Monthly Archives: April 2020

It All Adds Up [FOUR CORNERS]

From the Chicago Reader (December 12, 1997). — J.R.

Four Corners

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Benning.

I’ve been brooding a lot lately about the way in which many of the best movies around have been ravaged by “narrative correctness.” This is the notion fostered by producers, distributors, and critics — often collaborating as script doctors and always deeply invested in hackwork — that there are “correct” and “incorrect” ways of telling stories in movies. And woe to the filmmaker who steps out of line. Much as “political correctness” can point to a displaced political impotence — a desire to control language and representation that sets in after one despairs of changing the political conditions of power — “narrative correctness” has more to do with what supposedly makes a movie commercial than with what makes it interesting, artful, or innovative. Invariably narrative correctness means identifying with the people who pay for the pictures rather than with the people who make them.

Last year we had reviewers stomping on Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy and Tim Burton in Mars Attacks! for daring to move beyond their more lucrative formulas to try something different, though their crimes were crimes of subject and tone rather than of storytelling.… Read more »

Shelley Winters

The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has very kindly given me permission to post it here. —- J.R.

Shelley Winters performance as Lolita’s Charlotte Haze offers one of the best refutations of the notion that Kubrick was a misogynist who could depict women only as bitches like Marie Windsor in The Killing or as bimbos. (Maybe Christiane Kubrick in the last scene of Paths of Glory, then known as Susan Christian, is another counter-example, but unlike Charlotte, she hardly has time to register as a character.) Winters’ overbearing yet highly vulnerable culture vulture, who has to bear the full brunt of both Humbert Humbert’s patronizing and his private scorn, is portrayed with genuine warmth and sympathy — indeed, more of both than can be found in Nabokov’s novel or original screenplay.

This friend and one-time flat mate of Marilyn Monroe, whose stint with the Actors Studio preceded and probably encouraged her own, Winters (1920-2006), born Shirley Schrift, has suffered no less from the stigma of playing dumb blondes when Hollywood sexism was at its height, implanting the similarly false impression that she was as dumb and as unlettered as her characters.… Read more »

Multinational Pest Control [STARSHIP TROOPERS]

From the Chicago Reader (November 21, 1997). I tend to respect Verhoeven more nowadays than I did back then. — J.R.

Starship Troopers

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Ed Neumeier

With Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown, Seth Gilliam, and Patrick Muldoon.

When did American action blockbusters stop being American? Sometime in the last two decades, in between the genocidal adventures of George Lucas’s Star Wars and those of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, the national pedigree disappeared. True, Starship Troopers is a simplified, watered-down version of Robert A. Heinlein’s all-American novel, and it’s consciously modeled on Hollywood World War II features (as was much of Star Wars); it even boasts an “all-American” cast that could have sprung full-blown from a camp classic of Aryan physiognomy like Howard Hawks’s Red Line 7000. But the only state it can be said to truly reflect or honor is one of drifting statelessness. If the alien bugs that populate Verhoeven’s movie wanted to learn what American life and culture was like in 1977, Star Wars would have served as a useful and appropriate object of study; but if they wanted to know what American — or even global — life was like in 1997, Starship Troopers would tell them zip.… Read more »

Utopia and Apocalypse: Pynchon’s Populist/Fatalist Cinema

Commissioned by the French quarterly Trafic for their spring 2020 issue. — J.R.

Gravitys_rainbow_cover

The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these
walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-
on! Start-the-show! Come-on! Start-the-show!
The screen is a dim page spread before us,
white and silent. The film has broken, or a
projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult
even for us, old fans who’ve always been at
the movies (haven’t we?) to tell which before
the darkness swept in.
— from the last page of Gravity’s Rainbow

 

To begin with a personal anecdote: Writing my first book (to be published) in the late 1970s, an experimental autobiography titled Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Harper & Row, 1980), published in French as Mouvements: Une vie au cinéma (P.O.L, 2003), I wanted to include four texts by other authors — two short stories (“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” by Delmore Schwartz, “The Secret Integration” by Thomas Pynchon) and two essays (“The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window” by Charles Eckert, “My Life With Kong” by Elliott Stein) — but was prevented from doing so by my editor, who argued that because the book was mine, texts by other authors didn’t belong there.… Read more »

Rotterdam ’89: Magic from Rivette and Ivens

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1989). The on-screen breakdown of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Out 1, alluded to below, was lamentably removed by Rivette shortly after its Rotterdam screening — attended, if memory serves, by no more than five or six people. — J.R.

When he died last July, Hubert Bals had already selected twenty films for his eighteenth Rotterdam Festival, and embarked on retrospectives devoted to John Cassavetes and Jacques Rivette. Rather than try to second-guess his preferences for the rest of the programme, interim director Ann Head and her able staff invited several filmmakers associated with Bals to complete the selection with neglected titles of their own or other choices. This quick galvanizing of energies resulted in the best of the six consecutive Rotterdam festivals I’ve attended. The event was haunted by recent losses – Cassavetes and Jacques Ledoux, as well as Bals – but the legacies they left behind were vibrantly present on the screen.

Raul Ruiz brought two engaging new featurettes, Tous les nuages sont des horloges ( a free adaptation of a Japanese mystery coscripted by his students) and L’Autel de l’amitié (a series of Diderotesque dialogues about the French Revolution), both bristling with visual invention.Read more »

Lust Horizon [A WINTER TAN]

From the Chicago Reader (March 10, 1989). It’s sad to hear that the great and irreplaceable Jackie Burroughs passed away on September 22, 2010. — J.R.

A WINTER TAN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker, and Aerlyn Weissman

Written by Burroughs

With Burroughs, Erando Gonzales, Javier Torres, and Diana d’Aquila.

A Winter Tan is startling because it mainly succeeds in its aims though they’re based on at least three dubious premises. The first is that a volume of letters can be adapted into a plausible dramatic film. The second is that the letters in question — an American woman’s descriptions of her sexual adventures in Mexico, written before she was murdered, probably as a result of a sexual escapade — can be seen as exhilarating and life-enhancing instead of just depressing. And the third dubious premise is that a film made collectively by five directors can come across with a singular voice and style, a consistent meaning and purpose.

I haven’t read Maryse Holder’s book Give Sorrow Words, which was published posthumously some years ago, first by Grove Press in hardcover and then by Avon in paperback, and is currently out of print in both editions.… Read more »

Angels with Dirty Faces (review of Robert Sklar’s CITY BOYS)

 Published in New York Newsday (Sunday, May 31, 1992). -– J.R.

CityBoys

CITY BOYS: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, by Robert Sklar. Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $27.50.

CityBoys2

BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this comparative study of the Hollywood careers of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield is that it lacks the deference to the film industry that one has come to expect nowadays from movie books, journalistic as well as academic. Eschewing the puffery of popular star biographies and the equally dubious (and self-serving) idealism of such academic buzz terms as “the classical Hollywood cinema” and “the genius of the system,” Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University, writes with the vernacular ease of a journalist without sacrificing the analytical rigor one expects from a prestigious university press. While he hasn’t always spread his net as widely as one might hope, he still offers a plausible portrait of three city boys and how they grew -– or didn’t.  

A social historian at heart, Sklar is basically interested in charting the diverse forces that molded and altered the screen images of Cagney, Bogart and Garfield. Their overlapping careers offer many instructive parallels: New York origins, theatrical training, evolving hard-boiled screen personalities, leftist sympathies, artistic and economic exploitation by the studios, struggles for independence (including the formation of their own production companies) with mixed results and elaborate enforced recantations of former political allegiances during the Hollywood witch hunts.… Read more »

Finding Oneself in the Dark: Costa’s NE CHANGE RIEN

Written for Filmkrant‘s “Slow Criticism”, February 2010 (no. 318). — J.R.

There’s a personal reason why Ne Change Rien comes together for me in a way that few music documentaries do. Eight years ago, I was approached by Rick Schmidlin, the producer of the 1998 re-edit of Touch of Evil (on which I’d served as consultant), about writing or directing — in any case, helping to conceptualize — a documentary about jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. This led to a lengthy conversation with Tyner in Chicago and then a three-page treatment that I prepared with cinematographer John Bailey via phone and email, which concluded, “Any film that’s about listening, as this one will be, will also be about looking — predicated on the philosophy that the way one looks at musicians already helps to determine the way one listens to them.”

For me one of the ruling ideas was that few jazz films, apart from a handful of the very best, focused enough on the spectacle of jazz musicians listening to one another. And I saw (and heard) the whole thing as a two-way process — the way one listens should dictate the way one looks, as well as vice versa.… Read more »

Are We Not Sick? [on SAFE]

From the Chicago Reader, July 28, 1995. —J.R.

Safe

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Ronnie Farer, Martha Velez-Johnson, Chauncy Leopardi, and James LeGros.

I know that Americans are supposed to hate whatever they can’t understand, and certainly current Hollywood filmmaking is predicated to the point of tedium on this truism. But part of what makes Todd Haynes’s Safe the most provocative American art film of the year so far — fascinating, troubling, scary, indelible — is that it can’t be entirely understood. The mystery and ambiguity missing from mainstream movies are all the more precious, magical, even sexy here, in a 35-millimeter feature employing professional actors set partly in the plusher suburban reaches of the San Fernando Valley.

By chance the star of Safe, Julianne Moore, also plays the female lead in the least mysterious Hollywood feature of the moment, the unspeakable Nine Months — a movie that essentially celebrates the world that Safe attacks. This makes Haynes’s film even more dangerous: seeing both films might be like combining chemicals that produce lethal explosives. One suspects that anyone who sees both in swift succession will be flirting with social or political revolution or some sort of madness.… Read more »

Teenage Wasteland [CRUEL INTENTIONS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 5, 1999). — J.R.

Cruel Intentions

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Roger Kumble

With Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Christine Baranski, Sean Patrick Thomas, Louise Fletcher, and Swoosie Kurtz.

Cruel Intentions is the fourth movie adaptation I’ve seen of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, possibly the best French novel of the 18th century. It’s also the third version in English — though the first to reconfigure the plot as a contemporary teenage sex comedy. Will it be the last? Considering how serviceable the story is, it’s easy to imagine it being dusted off every decade or so for use in that dubious genre. The substitution of teen yuppies for 18th-century aristocrats isn’t a precise match — as some awkward carryovers of characters’ names makes clear — yet surprisingly, writer-director Roger Kumble comes close to pulling this off. (A writer on such comedies as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, Kumble’s art-movie profile appears to be nonexistent.) He sets the story in and around Manhattan, Sin City itself, and makes the scheming protagonists, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), stepsiblings enrolled at an exclusive prep school just outside the city.… Read more »

Vitalina Varela

Written for the Chicago Film Festival and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s week-long streaming of this masterpiece (April 24-30). — J.R.

Vitalina

Vitalina Varela

 

It isn’t necessary to have seen anything by Portuguese master Pedro Costa before encountering the title heroine here, but if you saw his previous feature, Horse Money, you’ve already met her—a striking, angry middle-aged woman from Cape Verde who finally found the money to fly to Lisbon to join her long-absent husband, only to discover that she just missed his funeral. Settling into his rickety, crumbling house and trying to come to terms with her grief, keeping company mainly with a semi-mad priest (Costa regular Ventura), she’s precisely the kind of person that the world and movies tend to ignore but Costa’s epic portraiture, so beautifully lit and framed that it becomes jaw-dropping, builds an exalted altar to her, inviting us to luxuriate in her hushed presence. Audiences tend to have an easier time with this dark reverie than critics because it takes us somewhere very special and respects us far too much to tell us why. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)

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Clueless

From the Chicago Reader (July 11, 1995). — J.R.

clueless-dvd-cover

If you gave up on writer-director Amy Heckerling after Look Who’s Talking and its sequel, this 1995 comedy — improbably but cleverly adapted by Heckerling from Jane Austen’s Emma — might get you interested again. As in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, her first feature, Heckerling displays a nice feeling for teenagers — teenage girls especially — and some flair for witty dialogue. Here she’s concentrating on the travails of a wealthy but good-hearted Beverly Hills consumer (Alicia Silverstone) as she tries to establish a romance between two of her teachers (Wallace Shawn and associate producer Twink Caplan), make over a new transfer student (Brittany Murphy) with the help of her best friend (Stacey Dash), pass a driving test, and lose her virginity. Though this drifts at times as storytelling, it’s mainly lightweight but personable fun. With Paul Rudd, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan, Jeremy Sisto, Julie Brown, and Dan Hedaya. 97 min. (JR)

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Salo, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom

From the November 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Salo2

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last feature (1975) is a shockingly literal and historically questionable transposition of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom to the last days of Italian fascism. Most of the film consists of long shots of torture, though some viewers have been more upset by the bibliography that appears in the credits. Roland Barthes noted that in spite of all its objectionable elements (he pointed out that any film that renders Sade real and fascism unreal is doubly wrong), this film should be defended because it refuses to allow us to redeem ourselves. It’s certainly the film in which Pasolini’s protest against the modern world finds its most extreme and anguished expression. Very hard to take, but in its own way an essential work. In Italian with subtitles. 117 min. (JR)

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Kansas City

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1996). Jazz fans who might be considering whether to watch this feature should hunt down instead Altman’s Jazz ’34, made at the same time in the same location and infinitely better. — J.R.

KansasCity

The sets — designed by Stephen Altman — are great, and so is the 30s jazz, but the story of this Robert Altman memory piece about his hometown, written with Frank Barhydt (Short Cuts), is borderline terrible. It counts on the dubious premise that a gangster (Harry Belafonte) would fritter away a whole night deciding what to do with a thief who rips him off — thereby enabling the thief’s significant other (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to kidnap a society lady (Miranda Richardson) and Altman to crosscut to his heart’s content as he exposes the inner workings of a city on the eve of a local election. The conception of character is so limited that the kidnapper’s seems to consist exclusively of Jean Harlow imitations, while the kidnappee’s seems defined only by drug addiction. Charlie Parker and his mother are gratuitously shoehorned into the plot, though some of the movie’s other strategies for imparting period flavor work better. The flip cynicism, which by now has become Altman’s trademark, doesn’t work at all.… Read more »

Kiss Or Kill

From the March 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

kiss_or_kill

Who needs another killer couple fleeing cross-country with cops in hot pursuit? Yet thanks to this 1998 Australian thriller’s aggressive and unnerving formal approach — jump cuts that hurtle us through the story like a needle skipping across a record and an inventive camera style that defamiliarizes characters as well as settings — the characters’ paranoia is translated into the slithery uncertainty of our own perceptions: this is the most interesting reworking of noir materials I’ve seen since After Dark, My Sweet and The Underneath. The creepy alienation of the lead couple (Frances O’Connor and Matt Day) from their victims and the world in general is eventually replicated in their own relationship, and variations on the same kind of mistrust crop up between the cops pursuing them and in just about every other cockeyed existential encounter in the film. Apart from some juicy character acting and striking uses of landscape, what makes this genre exercise by veteran director Bill Bennett special is the metaphysical climate produced by the style, transforming suspense into genuine dread. The outback is an eyeful too. 95 min. (JR)

KissorkillposterRead more »