From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). — J.R.
John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller, a postnoir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when first released in 1976, and a recut, shorter version released two years later didn’t fare much better. This is the first, longer, and in some ways better of the two versions; it’s easier to follow, despite reports that — or maybe because — Cassavetes had less to do with the editing (though he certainly approved it). A personal, deeply felt character study rather than a routine action picture, it follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint — simultaneously an asshole and a saint — who recklessly gambles his way into debt and has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a personal testament; what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is its alter-ego relation to the filmmaker — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered showbiz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 27, 1992). — J.R.
Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie made me laugh more and much harder than What’s Up, Doc? ever did, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed “Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines,” “Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach,” and “Props in Revolt in Cleveland”; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easier to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1992). — J.R.
An epic (1960) from Luchino Visconti about five brothers (Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Spiros Focas, Rocco Vidolazzi, Max Cartier) who, with their widowed mother (Katina Paxinou), leave their impoverished farm in southern Italy for the corruptions of Milan. This looks like a primary sourcebook for the overheated operatic styles, homoerotic intensity, quasi-incestuous delirium, and casual conceptual misogyny of Scorsese, Coppola, and Cimino — and you may have to value the ranker elements of those filmmakers more highly than I do to consider this precursor more than a mannerist touchstone. Visconti is an incontestable master in films as diverse as La Terra Trema, Senso, The Leopard, and The Innocent, but those films don’t employ women as unconvincingly or as insultingly as this one does. Still, you may be swept along by the sheer grace and stamina of the mise en scene and Nino Rota’s music. With Annie Girardot, Roger Hanin, Suzy Delair, Claudia Cardinale, and, in a smaller role, Adriana Asti. In Italian with subtitles. 180 min. (JR)
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1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
2. Transit (Christian Petzold)
3. It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)
4. Flannery (Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco)
5. Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz)
6. Conrad Veidt—My Life (Mark Rappaport)
7. Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer)
8. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
9. Ad Astra (James Gray)
10. Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
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From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1993). — J.R.
The able Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45, King of New York) goes arty, which means that a corrupt cop and guilty Catholic (Harvey Keitel) cries and apologizes personally to Jesus Christ after swiping, smoking, and snorting every drug in sight, compulsively betting on ball games and losing, ripping off thieves and the grocer they hold up, shooting his car radio with his pistol, jerking off in front of teenage girls, and lots of other fun activities. What transports him even more, it seems, is his outrage that a nun raped in a church decides to forgive her two rapists and refuses to identify them. There’s an undeniable formal elegance in the way Ferrara, who coauthored the script with Zoe Lund, frames and holds certain shots, and Keitel certainly gives his all in this 1992 entry in the Raging Bull redemptive sweepstakes. But I must confess I kept thinking of a friend’s response to this movie — that it made him feel glad, even proud, not to be straight. With Victor Argo, Paul Calderone, Leonard Thomas, Robin Burrows, Frankie Thorn, Victoria Bastel, and Paul Hipp. 98 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1993). — J.R.
Bill Murray plays an obnoxious TV weatherman from Pittsburgh forced to relive the same wintry day in a small Pennsylvania town over and over again until he gets it right, in an unexpectedly graceful and well-organized comedy (1993) directed and cowritten by Harold Ramis. While the movie’s underlying message is basically A Christmas Carol strained through It’s a Wonderful Life — hardly a recommendation in my book — the filmmakers mercifully spare us the speeches and simply demonstrate their thesis; as they do they reveal their true virtue: a fluid sense of narrative that works the story’s theme-and-variations idea with a glancing and gliding touch. Considering that none of the characters is fresh or interesting, it’s a commendable achievement that the quality of the storytelling alone keeps the movie watchable and likable. With Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott. PG, 103 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (January 22, 1993). –J.R.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Henry Jaglom
With Jaglom, Nelly Alard, Suzanne Bertish, Melissa Leo, Daphna Kastner, David Duchovny, and Diane Salinger.
Quite early in Venice/Venice writer-director-actor Dean (Henry Jaglom, transparently standing in for himself) tells an interviewer at the Venice film festival that there are two kinds of narcissists. The bad kind love only themselves, but the good kind use their self-love as a stepping-stone to loving others.
Dean (and Jaglom) obviously regards himself as the good kind of narcissist, and clearly we’re supposed to agree. But what about a third kind of narcissist, a kind Dean doesn’t mention — the narcissist whose self-love is a stepping-stone to loving others but who loves others only because he regards them as versions of himself? This is the universe of Henry Jaglom, a new-age, touchy-feely universe where everyone — everyone who matters, that is — talks and thinks and loves and hangs loose in the same manner.
The giveaway of this kind of narcissism is a series of talking-head montages of real-life interviews with women discussing the ways that movies have affected their fantasies about romance. One such montage begins the picture, and others occur again and again throughout.… Read more »
This review appeared in the Chicago Reader on February 5, 1993. —J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Charlie Haas and Jerico
With John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee, Lucinda Jenney, James Villemaire, and Robert Picardo.
I suggested a few new promotional gimmicks for the play — a closed black coffin outside the theater and Oriental incense to get the audiences in the mood. The stage manager agreed to try another of my ideas — Count Dracula would vanish on stage in a cloud of smoke, then suddenly reappear in the audience. Snarling at the frightened spectators, he would again vanish and appear back on stage. I began to learn firsthand the value of good publicity and showmanship.
Adolf Hitler was unwittingly to teach me the lesson again nine years later. Hitler was indirectly responsible for opening the doors of Hollywood for me. — William Castle, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul
It’s not the Russians — it’s Rumble-Rama. — Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) in Matinee
As luck would have it, I saw Joe Dante’s ferocious and lighthearted new comedy, Matinee — about John F.… Read more »
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Written for Criterion’s laserdisc release of Parade and apparently posted on its web site (criterion.com) — at least if it had a web site that early — on March 31, 1991. — J.R.
It seems incredible that it’s taken seventeen years for a film as truly great as Parade — Jacques Tati’s final work — to become available in the U.S., and that it’s reaching the public, for the first time, on laserdisc. But old habits die hard, including our biases about technology as well as spectacle. Tati was the first major filmmaker to shoot a feature in video, and he brought to this challenge the same sort of innovative craft that he brought to the movie — although the technical options available in video in 1973 were far from what they are today. He began by shooting with an audience at a circus in Sweden for three days, using four video cameras. Then, he spent 12 days in a studio reshooting portions of the stage acts on film.
The first “gag” in Parade takes place in front of a theater and is so subtle it hardly qualifies as a gag at all. A teenager in line picks up a striped, cone-shaped road marker on the pavement and dons it like a dunce cap; his date laughs, finds another road marker, and does the same thing.
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 2000). — J. R.
A chilling, mesmerizing, intense account of ethnic cleansing (in spirit if not in letter) from Hungarian master Bela Tarr (2000, 145 min.), set in virtually the same overcast, rural black-and-white world as his Damnation and Satantango (both also cowritten by Laszlo Krasznahorkai). As in Satantango, Krasznahorkai worked with Tarr in adapting his own novel — in this case the first to be translated into English, The Melancholy of Resistance, elaborately restructured here in terms of narrative sequence and viewpoint so that it’s mainly limited to the experience of a simpleminded messenger and artist figure. A decrepit circus (actually a huge truck) in an impoverished town displays the stuffed body of the largest whale in the world while spreading rumors about but failing to deliver a foreign prince. Eventually the unemployed male locals head for the local hospital like a lynch mob and proceed to devastate the premises. Krasznahorkai’s parallels with southern gothic fiction are as striking as those with other eastern European allegories, yielding cadenced prose as monotonously grim as Thomas Bernhard’s. The long takes following characters — the structural equivalent of the novel’s Faulknerian sentences, though the content recalls Beckett’s comedy of inertia — underline our easy complicity with these monsters, and the actors, including Hanna Schygulla in a welcome comeback, are riveting.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1994). — J.R.
*** THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA
Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung
With Lu Man San, Tran Nu Yen-khe, Truong Thi Loc, Nguyen Anh Hoa, Vuong Hoa Hoi, and Tran Ngoc Trung.
Until fairly recently, films from the Chinese- and Vietnamese-speaking world have had next to no distribution here; so it’s worth noting that three such movies have been nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: Farewell My Concubine from Hong Kong, The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan, and The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam. The first two of these have already opened in Chicago, and the third — in some ways my favorite in the bunch — is starting a run this week at the Fine Arts. What overlapping interests — economic, cultural, artistic, ideological — are being served by this sudden upsurge in attention?
Interestingly enough, none of these Oscar nominees qualifies purely and unambiguously as a movie representing the country officially attached to it. Though Farewell My Concubine was produced in Hong Kong, all its action takes place in mainland China, and it was directed by a celebrated “Fifth Generation” filmmaker, Chen Kaige. The Wedding Banquet, a Taiwanese-American coproduction, has a Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, but it’s set in New York City and much of its dialogue is in English.… Read more »
Preparing a book about Woody Allen, biographer Patrick McGilligan sent out a poll to me and many others, and here are my responses to his questions:
THE WOODY ALLEN POLL
1. What five Woody Allen films do you hold in the highest regard?
(List the five in any order. One equal point will be assigned to each of your choices for the cumulative total to be listed from 100 participating critics and scholars.)
What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
Broadway Danny Rose
Manhattan Murder Mystery
2. What do you believe about the allegation by Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, that he sexually molested her?
3. Have the Dylan Farrow allegations, or his marriage to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn – either or both – affected your view of his film?
4. How has his over-all legacy been affected? Comments are welcome.
I’ve always thought he was overrated (cf. my “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen”). If his reputation and legacy as an artist have been tarnished by these unconfirmed charges or his marriage, this only illustrates the public’s lack of seriousness about art. I find Allen’s far more confirmable shame and embarrassment about his working-class origins and his middle-class values far more relevant to the importance and (lack of) depth of his work. … Read more »
From the April 1, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
* THE HUDSUCKER PROXY
(Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Sam Raimi
With Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, John Mahoney, Jim True, and William Cobbs.
A black man called Moses but who might as well be named Rastus serves as the narrator for the opening and closing segments of Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy. A janitor type who takes care of the giant clock near the top of the Hudsucker Industries building, an art-deco skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, Moses (William Cobbs) knows everything of importance there is to know about Hudsucker Industries, including all of its secrets. And in case you’re wondering how he knows, the Coen brothers have a ready answer: this is Hollywood, and like every other figure in the movie, Moses is a Hollywood cliché. In old-fashioned studio pictures, black janitors or clock tenders with names like Moses are chock-full of down-home wisdom as well as concrete information about what all those funny white folks is doing.
Resurrecting a racial stereotype like Moses for a 90s comedy may sound dubious, but I suspect the Coens would have an answer to that as well.… Read more »
From Cineaste (December 2001).
For a long time, I hesitated about reprinting this, but the news about Ray Carney’s unspeakable treatment of filmmaker Mark Rappaport (as detailed here) eliminated my compunctions.
For more about Rappaport’s work, here are three of the many links on this site:
Cassavetes on Cassavetes
Edited by Ray Carney. London and New York: Faber and Faber, 2001. 526 pp., illus. Paperback: $25.00.
The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies
by Ray Carney. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 322 pp., illus. Paperback: $24.95.
John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
by Ray Carney. Second Edition. Walpole, MA: Company C Publishing, 2000. 64 pp., illus. Paperback: $15.00.
by Ray Carney. London: British Film Institute (BFI Film Classics), 2001. 87 pp., illus. Paperback: $12.95.
John Cassavetes: Lifeworks
by Tom Charity. London, New York and Victoria: Omnibus Press, 2001. 257 pp., illus. Paperback: $19.95.
As nearly as I can remember, I had two opportunities to meet John Cassavetes in the flesh, both times in New York, and I deliberately passed on both of them. Shortly after Faces came out in the mid-Sixties, a friend from my home town in Alabama who worshipped that film even more than I did — Shadows was still my own favorite then — came to town and found a way of contacting and then going to meet his idol, who was preparing Husbands at the time; he invited me to come along, and I declined.… Read more »
From Film Quarterly (Spring 2009). — J.R.
One way of looking back at the sense of male privilege underlying much of the French New Wave would be to consider Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a belated commentary on it. I’ve long regarded that masterpiece as a late-blooming, final flowering of the New Wave, especially for its referentiality in relation to cinephilia and film criticism. For one thing, it glories in the kind of compulsive doubling of shots and characters that François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette himself all discovered in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. But it also puts a kind of stopper on the New Wave in the way it both underlines and responds to that movement’s sexism through the services of its four lead actresses, all of whom collaborated on its script: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier. Every male character, both in the story proper and in the film-with-in-the-film, is viewed as absurd, both as a romantic fop and as a narcissist who ultimately elicits the heroines’ scorn and ridicule: the patriarch (Barbet Schroeder) in the Phantom Ladies over Paris segments, playing his two phantom ladies (Ogier and Pisier) off against one another; and, in the story proper, Julie’s small-town suitor (Philippe Clévenot), Céline’s boss (Jean Douchet), and various male customers at the cabaret.… Read more »