Monthly Archives: November 2018

Orson Welles’s Purloined Letter: F FOR FAKE

Written for Criterion’s DVD release of F for Fake in 2005. — J.R.

There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antégor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”

I met him at La Méditerranée — the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing — and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter.… Read more »

Problems of Access: On the Trail of Some Festival Films and Filmmakers

Adapted from “Problemes d’accès: Sur les traces de quelque films et cinéastes ‘de festival,’” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Trafic no. 30, été 1999. — J.R.

istandalonetitle

“Festival film”: a mainly pejorative term in the film business, especially in North America. It generally refers to a film destined to be seen by professionals, specialists, or cultists but not by the general public because some of these professionals decide it won’t or can’t be sufficiently profitable to warrant distribution. Whether these professionals are distributors, exhibitors, programmers, publicists, or critics is a secondary issue, particularly because these functions are increasingly viewed today as overlapping, and sometimes even as interchangeable.

istandalone6

The two types of critic one sees at festivals are those (the majority) who want to see the films that will soon be distributed in their own territories, and those who want to see the films that they’ll otherwise never get to see — or in some cases films that may not arrive in their territories for a few years. The first group is apt to be guided in their choices of what to see by distributors, or else by calculated guesses of what distributors will buy. The second group, if it hopes to have any influence, will ultimately seek to persuade potential distributors as well as ordinary spectators, but whether it functions in this way or not, its spirit is generally guided by cinephilia more than by business interests.… Read more »

The Love Letter

From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 1999). — J.R.

TLL

A tender and sometimes very funny romantic comedy set in a New England seaside town, this is also something of a parable about what overheated summers can do to romantic imaginations. An unsigned love letter falls into the hands of various individuals who make creative assumptions about the author and intended recipient; many of them work at a secondhand bookstore. I suspect that a fair amount of the wit derives from Cathleen Schine’s source novel, but producer and lead actress Kate Capshaw (who plays the owner of the bookstore and has never been better), director Peter Ho-sun Chan (Comrades, Almost a Love Story), and screenwriter Maria Maggenti (who wrote and directed The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) make a wonderfully harmonious team. The other featured actors — Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck (also at his best), Tom Everett Scott, Blythe Danner, Geraldine McEwan, and Julianne Nicholson — all seem to be on the same wavelength as well. (The music by Luis Bacalov also is quite appealing.) At times Chan’s quirky direction fudges the storytelling, but I didn’t mind. Esquire, Gardens, Lake, Norridge, Webster Place.

TheLoveLetter

– Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »

The Plain Truth [WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE & NELLY AND MONSIEUR ARNAUD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1996). — J.R.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Todd Solondz

With Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton Jr., Telly Pontidis, Herbie Duarte, Daria Kalinina, and Matthew Faber.

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Claude Sautet

Written by Sautet, Jacques Fieschi, and Yves Ulmann

With Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Serrault, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Claire Nadeau, Francoise Brion, Michele Laroque, and Michael Lonsdale.

It’s hard to think of two stark depictions of blocked libido more dissimilar than Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. But they share at least one trait that deserves to be cherished — a trait that sets them apart from most other new movies. Both offer lively alternatives to the current lackluster, middlebrow exemplars of “literary” cinema — Cold Comfort Farm, The Horseman on the Roof, The Postman, Sense and Sensibility – clogging up our art theaters, beckoning us to feel more educated and civilized and thereby keeping out other movies that might address our everyday lives more directly. (I haven’t seen Moll Flanders, but I suspect that it and the horrendous Disney animated feature Hunchback of Notre Dame are mainstream versions of the same spreading disease.)

To be fair, all four of the pedigreed period pieces named have their merits, but they’re associated more with the illustrations and texts of coffee-table books than with the experience of reading novels and poems.… Read more »

The Paradoxes of BERNIE

Commissioned by a Spanish-language retrospective catalogue devoted to Richard Linklater. — J.R.

 

A prefatory caveat

Bernie & Marge both versions

My favorite Richard Linklater feature, Bernie (2011), is many different things at once, some of which are in potential conflict with one another. How we ultimately judge it depends on either reconciling or suspending our separate verdicts on how we judge it as fiction (and art) and/or how we judge it as fact (and justice). Because I’ve chosen to suspend my judgment on how we can judge the film as fact, for reasons that will be dealt with below, I can enjoy the luxury of celebrating the film as fiction and as art at the same time that I would maintain that it opens up factual questions about truth and justice that it can’t pretend to resolve in any definitive manner.

jack-black-bernie-and-shirley-maclaine-marjorie

 

1. Background

The film was inspired by a lengthy article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth, that appeared in the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly, about the confessed murder of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, an 81-year-old widow and the wealthiest woman in town, by 39-year-old Bernie Tiede, a former assistant funeral director in the same town (Carthage, with a population of 6,500) who had become her paid companion and the sole inheritor of her considerable fortune.… Read more »

Holiday Jitters [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/1206]

From the Chicago Reader‘s blog, the Bleader. — J.R.

Holiday Jitters

Posted By on 12.12.06 at 03:06 PM

night-at-the-museum

Allied Advertising recently informed me that the Ben Stiller comedy Night at the Museum is being previewed only to the daily press, not to weekly reviewers — which naturally raises the question of whether the company in question (Twentieth Century Fox) is deciding in advance that we weekly reviewers won’t like this release. Whether that’s the meaning of their strategy or not, it does show a kind of uncertainty that is much more general among the so-called majors. For instance, Warner Brothers has at this pointed shifted the Chicago opening date of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima several times, with the result that it’s bounced on and off my ten-best list according to whether it’s opening here in 2006 or 2007. New York and Los Angeles reviewers get to consider Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as part of the same package; Chicago reviewers don’t.

I differ from some of my local colleagues in refusing to consider 2007 releases for my 2006 list just because many of the film companies persist in treating Chicago as a cow town in contrast to New York and Los Angeles — both of which will be premiering Letters from Iwo Jima this year. 

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Lost in the Shuffle [THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN]

From the Chicago Reader (March 12, 1999). — J.R.

The Deep End of the Ocean

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Written by Stephen Schiff

With Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Merriman, Whoopi Goldberg, Cory Buck, John Kapelos, and Michael McElroy.

The two best reasons for seeing The Deep End of the Ocean are the story and Michelle Pfeiffer, not necessarily in that order. But these two calling cards are sometimes at odds, so the film’s virtues and problems grow out of the same source. On the one hand, you’ve got the star system creating certain expectations about the story’s focus; on the other, you’ve got a narrative about a 12-year-old boy trying to figure out his identity by reconciling two sets of parents. Because these two factors are at cross-purposes, you start out watching a star vehicle and wind up watching a coming-of-age story; the transition from one to the other is what makes The Deep End of the Ocean feel somewhat uncertain.

Certainly one can rationalize this shift of gears. The late Dwight Macdonald — the film critic for Esquire back in the early 60s, when it was still possible to write for that magazine about movies as an art form rather than as a combination of sport and business — suggested in one of his columns that a shift of focus from one character to another is often a good thing.… Read more »

The Young and the Paralyzed

From the November 10, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Doom Generation

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Gregg Araki

With James Duval, Rose McGowan, Johnathon Schaech, Cress Williams, and Dustin Nguyen.

Kicking and Screaming

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Written by Baumbach and Oliver Berkman

With Josh Hamilton, Olivia d’Abo, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles, Carlos Jacott, Eric Stoltz, Elliott Gould, Cara Buono, and Parker Posey.

Chet: Here’s a joke. How do you make God laugh?

Grover: How?

Chet: Make a plan.

Kicking and Screaming

As luck would have it, I had my second looks at The Doom Generation and Kicking and Screaming, two radically different youth movies about defeat and paralysis, back-to-back. Both seemed better the second time around, though for very different reasons. Noah Baumbach’s first feature, Kicking and Screaming, which I’d originally seen and liked at Cannes last May, seems to have been tightened up in the editing and given more focus. Perhaps because I disliked Gregg Araki’s fifth feature, The Doom Generation, when I first saw it last August, I found it harder to decide on a second viewing whether it had been changed in the interim; in any case I found myself disliking it less.… Read more »

Temple of Dumb [INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1989). — J.R.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE * (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Jeffrey Boam, George Lucas, and Menno Meyjes

With Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, River Phoenix, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody,

Julian Glover, and John Rhys-Davies.

Nazis are fun! Jesus is fun! Arthurian legends are fun! Third world countries are fun! Caves are fun! The Holy Grail is fun! Lots of snakes and rats and skeletons are fun! Chases are fun! Narrow escapes are fun! Explosions are fun! Indiana Jones is fun! Indiana Jones’s father is fun!

Put them all together and you get the third panel in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones triptych — more fun than a barrel of monkeys (or Nazis, chalices, snakes, rats, skeletons — whatever). Though Hitler, Jesus, women, the third world, and, by implication, most of the rest of civilization ultimately take a backseat to the uneasy yet affectionate relationship between a grown boy and his dad — and all those millions of people exterminated by the Nazis (for instance) don’t even warrant so much as a look-in — this is nothing new in the Lucas-Spielberg canon; it isn’t even anything new in movies.… Read more »

Art in Action [ZATOICHI & COLLATERAL]

From the Chicago Reader (August 6, 2004). — J.R.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano

With “Beat” Takeshi [Kitano], Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ookusu, Yui Natsukawa, and Gadarukaru Taka.

Collateral

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Stuart Beattie

With Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Javier Bardem, Bruce McGill, and Irma P. Hall.

What do Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi and Michael Mann’s Collateral, both opening this week, have in common? Judging by what some of my colleagues have been saying, they’re both effective action movies directed by talented genre specialists. But I would argue that this description applies only to Collateral.

Although Mann stretched himself somewhat with Ali, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Insider, he’s first and foremost a maker of adroit crime thrillers: Thief, Manhunter, Heat, and now Collateral. Kitano, on the other hand, is actually an adventurous director of art movies who periodically defaults to the crime genre in order to finance his other projects. In this respect he resembles Clint Eastwood, who, since emerging as an auteur in his own right, has alternated between making action movies for the studio and art movies for himself.… Read more »

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.

Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… 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 »

AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1986 review)

From Video Times (February 1986). — J.R.

AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD

(1972), C, Director: Werner Herzog. With Klaus Kinski, Roy Guerra, Del Negro, and Helena Rojo. 90 min. Subtitled. Continentai, $39.95.      ****

Among contemporary movies that aspire to create the resonance of myth, there are few more compelling than this 1972 masterpiece. Directed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the film stars Klaus Kinski in the title role.  At once a 16th century Peruvian adventure story about the legend of El Dorado and a somewhat indirect parable about modern imperialism, Aguirre, Wrath of God can be regarded as one of the key influences on Francis Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now. The fact that Herzog himself launched a treacherous journey through the backwaters of Peru in order to film his tale helped to popularize the notion of the director as mad Faustian conquistador. When Herzog himself attempted to surpass Aguirre a decade later with Fitzcarraldo, another insane, “historic” journey up the Amazon, the result was only a pale dilution of the original.

The film opens with a printed title that perfectly establishes the aura of legend: “After the conquest and sack of the Incan empire by Spain, the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon tributaries.… Read more »

La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes

From Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1975 (Vol. 42, No. 496). — J.R.

 

Petite Marchande d’Allumettes, La

(The Little Match Girl)

France, 1928

Directors: Jean Renoir, Jean Tedesco

Cert-U. dist–Contemporary. p–Jean Renoir, Jean Tedesco . asst. d–

Claude H eymann. Simone Hamiguet. Sc–Jean Renoir. Based on the

storv bv Hans Christian Andersen. ph–Jean Bachelet. a.d—Eric Aës.

m -excerpts from works by –Schubert, Strauss, Wagner, Mendelssohn.

m. d–Manuel Rosenthal, Michael Grant. Lp—Catherine Hessling (Karen,

the Little Match Girl), Jean Storm (Young Man/Soldier), Manuel Raby

[Rabinovitch] (Policeman/Death), Amy Wells (Dancing Doll). 1,030 ft.

29 mins. (16mm; also available in 35 mm.). English titles.

 

Karen leaves her humble-cottage to sell match boxes under a heavy

Snowfall. She gazes wistfully at a handsome young man emerging

from a restaurant, then looks through a frosted pane at the people

eating inside until boys throw snowballs at her. As she gathers up her

spilled boxes a policeman arrives, and together hey look at a display

of dolls and other toys in a shop window. After lighting matches in

an effort to warm herself, she falls asleep and dreams that she enters

the toy shop — having become the same size as the dolls –- and sets

them all in motion.… Read more »

Deja Vu

From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 2006). — J.R.

Deja-Vu-2006-dvdplanetstorepk-action-denzel-washington

After a terrorist explosion kills the passengers on a New Orleans ferry, an ATF agent (Denzel Washington), discovering that a form of time travel can send him back to the event, resolves to save the life of a woman (Paula Patton) killed shortly before, as well as prevent the explosion. The story recalls Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) in its romantic moodiness and has some of the philosophical poignance common to tales of time travel. But the SF hardware (enjoyable) and thriller mechanics (mechanical) of this Jerry Bruckheimer slam-banger don’t mesh very well with reflection, and the action trumps most evidence of thought. Tony Scott directed a script by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio; with Val Kilmer and James Caviezel. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)

Deja.Vu[2006].aviRead more »