Monthly Archives: April 2022

Cleo From 5 To 7

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1997). I had a great time talking to Varda about this film at Chicago’s Music Box on October 14, 2015. — J.R.

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Cleo-Swing

Agnes Varda’s 1961 New Wave feature — recounting two hours in the life of a French pop singer (Corinne Marchand) while she waits to learn from her doctor whether she’s terminally ill — is arguably her best work, rivaled only by her Vagabond (1985) and The Gleaners and I (2000). Beautifully shot and realized, this film offers an irreplaceable time capsule of Paris, and fans of Michel Legrand won’t want to miss the extended sequence in which he visits the heroine and rehearses with her. The film’s approximations of real time are exactly that — the total running time is 90 minutes — but innovative and thrilling nonetheless. Underrated when it came out and unjustly neglected since, it’s not only the major French New Wave film made by a woman, but a key work of that exciting period  — moving, lyrical, and mysterious. With Antoine Bourseiller. In French with subtitles. (JR)

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CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

It’s really a pity that the version of California Split that eventually came out

on DVD, due to musical clearances, had to eliminate some of the play with

Phyllis Shotwell’s songs alluded to here. (For a much later consideration of

this film, including these changes, go here.) — J.R.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT

 

 

U.S.A., 1974Director: Robert Altman

In a poker game at a gambling casino near Los Angeles, Charlie

Waters, a winner, is accused by Lew, a sore loser, of playing in

 

cahoots with the dealer, Bill Denny. Bill and Charlie become

acquainted afterwards in a nearby bar and get cheerfully drunk

together; outside, they are beaten up by Lew (with the help of

friends), who makes off with their winnings. Charlie invites

Bill to stay over at his house, which he shares with two

prostitutes, Barbara and Susan. In the morning, Bill returns to

his job on a glossy magazine but is persuaded to take off that

afternoon and join Charlie at the racetrack, where they make

a small fortune on one of Charlie’s hunches. Wanting to celebrate

with Barbara and Susan, they pretend to be policemen in order to

intimidate the girls’ transvestite client “Helen” and persuade

him to leave, then go to a prizefight.… Read more »

Family Plots (a story)

I no longer know when I wrote this story, although it was obviously written before I wrote digitally, because the typescript I recently came across, which I’ve revised here only slightly, clearly came from a typewriter. (I suspect that most or all of it was written in Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s, although I may have started it much earlier.) A few of the details are autobiographical in origin (e.g., I grew up with three brothers, but certainly without a nanny, and the description of the grandparents’ mansion mostly corresponds to my own grandparents’ home in Florence, Alabama, owned and occupied today by a local friend), but most of them obviously aren’t.

I’ve hesitated about publishing much of my fiction on this site because the responses to my stories so far have been fairly minimal — a likely result of “niche marketing” that tends to associate this site almost exclusively with film (or, to a lesser extent, jazz and reviews of prose fiction) — but I’ve decided to repost this with links on Facebook and Twitter just to see if this changes anything. — J.R.

Family Plots

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The restaurant was so crowded that they had to assign all six of us to separate tables, with careful instructions to deliver five of the checks to Daddy-Pop after the meal, reconvene, and then go to see a Marx Brothers double feature down the street.… Read more »

Ten Overlooked Noirs

Published by DVD Beaver in April 2006. I’ve updated this to include further links for films that have subsequently become available; there are in fact quite a few of these, and, unless I’ve missed something, only one title that isn’t currently available, The Argyle Secrets. — J.R.

Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.

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OddManOut

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It’s also important to stress that “noir” isn’t a genre; it’s a category that’s applied retroactively to films with certain traits in common — a practice started by French critics and eventually continued by us Yanks and others. (Check out James Naremore’s definitive 1998 book on the subject, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.) This makes it something more flexible than a genre, and I’ve tried to honor this factor in some of my choices.


In the following list I’ve managed to make peace with myself by appending one
SBA title (which stands for “should be available”) to each one that you can currently buy, in the same general category, with brief explanations added.… Read more »

Cannes, 1997

Adapted from “Cannes, tour de Babel critique,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, in Trafic no. 23, automne 1997. –- J.R.

 

 

By common agreement, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cannes

Film Festival, prefigured as a cause for celebration, wound up serving

more often as an occasion for complaint. Disappointment in the over-

all quality of the films ran high, even if the arrival over the last four days

of films by Abbas Kiarostami, Atom Egoyan, Youssef Chahine, and

Wong Kar-wai improved the climate somewhat. But I don’t mean to

suggest that the shared feelings of anger and frustration demonstrated

any critical unanimity. On the contrary, the overall malaise of Cannes this

year forced to a state of crisis the general critical disagreement and lack

of communication that has turned up repeatedly, in a variety of forms.

If the pressing question after every screening at Cannes is whether a film

is good or bad (or, more often, given the climate of hyperbole,

wonderful or terrible) — a question that becomes much too pressing, because

it short-circuits the opportunity and even the desire to reflect on a film for

a day or week before reaching any final verdict about it — the widespread

disagreements at the festival derived not only from different and

irreconcilable definitions of “good” and “bad,” but also from different and

irreconcilable definitions of “film.”… Read more »

Rita, Sue And Bob Too

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1987). This film is now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.

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Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes), two teenagers in the north of England who are the best of friends, lose their virginity to Bob (George Costigan), a suburban husband they sometimes baby-sit for, and before long their amicable three-way relationship is scandalizing the neighbors and members of their families, including Bob’s wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp). Shot in and around the town of Bradford in long, loping takes, this sprightly comedy, adapted by Andrea Dunbar from her own play, has some of the energy that one associates with the better exploitation films that used to be produced by Roger Corman. Television director Alan Clarke has a fine time showing how the working-class white and Pakistani communities rub shoulders with the middle class, and although the plot has curious omissions — we never discover, for instance, what Bob does for a living — the spirited acting and direction turn this into something of a lark (1987). (JR)

 … Read more »

Baby Doll

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 2007). — J.R.

One of Elia Kazan’s most underrated movies is his only pure comedy, scripted by Tennessee Williams and shot on location in rural Mississippi. Carroll Baker stars (in her debut) as a virgin child bride hitched up to Karl Malden at his most unsavory; Eli Wallach (in another debut) is brilliant as Malden’s business rival who manipulates both of them. Though this film was roundly condemned for salaciousness by the Legion of Decency when it came out (1956), its plot actually pivots around the ambiguous matter of whether sex actually takes place or not, and it’s the seediness of the southern milieu — Baker’s dirty neck rather than her dirty mind or morals — that seemed to have the censors up in arms. But it’s largely Kazan’s authentic feeling for the locale, aided by Boris Kaufman’s superb black-and-white cinematography, that makes this movie so special, combined with first-rate ensemble work. With Mildred Dunnock. 114 min. (JR)

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Odd Man Out

From the Chicago Reader.

A wounded Irish revolutionary (James Mason at his near best) on the run in Belfast encounters a cross section of human responses — self-interest, indifference, empathy, and charity — in this arty 1946 English thriller directed by Carol Reed and adapted by F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff from Green’s novel. This may be Reed’s most pretentious film, but it also happens to be one of his very best, beautifully capturing the poetry of a city at night (with black-and-white cinematography by Robert Krasker that’s within hailing distance of Gregg Toland and Stanley Cortez’s work with Orson Welles). It also has a splendid cast — including Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, F.J. McCormick, Cyril Cusack, and Dan O’Herlihy — that wrings the utmost, and then some, out of the quasi-allegorical material. 115 min. (JR)

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The Exorcist

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“Doubtless this tale of spirit possession in Georgetown packs a punch, but so does wood alcohol,“ wrote Reader critic Don Druker in an earlier review of this. I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive: as a key visual source for Mel Gibson’s depiction of evil in The Passion of the Christ as well as an early indication of how seriously pulp can be taken when religious faith is involved, this 1973 horror thriller is highly instructive as well as unnerving. William Friedkin, directing William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own novel, aims for the jugular, privileging sensation over sense and such showbiz standbys as vomit and obscenity over plodding exposition. This 2000 rerelease runs 132 minutes, 11 minutes longer than the original; with Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb. R. (JR)

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THE GUNFIGHTER

Written for the 2019 catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Tim Lucas has helpfully and subsequently furnished us with the following on Facebook: “According to his autobiography, Roger Corman — then a script reader at Fox — retrieved this script from a slush pile and presented it to a producer acquaintance as having worth, given a proper rewrite. He did it himself, then presented it to the producer, who — without telling him — got the film greenlit as a Peck vehicle and took all the credit. Corman promptly quit his job and set about becoming a producer outside the Hollywood studio structure.” —  J.R.

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Commonly described as an “adult” Western, The Gunfighter (1950)  differs from both the Freudian Pursued (1947) and the classical The Furies (1950).  Though it comes close to equating screen time with real time, without any rhetorical emphasis (as High Noon brings with clocks), its method is historical revisionism, postulating a “real” West that tragically undermines the ones we accept in other Westerns. It plays an intricate double game with genre expectations, satisfying some demands and implicitly chiding us for certain others. Significantly, the film’s first and final images are almost identical but register as antithetical in moral significance.… Read more »

A Thousand Words

Made for the unthinkable sum of $7,000, Paul E. Garstki’s independent black-and-white Chicago-based feature both profits and suffers from its impoverished budget. On the plus side, a largely postdubbed sound track allows the filmmakers to tell parts of the story through the ingenious economical device of using answering-machine messages and imaginary phone conversations offscreen. A thoughtful use of local talent (stage actors John Ellerton, Warren Davis, and Diana Zimmer as the three leads and lots of local independent filmmakers in secondary parts) and locations also makes the best use of William Holst’s somewhat minimalist script, adapted from a story by Garstki. A reclusive art critic hires a young protege, who moonlights as a surveillance photographer, to go to work on a young woman (an odd plot with faint echoes of The Draughtsman’s Contract and Paul Bartel’s The Secret Cinema, without much of the humor connected to either). The main budgetary drawback is the nearly nonexistent social context; the stilted art-world talk generally fails to convince because there isn’t enough of a world in the film to establish it as either parody or the genuine article, and the characters themselves seem at times excessively limited by the exigencies of the plot. The result, then, is uneven but singular–a quirky, rather disturbing little film about voyeurism and loneliness.… Read more »

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

The unholy mix of George Lucas’s colonialist nostalgia and Steven Spielberg’s fluency with action becomes more self-conscious in this fourth Indiana Jones outing. In 1957, two decades after the events of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero (Harrison Ford) joins forces with his old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark (Karen Allen) and a young punk (Shia LaBeouf) to combat a Commie villain (Cate Blanchett, doing a variation on Garbo’s Ninotchka) in a remote corner of Peru. The character and plot contrivances are dumber than ever, but this is basically vaudeville, not narrative, and the thrills keep coming. (Once Indy has survived a nuclear blast early on, going over three waterfalls in a row without wetting his lighter is par for the course.) Spielberg’s extravagant action, much of it staged on what look like old sets from King Kong, includes pointed steals from The Naked Jungle (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), and his own Close Encounters, E.T., and A.I. PG-13, 124 min. (JR)Read more »

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.

Walt Disney:
The Triumph of the American Imagination

by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.

This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.

Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »

A View From The Past [VALLEY OF ABRAHAM]

From the Chicago Reader (August 25, 1995). — J.R.

Valley of Abraham

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Manoel de Oliveira

With Leonor Silveira, Cecile Sanz de Alba, Luis Miguel Cintra, Rui de Carvalho, Luis Lima Barreto, Diogo Doria, Jose Pinto, and Isabel Ruth.

I think the most important intellectual discovery I’ve made in the past year came from the early pages of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. In a way, it’s an observation so obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: “Unlike the ‘long 19th century,’ which seemed, and actually was, a period of almost unbroken material, intellectual and moral progress…there has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries and in the milieus of the middle classes and which were confidently believed to be spreading to the more backward regions and the less enlightened strata of the population….Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.”… Read more »

Pieces of the Action (RUN LOLA RUN)

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 1999). — J.R.

Run Lola Run

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Tom Tykwer

With Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu,

Herbert Knaup, Armin Rohde, and Joachim Krol.

A low-budget no-brainer, Run Lola Run is a lot more fun than Speed, a big-budget no-brainer from five years ago. It’s just as fast moving, the music is better, and though the characters are almost as hackneyed and predictable, the conceptual side has a lot more punch. If Run Lola Run had opened as widely as Speed and it too had been allowed to function as everyday mall fodder, its release could have been read as an indication that Americans were finally catching up with people in other countries when it comes to the pursuit of mindless pleasures. Instead it’s opening at the Music Box as an art movie.

Why try to sell an edgy youth thriller with nothing but kicks on its mind as an art movie? After all, it’s only a movie — a rationale that was trotted out for Speed more times than I care to remember. The dialogue of Run Lola Run is certainly simple and cursory, but it happens to be in subtitled German — which in business terms means that it has to be marketed as a film, not a movie.… Read more »