Monthly Archives: June 2002

Code Unknown

Aptly subtitled “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys,” the fifth feature by Austrian director Michael Haneke (2000, 117 min.), his best to date, 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 comparable to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, and Rob Tregenza’s Talking to Strangers. The film’s second episode is a nine-minute street scene involving an altercation between an actress (Juliette Binoche in a powerful performance), 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 keep up with what was happening, but I was never bored, and the questions raised reflect the mysteries of everyday life. This is Haneke’s first feature made in France, and the title refers to the pass codes used to enter houses and apartment buildings in Paris–a metaphor for codes that might crack certain global and ethical issues. In subtitled French, Malinke, Romanian, German, Arabic, and sign language–and also, occasionally, English.… Read more »

Men In Black Ii

The best argument for a sequel to Men in Black (1995) was Linda Fiorentino as the plucky morgue pathologist, but this new installment replaces her with Rosario Dawson, whose function is more decorative than comic. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as Jay and Kay, government agents who monitor the high jinks of extraterrestrials on earth, and though director Barry Sonnenfeld (or somebody) has added a lot more beasties and other conceptual doodling (as well as product placements), the down-home satire of how we cope with cultural difference has evaporated, replaced by jazzy effects that wear out their welcome by the halfway mark. (The earth’s fate hanging in jeopardy near the end seems less urgent than whether Hope or Crosby will get Dorothy Lamour at the end of a Road comedy.) Michael Jackson has a cameo, Rip Torn and Tony Shalhoub reprise their original bits, and Lara Flynn Boyle as the head alien sprouts zillions of wormlike tentaclesbut a talking bulldog named Frank steals the show. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fast Runner (atanarjuat)

Based on an Inuit legend and made almost entirely by Inuit filmmakers, this totally absorbing 172-minute feature (2001), winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, is exciting not as ethnography but as storytelling, as drama, and as filmmaking. In this respect, one might even wind up perversely missing the exoticism and implied critique of Western values found in Nanook of the North or The Savage Innocents, but only if one insists on finding arctic natives interesting because of their relation to other cultures and not on their own terms. Certainly the plot elements are universal: sexual competition, adultery, murder, pursuit, subterfuge, and justice, all seen in relation to the needs and preservation of a particular community and way of life. This story is set at the dawn of the first millennium, but the fact that we tend to forget about historical time frames entirely while watching it is a tribute to its power to grab and hold us. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and written by Kunuk and Paul Apak Angilirq; with Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, and Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq. In Inuktitut with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Hustler

From the Chicago Reader (2002). — J.R.

Robert Rossen’s 1961 feature is a somber morality play postulating as existential hero a pool hustler perfecting his craft (Paul Newman at his best). It makes wonderful use of its seedy locations (memorably filmed in black-and-white ‘Scope by Eugen Shuftan, who won an Oscar for his work) and its first-rate secondary cast (Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Myron McCormick, and Murray Hamilton). Adapted by Rossen and Sidney Carroll from a Walter Tevis novel, this picture is so much better than Martin Scorsese’s belated sequel The Color of Money that they don’t even belong in the same category. A postnoir melodrama with metaphysical trimmings, it does remarkable things with mood and pacing, and the two matches with Gleason as Minnesota Fats are indelible. 135 min. (JR)

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Earth (1930) is the most famous of Alexander Dovzhenko’s masterpieces, but this white-hot war film, made the previous year and screening only once in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable Dovzhenko retrospective, is in many ways his most dazzling silent picture. Though it was commissioned to glorify the 1918 struggle of Bolshevik workers at a Kiev munitions factory against White Russian troops, Dovzhenko’s view of wartime and battlefront morality is too ambiguous and multilayered to fit comfortably within any propaganda scheme. More clearly influenced by Sergei Eisenstein than any of Dovzhenko’s other pictures, it’s certainly the one that uses fast editing in the most exciting fashion, and some of the poetic uses of Ukrainian folklore that were Dovzhenko’s specialty have an almost drunken abandon here–as in the singing horses. A 35-millimeter print will be shown, and David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment. 92 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Saturday, June 15, 4:15, 312-846-2800.… Read more »

ABC Africa

This is the most accessible film to date by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, though some people have been mistakenly scared away by its subject matter: the enormous number of Ugandan children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. In fact, much of this 2001 digital-video documentary focuses on the kids singing and dancing–at times it resembles a musical–which has led some critics to fault Kiarostami for failing to address the crisis adequately. But the video is only superficially superficial, and it grows in meaning and resonance as it progresses. 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 set in almost complete darkness recalls Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, and a sequence 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. This is Kiarostami’s first film that’s mainly in English; the balance is subtitled.… Read more »

The Lady and the Duke

My favorite Eric Rohmer features are mainly his period films–Percival, 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. Their romance had ended well before the revolution (and before this picture begins), but they remained close friends in spite of their growing political differences. Percival was shot on studio sets, The Marquise of O on location; for the exteriors of this 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 throughout–not just a history lesson but, as always with Rohmer, a story about individuals (2001, 129 min.). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 7 through 13.… Read more »

Death and Life [on Alexander Dovzhenko]

From the June 7, 2002 Chicago Reader. This is also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.

Landscapes of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko

When I speak of poetry, I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality….Think of Mandelstam, think of Pasternak, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, and you’ll realize what tremendous emotional power is carried by these exalted figures who soar above the earth, in whom the artist appears not just as an explorer of life, but as one who creates great spiritual treasures and that specific beauty which is subject only to poetry. Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life. — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

It is possible that we are still in a pre-historic stage of cinema, for the great history of cinema will begin when it leaves the frame of ordinary artistic representation and grows into a tremendous and extraordinarily encompassing perceptive category. — Alexander Dovzhenko, 1933

Ukrainian writer-director Alexander Dovzhenko may be the most neglected major filmmaker of the 20th century.… Read more »

Memories of 1974

Written for a special retrospective issue of the French film magazine Positif at the request of editor Michel Ciment in June 2002. — J.R.

1974, the year in which I contributed a short article about -— and accompanying interview with —- Jim McBride for the avril [April] issue of Positif (no.158), was also the year in which I moved from Paris (where I had been living as a freelance writer, with mixed success, since 1969) to London (to work on the staffs of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound at the British Film Institute): a profound cultural shift, though not nearly as radical as it was moving from London to San Diego in early 1977.

Cinematically speaking, it was the year in which I discovered two of Jacques Rivette’s greatest films — Céline et Julie vont en bateau (seen initially as a workprint, tentatively entitled Céline et Julie vont en zizanie at several private screenings at Claude Lelouch’s Club 13, thanks to my friendship with one of the screenwriters, Eduardo de Gregorio) and Out 1: Spectre (initially at the Palais de Chaillot Cinémathèque, a press show where the 16mm projectors kept breaking down repeatedly; then many more times at Studio Gît-le-Coeur, only a short hop from my sunless flat on Rue Mazarine, where, along with Gilbert Adair and Lauren Sedofsky, I would later interview Rivette for Film Comment).… Read more »

Chelsea Walls

Actor Ethan Hawke turns to directing, in digital video, in Nicole Burdette’s 2001 adaptation of her own play. This consists of five separate downbeat stories happening on the same day at New York’s artist-friendly Chelsea Hotel. The cast is certainly impressive, and probably reason enough for seeing this; it includes, among others, Kevin Corrigan, Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kris Kristofferson, Robert Sean Leonard, Natasha Richardson, Jimmy Scott, Uma Thurman, Mark Webber, Tuesday Weld, Harris Yulin, and Steve Zahn. The main problem is the film’s inability to stay with any one story or character for long: too many ideas compete for attention without any clear through line. Hawke, who gets some very interesting visual effects and sound overlaps, is hardly alone in failing to solve this difficulty; for me, much of Robert Altman’s workreflecting his TV background and the reliance on sound bites that it entailsshows comparable limitations. Many of the smaller moments of both directors are priceless, but the larger picture tends toward either vagueness or banality (such as the American flag at the end of Altman’s Nashville). 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

Diplomatic Pouch And Love Berry

A striking demonstration of how adroit and creative Alexander Dovzhenko was as a commercial director just before he started making his own more personal and sometimes more difficult films, the first of which was the 1927 Zvenigora. Diplomatic Pouch (1927, 72 min.) is said to have some remote connection to the director’s stint as a diplomat, but in fact it’s an entertaining spy thriller with British villains, inspired by the assassination of Soviet diplomat Teodor Nette. It’s the only Dovzhenko film in which he appears as an actor (stoking the engine on a ship), and the editing is very inventiveas it is in the lively half-hour comedy Love Berry (1926), about a vain barber trying to dispose of his illegitimate offspring, which shows the influence of Chaplin. (JR)… Read more »

Auto Focus

From the Chicago Reader, June 1, 2002; slightly tweaked in 2014. — J.R.


One reason Paul Schrader’s Calvinist obsessions have become tiresome — even when someone else is partially responsible for the writing, as is the case here — is that he seems more invested in their perpetuation and exploitation than in their exploration. Yet I have to concede that he’s become an unusually skillful and sensitive director of actors, and the inventive performances — Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane (the wholesome star of Hogan’s Heroes who became a sex addict) and Willem Dafoe as his seedy sidekick and fellow pornographer — keep this story interesting in spite of its puritanical framework. Watchable, but not very insightful (2002, 107 min.). Written by Michael Gerbosi; with Rita Wilson and Maria Bello. (JR)

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Gangs Of New York

Martin Scorsese’s epic about gang wars in mid-19th-century lower Manhattan starts off with a lot of promise and excitement but winds up 165 minutes later feeling empty and affectless. Critics and the public alike have discouraged Scorsese from growing upapplauding relatively adolescent slugfests like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas while showing less enthusiasm for his more adult fare. Much of the problem here is that this film shines only when it stays on the level of a boys’ adventure, part pirate movie and part 19th-century revenge tale; it falters when it and its characters try to become something more. As often happens in large-scale celebrations of bloodshed, the creators’ ironic ruminations on the meaning of it all get swamped by the storytelling, and by the time the movie arrives at the 1863 Civil War draft riots, the parallels with The Birth of a Nation are far from encouraging. The script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan is especially weak when it comes to handling the heroine (Cameron Diaz), but Daniel Day-Lewis is very impressive in a charismatic post-Brando performance as the villain and ambivalent father figure to Leonardo DiCaprio’s hero. With Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, and Brendan Gleeson.… Read more »

Maid In Manhattan

A maid at a ritzy Manhattan hotel (Jennifer Lopez) is mistaken for a guest by Ralph Fiennes, who’s running for the Senate. This version of the Cinderella story was originally offered to Julia Roberts, implying that a Pretty Woman redux was intended, but what makes this comedy so appealing is that, unlike the 1990 Disney celebration of prostitution and patriarchy, it manages to infuse a fairy-tale fantasy with a healthy dose of realityabout not only what a maid’s life and milieu are like but also the inner workings of a big hotel. There’s an unusual number of genuine characters (as opposed to types) in the storya credit to the script (Kevin Wade, working from a draft by John Hughes), direction (Wayne Wang), and high-energy cast, which also includes Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Garcia Posey (as the maid’s unstereotypical and supportive son), Marissa Matrone (who plays a very rough approximation of the fairy godmother), Frances Conroy, Chris Eigeman, and an especially astute Bob Hoskins. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »


Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, the writer and director of Being John Malkovich, have teamed up on another zany comedy, approximately two-thirds as good. Kaufman shares screenplay credit with an imaginary twin brother named Donald, echoing the storyin which a writer named Charlie Kaufman has a twin brother named Donald. (Both are played by Nicolas Cage.) The real-life Kaufman, assigned to adapt a real-life nonfiction book he admired but couldn’t figure out how to crack, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, decided to write about his dilemma, alternating bits of the book with a comic saga about writer’s block; to foreground his own schizophrenic split between suffering artist and amiable Hollywood hack, he invented a twin for the latter role. Meryl Streep, who tends to shine in comedies, plays Orlean, and Chris Cooper does an elaborate character turn as her subject, an eccentric flower poacher in the Florida Everglades. This is like a Ferris wheelit’s enjoyable but it goes nowhere, which I guess is how Ferris wheel rides are supposed to be. With Tilda Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »