Monthly Archives: April 2018

SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN: A Reinvented Remake

From The Guardian (June 6, 2003). Happily,  Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece is now available on a decent DVD with English subtitles from the BFI, released three years ago.– J.R.

spring_in_a_small_town_web

If I had to pinpoint what makes so much of contemporary life intolerable, something I’d call remake mentality might head the top of the list. The mindset that dictates that anything new has to be a recycling of something familiar — that old markets be exhausted before any new ones are contemplated, and that viewers be regarded as mindless brats demanding only more of the same — is so common by now that it has become fully internalised, and not only within the film industry.

The fact that we’re supposed to be looking forward to two sequels to The Matrix in the same year implies that we are fixed marketing units, programmed to relish staying in our well-appointed ruts. But there are just as many spinoffs predicated on our ignorance of the originals, suggesting that the avoidance of fresh thinking may not simply be our own. So I had my share of worries when I first heard that one of my favourite Chinese film-makers, Tian Zhuangzhuang, the director of The Horse Thief (1985) and The Blue Kite (1992), was remaking a Chinese classic.… Read more »

Watch with Mother [on Carl Dreyer]

From The Guardian (May 30, 2003). –J.R.

For roughly two decades, my three favourite dramatic features have all been the work of the same man — and my favourite among these depends almost entirely on which one I’ve seen most recently. I came to know and love them in reverse order: first the incandescent and subtly erotic Gertrud (1964), discovered in my early 20s shortly after it premiered; then the gut-wrenching Ordet (1955), which I initially hated when I first saw it in my teens, misconstruing its climactic miracle as a tool of religious propaganda; and finally the voluptuous and mysterious Day of Wrath (1943), which I didn’t appreciate or understand until my 40s, when I finally saw it in a decent 35mm print.

Like all the greatest artists, Carl Theodor Dreyer demands to be taken as a figure whose work continues to grow and change, quite irrespective of the fact that he died in 1968 at the age of 79, with many of his most cherished projects (most notably, a film about Jesus) unrealised. Fresh insights about his life and career keep coming to light: not only through biographical research; the emergence of new prints (such as the remarkable 1981 rediscovery of the original 1927 version of The Passion of Joan of Arc in an Oslo mental hospital); but also through the uncanny fact that his films seem to grow more multilayered, ambiguous, and complex over time.Read more »

The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]

From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.

Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.

The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.)… Read more »

In Stalin’s Shadow (on Dovzhenko)

From The Guardian (July 4, 2003). — J.R.

One of the most neglected major film-makers of the 20th century, Alexander Dovzhenko has never come close to receiving his due. This is in part a problem related to our categories and labels. His fervent, pantheistic, folkloric films develop more like lyric poems, moving from one stanza to the next, than like narratives, proceeding by way of paragraphs or chapters. The world they describe is one of Gogolesque horses that sing or reprimand their owners, noble cows, glistening meadows, wily Cossacks, dancing peasants, declamatory speeches by wild-eyed individuals, sunflowers in sunny close-ups alongside noble women with similarly open faces, vast reaches of empty sky over fields of waving wheat.

Dovzhenko’s vision is of a natural order that paradoxically seems both brutal and harmonious, primitive landscapes bursting with animal and vegetal life. One calls this poetry because it comprises a paean to sheer existence, singing about rather than relating or recounting what it sees. But cinema as it’s generally packaged is understood more in terms of prose narrative, as a string of events. In Dovzhenko’s world, the events often turn out to be the shots themselves.

Furthermore, most accounts we have of Dovzhenko’s work are found in discussions of Russian cinema, but the man wasn’t Russian.… Read more »

Muse Abuse [LIGHT SLEEPER]

From the Chicago Reader (September 4, 1992). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note [in April 2018] that I’ve furnished the expanded edition of Transcendental Style in Film, coming out next month, with a favorable blurb about Schrader’s new Introduction, and that I regard his latest feature, First Reformed, as the best by far of his films to date (at least among those that I’ve seen), despite some persistent misgivings that are expressed in some of the remarks below. — J.R.

 

LIGHT SLEEPER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Paul Schrader

With Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, David Clennon, Mary Beth Hurt, Victor Garber, Jane Adams, Paul Jabara, and Robert Cicchini.

The French New Wave of the 60s offers many examples of film critics of some substance who became filmmakers — among them Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. But the commercial American cinema of the 70s offers us only one, Paul Schrader (the only other contender, Peter Bogdanovich, was by his own admission more of a reporter and interviewer than critic before he turned to filmmaking). Yet Schrader has not made a wholly satisfactory transition. As a writer he made his mark on several important features — including Taxi Driver, Obsession, Raging Bull, and (in a minor way, not credited) Close Encounters of the Third Kind.… Read more »

Kid Stuff: A Glimpse at Movie Wonder

Written in January 2006 for 1000 Films To Change Your Life, an anthology edited by Simon Cropper for Time Out. — J.R.

Wonder is closer to being a feeling than a thought, and one that we associate both with children and with grown-ups recapturing some of the open-mouthed awe and innocence that they had as children. Many of us experienced some of this as kids watching the classic Disney cartoon features or certain live-action fantasy adventures like King Kong (1933) or Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Other generations, for that matter, might recall feeling a comparable emotion before the vast spaces of the 1916 Intolerance (whose gigantic Babylon set would eventually be redressed for Kong’s Skull Island) or the 1924 Thief of Bagdad or the 2005 King Kong —- or even in that hokey opening line, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Or what about the hushed sense of reverence that we bring to the virgin wilderness of The Big Sky (1952), whose very title expresses our feeling of astonishment? It’s a primal emotion, particularly as it relates to cinema in the old-fashioned sense: 35-millimeter projection in palatial theaters, the screen invariably much larger than us (‘Bigger Than Life,’ as the title of a Nicholas Ray melodrama in CinemaScope has it).… Read more »

Pale Noir [TRIXIE]

From the Chicago Reader (July 14, 2000). — J.R.

Trixie

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Alan Rudolph

With Emily Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy, Lesley Ann Warren, Will Patton, and Stephen Lang.

[Trixie] is propelled by this need in her own personality to accomplish something and find the truth. But of course, the truth doesn’t exist anymore. The truth now seems to be whatever gets the most applause. — Alan Rudolph in an interview

Alan Rudolph’s previous feature, Breakfast of Champions (1999), probably his best since Choose Me (1984), is an abrasive, angry, formally imaginative, and generally faithful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s book of the same name. It has a lot going for it, including Bruce Willis, who helped finance it, as a blustering car dealer, one of his best performances to date; Barbara Hershey as his pill-popping wife; Nick Nolte as his sales manager and best friend, who guiltily harbors a fetish for lingerie; and Albert Finney as Vonnegut’s dark doppelganger, itinerant hack SF writer Kilgore Trout. It was easily last year’s most corrosive Hollywood movie about the American way of life, and it was especially good at showing the claustrophobic desperation of living in a small midwestern town and slowly going insane — a potent literary theme at least since Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.… Read more »

THE HUNTER

Written for the January/February 2012 Film Comment. — J.R.

The Hunter

The Hunter
(Rafi Pitts, Germany/Iran)
A Separation, equally pleasing to mullahs and Western viewers, got all the prizes for its clever manipulations, but Pitts’s singular puzzle thriller, which also strategically withholds narrative information and can never be shown in Iran, is the one I keep thinking about. (Class warfare is the true, undeclared subject of both films.) Pitts plays a Tehran night watchman who starts shooting cops at random after losing his wife and child just before the country’s stolen election. The film’s second act shifts radically in style, locale, and focus, like On Dangerous Ground. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

From Cinema Scope #46 (Spring 2011). — J.R.

The-Hunter-collage

Underneath the Persian credits, over heavy metal music, the camera roams around inside a colour photograph, grazing over pointillist surfaces and male faces — finally pulling back to reveal the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps in 1983, getting ready to drive their motorcycles over a huge replica of the American flag on the pavement in front of them. Cut to black and the film’s title, The Hunter.

TheHunter-1st shot

Cut to a highway tunnel, then to a rifle being loaded in the woods, then to the same title hero (played by the writer-director, Rafi Pitts) holding the rifle in front of a raging campfire at night.… Read more »

Reflections on “List-o-mania”

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

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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.

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Don’t Judge a Film by Its Venue [BLACK BOOK & OFFSIDE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 20, 2007).  The severe sentencing of Jafar Panahi, the director of Offside, after this article was published has made his remarkable (and earlier) filmmaking more vital and relevant than ever. — J.R.


BLACK BOOK ****

DIRECTED BY PAUL VERHOEVEN

WRITTEN BY GERARD SOETEMAN AND VERHOEVEN

WITH CARICE VAN HOUTEN, SEBASTIAN KOCH, THOM HOFFMAN, HALINA REIJN, WALDEMAR KOBUS, AND DEREK DE LINT

OFFSIDE ****

DIRECTED BY JAFAR PANAHI

WRITTEN BY PANAHI AND SHADMEHR RASTIN

WITH SIMA MOBARAK SHAHI, SAFAR SAMANDAR, SHAYESTEH IRANI, M. KHEYRABADI, and IDA SADEGHI

The recent successes of such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Volver, and The Lives of Others at multiplexes is a welcome sign that art-house ghettos aren’t the only places for foreign-language films anymore. Art houses, like multiplexes, tend to foster certain expectations about the movies we go to see in them, and sometimes we miss out on what a film has to offer as a consequence. Paul Verhoeven’s big-budget drama Black Book, which opened last week at the Music Box and is now also playing at some more commercial venues, and Jafar Panahi’s low-budget comedy Offside, which opens this week at the Music Box, both confound expectations.… Read 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)

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A Moment Of Innocence

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

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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)

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