Daily Archives: March 1, 1996

Ratataplan

This was comic writer-director-performer Maurizio Nichetti’s first feature (1979), a string of episodic sketches, some of which blew me away when I first saw them. (Nichetti subsequently made Ho fatto splash, The Icicle Thief, and Volere volare.) This eccentric debut movie, still possibly Nichetti’s best, was so disliked by New York critics that it never opened here, though it played briefly on cable in the early 80s. The inventive sound track recalls Tati, and the poetically skewed view of the modern world has a quirky flavor all its own. The diminutive, cartoonish Nichetti plays a character named Colombo who alternately works as a waiter and tries to organize a theatrical group with friends; he also builds a precise replica of himself to go disco dancing in a club. The opening sequence is breathtaking, the rest a bit spotty; but the film is certainly worth a look. The title, incidentally, is a made-up word that’s supposed to sound like a drumroll. (JR)… Read more »

Institute Benjamenta

I’ve only sampled this black-and-white fantasythe first live-action feature by the Brothers Quay, the London-based American twins best known for their music videos and Prague-influenced puppet animationand I wasn’t terribly engaged, though if you’re looking for something more recent in the Eraserhead/Guy Maddin school of creepiness, this may be the only noteworthy candidate. Inspired by the novella Jakob von Gunten and other works by Swiss writer Robert Walser and cowritten by Alan Passes, this dark, obscure parable about a moldering absurdist boarding school for the training of servants, seen from the vantage point of a recently enrolled student, may strike you as vaguely Kafkaesque, but only if you haven’t read much Kafka. With Mark Rylance, Gottfried John, Daniel Smith, and Alice Krige. (JR)… Read more »

A Family Thing

Robert Duvall plays an Arkansas cracker in his 60s who discovers that his biological mother was black and drives to Chicago to meet his half-brothera policeman played by James Earl Jonesand other newly discovered relatives. Directed by Richard Pearce from an original script by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton (who also collaborated on One False Move), this picture is an obvious labor of love that glimmers with feeling and insights at every turn, above all in its performances. Duvall is wonderful and Jones is, quite simply, magnificent (the manner in which he assigns his character a slight stammer is only one example of the perfection of his playing), while Irma P. Hall as one of the relatives isn’t far behind. With Michael Beach, Regina Taylor, and David Keith. (JR)… Read more »

The Decalogue

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s major work (1989) consists of ten separate films, each running 50-odd minutes and set mainly around two high-rises in Warsaw. The films are built around a contemporary reflection on the Ten Commandmentsspecifically, an inquiry into what breaking each of them in today’s world might entail. Made as a miniseries for Polish TV before Kieslowski embarked on The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colors trilogy, these concise dramas can be seen in any order or combination; they don’t depend on one another, though if you see them in batches you’ll notice that major characters in one story turn up as extras in another. One reason Kieslowski remains controversial is that in some ways he embodies the intellectual European filmmaking tradition of the 60s while commenting directly on how we live today. The first film, illustrating Thou shalt have no other gods before me, is about trust in computers; the often ironic and ambiguous connections between most subsequent commandments and their matching stories tend to be less obvious. (One of the 60s traditions Kieslowski embodies is that of the puzzle film, though he takes it on seriously rather than frivolously, as part of his ethical inquiry.) The fourth (Honor thy father and mother), for instance, one of my favorites, pivots around the revelation of feelings between a young acting student and the architect who may or may not be her real father, and the eighth (Thou shalt not bear false witness) focuses on the investigation of an American Jewish academic about why she was denied sanctuary from the Nazis when she was a little girl.… Read more »

Anne Frank Remembered

A moving, informative, and consistently absorbing two-hour documentary by Jon Blair about the famous Jewish teenager who kept a diary while hiding with her family in Amsterdam during World War II and died in a concentration camp at the age of 15. Offering a less mythological view of her than the highly successful play and film based in part on her diary, this also tells us about the rest of her family and the other people who hid in the apartment, as well as what happened to them afterward. The most memorable character is the unassuming Miep Gies, the non-Jewish Austrian employee of Anne’s father, who risked her life daily to protect the Frank family and who is interviewed at length. Kenneth Branagh serves as narrator, and Glenn Close reads aloud passages from the diary. (JR)… Read more »

Deseret

One of the best films of James Benning, one of this country’s leading experimental filmmakers, is this multifaceted look at the landscape and history of Utah (or Deseret, as the Mormon Church prefers to call it). Benning condenses 93 news stories from the New York Times from 1852 to 1992 (read offscreen by Fred Gardner) and sets them against contemporary Utah landscapes, the shots changing with each sentence. Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

Executive Decision

Apparently deciding that there still isn’t enough murderous hatred in the world against Middle Eastern Muslimsespecially the kind that’s milked for the purposes of light entertainmentproducer Joel Silver thoughtfully decided to add to the pool. One more evil Islamic terrorist hijacks one more 747, and it’s Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal to the rescue; they actually manage to sneak on board while the planeloaded with enough nerve gas to wipe out half the eastern seaboardis halfway across the Atlantic. The mechanics of what the commandos must do before mounting their attack keep this fairly absorbing as a routine thriller; it’s the concept of what this movie is doing to us that makes me want to throw up. Directed by Stuart Baird from a script by Jim and John Thomas. With Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Joe Morton, and David Suchet. (JR)… Read more »

The Baby Of Macon

Peter Greenaway’s most controversial feature (1993, 122 min.), in part because it’s so unrelievedly unpleasant without ever actually seeming atypical of his work. Set in France during the mid-17th century, it centers on the birth of a baby boy that’s mythologized for various ends, initially because it marks the end of childlessness in a city. The child’s older sister (Julia Ormond), a virgin, claims to be his mother; when she attempts to seduce the bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes), he’s gored to death by a cow. Ultimately the baby is dismembered, and the sister is raped to death by 217 soldiers, each one pardoned in advance by the church. This being a Greenaway film, no character is shown sympathetically, the action is lushly and rather beautifully filmed (by Sacha Vierny) on a single set, and the whole thing is staged as a play within the film. I watched it to the end out of a sense of duty, not with pleasure or any hope of edification. (JR)… Read more »

The White Balloon

The most popular non-American movie shown at the 1995 Cannes film festival, this fresh and unpredictable comic thriller from Iran is a first feature by Jafar Panahi, a former assistant to the great Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees), who’s credited, with Panahi and Parviz Shahbazi, with the screenplay. The film describes in real time the adventures of a seven-year-old girl and her older brother in the streets of Tehran during the 85 minutes that elapse just before the celebration of the Iranian New Year. After convincing her mother she needs another goldfish for the celebration, the girl sets off to buy one, but twice en route to the store loses the banknote she’s been given; most of the remainder of the film is devoted to her efforts to get the money back. If the plot sounds slender, the movie is both gripping and charming, with well-sketched characters and expert storytellingand Panahi’s efforts to redefine our sense of time along the way are remarkable. A masterpiece, one that grows in impact and subtlety over repeated viewings.84 min. (JR)… Read more »