A special sort of Christmas essay from the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1994). — J.R.
Over the past year we’ve been hearing a lot about the theme of redemption in current movies. Actually the seeds of this trend were probably sown back in 1980, when Raging Bull came out, but now “redemption” is becoming something of a buzzword. I recall being taken slightly aback when I heard Harvey Keitel, speaking at the 1992 Toronto film festival, employ the term without any trace of irony in regard to Reservoir Dogs. And since then I’ve been hearing it more and more, mainly in relation to movies associated with Quentin Tarantino (not only Reservoir Dogs but also True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Killing Zoe, and Pulp Fiction) and such varied films as Cape Fear, Cliffhanger, Forrest Gump, The Professional, and even Heavenly Creatures.
What’s surprising is not only the odd assortment of movies in this new canon but those that are automatically excluded. Looking over last year’s releases, one might logically conclude that movies dealing with the spiritual redemption of their lead characters would include, say, Schindler’s List, Little Buddha, Savage Nights, The Shawshank Redemption, Bill Forsyth’s grossly neglected Being Human, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White, and Red.… Read more »
Here are ten of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). — J.R.
1995 / The Neon Bible – “It didn’t snow that year.”
U.K. (Academy/Channel Four). Director: Terence Davies.
Cast: Drake Bell, Jacob Tierney, Gena Rowlands.
Why It’s Key: It reveals the power of imagination in a flash.
Few moments in movies reveal the power of imagination more succinctly than the opening of Terence Davies’ CinemaScope adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s first novel, written when the southern author was only 16. It opens with 15-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) alone on a train at night, the camera moving past him to the darkness glimpsed outside. Then David at ten (Drake Bell) is seen peering out a rain-streaked window in his rural home to the strains of “Perfidia”, circa 1948, while narrating offscreen, “People came to see us that Christmas. They were nas, those people —- they brought me things…”
A moment later, we cut to a diptych: on screen left, an empty porch topped by icicles framing an enchanted snowfall, as decorous as a neatly filled box by the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. On screen right, young David is seated on the floor inside, now looking out the same window in profile, while narrating offscreen, “There was no snow —- no, not that year.”… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 2007). — J.R.
In its story line, this wacky tale from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) about estranged wealthy brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, cowriter Jason Schwartzman) reunited for a strained spiritual journey through India is pretty unconvincing as character development. Every bit as precious as Anderson’s preceding features, it differs this time from late Salinger only in the way that these spoiled neurotics are implicitly ridiculed as both ugly Americans in the third world and spiritual poseurs — unlike their more committed mother (Anjelica Huston). What this movie has going for itself in spite of its cloying pleas for indulgence is a playful and interesting narrative structure that precludes much development and comes to the fore only toward the end. The whole thing may drive you batty, but as with Rushmore, the melancholy aftertaste lingers. With Amara Karan and Bill Murray. R, 91 min. a Century 12 and CineArts 6, Renaissance Place. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
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Here are five more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). — J.R.
1957 / Paths of Glory – Timothy Carey kills a cockroach.
U.S. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey.
Why It’s Key: A quintessential character actor achieves his apotheosis when his character kills a bug.
To cover up his vain blunders, a French general (George Macready) in World War I orders three of his soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey), chosen almost at random, to be court-martialed and then shot by a firing squad for dereliction of duty, as an example to their fellow soldiers. When their last meal is brought to them, they can mainly only talk desperately about futile plans for escape and the hopelessness of their plight. Then Corporal Paris (Meeker) looks down at a cockroach crawling across the table and says, “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.” Ferrol smashes the cockroach with his fist and says, almost dreamily, “Now you got the edge on him.”… Read more »
Posted in (or on) Moving Image Source on August 18, 2010. — J.R.
“Having provided over 30 audio commentaries for DVD releases,” Australian film critic Adrian Martin wrote recently in his column for the Dutch film magazine Filmkrant, “I feel I have earned the right to criticize the format. These voice-over commentaries provided by filmmakers, critics and historians are decidedly a mixed blessing. I sometimes wonder whether anybody, except the most dedicated and/or masochistic researcher, ever listens to them all the way through. No one can doubt that these voice-tracks sometimes give us splendid insight or information that we cannot obtain elsewhere in print. But are they really the best we can do in the quest to marry film criticism with the film-object itself?”
Martin is hardly alone in articulating this position. Many of my friends who collect DVDs, maybe even most of them, avow that they tend to skip audio commentaries entirely, and it’s difficult not to share their bias In most of these run-on spiels, the remarks rarely coincide with what one is seeing (or hearing), and one often feels that the commentator, whether it’s a critic or a participant in the filmmaking, is simply taking the easy way out — doing a free-form improv rather than bothering to write a carefully considered text.… Read more »
These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fourth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Taste of Cherry
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, and is even inconclusive about whether or not he succeeds, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. The film has remained in many ways Kiarostami’s most controversial film ever since it shared the 1997 paume d’or at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, in part because it entrusts so much of its meaning and power to the audience and the nature of its own investment in what it’s watching. Like many of Kiarostami’s other films, it’s centered around the simultaneously private and public experience of a character in a car giving rides to others, and just as the experience of watching a film in a theater combines private responses with public reactions, this is a film that speaks to both of these situations.… Read more »
From the April 14, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
A powerful 1996 neorealist feature by the French Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne that follows the instinctive, makeshift moral progress of a 15-year-old boy named Igor (Jerome Renier), the son of a slum landlord who rents to recently arrived immigrants, some of them illegal. One tenant, from Burkina Faso, falls from a scaffold and makes a dying request to the boy to take care of his wife (Assita Ouedraogo) and infant son; Igor spends the remainder of the movie trying to honor that request, even when it means breaking away from his own father and coping with the scorn and incomprehension of the widow. This is a beautifully realized, richly detailed story, full of humor as well as pathos, and part of the Dardennes’ strength in telling it is their openness to experience and the world around them without being hampered by didacticism. in French with subtitles. 93 min (JR)
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These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the second dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece, about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to sit down and have a meal together, is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and executed of all his late French films. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams, dreams within dreams, and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with the very processes of narrative illusion and narrative continuity themselves — their rewards as well as their compulsions, their pleasures and their frustrations.
Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious, the various episodes involving these and other characters (including Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur) are like an anthology of Buñuel’s themes, favorite gags, and recurring nightmares. The film was produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, perhaps the two most essential friends and collaborators in the flowering of Bunuel’s late period, though Buñuel regulars Rey, Frankeur, and Julien Bertheau might also be cited.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 4, 1996); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Li Shaohong
Written by Ni Zhen and Li
With Wang Ji, Wang Zhiwen, He Saifei, Zgang Liwei, Wang Rouli, Song Xiuling, Xing Yangchun, Zhou Jianying, and Cao Lei.
The use of multiple perspectives in Chinese painting was not for the purpose of making a hologram, nor was the use of parallel perspectives for the purpose of retaining the true dimensions of the objects represented. What was desired was rather a point of view which transcended that of the individual. The apparent horizon and vanishing point employed by Renaissance perspective made the image seem concrete, but demanded substantial identification with a particular viewer. Such images were perceived as both individual and momentary, seen by a particular person at a particular time. Chinese painting strove for a timeless, communal impression, which could be perceived by anyone, and yet was not a scene viewed by anyone in particular.
Chinese paintings did not portray reality; the world which the viewer entered was the realm of literature or philosophy, a realm which transcended nature. To enjoy a long tableau with small figures, one must shift one’s line of sight left and right, or up and down, a necessary condition for the appreciation of Chinese visual representation.… Read more »
Written for the Busan International Film Festival’s Korean Film retrospective catalogue, Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master IM Kwon-taek, Fall 2013. — J.R.
I can’t pretend to be familiar with Korean history in general and traditional Korean music in particular. But rather than attempt to disguise my ignorance with a handful of facts gleaned from superficial research, I prefer to approach Chunhyang (2000, 136 min.) in broader, more generalized, and less historical terms as a film confronting issues of representation relating to live performance as well as cinema, and the survival of relatively ancient forms of music and performance in the present.These are the issues that have drawn me to Chunhyang in the first place, despite an overall ignorance about Korean culture that extends to most of its cinema — including even most of the oeuvre of its most celebrated auteur, Im Kwon-taek.
I hope that this admission of my lack of knowledge and innocence can be regarded as a form of clarification and honesty rather than as an expression of arrogance. My theoretical assumption is that the most common form of journalistic bluff regarding such matters — conveying an unearned and unwarranted stance of authority, typically justified through a series of lazy intellectual shortcuts and/or appropriations (such as, for example, describing pansori as some Korean variant of the American blues) — is ultimately more imperialistic in effect than any honest admission of cultural ignorance.… Read more »
Commissioned in December 2008 by London’s National Film Theatre or the South Bank — I can’t recall now which of these appellations it was using then — for a small Burnett retrospective. These notes were written according to precise specifications, as indicated in the word lengths mentioned below. — J.R.
1. 35-word stand first
Versatile yet focused, Charles Burnett offers an in-depth portrait of the ghetto community he grew up in, South Central Los Angeles, in an oeuvre that’s both witty and tragic, continuing to expand and surprise us.
2. 350-word introduction
Born in Mississippi in 1944 but raised in Watts, Charles Burnett is a filmmaker as steeped in his community as William Faulkner was in his. But he hails from an invisible community, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the supreme living masters of American cinema should also be among the slowest to gain recognition.
That he’s worked memorably for both Miramax (The Glass Shield, 1994) and the Disney channel (Nightjohn, 1996) has only helped to give him a scattered and confused mainstream profile, typically omitting such bold independent experiments as The Final Insult (a 1997 digital video about the homeless, mixing documentary, fiction, and poetry) and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (a 2003 TV essay that fictionalizes and dramatizes many conflicting versions of its title figure — a Virginia slave who led a 1839 revolt that slaughtered 59 whites).… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995). — J.R.
This 1993 feature certainly has its flaws — including a wholly unnecessary literary quotation that appears on-screen at the worst possible moment — but it’s still one of maverick independent Jon Jost’s most forceful efforts to date, in part because it stars the most talented actor he’s ever worked with, the resourceful Tom Blair. Mainly known as a stage actor and director, Blair also starred in two of Jost’s best earlier features — as a wandering, jobless malcontent in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and as a misguided, bullying real estate speculator in Sure Fire (1990). Here he rounds out a loose trilogy of Jost’s corrosive, speculative self-portraits by playing a more sympathetic and ostensibly less alienated character, the owner of a lumber mill employing 60 workers, though the consequences of his situation prove to be even bleaker — and this time they can’t be so confidently traced back to his own character. A tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film that alternates between all-American landscapes (many of them composed as diptychs) and an unraveling nuclear family, this is as evocative and apocalyptic as Jost’s cinema gets — a film full of unanswered questions that will nag at you for days even as it makes fully understandable the sort of feelings about this country that drove Jost into European exile not long after it was completed.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October, 1990). — J.R.
This economically constructed and haunting chiller (1943, 66 min.) from the inspired team of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur doesn’t have the reputation of the two other films they worked on together in the early 40s, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. In part that’s because its ending is a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory — but it’s still one of the most remarkable B films ever to have come out of Hollywood. Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, the film employs an audacious narrative of shifting centers, thematically related by a string of grisly murders in a small town in New Mexico. Depending for much of its effect on a subtle and poetic nudging of the spectator’s imagination, the film has a couple of sequences that are truly terrifying. With Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, and Jean Brooks. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1989). — J.R.
By far the most underrated of Sam Peckinpah’s films, this grim 1974 tale about a minor-league piano player (Warren Oates) in Mexico who sacrifices his love (Isela Vega) when he goes after a fortune as a bounty hunter is certainly one of the director’s most personal and obsessive works — even comparable in some respects to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in its bottomless despair and bombastic self-hatred, as well as its rather ghoulish lyricism. (Critic Tom Milne has suggestively compared the labyrinthine plot to that of a gothic novel.) Oates has perhaps never been better, and a strong secondary cast — Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts, and Emilio Fernandez — is equally effective in etching Peckinpah’s dark night of the soul. R, 112 min. (JR)
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This was probably my first review of a James Cameron film, published in the August 11, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. It’s a review that helps to explain, in any case, some of the reasons why I dislike Avatar. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by James Cameron
With Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, John Bedford Lloyd, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff, and Kimberly Scott.
To satisfy these new cravings of human vanity, the arts have recourse to every species of imposture; and these devices sometimes go so far as to defeat their own purpose. Imitation diamonds are now made which may be easily mistaken for real ones; as soon as the art of fabricating false diamonds shall become so perfect that they cannot be distinguished from real ones, it is probable that both will be abandoned, and become mere pebbles again. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
I happened to see The Abyss with someone who only sees about three Hollywood movies a year. In a way it proved to be an appropriate choice for him, because it’s a veritable survey of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in the 80s, as cannily up-to-date as the latest issue of Variety.… Read more »