Yearly Archives: 2018

Strangeness on a Train [on von Trier’s ZENTROPA/EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1992). This marks my first encounter with Lars von Trier. — J.R.

ZENTROPA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel

With Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Erik Mork, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, and the voice of Max von Sydow.

Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is the most exciting failure to come along in ages. This Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction (known as Europa outside the United States), turning up here over a year after it received both the Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at Cannes, addresses so many fundamental contemporary questions about postmodernism, language, colonialism, the Common Market, coproduction, the future of European cinema, and our collective memory of World War II that one may feel a mite churlish pointing out that its technique ultimately overwhelms the themes and characters. After all, exercices de style worthy of the name are not exactly plentiful these days, and Zentropa is an especially dazzling example — vastly more impressive than Barton Fink or Kafka or Shadows and Fog, to cite only the first rough counterparts that come to mind. It has so much to say and do, in fact, that its failure to get everything said and done has to be weighed against the failure of most other recent movies to say or do anything at all beyond the barest commercial minimum.… Read more »

Complicated Characters [STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 2007). — J.R.

Starting Out in the Evening 

Directed by Andrew Wagner ***

The two most interesting movies I saw at press screenings last summer had their opening dates postponed, and it’s not hard to imagine why. As Orson Welles experienced time and again, features that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale conventional ones — and thus they’re harder to sell. This explains both the box-office success of Welles’s relatively pedestrian The Stranger (1946) and the delayed and relatively unprofitable U.S. releases of many of his other features, starting with Citizen Kane and continuing through The Lady From Shanghai, Othello, and F for Fake, among others.

Neither Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett nor Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Eve­ning is a masterpiece, but both films exemplify a kind of adventurous filmmaking that’s increasingly difficult to envisage in today’s marketplace, where first impressions mean everything — it’s an unpromising cli­mate for any art form. When I saw Charlie Bartlett — an edgy and quirky satirical teen comedy, unusual for both its nervy politics and its class consciousness — in mid-July, it was scheduled to open in early August.… Read more »

Afghan High Jinks

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 2002). — J.R.

Kandahar

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, and Sadou Teymouri.

“Shall I recite the Koran for the dead?”

“We are the dead; sing for us.”

Kandahar

There are times in history when the aesthetic quality of a work of art appears to become secondary to the urgency and currency of the work’s subject matter. The era of Italian neorealism was arguably one of those times. Kandahar — a film in which the terrible and the wonderful, the gauche and the graceful, the beautiful and the ugly, and the smart and the not-so-smart rub shoulders — surely marks another.

In many ways the qualities of Kandahar that derive from actuality operate as art ordinarily does — so that, for instance, the bad acting serves as well as good acting would to bring us closer to the people we’re seeing. In some ways, the bad acting may even serve better, because it allows more of the actors’ personal characteristics to shine through. Yet once we become aware of this, our responses to the actuality become aestheticized. And even if we could overlook the quality of the acting altogether — no easy matter — writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is too much of an artist to abandon the aesthetic parts of his sensibility.… Read more »

Review of THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE, THE GOVERNMENT AND FILM CULTURE, 1933-2000

From the online Screening the Past,  issue 36, posted 17 June 2013. — J.R.

BFI Strike August 1974_NEW_0001

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Christophe Dupin (ed.)

The British Film Institute, the Government and Film Culture, 1933-2000

Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 2012

ISBN: 978 0 7190 7908 5

US$95/UK£65

288pp (hc)

(Review copy supplied by Footprint Books/Warriewood)

The most interesting job I’ve ever had was my two and a half years of working for the British Film Institute, between 1974 and 1977 –- as both assistant editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin (under Richard Combs) and staff writer for Sight and Sound (under Penelope Houston, who was directly responsible for my getting hired), occasioning at the time a move from Paris to London. This is what sparked my particular interest in this impressively detailed history, coedited and mostly written (apart from four of its 15 chapters) by the University of London’s Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and the International Federation of Film Archives’ Christophe Dupin after more than six years of research — and the fact that it retails for $95 at Amazon in the U.S. and 65 quid at Amazon in the U.K. meant that the only reasonable way I could acquire it was to ask to review it.… Read more »

Raymond Durgnat’s IMAGES OF THE MIND

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the aptly named Images of the Mind: The Essential Raymond Durgnat, a definitive collection edited by Henry K. Miller that the British Film Institute will apparently publish later this year, I’ve just found time to experience the pleasure of a remarkable 1992 documentary with half of the same title, Jarmo Valkola’s 45-minute Images of the Mind: Cinematic Visions by Raymond Durgnat — a film now available at newly revamped Durgnat web site that manages to be both a wonderful portrait of the greatest of all English film critics (1932-2002), speaking as both a fan and as a friend over the last three decades of his life (as well as one-time house mate, circa 1977-78), and a brilliant lecture by Ray about the nature of film, the history of the English character in the 20th century, and the art of Michael Powell. Indeed, the only thing that can be said to be dated about this remarkable film is the fact that it cites Durgnat’s still-unpublished book about Powell as one of his publications. Otherwise, it impressively predates the recent film criticism on film that can be found in the work of Kevin Lee and Volker Pantenburg, among many others.… Read more »

Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

From the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1988). — J.R.

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CASTAWAY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Allan Scott

With Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue.

ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Anita Rosenberg

Written by Ted Nicoleau, Rosenberg, and Patti Astor

With Christina Whitaker, Elizabeth Kaitan, Tammara Souza, Mike Muscat, Nick Cassavetes, Dave Marsh, and Patti Astor.

A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Larry Cohen

Written by Cohen and James Dixon

With Michael Moriarty, Samuel Fuller, Andrew Duggan , Ricky Addison Reed, June Havoc, Evelyn Keyes, and Ronee Blakley.

The three movies listed above are all probably playing in Chicago this week, but not in any local theaters; they’re available in video rental stores and playing on home screens. Recent releases that have never opened theatrically, and presumably never will, they represent a growing breed of movie, at once omnipresent and unacknowledged.

Ever since the fairly recent time when the amount of money spent in this country on video rentals began to exceed the amount spent on movie tickets, notions about moviegoing have become even more specialized and limited. In contrast to moviegoing in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, when individual movies provided national experiences that were public and shared, moviegoing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s has increasingly become a less communal activity.

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Rotterdam: Jancsó, Potter, Ruiz [1984]

From the Spring 1984 issue of Sight and Sound. This was the first time I attended the film festival in Rotterdam and the first time I encountered the work of Raul Ruiz. It’s sadly emblematic that the Jancsó TV miniseries, even though it wound up being shown on the BBC, is so forgotten and out of reach today that I can’t even find a satisfactory still for it on the Internet. — J.R.

It’s a curious festival that can make young filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, Nicolas Roeg and John Sayles seem like commercial Hollywood directors. Devoted to the relatively unseeable and intractable independents across the globe whose work exists between the parentheses of an industry, Rotterdam has lasted for thirteen years, and under Hubert Bals’ inspired direction has this year added a market to amplify its already hefty fare. For an American who can hardly keep up with a Ruiz, Duras, Garrel or Jancsó without crossing the Atlantic, it was like stumbling into a forbidden forest of plenty, loaded with potential traps and unexpected rewards.… Read more »

The Family That Preys Together (THE GODATHER PART III)

From the Chicago Reader (January 18, 1991). — J.R.

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THE GODFATHER PART III

*** (A must-see)

Directed By Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola

With Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola, Eli Wallach, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, and Joe Mantegna.

Let’s agree from the outset that the conclusion of the Godfather trilogy is not giving audiences everything that they expected based on the two previous installments. Shorter at 160 minutes than either of the first two parts, it proceeds in fits and starts, without the sustained narrative sweep of the first or the comprehensive historical spread of the second. Overall, there is less of a continuous story line (and less lucidity, coherence, and conviction regarding what plot there is), less violence, and less dramatic conflict; the quality of the performances is more variable; the settings are less memorable. There are even moments of risible implausibility. (Suffering insulin shock while visiting Cardinal Lamberto in a garden, Michael Corleone requests something sweet, and a pitcher of orange juice appears within seconds; and the virtuoso climactic sequence at the opera ultimately strains credibility by drawing together too many events at once.)

But conceptually and morally, one can argue that The Godfather Part III is superior to the two films in the Corleone family saga that preceded it.… Read more »

Life and Death in China [THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD]

From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 1995). — J.R.

The Day the Sun Turned Cold

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Yim Ho

With Siqin Gowa, Tuo Zhong Hua, Ma Jing Wu, Wai Zhi, Shu Zhong, and Li Hu.

A striking moment in Mina Shum’s Double Happiness — a recent Canadian feature about an aspiring young actress in a North American city — reveals something about our attitudes toward Chinese culture. The Chinese-American heroine is auditioning for a small part as a waitress in a TV movie. After she runs through her lines, her prospective employers ask how good she is with accents. Pretty good, she replies; at this point we’ve already heard her southern drawl, and now she asks them in a French accent what kind of accent they want — French, perhaps, or something else? There’s a long, embarrassed silence, until she figures out that they want her to speak with a Chinese accent. She promptly does so, and with the same exaggeration she’d given her Southern Belle and Basic Frog. She immediately gets the part.

When Chinese movies audition for release in the North American market, I’m afraid the same sort of unspoken rules apply.… Read more »

LA SAGA: CINÉASTES, DE NOTRE TEMPS: UNE HISTOIRE DU CINÉMA EN 100 FILMS

Some of the most successful and fruitful ongoing enterprises related to film history have been either ignored or taken for granted (which sometimes amounts to the same thing) due to their omnipresence. In book publishing, the two most outstanding examples that come to mind are, in France, the series of monographs devoted to film directors issued by Seghers(which finally expired many years ago, I believe in the 70s or 80s) and, in the U.K., the BFI Classics and BFI Modern Classics, launched in 1992 and, to be the best of my knowledge, still going strong.

Considerably more formidable is the series of 80-odd French television documentaries about filmmakers produced by Janine Bazin (the widow of André Bazin) and André S. Labarthe, initially called Cinéastes de notre temps when it was produced by the ORTF between 1964 and 1972, and revived as Cinéma, de notre temps when it was produced by Arte between 1990 and 2003, the year that Janine Bazin died, and then taken up again by Cinécinéma in 2006. Some of the more interesting of the earlier documentaries were remarkable in the various ways that they stylistically imitated their subjects, as in the programs on Cassavetes, Samuel Fuller, and Josef von Sternberg.… Read more »

The Rattle of Armor, the Softness of Flesh: Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC

From the Summer 1974 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

The Rattle of Armor, the Softness of Flesh: Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC

LANCELOT DU LAC embodies the perfection of a language that has been in the process of development and refinement for over thirty years. If it stuns and overwhelms one’s sense of the possibilities of that language— in a way, perhaps, that no predecessor has done, at least since AU HASARD BALTHAZAR — this is not because it represents a significant departure or deviation from the path Robert Bresson has consistently followed. The source of amazement lies in the film’s clarity and simplicity, a precise and irreducible arrangement of sounds and images that is so wholly functional that nothing is permitted to detract from the overall narrative complex, and everything present is used. It is a film where the rattle of armor and the neighing of horses are as essential as the faces and bodies of the characters, where indeed each of these elements serves to isolate and define the importance and impact of the others.

The sheer rawness of what is there disconcerts, but it shouldn’t lead one to focus unduly on what isn’t there, or track down some elusive clue to the Bressonian mystery.… Read more »

At the Viennale: Chris Marker Lives!

Posted on Film Comment‘s blog, November 16, 2012. — J.R.

Much as Godard’s special brand of cultural tourism quickly became a dominant influence at international film festivals half a century ago, the literal tourism of the late Chris Marker became a major reference point in many of the edgiest offerings at the Viennale, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Fittingly, the last to date of the festival’s annual commissioned one-minute trailers, 19 of which were just issued on a DVD, was by Marker himself — a somewhat jaundiced view of the “perfect” film viewer as sought by Méliès, Griffith, Welles, and Godard, eventually and rather sadly achieved in the sad figure of Osama bin Laden watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon on a TV set.

Museum-Hours

Marker’s more benign influence was especially evident in Jem Cohen’s magisterial Museum Hours, a luminous mix of fiction and essay set in Vienna itself, where it takes the form of a casual friendship developing between a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum (played by Bobby Sommer — a familiar and friendly Viennale presence, who has worked for many years at its guest office) and a Canadian tourist (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who arrives to visit a dying cousin and turns up at the museum.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Auteurist Updates

My Fall 2018 column for Cinema Scope. — J.R.

Spettersad

Paul Verhoeven gives exceptionally good audio commentary, especially on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Spetters (1980), a powerful feature about teenage motocross racers in a small Dutch town that I’ve just seen for the first time. Speaking in English, Verhoeven tells us a good deal about Dutch culture and life at the time his film was made; his own ideological motivations (such as his desire to depict accurately the behaviour of his young working-class characters) and personal contributions to the script (especially, but not exclusively, those relating to his early involvement with Pentecostal Christianity); his literary influences (in particular, the role played by Céline in conceptualizing the final sequence) and his strategies as a director (including the use of his own dog, who also turns up in The Fourth Man [1983]); his relations with his producer, his locations in and around Rotterdam, his cast and how he directed them; the differences between shooting in Holland and shooting in the US; the filming of stunts; his tricky dealings with Dutch government representatives to avoid censorship (which involved lying and subterfuge); the film’s disastrous initial critical reception, which had a lot to do with Verhoeven subsequently moving to Hollywood; and a great deal more.… Read more »

City of Angels (on WINGS OF DESIRE)

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1988). Having just seen the gorgeous new restoration of this film a little over three decades later, it looks even better now, although my demurrals remain the same. — J.R.

WINGS OF DESIRE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Written by Wenders and Peter Handke

With Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk.

They all have weary mouths,

bright souls without a seam,

And a yearning (as for sin)

often haunts their dream.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Angels”

wingsofdesire-trapeze

Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are angels who hover over, swoop across, and cruise through contemporary Berlin in Wim Wenders’s new feature, eavesdropping on the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants like readers browsing through the books in a library. They are not angels in the conventional sense of blessed or fallen souls; rather they are more or less the angels of Rilke’s poetry — the imaginary beings that dominate his first two Duino Elegies and that, according to Rilke, have more to do with “the angelic figures of Islam” than they do with Christianity.

All of which may make Wings of Desire seem esoteric and forbidding to moviegoers who, like me, have only a glancing acquaintance with Rilke, speak no German, and have never before heard of “the angelic figures of Islam.”… Read more »

The Lives of Others

From the Chicago Reader (February 16, 2007). — J.R.

thelivesofothers2

I spent only an afternoon in East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell, but the fearful silence in public places left a lingering impression. The reasons behind it are explored by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his accomplished first feature, about the Stasi, the country’s secret police, which had a staff of over 90,000, plus countless informers, and spied on friend and foe alike. The fictional story here, set between 1984 and 1991, focuses on the investigation of a popular and patriotic playwright (Sebastian Koch); that the captain assigned to his case (touchingly played by Ulrich Muhe) is mainly sympathetic and working surreptitiously on the playwright’s behalf only makes this more disturbing. With Martina Gedeck (The Good Shepherd). In German with subtitles. R, 137 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.

thelivesofothersRead more »