Daily Archives: August 1, 2001

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 »

Eyes Of The Spider And Serpent’s Path

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. Eyes of the Spider (83 min.) and Serpent’s Path (85 min.), 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. Stylistically these are among the most inventive Japanese features I’ve seen in some time, much more unpredictable than Takeshi Kitano’s recent yakuza exercises. (JR)… Read more »

Serpent’s Path

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 seenthough 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 »

Cure

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. The engrossing Cure (1998, 111 min.) 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. Like other recent thrillers by this director, it’s fairly grisly, though Kurosawa’s frequent long shots impart a cool, detached tone to the cruelty and violence. Stylistically it’s the most inventive Japanese feature I’ve seen in some time, much more unpredictable than Takeshi Kitano’s recent yakuza exercises. (JR)… Read more »

The Letter Never Sent

Two years after his internationally famous The Cranes Are Flying and five years before his internationally scorned I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov directed this strange 1959 adventure story about four geologists (three men and one woman) hunting for diamonds in Siberia. The title letter is being written by the narrator to his wife in Moscow, and while the explorers eventually find their treasure, they have to endure forest fires and snowstorms as they struggle back toward civilization. Though shot on location and reportedly based on a true story, the film is distanced considerably from realism, at least in any conventional sense, by its exciting and volatile camera style and its metaphysical atmosphere (sparked in particular by one line of dialogue, Nature is taking revenge); they’re less delirious than in I Am Cuba but sufficiently ravishing to have brought charges of formalism against the filmmakers. Pictorially, the double exposures and silhouette effects recall some of the glories of silent cinema. in Russian with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Back Against The Wall

This opening-night program of the eighth annual Chicago Underground Film Festival gave me my first taste of the work of James Fotopoulos, an energetic experimental filmmaker in his mid-20s whose morbid preoccupations with sex and horror have already been getting him some attention from serious critics. His third feature is a black-and-white narrative shot in about a week for $26,000, and the simple synopsis provided for itA group of people struggle to obtain power through sex and violencedoesn’t hint at the long takes from fixed camera positions, surveying a variety of grim midwestern locations, or the layered and sinister industrial sound design. The centrifugal and somewhat confusing narrative has something to do with a few women who work in lingerie modeling, showing off their outfits to older men (the conspicuous absence of sex and nudity is balanced to some degree by the stripping and masturbating of the model in Fotopoulos’s accompanying 2000 short, Drowning). Many writers have linked the filmmaker to Lynch and Cronenberg, but a heavily made-up grotesque who becomes prominent toward the end reminded me more of Tobe Hooper. The most interesting thing for me is the film’s abrupt ending, which proves how difficult it is to anticipate what Fotopoulos is up to.… Read more »

Under The Sand

A middle-aged Parisian who teaches English literature (Charlotte Rampling) loses her husband (Bruno Cremer) when, vacationing with her in the country, he goes off for a swim and never comes back. This impressive feature by Francois Ozon (Water Drops on Burning Rocks) is less concerned with solving the mystery than with charting the wife’s gradual adjustment to the loss, something it handles with both confidence and a remarkable feeling for psychological nuance. Rampling is extraordinary, and the screenplay (by Ozon, Emmanuelle Bernheim, Marcia Romano, and Marina de Van) gives her plenty to work with. Others in the cast include Jacques Nolot and Alexandra Stewart. In French with subtitles. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Deep End

The first feature of academically minded American indies Scott McGehee and David Siegel was an odd black-and-white ‘Scope thriller predicated on film theory (Suture, 1993). This one is a remake of Max Ophuls’s potent 1949 melodrama The Reckless Momentupdated in some of its gender politics and its fancy water imagery, and watchable enough on its own terms, but not a patch on the original. A housewife, mother, and all-around workhorse in Lake Tahoe (Tilda Swinton) finds she has to cope with a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic) after her gay son appears to have committed a murder that she decides to cover up. This starts off like a Claude Chabrol fable about the criminal impulses needed to preserve a bourgeois home and winds up a would-be love story; it holds one’s interest, but all of it’s been conceived at one remove. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Original Sin

A remake of Francois Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaidderived, like its predecessor, from Cornell Woolrich’s most perverse (and in some ways most interesting) novel, Waltz Into Darkness. Antonio Banderas plays a Cuban businessman who marries a mail-order bride (Angelina Jolie), then uncovers foul play even as he experiences infatuation at its most irrational and masochistic. This version is more sensual and atmospheric than Truffaut’s, and in many ways it’s a better film than its studio seems to think (judging from its nervousness about any reviews appearing before the film opened). It certainly retained my interest and sympathyat least until the nonsensical ending, which looks as if it might have been imposed according to the voodoo science of test marketing. Written and directed by Michael Cristofer. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Look Back In Anger

Tony Richardson directed this competent 1959 adaptation of John Osborne’s archetypal (and, alas, archetypally misogynist) Angry Young Man play. Richard Burton (a bit too old for his role) is the antiestablishment Jimmy Porter, Mary Ure is his dumped-on wife, and Claire Bloom is her best friend (and his lover). Probably still watchable today, if only for the brittle dialogue and kitchen-sink realism, but undoubtedly dated as well. Nigel Kneale wrote the script; with Edith Evans and Donald Pleasence. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Happy Together

A star vehicle, not only because its leads were two of the hottest stars in Hong Kong cinema (Tony Leung and the late Leslie Cheung) and a Taiwanese pop star (Chang Chen, who played the 14-year-old hero of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day), but also because writer-director Wong Kar-wai is something of a star himself. In fact his aggressive mannerist stylethe use of different characters as narrators, the variable speed of Chris Doyle’s frenetic cinematography, the shifts between color and black and whiteforms the core of this 1997 story of doomed love between two men in Buenos Aires, one of whom befriends a straight Taiwanese youth in the same city. Structurally and dramatically this is all over the place, but stylistically it’s gripping, and thematically it suggests an oblique response to the end of Hong Kong’s colonial rule. Incidentally, a friend of mine from Buenos Aires tells me that this film captures that city better than any other. In Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish with subtitles. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

King Of The Children

Chen Kaige’s seldom screened third feature (1987), about the experiences of an uneducated young man who’s assigned to teach at a village school in Yunnan and gets fired after he throws out the Maoist textbook and gains his students’ confidence. It sounds well worth checking out. (JR)… Read more »

Jazz On A Summer’s Day

Bert Stern’s film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (1960; his only film) features Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Eric Dolphy, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, and many others. Shot in gorgeous color, it’s probably the best feature-length jazz concert movie ever made. Despite some distracting cutaways to boats in the opening sections, it eventually buckles down to an intense concentration on the music and the audience’s rapport with it as afternoon turns into evening. Jackson’s rendition of The Lord… Read more »