Monthly Archives: May 2001

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Though a caper comedy that runs for only 95 minutes is welcome, this movie manages to go from funny to formulaic in considerably less time than that. Martin Lawrence plays a professional Boston burglar, and Danny DeVito is the sleazy billionaire he burgles. When Lawrence is caught, DeVito takes his revenge by stealing a ring from Lawrence that his new girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo) gave him; the remainder of the movie is a protracted grudge match between the two, told with absolutely no sense of urgency. Screenwriter Matthew Chapman, adapting a Donald E. Westlake novel, does a pretty good job of stuffing comic grotesques into the crevices of the plot, but director Sam Weisman doesn’t handle them with much grace. With John Leguizamo, Glenne Headly, Nora Dunn, and William Fichtner. (JR)… Read more »

Lakeboat

This is David Mamet’s own adaptation of his first play, an autobiographical and somewhat hokey account of the Summer He Became a Man, by working aboard a steel freighter on the Great Lakes while in graduate school. It’s also the first feature directed by one of Mamet’s best actors, Joe Mantegna, and the whole production can be described as a sort of family affair, with Mamet’s kid brother Tony playing the young hero and still another Mamet, Bob, in charge of the music. But the most striking thing here is a performance by Robert Forster, as one of the older men on the boat, that’s so terrific everything else in the picture pales beside it. (It’s a part one can imagine Mantegna playing, so maybe that’s why he’s so adept at directing Forster in it.) Otherwise, I’d call this fairly routine coming-of-age stuff, borderline juvenilia hampered by awkward flashbacks in black and white but enlivened from time to time by a good cast that includes Peter Falk, Charles Durning, an uncredited Andy Garcia (as the night cook whom the young hero replaces at the last moment), J.J. Johnston, Denis Leary, Jack Wallace, and George Wendt. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Pearl Harbor

From the Chicago Reader (May 23, 2001). — J.R.

Pearl-Harbor

Three hours and three minutes of guff and goo about the nobility of killing and/or being killed for arbitrary reasons, whether you’re an American soldier or a Japanese. This is the Star Wars view of the U.S.’s entry into World War II (enemies are invisible and bloodless), which means that even though much of the story takes place in Hawaii, Hawaiians are deemed inconsequential, and the only ordinary Japanese we ever see apart from a few old soldiers are passing details in two shots: kids in the distance flying a kite and a couple of nice ladies in kimonos, both viewed before — not during or after — an air attack. If you decide to hit the concessions stand (where you’re bound to have lots of company), I’d suggest going out for popcorn during either the first hour or the third, because the second features some pretty good big-screen effects involving planes, ships, and explosions. (This is from the same team that brought you The Rock and Armageddon.) The lead characters are fairly interchangeable jocks and nurses — a bit like the characters in Starship Troopers but without the irony, aside from Jon Voight under tons of makeup striking presidential poses as FDR.… Read more »

Thinking Inside the Box [THE KING IS ALIVE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 18, 2001). — J.R.

The King Is Alive

*

Directed by Kristian Levring

Written by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen

With Miles Anderson, Romane Bohringer, David Bradley, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Brion James, Peter Kubheka, Vusi Kunene, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Janet McTeer, Chris Walker, and Lia Williams.

The King Is Alive, directed and cowritten by Kristian Levring, is the fourth film to have the dubious honor of qualifying for certification under the rules of the Dogma 95 manifesto, whose professed aim is to get back to the basics of realism — shooting, for example, in natural locations with handheld cameras, direct sound, and natural lighting. But what’s basic or realistic and what isn’t, in terms of film history and technique? The manifesto also insists that movies be shot in color, a rather ahistorical reading of what’s basic — unless one labels all possible uses of color in film realistic and all possible uses of black and white artificial.

If that’s the operative assumption, The King Is Alive triumphantly refutes it. The movie was shot with three digital video cameras — unlike Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma film The Celebration, which was shot with only one, and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (not a Dogma film, but made by one of Dogma’s founders), which was shot with a hundred — and that might make it seem new as well as passé.Read more »

Short films, program one

Normally, viewing 16 shorts in a row is a bit like following ice cream with pickles, cheese dip, key lime pie, lima beans, bread pudding, and spinach. But this lineup is relatively homogeneous in its strangeness–evident in the actor’s monologue filmed by children that constitutes David Cronenberg’s 35-millimeter Camera (2000, 6 min.), Joshua Pritzker’s weird animation Small Car (7 min.), Jim Finn’s Communista (a compilation of three songs), and most of all, Todd Rohal’s wildly surrealist Knuckleface Jones (1999, 13 min.), which offers the most peculiar and dreamlike cross-gendered sex I can recall seeing. There are more surrealist high jinks in the other animated shorts, some featuring puppets and clay animation, plus an experimental black-and-white documentary (Trevor Arnholt’s 13-minute digital video The Composer) and a parodic trailer starring Eric Stoltz and Tate Donovan (Paul Harrison’s Jesus and Hutch). The program runs about 95 minutes, and overall it’s not a bad lineup. Biograph, Friday, May 18, 8:00, and Sunday, May 20, 1:00.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

To Sleep With Anger

From the Chicago Reader (May 10, 2001). — J.R.

It seems scandalous that Charles Burnett, the most gifted black American director offering purely realistic depictions of black urban life, was able to make this 1990 feature only because Danny Glover agreed to play a leading role. Harry Mention (Glover), an old friend from the rural south, arrives on the doorstep of a Los Angeles family, wreaking subtle and not-so-subtle havoc on their lives. The family is headed by a retired farmer (Paul Butler) and his midwife spouse (Mary Alice), whose two married sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) are in constant conflict. Burnett’s acute and sensitive direction is free of hackneyed movie conventions; even something as simple as a hello is said differently from the way you’ve heard it in any other movie. All of Burnett’s features have the density of novels, rich with characters and their interplay, and this one is no exception. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Angel Eyes

It’s a pity that director Luis Mandoki occasionally tilts his camera to express a kind of overblown rhetoric, and that the movie misses golden opportunitiesthe traumatized hero once worked as a jazz trumpeterto work in the lovely Matt Dennis ballad it’s named after. But this touching love story essentially belongs to its stars, Jennifer Lopez as a Chicago cop and Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as the former trumpeter, and the rough spots are easy enough to get past while spending time with them. Lopez and Caviezel play armored characters who’ve essentially lost their families (in very different ways), and the sincerity of their performances overrides the intermittent implausibilities of Gerald Di Pego’s script. The backup castin particular Terrence Howard and Shirley Knightis equally fine; with Sonia Braga, Jeremy Sisto, and Victor Argo. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Defenseless [THE LUZHIN DEFENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 2001). — J.R.

The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris

Written by Peter Berry

With John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson.

In Slate last March two film critics with literary backgrounds, Phillip Lopate and A.O. Scott, argued about Terence Davies’s adaptation of The House of Mirth – an exchange that only illustrated how hard it is to settle questions about fidelity to novels. Lopate, who’s been involved with film much longer than Scott, called it his favorite American film of 2000. Scott, whose readiness to bone up on movies since he started reviewing them for the New York Times has been invigorating, didn’t seem blind to some of the film’s virtues, but he was much more concerned with what seemed reductive about it.

Having read Edith Wharton’s novel for the first time just before I saw the movie, I found myself agreeing to some extent with both critics. The film is inferior to Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible, all three of which strike me as essential works, though they’ve received much less attention from the mainstream, perhaps because they’re further from conventional narrative.… Read more »

The Luzhin Defence

If you couldn’t care less about Vladimir Nabokov, whose early Russian novel this feature purports to be based on, and if you like John Turturro and Emily Watson regardless of whether you can identify the nationality of the characters they’re playing, then it’s theoretically possible that this tasteful Euro-pudding period love story (2001) about a dysfunctional chess master and a debutante might be for you. Or you might be bored anyway. This was directed by Marleen Gorris, who has recently been making inroads in the Merchant-Ivory literary adaptation business (as in Mrs. Dalloway), and written by Peter Berry; with Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, and Christopher Thompson. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Apocalypse Now Redux

There’s 53 more minutes than in the original Apocalypse Now, though the flaws are also magnified. Francis Ford Coppola’s guilty-liberal rethink of John Milius’s right-wing update and transplanting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the war in Vietnam is above all an environmental experience, enhanced by what may still be Walter Murch’s best sound editing and Michael Herr’s best writing after Dispatches. Looking for a responsible or even coherent account of that war here would be barking up the wrong treeand the best way of glossing over this embarrassing lack would probably be to pretend, as many Western viewers do anyway, that this movie has no Vietnamese spectators. Like so many of our overseas escapades, this is really about American braggadocio and insanity in an exotic locale, spiced with a time-capsule sense of 60s counterculture, swell atmospheric expressionist effects, and many interesting performances (by Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, a teenage Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, and Dennis Hopper; a bald Marlon Brando is mainly used as a parade float). 203 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ghost World

Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) brilliantly negotiates the shift to fiction filmmaking in a very personal adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book, which either captures with uncanny precision what it’s like to be a teenage girl in this country or fooled me utterly into thinking it does. Thora Birch (American Beauty) plays Enid, a comic book artist who plans to share an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and befriends Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, much older collector of rare blues and jazz 78s, shortly after she almost graduates from high school. To get a diploma, she has to take an art course over the summer, and our glimpses of this add up to the funniest portrait of American art appreciation I’ve ever seen. Never predictable, this movie is often hilarious as well as touching, subtly adapting the mise en scene of Clowes’s original without being fancy or obtrusive about it. With Brad Renfro and Bob Balaban. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Set-up

A pungent noir from 1948, with Robert Ryan as an aging boxer preparing to take a fall and noir axiom Audrey Totter as his girlfriend, who’s getting fed up with the grim life he leads. Screenwriter Art Cohn improbably adapted a book-length narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (whose verse also inspired James Ivory’s 1974 feature The Wild Party), and Robert Wise directed during his best period, as an efficient studio craftsman. I probably wouldn’t tag this the greatest of all boxing pictures, but it’s certainly a contenderand I’d pick it in a flash over Raging Bull. 72 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cosmic Flight

A very late silent picture, shot in 1935 and released the following year, V. Zhuravlev’s rarely screened Soviet SF feature about a flight to the moon is more accurate than Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon (in which one character runs around the lunar surface without a space helmet, carrying a dowser’s wand in search of gold). But its charm today lies mostly in its more archaic aspectsthe vaguely futurist cityscape at the beginning, the golly-gee boy inventor who joins the flight, the clunky handling of gravity (the loss of which enables the characters to leap about like grasshoppers). Neither film compares favorably to the English feature Things to Come (1936), but this remains an intriguing period piece. 60 min. (JR)… Read more »

Too Early, Too Late

This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no characters in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the Notebooks of Grievances compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the petit-bourgeois revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »

Calle 54

This no-nonsense documentary (2000) by the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (an Oscar winner for Belle Epoque) is a welcome primer on Latin jazz, an expansive genre that can range from a Dizzy Gillespie big-band arrangement to a Charlie Haden ballad. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the minimal exterior footage of musicians, shot in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Sweden, is digital video while the much slicker footage in simple studio settings is on celluloidan appropriate combination, even if there’s a bit too much restless MTV-like cutting and angle changing. Much more importantly, Trueba’s commentaries are brief and to the point, and are never delivered over the music. A celebration of visual as well as aural delights, the film amply demonstrates how playing certain percussive instrumentsconga drums, vibes, even pianois much like dancing (though Trueba also provides actual dancing to go with Chano Dominguez’s jazz-flamenco fusions near the beginning and some Afro-Cuban drumming near the end). Apart from the percussiveness, the music is extremely varied, running the gamut from Eliane Elias’s lyrical piano to Gato Barbieri’s gruff but tender tenor sax to Chico O’Farrill’s wonderful big-band scoring; among the many other featured players are Paquito d’Rivera, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, and a couple of the latter’s relatives.… Read more »