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)

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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

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

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.

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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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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

Six Degrees of Separation

From the Chicago Reader (December 24, 1993). — J.R.

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A young hustler (Will Smith) claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier cons his way into the upper-class Manhattan household and affections of a middle-aged couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland), with disquieting and soul-searching consequences once his fraud is discovered. John Guare adapted his own play by transplanting the action from a bare stage to a variety of realistic locations, most of them in Manhattan, and has fortunately (and daringly) retained the highly theatrical language of the original. Fred Schepisi’s razor-sharp direction makes it both sing and soar as it explores some of the social gulfs and philosophical crevices that define contemporary urban life. The movie basically belongs to Channing, who gives it both moral force and heat, but with an audacious lesson in making the theatrical cinematic Schepisi does a superb job as well. Fine Arts.

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The Narrow Margin

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1991). — J.R.

NarrowMargin

An engaging, exciting noir thriller (1952) set almost entirely on a train going from Chicago to Los Angeles, with a gruff cop (Charles McGraw) guarding a saucy prosecution witness (the underrated Marie Windsor). Richard Fleischer directed this nearly perfect B picture with no fuss and lots of grit and polish from a script by Earl Fenton; the capable cinematography belongs to George E. Diskant. 70 min. (JR)

The Narrow Margin 1952 Read more

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). — J.R.

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I’m not much of a James Ivory fan, but this 1990 adaptation of Evan S. Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) deserves to be seen and cherished for at least a couple of reasons: first for Joanne Woodward’s exquisitely multilayered and nuanced performance as India Bridge, a frustrated, well-to-do WASP Kansas City housewife and mother during the 30s and 40s; and second for screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s retention of much of the episodic, short-chapter form of the books. It’s true that she and Ivory have toned down many of the darker aspects, but as critic Georgia Brown has suggested, Woodward’s humanization of her character actually improves on the original. Connell’s imagination and compassion regarding this character have their limits, and Woodward triumphantly exceeds them. There are other fine performances as well from Paul Newman (as uptight Mr. Bridge), Blythe Danner (as India’s troubled best friend), Simon Callow, and Austin Pendleton. If the Bridges’ three children are realized less acutely than their parents, the period portraiture nonetheless shows a great deal of taste and intelligence. With Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Sean Leonard. (JR)

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Dead Ringers

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

DeadRingers

David Cronenberg’s finely tuned psychological thriller (1988, 115 min.) explores the complex lives of two gynecologists, identical twins (both played by Jeremy Irons) who share everything from their lovers to their successful fertility clinic. Their close mutual ties become challenged when both are attracted to the same actress (Genevieve Bujold). A tour de force — especially for Irons, whose sense of nuance is so refined that one can tell almost immediately which twin he is in a particular scene — and the special effects involving both twins simultaneously are so well handled that one quickly forgets about the underlying illusion. But the sheer unpleasantness of the plot, inspired by a real-life case, guarantees that this isn’t a film for everyone, and people like myself who find the character played by Bujold (in one of her best performances) more interesting than either of the twins are bound to feel rather frustrated by the end. (JR)

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Split Images (Rotterdam 1984)

From the June 1984 issue of Film Comment. This chronicles my very first visit to the Rotterdam International Film Festival. I believe I was the first member of the American press ever to have been invited (a perk I owe to Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch having spoken to festival director Huub Bals) — the first of my 20 visits to this very special festival. I’m sorry that Rotterdam no longer invites me (I believe that my last visit there was in 2007), but I guess even the best perks can’t be expected to last forever. My first visit there, in any case, was one of the most memorable; Joseph L. Mankiewicz was there to accept the Erasmus Prize (and to give a press conference at which, if memory serves, he spent almost half an hour answering the first question), and I received my very first glimpses of the work of Raúl Ruiz. I should add that I did festival reports this first year for both Film Comment and Sight and Sound, although it was part of Huub’s singularity that he never required any coverage from me in order for me to get invited back the following year. Read more

Not Reconciled (1976 review)

This review for the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin was part of a larger project, tied to my position as the magazine’s assistant editor, to have other films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet that were distributed in the U.K. reviewed in the magazine — in that particular issue, History Lessons (by Yehuda E. Safran), as well as The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (by Tony Rayns) and  Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (by Jill Forbes). That same issue of the magazine inaugurated a back-cover feature that persisted for the publication’s remaining life and years, devoted in this particular case to a detailed bibliography that I compiled of interviews, scripts, and “other statements and texts” by Straub and Huillet, in half a dozen different languages. —J.R.

Nicht Versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gerwalt, wo Gerwalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules)

West Germany, 1965
Director: Jean-Marie Straub

“Far from being a puzzle film (like Citizen Kane or Muriel), Not Reconciled is better described as a ‘lacunary film’, in the same sense that Littré defines a lacunary body: a whole composed of agglomerated crystals with intervals among them, like the interstitial spaces between the cells of an organism”. Read more

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi] (1976 review)

Apart from Woody Allen, “the American filmmakers” discussed in this review — which appeared in the March 1976 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 43, no. 506) — were apparently Frank Buxton, Len Maxwell, Louise Lasser, Mickey Rose, Julie Bennett, and Bryna Wilson, all credited jointly with Allen  for the “script and dubbing” of the 1964 Japanese feature Kizino Kizi that was originally written by Hideo Ando. In recent years, Allen has routinely omitted this film from his filmography, but I persist in finding it one of his funniest. — J.R.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? [Kizino Kizi]

U.S.A, 1966
[Director: Senkichi Taniguchi]

The wonderful surprise of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? — a modest exploitation exercise which predates Woody Allen’s career as a director, and has inexplicably taken a full decade to reach England — is how much mileage it gets out of what might seem to be a very limited conceit; for sheer laughs alone, it is arguably the most consistently funny film in which Allen has so far taken a hand. Undoubtedly a crucial factor in its success derives from the cheerful fashion in which the American filmmakers foreground their principal strategies. Unlike the dubious practice of an American TV cartoon series which slyly perpetuated the racist stereotypes of Amos ‘n’ Andy by assigning similar voices to animal characters, this 1966 jeu d’esprit avoids the chauvinistic possibilities inherent in a reverse procedure post-dubbing live-action Japanese actors with American voices, many of them evocative of cartoon animals — by  beginning with material that is already reeking with American influence, and by taking care to remind audiences of what is being done every step of the way. Read more