From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.
Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective
at the Gene Siskel Film Center
It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.
One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist.… Read more »
For all its implicit misogyny, the original 1966 film version of Bill Naughton’s play remains durable because of Michael Caine’s career-defining performance as the cockney ladies’ man, not to mention the memorable title tune (sung by Cher) and driving jazz score (written and performed by Sonny Rollins). The secondary performancesby Shelley Winters, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Field, and Vivien Merchant, among othersaren’t bad either. Lewis Gilbert directed. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »
The talented Jean-Francois Richet, who grew up in a housing project outside Paris, made news in France when his radical feature Ma 6-T va crack-er (1997) was banned from French screens as a danger to public safety. With his remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 feature, he again turns a crime thriller into a corrosive war movie, less suspenseful than the original but more ethically nuanced, politically pointed, and violent. It retains the core story of a besieged city cop in a semiabandoned station house (Ethan Hawke at his jumpiest) who joins forces with a hard-nosed prisoner (Laurence Fishburne at his coolest) after the precinct is attacked by a mob. But most of the trappings are quite differentfor starters, the street gang in Carpenter’s movie has become an entire force of crooked cops. With John Leguizamo (more hysterical than he needs to be), Gabriel Byrne, Maria Bello, Brian Dennehy, Drea de Matteo, and Ja Rule. R, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jennifer Garner, who played the Marvel Comics superhero Elektra in Daredevil (2003), returns to the role for this sleek action adventure, protecting a father (Goran Visnjic) and daughter (Kirsten Prout) from the nefarious schemes and ninjitsu techniques of the Hand. This doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but I was charmed by its old-fashioned storytelling, which is refreshingly free of archness, self-consciousness, or Kill Bill-style wisecracks. Some of the effects recall vintage Ray Harryhausen, the villains all perish in puffs of green smoke, and Garner’s sincere glumness suggests Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon. Rob Bowman directed; with Terence Stamp as Elektra’s blind guru. PG-13, 85 min. (JR)… Read more »
Based on the true story of Samuel Byck, who tried to assassinate President Nixon in 1974, this first feature by Niels Mueller is powerful, haunting, but ultimately disappointing. Few American movies address abject failure as forcefully as this one, and Sean Penn delivers an intense performance as the would-be assassin. Yet casting a glamorous star as a terminal misfit undermines the character’s reality (as in Taxi Driver), and despite fine performances by Naomi Watts as his ex-wife and Don Cheadle as his best friend, one can’t help but wonder why these people would become involved with someone like him. Mueller and Kevin Kennedy wrote the script; with Jack Thompson. R, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
Anthony Balch, a London film distributor who collaborated with William S. Burroughs on a few interesting experimental shorts, also made a couple of jokey exploitation features: Secrets of Sex (1970) and this mad-scientist item from 1973, also known as Dr. Bloodbath and Computer Killers. With Michael Gough, Robert Askwith, and Dennis Price. R, 85 min. (JR)… Read more »
Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John, her first name short for Alexandria) assembled this troubling video documentary about Jerry Harvey, a fanatical Los Angeles film buff who spent eight years programming the legendary pay-cable outlet the Z Channel. Seriously bipolar, Harvey killed his wife and himself in 1988, and Cassavetes performs the difficult task of reconciling his tragic personal life with his professional legacy (a highly adventurous programmer, he helped establish the contemporary audience for directors’ cuts and in the process befriended such filmmakers as Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino). Both the clips and the talking heads are well chosen, providing a fascinating look at a particular subculture in Cassavetes’s hometown. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »
Yasujiro Ozu followed his first talkie, The Only Son, with this nuanced 1937 comedy about a henpecked medical school professor who makes up a story for his wife so he can sneak off with his freethinking niece for a holiday. The professor’s subterfuge is discovered, which has complex emotional consequences; few critics have noted the rage and rebellion that crop up in Ozu’s work, and he’s masterful in showing how such feelings are worked out in the context of family. More conventional and commercial than its predecessor, this feature is also uncharacteristic of Ozu in its sharp satire of the rich (its trendy banter and lighthearted boozing suggest The Thin Man as a possible influence). In Japanese with subtitles. 71 min. (JR)… Read more »
Superior in every respect to the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, this 2003 video by Keith Beauchamp uses archival footage and plainspoken eyewitnesses to investigate the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Till, a black boy from Chicago who had whistled at a white woman in rural Mississippi. The most memorable and forceful testimony comes from Mamie Till, the victim’s mother, whose decision to hold an open-casket funeral for her severely mutilated son galvanized the civil rights movement. Though the perpetrators have never been punished, Beauchamp turned up new evidence and got the case reopeneda fitting tribute to Mamie, who died shortly before the video was completed. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.
Wong Kar-wai’s idiosyncratic style first became apparent in this gorgeously moody second feature (1991), whose romantic vision of 1960 Hong Kong as a network of unfulfilled longings would later echo through In the Mood for Love. Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong’s answer to James Dean (in fact the movie appropriates its Cantonese title from Rebel Without a Cause), plays a heartless ladies’ man, raised by a prostitute, who eventually leaves for the Philippines in search of his real mother. Maggie Cheung is a waitress at a soccer stadium whom the man woos with his philosophical ruminations on a wall clock, and Andy Lau is a lonely cop who yearns for her. This was conceived as the first of two movies, and its puzzling coda was intended as a teaser for the second part; the box office failure of Days of Being Wild precluded a sequel and delayed its stateside release for years, though its lack of dramatic closure now seems almost appropriate. As critic Tony Rayns has noted, it’s “the first film to rhyme nostalgia for a half-imaginary past with future shock.” In Cantonese with subtitles. 94 min. Music Box.
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