Monthly Archives: January 2019

Children Of Men

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2006). — J.R.

Adapted from P.D. James’s dystopian novel, this SF feature by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) takes place in England in 2027, when the human race has mysteriously become infertile and faces extinction. A onetime revolutionary (Clive Owen) is asked by an old flame (Julianne Moore) to take part in her underground movement defending illegal aliens, who are trucked off to concentration camps; assisted by an older hippie pal (Michael Caine in an Oscar-worthy performance), he agrees to smuggle a young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out of the country. The film gradually devolves into action-adventure, then the equivalent of a war movie. But the filmmaking is pungent throughout, and the first half hour is so jaw-dropping in its fleshed-out extrapolation that Cuaron earns the right to coast a bit. R, 108 min. (JR)

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What We Ate in That Year (1964 review of A MOVEABLE FEAST)

From the Bard Observer, September 9, 1964. -– J.R.

What We Ate in That Year

A MOVEABLE FEAST, by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 211 pp., $4.95.

In the spring of that year, long after he was dead, a book of his was published and it was a good book. He had not written a good book for quite some time and the critics were beginning to worry. They had wanted to say something good about him now that he was dead, but there were no good books to say good things about except for those written twenty and thirty years ago, and they (the critics) had already spoken enough about the earlier ones anyway.

The new book was about Paris of long ago when he and his friends were writing the earlier books. In those days there was Miss Stein and Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis and Ford Maddox Ford and several others. Some were good and some were very good and others were not so good at all. He was not like the others because he was not a homosexual or an alcoholic and he did not have bad breath or look evil. Much of the time he would write, and during the times that he would not write he would walk the shaded avenues or go to the races. Read more

How to Get Ahead in Espionage [THE SENTINEL]

From the Chicago Reader (December 4, 1998). — J.R.

La Sentinelle : photo Arnaud Desplechin

The Sentinel

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Written by Desplechin, Pascale Ferran, Noemie Lvovsky, and Emmanuel Salinger

With Salinger, Thibault de Montalembert, Jean-Louis Richard, Valerie Dreville, Marianne Denicourt, Bruno Todeschini, and Laszlo Szabo.

Anyone who saw the three-hour My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument (1997) when it showed at the Film Center last year knows that, for better and for worse, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin, born in 1960, has a generational voice, speaking for and about French yuppies in their late 20s and early 30s. The same is true of his only previous feature, The Sentinel (1992), an eerie 139-minute espionage thriller that has been accruing a cult reputation here and abroad (it’s playing this week as part of Facets Multimedia’s New French Cinema Film Festival). My Sex Life, for all its virtues, was a bit conventional and bland, but The Sentinel is genuinely crazy and a lot more interesting, mainly because it has a meatier subject: the end of the cold war and what this means to French yuppies.

“French yuppies” sounds condescending, but a lot more than the Atlantic Ocean separates Americans from the worldview of the French. Read more

Rare and Revelatory

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2006). I’m currently attending a Portabella retrospective in Croatia as part of Tanja Vrvilo’s 12th annual Movie Mutations event. — J.R.

Pere Portabella: Cinema From the Spanish Underground

The first North American retrospective of Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella started last week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it’s one of the year’s biggest cultural events. None of his films has ever been screened in Chicago, and none has ever been released anywhere on DVD or VHS. All five of his features are showing here (though none of his ten shorts), and if you don’t see them now, chances are you never will.

Most of Portabella’s films can be classified as experimental, though they have little in common with the films usually given that label, which tend to be nonnarrative and shot in 8- or 16-millimeter or on video. All of his features are in 35-millimeter and use narrative, though they never tell a complete story. They all have rich sound tracks that go in and out of sync with the images, sometimes reinforcing what we see, sometimes contradicting it. They all drift smoothly, often unexpectedly, from narrative to reverie and from fiction to documentary, interjecting rude shocks along the way. Read more

Young Einstein

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). — J.R.

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Postmodernism with a vengeance. This 1988 Australian comedy made some tidal waves on its home turf — perhaps because, like the subsequent and even more enjoyable Children of the Revolution, it offers a cheerful alternative to the usual Australian self-hatred. A distant cousin of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it has the charm and advantage of a genuine visual style of its own, both laconic and witty, as well as a likably dopey plot and cast of characters. Directed, written, coproduced by, and starring Yahoo Serious, the movie follows the adventures of a teenage Tasmanian apple farmer named Albert Einstein, who splits the atom in order to produce a beer that contains bubbles, falls in love with Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio) and follows her to Paris, meets Charles Darwin, and invents rock ‘n’ roll in the process of draining off the atomic energy in a nuclear beer keg fashioned by the villain (John Howard). Invert the auteur’s name and you get a partial notion of what he’s up to — which is not exactly serious in its own right, but is at least serious from a yahoo standpoint. 90 min. Read more

8 1/2

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1993). — J.R.

8 1_2-car

8 1_2 leg

If what you know about this exuberant, self-regarding movie comes from its countless inferior imitations (from Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and The Pickle to Allen’s Stardust Memories to Fosse’s All That Jazz), you owe it to yourself to see Federico Fellini’s exhilarating, stocktaking original — an expressionist, circuslike comedy about the complex mental and social life of a big-time filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck for a subject and the busy world surrounding him. It’s Fellini’s last black-and-white picture, and conceivably the most gorgeous and inventive thing he’s ever made — certainly more fun than anything he’s made since. (The only other Fellini movie that’s about as pleasurable would be The White Sheik.) With Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimee (1963). A new 35-millimeter print will be shown. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 7 through 13.

8 1:2

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All These Women

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1988). — J.R.

all-these-women-1964-5

One of the rarest things in contemporary cinema — an underrated Ingmar Bergman film. Made in 1964, after The Silence, this color comedy (also known as Now About These Women) follows the mishaps of a music critic who visits a famous cellist he’s writing a book about. Ostensibly Bergman’s revenge against critics, as Pale Fire was for Vladimir Nabokov, this odd venture features Jarl Kulle, Georg Funkquist, and many of Bergman’s best actresses: Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet and Bibi Andersson, Karin Kavli, and Gertrud Fridh. (JR)

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Czar Babies [Review of Nabokov’s LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE]

From The Soho News (November 17, 1981). Ironically, this review was originally copyedited rather clumsily, so I’ve tried to restore some of its original logic and meaning. Incidentally, for those who might be interested, my earlier review of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature for Soho News can be accessed here. — J.R.

Lectures on Russian Literature

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited and introduced by Fredson Bowers

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95

Compare the book under examination to Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, reviewed in these pages last November. Is Volume II a worthy successor, an arguable improvement, or a distinct letdown? Explain. (Use concrete examples.)

All three. Issued in a uniform edition at the same price, only 50-odd pages shorter -– the jacket Indian-red in contrast to last year’s sky-blue –- the book can be considered a worthy successor. Insofar as it contains meaty selections from what I take to be Nabokov’s supreme act (and work) of literary criticism (not counting his voluminous notes on his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I haven’t read) –- namely, his eccentric and indelible Nikolai Gogol, first published by New Directions in 1944 -– it can arguably be deemed an improvement, even over his exhilarating and enlightening lectures on Flaubert and Kafka in the first volume. Read more

Cliff Notes from Mt. Olympus: review of Nabokov’s LECTURES ON LITERATURE

I should credit my editor at The Soho News, Tracy Young, for the title of this review, which ran in their November 26, 1980 issue. For my younger readers, and even for some of my older ones, it might be helpful to add that the “snake oil salesman” alluded to in my final sentence is (or, rather, was) Ronald Reagan. — J.R.

Lectures on Literature

By Vladimir Nabokov

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95

“Let us not kid ourselves,” intones the tall athletic Russian professor to his students at Cornell. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature. The girl Emma Bovary never existed; the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”

No doubt. And even at the price of four first-run movies, this long-awaited volume of aristocratic riches has got to be the publishing bargain of the year. Comfortably oversized, decked out with plentiful reproductions of the Great Man’s notes, annotated teaching copies, diagrams, and sketches, it might be the best analysis of fiction by a practitioner to have come along since The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s masterly study of the short story. Read more

Reading about Looking and Looking at Reading: review of CAMERA LUCIDA and IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER

This is one of the last book reviews that I wrote for The Soho News, a weekly alternative newspaper in New York that didn’t survive the 1980s but that afforded me during the early part of that decade my only extended and regular opportunity to date to review books as well as films. This particular piece, a double review, ran in their August 18, 1981 issue, under a different title (“Reading about looking”), and I was pleased to hear some time later from Susan Sontag that it was of my pieces that she clipped. –J.R.

Reading about Looking and Looking at Reading

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

By Roland Barthes

Translated by Richard Howard

Hill and Wang, $10.95.

If on a winter’s night a traveler

By Italo Calvino

Translated by William Weaver

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95

In most bookstores, the new Barthes and Calvino books stare at one another like mutually envious friends in their separate ghettos, eyeing one another across a great divide and empty space: the social space separating essay from fiction.

Barthes’ grief-stricken gaze at photography sees beyond it to his own desire, then sees beyond that desire to the hypothetical Proustian (or Jamesian) novel he will never write — a nervous gaze that leaps like a butterfly across a crowded garden, never lingering with any simple petal-like photo for long, frustrated and impatient at the uselessness of this activity in summoning back his beloved mother. Read more

Barthes of My Heart

This book review originally appeared in the September 10, 1980 issue of The Soho News. Maybe it qualifies less as a book review than as a short polemic, but if I recall this assignment — my first review of a book by Barthes — accurately, I had some space limitations. — J.R.

 

New Critical Essays
By Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Howard
Hill & Wang, $10.95

It’s reported that when a celebrated American film critic was asked what she thought of French theory, she replied that the trouble with folks like film theorists is that they forget movies are supposed to be fun. When this response was quoted to me, my heart sank. It made me feel as if all the fun I’d had reading Roland Barthes over the years was no longer legal -– that it wasn’t even supposed to exist.

I’m not trying to pretend here that all of Barthes goes down easily: I still haven’t gotten all the way through S/Z, a favorite among some American lit-crit academics. And I’ll grant you that he may be an acquired taste for puritanical empiricists who mistrust too much sensual, imaginative, and poetic play in their literary puddings — particularly when these occur outside of fiction, and under the auspices of social and aesthetic analysis. Read more

The Witches

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

the-witches-poster

A minor but very enjoyable Nicolas Roeg fairy tale — adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s novel, and one of the last films on which Muppet master Jim Henson worked — about a very wicked Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) in contemporary England with a plan to turn all that country’s children into mice. She hatches this plot at a plush seaside resort, where the other main characters are staying, including a nine-year-old American orphan (Chicagoan Jasen Fisher) — one of the witch’s first victims — and his Norwegian grandmother (Mai Zetterling). Forsaking the scattershot cutting of his usual work, Roeg seems to regard this as a relatively impersonal project, but he and the actors (especially Huston) still seem to be having a great deal of fun with it. One of many clear advantages this funny and scary 1989 fantasy-adventure has over most Disney products is its live-action visual bravado, evident in both the stylization of the witches and the profusion of mouse-point-of-view shots. PG, 91 min. (JR) Read more