Daily Archives: June 1, 2002

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

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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 »

Adaptation

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 »

The Pianist

Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who managed to survive the Warsaw ghetto, won the top prize at Cannes and an Oscar for best director, and it’s easy to understand why: Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, is so authoritative in showing us what life there was like that this film makes more conventional heart tuggers like Schindler’s List shrivel to insignificance. He appears to follow Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Szpilman’s autobiography with scrupulous thoroughness, as well as with the special patience that it takes to show a passive and mainly unheroic victim surviving. All of Polanski’s films reflect the grimness of his war experience in one way or another, and this feature serves to clarify some of the emotions and attitudes found in the others. The results are masterful, admirably unsentimental, and never boring, if also a little stodgy. The Polish dialogue is rendered as English, the German is simply subtitled. R, 148 min. (JR)… Read more »

Rabbit-proof Fence

An Australian western with epic sweep directed by Phillip Noyce and dealing with the stolen generation of aboriginal children who were torn from their families by misguided state functionaries. It’s based on a true story about three girls taken from their mother in 1931 and sent to a state-run facility a thousand miles away; they escape and set off for home on foot, dodging the law en route. The story is so black-and-white that one feels like hissing the villain (Kenneth Branagh) and cheering the heroines, but the simplicity of the telling seems warranted. David Gulpilil, the aboriginal star of Walkabout, is memorable here too. Adapted by Christine Olsen from a book by Doris Pilkington and shot by the matchless Christopher Doyle. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Die Another Day

Maybe I’ve seen too many James Bond movies by now, or maybe the trouble with this 20th installment is that the filmmakers are trying too hard to top the excesses of the predecessors. I suppose that the baroque North Korean villains here might serve to inspire enlistments for a theoretical World War IV, assuming that we’re still around to enjoy such a caper. And I guess that if you can manage to overlook how much Pierce Brosnan is beginning to resemble Fred MacMurray, you might find this 007 romp more neat than ridiculous. The problem for me is that the story is so entirely at the service of the special effects. I like Halle Berry a lot, but neither she nor the other deadly sex object, Rosamund Pike, seems to be having much fun. With Judi Dench, Toby Stephens, Michael Madsen, and John Cleese. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ararat

Atom Egoyan takes on the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of an estimated two-thirds of the Armenian population, and though the result has generally been judged a failure, I much prefer it to any number of modest art house successes. As usual, Egoyan structures the film as an achronological roundelay of various plotsin this case, a film crew making a movie about the massacre, the troubled past of an Armenian-Canadian woman whose son is working on the project, and a protracted encounter between this son and a customs officer whose gay son’s lover is acting in the same pictureand sometimes this seems mechanical. But the film expresses with uncommon power the highly relevant issue of public indifference to genocide, which is especially well dramatized by a scene with Elias Koteas as an actor playing a Turk. The rest of the cast is pretty interesting too, including David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Arsinee Khanjian, and Christopher Plummer. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes’s best feature to datea provocative companion piece to his underrated Safe (1995), which also starred Julianne Moore as a lost suburban housewife but is otherwise quite different. This captures the look, feel, and sound of glamorous 50s tearjerkers like All That Heaven Allows, not to mock or feel superior to them but to say new things with their vocabulary. The story, set in 1957, concerns a traditional if well-to-do homemaker who falls in love with her black gardener (a superb performance by Dennis Haysbert) around the time that she discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual. Frankly, I find this movie more emotionally powerful, more truthful about the 50s, and more meaningful than any of the Technicolor Douglas Sirk pictures it evokes, even though it trades in obvious artifice in a way the originals never did. Though technically an independent feature, this is in fact one of the best Hollywood movies around. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Derrida

If you think 85 minutes devoted to a difficult French philosopher is bound to be either abstruse or watered-down, think again: offscreen interlocutor Amy Ziering Kofman, a former student of Jacques Derrida, collaborating with codirector Kirby Dick, has worked out a very accessible and unpretentious way of conveying both the philosophy and likable personality of her subject. There’s an admirable effort to interconnect the banal facts of his everyday life with his philosophical inquiries without being coy or fussy about it. Following Derrida around in a variety of circumstances (lecturing, visiting South Africa, chatting with friends), this 2002 documentary explores some aspects of his difficult childhood as a Jew in Algeria as well as his philosophy, with his excellent English frequently coming into play to clarify or amplify his subtitled French. (JR)… Read more »

Femme Fatale

Try to imagine a synthesis of every previous Brian De Palma film; you’ll come up with something not very different from his first made-in-France movie, a personal project for which he takes sole script credit. I enjoyed every minute of it, maybe because De Palma took such obvious pleasure in putting it all together. If you decide at the outset that this needn’t have any recognizable relationship to the world we live in, you might even find it a delight. With Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, and Peter Coyote. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cross Of Lorraine

World War 2 propaganda set in a POW camp by the neglected if uneven Tay Garnett and featuring an intriguing offbeat cast: Jean-Pierre Aumont, Gene Kelly, Cedric Hardwicke, Richard Whorf, Joseph Calleia, Peter Lorre, and Hume Cronyn (1943, 90 min.) (JR)… Read more »

Jacques Rivette, The Night Watchman

Claire Denis’ first-rate video documentary (1990) about filmmaker Jacques Rivette, produced for French television, has many things to recommend it. The main interviewer is the great critic Serge Daney, who, two years before his death, converses with Rivette while relaxing in a cafe and strolling around Paris (Denis interjects a few questions toward the end); since both men were former editors of Cahiers du Cinema, not to mention groundbreaking and highly articulate critics, they have a lot to discuss apart from Rivette’s filmmaking. Clips from many of Rivette’s major films are included, as are interviews with some of Rivette’s actors, such as Bulle Ogier and Jean-Francois Stevenin. Best of all, the film beautifully captures Rivette the man, as both solitary cinephile and exploratory filmmaker. In French with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Grey Zone

Director Tim Blake Nelson adapts his own play, which was partly based on a memoir about Auschwitz’s 12th Sonderkommandoone of the special squads of Jewish prisoners awarded privileges and a few extra months of life in exchange for helping to exterminate the other Jews in the camp. This is grueling to watch and to think about, which doesn’t necessarily make it edifying, though the actors (including Nelson, David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, and Natasha Lyonne) certainly do serious work. The questions of how the holocaust can be responsibly represented on film have been resolved provisionally only by Night and Fog and Shoah. This film, proceeding as if such questions don’t exist, serves up so many peripheral details about Auschwitz that I wondered whether the feel-good tactics of Schindler’s List were any worse than the feel-bad tactics here. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Russian Ark

One of the most staggering technical achievements in cinemaa single shot lasting 95 minutes while moving through 33 rooms in the world’s largest museum, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (which also encompasses the Winter Palace). Part pageant and museum tour, part theme-park ride and historical meditation, it also traverses two centuries of czarist Russia, with offscreen filmmaker Alexander Sokurov engaged in an ongoing dialogue with an on-screen 19th-century French diplomat. Sokurov used close to 2,000 actors and extras and three live orchestras in making what may be the world’s only unedited single-take feature as well as the longest Steadicam sequence ever shot. The problem with these feats is that they threaten to overwhelm the film’s content, both as complex historical commentary and as aesthetic and theoretical gesture. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »