Monthly Archives: February 2004

The New Babylon

Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s exciting, extremely physical 1929 film about the 1871 Paris Commune takes its name from a huge Paris department store at the center of an armed struggle between working-class communards and French soldiers. It’s odd that the movie isn’t as famous as the revolutionary classics of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, because it’s every bit as stirring and richly detailed. (Appropriately, it received a major rerelease in Paris soon after the civil unrest of May 1968.) A large-scale production, it grew out of the groundbreaking Soviet theater-and-film workshop Factory of the Eccentric Actor, better known as FEKS. It’s brutally honest about class hatred, using its lightning-quick montage to clarify the connections between all the characters (ranging from the department store’s proprietor to a shopgirl and from a washerwoman to a soldier), and its dazzling tricks with lighting and focus dramatize Paris’s opulent high life as well as its poverty. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Girl Next Door

An ambitious high school senior (Emile Hirsch) finds his life shifting into overdrive after he falls for a porn star (Elisha Cuthbert) who’s house-sitting next door. This comedy is an ill-fated attempt to remake Risky Business (1983) for the 21st century, complete with a wind-chimey score, the hero posing in his underpants, and a cynical happy ending. At 110 minutes it lingers far too long, although I enjoyed Timothy Olyphant as a slick villain. Luke Greenfield directed, bombastically. R. (JR)… Read more »

The New Babylon

Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s exciting, extremely physical 1929 film about the 1871 Paris Commune takes its name from a huge Paris department store at the center of an armed struggle between working-class communards and French soldiers. It’s odd that the movie isn’t as famous as the revolutionary classics of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, because it’s every bit as stirring and richly detailed. (Appropriately, it received a major rerelease in Paris soon after the civil unrest of May 1968.) A large-scale production, it grew out of the groundbreaking Soviet theater-and-film workshop Factory of the Eccentric Actor, better known as FEKS. It’s brutally honest about class hatred, using its lightning-quick montage to clarify the connections between all the characters (ranging from the department store’s proprietor to a shopgirl and from a washerwoman to a soldier), and its dazzling tricks with lighting and focus dramatize Paris’s opulent high life as well as its poverty. In Russian with subtitles. 80 min. A 35-millimeter print will be shown; David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Chronicle Of The Years Of Embers

Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s 1975 Algerian feature in ‘Scope, about a peasant joining the Algerian war of independence, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but has seldom been seen or discussed since. In Arabic with subtitles. 177 min. (JR)… Read more »

Star Spangled To Death

Initially shot in 16-millimeter between 1957 and ’59, periodically expanded and updated over the following decades, and completed last year on video in a six-and-a-half-hour final version, Ken Jacobs’s magnum opus of political protest is made of the same basic ingredients as the rest of his oeuvre: beautifully shot scenes of cavorting friends and comrades (including Jerry Sims, a pre-Flaming Creatures Jack Smith, and some recent anti-Bush protesters) and found footage (including most of Nixon’s Checkers speech, campaign propaganda for Nelson Rockefeller, a fatuously racist documentary about Africa, and Al Jolson in blackface). Semi-indigestible by design, this nonetheless steadily builds in political and historical resonance. (JR)… Read more »

Working Girls

Not to be confused with Lizzie Borden’s 1987 feature about New York prostitutes, although Dorothy Arzner’s brazen 1931 drama about two small-town sisters (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) looking for jobs and men in the big city sometimes makes a few parallel feminist observations. The dumbness of Hall’s character gets laid on with a trowel at times (Aw, you don’t have to speak so sarcasmly, she says at one point), and the movie never seems to make up its mind whether the European intellectual (Paul Lukas) who hires her as a secretary is predatory or a patsy. But the Depression atmosphere is indelible. With Charles Buddy Rogers. 77 min. (JR)… Read more »

Welcome To Mooseport

A former U.S. president (Gene Hackman) returns to his small hometown in Maine and runs for mayor against a local plumber (Ray Romano). According to this amiable, archaic, conventionally deceitful piece of Capracorn (directed by Donald Petrie from a script by Tom Schulman and story by Doug Richardson) local yokels and ex-presidents are brothers under the skin, equally in need of a good woman (Marcia Gay Harden and Maura Tierney in this instance) to set them on the straight and narrow path. Tierney and Hackman contribute most to keeping this life-size and funny. With Christine Baranski and Rip Torn. PG-13, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Against The Ropes

Meg Ryan capably plays what appears to be an idealized version of boxing promoter Jackie Kallen in a drama directed by Charles Dutton from a script by Cheryl Edwards. The story focuses on the first fighter the heroine promotes (reportedly a composite character), played by Omar Epps. I’m not a fan of the sport, but the boxing sequences held me and the overall atmosphere seems reasonably authentic. The treatment of Kallen’s gender battles should have been just as interesting, but here the dramatic developments are less clearly and effectively defined, and the character is ultimately a cipher; some early glimpses of Kallen as a little girl are especially unconvincing. With Tony Shalhoub. PG-13, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dream On (THE DREAMERS)

From the Chicago Reader (February 20, 2004). — J.R.

The Dreamers

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Gilbert Adair

With Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Robin Renucci, and Anna Chancellor.

Nostalgia is highly selective, abridging the past and adjusting it to fit the terms of the present — and often becoming an ideological con job in the process. Those who wax nostalgic about the radicalism of their youth usually imply that the values that made it so attractive back then also make it impossible to hold on to today.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, set in Paris over three months in early 1968, focuses on an American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt), who becomes intimately involved with a French brother and sister, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), whom he meets at the Cinémathèque. Invited into the siblings’ flat just before their parents leave on vacation, he gets drawn into their perverse and vaguely incestuous games, which combine charades involving movies, sex, and ultimately politics. Their interactions run parallel to the French government’s firing of the disorderly director of the Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, and the ensuing outcry among cinephiles and filmmakers. Street demonstrations led to clashes with the police — and turned out to be dress rehearsals for the student demonstrations and workers’ strikes that May, which came dangerously close to shutting the country down.… Read more »

Simon Field & The Original SHADOWS

Written for the FIPRESCI website in February 2004. — J.R.

To the best of my recollection, the first time I ever met Simon Field, the departing artistic director of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, was in the early 1970s — either 1970 or 1973 — when he was programming a festival of experiment filmmaking at the National Film Theatre in London (something he informs me he did both of those years). From the beginning of his eight years at the Rotterdam Festival, a major part of Simon’s special contribution has been not simply an emphasis on experimental film but also a kind of investment in that branch of cinema that perceives and highlights its interconnections with the other arts as well as with other kinds of cinema. There has always been something refreshing about his pluralistic and nonsectarian way of defining film experiment, and one can see this in the range exhibited by Afterimage, the invaluable magazine he coedited in England with Ian Christie for many years — an occasional publication which found room for Raoul Ruiz as well as Michael Snow, Noël Burch as well as Steve Dwoskin, and Jean-Luc Godard as well as Stan Brakhage.

Another way of describing Simon’s orientation would be to say that his mission has always been to expand both the canon and the audience of experimental cinema, and for me this has constituted one of his most spectacular achievements at Rotterdam.… Read more »

The Best Of The Shorts

Cuteness and sentimentality mar Daniel Gamburg’s Tsipa & Volf (2000, 25 min.), a home-movie-like portrait of a Jewish-Russian couple who’ve been together for half a century (which I only sampled), as well as Ryo Hayashi’s fictional short Useless (2000, 14 min.), about a Japanese insurance worker who’s retiring. But the three other works on this program refreshingly avoid such pitfalls: Jophi Ries’s Always (1999, 14 min.), a subtle German fiction short about another long-term marriage; Jennifer Petrucelli’s Inside/Out (2000, 8 min.), an affecting documentary about a woman whose face is half-paralyzed; and Scott Catolico’s silly but spirited Canadian jaunt Smoking Can Kill You (1999, 5 min.). (JR)… Read more »

The Dreamers

On the eve of the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris, a young American film freak (Michael Pitt) meets a vaguely incestuous French brother and sister (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) at the Cinematheque Francais and gets drawn into their perverse games, which involve sex as well as cinephilia. Less sexy, believable, literary, and transgressive than Gilbert Adair’s 1988 source novel The Holy Innocents, which he adapted for director Bernardo Bertolucci, this watchable if far-fetched movie (2003) is seriously marred by its three leads; only Garrel manages to suggest a person rather than a fashion model dutifully following instructions. And ironically, despite the nudity that provoked an NC-17 rating, the film suffers from its own censorship of the novel’s homosexual elements. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

jeanne-dielman

Chantal Akerman’s greatest film — made in 1975 and running 198 minutes — is one of those lucid puzzlers that may drive you up the wall but will keep you thinking for days or weeks. Delphine Seyrig, in one of her greatest performances, plays Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian woman obsessed with performing daily rounds of housework and other routines (including occasional prostitution) in the flat she occupies with her teenage son. The film follows three days in Dielman’s regulated life, and Akerman’s intense concentration on her daily activities — monumentalized by Babette Mangolte’s superb cinematography and mainly frontal camera setups — eventually sensitizes us to the small ways in which her system is breaking down. By placing so much emphasis on aspects of life and work that other films routinely omit, mystify, or skirt over, Akerman forges a major statement, not only in a feminist context but also in a way that tells us something about the lives we all live. In French with subtitles. (JR)

JeanneDielmanRead more »

Outskirts

A group of Russian farmers discover that their land has been sold for oil excavation without their knowledge and go on a rampage of torture and killing to extract more information from party officials. This grim, phantasmagoric view of recent and not-so-recent Russian history (1998, 95 min.), directed by the late Petr Lutsik, has the same Russian title as Boris Barnet’s first sound film, Okraina, and is showing as part of Facets Cinematheque’s Barnet retrospective, though it has little thematic, stylistic, or formal relation to that masterpiece. Critic Ray Privett’s comparison of the film with Dead Man comes closer to the mark, at least regarding the striking black-and-white cinematography, the slow fade-outs, and the gallows humor about land grabbing and rustic violence. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Girl With The Hat Box

The first solo feature of Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet, this charming slapstick comedy (1927, 70 min.) stars Anna Sten, a subsequent Samuel Goldwyn discovery, as the title heroine, who lives with her grandmother in the snow-blanketed sticks, works at a hat shop in the city, and spends much of her time fleeing a lovesick suitor. Some commentators have linked Barnet to Chaplin because of his pathos and his sense of physicality, a connection this feature makes especially clear. (JR)… Read more »