (October 29, 2004). — J.R.

10 on Ten

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami’s recent features satisfy few of the usual expectations about narrative films. Yet in 10 on Ten — a documentary about his most recent feature, 10, showing twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center–he appears to be slavishly living up to those expectations.

Like 10, 10 on Ten is split into ten chapters, the last nine of which have labels that suggest topics in a master class: “The Camera,” “The Subject,” “The Script,” “The Location,” “The Music,” “The Actor,” “The Accessories,” “The Director,” and “The Last Lesson.” Kiarostami implies that this film — made for the French DVD of 10, released last summer (the U.S. version will be out November 2) — is his attempt to explain the rationale behind his working methods. The film never becomes as far-fetched as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which purports to explain rationally how he made creative decisions in composing “The Raven.” Yet there’s something suspect about Kiarostami’s cookbook-style lucidity — he may be sincere, but he seems to be overestimating the role rationality plays in his decisions.… Read more »

Lost in Translation [THE LOST CITY]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2006). — J.R.

The Lost City

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Andy Garcia

Written by G. Cabrera Infante

With Garcia, Steven Bauer, Richard Bradford, Nestor Carbonell, Lorena Feijoo, Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman, Tomas Milan, and William Marquez

An intellectual initially associated with Castro’s revolution, G. Cabrera Infante (1929-2005) founded the Cuban Cinematheque and was known as both the Cuban James Joyce and the Cuban Laurence Sterne. He spent his final 39 years in voluntary exile in London, and his last screenplay was for The Lost City, the first feature directed by Andy Garcia. Among his works available in English are the novels Three Trapped Tigers, View of Dawn in the Tropics (the most succinct and measured, and my favorite), and Infante’s Inferno; his nonfiction includes Holy Smoke (a tribute to Havana cigars, his first book written in English) and A Twentieth Century Job, a collection of film criticism published under the pseudonym G. Cain (derived from his first initial and the first two letters of Cabrera and Infante). And there’s the screenplay for the 1971 Hollywood thriller Vanishing Point, also credited to Cain.

Sixteen years ago Garcia decided he wanted to adapt Cabrera Infante’s unadaptable, pun-packed, joyfully multicultural Three Trapped Tigers, an epic about Havana nightclub life during the late Batista period.… Read more »

Wild Wild West

From the June 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WildWildWest

I never saw The Wild Wild West, a comic SF western series about two undercover agents working for President Grant that ran on TV from 1965 to 1970, but from the look of this sprightly spin-off it must have been pretty good. The director (Barry Sonnenfeld) and costar (Will Smith) of Men in Black join forces with Kevin Kline and half a dozen writers to yield an entertainingly offbeat blend of 19th-century science fiction and Hope and Crosby Road comedies (with Salma Hayek in the Dorothy Lamour part). The putative plot involves a mad scientist and Confederate sore loser reduced to an upper torso (Kenneth Branagh) who’s contriving to take over the United States with the aid of an 80-foot mechanical tarantula. Though the movie is as gadget happy as any Bond flick, the pictorial pleasures deriving from Bo Welch’s production design and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography are central to its charms. This is even lighter stuff than Men in Black, but Sonnenfeld’s cheerful irreverence keeps it reasonable. (JR)

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Everybody Wins

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1990). — J.R.

EW

Although it’s far from being wholly satisfying, this bizarre, slow-moving thriller about a righteous detective (Nick Nolte) and a schizophrenic prostitute (Debra Winger) trying to uncover the corruption in a small town in Connecticut that sent an innocent young man to prison for a brutal murder —  the first movie scripted by playwright Arthur Miller since The Misfits — has the virtue of coming across like a picture from another era: a 40s film noir, or a neurotic melodrama from the 50s. Directed by Karel Reisz (Morgan!, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and produced by Jeremy Thomas (Insignificance, The Last Emperor), the film explores its subject atmospherically rather than analytically or in terms of slam-bang action, and what mainly makes it interesting isn’t so much its lame mystery plot as Winger’s character and performance — which manage to triumph over the femme fatale slot the part seems destined for — as well as a peculiar young religious outcast (Will Patton) whose preoccupations form the background to the murder. While parts of the overall conception (including the detective hero) seem innocent and dated, it’s still a welcome relief from the usual right-wing buddy-cops nonsense.… Read more »