From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1993). — J.R.
Some of my colleagues criticized this Philip Kaufman cop movie for softening the anti-Japanese feeling of the Michael Crichton novel it adapts — for coming down on corporate capitalism in general more than Japanese capitalism in particular, and diluting or at least complicating the racial implications by making the principal hero black instead of white. But I found it pretty entertaining, as well as provocative in some of its comments about contemporary life. Just about everyone — including Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery as a couple of LA cops uncovering a business conspiracy while investigating a murder — turns out to be somewhat corrupt, and the Connery character’s pithy explanations for the cultural and behavioral differences between the Japanese and American characters help to ameliorate some of the traces of xenophobia that remain. I’d rather see Kaufman upgrading the hackwork of Crichton than degrading the good work of Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). While most of the opportunities to make this a first-rate thriller are wasted, it’s still a pretty good second-rater. Written by Kaufman, Crichton, and Michael Backes; with Harvey Keitel, Cary-Horoyuki Tagawa, Mako, Ray Wise, and Tia Carrere. Read more
From the May 27, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Kira Muratova’s flaky 1978 feature, said to be her favorite, also goes by the title Understanding Life, but as often happens with her movies, appreciation ultimately triumphs over understanding. A loosely plotted comedy about a romantic triangle, set in and around a rural wasteland, it alternates between silence and sound, stopping and starting, with the cheekiness of 60s Godard. The relative chaos of the construction-site location, like the ones in Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ivan and Aerograd, is what Muratova seems to like most about this. As usual with her movies, the actors — including regulars Nina Ruslanova and Sergei Popov — are wonderful. In Russian with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)
The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.
This ambiguous comic masterpiece of 1999 might be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with Youssef, a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancée milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem by Forough Farrokhzad that gives the movie its title, in a seven-minute sequence that figures as the film’s centerpiece, summarizing all its themes, conflicts, and power relations. (“I’m one of Youssef’s friends — in fact, I’m his boss,” the media engineer remarks smugly at one point.) Read more
This appeared in Omni, circa December 1980, and, if memory serves, a version of it also turned up in my book Film: The Front Line 1983. For about a year (1977-78), Hock and I (and also Raymond Durgnat, for a spell) , all colleagues at the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, shared a beautiful house in a Del Mar canyon that we sublet from an anthropology professor there who was away on a sabbatical. — J.R.
A single thread of 16mm film runs through three side-by-side projectors, all aimed at the same wall. Twenty-two and a half second elapse between the time when the first and the second screen images appear and the same amount of time passes between the appearance of the same silent image in the second and third, so that every image can be expected to occur twice in each 45-second cycle.
The title of this 70-minute film piece, made last year, is Southern California. Described by its maker, Louis Hock, as a “triptych cinemural,” it is also identified by him with precise measurements, like a temporal painting: 30 feet X 7.5 feet X70 minutes. And temporal painting may not be a farfetched description for what this thirty-two-year-old filmmaker — a man preoccupied with time and motion — is interested in exploring. Read more
This commissioned essay was for a touring retrospective catalogue, The American New Wave, 1958-1967, published by the Walker Art Center and Media Center/Buffalo in 1982 (and slightly tweaked just now, in June 2010). It’s dated by my erroneous assumption, shared by most critics during this period, that the dialogue of Shadows was improvised, corrected years later by the research of Ray Carney — although I still stand fully behind my opening paragraph. I was also mistaken in my assumption that Charles Mingus was entirely responsible for the film’s score, especially in the second version. (Ross Lipman has written brilliantly and in detail on this subject.)
My writing of this article was both interrupted and ultimately informed by the shock of the suicide of my older brother David. Regarding the details about lapsed Catholicism apropos of The Savage Eye, I can still recall a phone conversation I had at the time with the late Veronica Geng, a former colleague at Soho News (and lapsed Catholic) and a writer and editor at The New Yorker whom I plumbed for information and advice. Perhaps I went a little overboard in my expressions of scorn for the purple prose in The Savage Eye’s commentary; today I find it rather fascinating for its kinship with Beat writing from the same period, for better and for worse. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 1993). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Robert Rodriguez
With Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, Peter Marquardt, Jaime De Hoyos, and Reinol Martinez.
I was several weeks late catching up with El mariachi, a fine little action picture in Spanish that’s been playing at the Water Tower (and opens this week at the Biograph and Bricktown Square). Judging from all the reviews and press stories I read beforehand, an essential part of the movie’s meaning — almost treated as if it were part of the plot — is that its 24-year-old writer-director, Robert Rodriguez, made it for $7,000 and, now a client of Hollywood’s International Creative Management agency, has a two-year contract with Columbia Pictures, the movie’s distributor, that includes plans to shoot a $6 million English-language remake. Much less important, it would seem, is the fate of the movie’s title hero (played by Carlos Gallardo, also Rodriguez’s coproducer). All he ever wanted, “el mariachi” makes clear, is to be a folk musician like his ancestors, though he loses his guitar, the use of one hand, his music, his girlfriend, and possibly even his soul in the process of saving his skin, which entails becoming a successful killer and appropriating the Anglo villain’s weapons. Read more
The following was commissioned by and written for Asia’s 100 Films, a volume edited for the 20th Busan International Film Festival (1-10 October 2015). — J.R.
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Though not the best known of Kenji Mizoguchi’s period masterpieces, this 1939 feature is conceivably the greatest. (For me the only other contender is the 1954 Sansho the Bailiff.) And according to film analyst Donald Kirihara in his book Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), Mizoguchi himself regarded it “as a creative turning point in his career”. A film set in the 1880s that lasts 142 minutes and contains only 142 shots, it resorts to the more rapid editing style of Hollywood only when Kabuki performances are featured.
The plot, which oddly resembles that of the 1950s Hollywood musical There’s No Business Like Show Business, concerns the rebellious adopted son of a theatrical family devoted to Kabuki (Kiku, played by Shôtarô Hanayagi in his film debut) who leaves home for many years, perfects his art, aided by a young working-class servant who loves him but also dares to criticize his acting (Otoku, played by Kakuko Mori), and eventually returns. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1996). In a recent and rather interesting book about Mike Leigh published by the University of Illinois Press, Sean O’Sullivan takes exception to this review (among others), with intriguing results. — J.R.
Secrets and Lies
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Mike Leigh
With Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Elisabeth Berrington, Lee Ross, Claire Rushbrook, Ron Cook, Michele Austin, and Lesley Manville.
I’ve seen Secrets and Lies three times since it premiered at Cannes in May, and each time the movie’s apparent rough patches have seemed smoother — clear evidence that writer-director Mike Leigh knows exactly what he’s doing and why. But whether his knowledge and a viewer’s recognition of it make this comedy-drama a masterpiece is another matter. Some of my hipper colleagues feel a little suspicious about the film’s mainstream pitch, wondering whether the whole thing finally goes down a bit too easily, given Brenda Blethyn’s quavering histrionics, the upbeat conclusion, the snugness of the whole concept. But I can hardly begrudge a filmmaker as talented as Leigh a way of conveying his gifts to a wider audience; after all, Secrets and Lies doesn’t represent the same sort of coarsening of a filmmaker’s vision as Jane Campion’s The Piano, coming after Sweetie.
This appeared in the July 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Up Down Fragile
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Written by Laurence Côte, Marianne Denicourt, Nathalie Richard, Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, and Rivette
With Côte, Denicourt, Richard, Anna Karina, André Marcon, Bruno Todeschini, Wilfre Benaiche, Enzo Enzo, and the voice of László Szabó
The inspiration of Up Down Fragile? The MGM low-budget films of the 50s that were shot in four or five weeks on sets left over from other films. In particular, a Stanley Donen movie, Give a Girl a Break , a simple film shot in next to no time with short dance numbers. — Jacques Rivette in an interview
Entertainment does not…present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. — Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”
Out of Jacques Rivette’s 17 features to date — in which I include his 12-hour serial Out 1 (1970) as well as both parts of his Jeanne la pucelle (1994) — 9 are set in contemporary Paris. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1976 (Vol. 43. No. 510). — J.R.
Jivin in Be-bop
U.S.A., 1947Director: Leonard Anderson
Dist—TCB. p.c—Alexander Productions. p—William D. Anderson. sc—Powell Lindsay. ph—Don Malkames. ed—Gladys Brothers. m/songs–(including) “Salt Peanuts”< “I Waited for You”, “Dizzy Atmosphere” by Dizzy Gillespie, “Bop-a-Lee-ba” by Dizzy Gillespie, John Brown, “Oop Bop Sh-‘Bam” by Gil Fuller, Dizzy Gillespie, Roberts, “Shaw ‘Nuff” by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, “A Night in Tunisia” by Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Paparelli, “One Bass Hit”, “Things to Come” by Dizzy Gillespie¸ Gil Fuller, “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker, Benny Harris,” “E Beeped When He ShouldaBopped” by Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Fuller, John Brown, “Crazy About a Man”, “Boogie in C”, “Boogie in D”, “Shoot Me a Little Dynamite Eight”, “Grosvenor Square”. sd—Nelson Minnerly. with—Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra, Sahji, Freddie Carter, Ralph Brown, Helen Humes, Ray Sneed. San Burley and Johnny Taylor, Phil and Audrey, Johnny and Henny, Daisy Richardson, Pancho and Dolores, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown, Kenny “Pancho” Hagood. 1,160 ft. 60 min. (16 mm.)
A continuous series of musical performances and dance routines shown on stage, without a visible audience, occasionally interspersed with comic repartee between Dizzy Gillespie and an emcee identified variously as “Peanut Head” Jackson and Burt. Read more
If this Chicago Reader review from November 15, 1996 is of any interest today, I suspect this is more because of what it has to say about Australia and the U.S. than because of what has to say about a rather forgettable Bill Murray comedy. —J.R.
Larger Than Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Howard Franklin
Written by Roy Blount Jr., Pen Densham, and Garry Williams
With Bill Murray, Janeane Garofalo, Matthew McConaughey, Keith David, Pat Hingle, Jeremy Piven, Lois Smith, Anita Gillette, and Linda Fiorentino.
They say an elephant never forgets, but what they don’t say is, you’ll never forget an elephant. — Bill Murray in Larger Than Life
Farmer has bought an elephant at an auction. Gives him to Tom, Huck and Jim and they go about the country on him making no end of trouble. — from Mark Twain’s working notes for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Are you still suffering from postelection malaise? I’ve just gotten back from a couple of weeks in Australia, where voting is compulsory, and for all the complaints I heard about the downsizing of government services and ugly efforts to renege on aboriginal land rights and change immigration policies, the political atmosphere seemed decidedly less alienated and despairing than it does here. Read more
This appeared in the February 24, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Dana Olsen
With Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Rick Ducommun, Corey Feldman, Wendy Schaal, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore, and Courtney Gains.
Director Joe Dante is the perfect refutation of the idea that popular American comedies have to be simple. His movies are never pretentious or difficult to follow, but embedded in each of them are a sophisticated understanding of popular culture and an awareness of the multiple stances and positions that are possible within the confines of supposedly simple genre movies.
Gremlins offered an ambiguous cluster of proliferating beasties to illustrate a cautionary moral fable about magic; it also managed to be an amoral satire of the same facets of the American dream exalted in the fable. Innerspace postulated the injection of a miniaturized Navy test pilot (Dennis Quaid) into the body of a hypochondriac (Martin Short), leading to simultaneous and parallel narratives as each character’s progress influenced the other’s.
A knowledgeable connoisseur of the American cartoon, Dante makes movies that take place in the kind of manic world where anything can happen. This sensibility bore particular fruit in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (set in a universe ruled by the mind of a vindictive little boy who loved cartoons) and the climactic sequence of his Explorers (a nightmarish Mixmaster version of American TV strained through the sensibility, body, and technology of an extraterrestrial mimic); both of these segments anticipated the subversive universe that other filmmakers developed on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 24, 1997). — J.R.
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Chantal Akerman.
This weekend the Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of its exhibit “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” is presenting not only Chantal Akerman, one of the finest filmmakers working anywhere, but also the two features I would describe as her greatest achievements — the 200-minute narrative Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and the 107-minute documentary From the East (D’est, 1993). To make the program even more fully rounded, the museum is also showing a 64-minute self-portrait, Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996), which provides an excellent introduction to her work as a whole. (This film and Akerman herself will appear on Sunday; From the East shows on Friday, and Jeanne Dielman on Saturday.)
Despite her significant and still growing international reputation, Akerman isn’t yet considered an “established” mainstream or avant-garde artist, because many critics in both spheres still treat her as something of an interloper, even an irritation or a threat. A friend who’s a highly respected novelist and film critic recently told me that he regards all her work as worthless, even though he hasn’t bothered to look at all of it. Read more
From the August 18, 1989 Chicago Reader; this piece is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
Directed and written by Terence Davies
With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones, Michael Starke, and Vincent Maguire.
An autobiographical film about growing up in a Catholic working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50s. Achronological glimpses of a traumatic family life, with particular emphasis on a funeral and two weddings. A collection of radio shows and nostalgic songs sung at parties and pub gatherings. A highly condensed, triple-distilled family album of faces and feelings organized around a few key locations. A series of emotional and visceral jolts whose brute power and intensity could not be conveyed by a conventional linear story. A seamless block of passionate memories defined by the beauty and terror of the everyday.
The problem with all these descriptions of Distant Voices, Still Lives is that though each is partially accurate, they only dance around the periphery of what is a primal experience; that they represent the shards of my attempts to describe the essence of a masterpiece that reinvents filmgoing itself. I saw it twice at the Toronto film festival last September, and twice again earlier this month, and the inadequacy of my efforts is largely due to the fact that great films have a way of imposing their own laws and definitions that ordinary descriptions can’t reach. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2000). — J.R.
Requiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Hubert Selby Jr. and Aronofsky
With Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald, and Louise Lasser.
Darren Aronofsky’s first feature, Pi (1998), had more style than substance — or perhaps it’s just that the only thing I now remember with much clarity is its razzle-dazzle style. The black-and-white cinematography and the jazzy editing were pretty attractive in a disposable sort of way, though critic Bill Boisvert had a point when he suggested in these pages that the attitude of this metaphysical thriller was “profoundly anti-intellectual,” rightly adding that this was “true of most indie genius films.” (He may have been more right than he realized. His second example was the 1997 Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s been offering us nothing but anti-intellectual holiday releases about geniuses ever since — with Alfred Hitchcock rather than Norman Bates as the prodigy in the 1998 Psycho remake and Robert Brown taking the equivalent role in Finding Forrester, which opens on Christmas day.)
When I belatedly caught up with Aronofsky’s second feature, Requiem for a Dream, it was with the hope of seeing something more than just fancy style. Read more