Yearly Archives: 2020

Passing Through

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1990). — J.R.

One of the rare fiction features about the jazz world made by a black filmmaker — and arguably much more important than Mo’ Better Blues, though it’s rarely shown. This 1977 film by Larry Clark, written by Ted Lange, follows a young saxophonist (Nathaniel Taylor) recently released from prison who tries to deal with the political aspects of his profession with the help of an older musician (Clarence Muse). Original and thoughtful, this is a very special first feature, with a feeling for the music that’s boldly translated into film style. (JR)

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The Best Video Essays of 2020 (for SIGHT AND SOUND)

Best Video Essays (alphabetical order):     

    

  1. L’Année Dernière à Dachau (Mark Rappaport, France)
  2. Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito, U.S.A.)
  3. A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong (Mehrnaz   Saeed-Vafa, U.S.A.)*
  4. The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski, U.S.A.)
  5. Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara, Italy)
  6. Women According to Men (Saeed Nouri, Iran)

                                                      

*I worked on this film in various capacities–as interview subject, consultant, and camera assistant. Read more

Five Best Digital Releases, 2020 (for Sight and Sound)

Submitted on October 29, 2020. — J.R.

Five Best Digital Releases

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-GirlfriendThe Complete Fourth Season (Warner Archive, four DVDs)


The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Criterion, fifteen Blu-Rays).


Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (Second Run Features, two Blu-Rays)


Kira Muratova’s Second Class Citizens (one Russian DVD).


Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (Grasshopper Film, one Blu-Ray, one DVD)


I’ve ignored precise dates because Johnson-Trump have brought history to an impasse, and one country’s 2019 release might not even arrive in the mail before 2020. I’ve included A Bread Factory even though it includes my own public interview with its writer-director. Teaching a course in Varda made me appreciate that she knew how to generate her own best extras (none of which, alas, I could show on Zoom). The final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deserves recognition for resurrecting the Hollywood musical to serve the specific needs of the present while triumphantly proving that sitcom characters can actually grow. English subtitled Muratova is most easily tracked on YouTube, and I can’t even identify the Russian label of this welcome DVD release.

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The Origins of Goofus McPherson (2007 Reader blog post)

Here’s where the original post is, dated June 7, 2007, which has a better layout as well as 17 hyperlinks. This is basically a piece of postmodernist fiction, for better and for worse. –J.R.

The Origins of Goofus McPherson
June 7, 2007 – 12:08 p.m.

Goofus: a Latin declension of the middle-class Disney mutt, best known for his unbuttoned longjohns  and his stammering, guttural dim-wittedness. McPherson: the lovesick, necrophiliac cop played by Dana Andrews in Laura. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Walt Disney hired Otto Preminger to remake his own noir as a cartoon, a sort of animated True-Life Adventure. Or that Otto Preminger, opting for an animated remake himself, farmed out part of the work to the Disney studio, which took it upon itself to undermine the class status of Detective Lt. Mark McPherson by turning this gumshoe into a bourgeois fall guy and a dumb-ass canine to boot, meanwhile converting the Vincent Price character into some version of Lumpjaw the Bear, who was even dumber than Goofy, and which suggests refashioning Gene Tierney in the title role of the sweet missy as Lulabelle.

Why the Latin declension? Let’s call it an all-too-American cultural as well as psychosexual trade-off. Read more

Romeo Is Bleeding

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1994). Whatever it is, “avant-garde cinema” it isn’t. — J.R.

RIB

This gory, postmodernist fruit salad may be the most misogynistic piece of noir since Body Heat, though as in Basic Instinct a certain amount of giddy dominatrix worship — in this case focused on Lena Olin as an evil mobster — gets mixed into the brew of producer Hilary Henkin’s script. It’s the sort of fancy-pants movie that can have a wealthy hoodlum (Roy Scheider) threatening its hero (Gary Oldman), a crooked cop on the take, by recounting an anecdote about Robert Lowell. As in The Grifters, another exercise in Hollywood noir directed by a non-American (here it’s the Hungarian Peter Medak, who works mostly in England), one can’t easily tell whether this is taking place in the 40s or half a century later; but with so many baroque plot moves and narrative devices, and so much self-consciously ornate dialogue and voice-over narration, you’re not supposed to notice or care. The film certainly held me, and even fooled me in spots (when it wasn’t simply confusing), but when the whole thing was over I felt pretty empty. It would be facile to say it substitutes style for content; actually, it substitutes stylishness for style. Read more

Zulu

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1992). Reseeing the film recently in a splendid new Blu-Ray edition from Twilight Time, I now regard this as Cy Endfield’s greatest film — and one the best war films ever made, a magnificent epic that succeeds on many levels. — J.R.

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The only commercial hit made by Cy Endfield, the neglected, blacklisted American writer-director who emigrated to England in the 50s — an epic and visually quite impressive account of an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors on 105 British soldiers in Natal in 1879. While the incident is recounted wholly from the British viewpoint, the film is not racist, as some charged when it was released in 1964. Reflecting Endfield’s career-long refusal to plumb his characters’ motivations, it presents all the events at face value, not even delving directly into the causes of the Zulu attack. (Reportedly, Endfield tried to compensate in the script he wrote for the 1979 Zulu Dawn, directed by Douglas Hickox.) While it might be argued that Endfield’s greatest work (i.e., Try and Get Me!) shows a political and social lucidity about class divisions and group behavior that is only hinted at here, the handling of action and spectacle and the direction of actors are truly masterful. Read more

Van Gogh

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1993). — J.R.

A revisionist look at the last 67 days of Vincent van Gogh’s life by the highly talented writer-director Maurice Pialat (The Mouth Agape, A nos amours, Under Satan’s Sun), with singer-songwriter-actor Jacques Dutronc — the Bob Dylan of Paris and the lead in Godard’s Every Man for Himself — in the title part. Ironically, this 155-minute French art movie shows the painter’s existence, including his sex life, to be a lot happier than is generally depicted — much sunnier, in fact, than Vincente Minnelli’s or Robert Altman’s films on the same subject; in any case, it certainly qualifies as a personal work. (The period re-creations of Jean Renoir and John Ford remain the key reference points.) While the results shed little light on van Gogh’s painting, some painters I know are smitten with this film, and the mise en scene and the period flavor are both quite remarkable. With Alexandra London, Gerard Sety, Bernard le Coq, Corinne Bourdon, and Elsa Zylberstein (1992). In French with subtitles. (JR)

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Talking Back to the Screen (Toronto 1992)

From Film Comment, November-December 1992. I’m not sure which of the stills directly below is printed backwards, so I’m including both of them.– J.R.

My 13th year at the Toronto Festival of Festivals reconfirmed my feeling that it’s large enough to satisfy many disparate and even contradictory viewing agendas. But even with a reported 320 films this year, it can’t be said to accommodate every taste. That is, one can generally count these days on the festival showing every new film by Paul Cox, Manoel de Oliveira, Henry Jaglom, Stanley Kwan, and Monika Treut, but not every new feature by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Raul Ruiz, or Trinh T. Minh-ha (whose latest offerings were all absent this year) — or any work at all by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Harun Farocki, or Leslie Thornton. Certain thresholds are maintained regarding difficulty, and while Toronto audiences are possibly the most polite and appreciative that I know of anywhere, the programmers don’t seem eager to test their limits. After the screening of his delightful and significantly titled Careful, Winnipeg weirdo Guy Maddin pointedly observed that if a Canadian sees a great movie, he or she says it’s pretty good, and if a Canadian sees a terrible movie, he or she says it’s pretty good. Read more

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

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

rosencrantz guildenstern

Tom Stoppard freely adapts, directs, and all but destroys his own enjoyable and provocative absurdist play about two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), victims of a drama taking place in the wings that they can neither understand nor control. Critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that the play may have been the first to use another play as decor; if so, then the film uses two plays — Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — and often the consequences are even more confusing than Stoppard could have intended. I can’t imagine a play less suited for a film adaptation, although Stoppard might have turned this to his advantage had he confronted that paradox. Instead he tries to open up a work that depends upon a sense of claustrophobic limbo, then undermines that approach by focusing the camera so tightly on the characters that he muddles our sense of spatial continuity. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is something semi-inexplicable that happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while the screenplay turns it into something they’re obliged to chase after; unfortunately, Stoppard’s sense of film is so inferior to his feeling for the stage that he makes the same compromises and reductions a Hollywood hack might have brought to the material. Read more

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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Open Spaces [THE NEWTON BOYS]

From the April 3, 1998 Chicago Reader. My affection for Richard Linklater’s most underrated film has only grown over time. — J.R.

The Newton Boys

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker

With Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Chloe Webb.

Shortly before reseeing Richard Linklater’s sixth feature, The Newton Boys, I caught up with his first — a Super-8 opus from 1988 with the enigmatic title It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [see below]. Essentially an epic of inaction starring Linklater himself, the movie consists mainly of hanging out, taking train rides, driving, using a variety of vending machines, doing household chores, and watching movies on TV. The film might be described as a noncommercial version of his second feature, the 1991 Slacker — a Slacker without much dialogue or plot, devoted to the everyday pleasures of vegetating and drifting. Some of it reminds me of structural films and of the work of Jon Jost. Just about all of it is attractively shot. And Linklater’s film references — including choice bits from the sound tracks of The Killing and Some Came Running and an extended ravishing clip from Gertrud — pop up like generous, unexpected gifts. Read more

Mississippi Mermaid

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). This is available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.

Francois Truffaut’s free adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s masochistically doom-ridden Waltz Into Darkness, in ‘Scope and color, yields an unsuccessful but sympathetic exploration of the filmmaker’s underrated darker side. A wealthy tobacco planter (Jean-Paul Belmondo) sends for a mail-order bride, and the mysterious lady who turns up is not the woman he was led to expect but Catherine Deneuve. Stately and languorous in its dreamy melancholy, though never entirely convincing, this 1969 picture is full of movie references — even the cabin at the end of Truffaut’s own Shoot the Piano Player figures centrally. But perhaps its ultimate justification is that of Truffaut’s other morbid films, such as The Bride Wore Black, The Story of Adele H, and The Green Room: a doomed romantic protagonist (in this case Belmondo) who goes the limit. In French with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)

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Two Takes on the Truth

From the April 6, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THE HOAX * DIRECTED BY LASSE HALLSTROM

WRITTEN BY WILLIAM WHEELER, FROM A BOOK BY CLIFFORD IRVING WITH RICHARD GERE, ALFRED MOLINA, HOPE DAVIS, MARCIA GAY HARDEN, STANLEY TUCCI, AND JULIE DELPY

THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI***  DIRECTED BY LINDA HATTENDORF

There are ways both official and unofficial to describe “the movies.” There’s the new releases the industry decides to push in the malls, and then there’s everything else, which we’re obliged to root out for ourselves. A schoolteacher I know in the wilds of Argentina selects and projects DVDs on a regular basis, and some of the stuff he shows — old experimental shorts, recent features by Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Sokurov, and Gus Van Sant — is pretty specialized. But he must know his audience at least as well as any studio, because his screenings draw about 800 people a week.

I’d like to think that kind of niche viewing is the wave of the future, something that will put a lot of mall fare to shame. And applying this notion to a couple of features opening this week, I’d like to think that a quietly precious piece of artfully arranged storytelling like The Cats of Mirikitani and a brassy piece of bluster like The Hoax represent respectively the future and present of movies. Read more

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