Monthly Archives: February 2020

DOCTOR DEATH: SEEKER OF SOULS (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 490). — J.R.

U.S.A., 1973
Director: Eddie Saeta

Before dying from an accident, Laura Saunders’ last words to her husband Fred are, “I’ll come back”. Unable to accept her death, Fred visits a number of fake spiritualists and death cultists until a classified ad (“Control your own reincarnation”) leads him to Tana, a friend and former lover of Dr. Death who brings Fred to one of Death’s ‘demonstrations’: a girl scarred by an accident is willingly sawed in half so that her soul can pass into the undamaged body of another women. Death dubs the reawakened corpse Venus and promptly becomes her lover, incurring the jealousy of Tana, who subsequently throws acid in Venus’ face. At a later meeting with Fred, Death explains that he discovered his power — based on a formula kept in an amulet around his neck — 1000 years ago, and his soul has survived ever since by passing into a succession of bodies of various races and both sexes belonging to his murder victims, He offers to revive Laura’s corpse with another woman’s soul for $50,000 and Fred agrees; but when Tana is garishly murdered for this purpose, Fred is appalled, and after Death fails to animate Laura’s body, asks him to keep the money and abandon the project.  Read more

STAVISKY (production story)

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1973/4). For a subsequent production story about this film written for Film Comment, devoted mainly to a day of studio shooting, go here. –- J.R.

Since the beginning of October, Alain Resnais has been shooting Stavisky, his first feature since Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). ‘When Jorge Semprurn first spoke to me about making a film on Stavisky,’ Resnais said recently, ‘I admitted to him that at the age of twelve, in the Musée Grévin, I stood dreaming before the wax figure of this character, whom I compared to an Arsène Lupin swindling the rich and helping the poor.’

Actually, Serge Alexandre Stavisky (born in Russia as Sacha) was a swindler who sold 40 million francs’ worth of valueless bonds to French workers, but he moved about in high circles. In spite of a shady past, he was generally known in the early 1930s as a respectable financier with first-rate political connections, associated with the municipal pawnshop of Bayonne. When his fraud was discovered in December 1933, he promptly fled, and the police caught up with him in Chamonix the following month. According to official history, he either committed suicide or was murdered by the police, although the latter explanation appears the likelier one: the Paris press rather implausibly reported that he fired two bullets into his head. Read more

Bad Blood

From the Chicago Reader (September 15, 2000). — J. R.

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One festival brochure describes this 1986 feature as a “dazzling film noir thriller,” yet the distinctive talents of French director Leos Carax have relatively little to do with storytelling. The vaguely paranoid plot concerns a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help them steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus, but the noir and SF trappings are so feeble that they function at best as a framing device, a means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in the wonderful leads, Lavant and Juliette Binoche, which comes to fruition during the former’s lengthy attempt to seduce the latter, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true source of Carax’s style is neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema, with its melancholy, its innocence, its poetics of close-up, gesture, and the mysteries of personality. Bad Blood uses color with a sense of discovery similar to that found in the morbidly beautiful black and white of Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, and its naked emotion and romantic feeling are comparably intense. Read more

Sound and Vision (Films by Marguerite Duras)

From the September 15, 1995 issue of Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Films by Marguerite Duras

It’s surely indicative of the scarcity of Marguerite Duras movies that even a dedicated fan like me has managed to see only seven of them — and for one of those I had to drive 100 miles, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. No Duras film has been distributed in the United States for years, and in preparing this article I wasn’t even able to obtain a complete filmography; my own provisional list includes 20 titles, stretching from La musica in 1966 to Les enfants in 1982.

If one extends this list by adding adaptations (by herself and others) of Duras literary works, the scripts she wrote for other directors, and two films by Benoit Jacquot revolving around Duras, the figure is 31 films, most of them features. So it’s no small achievement that Facets Multimedia (which, thanks to the efforts of Charles Coleman, has recently featured such adventurous fare as Manoel de Oliveira’s Valley of Abraham and an exhaustive Nanni Moretti retrospective) will be showing a dozen films from this list over the next couple of weeks, most of them in brand-new prints and most of them four to six times. Read more

The Second Civil War

From the Chicago Reader (April 28, 2006). — J.R.

The2ndCivilWar

Properly speaking, this skillful made-for-cable satire (1997, 100 min.) directed by Joe Dante qualifies as the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy, preceded by Matinee (1993) and followed by Small Soldiers (1998). Viewers who consider it the best of the threesome may have a point, though its lack of a theatrical run in this U.S. makes it somewhat better known overseas. Beau Bridges plays the governor of Idaho who decides to close his state borders to a plane full of Pakistani orphans fleeing a nuclear disaster, and the action is crosscut with national government deliberations (James Coburn as a Presidential advisor) and various kinds of frantic media spin (Dan Hedaya as a network news director). Barry Levinson set this project in motion, so the parallels with Wag the Dog aren’t accidental, but one of the essential ingredients brought to it by Dante, the least Swiftian of satirists, is that nobody’s a villain, even when behaving like an idiot and/or a hypocrite. (The governor, for instance, plays shamelessly to his xenophobic constituency while remaining smitten with his Mexican mistress, a reporter played by Elizabeth Pena, and the movie is determined to view him simply as a lovable asshole.) Read more

Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91). -– J.R.

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

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran. The problem with these efforts is that they further blur the distinction between advertising and criticism, and thus make it even harder for ordinary viewers to determine whether they are being informed about something or simply being sold a bill of goods. What I have in mind are films about films and film-makers which seriously analyse or document their subjects. Read more

West Beirut

From the November 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

WestBeirut

Quentin Tarantino’s cameraman, Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, wrote and directed this autobiographical first feature (1998) about his early teens in Beirut — set in 1975, during the onset of the country’s civil war — and cast his younger brother Rami as himself. In fact, Doueiri scores with every member of his wonderful cast, which consists of nonprofessionals in the child roles and seasoned veterans playing the grown-ups. This is one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen, largely because the characters are so full-bodied and believable without falling into predictable patterns. The excellent score is by Stewart Copeland. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)

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Bellissima

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). — J.R.

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Luchino Visconti’s early films is this hilarious 1951 comedy, tailored to the talents of Anna Magnani, about a working-class woman who is determined to get her plain seven-year-old daughter into movies. A wonderful send-up of the Italian film industry and the illusions that it fosters, delineated in near-epic proportions with style and brio. With Walter Chiari and Alessandro Blasetti. (JR) Read more

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

This appeared originally in the July 23, 1999 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Eyes Wide Shut

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Madison Eginton, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Sherbedgia, Leelee Sobieski, and Abigail Good.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: “Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life — especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had” — i.e., at least since 1968, when he asked his wife to read it. This more or less matches the opinion of Frederic Raphael, Kubrick’s credited cowriter, as expressed in his recent memoir, Eyes Wide Open. But I would argue that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece worthy of resting alongside Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kafka’s The Trial, and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. Read more

True Enough (BOYS DON’T CRY & THE STRAIGHT STORY)

From the October 22. 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boys Don’t Cry

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

With Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, and Jeannetta Arnette.

The Straight Story

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, James Cada, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The docudrama may be the key dramatic form of the 90s because of the extent to which its simplifications influence the way we make sense of the world around us. Not that we didn’t already have a habit of simplifying and therefore fictionalizing facts. There are perfectly good reasons most of us prefer to believe that one day in December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because her feet were killing her, thereby launching the civil rights movement. This story has a germ of truth, but Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had mapped out their basic strategy for the Montgomery bus boycott at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee well before this incident. Still, the more folkloric, more dramatic version of the episode is the one that sticks — and the one that’s repeated by people who want to explain the civil rights movement in more forcible, more legible terms. Read more

Defenseless [THE LUZHIN DEFENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 2001). — J.R.

The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris

Written by Peter Berry

With John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson.

In Slate last March two film critics with literary backgrounds, Phillip Lopate and A.O. Scott, argued about Terence Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth — an exchange that only illustrated how hard it is to settle questions about fidelity to novels. Lopate, who’s been involved with film much longer than Scott, called it his favorite American film of 2000. Scott, whose readiness to bone up on movies since he started reviewing them for the New York Times has been invigorating, didn’t seem blind to some of the film’s virtues, but he was much more concerned with what seemed reductive about it.

Having read Edith Wharton’s novel for the first time just before I saw the movie, I found myself agreeing to some extent with both critics. The film is inferior to Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible, all three of which strike me as essential works, though they’ve received much less attention from the mainstream, perhaps because they’re further from conventional narrative. Read more

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

From the Chicago Reader (August 11, 2000). — J.R.

DiscreetCharm

Luis Bunuel’s 1972 comic masterpiece about three well-to-do couples who try and fail to have a meal together is perhaps the most perfectly achieved and flawlessly executed of all his late French films, produced by Serge Silberman and coscripted by Jean-Claude Carriere. The film proceeds by diverse interruptions, digressions, and interpolations (including dreams and tales within tales) that, interestingly enough, identify the characters, their class, and their seeming indestructibility with narrative itself. One of the things that makes this film as charming as it is, despite its radicalism, and helped Buñuel win his only Oscar, is the perfect cast, many of whom bring along the nearly mythic associations that they acquired in previous French films (Delphine Seyrig, Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel), as well as many Buñuel regulars (Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau). Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious. A restored 35-millimeter print will be shown (101 min.). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 11 through 17.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum

THE DISCREET CHARM-stage

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Juha

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.

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When I heard that Aki Kaurismaki was making a silent black-and-white feature, I expected something arch and postmodernist. Yet in spite of a few flashes of mordant humor, some wonderfully spare sound effects, and a few minimalist lighting schemes that suggest 50s Hollywood, this 1999 film is a moving pastiche whose strength is its sincerity and authenticity. A fallen-woman story set in the present, featuring a farm couple and an evil playboy from the city who lures the wife away, it conveys the sort of purity and innocence associated with silent cinema storytelling, including a love of nature and animals, a taste for stark melodrama, and an emotional directness in the acting — evocative at various times of Griffith in the teens and Murnau in the 20s. Accompanied by a live orchestra at the Berlin film festival, the film is now furnished with a music track featuring the same score and musicians that’s essential to its power. No other film by Kaurismaki has affected me as much as this one, but if you don’t love silent movies it may come across as a pointless exercise. With subtitled Finnish intertitles. 76 min. (JR)

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Kiss Me, Stupid

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.

This vulgar Billy Wilder comedy scandalized the Legion of Decency and large segments of the American public when it came out in 1964. At the time Wilder pointed out that the film is about human dignity and the sanctity of marriage, but its undisguised contempt for the American hinterlands and the success ethic makes the sexual element seem dirtier than it actually is. Dean Martin plays a carousing parody of himself, stranded in the godforsaken town of Climax, Nevada, while a desperate songwriter (Ray Walston), hoping to sell him a tune, tries to get him shacked up with a prostitute (Kim Novak) impersonating the songwriter’s wife (Felicia Farr). This restoration includes the original ending, which originally played only in Europe, followed by the forced ending that played in the U.S. Both Martin and Novak are at their near best, and the undertone of small-town desperation in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is effectively captured by Walston and his sidekick, Cliff Osmond. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope. 126 min. (JR)

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Jacques Tati, by David Bellos

From the Summer 2000 issue of Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 3. — J.R.

Jacques Tati

by David Bellos. London: The Harvill Press, 1999. 382 pp., illus. Hardcover: £25.

In some ways, this is a better biography of Jacques Tati than we had cause to expect from anyone — certainly a more cultivated one than the useful if relatively lowbrow efforts of James Harding in English (1984) and Marc Dondey in French (written with the assistance of Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff, 1993). So it’s all the more regrettable that no American publisher or distributor to date has shown any interest in making this English book available. Even more unexpectedly, the author — who currently teaches in the departments of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages at Princeton — is best known for his work on Balzac (a survey of French criticism over the second half of the nineteenth century) and Georges Perec (a major biography and a good many translations). In fact, there are even a few unforced allusions to Balzac and Perec threaded through this text.

But why Tati? Conceding in his Preface that he isn’t a film critic, a film buff, or a filmmaker manqué, Bellos makes no claims for offering any “last word” about “one of the outstanding creators of the 20th century,” but admits to some curiosity about the sturdiness of the few films Jacques Tati made as an oeuvre — “a set of films which, taken together, is much more than the sum of its parts.” Read more