Monthly Archives: September 2021

The Human Touch [THE DECALOGUE & FARGO]

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 1996). — J.R.

The Decalogue

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

With Henryk Baranowski, Krystyna Janda, Aleksander Bardini, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis, Adrianna Biedrzynska, Janusz Gajos, Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz, Grazyna Szapolowska, Olaf Lubaszenko, Anna Polony, Maria Koscialkowska, Teresa Marczewska, Ewa Blaszczyk, Piotr Machalica, Jerzy Stuhr, and Zbigniew Zamachowski.

Fargo

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

With Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrud, Harve Presnell, Steven Reevis, John Carroll Lynch, and Steve Park.

One way of judging the importance of filmmakers is by looking at the kind of talk they generate among their audiences. Since the recent death of the 54-year-old Krzysztof Kieslowski during open-heart surgery, one of the key points of speculation about him is whether he knew when he announced his retirement a couple of years ago that he had a heart condition. As evidence that he did, one could cite the fact that the “twin” Polish and French heroines of his The Double Life of Veronique (1991) suffer from heart conditions, and one ultimately dies from hers; as evidence that he didn’t, one could note that Kieslowski was a heavy smoker and continued to smoke after his announcement (though he may have been simply reckless).… Read more »

The Portrait Of A Lady

From the December 3, 1996 Chicago Reader. — J,.R.

The progression from Sweetie to An Angel at My Table to The Piano to this unsatisfying mess (1996) shows that the more money director Jane Campion has to spend, the more of her formidable talent she wastes. This time she all but drowns in a sea of production values and Monarch Notes. Almost everyone in the cast is good (except John Malkovich, who gives a tiresomely generic performance), and Martin Donovan as the heroine’s doomed cousin is especially affecting. But they’re all treading water, and neither the script (by An Angel at My Table‘s Laura Jones) nor the direction supplies them with any reason for being. It’s highly doubtful whether Henry James’s 1881 novel is filmable to begin with, as the book depends on a style of observation and nuance that proceeds with the methodical patience of a bricklayer. Campion has none of this patience and little discernible design or vision to replace it with, and she seriously mauls the novel. A coy New Age prologue, an early dream sequence, and a surrealist black-and-white interlude are at best provocative teasers for an alternative to James that never takes shape, and the dull use of a wide-screen format only increases the sluggishness.… Read more »

On LINCOLN and ARGO : “Useful” Omissions

Written for the February 2013 issue of Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, as one of my bimonthly columns for that magazine (“En movimiento”). It continues to amaze me how American movies who preach the inescapable inevitability of corruption in American life   — Citizen Kane, the Godfather films, and now Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are invariably regarded as more profound and much likelier to wind up as Oscar fodder than those that  are less resigned to accepting corruption. — J.R.

 

 

 

Two inordinately praised big-studio releases of the holiday season, Lincoln and Argo, seem to depend in part on the innocence of the American audience in order to score their ideological successes. The first of these, a high-minded art movie, starts with a familiar subject, while the second –- which, I must confess, I’ve only sampled — incorporates the relative unfamiliarity of Iranian culture as part of its action-thriller mechanics. That both films have been overpraised seems hard to dispute; “Long after its commercial run, Lincoln will remain an invaluable teaching tool,” Joe Morgenstern declared characteristically in the Wall Street Journal, while Rex Reed, no less typically in the New York Observer, called Argo, “A movie that defines perfection.Read more »

Misrepresented History, Displaced Emotion

Written in mid-July 2011 as my 22nd bimonthly column (“El movimiento”) for Cahiers du cinéma España, which might be described as a Spanish extension (rather than the Spanish “edition”) of Cahiers du cinéma. A Spanish translation of this appeared in their September issue, no. 48. — J.R.

We all have different biases and thresholds when it comes to formulating our separate perceptions of history. Recently reading J. Hoberman’s new book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, which I mainly find an apt ideological reading of Hollywood in the early 1950s, I experienced a rude shock when I read his interpretations of two 1950 features, William Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear (a very strange suburban family drama about God addressing the world over the radio) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In both cases these interpretations were predicated on the assumption that both the Hollywood studios of 1950 and their audiences were preoccupied with television: “The Next Voice You Hear is of 1950 but not in it: the Smiths [the film’s archetypal central family] do not own a television set because, like God, TV cannot be shown on the screen.”… Read more »

On Patrick McGilligan’s YOUNG ORSON

Written for my “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine in July 2015. — J.R.

YoungOrson

En movimiento: Young Orson

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

 

Out of all the discoveries that have come my way in the wake of the Welles centennial, the most interesting and exciting so far has been Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, a biography that comes to 785 pages, at least in the bound uncorrected proofs sent to me by HarperCollins in mid-July.  (The official publication date is November 17.) As I wrote in a blurb solicited by the publisher, “In many ways, Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson is my favorite of all the Welles biographies to date. Not only because he’s read all the others, and makes judicious calls about how far we should trust them, but because his own prodigious research has turned up so much rich, fresh, and clarifying material. The overall portrait of Welles’s character and background that emerges, uncharacteristically sympathetic, is both dense and persuasive — and a page-turning pleasure to read.” I’m especially impressed by how much McGilligan has turned up about Welles’s parents, his guardian, and his childhood in general.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Niche Market Refugees (Spring 2016)

My column for the Spring 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.

Let me start with a correction and adjustment to the final entry in my last column, furnished by Chris Fujiwara and relating to the appearance of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 131-minute The Honey Pot (1967) on a Kino Lober Blu-ray:

the-honey-pot

“When I did my stint at the Frieda Grafe favorite films series at Arsenal in Berlin two or three years ago, they showed a good 35mm print of The Honey Pot that ran about 150 minutes. It had a BBFC [British Board of Film Censors] card on it and it came from Park Circus. (By the way I took detailed notes of the differences from the DVD version, which I had recently watched several times.)….The cutting that was done to the film to get it down to 131 minutes was quite extensive and elaborate. In a few cases whole scenes were cut out (including scenes with the three ex-lovers, and a scene showing Cliff Robertson at work as a male escort). But a good deal of the shortening was done by cutting out individual shots or parts of shots from scenes that are otherwise kept in. Not only the rhythm but also the tone and the thematic content of these scenes are changed, sometimes drastically….It’s… Read more »

Love to Hate (THE BELIEVER)

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 2002). — J.R.

The Believer

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Henry Bean

Written by Bean and Mark Jacobson

With Ryan Gosling, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, Billy Zane, A.D. Miles, Glenn Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Reaser, and Dean Strober.

The Believer, an independent feature, premiered on cable nearly three months ago, after failing to get a distributor. But it was recently picked up and is opening this week at Landmark’s Century Centre. It’s already created a good deal of buzz, most of it justified.

Inspired by the real-life story of a 28-year-old Jew in Queens named Daniel Burros, who became a high-ranking member of the American Nazi Party and then of the New York chapter of the Ku Klux Klan before fatally shooting himself when the New York Times ran a front-page story revealing that he was a Jew, the film makes a few educated guesses about the possible origins of such a divided identity, yet it’s entirely to the credit of Henry Bean, the writer-director, and Mark Jacobson, who collaborated on the story, that satisfying psychological explanations aren’t what the film is after. As Bean, a Reform Jew, has suggested in various statements, the film is more precisely an exploration of what it means to be Jewish and what it means to hate — two separate subjects that happen to overlap in this case.… Read more »

Exchange with Charles Wolfe on Claude Chabrol (1975)

From Film Comment (January-February 1975). This was a good eight years before I became a colleague of Chuck Wolfe at the Film Studies program University of California, Santa Barbara, where I found myself trapped in a dead-end adjunct job with no opportunity for advancement for four years before my 20-year stint at the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

To the editor:

Contrary to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introduction to his interview with Jacques Rivette (Film Comment, Sept.-Oct.1974), the first major Cahiers critic to embark on a feature film was Claude Chabrol, not Rivette. Chabrol shot LE BEAU SERGE between December 1957 and February 1958, finished editing in May, and presented the film at the Locarno festival that year. Rivette began work on PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT in the summer of 1958 while Chabrol filmed his second feature, LES COUSINS. This information is confirmed in Claire Clouzot’s Le Cinéma Français depuis la nouvelle vague and Guy Braucourt’s Cinéma d’aujourd hui volume on Chabrol.

All this may seem trivial, but it reflects a general misunderstanding of Chabrol’s crucial role n the transition of the Cahiers critics from writers to filmmakers.… Read more »

En movimento: L’Avventura, etc., 60 Years Later

Written in September 2021 for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

For an online weekly lecture series I’m giving in 

Chicago, “World Cinema of the 1960s”, I can revisit 

certain experiences I had in Manhattan six decades 

ago, meanwhile exploring the relevance films such as 

L’avventuraL’année dernière à Marienbad, and Le 

Mépris might have today, especially for young people 

seeing them for the first time. 

How much have we learned since my discovery that a film like L’avventura could have the weight of a serious novel? I was already an aspiring novelist then, so it took longer to appreciate Antonioni’s mastery of mise en scène, composition, editing, and sound mixing. How many cinephiles today already know about such things without L’avventura reminding them? 

I hardly had any notion of intellectual cinema in 1961, or that Michelangelo Antonioni and the very different Jean-Luc Godard were fast becoming its key European figures. Books about film history in English could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet the fact that L’avventura, booed at Cannes, placed second, after Citizen Kane, in an international critics poll conducted by Sight and Soundless than two years later, suggested that this hIstory was already being rewritten.Read more »

Cinema as a Social Act [THE ILLUSIONIST]

From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2006). Fox has reissued this film in a  two-disc edition, combining a Blu-Ray with a DVD of the film on a second disk — the latter including an audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger which clarifies and amplifies how well he understands the mechanics as well as the overall concept of his own film. He’s especially enlightening on the subject of late 19th century magic and how he incorporated many of his findings in the film, utilizing the expertise of several contemporary magicians, including Ricky Jay.       — J.R.

The Illusionist

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Neil Burger

With Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, and Jake Wood

Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams. — Steven Millhauser, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”

At first glance Neil Burger’s first two features couldn’t be further apart. Interview With the Assassin (2002) is a scruffy-looking pseudodocumentary and thriller about two marginal characters — a young, out-of-work cameraman (Dylan Haggerty) and his 60-ish solitary neighbor (Raymond J. Barry), an ex-marine who claims to have fired the second bullet that killed John F. Kennedy. The Illusionist, based on a story by Steven Millhauser, is a lush piece of romanticism — a tale of enchantment set in turn-of-the-century Vienna about a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), the son of a cabinetmaker, and his longtime relationship with Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess and the prospective fiancee of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), an old-fashioned villain.… Read more »

Recommended: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES by Sarah Kozloff

The Best Years of Our Lives by Sarah Kozloff, London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 110 pp.

Part of my admiration for this intelligent and judicious contribution to the BFI Film Classics — a series that by now may qualify as the most successful and title-heavy book series in the history of film criticism, perhaps in any language — is my conviction, which I share with Kozloff, that William Wyler’s 1946, 171-minute masterpiece about returning American soldiers after the end of WW2 is, existentially speaking, a rare and almost unprecedented act of witness and social conscience for a Hollywood feature.

Many of the best American film critics have been either divided (James Agee and Manny Farber) or chiefly negative (Robert Warshow) about this picture. Interestingly enough, Farber went all the way from an almost unqualified rave in 1946 to calling the movie “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz” nine years later – maybe because by then he was rebelling against the Oscar-laden mainstream approval – but I think he was right the first time. (In 1957, he was using his disdain to illustrate the maxim, “No one asks the critics’ alliance to look straight backward at its `choices,’” without clarifying that he was part of that original alliance.)

Read more »

The Ten Best Films Directed by Women

The most conspicuous absence in the following list of  “the ten best films directed by women” requested by the BBC is Elaine May; clearly I should have included either Mikey and Nicky or The Heartbreak Kid.

mikeynicky-falk-gun-jc

 

theheartbreakkid-grodin-berlin

BBC: The best films directed by women:

 

1.The House is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1963)

The-House-is-Black4
2. The Enchanted Desna (Yulia Solntseva, 1964)

TheEnchantedDesna
3. Mix-up ou Meli-melo (Françoise Romand, 1986)

mixup
4. Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

vagabond
5. The Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989)

asthenicsyndromestalin
6. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989)

sweetie_1
7. From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002)

fromtheotherside3
8. You Are Not I (Sara Driver, 1981)

YouAreNotI-Sister
9. Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

daisies7
10. Aragane (Kaori Oda, 2015)

aragane-still03

Read more »

Hook and Crook [HOOK & BUGSY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 20, 1991). — J.R.

HOOK

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jim V. Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, and Nick Castle

With Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, Caroline Goodall, and Charlie Korsmo.

BUGSY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by James Toback

With Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, and Bebe Neuwirth.

Wistful self-portraits of their respective stars — Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty, two aging boy wonders lusting after the old magic — Hook and Bugsy are also lengthy meditations on investments, financial as well as spiritual. Coincidentally both projects were conceived seven years ago and have been gestating ever since: Spielberg started planning a straight version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in 1984, then decided to concoct an updated sequel set in the present, and the same year Beatty commissioned James Toback to write an original screenplay about Bugsy Siegel, which started out as an epic about his entire life and was gradually whittled down to cover only the end of his life in the 1940s. Hook is contrived to move from gloom to joy, while Bugsy charts a slow downward spiral into melancholy; but both movies leave one with a sense of failed purposes — and of an obstinate will to believe that exceeds the meaning or logic of any actual belief.… Read more »

Beautiful Moments [MEN DON’T LEAVE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 2, 1990). — J.R.

MEN DON’T LEAVE ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Paul Brickman

Written by Barbara Benedek and Brickman

With Jessica Lange, Chris O’Donnell, Charlie Korsmo, Arliss Howard, Joan Cusack, and Kathy Bates.

A central part of Paul Brickman’s talent as a director, apart from his skill with actors, is the use he’s made in his two features of the throbbing, semieuphoric rhythmic monotony of New Age music as a kind of figured bass to the melodic flights of his mise en scene. A master in orchestrating precise cuts, unorthodox camera angles, and camera movements that propel or embellish his story telling, Brickman may depend in part on slightly shopworn plots and familiar generic characters, at least as putative starting points. But he scores almost every time he articulates a fancy transition or highlights a telling detail, occasionally setting the story slightly adrift as he draws us into these lyrically abstract interludes. And the musical regularity of his scores — by Tangerine Dream in Risky Business (1983) and by Thomas Newman (son of Alfred and cousin of Randy) in Men Don’t Leave — tends to protect these well-crafted maneuvers, providing them with a kind of safety net (or, to alter the metaphor slightly, trampoline) from which he can make his expressive leaps.… Read more »

Cutting Heroes Down to Size [SMALL SOLDIERS & SAVING PRIVATE RYAN]

One of my best known reviews, from the July 24, 1998 Chicago Reader. For those who’d prefer to read a shorter version of the same argument, I’ll start with my capsule reviews of the two films. — J.R.

Small Soldiers

Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers, Matinee) is a national treasure, and his lack of recognition by the general public may actually make it easier for him to function subversively. His unpretentious fantasy romps have more to say about the American psyche, pop culture, and the ideology of violence than anything dreamed up by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. This delightful adventure about war toys running amok in suburban middle America is a synthesis and extension of most of his previous movies, with echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (including some of the satire). The toys in question are the villainous Commando Elite, fashioned using a microchip from the U.S. Defense Department to mercilessly slaughter the noble if freakish Gorgonites, a set of toys programmed (like other minorities one can mention) to hide and to lose; the Ohio citizens who wind up in the cross fire are strictly generic sitcom types, but we wind up caring about them almost as much as we care about the toys.Read more »