From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.
A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
Alain Resnais, probably the greatest living French filmmaker, has never made an indifferent or unadventurous film, and he’s much more talented and innovative than Francois Truffaut. On connait la chanson (1997, 120 min.), a more accurate translation of which might be I Recognize the Tune, was inspired by British screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven); its characters frequently break into lip-synched French pop songs, which serve as cross-references to their moods and aren’t always bound by gender. (When Resnais made similar use of French film clips in Mon oncle d’Amerique, contemporary actress Nicole Garcia was cross-referenced with Cocteau’s actor Jean Marais.) A comedy about real estate and class differences, Same Old Song was the biggest hit of Resnais’ career in France, superbly capturing Paris in the 90s; it’s less popular among viewers unfamiliar with the music, but even if you can’t follow all the nuances, this is fun and different and at times mysterious (periodically revealing Resnais’ surrealist roots). Written by and costarring the talented couple Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui, who previously scripted and acted in Un air de famille (and wrote Resnais’ previous two features), this also has graceful performances by Resnais regulars Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, and Andre Dussollier.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.
This vulgar Billy Wilder comedy scandalized the Legion of Decency and large segments of the American public when it came out in 1964. At the time Wilder pointed out that the film is about human dignity and the sanctity of marriage, but its undisguised contempt for the American hinterlands and the success ethic makes the sexual element seem dirtier than it actually is. Dean Martin plays a carousing parody of himself, stranded in the godforsaken town of Climax, Nevada, while a desperate songwriter (Ray Walston), hoping to sell him a tune, tries to get him shacked up with a prostitute (Kim Novak) impersonating the songwriter’s wife (Felicia Farr). This restoration includes the original ending, which originally played only in Europe, followed by the forced ending that played in the U.S. Both Martin and Novak are at their near best, and the undertone of small-town desperation in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is effectively captured by Walston and his sidekick, Cliff Osmond. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope. 126 min. (JR)
Shortly after two boys from Tibet arrive in India to be trained as monks, one of them develops a passion for soccer. He contrives to get the monastery to chip in so that a satellite dish and TV can be rented and everyone can watch the World Cup final. For better and for worse, everything else in this comedy from Bhutan plays out in the homey details. This is the first feature of Khyentse Norbu, a lama who was recognized at age seven as the reincarnation of a 19th-century Buddhist saint. (Perhaps he helped inspire Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, a film on which he apprenticed.) Norbu tries too hard to please and charm, but his film at least carries the advantages of unactorly faces and a premise based on actual events that dramatizes the issue of religious vocation in a secular world. Norbu cites Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Satyajit Ray as his masters, but the only discernible traces of these influences are the bratty mugging of the younger kid (Ozu) and some of Ray’s uses of musical interludes. (JR)… Read more »
Half a dozen young French-Canadian filmmakersManon Briand, Andre Turpin, Marie-Julie Dallaire, Denis Villeneuve, Jennifer Alleyn, and Arto Paragamianpool their resources to produce a lively comic-sketch film in black and white (1996), imaginative and satirical and sexy; part of its charm is that you can’t always tell where one sketch ends and the next begins. A collective spirit and coordinated efforts make this breezy tour of youth culture in Quebec City homogeneous at the same time that each episode has its own distinctive flavor. The two segments I recall most fondly are a nightmarish interview with a filmmaker on a high-tech TV show (Villeneuve’s segment) and a very funny chance encounter between two ex-lovers in a hotel (Turpin’s segment), but just about everything here recalls the footloose, playful spirit of the French New Wavenot when its directors were trying to make hefty statements, but when they were just having fun. (JR)… Read more »
Younger fans of The Blair Witch Project may not realize that this kind of pseudodocumentary, usually minus the horror elements, was a staple of independent filmmaking during the 60s; Jim McBride’s first feature (David Holzman’s Diary), Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, and Peter Watkins’s early films (including The War Game and Privilege) all dealt potently with this form. This evocative 1969 feature by Milton Moses Ginsberg, a relatively late example, is particularly good at giving the impression that he’s using random footage, and it sometimes suggests Andy Warhol (the strobe cutting and unbridled behavior) and Michael Snow (a consistent camera angle). The entire movie is set in the living room of the Manhattan apartment of a onetime psychiatrist (Rip Torn), most of it shot with an allegedly hidden camera across from a sofa and mirror. The hero is idly filming his sexual encountersmany of them abortive, though in keeping with the period’s sexual politics, the women generally strip right away and he never gets further than his underpants. The scenes range from flirtations and kinky come-ons to orgies to marital squabbles. Torn, Sally Kirkland, and Viveca Lindfors are all terrific, and the music is by Jefferson Airplane. (JR)… Read more »
Craig Ross, Jr. wrote, directed, and produced this 1997 mystery. The film’s 16-millimeter black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and its actors are mainly good, but the Eric Dickey story that Ross bases it on is pretty familiar stuff, a torrid tale of adulterous passion straight out of the postnoir Body Heat bin, and it never gets beyond artificiality. This is technically quite impressive for a feature that cost under $10,000, but I wish it gave me more to sink my teeth into. With James Black, Angelle Brooks, and Jennifer Lee. (JR)… Read more »
Widely regarded as the first major film by Glauber Rocha, one of the key figures of the cinema nuovo, this exciting 1964 Brazilian feature draws on myth and folklore in exploring the sertao in 1940. Strongly recommended. (JR)… Read more »
The first feature of writer-director Richard Murphy is laborious whimsy about a neurotic and insecure Hollywood superstar (coproducer Cheryl Pollak) who walks off the set of a movie in progress, rents a suburban house incognito, and tries to learn a more modest trade from three men she encounters by chance (a swimming pool cleaner, a door-to-door salesman, and a delivery boy), bringing a little light to their lives in the process. At times the strained writing smacks of theater-of-the-absurd acting exercises, and the editing is both fancy and fussy, but I enjoyed Ron Perlman’s laid-back salesman. With Stephen Gregory, Dan O’Donohue, Holland Taylor, and Udo Kier. (JR)… Read more »
An intriguing and often funny, if at times confusing, 1996 feature from Cameroon by the talented Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Mozart Quartier). Originally intended as the African entry in the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema documentaries, which recount the histories of various national cinemas, it took on too many other agendas to fulfill that assignment. It’s partly a comedy about the taste of action-movie fans in a small town in southern Africa, partly a meditation on the difficulties of making films in Africa. (JR)… Read more »
Mathieu Kassovitz’s second feature (his first was Hate) was easily the most despised film in competition at Cannes, although there were relatively few walkouts. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games though much more lowbrow, this 1997 French thriller exploits affectless violence to the utmost while attacking the exploitation of affectless violence, as a 25-year-old punk (Kassovitz) is trained in fatherly fashion by a seasoned hit man (Michel Serrault). But it lacks the icy distance of Haneke’s film, and its flagrant borrowings from Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and Natural Born Killers also testify to the puritanical hypocrisy of those sources. Scorsese and Stone can get away with this sort of doublethink better than Kassovitz, however, because they put more emphasis on entertaining the audience than on preaching; Kassovitz, through sheer confused sincerity, too clearly exposes the muddled hypocrisy of his undertaking. Still, Assassin(s) has a certain dramatic voltage and communicates an underlying despair. And even when Kassovitz alternates between crass product placement and attacks on TV commercials, he’s merely giving the mainstream press what it usually asks for from movies. Maybe part of the rage this film provoked at Cannes had to do with the near-accuracy of its calculations. (JR)… Read more »
French movies about sexual and romantic obsession may be a dime a dozen, but what’s exceptional about Cedric Kahn’s 1999 filmapart from the fact that it’s a comedyis its overall sense of sanity. A 40ish philosophy professor (Charles Berling) encounters the chunky, easygoing teenage model (Sophie Guillemin) of a recently deceased painter and starts meeting her for sex on a daily basis; gradually he becomes obsessed with her normality, trying to turn her into a femme fatale. Part of what makes this so funny is Guillemin’s unforced performance, which makes her imperturbable directness as believable as the professor’s neurosis. The sex scenes are fairly explicit, but to his credit Kahn doesn’t allow them to mythologize the characters. With Arielle Dombasle (sporting an uncharacteristic Louise Brooks hairdo) and the late Robert Kramer. In French with subtitles. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »
Organized by filmmakers Paula Froehle and Carolyn Faber and musician Ken Vandermark, this program combines silent shorts by Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith with improvised music, presented not as accompaniment but as a concurrent event. The Keaton films are all superbOne Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), and Cops (1922), about 20 minutes each. I’ve seen only the first of the Griffiths, which are each about 15 minutesA Corner in Wheat (1909)and that’s quite remarkable as well. The other two are The Unchanging Sea (1910) and The Female of the Species (1912). The tentative musical lineup includes Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (reeds), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Michael Zerang (drums), and Jeb Bishop (trombone). (JR)… Read more »
An unsold pilot (1961) for a TV series about jazz, this half-hour film is set in a nightclub (or at least on a nightclub set). The dramatic setup is predictably square and self-conscious, but once the musicians (including Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge) get going, none of this matters, and things really swing. (JR)… Read more »
For all his versatility as a writer-director, I was surprised to learn that Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies) had made a film about the genesis of Gilbert and Sullivan’s mid-1880s comic opera The Mikado. Yet this 160-minute backstage musical is about something he knows intimatelythe complex of personal, organizational, artistic, and cultural factors that go into putting on a show. Leigh begins with leisurely character sketches of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), two very different men whose collaboration appears to be at an end. Only after Gilbert’s wife (Lesley Manville) drags him to a Japanese exhibition in London does The Mikado (and this movie) begin to take shape, and after that the film keeps getting better and better. The actors and actresses in the stage production, including Leigh regular Timothy Spall, all sing in their own voices, and Leigh’s flair for comedy and sense of social interaction shine as he shows all the ingredients in The Mikado beginning to mesh. Thoroughly researched and unobtrusively upholstered, this beautifully assured entertainment about Victorian England is a string of delights. With Ron Cook, Wendy Nottingham, Eleanor David, Kevin McKidd, Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson, and many Leigh standbys, including Alison Steadman and Katrin Cartlidge.… Read more »