Wolfen Pleasures

From the Soho News (August 11, 1981). This film is available now on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

Wolfen

Written by David Eyre and Michael Wadleigh

Based on a novel by Whitley Streiber

Directed by Michael Wadleigh

Tarzan, the Ape ManWritten by Tom Rowe and Gary Goddard

Directed by John Derek

I Hate Blondes

Written by Laura Toscano and Franco Marotta

Directed by Giorgio CapitaniHeavy Metal

Screenplay by Dan Goldberg and Len Blum

Directed by Gerald Potterton         (opens August 7)

It was at the Cannes Festival in 1970 — a happy, unreal event — that I first came upon the awesome, utopian Woodstock, in 70mm and stereo, along with its pie-eyed director, Michael Wadleigh. He spoke beatifically about the convergence of art and politics in his press conference, and quite movingly dedicated Woodstock before its screening to the students who had just been killed at Kent State. After the movie, he passed out black armbands in the Grand Palais; I took one and wore it for a while. Eventually, some of the boutiques along the Croisette started selling them — which made it hard to know whether one was representing the New Left or Warner Brothers. Read more

Medium Cool: Wrestling with Video Art (Whatever That Means)

From Moving Image Source (May 18, 2009). — J.R.

I wouldn’t say that video art per se makes me break out in hives. I even like some examples of it, including work by Thom Andersen, Gregg Bordowitz, Joan Braderman, Pedro Costa, Adam Curtis, Steve Fagin, Jean-Luc Godard (for me, his best work over nearly the past two decades), Ken Jacobs, Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Kluge, Mark Rappaport, Raúl Ruiz, Aleksandr Sokurov, Michael Snow, Leslie Thornton, and Bill Viola.  But when it comes to most early American video art, I have an allergic reaction. A dozen years ago, while co-teaching a course with video artist Vanalyne Green at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called “Film and Video: What’s the Difference?” I even tried -— without much sustained success — to combat this allergy homeopathically.

More recently, I’ve tried again by attempting to come to terms with the Video Data Bank’s multiregional DVD box set, Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U.S. — a mammoth compilation curated by Christine Hill, encompassing eight discs, 68 titles, and over 16 hours, produced for institutional rather than consumerist use. (The cost is otherwise prohibitive: $1,350 before September 1, $1,500 afterward, and postage is extra.) Read more

Villain the Blank [BLOWN AWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.

Blow_Away_1994_Film_Poster

* BLOWN AWAY

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach

With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.

In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.

There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away). Read more

Comeback Kid [LITTLE BUDDHA]

From the Chicago Reader (June 3, 1994). — J.R.

** LITTLE BUDDHA

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Bertolucci

With Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, Ying Ruocheng, Jigme Kunsang, Raju Ial, and Greishma Makar Singh.

“Nirvana” is a word that comes from Sanskrit, the Reader’s Encyclopedia informs me, meaning “blowing out, extinction”; in Buddhist teaching it refers to “a complete annihilation of the 3 main ego-drives, for money, fame, and immortality.”

Bernardo Bertolucci has said that his aim in Little Buddha is low-key. Of the third film in his self-described orientalist trilogy, following The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), he says, “My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can’t teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism.” But Little Buddha is a multimillion-dollar project designed to make money and to exploit and perpetuate Bertolucci’s fame while catering to the viewer’s desire for immortality. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nirvana, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought, plays a reduced role in Bertolucci’s “emotional discovery,” whereas reincarnation as a means of immortality plays a major role. Read more

Film on Film: Documenting the Director

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1990). — J.R.

DOCUMENTING THE DIRECTOR

It’s no secret that over the past few years, while “entertainment news,” bite-size reviews, and other forms of promotion in all the media have been steadily expanding, serious film criticism in print become an increasingly scarce. (I’m not including academic film interpretation, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field that has by now developed a rhetoric and a tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning, published last year.) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, in some cases supplanting the sort of work that used to appear only in print.

There are plenty of talking-head “documentaries” about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios — currently clogging cable TV, but what I have in mind is something quite different: analytic films about films and filmmakers. Many of these films are shown in film festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic film courses, but very few of them ever wind up in commercial theaters, with the consequence that they’re rarely reviewed outside of trade journals. Read more

Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray

From the Autumn 1973 issue of Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Surfacing in Cannes in the worst of conditions — not quite finished, unsubtitled, shrieking with technical problems of all kinds, and dropped into the lap of an exhausted press fighting to stay awake through the fifteenth and final afternoon of the festival — Nicholas Ray’s WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN may have actually hurried a few critics back to their homes; but it probably shook a few heads loose in the process. Clearly it wasn’t the sort of experience anyone was likely to come to terms with, much less assimilate, in such an unfavorable setting, although the demands it makes on an audience would be pretty strenuous under any circumstances.

Created in collaboration with Ray’s film class at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and featuring Ray and his students, the film attempts to do at least five separate things at once: (1) describe     the conditions and ramifications of the filmmaking itself, from observations at the editing table to all     sorts of peripheral factors (e.g., a female student becoming a part-time prostitute in order to raise money for the film); (2) explore the political alienation experienced by many young Americans in the late 60s and early 70s; (3) demystify Ray’s image as a Hollywood director, in relation to both his film class and his audience; (4) implicate the private lives and personalities of Ray and his students in all of the preceding;    and (5) integrate these concerns in a radical form that permits an audience to view them in several aspects  at once. Read more

For Your Eyes Only [on Beatty’s DICK TRACY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 15, 1990).

Regarding Peter Biskind’s hyperbolic overestimation of Beatty, then and now — matched in a way by Beatty’s own jokey comparison of Biskind to Trotsky, as reported by Biskind in his recent and sometimes unwittingly hilarious Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (2010) — it seems that this has only grown over the past 20 or so years. In his Introduction, Biskind rhetorically asks, “how many defining motion pictures does a filmmaker have to make to be considered great?” and then rhetorically answers, “very few,” going on to assign only one or two each to Welles, Renoir, and Kazan, and just one to Peckinpah, but no less than five to Beatty, evidently regarding Bugsy as a towering achievement alongside such trifles as The Magnificent Ambersons, French Cancan, or Wild River. But this is the same writer who can call Kaleidoscope “James Bond lite,” allowing one to ponder what he might actually regard as James Bond heavy — or even as James Bond normal. — J.R.

DICK TRACY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

With Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, and Charles Durning. Read more

Love and Politics [THE RUSSIA HOUSE & HAVANA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 14, 1990). Note: Twilight Time has recently released The Russia House on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Written by Tom Stoppard

With Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, Ken Russell, David Threlfall, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.

HAVANA

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Written by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel

With Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Raul Julia, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, Daniel Davis, and Tony Plana.

The Russia House and Havana are both lavishly mounted love stories, packed with action and developed in relation to political intrigues abroad. What’s surprising about both is that although they’re Hollywood movies to the core, the American characters aren’t exactly the good guys.

In The Russia House the only important American characters are villains, while the hero is British and the heroine Russian. In Havana the hero is as American as they come, and he certainly behaves heroically, yet the film as a whole raises doubts about whether he has missed the boat, historically speaking. We entertain fewer doubts in this respect about the heroine, a Swede with an American passport who’s married to a Cuban. Read more

The Woman Who Isn’t There [WAKING THE DEAD]

From the Chicago Reader (March 24, 2000). — J.R.

Waking the Dead

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Keith Gordon

Written by Robert Dillon

With Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Molly Parker, Janet McTeer, Paul Hipp, Sandra Oh, and Hal Holbrook.

I can’t make any great claims for Keith Gordon’s fourth feature as a director — a tragic love story that might be described as a political allegory, limited by the affective range of its lead actor (Billy Crudup), who plays a smarmy politician, and by the smudgy articulation of some secondary details. Yet the movie has a quality and intensity of feeling that provoke respect and a sense of fellowship — something that makes me cherish some of its attributes.

I can cite only one unequivocal reason for seeing Waking the Dead, and that’s Jennifer Connelly, who plays Sarah Williams — a Catholic activist who, when the story opens, seemingly dies when the car she and two pro-Allende Chileans are driving through Minneapolis is bombed. What makes Connelly so remarkable isn’t her character’s radicalism but her capacity to keep the character fresh every time she appears and to leave a lingering impression that makes the hero’s (and the movie’s) sense of loss acute. Read more

The Ambiguities of Yvonne Rainer

From the March 1980 issue of American Film. – J.R.

It’s pretty apparent to anyone who meets avant-garde filmmaker Yvonne Rainer for the first time that she used to be a dancer. But one probably has to see at least one of her four challenging features in order to perceive that she used to be a choreographer, too. And it’s only after one considers her in both these capacities that one starts to get an inking of what her viewpoint and her art are all about.

The first time I met her — three and a half years ago, at the Edinburgh Film Festival — Rainer reminded me in several ways of writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag. It wasn’t merely the somewhat glamorous positions that both women occupy on respective intellectual turfs. There was also a kind of spiritual resemblance that seemed to run much deeper: voice tone, appearance, wit, grace, and coolness masking an old-country sense of tragedy and suffering.

***

In Edinburgh Rainer delivered a lecture called “A Likely Story,” about the use of narrative in films. In the course of her remarks, she made it clear that her own “involvement with narrative forms” hadn’t always been “either happy or wholehearted,” but was “rather more often a dalliance than a commitment.” Read more

*CORPUS CALLOSUM

A short review commissioned by Film Comment (July-August 2002), which left out the asterisk in the title.  — J.R.

*Corpus Callosum

I recently read in a film festival report that Michael Snow’s new 92-minute feature was a bit longer than it needed to be. This conjured up visions of a test-marketing preview — cards handed out at Anthology Film Archives with questions like, “Would an ideal length for this be 82 minutes? An hour? Three minutes? 920 minutes?” For even though this may be the best Snow film since La Région Centrale in 1971 — a commemorative (and quite accessible) magnum opus with many echoes and aspects of his previous works   — it enters a moviegoing climate distinctly different from the kind that greeted his earlier masterpieces. In 1969, the late, great Raymond Durgnat could find the same “mixture of despair and acquiescence” in both Frank Tashlin and Andy Warhol; today, on the other hand, avant-garde art is expected to perform like light entertainment.

Up to a point, Snow seems ready to oblige with his irrepressible jokiness —- a taste for rebus-style metaphors (often banal) and adolescent pranks (a giant penis hovering over a blonde’s backside) that makes this the least neurotic experimental film about technology imaginable — the precise opposite of Leslie Thornton’s feature-length cycle Peggy and Fred in Hell. Read more

Fascinating Rhythms [M]

M

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Thea von Harbou, with Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Janesen, Karl Vash, and Lang

With Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Ellen Widman, Inge Landgut, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Franz Stein, and Theodor Loos.

It’s unthinkable that a better movie will come along this year than Fritz Lang’s breathtaking M (1931), his first sound picture, showing this week in a beautifully, if only partially, restored version at the Music Box. (The original was 117 minutes, and this one is 105 — though until the invaluable restoration work of the Munich Film Archives, most of the available versions were only 98.) Shot in only six weeks, it’s the best of all serial-killer movies — a dubious thriller subgenre after Lang and three of his disciples, Jacques Tourneur (The Leopard Man, 1943), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, 1960), and Michael Powell (Peeping Tom, 1960), abandoned it. M is also a masterpiece structured with the kind of perfection that calls to mind both poetry and architecture and that makes even his disciples’ classics seem minor by comparison. Read more

Hit or Myth [WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT]

From the Chicago Reader (September 19, 1997). — J.R.

http://www.alamoministries.com/content/english/images/waco.jpg

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by William Gazecki

Written by Gazecki and Dan Gifford

Narrated by Gifford.

At some point in the middle of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino at his best) — a small-time operator and bisexual who’s taken over a bank to finance his male lover’s sex-change operation — has to step outside to bargain with the police. When it becomes clear that the crowd of bystanders and media that has gathered is more sympathetic to him than to the armed police, he calls out “Attica!” as a gesture of solidarity with the crowd and against the forces of law and order, which wins him more acclamation.

It’s a moment I recalled while thinking about the veiled allusion to the conflagration at Waco made by Timothy McVeigh on the day he was sentenced. This wasn’t because McVeigh, who has none of Wortzik’s charisma, qualifies as any sort of populist hero. It was because the fact that there can be no equivalence between the Waco disaster and the Oklahoma City bombing was apparently lost on McVeigh, just as the fact that there could be no equivalence between the slaughter of Attica prisoners in 1971 and robbing a bank was apparently lost on Wortzik — not to mention the crowd he was addressing. Read more

Life and Death in China [THE DAY THE SUN TURNED COLD]

From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 1995). — J.R.

The Day the Sun Turned Cold

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Yim Ho

With Siqin Gowa, Tuo Zhong Hua, Ma Jing Wu, Wai Zhi, Shu Zhong, and Li Hu.

A striking moment in Mina Shum’s Double Happiness — a recent Canadian feature about an aspiring young actress in a North American city — reveals something about our attitudes toward Chinese culture. The Chinese-American heroine is auditioning for a small part as a waitress in a TV movie. After she runs through her lines, her prospective employers ask how good she is with accents. Pretty good, she replies; at this point we’ve already heard her southern drawl, and now she asks them in a French accent what kind of accent they want — French, perhaps, or something else? There’s a long, embarrassed silence, until she figures out that they want her to speak with a Chinese accent. She promptly does so, and with the same exaggeration she’d given her Southern Belle and Basic Frog. She immediately gets the part.

When Chinese movies audition for release in the North American market, I’m afraid the same sort of unspoken rules apply. Read more

The Family That Preys Together (THE GODATHER PART III)

From the Chicago Reader (January 18, 1991). — J.R.

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THE GODFATHER PART III

*** (A must-see)

Directed By Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola

With Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola, Eli Wallach, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, and Joe Mantegna.

Let’s agree from the outset that the conclusion of the Godfather trilogy is not giving audiences everything that they expected based on the two previous installments. Shorter at 160 minutes than either of the first two parts, it proceeds in fits and starts, without the sustained narrative sweep of the first or the comprehensive historical spread of the second. Overall, there is less of a continuous story line (and less lucidity, coherence, and conviction regarding what plot there is), less violence, and less dramatic conflict; the quality of the performances is more variable; the settings are less memorable. There are even moments of risible implausibility. (Suffering insulin shock while visiting Cardinal Lamberto in a garden, Michael Corleone requests something sweet, and a pitcher of orange juice appears within seconds; and the virtuoso climactic sequence at the opera ultimately strains credibility by drawing together too many events at once.)

But conceptually and morally, one can argue that The Godfather Part III is superior to the two films in the Corleone family saga that preceded it. Read more