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 »

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 »

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 »

The Gatekeeper

John Carlos Frey, the writer-director-producer-star of this powerful 2002 independent feature, was born in San Diego, a half-mile from the Mexican border, and his harrowing story about the enslavement of illegal immigrants has the feel of something observed firsthand. A sadistic Border Patrol agent, ashamed of his Mexican-American heritage and driven by his hatred of Mexicans, conspires with some equally xenophobic pals to join a group of illegals sneaking across the border and thus dramatize the patrol’s ineffectuality, but he undergoes a gradual conversion once he experiences what the Mexicans endure after their trek to the U.S. Thematically the film starts off like The Believer, Henry Bean’s 2001 drama about an anti-Semitic Jew, and winds up like Sullivan’s Travels without the comedy. Sylistically it recalls a Warners protest feature from the early 30s crossed with 70s exploitation: the dramaturgy may be crude in spots, but the content is shocking and, for the most part, frighteningly believable. With Michelle Agnew and Anne Betancourt. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

Uptown Girls

A spoiled and bratty New Yorker (Brittany Murphy), the daughter of a deceased rock star, finds herself out of pocket after her accountant makes off with her inheritance, and reluctantly she becomes nanny to an eight-year-old health fanatic and control freak (Dakota Fanning), bringing along her pet pig. I guess the point of this cutesy and unconvincing parable is that they teach each other how to grow up, but I couldn’t figure out why I was supposed to care. Boaz Yakin (Fresh) directed this whimsy from a script and story by four women; the supporting cast includes Marley Shelton, Donald Faison, Jesse Spencer, Austin Pendleton, and Heather Locklear. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cockfighter

Except for Iguana, which is almost completely unknown, this wry 1974 feature is probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Shot by Nestor Almendros on location in Georgia (partly in Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, which seems appropriate), it follows the absurdist progress of a man who trains fighting cocks (Warren Oates in one of his best performances) and who takes a vow of silence after his hubris nearly puts him out of the game, though he continues to narrate the story offscreen. Produced by Roger Corman as an exploitation item for the drive-ins, this performed so badly in that capacity that it was recut and retitled more than once (as Born to Kill, Wild Drifter, and Gamblin’ Man). But as a dark comedy and closet art movie, it delivers and lingers. With Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, and Troy Donahue. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »