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). I’m delighted that this prompted Adilkhan Yerzhanov to send me a very kind email along with a fresh link to his film. — J.R.
I’ve seen Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners (2014) only once, and if I dwell on my inability to see it a second time for this review, this is only to pay tribute to the issues and complications of ownership, which are so basic to the film’s universal relevance.
One year ago, I wrote the following as part of my bimonthly column for the Spanish film magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine: “12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a ‘mentor’ to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate….Yerzhanov’s Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin , September 1976, vol. 43, no. 512. — J.R.
Goodbye, Norma Jean
U. S.A./Australia, 1975
Director: Larry Buchanan
Hollywood, 1941. Ogled by her foster father and despised by her foster mother, Norma Jean Baker is thrown out by the latter and takes work in a factory. Raped by a policeman whom she earlier persuaded not to give her a speeding ticket, she is comforted by Corporal Ralph Johnson. He prompts her on how to behave when she enters the Miss Whammo-Ammo contest (which she wins), photographs her in cheesecake poses, and advises her in her efforts to become a movie star. They drive to Tijuana and make love, although she admits that her former experiences with men have prevented her from enjoying sex. He next introduces her to model agent Beverly, who finds her work posing for pulp magazine illustrations and introduces her in turn to agent Irving Ollbach, who takes her to a party in Palm Springs. There she is sneered at by casting director Ruth Latimer, raped by actor Randy Palmer (who first offers to give her a screen test), and mocked by the party’s host, the wealthy Hal James, who none the less later arranges for her to have an interview at Lion-Rampant pictures. Read more
Two volumes. Edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, with Pierre Sauvage. New York: McGraw Hill, 1983. $21.95 per volume cloth, $11.95 per volume paper.
On the whole, Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s 874-page, two-volume American Directors is closer in genre to Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary than it is to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. Like both predecessors, it is an encyclopedia of opinions first and facts second — although, to its credit, it has many more facts per entry (in filmographies and career summaries) than either of the earlier monoliths. Like the Roud and unlike the Sarris, it attempts exhaustive surveys rather than suggestive critical miniatures, and is authored by many hands. Coursodon wrote 66 of the 118 essays and co-editor Pierre Sauvage, who furnished all the filmographies, contributed 13; the remaining 39 are by 20 other writers.
Again like the Roud, the Coursodon stands or falls as a compendium more than as a book with a sustained viewpoint; consecutive or continuous reading is neither recommended nor viable. Overall, the criticism is homogeneous, perhaps too much so: the standard auteurist form of career survey — already a bit fossilized — as developed out of Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s Trente ans de cinéma américain (1970) and The American Cinema (1968) is so predominant here that other critical persuasions of the past two decades might as well have never existed. Read more
The following is from the [London] National Film Theatre’s program guide in December-January 1975-76, introducing a retrospective that I curated. If the valuation that I placed on Altman seems more idealized to me now than it did at the time, the fact that it came shortly after his best run as a filmmaker explains much of my enthusiasm. But my disillusionment with the media support of Altman already began to sour after I described at length the use of sound in a particular sequence from California Split to a BBC-Radio interview, only to discover that the broadcast version blithely substituted a different sequence from the film to illustrate my point, thereby reducing my analysis to gibberish. -– J.R.
While most commercial American streamliners turn all members of an audience into second-class passengers following the same route from an identical vantage point, Robert Altman’s multilinear adventures oblige us to take some initiative in charting out the trip -– supplying one’s own connections, and pursuing one’s own threads and interpretations in order to participate in a game where everyone, on-screen and off, is entitled to a different piece of the action.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealized description of an approach that is still in a state of development, and not every Altman film conforms precisely to this model. Read more
From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1975 (vol. 42, no. 502). This film has also been called The Death Merchants and The Spy Who Never Was. –- J.R.
Tod eines Fremden (The Execution)
West Germany/lsrael, 1972
Director: Reza S. Badiyi
Returning to Hamburg from a business trip, corporation lawyer Arthur Hersfeld is mistaken for Baruch Herzog, a non-existent Israeli agent invented by Israeli intelligence, and his cab from the airport is run off the road. He is given a lift into town by Amina, a French journalist calling herself Janine who works in the Arab underground and proceeds to investigate Hersfeld after dropping him off. Meeting her again, Arthur tells her that he knows she’s a spy, but a mutual attraction nevertheless develops between them. After a man named Zui Adam is murdered outside his home, and his office and house are ransacked, Arthur is questioned at the morgue by Inspector Barkan, who has been investigating Arab terrorist activity. Ordered to Berlin to kill Herzog, Amina buys a plane ticket for Hersfeld as well, and they have an affair; she talks about her family having been driven out of their home by Israelis and he tells her about his Jewish background, having been raised in New York after his father was killed by the Nazis. Read more
5. LA FRANCE CONTRE LES ROBOTS (Jean-Marie Straub)
6. HER SOCIALIST SMILE (John Gianvito)
7. MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)
8. SCHOOLGIRLS (Pilar Palomero)
9. VITALINA VARELA (Pedro Costa)
10. WOMEN ACCORDING TO MEN (Saeed Nouri)
Comment: The meditative and solitary aspects of film watching have increased during the pandemic, when many of us are exiled to our laptops, but fortunately, online platforms for post-screening discussions have grown as well. Read more
Originally published in Moving Image Source (posted online as “Hidden Treasures”), July 17, 2008. — J.R.
Ever since I retired a few months ago from my 20-year stint as film reviewer for the Chicago Reader, perhaps the biggest perk of all has been freedom from the chore of having to keep up with new movies. In practice, this translates into more free time to keep up with old movies. So returning to one of my favorite annual pastimes, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna — a festival that caters to people devoted to seeing old films in good prints — seemed only natural. Its 22nd edition, the fourth one I’ve attended, was especially rich.
Held in the oldest university town in Europe — hot and muggy this time of year, and full of labyrinthine back streets — the eight-day event mainly takes place at three air-conditioned cinemas during the day and at the Piazza Maggiore every evening, where the grand public shows up for outdoor screenings. (There’s also a jury that I’ve served on in previous years selecting the best restorations on DVD.) Read more
A pretty good English documentary about the 26-month life span of the Sex Pistols, by Julien Temple, who tries to correct some of the false impressions left by his first feature, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which was made 20 years ago and privileged the role played by the punk band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. For my taste, this corrected version has way too many clips from Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I also would have enjoyed more animated material, since what we have is loads of fun. The period ambience (call it funk) is irresistible, but the main points of interest here are sociological rather than musical. 108 min. (JR)
Written for the FIPRESCI web site from the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008. — J.R.
The continuing mythological status of Orson Welles in the realm of cinephilia complicates the challenge of representing Welles on film in many different ways. It’s one of the clearest merits of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, to have met and grappled responsibly with many if not all of the issues of this formidable challenge.
Working uncharacteristically with a script written by others — Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo, adapting a novel by Robert Kaplow that I haven’t yet read — Linklater tells the story of a fictional high school teenager (played by Zac Efron, best known for his role as Link Larkin in the recent remake of Hairspray) in 1937 who by sheer chance lands a bit part as a lute player in Welles’s famous stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a highly edited modern-dress adaptation known as Caesar built around the conceit of the story taking place in contemporary fascist Italy, with a bare set illuminated by “Nuremburg” lighting. Linklater has obviously researched existing records of this production (which include photographs, a script published some years ago by Welles scholar Richard France, and at least two audio recordings of the play performed by essentially the same cast around the same time) in considerable detail.
From the Soho News, October 20, 1981. Girish Shambu’s post on Facebook about Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont de Nord having “just popped up at both MUBI and Fandor on streaming” led me to unearth my original review of the film, which I’ve neglected to scan or post before now. — J.R.
At a juncture like this. the New York festival splits into disassociated sections for me. One part furnishes a launching pad for a commercial venture that scarcely needs it, while the other is furnishing us with a tantalizing glimpse of movies that something called Commerce is otherwise steadily denying us. (Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said for the highly uneven collection of shorts shown with the festival features. It’s hard to know when or if my own two favorites — George Griffin’s Flying Fur, a wild burst of contemporary animation energy set to an old Tom and Jerry soundtrack, and Clare Peploe’s beautifully shot comic English sketch, Couples & Robbers, about a middle-class straight couple and an upper-class gay couple and how their lives and goods interact –- might turn up again, so I’m grateful to the festival for letting me see them.)
With Truffaut’s La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du nord (North Bridge), both New Wave veterans are giving us mixtures that we’ve seen in their works before. Read more
From Time Out (London), October 11-17, 1974. –- J.R.
Up to now, Richard Lester has been in the habit of either attacking genres (‘How I Won the War’) or mixing them (‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ –- in the case of ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ virtually inventing a new genre out of the mixture). In ‘Juggernaut’, a commercial job with relatively modest pretensions, he is simply conforming to a genre -– the Ocean Liner catastrophe –- and comes up with a better-crafted version of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, complete with multiple subplots and cornball heroics, but with smoother acting and sharper direction. The potential catastrophe is seven steel drums of amatol timed to go off and destroy 1200 passengers unless a ransom is delivered to the mysterious Juggernaut. Using such varied ingredients as the flamboyance of Richard Harris, the stolid inexpressiveness of Omar Sharif and the usual carrying on of Roy Kinnear, Lester milks the situation for all the suspense that can be expected and then some, pushing a few arch gags into the remaining cracks. The results: mindless entertainment of the first order, at least in the Ocean Liner Catastrophe cycle.Read more
Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) tended to alter his visual style with every film, according to the needs of the story; this 1958 effort is a heavy-duty satire about three competing candy companies trying to outdo one another’s promotional campaigns, and its garish and ugly color photography seems just as functional and deliberate as the beautiful black and white of A False Student and Red Angel. Against a backdrop of hysterical competition and industrial espionage, a slum girl with bad teeth is discovered and transformed into a mascot for one of the candy companies by a cynical porn photographer. The film has rightly been compared to some of Frank Tashlin’s pop-culture comedies, made in Hollywood around the same time, and though it’s probably less funny than Tashlin at his best, its anger is more savage and leaves a more corrosive aftertaste; the apocalyptic ending, for that matter, is worthy of Douglas Sirk. (JR)
Probably the Coen brothers’ most enjoyable movie — glittering with imagination, cleverness, and filmmaking skill — though, as in their other films, the warm feelings they generate around a couple of salt-of-the-earth types don’t apply to anyone else in the cast: you might as well be scraping them off your shoe. The Chandler-esque plot has something to do with Jeff Bridges being mistaken for a Pasadena millionaire, which ultimately involves him as an amateur sleuth in a kidnapping plot. A nice portrait of low-rent LA emerges from this unstable brew, as do two riotous dream sequences. Set during the gulf war and focusing on a trio of dinosaurs — an unemployed pothead and former campus radical (Bridges), a cranky Vietnam vet (John Goodman), and a gratuitous cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott) — this 1998 feature may be the most political Coen movie to date, though I’m sure they’d be the last to admit it. With Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, John Turturro, and Ben Gazzara. R, 117 min. (JR) Read more
An adventurous and sometimes sexy, if only fitfully successful, adaptation of Louise Kaplan’s celebrated nonfiction book by Susan Streitfeld, working with a script she wrote with Julie Hebert (1996). The focus is on the life of a successful single prosecutor (British actress Tilda Swinton, displaying an impeccable American accent) as she waits to discover whether she’s been appointed as a judge, her kleptomaniac-scholar sister (Amy Madigan), the prosecutor’s boyfriend, a lesbian psychotherapist she has a fling with, and other people in her orbit. Oscillating between everyday events in her life and her dreams and fantasies, the film is much more successful with the former than with the latter, which often get heavy-handed and obscure. But the freshness of Streitfeld’s approach toward gender anxiety and social conditioning fascinates even when the overall clarity diminishes. Not for everyone, but those who like it will probably like it a lot. With Karen Sillas, Clancy Brown, Frances Fisher, Laila Robins, Paulina Porizkova, and Dale Shuger. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 2 through 8. — Jonathan Rosenbaum
The widespread distrust of film theory still persisting in mainstream criticism is scarcely confined to Anglo-American film culture. Less than a decade back, when Noël Burch’s Praxis du cinéma -– later translated as Theory of Film Practice –- first appeared in France, someone at Gallimard hit on a rather demented sales pitch, and the book was marketed with a wraparound banner boldly proclaiming, ‘Contre toute théorie.’ The curious science fiction tone of this declaration highlights a subterranean bias which informs most film reviewing on and off the continent: the idea that theory is an option best left to dusty academicians, while everyone else is better off operating on free-floating intelligence and intuition. Ironically, this is an assumption which expresses a theory of its own: that knowledge is essentially empirical. And the definition accorded to ’empiricist’ by the Concise Oxfordmay be worth at least considering:'(person) relying solely on experiment; quack.’
In all fairness to ‘anti-theorists’, it should be conceded that science and art are hardly the same thing. If a sizeable part of our knowledge of the former is grounded in theory, the parti pris underlying our knowledge of cinema tends to be a much more random affair, a generally murky blend of half-examined predilections and working hypotheses. Read more