“Is this the end of Nero?” cries Peter Ustinov towards the end of his superbly hammy death scene in Quo Vadis (1951). I can’t recall anyone ever accusing director Mervyn LeRoy, one of Sam Fuller’s favorite directors, of being an auteur, but this clear reference to Edward G. Robinson’s “Is this the end of Little Rico?” in LeRoy’s Little Caesar suggests some kind of sly skullduggery. Even more, I wonder if Ustinov’s eye-rolling Nero occasionally made some of the participants at MGM on this picture think of Louis B. Mayer, just as Leo Genn’s Petronius (see below) might have occasionally suggested Dore Schary.
The culmination of this three-hour spectacle, based on an international best seller (1895) by a Polish Nobel prizewinner is, of course, Christians getting thrown to the lions or roasted at stakes as scapegoats for Nero having recently burned down Rome so he could write a tacky musical poem about it — leading Petronius, his main yes-man, after suavely slitting his wrist, to dictate a witty, urbane letter to his studio head in his dying breath, proclaiming that it’s perfectly okay to wipe out the multitudes, but does he have to produce bad art in the bargain? Of course the Roman masses don’t mind at all about filling up the gigantic stadium to be amused and entertained by the slaughter of these Jewish martyrs, which they’re happy to cheer and laugh at, at least until Robert Taylor tells them not to and to cheer the overthrow of Nero instead. Read more
Written for the special 50th anniversary issue of the Finnish film magazine Filmihullu, published in November 2018. “The ‘rules of the game’ are simple,” wrote the editor-in-chief, Lauri Timonen. “Seize the day and choose your all time favorite film scene – just one scene, from any film ever made – and write a maximum of 2000 letters (i.e. one page / A4) about it and why that moment in time is so special to you.” — J.R.
The restaurant scene in PlayTime
My scheme for cheating a little on your assignment is to select what I shall call “the restaurant scene” in Jacques Tati’s PlayTime — a scene or sequence, in short, that actually comprises almost half of the entire film, or at the very least more than a third of the running time. It’s not even certain when this sequence actually begins — does it start with various street pedestrians watching the last-minute construction of the establishment, or does it begin more properly with the restaurant’s official opening? — but I will assume that it ends with one of the few antirealistic gags in the film, the early-morning crowing of a distant rooster, as various restaurant customers stagger out into the street. Read more
Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, the writer and director of Being John Malkovich, have teamed up on another zany comedy, approximately two-thirds as good. Kaufman shares screenplay credit with an imaginary twin brother named Donald, echoing the story — in which a writer named Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald. (Both are played by Nicolas Cage.) The real-life Kaufman, assigned to adapt a real-life nonfiction book he admired but couldn’t figure out how to crack, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, decided to write about his dilemma, alternating bits of the book with a comic saga about writer’s block; to foreground his own schizophrenic split between suffering artist and amiable Hollywood hack, he invented a twin for the latter role. Meryl Streep, who tends to shine in comedies, plays Orlean, and Chris Cooper does an elaborate character turn as her subject, an eccentric flower poacher in the Florida Everglades. This is like a Ferris wheel — it’s enjoyable but it goes nowhere, which I guess is how Ferris wheel rides are supposed to be. With Tilda Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal. 114 min. (JR)