Monthly Archives: April 2003

Battlefield Earth

To my taste, L. Ron Hubbard peaked as an imaginative writer in 1940, with yarns like Fear and Typewriter in the Skya full decade before Dianetics turned his imagination in another direction and several decades before his best-selling novels flattened it into thousands of pages of clodhopping prose. This 117-minute adaptation of an 800-page SF adventure for teenagers (2000) seems like a miscalculation on multiple levels. Coproducer John Travolta is buried under what appear to be tons of makeup and padding to create a parody of one-dimensional villainy, and as his flunky, Forest Whitaker fares only slightly better by virtue of retaining his belly laugh. These aliens enslave and exploit earthlings on the charred remnants of earth in the year 3000 while insulting them with various rat-related epithets. The atmosphere is pretty depressing, but I wouldn’t describe the distance between this and The Phantom Menace as a yawning gulf. PG-13, 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

Raising Victor Vargas

Warmly recommended to viewers who like their romantic comedies small-scale but life-size, this charming debut feature by Peter Sollett, set in a Dominican milieu on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, follows the stumbling exploits of the title character (Victor Rasuk), a small-time teenage Romeo trying to upgrade his street image after being caught in the act with a chubby neighbor. Victor plots his way into the good graces of Juicy Judy (Judy Marte), a wary local beauty with agendas of her own; the hero’s sister, his younger brother, his cantankerous grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), and Judy’s brother and best friend all play significant parts in the developing intrigue. The nonprofessional cast contributed a lot to the script, and it benefits from their input. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mythic Mission [BLACKBOARDS]

From the April 25, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Blackboards

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Samira Makhmalbaf

Written by Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf

With Bahman Ghobadi, Said Mohamadi, and Behnaz Jafari.

I don’t know why it’s taken three years for Samira Makhmalbaf’s second feature to reach Chicago. It was finished in 1999 and won the jury prize at Cannes the following year. The Iranian director was only 17 when she finished her remarkable first feature, The Apple, which also screened in competition at Cannes and made her one of the youngest directors ever to gain an international reputation. Since then, she has made the 11-minute “God, Construction and Destruction,” about the responses of Afghan refugee children in Iran to the attacks on the World Trade Center, which is part of the 2002 international episodic feature 11/09/01 (still unscreened in the U.S.). She has also made the feature At Five in the Afternoon, about a young woman in post-Taliban Afghanistan, which is expected to premiere at Cannes in May.

All of her features to date have been produced, edited, and written or cowritten by her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But the three films of hers that I’ve seen are significantly different from his in that they deal with communities more than individuals, and I happen to like The Apple more in some respects than any film directed by him.… Read more »

Blackboards

This second feature by Samira Makhmalbaf (2000, 85 min.), made before she turned 20, shares many of the qualities found in other productions by Makhmalbaf Film House (The Day I Became a Woman, Kandahar) by boldly mixing documentary elements with allegory and fantasy in a way that’s both fascinating and disconcerting. Set in the rocky wilds of Kurdistan in northern Iran near the Iraqi border, the plot shuttles between a group of teachers who look for pupils while carrying blackboards on their backs, some boy smugglers, and a group of old men searching for their homes. The scenery is beautiful, and the feeling for community recalls not only Makhmalbaf’s debut feature, The Apple, but also, oddly enough, John Ford’s Wagon Master. In Farsi with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Levity

A convict (Billy Bob Thornton) who killed a boy in an attempted holdup is unexpectedly released from prison; still obsessed with redemption, he moves into a community house presided over by a mysterious preacher (Morgan Freeman), befriends the dead boy’s sister (Holly Hunter) without her knowing his crime, and attempts to counsel her troubled son. Haven’t we seen this already? Well, not exactly, but writer-director Ed Solomon, shooting in the midwestern dead of winter (actually in Canada), makes it more familiar than unfamiliar, despite good performances by Freeman and Kirsten Dunst (as another troubled youth). Thornton and Hunter are good too, albeit less memorable when required to do retreads. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Fruit Of Paradise

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this avant-garde version of the Adam and Eve story when I saw it umpteen years ago (it was made in 1970), but Vera Chytilova’s wild, extravagant, and ravishing romp was certainly intoxicating on a sensual level. It came at the end of her rebellious period as the great hope and holy terror of the new Czech cinema, after her even better About Something Else and Daisies, and before she buckled down to the relatively staid efforts of The Apple Game and Prague. A Czech-Belgian coproduction, set in a Czech resort, with a great deal of technical razzle-dazzle: double exposures, slow motion, step printing, and so on. In Czech with subtitles. (JR)

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2002 Oscar Shorts

If I thought these Oscar-nominated shorts were the best made in 2002, I’d probably want to give up reviewing movies. Three of the four live-action itemsDirk Belien’s Belgian Gridlock, Philippe Orreindy’s French I’ll Wait for the Next One, and Steve Pasvolsky’s Australian Dogcombine cuteness and cruelty in a way I find particularly repellent, so the cuteness without cruelty of Martin Strange-Hansen’s The Charming Man, the Danish romantic farce that won the Oscar, seems downright virtuous by comparison. Among the animated shorts, neither Eric Armstrong’s Oscar-winning The Chubbchubbs! nor Roger Gould’s Mike’s New Car, both American, was available for preview; the other threeTomek Baginski’s Polish The Cathedral, Chris Stenner and Heidi Wittlinger’s German Rocks, and Koji Yamamura’s Japanese Mt. Headheld my interest without being especially attractive. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Servant’s Shirt

Novelist Vinod Shukla collaborated with director Mani Kaul on this 1999 adaptation of Shukla’s book about a young clerk in a small-town government office and his bride during the late 60s. The story focuses on class hierarchy and domestic as well as work spaces (a key early stretch of dialogue compares the space in the couple’s cramped bed to the space in their hearts). This is beautifully short, and the influence of Robert Bresson on Kaul’s subtle inflections of editing and muting of the actors’ styles remains strong and beneficial throughout. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

11 X 14

One of James Benning’s very best early experimental films (1976, 83 min.) is also one of the few with a narrative, although it’s one that gets swallowed up by the form of the film, as Benning puts it, and much of it consists of teasing fragments of implied stories. The individual shots, nearly always elegant (and a few running as long as 11 minutes), often come across as enigmatic, graphic, poignant, tricky, unreal, mesmerizingly slow, and/or evocative. (JR)… Read more »

Above And Beyond

A sober and dutiful black-and-white biopic (1952) starring Robert Taylor as the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, the same dynamic duo who collaborated on several Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road pictures; with Eleanor Powell, James Whitmore, and other fun-loving members of the MGM back lot. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Mighty Wind

Christopher Guest’s half-funny mockumentary follow-up to Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show imagines a Town Hall folk music concert organized by a stiff control freak (Bob Balaban) as a memorial to his manager father. It’s easy to laugh at the preponderance of Jews in the pop-folk scene, and see that the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) are patterned after the Kingston Trio, the New Main Street Singers (including John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey) after the New Christy Minstrels, and Mitch & Mickey (cowriter Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) after Sonny and Cher. But I can’t fathom why Guest and Levy had the mirthless idea of making Mitch a burned-out mental case. With Paul Dooley, Jane Lynch, and Fred Willard. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stan Brakhage (1933-2003): In Memoriam/In Celebration

I was slow to appreciate the multifaceted greatness of the late Stan Brakhage, this country’s major experimental filmmaker, in part because he and some of his supporters originally presented his work in terms so grand they seemed to split his audience into believers and atheists. This memorial screening of ten Brakhage films, the prints of which were all loaned by local enthusiasts, extends from Desistfilm (1954) to Stately Mansions Did Decree (1999), and though it omits two of my favorites from his middle period–The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) and Scenes From Under Childhood (1970)–it offers a useful 75-minute survey for people unacquainted with his work. For me the real revelations are the 90s films: the breathtaking The Chartres Series (1994), the self-avowed “last testament” Commingled Containers (1996), which marked Brakhage’s return to photography after years of painting directly on celluloid, and the literally dazzling Stately Mansions Did Decree. All three exhibit the same painterly brilliance found in his Ellipses Reels 1-4 (1998), and taken as a whole they suggest an overall development from chamber pieces to grand orchestral works. Completing the survey are Mothlight (1963), Door (1971), The Riddle of Lumen (1972), The Roman Numeral Series III (1980), Egyptian Series (1983), and I…Dreaming (1988), the latter one of his rare sound/image experiments.… Read more »

Raising Victor Vargas

Warmly recommended to viewers who like their romantic comedies small-scale but life-size, this charming debut feature by Peter Sollette, set in a Dominican milieu on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, follows the stumbling exploits of the title character (Victor Rasuk), a small-time teenage Romeo trying to upgrade his image after being caught in the act with a chubby neighbor. Victor plots his way into the good graces of “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte), a wary local beauty with agendas of her own; the hero’s sister, his younger brother, his cantankerous grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), and Judy’s brother and best friend all play significant parts in the developing intrigue. The nonprofessional cast contributed a lot to the script. 88 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

10

The minimalism of this Abbas Kiarostami film (2003) makes it one of the boldest experiments yet by the masterful Iranian filmmaker: its ten sequences transpire in a car driving through Tehran, with a stylish young divorcee at the wheel and a series of six characters in the passenger seat. Shot with two digital video cameras mounted on the dashboard, it’s neither scripted nor directed in any ordinary sense, but Kiarostami spent a long time preparing the nonprofessional actors (all strong performers). The best scenes involve the driver’s spiky ten-year-old son (the only male in the cast, but a fitting stand-in for Iranian patriarchy), a young woman she picks up twice near a shrine, and a prostitute. The film offers a fascinating glimpse of the Iranian urban middle class, and though it eschews most of the pleasures of composition and landscape found in other Kiarostami films, it’s never less than riveting. In Farsi with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Great Gato

Argentinean-born composer, lyricist, and singer Javier Patricio Gato Perez (1950-’90), who emigrated to Spain in his youth, is the subject of this engaging Spanish documentary by Ventura Pons (2002, 103 min.), in which lively performances of Perez’s music are nicely juxtaposed with gab from his friends and relatives, both parts relaxed and intimate. El Gran Gato (the Big Cat) synthesized Gypsy songs, Catalan rumbas, rock, and elements of South American music while adding colorful and somewhat literary lyrics, and this is a warm tribute to his talent. In Catalan with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »