Yearly Archives: 2018

Worlds Apart (on MOTHER and EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU)

This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Mother
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.

Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.

Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma.… Read more »

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

From the Spring 1982 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

1: On the Unreliability of Memory

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire

“Was it 1913 or ’17?” wonders the first ancient voice, male and faltering, after a burst of vigorous ragtime has faded out, before the opening credits have left the screen. “I can’t remember now — I’m beginning to forget all the people I used to know.” “Do I remember Louise Bryant?” asks the voice of another male oldster. “Why, of course; I couldn’t forget her if I tried.” A third witness of that period, female, appears on the right of the screen against a black background, lit like a Richard Avedon portrait. “I can’t tell you,” she replies to an unheard question. “I might sort of scratch my memory, but not at the moment . . . you know, things go and come back again.”

At once the conscience and the Greek chorus of REDS, the thirty-two “witnesses” who prattle and reminisce about the real characters and events — John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, Emma Goldman, World War I, the Russian Revolution — are immediately perceived as human, charming, and indispensable; without them, the film and its achievement could not even begin to exist.… Read more »

The Hidden

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1987). — J.R.

TheHidden-dvdcover

Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Blue Velvet) star in this 1987 SF crime thriller, directed by Jack Sholder, about a police detective investigating a series of mysterious crimes who discovers that the perpetrators are all inhabited by an alien life form. Despite its reputation as a sleeper, this isn’t much more than a capably directed version of a film we’ve already seen many times before: some well-executed car chases and efficient acting (including proof that MacLachlan can be weird without David Lynch), but not much development of the familiar possession theme a la Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Unfortunately, many of the most intriguing details —  such as the alien’s taste for loud pop music — are left hanging rather than fleshed out, and the film eventually reduces itself to mechanical (if well-crafted) action sequences. (JR)

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Metropolitan

From the Chicago Reader (August 10, 1990). Even though this is favorable, I think I underestimated the achievement of this first feature; reseeing it a quarter of a century later, in preparation for a very enjoyable public Skype conversation with Whit Stillman held at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it looked much better and much richer, and the tenderness shown towards almost all of the characters is indelible. — J.R.

metropolitan

Whether it’s “accurate” or not, Whit Stillman’s crafty independent feature about wealthy Park Avenue teenagers and a middle-class boy who joins their ranks over one Christmas vacation is certainly well imagined, and impressively acted by a cast of newcomers (including Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Elizabeth Thompson). The simple but offbeat form of the film — which concentrates mainly on a series of social gatherings among a circle of friends, separated by fade-outs — has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested (1990). (Fine Arts)

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We Love It When They Lie [JACOB’S LADDER]

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 1990). This film has recently come out on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

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JACOB’S LADDER

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

With Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, and Patricia Kalember.

“Around twenty-four hundred years ago Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly and when he awakened he did not know if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.” The sense of metaphysical free-fall conveyed in this sentence from Jorge Luis Borges’s great essay “A New Refutation of Time” is like the disorientation one feels after watching a gripping and involving movie — a movie like Jacob’s Ladder, for instance. Like Chuang Tzu, one isn’t quite sure whether one has just left a dream, just entered one, or embarked on some magical if unsettling combination of the two. I tend to be partial to movies that traffic in these systematic displacements of reality — starting with Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad (1962), the locus classicus of this genre, continuing through much less radical examples like Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), and extending even to minor forays like last summer’s Total Recall.… Read more »

DOGS’ DIALOGUE (1984 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1984 (Vol. 51, No. 611). In retrospect, I’m rather proud of the synopsis here, which must have been a bitch to put together. -– J.R.

Colloque de chiens (Dogs’ Dialogue)

France, 1977
Director: R
âúl Ruiz

Cert–AA. dist–BFI. p.c–Filmoblic/L’Office de la Création Cinématographique. p–Hubert Niogret. asst. d–Michel Such. sc–Nicole Muchnik, Raul Ruiz. ph—Denis Lenoir, Patrice Millet. In colour. still ph–Patrice Morère, Mario Muchnik. ed–Valeria Sarmiento. m–Sergio Arriagada. cost–Fanny Lebihan, Yves Hersen. sd. rec–Michel Villain. sd. re-rec–Paul Bertaud. English version/English commentary—Michael Graham. French version/French commentary–Robert Darmel. l.p–Eva Simonet, Silke Humel, Frank Lesne, Marie Christine Poisot, Hugo Santiago, Geneviève Such, Laurence Such, Michel Such, Pierre Olivier Such, Yves Wecker, the dogs of the Gramont refuge. 1,938 ft. 22 mins. (35 mm.)

The film alternates three kinds of material: footage of barking dogs, shots of streets and other locations, and the following story, illustrated chiefly by a series of stills (and occasionally by shots in motion) and narrated off-screen: Monique discovers in a school playground that the woman she believes to be her mother isn’t her mother. At home, she learns that her real mother is a woman named Marie, who doesn’t know who her father was.… Read more »

One Key Event & Two Key Scenes (March 2009)

Three brief entries commissioned by Chris Fujiwara and submitted in March 2009 for the updated Italian edition of his stupendous 2007 collection Defining Moments in Movies, entitled Cinema: 1000 Momenti Fondamentali. — J.R.

Key Event

Rossellini goes to India

Roberto Rossellini’s extended trip to India comes at the end of his richest period as a filmmaker in which his various staged encounters between fiction and non-fiction were most adventurous. At  the war’s end he was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany, but once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues came to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. Other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed.

When he traveled to India at age 51, Rossellini worked concurrently on his masterpiece India Matri Buhmi (1959), a set of interlocking tales and commentaries which Jean-Luc Godard once called “the creation of the world,” and a ten-part television miniseries that was broadcast in both France and Italy the same year.… Read more »

Money Changes Everything [GREED on video]

From Movieline (April 21, 1989, Vol. V, issue 99). — J.R.


It is a strange, grim tale, not typical of 1920s Hollywood entertainment.A gentle, burly dentist from the California mines named McTeague (Gibson Gowland) moves to San Francisco, where he befriends Marcus (Jean Hersholt), who works at the local dog hospital, and falls in love with Trina (Zasu Pittts), Marcus’s cousin and prospective fiancée. Out of friendship, Marcus relinquishes all claims on Trina, who gets engaged to “Mac”. But when she wins $5,000 in a lottery, Marcus feels cheated, and ruins Mac’s career by revealing that he has been pulling teeth without a license. After her marriage, the shy and frigid Trina becomes obsessed with the money she has won, refusing to spend any of it, and driving the impoverished Mac to drink and eventually to violence and murder….

Perhaps the least glamorous movie ever to have come out of a major studio, Greed (1924) is more than just a polemic about the power of money to destroy love and friendship. Finally appearing on video 65 years after its commercial release, it remains one of the most powerful of all silent movies, as well as one of the most modern in style and substance.… Read more »

GREMLINS (1985 review)

This review, featured on the cover, appeared in the December 1985 issue of Video Times. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, and not long after it came out, I met Joe Dante for the first time, in Los Angeles (at a party given by Todd McCarthy); he’d recently read this review, and, as I recall, told me that he liked it. — J.R.

Gremlins ***

As a producer and director, Steven Spielberg seems limited to two subjects: power and magic. The power that interests him is, of course, the power that he commands, and the magic is that of his medium. Put these together and add the input of director Joe Dante, another film buff, and you get a movie about movies, triple-distilled. And the curious achievement of Gremlins is that it makes such self-absorption commercially viable, at the same time that it refuses to conform to any single, sustained social meaning. Much as the depiction of Vietnam in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was designed to placate hawks and doves alike, gremlins is cleverly contrived to please skeptics as well as believers, optimists as well as pessimists about the American way of life. Thanks to a disconnected episodic structure that suggests several separate movies crammed together — a strategy that re-creates the fragmented, discontinuous flow of TV watching —  viewers of Gremlins are invited to chart out their own justifications for enjoying Dante and Spielberg’s treasure trove.… Read more »

CUTTER’S WAY (1985 review)

From the April 1985 Video Times. — J.R.

Cutter’s Way

(1981), C, Director: Ivan Passer. With Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, and Ann Dusenberry. 105 min. R, MGM/UA, $69.95.

A powerful, erotic thriller with remarkable performances from all three of its leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn), Cutter’s Way never made the impact it should have when it was released. Originally titled Cutter and Bone, after the novel by Newton Thornberg on which it is based, it quickly became a studio write-off in the immediate wake of Heaven’s Gate. Not even a brace of rave reviews and a couple of film festival prizes could save it. Rereleased a few months later as Cutter’s Way, the film went on to acquire an enthusiastic cult that continues to appreciate its sensitive, offbeat mood and its indelible portrait of disaffected America.

The film is tightly scripted by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and directed by the Czech expatriate Ivan Passer, best known for his bittersweet Czech feature Intimate Lighting, as well as such American features as Born to Win, Law and Disorder, and Silver Bears. Cutter’s Way is an in-depth portrait of the complex relations between three disaffected people.… Read more »

ZABRISKIE POINT (1984 review)

From Video Movies (August 1984). — J.R.

Zabriskie Point

(1969), C, Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, and Kathleen Cleaver. 111 min. R. MGM/UA, $59.95.

In the 1960s, he could do no wrong, especially after his hit, Blow-up. In the 1980s, Michelangelo Antonioni emerges as a shamefully neglected figure — only one of his last four films (The Passenger) has been released in this country. And Zabriskie Point, the film that virtually destroyed his American reputation, offers ample proof of both the Italian director’s brilliance and his neglect of filmmaking particulars that Americans seemingly will not stand for. To understand Antonioni’s art, we must acknowledge that he is not a storyteller but a composer/choreographer of sounds and images.

As either a plausible romance about disaffected youth or as a documentary rendering of 1969 America, Zabriskie Point is often ludicrous. But if one keeps in mind that Antonioni thinks through his camera more than through his scripts — and that realism is far from his intention — one can see this film as an astonishingly beautiful achievement. As the director noted at the time, “The story is certainly a simple one. Nonetheless, the content is actually very complex.… Read more »

Through the Past, Darkly [GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI & THE CRUCIBLE]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1996). — J.R.

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Ghosts of Mississippi

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by Lewis Colick

With Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Ladd, Bonnie Bartlett, Bill Cobbs, William H. Macy, Virginia Madsen, and Michael O’Keefe.

The Crucible

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Written by Arthur Miller

With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughan, and Karron Graves.

“This story is true,” reads the opening title of Ghosts of Mississippi, a movie about the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, and the conviction of his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, which took a little more than 30 years.

“This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian,” Arthur Miller wrote in a note prefacing his 1953 play The Crucible, which depicts events that occurred in 1692, and which has now been turned into a movie adapted by Miller. Miller went on to detail the ways he’d changed history — he sometimes fused many people into one character, and he made a central character, Abigail, older.… Read more »

Strangeness on a Train [on von Trier’s ZENTROPA/EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1992). This marks my first encounter with Lars von Trier. — J.R.

ZENTROPA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel

With Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Erik Mork, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, and the voice of Max von Sydow.

Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is the most exciting failure to come along in ages. This Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction (known as Europa outside the United States), turning up here over a year after it received both the Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at Cannes, addresses so many fundamental contemporary questions about postmodernism, language, colonialism, the Common Market, coproduction, the future of European cinema, and our collective memory of World War II that one may feel a mite churlish pointing out that its technique ultimately overwhelms the themes and characters. After all, exercices de style worthy of the name are not exactly plentiful these days, and Zentropa is an especially dazzling example — vastly more impressive than Barton Fink or Kafka or Shadows and Fog, to cite only the first rough counterparts that come to mind. It has so much to say and do, in fact, that its failure to get everything said and done has to be weighed against the failure of most other recent movies to say or do anything at all beyond the barest commercial minimum.… Read more »

Complicated Characters [STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 2007). — J.R.

Starting Out in the Evening 

Directed by Andrew Wagner ***

The two most interesting movies I saw at press screenings last summer had their opening dates postponed, and it’s not hard to imagine why. As Orson Welles experienced time and again, features that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale conventional ones — and thus they’re harder to sell. This explains both the box-office success of Welles’s relatively pedestrian The Stranger (1946) and the delayed and relatively unprofitable U.S. releases of many of his other features, starting with Citizen Kane and continuing through The Lady From Shanghai, Othello, and F for Fake, among others.

Neither Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett nor Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Eve­ning is a masterpiece, but both films exemplify a kind of adventurous filmmaking that’s increasingly difficult to envisage in today’s marketplace, where first impressions mean everything — it’s an unpromising cli­mate for any art form. When I saw Charlie Bartlett — an edgy and quirky satirical teen comedy, unusual for both its nervy politics and its class consciousness — in mid-July, it was scheduled to open in early August.… Read more »

Raymond Durgnat’s IMAGES OF THE MIND

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the aptly named Images of the Mind: The Essential Raymond Durgnat, a definitive collection edited by Henry K. Miller that the British Film Institute will apparently publish later this year, I’ve just found time to experience the pleasure of a remarkable 1992 documentary with half of the same title, Jarmo Valkola’s 45-minute Images of the Mind: Cinematic Visions by Raymond Durgnat — a film now available at newly revamped Durgnat web site that manages to be both a wonderful portrait of the greatest of all English film critics (1932-2002), speaking as both a fan and as a friend over the last three decades of his life (as well as one-time house mate, circa 1977-78), and a brilliant lecture by Ray about the nature of film, the history of the English character in the 20th century, and the art of Michael Powell. Indeed, the only thing that can be said to be dated about this remarkable film is the fact that it cites Durgnat’s still-unpublished book about Powell as one of his publications. Otherwise, it impressively predates the recent film criticism on film that can be found in the work of Kevin Lee and Volker Pantenburg, among many others.… Read more »