Monthly Archives: August 2019

Poto And Cabengo

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

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Jean-Pierre Gorin’s first solo effort as a filmmaker after a long period of collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard surpassed all of his previous work hands down. The putative subject is a pair of young female twins in southern California who have apparently invented their own language, and while this personal documentary explores this subject in some detail, it proves to be about a great deal more: Gorin’s own exile, the lower-income white culture of San Diego, the American Dream, and language itself. A memorable, innovative effort, packed with wonder and invention (1979). (JR)

A Second LookRead more »

Songs in the Key of Everyday Life [THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG]

From the Chicago Reader (May 17, 1996). — J.R.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Jacques Demy

With Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Mireille Perrey, and Harald Wolff.

Let’s put it this way: It’s 1957, and a 20-year-old garage mechanic in Cherbourg knocks up his girlfriend just before he leaves for two years of military service in Algeria. Guy Foucher and Geneviève Emery — the daughter of a middle-class widow who helps her mother run a chic umbrella shop — make a handsome and devoted couple, and they swear eternal love to each other before he leaves, but he writes to her only infrequently. When Geneviève finds herself pregnant, her financially strapped mother, who’s never approved of her relationship with Guy, virtually stage-manages a proposal from a visiting diamond merchant who’s already helped her out of a financial crisis. By the time Guy returns from Algeria with a pronounced limp (the reason he didn’t write), Geneviève has married the diamond merchant and moved to Paris, and the umbrella shop has closed, to be replaced by a store selling washing machines.

As luck would have it, I first saw Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) about two years too early — before my first trip to France.… Read more »

Revenge Is Bitter [BUFFALO ’66]

From the Chicago Reader (August 7, 1998). — J.R.

Buffalo ’66

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Vincent Gallo

Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall

With Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara, Kevin Corrigan, Mickey Rourke, Roseanna Arquette, and Jan-Michael Vincent.

Vincent Gallo has proved himself a good actor in many films — in Arizona Dream, The Funeral, and several Claire Denis movies. But the first feature in which he functions as director, cowriter, composer, and star is a pathological curiosity. Candidly and painfully personal, Buffalo ’66 seems to spring from the kind of fantasies that inform movies almost exclusively — though vanity publishers offer similar opportunities. For me the film creates more embarrassment than sympathy, but at least it’s a kind of embarrassment that’s instructive. Its genre — narcissistic self-hatred reconfigured as a sense of entitlement — is far from exclusive to American movies, though it’s especially common in American independent efforts. Part of the self-hatred comes from the sense that it’s a disgrace to be poor, a sense more common in this country than in most other places, and poverty gives the film a distinctive musty odor — an ambience evident in such settings as a bowling alley and a cheap motel room.… Read more »

Crap Shooting [SNAKE EYES]

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

Snake Eyes

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp and De Palma

With Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, and Luis Guzman.

For me, part of the fun of Snake Eyes is the genuine satisfaction of seeing Brian De Palma finally arriving at his own level. Whatever the merits of his imitations and appropriations — of 50s Hitchcock in Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double, 60s Antonioni in Blow Out, and 30s Hawks in Scarface — and his inflations of TV standbys (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), they’ve always suggested he was riding into town on somebody else’s horse. Now, however, he seems more apt to make the 90s equivalents of B movies: such films as Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Snake Eyes are generic stylistic exercises that reveal he’s digested his sources rather than simply devoured and regurgitated them. Though he remains too much of a mannerist to approximate the modest craft of Roy Ward Baker in Don’t Bother to Knock or Richard Fleischer in The Narrow Margin – thrillers of 1952 that in their adept use of real time and limited settings suggest parallels withSnake Eyes — De Palma’s technique seems more focused for a change.… Read more »

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about “remakes” of independent documentaries, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Single-Disk DVDs

From DVD Beaver, posted in November 2008. A few of the links may be out of date by now.  — J.R.

The following selection is not only personal but very eclectic. It’s not exactly a list of my favorite films: I prefer Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) and Greed (1924) to his Blind Husbands (1919), for instance, and if I had to take one Anthony Mann film along with me to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be The Naked Spur (1953) rather than his Man of the West (1958). Similarly, my favorite films by Nicholas Ray are probably Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bitter Victory (1957), even though Party Girl (1958), for all its flaws, is still a Ray film that I’d describe as sublime. But I’ve opted in these cases for the DVDs devoted to Stroheim, Mann, and Ray that I cherish the most, and the reasons why I cherish them are stated below.

A few other caveats:

(a) There are at least two other editions of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) —- the U.S. one from Criterion and the English one from the British Film Institute—- that are top-notch, and they’re probably easier to come by in the Western hemisphere than the Australian edition on the Madman label that I cite.… Read more »

Death and Life [on Alexander Dovzhenko]

From the June 7, 2002 Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Landscapes of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko

When I speak of poetry, I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality….Think of Mandelstam, think of Pasternak, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, and you’ll realize what tremendous emotional power is carried by these exalted figures who soar above the earth, in whom the artist appears not just as an explorer of life, but as one who creates great spiritual treasures and that specific beauty which is subject only to poetry. Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life. — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

It is possible that we are still in a pre-historic stage of cinema, for the great history of cinema will begin when it leaves the frame of ordinary artistic representation and grows into a tremendous and extraordinarily encompassing perceptive category. — Alexander Dovzhenko, 1933

Ukrainian writer-director Alexander Dovzhenko may be the most neglected major filmmaker of the 20th century.… Read more »

The Heart of an Enigma [BARTLEBY]

From the May 24, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Bartleby

** (Woth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Parker

Written by Parker and Catherine di Napoli

With David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, and Seymour Cassel.

Jonathan Parker’s first feature adapts Herman Melville’s eerie 1853 novella “Bartleby” (also known as “Bartleby the Scrivener”) with the kind of fidelity to mood and feeling that’s rare among movie adaptations of literary classics. The action has been updated roughly a century and a half, the setting transferred from Wall Street to a building perched on a hilltop over a freeway in an unnamed American location. Characters have been added, significant plot details altered, and a strategic part of the exposition shifted from the end of the tale to near the beginning. Yet the story still has much of the same maddening mystery, conviction, and unsettling comedy that Melville gave it.

The added epilogue is harder to justify and much less successful, and the filmmaking throughout, starting with the early use of slow motion, is needlessly fussy and self-conscious. But these are forgivable flaws in a first feature, one that updates Melville’s story and conception without betraying it.

The nameless narrator of the original is a lawyer on the verge of retirement looking back on the events he describes from a distance of many years.… Read more »

Penn & Teller Get Killed

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

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Whether this goofy 1989 black comedy is a total success is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s different. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising, which is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (JR) 90 min.

P&TGKRead more »

The Lovers Of The Arctic Circle

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1999). — J.R.

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The best Spanish film I’ve seen in years, this 1998 feature by Julio Medem (Cows, The Red Squirrel, Earth), attractively shot in ‘Scope, is the story of two young lovers who first encounter one another at the age of eight, told from alternating viewpoints that after 17 years converge in Finland. The romantic style of the film commands attention as much as the story itself, which is shaped — like the names of the two lead characters, Otto and Ana — as a palindrome. The graceful jumping about in time and space may recall the early work of Alain Resnais, but the theme and ambience are Spanish to the core; Medem charts the crisscrossing destinies of the two leads with passion as well as lyricism. With Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 112 min. (JR)

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These Are The Damned

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

Joseph Losey’s black-and-white SF thriller, made in 1962 during his pre-Pinter British period, begins as a sort of love story — MacDonald Carey is an American businessman who shows interest in Shirley Anne Field and as a consequence gets beaten up by teddy boys led by Oliver Reed — then gradually turns into an antinuclear parable about radioactive children sequestered from humanity in an underground cave. Originally titled The Damned, the film was mangled by distributors but later restored for TV; more than an interesting curiosity, it’s one of Losey’s best English efforts, and Viveca Lindfors contributes a striking part as an eccentric sculptress. 96 min. (JR)

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The Sweet Cheat [THE PAST REGAINED]

From the Chicago Reader (July 21, 2000). My thanks to my editor on this piece, Kitry Krause, for (among  many other things) coming up with my title. — J.R.

Time Regained ***

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Gilles Taurand and Ruiz

With Marcello Mazzarella, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich, Pascal Greggory, Marie-France Pisier, Christian Vadim, Arielle Dombasle, Chiara Mastroianni, and the voice of Patrice Chéreau.

[A few years ago], I refused to direct Remembrance of Things Past. I wrote to the woman producer [Nicole Stéphane] that no real filmmaker would allow himself to squeeze the madeleine as though it were a lemon and in my opinion only a film butcher would have the nerve to put Proust through the mincer.

A few weeks later she obtained the agreement of the Verdurin salon, that is to say, Re Clement. Come to think of it, is Proust burning in [the book-burning fires of my film] Fahrenheit 451? No, but this omission will soon be corrected.

— François Truffaut, “The Journal of Fahrenheit 451” (1966)

I read Remembrance of Things Past all the way through more than 35 years ago, shortly before Truffaut registered his scorn about the very notion of a film version (Stéphane eventually got the film made in 1984, Volker Schlšndorff’s dispensable Swann in Love).… Read more »

A Major Talent [on SWEETIE]

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From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 1990). I must confess that  I was disappointed for a long time that none of Campion’s subsequent films lived up to the promise of Sweetie, in spite of the virtues of some of them, at least until her wonderful 2014 miniseries Top of the Lake, which I’ve just belatedly caught up with. (I’ll never forget a bitter comment Jean-Luc Godard made to me in Toronto in 1996, citing Campion as a perfect example of a talented filmmaker “completely destroyed by money”.) But then again, to cite someone cross-referenced in this review (and also significantly cross-referenced in Top of the Lake, a kind of feminist response to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), it’s also hard to think of many David Lynch films that have lived up to the promise of Eraserhead, at least prior to Inland Empire….I suspect that the collaboration of writer Gerard Lee on Passionless Moments, Sweetie, and Top of the Lake has something to do with what makes all three of them stand out so vividly in Campion’s oeuvre.– J.R.

SWEETIE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jane Campion

Written by Gerard Lee and Campion

With Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Dorothy Barry, Jon Darling, Michael Lake, and Andre Pataczek.… Read more »

The Brutal Truth (on I STAND ALONE)

I haven’t much cared for any of the Gaspar Noé films I’ve seen so far except for I Stand Alone, but I persist in finding this one a corrosive masterpiece. This review appeared in the July 9, 1999 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

I Stand Alone

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Gaspar Noe

With Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir, Frankye Pain, Martine Audrain, and Roland Gueridon.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Gaspar Noé’s first full-length feature is a genuine shocker. It’s a sequel to his 40-minute Carne, a film that didn’t do much for me when it played the film-festival circuit in the early 90s, though I wouldn’t mind seeing it again now. This feature is called Seul contre tous, which translates literally as “alone against everybody”; I Stand Alone is cornier but rolls more easily off the tongue.

You don’t need to know anything about Carne to follow or appreciate I Stand Alone — which thoughtfully provides a precis of Carne in its opening minutes — but some familiarity with Taxi Driver or any of its spin-offs might help you experience its full wallop. Like Martin Scorsese’s film, I Stand Alone centers on an armed and enraged loner who spews macho, racist, and homophobic bile — most of which he mutters to himself –a nd is ready to mow down everyone in sight.… Read more »

On Second Thoughts [THE LAST BOLSHEVIK]

From the Chicago Reader (January 21, 1994); reprinted in Movies as Politics. “Special greetings to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote a very perceptive note on THE LAST BOLSHEVIK,” Chris Marker kindly emailed John Gianvito a little over nine years ago. So I didn’t know how to respond to the news of his sad death, which occurred the day after his 91st birthday in 2012, except to reprint the note he was referring to, as well as a photo of the two of us the only time we met, at Peter von Bagh’s Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland in 1998 — actually a blurry frame enlargement from Peter’s Sodankylä, Forever. — J.R.

***

**** THE LAST BOLSHEVIK

(Masterpiece)

Edited and written by Chris Marker.

It seems central rather than incidental to the art and intelligence of Chris Marker that he studiously avoids the credit “directed by . . . ” A globe-trotting French filmmaker whose only work of pure fiction with actors is a classic SF short consisting almost exclusively of still photographs (La jetée, 1962), he appears to avoid obvious fiction only in the sense that he finds actuality more than enough grist for the endlessly turning mill of his irony and imagination.… Read more »