From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2006). — J.R.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by Chu T’ien-wen and Hou
With Chang Chen, Shu Qi, Di Mei, Liao Su-jen, and Mei Fang
For decades Chinese history has been suppressed in China, on the mainland and in Taiwan, whether the subject is occupation or revolution, communism or capitalism. Recovering that history has become an obsession for art film directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Stanley Kwan, Edward Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wong Kar-wai, whose films are set in both the past and the present.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005) is split into three episodes set in Taiwan, each running about 40 minutes and featuring Chang Chen and Shu Qi; all three reflect Hou’s overriding concern with the way one’s sense of freedom, desire, and life possibilities is inflected by the age one lives in. The episodes are also about romantic disconnection and failed communication, with the romantic tensions reflecting international ones.
In “A Time for Love,” set in 1966 in Kaohsiung, Chen (Chang) receives his draft notice, then writes a love letter to May (Shu), who works at the snooker parlor where he hangs out. He discovers that she’s taken a job at another snooker parlor, and to the strains of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” he heads off to find her before reporting for duty. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1997). — J.R.
After 30 years of cryogenic preservation, the title hero (a spin-off of James Bond and his clones) and his archenemy Dr. Evil — both played by writer and coproducer Mike Myers (Wayne’s World) — emerge in the present to match wits all over again. What’s really fun about this silly but spirited comedy isn’t just the ribbing of swinging London fashion and social attitudes but the use of the compulsive zooms and split-screen mosaics of commercial movies of the 60s (some of the funniest gags derive from camera placement). There’s a bit of fudging when it comes to the romantic interest: sidekick Elizabeth Hurley initially blanches at Austin Powers’s advances but succumbs as soon as he treats her to a night on the town in Las Vegas, complete with champagne and Burt Bacharach. But 60s (and 50s) icons like Robert Wagner and Michael York (playing someone called Basil Exposition) make this exercise in historical relativity even funnier. Jay Roach directed with just the right amount of period tackiness. With Mimi Rogers, Seth Green, and Fabiana Udenio (as Alotta Fagina). (JR)
From Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1976, Vol. 43, No. 512. — J.R.
De Naede Faergen (They Caught the Ferry)
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Dist–Guild Sound & Vision. p.c–Ministeriernes Filmudvalg. sc–Carl Th. Dreyer. Derived from a work by Johannes V. Jensen. ph–Jørgen Roos. ed–Carl Th. Dreyer. sd–Jorgen Roos. l.p–(not credited). 408 ft. 11 mins. (16 mm.).
Behind the credits, accompanied by the ominous sound of three beats on a kettledrum, a ferry arrives at the Assens-Aarøsund landing. After some reverse-angle cuts between ferry and landing, a motorcyclist on board asks the captain about the next departure of the ferry on the other side of the island. ToId that it leaves in forty-five minutes but that he’ll never make it — the other ferry being seventy-five kilometres away — the man replies, “I must get it” and, with a female companion clinging to his waist, drives off the boat behind a line of other cyclists.
He quickly accelerates from 40 to 80 km. per hour, and his race down a country road is illustrated by moving shots which alternate his viewpoint (passing trees, close-ups of speedometer) with ‘objective’ angles (shots behind or ahead of his bike, close-ups of wheels). After stopping at a petrol station, where he urges the female attendant to hurry and she replies that he’lI have to drive fast to make the ferry. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2008). — J.R.
The fifth feature by Jia Zhang-ke, China’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, is set in the vicinity of China’s immense Three Gorges, where the ongoing construction of the world’s largest dam has already forced the relocation of almost two million people. Against this epic canvas, their paths crisscrossing but never intersecting, a coal miner and a nurse (both from Jia’s home province of Shanxi) search for their former mates. This 2006 drama may seem to be worlds apart from the surreal theme-park setting of Jia’s previous film, The World, but there are similarities of theme, style, scale, and tone: social and romantic alienation in a monumental setting, a daring poetic mix of realism and lyrical fantasy, and an uncanny sense of where our planet is drifting. In Mandarin and Shanxi with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)
When This is Orson Welles, which I edited, was originally published in 1992, the section of the book which elicited the most comments was the 131-page summery of Welles’ career, an attempt at an exhaustive account that I had taken over and expanded from Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’s original manuscript. People were awed by the size of this section, but ever since the book’s publication, I’ve been periodically reminded of how incomplete it actually was and is.
My latest reminder was coming across Welles’ 19-minute radio adaptation/performance of Alexander Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades,” introduced by Laurence Olivier and available for free at
I have no idea when this was recorded or broadcast, but Audible has posted it alongside other audio adaptations of other Russian literary works performed by Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, and an apparently unidentified actress in the same series, which aren’t free. [4/25/2022]
From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 515). — J.R.
One Second in Montreal
Director: Michael Snow
Dist–London Filmmakers’ Co-op/Cinegate. p.c /p/ph/ed–Michael Snow. 612 ft. (at 16 f.p.s.) 26 mins.; (at 24 f .p.s.) 17 mins.
A series of thirty-odd black and white still photographs – all showing park sites for a projected monument in Montreal covered with blankets of snow — are rephotographed and shown in succession; the duration of each photograph on the screen progressively increases during the first section of the film, and progressively decreases during the second, which ends with a ‘flash’ repeat of the initial title card. A simple experiment in what might be described as the phenomenology of duration in relation to the viewer’s attention and grasp of detail, One Second in Montreal apparently owes its title to the fact that the combined exposure time of the original photographs adds up to only one second.
Praised somewhat hyperbolically as a “cinematic construction which plays upon the seriality of film images” (Annette Michelson) and a “snow film so silent you can hear the snow fall” (Jonas Mekas), the film is an ‘open’ work in the sense that it can be projected at either 16 or 24 frames per second. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 8 , 1993). — J.R.
Let’s start with the bad news, which also happens to be the good news. With the erosion of state funding virtually everywhere and the concomitant streamlining of many film festivals toward certifiable hits — basically what an audience already knows, or worse, what it thinks it knows — there isn’t a great deal of difference anymore between the lineups of most large international festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, and even Chicago. By and large, the critics at Toronto last month, myself included, who thought it was an unusually good festival were those who hadn’t made it to the previous three big festivals.
Some films don’t make every list, of course. Luc Moullet, probably the most gifted comic filmmaker working in France, almost never seems to attract international interest, and I was disappointed to discover that his delightful Parpaillon, which I saw in Rotterdam, was passed over by Toronto, Chicago, and New York. The same goes for Robert Kramer’s Starting Place, which I saw in Locarno — a beautifully edited and moving personal documentary about contemporary Vietnam. I’m also sorry that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster and an intriguing American independent effort called Suture, both of which I saw in Toronto, are missing from the Chicago roster. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1987). — J.R.
Kevin Costner, suffering as nobly here as in The Untouchables, plays a naval officer hired by the secretary of defense (Gene Hackman), whose mistress he has been unwittingly sharing. While credited as an adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock (which was already made into a movie in 1948, directed by John Farrow), this taut thriller adds so many twists of its own it might be more appropriately cross-referenced with The Manchurian Candidate, even though it isn’t nearly as daffy or as mercurial. Cornball Dolby effects aside, it’s the kind of intricately plotted suspense film with juicy secondary parts (Sean Young, Will Patton, George Dzundza, Iman, Howard Duff) that used to be churned out in the 1940s; Roger Donaldson, the New Zealand director of Smash Palace, The Bounty, and Marie, delivers coproducer Robert Garland’s efficient script with more bombast than brilliance, but at least it keeps you in your seat (1987). (JR)
An unexpected gift arrives in the mail: a subtitled preview of Peter von Bagh’s fabulous and rather Markeresque documentary (2008)—a lovely city symphony which is also a history of Helsinki (and incidentally, Finland, Finnish cinema, and Finnish pop music) recounted with film clips and paintings by three voices (two male, one of them von Bagh’s, and one female—each one reciting what seems to be a slightly different style of poetic and essayistic discourse). There are no chapter divisions on this DVD, and the continuity is more often geographical than chronological, although there’s also a lot of leaping about spatially as well as temporally. At separate stages we’re introduced to the best-ever Finnish camera movement and the best Finnish musical, are invited to browse diverse neighborhoods and eras (and to ponder contrasts in populations and divorce rates), and are finally forced to admit that a surprising amount of very striking film footage has emerged from this country and city.
Peter von Bagh—prolific film critic, film historian, and professor, onetime director of the Finnish Film Archive and current artistic director of two unique film festivals, the Midnight Sun Film Festival (held in Sodankylä, above the Arctic Circle, during what amounts to one very long day in the summer, when there’s no night) and Il Cinema Ritrovato (held soon afterwards, in Bologna)—is the man who convinced me to purchase my first multiregional VCR in the early 80s. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 16, 1987). Mamet’s first feature and still his best.– J.R.
Hitchcock lives! David Mamet’s first time out as a director is a thriller about compulsive behavior and con games, done with a sureness of touch and taste that shows a better understanding of Hitchcockian obsessions than the complete works of Brian De Palma. The viewer has to adjust to Mamet’s theatrical reflexes, which impart a certain strangeness to both the performances and the staging — such as confidential conversations held within earshot of characters who don’t hear them, because the conventions of theater space are employed rather than the usual conventions of filmic space. But once past this barrier, one is easily seduced by Mamet’s storytelling gifts, which deliver a shapely script (developed with Jonathan Katz), full of its own con games and compulsions, with an adroit grasp of emphasis and pacing. Lindsay Crouse (Mamet’s wife) plays a successful upper-crust psychiatrist and author whose feelings of frustration in treating her criminally involved patients goad her into a walk on the wild side, beginning with the eponymous gambling den, with Joe Mantegna as her guide. Apart from uniformly fine performances — with Mike Nussbaum, Lilia Skala, and J.T. Read more
DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE by Barack Obama (New York: Three Rivers Press) 1995, 480 pp.
This book, which I’m still reading (I’m in its final section, about Kenya), is considerably more powerful, both as writing and as autobiography, than Obama’s follow-up book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. For me the most striking episode so far occurs in New York, and, significantly enough, it occurs at the movies. (Most of the gist of this episode can be found on pp. 123-125, towards the end of the first of the book’s three main sections, “Origins”.)
During a visit from Obama’s (white) mother, she finds an ad for a downtown revival of Black Orpheus in the Village Voice, which she describes as the first foreign film she ever saw, when she was 16 and in Chicago and “thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” She and Obama and his sister Maya go to the revival house in a cab (the cab is a typically telling novelistic detail), and halfway through the picture Obama finds himself seething at what he finds racist and paternalistic in this white, French depiction of black and brown Brazilians in the Rio favelas during Carnival — which he describes as “the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages” [in Heart of Darkness]. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1988). — J.R.
Treated as a debacle upon release, partially as payback for producer-star Warren Beatty’s high-handed treatment of the press, this Elaine May comedy was the most underappreciated commercial movie of 1987. It isn’t quite as good as May’s previous features, but it’s still a very funny work by one of this country’s greatest comic talents. Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, both cast against type, play inept songwriters who score a club date in North Africa and accidentally get caught up in various international intrigues. Misleadingly pegged as an imitation Road to Morocco, the film is better read as a light comic variation on May’s masterpiece Mikey and Nicky as well as a prescient send-up of blundering American idiocy in the Middle East. Among the highlights: Charles Grodin’s impersonation of a CIA operative, a blind camel, Isabelle Adjani, Jack Weston, Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, and a delightful series of deliberately awful songs, most of them by Paul Williams. 107 min. (JR)
Early in 2009, I received a phone call from Béla Tarr, asking me if I could write a page about Sátántangó (1994) for a Hungarian newspaper to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Here’s what I sent him. —J.R.
Sátántangó at 15
Congratulations to Sátántangó on its 15th anniversary. Now that it’s a teenager, I’m happy that English-speaking fans can finally, at long last, look forward to an English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel. As a member of PEN, I was invited last year to suggest literary works for English translation. After I proposed Sátántangó and they published my response, I received a note from Barbara Epler of New Directions: “We are waiting on the delivery of its translation by the great George Szirtes, eagerly waiting, and will publish it as soon as we can. (We already have his translations of László’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War.)” So once it appears, I’ll no longer have to depend on the French translation by Joëlle Dufeuilly (2000) published by Gallimard, which I’ve owned for many years.
The film finally became available here last year on DVD from Facets Video, helping to demonstrate how much cinema as a “language” is more easily translatable than literature. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 24, 1993). — J.R.
LAST ACTION HERO
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austin O’Brien, Charles Dance, Anthony Quinn, Tom Noonan, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Prosky.
The word is out: Last Action Hero is an unmitigated disaster. The sound of studio panic was plainly audible in a report in the June 17 New York Times that Columbia Pictures threatened to sever all communications with the Los Angeles Times if it didn’t guarantee it would “never again run a story written or reported by Jeff Wells about (or even mentioning) this studio, its executives, or its movies.” Wells’s crime was a June 6 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that a test-marketing preview of Last Action Hero held in Pasadena about two weeks earlier had been disappointing. The article contained “categorical denials” from several studio executives that such a screening had ever taken place, but clearly this wasn’t enough for the industry people. As Wells told the New York Times, “You’re talking about a studio in a major meltdown mode. These guys are blitzing out here.”
I read this story only hours before seeing another “disappointing” preview of Last Action Hero in Chicago, after several weeks of hearing rumors that the picture was a “mess” and in deep, deep trouble. Read more
I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but it’s certainly honorable and original. I suspect that a major reason why Ari Folman’s animated nightmare has been picking up some sizable awards–best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes–is that it does something that the mainstream U.S. news media more or less refuses to do. It allows the American public to express its disgust and horror for what’s currently happening in Gaza. In a similar way, albeit far more indirectly, roughly two year ago, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima allowed many of us to cope a little better with some of our rage and sorrow about the occupation of Iraq. And as I noted at the time in my capsule review for that film, Waltz with Bashir also suggests that distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars may be a civilian luxury. [1/12/09] Read more