From the Chicago Reader (April 29, 2005); slightly tweaked in February 2014. — J.R.
Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic, about immigrant settlers clashing with native capitalists in 19th-century Wyoming, suffered a disastrous opening and was subsequently cut by 70 minutes; it became a legendary flop in the U.S., though the original 219-minute cut was widely applauded as a masterpiece in Europe. The longer version is impressive as long as the characters and settings remain in long shot; only when the camera gets closer do the problems start. The story is both slow moving and hard to follow, but the locations and period details offer plenty to ponder. Cimino’s handling of class issues is ambitious and unusually blunt, though it’s debatable whether this adds up to any sort of Marxist statement, except perhaps as a belated response to the (Oscar-winning) racism and xenophobia of his previous feature, The Deer Hunter. There’s no question that the same homoerotic — and arguably sexist — vision runs through both movies, as well as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the Cimino feature that preceded them. With Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, John Hurt, Joseph Cotten, and Brad Dourif. R. (JR)
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Maurice Pialat’s last feature (1995) was cowritten by him and his wife, Sylvie Danton, and features a performance by their four-year-old son, Antoine; starring Gerard Depardieu again, it’s a brutal self-portrait of a troubled and violent man. In French with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »
The beginning of this 2004 Brazilian drama anticipates a paranoid thriller like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Suspicion: a 65-year-old divorcee (Fernanda Montenegro), living alone in Rio’s Copacabana and participating in a neighborhood watch, witnesses what appears to be a murder in a flat across the street. Once she gets involved with the suspect, a retired judge, the movie fails to generate much suspense, but that emerges as the real point: writer-director Marcos Bernstein is more interested in how a melodramatic imagination can distort reality, a concept he explores with charm and tact. In Portuguese with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »
Based on Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s nonfiction book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, this absorbing and intelligent documentary by Alex Gibney presents the chronology and major characters of one of the greatest corporate swindles in U.S. history. Those who suspect that gangsters are taking over the country will find this a pretty lucid account of the methodologies employed. The only serious distraction and ethical lapse is Gibney’s sarcastic, cheap-shot use of popular songs like That Old Black Magic, Love for Sale, and God Bless the Child to underscore certain points; it seems almost to celebrate the shamelessness of the creeps being exposed. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »
This sequel to X X X (2002) brings back Samuel L. Jackson as a U.S. intelligence chief, though Ice Cube replaces Vin Diesel as the ex-con action hero. This time the skulduggery involves Willem Dafoe as the U.S. secretary of defense, who’s planning to assassinate his way to the presidency, but with more stuntpeople than characters, this borders on a free-for-all. Of course the movie’s real raison d’etre is watching Ice Cube tear up government facilities and blockades with a tank, spout Schwarzenegger-style kiss-off lines, and commandeer the kind of babes and high-tech cars that James Bond usually plays with. The silly script is by Simon Kinberg, the spotty direction by Lee Tamahori. PG-13, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »
This 16-millimeter experimental feature (2004) by James Benning consists of ten upward views from a stationary camera, each ten minutes long and filmed with sync sound from his backyard in southern California. I expected something minimalist, but in fact this is remarkably full–a mesmerizing study in time, light, movement, and moisture that traces the shifting relations between clouds and earth, nature and people. Benning is so attentive that he teaches us how to look and listen, and once we adjust our plot-driven expectations, things that might have seemed static at first are revealed as constantly changing. If you’re expecting a test or an ordeal, you could be as surprised by this masterpiece, and as grateful for it, as I was. 101 min. Presented by Chicago Filmmakers. Sat 4/30, 8 PM, Cinema Borealis.… Read more »
The work of director Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is sufficiently celebrated in France to have generated an exhaustive Web site (www.maurice-pialat.net) and two DVD boxed sets. But his name is far from familiar here, and this complete retrospective of his features–continuing Friday through Tuesday, April 29 through May 3, at Facets Cinematheque–is long overdue. All films are in French with subtitles; for more information and a complete schedule visit www.facets.org.
I’m partial to Pialat’s 70s output, but all of his movies are worth seeing, and some fans prefer the more mannerist late work screening this week. Police (1985, 113 min.) stars Gerard Depardieu as a cop chasing after drug traffickers; as Pat Graham wrote, his “sense of legality roughly mirrors that of the criminals he hounds, and Pialat follows him around with unflappable resolve.” Pialat’s next two features departed somewhat from his usual volatile realism: The dark, spiritual Under Satan’s Sun (1987, 97 min.), named best film at Cannes, adapts a novel by Catholic writer Georges Bernanos and features high-powered performances by Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire, and Pialat himself. Van Gogh (1992, 160 min.), with Jacques Dutronc in the title role, is Pialat’s longest, oddest, and most painterly feature, taking a revisionist and highly personal look at the artist’s last 67 days.… Read more »
Written for Criterion’s DVD release of F for Fake in 2005. — J.R.
There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antégor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”
I met him at La Méditerranée — the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing — and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter.… Read more »
This 1979 film by Maurice Pialat treats youthful sex as the only activity worth pursuing in the provinces, and the major obstacle to escaping from them. 85 min. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
The Mouth Agape (1974, 82 min.), my favorite film by Maurice Pialat, concerns a middle-aged woman dying of cancer and how her illness affects her husband and son; its details about sex as well as death are recognizable, embarrassing, moving, and occasionally funny. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
Maurice Pialat adapted his own autobiographical novel for We Will Not Grow Old Together (1972, 107 min.), a devastating chronicle of a long-term affair that can neither survive nor end, powerfully played by Jean Yanne and Marlene Jobert. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
A volatile realist who’s often been compared to John Cassavetes, Maurice Pialat started out as a painter and a documentary filmmaker, though in contrast to most realist works (as well as most paintings) his movies are too intimate to date very much. He was 43 when he made his first feature, Naked Childhood (1968, 82 min.), a nonjudgmental and unsentimental look at a troubled, abandoned ten-year-old boy who’s shuttled between foster parents. (Francois Truffaut served as coproducer, though Pialat was a sworn enemy of the New Wave.) In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »
It’s a bad sign when a sizable portion of a preview audience starts lurching for the exit before the final fade-out. This thriller involving a plot to assassinate a genocidal African dictator has Nicole Kidman in the title role as a UN interpreter and Sean Penn as a Secret Service agent. I suppose the absence of heat between them could be taken as a sign of the movie’s seriousness, but without a spark to ignite the proceedings even the actors’ craft and Sydney Pollack’s direction don’t count for much. Five people worked on the script; if there was ever any inspiration behind it, there isn’t now. PG-13, 128 min. (JR)… Read more »
Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher meet cute by having offscreen sex in an airplane lavatory as they’re flying from Los Angeles to New York. After that it’s all downhill, for them and for us. This interminable contest between two narcissists, stretched out over many miles and years, is supposed to have something to do with romance. Nigel Cole, the British director, also helmed Calendar Girls, but in that case he had a better cast and script to work with. With Kathryn Hahn and Kal Penn; written by Colin Patrick Lynch. PG-13, 107 min. (JR)… Read more »
French writer-actress Agnes Jaoui has a keen sense of middle-class aspirations and cultural self-consciousness, and though her work may be decidedly middlebrow, its verve and sensitivity make it entirely honorable. This follow-up to her 2000 debut, The Taste of Others, delves into the milieu of a well-known, self-centered author suffering from writer’s block (well played by Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui’s writing partner and former husband) and his chubby grown daughter (Marilou Berry), who’s frustrated by his inattention. Jaoui plays the daughter’s voice teacher, and the movie is acute in its observation of how she and other characters are bent out of shape by their deference to the famous monster. The French title is Comme une image (like an image), but Tennessee Williams’s phrase the catastrophe of success seems more appropriate. In French with subtitles. PG-13, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »