From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 2003), where it was printed under the title “Against the Tide”. — J.R.
While putting together a collection of my film pieces for an upcoming book I included an appendix listing my 1,000 favorite films and videos made between 1895 and the present — features and shorts, live action and animation, narrative and experimental. The point was to cite not the works I consider the most important historically but the ones that still provide me with the most pleasure and edification.
This took more work than anticipated because I didn’t have a surefire method of recalling all the possible candidates. I worried about the inevitable oversights, including even ones from 2002. I also worried that I’d wind up weighting the list with more old than recent films — a fear that proved to be mainly groundless. The year between 1924 and 2002 for which I listed the fewest titles — five — was 1937. Four other years — 1926, 1939, 1942, and 1945 — yielded only six apiece. The peak year was 1955, with 21 titles. Generally speaking, there was a steady rise through the 50s, a decline in the 60s, then a leveling off: 17 items in the teens, 72 in the 20s, 95 in the 30s, 103 in the 40s, 160 in the 50s, 133 in the 60s, 130 in the 70s, 129 in the 80s, and 125 in the 90s.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Daniel M. Cohen
With Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy, George Coe, Jeff Gendelman, Nikki Fritz, and Shannah Laumeister.
It’s astonishing how few Hollywood movies tell us anything about the way we spend a third or more of our lives — at work. Maybe this is because the standard industry perception is that people don’t like to think about that part of their existence when they go to movies, that people want to keep their professions and pleasures separate and mutually alienated. The assumption seems to be that work isn’t supposed to be fun but movies are.
Since I don’t have this bias, I found myself uncommonly excited watching Diamond Men, an independent first feature by writer-director Daniel M. Cohen that stars Robert Forster and is playing this week at the Music Box. I have no particular interest in the diamond trade, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see a movie that taught me something about what it’s like to drive through small towns in Pennsylvania selling diamonds to jewelry stores — especially since its lessons are being propounded by someone as knowledgeable about the subject as Cohen (who, reports Philadelphia Inquirer film reviewer Carrie Rickey, is a third-generation diamond man from Lancaster) and articulated by an actor as likable as Forster.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1996). — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Le Van Loc, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Nguyen Hoang Phuc, and Ngo Vu Quang Hai.
Tran Anh Hung’s first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, redefined what we mean by “inside” and “outside,” architecturally as well as socially and psychologically. The same could be said about the vastly more ambitious and even more impressive Cyclo, which was shot in Ho Chi Minh City — unlike The Scent of Green Papaya, which was shot in a studio outside Paris — and is set in the present.
The Scent of Green Papaya — the first and so far only Vietnamese film ever nominated for an Academy Award — was inspired by the filmmaker’s memories of his mother and was set in 1951 and 1961. Tran said that his next feature would be based on recollections of his father. This led me to expect another period film, which Cyclo isn’t — but there’s no question that it’s a film about patriarchy. The first and last things the 18-year-old hero (Le Van Loc) says offscreen concern his late father — a pedicab driver who was run over by a truck — and there’s the sense throughout that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of male misery passed from one generation to the next.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 16, 1997). — J.R.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Written by Mostow and Sam Montgomery
With Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy, Rex Linn, Ritch Brinkley, and Moira Harris.
Night Falls on Manhattan
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Sidney Lumet
With Andy Garcia, Ian Holm, James Gandolfini, Lena Olin, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Colm Feore, Ron Leibman, and Richard Dreyfuss.
About three-quarters of the way through Breakdown — the well-crafted theatrical-feature debut of director and cowriter Jonathan Mostow, a thriller offering more bang for your buck than almost any other recent release — I started to feel nauseous. It’s a problem I encounter during a lot of commercial American movies these days, usually for more or less the same reason; if I had to encapsulate this reason in a single phrase, I’d say it’s the way they turn people into garbage. By “people” I mean mainly fictional characters, but also filmmakers and filmgoers, because when people on-screen are treated like garbage and the movie “works” — clicks, delivers, offers more bang for our buck — the filmmakers are turning themselves and us into garbage as well.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 1997). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by James Cameron
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, and Suzy Amis.
I suppose there’s something faintly ridiculous about a $200-million movie that argues on behalf of true love over wealth and even bandies about a precious diamond as a central narrative device — like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud — to clinch its point. Yet for all the hokeyness, Titanic kept me absorbed all 194 minutes both times I saw it. It’s nervy as well as limited for writer-director-coproducer James Cameron to reduce a historical event of this weight to a single invented love story, however touching, and then to invest that love story with plot details that range from unlikely to downright stupid. But one clear advantage of paring away the subplots that clog up disaster movies is that it allows one to achieve a certain elemental purity.
This movie tells you a great deal about first class on the ship, a little bit about third class, and nothing at all about second class. According to Walter Lord’s 1955 nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember, which includes a full passenger list, 279 of the 2,223 passengers were in second class, and 112 of them survived.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 2004). — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by David Koepp
With Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, and Len Cariou.
I’ve seen four movie adaptations of Stephen King books that have writers as heroes — The Shining (1980), Misery (1990), The Dark Half (1993), and now Secret Window — and I know of a few others. This isn’t necessarily self-indulgent on King’s part. An author this prolific would eventually run out of material if he didn’t use his own experience as a writer, and besides I happen to prefer the plotlines of The Shining and Misery to those of other King stories I know. He understands what it means to be a writer driven crazy by his own demons (in The Shining) as well as by some version of his public (in Misery), and even though he makes the heroes in both cases fairly dislikable, we wind up ensnarled in their dilemmas anyway. He also seems to have an astute take on writer’s block, suggesting that writing too much and repeating oneself can be as much a form of creative blockage as writing too little.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 12, 1991). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Todd Haynes
With Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons, John R. Lombardi, Tony Pemberton, and Andrew Harpending.
“The whole world is dying of panicky fright,” reads the title that opens Todd Haynes’s startling and original Poison. It’s a correct and judicious observation, one that helps to “explain” a fascinating and provocative movie, particularly if one sees it alluding directly to the specter of AIDS.
But if one starts to enumerate the symptoms produced by panicky fright in our culture, I’m afraid that the usual set of liberal grievances — greed, intolerance, xenophobia, repression, classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, war fever, and flag waving — doesn’t quite exhaust them. Some of the most cherished and least controversial emblems of postmodernist discourse — irony, stylistic pastiche, and a foreshortened sense of history and politics, all of which are usually employed together — may be symptoms of panicky fright as well. While the list of liberal grievances points to a fear of the world (especially the social world) as it is, postmodernist discourse suggests a fear of discourse (especially art) as it used to be and as it might be once again — a fear of unambiguous self-expression that implies another way of refusing to confront the present directly.… Read more »
This ran in the May 1, 1992 issue of Chicago Reader. Criterion brought out a new Blu-Ray edition of this film yesterday, with many extras, so I’ve just looked at it again, and enjoyed it somewhat better this time, particularly for its pacing. My piece strikes me now as unduly peevish in spots, in part because I was reviewing the hype as much as the movie (I especially regret my swipe at Terrence Rafferty), although I still agree with much of it — and am pleased that Sam Wasson’s essay for the Criterion release agrees with one of my major arguments when he writes, “Far from making the trenchant, bitter satire so many critics would describe even after they saw the movie, Altman bypassed The Day of the Locust for Our Town and actually made a charmed, even gleeful movie about his so-called nemesis. That’s why so many people in Hollywood love The Player.” — J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Michael Tolkin
With Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, and Dean Stockwell.
Movies-about-moviemaking tend to come in two flavors: the celebratory (Day for Night, Singin’ in the Rain) and the sardonic (Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, Barton Fink).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 7, 1990). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by William Goldman
With James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, and Lauren Bacall.
Although it didn’t impress me too much when I first saw it, The King of Comedy has gradually come to seem the most important and resonant of Martin Scorsese’s features, largely because of all it has to say about the values we place on both stars and fans in contemporary society. Part of what makes it so pungent is the casting: by all rights, talk-show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) should be the “hero” and his crazed kidnapper-fans Rupert and Masha (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) the “villains”; but De Niro after all is a charismatic star in his own right, while Lewis has long been someone Americans love to hate. The same kind of twist on stereotypes occurs in the story: Rupert is an obnoxious loser and Masha a borderline psycho, but Langford’s offstage persona is so morose and unpleasant that next to him they seem like models of humanity. To make matters even more disturbing, Masha clearly regards Langford as a substitute for her own neglectful parents, and Rupert’s climactic stand-up comedy debut, won as a ransom for kidnapping Langford, largely consists of contemptuously trashing his own family and background.… Read more »
There are few films of the past decade that have irritated me quite as much as Van Sant’s idiotic remake of Psycho, and in some ways I was irritated even more by the rationalizations some cinephiles came up with in their tortured efforts to justify it. I tried my best to behave like a gentleman towards Lisa Alspector, the Reader film reviewer whose capsule sparked my longer review in the December 25, 1998 issue, but I don’t know whether or not I succeeded. — J.R.
Rating — Worthless
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Joseph Stefano
With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, Ann Haney, and Chad Everett.
Psycho has never been one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures. The first time I saw it, during its initial release in 1960, I’d already read the Robert Bloch novel it’s based on, a fairly routine horror thriller, so the surprise ending was anything but surprising. I saw the movie back-to-back with Let’s Make Love, which I liked a lot more. Yves Montand spoke English awkwardly, but Marilyn Monroe was irresistible — for practically the only time in her late career, she played a character who was smart and feisty.… Read more »
Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)
… Read more »
From the March 17, 1989 Chicago Reader. At least in memory, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to remind me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. — J.R.
THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Charles McKeown and Gilliam
With John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Robin Williams, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, Winston Dennis, and Valentina Cortese.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Perry Howze and Randy Howze
With Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher McDonald.
I can no longer recall whether any of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s late-18th-century best-seller The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was read to me as a child. But there’s no question that these tall tales of comic extravagance — based on stories told by one Karl Friedrich Hieronymous (the Baron von Munchhausen) to his German poker buddies during the same period — have held a special place in children’s literature ever since. Reportedly about a dozen and a half film versions of the stories precede Terry Gilliam’s current entry, although I presume that most of these are silent and/or European, because I can find only one listed in Leonard Maltin’s extensive TV Movies (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen by Karel Zeman).… Read more »
The following text, a late addition to this web site, was copied almost verbatim (apart from the correction of typos) from the laptop of the late Peter Thompson, thanks to the help of his widow, Mary Dougherty. — J.R.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Talking to Strangers: A Look at Recent American Independent Cinema”, ARTPAPERS, Vol. 13, No. 5, September/October 1989, pp. 6-10.
The following article is excerpted from a lecture given on June 15, 1989 in Lisbon, Portugal, at a seminar organized for the Luso-Americanos de Arte Contemporanea at the Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian to introduce screenings of a dozen recent American independent films selected by Richard Peña and myself. Peña and Jon Jost also gave lectures at the same seminar — the former offered a broad history of independent filmmaking in the U.S., while the latter gave a subjective account of his own experiences as an independent filmmaker — followed by interventions from Portuguese critics.
It is virtually impossible to treat recent American independent film as a unified, homogeneous body of work. While there has been an unfortunate tendency in academic criticism to treat Italian neo-realism. the French nouvelle vague, or Hollywood films during any particular decade as if they had homogeneity and unity, such an effort can be made only if one views the work incompletely and superficially, and this is perhaps even more true with an unwieldy category such as American independent film.… Read more »
Since writing this for the April 27, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader, I’ve become an even bigger fan of Charles Willeford’s four Hoke Moseley novels; some of their virtues remind me of John Updike’s novels about Rabbit Angstrom. My favorite of these Moseley novels remains Sideswipe. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by George Armitage
With Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nora Dunn, Charles Napier, Obba Babatunde, and Shirley Stoler.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Sidney Lumet
With Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Patrick O’Neal, Lee Richardson, Luis Guzman, Charles Dutton, Jenny Lumet, and Paul Calderon.
The ambiguous power and image of the policeman stand at the center of two better-than-average crime pictures playing at the moment, both of them the work of writer-directors adapting novels by others. Part of the merit of these two otherwise very different movies is that neither one depends on either of the compulsively overworked subgenres that currently dominate the scene — the cop-buddy action thriller derived from TV or the hunt for the serial killer derived from Dirty Harry.
I have less of an aversion to the cop-movie genre per se than to what this genre has become.… Read more »
Written for a booklet distributed at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival. — J.R.
Most people reading these words have likely heard about the Iranian New Wave, which conjures up such names as Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi. But until recently, Westerners who have heard about the first Iranian New Wave, whose names include Farrokhzad, Golestan, Kimiavi, and Saless, have been few and far between. Apart from the belated availability in the West of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 short film The House is Black, this watershed prerevolution movement in Iranian cinema has almost been lost to history due to the abrupt European exiles of many of its other major artists — Ebrahim Golestan to England, Parviz Kimiavi to France, and Sohrab Shahid Saless to Germany. (Bahram Beizai, Dariush Mehrjui, and Amir Naderi are among the few filmmakers who might be stylistically associated with both waves, but given how seldom their own prerevolution films are seen nowadays, apart from Mehrjui’s The Cow, it’s difficult to say much about them.) Arguably even more innovative as well as more modernist than the second New Wave, and virtually contemporaneous with the French New Wave, Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1963-64), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973), and Saless’ A Simple Event (1974) are masterworks that continue to speak to the present like few other films.… Read more »