Monthly Archives: August 2001

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars

 

ghosts-of-mars

John Carpenter at his most enjoyable generally means ‘Scope, working-class sass, kick-ass anti-establishment heroes, typecast villains who individually suggest quiet serial killers and collectively resemble hordes of whooping savages, a minimalist music score by Carpenter himself, and an overall affection for the way action movies looked and sounded 50 years ago. This movie — an action romp in which cops and prisoners go up against vengeful Martian spirits on a colonized Mars in the year 2176 — adds a few more likable ingredients: a flashback structure with several overlapping points of view, great use of Ice Cube and Pam Grier, lap dissolves, and a notion of shifting alliances that keeps things hopping. (Natasha Henstridge as the head cop is pretty lively too.) As in many other Carpenter movies both good and bad, a lot of the cramped settings can be traced back to the original version of The Thing. With Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy; Larry Sulkis collaborated with Carpenter on the script. 98 min. Burnham Plaza, Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Ford City, Gardens 7-13, Lawndale, Lincoln Village 1-6, Norridge, North Riverside, 600 N. Michigan, 62nd & Western.… Read more »

Charming Curse [THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION]

From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 2001). Today (September 2, 2014), having recently reseen this movie, I’d probably give it a higher rating. — J.R.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Markinson, Elizabeth Berkley, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, and David Ogden Stiers.

I don’t want to oversell Woody Allen’s 31st feature, which I happen to like. The script is full of holes, most of the one-liners are weak and mechanical, and the plot — a nightclub magician gets two of his hypnotized subjects to steal jewels for him — is so deliberately stupid and contrived that one can probably enjoy it only by pretending it’s a routine, low-budget second feature on an old-fashioned double bill, which is obviously what Allen intended. Yet it’s possible for a picture to be not very good and still be likable — something that doesn’t happen very often for me with Allen’s pictures. (It happened, momentarily, in Everyone Says I Love You — when Allen exposed his vulnerability by singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love.”)

The problem with most escapism nowadays is that even if it makes you forget who and where you are, it doesn’t really detach you from norms of the world you’re living in.… Read more »

Jeepers Creepers

Jeepers-Creepers

A monster (Jonathan Breck) who likes to eat body parts terrorizes the American heartland — in particular a brother and sister (Justin Long and Gina Philips) on their way home for spring break. The story (what there is of it) doesn’t make much sense, but this is a very scary horror thriller that should keep you either on the edge of your seat or halfway under it. Written and directed by Victor Salva; Francis Ford Coppola is one of the five executive producers. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Under The Sun

An unintentional parody of a particular kind of European art moviethe kind that often garners Oscar nominations, as this 1998 film did. An illiterate, overweight, virginal Swedish farmer in his early 40s (Rolf Lassgard) advertises for a young housekeeper who might also keep him company. Lo and behold, a beautiful, mysterious, compliant woman from the city (Helena Bergstrom) turns up. Her presence threatens the farmer’s much younger friend (Johan Widerberg), an insensitive lout who’s been swindling him blind. To be fair, all three lead actors are adroit; but the story, adapted from a short story by H.E. Bates, is both contrived and not very well told. Director-producer-cowriter Colin Nutleywho, incidentally, is married to Bergstromseems to cut away to extraneous details whenever he doesn’t know what to do next, which is often. There’s also a very hard-sell Irish music score by Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains, sex in the rain, and loads of decorative nature photography. 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

An American Rhapsody

Writer-director Eva Gardos, best known as a film editor, takes on a fascinating autobiographical subjectthe Americanization of a little girl (Kelly Endresz Baniaki) who arrives in the U.S. in the 50s from communist Hungary and grows up during the 60sand treats it competently, though without much freshness or imagination. The movie becomes more interesting when the heroine insists on visiting Budapest as a teenager, and Ghost World’s Scarlett Johansson manages to make her character something more than the usual rebellious movie adolescent. With Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2001). — J.R.

John Carpenter at his most enjoyable generally means ‘Scope, working-class sass, kick-ass antiestablishment heroes, typecast villains who individually suggest quiet serial killers and collectively resemble hordes of whooping savages, a minimalist music score by Carpenter himself, and an overall affection for the way action movies looked and sounded 50 years ago. This movie — an action romp in which cops and prisoners go up against vengeful martian spirits on a colonized Mars in the year 2176 — adds a few more likable ingredients: a flashback structure with several overlapping points of view, great use of Ice Cube and Pam Grier, lap dissolves, and a notion of shifting alliances that keeps things hopping. (Natasha Henstridge as the head cop is pretty lively too.) As in many other Carpenter movies both good and bad, a lot of the cramped settings can be traced back to the original version of The Thing. With Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy; Larry Sulkis collaborated with Carpenter on the script. 98 min. (JR)

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Brief Encounters

Made in 1967 but released only in 1986, Kira Muratova’s acclaimed Soviet feature is about two womena party official (Muratova herself) and the maid she hires (Nina Ruslanova)who have both loved the same man, a geologist (popular Russian folksinger Vladimir Visotsky). As a huge fan of Muratova’s postglasnost The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Three Stories (1997), each an angry, despairing, and extremely stylized work in color, I wasn’t quite prepared for this quiet, touching, and basically realistic black-and-white drama, interesting at least in part for what it conveys about everyday Russian life in the 60s. I haven’t yet determined whether that’s what led to the film’s being banned for almost 20 years. In Russian with subtitles. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Three films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The prolific Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been at work for nearly two decades, sometimes making straight-to-video features but more recently receiving some belated international recognition. This month the Film Center will show 35-millimeter prints of a half dozen of his recent thrillers, made between 1996 and 2000, and I can recommend all three that I’ve seen–though not without certain caveats. All three are fairly grisly, though Kurosawa’s frequent long shots impart a cool, detached tone to the cruelty and violence. And his plots can be difficult to understand, though his visual style is so riveting you might not mind. Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path, rhyming companion pieces made in 1997, both star Shoh Aikawa and involve yakuza intrigues and a father tracking down the men who kidnapped and killed his little girl; I often couldn’t figure out who was doing what to whom, but I didn’t much care, because the visual sweep of the former and the claustrophobia of the latter were both compelling. The engrossing Cure (1998), which is getting an extended run, stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, The Eel) as a troubled detective exploring a series of murders committed through hypnotic suggestion (as in The Manchurian Candidate), and while its creepy mystery plot is easy enough to follow even when it turns metaphysical, it’s unsatisfying as a story precisely because it aspires to create a mounting sense of dread by enlarging questions rather than answering them.… Read more »

Hamlet

From the Chicago Reader (August 17, 2001). — J.R.

Hamlet

Critic Robin Wood recently cited this stunning 1964 Russian version of Shakespeare’s tragedy as the only one that “could be claimed as having the stature, as film, that the play has as theatre,” and it’s easy to see what he means. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope, in dank interiors and seaside exteriors every bit as atmospheric as those in Orson Welles’s Othello, this runs 140 minutes but feels more stripped-down for brisk action than such vanity productions as Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s, and consequently may be more compelling as narrative. Director Grigori Kozintsev (The New Babylon, The Youth of Maxim) adapted a translation by Boris Pasternak, and Dmitri Shostakovich contributed the score. Playing the title role, Innokenti Smoktunovsky isn’t as likable as some other Hamlets, but his struggles seem more evenly matched with those of the other characters. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Thursday, August 23, 6:30, 773-281-4114.

HamletRead more »

Women of Substance

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

Ghost World - Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch

The Deep End

Under the Sand

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Francois Ozon

Written by Ozon, Emmanuele Bernheim, Marina de Van, and Marcia Romano

With Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot, and Alexandra Stewart.

Ghost World

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Written by Daniel Clowes and Zwigoff

With Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, and Stacey Travis.

The Deep End

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

With Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat, Josh Lucas, and Raymond Barry.

 

It’s often said that strong roles for women are rare nowadays, but three new movies – Under the Sand, Ghost World, and The Deep End — have the virtue of handing a juicy, sympathetic part to a talented actress and letting her run with it. All three are directed by men, which raises the question of whether women will find these portraits as potent and sensitive as I do. Yet even if they qualify to some degree as male fantasies, I’d argue that they’re more in touch with our everyday reality and our history than a male fantasy like Apocalypse Now Redux.… Read more »

Faat-Kine

Ousman Sembene, the greatest of all African filmmakers (and one of the finest fiction writers on the continent as well), directed this upbeat 2000 comedy from Senegal, about a sassy, self-made woman who manages a filling station. Faat-Kine supports two illegitimate children by different fathers, along with her mother, and she’s not about to take shit from anyone. This is Sembene’s first film in eight years, and while it’s no less serious or political than his other late films (Camp Thiroye, Guelwaan), it’s a good deal funnier, more easygoing, and more affirmative. 118 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, Saturday, August 11, 8:00, and Sunday, August 12, 3:30.… Read more »

Apocalypse Now Redux

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

There’s certainly a lot more footage — 53 minutes, to be precise — which makes this better in certain ways than the original Apocalypse Now, though the flaws are also magnified. (Kurtz’s Cambodian savages slaughtering a caribou — actually, it’s a Filipino ceremony — and kneeling before Willard and then laying down their weapons en masse seems even more insulting and ludicrous than it did in 1979; and the pan to The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance remains the most pretentious shot in the history of cinema, far worse than anything ever perpetrated by Antonioni.) 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, a theme-park ride enhanced by what may still be Walter Murch’s best sound editing (including some great use of the Doors) and Michael Herr’s second-best writing after Dispatches for Martin Sheen’s voice-over (all of it written long after the movie was shot). Looking for a responsible or even coherent account of that war here would be barking up the wrong tree, and 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.… Read more »

Listening Party [on eight jazz films]

From the August 3, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

This month the Film Center is inaugurating a monthly “Music Movies” series, five programs that will play on Sundays and Thursdays. The focus in August is jazz films, and the programs include four classics I first saw years ago and four others I’ve just seen for the first time. The worst film in the bunch (Cannonball) happens to be the newest one, and the two most interesting (Cry of Jazz and Black and Tan) are the oldest, though I don’t see any particular trend in this.

It’s difficult to speak of any consistent evolution or devolution in jazz films, because each one is the product of a particular taste and sensibility. One rule I use when evaluating these films is how much we’re allowed to follow the music. Another rule, less obvious and more purist, is how important the on-screen listeners are — which matters a good deal, because jazz at its most exciting is a collective experience involving the audience as well as the interacting musicians. If the people on-screen aren’t seen listening when music is being played, we’re discouraged from listening intently.

This helps explain why I was driven batty by the new 23-minute video about Cannonball Adderley, a musician who has given me a lot of pleasure.… Read more »

Ghost World

If, like me, you’ve been wondering how Terry Zwigoff, the brilliant documentary filmmaker who made Crumb, would negotiate his shift to fiction filmmaking, here’s your answer: brilliantly. Ghost World, a very personal adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book that Zwigoff wrote with Clowes, either captures with uncanny precision what it’s like to be a teenage girl in this country at this moment or fooled me utterly into thinking it does. Thora Birch (American Beauty) plays Enid, a comic book artist (her notebook was actually drawn by Sophie Crumb, Robert’s daughter) who plans to share an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Enid 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, with Illeana Douglas, as the teacher, rivaling Elaine May as a satirist. 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. It’s been years since I’ve seen a movie about teenagers as good as this.… Read more »

Space Is The Place And Cry Of Jazz

Two short films featuring Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz artist whose big band the Arkestra got its start in Chicago. In John Coney’s video Space Is the Place (1974, 63 min.), Sun Ra turns up in Oakland after years in outer space, rapping with ghetto youths and playing cards with the devil. Its lighthearted surrealist high jinks, dressed up with SF trappings and black-power rhetoric, make for pleasant enough viewing, but the music seems strictly incidental. In contrast, the music in Edward O. Bland’s eccentric Chicago-made short Cry of Jazz (1959, 31 min.) is absolutely essential. The paradox here is that Bland’s film centers on jazz and needs various kinds of performance to illustrate its points, yet what’s being played is only adequate; if the music were good enough to distract one from the talk, the film wouldn’t work as well. Lucid and provocative, this is recommended viewing for any jazz novice, one of the best social readings of jazz form I know. (JR)… Read more »