Monthly Archives: February 2001

Series 7: The Contenders

An exceptionally glib satire about reality TV, by writer-director Daniel Minahan, that puts most of its effort into looking as much as possible like a real TV showone that offers a cash prize to the survivor among several contenders picked at random to kill each other. We’re carried through several episodes of death dealing in banal suburban locations, the last a shopping mallthough the film as a whole mercifully lasts only 86 minutes. With Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, and Richard Venture. (JR)… Read more »

The Mexican

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are movie stars, so regardless of whether you find their screaming at each other amusing or their characters full of contradictions (he’s a rube sent on a mission by the mob who keeps turning efficient and street-smart, she’s a world-weary hysteric) you should be able to manage, especially if you keep going out for popcorn. For that matter, a seemingly mad dog that periodically turns into a well-trained pet and the title Mexican, an antique pistol that occasionally inspires a heavenly choir, offer even more contradictions and alternate back stories. J.H. Wyman’s plot-heavy and corpse-ridden script gives us a fresh twist every ten minutes or so, on the assumption that we’ll get restless otherwise, the result being that we wind up relatively indifferent to the characters and what happens to them (though James Gandolfini, who isn’t a movie star, manages to be quite touching at times as a gay hood, and Roberts certainly gives it her all, acting up a storm in a vacuum). Directed by Gore Verbinskithe same guy who directed Mouse Hunt, here offering the standard greasy Mexicans favored by Hollywood (who don’t inspire heavenly choirs)with sinister cameos by Bob Balaban and Gene Hackman.… Read more »

Two-Lane Blacktop

This exciting existentialist road movie by Monte Hellman, with a swell script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and my favorite Warren Oates performance, looks even better now than it did in 1971, although it was pretty interesting back then as well. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the drivers of a supercharged ’55 Chevy and Oates is the owner of a new GTO (these nameless characters are in fact identified only by the cars they drive); they meet and agree to race from New Mexico to the east coast, though side interests periodically distract them, including various hitchhikers (among them Laurie Bird). (GTO hilariously assumes a new identity every time he picks up a new passenger, rather like the amorphous narrator in Wurlitzer’s novel Nog.) The movie starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract–it’s unsettling but also beautiful. 101 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown; film scholar Hank Sartin will introduce the film and give a lecture after the screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, February 27, 6:00, 312-443-3737.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

In the Mood For Love

This brooding chamber piece (2000) about a love affair that never quite happens is so minimalist that it succumbs to the law of diminishing returns–yet for some reason it sticks in my gut. 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 spouses are having an affair on the road. Wong, who improvises his films with the actors, endlessly repeats his musical motifs (including a melancholy violin theme and three familiar ballads sung in Spanish by Nat “King” Cole) 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, with collars like neck braces. This isn’t among my favorite Wong Kar-wai features (in a pinch I’d pick Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, and Happy Together), but that doesn’t mean my eyes weren’t glued to the screen.… Read more »

Down To Earth

Chris Rock plays an aspiring stand-up comic who dies in an accident and is permitted by the authorities in heaven (Eugene Levy and Chazz Palminteri) to temporarily occupy the body of a middle-aged white millionaire. Then he falls in love with an activist (Regina King) who regards the millionaire as the enemy. This is a remake of a remake (Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which remade Here Comes Mr. Jordan), directed by the Weitz brothers (Chris and Paul), whose previous feature was American Pie. It’s slight but likable, and diverting enough as light entertainment. Rock worked with Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi, and Louis CK on adapting a screenplay by Elaine May and Beatty; also in the cast are Mark Addy, Frankie Faison, Greg Germann, and Jennifer Coolidge. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Re-defining Video: Work By Kyle Canterbury

This dazzling program of work by Michigan artist Kyle Canterbury features two dozen experimental videos, all but one silent, ranging in length from 34 seconds to 11 minutes. Most feature some play between representation and abstraction, with subjects encompassing nature, domestic and public spaces, and politicsA Video depicts George W. Bush’s features decomposing. I don’t feel fully qualified to evaluate Reader critic Fred Camper’s claim that Canterbury has already done for video something like what [Stan] Brakhage has done for film. But such pieces as Color Shifts, Building in Detroit #2, 7 New Videos #3, 7 New Videos #7, and LX evoke for me some of the graphic power of the very different Oskar Fischinger, which goes to show the diversity of Canterbury’s work. And he does some things with rhythm and texture I haven’t seen before in film or video. What’s all the more astonishing is that he was only 16 when he made most of these pieceshe’s 17 now. (JR)… Read more »

The Center Of The World

The emotions of purchased sexreal, imagined, manufactured, faked, and rationalizedappear to be the focus of this stark, explicit, pungent tale, shot in varying grades of digital video, about a computer engineer named Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) who pays a lot of money to a woman named Florence (Molly Parker) in return for three days in Las Vegas with her. At various times Florence is shown to be a drummer in a rock band, a stripper, and a prostitute; whether she’s all three or we’re simply seeing Richard’s views of her isn’t always clear, but confusion of this kind is central to the movie. The script is by Ellen Benjamin Wong, based on an original story by director Wayne Wang, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, and Miranda July. The metaphorical thrust of the story suggests that it might be about the fiction-making processes of writers and filmmakers as well as the delusions of capitalist buying power. It’s also about pain, which both tempers and complicates the eroticism. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Too Much Sleep

This independent American comedy tries very hard to be weird and transgressive, but frankly I had trouble staying interested. The gun of a 24-year-old suburban security guard (Marc Palmieri) is stolen on a bus, and his efforts to recover it lead him on an extended absurdist quest from one character and non sequitur to the next. I enjoyed Pasquale Gaeta’s Peter Falk-ish performance as a relative who helps out, but otherwise I was mainly looking at my watch. David Maquiling wrote and directed, and must have had something or other on his mind. With Nicol Zanzarella. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Final Bow

It’s really sad: Wikipedia had listings for no less than eight different men named John Berry when I originally posted this article, but the film director (1917-1999) wasn’t one of them (fortunately, this is no longer the case); and you won’t find an article about him in Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors, either. I can’t say I knew the man well. but I consider myself fortunate to have spent some time with him in a variety of places — including film festivals in Rotterdam and Vienna, in Paris, and even one enjoyable evening at a jazz disco in Taipei. His accounts of his experiences with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater -– which included several hours of holding up scenery during the shooting of Too Much Johnson — were priceless.

The following comes from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boesman & Lena ***

Directed by John Berry.

Written by Athol Fugard and Berry.

With Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, and Willie Jonah.

Director John Berry got his big start as an actor in Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles then introduced him to film in 1938 when he hired him as assistant director on a silent slapstick film made to accompany and introduce portions of the stage farce Too Much Johnson.… Read more »

Memento

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

memento-leonard-shelby

With its classically seedy southern California setting, this second feature by Christopher Nolan is more memorable than his first, Following (1998). Nonetheless, it exemplifies what the English mean when they call something too clever by half. It’s a fascinating and gripping but also rather heartless and mean-spirited tale, much of it told backward, about an insurance investigator (Guy Pearce) with short-term amnesia trying to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Severely hampered by his periodically forgetting everything that’s happened since this tragedy, he tries to compensate by shooting Polaroids and tattooing his body with various reminders and instructions. More a puzzle than a meaningful story, it reminds me of how Edmund Wilson compared reading a mystery to eagerly unpacking a box of excelsior, only to find a few rusty nails at the bottom. With Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Stephen Tobolowsky. R, 113 min. (JR)

memento-2000Read more »

Chunhyang

Set in the late 18th century, this dazzling epic by Im Kwon-taek (Fly High Run Far) concerns the love between a prostitute’s daughter and the son of a provincial governor who marry in secret but are then driven apart. Im is Korea’s most prestigious filmmaker (with 96 features to his credit), and his stirring 2000 drama is both historically resonant and strikingly modern, remarkable for its deft and spellbinding narrative, its breathtaking color, and above all its traditional sung narration, which he periodically shows being performed with drum accompaniment before a contemporary audience. This is one of those masterpieces that would qualify as a musical if Hollywood propagandists hadn’t claimed the genre as their personal property. A must-see. 120 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 2 through 8.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

The Malady Of Death

Adapted from a Marguerite Duras story that’s read offscreen by J.D. Trow, about sexual encounters between a man and woman, this 1994 film by Jeffrey Skoller explores the male body like a landscape, softly intercutting ocean waves, a bit of found footage, and a lot of very Durasian black leader; the overall effect is legato, lyrical, hypnotic, and incantatory. 43 min. (JR)… Read more »

Chunhyang

Set in the late 18th century, this dazzling epic by Im Kwon-taek (Fly High Run Far) concerns the love between a prostitute’s daughter and the son of a provincial governor, who marry in secret but are then driven apart. Im is Korea’s most prestigious filmmaker (with about 100 features to his credit), and his stirring 2000 drama is both historically resonant and strikingly modern, remarkable for its deft and spellbinding narrative, its breathtaking color, and above all its traditional sung narration, which he periodically shows being performed with drum accompaniment before a contemporary audience. This is one of those masterpieces that would qualify as a musical if Hollywood propagandists hadn’t claimed the genre as their personal property. A must-see. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

Boesman & Lena

Danny Glover and Angela Bassett are highly impressive as a quarrelsome derelict couple in this 1999 film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s play about the internal damage caused by racism and poverty in South Africa. Director-screenwriter John Berry staged a successful production of the play off-Broadway in 1970, starring James Earl Jones, and his film, shot on location in and around Cape Town, plays rather daringly with the similarities and differences between theater and cinema, making the locales seem stagy yet using the ‘Scope format in an exciting, dynamic manner that recalls the 50s mise en scene of Nicholas Ray. Berry died shortly after the film was completed, and it stands as a deeply affecting conclusion to a stage and screen career that included acting with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in the 30s and being blacklisted by Hollywood in the early 50s. A white man whose family had its ups and downs, economically speaking, Berry always had a particular feeling for what it means to be poor as well as black, and with the help of his wonderful actors he makes the most of it here. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »