Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Sorrow and the Pity

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The cinema has produced few more impressive pieces of investigative journalism than this epic 1971 documentary by Marcel Ophuls — 260 minutes long, plus a 15-minute intermission — about the German occupation of France. Ophuls, son of the great Max Ophuls, devotes the first part to the fall of France, the second part to everyday life during the Occupation up through the Liberation. In both parts he focuses on the city of Clermont-Ferrand, not far from Vichy, and the heart of the film consists of relaxed interviews with survivors — French as well as German, resistance fighters as well as collaborationists — and newsreels and propaganda films from the period. The interviews are dated somewhat by the dearth of female subjects (only one out of the 36 principal speakers, and a Petain supporter at that); women are often visible, but apart from the occasional interjection they function mainly as domestic decor. One of the film’s abiding strengths is Ophuls’s refusal to rely on easy ironies or facile divisions between heroes and villains, despite his implicit emphasis throughout on ethical issues. Near the beginning and end of the film he employs the unsettling technique of freezing the frame while the subject’s voice continues, which suggests that even the “frozen” past still has fresh things to tell us. Read more

Barry Lyndon

From the Chicago Reader in July 2000. — J.R.


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With the possible exceptions of Killer’s Kiss and A Clockwork Orange all of Stanley Kubrick’s features look better now than when they were first released, and Barry Lyndon, which fared poorly at the box office in 1975, remains his most underrated (though Eyes Wide Shut is already running a close second). This personal, idiosyncratic, and melancholy three-hour adaptation of the Thackeray novel may not be an unqualified artistic success, but it’s still a good deal more substantial and provocative than most critics were willing to admit. Exquisitely shot in natural light (or, in night scenes, candlelight) by John Alcott, it makes frequent use of slow backward zooms that distance us, both historically and emotionally, from its rambling picaresque narrative about an 18th-century Irish upstart (Ryan O’Neal). Despite its ponderous pacing and funereal moods, the film is highly accomplished as a piece of storytelling, and it builds to one of the most suspenseful duels ever staged. It also repays close attention as a complex and fascinating historical meditation, as enigmatic in its way as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Music Box’s weeklong Kubrick retrospective includes a new print of this and several other films, and it offers an excellent opportunity to reevaluate a filmmaker whose work continues to deepen after his death. Read more

A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries

From the Chicago Reader (September 25, 1998). — J.R.\

This unusually charming and touching Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film feels closer to memoir than fiction; it’s drawn from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones), but Ivory, working with his usual screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, reportedly fleshed out the story with some of his own experiences. In “Billy,” the first of the film’s three sections, an expatriate novelist in Paris (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Barbara Hershey) adopt a six-year-old French boy who’s initially resented by the couple’s natural daughter. “Francis,” set a few years later, recounts the daughter’s friendship with an eccentric American schoolmate (Anthony Roth Costanzo), and Jane Birkin has a field day as his doting single mother. Yet these last two characters, as well as the family’s maid (Dominique Blanc) and her boyfriend (Isaac de Bankole), disappear in “Daddy,” which follows the family’s return to the States once the siblings are teenagers and the father’s health is deteriorating. The three parts add up to a rather lumpy narrative, and the characters are perceived through a kind of affectionate recollection that tends to idealize them, but they’re so beautifully realized that they linger like cherished friends. Read more

The Tic Code

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A very special movie, about two jazz musicians with Tourette’s syndrome getting acquainted in Greenwich Village. One’s a white 12-year-old pianist (Christopher George Marquette); the other’s a black tenor saxophone player (Gregory Hines). Polly Draper (Thirtysomething), who does a beautiful job of playing the boy’s mother, wrote the sensitive script, which falters only when it reaches for an overly hasty resolution. She’s the wife of jazz pianist Michael Wolff, who’s in charge of the music here and has a mild case of Tourette’s, so she has a particular reason to be thinking about some of the fascinating questions posed hereabout willful and involuntary improvisation and how they might live together. The moments when the story and music become one are sublime, and more generally this is a very sweet and touching story about various West Village people. The jazz milieu is caught with flavor and feeling. With Desmond Robertson, Bill Nunn, and Tony Shalhoub. 91 min. (JR) Read more

The Deadman

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1991). Happily, this film can be accessed  for free at http://ubu.com/film/ahwesh_deadman.html –– J.R.

Running 37 minutes, Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s free and liberating (as well as liberated) 1989 adaptation of Georges Bataille’s untranslated story Le morte is one the most exciting and accomplished experimental film I saw during the 1990s. It charts the adventures of a nearly naked heroine who leaves the corpse of her lover in a country house, goes to a bar, and sets in motion a scabrous free-form orgy before returning to the house to die. The film manages to approximate the transgressive poetic prose of Bataille while celebrating female sexual desire without the usual patriarchal-porn trimmings. Equally remarkable for its endlessly inventive sound track and its beautiful black-and-white photography, it bears the earmarks of an authentic classic. The relationship between the visual storytelling, the ornate printed titles, and the occasional voice-over is both subtle and complex, mixing tenses and cross weaving modes of narration with a unique fusing of abandon and rigor. (JR)

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2 Days In The Valley

From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1996). — J.R.

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The standard line on this actor-heavy, brain-light concoction by writer-director John Herzfeld (1996) is that it’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction, but it isn’t a tenth as good as either. It does, however, have a good many dog reaction shots, so if you happen to think the other two movies were lacking in those, credit Herzfeld for making up the difference. Crosscutting between various San Fernando Valley miniplots that prove to be interlocking, Herzfeld has a tolerable eye for filling a ‘Scope frame but a tin ear when it comes to creating dialogue; these are all characters we’ve met before, and most even seem bored with themselves. With Danny Aiello, Greg Cruttwell, Jeff Daniels, Teri Hatcher, Glenne Headly, Peter Horton, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, James Spader, Eric Stoltz, and Charlize Theron, plus cameos by Keith Carradine, Louise Fletcher, and Austin Pendleton. (JR)

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We’re All Connected [SHORT CUTS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 22, 1993). — J.R.

SHORT CUTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt

With Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell, Frances McDormand, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Madeleine Stowe, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, and Tom Waits.

Annie Ross — the tough and resourceful British-born jazz singer Kenneth Tynan once called “a carrot-head who moves us and then brushes off our sympathy with a shrug of her lips” — projects the kind of caustic soul that seems made for a Robert Altman film. And nothing in Altman’s 189-minute Short Cuts moves me quite as much as her rendition of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” sung and swung over the final credits, which roll past a set of overlapping maps of Los Angeles.

The number meshes with the movie in unexpected and mysterious ways. Its trout-fishing motif sends us back to one of the film’s key episodes and its aftermath — a trout dinner for two couples on a terrace overlooking LA that expands into an all-night party, a recapitulation of many of this movie’s other motifs and themes: Jeopardy, clown costumes, makeup, marital infidelity, partying, unemployment. Read more

A Touch of Class [GOSFORD PARK]

From the Chicago Reader (January 18, 2002). — J.R.

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**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Julian Fellowes

With Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Watson.

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Critical consensus about any movie is impossible, but judging from end-of-the-year polls, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is widely recognized as a masterpiece. Perhaps because the English period setting and the mainly English cast encouraged the septuagenarian Altman to curb many of his smart-alecky tendencies, he can finally be credited with something resembling a mature comedy-drama — that is to say, a measured and balanced one — for the first time since the 70s.

For all his many accomplishments, Altman sometimes doesn’t know when to stop underlining dramatic points, or exposing the silliness and vanity of his characters, or piling on miniplots. This makes it all the more impressive that he’s now given us a beautifully proportioned work in which 30 fairly well defined characters don’t seem excessive, most of the plot points aren’t hyped, and the director’s ridicule, while far from absent, isn’t allowed to dominate our own responses. Read more

The Caine Mutiny Court-martial

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1992). — J.R.

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A vast improvement on Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 The Caine Mutiny, directed by Robert Altman for TV in 1988. Both are adaptations by Stanley Roberts of Herman Wouk’s ultraconservative novel, but the Dmytryk essentially honors the promilitary message of the original (navy captains should be obeyed even if they’re insane) while the Altman version ridicules it. One of Altman’s best works of the 80s; with Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Brad Davis, Peter Gallagher, Michael Murphy, and Kevin J. O’Connor. (JR)

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Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 1995). This date is a guess and an estimate; the Reader gives the date of this capsule as a decade earlier, a couple of years before I started writing for the paper. — J.R.

The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers midstream to burying them with voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; adding insult to injury are the merely adequate performances (by contemporary piano duo Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) of two unabridged Monk tunes. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts by friends and family of the mental illness that plagued his final years aren’t very illuminating — though here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there’s virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Read more

On a favorite film review

From Sight and Sound (October 2008), in response to a poll query about what film criticism had had the greatest effect on me and inspired me to become a film critic — J.R.

From Penelope Houston’s review of Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961-62 issue of Sight and Sound:

…And so she goes to the midnight meeting with the stranger, sits waiting rigidly for the clock to strike, leaves with him. But about this ending there is no sense of exaltation or relief. She goes because she has no choice, because for her all the possibilities have narrowed down to a single decision, but she has no idea where she is going. The stranger’s final words offer no comforting clue: “It seemed, at first sight, impossible to lose yourself in that garden… where you are now already beginning to lose yourself, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” The film’s last shot is of the great chateau; and, with its few lighted windows, it no longer looks like a prison but like a place of refuge.

I read this review in my late teens, before I saw Resnais’ glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope. Read more

24 City

As evidenced by everything from Trouble the Water to WALL-E to Wendy and Lucy, the disastrous effects of unchecked capitalism may be the most urgent contemporary theme in movies. The brilliantly innovative Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, The World, Still Life) has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience. This beautiful and challenging documentary looks at a military factory in Chengdu that’s shutting down to make way for a luxury apartment complex, and in interviewing five former workers and three fictional characters (played by Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and his frequent collaborator Zhao Tao), Jia manages to convey how three generations are affected by this change. In Mandarin with subtitles. 112 min. (JR) Read more

God as a Litigant

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Chambers’ may appeal after his suit against God is tossed out
BY CHRISTOPHER BURBACH
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

You can’t sue God if you can’t serve the papers on him, a Douglas County District Court judge has ruled in Omaha.

Judge Marlon Polk threw out Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers’ lawsuit against the Almighty, saying there was no evidence that the defendant had been served. What’s more, Polk found “there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant.”

Chambers had sued God in September 2007, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent God from committing acts of violence such as earthquakes and tornadoes.

The senator said today that he is considering an appeal of Polk’s ruling.

“It is a thoughtful, well-written opinion,” Chambers said. “However, like any prudent litigator, I want to study it in detail before I determine what my next course of action will be.”

Polk dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, which means it can’t be refiled. But his ruling can be appealed.

Although the case may seem superfluous and even scandalous to others, Chambers has said his point is to focus on the question of whether certain lawsuits should be prohibited.

“Nobody should stand at the courthouse door to predetermine who has access to the courts,” he said. Read more

Tex Avery/Floriane Place-Verghnes

TEX AVERY: A UNIQUE LEGACY (1942-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing), 2006, 214 pp.

I love the last line in Dr. Place-Verghnes’ Acknowledgments -– a tactful understatement which demonstrates both that she wears her academic armor lightly and that she’s temperamentally suited to dealing with someone like Avery: “I reserve a particular sentiment for Warner Brothers Inc., without whom and their point-blank refusal to grant copyright authorisation, this volume would have contained multiple images from Tex Avery and others’ cartoons in support of the textual content.” (Actually, she does cheat a tad by reproducing or at least imitating a classic Avery image on the book’s cover–two giant bulging eyeballs as they appear in one of the Wolf cartoons.)

It’s too bad she didn’t publish this book online–in which case I presume she would have had as little difficulty in illustrating the graphic brilliance of Avery as I’m having here by scavenging diverse items from the Internet. For starters, here are three more characteristic samples:

One of the more interesting challenges in viewing Avery’s vintage MGM work is learning how to process various aspects of their racism and sexism without overlooking their good-humored humanity or drowning in political correctness. Read more

Global Discoveries on DVD (my 1st column, 2003)

From Cinema Scope #14 (Spring 2003). It’s interesting to note that many of the releases that I discuss here are still available, if not always readily available. All of my recent columns, by the way, starting with issue #40, can be found on Cinema Scope‘s web site. — J.R.

A FEW PRELIMINARIES. The word is still getting out about the riches that are currently available to cinéphiles owning DVD players that play discs from all the territories —- players that are by now readily available at affordable prices to anyone with enough initiative to go looking on the Internet. But it might be added that the number of previously scarce films that can now be purchased in North American Territory is already quite substantial.

Combine these two opportunities and you have the pretext for a new column, which will be devoted not to DVD players (that’s your problem) but to DVDs that are currently available. This will follow the capitalistically incorrect premise that once you move beyond your own designated territory, the world becomes your oyster and a different sort of place from the one that assumes that you’re necessarily trapped as a consumer by the choices offered within your own national borders. Read more