From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995); corrected and updated in September 2012. — J.R.
Writer-director-star Elaine May’s first feature (1971). Not all of it works, and the studio cut some of the darker elements (including a murder sequence that May avows was one of the funniest things Jack Weston ever did), but it’s still an often brilliant and frequently hilarious comedy. Walter Matthau, cast wildly against type, plays a spoiled playboy suddenly deprived of his wealth who plots to marry and murder a wealthy, klutzy, and clueless botanist (May, playing sort of a female Jerry Lewis). May’s savage take on her characters irresistibly recalls Stroheim; she’s at once tender and corrosive (as well as narcissistic and self-hating). This is painful comedy, to be sure, but there’s a lot of soul and spirit behind it. With James Coco, George Rose, and William Redfield. (JR)
Written for Moving Image Source‘s “Moments of 2012”, posted January 10, 2013. — J.R.
This holiday season, part of my light reading has consisted of browsing through two new doorstop-size books, each over 600 pages long, Selected Letters of William Styron and The Richard Burton Diaries. The differences between them have been both telling and surprising, at least to me. Both men were heavy drinkers and literary pontificaters who spent much of their social lives hanging out with celebrities, but Styron—the more prestigious and respectable of the two, and admittedly the one I respected more before broaching these two volumes — proves to be an utter, sanctimonious bore, seemingly more interested in career management than in life, while Burton, forever the shameless hack actor, has both an interest in life and a wry sort of humor about it that sparkles on every page.
Admittedly, there’s not necessarily much correlation between artistic talent and the way one communicates with one’s self or with friends, acquaintances, and relatives. My own semi-admiration for Styron stems mainly from what I remember favorably about Set This House on Fire and Sophie’s Choice — two of his less respectable efforts, according to this country’s literary tastemakers, but possibly more because of their perceived subject matter than because of their dramatic achievements. Read more
I’m immensely grateful to Thomas Frank in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s — an article you can’t access online unless you subscribe, so please, run out and buy this issue if you can (if you don’t already have it), and turn to “Team America” on pp. 6-9 — for clarifying how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2005 best seller and prizewinner that Spielberg and Kushner credit as their main source. When I gave Lincoln one of its few negative reviews in the Forward last year, I only had a short time to write my review after seeing the film and before I flew to the Viennale, and despite the fact that I already had Goodwin’s doorstop/monolith within my clutches by then, there wasn’t enough time for me to dope out how much of what bothered me about the film was ascribable to her book. Frank’s column, even though it doesn’t mention the ideological similarity of Lincoln and Schindler’s List that I’ve written about elsewhere (both movies, as I see them, are ultimately defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism, corruptions and all, and not only defenses of corruption in politics), leaves little doubt that the popularity and prestige of Goodwin’s book aren’t simply matters of rewarding intellectual integrity and/or historical perspicacity. Read more
My 30th “En Movimiento” column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema, written in late January, 2013. — J.R.
The debates about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty in the United States have been substantial. Critical positions have ranged from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s measured defense at mubi.com/notebook/posts to Steve Coll’s attack in The New York Review of Books (to cite two of the less hysterical and more intelligent responses), and have only been exacerbated by the five Academy Award nominations the film has received. When I finally saw the film myself, it was apparent that part of the controversy derived from a certain ambiguity in the film’s depiction of torture, made all the more ambiguous by the filmmakers’ misleading and mainly unconvincing claims of political neutrality — a battle still being waged in the February issue of Sight and Sound, where Nick James, the editor of that English monthly, begs to differ with the negative judgments of two of his writers towards the film, even though he concedes that Bigelow’s naïve contention that “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge” has only helped to confuse matters.I agree with James that the climactic killing of Osama bin Laden registers largely as a hollow and morally dubious victory, but I also believe that the film’s commercially motivated attempt to be circumspect about its overall critical position makes it easy to misinterpret. Read more
Originally posted on July 7, 2013. — J.R.
IL CINEMA RITROVATO
DVD AWARDS 2013
Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, chaired by Peter von Bagh
Because we were faced this year with an embarrassment of riches, we adopted a few new procedures. Apart from creating three new categories for awards, we more generally selected eleven separate releases that we especially valued and only afterwards selected particular categories for each of our choices. We also decided to forego our usual procedure of including individual favorites because doing so would have inflated our choices to seventeen instead of eleven, which is already two more than we selected last year.
Our first new category is the best film or program at this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato that we would most like to see released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Our selection in this case is the French TV series Bonjour Mr Lewis (1982) by Robert Benayoun. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 27, 1997). — J.R.
Robert De Niro plays a presidential spin doctor spurred into action after a sex scandal threatens to destroy his boss’s chances for reelection. He flies to southern California, engaging a flamboyant Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, reportedly lampooning Robert Evans) to help fake a war in Albania that will make the president shine again. Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s script is gleefully hyperbolic without ever straying from its political target — the gulf war is repeatedly cited as the conspirators debate what the American public will swallow. Wag the Dog falters only in coming up with an adequate curtain closer (and in keeping both public response and the president out of frame, which makes the proceedings more theoretical than is necessary). Otherwise this is hilarious, deadly stuff, sparked by the cynical gusto of the two leads as well as the fascinating technical display of how TV “documentary evidence” can be digitally manufactured inside a studio. Barry Levinson directed with a reasonable amount of panache; with Kirsten Dunst, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Andrea Martin, and Willie Nelson. Starts next Friday, January 2. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sight and Sound commissioned the following from me for its “Home Cinema” feature in its September 2013 issue, but then, without telling me (or explaining why), decided not to use it. — J.R.
I haven’t yet caught up with Jerry Lewis’ spotty directing for TV, such as his episodes for Ben Casey (1964) and The Bold Ones (1970) or — more intriguing — L’uomo d’oro, fifteen two-minute sketches made for Italian TV in 1971. But there’s no doubt that his main creative bond with television is from live broadcasts — chiefly appearances with Dean Martin between 1948 and the mid-1950s in which the cascading, anarchic improvs, significantly erupting during one of America’s most repressive periods, made the whole notion of any plotted mise en scène superfluous. Luckily, I did get to see a late manifestation of this tendency in the mainly live segments of the 90-minute L’invité du dimanche in 1971, when Lewis, using hardly a single word of French, held a large audience captive (including Jean-Pierre Cassel, Louis Malle, and Pierre Etaix, virtually at his feet) with his prolonged and highly inventive antics. Just as no one turns to Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) for proof of Richard Pryor’s genius, or even cares about who directed Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Lewis’s distinction as an auteur, both dangerous and enduring, is founded on the threat of his physical presence. Read more
One of the joys of living in Chicago is the special quality of its scruffy storefront theater, although I must confess that during my 20 years here as a film reviewer, I took advantage of this resource only rarely, apart from a few intermittent discoveries over the years (such as the 21-year-old Theatre Oobleck, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon and savor in some of its earliest productions). More recently, since my retirement from the Chicago Reader, I’ve happily come across no less than four separate theaters of this kind in my own neighborhood so far, and over the past two Friday evenings I’ve had the pleasure of attending very impressive productions of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Strawdog (on 3829 North Broadway) and, tonight, Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at the Oracle just a few doors down from there (on 3809 North Broadway).
The Strawdog’s funky and entertaining version of Brecht (see above) has had the benefit of a thoughtful and passionate rave from the Reader’s Albert Williams, so the performance I attended was nearly sold out. But the Oracle’s Strindberg, despite a mainly favorable capsule in the same paper from Kerry Reid, shockingly had only seven customers at the performance I attended tonight, making us a slightly smaller crowd than the production’s able cast of eight. Read more
From Video Movies (August 1984). -– J.R.
Out of the Blue
(1981), C. Director: Dennis Hopper. With Linda Manz, Dennis Hopper, Sharon Farrell, and Raymond Burr. 94 min. R. Media, $59.95.
When it was released, a friend wittily and succinctly described Out of the Blue as “Dennis Hopper’s Ordinary People.” Though this film didn’t start out as a Hopper movie (he signed on as an actor and took over direction after shooting started), it certainly has the Hopper flavor: relentlessly raunchy and downbeat, and informed throughout by the kind of generational anguish and sense of doom that characterizes both of his earlier films [Easy Rider and The Last Movie].
Hopper, one should recall, is a figure identified with the 1950s. He made his acting debut alongside James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Conceived as a kind of punk remake of Rebel set in a contemporary working-class environment, Out of the Blue centers around Cindy “CeBe” Barnes (Linda Manz), an alienated 15-year-old punk who perpetually mourns the deaths of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten. Her mother, Kathy (Sharon Farrell), is a junkie who works at a cheap restaurant; her father, Don (Hopper), is a former trucker and an alcoholic finishing off a five-year stint in prison when the film opens. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 31, 1992). — J.R.
Ever since he moved to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has been an invaluable presence not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Still, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters may diminish the film’s overall accomplishment but shouldn’t be allowed to serve as an excuse to overlook it; as he puts it, the film’s “intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable.” Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1992). — J.R.
This rarely screened 1954 classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists; a fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico then striking against their Anglo management, it was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun), producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan, among others; as Jarrico later reasoned, since they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a crime to fit the punishment by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a very high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated. Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, it was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it’s never received the recognition it deserves stateside. If you’ve never seen it, prepare to have your mind blown. 94 min. (JR) Read more
This appeared in the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1992), and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. — J.R.
RHAPSODY IN AUGUST
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Akira Kurosawa
With Sachiko Murase, Hisashi Igawa, Mie Suzuki, Tomoko Ohtakara, Mitsunori Isaki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, and Richard Gere.
Next month, Akira Kurosawa will be celebrating his 82nd birthday. Having long outlived the two other supreme masters of the Japanese cinema — Kenji Mizoguchi, who died in 1956, and Yasujiro Ozu, who died in 1963 — he bears the handicap of living on in an era that clearly seems remote and alien to him, despite the fact that his work has enjoyed much more currency in the 80s and early 90s than that of any of his near-contemporaries.
I’ve always been somewhat slow to appreciate the mastery of Kurosawa in relation to the works of Mizoguchi and Ozu, perhaps in part because I started off on the wrong footing. The first Kurosawa film I ever saw was Rashomon (1950), the single movie that was most responsible for introducing the western world to the Japanese cinema, and, as it happens, I saw it as a teenager only after reading the two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa that it was based on. Read more
An unusually clever and shrewdly corrupt first feature (1999) by English stage director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball, this deftly juggles satire about contemporary consumerist America (sexual obsession, gun worship, working out, capitalism) and fanciful wish fulfillment in the duplicitous Hollywood manner of The Graduate and Risky Business. Kevin Spacey, at his best, plays the disgruntled hero whose lust for his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari) gives him a new lease on life; Annette Bening does her best with the more caricatured part of his shrewish wife. But the moral heroes here are their teenage daughter (Thora Birch) and her weird and secretive next-door neighbor (Wes Bentley), both thoroughly and understandably disgusted with the adult world. Mendes uses the superlative cinematography of Conrad Hall to excellent advantage, has a sharp sense for how to employ pop music, and moves back and forth between reality and fantasy without missing a beat; Ball has an uncanny ability to make disparate characters suddenly rhyme with one another. With Chris Cooper and Peter Gallagher. R, 121 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 12, 1999). — J.R.
This outrageous comic fantasy may not sustain its brilliance throughout its 112 minutes, but it keeps cooking for so much of that time that I don’t have many complaints. The first feature of both screenwriter/executive producer Charlie Kaufman (who’s written for several TV series) and director Spike Jonze (who’s directed commercials, music videos, and short films), it charts the complications that ensue when an out-of-work puppeteer (John Cusack) gets a filing job on the surrealistically cramped seventh and a half floor of an office building, where he discovers a hidden tunnel that allows its occupant to become actor John Malkovich (playing himself, natch) for 15 minutes before being ejected onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Things get even wilder when the filing clerk and his wife (Cameron Diaz as a pet-store employee) both get the hots for the same woman (Catherine Keener), who has comparable lust for the wife as long as she’s inside Malkovich. What’s great about this lunatic farce isn’t only its premises about sexual and professional identity but also the spirited way the actors and filmmakers flesh them out. With Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1992), though this version of the capsule is corrected and slightly tweaked from the original. 2013 postscript: Last year, while preparing to teach a brief course about Chaplin in Brazil, I wound up reading the first good Chaplin biography I’ve encountered so far (as well as one of the shortest), published fairly recently — Stephen M. Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life (2008). Even though it’s written by a psychiatrist, which made me suspicious at first, Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine liked it enough to write an Introduction, and it’s easy to see why. I highly recommend it. — J.R.
Given the decision to cram as much as possible of Charlie Chaplin’s 88 years into one Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, Cry Freedom) blockbuster, it’s no surprise that this packaged tour through the great man’s career is unenlightening and obfuscating, despite an adept lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. Hard put to explain how the world’s most beloved individual could have been hounded out of this country and barred from re-entry, the movie can only invent a personal grudge on the part of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), letting everyone else off the hook; it also omits Monsieur Verdoux (perhaps Chaplin’s greatest achievement) entirely from its chronology. Read more