Monthly Archives: January 2004

The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]

From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.

Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.

The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.) Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the grosses didn’t make back the film’s cost, but I’d rather think that Fox’s investment paid off in one way or another.… Read more »

The Tracker

Rolf de Heer’s 2002 western, which I first saw as the opening-night attraction at the Melbourne film festival, is the best Australian feature I’ve seen in years. Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Rabbit-Proof Fence) gives the performance of a lifetime as a tracker helping three mounted police find a murder suspect in 1922, and though the film recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in its grim tale of pursuit, poetic feeling for history and landscape, and contemporary score (performed by aboriginal singer Archie Roach), it has an identity all its own. One of its most original moves is cutting to paintings by Peter Coad, specially commissioned for the film, at every moment of violence. With Gary Sweet and Grant Page. 102 min. Facets Cinematheque.… Read more »

Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!

Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) directed this slapdash but good-natured romantic comedy about a young Hollywood star (Josh Duhamel), a West Virginia grocery clerk (Kate Bosworth) who wins a date with him in Hollywood, and the complications that ensue when he decides to visit her afterward, to the consternation of her secretly smitten boss (Topher Grace). Victor Levin’s script pokes fun at Hollywood cliches but then counters them with other Hollywood cliches and becomes especially mawkish when it tries to be sincere. But the implicit nostalgia for old-time Hollywood registers more than anything else (it’s a bit like Bye Bye Birdie without the songs). Grace conveys this archaic atmosphere best, faintly suggesting Farley Granger; Nathan Lane and Sean Hayes are awkwardly shoehorned in as the star’s agent and manager. PG-13, 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Touching The Void

Something of a tour de force, this adaptation of Joe Simpson’s nonfiction book about his climbing the 21,000-foot Siula Grande mountain in Peru, breaking a leg, and eventually making it back alive is remarkable simply because the story seems unfilmable. Director Kevin Macdonald has Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, recount most of their adventure in a London studio; selected bits of action are restaged on location in the Andes and Alps, using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron as well as the original participants, while the restwhich is a lotis left to the viewer’s imagination. The monumental settings and the hallucinatory treatment of time, which seems increasingly stretched out toward the end, are both capably handled. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fog Of War

Ultimately more watchable than illuminating, this feature-length, Oscar-winning interview with 87-year-old Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson, is a masterpiece of hemming and hawing for both its subject and filmmaker Errol Morris. Its most impressive achievement may be its power to convince us that we’re actually thinking (as opposed to brooding) along with McNamara, an effect achieved by Philip Glass’s throbbing score, rapid montages of charts and figures we aren’t supposed to understand, and intertitles of 11 platitudinous lessons that structure and punctuate McNamara’s musings. Among the highlights are McNamara’s suggestions that he’d be regarded as a war criminal had the U.S. lost World War II, that the American commitment to Vietnam was a mistake, and that he was less responsible for the military escalation than Johnson. He also, poor guy, can’t remember whether or not he authorized dropping Agent Orange on North Vietnam. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Lost in THE FOG OF WAR

From the Chicago Reader (January 23, 2004). Although I don’t want to begrudge Errol Morris his Oscar, I  do wish he’d had more to say in his films about political choices with some bearing on the present. — J.R.

The Fog of War ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Errol Morris.

In The Fog of War, Errol Morris interviews an 84-year-old Robert S. McNamara, who served as secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and is widely regarded as the architect of the American war in Vietnam. There’s something undeniably masterful about the film, which also includes archival footage, but that mastery is what sticks in my craw: it’s a capacity to say as little as possible while giving the impression of saying a great deal, a skill shared by McNamara and Morris. I’m not sure what we have to gain from this — the satisfaction that we’re somehow taking care of business when we’re actually fast asleep?

This sleight of hand takes many forms, including the film’s title, repeated shots of dominoes lined up on a map of southeast Asia, and the “eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara” dispensed in intertitles to introduce the various segments — portentous platitudes ranging from “Rationality will not save us” and “Maximize efficiency” to “Get the data” and “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.” More generally, throughout the documentary Morris sprays charts and figures across the screen in rapid montages that we can’t process as data — and aren’t supposed to.… Read more »

Past Lives, Present Puzzles

The following appeared in the Chicago Reader on January 16, 2004. Over five years later, I developed some elements in this piece while writing a much longer account of Thompson’s work including an email exchange with him which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Film Quarterly.

I was more than gratified when Thompson told me, years later, that this review led him to go back on his decision to retire from filmmaking and make another film, which yielded Lowlands, a few years before his untimely death. — J.R.

Universal Hotel

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Peter Thompson.

El movimiento

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Peter Thompson

Written by William F. Hanks and Thompson.

Peter Thompson, who teaches photography at Columbia College and makes personal, autobiographical documentaries, is a major, neglected filmmaker. He’s made five films, and the latest, El Movimiento, his only feature, is having its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on January 16 and will be shown there again on January 19 — both times with the 1986 Universal Hotel, my favorite of Thompson’s shorts. (Thompson will lead a discussion at the Friday screening.)

Philosophically and aesthetically, Thompson’s films are as beautiful and provocative as any contemporary American independent work that comes to mind.… Read more »

Along Came Polly

This romantic comedy by John Hamburg (Safe Men) is hampered by the kind of overacting that the cast seems to enjoy more than the audience (Alec Baldwin’s unexpected turn as a Jewish blowhard is an exception until it loses force to choppy continuity). The hit-or-miss humor is pitched uncertainly between Woody Allen (Jennifer Aniston’s an Annie Hall figure to Ben Stiller’s cautious insurance executive) and the Farrelly brothers (more scatological jokes than you can shake a toilet plunger at); the worst fake accent in movie history (Hank Azaria as a French scuba instructor) and strident overreaching by Philip Seymour Hoffman both appear to be Hamburg’s fault. But it’s only 90 minutes long. PG-13. (JR)… Read more »

The Day A Pig Fell Into The Well

The first feature (1997, 115 min.) by the singular South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo, who professes to be more interested in charting the shifting attitudes of his characters than in telling stories. The characters in this film include an aspiring novelist, the movie box-office cashier who supports him, the married woman with whom he’s been having a long-term affair, and the woman’s husband, who sells water purifiers. I can’t fathom what the title has to do with any of this, but Hong has a way of depicting sex realisticallycompletely without sentimentality, romanticism, or eroticismthat is peculiarly his own. In Korean with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Jack The Ripper

Klaus Kinski and Josephine Chaplin star in this 1976 item by Jesus Francoone of the worst and most prolific filmmakers who ever lived, with a specialty in gore, and therefore a standard cult reference. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Keeping Time: The Life, Music & Photographs Of Milt Hinton

This hour-long documentary (2002) about one of the great jazz bassistswho was also a major photographer of jazz musicians and performanceshas a fascinating story to tell as well as a charismatic subject. In his youth Hinton was injured in a car accident in Chicago while running prohibition liquor and was saved by his boss, Al Capone, from having a finger amputated; as a bassist he quickly rose to the top of his profession, and the clips here show how indispensable he could be as a sideman. Unfortunately, like most other fashioners of jazz documentaries, directors David G. Berger, Holly Maxon, and Kate Hirson can’t resist laying voices over some of the best solos after teasing us with a chorus or two, so that, like Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem (1994), this works better as a historical chronicle and an appreciation of personalities than as a presentation of the music. (JR)… Read more »

El Movimiento And Universal Hotel

A world premiere of the first feature by Peter Thompson, perhaps the most original and important Chicago filmmaker you never heard of, showing with one of his best shorts. Over a decade in the making, El Movimiento (2003, 90 min.) follows the relationship between Don Chabo, a Mayan shaman in Yucatan, and William F. Hanks, the Chicago anthropologist he improbably selected as his sole apprentice, showing how both men think, work, and dream. Thompson’s skill as a poetic organizer and interpreter of disparate materials is even more apparent in his mysterious and provocative Universal Hotel (1986, 28 min.), which tracks his detailed research into photographs of a freezing and thawing experiment conducted in Dachau with a German prostitute and a Polish prisoner. Apart from offering fascinating glimpses into alternative medical practices, both films are profound meditations on the passage of time. (JR)… Read more »

The Battle Of Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and lucid 1965 docudrama about the Algerian struggle for independence in the 1950s was screened for Pentagon employees in August 2003, though one wonders how helpful it might have been: the terrorists here aren’t suicidal or religiously motivated, and their orientation seems quite different from that of contemporary Middle Eastern types. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see thisit’s one of the best movies about revolutionary and anticolonial activism ever made, convincing, balanced, passionate, and compulsively watchable as storytelling. The French aren’t depicted as heavies, despite their use of torture, nor are the Algerian rebels, who set off bombs in cafes. In fact the French colonel here (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) expresses admiration for the rebels, who ultimately achieved their goals when Algeria won its independence. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Battle of Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and lucid 1965 docudrama about the Algerian struggle for independence in the 1950s was screened for Pentagon employees last August, though one wonders how helpful it might have been; the terrorists in this film aren’t suicidal or religiously motivated, and their orientation appears to be quite different from that of contemporary Middle Eastern terrorists in other respects. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see this–it’s one of the best movies about revolutionary and anticolonial activism ever made, convincing, balanced, passionate, and compulsively watchable as storytelling. The French aren’t depicted as heavies, despite their use of torture, nor are the Algerian rebels, who set off bombs in cafes. In fact the French colonel here (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) expresses admiration for the rebels, who ultimately achieved their goals when Algeria won its independence. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 123 min. Music Box.… Read more »

Ishtar

From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 2004). — J.R.

ishtar-withagent

Treated as a debacle upon release, partially as payback for producer-star Warren Beatty’s high-handed treatment of the press, this Elaine May comedy was the most underappreciated commercial movie of 1987. It may not be quite as good as May’s previous features, but it’s still a very funny work by one of this country’s greatest comic talents. Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, both cast against type, play inept songwriters who score a club date in North Africa and accidentally get caught up in various international intrigues. Misleadingly pegged as an imitation Road to Morocco, the film is better read as a light comic variation on May’s masterpiece Mikey and Nicky as well as a send-up of American idiocy in the Third World. Among the highlights: Charles Grodin’s impersonation of a CIA operative, a blind camel, Isabelle Adjani, Jack Weston, Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, and a delightful series of deliberately awful songs, most of them by Paul Williams. 107 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.

ishtar-camelRead more »