Monthly Archives: August 2005

Less Than Transgressive [9 SONGS]

From the Chicago Reader (August 26, 2005). — J.R.

9 Songs

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

With Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll used to be a commercially surefire package that today seems less automatically reliable. Which is presumably why Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs arrives in Chicago 15 months after its Cannes premiere — during the dog days of summer, when art-house films that distributors aren’t quite sure what to do with tend to surface. Sex is the main course, the side dishes are nine concert performances given by rock bands, and the spices are a few glancing references to cocaine and prescription drugs.

Even though it has few of the narrative elements we usually expect, this 69-minute movie is surprisingly fresh and original. The mise en scene, the editing (by Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross), and the camerawork by Marcel Zyskind keep it lively and attractive. The lighting is often exquisite, and the actors sometimes seem like inspired jazz players.

9 Songs is intermittently arousing, but though the sex is real, it isn’t really porn. Jonathan Romney offers a pretty precise description in the London Independent: “Essentially, 9 Songs bets us that it can make sex stand for all the other things that routinely convey character.” It’s a scriptless improv for two actors, one professional (Kieran O’Brien), one not (Margo Stilley), and whether what we’re watching when they’re getting it on qualifies as fiction or documentary is part of what keeps the film interesting.… Read more »

The Constant Gardener

This adaptation of the John Le Carre best seller by Jeffrey Caine plays like Graham Greene redux. Ralph Fiennes stars as a mild-mannered member of the British High Commission in Kenya whose radical activist wife (Rachel Weisz) is brutally slain; investigating her murder, he gradually pieces together a tale of corruption involving the pharmaceutical industry that’s every bit as horrific as (and much more timely than) Harry Lime’s killing of babies with diluted penicillin in The Third Man. Fernando Meirelles, codirector of City of God, stresses old-fashioned storytelling and takes full advantage of his cast, including Danny Huston. R, 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ken Park

I’ve never been a fan of Larry Clark’s pornographic features about fornicating teenagers. But this scuzz-and-skateboard fest (2002) is probably his best work, if only because it seems to have the greatest number of characters and outrages (besides the usual share of screwed-up parents). Clark shares director and cinematographer credits with the skillful Ed Lachman (who shot Far From Heaven); Clark’s sleazemeister-in-arms Harmony Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) based his script on Clark’s stories, and it has plenty of melodrama and disturbing southern California folkways. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

9 Songs

9songs-cunnilingus

Working without a script, the edgy British independent Michael Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People) shoots a young couple (played by Kieran O’Brien and American nonprofessional Margo Stilley) having real sex and alternates these scenes with numbers from nine London concerts (mostly rock) that their characters attend over a few months. Beautifully shot on DV by Marcel Zyskind, with minimal dialogue but voice-over narration from O’Brien, this 2004 feature is short on story and character yet usually holds its own as spectacle. The music and the body types may be familiar to a fault, but the performances are expressive. 69 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Brothers Grimm

This brisk, free-falling fantasy about the famous collators of German fairy tales, played here as a kind of comedy act by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, is Terry Gilliam’s most entertaining work since the glory days of Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Fisher King. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Reindeer Games, The Ring and its sequel) is completely indifferent to the true story of the real-life brothers; he doesn’t so much adapt their tales as use them to inspire Gilliam’s goofy and/or creepy-crawly period adventures. With Lena Headey, Monica Bellucci, Peter Stormare, and Jonathan Pryce, the latter two giving some of their broadest turns as comic grotesques. PG-13, 118 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, Crown Village 18, Davis, Ford City, Gardens 7-13, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, North Riverside, River East 21, 62nd & Western, Webster Place.… Read more »

Aparajito

This week the Film Center will screen all three parts of Indian director Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, derived from the novels of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee. This second installment (1956), fully comprehensible on its own terms, suffers at times from its episodic plot, which follows Apu from the age of ten in the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi) to his early adulthood in Calcutta. But it’s my favorite of the three, and the reported favorite of Ray’s fellow Bengali directors Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Its treatment of death–Apu’s father dies toward the beginning of the film and his mother dies near the end–is among the most beautiful, mystical, and precise handlings of that subject in all of cinema, worthy of Mizoguchi; in a way the film is little more than a careful contextualizing of these two astonishing sequences. Like the rest of the trilogy, Aparajito benefits from the ravishing “commentary” of Ravi Shankar’s music. It’s a masterpiece for which terms like simplicity and profundity seem inadequate. In Bengali with subtitles. 113 min. Sat 8/27, 5:15 PM, and Tue 8/30, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

The 40-year-old Virgin

Steve Carell plays the title role in this sloppy sitcom-in-the-making, the feature directorial debut of TV veteran Judd Apatow. The hero works at an electronics superstore, and various wacky coworkers serve as running gags, helping him along as he tries to lose his cherry. Catherine Keener shines the most in this prefab atmosphere, as the kooky middle-aged love interest. Carell and Apatow collaborated on the script; it does manage a few laughs, but the characters seldom progress beyond the two-dimensional. R, 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Pretty Persuasion

This first feature by TV veteran Marcos Siega, with an ambitious script by another newcomer, Skander Halim, tries to be an audacious, irreverent satire about youth culture like Lord Love a Duck, but most of the laughs get strangled at birth by the uncertainty of Siega’s tone. A conniving 15-year-old (Evan Rachel Wood) concocts a sexual harassment charge against her drama teacher (Ron Livingston) and gets two of her female classmates to back her up. What initially seems like a social critique skewering everyone from lesbians to anti-Semites winds up scattered and confused, with strident performances and unconvincing characters. With James Woods, Jane Krakowski, and Selma Blair. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Whole Wide World

Novalyne Price Ellis’s memoir, One Who Walked Alone, about her friendship and abortive romance in the 1930s with Robert E. Howardthe Texas recluse and misfit with a morbid attachment to his mother who wrote the Conan stories and other pulp fantasies for Weird Talessounds like an interesting subject for a movie. Unfortunately, despite the undeniable skills of Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard and Renee Zellweger as Price, this sentimental washout (1996) never begins to be believable; the Hollywoodization is so complete that Howard has virtually been transformed into a thundering extrovert, and neither the script (Michael Scott Myers) nor the direction (Dan Ireland) can transcend the glop of Hans Zimmer’s music. With Ann Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, and Benjamin Mouton. PG, 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Asylum

David Mackenzie, who directed the remarkable Scottish drama Young Adam (2003), delivers another masterful, disturbing tale of illicit passion, erotic obsession, and sudden death set in the 1950s. Natasha Richardson plays a woman whose psychiatrist husband (Hugh Bonneville) works in a hospital for the criminally insane; she falls for one of the inmates, a young sculptor (Marton Csokas) who’s killed his wife, and after the man escapes, she follows him to London. Adapted from a novel by Patrick McGrath (Spider), this has the same aggressive but nuanced sensibility as Mackenzie’s previous feature, and the same sure grasp of both actors and camera. With Ian McKellen and Joss Ackland. 90 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.

Read more »

Tropical Malady

Winner of the jury prize at Cannes, this third feature by writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Mysterious Object at Noon) confirms his status as the most adventurous filmmaker in Thailand and one of the most creative and unpredictable currently working anywhere. Part one chronicles with a sometimes ironic tastefulness the budding romance between a soldier on leave and a shy country boy; part two turns folkloric and allegorical as the soldier travels through a dark forest, alternately stalking and being stalked by his lover in the form of a tiger spirit, with a talking baboon offering sage advice. Both parts are leisurely paced and beautifully shot. In Thai with subtitles. 118 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

The Aristocrats

A gimmicky documentary by Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza built around the ultimate obscene joke, which depends on a performer’s style and a certain amount of embroidery to achieve maximum impact. The idea is to set about 100 stand-up comics loose on this material, but the results are predictably so sound-bitey that only a few of them get to tell the joke all the way through, and many just offer commentaries. One sympathizes with Don Rickles’s complaint that this is the sort of movie whose performers don’t get paid. But with such participants as Hank Azaria, Shelley Berman, George Carlin, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Idle, Bill Maher, Michael McKean, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Dave Thomas, and Robin Williams, you won’t be too bored. R, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Last Days

Following the last hours of a junkie rock star (Michael Pitt) doing nothing in particular in and around his country mansion before he kills himself, Gus Van Sant’s experimental feature, nicely shot by Harris Savides, purports to be inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain, though mainly it’s a shrewd invitation to the audience to fill in the hagiographic blanks. Less dreary than Van Sant’s Gerry but far less interesting than Elephant, this suggests both of its predecessors in its mannerist doggedness; even the time overlaps of Elephant are pointlessly reprised. The best moments come when other characters turn up (Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Ricky Jay, and Thadeus A. Thomas as a door-to-door salesman) or the camera becomes as indifferent as the hero, slowly backing away from it all. R, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kurtsploitation [LAST DAYS]

From the Chicago Reader (August 12, 2005). — J.R.

Last Days

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, and Thadeus A. Thomas.

A film about a junkie rock musician, played by Michael Pitt at his most narcissistic, doing nothing in particular for the better part of 97 minutes isn’t my idea of either a good time or a serious endeavor. Yet a few of my colleagues seem to be responding to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days the way some responded to The Passion of the Christ – taking it without a grain of salt or an ounce of irony. But it’s the grunge version of the Christ story, so that makes it hip.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes that it’s about the “resurrection of Gus Van Sant,” the “mystery of human consciousness,” the “ecstasy of creation,” and “how sorrow sometimes goes hand in hand with the sublime.” Even a compulsive jokester like the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane sounds like he just stepped out of Sunday school, writing, “Some of the motion has a hypnotizing grace,” and when the camera retreats from a house where Blake (Pitt) is noodling distractedly on his guitar, “We might as well be overhearing him at prayer.” When Blake finally dies we see “his soul, as naked as a baby, rise languidly from his broken body and clamber out of the frame.” All of which, I suppose, adds up to Mel Gibson lite.… Read more »

A Vigilance of Desire: Antonioni’s L’ECLISSE

A 2005 essay commissioned by Criterion for their DVD of Eclipse. — J.R.

 

Your vigilance as an artist is an amorous vigilance, a vigilance of desire.

— Roland Barthes to Michelangelo Antonioni, 1979

It’s lamentable that Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the most fashionable vanguard European filmmakers during the sixties, has mainly been out of fashion ever since. Part of this may be due to the sixties themselves — an era of artistic innovation when making ambitious films about the zeitgeist was still considered both possible and desirable — and all they’ve come to represent in ensuing decades. It seems that the curiosity and metaphysical doubts about the world, which resemble at times agnosticism about reality itself, are more easily tolerated when the glamour of that world is more readily apparent.

This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year at Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel — a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.… Read more »