Monthly Archives: December 2004

The Seventh Victim

Though not directed by an auteurist-approved figure (Mark Robson has never attracted any cult to my knowledge), this is the greatest of producer Val Lewton’s justly celebrated low-budget chillers–a beautifully wrought story about the discovery of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village that fully lives up to the morbid John Donne quote framing the action. Intricately plotted over its 71 minutes, by screenwriters Charles O’Neal, De Witt Bodeen, and an uncredited Lewton, so that what begins rationally winds up as something far weirder than a thriller plot, this 1943 tale of a young woman (Kim Hunter in her first screen role) searching for her troubled sister (Jean Brooks) exudes a distilled poetry of doom that extends to all the characters as well as to the noirish bohemian atmosphere. (In a fascinating intertextual detail, the horny psychiatrist clawed to death by an offscreen feline in Lewton’s previous Cat People–played by Tom Conway, George Sanders’s brother–is resurrected here.) Mon 1/3, 6:30 PM, and Tue 1/4, 8:15 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Beyond The Sea

Kevin Spacey spent more than a decade trying to build a biopic around reptilian pop singer Bobby Darin, and his determination paid off in this glorious mess of a movie (2004). The production numbers and nightclub showstoppers are impressive not only for Spacey’s impersonation of Darin but for their skillful evocation of musical moments from the golden age of Hollywood, which are a world apart from postmodern exercises like Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera. Spacey also directed and cowrote the disjointed script, which adopts the self-referential mode of All That Jazz as it puzzles over Darin’s confused parentage, loyal entourage, and marriage to Sandra Dee. This sags in the middle, and Spacey overlooks some of Darin’s more interesting films (John Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues, Hubert Cornfield’s Pressure Point). But as long as Spacey is singing, the movie soars. With John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Kate Bosworth, and Brenda Blethyn. PG-13, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Million Dollar Baby

For all his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood (like Martin Scorsese) operates at the mercy of his scripts. But this time he’s got a terrific one, an unorthodox love story and religious parable adapted by Paul Haggis from stories in F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns. Eastwood plays a gym owner who reluctantly agrees to train and manage a 31-year-old hillbilly woman (Hilary Swank) who wants to box, while Morgan Freeman, as an ex-fighter who helps him out, supplies the voice-over narration. Eventually this leads to a few awkward point-of-view issues, but the past-tense narration enhances the sense of fatality. Haggis’s dialogue is worthy of Hemingway, and the three leads border on perfection. As grim as The Set-Up (1948) and Fat City (1972), as dark and moody as The Hustler and Bird, this may break your heart. PG-13, 132 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

From the Chicago Reader (December 22, 2004). — J.R.

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

If Rushmore (1998) recalls J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) offers a touch of Franny and Zooey, this Wes Anderson feature suffers from the mannerist self-consciousness of Seymour: An Introduction. Each successive movie seems further removed from real human behavior, though the attitudes here — mainly invested in Bill Murray as the title character, an over-the-hill filmmaker-oceanographer — seem as authentic as ever, and the fantasy trimmings are noticeably more lavish, drawing on the resources of Italy’s Cinecitta studio and recalling Fellini in their cartoon colors. The secondary eccentrics — Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort — resourcefully juggle about two character traits apiece, and the climactic rescue sequence is characteristically underplayed. Noah Baumbach collaborated on the arch script, whose bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates. R, 118 min. (JR)

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The Sea Inside

This thoughtful, sometimes beautiful feature by Alejandro Amenabar (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others) is loosely based on the true story of Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought a 30-year legal battle for his right to die. Amenabar addresses the theme of euthanasia by providing a sharp, almost novelistic sense of what the hero (Javier Bardem) means to his family and his friends (Lola Due… Read more »

Bad Education

If you’re a fan of professional bad boy and Spanish gender bender Pedro Almodovar, far be it from me to dissuade you from enjoying this elaborate Chinese-box narrative, which boasts an especially resourceful performance by Gael Garcia Bernal in a triple role and a script full of twists designed to accommodate all three parts. It’s about a young filmmaker (Fele Martinez), his former boarding-school squeeze (Bernal), a headmaster-priest who expelled the former in order to abuse the latter, the blackmail and a film-within-the-film that ultimately grew out of these events, and much more. But all the fancy complications, including noir trimmings and notations on the Franco period, left me unengaged. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Phantom Of The Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the Gaston Leroux novel and movie standby has grossed more than $3 billion worldwide since it opened in London in 1986, but I doubt that I’ve missed much. Teen romance and operetta-style singing replace the horror elements familiar to moviegoers, and director Joel Schumacher obscures any remnants of classy stage spectacle with the same disco overkill he brought to Batman Forever. Arty trappings like black-and-white framing segments and floating candelabras (like the ones in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) don’t help, though the spirited playersGerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow, Ciaran Hinds, and Emmy Rossum (Sean Penn’s daughter in Mystic River)do what they can. PG-13, 143 min. (JR)… Read more »

Flight Of The Phoenix

A plane carrying 14 people from Mongolia to China gets caught in a sandstorm and crash-lands in the Gobi Desert, where the chances of rescue or survival are slim. When Robert Aldrich made the 1965 original, it was set in the Sahara, ran 147 minutes, and had a star-studded cast including James Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Attenborough. This absorbing remake by John Moore, scripted by Scott Frank and Edward Burns, is shorter and more modestly cast (Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi), but in contrast to Steven Soderbergh’s recent recyclings, it proves that you can revisit a good movie without cynicism or disrespect. I could have done without the superfluous Mongolian heavies, and the cliff-hanging climax may be a mite overdone, but the old-fashioned theme of disaster as an existential test of character still works. With Tyrese Gibson and Jacob Vargas. PG-13, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the obsessive billionaire, aviator, and filmmaker Howard Hughes in this enjoyably opulent biopic by Martin Scorsesea grand entertainment that may provoke curiosity about Hughes but doesn’t supply much original thought. With its stylish direction and John Logan’s clever but shallow script, the film totes up a good many Citizen Kane references to little effect. Yet Cate Blanchett delivers a witty and nuanced impersonation of Katharine Hepburn (one of Hughes’s many paramours), and there are colorful and glittering re-creations of the Cocoanut Grove and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Best of all is a heart-stopping sequence in which Hughes crashes his XF-11 plane in Beverly Hills, though characteristically the movie doesn’t note whether anyone else was hurt. With Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, and John C. Reilly. PG-13, 169 min. (JR)… Read more »

Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst

This watchable and provocative documentary by Robert Stone (Radio Bikini) was originally titled Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which gives some idea of Stone’s approach to the west-coast radicals who kidnapped newspaper heiress and Berkeley undergrad Patricia Hearst in 1974. He’s especially interested in how effectively the SLA manipulated the media with its rhetoric when its political strategies, articulated by two former members in recent interviews, were both muddled and makeshift. (Hearst, who shocked America by declaring herself a member of the SLA and participating in one of its bank holdups, is rather scornfully viewed as going with the flow.) There are some instructive lessons here, but ironically few of them are political. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sea Inside

This thoughtful, sometimes beautiful feature by Alejandro Amenabar (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others) is loosely based on the true story of Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought a 30-year legal battle for his right to die. Amenabar addresses the theme of euthanasia by providing a sharp, almost novelistic sense of what the hero (Javier Bardem) means to his family and his friends (Lola Duenas is a standout as one of them). The treatment of the sea, where Sampedro was crippled in a diving accident but to which he still feels a connection, is particularly lyrical. A film about freedom as well as death, this won’t suit every taste, but it rewards close attention and has moments of saving humor. In Spanish with subtitles. PG-13, 125 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

Million Dollar Baby

For all his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood (like Martin Scorsese) operates at the mercy of his scripts. But this time he’s got a terrific one, an unorthodox love story and religious parable adapted by Paul Haggis from stories in F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns. Eastwood plays a gym owner who reluctantly agrees to train and manage a 31-year-old hillbilly woman (Hilary Swank) who wants to box, while Morgan Freeman, as an ex-fighter who helps him out, supplies the voice-over narration. Eventually this leads to a few awkward point-of-view issues, but the past-tense narration enhances the sense of fatality. Haggis’s dialogue is worthy of Hemingway, and the three leads border on perfection. As grim as The Set-Up (1948) and Fat City (1972), as dark and moody as The Hustler and Bird, this may break your heart. PG-13, 132 min. River East 21.… Read more »

Frankie & Johnny Are Married

A fascinating blend of fiction and documentary, this feature by Michael Pressman chronicles his emotionally complicated LA production of Terrence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Pressman’s wife, Lisa Chess, costarred in the show with his old friend Alan Rosenberg, until difficulties with Rosenberg convinced Pressman to take over the part himself. These three and many other people (including Kathy Baker and Hector Elizondo) play themselves in the movie, which only begins to suggest the ambiguities Pressman exploits to the utmost. Emerging from all this is a fascinating look at the nuts and bolts of theater work and an often hilarious depiction of how personal neuroses help and hinder it. R, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Spanglish

A comfortable Bel Air couple (Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni) hire a young Mexican woman (Paz Vega) as housekeeper for their family, and when they move to Malibu for the summer, she brings along her 12-year-old daughter, setting off a string of familial, interfamilial, and cultural crises. James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), who wrote and directed this gripping, sometimes provocative comedy drama, is usually either scorned or applauded for his adept juggling of sitcom techniques. This movie may not change anyone’s mind, but I was impressed by Brooks’s flair in carrying much of the story with unsubtitled Spanish dialogue, and Sandler gives his most finely detailed performance to date as a committed parent and successful restaurateur-chef. He and Vega help to compensate for Leoni as one of Brooks’s self-destructive neurotics, an overdirected and overplayed character who functions mainly as a sitting duck. With Cloris Leachman. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)… Read more »

Moolaad

This masterwork by Ousmane Sembene, the 81-year-old father of African cinema and one of Senegal’s greatest novelists, is the second film in a trilogy celebrating African women (after Faat Kin… Read more »