Yearly Archives: 2019

Under the Chador

From the Chicago Reader (April 6, 2001). This is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema.— J.R.

The Day I Became a Woman

***

Directed by Marzieh Meshkini

Written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, Hassan Nabehan, Shabnam Toloui, Cyrus Kahouri Nejad, Azizeh Seddighi, and Badr Irouni Nejad.

“Aren’t you afraid?” some of my stateside friends asked before I visited Iran for the first time last February. “Only of American bombs,” I replied. Notwithstanding all of the things that are currently illegal there — such as men and women shaking hands or riding in the same sections of buses — I’m not sure I’ve ever been    anyplace where people display more social sophistication in terms of hospitality, everyday courtesy, or sheer enterprise in the use of charm and persistence to get what they want. Some of this character came through in Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary that turned up at the Film Center a couple of years ago showing the aggressive resourcefulness of Iranian women in divorce court, despite the repressive laws they have to work with.

The locals I spoke to tended to be pessimistic about the reformist movement — regarding Mohammad Khatami about as skeptically as American liberals regarded Bill Clinton during his last year in office — but it also quickly became clear that some aspects of Iranian life are not defined by Islamic fundamentalism and that what might seem hopeless in one context might be possible in another.… Read more »

James Benning’s CALIFORNIA TRILOGY

From the March 15, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

California Trilogy

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

Experimental films usually attempt to rearrange our reflexes along with our expectations. James Benning’s 270-minute, 16-millimeter “California Trilogy” does that in part by obliging us to rethink the way we interpret “directed by” and “written by.” If “directing” refers to the placement of camera and microphone, then Benning — who works alone, recording image and sound by himself — directed these three films. And if “writing” means the choice and identification of subjects — including the way they’re represented in the credits — then Benning is also the trilogy’s writer.

Benning — who will attend the March 21 screening of his film at the Film Center — placed his name at the end of the final credits of El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi, the three 90-minute features comprising his trilogy. Each feature consists of 35 shots lasting 150 seconds apiece, followed by final credits also lasting 150 seconds. Thirty-six times two and a half minutes equals an hour and a half; multiply that by three and you get 270 minutes, or four and a half hours.… Read more »

Desperate Characters [BOILING POINT and BODIES, REST & MOTION]

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 1993). — J.R.

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BOILING POINT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by James B. Harris

With Wesley Snipes, Dennis Hopper, Lolita Davidovich, Viggo Mortensen, Seymour Cassel, Jonathan Banks, Christine Elise, and Valerie Perrine

BODIES, REST & MOTION

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Steinberg

Written by Roger Hedden

With Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Alicia Witt, Sandra Lafferty, and Sidney Dawson.

At least 30 or 40 years separate the sensibilities that underlie Boiling Point and Bodies, Rest & Motion, two current releases I suspect won’t be with us very long. The first, a quirky and at times oddly charming museum piece, is masquerading as a Wesley Snipes action thriller, but advertising — even wall-to-wall — isn’t everything. The writer-director, James B. Harris, who was born in 1928, produced the first three important Stanley Kubrick features — The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962) — and what’s most distinctive about this movie is its bittersweet aroma of 50s nostalgia and over-the-hill desperation, most of it wafting around a pathetically cheerful con artist called Red Diamond (Dennis Hopper) who’s simply trying to stay alive.

There’s desperation aplenty in Bodies, Rest & Motion as well, but not the sort that has the weight of lived experience — or even the relative weightlessness of recollected innocence.… Read more »

The Love Parade

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2003). — J.R.

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Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie and first operetta, costarring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, contains the excitement of movies being reinvented, so that silence as well as sound becomes a brand-new plaything (in contradistinction to silent movies, which usually had musical accompaniment). A study in playfulness, this fantasy about a country preoccupied with its queen getting married actually has a dog barking out half a chorus of one number, perfectly in tune, and the precode erotics and sexual politics seem pretty advanced in spots. Secondary leads Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane offer some acrobatic low comedy as servants whose best song is called “Let’s Be Common”. 110 min. (JR)

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What’s Up, Doc?

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). I’m sorry that I’ve unable to find a single image illustrating The Last Conversation. — J.R.

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The Murder of Emmett Till

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stanley Nelson

Written by Marcia A. Smith

Narrated by Andre Braugher.

Oporto of My Childhood

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed, written, and narrated by Manoel de Oliveira.

The Last Conversation

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Sally Banes

Written by Noel Carroll

With Galina Zakrutkina and James Sutton

Narrated by Patricia Boyette.

McLuhan’s Wake

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Kevin McMahon

Written by David Sobelman

Narrated by Laurie Anderson.

Echelon: The Secret Power

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by David Korn-Brzoza

Narrated by Francois Devienne.

It’s notoriously difficult to evaluate the way most documentaries treat their subject matter, because one has to assess what’s included in light of what’s left out — something we aren’t usually qualified to do. I’m much more comfortable evaluating documentaries on how well they draw us into their subject matter and on how well they work as cinema. On these terms I can confidently say that I’ve seen and heard about a lot of exciting new documentaries recently, including an American work I really want to see, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.… Read more »

Dream Stuff [on MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA]

From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein

Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi

With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.

1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?

Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

This appeared in the January 6, 2006 issue of Chicago Reader. For some reason, it appears to have eluded the Reader’s web site archive, apart from its title, and therefore escaped this web site as well, until I found a way of pasting it in. — J.R.

The Best Film of the Past Two Years

And 24 more picks from what the industry thought us yokels could handle in 2005

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

To choose the best movies of 2005 is to compromise. I limit my list of candidates to films that have screened in Chicago, but I could easily fill it with movies that haven’t screened in the U.S. at all, and God knows what I’ve missed altogether. I’m at the mercy of studio heads, distributors, and publicists, whose decisions about what to release and when defy comprehension.

I saw Woody Allen’s Match Point in Madrid in mid- November, believing the distributor’s announcement that it would open in Chicago in December. Surprised at how much I liked it, I decided it probably belonged on my list, but then some industry executives decided that only the people in New York and Los Angeles should get to see it this year (in time for Oscar nominations), not the less discriminating moviegoers in the Chicago boondocks.… Read more »

The Milagro Beanfield War

From the March 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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TMBW

Robert Redford’s second feature as director (after Ordinary People) describes the elaborate consequences when a Chicano handyman in New Mexico (Chick Vennera) illegally irrigates his parched bean field with water earmarked for a major development. Fairly choked with good intentions, whimsy, touches of fantasy, and cardboard liberal stereotypes, this 1988 release does for Mexicans what Louis Malle did for Jews or Walt Disney did for mice — slowly, and at great length. The results are a bit like a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism by Mortimer Snerd, with pretty landscapes. John Nichols adapted his own novel, assisted by David Ward; with Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, James Gammon, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)

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Female Perversions

From the April 1, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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An adventurous and sometimes sexy (if only fitfully successful) 1996 adaptation of Louise Kaplan’s celebrated nonfiction book, directed by Susan Streitfeld from a script she wrote with Julie Hebert. Streitfeld focuses on a successful single prosecutor (British actress Tilda Swinton, displaying an impeccable American accent) as she waits to discover whether she’s been appointed as a judge, her kleptomaniac-scholar sister (Amy Madigan), the prosecutor’s boyfriend, a lesbian psychotherapist she has a fling with, and other people in her orbit. Oscillating between everyday events in her life and her dreams and fantasies, the film is much more successful with the former than with the latter, which often get heavy-handed and obscure. But the freshness of Streitfeld’s approach toward gender anxiety and social conditioning fascinates even when the overall clarity diminishes. Not for everyone, but those who like it will probably like it a lot. With Karen Sillas, Clancy Brown, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, and Dale Shuger. (JR)

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Mission To Mars

From the March 6, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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I seem to be in a distinct minority in regarding Brian De Palma as a tacky blowhard and unimaginative plagiarist — Pauline Kael places him above Alfred Hitchcock, who she apparently feels lacked the proper trashy exuberance, and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema recently concluded that Carlito’s Way was the greatest film of the 90s. But if I had to select a recent De Palma movie that validated my own bias, I’d opt for this ludicrous compost of derivative SF and insincere soap opera, which begins with a spaceship pilfered from 2001, ends with a New Age epiphany out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and features a lot of bad acting and celestial choirs in between. Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, and Lowell Cannon are credited with the clumsy script, and the teary-eyed actors include Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, and Jerry O’Connell. There are a few pretty good design effects en route, but not enough to compensate for all the embarrassments. 120 min. (JR)

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Beau travail

From the June 2, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere — and, more subtly, the women — of Africa like few filmmakers before her.… Read more »

Resnais as Regionalist

Recovering this piece, dated March 27, 2000, from an old floppy disk, I no longer have any recollection of who commissioned it or for what publication. [November 2012 postscript: It was the May-June 2000 issue of Film Comment.] — J.R.

Keeping up with Resnais hasn’t been easy. One can find all his recent features on SECAM videos in France, but not the original English versions of I Want to Go Home (1989) or Gershwin (1992). Even Smoking/ No Smoking (1993) — a French adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a cycle of eight English plays — is available only without subtitles, in a fancy one-box set.

Who would have dreamed that Resnais — supremely international with Hiroshima, mon amour in the 50s, Last Year at Marienbad and La guerre est finie in the 60s, Providence in the 70s — would have wound up a French regionalist in the 80s and 90s, culminating in Same Old Song? This outcome is obviously more a matter of fate than design. It’s not as if Resnais has stood still; the recent features show little of the emotional interiority of his earlier work, veering closer to farce than anything preceding them. Why haven’t most American audiences been able to chart these changes?… Read more »

Memento

From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 2001). — J.R.

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With its classically seedy southern California setting, this second feature by Christopher Nolan is more memorable than his first, Following (1998). Nonetheless, it exemplifies what the English mean when they call something too clever by half. It’s a fascinating and gripping but also rather heartless and mean-spirited tale, much of it told backward, about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce) with short-term amnesia trying to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Severely hampered by his periodically forgetting everything that’s happened since this tragedy, he tries to compensate by shooting Polaroids and tattooing his body with various reminders and instructions. More a puzzle than a meaningful story, it reminds me of how Edmund Wilson compared reading a mystery to eagerly unpacking a box of excelsior, only to find a few rusty nails at the bottom. With Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Stephen Tobolowsky. R, 113 min. (JR)

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Toddler Time (THE WHITE BALLOON)

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1996). — J.R.

The White Balloon

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi, and Parviz Shahbazi

With Aida Mohammadkhani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Anna Bourkowska, Aliasghar Samadi, Mohammad Shahani, and Mohammad Bahktiari.

In Iran the first day of spring is New Year’s Day, the celebration of which starts at a different time of day every year, and among the objects used in the celebration is a goldfish, which symbolizes life. The plot of Jafar Panahi’s extraordinary first feature, The White Balloon (opening this week at the Music Box), involves the adventures of Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani), a seven-year-old girl who has her heart set on buying a new goldfish for the celebration, insisting that the ones her family already has are “too skinny.”

Only 85 minutes long, the film unfolds in real time and almost exclusively in exteriors along a few blocks of Tehran the morning of the New Year. The film opens in a market, where Razieh’s mother (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) is shopping; she collects Razieh, who’s carrying a blue balloon, and they walk home together. Nearly all of the film’s other major characters — and even a couple of minor ones — are fleetingly glimpsed during this prelude, though we don’t recognize any of them yet.… Read more »

9 1/2 Weeks with Van Gogh

From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 1993). — J.R.

VAN GOGH

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Maurice Pialat

With Jacques Dutronc, Alexandra London, Gerard Sety, Bernard le Coq, Corinne Boudon, and Elsa Zylberstein.

Consider the following two scenarios:

(1) In May 1890, Vincent van Gogh, missing one ear, arrives at Auvers-sur-Oise and meets Dr. Gachet — an avid art collector and fan of the Impressionists contacted by Vincent’s brother Theo — who advises the painter not to worry about his nervous attacks and to concentrate on his work. Taking a room at the Ravoux inn, Vincent follows the good doctor’s advice, but his alienation from others continues to torment him; during Bastille Day, when everyone else is celebrating outside, he sits alone inside, in extreme anguish, at a cafe table. While painting a field he is attacked by crows, and he agitatedly adds a few of these birds to his canvas before pulling out a revolver and shooting himself. He dies shortly afterward, his faithful brother at his bedside.

(2) In May 1890, Vincent van Gogh, both ears intact, arrives at Auvers-sur-Oise, takes a room at the Ravoux inn, and meets Dr. Gachet — an avid art collector and fan of the Impressionists contacted by Vincent’s brother Theo — who advises the painter not to worry about his nervous attacks and to concentrate on his work.

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