Monthly Archives: September 2001

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Frank Capra’s very atypical drama about an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) is not only his masterpiece, but also one of the great love stories to come out of Hollywood in the 30s — subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933; it was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it beats the rest of his oeuvre by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary. With Walter Connolly and Lucien Littlefield. 89 min. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, September 29 and 30.


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Heist

Another bit of casual whoring from David Mametwhich in this case means another thriller about thieves. More entertaining than The Spanish Prisoner, in part because the mannerist Mamet dialogue is more distinctive, it also turns out to be more conventional and predictable. Gene Hackman stars as a master thief blackmailed by his fence (Danny DeVito) into pulling off one last heist before he can retire with his wife and accomplice (Rebecca Pidgeon); with Sam Rockwell, Delroy Lindo, and Ricky Jay. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Vertical Ray of the Sun

More plot heavy than The Scent of Green Papaya or Cyclo, this third feature by Tran Anh Hung concerns four siblings living in close proximity to each other in contemporary Vietnam. One sister is married to a novelist, another is married to a photographer, and the third and youngest (Tran Nu Yen-khe, the director’s wife and a prominent player in his films) shares an apartment with her younger brother. Their story is fairly conventional and not especially well told, though as usual Tran’s images are so sensual and beautiful that I was rarely bored or frustrated. 112 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 21 through 27. … Read more »

Don’t Say A Word

Will supershrink Michael Douglas save his kidnapped daughter by extracting a six-digit number from a violent 18-year-old schizophrenic (Brittany Murphy) so a ruthless bank robber (Sean Bean) can retrieve a priceless jewel he’s spent ten years looking for? I’m supposed to care, but this all-day sucker put me to sleepthough it’s possible I retreated out of self-defense. Forget awarding stars to this drivel; I wouldn’t mind giving it four or five lacerations, which is the minimum it gleefully dishes out to practically all its characters, good as well as evil, young as well as oldwith a few extra dollops of divine retribution saved for the end to satisfy the most puerile revenge fantasies. Gary Fleder directed, Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly adapted a book by Andrew Klavan, and Famke Janssen (who enters the movie with a broken leg, putting her a few steps ahead of the others), Jennifer Esposito, and several other actors get their share of the lickings. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Eye Candy [THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN]

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2001). — J.R.

theverticalrayofthesunpic

The Vertical Ray of the Sun ***

Directed and written by Tran Anh Hung

With Tran Nu Yen-khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Le Khanh, Ngo Quang Hai, Tran Manh Cuong, and Chu Ngoc Hung.

Last spring I was in Austin, Texas, on a film-festival panel about film festivals with the editor of a film magazine who’s also the author of a book on film festivals. “I don’t like foreign films or academic films,” he told me, a declaration that stumped me at first because it raised two vexing questions: (1) Why link “foreign films” and “academic films” as if the two had something intrinsic in common? (2) Had he seen at least one film from every foreign country in the world that produced movies and made his judgment on that basis?

After pondering other things he said, I came up with what I believe were the correct answers to both questions. (1) Foreign films and academic films were linked for him because both obliged him to think. (2) Of course not; what he meant by “foreign” was simply “not American.” Put these premises together and it’s clear he was saying he didn’t like movies that made him think, which is what non-American movies did — apparently even Bavarian porn, Italian splatter fests, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.… Read more »

Memories of Jill Forbes

Written for a posthumous tribute to Jill Forbes in the fall of 2001. — J.R.

Reading the apt words of David Edgar and Keith Reader about Jill, I can agree with a paradoxical fact about her that they both touch on in different ways: that she was painfully shy as well as totally fearless. For a long time, I used to think that this singular combination of traits was quintessentially English, but now I’m not so sure; maybe it’s just that Jill embodied and lived this contradiction in a very English way, sometimes even making it seem like it wasn’t a contradiction at all.

Thanks to having saved my appointment books, I can pinpoint precisely when I met her: standing in line to see Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse in Paris, at Studio Action Lafayette, on February 23rd, 1973. When we met again only four days later, it was to see another silent film, Monta Bell’s The Torrent, at the Cinémathèque. We saw lots of films together that spring, including Superfly, Shanghai Gesture, An Affair To Remember (which made me cry and which she and her brother Duncan both thought was a hoot), A Day at the Races, Forbidden Planet, and Suspicion.… Read more »

Swinging Both Ways [HIT AND RUNWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 2001). — J.R.

Hit and Runway

**

Directed by Christopher Livingston

Written by Jaffe Cohen and Livingston

With Michael Parducci, Peter Jacobson, Judy Prescott, Kerr Smith, Hoyt Richards, John Fiore, and J.K. Simmons.

Hit and Runway – a comedy about a straight aspiring screenwriter in Greenwich Village taking on a gay playwright as a writing partner — comes from the writing team of Jaffe Cohen, who’s gay, and Christopher Livingston, who’s straight (he also directed). I knew nothing about this semiautobiographical movie until I saw it and nothing about the filmmakers until I looked at the press book, and I was fascinated to learn how semi the autobiographical aspects were.

That this movie exists at all deserves some consideration. It won a couple of festival prizes for best screenplay in 1999 and was copyrighted in 2000. I assume one reason it’s taken so long to get released — apart from being an independent feature without the clout of a major studio behind it — is the way it defies the assumptions of most publicists by refusing to address itself to either a straight or a gay audience to the exclusion of the other. It might not seem subversive for gay and straight viewers to watch the same comedy at the same time or even to laugh at the same jokes, but apparently this possibility conflicts with the way the big studios think about us as customers.… Read more »

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine

One of the more interesting personalities of the Iranian cinema, Bahman Farmanara produced a controversial early feature by Abbas Kiarostami (Report) and won praise for his own work, including the 1974 feature Prince Ehtejab. But he hit a government roadblock in the mid-70s, when all his proposals for films started getting rejected, and for much of the past quarter century he’s lived in the West (in Vancouver, among other places). In this welcome comeback (2000) he plays a middle-aged filmmaker rather like himself who ruefully accepts a commission to make a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian death rituals. His wife has been dead five years (though Farmanara’s wife, to whom the film is dedicated, is alive and well), and after discovering that the cemetery where he expects to be buried has planted someone else next to her, he embarks on the strange experience of witnessing his own funeral, one of many fantasy sequences. This oddball comedy, a selection at last year’s New York film festival, is full of wry asides and unexpected details that tell us more about contemporary Iran than we’d normally expect to find in a recent feature. I’m not sure how successfully all the pieces fit together–ultimately this is more a film of ideas than of memorable sounds and images–but it’s still a fascinating and entertaining piece of work.… Read more »

Falling Down, Walking, Destroying, Thinking: A Conversation with Béla Tarr

The following exchange appeared in Cinema Scope no. 8, September 2001. — J.R.

In the past, when I’ve interviewed filmmakers it’s been at my own initiative — or at least at the initiative of an editor making an assignment. This time, at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in April 2001, where I was serving on the jury and introducing Béla Tarr at some of his screenings, someone handed me a tape recorder, and Mark Peranson agreed to transcribe the interview afterwards if I would speak to Béla, who’s been a friend ever since Sátántangó. I hope that the casual grammar on both sides of this conversation doesn’t obscure too much of the meaning. (J.R.)

BELA TARR: [...] In Sátántangó, we had a set. The doctor’s flat, it was built.

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: You know, that’s my favorite scene in the film.

TARR: Yes, but it was built! It is artificial, but you don’t feel it in the movie…

ROSENBAUM: Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it’s in such a small space.

TARR: No, it wasn’t small.

ROSENBAUM: But it feels small in the film.

TARR: Yeah, sure.

ROSENBAUM: Was the actor playing the doctor a professional actor or a nonprofessional?… Read more »

The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion

As a rule, my favorite Woody Allen films are those select few that (a) warmly acknowledge Allen’s working-class roots, (b) steer clear of European influences, and (c) seek mainly to entertain. Manhattan Murder Mystery did the latter two wonderfully, and Broadway Danny Rose did all three, as does this charming throwaway, set in 1940. One thing I especially like about it, apart from the flavorsome 40s decor in color, is that it’s silly in much the same way that many small 40s comedies were. Allen is an insurance investigator and Helen Hunt an efficiency expert working for the same company; they hate each other with a passion — until they’re hypnotized during a nightclub act into not only loving each other madly but also stealing jewels whenever posthypnotic suggestions are delivered. Others in the cast include Dan Aykroyd, Elizabeth Berkley, Brian Markinson, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, and Charlize Theron. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films By Thierry De Mey And Daniele Wilmouth

Thierry De Mey’s dance film Rosas danst Rosas (1997, 57 min.), receiving its Chicago premiere, was shot in a Belgian building designed by Henry van de Velde. Curtain of Eyes, a striking black-and-white dance film (1997) composed for the camera by Daniele Wilmouth, is the product of a six-month collaboration with four Japanese dancers from Kyoto’s Saltimbanques butoh troupe. The dancers move in an abstract space, mainly in close-ups and medium shots, and Wilmouth’s textured imagery is every bit as detailed as the dancing. (JR)… Read more »

Haiku Tunnel

Josh Kornbluth codirected this comedy with his brother Jacob, cowrote it with the same brother and John Bellucci, and stars as an office temp who becomes an inept secretary when he winds up with a steadier job working for a demonic tax attorney. Some of the gags here are funny, but they aren’t executed effectively enough to score. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hit And Runway

The directorial debut of writer, composer, and musician Christopher Livingston is a loosely autobiographical comedy about his relationship with his own screen-writing partner, on this film as well as othersgay stand-up comic and comedy writer Jaffe Cohen. Livingston is straight, but the comic bonding between his and Jaffe’s fictional counterparts, played respectively by Michael Parducci and Peter Jacobson, isn’t just about the mismatch of their sexual preferences; it’s also about the overall tension between their very different personalities. Not everything works here, but there are some pretty funny momentsincluding Hoyt Richards’s impersonation of Clint Eastwood, and Kerr Smith’s embodiment of a young actor with a passion for Jewish menand the overall tone is likable. With Judy Prescott. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Vertical Ray Of The Sun

More plot heavy than The Scent of Green Papaya or Cyclo, this third feature by Tran Anh Hung concerns four siblings living in close proximity to each other in contemporary Vietnam. One sister is married to a novelist, another is married to a photographer, and the third and youngest (Tran Nu Yen-khe, the director’s wife and a prominent player in his films) shares an apartment with her younger brother. Their story is fairly conventional and not especially well told, though as usual Tran’s images are so sensual and beautiful that I was rarely bored or frustrated. In Vietnamese with subtitles. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blackboard Jungle

One of the great transgressive moments in 50s Hollywood was Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock playing over the opening credits of this black-and-white melodrama (1955, 101 min.) about unruly boys in a slum high school. This was released a year before the movie Rock Around the Clock, and the fact that the earlier film was an MGM release only added to the punch. A crew-cut Glenn Ford, the squarest of teachers, tries to tame Vic Morrow and Paul Mazursky, among other hoods, and win over Sidney Poitier (in one of his best early roles). As Dave Kehr suggested in his original Reader capsule, the kids are better actors than the adults (who also include Anne Francis, Louis Calhern, and Richard Kiley). Writer-director Richard Brooks had a flair for sensationalism, and his adaptation of Evan Hunter’s novel is loads of fun as a consequence, but don’t expect much analysis or insight. (JR)… Read more »