Monthly Archives: January 2001

Left Behind

This fundamentalist SF, based on a best-seller by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, is (or was) billing itself as The Christian Entertainment Event of 2000, but seems perfectly timed to coincide with the ascension to office of George W. Bush. It’s a clunky effort Bush could have written and directed. Over 142 million people on the planetincluding all the childrenhave vanished and gone to heaven because they’re true believers. Meanwhile, the Antichrist turns out to be Russian, proving that Joseph McCarthy must have been right all along. The credited director is Vic Sarin and the credited writers are Allan McElroy, Paul Lalonde, and Joe Goodman. Among the cast are Kirk Cameron, Chelsea Noble, Clarence Gilyard, and Brad Johnson, doing what they can with hopeless if weirdly sincere material. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wedding Planner

Dopey but charming, this romantic comedyabout a San Francisco wedding planner (Jennifer Lopez) experiencing love at first sight vis-a-vis a pediatrician (Matthew McConaughey) who turns out to be the expectant groom in one of her assignmentsdraws much of its allure from the two leads. Most of the remainder comes from a clear desire to emulate and approximate various second-tier studio musicals and comedies that one might associate with the early 50s. This never rises above such treacle but happily lives up to it every chance it gets. With Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Justin Chambers, Judy Greer, and Kathy Najimy; written by Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis and directed by Adam Shankman. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

THE AMERICAN CINEMA Revisited [on Andrew Sarris]

I’m saddened that Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) didn’t live longer than 83, even though he had a very rich and rewarding career as a film critic.

This book review appeared in the sixth issue of Cinema Scope (Winter 2001) and is reprinted in my most recent collection. — J.R.

The American Cinema Revisited

Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic:
Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris

Edited by Emanuel Levy
The Scarecrow Press, 2001

Ironically, my enemies were the first to alert me to the fact that I had followers.
– Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a Cultist (1970)


One of the main emotions aroused in me by the 40 or so contributions to the millennial Festschrift Citizen Sarris is nostalgia –- specifically, a yearning for the era three or four decades ago when something that might be described as a North American film community was slowly emerging and recognizing its own existence.

This was just before academic film studies, radical politics, drugs and diverse other developments splintered that community into separate and mainly non-communicating cliques and ghettos, accompanied by an intensification of studio promotion that eventually took infotainment beyond its status as a minor industry and into an arena where advertising was coming close to defining as well as monitoring the whole of film culture, thus phasing out individual voices -– or at the very least bunching them together in sound bites, pull quotes, bibliographies and adjectival ad copy.… Read more »

The Pledge

From the Chicago Reader (January 19, 2001). — J.R.

The-Pledge-2001

The third feature directed by Sean Penn and the first one that I’ve liked. Adapted by the couple Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from a 1958 Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel, this is a nervy as well as somber piece of work, not only for the way it confounds and even frustrates certain genre expectations, but also — and especially — for how it confronts the viewer with the moral implications of that frustration. Jack Nicholson, in one of his most impressive, least show-offy performances, plays a Reno police detective who becomes obsessed with the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl and by his pledge to her parents that he’ll catch the murderer — unlike his colleagues, he still considers the case unsolved. Though he makes a stab at retirement, moving into a fishing resort and taking over a filling station, he continues to track down what he believes are clues, but this movie qualifies as a mystery thriller only intermittently; it’s more concerned with how much he — and we — want the culprit, real or imagined, to spring out of hiding and continue his bloody work. An abandoned balloon at one juncture alludes directly to Fritz Lang’s M, and though Penn’s arty direction doesn’t belong in that league, he’s become a very accomplished storyteller and an adroit director of actors — including the omnipresent Benicio Del Toro, Aaron Eckhart, and, in striking cameos, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, and Helen Mirren.… Read more »

Antitrust

A silly but fairly harmless industrial espionage thriller in which Tim Robbins plays a ruthless software billionaire transparently based on Bill Gates. Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions) is the pretty-boy genius programmer in Silicon Valley who gets enlisted into the tycoon’s Portland-based company and satellite communications program, where he starts to become aware of foul play long after the viewer has figured everything out. The paranoid romantic subplot, delirious and intermittently good campy fun, suggests that this movie might have been called I Married a Capitalist, though the nonstop product placementsplus the fact that, given the nonenforcement of antitrust laws, you aren’t likely to see this studio effort in many independent theaterstend to interfere somewhat with this purity of intention. Peter Howitt unexceptionally directed the unexceptional Howard Franklin script; with Rachael Leigh Cook, Claire Forlani, and Yee Jee Tso. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Hit Parade

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I’ve been getting increasingly suspicious of ten-best lists–maybe because the studios have been treating them as increasingly important. I’ve always regarded such list making as a critical activity, a form of stocktaking that benefits critics and audiences alike. But it’s becoming obvious that studios value the lists only as a part of their ad campaigns, and they seem to arrange their multiple end-of-the-year screenings and mail out their numerous “screener” videos for the press accordingly. Why else are so many reviewers implausibly claiming that most of the best movies of 2000 came out during the last two weeks of the year or haven’t even surfaced yet? Are they suffering from amnesia? Or are they simply going for the bait?

The studios define the year according to when movies open in New York and Los Angeles, where they’re often first screened in November and December so that they qualify for that year’s Oscars. As a consequence, critics in what the studios see as the hinterlands, including Chicago, are being encouraged to put movies on their ten-best lists that their readers can’t see for some time.

If studios cared about the services performed by criticism–which range from providing background information and an overall context for new releases to launching discussions about their subjects and explaining why these movies matter–they’d try to let critics see films shortly before they have to review them.… Read more »

Mes petites amoureuses

Jean Eustache’s color follow-up to his black-and-white masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973), detailing his adolescence in the south of France, has never been distributed in the U.S., but some devotees of the director’s work actually prefer this 123-minute feature to its lengthy predecessor, and there’s no question that it seems to get better and better over time. Writing in these pages, Dave Kehr called its unsubtitled version “an original and disturbing treatment of that most commercial of themes, a young boy’s coming of age. Eustache’s protagonist (Martin Loeb) is a dark, lonely child who is taken from his grandmother’s home in the country to live with his mother (Ingrid Caven) and his Spanish stepfather in the city; he discovers not only sexuality but work, boredom, isolation, and–as in The Mother and the Whore–the unbreachable otherness of women. Photographed in summer colors by Nestor Almendros, the film is quiet and visual where Mother was verbal.” This 1974 feature also has one of the most memorably erotic film references in the cinema–a showing of Albert Lewin’s terminally romantic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in a movie house. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, January 6, 4:00 and 8:30, and Wednesday, January 10, 9:00, 773-281-4114.… Read more »

Company Man

I certainly wanted to like this belatedly released comedy, about the bumbling inefficiency of the CIAthe organization that under the inspired auspices of George Bush sponsored and promoted Saddam Hussein, and also inspired Elaine May’s underrated satire Ishtar. But this is the unfunniest comedy I can recall seeing in ages, and considering that it was copyrighted in 1999, many others must have felt the same way; why it’s being released now is anyone’s guess. The star is cowriter and codirector Douglas McGrath, who also cowrote Bullets Over Broadway; he plays a wimpy grammar teacher who finds himself working for the CIA in Cuba in the early 60s, trying to overthrow Castro (Anthony LaPaglia). As an actor he isn’t bad, and as a scriptwriter he’s no slouch, but when it comes to the direction that’s credited to him and cowriter Peter Askin, the CIA itself might have done a better job. The main instruction to the cast appears to have been Overactperhaps the unfortunate legacy of Askin’s stage backgroundwhich has a murderous effect on the performances of John Turturro, Woody Allen, and Sigourney Weaver, among others. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Pollock

Ed Harris reportedly spent years preparing for the role of action painter Jackson Pollock and also wound up directing this downbeat biopic (2000). It would be churlish to say that all his efforts were in vain; he gives an interesting performance and manages to duplicate portions of Pollock’s drip technique himself, a rather impressive tour de force. But the film suffers from problems endemic to movies about artists: trying to make taciturn types interesting and rendering messy lives meaningful (or meaningfully meaningless). The script focuses on Pollock’s relationship with fellow painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) and curiously enough recalls the tragic showbiz biopics that Hollywood ground out in the 50s. Any insight into Pollock’s work is overshadowed by the usual message of such enterprisesthat artists are reckless, childish lunatics who suffer a lot and make others suffer as well. R, 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blow Dry

The English national hair championships pit a former prizewinner (Alan Rickman), who works with his son (Josh Hartnett), against his former wife (Natasha Richardson), who’s been involved with his former model (Rachel Griffiths) for the past decade. This comedy-drama was written by Simon Beaufoy, who brought us The Full Monty, and it has some of the same gamy mix of alternative sexuality and working-class heart; Paddy Breathnach furnishes the adequate direction. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

In The Mood For Love

From the Chicago Reader (January 2, 2001). — J.R.

IntheMoodforLove

A brooding chamber piece (2000) about a love affair that never quite happens. Director Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most romantic filmmaker, is known for his excesses, and in that sense the film’s spareness represents a bold departure. Claustrophobically set in adjacent flats in 1962 Hong Kong, where two young couples find themselves sharing space with other people, it focuses on a newspaper editor and a secretary at an export firm (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, the sexiest duo in Hong Kong cinema) who discover that their respective spouses are having an affair on the road. Wong, who improvises his films with the actors, endlessly repeats his musical motifs and variations on a handful of images, rituals, and short scenes (rainstorms, cab rides, stairways, tender and tentative hand gestures), while dressing Cheung in some of the most confining (though lovely) dresses imaginable, whose mandarin collars suggest neck braces. In Cantonese, French, Mandarin, and Spanish with subtitles. PG, 98 min. (JR)

in_the_mood_for_loveRead more »

Love 101

Adrian Fulle wrote and directed this independent feature, though I can’t imagine what differentiates his competently made teenage-sex movie from Hollywood teenage-sex movies, apart from the absence of a studio logo at the beginning. Maybe it’s the independent sense of humor expressed in its dialogue: Women are like Democrats, man. You can’t live with them, but you can sure get fucked by them. Just as you have to rule out the existence of female Democrats to find this funny, you’ll probably have to rule out the existence of independent films unencumbered by studiothink to find this even halfway bearable. Once you’ve accomplished that, you may or may not find that the skillful camera work and adequate performancesby Michael Muhney, Mary Kay Cook, Jon Collins, Jim Slonina, Heidi Mokrycki, and Jeff Andersonenhance this familiar tale of sexual rivalry between roommates and sexual confidence triumphing over insecurity, complete with elevator music. (JR)… Read more »

Moonlight Whispers

Akihiko Shiota’s first feature (1999, 100 min.), improbably based on a Japanese comic strip, is a disturbing look at a teenage boy’s sadomasochistic relationship with a 17-year-old girl he worships. At first he becomes fetishistically attached to her socks, photographs he takes of her legs, and sounds he records in her bathroom; eventually he volunteers to become her slave, which leads to cruel exploitation and diverse humiliations and traps both of them in the same compulsive games. Shiota seems uncertain whether to play this story for laughs or to treat his characters more compassionately, so the film starts wavering and wobbling toward the end, but it’s pungent and unsettling nonetheless. Interestingly, his second feature, Don’t Look Back, made the same year, took on very different material, a sensitive and unsensational story about two ten-year-old boys. (JR)… Read more »

The Castle

Made for Austrian TV, Michael Haneke’s serious and reasonably faithful 1997 adaptation of Kafka’s best novel isn’t the best or most interesting film made from the writer’s work; I’d give that honor either to Orson Welles’s flawed but fascinating The Trial (1962) or to Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s eccentric rendition of Amerika, Class Relations (1983). But this is almost certainly the truest interpretation of one of Kafka’s novels, all of which were left unfinished; it even literally ends in the middle of a sentence. If memory serves, there’s plenty of Kafka’s humor here as well. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Pledge

The third feature directed by Sean Penn and the first one that I’ve liked. Adapted by the couple Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski from a 1958 Friedrich D… Read more »