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 »

Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress

This essay was written between 1999 and 2001 for Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 collection I coedited with Adrian Martin and wrote (or, more often, cowrote) many pieces for. This particular piece was part of a section of the book entitled “Two Auteurs: Masumura and Hawks” that I collaborated on with the great Japanese film critic Shigehiko Hasumi, which also included two dialogues with him and a lengthy essay by him about Howard Hawks. — J.R.

To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research”. My first encounter with his work was almost thirty years ago in Paris, where his Love For an Idiot (Chijin no ai, 1967), an updated adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1924 novel Naomi, was playing under the title La chatte japonaise. (As I would discover much later, there are two other excellent Tanizaki adaptations in his oeuvre -– Manji [Swastika, 1964] and Tattoo [Irezumi, 1966].) Spurred by a twelve page spread in the October 1970 issue of Cahiers du cinéma –- perhaps the most extensive critical recognition he’s received to date in the West -– I found myself both shocked and intrigued by this depiction of the erotic delirium of a middle-aged factory worker over the much younger wife he trains, marries and loses.… 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 »

TEOREMA

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

Apart from his scandalous Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, 1975 -– another film with spiritually induced levitation -– this shocking 1968 feature, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film with a contemporary setting, may be his most controversial work, displaying the kind of audacity and excesses that send some audiences into gales of defensive, self-protective laughter. (For a contemporary near-equivalent, think of Bruno Dumont’s 1999 film L’Humanité.)

The “theorem” of the title is a mythological figure whose arrival is geralded by Pasolini’s favorite fetish-actor, Ninetto Davoli, bringing a telegram to the home of an industrialist (Massimo Girotti). An attractive young man in tight-fitting trousers (Terence Stamp) then pays an extended visit, proceeding with solicitous devotion to seduce every member of the household — father, mother (Silvana Mangano), teenage daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), somewhat older son (Andrès José Crux), and maid (Laura Betti) — to the recurring strains of Mozart’s Requiem Mass and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone.

Then the stranger leaves as mysteriously as he came, and everyone in the household undergoes cataclysmic and traumatic changes.… Read more »

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

Considering how romantic it is, how sad and funny and charming, it is a sobering fact that François Truffaut’s second feature –- and the first one that qualifies as a quintessential New Wave expression — was a disaster at the boxoffice. Indeed, if this eccentric adaptation of David Goddis’s 1956 crime novel Down There illustrated any general commercial principle, this may be that one subverts overall genre expectations at one’s peril. For Tirez sur le pianiste is a film noir that literally turns white (through such images as piano keys or a snowy hillside) when the plot is at its darkest, and one that sometimes interrupts the viewer’s laughter with a disquieting catch in the throat.

The opening sequence already sends out bewildering crossed signals. A man fleeing in  panic through dark city streets at night collides with a streetlight, then finds himself  talking quite calmly with a sympathetic stranger –- a character who exits the movie immediately thereafter -– about the latter’s love for his wife. Moreover, while the fluid and flexible black-and-white cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is in the anamorphic process Dyaliscope, the ambience is cramped and cozy in the best low-budget tradition.… 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 »

Life and Nothing More: Abbas Kiarostami’s African Musical

From Film Comment, September-October 2001. — J.R.

Though I haven’t yet seen a 35mm transfer of A.B.C. Africa, Abbas Kiarostami’s first digital video, I’ve had the benefit of viewing his 92-minute rough cut and his 84-minute final version. It’s obvious that this documentary is a departure for him in many ways, being his first feature made outside Iran and his first work that’s primarily in English. It’s also possibly his most accessible picture to date, confirming that Kiarostami has become as “multinational” or as transnational as he is Iranian — which may help to account for his worldwide reputation.

Shot with two cameras by Kiarostami and his assistant Seifollah Samadian, who also helped with the editing, A.B.C. Africa was made at the request of the UWESO (Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans) program, part of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. A letter of thanks from the IFAD’S Takao Shibata, dated March 23, 2000, arrives in Kiarostami’s fax machine in the opening shot, explaining how civil unrest and AIDS have left Uganda with about 1.6 million children who’ve lost one or both of their parents — and how a film by him might “sensitize people around the world [to] the devastating dimensions of this tragedy.”

As a fulfillment of this assignment, A.B.C.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 »