Monthly Archives: November 2019

The Lighted Field

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). The stills are copyrighted by the Estate of Andrew Noren. — J.R.

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Andrew Noren’s first film since Charmed Particles offers 59 minutes of ecstatic delight in relation to the everyday: it’s all black and white and silent, and mainly nonnarrative, but so sensually rich and rhythmically alive that watching it is an almost constant pleasure. Noren calls himself a light thief and shadow bandit, and this pulsing compendium of home-movie moments is charged with musical energy. It differs from Charmed Particles, the previous episode in his The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, mainly in seeming to have more thematic ambitions and in verging somewhat closer to narrative — none of which is allowed to detract much from the overall beauty and intensity of the filmmaking. (JR)

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Diary Of A Chambermaid

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

Diary of a chambermaid

Oddly enough, Jean Renoir’s 1946 Hollywood version of Octave Mirbeau’s novel was a lot crueler and more “Buñuel-esque” than this, Buñuel’s own remarkable and neglected 1964 French version. It was the first of his many fruitful collaborations with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and producer Serge Silberman, and, if I’m not mistaken, his only encounter with ‘Scope (in black and white). Formally and thematically, this is one of Buñuel’s subtlest and most intriguing late works; the novel’s action is updated to the 30s and includes a commentary on the French fascism of the period. Jeanne Moreau plays the heroine, and others in the cast include Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, and Francoise Lugagne. The absence of a musical score makes Buñuel’s use of sound especially beguiling. In French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)

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The Death Of Empedocles

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

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The tenth and latest feature of European avant-garde filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet — filmed in Sicily and using as its text the first of three versions of Friedrich Holderlin’s unfinished 1798 verse tragedy — is one of their most beautiful works; but like all the best avant-garde work, watching and listening to it requires some adjustments in our usual activity as spectators — adjustments that involve new areas of play as well as work. This is a film in which sound matters at least as much as image, and where the lovely natural settings (filmed in 35-millimeter by Renato Berta) are as important as the actors and the text. The sound of Holderlin’s highly metered German blank verse is the most sensually rich use of that language that I have ever heard, and even if, like me, you don’t understand the language, the selective subtitles should be regarded as footnotes to glance at rather than as a substitute for the main text. Unlike the texts in Straub and Huillet’s early work, the text here is dramatically and expressively acted, and the compelling cast includes Andreas von Rauch as Empedocles (a Greek philosopher expelled from his community for blasphemy, and bent on suicide), Howard Vernon (who acted in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr.Read more »

Driving Miss Daisy

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

DRIVINGMISSDAISY

Alfred Uhry adapts his own play about the relationship between a crotchety, elderly Jewish woman living in Atlanta (Jessica Tandy) and the slightly younger black man (Morgan Freeman) hired by her businessman son (Dan Aykroyd) to drive her around (1990, 99 min.). Uhry’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is a sentimental actors’ vehicle so fundamentally theatrical in conception that nothing can really make it into a film; aided by a lachrymose Hans Zimmer score, it fairly drips with the kind of nostalgic liberal platitudes that make its upscale target audience applaud at the end  — they’re actually applauding themselves. Fortunately, the three actors manage to get a lot of mileage out of the material: although one never quite believes that Tandy’s character is Jewish, she is remarkable in every other respect, and Freeman and Aykroyd are wonderful throughout. The movie also has something legitimate and instructive to say about the subtlety and intricacy of everyday race relations in the South during the period covered (roughly 1948 to ’73). The self-conscious period decor by Bruno Rubeo is never quite convincing — Atlanta is never made to seem like a large city — and the mise en scene of director Bruce Beresford basically consists of letting the actors do their utmost.… Read more »

Pocahontas

From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 1995). — J.R.

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After some belated glimmers of ecological and postcolonial conscience in The Lion King, the Disney animation people go even further in revising some of their social priorities relative to the racism of Walt, and in their first cartoon feature based on real people do a conscientious and at times imaginative job of trying to illustrate aspects of the John Smith and Pocahontas story without reverting to all of the usual Hollywood lies. Contradictions confound certain aspects of this project — such as the language spoken by Pocahontas (which, in the Hollywood tradition, oscillates between tribal talk and the unaccented chatter of a contemporary Valley girl) — but overall this seems like a reasonable stab at an impossible agenda. Unsurprisingly, the film is usually more at home with animals (including a pampered English bulldog lifted from Tex Avery’s Spike) than with people, but it isn’t afraid to give both Pocahontas and John Smith some sex appeal. Personally, I prefer Hawks’s The Big Sky on this interracial, intercultural subject, but there’s something to be said for this movie’s monumental and anthropomorphic handling of landscapes — a constant in Disney cartoon rhetoric since Bambi — which reveals that the Leni Riefenstahl influence still persists in some ways.… Read more »

The World According to Harvey and Bob

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1995). — J.R.

The Glass Shield

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Charles Burnett

With Michael Boatman, Lori Petty, Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Richard Anderson, Don Harvey, Michael Ironside, Michael Gregory, Bernie Casey, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Smoke

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Wayne Wang

Written by Paul Auster

With William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau, Giancarlo Esposito, Ashley Judd, and Forest Whitaker.

My dozen favorite films at Cannes this year? Terence Davies’s ecstatic wide-screen The Neon Bible, set in a perfectly imagined Georgia of the early 40s, with Gena Rowlands; Emir Kusturica’s Yugoslav black-comedy epic Underground; Hou Hsiao-hsien’s beautiful if difficult Good Men, Good Women; Jim Jarmusch’s transgressive western Dead Man; Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, an Iranian urban comedy about children that unfolds in real time; Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, a cross between Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman — with Gong Li taking the place of Marlene Dietrich — and Billy Bathgate; and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Convent (Ruizian metaphysics and theology with John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve). Then there were such pleasures on the market as Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, a mordant treatment of the collapse of communism in Albania; lively low-budget musicals by Jacques Rivette and Joseph P.… Read more »

The Innocent

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Though it wasn’t terribly well received when it first appeared, Luchino Visconti’s last film (1979) strikes me as arguably the greatest of his late works apart from The Leopard — a withering autocritique of masculine vanity and self-delusion, adapted from a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio, focusing on a well-to-do intellectual (Giancarlo Giannini) at the turn of the century struggling to justify his sexual double standards and his libertarian philosophy regarding his wife (Laura Antonelli) and his mistress (Jennifer O’Neill). Opulently mounted, dramatically understated, and keenly felt, this is a haunting testament, as well as one of Visconti’s most erotic pictures. Incidentally, the elderly hand seen on-screen during the opening credits is Visconti’s own. In Italian with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)

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A Pure Formality

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1995). — J.R.

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After the success of Rain Man Barry Levinson was allowed to indulge himself with Toys, and after Cinema Paradiso Giuseppe Tornatore was similarly allowed to foist this work of staggering pretentiousness on the public (1994). This French-Italian production with French dialogue, written with Pascale Quignard, starts off promisingly enough as a police thriller with metaphysical and symbolic overtones, but becomes steadily more abstract and preposterous as it gets closer to the denouement. A man without identity papers (Gerard Depardieu) running through the woods in a raging storm in an unnamed country is arrested and taken to a dilapidated police station to be interrogated. He claims to be a famous writer named Onoff, but the facts he offers the inspector (Roman Polanski) are confused and contradictory, and as the night wears on things just get murkier and murkier. The performances by the two leads and by Sergio Rubini are more than serviceable, but it makes little difference given that the material is so gratingly awful. Beware. (JR)

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Anatomy of a Murder

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 1995). — J.R.

This 1959 release is a prime contender for Otto Preminger’s greatest film — a superb courtroom drama packed with humor and character that shows every actor at his or her best. James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer asked to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on a charge of murdering a local businessman who allegedly raped his flirtatious wife (Lee Remick); Boston lawyer Joseph Welch (of the army-McCarthy hearings), in his only screen performance, plays the judge; and George C. Scott is a lawyer working for the prosecution. There are also wonderful performances by Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden, and even a cameo by Duke Ellington, who composed the memorable jazz score. As an entertaining look at legal process, this is spellbinding, infused by an ambiguity about human personality and motivation that is Preminger’s trademark, and the location shooting is superb. Adapted by Wendell Mayes from Robert Travers’s novel. 161 min.

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Money Changes Everything [HYENAS]

From the Chicago Reader (July 7, 1995). — J.R.

Hyenas

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Djibril Diop Mambety, adapted from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit

With Mansour Diouf, Ami Diakhate, Mahouredia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Kaoru Egushi, and Mambety.

“The plot by now must be well known; a flamboyant, much-married millionairess returns to the Middle-European town where she was born and offers the inhabitants a free gift of a billion marks if they will consent to murder the man who, many years ago, seduced and jilted her….Eventually, and chillingly, her chosen victim is slaughtered, but I quarrel with those who see the play merely as a satire on greed. It is really a satire on bourgeois democracy. The citizens…vote to decide whether the hero shall live or die, and he agrees to abide by their decision. Swayed by the dangled promise of prosperity, they pronounce him guilty. The verdict is at once monstrously unjust and entirely democratic. When the curtain falls, the question that Herr Dürrenmatt intends to leave in our minds is this: at what point does economic necessity turn democracy into a hoax?”

These words of wisdom from Kenneth Tynan, written in 1960 about Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 play The Visit, are well worth recalling when you make your way to the Film Center this week or next to see Djibril Diop Mambety’s wonderful Senegalese feature Hyenas (1992) at the Black Harvest International Film and Video Festival.… Read more »

R.I.P. Arthur Penn 1922-2010

This review of Night Moves appeared in the May 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. [September 11, 2009 postscript: Having just reseen Night Moves for the first time since it came out, I think it holds up remarkably well, in terms of its script and direction and almost uniformly fine performances. There’s also some additional interest now in seeing Melanie Griffith in her first credited performance and James Woods, less impressive, in one of his earliest after Elia Kazan discovered him for The Visitors. As for Alan Sharp, it would appear that his filmography (which also includes The Hired Hand and Ulzana’s Raid) warrants further investigation — as does Jennifer Warren’s.]—J.R.

U.S.A., 1975
Director: Arthur Penn

Cert—X. dist—Columbia-Warner. p.c—Hiller Productions/Layton. p—Robert M. Sherman. assoc. p—Gene Lasko. p. manager—Thomas J. Schmidt. asst. d—Jack Roe, Patrick H. Kehoe. sc—Alan Sharp. ph—Bruce Surtees. col—Technicolor. underwater ph—Jordan Klein. ed—Dede Allen, Stephen A. Rotter. p. designer—George Jenkins. set dec—Ned Parsons. sp. effects—Marcel Vercoutere, Joe Day. m/m.d—Michael Small. titles—Wayne Fitzgerald. sd. ed—Craig McKay, Robert Reitano, Richard Cirincione. sd. rec—Jack Solomon. sd. re-rec—Richard Vorisek.… Read more »

London and New York Journal

From Film Comment (July-August 1976). In some respects, I think this may be the best of all my many Journals for Film Comment, but for my readers who feel that my work is sometimes (or often) marred or even ruined by my strident tone, it may also be legitimately regarded as my worst. Among other negative consequences, Truffaut read my comments about THE STORY OF ADELE H. and wrote me an angry letter about them (which can be accessed, along with my response to it, on this site), I suspect (without actually knowing) that my passing comment about Pauline Kael may have sabotaged any hopes I’d had about ever becoming friends with her, and my friend (at the time) Gilbert Adair, cited just before the end of this piece, was furious about the over-the-top way I expressed my displeasure with Charles Barr in Movie. For better and for worse, I think this shows my writing at its most intense. -– J.R.

March 25 (London): A KING IN NEW YORK.Even on a Steenbeck, Chaplin’s penultimate feature and last extended performance has such a naked power of embarrassment and assault that one can see right away why so many have recoiled from it.… Read more »

What (Do) We Mean by Frank Cinema–and is That a Question or a Statement?

Commissioned by MUBI Notebook for November 18, 2019. — J.R.

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“How much of this film is composed, and how much is improvised?” The obvious question posed by Robert Frank’s first film (coauthored by painter Alfred Leslie), Pull My Daisy (1959), is also posed, sometimes less obviously, by the authored and coauthored Frank films that follow it—an unwieldy filmography that has on occasion become even harder to access because of the unwieldy ways it was financed or put together. (Most notoriously, Cocksucker Blues, produced by the Rolling Stones to chronicle their own 1972 North American tour, has been banned by them from most venues.) To wonder whether they’re Frank or frank is arguably another way of interrogating their relative degrees of sincerity or subterfuge, non-fiction or fiction, single or collective authorship. And it’s ultimately our call whether any given shot in a Frank film corresponds to a declarative statement or a question—something that might also apply to his better known, more celebrated, and noncollaborative still photography. “After seeing these pictures,” wrote Jack Kerouac of The Americans, “you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.” But whereas most or all the Frank photographs I’ve seen are recognizably his, each successive Frank film is a reinvention of what the art of film might consist of.… Read more »

Sex Drive [on CRASH]

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 1997). — J.R.

CRASH

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill, Yolanda Julian, and Cheryl Swarts.

“Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.

“Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.”

These are the last two paragraphs of J.G. Ballard’s introduction to his 1973 novel Crash. They point to a seeming paradox that lies at the heart of David Cronenberg’s masterful film adaptation as well as the original — the idea that pornography, by virtue of being political, can play a cautionary role rather than, or in addition to, a prescriptive one.… Read more »

Night Nurse

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

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NIGHTNURSE

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A William Wellman curiosity done for Warners in 1931, this gritty thriller, a favorite of film critic Manny Farber, is of principal interest today for its juicy early performances by Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, and Clark Gable. Hard as nails, with lots of spunk. 72 min. (JR)

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