Monthly Archives: November 2021

Truffaut Lite [THE LITTLE THIEF]

From the Chicago Reader (October 6, 1989). — J.R.

THE LITTLE THIEF ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Claude Miller

Written by Annie Miller, Claude Miller, and Luc Beraud

With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bezace, Simon de la Brosse, Raoul Billerey, and Chantal Banlier.

The French cinema has perhaps never been more desperately in the doldrums than now, and this slump is best represented by the trips down memory lane that seem to be a major preoccupation in current French movies. Never entailing research or reevaluation, these simplified, nostalgic foreshortenings of the past often pare away much of what makes that past interesting.

Claude Miller’s The Little Thief (La petite voleuse) is a case in point because it purports to be, at least in this country, the last work of the late Francois Truffaut. (I’m told that no such claims were made about the film when it opened in France, and can understand why; even French amnesia doesn’t ordinarily extend quite as far as our own.) The film was developed out of a long-nurtured Truffaut project that Truffaut considered filming at various points throughout his career; a 30- or 40-page treatment (accounts differ) he wrote with Claude de Givray served as Miller’s starting point, although by all accounts this story has been extensively reworked and embellished, and even given a new ending.… Read more »

THE LAST WOMAN (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1976, Vol. 43, No. 514. — J.R.

Ultima Donna, L’ (The Last Woman)

ltaly/France, l976

Director : Marco Ferreri

Cert—X. dist–Columbia.Warner. p.c—Flaminia Produzioni Cinema (Rome)/Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld (Paris). p—Edmondo Amati. p. managers–Maurizio Amiti, Roberto .Giussani. asst. d—Enrique Bergier, Bernard Grenet. sc–Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona, Dante Antelli. story–Marco Ferreri. collaboration on dial–Noël Simsolo. ph—Luciano Tovoli. col—Eastman Colour. ed–Enzo Meniconi. a.d—Michel de Broin. m—Philippe Sarde. m.d—Hubert Rostaing. cost—Gitt Magrini. sd. ed— Gina Pignier, sd. rec–Jean-Pierre Ruh. l.p—Gérard Depardieu (Gérard), Ornella Muti (Valérie), David Biggani (Pierrot), Michel Piccoli (Michel), Renato Salvatori’ (René), Giuliana Calandra (Benoîte), Zouzou (Gabrielle), Nathalie Baye (Girl in Shopping Mall), Soulange Skyden (Girl at Night-club), Carole Lepers (Anne-Marie), Daniela Silverio (Jane), Vittorio Ganfoni (Policeman with Dogs), Guerrino Totis. 9,799 ft. 109 mins. French dialogue; English subtitles.

French titleLa Dernière Femme

Gérard, a young engineer whose wife, Gabrielle, has recently left him, meets Valérie, the attractive teacher at the factory nursery where he goes to collect his thirteen-month-old son Pierrot, and invites her home with him; she agrees, and is assured by her lover Michel thathe won’t interfere.… Read more »

BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (1964)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books), and tweaked in June 2010. — J.R.

It is not surprising that Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature — made when he was only 22 and released a year later in 1964 — has never been as fashionable as The Conformist (1969) or as popular as Last Tango in Paris (1972). But even though it is sometimes raggy and choppy as storytelling, Before the Revolution is still possibly the most impressive thing he has done to date.

In 1962, when he was asked to adapt a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini into a screenplay and then to direct it (The Grim Reaper, or La commare secca), thereby paying tribute to his main Italian mentor, he also published his first volume of poetry, In Search of Mystery. And Before the Revolution, which pays homage to his primary French inspiration, Jean-Luc Godard, is in some ways closer to a poetry collection than it is to a novel — despite the fact that the characters are named after those in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Bertolucci’s favorite novel at the time, and Parma is the central setting.

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Guys And Dolls

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991), slightly revised November 30, 2021. — J.R.

guysanddollsbrando

Conceivably the second best picture Sam Goldwyn ever produced (after The Best Years of Our Lives), this 1955 blockbuster musical has an undeservedly bad rep, largely because the two leads — Marlon Brando as professional gambler Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army recruiter Sarah Brown — aren’t professional singers. In fact, they both do wonders with Frank Loesser’s dynamite score because they perform their numbers with feeling and sincerity, and their efforts to live up to their material are perfectly in tune with the aspirations of their characters (as well as the songs themselves). In short, this may be the only Method musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a creditable job with the stylized, stagy sets and the pungent vernacular of the original Damon Runyon material (which he also adapted). Also on hand, and at their very best, are Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit), Vivian Blaine (as Adelaide), Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully, Veda Ann Borg, and Johnny Silver. 150 min. (JR)

guysanddolls_ifiwereabell_FC_470x264_030220160329Read more »

Babette’s Feast

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

babette1

Gabriel Axel’s Danish feature, the 1987 Oscar winner for best foreign film, is based on an Isak Dinesen tale. On the whole, the adaptation is faithful but some of the qualities of Dinesen’s language are lost in translation or through abridgment, and the politics have been needlessly simplified. The plot concerns a French servant in a strict Lutheran household in Denmark — Norway in the original — whose family has perished in the French Commune uprising. The acting is impeccable and the ambience suffused with delicate charm, but overall this doesn’t aim at anything higher than Masterpiece Theatre or a Merchant-Ivory film. Aside from the elaborate serving of the eponymous meal, which expands greatly on the original, few of the additions constitute improvements. With Stephane Audran, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Jarl Kulle, Bodil Kjer, and Birgitte Federspiel (Ordet). In Danish with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)

babette's-feastRead more »

Vinyl

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

After paying $3,000 for the rights to Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, Andy Warhol made this very loose adaptation (1965) using direct sound, with such Warhol regulars as Ondine and Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga performing a whip dance, and music by the Velvet Underground. It’s one of Warhol’s very best — and most painterly — films, more interesting for what it does with crowded space than for the S and M. 64 min. (JR)

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Kurtsploitation [LAST DAYS]

From the Chicago Reader (August 12, 2005). — J.R.

Last Days

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, and Thadeus A. Thomas.

A film about a junkie rock musician, played by Michael Pitt at his most narcissistic, doing nothing in particular for the better part of 97 minutes isn’t my idea of either a good time or a serious endeavor. Yet a few of my colleagues seem to be responding to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days the way some responded to The Passion of the Christ — taking it without a grain of salt or an ounce of irony. But it’s the grunge version of the Christ story, so that makes it hip.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes that it’s about the “resurrection of Gus Van Sant,” the “mystery of human consciousness,” the “ecstasy of creation,” and “how sorrow sometimes goes hand in hand with the sublime.” Even a compulsive jokester like the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane sounds like he just stepped out of Sunday school, writing, “Some of the motion has a hypnotizing grace,” and when the camera retreats from a house where Blake (Pitt) is noodling distractedly on his guitar, “We might as well be overhearing him at prayer.”… Read more »

Pasolini’s Second Coming [on MAMMA ROMA]

From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 1995). — J.R.

Mamma Roma

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Pier Paolo Pasolini

With Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini, Luisa Orioli, Paolo Volponi, Luciano Gonini, Vittorio La Paglia, and Piero Morgia.

Who can predict the changes in intellectual fashion over 20 years? In 1975, when the controversial Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old boy in a Roman suburb, he was no more in vogue than he had been throughout his stormy career. If any openly gay writer-director was an international star in the mid-70s, it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who at that point was spinning out as many as three or four features a year; he died in 1982 after an orgy of cocaine abuse.

Pasolini and Fassbinder were both maverick leftists who often alienated other leftists as well as everyone on the right, and both had a taste for rough trade, but in terms of their generations (Pasolini was born in 1922, Fassbinder in 1946) and cultural reference points they were radically different. The only reason to compare them now is to note how much their reputations and visibility have changed here over the last two decades.… Read more »

Introduction to DISCOVERING ORSON WELLES

Written in late 2006 and published in Discovering Orson Welles the following year. — J.R.

Discovering Orson Welles

The process-oriented methods that permitted at least four Welles features and a number of short works to be left unfinished are easier to understand than they would be if we adopted the mental habits of producers, which is exactly what more and more critics today seem to be doing; but that is no comfort to those of us eager to understand, and eager as critics always are to have the last word, which we are not about to have with this filmmaker. At least our direction, as always, is laid out for us: as long as one frame of film by the greatest filmmaker of the modern era is moldering in vaults, our work is not done. It is the last challenge, and the biggest joke, of an oeuvre that has always had more designs on us than we could ever have on it.

Bill Krohn’s cautionary words in Cahiers du cinéma’s special “hors série” Orson Welles issue in 1986 offer a useful motto for the present collection of essays, whose own title, Discovering Orson Welles, suggests an ongoing process that necessarily rules out completion and closure — the two mythical absolutes that Welles enthusiasts and scholars seem to hunger for the most.… Read more »

Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films

From DVD Beaver (posted December 2007). — J.R.

sheworeayellowribbon1

The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.

Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.

 

The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down.Read more »

Another Day, Another Genre [MATCH POINT]

From the January 13, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Match Point

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton

Movie gossip writer Peter Biskind described Woody Allen in the December 2005 Vanity Fair as “an artist without honor in his own country” (apparently Biskind’s ecstatic write-up in Vanity Fair doesn’t count). He went on to compare Allen’s fate to those of some of Allen’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin (assuming Chaplin’s “own country” was the U.S.). He added that Allen, who’s released 35 features to date, has made at least ten masterpieces “that can hold their own against” any of the four he credited to Robert Altman or the three he assigned to Francois Truffaut.

Altman, Bergman, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Welles have changed our view of the world and of movies. Allen, despite his output and great one-liners and excellent taste in cinematographers, hasn’t. “If I was the teacher, I’d give myself a B,” he modestly told Biskind. Given his indebtedness to Bergman and Federico Fellini, that B would have to be for effort and polish, not originality.… Read more »

All Is Forgiven [MONSTER’S BALL]

From the Chicago Reader (February 22, 2002). — J.R.

Monster’s Ball

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Marc Forster

Written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos

With Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs, Mos Def, and Coronji Calhoun.

Monster’s Ball is a Hollywood art movie; even the fancy color graphics imposed on the seedy milieu behind the opening credits tell us that. For some viewers, including a few reviewers, the movie becomes bearable only after an hour of misery, when the lead characters, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), finally get around to having their big sex scene (which I have to admit is worth the price of admission). Maybe the sex is prompted by these characters’ mutual misery, but it also happens because this is a Hollywood movie and these are its stars. And because it’s also an art movie, all the misery preceding the scene makes it feel earned.

Hank is a white corrections officer at the state pen in Georgia who recently guided Leticia’s husband, who’s black, to the electric chair, though it takes him a long time — and her even longer — to figure out the connection.… Read more »

A Brief Reflection on “Winning” and “Losing”

 

I’ve been haunted lately by a very moving and eloquent comment made last Saturday at a panel discussion which I participated in, held at the Smithsonian. The occasion was a screening of a restoration of Hai Ninh’s lovely 1974 North Vietnamese feature The Little Girl from Hanoi, a film so scarce that I can’t find any stills from it on the Internet to illustrate this post. [Update, 6/13/12: Some stills have subsequently appeared and have been posted with my review of the film, as well as on this page.]

After one of my (American) copanelists remarked that even though “we [sic] lost the war in Vietnam,” the country had a thriving market economy today, and then either he or someone else alluded to America “winning” the Cold War (which provoked an angry riposte from me that if the Cold War had any “winners” at all, these were gangsters on both sides), a Vietnamese diplomat in the audience, who said he was speaking not as a diplomat but simply as a Vietnamese, stated that he thought it was inappropriate to claim that anyone “won” the war in Vietnam. He was right, of course, which got me thinking that the American compulsion to see all of life (and death) in the simplistic terms of sports and games has a lot to answer for.… Read more »

Three From Vietnam

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1994). I’m delighted that stills from these and other Vietnamese films have finally become available on the Internet — which didn’t appear to be the case in October 2010, when I participated in a panel related to the first of these films in Washington, D.C. — J.R.

*** THE LITTLE GIRL OF HANOI

(A must-see)

Directed by Hai Ninh

Written by Hoang Tich Chi, Hai Ninh, and Vuong Dan Hoang

With Lan Huong, Tra Giang, The Anh, and Kim Xuan.

*** THE GIRL ON THE RIVER

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Dang Nhat Minh

With Minh Chau, Ha Xuyen, Anh Dung, and Tran Van Son.

** THE RETIRED GENERAL

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Nguyen Khac Loi

Written by Nguyen Huy Thiep

With Manh Linh, Doan Anh Thang, Hoang Cuc, and Tran Van.

“16 January 1990

“UNITED NATIONS FORCES ATTACK IRAQ, LAYING THE FIRST BLOW ON SADDAM HUSSEIN . . .

“In Powershift [Alvin] Toffler discusses power in its three forms, violence, wealth and knowledge. Now that knowledge is in the hands of everyone, all people, all Nations, television and satellites have forever made it impossible for one group to manipulate the knowledge of what is happening; World television is bringing this vital knowledge to everyone without being diminished.Read more »

Art School Is Murder

From the Chicago Reader (May 12, 2006). — J.R.

Art School Confidential

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes

With Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Joel David Moore, Ethan Suplee, Steve Buscemi, and Anjelica Huston

The 2001 live-action Ghost World was the first collaboration involving director Terry Zwigoff, cartoonist Daniel Clowes, and John Malkovich’s production company. Art School Confidential is the second. It’s far more ambitious than its predecessor and suffers from too many ideas rather than too few, making it an inspired, fascinating, and revealing mess. Holding it together is the same anger about the way art is taught that gave so much edgy life to the scenes with Illeana Douglas in Ghost World. Even if one disagrees with some of its points, as I do, it offers plenty to mull over.

Both films faintly echo a four-page catalog of Clowes’s gripes called “Art School Confidential” that appeared in his comic book Eightball. (Having taught courses in film and critical writing in a university art department in the mid-70s,I can testify that art-world careerism was the main preoccupation of both my students and my colleagues.) Clowes clearly felt alienated as an art student and has been spewing bile ever since.… Read more »