Daily Archives: December 10, 2004

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 »

A Tale Of Two Sisters

Two disturbed young siblings return home from the hospital and resume an acrimonious life with their father and stepmother in writer-director Kim Jee-woon’s horror movie, the third-largest-grossing South Korean film of 2003. In theory it’s an ambiguous ghost story, like The Turn of the Screw, that deliberately obscures the distinction between the supernatural and the imaginary, but in practice the awkward storytelling and spotty exposition reduce it to a string of rude shocksnot even the eventual denouement provides a lucid enough account of where this is all coming from. It’s roughly three parts Brian De Palma to one part Val Lewton; I would have preferred the reverse. In Korean with subtitles. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Burn, Witch, Burn

Atmospheric and underplayed in the tradition of Val Lewton (I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, The Seventh Victim), this British horror feature (1961) operates from the premise that witchcraft survives as an open secret among some women, in both benign and malevolent forms. A small-town academic (Peter Wyngarde) convinces his wife (Janet Taylor) to stop casting spells to advance his career; he doesn’t believe in the occult, so he’s taken aback by the various disasters that ensue. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson are credited with the intelligent and efficient script, which adapts Fritz Leiber’s American novel Conjure Wife to an English setting. Director Sidney Hayes can be needlessly rhetorical at times, relying on a campus statue of an eagle to create a sense of menace (the UK title was Night of the Eagle), but this is still eerily effective. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Falling Angels

Adapted from a novel by Barbara Gowdy, this 2003 Canadian feature centers on three adolescent sisters growing up with alcoholic, hyperbolically dysfunctional parents in the shadow of a secret family tragedy. This is set in a small town during the 60s, and initially I was bugged by the implicit assumption that the times were every bit as crazy as the depressive mother (Miranda Richardson) and tyrannical soldier father (Callum Keith Rennie). But after a while the sisters’ stories become more substantial; I was especially touched by the everyday reality of Mont… Read more »

Tales from the Vault

This piece appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 10, 2004. One particular reason for reviving it now is the happy news that The Exiles (see first illustration below) and all the Val Lewton horror films, including The Seventh Victim, which were relatively scarce items when they showed back then at the Gene Siskel Film Center, are now readily available on DVD, in excellent editions. Due to its lack of the usual auteurist credentials — specifically, the mediocre reputation of Mark Robson — The Seventh Victim continues to be the most neglected of Lewton’s greatest films, but it’s no longer hard to find. Burn, Witch, Burn is now out on Blu-Ray, and it seems that A Tale of Two Sisters is currently available in multiple editions in the U.S. and elsewhere — J.R.

The Exiles **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Kent Mackenzie

With Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, and Rico Rodriguez

The Seventh Victim **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Mark Robson

Written by Charles O’Neal and Dewitt Bodeen

With Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage, Tom Conway, and Mary Newton

A Tale of Two Sisters * (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Kim Jee-woon

With Yeom Jeong-a, Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, and Kim Kab-su

Burn, Witch, Burn *** (A must see)

Directed by Sidney Hayers

Written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont

With Janet Blair, Peter Wyngarde, Margaret Johnston, and Anthony Nicholls

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Few movie-industry executives -– and not just in the U.S.… Read more »

The Exiles

Written, produced, and directed by Kent Mackenzie, this low-budget independent feature (1961) deserves to be ranked with John Cassavetes’s Shadows, but it languished unseen for nearly four decades until Thom Andersen celebrated it in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself. Pitched somewhere between fiction and documentary, with nonprofessional actors improvising postsynced dialogue and internal monologues, it follows a few uprooted Native Americans from Friday night to Saturday morning in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. Its moving portraiture is refreshingly free of cliches and moralizing platitudes, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography and dense, highly creative sound track are equally impressive (even the occasional imprecise lip sync seems justified). Mackenzie lived only long enough to make one other feature–Saturday Morning (1971), which I haven’t seen–but this film’s lower-case urban poetry suggests a major talent. 72 min. Saturday 12/11, 3:30 PM, and Thursday 12/16, 8 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Moolaade

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 Kine, a 2000 comedy about a sassy, self-made city woman). It focuses on the defiant second wife of an elder in a West African village who refuses to allow four little girls to undergo the traditional circumcision ceremony. Among Sembene’s strengths as a storyteller are deceptive simplicity and apparent looseness, which allow his drama to steadily gather momentum and political force. His ambiguous, multilayered treatment of a flirtatious local merchant who partially represents the world outside the village is emblematic of his virtuosity. In Bambara with subtitles. 120 min. Music Box.… Read more »