This appeared in the May 5, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Last Good Time
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Bob Balaban
Written by Balaban and John McLaughlin
With Armin Mueller-Stahl,Olivia d’Abo, Lionel Stander,Maureen Stapleton, Kevin Corrigan, Adrian Pasdar, and Zohra Lampert.
Bob Balaban, a native Chicagoan who’s best known as a prolific movie and stage actor, has directed only three features to date. I haven’t seen his second feature, My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which some people tell me I’m better off having missed, but Parents, his first, was one of the most auspicious debuts of 1989.
Despite the radical differences between Parents and The Last Good Time in terms of genre, subject, style, and tone, they’re clearly the work of the same filmmaker. Part of this has to do with a precise feeling for place and a profound grasp of what sitting alone in a room feels like, even when other people are present. The solitary character in Parents is a ten-year-old boy who’s living with his parents in tacky 50s American suburbia. The monstrous (if typical) ranch-style house where they live is seen basically just as the boy experiences it — an expressionist, wide-angle nightmare etched in “cherry pink and apple blossom white” (to quote the song heard over the opening credits) that matches his parents’ taste and hypocrisy. Read more
From the Autumn 1974 Sight and Sound. I’m reposting this here both to celebrate the New York revival of Celine and Julie Go Boating, which starts tomorrow, and to illustrate Armond White’s allusion to my “[sucking] up to French snobbery,” apparently by ascribing to this comedy “the charm and esprit usually associated with cinematic pleasure,” as he so patriotically and unsnobbishly puts it. — J.R.
In the spring of 1970, Jacques Rivette shot about thirty hours of improvisation with over three dozen actors. Out of this massive and extremely open-ended material have emerged two films, both of which contrive to subvert the traditional movie going experience at its roots. Out 1, lasting twelve hours and forty minutes, has been screened publicly only once (at Le Havre, 9-10 September 1971) and remains for all practical purposes an invisible, legendary work. (Its subtitle, significantly, is Noli Me Tangere.) Spectre, which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the first film — running 255 minutes, or roughly a third as long — was released in Paris earlier this year. And during the interval between the editing of Spectre and its release, Rivette shot and edited a third film, Céline et Julie vont en Bateau, 195 minutes in length, which surfaced in Cannes last May. Read more
A bored festival report that I did for Cinemaya, Winter 1991-1992. -– J.R.
The Chicago International Film Festival is now 27 years old, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the U.S. because its founder, Michael Kutza, has remained its director, it might be said to have retained its overall focus — or, in fact ,the lack of focus — since the beginning, which might be described as an emphasis on quantity rather than a discernible critical position. (Having moved to Chicago in 1987, I’ve been present only for the last five festivals, but local critics who have been around much longer assure me that it hasn’t gone through any radical changes.)
To cite one instance of what I mean, it is the only festival that comes to mind that has consciously and deliberately programmed bad films on occasion for their camp appeal. Certain other titles often appear to be picked at random, and the festival has at times shown enough inattentiveness to various year-long non-commercial film venues in Chicago to reprogram certain films that have already been shown at the Art Institute’s Film Center or Facets Multimedia Center.
One hundred and twenty features were scheduled at the festival in 1991, and while a few of these never turned up, there were still many more films shown over 15 days in mid-October than the critics knew what to do with. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1992). — J.R.
David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece since Videodrome breaks every rule in the book when it comes to adapting a literary classic — perhaps On Naked Lunch would be a more accurate title — but justifies every transgression with its artistry and sheer audacity. Adapted not only from William S. Burroughs’s free-for novel but also from several other Burroughs works (e.g., Exterminator and the introduction to Queer), it pares away all the social satire and everything that might qualify as celebration of gay sex, yielding a complex and highly subjective portrait of Burroughs himself (expertly played, under his William Lee pseudonym, by Peter Weller) as a tortured sensibility in flight from his own femininity, who proceeds zombielike through an echo chamber of projections (insects, drugs, and typewriters) and disavowals. According to the densely compacted metaphors that compose this dreamlike movie, writing equals drugs equals sex, and William Lee, as politically incorrect as Burroughs himself, repeatedly disavows his involvement in all three activities. Maybe it’s Cronenberg himself who’s doing all the disavowing; like David Lynch, his imagination seems to depend on ideological unawareness, but here, at least, it produces the most ravishing head movie since Eraserhead. Read more
From the Chicago Reader. I’ve lost track of when this was published, but I know it wasn’t in October 1985, which is listed on the Reader’s web site — over two years before I joined the staff there. I would guess this probably appeared around fourteen years later. — J.R.
I’ve seen about a dozen of the 57 features directed by the fascinating and criminally neglected Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), and while no two are alike in style, many are socially subversive and most skirt the edges of exploitation filmmaking. This 1965 black-and-white ‘Scope comedy is also known as Yakuza Soldier; Shintaro Katsu, star of the popular Zatoichi films, plays an amiable, earthy yakuza thug drafted into Japan’s war with Manchuria prior to World War II, during which his main companion, the story’s narrator, is an intellectual with a similarly jaundiced view of military discipline. Made a year before the even more remarkable violent antiwar film Red Angel, this film features a lot of slapping and bone crunching, all of it administered by Japanese against other Japanese; significantly, the violence involving Manchurians is ignored. The irreverent ambience at times suggests Mister Roberts, with the pertinent difference that desertion is regarded as a sane and reasonable response to a soldier’s life. Read more
From the Chicago Reader, January 15, 1993. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Cyril Endfield
Written by Endfield, Gene Piller, Michael Simmons, E. Maurice Adler, and Julius Harmon
With Edward Arnold, Horace McNally, Esther Williams, and Vicky Lane.
THE ARGYLE SECRETS
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Cyril Endfield
With William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, Barbara Billingsley, Alex Fraser, George Anderson, Mary Tarcai, and Kenneth Greenwald.
It’s a virtual truism that rewriting history entails — and to some extent derives from — rethinking the present moment. Just as the recent change in presidents can be linked to the public’s revised reading of the last 4 (or 8 or 12) years, our highly selective sense of film history is determined not only by which films have survived but also by the present-day concerns that dictate what interests us about the past.
Illustrations of this principle can be found in three separate programs showing this week at the Film Center. The first two are part of an invaluable series, “Romanov Twilight: Early Russian Cinema,” running throughout this month. I haven’t previewed the films for these programs — Yakov Protazanov’s two-part Satan Triumphant (1917) on Saturday at 4:30 and Evgenii Bauer’s Yuri Nagorny (1916) and V. Read more
From the November 11, 1994 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Directed and written by David Mamet
With William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.
David Mamet’s four features to date, none of them realistic, are all concerned to a greater or lesser extent with con games. Ultimately what one thinks of any of them has a lot to do with which side of the con one winds up on — which proves to be a matter of how one relates to the style as well as the content. Language is the major instrument of both seduction and deception in these films, and Mamet’s stylized use of it, playing on its ellipses and ambiguities as well as its more abstract and musical qualities, often deceives and seduces the audience. So how one responds to these characters has a lot to do with how one reacts to these language games.
To my mind, House of Games and the first half of Things Change are seductive (if brittle) fantasies about the allure and danger of spinning seductive fantasies; the second half of Things Change and Homicide are outsized sentimental bluffs. All three films star Joe Mantegna, are about criminals, and bear some relation to Hollywood genres; but where one places one’s trust and emotional allegiances is different in each case. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1988). . — J.R.
Whether you like this or not — and it’s quite possible that you won’t — this has got to be one of the weirdest and most original movies around. Written and directed by former film critic and scriptwriter-turned-director Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), whose previous solo feature never hit these shores, this is produced by Julie Corman, wife of Roger, and harks back to a lot of 60s Corman productions in various ways, for better and for worse; it also may be the first U.S. exploitation film to show the influence of Raul Ruiz in its striking use of colors and color filters, and Jasper Johns springs to mind in relation to some of the set painting. Mayersberg’s starting point and putative focus is Isaac Asimov’s famous SF story, set on the planet Lagash, where it is always daylight, shortly before its civilization collapses; David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Andra Mylian, and Alexis Kanner head the cast, and much of the action and decor reflect a series of interesting solutions for representing an alien culture as cheaply as possible. If you’re looking for something different, make sure to catch this oddity. Read more
From the August 1, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Terry Gilliam’s third fantasy feature (1989) may not achieve all it reaches for, but it goes beyond Time Bandits and Brazil in its play with space and time, and as a children’s picture offers a fresh and exciting alternative to the Disney stranglehold on the market. The famous baron (John Neville) sets off with a little girl stowaway (Sarah Polley) on an epic journey to save a city in distress; among the other actors are Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Valentina Cortese, and Robin Williams in a wonderful uncredited cameo as the Moon King. PG, 126 min. (JR)
I’m still doping out what I think of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gran Torino, although I did see the latter in time and liked it enough to slip into some of my end-of-the-year ten-best lists. (Since my thoughts and inclinations tend to change over time, I’m reluctant to keep recycling the same list every time I’m asked for one.)
Having just seen Benjamin Button, I still don’t know whether I might have included it in any of my lists, but I have to admit that I suspect I already prefer it to all of Fincher’s other films, with the possible exception of Se7en. It took me a while to warm to the weird premise and some of the grotesqueries it involves, but I think part of what impresses me is how nervy it is in playing out the poetry of the conceit for all that it’s worth and letting all the social-historical elements—from two world wars to Hurricane Katrina (and not overlooking the degree to which it sidesteps all the racial issues)–take a back seat to the love story. It’s also more impressive to me visually than Fincher’s other works. Whatever one concludes about the story and all its ramifications, he certainly knows how to fill a frame. Read more
From Wide Angle, vol. 8, no. 3-4, 1986. –- J.R.
FILM STYLE AND TECHNOLOGY:
HISTORY AND ANALYSIS by Barry
Salt, Starword, 3 Minford Gardens,
London W14 0AN, England, 1983:
paper, $ 15.00, 408 pages, lllustrations
It is a sad commentary on the
narrowness and inflexibility of current
academic publishing in film studies
that this major work had to be brought
out at the author’s own expense.
Handsomely produced and generously
priced, Film Style and Technology:
History and Analysis offers what is
conceivably the most detailed account
of film technology that we have had to
date, stretching from 1885 through the
Seventies, with roughly one chapter per
decade, and for this aspect of the book
alone, no comprehensive library devoted
to film history can afford to be without it.
In addition, the book’s innovative use of
statistical style analysis, while
problematical in relation to certain stylistic
issues, nevertheless introduces a new form
of rigor to film analysis that deserves to be
considered in detail.
If, as a “total” view of cinema, Salt’s approach
often seems constricted, it nonetheless yields
a wealth of potentially useful material to many
different kinds of film scholars. As Salt’s title
makes clear, a technological history of film
represents only one part of his enterprise. Read more
This started out as an essay commissioned by Criterion for their 2011 DVD release and submitted to them in February. They weren’t happy with the result, so we agreed to disagree. — J.R.
When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. – Umberto Eco on Casablanca
My nightmare is the H Bomb. What’s yours? – Marilyn Monroe’s notes for her responses to a 1962 interview, first published in 2010
As I wrote in my capsule review of Insignificance for the Chicago Reader,
Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play — about Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) converging in New York City in 1954 — has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their clichéd media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon. The Monroe-Einstein connection isn’t completely contrived. Read more
From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.
For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. — J.R.
First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”
I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein
Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 1996)..– J.R.
Directed by Mike Dibb and Stephen Frears
Written by Charles Barr and Frears.
2 X 50 Years of French Cinema
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Anne-
Marie Mieville and Jean-Luc Godard
With Godard and Michel Piccoli.
I Am Curious, Film
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Stig Bjorkman
With Lena Nyman and Bjorn Granath.
100 Years of Japanese Cinema
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by
Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema
Directed and written by Stanley Kwan.
To celebrate the “100th anniversary of cinema,” the British Film Institute has commissioned a series of documentaries about national cinemas. Some of them are still being made, but the first 13 are showing at the Film Center as part of a series that started early this month with the three-part A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (excellent) and has continued with documentaries by Sam Neill on New Zealand cinema (witty), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos on Latin American cinema (ambitious but unsuccessful), by Edgar Reitz on German cinema (embarrassing), and by Pawel Lozinski on Polish cinema, realizing an outline by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (I haven’t seen it). Read more
From Time Out (London), June 4-10, 1976. I’ve always had very mixed feelings about this commissioned cover-story piece, especially about its stupid and offensive title (not mine) as well as what I now regard as a certain conformist pandering to what I regarded as mainstream taste. As I recall, the whole piece was written very quickly, following the capricious whim of the magazine’s editor. I especially regret the way I fell into some of the mindless consensus of condemning The Day the Clown Cried without having seen any part of it, which by now has become a standard reflex in Anglo-American Lewis-bashing. I’ve corrected a couple of factual errors. -– J.R.
Who is Jerry Lewis?
A comedian who has acted in over three dozen films, eight of which he’s directed, himself.I became a fan back in 1949, when he first appeared as secondary comic relief in ‘My Friend Irma’, and followed him religiously through his countless vehicles with Dean Martin in the 50s. As I grew older, critics began to warn me that he was childish and self-indulgent, friends groaned whenever his name cropped up, and I discovered that he usually came across as a sanctimonious prig whenever he made personal appearances on TV. Read more