The Language of Objects [THE WAR OF THE ROSES]

From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.

THE WAR OF THE ROSES

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Danny DeVito

Written by Michael Leeson

With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.

The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.

Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem. Read more

ON MOONLIGHT BAY as Time Machine

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven consecutive installments. This is the fifth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

2— On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine

A small Midwestern town in 1916, possibly in June. Behind a succession of pink and green credits that they will never see, acknowledge, or understand—a list of names and functions that fasten themselves to a Warner Brothers release, On Moonlight Bay , dated 1951—a family is seated in the dark parlor of a Booth Tarkington house, watching slides of themselves on a screen.

Taste it if you can: 1916. Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, a sequel to his very popular Penrod, has either just appeared in hardcover or is about to. Germany has declared war on Portugal, Russia has invaded Persia, 8,636 English and German sailors have perished in a naval battle off Jutland, and Gordon MacRae—whom we hear with Doris Day singing the title tune over the credits, but haven’t yet seen—has just completed his junior year at the University of Indiana, and is deeply shaken by all this strife in Europe. Read more

Irma La Douce

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 1995).  — J.R.    

irmaladouce

Billy Wilder’s soggy and uninspired 1963 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, minus the songs. Shirley MacLaine stars as a Paris prostitute with a heart of gold who falls for a former policeman (Jack Lemmon) who winds up as her pimp and, in disguise, her only customer. A good example of how a movie can be utterly characteristic of its maker and still fall with a resounding thud; with Lou Jacobi and Herschel Bernardi. (JR)

Irma6

Department of utter bafflement (February 2015): Thinking I might have missed something (the film was, after all, a smash hit, and was treated by Godard as if it were Wilder’s belated blossoming as a filmmaker, even making the ninth spot in his ten-best list for 1964, between The Nutty Professor and Two Weeks in Another Town), I recently made a return visit to this movie on DVD and found it just as unbearable as before, despite the charm of the Alexander Trauner sets.

Irma La Douce on the street

Wilder’s major gift, apart from symmetrically pointed plot construction (as in Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti!), was as a reporter on American bourgeois hypocrisy, and what seems most peculiar in this film is its misreadings of French manners and French bourgeois hypocrisy, which come across as purely American — Parisian pimps out of Damon Runyon (filmed on the same soundstages as Guys and Dolls, at the Goldwyn Studio) and a puritanical cop who seems to hail from the American midwest. Read more

Metaphysical Pop [THE MUSIC OF CHANCE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 24, 1993). Oddly enough, the version of this piece that’s available on the Reader‘s web site and  (until recently) here is missing the final five paragraphs, which I’ve just restored by copying them from the printed version that I still have in one of my scrapbooks. — J.R.

THE MUSIC OF CHANCE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Haas

Written by Philip and Belinda Haas

With Mandy Patinkin, James Spader, M. Emmet Walsh, Charles Durning, Joel Grey, Samantha Mathis, and Christopher Penn.

In an interview included in his nonfiction collection The Art of Hunger, Paul Auster gives an intriguing account of the major influences on his novels — an account that suggests why these novels aren’t well suited to conventional movie adaptation:

“The greatest influence on my work has been fairy tales, the oral tradition of story-telling. The Brothers Grimm, the Thousand and One Nights — the kinds of stories you read out loud to children. These are bare-bone narratives, narratives largely devoid of details, yet enormous amounts of information are communicated in a very short space, with very few words. What fairy tales prove, I think, is that it’s the reader — or the listener — who actually tells the story to himself. Read more

Cinema at a Distance (interview with Peter Gidal)

From The Soho News (January 14, 1981). — J.R.

“When I came to New York in September,” English avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist Peter Gidal tells me, “I noticed that almost every film review that I read used food metaphors and digestion metaphors to talk about art and cinema. Because consumption, digestion and predigestion is the dominant mode in this country. It’s just one signifier of the attempt to break with materialism and process, and to anthropomorphize everything.”

An “English” label should be assigned to Gidal only after some qualification. Born in 1946, he grew up in Mount Vernon, N. Y., and Switzerland and attended Brandeis University before settling in London in the late 60s. Although his accent sounds more redolent of Manhattan than of London, he has spent only two of the past 21 years in the U.S.

Regarding his opposition to food metaphors (as well as narrative), he recalls a drinking cup that he used as a kid for drinking milk. “It had a house on the outside, and on the inside, as you gradually drank, you could see the words, ‘The End.'”

“Which ties up with the idea of closure,” I suggest pedantically, referring to a discussion we’ve been having about Action at a Distance, his latest film. Read more

Red Tape [THE STORY OF QIU JU]

From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 1993). — J.R.

THE STORY OF QIU JU

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Liu Pei Qi, Ge Zhi Jun, and Yang Liu Chun.

For a comedy that takes bureaucratic negotiation as one of its overriding themes, Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju has negotiated quite a bit for its director from the Chinese government, bureaucracy and all. This is only one of the film’s many ironies. Another is that in the course of showing us much more of China’s particularity than ever before Zhang has realized his most universal and accessible film to date, offering a virtual reproach to the artiness of its predecessors.

Until this feature was made, Zhang’s previous two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both huge international successes, were banned in China. Zhang was widely regarded as both a dissident and a scandalous figure, thanks to his adulterous relationship with his leading lady, Gong Li (who has played in all five of his features), which was given much publicity in abusive newspaper articles under the byline of his estranged wife. At least one semireliable commentator thinks it may have been this scandal more than the political meanings of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (dramas about the persistence of Chinese feudalism set in the early part of this century) that led to their suppression. Read more

From Bowles to the Bowery: Sara Driver in Hyper Drive

Written for a Sara Driver retrospective at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, held in early November 2011. — J.R.

All four of Sara Driver’s works belong to what the French call la fantastique — a conflation of fantasy with surrealism, science fiction, comics, horror, sword-and-sorcery, and the supernatural that stretches all the way from art cinema to exploitation by way of Hollywood. But it’s hard to find many other stylistic affinities between them, and only a few thematic overlaps. A 48-minute piece of Poelike horror set inside the mind of a schizophrenic in rural New Jersey (You Are Not I, 1981), closely adapted from a Paul Bowles story; a pulpy, scary feature-length fantasy about Oriental curses set over a few blocks in lower Manhattan (Sleepwalk, 1986); a gentle, nonscary comedy partly inspired by the whimsical 1937 Hollywood feature Topper, about the encounter between a jazz musician and two female ghosts in a small seaport town (When Pigs Fly, 1993); and a short documentary about the history and diverse arcane local details of Driver’s own neighborhood (The Bowery, 1994), which also served as the setting for the very different Sleepwalk.

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That doesn’t mean that there aren’t various connections between these works going well beyond the recurrence of various collaborators. Read more

Reverence for Things Past [MY FATHER’S GLORY]

From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1991). — J.R.

MY FATHER’S GLORY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yves Robert

Written by Jerome Tonnere, Louis Nucera, and Robert

With Philippe Caubere, Nathalie Roussel, Didier Pain, Julien Ciamaca, Therese Liotard, and Victorien Delmare.

Though I’ve had only limited acquaintance with Marcel Pagnol’s work as a filmmaker, it’s clear to me that he was an important if neglected figure in French independent cinema. He was not only a forerunner of the Italian neorealists and a playwright-turned-filmmaker who set up his own studio in Marseilles in 1933, but also an unusually devoted director of actors. He liked to film his favorites — people like Raimu, Fernandel, Alida Rouffe, and Pierre Fresnay — in static camera setups with lots of dialogue, theoretically ending a shot only when he ran out of film. It may seem a limited aesthetic, but for passionate proactor directors like Jean Renoir (whose 1934 Toni was produced by Pagnol) and Orson Welles it carried the force of a revelation, and the sunny Provencal settings provided a relaxed airiness and earthiness to the extended talk fests.

Pagnol’s output as a writer has become fashionable again, thanks to the popularity of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring — both based on Pagnol novels and directed by Claude Berri. Read more

Reasons to Believe [SEE YOU IN THE MORNING & SAY ANYTHING…]

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 1989). — J.R.

SEE YOU IN THE MORNING

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Alan J. Pakula

With Jeff Bridges, Alice Krige, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, George Hearn, Theodore Bikel, and Linda Lavin.

SAY ANYTHING . . .

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe

With John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Pamela Segall, and Jason Gould.

Optimistic movies that are halfway believable — that base their hope on plausible characters and events rather than Hollywood magic — have become something of a rarity. These days the only optimism we seem able to abide comes from “inspirational” fantasies such as E.T. and (to cite a more current example) Field of Dreams, which offer little more than the satisfaction of infantile wish fulfillment. So the appearance of two better-than-average movies with optimistic attitudes, both of them personal romantic comedies credited to single writer-directors, is an encouraging sign at a time when the commercial American cinema seems to be teetering on the edge of a faceless, mechanical void.

There’s nothing really startling about either Say Anything. . . , Cameron Crowe’s first feature, or See You in the Morning, Alan J. Read more

All You Need Is Cash [SMALL TIME CROOKS]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 2000). — J.R.

Small Time Crooks

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch.

Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen’s 29th feature in 31 years. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that all the major developments in his work to date took place during the period around Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977), when he transformed himself from a gagman with a clunky mise en scene into a fairly graceful filmmaker, and the period around Husbands and Wives (1992), when he bravely discarded grace and went on a brief adventure. It led to the relaxed candor of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and the sour gallows humor of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), before collapsing into the banality and facility of Mighty Aphrodite (1995), with its Whore With a Heart of Gold.

September (1987) was an embarrassment, and other low points, the moments when Allen’s energy and invention flagged the most, include A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Shadows and Fog (1992), and Celebrity (1998). Small Time Crooks never attains the diffidence of the last three, but at times it comes awfully close. Read more

Imitation Flavors

From the Chicago Reader (July 20, 2001). — J.R.

America’s Sweethearts

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Joe Roth

Written by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan

With Julia Roberts, Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Walken.

The Score

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Frank Oz

Written by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith, and Daniel E. Taylor

With Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett, Marlon Brando, and Gary Farmer.

“Talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices,” says seasoned safecracker and jazz-club manager Robert De Niro in The Score, as he sets up “one last score” before he quits the game for good. It’s the only sensible thing anyone says in either this movie or America’s Sweethearts, a clunky ribbing of the movie industry, and whoever was making the big choices about these pictures should have taken it as advice. Both appear to be agents’ packages first and movies second, so that even though they’re trying hard to recapture the feel of Hollywood standbys — the heist thriller and the satiric screwball comedy — they seem to proceed from the premise that all that’s required is to throw the right number of “talented” elements in the same direction. Read more

His Master’s Vice [WHITE DOG]

From the Chicago Reader (November 29, 1991). — J.R.

WHITE DOG **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson

With Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody, and Marshall Thompson.

The best American movie released so far this year, made by the greatest living American filmmaker, was actually made ten years ago, and so far its venues have been restricted to single theaters in New York and Chicago; but late is a lot better than never, and two cities are certainly better than none. Why it’s taken a decade for Samuel Fuller’s White Dog to reach us is not an easy question to answer; it was shown widely in Europe in the early 80s and well-received critically. For the past few years it has turned up sporadically on cable, principally the Lifetime channel, but it has never come out here on video. White Dog started out as an article by Romain Gary published in Life magazine, and was later expanded into a book. The accounts I’ve read describe the book as autobiographical, mainly about the author’s relationship with Jean Seberg. Gary and Seberg were living in Los Angeles when they found a “white” dog who had been trained to attack blacks; they tried without success to have the dog retrained, and eventually had to kill it. Read more

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

From the Spring 1982 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Jack Reed’s Christmas Puppy: Reflections on REDS

1: On the Unreliability of Memory

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire

“Was it 1913 or ’17?” wonders the first ancient voice, male and faltering, after a burst of vigorous ragtime has faded out, before the opening credits have left the screen. “I can’t remember now — I’m beginning to forget all the people I used to know.” “Do I remember Louise Bryant?” asks the voice of another male oldster. “Why, of course; I couldn’t forget her if I tried.” A third witness of that period, female, appears on the right of the screen against a black background, lit like a Richard Avedon portrait. “I can’t tell you,” she replies to an unheard question. “I might sort of scratch my memory, but not at the moment . . . you know, things go and come back again.”

At once the conscience and the Greek chorus of REDS, the thirty-two “witnesses” who prattle and reminisce about the real characters and events — John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, Emma Goldman, World War I, the Russian Revolution — are immediately perceived as human, charming, and indispensable; without them, the film and its achievement could not even begin to exist. Read more

The Unmaking of I’LL DO ANYTHING

From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.

“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”

I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature. Read more