Monthly Archives: September 2005

Oliver Twist

Roman Polanski said he wanted to make a movie his kids could see, and clearly his take on the Charles Dickens novel, with its childhood feelings of panic and deprivation, is free of the postmodern irony most contemporary directors would have brought to the material. Working again with writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Polanski honors the craft of classical storytelling and never flinches from the book’s melodramatic extremes in portraying the horrors of poverty. Apart from Ben Kingsley’s elaborately detailed Fagin, there are no fancy actors’ turns, and the sets and costumes look splendidly (if sordidly) lived in, reminding one that Tess (1979), Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy, won Oscars in both categories. With Barney Clark as Oliver. PG-13, 130 min. (JR)… Read more »

Keane

Clean, Shaven (1993), the debut feature of independent filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan, follows a schizophrenic back to his hometown, where he hopes to see his daughter. After a disappointing second feature (1998′s Claire Dolan), Kerrigan returns with his best work to date, at least in terms of narrative drive and suspense. It focuses on a man (Damian Lewis), who may or may not be schizophrenic, searching the New York Port Authority bus terminal and its immediate vicinity for his six-year-old daughter, who’s allegedly been abducted but may not even exist. When he eventually befriends a desperate young woman (Amy Ryan) with a six-year-old girl, our uncertainty naturally escalates. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

El Dia Que Me Quieras And Eureka

Two fascinating 16-millimeter experimental films, both involving history. El dia que me quieras (1997, 30 min.), which translates as The Day You’ll Love Me, is by Argentinean-American Leandro Katz and mixes color with black and white in a poetic meditation on the famous 1967 photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse surrounded by his Bolivian captors. Its investigation is threaded through an extended contemporary interview with the photographer, Freddy Alborta, and a Jorge Luis Borges text adapted and read by Katz. Ernie Gehr’s Eureka (1974, 30 min.) unpacks and illuminates footage of San Francisco’s Market Street taken about a century ago. (JR)… Read more »

A Depth in the Family [A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 30, 2005). The last illustration, incidentally, is from the graphic novel that this film is based on.,,,See below for screenwriter Josh Olson’s recent response to this review. — J.R.

A History of Violence

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Josh Olson

With Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt, and Heidi Hayes

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a happy family man running a diner in idyllic small-town Indiana, with a lawyer wife (Maria Bello), a teenage son (Ashton Holmes), and a little girl (Heidi Hayes). One night he responds so deftly and definitively to the violent threats of two killers that he becomes a local hero. A Philadelphia mobster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) hears of the story and soon arrives in town claiming that Tom has another name and background — that he was once a gangster himself who mutilated one of Fogarty’s eyes with barbed wire.

Is A History of Violence a popular genre movie, soliciting visceral, unthinking responses to its violence while evoking westerns and noirs? Or is it an art film, reflecting on the meaning, implications, and effects of its violence, and getting us to do the same?… Read more »

Flightplan

After her husband falls to his death in Berlin, a propulsion engineer (Jodie Foster) takes a commercial flight back to the U.S. with her six-year-old daughter and awakes from a nap to find that the girl is missing and no one on board remembers seeing her. This thriller is effective if you can accept thatas with some of John Dickson Carr’s locked-room mysteriesthe trickiness counts more than any plausibility. There’s also some pointed if unstressed social commentary, and pitting Foster’s engineer, with her knowledge of planes, against everyone else makes for some lively moments. Robert Schwentke directed a script by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray; with Peter Sarsgaard and Sean Bean. PG-13, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stormy Waters

Dave Kehr has rightly called Jean Gremillon Jean Renoir’s only serious rival in the prewar French cinema, largely on the basis of Gueule d’amour (1937), Gremillon’s first film with Jean Gabin. But the director released three comparably impressive features during the occupation, starting with this 1941 drama about a gruff, married salvage-boat captain in Brittany (Gabin) falling for the recently estranged wife (Michele Morgan) of a ruthless captain whose merchant ship he’s towing to safety. Gabin and Morgan may have been the hottest couple this side of Bogart and Bacall, and despite some awkward use of miniatures in the early stretches, this benefits from stormy atmospherics, masterful characterization, and expressive use of sound. The script was adapted successively by Charles Spaak, Andre Cayatte, and Jacques Prevert from a novel by Roger Vercel. With Madeleine Renaud. In French with subtitles. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Searching For The Wrong-eyed Jesus

Made for the BBC, this travelogue of America’s southern backwoods is both blessed and cursed by its fascination with the colorfullively alt-country sounds and fancy word spinners like novelist Harry Crews. As a native of the deep south, I was pleased but also troubled by the locals’ eagerness to put on a folksy act for director Andrew Douglas; the camera makes awed touristic pans of the various locales, and guides offer an uncredited swipe from Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and charge $100 a day to rent a 1970 Chevy. This plays like a documentary but also credits a writer, Steve Haisman. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Everything Is Illuminated

Alas, the thing most illuminated here is how blotchy digital video can look in the wrong hands. Actor Liev Schreiber makes his writing and directing debut with this adaptation of a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, about a young American Jew (Elijah Wood) traveling to a remote Ukrainian village in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Alternately mawkish and strident, with lots of fades to white and dog reaction shots, this can be recommended only for its good intentions. With Eugene Hutz and Boris Leskin. In English and subtitled Ukrainian. PG-13, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dear Wendy

American teens in a depressed mining town form a secret club based on the twin tenets of pacifism and gun ownership; predictably, they wind up in a shootout with police. This Danish allegory (in English) was directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) but written and produced by Lars von Trier (Dogville), whose hypocrisy and facile anti-Americanism are much in evidence. Vinterberg and von Trier may consider themselves pacifists, but they don’t seem to mind using violence to attract an audience. Well acted and directed, yet outlandish in some details, this 2004 feature is basically watchable tripe. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

As Tears Go By

The directorial debut of Wong Kar-wai (1989), described as a reconfiguring of Mean Streets in terms of the Hong Kong underworld. By most accounts a far cry from Wong’s second feature, Days of Being Wild (my own favorite), but it’s probably still worth seeing. In Cantonese with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Us Crazy Foreigners [DEAR WENDY & REEL PARADISE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 23, 2005).– J.R.

Dear Wendy

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Written by Lars von Trier

With Jamie Bell, Bill Pullman, Alison Pill, Danso Gordon, Michael Angarano, Novello Nelson, Chris Owen, and Mark Webber

Reel Paradise

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Steve James

http://www.splicedwire.com/05reviews/dearwendy.jpg

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Two new releases are defined by an inability to fathom another culture — Reel Paradise, a U.S. documentary about an American spending a year in the South Pacific with his family, and Dear Wendy, a Danish feature with English dialogue that was shot in rural Denmark and Germany but is set in a poor mining town in the American southeast. Both demonstrate a middle-class complacency that fosters this inadequacy.

The acknowledged subject of Dear Wendy, written by Lars von Trier and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is the American obsession with guns and violence. “Wendy” is a small handgun that’s addressed, fondled, and ultimately used by the young narrator-hero played by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), who prides himself on being a pacifist even after he starts a gun club, the Dandies. Like the other misfits in the club, he claims to be interested only in target practice, but when they wind up in a bloody shoot-out with the police (among them Bill Pullman) we aren’t the least bit surprised.… Read more »

A History of Violence

Though he avoids platitudes, David Cronenberg is a troubled moralist who lingers over cherished mythologies to find their dark residue: this masterpiece, an art film deftly masquerading as a thriller, seems to celebrate small-town pastoralism and critique big-city violence, but this position turns out to be double-edged. Josh Olson adapted his script from a graphic novel, yet the story develops with a subtlety that’s entirely cinematic; two contrasting sex scenes between the hero (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife (Maria Bello), added by Cronenberg, are especially masterful. With Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Ashton Holmes. R, 96 min. River East 21.… Read more »

The Constant Compromise (GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK & CAPOTE)

From the October 21, 2005 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Good Night, and Good Luck

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by George Clooney

Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov

With David Straithairn, Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, Heslov, Jeff Daniels, and Dianne Reeves

Capote

*** (A must see)

Directed by Bennett Miller

Written by Dan Futterman

With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Mark Pellegrino, and Amy Ryan

Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote view journalism as an intricate mix of principles, bravado, and negotiation. Working in a minefield, their star journalists are victims of their vocations. Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the early 50s, celebrates Edward R. Murrow’s bravery, eloquence, and sense of justice in challenging Joseph McCarthy at the height of his power — a kind of heroism that evokes John Wayne’s in a western like Rio Bravo (a movie I cherish, though its view of good and evil is similarly unshaded). Good Night, and Good Luck – named for Murrow’s sign-off line — also explores how internal politics at CBS were shaped by the network’s relations with its sponsors. The victimization of Murrow can be seen in his early death from lung cancer — his chain smoking, like James Agee’s and Albert Camus’, was somehow connected in the public mind with his moral seriousness — and in the way his weekly show, See It Now, was bumped to a Sunday-afternoon slot after he challenged McCarthy.… Read more »

War Crimes, Hidden and Brandished [on LORD OF WAR & WINTER SOLDIER]

The September 16, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader ran a somewhat different edit of this piece. I’ve opted for restoring much of my original submitted draft in the first section, as well as my original title. –J.R.

Lord of War

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Andrew Niccol

With Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Bridget Moynahan, Jared Leto, and Ian Holm

Winter Soldier

*** (A must see)

Directed by the Winter Film Collective

“Memory believes before knowing remembers,” begins the sixth chapter of my favorite novel, William Faulkner’s Light in August. This odd but accurate observation perfectly describes my misremembering of Winter Soldiers —- an account of the Winter Soldier investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971. I saw it in Cannes shortly after it was made, in 1972, and haven’t seen since until recently.

It’s almost as potent today as it was when I first saw it. But I recalled it being full of emotional breakdowns from the participants when in fact, apart from one Native American fighting back tears (who receives a standing ovation from many of the others), most of the soldiers’ testimonies are calm, thoughtful, and measured, in spite of the horrors they’re recounting.… Read more »

Proof

A lot of talent and energy have gone into this adaptation of David Auburn’s play about the charged relationship between a troubled young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her father (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant but mad mathematician. As in many Miramax pictures, the source material has undergone some sentimental softening, though Hope Davis, as the heroine’s sister, does a swell job of making sanity seem obnoxious. It’s set and partly filmed around the University of Chicago, and John Madden directs the actors with sensitivity. Auburn and Rebecca Miller collaborated on the script. With Jake Gyllenhaal. PG-13, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »