From the Chicago Reader (January 23, 2004). Although I don’t want to begrudge Errol Morris his Oscar, I do wish he’d had more to say in this film about political choices with some bearing on the present. — J.R.
The Fog of War ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Errol Morris.
In The Fog of War, Errol Morris interviews an 84-year-old Robert S. McNamara, who served as secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and is widely regarded as the architect of the American war in Vietnam. There’s something undeniably masterful about the film, which also includes archival footage, but that mastery is what sticks in my craw: it’s a capacity to say as little as possible while giving the impression of saying a great deal, a skill shared by McNamara and Morris. I’m not sure what we have to gain from this — the satisfaction that we’re somehow taking care of business when we’re actually fast asleep?
This sleight of hand takes many forms, including the film’s title, repeated shots of dominoes lined up on a map of southeast Asia, and the “eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara” dispensed in intertitles to introduce the various segments — portentous platitudes ranging from “Rationality will not save us” and “Maximize efficiency” to “Get the data” and “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.”… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, May 14, 1999. —J.R.
The Lovers of the Arctic Circle
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Julio Medem
With Fele Martinez, Najwa Nimri, Nancho Novo, Maru Valdivielso, Peru Medem, Sara Valiente, Victor Hugo Oliveira, and Kristel Diaz.
Julio Medem’s fourth feature is a love story spanning 17 years — from the time Otto and Ana first meet, as children in a Spanish school yard, to their improbable reunion in the wilds of northern Finland when they’re 25. But the film starts at the end rather than the beginning, and like the names of the two characters, the story can be read backward as well as forward. That story is told by Otto and Ana in alternate bursts, inflected mainly by how Otto views Ana and vice versa, skipping back and forth in time. To make things trickier, the two versions of what happens are sometimes at variance.
When The Lovers of the Arctic Circle joined Open Your Eyes at the Fine Arts last week, it became possible to conclude, with a sigh of relief, that the age of Pedro Almodovar was finally over. I don’t mean that Almodovar won’t continue to make movies or get American distribution, but that his brand of smart-aleck entertainment will no longer have to stand for the whole of Spanish cinema.… Read more »
This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
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 »
One of my best known reviews, from the July 24, 1998 Chicago Reader. For those who’d prefer to read a shorter version of the same argument, I’ll start with my capsule reviews of the two films. — J.R.
Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers, Matinee) is a national treasure, and his lack of recognition by the general public may actually make it easier for him to function subversively. His unpretentious fantasy romps have more to say about the American psyche, pop culture, and the ideology of violence than anything dreamed up by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. This delightful adventure about war toys running amok in suburban middle America is a synthesis and extension of most of his previous movies, with echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (including some of the satire). The toys in question are the villainous Commando Elite, fashioned using a microchip from the U.S. Defense Department to mercilessly slaughter the noble if freakish Gorgonites, a set of toys programmed (like other minorities one can mention) to hide and to lose; the Ohio citizens who wind up in the cross fire are strictly generic sitcom types, but we wind up caring about them almost as much as we care about the toys.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1991), and reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE
Directed and written by Albert Brooks
With Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry.
From the very titles of his four comedy features, we know that Albert Brooks is both a serious and an honest filmmaker, because each one is a precise and accurate indication of what the movie is about: Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. But what makes Brooks funny is much harder to get at or agree on.
You can’t demonstrate how funny Albert Brooks is by quoting any of his one-liners, the way you can the vastly more popular and respected Woody Allen. And you can’t say that Brooks is funnier than Allen if you’re measuring by the average number of laughs produced. (I find most of Modern Romance too painfully accurate to laugh at, although the comic conception remains flawless; and even though the laughs come more readily in Brooks’s other pictures, the degree of emotional pain being seriously dealt with is well beyond Allen’s range.) Nevertheless, I think Brooks is the best comic writer-director-actor we have in this country at the moment — certainly the most original and thoughtful, and the one who has the most to tell us about who we are.… Read more »
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 »
From the Chicago Reader (October 28, 1994). Twenty-four years later, it’s hard to decide whether this stinker is as bad as Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply or perhaps even worse. — J.R.
* LOVE AFFAIR
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Glenn Gordon Caron
Written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty
With Beatty, Annette Bening, Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Chloe Webb, Pierce Brosnan, and Kate Capshaw.
The writing and directing credits for Love Affair are legally correct but historically, aesthetically, and ethically wrong. A more accurate account of where the movie comes from, in terms of characters, plot, dialogue, and even camera placement, would have to cite the story written by Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram for Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, inspired by an extended trip McCarey and his wife took to Europe. According to McCarey, seeing the Statue of Liberty slide into view as the ship approached the New York harbor gave birth to the plot: a man and a woman, each engaged to someone else, meet on such a liner, bound for Europe from New York, and fall in love. On their way back they make a date to meet at the top of the Empire State Building six months hence if they’ve both been able to shake loose from their commitments and if the man, a wealthy playboy who’s never held a job in his life, has been able to find work and thus make himself worthy.… Read more »
Commissioned and published online by BBC.com in November 2018. — J.R.
Luis Buñuel was the greatest of all Spanish film-makers. He is also known as the greatest of all Surrealist film-makers – someone who kept returning to dreams and the unconscious, all the way from Un Chien Andalou, the silent avant-garde shocker he made with Salvador Dali, to Belle de Jour, in which sado-masochistic fantasies lurk beneath Catherine Deneuve’s chic surface. It’s no wonder that in critical studies of his films, the emphasis is on Freud as a “guide” to Bunuel’s greatness. But the influence of another thinker, Marx, was just as important. However surreal Bunuel’s work may be, political revolt and an acute feeling for class struggle informed all of it, whether it was French, Mexican or Spanish.
Truly a child of the 20th century, Luis Bunuel Portoles was born in 1900, the oldest child in a prosperous Catholic family based in the Aragon region of Spain. He first made his mark four years after he moved to Paris in 1925, when he joined forces with Dali to make Un Chien Andalou. Buñuel and Dali began collaborating again on the hour-long L’Age d’or (1930), but their political differences were already driving them apart: Buñuel’s Marxism versus Dali’s conservatism. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1987). — J.R.
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)
… Read more »
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.
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)
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 2002). And highly recommended reading: Giles Harvey’s excellent long review of Pawlikowski’s Cold War in the January 2019 issue of Harper’s. — J.R.
Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort) is clearly a filmmaker to watch, and he’ll appear at the festival to discuss these four English TV documentaries. From Moscow to Pietushki (1990, 45 min.), a portrait of writer Venedikt Yerofeyev, samples his work (especially the eponymous novel) in voice-over by Bernard Hill and shows how and why Yerefeyev became the patron saint of Russian alcoholics during the end of the Khrushchev era. A survivor of throat cancer, Yerefeyev needs mechanical assistance to speak, but his dry gallows humor survives intact. The hilarious Dostoevsky’s Travels (1991, 45 min.) trails the novelist’s great-grandson Dmitri, a tram driver from Saint Petersburg, as he travels around Germany hoping to find a Mercedes he can afford. He can’t speak or understand much German, and the people he encounters, though mostly friendly, seem as clueless about his ancestor as he is. (Explains one speaker at a meeting of the Dostoyevsky Society, Most people here are only familiar with Dostoyevsky through the film Anna Karenina.) Tripping With Zhirinovsky (1995, 40 min.)… Read more »
Just posted on the website Con Los Ojos Abiertos (which literally means With the Eyes Open), Christmas 2018. (https://www.conlosojosabiertos.com/la-internacional-cinefila-2018-las-mejores-peliculas-del-ano/)
If I’d sent this in a bit later, I would have somehow managed to include A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang). — J.R.
The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
The Image Book/Le Livre d’image (Jean-Luc Godard)
Do You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
The eye was in the tomb and stared at Daney/L’oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Daney (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)
To varying degrees and in different ways, all 0f
of these films or videos are experimental,
which is also true of the two films found below.
Best debut feature: The Chaotic Life of
Nada Kadić (Marta Hernaiz Pidal, Mexico)
Best commercial film from the U.S.: A Simple
Favor (Paul Feig)
… Read more »
Written for Sight and Sound, November 2015. — J.R.
I hope I can be forgiven for quoting myself in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (1993): “As I’ve discovered in my own endeavours in editing the prose of Truffaut, Welles and Bogdanovich, the best editing is usually the kind the reader is least aware of, though the supreme masters of this game – who within my experience are probably Penelope Houston and Michael Lenehan – sometimes manage to minimise the awareness of the writer as well.” Lenehan was the main editor for several years at the Chicago Reader, and Penelope’s stint at Sight and Sound was considerably longer. Over two decades later, I can add without hesitation that no editor that I’ve ever worked with has known more and taught me more about the mechanics of prose than Penelope.
But I hasten to add that my indebtedness to her goes far beyond her superb gifts as an editor. I might even say that it was her taste, above all, that drew me to her magazine in the first place, and her determination to acquire an English work permit for me – a process that I recall took the better part of half a year – that enabled me to move to London from Paris in 1974, to serve as assistant editor at Monthly Film Bulletin (under Richard Combs, a supportive boss and fine editor in his own right) and staff writer for Sight and Sound, my first major job anywhere.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 1990). This film has recently come out on Blu-Ray. — J.R.
*** (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 »
This appeared in the November 15, 1991 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
VIDEOS BY SADIE BENNING
“I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the caméra-stylo [camera-pen],” Alexandre Astruc wrote prophetically in 1948 in the journal Écran français. “This metaphor has a very precise sense. By it I mean that the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and as subtle as written language . . .
“It must be understood that up to now the cinema has been nothing more than a show. This is due to the basic fact that all films are projected in an auditorium. But with the development of 16-millimeter and television, the day is not far off when everyone will possess a projector, will go to the local bookstore and hire films written on any subject, of any form, from literary criticism and novels to mathematics, history, and general science. From that moment on, it will no longer be possible to speak of the cinema.… Read more »