Monthly Archives: March 2007

A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar . . .

Too slick and sound-bitey for its own good, this documentary about U.S. lawyers aims for the smart-aleck tone of its title while throwing out punchy statistics as if it were a PowerPoint presentation. Director Eric Chaikin interviews many of the usual suspects (like the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz) and several wannabes preparing for the California bar exam. But apart from learning that the U.S. has about 800,000 lawyers (reportedly four times as many as the rest of the world combined), I didn’t emerge from this feeling any wiser about the subject, and the strident efforts to entertain, including a few animation segments, only made the experience more wearying. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

High School Ii

High School (1968), Frederick Wiseman’s second film, avoided overt editorializing but clearly indicted the authoritarianism, banality, and mediocrity of American public education, as exemplified by a typical high school in Pennsylvania. Twenty-six years later, Wiseman investigated the more ethnically diverse Central Park East Secondary School in Spanish Harlem, and High School II (1994), three times as long as the original, offers an inspiring brief for the virtues of progressive education. Whether the topic under discussion is the Rodney King verdict, the practical complications of teenage parenting, the structure of literature courses, or individual student performances, the interactions between students, teachers, and parents mostly seem like models of intelligent and enlightened behavior. 220 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ballet

During the early stretches of Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary on the American Ballet Theatre, it’s great to see rehearsing dancers and their prompters thinking with their bodies, then trying to explain their thoughts and feelings in words. In keeping with his interest in institutions, Wiseman looks occasionally and tellingly at other parts of the company’s operations, particularly its handling of business. The final 70 minutes shows the dancers on the road in Europe, resting, practicing, and performing; apart from a thrilling performance of The Rite of Spring, this section is oddly anticlimactic, perhaps because the camerawork has become more touristic. 170 min. (Jonathan Rosenbaum)… Read more »

The Hoax

As Orson Welles demonstrated in F for Fake (1974), the true story of novelist Clifford Irving, who sold a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill for a fortune, is a classic tale of consummate con artistry. So it’s pretty perverse for William Wheeler, who scripted this feature, to get most of the facts wrong, inflating details that don’t need any spin. (As Irving himself remarked, You could call it a hoax about a hoax.) Director Lasse Hallstrom does an OK job with this dubious property; Richard Gere is less charismatic than Irving and Alfred Molina turns Irving’s assistant into a buffoon, but the secondary cast (Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy, Eli Wallach) is fun to watch. R, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Meet The Robinsons

This lively Disney animation about an orphan inventor has been widely distributed in a 3-D process requiring special screens and projection, though it’s been shown in 2-D as well and the effects are well integrated into the story. Derived from a William Joyce book, it’s striking not for its originality but for its energy in juggling familiar elements. There are time-travel paradoxes from Robert A. Heinlein and Back to the Future, frogs that reference GoodFellas by way of Chuck Jones’s One Froggy Evening, a bowler hat from Magritte, and an eccentric family and topiary garden that recall Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), and the cheerfully totalitarian city of the future, known as Todayland, seems like Disneyland boilerplate. But maybe one of the seven credited screenwriters dreamed up the subtitled dinosaurs. Stephen J. Anderson directed. G, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Operation Homecoming: Writing The Wartime Experience

Spun off from a worthy project by the National Endowment for the Arts, this documentary by Richard E. Robbins uses voice-overs by Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, and other actors to present the writings of soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their family members. It’s an honorable stab at a misguided undertaking: the texts and the readings are often strong, but the visual accompaniment, no matter how sensitive and inventive, almost always competes with, and therefore distracts from, the image-making power of the writing. (The sole exception is a rapid montage of faces toward the end.) Much more successful are the talking-head interviews with Paul Fussell, Tim O’Brien, James Salter, Tobias Wolff, and others, whose eloquence we can experience without mediation. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Standing Silent Nation

Suree Towfighnia’s well-made video documents the ongoing struggle of a Native American family to grow industrial hemp on its reservation in South Dakota. The plant’s THC content amounts to less than 1 percent, but that doesn’t stop the DEA from destroying the White Plume family’s only major cash crop every time it’s ready to be harvested. Given the Justice Department’s spotty enforcement of antitrust laws, its crusade against hemp, which in this case entails breaking at least one treaty, seems like persecution of an already beleaguered people. 53 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hell And High Water

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 2007). — J.R.

hell-and-high-water

In this propagandistic but well-paced cold-war adventure (1954), a mercenary submarine captain (Richard Widmark) helps foil a Red Chinese plot to drop an atomic bomb on Korea from a U.S. plane. Fox hired director Samuel Fuller to shoot this in a few days, partly to prove that CinemaScope could work in tight spaces and on a limited budget, and he did a pretty good job with it. He even got to rewrite the script, defiantly giving Widmark a variant of the salty, unpatriotic line that J. Edgar Hoover had already tried and failed to get Fuller to delete from Pickup on South Street: “Are you waving the flag at me?” With Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, Fuller regular Gene Evans, and Bella Darvi, the mistress of studio chief Darryl Zanuck. 103 min. (JR)

hellandhighwater

 … Read more »

Do The Right Thing

With the possible exception of his cable miniseries When the Levees Broke, this 1989 feature is still Spike Lee’s best work, chronicling a very hot day on a single block of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, when a series of minor encounters and incidents lead to an explosion of racial violence at an Italian-owned pizzeria. Sharp and knowing, though not always strictly realistic, it manages to give all the characters their due. Bill Lee’s wall-to-wall score eventually loses some of its effectiveness, and a few elements (such as the patriarchal roles played by the local drunk and a disc jockey) seem more fanciful than believable. But overall this is a powerful and persuasive look at an ethnic community and what makes it tickfunky, entertaining, packed with insight, and political in the best, most responsible sense. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

Potential Perils of the Director’s Cut

This essay, reprinted in my 2010 book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, appeared in French translation in Le Mythe du Director’s cut (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008), a collection coedited by Michel Marie and François Thomas and adapted from a lecture I gave at a conference about “directors’ cuts” that was held at the Toulouse Cinémathèque in early 2007. I should add that this was written prior to the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, which I subsequently reviewed in the November 1, 2007 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum


Perhaps the biggest source of confusion regarding theterm “director’s cut” is the fact that it can serve both as a legal concept and as an advertising slogan, and both as an aesthetic theory and as an actual aesthetic praxis. In some instances, it can serve all of these functions, but I would argue that most of these instances occur in
France —-the only country, to my knowledge, where the legal concept is backed up by an actual law pertaining to les droits d’auteur. And even here, I’ve been told that this law is not always and invariably a guarantee of artistic freedom. A few years ago, while he was working on Le temps retrouvé, Raúl Ruiz told me in effect that in some cases it could function as a law that took on the characteristics of a deceitful advertising slogan—-which is to say, that it doesn’t always function as an enforceable law, especially when larger sums of money are involved and various kinds of coercion are available to producers who want to impose their will on certain creative decisions made by filmmakers.Read more »

The truth about “It’s All True” [Chicago Reader blog post, 3/23/07]

Posted By on 03.23.07 at 08:07 PM

 ItsAllTrue-carnival

I’d like to beat the drum a little for a terrific new book just published by University of California Press, Catherine Benamou’s It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey, which is far and away the definitive book on It’s All True, Welles’s doomed documentary project about Latin America in the 1940s. Maybe the fact that the same publisher is bringing out a book of mine about Welles in a couple of months gives me a special interest in the subject; I should also note that Benamou, who’s been working on her book for well over two decades, is an old friend. (She also arranged recently for the purchase of two major Welles collections by the University of Michigan, which are going by the name “Everybody’s Orson Welles.” I was privileged to be the first visitor to this mountain of material in Ann Arbor last summer, which is where I collected the stills used on my own book jacket.)

Some readers may be put off a bit by Catherine’s academic language, but the fact remains that so much fresh and even startling information is available here—information that corrects countless myths—that if you care about Welles at all, you can’t afford to ignore this book.

Read more »

The Exterminating Angels

In 2005, French writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau was convicted of sexual harassment for pressuring actresses to masturbate in his presence during auditions for his feature Secret Things. Now he’s made a sexually explicit film fictionalizing the whole episode, which is unbelievably pretentious and a bit of a hoot but rarely boring. Critics I admire have assured me that many of Brisseau’s earlier films are less silly, more interesting, and even commendable. Hearing him try to defend himself at a recent festival, backed up by the actresses from this 2006 feature, was even more fun than this screwy movie. In French with subtitles. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Life Of Words

Sensitive yet somewhat opportunistic, this 2005 Spanish feature by writer-director Isabel Coixet transfers to a Europudding context the sort of disabled characters so popular with Oscar voters. A withdrawn, traumatized, and hearing-impaired factory worker (Sarah Polley) volunteers to take care of a foulmouthed, burned, and temporarily blinded oil rigger (Tim Robbins, Mr. Oscar Grubber himself). Neither disability is handled convincingly, but despite all the emotional showboating, the story is affecting whenever it strays from its most obvious points. Julie Christie contributes an impressive cameo toward the end. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Unrequited Love

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)… Read more »

Regular Lovers

Philippe Garrel’s bittersweet 178-minute epic about the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris and their aftermath is one of his finest narrative films. Shot in ravishing black and white by the great William Lubtchansky, it distills the brooding melancholy of Garrel’s meditative and romantic oeuvre, which has always been tied to the legacy of silent cinema (as the solo piano score here reflects). This 2005 feature focuses on a young Parisian poet played by Garrel’s son Louis (who played a similar if cockier role in Bertolucci’s less authentic The Dreamers) and his relationship with a sculptress (Clotilde Hesme). It’s ultimately limited by its political defeatism, which Garrel characteristically treats as a voluptuous embrace tied to the hero’s opium addiction. But it’s very good in showing his pampered life, which comes to the fore comically when he goes on trial for evading the draft. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »