Monthly Archives: April 2002

Hollywood Ending

I would nominate this as the worst of Woody Allen’s color comedies to date, though there’s a morbid fascination in the degree to which it exposes both his cynicism and his contempt for his audiencesomething expressed more directly in Stardust Memories, a more interesting picture. Here Allen plays a neurotic film director whose career is on the skids and whose ex-wife (Tea Leoni) campaigns to get him hired on a $60 million picture. Still in a rage over her leaving him for the studio boss (Treat Williams) she’s now engaged to and works for, the director goes psychosomatically blind just as the picture begins shooting, a fact that he and she contrive to keep secret. I’m sure Allen knows that blind people know which directions voices come from, just as I’m sure he knows that Jerry Lewis stopped being in vogue in France about 25 years ago. But he also knows that some people will laugh at gags predicated on misinformation about these matters and proceeds accordingly, as if to demonstrate how much he despises them for laughing. (For more than a decade it’s been Allen, not Lewis, whom French audiences have adored.) I only laughed once here, at a Treat Williams reaction shot; the rest of the time I was trying to figure out why Allen made this movie.… Read more »

Umberto D

Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini likely deserves as much credit as director Vittorio De Sica for such masterpieces of Italian neorealism as The Bicycle Thief (1947) and this 1952 feature about a retired civil servant (schoolteacher Carlo Battisti) who discovers that his meager pension won’t pay the rent for his room. He’s befriended by a maid in the same flat who’s pregnant but unsure of the father’s identity; apart from her the only creature he feels close to is his dog, and though he contemplates suicide, he has to find someone to care for it. This simple, almost Chaplinesque story of a man fighting to preserve his dignity is even more moving for its firm grasp of everyday activities–such as the maid’s skirmishes against ants in the kitchen. Clearly Zavattini’s contribution, this fascination with the ordinary anticipates Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). This is truly a great film, recently celebrated at length in My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Italian cinema. 89 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, April 26 through May 2. … Read more »

Ellipses Reels 1-4

Ellipses3

My exposure to Stan Brakhage’s massive oeuvre has been somewhat limited, but these four works made in 1998 are among the most exciting and ravishing I’ve seen, rivaling even Scenes From Under Childhood (1970). Aptly described by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice as “scratch-and-stain films,” these mainly nonphotographic works “are, among other things, a visual analogue to abstract expressionism.” Reel 1 (22 min.) registers as visual music in its development of motifs and its use of rests to divide the work into discrete sections–a music that pulses, throbs, and sometimes winks on and off like a strobe light. Reel 2 (15 min.) credits Sam Bush as the “visual musician” and Brakhage as the “composer”; more staccato, dramatic, and richly orchestrated than the first reel, it occasionally recalls early Stravinsky in its fierce rhythms. Reels 3 (15 min.) and 4 (20 min.) are my favorites: the former uses bursts of photography (water, sky, birds, forest, sand, a nude child, merry-go-round horses), and the latter often suggests animation, with a black field disrupted by tantalizing bursts and smears of color. Also on the program are two Brakhage works I haven’t seen — Coupling (1999, 5 min.) and Night Mulch & Very (2001, 7 min.).… Read more »

CHRISTMAS IN JULY & THE PALM BEACH STORY

A double feature of my two favorite Preston Sturges comedies, both of them sublimely wacko. Christmas in July, his second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.), is in many ways his most underrated movie, a riotous satire of capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious office clerk (Dick Powell), determined to strike it rich in an advertising contest with his stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”), is tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and goes on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like all of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more succinctly than most pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that eventually it becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, the supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and Sturges uses them like instruments in a madcap concerto. In the simultaneously tender and scalding The Palm Beach Story (1942, 88 min.), Rudy Vallee turns in his all-time best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker. Claudette Colbert, married to a penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by the millionaire, and when McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother.… Read more »

Reveries and Elegies

From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 2002). — J.R.

elegy-of-a-voyage2

Like Yasujiro Ozu’s features with seasonal titles, Alexander Sokurov’s hallucinatory video elegies tend to be so similar, even in their running times, that they blur together in memory. Elegy of a Voyage (2001, 47 min.) — which might be more idiomatically titled Elegy for a Voyage — is a journey, a dream, a first-person narrative (visibly as well as audibly) that evokes the 19th century, and a hypnotic study in textures relating to fog, snow, and water that often entails a breakdown in the usual divisions between color and black and white (as well as fiction and documentary). It was commissioned by the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, which asked Sokurov to look at a work of art in their collection “like a night watchman in a deserted museum.” By the time Sokurov creeps into the museum to reflect on Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel and seven other paintings, he seems to have trekked across substantial portions of his native Russia as well as the Helsinki harbor. I was less captivated by Laura Waddington’s minimalist video diary Cargo (2001, 29 min.), which uses many still and slow-motion shots and similarly fragmented narration to illustrate a trip she took from Venice to the Middle East on a freighter whose exploited crew was an international assortment of men without landing papers.… Read more »

Naturally Shortsighted [HUMAN NATURE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 2002). — J.R.

Human Nature

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman

With Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Robert Forster, Mary Kay Place, Rosie Perez, and Miguel Sandoval.

The energizing comic wackiness of Being John Malkovich made me wonder what to expect next from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. But their latest collaboration, Human Nature — which Kaufman wrote, Michel Gondry (a music video director, like Jonze) directed, and Jonze produced, along with three other people, including Kaufman — is disappointing. It’s almost as wacky in spots as Being John Malkovich, and at first I found it funny and provocative. But by the end of the ride I felt I’d been taken for one. Then I remembered that Being John Malkovich had also left me with a somewhat sour feeling; ultimately Kaufman had overplayed his hand.

The diminishing returns may have something to do with the filmmakers’ postmodernist approach — the flip attitude that puts somewhat mocking quotation marks around everything, so that a more apt title of this movie might be “Human” “Nature.” This makes me wonder if the TV backgrounds of Kaufman, Gondry, and Jonze have something to do with their built-in skepticism.… Read more »

Jonathan Rosenbaum Interview by Noel King (2002), Part 1

From Framework (volume 45, number 1, Spring 2004). Because of its length, I’m running this in two parts. — J.R.

This interview took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 20, 2002 — if memory serves, at the Abasta shopping mall, where the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film was then being held.

NK: In Movie Wars you are very critical of aspects of the U.S. movie business, and in an earlier autobiographical book, Moving Places, you explain that your family was involved in film exhibition. So when you make your criticisms of the way the movie business works now you do so from apposition of informed, long-term historical knowledge. What do you think the main, deleterious effects are?

JR: The thing that is important to make clear at the outset is that film exhibition is radically different from when I was growing up in the movie business. It could be argued by people currently working in the business that it’s very easy for me to make my criticisms because I’m not actually running the business the way they are. But on the other hand I don’t know if everything can or should be reduced to matters of business. And I think that’s part of the problem now, the belief that it’s totally a business and shouldn’t be anything else.Read more »

Human Nature

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, tries for something equally wacky, in a comedy purporting to be about civilized and uncivilized behavior. A woman (Patricia Arquette) with a hormonal disorder that causes her to grow large amounts of body hair becomes a recluse living in the forest and writing about nature. Later she gets involved with a stunted scientist (Tim Robbins) who’s reduced by his own upbringing to teaching table manners to lab mice, and both link up with a feral man (Rhys Ifans) the scientist wants to civilize. All this leads to a lot of easy laughs as well as to declining narrative interest; the characters remain stuck in their cliche profiles, and the directionby music video specialist Michel Gondrydoesn’t improve matters. The castwhich also includes Miranda Otto, Rosie Perez, Robert Forster, and Mary Kay Placedoes pretty well with the limited material. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crush

Writer-director John McKay’s first feature is a charming comedy drama about three women friends in rural Englandthe American headmistress of a private school (Andie MacDowell), a spiky and much divorced physician (Anna Chancellor), and a somewhat older divorced police inspector (Imelda Staunton) with a grown sonwho get together regularly to smoke, drink gin, eat chocolate, and bitch. Their bonds are tested when the headmistress becomes involved with a former student (Kenny Doughty) and the other two disapprove. There aren’t many movies that deal with middle-aged women, and this one manages to do so with a fair amount of wit and heart. With Bill Paterson. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Murder By Numbers

It’s been suggested that director Barbet Schroeder nowadays makes two kinds of pictures — mainstream thrillers like this one and edgy art house fare like Our Lady of the Assassins — but one could also argue that the same meticulous craft, as well as a certain morbid soullessness (filmmaking by numbers?), characterizes his work in both spheres. On this outing, Schroeder’s focus on a creepy pair of young murderers (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) clearly patterned after Loeb and Leopold is as unpleasant as anyone might wish, and despite the charm of Sandra Bullock as a hard-nosed homicide detective, why anyone might wish to see something so unpleasant isn’t clear. Neither the crime nor its detection is especially interesting, and screenwriter Tony Gayton doesn’t appear to be aiming for psychological insights. With Ben Chaplin as Bullock’s junior partner, Agnes Bruckner, Chris Penn, and R.D. Call. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Y tu mama tambien

A genuine rarity: a sex comedy with brains. Even rarer, one with smart politics–so unobtrusive you may not notice–and wonderful acting. Writer-director Alfonso Cuaron–best known here for two Hollywood efforts, the enchanting A Little Princess and the less enchanting Great Expectations–went back to his native Mexico to put together this road movie about two 17-year-old boys from Mexico City, one privileged, the other working-class. On an impulse, they take off for a remote coastal beach with a 28-year-old married woman. It’s not difficult to understand why this movie has been a smash success in Mexico, especially with teenagers; few films deal with teenage hormones, Latin machismo, and the complexities of friendship in such a refreshing way. The movie keeps surprising you and stays with you long after it’s over. With Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Maribel Verdu. In Spanish with subtitles. 105 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre, North Riverside.… Read more »

Better Luck Tomorrow

Wealthy, disaffected Asian-American teenagers in Orange County progress from cheating to theft to murder in this controversial shocker by writer-director Justin Lin. There’s something refreshing about the violation of ethnic stereotypes, especially when the stereotype is politically correct and the violation is more than a simple counterstereotype, and Lin clearly wants to make the kids’ amorality troubling and difficult to process–not confused and ambivalent, as one reviewer has maintained. He charts the lifestyles of his “Chinese Mafia” without bothering to show us any of their parents, which limits the material somewhat, but his sense of how some of them conspire to get good grades is convincing, and it’s telling that the kids being shown, especially the overachieving narrator-hero, wind up seeming much more American than Asian. The performances are strong without calling attention to themselves (which is more than I can say for the occasionally hackneyed use of rock on the sound track). 101 min. Lin will take part in a discussion at the Friday screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, Friday, April 5, 8:15, and Saturday, April 6, 10:15.… Read more »

Code Unknown

Aptly subtitled Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, the best feature to date by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.) is a procession of long virtuoso takes that typically begin and end in the middle of actions or sentences, constituting not only an interactive jigsaw puzzle but a thrilling narrative experiment. The second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche), her boyfriend’s younger brother, an African music teacher who works with deaf-mute students, and a woman beggar from Romania; the other episodes effect a kind of narrative dispersal of these characters and some of their relatives across time and space. I couldn’t always get what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. The title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses in Parisa metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues. In subtitled French, Malinke, Romanian, German, Arabic, and sign languageand also, occasionally, English. (JR)… Read more »

The Lady And The Duke

My favorite Eric Rohmer features are mainly his period filmsPerceval, then The Marquise of O (despite its emotional toning down of the Heinrich von Kleist novella), and now this fascinating antirevolutionary take on the French Revolution. Inspired by the memoirs of Scottish royalist Grace Elliott (beautifully played by Lucy Russell), it centers on her relationship with Philippe Egalite, erstwhile duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who brought her to France in 1786. For the exteriors of this 2001 film Rohmer uses digital-video technology to superimpose the actors against painted landscapes, and the results are charming as well as historically plausible. Influenced by the use of stationary camera setups in D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, this is absorbing throughoutnot just a history lesson but, as always with Rohmer, a story about individuals. In French with subtitles. 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Abc Africa

The most accessible film to date by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, though some have been scared away (unwarrantedly, in my opinion) by its subject matter: the many Ugandan children orphaned by AIDS. In fact, much of this 2001 digital video documentary focuses on the kids singing and dancing. But a brief scene in a hospital and a few interviews tell us all the disturbing facts we need to know, and the second half moves beyond conventional documentary into Kiarostami’s brand of provocative philosophical inquiry. One scene in total darkness recalls Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, and another set in a ruined house in the rain is as lovely as anything in Life and Nothing More. Like virtually all of Kiarostami’s mature work, this centers on the issues raised when a well-to-do filmmaker interacts with poor people and expresses his admiration for their resilience. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »