Monthly Archives: October 2003

In The Cut

One can easily pick apart this Jane Campion adaptation of a thriller by Susanna Moore: it isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and certain detailslike the heroine assigning Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to her inner-city high school studentscome across as just plain silly. But I still consider this the best (which also means the sexiest) Campion feature since The Piano, featuring Meg Ryan’s finest performance to date and an impressive one by Mark Ruffalo. Scripted by Moore and Campion, it takes on the unfashionable question of what sex means for a single woman drifting into middle age, and what it says on the subject veers from the obvious to the novel. Campion is better with moods than with plot, and her capable handling of some actors (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and an uncredited Kevin Bacon) ameliorates the hyperbolic characters they’re asked to play. R, 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

Emerald Cowboy

Eishy Hayata, a Japanese emigre to Colombia, wrote and executive-produced this vanity film celebrating his violent exploits from the 1970s onward in establishing the Colombian emerald trade. He also plays himself (rather woodenly) in the present, while casting handsome Luis Velasco as his younger self and allowing Andrew Molina credit as producer-director. Shot on location in Colombia, this begins as a western but eventually mutates into an industrial thriller, with left-wing guerillas and union workers as the bad guys.… Read more »

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Sometimes the best photojournalism comes from being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly true of this lucid and gripping on-location account of the 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela, instigated by oil barons (with the alleged support of the CIA), that toppled the democratically elected socialistic government of Hugo Chavez for 48 breathless hours. The role of the state-operated TV channel versus the more popular channels controlled by oil interests proved to be pivotal, and this part of the story alone makes the film well worth seeing. Directed by Kim Bartley and Donnache O’Briain of Ireland, this proves that the best documentaries currently outshine Hollywood features as the most watchable, energizing, and relevant movies around. In English and subtitled Spanish. 74 min. (JR)… Read more »

Queering Film History

A program of four experimental films and, judging from the three I’ve seen, a first-rate onethough one shouldn’t conclude from the title that gender and sexual orientation are the only concerns here. Martin Arnold’s Piece Touchee (1989, 15 min.), Passage a l’Acte (1993, 12 min.), and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998, 15 min.) are all elaborate manipulations of brief sequences from black-and-white Hollywood features (The Concrete Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, and one or more of the Andy Hardy pictures with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland respectively) that make them register as exceptionally weird and deranged. Abigail Child’s 56-minute Is This What You Were Born For? (1987), which I haven’t seen, also makes use of found footage. (JR)… Read more »

In The Mirror Of Maya Deren

Maya Deren (1917-’61) did more than anyone else to create the American experimental film as we know it, and this 2002 German documentary (in English) by Martina Kudlacek is the best portrait of an experimental filmmaker that I know. Kudlacek steeps us in Deren’s artistic and bohemian milieu (basically Greenwich Village in the 40s and 50s, though she made her first film in Los Angeles and later spent much time in Haiti), and because Deren did such a good job of recording and documenting her own activities, the film is able to provide a detailed sense of what she was like as both a person and an artist. Among the eloquent friends and associates interviewed are Jonas Mekas, Katherine Dunham, Stan Brakhage, Amos and Marcia Vogel, Graeme Ferguson, Alexander Hammid (her second husband and sometime collaborator), Judith Malina, Miriam Arsham, Rita Christiani, Teiji Ito, and Chao-li Chi. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Sometimes the best photojournalism comes from being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly true of this lucid and gripping on-location account of the 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela, instigated by oil barons (with the alleged support of the CIA), that toppled the democratically elected socialistic government of Hugo Chavez for 48 breathless hours. The role of the state-operated TV channel versus the more popular channels controlled by oil interests proved to be pivotal, and this part of the story alone makes the film well worth seeing. Directed by Kim Bartley and Donnache O’Briain of Ireland, this was among the top ten audience favorites at the recent Chicago International Film Festival and won the Silver Hugo for best documentary feature; it proves again that the best documentaries currently outshine Hollywood features as the most watchable, energizing, and relevant movies around. 74 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Eyes Without a Face

As Dave Kehr originally described it, “a classic example of the poetry of terror.” Georges Franju’s 1959 horror film, based on a novel by Jean Redon, is about a plastic surgeon who’s responsible for the car accident that leaves his daughter disfigured; he attempts to rebuild her face with transplants from attractive young women he kidnaps with the aid of his assistant. As absurd and as beautiful as a fairy tale, this chilling, nocturnal black-and-white masterpiece was originally released in this country dubbed and under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, but it’s much too elegant to warrant the usual “psychotronic” treatment. It may be Franju’s best feature, and Eugen Schufftan’s exquisite cinematography deserves to be seen in 35-millimeter. With Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Francois Guerin, and Claude Brasseur; Maurice Jarre composed the music. In French with subtitles. 88 min. Music Box.… Read more »

Beyond Borders

A superior soap opera, evocative at times of Warren Beatty’s Reds, this follows the joint humanitarian efforts and eventual romance of a pampered American living in England (Angelina Jolie) and an angry but dedicated renegade doctor (Clive Owen) who ministers to the sick in North Africa during the mid-80s, in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, and in Chechnya during the mid-90s. The urgency of their causes is forcefully conveyed, along with their sincerity and their anger at the obstacles they face. Shooting in ‘Scope, director Martin Campbell makes this scenic but never unduly touristic (no easy feat); the script is by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. With Teri Polo, Linus Roache, Noah Emmerich, and Yorick van Wageningen. 127 min. (JR)… Read more »

Alien: The Director’s Cut

As with the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, this is no restoration but a revision; roughly five minutes of the original have been cut and roughly four of previously unused footage have been added. If there’s a difference in overall quality, I’m unaware of it. Dave Kehr calls this 1979 feature an empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome if gimmicky cinematography. The science fiction trappings add little to the primitive conception, which features a rubber monster running amok in a spaceship. Scott relies on suspense techniques that looked tired in The Perils of Pauline: for the most part, things simply jump out and go ‘boo!’ Under the circumstances, the allusions to Joseph Conrad (Nostromo) and Howard Hawks (The Thing) seem unforgivably presumptuous. Instead of characters, the film has bodies; some of them are lent by Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and Yaphet Kotto. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Iceman Cometh

Lee Marvin was great in his own right, but he’s disastrously miscast as the high-rolling Theodore Hickey in this 1973 film of one of Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays, adapted by John Frankenheimer for the American Film Theatre series. Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Bradford Dillman, and Moses Gunn are worth seeing as the hapless dreamers awaiting Hickey’s arrival at Harry Hope’s Last Chance Saloon, and though the running time is 239 minutes plus a ten-minute intermission, O’Neill needs the sprawl to capture the characters’ desperation. (JR)… Read more »

The Maids

If you don’t know Jean Genet’s extraordinary first play, this misguided production by Christopher Miles, adapted from his own stage version for the American Film Theatre series in 1975, is likely to pack a wallop. Otherwise, I’d avoid this like the plague. With Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivian Merchant. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sylvia

Broadly speaking, the popular literary biopic is a hopeless subgenre, but this account of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes manages to test the rule thanks to its unusual seriousness and first-rate performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow scrupulously avoid taking sides in the volatile marriage–a delicate task given the four decades of verbal and legal warfare between the couple’s partisans, not to mention the aura of myth that surrounds Plath’s suicide at 30, which brought her a level of recognition she never achieved in life. Though constrained from quoting Plath’s work at length, the film manages to convey that the sexiness of poetry itself was the honey that drew the couple together and made them, at least initially, inseparable. Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, plays Plath’s mother with such insight that I was sorry the role wasn’t made bigger, proportionate to the importance she had in Plath’s life. Jared Harris and Amira Casar fare much better in their respective roles as poet Al Alvarez and Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

Breathless

Shot on a shoestring and none the worse for it, Jean-Luc Godard’s gritty and engaging first feature had an almost revolutionary impact when first released in 1960. It lays down most of the Godardian repertoire that the later films would build upon: male bravado spiced with plug-ugly mugging and amusing self-mockery (brought to perfection in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wonderful performance); a fascination with female beauty and treachery (the indelible Jean Seberg as the archetypal American abroad); an emulation of the American gangster movie, and a love-hatred for America in general; radically employed jump cuts that have the effect of a needle skipping gaily across a record; and a taste for literary, painterly, and musical quotations, as well as original aphorisms. Less characteristic of Godard’s later work are the superb jazz score (by French pianist Martial Solal), a relatively coherent and continuous narrative, and postsynchronized dialogue. In French with subtitles. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I haven’t seen the original (or wanted to) in 29 years, but this remake by Marcus Nispel revives its crudely effective variation on the hatred and fear of hillbillies in Deliverance, as teenagers stumble upon a family of mad butchers in rural Texas. The new version, with Blair Witch Project pseudodocumentary updates, carries more of a jolt, as well as fancier sets, more sadism (courtesy of R. Lee Ermey, virtually reprising his drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket), and more pretension (a teenager crucified on a meat hook). Inspired by a true story presumably adds to the sordid thrills; maybe we should look forward to entertainments about Nazis torturing children. With Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, Eric Balfour, and Andrew Bryniarski as lovable Leatherface. R, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Flicker And Line Describing A Cone

Two classic experimental works with pronounced visceral effectsquite aggressive in the case of Tony Conrad’s 30-minute The Flicker (1965), which rapidly alternates black frames and white frames, and relatively soft and subtle in Anthony McCall’s 1973 projection piece Line Describing a Cone, which the audience is invited to circle and inspect. (JR)… Read more »