Monthly Archives: November 2001

Quo Vadis

Four different assertions of company ownership ran continuously over the preview tape of this $18 million blockbuster–reportedly the most expensive movie ever made in Poland–so after the first hour I kept reaching for the fast-forward button. Still, I could see that this Roman spectacular with 1,700 extras will look great on a full-size movie screen when the corporate dross isn’t blocking everything. The film premiered at the Vatican in late August for 6,000 spectators, including Pope John Paul II, even though it’s much racier and gorier than anything Cecil B. De Mille did in the 50s, with bare-breasted dancers, severed body parts when the Christians are thrown to the lions (occasioning some lively editing), and plenty more. The fifth or sixth adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel–the first was in 1902–it’s not the longest, despite a running time of 170 minutes. It stacks up pretty well alongside the MGM version directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1951, though Peter Ustinov’s Nero beats Michal Bajor’s. (Many reviewers who lamented Hollywood’s abandonment of the genre, including me, overrated Gladiator.) The director, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, is one of the most prestigious in Polish cinema, best known for such 60s features as Mother Joan of the Angels and Pharaoh.… Read more »

Porn Star: The Legend Of Ron Jeremy

Predictably melancholy, this is a documentary by Scott Gill about the most famous (as well as the most ordinary looking) of all porn starssomeone I frankly hadn’t heard of before seeing this picture, though he’s appeared in more than 1,600 skin flicks. Paradoxically, it’s most interesting for how little it tells us about what Jeremy is actually like. Maybe there’s a lesson here along the lines of, when you live by the sound bite you get bitten by the sound bite: the fragmented editing and interviewing creates a kind of mosaic that says everything and nothing at more or less the same intensity for all of the film’s 79 minutes. I found it watchable and entertaining, but also opaqueand frighteningly familiar. (JR)… Read more »

Tape

Richard Linklater’s edgy, gripping 2001 feature, adapted from a Stephen Belber play, unfolds in real time in a motel room. Two supposed old friends from college (Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard) meet up ten years later, and the woman both were involved with (Uma Thurman) eventually joins them. This resembles Linklater’s animated Waking Life, made around the same time, in only a few particulars: it was shot on digital video, it’s very talky, and it indirectly expresses a certain amount of skepticism about whether objective reality exists. None of the characters emerges as very sympathetic. (Hawke plays a dope dealer, and the drama suggests on occasion a kind of slacker Strindberg.) The comparison that’s been made with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope seems aptthough here there’s a lot of editing, in contrast to Rope’s use of lengthy takes. In both cases, a technical experiment becomes the occasion for fairly rigorous self-scrutiny. R, 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Nibelungen

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.

Fritz Lang’s first real blockbuster was this 1924 two-part silent epic — Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge — based on the 13th-century German legend that also inspired Wagner’s Ring cycle. In part one, Siegfried (Paul Richter), the son of a Norse king, wins the hand of the beautiful maiden Kriemhild (Margarethe Schon) and uses a magic sword to battle a fire-breathing dragon in the forest. Part two occurs after the death of Siegfried, when his widow accuses her half brother Hagan of murdering him. Her revenge entails marrying the king of the Huns and bearing him a son, and culminates in a bloody feast. These stunning, seminal features, restored to something resembling their original form and length in 35-millimeter by the Munich Film Museum (part one is 143 minutes, part two is 129), are even more impressive in their mythical splendor than Lang’s much better known Metropolis, anticipating everything from Fantasia (one lovely segment in Siegfried is animated) to Batman to Star Wars while showing Lang’s plastic gifts at their most impressive. Very highly recommended. David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment, though unfortunately he won’t be performing the stirring 1924 score by Gottfried Huppertz.… Read more »

Heartbreak Motel [on TAPE]

From the Chicago Reader (November 16, 2001). — J.R.

Tape ***

Directed by Richard Linklater

Written by Stephen Belber

With Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman.

Tape

It seems that the less we know about a subject, the likelier we are to be assertive about it. And journalists play a big role in making people feel knowledgeable about what they don’t know. That’s why we keep encountering more and more twaddle about the state of world cinema even though the growth of digital video makes it impossible for anyone to keep up with the state of local cinema in any large city, much less any country, still less the world. All journalists can honestly say is that more and more works are being made and that keeping up with them is no longer possible. It was only days after an Iranian friend and I completed a book about Abbas Kiarostami that a New York critic E-mailed us about two new Kiarostami works we hadn’t even heard of — a ten-minute short for an episodic feature and a fiction feature in DV that he’s in the final stages of editing.

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DV equipment is so easy to shoot with –it’s compact, light, inexpensive, unobtrusive — that it’s hard to keep up with how filmmakers are using the technology.… Read more »

Novocaine

Steve Martin plays a dentist who turns into a murder suspect and all-around neonoir victim when a sexy patient (Helena Bonham Carter) after the drugs he can prescribe lures him away from his fiancee (Laura Dern). Much as I like most of the actors here (who also include Scott Caan, Elias Koteas, and an uncredited Kevin Bacon), the script and story (by Paul Felopulos and director David Atkins) treat the characters with the sort of amused contempt I associate with the Coen brothers, but without the Coens’ cleverness. There’s a mechanical desire to work in as many outlandish twists as possible, and shallow grotesquerie quickly takes over. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: A Dialogue Between the Authors (Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum)

 This appeared originally in Senses of Cinema, issue 17, November 2001. — J.R.

 

The following is an extract from Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (University of Illinois Press, 2003) – one of the initial books in a series edited by James Naremore that is devoted to neglected contemporary filmmakers. Abbas Kiarostami contains separate essays by Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa followed first by this dialogue, then by an extended interview with Kiarostami conducted by both authors.

***

September 3, 2001, Chicago

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: You were the one who originally had the idea of proposing that we do this book together. And maybe we should both consider why we thought it was a good idea.

MEHRNAZ SAEED-VAFA: Basically, as far as I remember, we had a lot of interesting dialogues about Iranian cinema and Kiarostami, and I thought it would be a great idea to put our effort into a book. We started our dialogue in 1992, at a time when Kiarostami was still was getting discovered in France, but unknown in the United States. And I respected you highly as a critic and I knew that you were respected among other readers outside the United States as well as inside.… Read more »

Maze

Rob Morrow, who played Albert Brooks’s brother in Mother, stars in his own first feature, which he wrote with Bradley White, helped produce, and directed. He plays a sculptor with Tourette’s syndrome, Lyle Maze, who falls in love with the girlfriend (Laura Linney) of his best friend (Craig Sheffer) while the latter is working as a doctor in Africa after unknowingly making his girlfriend pregnant. This is so likable as an acting exerciseand as an exercise in directorial empathy, when Morrow tries to convey the hero’s attacks cinematicallythat you may want to overlook its utopian notions about the everyday behavior of friends and acquaintances of Tourette’s sufferers. (According to the script, only the hero’s late father, seen in a flashback, is intolerant.) The depiction of the hero’s career as a sculptor is no less problematic. But Morrow and his collaborators so clearly believe in this project that I was carried along, often charmed and never bored. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Is He or Isn’t He? [K-PAX]

From the Chicago Reader (November 2, 2001). — J.R.

K-Pax

**

Directed by Iain Softley

Written by Charles Leavitt

With Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Mary McCormack, Alfre Woodard, David Patrick Kelly, Peter Gerety, Saul Williams, and Celia Weston.

The last chapter of Robert Lindner’s best-seller The Fifty-Minute Hour, which I read when I was a teenager, was the first thing I was reminded of while watching K-Pax, a movie about a New York shrink at a psychiatric hospital (Jeff Bridges) treating a brilliant man (Kevin Spacey) who calls himself Prot and claims to come from a planet called K-Pax. In each story a psychiatrist finds himself seduced into half believing the SF projections of one of his patients, and part of the allure of that setup — like the case studies in an Oliver Sacks collection — is that we’re invited to flirt with the poetic notions behind some of its suppositions.

Based on a novel by Gene Brewer and written by Charles Leavitt, I can’t discount the undeniable pleasure of watching Spacey and Bridges act up a storm, but a lot of what makes this movie watchable and compelling is precisely what’s bogus about it: it gives in to a desire to generalize about people who are mentally ill — a group that doesn’t necessarily include Prot — and to feel satisfied and astute about those generalizations.… Read more »

The Business Of Strangers

Patrick Stettner’s intriguing debut feature is a psychological drama about two women, stranded at an airport hotel, who find themselves at opposite ends of the career track: a middle-aged go-getter (Stockard Channing) and the young assistant (Julia Stiles) she’s just fired. Things get increasingly complicated and ambiguous once they start drinking and a corporate headhunter (Frederick Weller) joins them. The film raises many interesting questions about our own responses, but it may finally be too open-ended for its own good. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone

I hear the J.K. Rowling books are great, and on the basis of this 2001 movie I’m ready to believe it; the fantasy of empowerment whereby the Cinderella-like hero (Daniel Radcliffe) takes a 19th-century train from the present back to the medieval Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is by itself worth the price of admission. I also got a kick out of some of the digital effectsespecially the cat that turns into a professor (Maggie Smith) and a giant and ferocious three-headed dog. But this 152-minute movie seems both padded and undernourished. It’s designed for kids who’ve read the books, with underdeveloped characters and clunky storytelling for those who haven’t, and portions that are too draggy or mechanically fast for anyone. The English cast is fun, but the Steve Kloves script deserves better handling than director Chris Columbus has given it. With Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Julie Walters. PG. (JR)… Read more »

Iranian Women: The Legal Structure Of Family And The Quest For Identity

A screening of clips from Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Kim Longinotto’s excellent 1998 documentary Divorce Iranian Style will precede a panel discussion on related issues, moderated by Columbia College film professor Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. The panelists include Mir-Hosseini, Debra Zimmerman (director of Women Make Movies), and Mehranghiz Kar (lawyer, activist, and expert in Iranian and Islamic law). (JR)… Read more »

The Man From Elysian Fields

I still haven’t forgiven George Hickenlooper for his egregious rewriting of Orson Welles in The Big Brass Ring (1999), but in this 2001 drama he reveals himself to be a skilled handler of actors. Philip Jayson Lasker’s script, about a happily married but unsuccessful novelist in Pasadena (Andy Garcia) who hires on at a male escort service, seems familiar and obvious (the moral seems to be that if you become a prostitute other people will treat you like one). But the castincluding Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, and Anjelica Hustonkeeps this pretty watchable, and casting Mick Jagger as director of the escort service was inspired. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harakiri

In 1919, between the first and second (and, as it turned out, only) episodes of his crime serial The Spiders, Fritz Lang directed this 80-minute version of Madame Butterfly. It’s beautifully designed pictorially but lacks the urgency and craft of his early masterpiece Destiny, released two years later. Lil Dagover plays the poised (if not very Japanese-looking) heroine who gets involved with an American naval officer. (JR)… Read more »

Va Savoir

Having won more mainstream accolades than most of his other work combined, this enjoyable romantic comedy by 73-year-old Jacques Rivette may be his first real hit (1991′s La belle noiseuse is the only other contender). I can’t begrudge this fine director a rare commercial success, but aside from Hurlevent (1985) this is the only one of his 20 features that I have no desire to see again. After showing much distinction as a modernist (1960-’76) and a postmodernist (1978-’98) Rivette has made his first premodernist film: it’s fluffy, sometimes funny, and likably acted by Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Marianne Basler, Jacques Bonnaffe, Helene de Fougerolles, and Bruno Todeschini (call it Rivette Lite or, because it involves an Italian production of As You Desire Me being staged in Paris, call it Six Characters in Search of Billy Wilder). But it lacks the scariness, the mystery, and even much of the curiosity of Rivette’s better work; if you can’t stand something like Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), there’s a good chance that you’ll love this one. In French with subtitles. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »