Monthly Archives: August 2003

The King, The Lawyers, And The Cheese

Fox News’s attempt to stop the publication of Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Rightbecause its mocking subtitle supposedly infringed on the network’s fair and balanced trademarkechoes the efforts of Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration to silence criticism by labeling it unpatriotic. Also questionable is the lawsuit launched by Kraft against another flaky individual, Wicker Park erotic comic-book artist and Web designer Stu Helm, for using the nickname King VelVeeda and thereby tarnishing Kraft’s wholesome image. That suit is the focus of Brigid Maher’s lighthearted yet informative and absorbing 45-minute video documentary, which is so funny it hurts. (JR)… Read more »

Rockets Redglare

A stickler could complain that Luis Fernandez de la Reguera’s 2002 documentary about his late friend, actor and comedian Michael Morra, never gets around to explaining how he picked up the moniker Rockets Redglare. In fact, the intimacy of this portrait may be a disadvantage: Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Alex Rockwell, Nick Zedd, and Julian Schnabel are among those interviewed, and it seems like practically everyone loved this guy despite (if not because of) his excessive ways. Then again, lack of balance seems so central to his life and character that an inside view is probably the most appropriate one. A heroin addict from birth, born to a teenage junkie mother, Morra grew up surrounded by violent crime, worked as bodyguard and drug supplier to both Sid Vicious and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and appeared in over 30 films. A compulsive hustler who became obese once he decided to substitute beer for drugs, he was also a gifted raconteur, and there’s plenty of mesmerizing footage here to prove it. In fact, his informal and private storytelling registers more strongly than his public performances. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Passionada

I have no objection to soap opera when it’s delivered with conviction and a sense of urgency, but this sappy tale about the widow (Sofia Milos) of a Portuguese fisherman in New Bedford, Massachusetts, being wooed by an English cardsharp (Jason Isaacs) who’s posing as a tycoon held my interest only moderately. I was periodically distracted (though not intrigued) by the heroine’s rebellious daughter (Emmy Rossum), who tries to play matchmaker between her mother and the cardsharp while he’s teaching her gambling tricks, and by the hero’s wealthy friends (Seymour Cassel, Theresa Russell), who seem to have strayed in from another movie. Dan Ireland, who also showed his sentimental bent on The Whole Wide World, directed a script by Jim and Steve Jermanok. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Other Side Of The Bed

I was fully prepared to enjoy this sex comedy and musical about young couples in Madrid playing musical beds, even if the songs were second-rate and the performances a little slapdashin this context, feeling and vulnerability often count for more than professionalism. But despite a brisk opening and some agreeable (if sloppy) choreography at the very end, I was less than tickled by the premise of David Serrano’s scriptthat the characters lie to and betray one another as naturally as they breathe. This reportedly did well in Spain, but I don’t know whether to credit the cast (Erneso Alterio, Paz Vega, Guillermo Toledo, Nathalia Verbeke) or the audience’s cynicism. Emilio Martinez-Lazaro directed; in Spanish with subtitles. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fountain Of Youth And Return To Glennescaul

To promote the first volume of his two-part biography of Orson Welles, a fascinating if contestable book, actor, director, and writer Simon Callow is presenting a Welles tribute consisting of two half-hour shorts. Hilton Edwards’s Irish ghost story Return to Glennascaul (1951), narrated by Welles (who also appears briefly, and probably directed the short bit that allegedy shows him filming Othello), won an Oscar when it came out and is still worth seeing. But the real gem in this program is The Fountain of Youth, Welles’s first and best TV pilotshot for Desilu in 1956, and first aired two years later. Based on John Collier’s story Youth from Vienna, this dark period comedy about youth potions and aging narrated by Welles, who also appears centrally as a kind of slide lectureris as innovative in some ways in relation to TV as Citizen Kane was in relation to movies; the pilot never sold but the brittle nastiness of the humor still carries a rude bite. Implicitly tweaking Welles’s own narcissism as well as that of his charactersplayed by Joi Lansing (the lady who gets blown up in the opening shot of Touch of Evil,), Dan Tobin, and Rick Jasonwhile making novel use of still photographs and lightning-sharp lighting changes to mark shifts in space and time, this jaunt implicitly marks the medium of TV itself as a kind of mirror to get lost in.… Read more »

Pistol Opera

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Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has called this 2001 feature a sequel to his 1967 stylistic exercise Branded to Kill. But that was a hit-man thriller in black and white; this is a sensual explosion in color, a surreal, deliriously balletic pop fantasy that defies most forms of narrative description. Shot for shot, it ranks as the most beautiful movie I’ve seen in years. The characters are four or five generations of women, most of them dressed to kill, with one, a determined hit woman named Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi), trying to shoot her way from third to first place in a hierarchy of assassins managed by an inscrutable and invisible “Guild.” The striking settings are industrial, urban, or rural locations, diverse theatrical stages, and otherworldly studio sets; the dialogue, in Japanese with subtitles, occasionally shifts to English (including recitations of Wordsworth and “Humpty Dumpty”); and the musical accompaniment periodically sounds like Miles Davis in an echo chamber. 112 min. Music Box.

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Marci X

From the Chicago Reader (August 22, 2003). — J.R.

Satire that scores is apt to offend some people, which may help to explain why this politically incorrect comedy was shelved by Paramount for a year, then dumped into the market without press screenings. Scripted by the irreverent Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, In & Out), it’s about a Jewish American Princess (Lisa Kudrow) teaming up with a controversial rap artist (Damon Wayans). It’s no masterpiece, but I found it consistently good-hearted and sometimes hilarious, and the sparse crowd I saw it with was laughing as much as I was, especially at the outrageous rap numbers. Richard Benjamin, who plays a cameo as Kudrow’s philanthropic millionaire father, directed. With Christine Baranski and Jane Krakowski. 84 min.… Read more »

Marci X

Satire that scores is apt to offend some people, which may help to explain why this politically incorrect comedy was shelved by Paramount for a year, then dumped into the market without press screenings. Scripted by the irreverent Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, In & Out), it’s about a Jewish American Princess (Lisa Kudrow) teaming up with a controversial rap artist (Damon Wayans). It’s no masterpiece, but I found it consistently good-hearted and sometimes hilarious, and the sparse crowd I saw it with was laughing as much as I was, especially at the outrageous rap numbers. Richard Benjamin, who plays a cameo as Kudrow’s philanthropic millionaire father, directed. With Christine Baranski and Jane Krakowski. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thirteen

Nothing sells better in certain situations than puritanical hysteria, so calling this shocker about two 13-year-old girls in Los Angeles a must-see for parents, as I’ve heard some colleagues do, isn’t all that different from urging them to read the tabloidsand if exploitation is what parents are looking for, Larry Clark’s Bully puts on a better show. I’m not questioning the sincerity of the filmmakers: director Catherine Hardwicke wrote the script with costar Nikki Reed when the latter was still 13, basing it on her experiences, and there are persuasive performances by Reed, Holly Hunter as her struggling, hapless mother, and Evan Rachel Wood as the other girl, who falls under Reed’s influence. But they often seem more bent on titillating or harrowing us than on helping us understand the characters. With Jeremy Sisto and Deborah Unger. R, 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine

Just the sort of leering silliness you’d expect. Vincent Price is the eponymous mad scientist, with Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Susan Hart, the ever-reliable Fred Clark, andyou guessed itlots of ingenues in bikinis. Norman Taurog directed this 1965 Panavision feature. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Flesh

The screenwriter hero of Barton Fink is assigned to script a Wallace Beery wrestling picture: this 1932 feature–directed by John Ford and scripted by Edmund Goulding, Moss Hart, and an uncredited William Faulkner, among others–is the only real-life movie matching that description. Beery, a good-hearted dope working as a waiter in a German beer garden, falls for an American ex-convict (Karen Morley) linked to a gangster (Ricardo Cortez). They delude and exploit him even after he marries Morley, becomes a big-time wrestling champ, and moves with her to the U.S. Ford was still under the spell of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1928) when asked to take over this project at MGM, and some traces of German expressionism linger in his pictorial style. He wrests a lot of feeling out of Beery’s cheerful dim-wittedness, making his muddle seem almost enlightened and avoiding the masochism an Emil Jannings would have brought to the part. The strong secondary cast includes Jean Hersholt, Vince Barnett, and Ward Bond. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

American Splendor

I can’t say that this feature by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, about the life and art of Harvey Pekar, made me want to run out and buy his comic books, but it does offer a highly interesting and original introduction to them. Roughly a third of the picture is documentary, with Pekar narrating his own story, most of it based in Cleveland, and periodically appearing in a film studio with some of the major people in his life. Another third is fiction, with Paul Giamatti as Pekar, Hope Davis as his partner Joyce Brabner, and James Urbaniak as a young Robert Crumb. The final third approximates and fitfully animates the ongoing true-life comic book written by Pekar and illustrated by various graphic artists, including Crumb. But because these parts tend to overlap as well as alternate, we’re constantly kept on our toes regarding issues of representation while Pekar’s sour but indefatigible working-class skepticism carries us along. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cuckoo

This trilingual comedy, set in the wilds of Lapland in September 1944, is largely predicated on misunderstandings among three people: a Finnish sniper (Ville Haapasalo), who’s dressed in a German uniform and chained to a rock for being a reluctant fighter but who eventually frees himself; a Russian captain (Viktor Bychkov), who’s en route to a court-martial for alleged anti-Soviet remarks but is accidentally freed by a Russian bomb; and a local widow and reindeer farmer (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), who takes them both in but can’t understand either because she speaks only Sami, the native Lapp tongue. Evoking at times the final sequence of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, this was written and directed by Russian filmmaker Alexander Rogozhkin but originated as a project by the male leads, both comedians. (It seems likely that they and the delightful Juuso helped with the dialogue, as Rogozhkin speaks only Russian.) The movie overextends a patch of folk mysticism toward the end and then adds a silly whimsical coda, but as a comedy of errors it’s often hilarious. In Finnish, Russian, and Sami with subtitles. 104 min. Music Box.… Read more »

Day of Wrath

Carl Dreyer made this extraordinary 1943 drama, about the church’s persecution of women for witchcraft in the 17th century, during the German occupation of Denmark. He later claimed that he hadn’t sought to pursue any contemporary parallels while adapting the play Anne Petersdotter (which concerns adultery as well as witchcraft), but he was being disingenuous–Day of Wrath may be the greatest film ever made about living under totalitarian rule. Astonishing in its artistically informed period re-creation as well as its hypnotic mise en scene (with some exceptionally eerie camera movements), it challenges the viewer by suggesting at times that witchcraft isn’t so much an illusion as an activity produced by intolerance. And like Dreyer’s other major films, it’s sensual to the point of carnality. I can’t think of another 40s film that’s less dated. With Thorkild Roose and Lisbeth Movin; in Danish with subtitles. 110 min. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »

Masked and Anonymous

From the Chicago Reader (August 15, 2003). — J.R.

Masked&Anonymous

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“Rene Fontaine” and “Sergei Petrov,” the credited screenwriters of this mannerist fantasy, are pseudonyms for star Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles, a veteran of Seinfeld. In fact, every character talks like Dylan, and his character, a legendary singer called Jack Fate who turns up between prison terms to perform a benefit concert, is a fanciful but recognizable version of his own persona. Set in a contemporary America that suggests an endless skid row, with such Latin American trimmings as an ongoing civil war and a dying dictator whose likeness hangs everywhere, this is at once a spin on Dylan’s mythology, an excuse to feature as many of his songs as possible, and an unblinking look at American greed, corruption, and self-absorption. And for all its pretensions and avant-garde narrative dislocations, the star-studded cast — including Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, and many others in cameos — keeps this buzzing. 106 min. Music Box.

masked and anonymous

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