Daily Archives: November 22, 2002

The Sleepy Time Gal

Christopher Munch, one of America’s most gifted independent filmmakers, follows his features The Hours and Times (1991) and Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996) with this lovely and moving 2001 drama, a speculative account of his late mother’s early life in which a woman (Jacqueline Bisset) and her long-lost illegitimate daughter (Martha Plimpton) pursue each other without ever meeting. By all rights it should have put Munch on the map, yet it wound up premiering only on the Sundance Channel last spring (when I wrote about it in Section One) and consequently hasn’t attracted the buzz it deserves. A multifaceted look at a varied life, it has wonderful performances not only by Bisset and Plimpton but also by its secondary cast, including Nick Stahl as the woman’s gay son, Amy Madigan as the nurse who cares for Bisset after she becomes ill, Seymour Cassel as a former lover, Peggy Gormley as his wife, and Frankie R. Faison as a radio station manager. Months after seeing this, I still feel I know most of these people as if they were old friends. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Afghan Alphabet

Made in December 2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 44-minute documentary focuses on Afghan refugee children during their first day of school in a village near the Iranian border. It’s indicative of the highly interactive and sometimes competitive nature of recent Iranian cinema that the title of this film can probably be traced to Kiarostami’s recent ABC Africa, which can be traced to Amir Naderi’s A, B, C . . . Manhattan (1997). And at times Makhmalbaf, who doubles as offscreen narrator and interviewer, may be trying (without a great deal of success) to emulate Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (1962), even down to the cadences of the poetry he recites near the end. There’s something moving about kids seeing education as a precious luxury and crowding classrooms to capacity even when they can’t officially enroll, and given that America was attacking their country one can understand a boy saying he doesn’t like either America or the Taliban. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with Makhmalbaf’s aggressive efforts to persuade one little girl to remove her veil: the film is structured around the children’s first lessonsaying, writing, and reading the Afghan word for waterand getting the girl to show her face long enough to wash it.… Read more »

Children Of The Century

I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this lush 1999 period picture, which chronicles the tempestuous affair between George Sand and Alfred de Musset, and it certainly doesn’t provide a sense of what either was like as a writer or even as a thinker. But as a literary bodice ripper this is better than average, partly because of its glimpses of early-19th-century bohemianism in France and Italy but mostly because Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel manage to keep the story hot and unpredictable. As the opening title acknowledges, the age difference between Sand and Musset was only six years, yet curiously the film depicts their relationship as if she were twice his age. Director Diane Kurys collaborated with Murray Head and Francoise Olivier Rousseau on the script; this originally ran 135 minutes but has been trimmed down to two hours for American audienceswhich perhaps accounts for the confusing and cryptic allusion to Sand’s ten-year relationship with Chopin. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Magic Sun And Cry Of Jazz

Two short films featuring Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz artist whose big band the Arkestra got its start in Chicago. I haven’t seen Phill Niblock’s Magic Sun (1968, 17 min.), but most accounts suggest its visuals may be more striking than its music. Whether this is true or not, the music in Edward O. Bland’s eccentric Chicago-made short Cry of Jazz (1959, 31 min.) is absolutely essential. The paradox here is that Bland’s film centers on jazz and needs various kinds of performance to illustrate its points, yet what’s being played is only adequate; if the music were good enough to distract one from the talk, the film wouldn’t work as well. Lucid and provocative, this is recommended viewing for any jazz novice, one of the best social readings of jazz form I know. (JR)… Read more »

The Bank

Hot on the heels of the Enron scandal comes the U.S. release of this slick, efficient industrial thriller from Australia, a hokey but highly entertaining tale of corporate greed that should be especially satisfying if you’re pissed off at big business. Anthony LaPaglia makes a wonderful villain as the slithering CEO, David Wenham plays the mathematical wizard he hires, and Sibylla Budd is the latter’s girlfriend. This 2001 release is Robert Connolly’s first feature as writer-director, and he seems to know what he’s doing every step of the way. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

We Can’t Go Home Again

Nicholas Ray ended his Hollywood career with his most expensive production, 55 Days in Peking (1963), and followed it ten years later with his least expensive, an experimental and politically radical independent feature made with his film students. Each movie is a shambles, though if I had to choose between them I’d probably opt for this one, which is certainly the more original. Ray and his students play themselves in docudrama situations that culminate in Ray’s (fictional) suicide, and often he combines several images into crowded frescoes. The film reeks of countercultural alienation and anguish, and when it premiered at Cannes in 1973, Ray spoke of trying to make what in our minds is a Guernica out of such materials as a broken-down Bolex and a Mitchell that costs $25 out of navy surplus. He tinkered with the film for years, and the 1976 date commonly assigned to it refers to a second unfinished version, which, lamentably, is unavailable. It’s upsetting in many ways, but as a document of its time there’s nothing remotely like it. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Land Of The Pharaohs

Howard Hawks’s only attempt at a wide-screen blockbuster (1955), much disparaged afterward by Hawks and many others, is actually fairly awesome if you can get beyond the clunky dialogue (some of it written by William Faulkner, as well as Harry Kurnitz) and the campy evilness of the Joan Collins character. An epic about the building of the pyramids, it comes a lot closer to Red River than some critics would care to admit; Jack Hawkins is the pharaoh, and Hawks discovery Dewey Martin and James Robertson Justice fill out the cast. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Magnificent Repression [on FAR FROM HEAVEN]

From the November 22, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Far From Heaven

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Todd Haynes

With Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, and James Rebhorn.

It becomes apparent that in this context, for practical purposes, “Sirk” does not denote a mood or a philosophy or a set of plot elements, but rather a repertoire of technical decisions. With that lexicon of effects, new sentences can be written. — Geoffrey O’Brien, writing on Far From Heaven in the November issue of Artforum

Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven – a revisionist pastiche of the Technicolor melodramas Douglas Sirk made for Universal Pictures in the 1950s — was easily, and in some ways deservedly, the most popular movie among critics at the Toronto film festival in September. Though less obviously a tour de force than many flashier recent art films, such as Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature Russian Ark, it’s no less impressive as a technical achievement.

Despite the Toronto buzz, Far From Heaven may not become a hit, even in art theaters (though I’ve heard it had a strong opening week at the Landmark). Having twice discussed it with audiences (as part of Talk Cinema screenings at Northbrook and Pipers Alley), I’ve seen how it can divide viewers.… Read more »