Monthly Archives: September 2004

Henry V

Kenneth Branagh’s superb 1989 version of the Shakespeare play, which he directed and adapted as well as stars in, is distinctly different from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie. The earlier film was intended to whip up patriotic sentiment, but Branagh’s version has a much darker view of England’s defeat of France, more relevant in certain respects to World War I. (The climactic battle is muddy, gory, and marked by the looting of corpses, and after it’s over, Henry’s face is streaked with blood and grime like a Jackson Pollock painting.) Olivier’s vantage point seems more that of the Renaissance, while Branagh’s, like Orson Welles’s in Chimes at Midnight (1966)an obvious influence and reference pointis closer to the Middle Ages. The castincluding Derek Jacobi as the modern-dress chorus, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, and Robbie Coltrane in an effective cameo as Falstaffis uniformly fine without any grandstanding. 137 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Shot

Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal) makes his directing debut with this unfunny and instantly forgettable comedy about an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) who poses as a movie producer in order to bust a mob boss. Joan Cusack, in a small part, gets to be hilarious, but other members of the talented castMatthew Broderick, Toni Collette, Tony Shalhoub, and Calista Flockhartprove less lucky. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ticket To Jerusalem

An itinerant Palestinian projectionist, living with his wife near Ramallah and screening cartoons for children in refugee camps, resolves to hold an outdoor screening in Jerusalem despite it being illegal for him to enter the city. The hero, who suggests a stocky George Clooney, is a memorable figure, and in some ways his project recalls Susan Sontag’s 1993 staging of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Directed by Rashid Masharawi, this touching Palestinian feature (2002) is shaped and inflected at every turn by its locations; much of the absorbing narrative is concerned with the nitty-gritty of passing checkpoints and repairing a rickety projector. In Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hometown

I haven’t seen Kenji Mizoguchi’s rarely screened first talkie (1930), also known as Home Village. But the plot — an ambitious opera tenor (Yoshie Fujiwara) becomes conceited and neglects his faithful, self-sacrificing girlfriend — suggests some resemblance to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), one of his greatest films. In Japanese with subtitles. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

When Will I Be Loved

Writer-director James Toback (The Pick-up Artist) tries his hand at soft-core porn in this comedy-drama revolving around Neve Campbell as a rich kid in a swank new loft, which makes it a tad more visually interesting than his usual. I suspect he thinks his story about various interacting Manhattan hustlersincluding himself as a Columbia professor, Fred Weller as a would-be pimp and movie producer, Dominic Chianese as an Italian count and billionaire, and the conniving Campbell character herselfis more profoundly motivated. But the slapdash plot, paper-thin characters, misogynist undertones, and mechanical crosscutting are all soft-core standbys, and the philosophical platitude of everybody being a hustler (just like Toback himself while pitching movies like this one) actually seems closer to Russ Meyer than to Dostoyevsky. Mike Tyson and Lori Singer contribute cameos as themselves. R, 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

War at a Distance

This experimental video documentary (2003, 54 min.) by the talented Harun Farocki takes a subtle and provocative look at industrial photography and automation, especially as they relate to the launching, monitoring, and recording of missile strikes. Farocki begins by considering the “smart bombs” used during the first gulf war, which provided precise video imagery without any sign of human casualties. From there he examines the wider technological developments in factories as well as military systems, and the elimination of people from both. Especially telling is Farocki’s focus on the kinds of images used to represent these innovations and what they implicitly reveal about the people using them. Also on the program is his minimalist but precise Inextinguishable Fire (1969, 22 min.), about the manufacture and effects of napalm. A chilling moment occurs near the beginning, when Farocki, tonelessly reading the testimony of a Vietnamese victim, suddenly extinguishes a cigarette on his forearm and calmly explains that the temperature of napalm is seven and a half times greater. Both works are in German with subtitles. a Chicago Filmmakers.… Read more »

Same Old Lefty Claptrap [SILVER CITY]

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

Silver City

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and Written by John Sayles

With Danny Huston, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, James Gammon, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, Mary Kay Place, Billy Zane, Sal Lopez, Ralph Waite, Miguel Ferrer, and Michael Murphy

Almost 60 years ago, in the essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made observations about bad writing that have lost none of their relevance. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” he wrote. “The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.”

Ready-made phrases in the news — “smoking gun,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “war on terror” — tend to hurry listeners or readers along instead of encouraging them to think.… Read more »

Reel Paradise

John Pierson, an impresario of American independent cinema who helped launch Spike Lee and Michael Moore, took his family to a remote Fiji island for a year to run a movie theater with free admission and hired Chicagoan Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) to document the project, particularly its final month. Pierson’s wife and teenage son and daughter seem more sensible about and more integrated into the local culture than he is, and James gives them ample opportunity to question Pierson’s missionary zeal. The results are fairly entertaining if not exactly profound. R, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

THE MAD SONGS OF FERNANDA HUSSEIN

I no longer recall where this was written for and/or published, but I’m pretty sure it was written in 2004. Eight years later, having just seen Far from Afghanistan at the Toronto film Festival — a film that John Gianvito organized, shot a portion of, and edited, playing a role somewhat comparable to that of Chris Marker on Far from Vietnam — I’m reminded yet again of how irreplaceable and precious John is to to the conscience and, yes, endurance of American cinema. — J.R.

A rare act of bearing witness, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein is the only film I know that gives ample voice to the rage and despair felt by many Americans during the Gulf war —- a loose, disparate, disorganized, and virtually invisible group of individuals in which I’d include myself. Many of us are experiencing comparable emotions at the moment, after September 11 and the terrifying fantasies of consensus that have followed, most of them involving present and future American invasions and conquests.

All this gives John Gianvito’s 168-minute feature an urgency that he couldn’t have anticipated when he finished the film early last year. It also makes me feel grateful personally, in a way that goes beyond critical approval, if only because it proves to me and several others that we aren’t alone.… Read more »

Thx 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut

From the Chicago Reader (September 10, 2004). — J.R.

thx1138-1

The surprising thing about George Lucas’s first feature (1971), a dystopian SF parable now digitally enhanced and expanded by five minutes, is how arty it seems compared to his later movies: off-center ‘Scope compositions reminiscent of Antonioni, striking white-on-white costumes and sets, a highly inventive sound track by cowriter Walter Murch. Yet the film is just as claustrophobic as Star Wars, and its ideas are equally shopworn, drawing on Orwell, Huxley, Kubrick, and Godard’s Alphaville. A young Robert Duvall plays the title drone, who escapes from a totalitarian society after he and fellow cipher Maggie McOmie discover sex. Lucas’s use of northern California locations is inventive; costar Donald Pleasence is mainly tiresome. R, 88 min. (JR)

thx1138Read more »

War At A Distance

The talented experimental documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki takes a subtle and provocative look at industrial photography and automation, especially as they relate to the launching, monitoring, and recording of missile strikes. Farocki begins by considering the smart bombs used during the first gulf war, which provided precise video imagery without any sign of human casualties. From there he examines the wider technological developments in factories as well as military systems, and the elimination of people from both. Especially telling is Farocki’s examination of the kinds of images used to represent these innovations and what they implicitly reveal about the people using them. 2003. In German with subtitles. 54 min. (JR)… Read more »

Silver City

Writer-director John Sayles did a rush job on this Chandler-esque mystery about corporate corruption during a Colorado gubernatorial race, in order to get his Bush-bashing picture into theaters before the election. But with so many informative political documentaries in release, it seems misguided if not downright perverse to resort to a 60-year-old dramatic template as a form of persuasion, while congratulating the viewer for having the right opinions. Some of the cast are fun to watch (Kris Kristofferson, Danny Huston as the gumshoe), though the hackneyed script makes others look ham-fisted (Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah). With Thora Birch and Tim Roth. R, 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Paper Clips

In 1998 educators at Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee decided to teach their students about the Holocaust by asking them to collect six million paper clips, so they might grasp the enormity of the Jewish death toll. This excellent idea grew in momentum and ambition, attracted coverage from around the world, and brought about this low-tech documentary by Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab. It’s a story worth telling, though once the participants and the filmmakers start basking in their virtue, the material begins to feel overextended. G, 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

What The Bleep Do We Know?

This New Agey production combines all sorts of digital effects with sound bites from experts on quantum physics, neurophysiology, molecular biology, and metaphysics. Intercut with all this is a fictional narrative about a deaf-mute photographer (Marlee Matlin) that’s meant to illustrate the various concepts, a strategy that sometimes works but sometimes doesn’t. This is fun, instructive, and stimulating, but it’s never beautiful and it’s less original than the three filmmakers (Mark Vincente, Betsy Chasse, and William Arntz) seem to think. The Hollywood head trips of the 60s are a clear antecedent, for better and for worse. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Five Obstructions

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Dogville) persuades veteran director and old friend Jorgen Leth to shoot five different remakes of his 14-minute film The Perfect Human (1968), each governed by a set of highly restrictive rules: the first must be limited to 12 frames a shot; the second has to be filmed in the worst place on earth (which turns out to be Bombay); the fourth must be animated (the best of the bunch, incidentally, employing some of the artists who created Waking Life); and so on. All of the remakes are shown complete, but we see the original only in snatches. An ersatz experimental film and an ersatz documentary, this is too frivolous to explore any of its ideas. But it’s never dull, enhanced as well as limited by von Trier’s signature sadism, which is softer here than in his fiction films. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »