Monthly Archives: August 2002

Pilgrimage

According to many John Ford specialists (including his best biographer, Joseph McBride), this offbeat Ford feature (1933, 95 min.) about a woman who sends her son off to his death in World War I in order to break up his romance is one of his greatest, though also one of his most disturbing. Ford regular Dudley Nichols wrote the script with Philip Klein and Barry Conners, adapting a story by I.A.R. Wylie; with Henrietta Crosman, Heather Angel, Norman Foster, and Hedda Hopper. (JR)… Read more »

Moonfleet

From the Chicago Reader (August 30, 2002). — J.R.

Moonfleet-well

Fritz Lang’s only film in CinemaScope (1955, 89 min.) is one of his most neglected features, at least in this country. (In France there’s a deluxe edition on DVD made especially for high school students.) A kind of 18th-century fairy tale about an orphan (Jon Whiteley) in Dorset who’s adopted, after a fashion, by a smuggler (Stewart Granger), this classy MGM production was adapted from a novel by J. Meade Faulkner by Margaret Fitts and Jan Lustig, and its dreamlike sense of wonder is equaled only in Lang’s German pictures. John Houseman produced, and Mikos Rozsa wrote the stirring score; the fine secondary cast includes George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, and Viveca Lindfors. (JR)

MoonfleetRead more »

Teenage Hooker Becomes Killing Machine In Daehakro

Australian critic Adrian Martin has called this no-budget wide-screen video from South Korea a small trash-art masterpiece, arguing that some effects are as dexterously staged as in a Sam Raimi movie but conceding that others fall flat as a pancake. Since fall 2001 it’s been making the rounds of international film festivals, picking up various fans and dissenters en route, and though I’m closer to the former, you should know what to expect: Working the backstreets of Seoul, a Lolita-age hooker in school uniform gets killed by an evil teacher and sliced and diced by a gang, but she returns to wreak vengeance after being stitched back together by a mad scientistall in an hour. If you can accept such a premise, you’re bound to admire director Nam Gee-wong’s energy and resourcefulness with a threadbare budget. In contrast the accompanying three-minute experimental video Ya Private Sky seems like random aggression, though director Stom Sogo reports that he whittled it down from five hours of Super-8 footage. (JR)… Read more »

Beat And Beyond: Films By Alfred Leslie

These three films by painter-provocateur Alfred Leslie constitute a sort of healthy beatnik sandwich. The first bread slice is Pull My Daisy (1959, 29 min.), his legendary Lower East Side collaboration with Robert Frank (who shot and codirected), Jack Kerouac (the writer and narrator), Anita Ellis and David Amram (jazz vocalist and jazz composer respectively), and Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky (all silent actors here, along with Delphine Seyrig in her first film performance). The second slice is the lesser known Birth of a Nation 1965 (1997, 25 min.), a tantalizing fragment salvaged from a two-hour sound feature that was shot on 8-millimeter in the 60s and then largely lost in a fire. Goofy, funny, challenging, and unruly in the best sense, it’s mainly a group grope with unrelated subtitles, plus a guest appearance by Willem de Kooning as Captain Nemo and the voice of Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade. Laid between these irresponsible and lighthearted works is The Last Clean Shirt (1964, 40 min.), a teasing bit of Zen minimalism and a prestructural-filmmaking prank that I hope won’t drive the audience out of the theater. It runs us several times through the same uneventful car ride, timed by a clock that’s mounted on the dashboard and accompanied on the sound track by the woman passenger’s untranslated chatter in what sounds like an eastern European language; various sets of subtitles translate the chatter, reveal the black driver’s thoughts, and creatively confuse us even further.… Read more »

Secret Ballot

Highly entertaining and deceptively simple, this comic road movie (2001, 105 min.) by Iranian-born writer-director Babak Payami traces the bristling relationship between an idealistic woman collecting votes in the Iranian national election and the suspicious rube of a Turkish-Iranian soldier assigned to chauffeur her. The setting is Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, and the comic clash of personalities sometimes recalls The African Queen. Payami subtly explores just what weAmericans, Iranians, and othersmean by democracy, theoretically as well as practically, and he never forgets that this movie was in production during the Florida recount in 2000. Beautifully assembled in sound as well as image, this employs long takes and both realistic and surrealistic touches to let the audience make up its own mind about the characters and varied situations, yet it’s also a finely crafted entertainment that works better than most current Hollywood movies. In Farsi with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Cedar Bar

In 1952 beat painter and filmmaker Alfred Leslie wrote a play based on an argument he witnessed between art critic Clement Greenberg and abstract expressionist painters at a celebrated hangout in Greenwich Village. The text was lost in a 1966 fire that also consumed most of Leslie’s paintings and films, but 20 years later he reconstructed it from memory and added songs, and in 1997 a staged reading was videotaped with three cameras. Leslie found the results visually boring, so he decided to insert an enormous quantity of found footage from newsreels, porn films, and Hollywood movies, either to illustrate or to play against the ongoing discussion. The opening clip, a clown singing in squawks and squeaks that are subtitled with some invective from critic Hilton Kramer, sets the tone perfectly; like many fine filmmakers who’ve worked with found footage in recent years (such as Jean-Luc Godard and Mark Rappaport), Leslie is an expert indexer, and his taste for the silliest, sexiest, and most surreal manifestations of American culture is so infectious that the debate about artists and critics in this 2001 video improbably becomes infused with joy. 84 min. (JR) Leslie, the festival’s guest of honor, will attend the screening to introduce and discuss his work.… Read more »

One Hour Photo

About a decade ago Robin Williams went through a significant career change, no longer choosing projects that couldn’t be understood by a child of ten. The only way this first feature by music video director Mark Romanek violates this norm is by offering some ambiguity about whether a couple of scenes are real or imaginedthough ten-year-olds who’ve mastered Carrie should sail through them without much difficulty. The tale of a lonely photo-counter worker who becomes obsessed with a family whose snapshots he develops, this watchable if relatively threadbare movie has taken on an undeserved reputation as an art film because of its many festival showings. It’s actually a discreet exploitation effort, the more lurid events being mainly left to the imagination on the apparent assumption that the audience wants to imagine such stuff. The character played by Robin Williams is at best a well-formulated theorem rather than a human being, and the other characters aren’t any more substantial. I was intrigued by the details of how a Kmart-type store is run, but the people in this story could be products on the shelves. With Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole (a bit warmer than the other participants), and Erin Daniels. 98 min.… Read more »

The Miles Davis Story

Mike Dibb’s 2001 documentary about the great jazz trumpet player, produced for England’s Channel Four, is fairly absorbing as biography, a multifaceted portrait from the vantage points of many people who were close to him (lovers, wives, children, other relatives, fellow musicians, and a couple of key record executives). But don’t go hoping to hear any extended music or even much commentary about Davis’s art, and if, like me, you’re steeped in his 40s, 50s, and 60s work and began to lose interest once he went electric, be aware that his later music is heard and discussed more than anything else. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Smile

This 1975 satire about a Young American Miss beauty pageant and the middle-class mentality of small-town southern California is Michael Ritchie’s best feature, though it hasn’t won anything like the reputation it deserves. Dave Kehr’s original Reader review was less than enthusiastic (Ritchie’s rage doesn’t bring much insight with it) but conceded that a few of the supporting performances are surprisingly deepMichael Kidd, Annette O’Toole, Barbara Feldon, to which I’d add Bruce Dern, the lead. (The film also features early performances by Melanie Griffith and Colleen Camp.) Screenwriter Jerry Belson supplies an unexpected amount of pain and even horror as well as comic nuance; Martin Rubin of the Gene Siskel Film Center aptly notes that Waiting for Guffman owes a lot to this picture, and I might add that in certain respects it also anticipates American Beauty. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

Merci Pour Le Chocolat

Claude Chabrol is seldom more elegant as a stylist than when he’s working with familiar elements, and this 2000 movie has a slew of them: dysfunctional families (this one has two); Isabelle Huppert as a perverse individual smoldering under an appearance of placid normality; scenic settings (in this case Lausanne, in the French part of Switzerland); and the plot of an American thriller transposed to the French bourgeoisie (adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, a child psychiatrist who also helped write The Ceremony). New elements include actor Jacques Dutronc, a fair amount of classical music (two of the main characters are pianists), and, unfortunately, a conclusion stuffed with so many improbabilities that it left me gaping in disbelief. Prior to that, this is pretty much fun. In French with subtitles. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mommie Dearest

In spite of its reputation, and thanks in part to Faye Dunaway’s remarkable performance as Joan Crawford, this 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir about her driven, abusive mother is arguably too good to qualify as camp, even if it begins (and fitfully proceeds) like a horror film. Director Frank Perry, who collaborated with three others (including producer Frank Yablans) on the script, gives it all a certain crazed conviction. With Diana Scarwid, Steve Forrest, and, as Louis B. Mayer, Howard da Silva. PG, 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mostly Martha

As a portrait of a compulsive and neurotic chef trying to coexist with other people–in particular an eight-year-old niece whose mother has been killed and an Italian sous chef who joins her kitchen staff–this is a well-made and entertaining romantic comedy-drama, providing ample proof that German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck can turn out a classier commercial feature than most of her Hollywood contemporaries. (She’s helped in particular by ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher, whose selection of accompanying music–much of it drawn from his own catalog, including two fine Keith Jarrett cuts–is excellent.) But as a showcase for Martina Gedeck, a beautiful and highly creative actress I’ve never seen before, this is better than good, it’s wonderful: if facial expressions can be compared to colors, Gedeck works with an unusually broad palette, constantly surprising us, and she helps make her costars shine. These include Maxime Foerste as the niece and Sergio Castellitto as the sous chef. 107 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Elvis On Tour

Following the design of Woodstock, Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel shot and edited this 1972 documentary in a multiscreen format, so don’t expect it to look like much on video. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Beast Of The City

Despite the fact that this opens with a message from Hoover (Herbert, not J. Edgar) urging us to glorify policemen rather than gangsters, this 1932 talkie is said to be better than average, as a police chief (Walter Huston) sets out to battle organized crime. Adapted by John Lee Mahin from a W.R. Burnett story, it was directed by Charles Brabin (The Mask of Fu Manchu), and certainly its cast is exceptional: Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford, Jean Hersholt, Tully Marshall, and 11-year-old Mickey Rooney. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Unified Theory [METROPOLIS]

This appeared in the August 16, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. I more recently had occasion to return to this film and some of my thoughts about it when I joined David Kalat to do an audio commentary on the expanded (and now nearly complete) version of Metropolis for the forthcoming English DVD of Masters of Cinema. In fact, the essay below was used by Masters of Cinema in the accompanying booklet of their previous edition of  the film, and an updated version of this piece appeared in the next one. — J.R.

Metropolis

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou

With Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, and Heinrich George.

The internationalism of filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages. To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us.

We will realize it! — Fritz Lang, in an article published in 1926

Lang’s utopian rallying cry, written in Germany during the editing of Metropolis, is well worth recalling today.… Read more »