Monthly Archives: February 2006

Night Watch

Adapted from Sergei Lukyanenko’s best-selling fantasy novel, this $4 million feature (2004) grossed four times that amount in its native Russia. Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov claims in press notes that there were no fantasy movies shot in Russia before this one, a statement thatlike the movie, with its Moscow rubble and abundant goreindicates an exclusive diet of postapocalyptic vampire flicks from Hollywood. The plot involves forces of good and evil that have maintained an uneasy truce since the Middle Ages, though the punchy, nonstop visual effects (including an animation segment and stylized subtitles that sometimes suggest an online chat) crowd out coherent storytelling. R, 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Travelling Actors

Japanese director Mikio Naruse cited this funny 1940 farce as one of his favorites among his own films, and though it’s uncharacteristic of his work, the overriding sense of class deprivation is typically Narusean. Performing in the boondocks, two Kabuki actors who play a horse learn that they may be replaced onstage by the real thing; the older of them proclaims his pride in his craft, but that doesn’t deter him from mangling the horse costume while he’s drunk. Also known as Actors Who Play the Horse. In Japanese with subtitles. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Make Way for Tomorrow

With the possible exception of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, this 1937 drama by Leo McCarey is the greatest movie ever made about the plight of the elderly. (It flopped at the box office, but when McCarey accepted an Oscar for The Awful Truth, released the same year, he rightly pointed out that he was getting it for the wrong picture.) Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play a devoted old couple who find they can’t stay together because of financial difficulties; their interactions with their grown children are only part of what makes this movie so subtle and well observed. Adapted by Vina Delmar from Josephine Lawrence’s novel Years Are So Long, it’s a profoundly moving love story and a devastating portrait of how society works, and you’re likely to be deeply marked by it. Hollywood movies don’t get much better than this. With Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, and Porter Hall. 91 min. 16mm. Also on the program: McCarey’s silent comedy short Be Your Age (1926), with Charley Chase. Sat 2/25, 8 PM, LaSalle Bank Cinema.

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Husband And Wife

Also known as A Couple, this 1953 Japanese feature is another of Mikio Naruse’s dramas about unhappy marriages, the tension exacerbated in this case by the fact that the spouses (Ken Uehara, Yoko Sugi) share living space with a quirky landlord (Rentaro Mikuni). The ending is uncharacteristically hopeful, and the film is notable for its references to abortion and its dashes of Anglo-American culture (a performance by a Chaplin impersonator, renditions of Jingle Bells and Silent Night). In Japanese with subtitles. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Iberia

As in Flamenco (1995), Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura places live music and dance in the abstract space of a soundstage, effectively isolating his material (in this case, music by 19th-century composer Isaac Albeniz) from its social and historical roots. The various numbers are named after locations in southern Spain, but despite all the mirrors, shadows, and projections of period photographs, the ambience is decidedly postmodern (some orchestrations reek of cool jazz, while some dance steps suggest Bob Fosse). The most striking effects in this 2005 feature involve fancy lighting on what looks like yards of cellophane and, at the end, a rainstorm. One can certainly enjoy the performances, but only inside a rather sterile spacio-temporal void. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ister

Australian graduate students David Barison and Daniel Ross named this sweeping 2004 video essay after a Friedrich H… Read more »

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is still the best of all avant-garde novels, and most of the fun of watching this screen version is wondering how writer Martin Hardy and director Michael Winterbottom will adapt what’s plainly unadaptable. They manage to anticipate almost every possible objection (even finding a cinematic equivalent for Sterne’s purposely blank page). This farce eventually runs out of steam, devolving into a protracted docudrama about actor Steve Coogan (who plays the title hero as well as his father), but until then this is a pretty clever piece of jive. With Rob Brydon (as Toby), Dylan Moran (as Dr. Slop), Keeley Hawes, and Shirley Henderson. R, 94 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

Tom Milne, 1926—2005

An obituary, written in February 2006 for Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Film history has always been at the mercy of technology and markets, yielding the brutal shifts from silent to sound pictures and from black and white to colour, as well as the reconfigurations of films on television. More recently, digital video and the Internet have ushered in a confusing transitional period that we’re still in the middle of, recasting our canons of films and film critics alike according to what’s available.

Improbably, most of Carl Dreyer’s major films —- which until recently were almost impossible to see anywhere in decent prints —- are now available in pristine form to anyone on the planet with a multiregional DVD player. Yet those of James Whale that don’t qualify as horror, including such 30s masterpieces as Remember Last Night?, Show Boat, and The Great Garrick, remain firmly out of reach. And the warm, mischievous, shy yet gruff, and dedicated critic who introduced me to all this and much else — Tom Milne, who died in Aberdeen last December — is barely known today because little of his prose has made it onto the Internet.

For those with backlogs of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound from the 60s through the 80s, it’s hard to think of other London-based film writers during that stretch who wrote more cogently and passionately about film.… Read more »

The Pink Panther

Whether one regards this Steve Martin vehicle as a prequel to the Peter Sellers/Blake Edwards comedy series or a rehash of the 70s installments (when Sellers was sometimes too distracted even to sustain Inspector Clouseau’s French accent), it’s decidedly rough sledding. Kevin Kline awkwardly replaces Herbert Lom as the vituperative Inspector Dreyfus, and Cato the houseboy has been replaced by Jean Reno as Clouseau’s bored assistant. Martin, who cowrote the screenplay with Len Blum, halfheartedly imitates Sellers’s accent rather than any actual French one. The vintage 007 babes (notably Emily Mortimer and Beyonce Knowles) are the principal decor, and Shawn Levy is the hack director. The mirthlessly sadistic gags tend to target people in wheelchairs or hospital beds and betray a mild if all-encompassing disgust for the source material and the audience. PG, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wife

Japanese director Mikio Naruse drew on the fiction of Fumiko Hayashi for some of his best features (Late Chrysanthemums, Floating Clouds), and this 1953 drama about a bad marriage begins promisingly with separate disgruntled voice-overs from the wife and husband. But the script, adapted by Toshiro Ide from Hayashi’s novel, fails to dig as deeply into the material as Naruse’s best. (The semiliterate subtitles, with their unsure grasp of English idiom, don’t help.) But this comes from one of Naruse’s richest periods, and the quirky performances by many cast members keep this interesting. In Japanese with subtitles. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

The 13th Letter

Otto Preminger’s 1951 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), a nasty noir thriller about a series of poison-pen letters that terrorize a small town, shifts the action to Quebec, where much of the film was shot. The original film courageously if covertly attacked the sleaziness of collaboration during the German occupation of France; Preminger’s version, scripted by Howard Koch, projects a more generalized as well as sanitized misanthropy. But it’s still one of his best efforts of the periodhe’s so adroit at raising doubts about all the characters that the denouement can’t help but disappoint a little. With Michael Rennie, Charles Boyer, Linda Darnell, and Constance Smith. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tom Milne Remembered

From Sight and Sound, February 2006. — J.R.

I was a fan of Tom Milne’s writing before I ever met him, having not only read his passionate criticism religiously in Sight and Sound during the 1960s, but also having selected his review of Franju’s Judex for a never-published anthology, Film Masters, that I edited in New York, shortly before I moved to Paris in 1969. I acquired permission to reprint it from Penelope Houston, the magazine’s editor (whose vibrant review of Last Year at Marienbad I was also including), and having published virtually nothing of my own at the time, I was inordinately pleased when Penelope wrote me back that Tom had said, “Whoever he is, tell him he’s got taste,” for that review was one of his own favorites.

I think I must have met him for the first time circa 1974, in London, when I was preparing to live there and start work as assistant editor to Richard Combs on Monthly Film Bulletin, Sight and Sound’s sister magazine at the BFI. As a former assistant to Penelope, Tom was still a key contributor to both magazines; one might even call him — I would indeed call him — the key contributor, as well as a mainstay at the office in all sorts of other, more practical ways (such as deputy editing and proofreading, for example).… Read more »

Dong

Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke (The World) made this 2006 documentary in conjunction with his superb drama Still Life, and one should make every effort to see them together. Dong shows artist and former actor Liu Xiaodong posing and painting male demolition workers in Three Gorges along the Yangtze River, where the world’s largest dam is being built (and where Still Life is set), then doing the same with female models in Bangkok, which allows Jia to draw some pointed social and economic contrasts. The film is less impressive than Jia’s first documentary, In Public (2002), made as he scouted locations for his drama Uncommon Pleasures, but it’s more interesting than his third, Useless (2007), about the manufacture of clothing. The title means east in Mandarin and also refers to the character Liu plays in the 1994 film The Days. In Mandarin, Sezhuan, and Thai with subtitles. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Statues Also Die

When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture. So begins the commentary of a remarkable half-hour French documentary (1953) about African sculpture, cosigned by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet. (I haven’t been able to preview the English subtitles, so the translation here is my own.) To my mind, it’s the first major work by all three menthough it comes five years after Resnais’ Van Gogh, which won him his only Oscar to date. One reason why it’s almost never been seen in its integral form is that the French government suppressed its final reel, a blistering attack on French colonialism, for almost 40 years. The beauty and anger of Marker’s provocative text are perfectly matched by Resnais’ exquisite editing and Cloquet’s piercing images. As a poetic meditation on how we perceive, exploit, and sometimes destroy other cultures, this is essential viewing. Showing with Sans soleil (1982, 100 min.), perhaps Marker’s greatest feature-length film essay. (JR)… Read more »

The Case Of The Grinning Cat

I can’t think of a better portrait of contemporary Paris or the zeitgeist of 2001-’04 than Chris Marker’s wise and whimsical 58-minute 2004 video. Marker, now in his 80s, shot the images on the streets of Paris and in its metro stations: graffiti, posters, demonstrations, musical performances, cats (real and cartoon). The original conveys Marker’s commentary only through pithy intertitles, but the English version screening here has an unfortunate voice-over delivered in a heavy French accent by actor Gerard Rinaldi that tries to explain as well as translate these titles. Still, no one can film people in the street better than Marker or combine images with more grace and finesse. (JR)… Read more »