From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). I think I underrated The Five Obstructions, which I now regard as my probable favorite of von Trier’s films, after having reseen it, remastered, on the DVD recently released by Kino Lorber. One obvious advantage to seeing it on DVD is that Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, is included in its entirety as an extra, and even though I find it less interesting than the various “remakes” included in The Five Obstructions, finally getting a chance to see it in its entirety makes the Leth and von Trier feature a lot more satisfying and interesting. — J.R.
The Five Obstructions
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier
With Leth, von Trier, Claus Nissen, Maiken Algren, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Patrick Bauchau, and Alexander Vandernoot.
What the Bleep Do We Know?
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Mark Vicente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz
Written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman
With Marlee Matlin, Elaine Hendrix, John Ross Bowie, Robert Bailey Jr., Barry Newman, and Larry Brandenburg.
When is an “experimental film” not an experimental film? This might seem a niggling matter to the ordinary paying customer, but it’s a serious issue for artists who’ve devoted their careers and lives to experimental filmmaking, knowing that they’ve given up the possibility of a wide audience by doing so.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2001). Today (September 2, 2014), having recently reseen this movie, I’d probably give it a higher rating. — J.R.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Elizabeth Berkley, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, and David Ogden Stiers.
I don’t want to oversell Woody Allen’s 31st feature, which I happen to like. The script is full of holes, most of the one-liners are weak and mechanical, and the plot — a nightclub magician gets two of his hypnotized subjects to steal jewels for him — is so deliberately stupid and contrived that one can probably enjoy it only by pretending it’s a routine, low-budget second feature on an old-fashioned double bill, which is obviously what Allen intended. Yet it’s possible for a picture to be not very good and still be likable — something that doesn’t happen very often for me with Allen’s pictures. (It happened, momentarily, in Everyone Says I Love You — when Allen exposed his vulnerability by singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love.”)
The problem with most escapism nowadays is that even if it makes you forget who and where you are, it doesn’t really detach you from norms of the world you’re living in.… Read more »
From the March 1, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Robert Redford’s second feature as director (after Ordinary People) describes the elaborate consequences when a Chicano handyman in New Mexico (Chick Vennera) illegally irrigates his parched bean field with water earmarked for a major development. Fairly choked with good intentions, whimsy, touches of fantasy, and cardboard liberal stereotypes, this 1988 release does for Mexicans what Louis Malle did for Jews or Walt Disney did for mice — slowly, and at great length. The results are a bit like a translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism by Mortimer Snerd, with pretty landscapes. John Nichols adapted his own novel, assisted by David Ward; with Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, James Gammon, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Walken. R, 118 min. (JR)
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Commissioned by MUBI for late October, 2019. — J.R.
In Sara Driver’s too small yet varied filmography, her two fiction features, both poetic fantasies — Sleepwalk (1986) and When Pigs Fly (1993) — are bracketed by two other longer films, the 48-minute You Are Not I (a brilliant adaptation of a Paul Bowles story about sisters, narrated by a schizophrenic, 1981) and the 78-minute documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017). Sleepwalk stars Suzanne Fletcher, who also played the schizophrenic sister in You Are Not I; Boom For Real portrays both a highly interactive community and an eclectic artist inside it, which might also describe When Pigs Fly, a comedy inspired by Topper about a jazz pianist (Alfred Molina) living in an east coast port town populated by barflies and ghosts. Moreover, the community in Boom is basically Lower East Side Manhattan and more specifically the Bowery, the setting of Sleepwalk, as well as the New York neighborhood where Driver has lived with Jim Jarmusch for well over three decades. (She produced his first two features, and plays one of the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die.)
I’ve known Driver since the 1980s, and suspect that one reason why she hasn’t become better known is that she’s both a woman and a surrealist, a combination that isn’t widely recognized in this country. … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). — J.R.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel certainly makes hash of its anti-American, procommunist elements, but this story about a disillusioned British journalist (Michael Redgrave) and an idealistic American (Audie Murphy) battling over the heart, mind, and body of a Saigon woman was sufficiently provocative for Jean-Luc Godard to declare it the best film of the year. The fact that Mankiewicz cast Italian actress Giorgia Moll as the woman suggests how remote he was from Vietnam, yet the scene in which the American asks the Brit to translate his marriage proposal into Vietnamese must have struck Godard: five years later he cast Moll as an interpreter in Contempt. Though The Quiet American may seem a curious cold war artifact today, it embodies Mankiewicz’s talky cinema in all its measured ambiguity. 120 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2002). — J.R.
Phillip Noyce’s first-rate adaptation of Graham Greene’s interesting 1955 anti-American novel about Vietnam, scripted by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, was held back by Miramax, its U.S. distributor, for over a year because of September 11 — apparently on the assumption that Americans who considered the terrorist attacks unprovoked would find any criticism of their country’s overseas behavior in the 50s unwarranted and unnecessary.… Read more »
From the April 1, 1997 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
An adventurous and sometimes sexy (if only fitfully successful) 1996 adaptation of Louise Kaplan’s celebrated nonfiction book, directed by Susan Streitfeld from a script she wrote with Julie Hebert. Streitfeld focuses on a successful single prosecutor (British actress Tilda Swinton, displaying an impeccable American accent) as she waits to discover whether she’s been appointed as a judge, her kleptomaniac-scholar sister (Amy Madigan), the prosecutor’s boyfriend, a lesbian psychotherapist she has a fling with, and other people in her orbit. Oscillating between everyday events in her life and her dreams and fantasies, the film is much more successful with the former than with the latter, which often get heavy-handed and obscure. But the freshness of Streitfeld’s approach toward gender anxiety and social conditioning fascinates even when the overall clarity diminishes. Not for everyone, but those who like it will probably like it a lot. With Karen Sillas, Clancy Brown, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, and Dale Shuger. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 2002). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Brian Helgeland
With Eastwood, Wanda De Jesus, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, Tina Lifford, Igor Jijikine, Alix Koromzay, Dylan Walsh, and Paul Rodriguez.
Clint Eastwood’s latest slugfest, Blood Work, is ultimately just another Dirty Harry opus. And by now Harry has become boring, not because Eastwood keeps trying to redefine the character the public tends to remember him for, but because he doesn’t try to redefine the punk villains who keep Harry busy and dirty.
In Blood Work — not technically but generically and existentially a Dirty Harry adventure — the villain is a standard-issue serial killer. It’s a truism that there are more serial killers in movies than there could possibly be in life, and what keeps them mythic seems to have less to do with the world we live in than with the sadistic and infantile ways we like to think about that world. I have come to associate pleasure in cinema with the absence of serial killers, and the pleasure I associate with Blood Work includes everything that doesn’t relate to the silly one lodged near its center.… Read more »
From the March 6, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
I seem to be in a distinct minority in regarding Brian De Palma as a tacky blowhard and unimaginative plagiarist — Pauline Kael places him above Alfred Hitchcock, who she apparently feels lacked the proper trashy exuberance, and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema recently concluded that Carlito’s Way was the greatest film of the 90s. But if I had to select a recent De Palma movie that validated my own bias, I’d opt for this ludicrous compost of derivative SF and insincere soap opera, which begins with a spaceship pilfered from 2001, ends with a New Age epiphany out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and features a lot of bad acting and celestial choirs in between. Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, and Lowell Cannon are credited with the clumsy script, and the teary-eyed actors include Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, and Jerry O’Connell. There are a few pretty good design effects en route, but not enough to compensate for all the embarrassments. 120 min. (JR)
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This was written in early 2003 at the invitation of Nicole Brenez for a French collection that she edited, La Vie nouvelle/nouvelle vision: à propos d’un film de Philippe Grandrieux (Éditions Léo Scheer, 2005), and she uses the French translation of it by Aïcha Bahcelioglu to lead off the book; the volume also includes a DVD of the film. — J.R.
I’ve witnessed and partly experienced two massive surges of interest in avant-garde cinema during my lifetime. The first, centered on North American films during the 1960s, was spearheaded by Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney in New York; the second, centered on films in both Europe and North America around the turn of the century, has been masterminded as well as celebrated by, among others, Simon Field at the Rotterdam Film Festival and Nicole Brenez at the Cinémathèque Française.
I was slow in appreciating the first of these movements, in part because it tended to draw up battle lines between believers and atheists and was not very hospitable towards agnostics; for all that it accomplished, it was somewhat alienating to anti-institutional types such as Jack Smith and more pluralistic cinéphiles such as myself, who had trouble understanding why Marcel Hanoun was the only French avant-garde figure since the 20s admitted into Anthology Film Archives, which also managed to exclude such figures as Godard, Resnais, Rivette, and Straub-Huillet —- not to mention Lang and Mizoguchi — from its pantheon.… Read more »
From the June 2, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere — and, more subtly, the women — of Africa like few filmmakers before her.… Read more »
From the November 29, 1990 Chicago Reader, where some wag had the bright idea of calling this piece “The Stinging Nun”. — J.R.
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Jean Gruault and Rivette
With Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver, Micheline Presle, Christianne Lenier, Jean Martin, and Francisco Rabal.
While it’s certainly regrettable that it’s taken Jacques Rivette’s controversial second feature 24 years to get distributed in this country in its complete and original form, there’s also something felicitous about its finally becoming available in an era when censorship of the arts is again on the warpath. Delays of various kinds have been central to the history of this potent if surprisingly chaste film, and there were comparable delays between the year Denis Diderot finished the novel that the film is based on (1760) and its actual appearance in print (1780-82 in serial form, and 1796–12 years after Diderot’s death — in the first printed edition).
Oddly enough, although the film makes no mention of this, the novel started out as a practical joke — an elaborate hoax staged by Diderot and some of his friends, who wanted to lure one of their cronies, the Marquis de Croismare, back to Paris after he retired to Normandy in 1758.… Read more »
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This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books), and tweaked in June 2010. — J.R.
It is not surprising that Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature — made when he was only 22 and released a year later in 1964 — has never been as fashionable as The Conformist (1969) or as popular as Last Tango in Paris (1972). But even though it is sometimes raggy and choppy as storytelling, Before the Revolution is still possibly the most impressive thing he has done to date.
In 1962, when he was asked to adapt a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini into a screenplay and then to direct it (The Grim Reaper, or La commare secca), thereby paying tribute to his main Italian mentor, he also published his first volume of poetry, In Search of Mystery. And Before the Revolution, which pays homage to his primary French inspiration, Jean-Luc Godard, is in some ways closer to a poetry collection than it is to a novel — despite the fact that the characters are named after those in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Bertolucci’s favorite novel at the time, and Parma is the central setting.
I’m very glad that Anna Karina’s neglected first feature, Vivre ensemble (1973), wasn’t overlooked in “The Female Gaze” (S&S, October), but I should also point out that the film isn’t quite as inaccessible as James Blackford, who couldn’t find a way of seeing it, assumes. Having been at the film’s premiere at Cannes and then having reseen it shortly afterwards in Paris, I still remembered it almost 40 years later when I selected and presented it on January 21, 2012, at Toronto’s Lightbox, as part of a series celebrating the Cannes’ La Semaine de la Critique. Seeing it again on that occasion, I found it fascinating — very brave, very personal, and also very, very 1973, in quite illuminating ways. The occasional autobiographical echoes reflecting Karina’s earlier relation to Godard only added to the fascination, and Karina herself suggested to me in a brief phone conversation that the film was badly received by the French film industry in part because the decision of a local actress to write and direct her own feature was virtually unprecedented at the time. I should add that she has written and directed a second feature, Victoria (2008), made in French Canada, that is even more obscure and inaccessible than Living Together has been; I haven’t been able to see it myself, and information about it on the Internet is extremely scarce, but I’m still hoping this situation will change.… Read more »
Recovering this piece, dated March 27, 2000, from an old floppy disk, I no longer have any recollection of who commissioned it or for what publication. [November 2012 postscript: It was the May-June 2000 issue of Film Comment.] — J.R.
Keeping up with Resnais hasn’t been easy. One can find all his recent features on SECAM videos in France, but not the original English versions of I Want to Go Home (1989) or Gershwin (1992). Even Smoking/ No Smoking (1993) — a French adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a cycle of eight English plays — is available only without subtitles, in a fancy one-box set.
Who would have dreamed that Resnais — supremely international with Hiroshima, mon amour in the 50s, Last Year at Marienbad and La guerre est finie in the 60s, Providence in the 70s — would have wound up a French regionalist in the 80s and 90s, culminating in Same Old Song? This outcome is obviously more a matter of fate than design. It’s not as if Resnais has stood still; the recent features show little of the emotional interiority of his earlier work, veering closer to farce than anything preceding them. Why haven’t most American audiences been able to chart these changes?… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 2, 2001). — J.R.
With its classically seedy southern California setting, this second feature by Christopher Nolan is more memorable than his first, Following (1998). Nonetheless, it exemplifies what the English mean when they call something too clever by half. It’s a fascinating and gripping but also rather heartless and mean-spirited tale, much of it told backward, about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce) with short-term amnesia trying to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Severely hampered by his periodically forgetting everything that’s happened since this tragedy, he tries to compensate by shooting Polaroids and tattooing his body with various reminders and instructions. More a puzzle than a meaningful story, it reminds me of how Edmund Wilson compared reading a mystery to eagerly unpacking a box of excelsior, only to find a few rusty nails at the bottom. With Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Stephen Tobolowsky. R, 113 min. (JR)
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