From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.
If one can accept the revolting notion that ants are just like people — rather than the more demonstrable premise that some film workers, film publicists, and filmgoers are a little like ants — then one might easily find this 1998 computer-animation effort from Dreamworks as cute as its title. The real premise is that ants are just like superstars — people like Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, and Jennifer Lopez, all of whom have lent their voices and screen personalities to ant characters. For example, Allen, in truth an emblem of herd instinct, inevitably is employed to represent individuality — in the form of an ant named Z who resembles E.T. and kvetches a lot. Disneyfied anthropomorphism is the name of the game here, and I was left wondering whether Pepsi paid for the use of Give Peace a Chance (rendered here as Give Z a Chance). I suspect an account of all the complex business transactions would be more fun than anything in the movie, where you can’t see a blue sky that doesn’t resemble the Dreamworks logo. PG, 83 min.… Read more »
A surprising consequence of my posting “My 25 Favorite Films of the 2000s (so far)” on this site on June 21 was that visits to my site suddenly quadrupled, going from about a thousand per day to well over 4,000. This was encouraging — and for me a good response to Robert Koehler’s charge that such list-making was pointless (because the need for viewing suggestions in a context where there are too many choices strikes me — and apparently many others — as self-evident).
Yet the haste with which I put together my original list also led to some subsequent second thoughts and demurrals. So with this in mind, I’ve come up with a new list of 50 instead of 25, substituting one title in the original list after my friend Janet Bergstrom persuaded me that Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side was a much worthier example of Akerman’s work than Down There (which I’d listed partially as a provocation, without a sufficient amount of reflection). As with my original list of titles, I’ve stuck to the same rule of including only one film by each filmmaker, and the order is alphabetical. And again, with very few exceptions (e.g.,… Read more »
It’s possible that I overrated Twilight and underrated The Big Lebowski in this Chicago Reader piece (March 6, 1998); I’d have to resee both these films in order to be sure. —J.R.
The Big Lebowski
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, and Jon Polito.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Benton and Richard Russo
With Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, and Giancarlo Esposito.
It’s purely a matter of chance that two neo-Chandler mysteries with contemporary Los Angeles settings are opening this week. But although Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and Robert Benton’s Twilight differ in tone, style, milieu, and generational perspective, both films arrive at their private-eye stories through the unorthodox detour of the western. In Benton’s case the western reference is harder to detect but central to the conception throughout; the film even climaxes with the equivalent of a western showdown and shoot-out. In the Coens’ case it’s much more blatant but proves to be window dressing.… Read more »
The following is a slightly revised and rearranged dialogue recorded for a podcast in January 2014 and reworked a little over a year later for a book by Justin Bozung about Norman Mailer’s films, then cut from the book due to a lack of space the following year. –- J. R.
JUSTIN BOZUNG: My first question for you is, Why in the hell are you and I the only two people in the world that love this film?
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: Well, we aren’t quite the only two — there’s also my friend Mark Rappaport, who, like Mailer, is both a filmmaker and a writer. But it’s true, there aren’t many others. And I can’t speak authoritatively about why other people don’t like the film, but I will say that I’ve never been a fan of Mailer’s three previous films. And I use the word “film” deliberately and advisedly, because Tough Guys Don’t Dance is above all a movie; it’s the only thing of his that has some resemblance to Hollywood. And he has a flair for it.
I saw what I believe was one of its first screenings, soon after it was (probably) shown at Telluride, at the Toronto Film Festival.… Read more »
From the June 4, 1999 Chicago Reader. A lot of the material here subsequently turned up in my book Movie Wars. — J.R.
The Thirteenth Floor
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Josef Rusnak
Written by Rusnak and Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez
With Armin Mueller-Stahl, Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dennis Haysbert, and Steven Schub.
“I think, therefore I am,” reads the opening epigraph of The Thirteenth Floor, followed by the quotation’s source, “Descartes (1596-1650).” It’s an especially pompous beginning for a movie whose characters barely think, much less exist, but not too surprising given the metaphysical claims and pronouncements that usually inform virtual-reality thrillers.
This is the fourth such thriller I’ve seen in as many weeks, and if any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — it might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, for filmmakers stumped by the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed to be escaping from, virtual-reality thrillers seem made to order.… Read more »
One wouldn’t expect Albert Brooks’s first novel (Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America) and Woody Allen’s latest movie (Midnight in Paris) to have much in common, especially after one considers that the former is set 19 years in the future whereas the latter is set at least partially between eight and nine decades in the past. But the main thing they do have in common is in fact very contemporary — a preoccupation with money, which Brook’s novel is especially up front about. Both are also ultimately more interested in wisdom than in laughs (or, for that matter, in literature, at least for its own sake); Brooks’s own form of humor, which he seems to find impossible to suppress, is mainly a creative form of sarcasm, which he plants in many of his characters (all of them male, as it happens); more generally, much of his novel’s tone is fairly dour and cautionary. And the principal thing it’s dour and cautionary about is a very contemporary preoccupation with not having enough money.… Read more »
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 515). I was present when the late Andi Engel, the film’s English distributor, decided to give the film an English title that was less sexist than Utamaro and His Five Women. — J.R.
Utamaro O Meguru Gonin No Onna (Five Women Around Utamaro)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c–Shochiku. p. manager–Toyokazu Murata. sc–Yoshikata Yoda. Based on the novel by Kanji Kunieda. ph–Shigeto Miki. ed–Sintaro Myamoto. a.d–Isamu Motoki. m–Hiseto Osawa, Tamezo Mochizuki. sd. rec–Hisashi Kase.historical adviser–Sonao Kahi. l.p–Minosuke Bando (Kitagama (Utamaro), Kotaro Bando (Seinosuke Koîde), Tanaka Kinuyo (Okita), Kowasaki Hiroko (Oran), Izuka Toshiko (Dayu Tagasode), Kinnosuke Takamatsu (Juzaburo), Shotaru Nakamura (Shizaburo), Minsei Tomimoto (Takemoro), Katsuhisa Yamaguchi (Kisuke), Aitzo Tamasuma (Sobe), Eiko Ohara (Yukie Kano), Kyoko Kusajima (Oman), Kimiko Shirotae (Oshin), Junko Kajami (Maid in Kano Family), Mitsuei Takegawa (Tayu Karauta), Kimie Kawikami (Matsunami), Aiko Irikawa (Shodayu), Junnosuke Hayama, Masao Hori. … Read more »
This appeared in the February 12, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson
With Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox, Mason Gamble, Sara Tanaka, Stephen McCole, Connie Nielsen, and Luke Wilson.
Rushmore has a good deal of content and human qualities to spare, but what makes it such a charming and satisfying experience is its style. Its segments are introduced by parting curtains, each labeled with the name of the appropriate month, which serves as a chapter heading — a neat way of calling attention to the broad and attractively composed ‘Scope frames and of parceling out the story in bite-size seasonal units. Less obvious and functional but unmistakably style-driven is the fact that the curtains come in different colors, giving another kind of lift to the proceedings. All the scenes are short (at least until the film moves into its homestretch), and director Wes Anderson also films these scenes in long and medium shots; in general he indulges in long scenes and close-ups only after he’s earned them. Because this is a studio effort that knows what it’s doing — a rare breed these days — it makes you wonder how many close-ups and long scenes are squandered in other studio releases.… Read more »
Written for the British Film Institute’s DVD release of this film in early 2011. — J.R.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to call A Hen in the Wind (1948) one of the more neglected films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially within the English-speaking world. Made immediately before one of his key masterpieces, Late Spring (1949), it has quite understandably been treated as a lesser work, but its strengths and points of interest deserve a lot more attention than they’ve received. It isn’t discussed in Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) or even mentioned in Kyoko Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (1992), the English-language study where it would appear to be most relevant. Although it isn’t skimped in David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), its treatment in Donald Richie’s earlier Ozu (1974) is relatively brief and dismissive. It seems pertinent that even the film’s title, which I assume derives from some Japanese expression, has apparently never been explicated in English.
It may be an atypical feature for Ozu, but it is stylistically recognizable as his work from beginning to end, especially when it comes to poetic handling of setting (a dismal industrial slum in the eastern part of Tokyo, where the heroine rents a cramped upstairs room in a house) and its use of ellipsis in relation to the plot.… Read more »
Some thoughts on Kon Ichikawa, from the June 3, 1988 issue of Chicago Reader. — J.R.
AN ACTOR’S REVENGE
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Written by Daisuke Ito, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and Natto Wada With Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Ganjiro Nakamura, and Raizo Ichikawa.
ALONE ON THE PACIFIC (aka ALONE ACROSS THE PACIFIC)
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Kon Ichikawa
Written by Natto Wada
With Yujiro Ishihara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masayuki Mori, Ruriko Asaoka, and Hajime Hana.
Scopophilia is a Freudian term that means the love of gazing, or pleasure in seeing. A punning use of the word often comes to mind when I consider the pleasures to be found in viewing ‘Scope movies. ‘Scope is movie buffs’ jargon for the anamorphic widescreen process known as CinemaScope (introduced by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1953 with The Robe) and a number of similar wide-screen formats; they dominated commercial filmmaking across much of the globe for well over a decade.
While a certain number of American movies today still make expressive use of this Band-Aid-shaped format — Shy People is an outstanding recent example — most directors consciously avoid it because they know that at least a third of the image will get lopped off when their work gets transferred to video.… Read more »
Three short reviews for the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1976, the first two for their April issue (vol. 43, no. 507), and third for their November issue (vol. 43, no. 514).–- J.R.
Battle of Billy’s Pond, The
Great Britain, 1976
Director: Harley Cokliss
Finding a dead fish in a pond where he frequently goes fishing, Billy Bateson takes it home, where his cat makes off with it and becomes ill. Informed by a vet that the cat’s illness was caused by chemicals, Billy investigates the pond further with his friend Gobby, discovers more dead fish and eventually learns the cause: industrial waste is being emptied into an underground stream, originating from an abandoned quarry, which feeds the pond. After secretly witnessing two lorry drivers in the quarry and then seeing green fluid enter the pond, the boys report their findings to the police and learn from Billy’s father about “Breeze”, a detergent manufactured at Con-Chem nearby. Getting into the factory by subterfuge, they videotape the tanker drivers with Gobby’s father’s camera and sneak out to the quarry that night to trap them in the act, rigging up speakers and lights and then letting air out of the tanker’s tires.… Read more »
A column for the Spanish monthly Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, submitted on February 16, 2021. — J.R.
I can’t decide which is more depressing — the capitalist suppression of Woody Allen’s latest comedy (Rifkin’s Festival) in the U.S. for stupid reasons or the stupid film itself and all that it doesn’t have to say (i.e., as little as possible) about Spain, the Basque country, San Sebastian, sex, romance, growing old, cinema, publicity, film festivals, Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel, Welles, Godard, and Truffaut — to mix metaphors, a veritable flood of empty holes. Film historian Joseph McBride, who like me sneaked an unauthorized look, finds “pleasurable” and “relaxed” what I find juiceless and inert. (What other film removes most of Gina Gershon’s sex appeal?)
The fact that some colleagues can find fun in Rifkin’s Festival epitomizes for me a particular American pathos — a sadness akin to labeling some of Donald Trump’s Republican slaves heroic martyrs if they briefly broke away from his directives after spouting and supporting his dangerous nonsense for months. But I’m susceptible to the same sort of foolishness when I pass some post-surgery recovery time enjoying the audiobook of Mark Harris’ Mike Nichols: A Life (over 20 hours long), as undemanding in its professional polish as all the Nichols films I’ve wasted my time watching.… Read more »
My column for the Summer 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.
J.P. Sniadecki’s feature-length The Iron Ministry (2014), available on DVD from Icarus Films, is by far the best non-Chinese documentary I’ve seen about contemporary mainland China. (Just for the record, the best Chinese documentary on the same general subject that I’ve seen is Yu-Shen Su’s far more unorthodox—and woefully still unavailable — 2012 Man MadePlace; a couple of snippets are available on YouTube and Vimeo.) Filmed over three years on Chinese trains, it’s full of revelatory moments, and not only in its surprisingly outspoken interviews: the non-narrative stretches, which compare quite favourably with the more abstract portions of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), are pretty stunning as well. Skip this one at your peril.
Second Run’s very first Blu-ray — Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2015) — is gorgeously transferred, and has splendid extras: Costa’s 2010 short film O nosso homem, essays by Jonathan Romney and Chris Fujiwara, an introduction to Horse Money’s introduction by Thom Andersen, and Laura Mulvey’s conversation with Costa at London’s ICA. The extras on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) are too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that just about every intertextual reference in this cherished object are teased out in one way or another.… Read more »