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Richard T. Jameson

Review: The General (1998)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 18, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

John Boorman has been a great filmmaker for more than thirty years now, but also a most unpredictable one. He’s made such classics as Point Blank, Excalibur, and Hope and Glory, only to turn right around and perpetrate fiascoes like Exorcist II: The Heretic and Where the Heart Is—though all those films have their admirers, and even Boorman’s sappiest endeavors reflect the fervor and grandeur of a true visionary. Following the (undeserved) commercial and critical failure of Beyond Rangoon and the long, fatal illness of a daughter, Boorman reestablished himself with a new, Dublin-based production company and a new family. The General, which he financed himself, is one of Boorman’s winners. Indeed, it won him the Best Director award this year at Cannes.

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Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska in the film by Krzysztof Zanussi

Review: A Year of the Quiet Sun

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 13, 1985]

Physicist/philosopher/filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi has told how he was once hired by a French couple to teach their children Russian. They assumed that, as a Pole, he would have to know the language of the nation in effective political control of his country. Zanussi knew Russian, to be sure (also French, English, German, Italian, Spanish), but the West Europeans’ presumption offended him: “It was very hard to forgive them their ignorance. I taught the children basic Polish, instead of basic Russian, using Russian pronunciation.”

That anecdote might well serve as the basis for a Zanussi film. It would be a wry parable of characters from disparate cultures meeting, misreading one another’s strengths and intentions, setting mutually convenient yet covertly opposed agendas. As the comedy unfolded, so would it quietly expand to take survey of how inadequate all social, political, historical, and ethical systems are to fixing the place and purpose of the individual human being in a vast, glacially beautiful cosmos. There’d be no winners in the perverse little game. Even the trickster hero’s victory would carry an aftertaste of bitterness and misdirected cruelty. As the heroine of A Year of the Quiet Sun remarks, “It’s not for us to judge. So you always say.” To which her mother crankily replies, “Oh really? And who is to be the judge of that?”

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Review: The Thin Red Line (RTJ)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 25, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Few films have aroused higher expectations than The Thin Red Line, the first movie written and directed by Terrence Malick since he unveiled Days of Heaven twenty years ago. Days of Heaven contained some of the most rapturous and mysterious images ever to shimmer on-screen. What people have tended to forget is that it also featured characters who hovered between the inchoate and the opaque, and a narrative in which cause and effect were sometimes elusive even within the minimal plot. Those virtues and liabilities are both on abundant display in Malick’s latest.

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Review: Bulworth

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 15, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

It’s the 1996 primary season, and if the populace is unaroused, U.S. senator Jay Bulworth (longtime Democratic activist Warren Beatty) is downright unhinged. His marriage is a charade, his brain long since pickled by rhetoric, his soul in fealty to fat-cat lobbyists. His effort to pour his old liberal wine into a new conservative bottle may get him reelected, but will that help him live with himself? Not really. After taking out $10 million in life insurance for the sake of his daughter, he applies to a shady sort named Vinnie to arrange a “special research project”—a contract on … Jay Bulworth!

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Review: Twilight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 6, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Twilight is a pretty good movie that will give steady pleasure to some viewers while probably leaving others restless for more aggressive stimulation. Put it another way: the new collaboration between Robert Benton, Paul Newman, and Richard Russo—the team behind the excellent Nobody’s Fool—is less a movie than an idea for a movie, a meditation on ways in which movies have been soothing and satisfying in filmically better times. In particular, it is a meditation on the private-eye genre, on the codes of honor and human connection that that genre has explored, even defined, and on Paul Newman himself—a solid actor for more decades than many of today’s moviegoers have lived, and a beautiful man who has, at last and inevitably, grown old.

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Review: Les Misérables

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 1, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

As fodder for film, Victor Hugo’s mammoth 19th-century novel Les Misérables has rarely been out of style. Filmed as early as 1909, this saga of injustice, revolution, and redemption has been reincarnated in celluloid several times every decade since (except, oddly, the Sixties, when injustice and revolution—though not redemption—were much on people’s minds). Only a miniseries or “long form” version could hope to encompass all of Hugo’s saga, but the core narrative—the decades-long pursuit of reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean by the legality-obsessed police officer Javert—is wellnigh foolproof as religious allegory, psychological study, and bedrock suspense story.

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Review: Out of Sight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, August 7, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

After years of mishandling by Hollywood, crime novelist Elmore Leonard has been on a roll. Get Shorty, Barry Sonnenfeld’s larky look behind the scenes of Tinseltown itself, reaffirmed the second coming of John Travolta and also, by the novelist’s own testimony, made Leonard aware that his books are funny. (He writes them straight, which is how his characters live them.) Quentin Tarantino turned Rum Punch into Jackie Brown and enhanced both Tarantino and Leonard in the process. Now comes Out of Sight—for sheer snap, verve, and professionalism, arguably the best of the bunch.

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Review: A Price Above Rubies

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 27, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

It was a distant early warning sign that A Price Above Rubies began life as A Price Below Rubies. Did its makers suffer a change of mind, or did somebody belatedly check the Old Testament and discover, “Hey, we got it wrong: it’s ‘A woman of fortitude, who can find? For her price is far above rubies’”? The answer is lost in the sands of time, along with the hope that this wishfully feminist fable might achieve anything resembling power, mystery, or dramatic conviction.

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Review: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 28, 1983]

I approached last week’s invitational screening of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez with a sense of grim duty. I’d had three chances to see the film over the past year or so—on PBS-TV, in the Eighth Seattle International Film Festival, and earlier this month at the Tenth Telluride Film Festival—and I’d breezily given it a miss every time. Too many danger signals were ringing in my ears: the threat of earnest boredom and laundered aestheticism implicit in the PBS sanctification, for one; and the frequency with which Third World indictments of Anglo injustice have substituted politicized rant for legitimate drama. Also, an independent, primarily documentary-oriented filmmaker had directed the picture, and filmmakers of this stripe often display a self-righteous contempt for narrative obligations—as though narrative were not the answer to a universal hunger for form and illumination, but merely something foisted on the cinema by that imperialist monster “Hollywood.” If The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was tainted by any of the aforementioned syndromes, I wasn’t anxious to sit down in front of it.

I rehearse these (well-founded) antipathies in a spirit of endorsement, for I suspect they are shared by more than a few discerning filmgoers, and I would urge such persons not to give Gregorio Cortez a miss this time around. It turns out to be a fine, powerful, superbly crafted movie, with a universal dramatic impact far beyond any narrowly ethnic or political reference. Even more surprisingly, though by no means incidentally, it’s also an exciting, original addition to the honor roll of that supposedly moribund genre, the Western.

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Review: Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz in 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films originally published 20 years ago by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for many years.

There are moments in Saving Private Ryan when the warfare becomes so intense and all-consuming that the very air seems filled with battle. Shrapnel hangs there, every shard in razor-sharp focus, as if molecules of the film itself had been startled out of the emulsion. “Din of battle” ceases to be a cliché and becomes an implacable, immediate truth, until the senses, along with reason, give up attempting to process the assault of information and sensation and a lulling roar of water fills our ears. No mainstream American film has ever painted a more horrific or documentarily persuasive picture of modern combat. And no Hollywood film within recent memory has achieved such richness and originality of texture, such a compelling amalgam of passionate human drama and awesome technique.

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Cut to the Chaste – ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

[Originally published in 7 Days on August 9, 1989]

sex, lies and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.

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Review: Honeysuckle Rose

Here’s a contemporaneous review of a movie little remembered now, but as it chanced, the film marked the late Robby Müller’s first encounter with the American land and its light. —RTJ

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 23, 1980]

Honeysuckle Rose is the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg, a modestly intelligent filmmaker who specializes in probing the esoteric fringes of the U.S. scene, locating sources of peculiar vitality and distinctiveness, and then watching contentment bleed away. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Schatzberg’s former lover Faye Dunaway, studied the neuroses of a high-fashion model; Panic in Needle Park (1971), which introduced Al Pacino to the screen, dealt with the lifestyle of druggies; Scarecrow (1973) hit the road with a couple of bums (Pacino and Gene Hackman), Sweet Revenge (1977) sampled the criminal career of a car freak, and last year’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan forsook the fringe areas for the no-less-esoteric center of things, the private life—and private side of the public life—of a U.S. Senator.

Honeysuckle Rose hitches a monthlong ride with a middleaged country-western singer-musician-composer named Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson), who drolly allows as how he and his band are going to break into the really big time any day now, “on accounta we’re about the only ones they haven’t got around to yet.” Making It Big isn’t even a sideline concern of the film’s, though. Buck already appears eminently popular on the Southwest concert circuit and no one is hurting for money. The big problem—quiet, insistent, constant—is Buck’s inability to work out a life formula that will satisfy his manly need for rootlessness and his family’s (wife and son) desire to have him around the home more often. Keep Reading

Review: They Only Kill Their Masters

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

Winning, Red Sky at Morning, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Each one more atrocious than the one that went before. Which tends to raise the question: how does James Goldstone, the most conspicuously untalented director of the past ten years, get financed (Ernest Lehman of Portnoy’s Complaint is exempt, being very talented—as a writer)?

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Review: Innocent Bystanders

[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]

The Italian Job got past me but, from what I can tell from descriptions thereof, it set in motion a trend in Peter Collinson’s work that is continued in Innocent Bystanders. The potentially portentous title notwithstanding, this latest Collinson takes us far from the significance-laden likes of The Penthouse, Up the Junction, and A Long Day’s Dying into the region of closeup slambang for (commercially if not morally) pure purposes of entertainment. The government arms that manipulate poor, physically unsexed Stanley Baker and his fellow/rival espionage agents are unrelentingly portrayed as cold, inhumane entities staffed by inhuman types like Donald Pleasence (who manages to be amusing about it) and Dana Andrews, but this has simply become a convention of the genre these days and no longer counts as the subversive gesture it once was in the black and white morality plays of Fritz Lang and the crimefighting semidocumentaries of Anthony Mann.

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Review: The Tree of Wooden Clogs

[originally presented as a program note for the 1983 University of Washington film series “The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”]

“Those who are wretched are nearer to God.” A peasant woman speaks that line early in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by way of chiding two of her numerous children for giggling at the simpleminded vagrant whose peregrinations intersect the course of the film from time to time. Taken in isolation, the line is open to dispute: are the random peasant types at the beginning of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, for instance, imaginably nearer to God than the self-sacrificing governor who places himself (and his family, as it turns out) in jeopardy in their behalf? By reverse token, the line might be invoked as the keynote of any number of kneejerk-liberal tracts, at once patronizing and self-congratulatory, that propose or presume the moral and spiritual superiority of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Or it might be put in the mouth of a suffering peasant type for the purpose of irony—to nudge us toward an awareness of how religion can serve as “the opiate of the proletariat,” a formula of self-consolation that defangs the spirit of revolution and reform, and thus helps sustain corrupt sociopolitical systems.

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