Monthly Archives: April 2018

Unsatisfied Men

From the May 26, 2000 Chicago Reader. I must confess that I’m embarrassed by most of my other reviews of Claire Denis films on this site. Writing from the Trumsoe International Film Festival in Norway, where I resaw many of her films at a retrospective, I discovered how they invariably seem to improve on repeated viewings. (I also reprinted this piece on Beau Travail in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition.)

Part of what’s both great and difficult about Denis’ films has been discussed perceptively by the late Robin Wood in one of his last great pieces, about I Can’t Sleep. And part of what I think is so remarkable about Claire, one of my favorite people, is a trait she shares with he late Sam Fuller, which might be described as the reverse of the cynicism of the jaundiced leftist who loves humanity but hates people. Fuller and Denis both show very dark, pessimistic, and even despairing views of humanity in their films, but their love of people and of life is no less constant. (Jim Jarmusch shows a bit of the same ambivalence in some of his edgier films, such as Dead Man, Ghost Dog, The Limits of Control, and Paterson.)Read more »

Heaven’s Gate

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 2005); slightly tweaked in February 2014. — J.R.

HeavensGate

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Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic, about immigrant settlers clashing with native capitalists in 19th-century Wyoming, suffered a disastrous opening and was subsequently cut by 70 minutes; it became a legendary flop in the U.S., though the original 219-minute cut was widely applauded as a masterpiece in Europe. The longer version is impressive as long as the characters and settings remain in long shot; only when the camera gets closer do the problems start. The story is both slow moving and hard to follow, but the locations and period details offer plenty to ponder. Cimino’s handling of class issues is ambitious and unusually blunt, though it’s debatable whether this adds up to any sort of Marxist statement, except perhaps as a belated response to the (Oscar-winning) racism and xenophobia of his previous feature, The Deer Hunter. There’s no question that the same homoerotic — and arguably sexist — vision runs through both movies, as well as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the Cimino feature that preceded them. With Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Joseph Cotten, and Brad Dourif. R. (JR)

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Irma La Douce

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 1995).  — J.R.    

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Billy Wilder’s soggy and uninspired 1963 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, minus the songs. Shirley MacLaine stars as a Paris prostitute with a heart of gold who falls for a former policeman (Jack Lemmon) who winds up as her pimp and, in disguise, her only customer. A good example of how a movie can be utterly characteristic of its maker and still fall with a resounding thud; with Lou Jacobi and Herschel Bernardi. (JR)

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Department of utter bafflement (February 2015): Thinking I might have missed something (the film was, after all, a smash hit, and was treated by Godard as if it were Wilder’s belated blossoming as a filmmaker, even making the ninth spot in his ten-best list for 1964, between The Nutty Professor and Two Weeks in Another Town), I recently made a return visit to this movie on DVD and found it just as unbearable as before, despite the charm of the Alexander Trauner sets.

Irma La Douce on the street

Wilder’s major gift, apart from symmetrically pointed plot construction (as in Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti!), was as a reporter on American bourgeois hypocrisy, and what seems most peculiar in this film is its misreadings of French manners and French bourgeois hypocrisy, which come across as purely American — Parisian pimps out of Damon Runyon (filmed on the same soundstages as Guys and Dolls, at the Goldwyn Studio) and a puritanical cop who seems to hail from the American midwest.Read more »

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1977 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin , vol. 44, no. 516, January 1977.

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Herzog’s reputation and constructed myth as a mad genius. Here are my capsule reviews for the Chicago Reader of  Lessons of Darkness (1992) and My Best Fiend (1999), respectively (on other occasions, I’ve sometimes been more supportive of his work):

In his characteristically dreamy Young Werther fashion, Werner Herzog generates a lot of bombastic and beautiful documentary footage out of the post-Gulf war oil fires and other forms of devastation in Kuwait, gilds his own high-flown rhetoric by falsely ascribing it to Pascal, and in general treats war as abstractly as CNN, but with classical music on the soundtrack to make sure we know it’s art. This 1992 documentary may be the closest contemporary equivalent to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, both aesthetically and morally; I found it disgusting, but if you’re able to forget about humanity as readily as Herzog there are loads of pretty pictures to contemplate. 54 min.

Werner Herzog’s surprisingly slim and relatively impersonal 1999 feature charts his relationship with the mad actor Klaus Kinski on the five features they made together. Though Herzog has plenty to say about Kinski’s tantrums on the Peru locations of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and even interviews other witnesses on the same subject, he says next to nothing about his own involvement — such as why he hired Kinski in the first place or how the overreaching heroes Kinski played for Herzog were clearly modeled after the director, metaphorically speaking.Read more »

THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/ collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

After Orson Welles tried to implement Nelson Rockefeller’s

Good Neighbor policy with South America

in an unfinished episodic film, It’s All True (1942),

scandalizing both RKO and Latin American dignitaries

by focusing on poor and nonwhite characters,

Walt Disney dutifully offered a more conventionally

touristic and clearly segregated view of the

Continent, and succeeded spectacularly with the

same studio and many of the same dignitaries (as well

as with general audiences in both the U.S. and South

America) by offering this kitschy and visually extravagant

episodic, 70-minute film (1945), his first feature

to combine animation with live action. The title

pals are the infantile Donald Duck playing an American

tourist and the somewhat older Brazilian parrot

Joe Carioca and Mexican rooster Panchito, the latter

two playing Donald’s principal tour guides. The film

begins somewhat conventionally with tales about

Pablo, a South Pole penguin longing for warmer surroundings

who sails up the coast of Chile and Peru,

and a Uruguay boy gaucho who enters a flying donkey

in a race.Read more »

The Attractions and Perils of Internationalism (2007)

My fourth bimonthly column for Cahiers du Cinéma España, this ran in their December 2007 issue (no. 7). — J.R.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the attractions and perils of internationalism, which bring up the matter of the attractions and perils of nationalism as well. As a child of the Paris Cinématheque (1969-74) who had to see most silent films there without intertitles, following Henri Langlois’ vision of cinema as a universal language, I was both charmed and awed when I met an Argentinian schoolteacher, in Mar del Plata in 2005, who told me about the network of small-town ciné-clubs in Córdoba he helped to run that projected DVDs of such films as Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) and Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) with Spanish subtitles for 800 or more viewers per week. A utopian undertaking in which quintessential Iranian and Russian films became available to rural Argentinians, this conjured up for me Langlois’ notion of cinema as a separate nation in its own right. So when several Chilean journalists at the Valdivia International Film Festival asked me last October what I thought of the Chilean film industry, the question sounded as weird as my asking a Chilean visiting Chicago what he or she thought of the American postal system.… Read more »

Wellesnet interview

Posted on the web site Wellesnet. I’ve added a few illustrations of my own to the original, conducted by Lawrence French.

Having worked this year as a consultant on the completion of The Other Side of the Wind, I’m no longer sure that all my comments about the film found below would still hold. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has long been an astute critic on the cinema of Orson Welles, frequently writing about Welles’ films. He served as the consultant for the re-edited version of TOUCH OF EVIL, and edited THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the seminal book of Welles interviews, conducted by Peter Bogdanovich.

The following interview has been combined from two separate conversations. The first took place in the fall of 1998, after the release of the re-edited version of TOUCH OF EVIL, and focused on the problems inherent in changing TOUCH OF EVIL to what Welles requested in a memo written 41 years earlier. The second interview occurred in January, 2003, and covers Welles’ two major unfinished films: DON QUIXOTE and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

DON QUIXOTE: THE MAJOR UNFINISHED WELLES FILM

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Does the film museum in Munich now have most of the unfinished Welles films?Read more »

Trapped in Time: Alain Resnais’ JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME

Written for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of the film, released on November 10, 2015. — J.R

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Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was the most experimental and adventurous of all the French New Wave directors, but he has rarely been recognized as such, perhaps because he stood apart from his (mainly younger) colleagues in other respects as well. Unlike Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, he wasn’t a critic or a writer, although as a teenager during the German Occupation of France he was already serving as a mentor to their own critical mentor, André Bazin, by introducing him to silent cinema in general and Fritz Lang in particular. He also preceded them all as a director in the eight remarkable non-fiction shorts he made between 1948 and 1958, the first of which (Van Gogh) won him his only Oscar. Indeed, the moment one compares these innovative shorts to the early sketches of Godard, Rivette, et al., the clearer it becomes that Resnais was already a courageous radical, both formally and politically, long before such a position even occurred to his colleagues. And one could argue that he was also already a film critic and film historian on his own elected turf, namely sound and image, even if he didn’t exhibit his exquisite cinematic taste in writing.… Read more »

The Holy Girl

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 2005). — J.R.

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Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel follows up her distinctive debut feature, La cienaga (2001), with another tale whose feeling of lassitude conceals a subtle but deadly family dysfunction. It’s set in a specifically Catholic milieu, hovering around a medical convention at a small-town hotel, and once again a swimming pool serves as a kind of center for floating libidos. As Martel points out, the movie is about the difficulties and dangers of differentiating good from evil, and it requires as well as rewards a fair amount of alertness from the viewer. A theremin plays a prominent role in the story. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 106 min. (JR)

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Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Peripheral Matters

From the Spring 2018 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

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Let me start by paraphrasing and slightly expanding a comment of mine appended to my 2017 ten-best list for DVD Beaver. A major reason for listing Criterion’s Othello first is that it includes the digital premieres of not one, not two, but three Orson Welles features: both of his edits of Othello available with his own soundtracks, carried out respectively in 1952 and 1955 and heard for the first time in the US in several decades, and Filming Othello (1979), his last completed feature.

PARIAH

Fans of Mudbound (2017) like myself who want to get acquainted with Dee Rees’ previous work should check out the second of her three previous features, Pariah (2011), available inexpensively in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. This autobiographical look at the tribulations of a gay black teenager and her family, shot in a very different style from Mudbound (much more documentary-like), is beautifully and richly acted by its lead, Adepero Oduye — though I wonder if the use of Brooklyn rather than Rees’ native Nashville as a location (occasioned, I would guess, by the services of Spike Lee as executive producer) made any significant differences in terms of Rees’ script and/or characters.… Read more »

Double Deals [BIG BUSINESS & RED HEAT]

From the Chicago Reader (June 17, 1988). — J.R.

BIG BUSINESS

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jim Abrahams

Written by Dori Pierson and Marc Rubel

With Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Michele Placido, Daniel Gerroll, and Barry Primus.

RED HEAT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Walter Hill

Written by Harry Kleiner, Hill, and Troy Kennedy Martin

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Larry Fishburne, and Gina Gershon.

The silly season of summer releases is fully upon us, that time of year when expensive potboilers tend to be the only movies out there demanding our attention. Two interesting-sounding films that might have enlivened this year’s doldrums — Zelly and Me and Stars and Bars, both associated with David Puttnam’s brief stint as head of Columbia — have been unceremoniously dumped by their distributors in suburban Hillside. Paul Mayersberg’s perversely fascinating Nightfall — a head-scratching, low-budget blend of Isaac Asimov, Raul Ruiz, Jasper Johns, and psychedelic Corman movies of the 60s — departed for oblivion (or perhaps for video) before I could review it. What’s left on the table, apart from the delightful Bull Durham, are two mindless romps, each of which makes use of that veritable standby, the double plot.… Read more »

True Lies

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.

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One hundred million dollars and 141 minutes’ worth of comic book action from Arnold Schwarzenegger and writer-director James Cameron, most of it pitched at the level of the good-natured imperial arrogance and high-tech nonsense associated with the James Bond films. The obligatory birdbrained plot has something to do with Schwarzenegger as a secret agent — an identity kept from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and teenage daughter — who neglects family duties in order to pursue Arab terrorists and tango with Tia Carrere, who works for them, until wife and daughter get sucked into the various intrigues. The comedy is extremely broad (with Curtis eliciting almost as many laughs as Schwarzenegger), the action sequences are as well crafted as one can expect from Cameron, and the meaning is as root basic as anyone would wish. If the gulf war gave you an insatiable taste for burning oil and burning Arabs, this extravaganza will tide you over for at least a couple of days. With Tom Arnold (as the hero’s wisecracking sidekick, delivering one-liners with a nasal Alan Alda-ish edge), Bill Paxton, Art Malik, and Eliza Dushku. (JR)

trueliesRead more »

The Rocky Horror Picture Cult

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1980). -– J.R.

Now that criticism and advertising are becoming harder and harder to separate in American film culture, the notion of any genuinely spontaneous movie cult becomes automatically suspect. It implies something quite counter to the megacinema of Cimino, Coppola and Spielberg — a cinema that can confidently write its own reviews (and reviewers) if it wants to, working with the foreknowledge of a guaranteed media-saturation coverage that will automatically recruit and program most of its audience, and which dictates a central part of its meaning in advance.

For a long time in the U.S. (as elsewhere), certain specialized minority interests that get shoved off the screens by the box-office bullies have been taking refuge in midnight screenings, most of them traditionally held at weekends. But what seems truly unprecedented about the elaborate cult in the U.S. that has developed around Friday and Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, over the past three and a half years, is the degree to which a film has been appropriated by its youthful audience. Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that this audience, rather than allow itself to be used as an empty vessel to be filled with a filmmaker’s grand mythic meanings, has been learning how to use a film chiefly as a means of communicating with itself.… Read more »

Muddled Americans [TRACK 29]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1988). — J.R.

TRACK 29

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Dennis Potter

With Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Sandra Bernhard, and Seymour Cassel.

As a rule, I tend to be favorably disposed toward non-American movie depictions of American life, at least as a source of fresh perspectives. If we accept the premise that the U.S. continues to function as a stimulus for fantasy projections all over the world, here as well as everywhere else, it stands to reason that European projections about America would at least have the virtues of relative distance and detachment. Consequently, movies as diverse as Bunuel’s The Young One, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Passer’s Born to Win, Demy’s The Model Shop, Wenders’s Hammett and Paris, Texas, and even — to cite two recent and contentious examples — Konchalovsky’s Shy People and Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe have things to tell us about this country that we would never learn from the likes of John Ford or Frank Capra. The truths of these movies may be more oblique and specialized (and harder to encapsulate) than those of our semiofficial laureates, but at least they give us some notion of how we look to outsiders.… Read more »

Before He Was Famous (Kiarostami’s Early Shorts)

From The Guardian (21 September 2002). I continue to find it frustrating that almost sixteen years later, what I regard as Kiarostami’s two best shorts, Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) and Orderly or Disorderly (1981), still aren’t available on any DVD or Blu-Ray (although Scott Perna has just emailed to remind me that the former can at least be accessed on YouTube). The principal reason was that Kiarostami himself didn’t like them. He once told me that even the second of these was made before he regarded himself as a film artist — something I continue to find baffling, and astonishing. But now that Criterion has announced that it will be restoring and releasing all his films, this lack of availability will apparently change. — J.R.

The eight short films made by Abbas Kiarostami between 1970 and 1982 offer an interesting riposte to critics who claimed during those years that they knew what was going on in world cinema. Even in Iran, where the shorts were made, none constituted much of an event. And considering how deceptively modest they are, they probably never would have attracted much notice anywhere if their director hadn’t gone on to make a string of masterful features over the past 15 years (the most recent of which, Ten, is about to open here).… Read more »