From the Chicago Reader (April 30, 2004). It’s great to catch up with Andrey Zvyagintsev again a decade later, thanks to his wrenching and politically caustic Leviathan. — J.R.
Beautifully structured and emotionally wrenching, this 2003 debut feature immediately establishes Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev as a master. It charts a father’s uneasy return to his wife and two adolescent sons after a long and unexplained absence, a reunion capped by his ill-fated fishing trip with the two boys. A former actor, Zvyagintsev elicits first-rate performances from his male leads, but what registers most is the sharpness and intensity of his vision of nature and childhood experience. Nominated for an Oscar and winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, this has been described by the director as “a mythological look [at] human life,” as accurate a description as any I’ve encountered. In Russian with subtitles. 106 min. Music Box.
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Ben Stiller stars as a suburbanite who becomes consumed by the title emotion after his best friend and next-door neighbor (Jack Black) strikes it rich with a spray that makes dog shit disappear. It’s easy to see why this uneven farce, directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Steve Adams, has been shelved for so long: any comedy that depends on dog shitor on literally beating a dead horsefor many of its laughs is already in serious trouble. I tend to enjoy Jack Black as a kind of updated Jack Carson, and Christopher Walken does some lively overacting as a crazed bohemian named J-Man. But Rachel Weisz and Amy Poehler, as the heroes’ wives, are distinctly out of their element, and Stiller is even more boring than usual. With so many dubious elements at play, even the half-good ideas get lost in the shuffle. PG-13, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »
Described as one film split into two parts that can be viewed in either order, Michele Smith’s silent Like All Bad Men He Looks Attractive (2003, 23 min.) and They Say (2003, 49 min.) continue the junk collecting, montage, and collage that made her two-hour Regarding Penelope’s Wake so intractable as well as fascinating. Bad Men mixes a 35-millimeter reel and two 16s with such diverse elements as 8-millimeter home movies and stag reels, plastic shopping bags, various kinds of slides, and butterfly wings. For They Say, Smith not only mixed rental videos with highly edited 16-millimeter found footage but dumped the results in her garden for several weeks under various kinds of litter, and the deterioration of the images grows in importance as the work progresses. In more ways than one, the shifting approaches to processing this onslaught become Smith’s subject. (JR)… Read more »
Two ace Manhattan divorce lawyers (Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan) face off in court and eventually fall for each other, with the sort of complications you’d expect in a romantic comedy. Director Peter Howitt seems to encourage overacting, which results in archness about half the time. You may find it pleasantly diverting, especially if you like the leads, but mostly it made me want to see Adam’s Rib again. Aline Brosh McKenna and Robert Harling scripted; with Parker Posey, Michael Sheen, Nora Dunn, and Frances Fisher. PG-13, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »
Traveling through Paris and what appears to be his native Algeria, French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes that films and videos are forms of writing. If that’s the case, this 1999 video about his life and ideas would probably have benefited from another draft. His discourse, the main attraction, is brilliant and fascinating, but video maker Safaa Fathy hasn’t edited or presented it with the clarity Kirby Dick brought to his 2002 Derrida, and at times we’re almost expected to provide the background and context: e.g., Fathy’s slowness in identifying Derrida’s friend and fellow philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy creates needless confusion. The dialogue is mostly in French with subtitles. 68 min. (JR)… Read more »
After the owner of a failing chair factory is robbed, his unpaid workers take over the premises and threaten a strike. Acting as a go-between, the owner’s son tries to negotiate a settlement. Writer-director Alejandro Malowicki’s ideas and dramaturgy are utterly conventional, but this 2003 feature is reasonably well acted and competently developed. In Spanish with subtitles. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
Gerard Damiano’s 1972 porn flick stars Linda Lovelace as a woman with a clitoris in her throat. It’s one of the most notorious hard-core features ever released, though apart from its comic conceit, its main claim to fame is the amount of semiserious discussion it provoked, back when raunchiness was more readily tolerated. With Harry Reems as Lovelace’s doctor. X, 61 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 16, 2004). — J.R.
The title leads — screenwriter Nia Vardalos, star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Toni Collette — are lifelong best friends and semiskilled lounge singers who accidentally witness a Russian mob killing. They flee for their lives to LA, where they disguise themselves as drag queens and become a hit at a gay cabaret. The script, which borrows plenty from Some Like It Hot, Ishtar, and maybe even Sylvia Scarlett, is more slapdash than its sources, but it’s full of high spirits and good vibes. The secondary cast — including David Duchovny and Debbie Reynolds, camping even more than the leads — also seems to be having fun. Michael Lembeck directed. PG-13, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »
My first two looks at this Hou Hsiao-hsien feature (2001), initially announced as the first in a series, led me to conclude it’s one of the emptiest good-looking films by a major director that I can recalleven though it’s also the first of his films to get a U.S. release (not counting the barely noticed 1987 Daughter of the Nile). The characters are terminally familiar zeros, and this Taiwanese master’s gifts as a prescient historian of the present appear to have deserted him. Visually, he works much closer to his actors than usual and moves them in and out of focus, defining a much more claustrophobic world than he has in the past. But the storya young bar hostess (Hong Kong star Shu Qi) shuttles between her jealous boyfriend and a gangster while taking ecstasy and throwing tantrumsseems standard issue, apart from the somewhat unorthodox voice-over narration, at least until an unexpectedly lyrical finale. In Mandarin with subtitles. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »
There’s no question that The Passion of the Christ has affected some people profoundly, but that may be caused partly by the unfamiliar experience of seeing a mainstream film that rejects entertainment for serious inquiry and English for foreign tongues. If the film industry had more brains and more knowledge of cinema history, this audacious black-and-white 1964 masterpiece by the great Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini would be out in a major rerelease right now as a meaningful alternative, rather than showing at Doc Films in a 16-millimeter print. Shot in southern Italy with a nonprofessional cast, and powerfully using both classical music and blues, this highly political interpretation of the passion is as scandalous in its own way as Mel Gibson’s but more poetic, more contemporary in its impact, and more serious in its overall morality. In Italian with subtitles. 137 min. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »
As many as 5,000 Arab- or Muslim-Americans have been detained by the U.S. government since 9/11, some for longer than a year, without any connection to terror attacks being established. Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse interview a few of them and their family members for this 2003 documentary, shooting from a single camera position in a single, mainly empty room, though at the end the subjects all appear together and their various situations are updated. The facts of their grim treatment, often exacerbated by their estrangement from their countries of origin, sometimes recall the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and one isn’t exactly reassured by John Ashcroft’s disclaimers, which are periodically intercut with the stories. 63 min. (JR)… Read more »
A German TV documentary by Helmut Grosse, The Cartel (2002, in English and subtitled German) offers a concise and lucid account of the multiple ties between the second Bush administration and the oil and energy industries, many of which date back to the president’s membership in the secret Skull and Bones Society at Yale. Some of the material is familiar and obvious, but Grosse makes a strong case for the disproportionate influence of Texas on the national agenda, and defuses likely charges of Eurocentric bias by limiting his interviews to American experts. Carlos Mendoza’s Tlatelolco: Keys to the Massacre (2002, in Spanish with subtitles) is an investigative report on the October 1968 shooting of well over 150 student demonstrators, and the wounding or arrest of hundreds more, by soldiers in Mexico City. Aptly described as Mexico’s Tiananmen Square, the massacre may have been the worst human catastrophe to befall the international student left during that era, and Mendoza walks us through the known facts, drawing on archival footage, eyewitness reports, and recently declassified documents from the U.S. Defense Department that suggest possible CIA involvement. The subtitling’s occasionally awkward, but the story is chilling nonetheless. 143 min. (JR)… Read more »
The underrated William Wellman made many neglected classics during the Depression, and this 1933 feature is one of the very besta Warners social drama with Frankie Darro as a boy who leaves his parents to save them the burden of his support and joins up with a gang of similarly disenfranchised kids who wind up riding the rails. Pungent stuff. 68 min. (JR)… Read more »
Clouds of May, the second feature of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, struck some viewers as belonging to the school of Kiarostami, a mistake they wouldn’t make with his masterful third feature. An industrial photographer in Istanbul (Muzaffer Ozdemir), who hasn’t recovered from his busted marriage, finds himself the reluctant host of a country cousin (Mehmet Emin Toprak) looking for work. Ceylan uses this slim premise to build a psychologically nuanced relationship between the men as an uncomfortable domestic arrangement leads to irrational spats. The narrative, capped by a brief bad dream and the capture of a mouse, isn’t always legible, but it feeds into a monumental, luminous visual style like no other. The nonprofessional leads won top honors at Cannes in 2003; shortly afterward Toprak died in an auto accident. In Turkish with subtitles. 110 min. Music Box.… Read more »
A disturbing look at how people in the rural midwest respond to the Iraq war is the main focus of this 2003 documentary by Austrian filmmaker Andreas Horvath. The unabashed ignorance and/or indifference of most of his interview subjects, combined with their overall acceptance of war and gun ownership as higher principles, registers as frighteningly typical and indicates how successful the Bush administration has been at convincing Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and armed with weapons of mass destruction. To his credit Horvath engages with these positions and doesn’t try to hide his own, but he also lingers over a hysterical evangelist, an American-flag fetishist, and a demolition derby as if they somehow explained the rest. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »