Monthly Archives: April 2018

Irma La Douce

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

irmaladouce

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)

Irma6

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 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 »

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 »

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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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.

true_lies

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)

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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 »

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 »

Reflections on “List-o-mania”

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 2011). — J.R.

ishtar-atpiano

It’s a fairly safe bet that “List-o-mania,” first published in June 25, 1998, was the most popular piece I published in the Reader during my 20 years there as film reviewer, roughly halfway through my stint there. I suspect its appeal had a lot to do with the growing popularity of movie lists ever since the video market started expanding the choices of most viewers.

Like a commercially successful Hollywood feature, “List-o-mania” had its share of sequels and spinoffs. Retitled “The AFI’s Contribution to Movie Hell,” it became a chapter in my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000), a rant that received over a hundred reviews despite the fact that its small Chicago publisher (a cappella books, a division of Chicago Review Press) couldn’t afford much advertising, aside from freebies in the Reader, and I never even met my publicist there.

In the book, I added in a footnote a list of 25 titles in the AFI’s list that I probably would have included if I’d started my own list from scratch. Then, as an appendix to my 2004 collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Johns Hopkins University Press), I compiled a chronological list of my 1000 favorite films, with asterisks next to my 100 crème de la crème, this time including shorts as well as features and non-American as well as American items—a list to which I added 60 more titles in my Afterword to the 2008 paperback.Read more »

Flirting With Disaster [MARS ATTACKS!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 1996). — J.R.

Mars Attacks! ***

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Jonathan Gems

With Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, and Sylvia Sidney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

As light entertainment, Mars Attacks! gave me more pleasure than most other recent movies I’ve seen, including Daylight, The English Patient, Independence Day, Jingle All the Way, 101 Dalmatians, Space Jam, Trees Lounge, and 2 Days in the Valley. Maybe this is because it achieves the level of nonseriousness so many of its competitors aim for, a level the mass media have been touting as the ideal for big-time movies. If that ideal is to keep you enthralled for a couple of hours and leave a minimum of aftertaste, then Tim Burton’s SF comedy pretty much fills the bill. It also made me laugh.

Part of what kept me so absorbed — apart from the neatly designed effects and a few of the actorly turns, including Jack Nicholson’s — is the sense the film conveys of postmodernist free fall through the iconography of 50s and 60s science fiction in relation to the present: a singular sense of giddy displacement that clearly locates the movie in the 90s, but a 90s largely made up of images and cliches from previous decades that are subtly turned against themselves, made into a form of camp, affectionately mocked, yet still revered as if they had a particular purchase on the truth.… Read more »

Hollywoodland

From the Chicago Reader (September 8, 2006). — J.R.

Hollywoodland-Ben-Affleck_770

A neo-noir in the tradition of Chinatown, this fine collaboration between director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos) and writer Paul Bernbaum revolves around the mysterious 1959 death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played the title role in the TV series The Adventures of Superman. The shooting was ruled a suicide, but conspiracy theories persist, and the film uses flashbacks to meticulously work out the possibilities (including two murder scenarios) while the fictional story of an investigating detective (Adrien Brody) provides suggestive counterpoint. The period details and performances are uniformly superb (Bob Hoskins is especially good as MGM executive Eddie Mannix), and the major characters are even more complex than those in Chinatown. With Diane Lane, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, and Molly Parker. R, 126 min. Century12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Davis, Gardens 1-6, Lake, Norridge, River East 21, Webster Place.

Hollywodland_3Read more »

Hook and Crook [HOOK & BUGSY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1991). — J.R.

HOOK

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jim V. Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, and Nick Castle

With Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Caroline Goodall, and Charlie Korsmo.

BUGSY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by James Toback

With Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, and Bebe Neuwirth.

Wistful self-portraits of their respective stars — Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty, two aging boy wonders lusting after the old magic — Hook and Bugsy are also lengthy meditations on investments, financial as well as spiritual. Coincidentally both projects were conceived seven years ago and have been gestating ever since: Spielberg started planning a straight version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in 1984, then decided to concoct an updated sequel set in the present, and the same year Beatty commissioned James Toback to write an original screenplay about Bugsy Siegel, which started out as an epic about his entire life and was gradually whittled down to cover only the end of his life in the 1940s. Hook is contrived to move from gloom to joy, while Bugsy charts a slow downward spiral into melancholy; but both movies leave one with a sense of failed purposes — and of an obstinate will to believe that exceeds the meaning or logic of any actual belief.… Read more »

War Of The Worlds

From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 2005). — J.R.

Steven Spielberg’s shamelessly hokey version of the 1898 H.G. Wells yarn about murderous invaders from outer space starts off as a nimble scare show like Jaws. The special effects are good, and Tom Cruise isn’t bad as an alienated father fleeing with his kids. But such virtues are overtaken by a surfeit of narrow escapes and meaningful reflections about people’s behavior in war, complete with allusions to 9/11 and the Holocaust. Spielberg’s calculations turn out to be more prominent than any effects they could possibly produce, and the less pretentious 1953 version by producer George Pal emerges as more likable. With Tim Robbins, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, and Morgan Freeman in the offscreen James Earl Jones ”This is CNN” role. PG-13, 118 min. (JR)

War-of-the-Worlds-featured-image1Read more »

A Moment Of Innocence

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1997). — J.R.

A Moment Of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf - 020

This 1996 film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of his most seminal and accessiblea reconstruction of a pivotal incident during his teens that landed him in prison for several years during the shah’s regime. A fundamentalist and activist at the time, Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman; as a consequence he was shot and arrested. Two decades later, while auditioning people to appear in his film Salaam Cinema, he encountered the same policeman, now unemployed, and the two wound up collaborating on this film about the incident involving them, trying (with separate cameras) to reconcile their versions of what happened. Though no doubt prompted in part by Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), this is a fascinating humanist experiment and investigation in its own right, full of warmth and humor as well as mystery. The original Persian title, incidentally, translates as Bread and Flower. In Farsi with subtitles. 78 min. (JR)

WEBA Moment Of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf - 009_0Read more »

James Benning (from FILM: THE FRONT LINE 1983)

The longest chapter in my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press) — which only recently went out of print, though it’s still available from Amazon. I’m sorry that some of the illustrations aren’t of better quality. I’ve done a light edit on the text.

Considering that Benning by now probably has dozens of features to his credit rather than merely four, and that some of these are staggering achievements, I’m not at all sure if my judgments of three decades later would be the same.  It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve written about a good many of his subsequent films, including (on this site) Landscape Suicide (1987), Used Innocence (1989), North on Evers (1992), Deseret (1995), Four Corners (1998), Utopia (1998), El Valley Centro (2000), his California Trilogy (2000-2004), Ten Skies (2004), One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (2005), and RR (2009), often at some length.  It’s a pity that most of these films aren’t readily available, but I’m happy to report that the Austrian Film Museum (https://www.edition-filmmuseum.com/) , which published the first substantial book about James Benning in 2007, has launched the long-overdue project of restoring and releasing Benning’s work on DVDs — beginning with American Dreams (lost and found) (1984) and Landscape Suicide, in a two-disc set with a 20-page booklet, for 29,95 Euros, and followed by several more such packages.Read more »