Monthly Archives: December 2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

This is the first Ang Lee film I’ve seen that I’ve liked without qualification. More important, it’s the most exuberant action movie in ages, putting most recent Hollywood blockbusters to shame. The two most significant reasons for this are the choreography of Yuen Wo-ping–who charted out the fights in The Matrix and here does for flying what Esther Williams did for swimming–and the powerhouse cast of Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. But there’s an undeniable lift in watching Zhang, a little girl, wipe out the ruffians who go after her, while the affectionate references to King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (among other Hong Kong action touchstones) also add something flavorsome to the brew. Adapted by James Schamus (one of the executive producers), Wang Hui Ling, and Tsai Kuo Jung from Wang Du Lu’s novel of the same title, this sincere and magical fairy tale might be self-conscious at times about being Lee’s celebratory homecoming movie (his first Asian film since Eat Drink Man Woman), but it still succeeds in putting the same spirited spin on martial arts that Singin’ in the Rain did on early Hollywood. 119 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, McClurg Court, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

The House of Mirth

“If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level.” Edith Wharton’s encapsulation of the narrative form of her tragic (and sexy) 1905 novel, describing the progressive defeat of socialite Lily Bart by the ugly indifference of Wharton’s own leisure class, is given an extra touch of Catholic doom in Terence Davies’s passionate, scrupulous, and personal adaptation, which to a surprising degree preserves the moral complexity of most of the major characters. It’s regrettable if understandable that the Jewishness of social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is no longer an issue, and Lawrence Selden, Lily’s confidante, is somewhat softened by a miscast Eric Stoltz, but the cast as a whole is astonishing–especially Gillian Anderson as Lily and Dan Aykroyd in his finest performance to date. Davies feels and understands the story thoroughly, giving it a raw emotional immediacy that would be unthinkable in the shopper-friendly adaptations of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators, and the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite. With Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, and Eleanor Bron.… Read more »

Malena

Somewhere in writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s bombastic movie, about a 12-year-old boy (Giuseppe Sulfaro) during the Italian fascist period who has the hots for a mistreated war widow (Monica Bellucci), is a pretty good short story about the fickleness of community and the cruelty of gossip. Part of what prevents it from emerging more clearly is the movie’s compulsion to be Fellini-like at all costs: Ennio Morricone’s score periodically apes Nino Rota, and the scenes of family farce play more like Radio Days than anything elsein effect they’re an imitation of imitation Fellini. But I prefer this to Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, if only for its more nuanced views. Tornatore’s script was inspired by Luciano Vincenzoni’s story Ma l’amore no . . . In Italian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cast Away

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 2000). — J.R.

cast_away

When Robert Zemeckis starts getting serious, it’s time to clear the streets. According to David Denby, Cast Away demonstrates that the director is now ready to tackle Melville, but I’m not sure he’s even ready for Defoe: this is at best an OK variation on the Robinson Crusoe saga sandwiched between sections of an unsatisfying love story. It’s several cuts down from Luis Buñuel’s 1952 Defoe adaptation and seriously hampered by the absence of any Friday (unless one counts a blood-smeared volleyball treated like a fetish and surrogate human), but it’s certainly enhanced by Tom Hanks. Less unctuous than he was as Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Hanks plays a FedEx employee who finds himself on a desert island with all the time in the world. The film holds one’s interest, and there’s some nice if underdeveloped ironic poetry when the hero has to depend on diverse FedEx packages to keep himself alive. But this is too full of its own heavy breathing to work as the primordial storytelling it’s aiming for — a so-so adventure story is closer to the mark. Written by William Broyles Jr.; with Helen Hunt and Nick Searcy. 142 min.Read more »

All The Pretty Horses

I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, nor do I know what kind of material got deleted from this adaptation, which was reduced by about one of its original three hours (the apparently preferred length of director and coproducer Billy Bob Thornton), but despite some choppiness here and there the movie holds together pretty well. This is a melancholy, lyrical, and elegiac western, set around 1949, in which a young and dispossessed rancher in west Texas (Matt Damon) rides off with his best friend (Henry Thomas) to the Rio Grande, picking up a teenage renegade (Lucas Black) en route, and eventually falls in love with the daughter (Penelope Cruz) of a Mexican rancher he works for. The landscapeswhich come close to outshining the worthy actors in the opening and closing stretchesare beautiful, and the plot, which is basically a grim coming-of-age story, holds one’s interest throughout. Scripted by Ted Tally; with Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Miriam Colon, Bruce Dern, and Sam Shepard. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Traffic

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 2000). — J.R.

I don’t get it. Maybe my bias against drug dealers, drug barons, and drug addicts as interesting characters is responsible, but I don’t see this slightly better-than-average drug thriller, with slightly better-than-average direction by Steven Soderbergh, as anything more than a routine rubber-stamping of genre reflexes. (Even the film’s racism — the implication that drug taking by teenage white girls logically leads to their having sex with black males — seems depressingly typical.) Nothing especially new or fresh has been added to the formula by Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay, which shuttles between southern California, Mexico, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., but if you’re happy just to see Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Albert Finney, among others, move across the screen and deliver lines, here’s your chance to indulge. 147 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wind Will Carry Us

This ambiguous comic masterpiece (1999, 118 min.) could be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancee milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem that gives the movie its title. Over half the major characters–including the crew, the dying woman, and the digger–are kept mainly or exclusively offscreen, and the dense and highly composed sound track often refers to other offscreen elements, peculiarities of Kiarostami’s style that solicit the viewer’s imaginative participation. What’s most impressive about this global newspaper and millennial statement is how much it tells us about our world at the moment–especially regarding the acute differences in perception and behavior between media “experts” and everyone else.… Read more »

Quills

Personally, I find the notion of a politically correct Marquis de Sade ridiculous enough to be hilarious, but this didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying Philip Kaufman’s silly romp, adapted by Doug Wright from his own play. This version of French history has it that the real sadist wasn’t Sade (Geoffrey Rush) but the hypocritical doctor (Michael Caine) who kept him locked up in a lunatic asylum, and that the real issues posed by Sade’s work basically boil down to freedom of expression. Check your brain at the concessions counter and you’re likely to have as much fun as I did, not only because the good guys and the villains are easy to spot but because Kaufman is an adroit, sexy storyteller and his cast is delightful. With Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Billie Whitelaw. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

State And Main

Writer-director David Mamet emulates Kaufman and Hart. A Hollywood film unit prepares to shoot a feature in a small town in Vermont, occasioning the sort of comic mishaps found in The Man Who Came to Dinner, though without comparably juicy characters. What Mamet serves up are a generically crass director (William H. Macy), a principled screenwriter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who becomes romantically involved with the woman who runs the local bookstore (Rebecca Pidgeon), a starstruck mayor (Charles Durning), a lead actor who lusts after teenage girls (Alec Baldwin), and so on. I laughed a lot at the anti-Hollywood humor and generally had a fine time, in spite of the holier-than-thou hypocrisy that makes this movie easily and even intentionally Mamet’s most Hollywoodish picture to date. With Patti LuPone, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Paymer, and Julia Stiles. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Best of the 90s

Written for a Film Comment poll; its web site doesn’t say which issue this appeared in. — J.R.

The Wind Will Carry Us — Kiarostami. City / country, rich / poor, modernity / antiquity, onscreen / offscreen, fast / slow, media / nature, private / public, documentary / fiction: an accurate and very funny report on the current state of the planet.

Hou Hsiao-hsien. The 21st century belongs to Asia, and Hou is its historian, its prophet, and its poet laureate.

Ten Best/Most Underrated (alphabetical): Actress, A Brighter Summer Day (230-minute version), Dead Man, From the East, Histoire(s) du Cinéma (final version, eight parts), Inquietude (Oliveira), The Puppetmaster, Sátántangó, When It Rains (Burnett, 12 minutes), The Wind Will Carry UsRead more »

The Universe in a Cellar (THE WIND WILL CARRY US)

This appeared in the December 8, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Wind Will Carry Us

****

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Written by Kiarostami and Mahmoud Ayedin

With Behzad Dourani, Farzad Sohrabi, Shahpour Ghobadi, Masood Mansouri, Masoameh Salimi, Bahman Ghobadi, Noghre Asadi, and Ali Reza Naderi.


Paradoxically, Americans still tend to demonize Iranians at a time when Iranian cinema is becoming almost universally recognized as the most ethical in the world. It’s another sign of how limited our understanding of life outside our borders is — which only makes the varied and comprehensive images of Iranian cinema more precious.

It’s true that censorship has helped shape Iranian cinema, but that censorship has had interesting consequences. Women film characters are required to wear chadors, but ordinary Iranian women don’t wear them indoors — which has led to a good many films being set mainly or exclusively in exteriors and focused on public life and social appearances, including all of Abbas Kiarostami’s features since his 1990 masterpiece Close-up. The pivotal title sequence of his most recent feature, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), opening at the Music Box this week, is set in a dark cellar — and that has a lot to do with what makes this scene metaphysical and momentous and poetically charged, even though practically nothing of consequence happens there.… Read more »

And an Apology to Jagger, Too

It’s been brought to my attention that a charge I made in my piece on Luis Bunuel (November 10) about the final sequence in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter may well be false. I said the action was faked, attributing my information to cinematographer Alan Raymond. Raymond says he has no recollection of having made the accusation. My apologies to Raymond, the filmmakers, and the other participants. Certainly there are plenty of documentaries guilty of fakery, including a few great ones–Nanook of the North and Land Without Bread both come to mind–so I should have picked a more appropriate example.

Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

LES BONNES FEMMES (1960)

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). — J.R.

There’s something approaching a consensus, shared by the filmmaker himself, that the best of Claude Chabrol’s early features is Les bonnes femmes (1960), his fourth. Yet the film was a box office flop when it first appeared, widely attacked in France and elsewhere for being ugly, misanthropic, and cynical. And it might be fair to say that this response wasn’t so much superseded as reinterpreted in the years to come. For Les bonnes femmes is probably Chabrol’s most pessimistic work, harping relentlessly on vulgarity, boorishness, and cruelty. Focusing on four young woman who work from nine to seven at an electrical appliance store in Paris, the film offers a definitive look at what they want from life and how poorly they fare in their aspirations — culminating in a remarkable, ambiguous final sequence set in a dancehall, leaving everything up to the audience’s troubled imagination, about another young woman who isn’t identified at all dancing with an equally unidentified stranger.

Jane (Bernadette Lafont), the shopgirl who visibly expects the least from life, goes out carousing with a couple of men in an early sequence and virtually gets raped.… Read more »

The Family Man

A Manhattan investment broker and playboy (Nicolas Cage) wakes up one morning to find himself living in New Jersey as a tire salesman, married to a woman he broke up with years before, and with kids. At first I thought I was watching yet another version of A Christmas Carol; then I wondered if it was a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life; finally I gave up trying to find anything at all in it that was unfamiliar. Brett Ratner directed this 2000 comedy from a script by David Diamond and David Weissman; with Don Cheadle, Tea Leoni, and Jeremy Piven. 126 min. (JR)… Read more »

The House Of Mirth

If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level. Edith Wharton’s encapsulation of the narrative form of her tragic (and sexy) 1905 novel, describing the progressive defeat of socialite Lily Bart by the ugly indifference of Wharton’s own leisure class, is given an extra touch of Catholic doom in Terence Davies’s passionate, scrupulous, and personal adaptation, which to a surprising degree preserves the moral complexity of most of the major characters. It’s regrettable if understandable that the Jewishness of social climber Sim Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is no longer an issue, and Lawrence Selden, Lily’s confidant, is somewhat softened by a miscast Eric Stoltz, but the cast as a whole is astonishingespecially Gillian Anderson as Lily and Dan Aykroyd in his finest performance to date. Davies feels and understands the story thoroughly, giving it a raw emotional immediacy that would be unthinkable in the shopper-friendly adaptations of Merchant-Ivory and their imitators, and the film’s feeling for decor and costumes, derived from both John Singer Sargent paintings and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is exquisite. With Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, and Eleanor Bron.… Read more »