From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2000). — J.R.
Nowadays the line between journalism and publicity is often blurred, and one common, systematic method of blurring it is the movie junket. Generally a studio flies journalists to a location where a movie’s being shot or to a large city where it’s being previewed, puts them up at fancy hotels, then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent,” most often the stars and the director. The journalists are expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies that run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a form of film “criticism.” If the journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage but articles that emphasize what publicists want emphasized and suppress what they want suppressed — then the studios won’t invite them on future junkets.
There are probably more of these articles about new or forthcoming movies in newspapers and magazines than any other kind, and many entertainment writers — including plenty who double as film reviewers — make a profession out of these junkets. The stories that result are meant to be read as news rather than as promotion, and most newspaper editors seem to have few qualms about fostering this impression.… Read more »
This is the very first long review I ever published in the Chicago Reader. It was published in their March 13, 1987 issue, about five months before I moved to Chicago from Santa Barbara and started working as their regular film critic, and writing this piece was part of my audition for the job. (They commissioned two other pieces from me, neither of which they ran, as part of the same audition; both of these reviews — on Oliver Stone’s Platoon and on Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight — are now available on this site.)
This article has never previously appeared online, on the Reader’s website or anywhere else. It ran originally with the same black and white still reproduced here. Readers familiar with my essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” written about three years later, may notice that I borrowed a few passages in it from this review. My original title for this review, “Woody’n You,” was rejected by the Reader editors, who didn’t catch or dig the jazz reference. — J.R.
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, and Diane Keaton.
It’s hard to think of a contemporary American filmmaker who is more universally admired than Woody Allen –- a fact that may say more about us than it says about Woody. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). — J.R.
Considering that the script for this 1990 movie (by the late Charles Williams and his wife Nora Tyson, adapted from Williams’s novel Hell Hath No Fury) was in development for about 30 years and that the film is Dennis Hopper’s worst as a director, this is still pretty enjoyable as a piece of campy sleaze — especially for the first half hour, before the storytelling starts to dawdle. There’s a score by John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, who pursue waspy duets, and Hopper’s eye for color and composition is as sharp as ever. But even if one overlooks the noirish misogyny (no easy matter), the story is still an overheated hoot. Just when one hopes that the scumbag characters — including a footloose hustler (Don Johnson) who sidles into a job as a car salesman in a sleepy Texas town, his boss’s sexpot wife (Virginia Madsen), and a seedy, bemused banker (Jack Nance) — will develop beyond their cliches, they become even sillier. And the apparently innocent accountant (Jennifer Connelly) who becomes entangled in the morass isn’t any more believable. Some may view the film’s liabilities (e.g. the inexpressive Johnson filling the foreground like a block of wood) as assets and coast along with the steamy sex, but it’s still pretty slim pickings from the man who once made Out of the Blue.… Read more »
Part of my 1987 application for the job of film reviewer at the Chicago Reader consisted of writing three long sample reviews for them in March and/or April — only one of which was published by them (Radio Days), although, as I recall, they paid me for all three. (Writing my pieces in Santa Barbara, I was limited in my choices of what I could write about.) I only recently came across the two unpublished reviews, of Platoon and Round Midnight, in manuscript, although I recall that I did appropriate certain portions of them in subsequent reviews. Otherwise, the first publications of these pieces are on this site. — J.R.
Directed and written by Oliver Stone
With Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem DaFoe and Keith David.
“I mean, you know that, it just can’t be done! We both shrugged and laughed, and Page looked very thoughtful for a moment. “The very idea!” he said. “Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war!”
Michael Herr, Dispatches
The myth of lost innocence that permeates American movies like some omnipresent air freshener ultimately has a lot to answer for.… Read more »
Written for a feature in the August 2018 Sight and Sound about novels set in and around the world of movies. — J.R.
The fourth novel (1984) of Rudy Wurlizer, a remarkable writer better known for his screenplays (including those for Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker, both recently canonized by Criterion), is the only one about movies, but it views salvation as a distinctly precinematic or postcinematic postulate. Following his psychedelic Nog (1969), minimalist Flats (1971), and apocalyptic Quake (1974), Slow Fade is more of a page-turner — as is The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), a Western that grew out of an unrealized script. It focuses on a wasted septuagenarian macho filmmaker named Travis Hardin contemplating his own demise. Many assume it’s a portrait of Sam Peckinpah, whom Wurlitzer worked with on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, though he also suggests John Huston and Nicholas Ray. And the surrounding dead-beat hustlers, all hoping to turn some aspect of his legend into coin, include his alienated son and a roadie whom Hardin hires to write a script recounting what happened to his equally alienated daughter when she ran off to India on a spiritual quest. The script’s progress is intercut with the director’s drift back to his modest origins, combining the Beckett-like/Buddhist theme of identity loss from Wurlitzer’s earlier novels with a road-movie ambience.… Read more »
From Cinema Scope #19 (Summer 2004). This is obviously out of date in many respects, fourteen years later, but I repost it now a period piece. — J.R.
Joan Hawkins opens her book Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) with an interesting and useful observation:
“Open the pages of any horror fanzine —- Outré, Fangoria, Cinefantastique —- and you will find listings for mail-order video companies that cater to aficionados of what Jeffrey Sconce has called `para-cinema’ and trash aesthetics. Not only do these mail-order companies represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the video market, but their catalogs challenge many of our continuing assumptions about the binary opposition of prestige cinema (European art and avant-garde/experimental films) and popular culture. Certainly, they highlight an aspect of art cinema generally overlooked or repressed in cultural analysis: namely, the degree to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes that characterize low culture.”
As a direct illustration of Hawkins’ point, check out the web site www.xploitedcinema.com, a U.S. importer of overseas DVDs that also sells some domestic items and caters mainly to trash aesthetics, but among whose 86 pages of sex, horror, action, and gore items I also recently found an Italian two-disc set of my favorite Bernardo Bertolucci film, Prima della Rivoluzione/Before the Revolution (his second feature, 1964 — subtitled in English, along with all the extras), not to mention English-friendly Spanish and/or Mexican editions of my two favorite Alex Cox films (the 1987 Walker and the 1994 Highway Patrolman), a Spanish edition of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, a Korean edition of Sam Peckinpah’s scandalously underrated Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and Italian editions of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2004); I’ve revised this slightly [in June 2011]. — J.R.
Revolution ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Stephen Jones
Written by Bob Avakian
Queimada **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio
With Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez, Norman Hill, and Renato Salvatori.
The Last Emperor **** (Masterpiece)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci
With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ruocheng Ying, and Victor Wong.
August is traditionally the month when films people don’t know what to do with surface, a time when those films are less apt to be noticed. This August three of these films happen to be about revolution. Actually Revolution, showing Wednesday at the 3 Penny, isn’t a movie but a DVD of the first 136 minutes of a long, four-part lecture by Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, in what is reportedly his first public appearance since 1979. The other two are director’s cuts of celebrated movies, both being screened here for the first time. Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography that Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (1969), showing several times this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, contains “the best acting I’ve ever done,” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), screening August 28 at Facets Cinematheque, won five Oscars, including those for best picture and best director.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 16, 1993). For a more detailed commentary on the Histoire(s), including Godard’s own input, go here. — J.R.
HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA **** (Masterpiece)
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard
With Jean-Luc Godard.
MONTPARNASSE 19 ** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jacques Becker
With Gerard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Anouk Aimee, Gerard Sety, Lila Kedrova, Lea Padovani, Denise Vernac, and Lino Ventura.
If you want to be “up to the minute” about cinema, there’s no reason to be concerned that it’s taken four years for Jean-Luc Godard’s ambitious video series to reach Chicago. After all, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the artwork to which Histoire(s) du cinéma seems most comparable, written between 1922 and 1939, was first published in 1939, but if you started to read it for the first time this week, you’d still be way ahead of most people in keeping up with literature. For just as Finnegans Wake figuratively situates itself at some theoretical stage after the end of the English language as we know it — from a vantage point where, inside Joyce’s richly multilingual, pun-filled babble, one can look back at the 20th century and ask oneself, “What was the English language?”… Read more »
From the June 5, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Truman Show
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, and Ed Harris.
Undeniably provocative and reasonably entertaining, The Truman Show is one of those high-concept movies whose concept is both clever and dumb. Let’s start with the clever part. A 29-year-old insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who lives in a seemingly utopian small town named Seahaven on an island off the coast of somewhere like Florida or California, gradually discovers that he’s the unwitting star of a TV show — a show that’s been running 24 hours a day since his birth. Everyone else on the island is an actor or an extra — including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), and his mother (Holland Taylor) — and 5,000 hidden cameras are planted all over town to record his every movement. The show has no commercials in the usual sense, subsisting instead on product placements accompanied by advertising patter from Seahaven residents, including Truman’s wife, who extols the virtues of a new gadget she bought at the supermarket or recommends that he try a new brand of cocoa.… Read more »
Written in late 2006 and published in Discovering Orson Welles the following year. — J.R.
The process-oriented methods that permitted at least four Welles features and a number of short works to be left unﬁnished are easier to understand than they would be if we adopted the mental habits of producers, which is exactly what more and more critics today seem to be doing; but that is no comfort to those of us eager to understand, and eager as critics always are to have the last word, which we are not about to have with this ﬁlmmaker. At least our direction, as always, is laid out for us: as long as one frame of ﬁlm by the greatest ﬁlmmaker of the modern era is moldering in vaults, our work is not done. It is the last challenge, and the biggest joke, of an oeuvre that has always had more designs on us than we could ever have on it.
Bill Krohn’s cautionary words in Cahiers du cinéma’s special “hors série” Orson Welles issue in 1986 offer a useful motto for the present collection of essays, whose own title, Discovering Orson Welles, suggests an ongoing process that necessarily rules out completion and closure — the two mythical absolutes that Welles enthusiasts and scholars seem to hunger for the most.… Read more »
From the August 3, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.
This month the Film Center is inaugurating a monthly “Music Movies” series, five programs that will play on Sundays and Thursdays. The focus in August is jazz films, and the programs include four classics I first saw years ago and four others I’ve just seen for the first time. The worst film in the bunch (Cannonball) happens to be the newest one, and the two most interesting (Cry of Jazz and Black and Tan) are the oldest, though I don’t see any particular trend in this.
It’s difficult to speak of any consistent evolution or devolution in jazz films, because each one is the product of a particular taste and sensibility. One rule I use when evaluating these films is how much we’re allowed to follow the music. Another rule, less obvious and more purist, is how important the on-screen listeners are — which matters a good deal, because jazz at its most exciting is a collective experience involving the audience as well as the interacting musicians. If the people on-screen aren’t seen listening when music is being played, we’re discouraged from listening intently.
This helps explain why I was driven batty by the new 23-minute video about Cannonball Adderley, a musician who has given me a lot of pleasure.… Read more »
I’ve appended a different title to this Chicago Reader review which ran on July 11, 2003 and restored a few details in my argument as well as phrases that a bleary-eyed editor, foregoing the Reader’s usual writer-friendly protocol, deleted at the last minute without telling me. Down with Love, in particular, continues to be a major revelation and source of pleasure for me. — J.R.
Down With Love
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake
With Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Sarah Paulson, David Hyde Pierce, and Tony Randall.
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Guy Maddin
With Zhang Wei-qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, CindyMarie Small, Johnny Wright, and Brent Neale.
If a more interesting and entertaining Hollywood movie than Down With Love has come along this year, I’ve missed it. Down With Love — which has already closed in Chicago — is entertaining thanks to Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake’s clever script, Peyton Reed’s mainly assured direction, inventive production and costume design, a musical number behind the final credits I’d happily swap all of Chicago for, and even a miscast Renee Zellweger pulling off a difficult climactic monologue.… Read more »
On January 3, 1978, during what must have been my first visit back to London after moving from there to San Diego in early 1977, I attended a private screening at the British Film Institute of glorious new prints of Fritz Lang’s Indian films. Over four years later, when I was invited to program “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, I was delighted to be able to book these prints and thus hold what I believe was the North American premiere of Fritz Lang’s penultimate films in their correct versions, uncut and subtitled in English rather than dubbed. Luckily, Film Forum’s Karen Cooper attended this screening, and two years later, when she booked these prints for a theatrical run, she commissioned me to write program notes, reprinted below. — J.R. THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR/THE INDIAN TOMB (1958, 1959/101, 97 min.) Directed by Fritz Lang. Exec. Producer: Arthur Brauner. Screenplay by Lang & Werner Jorg Luddecke from a novel by Thea von Harbou & a scenario by Lang & von Harbou. Photographed by Richard Angst. Art direction by Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz. With: Debra Paget (Seetha), Paul Hubschmid (Harald Berger), Walter Reyer (Chandra), Claus Holm (Dr. Rhode), Sabine Bethmann (Irene Rhode), René Deltman (Ramigani).… Read more »
A slightly different version of the Introduction to my 2004 collection, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. — J.R.
As the son and grandson of small-town exhibitors — a legacy explored in detail in my first book, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (1980/1995) — I find it difficult to pinpoint with any exactitude when my film education started. But I can recall two pivotal early steps during my freshman year at New York University in 1961, when I was an English major still aspiring to become a professional novelist: taking the first and only film course I’ve ever had in my life and purchasing my first film magazine.
The course was an introductory survey taught by the late Haig Manoogian, who was serving as Martin Scorsese’s mentor in production courses around the same time. For me, it mainly afforded me my first opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation, The Last Laugh, and a few other film history staples; since I had no interest in making movies — or at this point in writing about them — I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for such matters as “story values” that Manoogian tended to emphasize.… Read more »
The third chapter of my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2000). The cover below is that of the U.K. edition published by the Wallflower Press. To set the context, the book’s previous chapter is called “Some Vagaries of Distribution and Exhibition”. — J.R.
A much more common and systematic method of obfuscating business practices in the ﬁlm industry, especially in blurring the lines between journalism and publicity, is the movie junket. Here’s how it generally works: a studio at its own expense ﬂies a number of journalists either to a location where a movie is being shot or to a large city where it is being previewed, puts the journalists up at fancy hotels, and then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent” (most often the stars and the director). The journalists are then expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies in question, run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a classy form of “ﬁlm criticism.” If these journalists don’t oblige — and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage, but articles with particular emphases set by publicists, articles that screen out certain forbidden topics and hone in on certain others — then the studios won’t invite them back to future junkets.… Read more »