Monthly Archives: May 2019

Godard Talking to Himself

From the August 4, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. My thanks to Chris Petit for reminding me (on Memorial Day, 2010) that I wrote this. I’ve heard, incidentally, that Godard prefers the original title of JLG/JLG to its American release title, the one given here. — J.R.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Eddie Constantine, Hanns Zischler, Claudia Michelsen, Andre Labarthe, and Nathalie Kadem.

JLG by JLG

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Godard, Andre Labarthe, and Bernard Eisenschitz.

Like most of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent work, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) and JLG by JLG (subtitled December Self-Portrait, 1994) are annexes to his Histoire(s) du cinéma, a work on video in multiple parts scheduled to premiere in its finished form at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland in early August. (Four portions of this video have already shown at the Film Center.) Like the various parts of Histoire(s) du cinéma, these films (each about an hour long and being shown together at Facets Multimedia) are above all collections of carefully arranged quotations — interwoven anthologies of extracts from prose, poetry, philosophy, films, musical works, paintings.… Read more »

The Passion Of The Christ

From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 1993). — J.R.

The Passion-of-the-Christ film poster

Despite the title, I assumed this drama about the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life would include something about his teachings, at least in flashback. But the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to two sound bites, and miracles and good works barely get a glance; director Mel Gibson stresses only cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots. The charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia hurled at the movie seem too narrow; its general disgust for humanity is so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seem to be welcoming the apocalypse (rather like the mass slaughter following the Mexican rebel’s torture in The Wild Bunch). If I were a Christian, I’d be appalled to have this primitive and pornographic bloodbath presume to speak for me. With James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, and Hristo Naumov Shopov; Benedict Fitzgerald (Wise Blood) collaborated with Gibson on the script. In Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew with subtitles. R, 127 min. (JR)

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Thinking Inside the Box [THE KING IS ALIVE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 2001). — J.R.

 

The King Is Alive

*

Directed by Kristian Levring

Written by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen

With Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, and Lia Williams.

The King Is Alive, directed and cowritten by Kristian Levring, is the fourth film to have the dubious honor of qualifying for certification under the rules of the Dogma 95 manifesto, whose professed aim is to get back to the basics of realism — shooting, for example, in natural locations with handheld cameras, direct sound, and natural lighting. But what’s basic or realistic and what isn’t, in terms of film history and technique? The manifesto also insists that movies be shot in color, a rather ahistorical reading of what’s basic — unless one labels all possible uses of color in film realistic and all possible uses of black and white artificial.

If that’s the operative assumption, The King Is Alive triumphantly refutes it. The movie was shot with three digital video cameras — unlike Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration, which was shot with only one, and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (not a Dogma film, but made by one of Dogma’s founders), which was shot with a hundred — and that might make it seem new as well as passé.Read more »

These Magic Moments (THE NEON BIBLE)

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1996). — J.R.

The Neon Bible

Directed and written by Terence Davies

With Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Jacob Tierney, Denis Leary, Leo Burmester, Frances Conroy, and Peter McRobbie.

Two paradoxical facts about Terence Davies’s first film adaptation:

(1) It follows fairly closely The Neon Bible, a novel written by John Kennedy Toole for a literary contest in the mid-50s, when he was 16 — a decade before he finished work on his second novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, and about 15 years before he, still unpublished, committed suicide (A Confederacy of Dunces was published ten years later, The Neon Bible ten years after that). I don’t care much for The Neon Bible, a hackneyed mood piece set in a rural backwater of the deep south, but I think the movie, which seems 100 percent Davies, is wonderful.

(2) Of all the English-speaking films shown at Cannes last May, the two that got the most boorish and least comprehending reception by the English-speaking press were The Neon Bible and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, though for nearly opposite reasons. Jarmusch, who’s long been criticized for coasting along in Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth on the same kind of hip humor he virtually invented for Stranger Than Paradise, finally broke free and did something bold, original, political, dark, scary, outspoken, witty, and often beautiful — a black-and-white western that should be opening here sometime next month.… Read more »

Some Afterthoughts about Tarantino

I’m waiting for any of the enthusiasts for Inglourious Basterds to come up with some guidance about what grown-up things this movie has to say to us about World War 2 or the Holocaust — or maybe just what it has to say about other movies with the same subject matter. Or, if they think that what Tarantino is saying is adolescent but still deserving of our respect and attention, what that teenage intelligence consists of. Or implies. Or inspires. Or contributes to our culture.

For me, assuming that it’s a message worth heeding or even an experience worth having is a little bit like assuming that Lars von Trier is closer to Sergei Eisenstein than to P.T. Barnum, as many of my colleagues also seem to believe — a genuine film theorist and not just a consummate con-artist who knows how to work the press.

I’ll concede that when Tarantino recently (and plausibly) faulted Truffaut’s The Last Metro as a film about the French Occupation that should have been a comedy, that qualified, at least for me, as a grown-up observation, and one that made sense to me. I just don’t see any comparable observations in his movie.

Part of the assumption of his defenders seems to be that no subject is so sacrosanct that it can’t be met with an adolescent snicker — including, say, the Holocaust or, closer to the present, 9/11.… Read more »

On TOO EARLY, TOO LATE

Excerpted from a chapter in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. — J.R.

Of all the films discussed at length in this book, Too Soon, Too Late (1981) is conceivably the one that has had the strongest impact on me, although I have seen it only twice.  After having seen it the first time, in Spring 1982, I was sufficiently impressed to put the film at the end of my “all-time” top ten list for Sight and Sound’s international critics’ poll later the same year.  Consequently, it seems paradoxical yet unavoidable that of all the films dealt with here, Too Soon, Too Late automatically qualifies as the most difficult and elusive to write about.  My two previous efforts have yielded only a few inadequate and hastily conceived sentences in the introduction to my Straub-Huillet catalog, and a somewhat more reasoned paragraph in the conversation with Jonas Mekas which opens this book.  The notes below cannot pretend to be more than an interim report;  further and more extensive analysis will have to await a future date:

(a)  First, a few concrete facts about the film.  For the first time in a Straub-Huillet film, the texts used are all read off-screen, making separate versions in different languages possible without any recourse to dubbing. … Read more »

Walt Disney plus blood [MADE IN USA]

From The Soho News (September 15, 1981). -– J.R.

Made in USA

By Jean-Luc Godard

Thalia, September 11 and 12

WHAT could be more timely than a Godard movie that repeatedly returns to the slogan, “The Left, Year Zero”? In point of fact, the beautiful, goofy, and explosive Made in USA was made in France in 1966. But for dispirited moviegoers, having to choose between Blow Out and Prince of the City (or the bossy rival senior critics pushing them) is like having to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 50s (with bland Eisenhower and jocular Khrushchev at the respective helms). All things considered, Made in USA may well be the funniest and punchiest “new” movie around.

It’s the last feature that Godard ever shot with Anna Karina, who was never lovelier and never more made-up to seem at once Japanese and doll-like — in dazzling color and Scope. (Most of the close-ups of her in the movie are the kind of bold compositions you could hang on your wall.) In her off-screen film noir narration, she more or less accurately describes the formal and moral profile of the movie she’s in as ”a film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart — therefore a political film.… Read more »

Time of the Wolf

From the Chicago Reader (April 23, 2004). — J.R.

Time-of-the-Wolf

Michael Haneke’s best films — like The Seventh Continent and Code Unknown — tend to create their own world and their own rules, whereas others — like Benny’s Video, Funny Games, and this postapocalyptic tale — offer variations on films others have already made. But Haneke is still a masterful director, and his authority carries this well-acted and attractively shot account of a family from an unnamed city trying to survive in the sticks after an unspecified catastrophe. (Some have criticized the lack of explanation, but the relatively lame and familiar backstories of most such movies hardly seem an improvement.) We’ve seen much of this before, but Haneke’s theme of civilization gradually sliding away remains timely. With Isabelle Huppert and Patrice Chereau; most of the dialogue is in subtitled French. 110 min. A 35-millimeter ‘Scope print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Double Dealing [THE FISHER KING]

From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). This film is now available on a Criterion Blu-Ray. Although I still have some issues with the film, after reseeing it on this edition, Terry Gilliam’s audio commentary is terrific, and his own enthusiasm for the film is often compelling. — J.R.

THE FISHER KING

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Richard LaGravenese

With Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, and Tom Waits.

Terry Gilliam’s elephantine yet breezy The Fisher King is a gripping new-age extravaganza, visually splendid and adroitly paced. But some gross conceptual cheating — presumably the fallout of commercial ambitions — makes the film a little hard to swallow. Gilliam’s fifth feature (he also directed Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) revels in duality — everything comes in twos — so it’s little wonder it indulges in both duplicity and outright doublethink; the film is also littered with internal “rhymes,” both significant and gratuitous. This duality may come partly from the fact that for the first time Gilliam has not written the script himself — it’s by talented newcomer Richard LaGravenese. At any rate the duality echoes Gilliam’s well-advertised desire to make this both an artistic and commercial success — to prove he can turn out a money-maker (after the box-office flop of Baron Munchausen) and yet retain his reputation as an overachiever in the grand style, a director known for his quirky humor and ravishing visual conceits.… Read more »

State of the Art [on TIME CODE & KHROUSTALIOV, MY CAR!]

From the April 28, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. There’s a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of Khroustaliov, My Car! just out from Arrow Academy. Please note that they spell the title differently: Khrustalyov, My Car! — J.R.

Fun and infuriating in roughly equal proportions, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is an unusually bold experiment for a major studio. Its plot is outlandish and its characters the most overblown parodies this side of Robert Altman. In some respects, it’s even more cockamamy than James Toback’s Black and White and its sensationalist riffs. So you can’t laugh at much of it without feeling either self-satisfied or stupid.

The silliness and the daring of Timecode are often made to seem like opposite sides of the same coin — a kind of cagey self-protection that cheerfully self-destructs to ensure that the movie poses little threat to anyone. Back in the 60s, critic Noël Burch tartly observed that there would always be an to provide a refuge from the implications of a Last Year at Marienbad. Timecode suggests an unlikely synthesis: a flamboyantly obvious and carnivalesque satire of Tinsel Town and its excesses tied to an open-ended, highly interactive, and somewhat abstract form. It isn’t nearly as good as either predecessor.… Read more »

Declarations of Independents

From The Soho News (February 11, 1981), slightly revised. This is the first of my ten Soho News columns with that title, and the only one without a subtitle. — J.R.

Jan. 23; Arriving at the Collective [for Living Cinema] too late to absorb either of Gail Camhi’s 1980 quickies, I’m plunged almost at once into her lovely 22-minute Bellevue Film (1977-78), also silent, which is just what its title and program note say it is: “A look at physical therapy, having profited from it.”

What’s lovely about that?, one might ask, although no one at this crowded screeni9ng seems to be asking it. Russian Formalism associates art with defamiliarization, “making strange”. Gail Camhi seems to be doing just the reverse – showing how ordinary, say, amputees and their stumps and artificial limbs are, making them familiar and banal presences rather than fearfully charged objects. Yet by removing (to some extent) myth and other forms of fantasy from a hospital ward, she may actually be inviting the aesthetic imagination to relocate itself elsewhere in the film – not merely banishing this imagination to purgatory, as some arguments would have it.… Read more »

Christmas In July

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

christmas in july

christmasinjulywalburn

Preston Sturges’s second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.) is in many ways the most underrated of his movies — a riotous comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious but impoverished office clerk (Dick Powell) is determined to strike it rich in a contest with a stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”). He’s tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and proceeds to go on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like much of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more completely than most 30s pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that it eventually becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, Sturges’s supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and he uses it like instruments in a madcap concerto. (JR)

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McCarthyism Made Simple [GUILTY BY SUSPICION]

From the Chicago Reader (March 22, 1991). — J.R.

GUILTY BY SUSPICION

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Irwin Winkler

With Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Barry Primus, Gailard Sartain, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, and Martin Scorsese.

There are plenty of bones one can pick with Guilty by Suspicion, the first Hollywood feature devoted in its entirety to the film-industry blacklist (The Front dealt with TV). Of course there are plenty of bones one can pick with just about any movie, if one is so inclined. But critics, at least, seem more inclined to be so inclined with movies that deal with political subjects. This is not to say that most critics reprove such movies on political grounds; on the contrary, they usually harp on other aspects. But one still winds up feeling that it’s frequently the politics that gets their hackles up.

Having seen this movie more than a week later than most of my colleagues, due to some interesting circumstances that I’ll discuss later, I’ve had ample opportunity to read and (more often) hear some of their carping, most of it hyperbolic invective about the acting and directing. Some of them have expressed so much antipathy for the picture that I went to the first screening at Webster Place last weekend expecting the worst.… Read more »

Digging Up Nazis: A Comedy [THE NASTY GIRL]

From the Chicago Reader (March 15, 1991). — J.R.

THE NASTY GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Michael Verhoeven

With Lena Stolze, Monika Baumgartner, Michael Gahr, Fred Stillkrauth, Elisabeth Bertram, Robert Giggenbach, and Hans-Richard Muller.

We’re told at the outset of Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl that Anja Rosmus inspired this film. What we aren’t told is who Rosmus is or how closely this film is based on what happened to her in the 1980s.

Born in 1960 and raised in the Bavarian city of Passau — where Adolf Hitler spent part of his childhood and where Adolf Eichmann was later married — Anja Elisabeth Rosmus, the daughter of two schoolteachers, had a comfortable, middle-class, Catholic upbringing. When she was 20, she won first prize in a national essay contest, writing about privacy and public freedom in European politics and history. The following year she entered another national essay contest, this time settling on a local topic: “An Example of Resistance and Persecution: Passau, 1933-1939.” Having been brought up to believe that her hometown was a bastion of resistance against the Nazis, largely through the efforts of the local Catholic church, she thought she was undertaking a project that would enhance local pride and was surprised by the defensiveness and hostility she encountered from certain quarters outside the church.… Read more »

When Bad Films Happen to Good Actors

From the Chicago Reader (July 22, 1988). — J.R.

MidnightRun-ad

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by George Gallo

With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.

midnightrun02

There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case. It assumes further that one can easily isolate such separate aspects of movies as photography, direction, script, and acting while experiencing and judging their combined effects, the movie as a whole — it assumes, that is, that one can reverse the filmmaking process and, through powers of sheer induction, come up with precise recipes, the same way that producers and packagers do.

Like a butcher slicing up a carcass and pricing its various parts, the film reviewer typically regards each movie as a collection of individual expressions, each one to be rated on a separate evaluative scale. Of course, some of the greatest films tend to elude such divisions: how can one separate Chaplin’s acting from his directing in Monsieur Verdoux, or Tati’s directing from his script in PlayTime?… Read more »