Daily Archives: March 1, 2002

E.t. The Extra-terrestrial

A digitally altered version of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 feature that includes scenes shot for but not used in that release, enhances or alters several details (including a substitution of the word hippie for terrorist), and deletes a few others (such as the guns carried by policemen). Dave Kehr wrote that the original achieves the level of decent, middling DisneyOld Yeller, for example, rather than Snow White or Pinocchiowhich is to say that the childhood myths being promulgated here are rather basic and unadorned, without the baroque touches and psychological penetration Disney could muster at his best. The extraterrestrial is a big-eyed, phallic-headed ancient baby, discovered by a suburban boy as implicit emotional compensation for his parents’ divorce. Though marred by Spielberg’s usual carelessness with narrative points, the film alternates sweetness and sarcasm with enough rhetorical sophistication to be fairly irresistible. With Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, and Peter Coyote. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

Clockstoppers

One of the most poetic fantasy concepts ever used in a film is the freezing of time in Rene Clair’s 1924 The Crazy Ray, also known as Paris qui dort. Here the gimmick is the speeding up of molecules, which comes to virtually the same thing in terms of setting up gags. But if director Jonathan Frakes (a Star Trek veteran) or any of the four credited writers of this teenage romp knew about the Clair movie, they sure didn’t find a way of applying any of its lessons here. This moves back and forth between slightly clever and dopey or silly, kept vaguely watchable by the charming leads (Jesse Bradford and Paula Garces) and never aspiring to rise above Disney matinee fare. As that sort of diversion, it’s pretty good. With French Stewart, Michael Biehn, Robin Thomas, and Julia Sweeney. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Adieu Bonaparte

An Egyptian-French coproduction (1984) by the inimitable Youssef Chahine, about Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. Michel Piccoli, Mohsen Mohieddin, and Patrice Chereau head the cast. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Way We Laughed

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, this 1998 feature by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, Lamerica) wears its art, as well as its heart, on its sleeveso much so that I feel guilty for not liking it more. It explores the idealized love of an illiterate Sicilian worker (Enrico Lo Verso, who has the eyes of a rain-soaked basset hound) for his literate kid brother (Francesco Giuffrida) after they immigrate to Turin, but that love is supposed to spell out the meaning of his entire life, with other details (work, parents, wife and kids) made to seem strictly incidental. The same sense of hyperbole extends to Amelio’s arty and gloomy evocations of the period (1958-’64), though the literary way this is split up into six sections, each focusing on a single day and bearing its own one-word title, is rather elegant. In Italian with subtitles. 128 minutes. (JR)… Read more »

Mysterious Object At Noon

Shot in 16-millimeter black and white with Dolby sound, then blown up to 35-millimeter, this singular experimental feature from Thailand (2000, 83 min.) is a freewheeling collaboration between filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and villagers he encountered while driving south from Bangkok. After hearing a story en route, Weerasethakul asked others to continue and/or modify it; back in Bangkok, he shot portions of the narrative with nonprofessional actors. The entire film is a heady mix of fiction and nonfiction, with fantasy and actuality rubbing shoulders at every stage, and what emerges from the collective unconscious of the participants is surprising and fascinating. Weerasethakul packages his findings in diverse and inventive ways: as an improvised outdoor musical performance, as a game played by school children, as a collaborative description in sign by two teenage deaf-mutes. I can’t think of another film remotely like it. In Thai with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Black Russians

Kara Lynch’s sometimes thoughtful 117-minute video documentary about black people living in Russia takes on a fascinating subject, though it’s periodically handicapped by a diffuse focus (an overreliance on intercutting between sound bites of mainly unrelated black individuals) and incomplete research (my hopes of learning something substantial about the Russian careers of Paul Robeson and the lesser-known Wayland Ruddwhose Russian acting career srarted in Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consolerweren’t met). Lynch interviews and follows the shifting fortunes of several black or semiblack individuals from North America, Africa, and the Caribbean, and, not surprisingly, their experiences are extremely varied; some are students currently studying abroad and some (including an eloquent Russian poet) are the offspring of black and Russian parents who got together in the 30s. (In my preview copy, the names of all the interviewees were perversely occluded by a timer code, but I assume the general audience will be luckier.)The forms and expressions of Russian race prejudice are monitored with some sensitivity for nuance, and the archival footage, though sufficiently all-over-the-place to contribute to the cluttered effect, holds one’s interest throughout. (JR)… Read more »

Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 P.m.

Claude Lanzmann’s 2001 documentary about an uprising of Jews at a Polish death camp. Yehuda Lerner, one of the prisoners who shut down the camp, was only 16 at the time, though he’d already managed to escape from eight Russian camps; Lanzmann interviewed him for his monumental Shoah (1985) but then decided this story deserved a film of its own. Clearly he values the uprising as a rejoinder to the usual charge that Jews offered little resistance to the Nazis (Hannah Arendt omits the incident from her Eichmann in Jerusalem), so it’s no surprise when Lerner’s testimony culminates in a prolonged recollection of triumphantly killing two German soldiers with an ax. The film’s methodology is practically identical to that of Shoah: Lerner’s account is translated on-screen from Hebrew into French, which is then subtitled in English (in fact, bits of the Hebrew original are edited out to save time), and sometimes Lanzmann illustrates it with contemporary shots of the places where the events unfolded. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

California Trilogy

Three 90-minute experimental features by James Benning, each a sequence of 35 stationary landscape shots that last 150 seconds apiece and a 150-second cast list specifying the subject of each shot, the owner of the property involved, and its location. El Valley Centro (1999) concentrates on California’s Central Valley, Los (2001) on greater Los Angeles, and Sogobi on the California wilderness. It’s a lot to deal with in one four-and-a-half-hour block, and the cookie-cutter form leads to various anomalies and distortions when Benning identifies his cast. But his eye and ear are as sharp as ever, and as a multifaceted landscape portrait of California this has a lot to recommend it. (JR)… Read more »

Trembling Before G-d

Religion or ethnicity can seem cosmic to some people: I may laugh during The Godfather, Part II when the church organist at a baptism launches into Nino Rota’s theme music, but many other viewers would never bat an eye at this conceit. Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d explores the torment of devout Orthodox Jews who are homosexual and what their families and communities often do to them. But considering all the similarities between Islamic fundamentalism and Orthodox Judaismprohibitions about verbal and visual representation (exemplifed in both the film’s title and the way DuBowski blurs and darkens many people’s faces to protect their identities), certain kinds of wry humor and obligatory head covering, a taste for philosophical rumination, a shared misogyny and patriarchy, and a desert-climate sensualityI can’t see what prompts the film to limit its theme of sexual intolerance to one religion or ethnic group (or even one kind of sexual preference), apart from a certain unexamined tribalism of its own. That said, DuBowski focuses on religious faith as much as sexual preference, which may be the most interesting aspect of the film. In Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Last Orders

English kitchen-sink realism isn’t ordinarily my cup of tea, but the way Australian writer-director-coproducer Fred Schepisi follows four friends across 40 years hooked me from the start. It’s a tale revolving around the delivery of a butcher’s ashes to Margate by three of his former pub mates (Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins) and his resentful son (Ray Winstone). Michael Caine plays the butcher in flashbacks, and it’s one of his strongest performances; no less affecting is Helen Mirren as his wife. Adapted from Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, this movie will probably mean the most to viewers old enough to know who Courtenay and Hemmings are and thus to ponder what age has done to their faces, though the actors found to play them and the others in their youth are uncannily persuasive. But you don’t have to know that Caine is staying in the same hospital where his real-life father (a fish porter) died to recognize that he feels this character down to his marrow (2001, 109 min.). (JR)… Read more »

The Thomas Crown Affair

It’s no doubt dated now, but this heist movie starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway was considered pretty hot stuff back in 1968. The 1999 remake is probably sexier, but this certainly has its merits, especially the cast (which also includes Jack Weston and Yaphet Kotto). Norman Jewison directed. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

What Time Is It There?

This 2001 feature is Tsai Ming-liang’s most exciting and original to date. The obsessive constants in all of his five featuresthe same actors playing similar roles in some of the same locations, the quirky preoccupation with water and alienationmay make him seem like a minimalist. But here he branches out beautifully by adding another city and country to his repertoryParis, France, which alternates with Taipeiwithout compromising any of his formal rigor or playfulness. In The Hole a young man and woman occupy flats on separate floors of the same building; here they occupy separate countries and time zones. They remain basically strangers, apart from fleeting encounters, but the intricate formal rhyme schemes devised by Tsai as he oscillates between the two are even more inventive than those in The Holeone of the many things evoking Jacques Tati. With Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi. In French, Mandarin, and Taiwanese with subtitles. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Narrow Corner

The underrated Alfred E. Green directed this precode (1933) adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the hero fleeing from the law to an East Indies island. With Patricia Ellis and Ralph Bellamy. 71 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Piano Teacher

For me, a few of Michael Haneke’s features are first-rate (The Seventh Continent, The Castle, Code Unknown) but most of the others replay formulas other filmmakers have handled with more style and originality. This 2001 feature about a prim piano teacher (Isabelle Huppert) who lives with her mother (Annie Girardot) and develops a sadomasochistic relationship with a young male pupil (Benoit Magimel) approaches the latter category, although critic Robin Wood has made interesting observations about Haneke’s subtle use of music. If you like being shaken up, this is probably for you; Huppert gives her all, and you won’t be bored. Haneke adapted an Austrian novel by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek; unfortunately but apparently necessarily, due to the conditions of this coproduction, he kept the action in Vienna but cast French actors speaking French. With subtitles. 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bamboozled

Spike Lee dedicates this angry, fitfully provocative mess (2000) to Budd Schulberg, apparently thinking of A Face in the Crowd, and includes a clumsy hommage to Network, another hysterical picture about television. This one focuses on a black Ivy League TV writer (Damon Wayans) who produces a minstrel show called Mantan with black performers in blackface. Unfortunately, what purports to be a satire about bad television is bad television itself, complete with cruddy sound and image and broad, out-of-control acting. One would like to think that Lee is reflecting on his own occasional duplicity with the mass audience (his insulting use of Muzakworse than ever hereto tell viewers how to feel, or the gross simplifications of Malcolm X). But this is basically sloppy, all-over-the-map filmmaking with few hints of self-criticism and few genuine laughs. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »