Monthly Archives: March 2020

To Have and Have Not [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE]

From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1989). — J.R.

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SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh

With Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher.

As its lowercase title suggests, sex, lies, and videotape is an example of lowercase filmmaking: lean, economical, relatively unpretentious (or at least pretentiously unpretentious), and purposefully small-scale. Its having walked off with the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or — making first-time writer-director Steven Soderbergh at 26 the youngest filmmaker ever to win that prize — saddles it with more of a reputation than it can comfortably live up to. In a time of relative drought, it’s certainly a small oasis, but the attention it’s been getting befits something closer to a breakthrough geyser.

All the fuss may be a sign of panic over more than just movies. Sexual repression is reflected in various ways in current pictures, but this is the only one that deals with it forthrightly as its central subject — specifically, as the main preoccupation of its two leading characters — and broaches sexual problems such as impotence and frigidity in the bargain. I haven’t heard such giddy, unnatural-sounding laughter in a movie theater since The Decline of the American Empire hit the art-house circuit a few years ago — the same sort of forced, hyped-up hilarity at the mere mention of words like “fucking” and “penis” and “getting off.”… Read more »

En movimiento: The Ten-Best Racket

My column for the March 2020 issue of Caimán Cuadernoas de Cine…   — J.R.

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD  Vitalina

Greasing the wheels of commerce is usually the chief reason for end-of-the-year movie polls, which, like the Academy Awards, only intensifies our ongoing cultural confusion of film criticism with advertising. This helps to explain why (and how) Harvey Weinstein became Janet Maslin’s favourite film critic in her 1999 Cannes coverage for the New York Times, devoting far more space to his (negative) opinions about the prizes than anyone else’s, including the jury’s. (The fact that his own films in the festival hadn’t won prizes was of course crucial.) Perhaps because the head of that jury was David Cronenberg, an intellectual, the need for anti-intellectual cultural arbiters to drown out such controversial choices was as pressing two decades ago as it is today. We all need to be told not once, but repeatedly, why Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is more important to the state of our civilization, our lives, our senses, and even our ethics than Vitalina Varela, and whereas this sort of gatekeeping function was once reserved for the Times and its consumerist equivalents, today its counterparts have included, among others, Sight and Sound, Film Comment, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of BooksCahiers du CinémaPositif, and, alas, even Caimán Cuadernos de Cine.… Read more »

The New Wave (1976 book review)

From Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976). -– J.R.

TNW-Monaco

THE NEW WAVE

By James Monaco

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £9.95.

A writer whose methods immediately evoke the mood and dynamics of an energetic classroom, James Monaco restricts The New Wave to the five film-making alumni of Cahiers du Cinéma most often identified with that label: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette. Considering the dearth of books in English on the subject (only Peter Graham’s anthology and Raymond Durgnat’s early monograph — both long out of print, and the latter unmentioned in the present book — qualify as predecessors), it is a fertile field for any critic interested in organizing a lot of diverse material, and this task is handled by Monaco with grace and assurance; for its bibliography alone, this over-priced volume is well worth having. Beginning with an evocation of Rivette’s first encounters with Godard and Truffaut (and later Chabrol and Rohmer) at the Avenue de Messine Cinémathèque in 1949 or 1950, he proceeds to the films of each until, some 320 pages later, he has burrowed his way through over a hundred features and shorts.

Lots of grist for the mill; but what kind of product is the Monaco factory manufacturing?… Read more »

Noroît (1976/77 review)

This review of Jacques Rivette’s weirdest film, from the Winter 1976/77 issue of Sight and Sound, is one of the few pieces of my significant writing on Rivette from this period that hasn’t already been reproduced either on the excellent web site devoted to Rivette, “Order of the Exile,” or on this web site (e.g., my essay for Film Comment about Duelle). Having spent five very memorable days during the summer of 1974 watching the shooting of Noroît, in and around a 12th century fortress on the Brittany coast (see “Les Filles du Feu: Rivette x 4″, an article I wrote with Gilbert Adair and the late Michael Graham, reproduced on “Order of the Exile”), this was a film that I found in some ways even more compelling as a project than as a realized work.—J.R.

Noroît

If each new Rivette film marks a decisive break as much as a discernible development, Part III in the projected Scènes de la Vie Parallèle — the second film made in the tetralogy — reinforces this principle with a vengeance. Receiving its world premiere at the London [Film] Festival, immediately after a screening of Duelle (Part II of the cycle, discussed in my Edinburgh article elsewhere in this issue), Noroît has already occasioned the sort of extreme realignments provoked by Spectre after L’amour fou, or by Duelle after Céline et julie vont en bateau.… Read more »

The Royal Tenenbaums

From the Chicago Reader (December 17, 2001). — J.R.

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You may find Wes Anderson’s 2001 follow-up to Rushmore a solid piece of entertainment in the same general mode, but disappointing insofar as it moves the earlier film’s stylistic freshness into a kind of formula, increasing the overall cuteness while reducing the sense of adolescent despair. Not that the extended dysfunctional New York family of the title are happy campers by any means; like Salinger’s Glass family, they’re a disarming mix of prodigal talents, crippling incapacities, and diverging ethnicities. The movie’s affection for them all is certainly infectious, and the cast is wonderful: Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson. Whatever my qualms, it’s still one of the funniest comedies around. R, 108 min. (JR)

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Amarcord (1974 review)

This is the first review I ever did for Monthly Film Bulletin, around the same time that I started working for the magazine (at the British Film Institute, then on 81 Dean Street) as assistant editor, in late summer 1974; this ran in their September issue. –J.R.

 

Amarcord

Italy/France, 1973                                                         Director: Federico Fellini


A small Italian town, during the Fascist period. The end of winter is announced by the arrival of manine, a white fluffy substance that blows into the province. That night, a large bonfire is built in the city square to celebrate the beginning of spring; a local resident recounts some of the town’s history. Volpina, the village whore, walks along the beach and flirts with construction workers, including Aurelio Biondi. At a stormy family dinner, Aurelio screams at his teenage son Titta for not working, and Titta is later sent b y his mother, Miranda, to the priest for confession. Asked whether he masturbates, he recalls and imagines several encounters with women in the town. A fascist rally is held to greet a visiting dignitary. That night, the police shoot down a gramophone from a church tower when they hear it playing a “subversive” song; prevented by Miranda from attending the rally, Aurelio is brutally interrogated by the police.… Read more »

The Shadow of SHADOWS: First Thoughts on the First Version

Written shortly after the Rotterdam Film Festival in February 2004 for Cinema Scope. It’s too bad that it hasn’t been possible for anyone (except for Ray Carney and his students, apparently) to see the first version of Shadows again since that festival, apart from the three short clips that Carney posted here. (The reasons for this have been discussed by Carney on his web site, but not, alas, by Gena Rowlands, Al Ruban, and/or the late Seymour Cassel in any comparable public forum, as far as I know. I should add that all the photographs here, apart from production stills, are from the second version.)  — J.R.

In many respects, the most interesting movie I saw at the Rotterdam Film Festival last month was neither new nor a Golden Oldie, at least in any ordinary sense of either term, but a work that had been considered lost for almost half a century —- the original version of Shadows, John Cassavetes’ first feature, shot in the spring of 1957. Extensively reshot by Cassavetes two years later and re-edited into the film as we now know it, this shorter and rougher version was heralded by Jonas Mekas in 1960 as not only superior to the second, but a major aesthetic breakthrough, and we’ve had to wait 40-odd years to test the merits of his claim.… Read more »

Too Late Blues

From the April 1. 1992rChicago Reader. — J.R.

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The success of John Cassavetes’s independent Shadows led to a contract with Paramount that yielded only this feature, Cassavetes’s second — a gauche but sincere drama with a highly relevant subject: the self-laceration and other forms of emotional havoc brought about when a footloose jazz musician (Bobby Darin) decides to sell out and go commercial. A lot could be (and was) said about what’s wrong with this picture: it’s pretentious, lugubrious, mawkish, and full of both naivete and macho bluster. It also has moments that are indelible and heartbreaking, at least one unforgettable performance (Everett Chambers as the hero’s manager), and many very touching ones (by Darin, Stella Stevens, Rupert Crosse, Vince Edwards, Cliff Carnell, and Seymour Cassel, among others), not to mention a highly affecting jazz score featuring Benny Carter and a haunting theme by David Raksin. If you care a lot about Cassavetes, you should definitely see this — otherwise keep your distance (1960). (JR)

Photo of Everett Chambers

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Othello Goes Hollywood

From the Chicago Reader (April 10, 1992); also reprinted in two of my collections, Placing Movies and Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

OTHELLO

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Orson Welles

With Orson Welles, Micheal Mac Liammoir, Suzanne Cloutier, Robert Coote, Fay Compton, Doris Dowling, and Michael Laurence.

Sustained until death at 70 by his fame as the prodigy with the baby face, Orson Welles always appeared to abide by words he put in the mouth of Citizen Kane: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m gonna do — and that’s me.” — from a two-page magazine ad for the Dodge Shadow that appeared last month under the heading “Amazing Americans . . . a celebration of people who have lifted our nation’s pride

I guess this describes the official Orson Welles we’re all supposed to love and revere. The ad demonstrates how even the recalcitrance of a wasted and abused artist can wind up as a handy marketing tool. Chrysler, a corporation that never would have dreamed of sustaining, much less supporting Welles as an artist when he was alive — and surely wouldn’t pay a tenth of what this ad cost to help make his unseen legacy available today — proudly invites us to join it in celebrating his artistry.… Read more »

Cul-de-sac

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

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Roman Polanski’s second British film (Repulsion was the first) is a mean little absurdist comedy (1966) set on a remote Northumberland island; it’s also one of the best and purest of all his works. An odd couple (Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorleac) living in an isolated castle find their world invaded by two doomed gangsters on the run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran), and the ensuing standoffs are funny, cruel, disquieting, and unpredictable, especially after various other unwelcome guests turn up. Stander is especially good — this may be the definitive performance of the blacklisted gravel-voiced character actor, best known for his 30s and 40s work. With Robert Dorning and Iain Quarrier; watch for Jacqueline Bisset as one of the guests. 111 min. (JR)

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cul-de-sac

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The Fearless Vampire Killers

From the August 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Subtitled Pardon Me, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck, and also known as Dance of the Vampires, Roman Polanski’s macabre send-up of the vampire movie (1967, 108 min.) never got a fair shake in this country, because it was originally released in a mutilated and redubbed version that tended to flatten many of the film’s eastern European nuances and ironies (if memory serves, a few of the kinkier gags were lopped off as well). A comic duo composed of a bumbling professor (Jack MacGowran) and his awkward assistant (Polanski) go after a family of Transylvanian vampires, and the film amiably runs through all the standbys associated with vampire movies, putting a personal and goofy spin on most of them. Sharon Tate also appears, at her most ravishing. (JR)

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Early Film Reviews (August 1964)

Two movie columns published in Summer ’64, a newspaper published by Columbia University and Teachers College in August 1964, while I was attending summer school there in Manhattan. I recall having seen Hitchcock’s Marnie and Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning that same summer for the same publication, and reviewed at least the former, but apparently either this review never ran or my printed copy of it hasn’t survived -– more likely the former. (I still recall attending the press screening for Bouduand hearing the huffy and irritable old gentleman behind me storm out angrily before the end; then, once I read Bosley Crowther’s negative review in the Times, I realized who this crank was — and why and how he misconstrued the movie’s conclusion.)

That Man from Rio is being released this spring in an attractive, restored 2-disc Blu-Ray package by the Cohen Film Collection, along with de Broca’s follow-up feature. Up to His Ears (Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine, 1965). I’m still hoping for an eventual release of  the long-unavailable Five Day Lover (1961), which I recall as my favorite de Broca feature….One thing that I now think I got wrong about That Man from Rio is cross-referencing it with North by Northwest, when a comparison of Belmondo with Douglas Fairbanks (whose work I hadn’t encountered at the time) would have been far more apt.Read more »

Paris Journal (on PLAYTIME) (Winter 1971-72)

From Film Comment, Winter 1971-72. This was my second Paris Journal for that magazine, and my first extended effort to write about Playtime. -– J.R.

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All five of Jacques Tati’s films have musical backgrounds of such surpassing unsubtlety that they are insipid even by Muzak standards; processions of cute kids, dogs, and middle-class nonentities that are not so much mildly parodied (on the surface) as embraced and advertised; the kind of comic ambiance that usually attracts either a Saturday afternoon family crowd or no one at all. Of the four that I have seen, two (MON ONCLE and TRAFIC) repeatedly grate on my nerves, and one (LES VACANCES DE MONSIEUR HULOT), after several viewings, has come to seem like an enduring classic. For the other, PLAYTIME, I would gladly trade the collective works of Fellini, Bergman, and all but the best of Godard.

Four years after its opening in Paris, PLAYTIME remains, at this writing, unseen and virtually unknown in the states. The European reception has generally been so cold that distributors are probably afraid to go near it. To speak even of its existence here is to conjure up a ghost: unquestionably Tati’s most expensive and ambitious film — requiring, according to Télé-Ciné, “ten years of reflection, three years of preparation and shooting,” and filmed in 70 mm and stereophonic sound — it already seems destined to share the fate of extravagant commercial failures of the silent era like INTOLERANCE, GREED, and SUNRISE.… Read more »

Leolo

From the April 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Leolo

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A conclusive demonstration that it’s possible to speak French, be obsessed with excretion, vomit, masturbation, obesity, and broken noses, treat the viewer to glimpses of a dead dog, dead flies, and an abused cat, and still not have an ounce of poetry in your soul. But if you’re sufficiently cowed by the relentless will to poetry of French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Claude Lauzon (Night Zoo), you may wind up acceding to his self-definition if only through exhaustion; once you’ve learned to expect the unexpected and unpleasant you won’t find much to keep you interested in this 1992 look at the fantasies of a 12-year-old boy (Maxime Collin) as recalled by his offscreen narrating adult counterpart (Gilbert Sicotte). The fantasies include the boy and his grandfather trying to murder each other and the boy’s descent from a Sicilian tomato sprayed with sperm. Maybe if you’re in the right frame of mind you’ll find the spirited ugliness and cruelty enjoyable for its audacity; I couldn’t wait for the damn thing to be over. (JR)

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Blowup

From the April 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Michelangelo Antonioni’s sexy art-house hit of 1966, which played a substantial role in putting swinging London on the map, follows a day in the life of a young fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who discovers, after blowing up his photos of a couple glimpsed in a park, that he may have inadvertently uncovered a murder. Part erotic thriller (with significant glamorous roles played by Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Verushka, and Jane Birkin), part exotic travelogue (featuring a Yardbirds concert, antiwar demonstrations, street mimes, one exuberant orgy, and a certain amount of pot), this is so ravishing to look at (the colors all seem newly minted) and pleasurable to follow (the enigmas are usually more teasing than worrying) that you’re likely to excuse the metaphysical pretensions — which become prevalent only at the very end — and go with the 60s flow, just as the original audiences did. 111 min. (JR)

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