Monthly Archives: January 2006

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

A contemporary western with political overtones and acerbic gallows humor, Tommy Lee Jones’s first theatrical feature as director (2005) is impressive. Inspired by the unpunished 1997 killing of 18-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., the script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros) concerns the accidental and unpunished shooting of the title character, a Mexican ranch hand (Julio Cesar Cedillo) working in west Texas. Jones plays the ranch hand’s foreman and friend, who kidnaps the border patrolman responsible (Barry Pepper) and drags him and Estrada’s corpse across the border, determined to fulfill his friend’s wish to be buried in his remote hometown. A very capable piece of storytelling, clearly showing the influence of Sam Peckinpah and beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Chris Menges, this recaptures some of the grandeur of the classic western while adding modernist and absurdist ironies. With Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sun Shines Bright

My favorite John Ford feature (1953) was also the director’s, and it’s one of his cheapest and coziest, made in black and white at Republic Pictures. Vaguely a remake of his 1934 Judge Priest, set in an idyllic Kentucky town at the turn of the century, it features the same alcoholic herothis time played by Charles Winninger and even more transparently a stand-in for Ford. The busy plot, confused by insensitive studio cutting, concerns racial strife, prostitution, prudery, and death and involves the entire community; Ford makes the film a ceremonial elegy and testament to everything that he loves and respects. With Stepin Fetchit, John Russell, Arleen Whelan, Francis Ford (in his last screen appearance), and Slim Pickens (in his first). 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sun Shines Bright

My favorite John Ford feature (1953) was also the director’s, and it’s one of his cheapest and coziest, made in black and white at Republic Pictures. Vaguely a remake of his 1934 Judge Priest, set in an idyllic Kentucky town at the turn of the century, it features the same alcoholic hero–this time played by Charles Winninger and even more transparently a stand-in for Ford. The busy plot, confused by insensitive studio cutting, concerns racial strife, prostitution, prudery, and death and involves the entire community; Ford makes the film a ceremonial elegy and testament to everything that he loves and respects. With Stepin Fetchit, John Russell, Arleen Whelan, Francis Ford (in his last screen appearance), and Slim Pickens (in his first). 90 min. Screening in a double feature with Judge Priest (see separate listing). Sun 1/29, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »

Bubble

From the Chicago Reader (January 27, 2006). — J.R.

bubble-dolls

The first in a projected series of six low-budget HDV features to be released simultaneously in theaters, on cable, and on DVD, Steven Soderbergh’s quirky 2005 drama, written by Coleman Hough (Full Frontal), is to my taste the best thing he’s done in years. Cast with nonprofessionals and filmed near the border of West Virginia and Ohio, it concerns the elusive story of three characters employed at a local doll factory: a stocky middle-aged woman (Debbie Doebereiner) who lives with her invalid father, a timid guy (Dustin James Ashley) she considers her best friend, and a young single mother (Misty Dawn Wilkins) who’s brought on as a temporary airbrusher and immediately bonds with him. Starting off as a low-key psychological drama, this suddenly turns into a murder mystery that’s resolved awkwardly and ambiguously, but the fascination of the characters and milieu remains. R, 90 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.

BubbleRead more »

Kid Stuff: A Glimpse at Movie Wonder

Written in January 2006 for 1000 Films To Change Your Life, an anthology edited by Simon Cropper for Time Out. — J.R.

Wonder is closer to being a feeling than a thought, and one that we associate both with children and with grown-ups recapturing some of the open-mouthed awe and innocence that they had as children. Many of us experienced some of this as kids watching the classic Disney cartoon features or certain live-action fantasy adventures like King Kong (1933) or Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Other generations, for that matter, might recall feeling a comparable emotion before the vast spaces of the 1916 Intolerance (whose gigantic Babylon set would eventually be redressed for Kong’s Skull Island) or the 1924 Thief of Bagdad or the 2005 King Kong —- or even in that hokey opening line, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Or what about the hushed sense of reverence that we bring to the virgin wilderness of The Big Sky (1952), whose very title expresses our feeling of astonishment? It’s a primal emotion, particularly as it relates to cinema in the old-fashioned sense: 35-millimeter projection in palatial theaters, the screen invariably much larger than us (‘Bigger Than Life,’ as the title of a Nicholas Ray melodrama in CinemaScope has it).… Read more »

Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World

For the first time since his brilliant debut feature, Real Life (1979), Albert Brooks plays a semifictional character named Albert Brooks, this time a guy who heads an ill-conceived State Department mission to discover what makes people in India and Pakistan laugh. Questioning and mocking himself, he combines personal worries about his dwindling career as a comic performer with more general ones about this country’s lack of smarts when it comes to the third world. Filmed mainly in Delhi, this provocative comedy couldn’t be more up-to-date. As usual, Brooks’s penchant for realism involves filming from a distance in extended takes and sometimes challenging the viewer to accept him as both an identification figure and a foolthough a softening of his usual obnoxious persona confuses matters a little. With Sheetal Sheth and Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself). PG-13, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Punishment Park

The neglected English master Peter Watkinswho came into international prominence with The War Game (1967)has specialized in political forms of pseudodocumentary throughout his career, including a treatment of historical subjects done in the form of TV news shows. In 1971, he made his only major feature in the U.S., a terrifying look at a future America where civil liberties are suspended, deliberately blurring many of the usual boundaries between documentary and fiction while staging a kind of psychodrama with his nonprofessional actors. The results are both hysterical and unforgettable, as well as creepily up to date in certain respects. There are other Watkins features that I prefer, but all are worth seeing. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Torture Question

The decision to use torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib can be traced to the highest levels in U.S. government, and much of the value of this excellent documentary by Michael Kirk, broadcast on PBS’s Frontline last October, lies in its comprehensively mapping how the policy got carried out. Kirk reveals the pecking orders and blurred lines between military police and military intelligence, and the impression of ill-informed incompetence leading to frustration and sadism on the part of the torturers is devastating. The interviewees include Colonel Janis Karpinski, who appears to have been a convenient scapegoat, and Tony Lagouranis, an army interrogator in Iraq for four years who also speaks chillingly of how innocent Iraqis were and still are abused and tortured in their own homes. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cafe Lumiere

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most minimalist film to date (2003) is a bracing return to form, a provocative and haunting look at Tokyo and the overall drift of the world that’s slow to reveal its secrets and beauties. Commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku as an homage to its famous house director Yasujiro Ozu, it references Ozu only indirectly, through the repetition of a few visual motifs and through details that indicate how much the world has changed since his heyday. The 23-year-old heroine (pop singer Yo Hitoto), single and pregnant, is a freelance writer obsessed with the life of Taiwanese classical composer Jiang Wenye (whose music we hear in the film); she’s helped in her research by a friend equally obsessed with recording the noises of subway trains. The plot is spare, but the sounds, images, and ambience are indelible. In Japanese with subtitles. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Torture Question

The decision to use torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib can be traced to the highest levels in U.S. government, and much of the value of this excellent documentary by Michael Kirk, broadcast on PBS’s Frontline last October, lies in its comprehensively mapping how the policy got carried out. Kirk reveals the pecking orders and blurred lines between military police and military intelligence, and the impression of ill-informed incompetence leading to frustration and sadism on the part of the torturers is devastating. The interviewees include General Janis Karpinski, who appears to have been a convenient scapegoat, and Tony Lagouranis, an army interrogator in Iraq for four years who also speaks chillingly of how innocent Iraqis were and still are abused and tortured in their own homes. 90 min. Fri 1/20, 7 PM, Chicago Filmmakers.… Read more »

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

For the first time since his brilliant debut feature, Real Life (1979), Albert Brooks plays a semifictional character named Albert Brooks, this time a guy who heads an ill-conceived State Department mission to discover what makes people in India and Pakistan laugh. Questioning and mocking himself, he combines personal worries about his dwindling career as a comic performer with more general ones about this country’s lack of smarts when it comes to the third world. Filmed mainly in New Delhi, this provocative comedy couldn’t be more up-to-date. As usual, Brooks’s penchant for realism involves filming from a distance in extended takes and sometimes challenging the viewer to accept him as both an identification figure and a fool–though a softening of his usual obnoxious persona confuses matters a little. With Sheetal Sheth and Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself). PG-13, 98 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Lake, Landmark’s Century Centre, River East 21.… Read more »

Scattered Clouds

A young woman (Yoko Tsukasa) whose husband is killed in an accident returns to her hometown, where she keeps encountering the guilt-stricken young executive (Yuzo Kayama) who drove the car that ran over her husband. Against all odds, they fall in love. Mikio Naruse’s characteristically fatalistic last feature (1967)in color and ‘Scope and at times evocative of Douglas Sirkis too melodramatic and formulaic to be one of his best films, but Tsukasa, who also worked for Kurosawa (Yojimbo) and Ozu (Late Autumn), is wonderfully expressive. It’s a pity Kayama, effective in a parallel role in Naruse’s 1964 Yearning, can’t quite keep up with her. In Japanese with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sound Of The Mountain

Made during his richest period, Mikio Naruse’s 1954 adaptation of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata about the bonds between a lonely wife (the great Setsuko Hara), her brazenly philandering husband, and her brooding, sympathetic father-in-law (So Yamamura) was one of the director’s favorites. Characteristically, the poetry of the mise en scene and the economy of the editing are terse and unsentimental, with Naruse’s sense of life’s perpetual disappointments firmly in place. In Japanese with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Underwater!

John Sturges directed this routine skin-diving thriller (1955, 99 min.) about searching for sunken treasure. It was filmed in ‘Scope, so beware of scanned TV prints eliminating body parts belonging to Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland, Richard Egan, Lori Nelson, and even Jayne Mansfield, the main sources of attraction. (JR)… Read more »