From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995).
Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people. Read more
This appeared in the May 5, 1995 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
The Last Good Time
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Bob Balaban
Written by Balaban and John McLaughlin
With Armin Mueller-Stahl,Olivia d’Abo, Lionel Stander,Maureen Stapleton, Kevin Corrigan, Adrian Pasdar, and Zohra Lampert.
Bob Balaban, a native Chicagoan who’s best known as a prolific movie and stage actor, has directed only three features to date. I haven’t seen his second feature, My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which some people tell me I’m better off having missed, but Parents, his first, was one of the most auspicious debuts of 1989.
Despite the radical differences between Parents and The Last Good Time in terms of genre, subject, style, and tone, they’re clearly the work of the same filmmaker. Part of this has to do with a precise feeling for place and a profound grasp of what sitting alone in a room feels like, even when other people are present. The solitary character in Parents is a ten-year-old boy who’s living with his parents in tacky 50s American suburbia. The monstrous (if typical) ranch-style house where they live is seen basically just as the boy experiences it — an expressionist, wide-angle nightmare etched in “cherry pink and apple blossom white” (to quote the song heard over the opening credits) that matches his parents’ taste and hypocrisy. Read more
From the Chicago Reader, April 21, 1995. It’s lamentable that, although Black Girl is now available on DVD from New Yorker, the color sequence in it appears in black and white. (In fact, I only saw this sequence in color for the first time when I showed this film in a course on world cinema of the 60s that I taught in Chicago in 2008.) To see this sequence in color, order the film’s BFI edition from Amazon UK. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène
With Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Momar Nar Sene, Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine, Ibrahima Boy, and the voices of Toto Bissainthe, Robert Marcy, and Sophie Leclerc.
If you trace African film back to its first fiction feature, it is only 30 years old. Yet far from being underdeveloped, it begins on a more sophisticated level than any other cinema in the world. By some accounts Ousmane Sembène’s hour-long Black Girl was made in 1965, by others 1966, a characteristic ambiguity when it comes to African movies. Do you date them according to when they were made or when they were first shown? And given the scant and largely unreliable print sources that we have to check, how can we be sure about either date? Read more
From Cinema Scope #14 (Spring 2003). It’s interesting to note that many of the releases that I discuss here are still available, if not always readily available. All of my recent columns, by the way, starting with issue #40, can be found on Cinema Scope‘s web site. — J.R.
A FEW PRELIMINARIES. The word is still getting out about the riches that are currently available to cinéphiles owning DVD players that play discs from all the territories —- players that are by now readily available at affordable prices to anyone with enough initiative to go looking on the Internet. But it might be added that the number of previously scarce films that can now be purchased in North American Territory is already quite substantial.
Combine these two opportunities and you have the pretext for a new column, which will be devoted not to DVD players (that’s your problem) but to DVDs that are currently available. This will follow the capitalistically incorrect premise that once you move beyond your own designated territory, the world becomes your oyster and a different sort of place from the one that assumes that you’re necessarily trapped as a consumer by the choices offered within your own national borders. Read more
From the September 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. I was shocked to discover that this is the only Kelly Reichardt film I ever reviewed in the Reader. Having just seen the amazing First Cow for the first time, I can’t understand how I ever allowed this to happen. If you decide to voyage out anywhere during the coronavirus lockdown, you can’t afford to miss this mysterious mind-bender and the singular world it simultaneously creates and discovers. — J.R.
A canny, contemporary portrait of shiftlessness, this adept first feature (1993) by American independent Kelly Reichardt, set in the Florida Everglades, is about people so bored they jump at the chance to go on the lam — taking off even before they’ve committed a crime. Reichardt has an original sense of how to put together a film sequence and an effective way of guiding her cast of unknowns through an absurdist comedy of errors. With Lisa Bowman, Larry Fessenden, Dick Russell, Stan Kaplan, and Michael Buscemi. (JR)
A Critic’s Choice for the Chicago Reader (June 6, 1997). — J.R.
In an era when the only fantasies grown-up critics are supposed to validate are preschool ones, here’s a charming and decidedly offbeat adult fantasy-comedy (1995) from the stylish English director Clare Peploe (High Season). In the early 50s, around the time of Nixon’s Checkers speech, a magician’s apprentice (Bridget Fonda) who’s engaged to a corrupt and wealthy politician (D.W. Moffett) runs off to Mexico in search of a sorceress after witnessing an apparent murder. Eventually she links up with a couple of guys (Russell Crowe and Jim Broadbent) who have separate reasons for being interested in her magic. Adapted by William Brookfield, former film critic Robert Mundy, and Peploe from James Hadley Chase’s novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, this visual treat recalls the whimsical postwar fantasies of Lewis Padgett (the pen name of writing team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore). The period flavor is witty and concise, the magic — which ultimately includes a talking dog and a man turning into a sausage — fetching and full of twists. (Fine Arts) — Jonathan Rosenbaum
This capsule review for the Chicago Reader is a way of mourning the untimely death of Berenice Reynaud, whose lovely book about the film offers a good sampling of her brilliant insights.
This remarkable and beautiful 160-minute family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Goodbye South, Goodbye, Flowers of Shanghai) begins in 1945, when Japan ended its 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan, and concludes in 1949, when mainland China became communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreated to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) storytelling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this 1989 drama is largely a meditation on communication itself, and appropriately enough it was the first Taiwanese film to use direct sound. It’s also one of the supreme masterworks of the contemporary cinema and, as the first feature of Hou’s magisterial trilogy about Taiwan during the 20th century (followed in 1993 by The Puppetmaster and in 1995 by Good Men, Good Women), an excellent launch to the Film Center’s eight-film Hou retrospective, which runs over the next three weeks. Read more
From The Soho News (October 29, 1980). — J.R.
What attracted me to sign up in advance for a symposium called “Television/Society/Art,” put on at the Kitchen and NYU last weekend, was the opportunity to see and hear some old friends, encounter some new people, and maybe even get some new ideas (about what I should be reading and seeing, if nothing else): a bargain for the $10 registration fee.
Presented by the Kitchen and the American Film Institute and organized by Ron Clark, a senior instructor at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, the three-day event inevitably threatened a few dead spots — particularly to a virtual videophobe like me, who largely regards the medium as a kind of wicker basket holding a few magazines that I’m neither interested in reading nor quite ready to throw away. On the other hand, the fact that some of the invited panelists seemed to share the same bias made me suspect that I’d feel right at home.
The symposium got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with the presentation of a lumbering keynote paper entitled “Television Images, Codes and Messages” by Douglas Kellner, a teacher of philosophy at the University of Texas’s Austin campus. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 2004). — J.R.
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke
With Delpy and Hawke.
“The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.”
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time….
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.”
— from W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1937)
Richard Linklater, like Wong Kar-wai on the opposite side of the globe, is a lyrical and elegiac filmmaker. In many of his films, as in many of Wong’s, the subject is time — the romance and poetry of moments ticking by, the wonder and anguish of living through and then remembering an hour or a day.
Future generations may look back at Linklater and Wong as poets laureate of the turn of the century who excelled at catching the tenor of their times. In Days of Being Wild and Slacker, Ashes of Time and The Newton Boys, Happy Together and Dazed and Confused, and In the Mood for Love and Before Sunrise they’re especially astute observers of where and who we are in history. Read more
To celebrate the release of Kino Lorber’s excellent DVD and Blu-Ray of Sternberg’s still-controversial and often misrepresented masterpiece, with many first-rate extras (and including both the 1953 and 1958 versions of the film), I’m posting this again. It first appeared in the January-February 1978 issue of Film Comment, with a few tweaks added in June 2010. I’ve also included, at the very end of this piece, a photograph of the real-life survivors of Anatahan that I found on the Internet. And to clarify the mimetic form of this piece, which has nine sections corresponding to the nine sections of Sternberg’s film, I’ve numbered each of those sections, for the first time.
This was written while I was teaching film at the University of California, San Diego and was able to study a 16-millimeter print of Anatahan that I was using in a course. This article was reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), where I added the following: “One of the critical commonplaces about THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is that everything in the film with the exception of the ocean waves is artificial and created, and Sternberg has often been uncritically quoted as saying that the only thing he regretted in the film were these waves, precisely because they were not of his making. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1995). — J.R.
This 1993 feature certainly has its flaws — including a wholly unnecessary literary quotation that appears on-screen at the worst possible moment — but it’s still one of maverick independent Jon Jost’s most forceful efforts to date, in part because it stars the most talented actor he’s ever worked with, the resourceful Tom Blair. Mainly known as a stage actor and director, Blair also starred in two of Jost’s best earlier features — as a wandering, jobless malcontent in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and as a misguided, bullying real estate speculator in Sure Fire (1990). Here he rounds out a loose trilogy of Jost’s corrosive, speculative self-portraits by playing a more sympathetic and ostensibly less alienated character, the owner of a lumber mill employing 60 workers, though the consequences of his situation prove to be even bleaker — and this time they can’t be so confidently traced back to his own character. A tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film that alternates between all-American landscapes (many of them composed as diptychs) and an unraveling nuclear family, this is as evocative and apocalyptic as Jost’s cinema gets — a film full of unanswered questions that will nag at you for days even as it makes fully understandable the sort of feelings about this country that drove Jost into European exile not long after it was completed. Read more
From the September 1, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)
Adapted from “Journal de Cannes,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Traﬁc, no. 15, été [summer] 1995. — .J.R.
From 1970 to 1973, when I was living in Paris, it was still possible to write Cannes coverage for two magazines, stay in a cheap hotel, and not lose too much money, and last year I was able to start attending again thanks to being on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival. Despite the opening of a new Palais des Festivals in 1983 and the closing or remodeling of various cinemas, the most signiﬁcant changes to be found here after two decades could arguably be summed up in a single phrase: what we mean when we say “contemporary cinema,” entailing not only what we include but what we leave out. In theory, all the beauty and horrors, the contradictions and paradoxes of world cinema are crammed in two weeks over a few city blocks. But in practice, how can we say with any conﬁdence that Cannes is an accurate précis of anything except the international ﬁlm business (which includes the press)?
Perhaps the biggest difference between the seventies and nineties in Cannes is the matter of whose opinions count the most. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 5, 1996). — J.R.
I can’t recall a worse year for Hollywood than 1995. This suggests that either my memory or the studio system is disintegrating. My guess is it’s the latter. I don’t mean to say the business is coming apart; sadly, Hollywood has often found it easy to make money with junk, especially if the public is willing — as it still apparently is — to go along with the film industry’s manipulations. (However, given the scant means available to most people to make themselves heard on such matters in this “free” society, I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions about this.) Rather I believe that what’s coming apart is the social contract between the industry and filmgoers, which allows some form of customer satisfaction that isn’t predicated on deception and a fundamental contempt for the audience.
A symptom of the problem could be found in an article by Peter Bart in Variety late last October bemoaning the poor box-office returns for “such pricy projects” as Jade, The Scarlet Letter, Strange Days, and Assassins. “Rubbing salt into the wound,” added Bart, “is a new Yankelovich opinion survey…which indicates that 43 percent of filmgoers interviewed say they would attend more films all year round if a ‘better selection’ of movies were available. Read more
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