From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 2000). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano
With Beat Takeshi (Kitano), Yusuke Sekiguchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Yuko Daike, and Kazuko Yoshiyuiki.
I’m finally starting to understand Takeshi Kitano’s movies, though given that his specialty seems to be a mixture of violence, slapstick, and sentimentality, I’m not sure I’ll ever be a convert. Still, I found Kikujiro (1999) — his eighth feature, showing this week at the Music Box — much more affecting than the other three features I’ve seen.
One of the fascinating things about Kikujiro, which has virtually no violence, is that it seems both more mainstream and more experimental in form than the other Kitano movies I’ve seen. It changes style so often that it all but eliminates narrative. It’s divided into sections like a photo album, with photos and captions doubling as chapter headings. It has intricately choreographed expressionist dream sequences, extended gags in extreme long shot that all but convert the main characters into balls ricocheting through pinball machines, and absurd physical gags in medium shot (e.g., the hero tries to swim) that take the form of frozen tableaux and provoke blank stares from other characters.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2000); also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Bruno Dumont
With Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquière, and Ginette Allegre.
One of my favorite Italian novels, long out of print in English, is Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, a sort of Roman police procedural from 1946 in which the central crime never gets solved. The book is so beloved in Italy that it’s known simply as Il pasticciaccio (“the awful mess”), and when Gadda died in 1973 at the age of 79, it had gone through several editions.
William Weaver, who did the 1965 English translation, wrote in the preface that “Il pasticciaccio occupies in contemporary Italian literature the position that Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Man Without Qualities occupy in the literature of their respective countries.” He also noted that many of Gadda’s other fictional works are “unfinished, but not incomplete. Even the briefest of Gadda’s fragments has its own curious wholeness; and if the ‘murder story’ aspect of Il pasticciaccio remains unresolved, one feels — at the end of this long, apparently ambling work — that it is better not to know who is responsible for the death of Signora Liliana.… Read more »
The Ontario Film Review Board has banned this history of U.S. marijuana laws because it contains 20 seconds of archival footage showing rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees smoking dope in a lab experiment. Apparently this violates the Ontario Theatres Act, which forbids abuse of an animal in making a film, although the board showed no concern about mice falling off a table or fish swimming sideways in the same sequence (at least the simians seem to be enjoying themselves). A better example of animal abuse might be compelling a filmmaker to submit his work to censors or incarcerating untold thousands of kids for having harmless fun while hypocritical state agents and presidents show an almost total lack of interest in the truth or falsity of their own antidrug propaganda. Director Ron Mann specializes in documentaries celebrating countercultural forms and practices (Comic Book Confidential, Twist, Poetry in Motion, Imagine the Sound); this hilarious yet frightening piece of agitprop, using found footage, period music, jaunty animated titles, and narration by Woody Harrelson (written by Solomon Vesta), is as entertaining and informative as anything Mann’s ever done and as good an example of grass humor as you’re likely to find. 80 min. Music Box, Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24, midnight.… Read more »
A recent black comedy from France (1998) that has been compared to Todd Solondz’s Happiness; considering the unpleasantness of the other longish Francois Ozon film I’ve seen. See the Sea (1997), this is probably apt. The plot concerns a repressed family whose repressions go away after the members are bitten by a pet rat: the son reveals he’s gay, the daughter shows she’s suicidal and sadomasochistic, and so on. (JR)… Read more »
Alison Maclean (Crush) directed Elizabeth Cuthrell’s sharp adaptation of Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories about a young junkie (Billy Crudup) in the 1970s. As a rule, I don’t much like movies about junkies because they tend to fall into dull and predictable patterns, like junkies themselves, but this is easily the liveliest and most inventive I’ve seen since Drugstore Cowboy (1989)which, coincidentally or not, was set during the same decade. Divided episodically into chapter headings and narrated by the hero, who occasionally backtracks to fill in details he’s missed, this is a deceptively rambling script that is actually carefully put together while adroitly showing the patterns of a disheveled mind. The ‘Scope framing is attractive, and the backup castheaded by Samantha Morton, and also including Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton, Greg Germann, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunteris first-rate. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
Two Berkeley undergraduates (Freddie Prinze Jr. and Claire Forlani) who first meet as kids on a plane start off as antagonists, become friends, and wind up as lovers. The material is familiar, the Berkeley locations are strictly boilerplate, and there are times when the characters seem more like high school students than college kids. But the cast is so charming and assured that it puts across most of this with a reasonable amount of conviction. Robert Iscove (She’s All That) directed this romantic comedy, from a script by a screenwriting team known as the Drews (i.e., Andrew Lowery and Andrew Miller); with Jason Biggs and Amanda Detmer. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »
Samuel L. Jackson stars as the title New York police detective in this 2001 feature, which seems less a remake than a retooling of the original 1971 blaxploitation thriller. It’s more street-smart, more PC, less dictated by sexist fantasy, and a lot closer to Dirty Harry, at least until a plot twist near the end turns it away from the other film’s indictment of the justice system. After arresting a spoiled white college kid (Christian Bale) who’s committed a blatantly racist murder, only to see him escape on bail, Shaft hopes to nab the kid when he returns to the city a couple of years later. Director John Singleton, who collaborated on the script with Richard Price and Shane Salerno, has some bitter observations to make about police corruption, though neither a consistent social critique nor any developed sense of character is ultimately allowed to intrude on the usual muddled studio committeethink. But as an action thriller with music by Isaac Hayes it’s not bad. With Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, and Toni Collette. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »
This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books), and tweaked in June 2010. — J.R.
It is not surprising that Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature — made when he was only 22 and released a year later in 1964 — has never been as fashionable as The Conformist (1969) or as popular as Last Tango in Paris (1972). But even though it is sometimes raggy and choppy as storytelling, Before the Revolution is still possibly the most impressive thing he has done to date.
In 1962, when he was asked to adapt a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini into a screenplay and then to direct it (The Grim Reaper, or La commare secca), thereby paying tribute to his main Italian mentor, he also published his first volume of poetry, In Search of Mystery. And Before the Revolution, which pays homage to his primary French inspiration, Jean-Luc Godard, is in some ways closer to a poetry collection than it is to a novel — despite the fact that the characters are named after those in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Bertolucci’s favorite novel at the time, and Parma is the central setting.
… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 9, 2000). — J.R.
The Edge of the World
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Michael Powell
With John Laurie, Belle Chrystall, Eric Berry, Finlay Currie, Niall MacGinnis, Grant Sutherland, Campbell Robson, and Powell.
In a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement, American sociologist and historian Richard Sennett examined the failure of socialism in the United States and argued that Americans seem to have a different take than people in England and continental Europe on collectivity itself. One reason he suggests for this difference — that slavery confused and perhaps even undermined our overall sense of the dignity of labor, ultimately altering our sense of collective labor — is both provocative and debatable. But whether or not one buys into his theory, it’s hard to deny that Americans practice and relate to groupthink somewhat differently than Europeans. “The herd of independent minds” was the late Harold Rosenberg’s memorable phrase describing us in all our paradoxical singularity.
I happened to read Sennett’s words a few hours after seeing the restoration of Michael Powell’s beautifully archaic and mystical 1937 epic about communal life on Foula — the Shetland island farthest from the coast of Scotland — which is playing this week at the Music Box.… Read more »
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1987 Taiwanese feature is less powerful than the preceding A Time to Live and a Time to Die (showing at the Film Center Tuesday and Thursday, June 20 and 22) but much better than his subsequent Daughter of the Nile (which isn’t included in the center’s current retrospective). It follows two young lovers who move to the city (Taipei) to find work because they can’t afford to finish high school, and slowly but irrevocably their relationship is torn asunder. Hou’s feeling for the textures of everyday life, caught mainly in long takes and intricately framed deep-focus compositions, gives this unhurried but deeply affecting drama a deceptively subterranean impact that gradually rises to the surface. The very natural and, for the most part, underplayed performances by nonprofessionals are especially impressive. 109 min. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, June 9, 8:15, and Saturday, June 10, 6:00, 312-443-3737.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
It’s the mid-31st century, and A.E. stands for after earth in this brisk animated extravaganza directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Much of it is Starship Troopers without the irony, mixed together with the usual predictable sources (Star Wars, 2001, This Island Earth, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination), a lot of lousy rock, enough military hardware to destroy several planets (most of it rusty in more ways than one), and better-than-average action sequences that characteristically become monotonous through overkill. The modeling of human figures and the sense of depth are both impressive; the characters themselves are mainly idiotic. Five people are credited with the story and script; among the voices used are those of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo, and Janeane Garofalo, all obviously enlisted to make this intergalactic adventure sound as familiar as possible. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »
Seven thousand and twenty seconds is more like it. This celebration of auto thefta big-budget remake of H.B. Helicki’s populist B movie of 1974, with more explosions and fewer bell-bottomsstars Nicolas Cage as a former car thief who has to return to the profession and hijack 50 cars in a weekend, with a little help from his friends, in order to save the life of his kid brother (Giovanni Ribisi). The grungy tone is agreeable, the directorial savvy of Dominic Sena less so; apart from a couple of preposterous stunts, this doesn’t have as much suspense as it tries for, despite periodic reminders of how little time remains, because the movie only starts to breathe whenever it becomes laid-back. But I found it more pleasurable as a time waster than either Mission: Impossible. The backup castincluding Angelina Jolie, James Duval, Will Patton, Delroy Lindo, and Robert Duvallcertainly helps. Scott Rosenberg is credited with the script. (JR)… Read more »
A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere–and, more subtly, the women–of Africa like few filmmakers before her.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 2000). Last weekend (October 5, 2014) I had the pleasure of introducing The Sandwich Man at the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhaustive Hou retrospective in Astoria. — J.R.
Films by Hou Hsiao-hsien
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. — Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night
How significant is it that neither of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers is fluent in English? Not very. But it might be logical. After all, most of the people in the world, including those in Iran and Taiwan, don’t speak English, even though that places them, in American eyes, in the margins, outside even the on-line global culture.
If being in the margins means being in the majority, it stands to reason that Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, as chroniclers of what’s happening on the planet at the moment, should both be poet laureates of the sticks — though they don’t have much in common beyond a taste for filming in long shot, pioneering direct sound recording in their national cinemas (in both cases to honor the speech patterns of nonprofessional actors), and a general sense of philosophical detachment.… Read more »
This 1955 example of kitchen-sink realism about the awakening love life of a Bronx butcher (Ernest Borgnine) and his shy girlfriend (Betsy Blair), directed by Delbert Mann, has never been popular with auteurists, but Paddy Chayevsky’s script, adapted from his own TV play, shows his flair for dialogue at its best, and the film manages to be touching, if minor. Borgnine won an Oscar for his part, and he isn’t half bad.… Read more »