This appeared in the May 22, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Warren Beatty
Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser
With Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Paul Sorvino, Don Cheadle, and Amiri Baraka.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
“Warren Beatty co-wrote, directed, and stars in this satire about a self-destructive U.S. senator using race-baiting tactics to get reelected.” I assume Mark Caro hadn’t seen Bulworth when he wrote this capsule for the Chicago Tribune‘s May 10 summer movie preview. It only goes to show the risks you run when you try to make a movie that tells the truth politically and then limit this “truth” to a series of sound bites; sooner or later that form of TV abbreviation is going to bite you back.
More precisely, Bulworth is about a Democratic senator from California (Beatty), up for reelection in 1996, who is having a nervous breakdown, takes out a contract on himself, and then finds himself blurting out the truth instead of the usual packaged lies during his campaign. He hasn’t slept for days, and after throwing caution to the winds and going off to a hip-hop club with Nina (Halle Berry) and two other young women from South Central LA, he starts parsing out all his public statements in rap, scandalizing his staff and various media people with the form and content of his forthright declarations. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2007). This film is currently available for free on YouTube. — J.R.
This 2006 feature is my favorite to date by English writer-director Christopher Petit (Radio On). Subtitled both On Stalking and Being Stalked and A Story of Obsessive Passion, it’s about a young woman (Rebecca Marshall) stalking a London academic (Gregory Dart, author of the source novel) who is himself obsessed with a woman in Leipzig. Both paranoid and lyrical, the movie visualizes its strange tale mainly through ersatz surveillance footage, and the music is appropriately Hitchcockian. To complicate matters, the first-person voice-over is shared by Marshall and Petit himself (his portion is full of film references). Formally this is a dazzler. 77 min. (JR)
This is the second and final part of an article published in the January-February 1975 Film Comment. — J.R.
Towards an aesthetic evaluation. For critics of the Thirties and the early Forties, Disney was an essential figure in the arts. Eisenstein declared him to be the most interesting filmmaker in America, and over the decade that followed, Erwin Panofsky praised the early cartoons and “certain sequences” in the later ones as “a chemically pure distillation of cinematic possibilities”; Gilbert Seldes offered many sympathetic critiques; and even E.M. Forster published a brief tribute to Mickey Mouse. Lewis Jacobs’ assessment of Disney in The Rise of the American Film is certainly more likely to raise eyebrows today than it was in 1939:
“In the realm of films that combine sight, sound, and color Disney is still unsurpassed. The wise heir of forty years of film tradition, he consummates the cinematic contributions of Méliès, Porter, Griffith, and the Europeans [sic]. He has done more with the film medium since it added sound and color than any other director, creating a form that is of great and vital consequence not only for what it is but for what it portends. Read more
From Film Comment (January-February 1975). Although this is obviously dated in many respects, and most likely contains some errors, I’ve made only a few revisions while transcribing it. Given the length, I’ve decided to post this in two parts, with the second part to be posted later today.
This is a much-expanded entry written originally for Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980). It was mainly researched while I was still living in Paris in the mid-1970s, and I can recall having had lots of difficulties attending various kids-only screenings of Disney cartoon features, and convincing various theater managers that my interests were strictly scholarly and I wasn’t a dirty old man. — J.R.
In some respects, there may be no cultural figure in the West as potentially controversial as Walt Disney, even though love and hatred for what Disney represents are frequently felt by the same people. At the same time, there is certainly no other filmmaker whose aesthetic and ideological preoccupations have permeated so much of modern life that, paradoxically, his omnipresence verges on invisibility. Even beyond the grave, continuing manifestations of his vision have become some integral to American society that they are commonly regarded as natural and relatively unquestioned parts of the landscape, like a salt shaker or a babysitter or a place to go on vacation. Read more
Posted in Moving Image Source, December 1, 2009. This is the second time I wrote at length about White Hunter, Black Heart, and this essay was reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinema; the earlier piece, written 19 years earlier, is available here. [August 31 footnote: After watching Eastwood’s embarrassing and often fumbling impromptu speech at the Republican National Convention last night, I treasure his performance in this spectacularly underrated movie even more.] — J.R.
“It’s the film of a free man.” Roberto Rossellini’s celebrated defense of Charlie Chaplin’s most despised film, A King in New York (1957) — a film so reviled that it goes unmentioned in Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography — is a sentence that frequently comes to mind about some of the features directed by Clint Eastwood, especially over the past couple of decades. Eastwood has in fact carved out a singular niche for himself that affords him the sort of artistic and conceptual freedom that no one else in Hollywood can claim. Starting with the fact that he doesn’t test-market his movies and indulge in the sort of hasty post-production revisions that limit the range of his colleagues, he’s a director who can choose both his subjects and how he deals with them. Read more
This was written in September 2010 to introduce the Czech translation and edition of my book about Dead Man (BFI, 2000). — J.R.
During the fifteen years that have passed since Jim Jarmusch’s sixth and most ambitious feature premiered in Cannes, it’s been gratifying to see its critical reputation steadily rising, especially in the U.S.And during the last two-thirds of this period, after this book made its first appearance, I’ve been pleased to see its constituency growing. It has subsequently had a second edition in English, which appeared in 2008, and a French translation, by Justine Malle (a daughter of Louis Malle), published by Les Éditions de la Transparence in 2005. Now that it’s coming out in a Czech edition, it’s worth mentioning (but not dwelling too much on) the fact that Jarmusch’s paternal grandparents were Bohemian, although they never spoke any Czech in his presence. (He also told me, with some hesitation, that his mother’s parents may have been Irish; he isn’t even sure about this.) I was in Cannes in 1995, and the several walkouts during the picture that I witnessed were hardly unprecedented, especially for a demanding film of this kind at this festival. But for many years afterwards, the film qualified as a film maudit, and not only because its own American distributor, Miramax, appeared to want it to fail, after it became clear that Jarmusch had no intentions of following any of its suggestions for re-editing (specifically, those of Harvey Weinstein) — an attitude in striking contrast to that of Weinstein protégé Quentin Tarantino, misleadingly identified as an independent filmmaker, who seemed quite happy to forego final cut in exchange for getting Weinstein’s unlimited support. Read more
This article was written in 2006 — specifically at the request of Ghatak’s son Ritaban, whom I met at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea in the spring of that year. I was serving on one of the festival’s juries and also lectured with Ritaban at a screening of The Cloud-Capped Star during a Ghatak retrospective. Ritaban was then planning a critical collection about his father’s work, as a kind of follow-up to a collection of his father’s writings about cinema (Rows and Rows of Fences, published by Seagull Books in Calcutta in 2000) and asked me to contribute an article to it. But once I emailed this piece to him about half a year later, I never heard from him again, leading me to conclude that the critical collection project was suspended. So eventually I submitted this to my friend Adrian Martin, coeditor of the online Rouge, who published this in their 10th issue in 2007, about a year later. — J.R.
Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema
I have no way of knowing if Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it. Read more
Brilliantly conceived and competently executed, this disturbing psychological thriller by German-born French filmmaker Dominik Moll (With a Friend Like Harry) has been compared to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, in part because of its uncanny two-part construction. But it also suggests an original spin on Eyes Wide Shut in the unspoken understandings of its married couple (Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and its ambiguous mix of reality and fantasy. Andre Dussollier and Charlotte Rampling play another couple who arrive for a dinner party, and the unpredictable transactions among the four kept me engrossed and curious throughout. In French with subtitles. 129 min. Music Box.
Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke (The World) made this 2006 documentary in conjunction with his superb drama Still Life, and one should make every effort to see them together. Dong shows artist and former actor Liu Xiaodong posing and painting male demolition workers in Three Gorges along the Yangtze River, where the world’s largest dam is being built (and where Still Life is set), then doing the same with female models in Bangkok, which allows Jia to draw some pointed social and economic contrasts. The film is less impressive than Jia’s first documentary, In Public (2002), made as he scouted locations for his drama Uncommon Pleasures, but it’s more interesting than his third, Useless (2007), about the manufacture of clothing. The title means east in Mandarin and also refers to the character Liu plays in the 1994 film The Days. In Mandarin, Sezhuan, and Thai with subtitles. 70 min. (JR)
Properly speaking, this skillful made-for-cable satire (1997, 100 min.) directed by Joe Dante qualifies as the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy, preceded by Matinee (1993) and followed by Small Soldiers (1998). Viewers who consider it the best of the threesome may have a point, though its lack of a theatrical run in this U.S. makes it somewhat better known overseas. Beau Bridges plays the governor of Idaho who decides to close his state borders to a plane full of Pakistani orphans fleeing a nuclear disaster, and the action is crosscut with national government deliberations (James Coburn as a Presidential advisor) and various kinds of frantic media spin (Dan Hedaya as a network news director). Barry Levinson set this project in motion, so the parallels with Wag the Dog aren’t accidental, but one of the essential ingredients brought to it by Dante, the least Swiftian of satirists, is that nobody’s a villain, even when behaving like an idiot and/or a hypocrite. (The governor, for instance, plays shamelessly to his xenophobic constituency while remaining smitten with his Mexican mistress, a reporter played by Elizabeth Pena, and the movie is determined to view him simply as a lovable asshole.) Read more
Historical spectaculars tend to fall into two broad categories: myths of origin (Cecil B. De Mille’s 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments) and more ponderous inquiries into the hero’s personality (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Chen Kaige’s massive 161-minute epic (1999) about the unification of China, accomplished by its first emperor during the third century BC, attempts an impossible synthesis of these two categories, beginning with Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), the king of Ch’in, as a charismatic hero and ending with him as a murderous villain, the mantle of heroism having passed to his former mistress (Gong Li) and the mysterious assassin she enlists to kill him (Zhang Fengyi). Though there’s no physical resemblance, it’s impossible to follow the development of Ying Zheng without thinking of Mao — in some respects the last Chinese emperor — but even without that parallel this is a powerful story and a splendid spectacle. Compared with Maggie Cheung, Gong Li is arguably more an iconic star than an actress, but on this outing she gives a pretty impressive performance. (JR)
This bold departure by French director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) follows three middle-aged Americans (Karen Young, Charlotte Rampling, Louise Portal) whose vacations in Haiti during the brutal reign of Baby Doc Duvalier include encounters with male prostitutes. Cantet is concerned not only with the women’s psychologies and complex interrelations as they compete for the same local hunk (Menothy Cesar) but also with the global economics at work. The film tackles more than it can master, but it’s never less than fascinating, and all three leads are exceptional. Screenwriter Robin Campillo adapted three short stories by Dany Laferriere. In English and subtitled French and Creole. 106 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2006). — J.R.
After a terrorist explosion kills the passengers on a New Orleans ferry, an ATF agent (Denzel Washington), discovering that a form of time travel can send him back to the event, resolves to save the life of a woman (Paula Patton) killed shortly before, as well as prevent the explosion. The story recalls Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) in its romantic moodiness and has some of the philosophical poignance common to tales of time travel. But the SF hardware (enjoyable) and thriller mechanics (mechanical) of this Jerry Bruckheimer slam-banger don’t mesh very well with reflection, and the action trumps most evidence of thought. Tony Scott directed a script by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio; with Val Kilmer and James Caviezel. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2006). — J.R.
Adapted from P.D. James’s dystopian novel, this SF feature by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) takes place in England in 2027, when the human race has mysteriously become infertile and faces extinction. A onetime revolutionary (Clive Owen) is asked by an old flame (Julianne Moore) to take part in her underground movement defending illegal aliens, who are trucked off to concentration camps; assisted by an older hippie pal (Michael Caine in an Oscar-worthy performance), he agrees to smuggle a young woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out of the country. The film gradually devolves into action-adventure, then the equivalent of a war movie. But the filmmaking is pungent throughout, and the first half hour is so jaw-dropping in its fleshed-out extrapolation that Cuaron earns the right to coast a bit. R, 108 min. (JR)
Overrated in France and underrated in the U.S., writer-director Richard Brooks thrived on sensationalism (Blackboard Jungle, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and made some excellent westerns (The Professionals, Bite the Bullet), but he generally faltered whenever he tried for prestigious art (The Brothers Karamazov, Sweet Bird of Youth, Lord Jim, In Cold Blood). One of his better 50s efforts was this 1956 CinemaScope western with Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger, about the disappearance of the buffalo in the 1880s. With Debra Paget, Lloyd Nolan, and Russ Tamblyn. Politically incorrect (not so much because Native Americans are associated with the buffalos but because Paget and Tamblyn are cast as the former), but the liberal sentiments still seem genuine. 108 min. (JR)