Monthly Archives: October 2021

Ten Favorite Offbeat Musicals

Published by DVD Beaver in March 2006; I’ve updated several links.  — J.R.

Consider the following not so much a definitive list — offerings and preferences keep changing — as a starting point for checking out some of the weirdest and most pleasurable musical comedies in my personal pantheon. The order is chronological.
(CLICK COVER FOR MORE) Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) A controversy used to rage about whether this was “imitation Lubitsch with too many camera angles” (as Andrew Sarris once put it) or a lighthearted send-up of Ernst Lubitsch (as Tom Milne argued in his book on Mamoulian). Since the movie costars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, the same leads as Lubitsch’s previous The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant, and Lubitsch himself was production chief at Paramount when it was made, these issues can’t be resolved simply. But my own preference for this masterpiece over the Lubitsch films that influenced it comes easy, and not only because it’s appeared on DVD ahead of them. It has a wonderful Rodgers and Hart score and a singular impulse to encompass nothing less than the entire world in its musical numbers. Towards the beginning, “Isn’t it Romantic?” passes from Chevalier (a tailor in Paris) to a customer to a composer passing on the street to a cab driver to soldiers on a train to a Gypsy fiddler in the countryside to MacDonald singing on a distant balcony; and plenty of non-singers are allowed to take over bits of subsequent songs, like the reprise of “Mimi”.
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Kiarostami at Work [10 on TEN]

From the Chicago Reader (October 29, 2004). — J.R.

10 on Ten

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami’s recent features satisfy few of the usual expectations about narrative films. Yet in 10 on Ten — a documentary about his most recent feature, 10, showing twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center–he appears to be slavishly living up to those expectations.

Like 10, 10 on Ten is split into ten chapters, the last nine of which have labels that suggest topics in a master class: “The Camera,” “The Subject,” “The Script,” “The Location,” “The Music,” “The Actor,” “The Accessories,” “The Director,” and “The Last Lesson.” Kiarostami implies that this film — made for the French DVD of 10, released last summer (the U.S. version will be out November 2) — is his attempt to explain the rationale behind his working methods. The film never becomes as far-fetched as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” which purports to explain rationally how he made creative decisions in composing “The Raven.” Yet there’s something suspect about Kiarostami’s cookbook-style lucidity — he may be sincere, but he seems to be overestimating the role rationality plays in his decisions. Read more

INTRODUCTION to THE SECRET LIFE OF MOVING SHADOWS by Mark Rappaport

The following is Mark Rappaport’s Introduction to his new collection, The Secret Life of Moving Shadows, available now from Amazon as an e-book (in two parts, available here and here — a necessary division made in order to keep the book’s illustrations the proper size), reprinted here at my suggestion and with Mark’s permission.

I was delighted to learn, shortly after posting this for the first time, that the Criterion Blu-Ray of All That Heaven Allows includes Mark’s 1992 feature Rock Hudson’s Home Movies as one of the extras. More recently (in 2021), I learned to my delight that Fox Lorber has picked up a sizable portion of Mark’s oeuvre, for live screenings as well as digital releases. — J.R.

 


This is a collection of essays I wrote over the last several years. If there is no unifying theme to them or a through-line, let me just say that they were all written because I wanted to write them and I felt I had something to say about each of the films or subjects or ideas that I hadn’t seen adequately dealt with elsewhere. In almost every case, the idea came to me in a flash—either inspired by something I read or while watching a movie. Read more

Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fourth dozen)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fourth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

Taste of Cherry
A middle-aged man who’s contemplating suicide drives around the hilly, dusty outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds and retrieve him if he fails. This minimalist yet powerful and life-enhancing feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees) never explains why the man wants to end his life, and is even inconclusive about whether or not he succeeds, yet every moment in his daylong odyssey carries a great deal of poignancy and philosophical weight. The film has remained in many ways Kiarostami’s most controversial film ever since it shared the 1997 paume d’or at Cannes with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, in part because it entrusts so much of its meaning and power to the audience and the nature of its own investment in what it’s watching. Like many of Kiarostami’s other films, it’s centered around the simultaneously private and public experience of a character in a car giving rides to others, and just as the experience of watching a film in a theater combines private responses with public reactions, this is a film that speaks to both of these situations. Read more

Paris Journal (January-February 1974)

From Film Comment. — J.R.

JULIEN: Have you ever thought that the true reverse angle, as one says in cinematography, of [Magritte’s] Madame Récamier, is the public much more than the painter at work?

— From the script of L’AUTOMNE

All but the last eight minutes or so of Marcel Hanoun’s L’AUTOMNE (AUTUMN) is filmed from a single fixed camera angle, which corresponds to the viewing screen in an editing studio. Read more

Heaven’s Gate

From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 2005); slightly tweaked in February 2014. — J.R.

HeavensGate

heavensgateCU2

Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic, about immigrant settlers clashing with native capitalists in 19th-century Wyoming, suffered a disastrous opening and was subsequently cut by 70 minutes; it became a legendary flop in the U.S., though the original 219-minute cut was widely applauded as a masterpiece in Europe. The longer version is impressive as long as the characters and settings remain in long shot; only when the camera gets closer do the problems start. The story is both slow moving and hard to follow, but the locations and period details offer plenty to ponder. Cimino’s handling of class issues is ambitious and unusually blunt, though it’s debatable whether this adds up to any sort of Marxist statement, except perhaps as a belated response to the (Oscar-winning) racism and xenophobia of his previous feature, The Deer Hunter. There’s no question that the same homoerotic — and arguably sexist — vision runs through both movies, as well as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the Cimino feature that preceded them. With Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Joseph Cotten, and Brad Dourif. R. (JR)

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Interplanetary Postmodernism [EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY]

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 1989). — J.R.

 

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Julien Temple

Written by Julie Brown, Charlie Coffey, and Terrence E. McNally

With Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans, Julie Brown, Michael McKean, and Charles Rocket.

One would like to think that this delicious new pop musical will finally give the talented English director Julien Temple the reputation and the commercial cachet that he deserves. Mainly known as a director of music videos for such groups as the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Boy George, Billy Idol, and Janet Jackson, Temple has also pursued a fascinating fringe career in movies throughout the 80s, starting with his celebrated film with the Sex Pistols in 1980 (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle), and culminating with his brilliant Absolute Beginners in 1985. Along the way there have also been The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, Mantrap, Running Out of Luck, It’s All True (a 1983 TV feature), and his virtuoso Rigoletto sequence in Aria, filmed in the kitschy splendor of California’s Madonna Inn.

On the basis of what I’ve seen, Temple is pretty much at the mercy of his material — although it’s worth noting that he appears to always or almost always work with the same gifted cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton. Read more

Five Easy Pieces [NIGHT ON EARTH]

From the Chicago Reader (May 15, 1992). — J.R.

 

 

NIGHT ON EARTH

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, and Matti Pellonpaa.

As the most popular American independent filmmaker around, Jim Jarmusch carries a special burden: his reputation makes his work particularly hard to evaluate. Other American independents who haven’t enjoyed his commercial success — he’s the only independent who comes to mind who works mainly in 35-millimeter and owns all his own pictures — envy and even resent him, questioning whether he offers a serious alternative to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, Jarmusch has come to be so identified with artistic freedom that it’s difficult to see how any of his movies can live up to his reputation.

“Jim Jarmusch’s planet is the Lower East Side,” began Karen Schoemer in an awestruck feature in the New York Times late last month. “Its bars, its bodegas and its pavement make up his home, his office and his hangout.” “The director finds drama in the ordinary” reads a pull quote in the following hagiography, and clearly so does the Times: it finds a special magic and potency in a run-down neighborhood simply because Jarmusch lives there. Read more

Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON is downloadable now, for free!

http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/too-much-johnson-work-print

My only (minor) quarrel with Scott Simmon’s excellent accompanying essay is his speculation about the reason or reasons why the film wasn’t screened at the Connecticut stage preview. According to the late Richard Wilson, who worked on the editing of the film, the summer theater had an inadequate throw for film projection. (See This is Orson Welles, p. 344 — which also includes the erroneous information that the only copy of the work print was destroyed in a fire at Welles’ Madrid villa in 1970). [8/21/14]

TooMuchJohnson

too-much-johnson-1938

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Entries in 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE (the fifth dozen entries)

These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the fifth dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.

The Red and the White
This 1967 feature was one of the first by Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó to have some impact in the U.S., and the stylistic virtuosity, ritualistic power, and sheer beauty of his work are already fully apparent. In this black-and-white pageant, set during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the reds are the revolutionaries and the whites are the government forces ordered to crush them. Working in elaborately choreographed long takes with often spectacular vistas, Jancso invites us to study the mechanisms of power almost abstractly (as suggested by the Stendhalian ring of his title), with a cold eroticism that may glancingly suggest some of the subsequent work of Stanley Kubrick. But this shouldn’t mislead one into concluding that Jancsó is any way detached from either politics or emotions.

For one thing, the markedly nationalistic elements in The Red and the White could be —- and were —-interpreted as anti-Russian, especially if one considers that the film was made less than a decade after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution, which left over 7,000 Hungarians dead. Read more

That’s Entertainment! III

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1994). — J.R.

This third compilation of clips from MGM musicals — introduced, like its predecessors, by many of the leading performers (June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Esther Williams) — has so much pleasure to offer that any purist quibbles seem minor. Not only have writers-directors-producers Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, who worked as editors on the two previous films, come up with heaps of wonderful and fascinating new material (excluded numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Cabin in the Sky, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, and even I Love Melvin); they’ve also introduced a welcome critical note into the proceedings, demonstrating how dubious some of MGM’s aesthetic decisions were and allowing Horne to voice some of her own misgivings about the bigoted policies that limited her activity. Indeed, after Horne introduces her own clips, her terse introduction to an unused Judy Garland number from Annie Get Your Gun, “I’m an Indian Too,” doesn’t have to allude to the number’s racism because in the context she’s established the evidence speaks for itself. The original screen ratios of the films are generally respected — the rule apparently is broken only when the filmmakers are doing a montage or want the dramatic benefits of a full screen even if it means cropping the image. Read more

Sex and the Single Guy

From the Chicago Reader (November 19, 2004). — J.R.

Alfie

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Charles Shyer

Written by Elaine Pope and Shyer

With Jude Law, Marisa Tomei, Omar Epps, Nia Long, Jane Krakowski, Sienna Miller, and Susan Sarandon

After the Sunset

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Brett Ratner

Written by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg

With Pirece Prosnan, Salma Hayek, Woody HArrelson, Naomie Harris, and Don Cheadle

The terrible thing about most remakes is that they downgrade borrowed experience. I’ve never been a big fan of the 1966 Alfie, a precise, bittersweet portrait of a misogynistic cockney lady-killer in a sordidly downscale London. But it’s unequivocally a reflection of things that have been lived, above all by Bill Naughton (adapting his own play) and Michael Caine (whose cockney background helped make the title role indelibly his own). The special kind of music these two make together, under Lewis Gilbert’s efficient direction, matches the brashness of Sonny Rollins’s score and tenor sax solos.

So what would motivate a remake? Director and cowriter Charles Shyer seems to think he’s come up with contemporary counterparts. He also seems to think the class consciousness, cockney accents, English settings, fleshed-out characters, social milieu, and period of the original are all expendable — raising the question of what Alfie is without them. Read more

A Dozen Eccentric Westerns

Published by DVD Beaver in June 2006. Soirry if some of the links no longer work.  — J.R.

Rio Bravo (1959)

TheSearchers-winter

It might be argued that many of the most famous and celebrated westerns qualify as eccentric in one way or another. Rio Bravo mainly consists of friends hanging out together; its memorable action bits are both infrequent and usually over in a matter of seconds. The Searchers often feels like medieval poetry, and its director John Ford once complained that parts of its score seemed more appropriate for Cossacks than for cowboys. Even High Noon has so many titled angles of clocks and reprises of its Tex Ritter theme that you might feel like you’re trapped inside a loop, and it’s hard to think of many sequences more mannerist than the opening one in Once Upon a Time in the West.

The dozen favorites that I’ve listed here are all basically auteurist selections. I’ve restricted myself to only one per director (although I’ve cited other contenders and/or noncontenders by the same filmmakers), and included both ones that are available on DVD and ones that aren’t but should be — or, in some cases, will be. The order is alphabetical:

TheBigSky

thebigsky1

1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952).
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Open Your Eyes

From the April 27, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Tesis (1995), the first feature of Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, is an adroit and imaginative slasher movie set at a film school. This more ambitious if less satisfying second feature, one of the top grossers in Spain in 1999, shows he still has an uncanny flair for producing dread. A wealthy young man (Eduardo Noriega) finds himself in a psychiatric prison for committing a murder he can’t clearly remember, and flashbacks take us into his dark recent past, in which he snubs an old girlfriend (Najwa Nimri) in order to pursue another (Penelope Cruz), is disfigured in a suicidal car accident staged by the old girlfriend, and discovers that the new girlfriend has changed into the old one. The experience of going mad, conveyed so vividly by pulp writer Cornell Woolrich, is the main bill of fare, and as with Woolrich, it works better than the denouement explaining what brought it about. Even if the script (written by the director and Mateo Gil) and direction are patchy, the obsessive theme is gripping — much more so than in Vanilla Sky (2001), the Tom Cruise remake. In Spanish with subtitles. 117 min. Read more

Pollock

From the Chicago Reader, January 2, 2001. — J.R.

Ed Harris reportedly spent years preparing for the role of action painter Jackson Pollock and also wound up directing this downbeat biopic (2000). It would be churlish to say that all his efforts were in vain; he gives an interesting performance and manages to duplicate portions of Pollock’s drip technique himself, a rather impressive tour de force. But the film suffers from problems endemic to movies about artists: trying to make taciturn types interesting and rendering messy lives meaningful (or meaningfully meaningless). The script focuses on Pollock’s relationship with fellow painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) and curiously enough recalls the tragic showbiz biopics that Hollywood ground out in the 50s. Any insight into Pollock’s work is overshadowed by the usual message of such enterprises — that artists are reckless, childish lunatics who suffer a lot and make others suffer as well. R, 119 min. (JR)

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