Yearly Archives: 2020

Impromptu

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1991). — J.R.

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A delightful if fanciful treatment (1991) of the events leading up to the romance between assertive George Sand (Judy Davis) and prudish Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) — roughly from 1836 to 1838 — that also involves such artists as Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), and Eugene Delacroix (Ralph Brown), as well as Liszt’s lover and Sand’s friend Marie d’Agoult (Bernadette Peters) and Sand’s former lover Felicien Mallefille (Georges Corraface), a tutor to her children. James Lapine, best known as the director and librettist of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods, fluidly directs a lively script by his wife Sarah Kernochan, and a generous number of piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt are smoothly integrated into the story. Especially good in the cast are Davis (adept in translating Sand’s boldness in dress and manner into body language) and Anna Massey as her mother. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)

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Images Of The World And The Inscription Of War

From the February 1, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A fascinating 1988 film essay about photography by Harun Farocki, one of Germany’s most interesting independent filmmakers. Farocki combines the freewheeling imagination of Chris Marker with the rigor of Alexander Kluge, and his materialist approach to editing sound and image suggests both Fritz Lang and Robert Bresson. Central to the argument of this film are some aerial photographs of Auschwitz taken by American bombers looking for factories and power plants and missing the lines of people in front of the gas chambers — which are contrasted with Nazi photographs and images drawn by an Auschwitz prisoner, Alfred Kantor. Farocki’s provocative reflections on these and related matters and his highly original manipulation of music make this an excellent introduction to his work, which has seldom been visible in this country. In German with subtitles. 75 min. (JR)

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THE STRANGER’S RETURN (1933)

What a pleasurable experience it is to pass directly from a slew of end-of-the-year screeners, most of which I can’t watch to the end, to a 1933 King Vidor opus that still isn’t commercially available on DVD. (According to Scott Simmon, Raymond Durgnat’s coauthor on King Vidor, American [1988], this is Vidor’s most underrated movie; Durgnat opts for Ruby Gentry.) A characteristic virtue of this character-driven adaptation of a Phil Stong novel set in farming country is a shot devoted to a dog wandering into a Sunday morning church service during the sermon, noticing that the place is full, and gradually sitting down under one of the pews. It’s the sort of inessential detail that I wouldn’t expect to find in any contemporary movie. I have no way of knowing whether or not this was scripted, but considering how little it has to do with the plot, I suspect it wasn’t—that Vidor happened on such a shot as an afterthought. Apart from the economy of 30s features, this sort of meandering poetry seems increasingly rare in today’s movies. [12/20/08] Read more

Recommended: STRAUSS AT MIDNIGHT

As a fan of the directorless Theater Oobleck dating all the way back to its second show in Chicago (David Isaacson’s riotous Three Who Dared: A Play on the Movies, in June 1988), with particularly fond memories of Jeff Dorchen’s The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard (December 1988) and Ugly’s First World (October 1989) as well as Mickle Maher’s When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? (January 1990), I regret having somehow lost touch with their singular repertory of literary and political shotgun marriages in recent years. A recent visit to Dorchen’s brilliantly excessive Strauss at Midnight at the the Chicago DCA Theater (66 E. Randolph), which runs through July 19, reminded me of how much heat and liberating anger and laughter they can generate.

This play has something to do with Saul Bellow (Isaacson), posthumously still tainted by his former association with Allan Bloom (Troy Martin), and, through Bloom, with Leo Strauss (David Shapiro), condemned to a hell in which he has inhabit the same quarters as Neil Simon’s Odd Couple (Brian Nemtusak and H.B. Ward doing fine, surreal spinoffs of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), not to mention Niccolo Machiavelli (Scott Hermes) and In the Heat of the Night‘s Virgil Tibbs (D’wayne Taylor). Read more

Anything for a Laugh [THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1988). — J.R.

THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by David Zucker

Written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft.

With Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, O.J. Simpson, and Nancy Marchand.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I find the latest comedy by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the ZAZ team) a notch below their previous Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984). This shouldn’t matter much to anyone looking for an irreverent, anything-goes farce with a fair number of laughs; The Naked Gun is certainly that, and I don’t intend for the following to scare anyone away from it. But I do want to consider what’s been happening to the ZAZ team’s distinctive brand of satire over the past eight years.

All three ZAZ movies use as their point of departure the crystallized form of some bad formula movie. The lead characters wear deadpan expressions through their cliche roles, and the laughs derive largely from non sequiturs in their dialogue and from lunatic gags that surround them as they trudge through their routine plots, impervious to the silliness.

Airplane! stuck to this pattern pretty consistently, lampooning the disaster blockbusters of the 70s like Earthquake, the Airport sequels, and The Towering Inferno. Read more

A Nest Of Gentry

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1988). — J.R.

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Andrei Konchalovsky’s follow-up to his 1967 Asya’s Happiness was a much safer literary adaptation of a Turgenev novel about a cuckolded member of the Russian aristocracy of the mid-19th century who is the son of a servant girl and a nobleman and who struggles unsuccessfully to find a place for himself in society. Ambitious but rather slow, using a variety of camera techniques that suggest the influence of the French New Wave, this is a respectable if unexciting work by a talented filmmaker. Attractively filmed in color, and certainly more interesting than A Handful of Dust as a treatment of fading aristocracy, it nonetheless lacks the sense of discovery conveyed in Konchalovsky’s best Soviet and American work (1969). (JR)
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My Ten-Best List for SIGHT AND SOUND (2020)

Submitted to Sight and Sound on October 26, 2020. — J.R.

Alphabetical order:


1. L’ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À DACHAU (Mark Rappaport)

2. BOTTLED SONGS: MY CRUSH WAS A SUPERSTAR (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

3. CENOTE (Oda Kaori)

4. FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt)

5. LA FRANCE CONTRE LES ROBOT(Jean-Marie Straub)

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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

Lights up! A few final words on the [New York] film festival [in 1981]

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.

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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.)

Flying Fur

Couples & Robbers

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

Black and Tan (1976 review)

The following was written for the Monthly Film Bulletin — a publication of the British Film Institute, where I was serving at the time as assistant editor — and it follows most of the format of that magazine by following credits (abbreviated here) with first a one-paragraph synopsis and then a one-paragraph review. (For his resourceful photo research, thanks once again to Ehsan Khoshbakht.)–J.R.

Black and Tan

U.S.A., 1929
Director: Dudley Murphy

Dist—TCB. p.c—RKO. p. sup—Dick Currier. sc—Dudley Murphy. ph—Dal Clawson. ed—Russell G. Shields. a.d—Ernest Feglé. m/songs—“Black and Tan Fantasy” by James “Bubber” Miley, Duke Ellington, “The Duke Steps Out”, “Black Beauty”, “Cotton Club Stomp”, “Hot Feet”, “Same Train” by Duke Ellington, performed by—Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra: Arthur Whetsol, Freddy Jenkins, Cootie Williams (trumpets), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Joe Nanton (trombone), Fred Guy (banjo), Wellman Braud (bass), Sonny Greer (drums), Duke Ellington (piano), (on “Same Train”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”) The Hall Johnson Choir. sd. rec—Carl Dreher. with—Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra, Fredi Washington, The Hall Johnson Choir. 683 ft. 19 min. (19 mm).

Duke Ellington rehearses his “Black and Tan Fantasy” for a club date in his flat with trumpet Arthur Whetsol until interrupted by two men from the piano company, sent to remove the instrument because he has fallen behind in the payments. Read more

The Man Who Wasn’t There

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2001). — J.R.

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Joel and Ethan Coen stay true to their bent for dense heroes and neonoir, and to their unshakable conviction that life usually turns out to be splendidly horrific. Here they’ve cast Billy Bob Thornton as a self-effacing small-town barber in the late 40s who’s slowly enmeshed in a doomed crime plot. Apart from a couple of screwy Coen-style flashbacks, several fancy plot twists, and a few other postmodern indulgences, this is straight out of James M. Cain, though the high contrasts of Roger Deakins’s glorious black-and-white cinematography suggest at times Fellini’s 8 1/2 more than noir classics. Thornton seems born to play the sort of slow-witted poet of the mundane that the Coens find worthy of their condescending affection. It’s a story that’s easier to rent than buy, but it does look good on the big screen. Others in the cast, all pretty effective, include Frances McDormand (in the Barbara Stanwyck part), Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini. 116 min. (JR)

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Is He or Isn’t He? [K-PAX]

From the Chicago Reader (November 2, 2001). — J.R.

K-Pax

**

Directed by Iain Softley

Written by Charles Leavitt

With Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard, David Patrick Kelly, Peter Gerety, Saul Williams, and Celia Weston.

The last chapter of Robert Lindner’s best-seller The Fifty-Minute Hour, which I read when I was a teenager, was the first thing I was reminded of while watching K-Pax, a movie about a New York shrink at a psychiatric hospital (Jeff Bridges) treating a brilliant man (Kevin Spacey) who calls himself Prot and claims to come from a planet called K-Pax. In each story a psychiatrist finds himself seduced into half believing the SF projections of one of his patients, and part of the allure of that setup — like the case studies in an Oliver Sacks collection — is that we’re invited to flirt with the poetic notions behind some of its suppositions.

Based on a novel by Gene Brewer and written by Charles Leavitt, I can’t discount the undeniable pleasure of watching Spacey and Bridges act up a storm, but a lot of what makes this movie watchable and compelling is precisely what’s bogus about it: it gives in to a desire to generalize about people who are mentally ill — a group that doesn’t necessarily include Prot — and to feel satisfied and astute about those generalizations. Read more

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

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The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us through the courtesy of Clint Eastwood as 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 in midstream to burying them under voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; and, adding insult to injury, the film also takes pains to give us two Monk tunes performed only adequately by a contemporary piano duo (Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) in unabridged form. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts (by friends and family) of the mental illness that accompanied his last years are usually not very illuminating — although here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there is virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Read more

Stormy Waters

From the September 23, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.

Dave Kehr has rightly called Jean Gremillon Jean Renoir’s only serious rival in the prewar French cinema, largely on the basis of Gueule d’amour (1937), Gremillon’s first film with Jean Gabin. But the director released three comparably impressive features during the occupation, starting with this 1941 drama, Remorques, about a gruff, married salvage-boat captain in Brittany (Gabin) falling for the recently estranged wife (Michele Morgan) of a ruthless captain whose merchant ship he’s towing to safety. Gabin and Morgan may have been the hottest couple this side of Bogart and Bacall, and despite some awkward use of miniatures in the early stretches, this benefits from stormy atmospherics, masterful characterization, and expressive use of sound. The script was adapted successively by Charles Spaak, Andre Cayatte, and Jacques Prevert from a novel by Roger Vercel. With Madeleine Renaud. In French with subtitles. 81 min. (JR)

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Undermining Authority [SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM]

From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 1989). — J.R.

SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Trinh T. Minh-ha.

How many, already, have been condemned to premature deaths for having borrowed the master’s tools and thereby played into his hands? — Trinh T. Minh-ha

Uncertainty is a difficult premise on which to build a documentary, although there are times when it may be the only honorable perspective. To be without certainty usually means to be without authority, and it is the position of authority that generally determines the form and address of the documentary as we know it.

As a rule, we depend on the solidity of an authority figure in order to feel unified and legitimized as spectators. No matter how many people may be behind the filming or taping of a news broadcast or documentary, and no matter how many people may be watching it, the pretense of some form of one-on-one communication between spectacle and spectator is nearly always maintained in order to facilitate the “transmission of information.” Whether it’s an anchorperson addressing the camera, a voice-of-God narrator providing offscreen commentary, or an interview subject addressing an interviewer who becomes our surrogate, the illusion is always fostered that information is traveling directly from an authority to an individual spectator, who is made to feel authoritative in turn because of the implied intimacy and directness of address. Read more

Interview in CINEMAD (2000)

From Cinemad No. 3 (2000). Much of this piece makes me blush, and other parts are clearly out of date, but I’m posting this basically “for the record”. -– J.R.

A conversation with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum by Paolo Ziemba

This being the first article that I’ve written for Cinemad I thought it was more than appropriate to delve into a time where films changed my way of thinking of the world. Rosenbaum was key in this new beginning. Cinemad continues this process. While reading Rosenbaum’s books for research I experienced a sort of nostalgia   for the days back when I was broadening my knowledge of cinema. Rosenbaum had opened many doors to a world of cinema that I had never experienced before. With this in mind I would like this article, at the least, to stir the readers to explore what Rosenbaum, and the world of cinema, is more than willing to offer.

Imagine a film critic who travels the world and experiences all cinema. Imagine a critic who is not only moved by cinema because of its beauty, but also because of its importance in the world. Imagine a critic who takes all of this in and then serves it to anyone willing to read. Read more