Yearly Archives: 2020

Spike Lee’s Best Movie? [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Posted on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Spike Lee’s best movie?

Posted By on 01.01.07 at 01:53 PM

If my 20 best list for the past year could have been based purely on artistic criteria rather than on packaging and marketing categories, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts — which premiered on HBO on two consecutive nights in late August, a year after the tragedy in New Orleans—would have belonged somewhere near the top. Although I missed the third act at the time, I’ve recently watched the whole thing on the recently released three-disc DVD box set — which adds a fifth act called “Next Movement” as well as a slide show of photographs called “Water Is Rising,” accompanied (like the documentary itself) by a Terence Blanchard jazz score—and the experience as a whole is so powerful that I’m tempted to call this over four-hour documentary Lee’s masterpiece to date. For its remarkable cast of characters, its comprehensive and even epic treatment of a major catastrophe in all its multidimensional aspects, for its political and ethical clarity (as well as its focused and wholly justifiable anger), and above all, for its soul, it shows a maturity and balance that may be unparalleled in Lee’s work.
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When Fable and Fact Interact [INDIA MATRI BHUMI]

From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2007). — J.R.

INDIA MATRI BHUMI ****

DIRECTED BY ROBERTO ROSSELLINI

WRITTEN BY ROSSELLINI, SONALI SENROY DAS GUPTA, FEREYDOUN HOVEYDA, AND JEAN L’HOTE

WITH A NONPROFESSIONAL, UNCREDITED CAST

From the beginning film has owed part of its fascination to its ambiguous marriage of documentary and fiction. Just after the war Roberto Rossellini came to prominence as a filmmaker through combinations of this kind. His best-known early works, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), are associated with the style popularly known as Italian neorealism, but through the 50s Rossellini experimented with increasingly adventurous mixes of reality and invention, culminating in 1959 with India Matri Bhumi, whose title means “India, Mother Earth.” It’s a sublime symbiosis of fable and nonfiction that poetically inter-relates humans and animals, city and village, society and nature.

At war’s end Rossellini was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany. But once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues started coming to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. The Bergman films flopped both critically and commercially, though for the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema they were models of personal independent filmmaking that would help spark the French New Wave. Read more

Spur of the Moment [BEFORE SUNSET]

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 2004). — J.R.

Before Sunset

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke

With Delpy and Hawke.

“The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.”
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time….
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”

— from W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1937)

Richard Linklater, like Wong Kar-wai on the opposite side of the globe, is a lyrical and elegiac filmmaker. In many of his films, as in many of Wong’s, the subject is time — the romance and poetry of moments ticking by, the wonder and anguish of living through and then remembering an hour or a day.

Future generations may look back at Linklater and Wong as poets laureate of the turn of the century who excelled at catching the tenor of their times. In Days of Being Wild and Slacker, Ashes of Time and The Newton Boys, Happy Together and Dazed and Confused, and In the Mood for Love and Before Sunrise they’re especially astute observers of where and who we are in history. Read more

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 2005). Nine years later, having recently reseen this fabulous film on Blu-Ray (a beautiful job from Warners, with many enticing extras), I would currently maintain that what I formerly called the “key cinematic sources” should probably have been called key cinematic cross-references — to which one should add Raul Ruiz’s City of Pirates for its own shot which purports to be a view of someone’s teeth from the inside of his mouth. — J.R.

charlieandthechocolatefactory

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Tim Burton finally fulfills the promise of Beetlejuice (1988) with this imaginative masterpiece, adapted from the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl but characterized by Burton’s special feeling for color, architecture, and nightmarish dislocation. Adapted by John August, this schematic fable of five children invited to tour a mysterious candy factory is well served by the surrealistic design, Johnny Depp’s mannerist performance as the androgynous chocolate tycoon Willy Wonka, and the deft digital wizardry that multiplies actor Deep Roy into the entire workforce of the Wonka factory, performing crazed production numbers. (Among the key cinematic sources here are the ice cream factory in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions and the hyperbolic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) There’s a streak of moralism, but it never becomes as sticky as the candy because the invention never flags. Read more

A Man Escaped

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 2005). — J.R.

a-man-escaped

Based on a French lieutenant’s account of his 1942 escape from a gestapo fortress in Lyon, this stately yet uncommonly gripping 1956 feature is my choice as the greatest achievement of Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s foremost artists. (It’s rivaled only by his more corrosive and metaphysical 1970 film Au Hasard Balthazar.) The best of all prison-escape movies, it reconstructs the very notion of freedom through offscreen sounds and defines salvation in terms of painstakingly patient and meticulous effort. Bresson himself spent part of the war in an internment camp and subsequently lived through the German occupation of France, experiences that inform his magisterial grasp of what the concentrated use of sound and image can reveal about souls in hiding. Essential viewing. In French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)

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Mortu Nega

From the August 11, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

One of the best contemporary war films I know is this singular 1988 feature, the first by Guinea-Bissau filmmaker Flora Gomes (Po di sangui). The first half, as elemental and as unadorned as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, concentrates on women fighting alongside guerrillas at the end of Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence in 1973, attacked by Portuguese helicopters as they travel on foot close to the border. The second half, more diffuse and at times more rhetorical, deals with the ambiguous conditions of the war’s aftermath. The title means “those whom death refused,” and true to that notion the heroine (Bia Gomes) has been fighting for about a decade. Gomes (no relation to the director) manages to convey the loss of her children in a wordless and underplayed moment that shook me to my core. Flora Gomes appears in a cameo as president of a postwar sector. 93 min. Film Center, Saturday, August 12, 4:00, and Thursday, August 17, 6:00.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Memory, History, Consciousness: The Video And Television Work Of Chris Marker

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1996). — J.R.

A little over two hours of recent videos by the great essayistic filmmaker Chris Marker (Sans soleil), ranging from playful personal works — such as Bestiary, put together between 1985 and 1993 and consisting of a record of the filmmaker’s cat’s responses to Ravel, the repeated staring of an owl, and two separate videos shot at a zoo — to documentaries for European television, including one that features Andrei Tarkovsky shooting the last sequence of his last film and then watching the film on video from his sickbed, a playful 1988 tour of Tokyo streets, a 1990 survey of reunified Berlin, a monologue by the painter Roberto Matta about his own work, and a fascinating account of a community of Bosnian refugees in Slovenia pirating TV signals to watch the news together. The videos about Tokyo, Berlin, and Tarkovsky aren’t subtitled, but they’re still highly watchable (and they contain bits of English, including actress Arielle Dombasle’s charming imitation of an American accent in the Tokyo work). The overall experience is roughly akin to channel surfing in a European hotel with a satellite dish. (JR)

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On Mohsen Makhmalbaf

From the Chicago Reader (April 11, 1997). I’ve suppressed the title/headline originally given to this piece, which I greatly regretted at the time, “Tortured Genius”. There are a few contributions of my own here that I also regret, but, for the record, I’ve decided to let this text stand. — J.R.

Films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

It’s tempting but dangerous to approach artists from exotic cultures in terms of more familiar reference points — such as comparing Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou to The Postman Always Rings Twice or reading Souleymane Cisse’s Brightness as if it were an African Star Wars, as some American and English critics have done. Yet to describe the styles and visions of the two major Iranian filmmakers of the 80s and 90s, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I’ve been exploring comparisons to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a project obviously fraught with booby traps, but one that clarifies some of the important differences between these two major figures.

Last June the Film Center brought us seven features and nine short films by Kiarostami, and this month it’s showing ten features and one short documentary by Makhmalbaf, as well as three documentaries about him (one of them Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-up). Read more

Images of the World and the Inscription of War

From the February 7, 1992 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

A fascinating 1988 film essay about photography by Harun Farocki. One of Germany’s most interesting independent filmmakers, he combines the freewheeling imagination of a Chris Marker with the rigor of an Alexander Kluge, and has a materialist approach to editing sound and image that 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 fragmentization and manipulation of music make this an excellent beginning to a long-overdue retrospective of his work, which until now has not been available in the U.S. Farocki will be present for a discussion; cosponsored by the Goethe-Institut. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday, February 12, 7:30,281-8788)

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King Lear

From the March 31, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

kingleargodardsellers

Jean-Luc Godard’s zany, English-speaking quasi adaptation of the Shakespeare play has the most complex and densely layered use of Dolby sound in movies, and this screening offers one the first chance in Chicago to hear it properly. The “itinerary” of the film–one can’t quite consider it a plot — involves a post-Chernobyl view of culture in general and Shakespeare’s play in particular. Among the performers, mainly used by Godard as a painter might use colors, are stage director Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald (as Cordelia), Burgess Meredith (as Lear), a semiincoherent Godard (as someone called Professor Pluggy), and, in smaller parts, Norman Mailer, his daughter Kate Miller, film director Leos Carax, and Woody Allen. The film certainly qualifies as a perverse provocation on more levels than one, but one of these levels — believe it or not — is Shakespeare. It may drive you nuts, but it is probably the most inventive and original Godard film since Passion. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, March 31, 6:00 and 7:45, 443-3737)

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Light Fantastic [THE LIGHTED FIELD]

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 1988). Note: The Andrew Noren stills are copyrighted by his estate. — J.R.

THE LIGHTED FIELD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Andrew Noren.

I’m a light thief and a shadow bandit. I deal in retinal phantoms. Film is illusion, period, however you choose to see it — shadows of human delights and adversities or raging conflicts of emulsion grains. We see only “films” of films, as all of our sight and sensing is illusion, the phantom movies of our encounter with the world, which, remember, is equally phantom, trompe l’oeil of that clown and ghostmeister, the sun.

The lovers, light and shadow, and their offspring space and time are my themes, working with their particularities is my passion and delight. — Andrew Noren

The difference between narrative and nonnarrative filmmaking is a little bit like the difference between team sports and individual exercise. In contrast to a collective game with a beginning, a middle, and an end, personal exercise tends to be more rhythmically repetitive, involved more with process and with cycles than with development, and moves with a steadier pulse that eschews the more unpredictable dynamics of drama and suspense.

Andrew Noren’s lovely 59-minute The Lighted Field — part five of his ongoing work The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, which has engaged him over the past two decades — belongs mainly to the nonnarrative realm. Read more

Eye Of The Beholder

From the February 1, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Here’s one very sick and messed-up movie. As misogynistic as anything I’ve seen in ages, it’s tricked up with enough fancy cinematography (by Guy Dufaux) to guarantee it sub-Hitchcockian credentials of the sort that some reviewers eagerly hand out to Brian De Palma. A surveillance specialist for the British secret service (Ewan McGregor) who’s haunted by the loss of his wife and little girl years earlier obsessively tracks a psychopathic murderer (Ashley Judd) across the U.S. The first couple of times he and we watch her take her clothes off through his surveillance equipment, grisly murders follow; after that we get more grisly stuff but less cheesecake. Writer-director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), adapting a novel by Marc Behm, shows how much he likes The Conversation, Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, and Basic Instinct by serving up pastiches of them all and hoping everything somehow fits together. (To all appearances, the plot was resolved with a coin flip.) According to this movie’s view of femininity, Genevieve Bujold as a reform school official is womanly, therefore evil, and K.D. Lang as a secret service contact is androgynous, therefore OK. Read more

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

From Cineaste, Fall 2003. — J.R.

Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film

by Peter Wollen. London and New York: Verso, 2002. 314pp. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $20.00.

One of the more interesting paradoxes of Peter Wollen’s writing career is that he was perceived as an academic well before he had a long-term teaching post whereas today, with a seemingly permanent berth in the critical studies program at UCLA’s film department, he’s more apt to come across as a journalist. Part of this has to do with the magazines he writes for, though it might be added that for better and for worse — and more for the better — there’s always been a breezy, nonpedantic side to his writing that makes it far more accessible and user-friendly than the work of many of his more theoretically-minded colleagues. Paris Hollywood, his latest collection, is an agreeable showcase for this quality — more so, in many ways, than Readings and Writings (1982) and Raiding the Icebox (1993).

There are, to be sure, some scholarly limitations to Wollen’s lightness of tone, at least when he falls too readily into certain easy generalizations. It may sound reasonable to write of Godard’s early work (in “JLG,” one of the better essays here), “He never once worked with a script-writer,” but only if one glides past the roles of Truffaut on Breathless and Rossellini and Jean Gruault on Les Carabiniers. Read more

The Cell

From the August 15, 2000 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

If you thought virtual-reality thrillers and spin-offs of The Silence of the Lambs had run their course, guess again. Jennifer Lopez, who looks great in a rubber suit, keeps putting one on in order to enter the unconscious of a serial killer/mad scientist-genius (Vincent D’Onofrio) and discover where he’s hidden his latest victim; meanwhile, hot and bothered FBI agent Vince Vaughn is also on the case. There’s almost no plot here and even less character — just a lot of pretexts for S-M imagery, Catholic decor, gobs of gore, and the usual designer schizophrenia. Tarsem Singh, a specialist in commercials and music videos (assuming one can distinguish between the two), directed a script by Mark Protosevich, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste costars as the voice of reason, present to offer an occasional change of pace. 107 min. (JR)

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The Newton Boys

From the Chicago Reader (April 10, 1998). — J.R.

The Newton Boys

TheNewtonBoys-train

Not to be hyperbolic, but Richard Linklater’s first big-budget movie may be the Jules and Jim of bank-robber movies, thanks to its astonishing handling of period detail and its gentleness of spirit, both buoyed by a gliding lightness of touch. Linklater, Clark Lee Walker, and Claude Stanush (who also worked on the script of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men) have adapted Stanush’s oral history about the Texas-born Newton brothers, who between 1919 and 1924 became the most successful bank robbers in the U.S. The film may occasionally bite off a few more narrative strands than it can chew, but that’s merely the flip side of its generosity and energy. You can keep your L.A. Confidential; here’s a vision of the American past that I’m ready to climb inside. Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke play the brothers; with Dwight Yoakam and Julianna Margulies. 600 N. Michigan. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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