Monthly Archives: May 2004

Too Young To Die

Park Jin-pyo’s semifictional love story (2002) about a man and woman in their early 70s, played by a real-life couple who reenact some of their own experiences, was banned in Korea until late last year because of its explicit sex scenes. I admire this feature more than I like it, partly because I resent the hokey music and wonder if the filmmakers aren’t a little too pushy in advancing their noble intentions. Still, this is a serious look at the potential joys and sorrows of growing old, and Park Chi-gyu and Lee Sun-ye are certainly affecting in the lead roles. In Korean with subtitles. 77 min. (JR)… Read more »

Saved!

Brian Dannelly’s first feature is audacious and likable not only for its satirical treatment of fundamentalist Christian teenagers (Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri) and a couple of their elders (Martin Donovan, Mary-Louise Parker) but also for its sympathy toward them. Dannelly and cowriter Michael Urban seem to have firsthand knowledge of how religious vocabulary can deteriorate into a rhetoric that serves any agenda. Even more important, they balance their ridicule with a sharp sense of how difficult being a teenager is. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a teen movie as lively, as unpredictable, as generous, and as tough-minded as this one. PG-13, 92 min. Pipers Alley, River East 21.… Read more »

Ere Erera Baleibu Icik Subua Aruaren

Basque abstract artist Jose Antonio Sistiaga painted directly onto film with homemade inks to create this silent 1970 feature. But Sistiaga’s strangely titled work, which has recently been restored, is different from the films of Stan Brakhage, who didn’t come to film from painting and had his own rhythm. Among the predominant patterns in this abstract extravaganza are dancing drops and specks that alternately suggest satellites, flying saucers, or rushing bodies of water, and its combination of color and 35-millimeter ‘Scope (with about half an hour in black and white) yields the kind of spectacle one associates with musicals and SF epics. This gets richer as it develops, recapitulating and developing its motifs of shape and color, which inevitably suggest representational forms (pebbles and bubbles, bats and insects, stained glass and latticework), only to move beyond them, as music does. That’s why the silence here is absolutely necessary–it allows the images to sing. 75 min. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Coffee and Cigarettes

From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 2004). — J.R.

Like Mystery Train and Night on Earth, this feature by Jim Jarmusch is a collection of short stories, but it’s funnier and more formally adventurous than either; it’s also ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. Shot in black and white over 17 years, its 11 episodes feature actors and/or musicians, usually playing themselves and hanging out together in cafes while consuming caffeine and nicotine. One recurring theme is the ethics and protocol of being a celebrity (explored most impressively by Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and by Cate Blanchett in a virtuoso double role as herself and her own cousin); another is the everyday tension that can develop between friends and relatives. Among the two dozen stars are Isaach de Bankole, Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes. R, 96 min. Music Box.

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Over On The Big Ranch

From the Chicago Reader (May 21, 2004). — J.R.

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Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, this popular 1936 feature helped launch a new genre in Mexican movies, the comedia ranchera, which mixed comedy and music in rural settings. It tracks the long-term friendship between a ranch owner (Rene Cardona) and the orphan who becomes his foreman (Tito Guizar); both fall for the same woman (Esther Fernandez), a conflict that’s brought to a head by a kind of musical duel. This is more nuanced than one might expect in the handling of gender and class, and the populist fervor that’s become part of the period flavor is infectious. The graceful cinematography is by the great Gabriel Figueroa, best known for later collaborations with John Ford and Luis Buñuel. In Spanish with subtitles. 100 min.Read more »

Permanent Vacation

The only Jim Jarmusch feature that qualifies as apprentice work is his first (1980), shot in 16-millimeter for a master’s thesis at NYU. Sixteen-year-old drifter Chris Parker plays a version of himself as he walks the decrepit streets of lower Manhattan (the best scene shows him dancing to an Earl Bostic record). Jarmusch has already discovered his milieu, and his interest in both minimalist form and character as plot are already in evidence. But this lacks his characteristic charm, stylistic focus, and feeling for interactions between people, and the slowed-down Javanese gamelan music on the sound track only makes this seem more stodgy and intractable. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Foreword to THE MEDIEVAL HERO ON SCREEN

Below is my Foreword to The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy (McFarland, 2004), a collection edited by Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray, minus a few editorial tweaks and abridgements. — J.R.

It’s a curious fact, at least to me, that I’m writing a forword to this book, even a short one. I’m neither a medievalist nor a historian; I haven’t seen many of the films discussed, and, perhaps because I spend much of my time reviewing films for a weekly newspaper, the Chicago Reader, I have seen but have mainly forgotten some of the others. As a professional film critic who occasionally gets invited to speak and teach at college campuses, I have the benefit of both close and long-range views of film history, and try to create some two-way traffic between these positions in my writing.

It has always been a handicap for film scholars that one can’t necessarily count on all the important works being widely accessible or even widely known. In the essays that follow, some of my favorite films with medieval themes and settings have only been briefly touched upon —- I’m thinking especially of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eric Rohmer’s Perceval -— while others, including Fritz Lang’s magnificent two-part, five-hour Die Nibelungen (1924), and Les visiteurs du soir (1942), a haunting fantasy written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche and directed by Marcel Carné during the French Occupation, are not mentioned.Read more »

The Water Magician

Also known as White Threads of the Waterfall, this 1933 film by the sublime Kenji Mizoguchi is one of his two silent features to have survived intact. The plot concerns a female entertainer, whose act involves juggling jets of water, and her romantic relationship with a shy young man; years later the man has become a judge and presides over her trial for murder. A major reason why sound films came later to Japan than almost everywhere else was the figure of the benshithe explainer who acted out all the parts and added commentary of his own, and whose popularity was such that audiences often went to hear and see their favorite benshi rather than the film stars. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cecil Taylor All The Notes

Any musician of Cecil Taylor’s caliber deserves sustained attention, but the jazz great doesn’t get it in this rambling assortment of alternating sound and music bites. Taylor is a nonstop pontificator of varying interest as well as a brilliant and virtuosic avant-garde pianist, but director Christopher Felver treats his music and his remarks as equally relevant, cutting between themor away to still photographsas if determined not to focus too long on any one thing. On piano Taylor employs an idiosyncratic technique, sometimes using his elbows as well as his fingers, and I’d hoped the camera angles would reveal this; apart from a brief shot behind the final credits, however, Felver shows almost everything except the keyboard. At least the other talking heads have things to say, including Elvin Jones, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and Al Young. 71 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Butterfly

Much as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can be traced back to Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime, this poetic South Korean SF feature by Moon Seung-wook (2001)set in the present and including the same theme of characters who seek memory lossis one of the many stepchildren of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. As in the earlier film, the sound periodically drops off, with a similarly chilling effect, but the sources of melancholy here seem less technological than ecological and psychological. It’s interesting that the movie’s butterfly tours, which expose patrons to the oblivion virus, are closely associated with the U.S. (all the TV ads are in American English), while the forced abortions of teenagers suffering from lead poisoning seem tied to the acid rainthe American legacy of the greenhouse effect. More impressionistic than scientific, this sad poem lingers. In English and subtitled Korean. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Saddest Music In The World

From the Chicago Reader (May 14, 2004). This is probably my favorite Maddin feature to date. — J.R.

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thesaddestmusic-cello

Mannerist film antiquarian Guy Maddin takes a bold step forward with this 2003 feature, a comic/melodramatic musical enhanced by his flair for expressionist studio shooting (in grainy black and white, with selected scenes in two-strip Technicolor). The project originated as a script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro; revising extensively, Maddin and George Toles, his usual collaborator, turn it into an allegory about Canada’s colonial relationship with the U.S. In the depths of the Depression, a Winnipeg beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) launches an international contest to come up with the saddest music in the world. Competing for the U.S. is her former lover (Mark McKinney), a brassy Broadway producer; for Serbia the producer’s older brother (Ross McMillan), who grieves for his dead son and vanished amnesiac wife (Maria de Madeiros); and for Canada both men’s father (David Fox), a surgeon who’s drunkenly amputated Rossellini’s legs. Not to be missed. 99 min. (JR)

thesaddestmusic-halo

thesaddestmusic-legRead more »

Troy

I can’t vouch for its fidelity to Homer, but this version of the Iliad, scripted by David Benioff (25th Hour) and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, is clearly more than a prequel to O Brother, Where Art Thou? It has plenty of visual sweep, fine action sequences, and, thanks especially to Brad Pitt (as Achilles) and Peter O’Toole (as King Priam), a deeper sense of character than one might expect from a sword-and-sandal epic (even if Pitt’s character has some of the beefcake accoutrements of Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Titanic). Far from lost among the zillions of extras are Eric Bana (Hector), Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Diane Kruger (Helen), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Sean Bean (Odysseus), Rose Byrne, and Julie Christie. R, 165 min. Burnham Plaza, Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, Crown Village 18, Davis, Ford City, Gardens 1-6, Golf Glen, Lake, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, River East 21, Village North, Webster Place.… Read more »

Crying in Their Beer (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD)

This appeared in the May 14, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader, and occasioned one of the few thank-you notes I’ve received from a filmmaker for a review. I hope both Guy Maddin and those reading this will forgive me for immodestly reproducing his email: “Dear Jonathan: I usually try to avoid setting precedents that violate what should be a no-fly zone between critics and filmmakers, but I must say that your review of Saddest Music left me feeling understood at last!!! What a feeling. Thank you for supplying this euphoria. You also win bonus points for the Laura Riding discovery — I always liked her characters’ names. George Toles, who is terrified of reading reviews, will be thrilled to see his unsung name given its proper due. Not only that, you disabled Anthony Lane’s stinkbombs. A million thanks, Jonathan!!  Warmest, Guy“  – J.R.

The Saddest Music in the World

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by George Toles, Maddin, and Kazuo Ishiguro

With Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros,

David Fox, and Ross McMillan.

To Guy Maddin, every contemporary story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story. — screenwriter George Toles

When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity.Read more »

Two Neglected Filmmakers

These two short articles were written for the catalogue of the fifth edition of the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2004. Both are about neglected filmmakers who are also longtime friends of mine–although neither, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seen any films by the other, and they met for the first time at the festival, where complete retrospectives of both filmmakers were being presented. (I first met Eduardo in Paris in 1973, shortly after he’d finished working as a screenwriter on Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau, and I first met Sara about ten years later in New York, shortly before I saw her first major film, You Are Not I, and decided to devote a chapter to her in my book Film: The Front Line 1983.) Her complete works are now available in a wonderful two-disc package, which can be found here.


When I was asked to write these two pieces for the BAFICI catalogue, I opted to make them each exactly the same length (942 words) and to make them rhyme with one another in various other ways. (Note: the last three images in this post, which for me evoke certain aspects of some of the films by both filmmakers, are all paintings by Remedios Varos: Insomnio I [1947], La Despedida [1958], and Bordando el Manto Terrestre [1961.])  — J.R


Two Neglected Filmmakers:
Eduardo de Gregorio and Sara Driver (2004)

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

Eduardo de Gregorio’s Dream Door
It must be a bummer to be an Argentinian writer and/or filmmaker and constantly get linked to Jorge Luis Borges.… Read more »

Seeing Other People

Two months before her wedding day, a sexually inexperienced woman (Julianne Nicholson) persuades her fiance (Jay Mohr) that they should openly sleep around before marriage, and before long they, their friends, and her sister are competing with one another in promiscuity. Filmmaker Wallace Wolodarsky, who’s written for The Simpsons and who collaborated with Maya Forbes on this script, operates on the same satirical turf as Albert Brooks. He can’t compete with the master, but he does a pretty good job unpacking his characters’ southern California neuroses (such as guilt-ridden single parenting) and self-deceiving attempts at sexual liberation. Though this is more witty than laugh-out-loud funny, the castwhich also includes Lauren Graham, Bryan Cranston, Josh Charles, and Matt Daviskeeps things lively. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »