Monthly Archives: July 2001

Planet Of The Apes

The entertaining if facile 1968 original was cowritten by Rod Serling, and though this fancy new version claims to be neither a remake nor a sequel, I’d call it the formerthough one that tries to reconfigure the various commercial elements (SF adventure story, satire, action, surprise ending) rather than duplicate them. The problem is that Serling was a liberal satirist and fabulist (as presumably was Pierre Boulle, author of the source novel Monkey Planet), while the gifts of Tim Burton are chiefly visual. Pictorially, this is sometimes wonderful (and some of the credit should go to production designer Rick Heinrichs). But as satire it’s toothless and at times close to incoherent; its predictable swipes are aimed equally at conservative racists and bleeding-heart liberals, and the screenplay by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal doesn’t seem terribly invested in anything. The tone swerves between satire and straight-ahead action and frequently into bits of unintentional camp, such as the snorts and growls (complete with martial-arts flying and lots of pounding violence) of the simians, Charlton Heston’s cameo as a dying Yoda-type ape, and Estella Warren in cavegirl-jailbait attire that’s worthy of black-and-white 50s drive-in fodder. Even a few standard-issue explosions are folded into the mix, reminding us repeatedly that this isn’t so much a story as a set of attractions for kids.… Read more »

A Constant Forge

These days, most accounts of John Cassavetes’s work and career tend to be either uncomprehending dismissals, which often wrongly assume that his scripts were mainly improvised by his actors, or uncritical hagiography. At least the hagiography is better informed, and this is especially true of Charles Kiselyak’s 200-minute video documentary, finished last year–possibly the most complete look at the man we’ve had yet and much easier to follow than most of the books published about him. The narration is drawn from Cassavetes’s own words–a drawback as well as a plus, because sometimes he created as much confusion around his work as his detractors–but the biggest value of this chronicle lies in the interviews with most of the writer-director’s main actors, including Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni, and Lynn Carlin, who perceptively discuss their own performances and those of their colleagues. We even get some insights into Cassavetes’s theater work, from Jon Voight and Carol Kane, among others, and into his handling of music in his films–subjects that are usually neglected in other accounts. There’s also a generous supply of clips, many of which will mean a lot more to those who already know the films. To be shown on DigaBeta video as part of the Film Center’s ongoing Cassavetes retrospective.… Read more »

America’s Sweethearts

Overwritten by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan, overdirected by Joe Roth, overplayed by most of the cast, yet typically undernourished, this would-be satirical comedy, about a movie-star couple who have broken up but must give interviews together to publicize their final movie, seems very vaguely inspired by the screwball comedies of the 30s. Among the usually efficient actors (including John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hank Azaria, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin), only Julia Roberts and Crystal himself (who also produced) emerge relatively unscathed. They appear to be acting in a different, more reasonable movie than the others. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

American Hunger [on Eric Saks]

From Film Comment, July-August 2001. I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to provide many illustrations for this that are tied to the films and videos discussed. Many of the ones I’ve used are drawn from earlier or later works by Saks, including paintings and photographs. — J.R.

It’s tempting to call Eric Saks’ preferred mode, in video and film alike, the pseudo-documentary — though there are times, mainly during my more apocalyptic moods, when I wonder if any other kind of American documentary currently exists. It’s less speculative to say that two of Saks’ main subjects are ecology and waste, but if you extend the meaning of those terms logically, you come up with just about the entirety of the sad American empire, President George W. Bush included.

Place Saks’ work in a drawer marked “weird stuff” or “marginal,” regardless of whether that drawer stays open or closed, and the gesture becomes the same kind of empty, self-fulfilling market judgment that his work laments — like the current functioning of national boundaries, simply a blind stab at demographics and market research rather than any valid estimation of universality. Yet Saks’ remarkable, neglected early 16mm feature Forevermore: Biography of a Leach Lord (89) and his more recent videos like Creosote and Dust breathe an everyday American desperation that we can all recognize, even when it comes wrapped (as it often does) in a literary tradition — a form of layered, weathered melancholy about American hunger that Thomas Pynchon captured perfectly (albeit in a more hippie-humanist register) on an early page of his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 2001). For more recent thoughts about this film, please go here. — J.R.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Spielberg and Ian Watson

With Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Jake Thomas, and the voices of Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, and Chris Rock.

If the best movies are often those that change the rules, Steven Spielberg’s sincere, cockeyed, serious, and sometimes masterful realization of Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious late project deserves to be a contender. All of Kubrick’s best films fall into one vexing category — they’re strange, semi-identified objects that we’re never quite prepared for. They’re also the precise opposite of Spielberg’s films, which ooze cozy familiarity before we’ve figured out what they are or what they’re doing to us. If A.I. Artificial Intelligence — a film whose split personality is apparent even in its two-part title — is as much a Kubrick movie as a Spielberg one, this is in large part because it defamiliarizes Spielberg, makes him strange. Yet it also defamiliarizes Kubrick, with equally ambiguous results — making his unfamiliarity familiar. Both filmmakers should be credited for the results — Kubrick for proposing that Spielberg direct the project and Spielberg for doing his utmost to respect Kubrick’s intentions while making it a profoundly personal work.… Read more »


John Cassavetes’s galvanic 1968 drama about one long night in the lives of an estranged well-to-do married couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) and their temporary lovers (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel) was the first of his independent features to become a hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It remains one of the only American films to take the middle class seriously, depicting the compulsive, embarrassed laughter of people facing their own sexual longing and some of the emotional devastation brought about by the so-called sexual revolution. (Interestingly, Cassavetes set out to make a trenchant critique of the middle class, but his characteristic empathy for all of his characters makes this a far cry from simple satire.) Shot in 16-millimeter black and white with a good many close-ups, this often takes an unsparing yet compassionate “documentary” look at emotions most movies prefer to gloss over or cover up. Adroitly written and directed, and superbly acted–the leads and Val Avery are all uncommonly good (the astonishing Lynn Carlin was a nonprofessional discovered by Cassavetes, working at the time as Robert Altman’s secretary)–this is one of the most powerful and influential American films of the 60s. 129 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown.… Read more »

The Score

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

Talent means nothing if you don’t make the right choices, says a middle-aged heist artist and Montreal jazz club owner (Robert De Niro) to his prickly young assistant (Ed Norton). These words of wisdom might have been heeded by the filmmakers — four credited writers, director Frank Oz, and undoubtedly countless others, including four producers — who have needlessly inflated a modest thriller into a top-heavy monolith of wasted secondary actors (Angela Bassett, Gary Farmer, and even to some extent Marlon Brando, who manages to give something approaching a real performance this time rather than a specialty cameo) and fussy details. John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Jules Dassin (Rififi), and Stanley Kubrick (The Killing), working on two separate continents in the 50s, with many more characters and shorter running times, did much better jobs with heist thrillers, perhaps because they were creating movies rather than packages. This one’s slightly better than average these days, which means slightly diverting. Howard Shore, who’s done fine work in the past for David Cronenberg, did the derivative pseudojazz score, and there are brief musical cameos by Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison.… Read more »

Lost And Delirious

The first English-language feature of Quebecois filmmaker Lea Pool (Set Me Free), this is nicely written as well as filmed, at least if one can tolerate an excessive and rhetorical use of slow motion. It focuses on a girl at a boarding school (Piper Perabo) whose roommate and lover (Jessica Pare) aggressively turns to boys, and on the viewpoint of a third roommate (Mischa Barton) who’s caught between the turmoil of both girls. It’s one sign of the film’s sensitivity that two of the adult characters, played by the inimitable Jackie Burroughs (a teacher) and Graham Greene (a gardener), are every bit as intense as the students. Written by Judith Thompson, who adapted Susan Swan’s novel The Wives of Bath. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Best Years of Our Lives

This 1946 domestic epic about three World War II veterans returning to civilian life, 172 minutes long and winner of nine Oscars, isn’t considered hip nowadays. Its director, William Wyler, and literary source, MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Glory for Me (adapted here by Robert Sherwood), are far from fashionable, and the real veteran in the cast, Harold Russell, who lost his hands in the war, has occasioned outraged reflections from critic Robert Warshow about challenged masculinity and even sick jokes from humorist Terry Southern. But I’d call this the best American movie about returning soldiers I’ve ever seen — the most moving and the most deeply felt. It bears witness to its times and contemporaries like few other Hollywood features, and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography is one of the best things he ever did. The rest of the cast — including Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Fredric March, Cathy O’Donnell, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, and Ray Collins — is strong too. (JR)… Read more »


This week Facets Multimedia Center kicks off a monthlong retrospective of work by the talented Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai (who will attend selected screenings Friday through Sunday). Pineapple (1983, 78 min.), a fascinating social history of the growing and processing of pineapple, extends back to 1898, when Sanford Dole became the first governor of Hawaii, and leaps geographically between the Dole headquarters in San Francisco, plantations in the Philippines, processing plants in Hawaii, and a wholly automated label-printing plant in Tokyo, contrasting the very different perceptions of management and workers. As in the subsequent Bangkok Bahrain, Gitai experiments with the sound track; here he concentrates on mixing discourses (particularly using a whispered chant and other kinds of music behind the various interviews), which reach a climactic cacophony in the final sequence. It’s an interesting and suggestive technique, though there are times when it becomes more distracting than illuminating. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Tuesday, July 10, 7:00 and 9:00, 773-281-4114.

–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

From the Chicago Reader (July 6, 2001). — J.R.

A collaboration between the living Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick seems entirely appropriate to a project that reflects profoundly on the differences between life and nonlife, not to mention the human and the nonhuman. It’s easy to say that Kubrick thought about questions that Spielberg only knows how to approach emotionally, but that surely oversimplifies the range of both filmmakers. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say that Kubrick started this picture and came up with the idea that Spielberg should direct it, and after inheriting a 90-page treatment Kubrick had prepared with Ian Watson and 600 drawings he’d done with Chris Baker, Spielberg finished it in so much his own manner that it may be his most personal film, as well as his most thoughtful. It nonetheless delivers more of a posthumous statement from Kubrick than I would have believed possible, a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Eyes Wide Shut (with an equally offbeat view of New York) as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. A film that might make you cry, it’s just as likely to give you the creeps afterward, which is as it should be.… Read more »

Mulholland Drive

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2001). — J.R.



I’m still trying to decide if this 146-minute piece of hocus-pocus (2001) is David Lynch’s best feature between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. In any case, it’s immensely more likable than his other stabs at neonoir (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway), perhaps because it likes its characters and avoids sentimentalizing or sneering at them (the sort of thing that limited Twin Peaks, at least in spots). Originally conceived and rejected as a TV pilot, then expanded after some French producers stepped in, it has the benefit of Lynch’s own observations about Hollywood, which were fresher at this point than his puritanical notations on small towns in the American heartland. The best-known actors (Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Dan Hedaya) wound up relatively marginalized, while the lesser-known talents (in particular the remarkable Naomi Watts and the glamorous Laura Elena Harring) were invited to take over the movie (and have a field day doing so). The plot slides along agreeably as a tantalizing mystery before becoming almost completely inexplicable, though no less thrilling, in the closing stretches — but that’s what Lynch is famous for. (JR)


mulholland18Read more »

American Mythologies And Field Diary

Facets Multimedia Center is screening these two documentaries by Israeli-born filmmaker Amos Gitai on successive days, and though I don’t like American Mythologies (1981, 104 min.) nearly as much as Field Diary (1982, 82 min.), when viewed as a pair they show that one can often maintain a sharper focus from the center than from the sidelines. American Mythologies, made around the time of the Iranian hostage crisis and Reagan’s rise to power, is accurately described by Gitai as a montage of visual and aural fragments which represent America for me: a very brutal society with a few people on its periphery trying to behave like human beings. The alienation implicit in that remark points to the film’s limited viewpoint, despite fascinating interviews with Jane Fonda (who poignantly swears that her political radicalization is irreversible), the head of programming for NBC, a fashion designer, a Native American woman, and various hippies. The powerful Field Diary, on the other handwhose negative reception in Israel ultimately played a role in Gitai moving to Franceis coherent both formally and thematically, in part because Gitai is intimately acquainted with his subjects: the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the invasion of Lebanon, and the ways violence against the Palestinians is ‘legitimised.’ The film consists of about 50 extended takes, often with the camera moving relentlessly across a given terrain, and as French critic Yann Lardeau has remarked, it illustrates with a vengeance Godard’s maxim that a tracking shot is a moral matter (the Israeli soldiers’ reluctance to be filmed and Gitai’s dogged observation of them become an important part of the theme).… Read more »

Everybody’s Famous

This likable crowd pleaser (2000)nominated for an Oscar, and predictably trimmed by Miramax for North American consumptionis a good-natured Flemish comedy about a middle-aged factory worker (Josse De Pauw) who’s so eager to make his untalented teenage daughter (Eva Van Der Gucht) a famous recording artist that he kidnaps a pop star (Thekla Reuten) in a harebrained scheme to make the world take notice. This is the first feature I’ve seen by writer-director Dominique Deruddere, and I hope it won’t be the last. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

My Life In Pink

Ma vie en rose, the debut feature by Belgian filmmaker Alain Berliner, was one of the most popular films shown at the 1997 Cannes film festival, a delightful comedy about a six-year-old boy who decides he wants to be a girl and the various kinds of consternation this produces in his family and community. Significantly, Berliner cites both Tim Burton and Ken Loach as influences; the Burton input is most apparent in the boy’s favorite TV show, a tacky, surreal fantasy with a Barbie-doll heroine that occasionally suggests Pee-wee’s Playhouse, as well as the Burton spin-off feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Rich in understanding and insight, this is some of the best Belgian filmmaking I’ve seen outside of Chantal Akerman’s, and it’s a good deal more accessible. 88 min. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »