Yearly Archives: 2021

His 20th Century [HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA & MONTPARNASSE 19]

From the Chicago Reader (July 16, 1993). For a more detailed commentary on the Histoire(s), including Godard’s own input, go here. — J.R.

HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Jean-Luc Godard.

MONTPARNASSE 19 ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jacques Becker

With Gerard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Anouk Aimee, Gerard Sety, Lila Kedrova, Lea Padovani, Denise Vernac, and Lino Ventura.

If you want to be “up to the minute” about cinema, there’s no reason to be concerned that it’s taken four years for Jean-Luc Godard’s ambitious video series to reach Chicago. After all, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the artwork to which Histoire(s) du cinéma seems most comparable, written between 1922 and 1939, was first published in 1939, but if you started to read it for the first time this week, you’d still be way ahead of most people in keeping up with literature. For just as Finnegans Wake figuratively situates itself at some theoretical stage after the end of the English language as we know it — from a vantage point where, inside Joyce’s richly multilingual, pun-filled babble, one can look back at the 20th century and ask oneself, “What was the English language?”… Read more »

International Sampler (GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI)

From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). I’m delighted that Criterion recently invited me to retool this review for a new edition of this film, scheduled to appear in November. In some ways, I like Ghost Dog more now than I did 20 years ago. — J.R. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Rating *** A must see Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.
Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes. Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons.… Read more »

The Way It Was [WOODSTOCK]

I’m not sure why, but it seems like Woodstock has rarely gotten its due as a film. This review for the Chicago Reader ran on August 12, 1994, while I was working in New York on the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, and I recall that as a consequence I had to write and get most of this piece edited in Chicago well in advance. A little bit of it is recycled from the first paragraph of an article that I wrote for Grass: The Paged Experience, the 2001 book spinoff of Ron Mann ‘s documentary Grass — an update and revision of an article I wrote for High Times 15 years earlier. –J.R.

WOODSTOCK ****  (Masterpiece)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh

With Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ten Years After, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who, John Sebastian, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.

Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary Woodstock (1970) has been reviewed often as an event, a symbol, and a cause, but it’s seldom been considered strictly as a movie; yet on this score it’s light-years beyond anything on the 60s counterculture ever released by a Hollywood studio.… 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 »

En movimiento: A Reconstructed Diary of Cinematic Highpoints

An “En movimiento” column for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, written in July 2014 for their October 2014 issue. — J.R.

TheOwners

the_owners

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12 June (Chicago): As preparation for serving as a “mentor” to student film critics at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I watch online a film they’re assigned to write about, Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners from Kazakhstan. This is quite a revelation — at least for me, if not, as I later discover, for most of the students. Three city siblings arrive in the county to claim the ramshackle hut they’ve inherited from their deceased mother, and the tragicomic misadventures and forms of corruption that they encounter oscillate between grim realism, absurdist genre parody, and dreamlike surrealism, culminating in a doom-ridden yet festive dance in which both victims and victimizers participate. Unlike the hyperbolic violence that brutalizes the characters of Jia Zhange’s A Touch of Sin by reducing their humanity, Yerzhanov’s use of genre staples actually expands his expressive and emotional palette without foreshortening our sense of the people involved.

brickandmirror

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21 & 23 June (Edinburgh): The two high points of my six days here are two very different masterpieces from the first Iranian New Wave, Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) and Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973).… Read more »

The Classical Modernist [on Manoel de Oliveira]

Reposted to mourn the death in 2015 of a titan, at age 106. From the July-August 2008 Film Comment, with the subhead “Negotiating the singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira on the eve of his 100th birthday “. — J.R.

 

Films, films,
The best resemble
Great books
That are difficult to penetrate
Because of their richness and depth.

The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
And art
complicated.
— Manoel de Oliveira, “Cinematographic Poem,” 1986 (translated from the Portuguese)

Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.
— Eric Hobsbawm,
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991


To insist that all great filmmakers contain multitudes is to risk a counter-response — that the same might equally be said of the not-so-great. Just as much labor can be expended on bad work as on good, and this applies to the labor of viewers and filmmakers alike.… 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 »

Ten & Twenty Best Lists, 1995-1999

This is third in an ongoing series of five lists of lists. –J.R.

Chicago Reader, 1995:
Latcho Drom (Tony Gatlif)
Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)
A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach) + When It Rains (Charles Burnett)
Lamerica (Gianni Amelio)
Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Safe (Todd Haynes)
Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Jean-Luc Godard)
Exotica (Atom Egoyan)
Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambety)
Up Down Fragile (Jacques Rivette)

Chicago Reader, 1996:
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
The Asthenic Syndrome (Mira Kuratova)
The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Nightjohn (Charles Burnett)
The Neon Bible (Terence Davies)
Regularly or Irregularly (Abbas Kiarostami) + From the Jounals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport)
Thieves (André Téchiné) + My Favorite Season (André Téchiné)
The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi) + Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hou Hsaio-hsien)
Blush (Li Shaohong) + Red Hollywood (Thom Anderson & Noël Burch)
Flirt (Hal Hartley) + Deseret (James Benning)
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton) + Joan the Maid (Jacques Rivette)
Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh) + Basquiat (Julian Schnabel)
Get on the Bus (Spike Lee) + Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)
Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton) + The Cable Guy (Ben Stiller)
When Pigs Fly (Sara Driver) + Desolation Angels (Tim McCann)
Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci) + My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud (Gérard Mordillat)
Ectasy (Mariano Barroso) + Vive l’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang)
Cyclo (Tran Anh Hung) + Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
2 X 50 Years of French Cinema (Anne-Marie Mièville & Jean-Luc Godard) + The Crucible (Nicholas Hytner)
A Family Thing (Richard Pearce) + Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (Claude Sautet)
Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (Stanley Kwan) + Red Lotus Society (Stan Lai)
Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter) + Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson) + Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)

Chicago Reader, 1997:
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
The House Is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad)
Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas)
The Ceremony (Claude Chabrol)
4 Little Girls (Spike Lee) + Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris)
La promesse (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute)
The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
As Good As It Gets (James L.… Read more »

Stuck, But Slippery [STUCK ON YOU]

From the Chicago Reader (December 19, 2003). — J.R.

StuckonYou3

Stuck on You

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly

Written by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Charles B. Wessler, and Bennett Yellin

With Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes, Wen Yann Shih, Cher, Seymour Cassel, Griffin Dunne, and Meryl Streep.


One of my all-time favorite Japanese movies is Yasuzo Masumura’s A Wife Confesses (1961), which I’ve been able to see only once, in Tokyo with a live English translation. It’s a courtroom thriller about a young widow who’s being tried for her part in the death of her abusive older husband while they were mountain climbing, and it hinges on the haunting question of what she was thinking when she made the split-second decision to cut the rope connecting the two of them. She was attached at the other end of the rope to an attractive young man who had business ties to her husband and with whom she was in love, and she had to cut one of the men loose to prevent all three of them from plummeting to their deaths.

The story is a tragic allegory about the interdependence of individuals in Japanese society and how this conflicts with individual choice and desire, and I can’t imagine it being remade in this country, where the rightness of the heroine’s choice would more likely be regarded as self-evident.… Read more »

Free to Roam [DR. AKAGI]

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 1999). — J.R.

Dr. Akagi Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Shohei Imamura

Written by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan

With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, and Masanori Sera.

If you saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry you may recall a joke told by the Turkish taxidermist:    When a man complains to a doctor that every part of his body hurts — “When I touch my chest, that hurts; when I touch my arm and my leg, my arm and my leg hurt” — the doctor suggests that what’s actually bothering him is an infected finger. Similarly, when we think about Japan we may be prone to confuse what we’re pointing at with the finger that’s doing the pointing — especially given how much of a role our   country played in the rebuilding of Japan after the war. (Perhaps significantly, scant attention is paid to Japanese movies about — and made during — the American occupation, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women, a period film whose theme of artistic imprisonment is clearly addressed to his contemporaries.)

Even when it comes to Japan before the occupation, we may tend to overlook or misinterpret American influences, seeing them instead as Japanese traits.… Read more »

Myths of the New Narrative (and a Few Counter-Suggestions)

The following is taken from the online Moving Image Source, and the first introductiion is by David Schwartz. –J.R.

This essay was commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988 for a catalogue accompanying the month-long, 150-film retrospective Independent America: New Film 1978-1988. The ambitious series, which took place during the Museum’s inaugural season, was an attempt to make a statement not just about the state of experimental filmmaking at the time but also about the Museum’s wide-ranging programming philosophy.

The underlying idea was to showcase films that were cinematically inventive, works that broke boundaries in form and content, subverted conventions, and created new hybrid forms. In this way, the series revealed the inadequacy of such confining labels as “avant-garde,” “fiction,” and “documentary,” and it also tried to reinvigorate the notion of what it means to be “independent.”

Before the commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction (and before the rise of home video), independent filmmakers made and showed their films in a world truly apart from Hollywood. To get their work seen, they would travel for months, with their 16mm film prints in tow, to colleges and media arts centers across the country.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

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1. The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952).
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New Rose Hotel

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1999). — J.R.

It’s not at all surprising that Abel Ferrara’s most recent feature (1998) has failed to find an American distributor or that some of his most eloquent defenders have labeled this transgressive adaptation of a William Gibson story the collapse of a major talent. A murky and improbable tale about prostitution, industrial espionage, and manufactured viruses, it works on the very edge of coherence even before the final 20 minutes or so, during which earlier portions of the film are replayed with minor variations and additions. On the other hand, few American films in recent years have been so beautifully composed and color coordinated shot by shot, and the overall experience of an opium dream is so intense that you might stop making demands of the narrative once you realize that none of the usual genre expectations is going to be met. Almost all the principal action occurs offscreen, and most of Ferrara and Christ Zois’s script concentrates on scenes between a corporate raider named Fox (Christopher Walken); his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe); and Sandii (Asia Argento, daughter of cult horror director Dario Argento), an Italian prostitute hired to seduce a Japanese scientist.… Read more »

Roberto Rossellini’s Belly

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 2006). — J.R.

My Dad Is 100 Years Old

*** (A must see)

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by and starring Isabella Rossellini

In May 1948 Ingrid Bergman wrote a letter to director Roberto Rossellini: “Dear Mr. Rossellini, I have seen your films Rome, Open City and Paisan and I enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, has not forgotten her German, is barely comprehensible in French and who can only say ‘I love you’ in Italian, I am ready to come to Italy to work with you.”

She was the biggest female star in Hollywood at the time, and the films she mentioned were art house hits. She and Rossellini were married to other people, and the scandal of their subsequent affair led Colorado senator Edwin Johnson to try to bar her from appearing in movies, declaring on the floor of the Senate, “No one can reflect upon her sudden plunge from the highest pinnacle of respect to the gutter without feeling that she is the victim of some kind of hypnotic influence. . . . RKO publicity brazenly termed Rossellini inspired. If this swine is inspired, he is inspired by the devil.”… Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »