In the final years of his life, Peter Sellers engaged in a persistent campaign to gain the film rights to Jerry Kosinski’s 1971 novel about a simple-minded gardener named Chance, who makes an unlikely rise through the ranks of the most powerful people of DC after the death of his employer, who had shielded him from the world for most of his life. Sellers saw something profound in the material, and an opportunity to play a significant and subtly comic role that would serve him better as a legacy than the beloved, but hardly serious, Pink Panther films. He was eventually successful, and with one of the most idiosyncratic directors of the ’70s, Hal Ashby, at the helm, Sellers made what would be the final film of his released while he was still alive.
The result is a masterpiece, and easily among my top five favorite films of that decade. Sellers creates a lovingly nuanced character study of a man who appears to others to be a blank slate, allowing them to create reflections of themselves in him while interpreting the homespun platitudes that dominate his speech in whatever self-serving fashion they desire. Chance becomes an inspirational political celebrity for a nation desperate for political heroes, and Ashby never loses sight of the larger satire inherent in the story, even as he navigates the small and deeply personal aspects of Chance’s less public journey. Some years later, Forrest Gump would cover some of the same territory: simple man becomes lauded national celebrity without meaning to. But where Gump was maudlin and leaned heavily on a crutch of nostalgia for goodwill, Being There is the far better, if criminally less remembered, film.
Little Otik and Jan Švankmajer shorts
Surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer has carved out a niche over the past half century as one of the most immediately recognizable figures in cinema, with his distinctive style of stop-motion animation. Even if you’re unfamiliar with surrealist Czech art films, some might still ring a bell if you were ever a regular watcher of MTV in the ’80s, when some of his shorts appeared as between-video bumpers. The National Gallery begins a retrospective of the director’s work this weekend with a number of his short-subject works, which served as a massive influence for other animators, such as Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. This collection will be followed by Švankmajer’s fourth feature, 2000’s Little Otik, which blends stop-motion and live action to re-create a Czech folk tale about a childless couple who dig up a tree stump that comes to life and that they raise as their own until they discover its appetite may become a danger to those around them.
View the trailer. The shorts collection screens Saturday at 1 PM, and Little Otik on Sunday at 4:30 PM at the National Gallery of Art. Further Švankmajer films screen during the following two weekends.
French actor/director Maïwenn’s third feature won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes festival, and went into the Césars (the French national film awards) this year with a whopping 13 nominations, tying it with a handful of other films for the most ever received. The film is an ensemble crime drama, as Maïwenn takes a ripped-from-the-headlines approach to putting the issue of child abuse onscreen, using real case files to develop a multiple-story narrative centering around the detectives in the Paris Child Protective Services Unit.
It’s been ten years since agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) last brought their adventures in alien law enforcement to the big screen, a surprising figure given the financial (if not critical) success of this film’s predecessor in the franchise. Director Barry Sonnenfeld—who’s also been somewhat quiet since the last installment, with a couple of modest film and TV projects (Pushing Daisies)—brings the series back to life for a 3D adventure. Producers have reportedly sunk a staggering amount of cash into the film for a franchise that’s been at rest for so long, and with The Avengers still riding high at the box office, they have to be a little nervous about making all that money back. This time around, they’ve added James Brolin to the cast to play a young Tommy Lee Jones (the impression is pretty . . . impressive, judging from the trailer), as Smith’s character must go back in time to 1969 to stop a plot to kill his partner when he was still a young man.
In 1995, technology journalist Robert Cringely sat down for a lengthy interview with Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who at the time was reaching the end of his nearly ten-year absence from the company during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Only a small portion of the piece ended up making it on the air, but the old VHS tapes were recently found and have been picked up for theatrical distribution. There are no frills here. The interview isn’t used as a piece in a larger documentary about Jobs, and though the old tapes have been cleaned up to make them a little more presentable for modern eyes, there’s not much else here apart from a static Q&A with the man. It’s a testament, then, to the force of personality he had that Magnolia Pictures decided it was worth releasing and that the handful of reviews out as of this writing indicate it’s worth watching even without anything besides from the interview itself.
DVD Pick of the Week: Certified Copy
Yesterday in his Criterion Corner blog on Movies.com, David Ehrlich called Certified Copy “perhaps the best film of the last twenty years”. Those are bold words, and for a movie that didn’t get talked about too much outside of hardcore cinephile circles, they might have some folks thinking, “How did I miss that?” It’s an attention-grabbing assertion, but one that merits some thought. Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film—which stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as a couple who ostensibly meet at a book signing at the start of the day and by the end literally seem to be a couple who have been married for years—was one I enjoyed on first viewing but that didn’t necessarily bowl me over. (You can read my full review over at DCist.) But it’s a movie that has stuck with me in way I wouldn’t have expected. Kiarostami accomplishes some remarkable things in this film by making a work that is surreal, subtly experimental, and narratively challenging while never really seeming inaccessible or difficult. There are mysteries at work here that aren’t easy to unravel, but the director makes the task such a pleasure that it invites multiple viewings. With a pristine new Criterion release of the film, you may now do just that.
Special Features: An Italian documentary about the making of the film, an interview with the director, a rarely seen 1977 Kiarostami film, The Report, and a booklet with an essay from film critic Godfrey Cheshire.