Daily Archives: November 21, 2003

Joe Dante Calls the Toon

This appeared in the Chicago Reader on November 21, 2003. — J.R.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Larry Doyle

With Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, and the voice of Joe Alaskey.

Ever since the word “auteur” became part of the standard English vocabulary in the late 60s and early 70s there’s been some confusion about its meaning. In French auteur simply means “author,” and when François Truffaut started formulating a “politique des auteurs,” or policy of authors, in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-50s, he had in mind a critical policy that recognized the stylistic and thematic unity certain directors gave their films. And because politique means “politics” as well as “policy,” he was also implying a ranking of those directors.

In his early writings Andrew Sarris transformed these ideas into an “auteur theory” that focused less on policy and politics. This is where the confusion started, because it wasn’t clear to most people whether this was a theory about how films were made or about how they should be viewed and interpreted. Because the mainstream discourse centered on the powerful Hollywood studios, the theory came to be understood as focusing on how films were made, with the emphasis on film as a business.… Read more »

At Five In The Afternoon

A young woman in a nomadic family in post-Taliban Kabul, grudgingly permitted by her father to attend a religious school, sneaks off instead to a secular school, where she expresses her dream of becoming president of Afghanistan and inspires a poet trying to woo her to print up her campaign posters. This is 23-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf’s third feature; it won the jury prize at Cannes, but it’s far less exciting than her first, The Apple. Attractively shot, it has moments of wit and poetry (the title comes from Lorca) but arguably adds less to what we know about contemporary Afghanistan than her 14-year-old sibling Hana Makhmalbaf’s documentary about its casting, Joy of Madness. In Farsi and Dari with subtitles. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Alexandra’s Project

Common threads of rage and revenge run through Australian director Rolf de Heer’s previous featureThe Tracker, an avant-garde aboriginal westernand this thriller in which a man comes home to an empty house and watches a video prepared for him by his wife. While extremely unpleasant, Alexandra’s Project (2003) is compulsively watchable, and actors Gary Sweet and Helen Buday both turn in tour de force performances. What begins as a story about a smug and insensitive husband getting his just deserts crosses a line that will have some blanching at the wife’s behavior as well. Like the work of Neil LaBute and David Mamet’s Oleanna, de Heer’s film puts us all on the spot. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Talking Picture

Before turning 70 in 1978, Manoel de Oliveira had made just five features; since then he’s directed another 20, some of them masterpieces and some just mannerist curiosities. A comic parable deceptively couched in the form of a 19th-century travel narrative, this 2003 film is a little of both. A young Portuguese history professor and her daughter sail from Lisbon to Bombay, tracing the roots of civilization during stopovers in France, Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Three famous women (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, Irene Papas) join the voyage and dine every night with the American captain (John Malkovich). In some ways this seems naive and archaicespecially the assumption that civilization is basically found north and not south of the Mediterraneanbut it conceals a Bu… Read more »

Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election

For those who regard the 2000 presidential contest a stolen election, this 50-minute video documentary by Richard R. Perez and Joan Sekler supplies a dossier of revealing facts about the Florida recount, and those who think George W. Bush won fair and square might well test their convictions against the evidence presented here. The directors are far from disinterestedhow could they be?but their subjectivity is defined more by their trust in democratic institutions than by their party affiliation: Al Gore’s strategy of asking for recounts in only four counties rather than the entire state is deemed both foolish and fatal. Especially telling is the video’s account of how tens of thousands of black voters were illegally but strategically disqualified as convicted felons. Peter Coyote narrates. (JR)… Read more »

Gothika

Halle Berry plays a psychiatrist specializing in the criminally insane who finds herself incarcerated for an act of criminal insanity in this dopey, violent horror thriller. Director Mathieu Kassovitz and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez are so bent on keeping spectators glued to their seats that they don’t mind violating plot or character credibility, a tendency already evident in the opening sequence when Penelope Cruz, as one of Berry’s patients, shifts gears emotionally right in the middle of a monologue. The movie seems equally inclined to natural and supernatural solutions for its mysteries (apparently whichever is closer to hand), and the natural ones are almost as outlandish as the supernatural ones. Robert Downey Jr. supposedly costars, but the dominance of Berry’s action sequences reduces him to a prop. R, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dreamcatcher

I’ve read enough of Stephen King to know that his narrative talent sometimes allows him to break the golden rule of restricting fantasy and horror tales to one fantastic premise apiece. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan is no slouch as a storyteller either, but in this adaptation of King’s novel, he and cowriter William Goldman managed to lose me almost completely. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, and Timothy Olyphant play four men who gained telepathic powers from a supposedly disabled pal when they were boys and now have to battle a group of alien body snatchers in snowbound Maine. For most of the running time I was confused, as well as mildly nauseated by the gross-out details of a tale that tends to be more slimy than scary. As the complications proliferated (apparently a second alien race has been fighting the first one, and for years Morgan Freeman, a noncomedic military man in black, has been chasing down both groups), I started to shift my focus toward waiting for this elaborate mishmash to end. And believe me, it took a while. With Tom Sizemore, Donnie Wahlberg, and Rosemary Dunsmore. 145 min. (JR)… Read more »

Road To Morocco

After goofing their way across Singapore (1940) and Zanzibar (1941), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby star in their third colonial-imperialist romp through the third world (1942). Bing sells Bob to a slave trader; watch for Anthony Quinn and Yvonne De Carlo. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thunderbolt

Except for The Saga of Anatahan, this 1929 release is probably the most underrated of Josef von Sternberg’s sound pictures, and it’s underrated for the same reason: Sternberg is known almost exclusively as a visual stylist, but the most exciting thing here is the highly creative sound track. It’s Sternberg’s first talkiea near remake of Underworld, a spiritual romance about a doomed gangster, with the same lead (George Bancroft) and Fay Wrayand although this is a minority opinion, I find it better than the original in many ways. With Richard Arlen and Tully Marshall. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thunderbolt

Except for The Saga of Anatahan, this 1929 release is probably the most underrated of Josef von Sternberg’s sound pictures, and it’s underrated for the same reason: Sternberg is known almost exclusively as a visual stylist, but the most exciting thing here is the highly creative sound track. It’s Sternberg’s first talkie–a near remake of Underworld, a spiritual romance about a doomed gangster, with the same lead (George Bancroft) and Fay Wray–and although this is a minority opinion, I find it better than the original in many ways. With Richard Arlen and Tully Marshall. 85 min. An archival 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Corpus Callosum

This stunning 93-minute video (2002) by Canadian conceptual artist Michael Snow might be his greatest work since La region centrale over 30 years ago. Almost certainly his most accessible feature, it combines elements from virtually all his previous films: the inexorable camera movement of Wavelength, Back and Forth, and La region centrale; the encyclopedic cataloging of Rameau’s Nephew; the playful self-reflexivity of So Is This. This is also his first encounter with digital video, and it explores all the things DV can do to stretch, compress, and distort bodies, a subject Snow explores formally, comically, and at times even ideologically. (There’s a lot of dialectical play in the film between two distinct spaces: a very contemporary row of staffed computer stations, backed by windows overlooking a cityscape, and a completely sealed-off bomb shelter of a living room filled with 50s kitsch and inhabited by an all-American family, in which a TV set clearly “rhymes” with the computer screens.) Not counting the asterisk, the title refers to the tissue connecting the hemispheres of the brain, an apt reference given the prodigious and joyful inventiveness on display. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »