A theater group – not a very good one – is rehearsing the 1921 satire The Insect Play, but the guy playing Dung Beetle (Jirí Lábus, of a fascinating-sounding 1994 version of Amerika) keeps hallucinating insects (real and stop-motion) while learning his lines.

From the very beginning, Svankmajer and his crew appear onscreen, like the DVD extras have been cut into the feature. After a scene it’ll show the filming, the animation, direction, insect wrangling, sound effects (with constant scraping and clanking sounds plus the insect patter, they’re great throughout), or interview the actors about their dreams.

Fun movie, and only 93 minutes, a breeze to watch. To that point, it doesn’t seem like Svankmajer’s most consequential film, nor does it appear to be some kind of final statement on his career, unless I’m missing something about the Insect Play. Ungenerously, one could say choice of subject combined with the mechanics of behind-the-scenes production is the last word on his preference against humans and their messy realities. Jan: “I direct it like an animated film or puppet theater – short takes, minimal movement of the camera, stylized acting, no psychology, as if the actors had wires attached to the head and strings on the arms.”

Watching movies from last year’s Sundance and Rotterdam this week… this one premiered in Rotterdam’s Signatures section, playing with The Wandering Soap Opera, Lover for a Day, Mrs. Fang and Lek and the Dogs.

Love to spend years following rumors of the recreation of the lost masterpiece by an all-time great filmmaker, only for the thing to finally appear direct-to-video, then watch it in fragments over a week of late nights because I keep falling asleep. I watched the previously released scenes of this in the early days of the movie blog, never thinking there’d be a feature, and here we are, not quite knowing what to put in quote marks (the “complete” feature “by” Welles). Rosenbaum approves, so who am I to argue?

Stills, narration, and the line “that was long before cellphone cameras” mar the opening minutes, then hammy P-Bog becomes a main character, and the movie’s in trouble. It recovers easily – a party film with a magnetic John Huston as the Wellesian center, artists and hangers-on all around, cutting all over the place, and then the scenes of Huston’s never-to-be-completed film (this is an extremely self-aware movie – even Hammy P-Bog appears to be playing “hammy” “p-bog”), a miniature, fragmented work inside the work, which is both a beautiful art film and a pretentious parody of a beautiful art film, problematically starring an always-nude Oja Kodar, who in fact cowrote this film, making it knowingly, self-parodically problematic, I guess. Playfully homoerotic dialogue, apparently documentary sections, and all the colored lights making this more Suspiria-like than the Suspiria remake. The whole project and its implications fill your brain up all the way. Besides P-Bog there are a few overdone performances – I’m thinking of the film critic (Susan Strasberg) and Zimmy The Southern Gentleman (Cameron Mitchell) – but on first viewing it seemed 15% tiresome, 85% wonderful.


They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018, Morgan Neville)

I remember this being fun… let’s see, my notes say “uses every bit of Welles footage they could find to place in dialogue with interviewees” and “ends with Why Can’t I Touch It, wow.” I should watch the making-of and the new Mark Cousins doc then rewatch the feature, but I also got things going on besides Orson.

Almost the entire movie is a film director (Bogdan Dumitrache of Sieranevada) having conversations, rehearsals and affairs with his lead actress (Diana Avramut). He fakes a stomach illness, claims he had it checked by a doctor, and his producer (Mihaela Sirbu of Aferim!) has his cover story carefully verified, either to catch him in the lie or, as she says, because of picky insurance demands. Another filmmaker (Alexandru Papadopol of Toni Erdmann) pops into a dinner chat, possibly representing a future job for the actress. This is practically all that happens, and it ends abruptly – so why is it a movie? I get the self-reflexive talk about long takes and film cartridge capacity in a 35mm movie composed entirely of long takes, and after all the film-vs-video talk, video gets finally represented in the form of a colonoscopy DVD. After two long scenes where the director tries to convince the actress that a newly written nude scene is dramatically necessary and she goes over the blocking with him to verify that this is properly motivated, our movie finally shows her gratuitously topless. All this is worth a few meta-chuckles – surely I got more out of it than 12:08 East of Bucharest, and if the whole thing feels slightly pointless and the conversations go on for too long, that’s probably intentional too, for reasons I don’t feel like researching at the moment.

A first-person semi-documentary by Nance about his uneven love life, which also contains a second-person semi-documentary by Nance (How Would You Feel?) about his uneven love life, plus fragments of a first-person documentary by Nance’s ex Namik, plus drawn animation and stop-motion and other things. The presentation is great fun, and though all the navel-gazing relationship talk gets to be a bit much, it’s not an overlong movie and all the shape-shifting kept me happy.

Not the first documentary I’ve seen to contain its own test screening. I thought Nance had a new movie in Sundance last month, but I guess it was a live performance of his project where he googles phrases about black kids and follows the results down a wormhole, then posts the results on his vimeo page. I watched for a few minutes, but the online version seems to be missing essential narration.

Flying Lotus did the music for this and LoveTrue which I saw a few weeks later. And I tried to look up articles or interviews about the film but instead got caught up in a highly entertaining essay Nance wrote about Exodus: Gods and Kings in which he convincingly labels Ridley Scott a white supremacist. Ah no wait, here’s a Filmmaker interview in which Nance claims he was playing “the type of guy she wouldn’t like” on camera so the story would make sense, which complicates things even more.

One of the greatest forgotten comedies with the best casts ever. Shirley Maclaine is super as a long-suffering woman who wanted a simple life with true love, but all the men she married came into money and became obsessed with success, driving them to their deaths and leaving her with increasingly massive inheritance. My favorite, self-referential part: in telling her story, Maclaine imagines each of her marriages as a different style of movie.

Undercranked silent with Van Dyke:

Maclaine (just after her oscar nomination for Irma la Douce) spurns self-important department store heir Dean Martin in her hometown, instead marrying Dick Van Dyke (of Bye Bye Birdie). After some idyllic months in their crumbling shack, he finds he has a knack for salesmanship and devotes the rest of his short life to business.

Arty Foreign Film with Newman:

Next comes bohemian painter Paul Newman (character name: Larry Flint) who makes a fortune selling artworks painted by machines (and by a monkey). Then to switch things up, Robert Mitchum, who’s fabulously wealthy when he meets her and dies as soon as he attempts to retire to a simpler existence. Finally Gene Kelly, a hack café comic who becomes a star the first time she convinces him to perform without his costume and makeup.

Spendy Hollywood production with Mitchum:

All this is being told to psychiatrist Robert Cummings (Jean Arthur’s love interest in The Devil and Miss Jones) in framing story after she’s caught trying to give away her fortune to the IRS. Maclaine then finds a financially ruined Dean Martin, working as a janitor in the building, who has come to appreciate the simple life after being driven out of business by Dick Van Dyke, and it’s true love.

Musical, of course, with Kelly:

Won a well-deserved oscar for costumes (although it kinda cheated with the parade of self-consciously glamorous dresses in the Hollywood meta-film), and another for art direction, presumably for the house that Gene “Pinky” Kelly has painted entirely pink. Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green did The Band Wagon, Singin’ in the Rain and On The Town, and Thompson had just made The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. Thanks to Joanna for the recommendation.

A very grey-brown movie (because it’s so “real”) about the “real” Jean-Claude Van Damme (“really” named Jean-Claude Van Varenberg) in his “real” hometown, who gets caught in the middle of a “real” action adventure when “real” thieves are robbing a bank (or is it a post office – I didn’t get that part). Not done mockumentary style (in fact, there are some impressive showoff long-shots), although JC does have a talk-to-the-camera monologue in the middle, where he gets real with his fans.

I’ve got nothing against JC (Steven Seagal, on the other hand…) and could’ve enjoyed this if it was more what I’d expected – a fake-reality situation in which JC kicks some righteous ass while getting real about his career. But after a not-much-happening mistaken-identity hostage situation is shown again and again from multiple perspectives, JC finally does kick a dude… in his imagination! Really he’s saved from the thieves by the cops who then arrest him for extortion, haha! It’s so real. Kind of depressing, really. I’ll take the first ten minutes and leave the rest.

Indy Week: “What could have been a crisp little concept movie (how do you say Phone Booth in French?) is instead a limply paced, murky-looking attempt to state the obvious: that big action stars are not, in fact, invincible.” But Cinema Scope calls it remarkable: “By pitting JCVD the axiom against JCVD the person, JCVD deconstructs and deepens the understanding of both. It is nothing if not a triumph of humanism.”

Only thing I’d seen before by Lelouch was his fairly conventional and lightly enjoyable entry in Chacun son cinema, which it turns out was good preparation for this fairly conventional and lightly enjoyable film.

A meta-thriller without too many thrills of its own. I would’ve been shocked if the eminently likeable Dominique Pinon turned out to be a psycho killer and slaughtered down-on-her-luck chainsmoking hairdresser Huguette, as the movie kept implying he would. I also would’ve been shocked if the top-billed Pinon whose character is a ghostwriter and a former magician had NOT been faking his own death at the end, and had actually been killed by famous author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant of some unseen Resnais and Truffaut films from the 80’s). Judith’s suicide at the end was surprising though, and seemed tonally out-of-place. There’s no evidence that Judith was a potentially-murderous monster (it’s only implied), but we’re not supposed to be upset when she is driven to suicide… I was, a little.

Pinon is on his way to a yachting trip with Judith but stops along the way to stalk Huguette who is dramatically dumped in front of him at a gas station. He waits all night to give her a ride – not because he is the escaped magician serial killer whom the radio keeps mentioning, but because he’s researching roles for “Judith’s” next novel. Takes H. to her rural home and pretends to be her boyfriend for the benefit of her family, then continues to the yacht two days late, proclaims that he’s done ghostwriting for Judith and that this will be his own “first” novel, writes the book onboard, “falls” overboard, hides out for a year, then returns Fury-style during police questioning, gets Judith to kill herself, then gives Huguette a big kiss. Why did he disappear? The book would sell tons more copies as a Judith novel than as a Dominique Pinon novel, and I guess by returning he gets all the royalties, though the movie conveniently ends before explaining that part. Also, in a cute side-plot, Dominique’s sister’s husband (never seen) leaves her and she falls in love with the police detective to whom she reports the crime.

The fun of the movie is its fooling around with thriller conventions, with Dominique alternately set up as the killer, the ghostwriter, and the sister’s missing husband. Pretty good looking film, but nothing amazing. Seems like the kind of slick, enjoyable, not-too-foreign movie that could run at the Landmark for a couple weeks.

Takeshi Kitano plays sort-of-himself, a superstar gangster actor. But mostly he plays a beat-down loser wannabe actor who keeps failing auditions for small parts on TV shows. His neighbors laugh at him, and he works at a convenience store. But one day a real gangster hides in the store then dies in the back room, and the loser Kitano finds himself with a Falling Down-style bag full of guns… goes on a mighty rampage. Or does he? Dream sequences and fantasies are flowing in and out of the picture.

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There aren’t as many Kitanos as I thought there’d be, and the whole thing made more sense than I thought it would. Lesson learned again and again: when everyone says a movie is difficult and confusing, that don’t necessarily make it so.

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As usual, The Internets come in handy here. A couple weeks later, I saw the dvdbeaver review with a ton of great screen shots… really a great looking movie, full of signature Kitano setups, but I was too busy following the story and reading subtitles to notice at the time.

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Rotterdam Film Festival calls it “a mocking, almost surrealist film about the star Kitano, his oeuvre and his failed alter ego”.

Trivia: Tetsu Watanabe the noodle cook was in Fireworks and Sonatine, Kitano’s friend Susumu Terajima was in Brother and Fireworks and everything else, and the manager & taxi driver was Ren Osugi, the chief from MPD Psycho.

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So two approaches. I’m tempted to consider this viewing a test run, this writing a rough draft, and sit down with all of Kitano’s films, watch or rewatch them, then see this one again to catch more of the references. On the other hand, even though it’s an extremely self-referential film, I know the Kitano persona well enough to get the overall joke, and I enjoyed watching this… why not take it on its own merits instead of turning it into a study project? Kitano’s films are all worth re/watching anyway… maybe I’ll get to ’em after my upcoming Seijun Suzuki fest.

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In the meantime I’ll have to say I liked this one more than I thought I would… it pretty much made sense, and looked great.

One day, OCD number-freak IRS auditor Will Ferrell hears Emma Thompson narrating his life. He seeks help from English professor Dustin Hoffman, and spends his days auditing free-spirited baker Maggie Gyllenhaal. Queen Latifah is also there but I’m not sure why.

Lively Spoon soundtrack keeps me happy while I stare at Maggie and wonder about Will’s mostly non-acting. Guess he learned from the Truman Show and tried the less-is-more thing instead. Dustin Hoffman spends more time lifeguarding the pool than teaching classes. No really stupid parts, some funny bits, some clever writing. Somehow Emma’s novel is the greatest piece of American Literature in years but only if Will gets killed, and somehow Maggie falls in love with Will because he sings a Wreckless Eric song. Spoon’s new one “The Book I Write” is pretty good. Katy liked it too.