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 »

Beyond Bush-Bashing [BOB ROBERTS]

From the Chicago Reader (September 25, 1992). — J.R.

http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/large/hash/f5/ff/f5ffe791b8f30b6648204da0e79ac12e.jpg

BOB ROBERTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Tim Robbins

With Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Gore Vidal, Alan Rickman, Bob Balaban, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, James Spader, and Fred Ward.

With Unforgiven unexpectedly topping the box office charts and Bush bashing so popular now that even my favorite comic book, USA Today, seems to do it daily, this appears to be the season of demystification. But I wonder how far the public is prepared to take this process. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival four months ago, I’ve been looking forward to Tim Robbins’s directorial debut, described as an unbridled attack on the Republican glibness and greed of the past dozen years. Clearly the climate is ripe for some good old-fashioned muckraking. But how much of this involves a genuine change in national perception, and how much is it a merely seasonal media construction? As pleased as I am at the media’s apparent recognition of some of Bush’s crimes, it’s hard for me to understand how this squares with the media’s former position that these crimes never took place (as with Iran-contra) or didn’t matter (as with the savings-and-loan scandal) or were heroic deeds showing both restraint and maturity (as with the slaughter in the Persian Gulf).… Read more »

Recommended Listening

Where-Lies

Thanks to Second Run Features, here is a very lucid, informative, and well-recorded conversation between Chris Petit and Pedro Costa about the latter’s 2001 documentary about Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?), which took place at London’s ICA Cinema on January 9:

whereliesyourhiddensmileRead more »

Questions about Film Acting: A Dialogue with James Naremore

Written for the Savannah-based, online Cine-Files in May 2014, posted circa early June, and reprinted here, with their permission (and some added illustrations). — J.R.

Acting-in-the-Cinema

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: For me, a key part of your argument in Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) occurs in your fourth chapter, “Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance,” when you argue that even a sincere expression of one’s feelings is an actorly performance, “because the expression of ‘true’ feeling is itself a socially conditioned behavior.”  Which then leads you to quote from Brecht:

“One easily forgets that human education proceeds along theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner a child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh….In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grow-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gesture, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” (69)

It seems to me that one reason why acting tends to be neglected in film criticism is that we can too easily confuse it with other elements — writing, directing, the ‘auras” of certain personalities, even certain casting decisions — in much the same way that we’re often confused or misguided about the sources of our own behavior (such as, are we weeping to express sorrow or to produce sorrow?)… Read more »

En movimiento: Big History, Mixed Signals

Written in September 2014  for my December “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

BigHistory-title

Big-History-Complexity-still

Last September, I ordered from Amazon a three-disc DVD box set released by Lionsgate called Big History consisting of 17 episodes lasting almost seven and a half hours.  My curiosity was spurred by an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin in the New York Times Magazine about billionaire Bill Gates enthusiastically discovering this package — a college course taught by Australian professor David Christian — while working out in his private gym, and then deciding to use this TV series to try to revolutionize the teaching of history in both American high schools and colleges.

Locke

Adieu-au-langage-Jean-Luc-Godard

horsemoney-ventura

To my amazement, and in spite of all my qualms, Big History proves to be one of the most exciting things I’ve seen this year — not as moral instruction or as a technical tour de force (unlike Steven Knight’s Locke, which resurrects the heroism  of the great Westerns, or Godard’s Adieu au langage, which reinvents 3-D) and not as distilled and hallucinatory poetry (unlike Pedro Costa’s Horse Money), but as a series of lucid pedagogical lessons, especially welcome for someone like me who has always been weak in science.… Read more »

Letter to VIDEO WATCHDOG (1992)

This was (mainly) published in Video Watchdog‘s July/August 1992 issue, with an accidentally deleted passage included in the errata section of their September-October 1992 issue.  -– J.R.

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arkadin-snow-opening

 

 

 

A brief note of clarification about my liner notes to the Criterion laserdisc of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT -– cited and questioned by Tim Lucas at the beginning of his excellent article [VW 10: 42-60]. The only reason why I failed to mention a third and (in my opinion) better version of MR. ARKADIN in these notes –- a version discussed by Lucas elsewhere in this issue –- is that I was under strict instructions from Criterion not to bring this matter up. I reluctantly agreed to this suppression of information only because I knew I would be writing about this version elsewhere (in [the January-February 1992 issue of] Film Comment), and I’m mentioning this anecdote now because I think it dramatizes the thin line separating criticism from publicity in most liner notes -– a general problem that readers of this magazine should be alerted to.

I don’t wish to denigrate the often fine work done by Criterion in making many important works available, but I do believe that the level of scholarship that’s attainable in commercial enterprises of this sort varies considerably from case to case.… 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 »

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: Jerry Lewis’s Masterpiece

It seems that I wrote (or completed) this in October 1999, for the American Movie Classics monthly magazine (I don’t recall which issue). — J.R.

 

The Nutty Professor (1963) — Jerry Lewis’s fourth and in some ways best constructed feature as writer-director-performer — is one of the finest versions of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story that we have, and not only because it happens to be the funniest. (It’s also the one with the best music: Les Brown’s band, and memorable versions of both “Stella by Starlight” and “That Old Black Magic”.) A good deal subtler than the raucous Eddie Murphy remake (1996), it illustrates the troubling perception that most of us prefer egotistical bullies to shy, sweet-tempered klutzes. It also provides us with an excellent opportunity for reassessing a multifaceted artist who has seldom received his due in this country.

Critical opinion has often described the overbearing Buddy Love, Lewis’s Mr. Hyde, as a reincarnation of Dean Martin, six years after the decisive breakup of the Martin and Lewis duo. Superficially this sounds like an ingenious notion, but in fact it misses the mark. Part of what’s so disturbing about Buddy Love — making his belated entrance about a third of the way through The Nutty Professor as a romantic stand-in for Julius Kelp, Lewis’s bumbling version of Dr.… 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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Read more »

Visions of the South

From Nashville Scene (cover story), March 10, 2011. This essay was commissioned by the late Jim Ridley, whose unexpected death was a grievous loss.  …I’m sorry that I forgot to mention The Young One, surely one of the most neglected and overlooked of all great Southern films, explored in detail elsewhere on this site. — J.R.

In certain respects, the “Visions of the South” series of Southern

movies being launched in Nashville this week at The Belcourt deserves

to be applauded for its omissions as well as its inclusions. The most

conspicuous of these omissions is probably Robert Altman’s Nashville

(1975), which Brenda Lee once aptly described as “a dialectic collage of

unreality.” (Altman, at least, proved better at handling Mississippi —

in Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville, and in Cookie’s

Fortune a quarter of a century later.)

We all know, of course, that Hollywood and even some of its maverick

celebrities have been guilty of fostering and/or perpetuating false images

of the South from the very beginning. A few other prominent and

dubious examples might include Jean Renoir’s The Southerner

(1945), Martin Ritt’s The Sound and the Fury (1959), Richard

Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), Otto Preminger’s Hurry

Sundown (1967), John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line

(1970), and, surely the most bogus of all, Alan Parker’s

Mississippi Burning (1989), with its outlandish errors

involving both Jim Crow and the FBI, just to get started.Read more »

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 »