Monthly Archives: February 2003

All The Real Girls

David Gordon Green follows up his George Washington with something similar yet also somewhat better. Again the setting is a North Carolina mill town, the milieu mainly working-class, and the period contemporary only in the broadest sense. (Perhaps the surest sign of the present is the heroine’s telling the hero not to smoke in her bedroom.) But this time most of the characters are somewhat older, none is black, the cast includes veteran actors as well as talented first-timers, and the plot is more focused: an offbeat love story between a 22-year-old ladies’ man who’s never left town (cowriter Paul Schneider) and an 18-year-old virgin and recent boarding-school graduate (Zooey Deschanel). This is a lyrical heartbreaker that skirts most love-story cliches and is brave enough to be as inconclusive as the characters. Green’s poetic sensibility and Tim Orr’s lush ‘Scope cinematography give this drifting story a pungent aftertaste. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Son

This potent Belgian feature (2002) by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is every bit as good as their La promesse and Rosetta. Unlike them it can’t be described in detail without telegraphing the plot’s carefully structured exposition, but it involves a carpenter and teacher at a vocational workshop (Olivier Gourmet) who takes on a 16-year-old boy as an apprentice, with cataclysmic consequences. Gourmet, who played the hero’s father in La promesse and the heroine’s employer in Rosetta, gives a strong and nuanced performance that deservedly won him the best actor prize at Cannes. The Dardennes’ extremely physical and visceral camera style plunges the viewer into an emotional maelstrom, and their subtle, unpredictable sense of character is predicated not on coercion of the audience but on an extraordinary respect for the viewer as well as the characters. To my knowledge there’s no one else making films with such a sharp sense of contemporary working-class lifebut for the Dardennes it’s only the starting point of a spiritual and profoundly ethical odyssey. In French with subtitles. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cinema Of Horror: Avant-garde Program

Showing as part of the lecture series The Cinema of Horror: Maya Deren’s first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, 18 min.), and four of the most famous short films of Kenneth Anger: Fireworks (1947, 15 min.), Scorpio Rising (1963, 29 min.), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969, 12 min.), and Lucifer Rising (1980, 29 min.). If you’ve never seen these highly personal and essential works, this should be an excellent introduction. (JR)… Read more »

Black Rain

Not to be confused with the Ridley Scott thriller released the same year, this black-and-white 1989 feature by Shohei Imamura takes on the unpredictable physical and psychological aftereffects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Based on a celebrated novel by Masuji Ibuse, it focuses on a young woman who’s just moved to a village across a wide bay from the city when the bomb falls. Most of the plot unfolds years later, yet Imamura repeatedly returns to the bombing’s immediate aftermath, and one of the more striking of these traumatic and haunting flashbacks is boldly rendered just with sound effects and changes in lighting. Imamura’s style here, for all its inventiveness, is uncharacteristically subdued and sober. Like his last worka devastating episode in the anthology film September 11this is one of the few movies that’s addressed Hiroshima without blinking. In Japanese with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cop-Out [DARK BLUE]

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 2003). — J.R.

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Dark Blue

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Ron Shelton

Written by David Ayer and James Ellroy

With Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Michele, Ving Rhames, Lolita Davidovich, Kurupt, and Jamison Jones.

A curious kind of double game is being played in Dark Blue, a cop thriller that sets out to “explain” the 1992 LA riots. For a good while I sat thinking, “At last — a movie that doesn’t mince words about police corruption and racism,” for even if it’s a decade late and a bit simplistic in some of its moral positioning, the story doesn’t soft-pedal the facts. (It even prompted me to think how useful it might be if someone in Hollywood delivered a thriller about the Enron scandal — not ten years from now but before the next presidential election.) But I soon realized that the attempt to wed a comfortable genre to an uncomfortable social agenda allowed another kind of soft-pedaling to take over.

The filmmakers — Ron Shelton directing a David Ayer script based on a James Ellroy story — obviously want us to swallow a bitter pill, but traditionally Hollywood genres, even the LA cop thriller, are sweet and don’t have much of an aftertaste.… Read more »

Windmills of His Mind

The following review of Lost in La Mancha appeared in the February 21, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. Seeing the new Terry Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (see above), last Saturday (November 7), on my last evening in St.. Andrews, Scotland, I was sufficiently blown away by the visual invention and surrealist imagination on display here to rethink some of my estimation of his films. (The film doesn’t open in the U.S. until Christmas, but I’m told that it’s already something of a monster hit in Europe.) Even though I couldn’t always follow what was going on in terms of plot (probably my fault more than the film’s), the way Gilliam solved the seemingly insoluble problems posed by the death of Heath Ledger in the middle of shooting — arriving at a form of multiple casting (see below) that I’ve formerly associated mainly with experimental filmmakers such as Yvonne Rainer — is only one example of his nonstop ingenuity. I was also impressed by both his digital mastery and his arsenal of references — including The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., which I believe he quotes from in one image of the hero climbing a ladder that rises into seeming infinity.Read more »

Gerry

Gus Van Sant says this 2001 feature was inspired by Bela Tarr, James Benning, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Tati, and Chantal Akerman, among others, but it’s far below the level of any of these filmmakers at their best. Within the commercial context suggested by the film’s only actorsCasey Affleck and Matt Damonit’s certainly a provocation, with a few funny moments, and it’s less phony and offensive than Finding Forrester. The two stars (who collaborated with Van Sant on the script), both playing characters named Gerry, wander across the desert for some reason, and if you enjoy watching them on any pretext, you’ll probably enjoy this; if you don’t, you won’t. Van Sant was an exciting filmmaker when he made his first three features (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and some of his early shorts. The feature following this one, Elephant, reestablished him as an artist worth watching. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

Black Cat, White Cat

There’s something almost wearying as well as exhilarating about the perpetual brilliance of Bosnian-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica. As with some of Fellini’s late works, the energy and inventiveness, not to mention the juicy vulgarity, are so consistent in Black Cat, White Cat that you feel you can slice into the material at almost any point. In this 129-minute slam-bang farce (1999) about Gypsies living on the Danube and lorded over by two rival patriarchs, there’s plenty to cherish and enjoy (at least if you can put up with all the cynicism), but I was especially impressed by Bajram Severdzan, hilarious as a nouveau riche gangster. In German, Romany, and Serbo-Croatian with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Quai Des Orfevres

The skillful writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is mainly known for his corrosive misanthropy. Yet surprisingly, this accomplished 1947 noir turns that misanthropy precisely on its head without ever resorting to sentimentality or stereotypes. The milieus of a seedy music hall and police station in Paris are delineated with such richness and attentiveness toward the postoccupation climate that when the murder of a licentious film producer brings a police inspector (the great Louis Jouvet) into the music hall, Clouzot is able to reveal a complex and interactive working-class world in which cops and criminals are sometimes difficult to tell apart. The principal epiphanies in this tale emerge from Jouvet’s expressions of kinship with a flirtatious singer (Suzy Delair) and a lesbian photographer (Simone Renant), but there are also memorable portraits of the singer’s mousy pianist husband (Bernard Blier), a music publisher (Henri Arius), and several others. In French with subtitles. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Old School

I probably laughed harder at this collection of college slapstick sketches than I ever have at a film I didn’t really like, Dave Kehr once wrote in this paper about Animal House, and that’s pretty much my reaction to Old School. Directed, cowritten, and coproduced by Todd Phillips, this cheerfully vulgar low-comedy tale of three out-of-sorts 30ish blowhards (Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) trying to rekindle the spark of their college days by setting up a frat house starts out silly, gets sillier by the minute, and frequently had me and most of the people around me in stitches. Don’t expect clever plotting or witty dialogue, but credit Phillips’s easy way with actors and his sharp sense of how to use or avoid pathos. (The film also shows the paw prints of Animal House producer Ivan Reitman.) With Ellen Pompeo, Juliette Lewis, Leah Remini, and Jeremy Piven. R, 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Touchez pas au grisbi

The French title of Jacques Becker’s 1953 gangster thriller translates as “Hands Off the Loot,” but a much better English title used for this film is Honor Among Thieves. Jean Gabin wasn’t yet 50 when he starred as a big-time, high-style gangster hoping to retire, but he still looks pretty wasted, and this pungent tale about aging and friendship, adapted from a best-selling noir thriller by Albert Simonin, would be hard to imagine without his puffy features. Jeanne Moreau, in one of her first parts, plays a showgirl who two-times Gabin’s similarly aging partner (Rene Dary), and future star Lino Ventura also puts in an appearance. But it’s Gabin’s show all the way, anticipating the melancholy, atmospheric gangster pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville that started to appear a couple years later. In French with subtitles. 94 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Wednesday, February 19, 6:00, 312-846-2800.… Read more »

Till Human Voices Wake Us

I was appalled to hear that writer-director Michael Petroni was obliged to reedit his Australian feature in order to receive American distribution from Paramount Classics, taking apart the chronological Australian cut so that the story now seesaws awkwardly between two periods. Given the deplorable willingness of so much of the American press to sanction this sort of Miramaxing, routinely trusting distributors over filmmakers, it’s not surprising that so many films wind up twisted pointlessly out of shape. This is a tale of romantic obsession with more than a whiff of Vertigo. It’s about a teenage boy (Lindley Joyner) who returns to his native Victoria from boarding school and falls for a crippled girl (Brooke Harman) who fancies poetry (occasioning the Eliot reference in the title). She drowns; decades later the boy, now a psychology teacher (Guy Pearce) returning from Melbourne to bury his father, saves a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) from drowning and begins to relive his traumatic experience. The story is full of unanswered questions and ultimately succeeds or fails according to the mood it conjures. I was seduced part of the time, thanks largely to Bonham Carter’s sensuality, but the whole is unsatisfying, and it’s tempting to see the imposed recutting as a major source of the problem.… Read more »

Straight Ahead, on the Left

In my original review of this documentary, I cited and recommended some writing by Eliot Weinberger that three of my editors regarded as irresponsible and unreliable and therefore something that shouldn’t be mentioned, along with some of my own pronouncements. Readers who would like to judge this matter for themselves can read my unedited draft, which I’ve added below the published version. The edited version appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times

*** (A must-see)

Directed by John Junkerman.

As a work of cinema, John Junkerman’s documentary about Noam Chomsky doesn’t set the world on fire. The film is a prosaic compilation of interview footage of the linguist and political analyst in his office at MIT intercut with footage of him speaking in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and the Bronx last spring. He’s also shown chatting with students about U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terrorism,” and representations of both in the American media. Unlike Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), a Canadian film that’s well over twice as long, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times doesn’t try to offer a comprehensive portrait of its subject or a wide-ranging survey of his thought.… Read more »

Love Liza

Philip Seymour Hoffman fails to carry this 2002 indie feature about a Web designer spiraling downward in the wake of his wife’s unexplained suicide. For all the possibilities inherent in such a premise, neither writer Gordy Hoffman (the actor’s brother) nor director Todd Louiso has found a way to realize any of them fully. Kathy Bates, who can do no wrong, is a rock of strength as Hoffman’s mother-in-law, and giving her more screen time might have been fruitful. With Wilson Joel and Mary Ann Bankhead. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first major film (1966, though banned and unseen until 1971), cowritten by Andrei Konchalovsky, about a 15th-century icon painter. This medieval epic announced the birth of a major talent; it also stuns with the sort of poetic explosions we’ve come to expect from Tarkovsky: an early flying episode suggesting Gogol, a stirring climax in color. Not to be missed. In Russian and Italian with subtitles. 205 min. (JR)… Read more »