Monthly Archives: February 2002

Festival In Cannes

As long as writer-director Henry Jaglom is satirizing the way both Hollywood blockbusters and indy features get pitched, this Cote d’Azur comedy has some flavor, and Ron Silver gives a swell impersonation of a cool and slimy studio executive. Unfortunately, the movie also has plenty of glib ideas about the irrational factors that lead to sexual and romantic coupling, all of them unconvincing, and the awkward Jaglom-style improvisation by the actors and the monotonous crosscutting (a Jaglom specialty) only make this exercise seem even more padded and attenuated. Among the participants/victims are Jenny Gabrielle, Greta Scacchi, Kim Kolarich, Rachel Bailit, Craig Mann, Zack Norman, Anouk Aimee, Maximilian Schell, and Camilla Campanale, with cameos from Peter Bogdanovich, Louise Stratten, Faye Dunaway, and William Shatner, among others. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kissing Jessica Stein

Though the feeling persists that this movie wants to bring the spirit of Neil Simonmeaning the Jewish middle class and the New York suburbsto lesbian farce, this adaptation by costars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen of their own off-Broadway play is both better and worse than that description implies. Better because the cast is wonderful and the story is commendably free of the sectarian us-versus-them tone of many romantic gay movies, and worse because the jazzy vocals are too strident and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s direction lacks the polish of a well-mounted Simon comedy. Still, this is possibly the funniest lesbian romp since Go Fish. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

All Is Forgiven [MONSTER'S BALL]

From the Chicago Reader (February 22, 2002). — J.R.

Monster’s Ball

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Marc Forster

Written by Milo Addica and Will Rokos

With Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Sean Combs, Mos Def, and Coronji Calhoun.

Monster’s Ball is a Hollywood art movie; even the fancy color graphics imposed on the seedy milieu behind the opening credits tell us that. For some viewers, including a few reviewers, the movie becomes bearable only after an hour of misery, when the lead characters, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), finally get around to having their big sex scene (which I have to admit is worth the price of admission). Maybe the sex is prompted by these characters’ mutual misery, but it also happens because this is a Hollywood movie and these are its stars. And because it’s also an art movie, all the misery preceding the scene makes it feel earned.

Hank is a white corrections officer at the state pen in Georgia who recently guided Leticia’s husband, who’s black, to the electric chair, though it takes him a long time — and her even longer — to figure out the connection.… Read more »

Kandahar

Started in 2000 near the Afghan border in Iran, shot in rough and haphazard conditions, and completed the following spring, this is one of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s strangest films. An Afghan woman (Nelofer Pazira), exiled to Canada, returns to look for her sister, who still suffers under the Taliban and has threatened to kill herself during the forthcoming solar eclipse. This may sound like a setup for action and suspense, but the narrative is much more splintered than that, combining poetry, black comedy, social protest, and a sharp sense of actuality. The acting is mainly horrendous and the English dialogue is frequently awkward, but they’re overcome by the beautiful colors and settings and a grim sense of the uncanny spilling over into twisted humor. I didn’t even mind when the narrative stopped abruptly; in retrospect, Kandahar seems like an experimental film, a horror story, and a slapstick comedy–sometimes all at once. In Farsi with subtitles; also known as The Sun Behind the Moon. 85 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, February 22 through 28. … Read more »

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Chantal Akerman’s greatest film–made in 1975 and running 198 minutes–is one of those lucid puzzlers that may drive you up the wall but will keep you thinking for days or weeks. Delphine Seyrig, in one of her greatest performances, plays Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian woman obsessed with performing daily rounds of housework and other routines (including occasional prostitution) in the flat she occupies with her teenage son. The film follows three days in Dielman’s regulated life, and Akerman’s intense concentration on her daily activities–monumentalized by Babette Mangolte’s superb cinematography and mainly frontal camera setups–eventually sensitizes us to the small ways in which her system is breaking down. By placing so much emphasis on aspects of life and work that other films routinely omit, mystify, or skirt around, Akerman forges a major statement, not only in a feminist context but also in a way that tells us something about the lives we all live. In French with subtitles. Admission is free; a new 16-millimeter print will be shown. Northwestern Univ. Block Museum of Art, 1967 South Campus Dr., Evanston, Monday, February 25, 7:00, 847-491-4000.… Read more »

40 Days And 40 Nights

A young Catholic in San Francisco (Josh Hartnett), still pining for his ex-girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw), takes a vow of sexual abstinence for the 40 days of Lent, and after his flatmate and coworkers place bets on whether or not he’ll make it, he meets the woman of his dreams (Shannyn Sossamon). Scripted by Robert Perez and stylishly directed by Michael Lehmann, the film doesn’t shy away from cheap gags when it runs out of good ones, and if I were a Catholic I might be offended in spots (after getting himself chained to his bed, the hero compares himself to Jesus). But this is smooth and at times even sensuala well-oiled machine. With Paulo Costanzo and Griffin Dunne. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wendigo

Completing a loose trilogy of revisionist horror films that’s already seen Habit (about vampires) and No Telling (which works with the Frankenstein myth), writer-director Larry Fessenden’s loose take on the wolf man movie (2000) is stylistically lively and generally well acted. Thematically, however, it’s somewhat incoherent. When a photographer (Jake Weber) and a psychotherapist (Patricia Clarkson) from New York City drive upstate with their eight-year-old son (Erik Per Sullivan) to spend a weekend in a friend’s farmhouse, their car hits a deer being tracked by local hunters, antagonizing one of them. Over the course of the weekend the boy is introduced to the Native American myth of the Wendigo, a spirit that combines man, animal, and vegetation, but the film sends mixed signalssometimes it simply seems to want to be a horror remake of Deliverance. The bold editing keeps things visually interesting throughout. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Time Out

This powerful feature by Laurent Cantet (Human Resources) probably generated more buzz in 2001all of it deservedthan any other European feature shown at Venice and Toronto. With uncanny precision and concentration, it follows the progress of a middle-class, middle-aged French businessman (Aurelien Recoing) who gets fired and hides the truth from his family, pretending to be away on business trips while spending much of his time in or near Switzerland. Written by Cantet and Robin Campillo and based very loosely on a true story, it manages to register as a resonant contemporary fable while sustaining narrative interest throughout its 132 minutes. In French with subtitles; the French title is L’emploi du temps. (JR)… Read more »

Kandahar

Started in 2000 near the Afghan border in Iran and completed the following spring, this is one of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s strangest films. An Afghan woman (Nelofer Pazira), exiled to Canada, goes home to look for her sister, who still suffers under the Taliban and has threatened to kill herself during a forthcoming solar eclipse. This may sound like a setup for action and suspense, but the narrative is much more splintered than that, combining poetry, black comedy, social protest, and a sharp sense of actuality. The acting is mainly horrendous and the English dialogue is frequently awkward, but they’re overcome by the beautiful colors and settings and a grim sense of the uncanny spilling over into twisted humor. I didn’t even mind when the narrative stopped abruptly; in retrospect, Kandahar seems like an experimental film, a horror story, and a slapstick comedysometimes all at once. In Farsi with subtitles; also known as The Sun Behind the Moon. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Afghan High Jinks

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 2002). — J.R.

Kandahar

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, and Sadou Teymouri.

“Shall I recite the Koran for the dead?”

“We are the dead; sing for us.”

Kandahar

There are times in history when the aesthetic quality of a work of art appears to become secondary to the urgency and currency of the work’s subject matter. The era of Italian neorealism was arguably one of those times. Kandahar — a film in which the terrible and the wonderful, the gauche and the graceful, the beautiful and the ugly, and the smart and the not-so-smart rub shoulders — surely marks another.

In many ways the qualities of Kandahar that derive from actuality operate as art ordinarily does — so that, for instance, the bad acting serves as well as good acting would to bring us closer to the people we’re seeing. In some ways, the bad acting may even serve better, because it allows more of the actors’ personal characteristics to shine through. Yet once we become aware of this, our responses to the actuality become aestheticized. And even if we could overlook the quality of the acting altogether — no easy matter — writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is too much of an artist to abandon the aesthetic parts of his sensibility.… Read more »

Word and Utopia

With Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, and Ousman Sembene still active, one can’t call Portuguese writer-director Manoel de Oliveira the only old master we have left in cinema. But how remarkable to see someone in his mid-90s enjoying one of the richest and most productive periods of his career–five extraordinary and very different features since Inquietude in 1998. This is partly thanks to the resourceful producer Paulo Branco (who also sponsors Raul Ruiz); unfortunately, none of the five has found U.S. distribution (unlike de Oliveira’s previous releases, The Convent and Voyage to the Beginning of the World, which were less interesting but had bigger stars). The fourth and fifth (I’m Going Home, a superbly unsentimental story about an aging actor, and Oporto of My Childhood, an imaginative documentary about de Oliveira’s hometown) haven’t even made it to Chicago festivals yet. Word and Utopia (2000) offers another example of how de Oliveira has enlivened his stately style through vigorous direction of actors, mainly through Lima Duarte’s performance as Antonio Vieira, an outspoken 17th-century Jesuit priest who championed the rights of Brazilian Indians and won the support of both the pope and Queen Christina of Sweden. Drawn mainly from Vieira’s sermons and letters, which director and actor treat like libretti for the settings, the period artworks, and various dramatic scenes, and lusciously shot by Renato Berta, the film epitomizes de Oliveira’s profound embrace of history, which deepens and surpasses the wisdom of old age.… Read more »

An Actor’s Revenge

Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed–though in Japan, interestingly enough, it’s never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film’s use of ‘Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the death of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the sound track. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa’s favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations–the more stage bound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes.… Read more »

Crossroads

The only time I find Britney Spears completely intolerable is when she starts to singthe soft-core number that practically opens this picture, which has her bouncing around in her underwear, being an exception. And this being a movie coproduced by MTV, Spears or someone else is singing full throttle every time a car begins to move or someone enters a club. It’s supposed to be a teen movie about three pals (blue-collar Spears, trailer trash Taryn Manning, and upscale Zoe Saldana) who take off from Georgia for Hollywood with a mysterious musician (Anson Mount) who has a car, yet despite the road markers, practically all of it could have been shot inside a couple of square miles. The characters are only slightly less boilerplate than the settings. Dan Aykroyd plays Spears’s dad and Kim Cattrall her estranged mom; a few awful sequences are devoted to a poem that Spears’s character writes and Mount’s sets to music, yielding the hit single I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman. Tamra Davis directed the formulaic Shonda Rhimes script, and when the cast is shown during the final credits repeatedly cracking up in blown takes, one would like to think they were laughing at some of the lines they were expected to deliver.… Read more »

Life of a Salesman [DIAMOND MEN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 2002). — J.R.

Diamond Men

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Daniel M. Cohen

With Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy, George Coe, Jeff Gendelman, Nikki Fritz, and Shannah Laumeister.

It’s astonishing how few Hollywood movies tell us anything about the way we spend a third or more of our lives — at work. Maybe this is because the standard industry perception is that people don’t like to think about that part of their existence when they go to movies, that people want to keep their professions and pleasures separate and mutually alienated. The assumption seems to be that work isn’t supposed to be fun but movies are.

Since I don’t have this bias, I found myself uncommonly excited watching Diamond Men, an independent first feature by writer-director Daniel M. Cohen that stars Robert Forster and is playing this week at the Music Box. I have no particular interest in the diamond trade, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see a movie that taught me something about what it’s like to drive through small towns in Pennsylvania selling diamonds to jewelry stores — especially since its lessons are being propounded by someone as knowledgeable about the subject as Cohen (who, reports Philadelphia Inquirer film reviewer Carrie Rickey, is a third-generation diamond man from Lancaster) and articulated by an actor as likable as Forster.… Read more »

Dragonfly

The undisputed king of the cornball concept, Kevin Costner has an uncanny aptitude for gravitating toward the dopiest projects in sight, but this time he’s outdone himself. A Chicago doctor in charge of emergency services, he’s been traumatized by the loss of his saintly wife, who’s died on a medical mission to Venezuela; convinced that she’s trying to speak to him through various near-death patients, he awaits the confirmation of his mystic theories that only bad movies can bring. The clunky script is by David Seltzer, Brandon Camp, and Mike Thompson, and someone at Universal must have decided the ideal director for such a delicate topic was Tom Shadyac, best known for the inimitable fart jokes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor. The secondary cast includes such talented hands as Linda Hunt and Kathy Bates, who labor admirably but can’t save the patient. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »