Monthly Archives: April 2006

United 93

To the credit of British writer-director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), this taut, partly speculative account of the 9/11 flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field has practically none of the exploitative melodrama one would expect from a major studio release. The film cuts between the delayed Newark-to-San Francisco flight, a military air-defense facility, and air-traffic-control centers in Boston and New York (with some of the real-life participants playing themselves), then switches to real time once the plane takes off. Greengrass takes pains to keep events believable and relatively unrhetorical, rejecting entertainment for the sake of sober reflection, though one has to ask how edifying this is apart from its reduction of the standard myths. (One myth it perpetuates is that the passengers succeeded in storming the cockpit before the plane crashed.) R, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stick It

Jessica Bendinger, author of the cheerleader comedy Bring It On, wrote and directed this inspirational Disney tale about a 17-year-old with attitude (Missy Peregrym) who has a brush with the law and gets sent to an exclusive gymnastics academy for girls. The always capable Jeff Bridges plays her tough-love coach, and by the end her diffident alienation has given way to group spirit and achievement. Despite the familiar story arc and MTV visuals, Bendinger puts this across with a certain amount of pizzazz, and the competitive gymnastics are often spectacular. Rap and black slang abound, though the movie doesn’t have a single black character. PG-13, 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

A One And A Two… (yi Yi)

Edward Yang’s most accessible movie is also his best since A Brighter Summer Day, displaying a comparable mastery that won him the prize for best direction in Cannes. In keeping with the musical connotation of the English title, the thematic counterpoint between generations is as adroit as the focus on a single generation was in his earlier masterpiece. Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral in the same contemporary Taipei family, the film takes almost three hours to unfold, and not a moment seems gratuitous or squandered. Working again with nonprofessional actors, Yang coaxes a standpout lead performance from Wu Nienjen (a major screenwriter and director in his own right) as a middle-aged partner in a failing computer company who has a secret Tokyo rendez-vous with a former girlfriend he jilted 30 years ago, now living in Chicago, while trying to team up professionally with a Japanese games designer. (The chats between the latter two are all in English, and Yang’s own background in American computers serves him well.) Other major characters include the hero’s spiritually traumatized wife, her comatose mother, his pregnant sister and her debt-ridden husband, his teenage daughter, and his eight-year-old son. The lattera comic and unsentimental marvel named Yang-Yangmay come closest to serving as Yang’s own mouthpiece; the kid becomes obsessed with photographing what people can’t see, such as the backs of their own heads, which comprises for him the half of reality that’s missed.… Read more »

6ixtynin9

I was the head of the critics’ jury at the Hong Kong film festival last spring that awarded half its first prize to this macabre comedy-thriller from Thailand (1999, 114 min.) It’s as commercial as anything from Hollywoodas was writer-director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s previous feature, which I liked even more, a crazed Tarantino spinoff called Fun Bar Karaoke (1997). Ratanaruang spent eight years in New York studying at the Pratt Institute and working as a freelance illustrator and designer, so his mastery of American-style entertainment obviously owes something to a prolonged absorption in this culturethough I find the Thai and global traits on view here no less striking. This picture might be described broadly as a clever version of Hitchcock lite, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have pertinent things to say about the present Asian economic crisis. (JR)… Read more »

The Second Civil War

Properly speaking, this skillful made-for-cable satire (1997, 100 min.) directed by Joe Dante qualifies as the middle feature in his so-called war trilogy, preceded by Matinee (1993) and followed by Small Soldiers (1998). Viewers who consider it the best of the threesome may have a point, though its lack of a theatrical run in this U.S. makes it somewhat better known overseas. Beau Bridges plays the governor of Idaho who decides to close his state borders to a plane full of Pakistani orphans fleeing a nuclear disaster, and the action is crosscut with national government deliberations (James Coburn as a Presidential advisor) and various kinds of frantic media spin (Dan Hedaya as a network news director). Barry Levinson set this project in motion, so the parallels with Wag the Dog aren’t accidental, but one of the essential ingredients brought to it by Dante, the least Swiftian of satirists, is that nobody’s a villain, even when behaving like an idiot and/or a hypocrite. (The governor, for instance, plays shamelessly to his xenophobic constituency while remaining smitten with his Mexican mistress, a reporter played by Elizabeth Pena, and the movie is determined to view him simply as a lovable asshole.) With Joanna Cassidy, Kevin Dunn, James Earl Jones, Denis Leary, Ron Perlman, the late Phil Hartman, Brian Keith, and other Dante regulars, including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, and Roger Corman.… Read more »

Place Vendome

This 1999 feature by former actress Nicole Garcia is striking above all because of its lead performanceCatherine Deneuve as the widow of a big-time jeweler, a former alcoholic whose life suddenly springs back to action when she discovers seven diamonds squirreled away by her late husband. What transpires after that may have some of the trappings of an exotic thriller, but it’s basically a character study, and Deneuve and her fellow actorsin particular Emmanuelle Seigner and Jean-Pierre Bacri (Same Old Song)shine in these circumstances. This is the first film in the Film Center’s European Union film festival, a welcome event that over the next couple of weeks brings about two dozen new European features to town. (JR)… Read more »

My Favorite Belgian DVD Box Set

From my Spring 2006 DVD column in Cinema Scope (“Global Discoveries on DVD”). Although this is sadly no longer in print, one can at least access most of its contents in an André Delvaux box set available here; and for more material about Delvaux in general and this film in particular, go here. — J.R.

My selection of Rendez-vous à Bray (1971) by André Delvaux (1926-2002) as the best box set of the year in Masters of Cinema’s end-of-the-year poll as well as one of the best in DVD Beaver’s (even though they point out that technically, it was released in late 2004) prompts a bit of explanation. When I reviewed this Belgian film and period mood-piece for the April 1976 Monthly Film Bulletin, my appraisal began as follows: “An appealing foray into ambiguity that uses ellipsis as a kind of erotic invitation, Rendezvous at Bray largely wins one over because its more modest ambitions are so gracefully realized. Derived from a short story by Julien Gracq —- a writer whose rather specialized terrain seems midway between the Gothic novel and Surrealism —- its boundaries are clearly marked by its cozy range of cultural references and its attractive period atmosphere, both of which allow for fireside reveries more nourishing to the imagination than to any prolonged analysis.”

The erotic spells of Anna Karina and Bulle Ogier in the film as well as other virtues must have wound up counting for much more than my demurrals, because when I first heard about a box set devoted to this film last fall, in a post by Fred Patton to the excellent chat group “a film by” (http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/a_film_by/message/31667), I was amazed at how vividly the sensual allure of this film remained firmly lodged in my memory, and I decided I had to hunt down a copy.Read more »

When Do We Eat?

This 2005 farce about a hellish Passover seder panders to middle-class Jews as gleefully as Tyler Perry’s movies pander to middle-class African-Americans, though there’s less religiosity and a greater degree of self-hatred in the vulgar stereotypes. The dysfunctional family includes a father (Michael Lerner) who manufactures Christmas tree ornaments, a Hasidic son, a lesbian daughter, another daughter who makes a living as a sexual surrogate, and a druggy son who slips dad some ecstasy (his psychedelic trip is accompanied on the sound track by Jewish folk tunes). Salvador Litvak directed a script he cowrote with Nina Davidovich; among the old pros gamely attempting to navigate the strident humor are Mili Avital, Jack Klugman, and Lesley Ann Warren. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fastest Gun Alive

If memory serves, this is a slightly better than average black-and-white western (1956), directed by Russell Rouse, with a pacifist theme recalling the much superior The Gunfighter (1950). Rouse, a writer-director who started off ambitiously with such projects as The Well (1951) and The Thief (1952) and would later direct the ingenious House of Numbers (1957), eventually won an Academy Award for writing Pillow Talk (1959), then wound up making The Oscar (1966); this Glenn Ford effort comes just before the decline. With Broderick Crawford, Jeanne Crain, and Russ Tamblyn. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sexpot Spectrum [THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE & BASIC INSTINCT 2]

From the Chicago Reader (April 21, 2006). — J.R.

The Notorious Bettie Page

*** (A must see)

Directed by Mary Harron

Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner

With Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor, and John Cullum

Basic Instinct 2

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Written by Leora Barish and Henry Bean

With Sharon Stone, David Morrissey, David Thewlis, Charlotte Rampling, Hugh Dancy, Flora Montgomery, Indira Varma, and Heathcoate Williams

The Notorious Bettie Page – about the pinup and soft-core-bondage film and magazine star of the 50s — mixes archival black-and-white and color footage with re-creations. The mix of materials evoking the period is far from seamless, and we can’t always be sure what’s archival and what’s simulated because sometimes the filmmakers are trying to fool us. But their preoccupation with the manufacture of images keeps this exercise in exposure and concealment interesting.

Page, effectively played by Gretchen Mol, is shown as a cheerful airhead who loves her work as a model and maintains a good-natured innocence about it. That is, until the puritanical Senate porn investigation of Estes Kefauver (whom David Strathairn makes almost interchangeable with his Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck) drives her back to the religion of her childhood, which the movie persuasively suggests was the only logical place for her to go at that point.… Read more »

The Notorious Bettie Page

Writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and cowriter Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) offer a refreshingly open-minded take on the 50s pinup/porn queen, effectively played by Gretchen Mol as a good-natured airhead. The film captures the garish colors and wispy black and white of home movies and lurid magazines of that period, and there’s something provocative about making Page–who dropped out of modeling after she found religion half a century ago–an almost blank slate on which we’re invited to write various feminist and queer theories. Which, as it turns out, objectifies her almost as much as porn did. With Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, and Lili Taylor. R, 91 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Samad Film Festival

Underground, experimental, and in some cases banned videos from Iran. Reviewing Mohammad Shirvani’s Navel (2004, 83 min.), Joshua Katzman wrote, Five Iranians share a cramped Tehran apartment in this low-budget video drama, shot mostly after dark with night vision that renders the characters as ghostly apparitions with glowing eyes. . . . Shirvani keeps the narrative to a bare minimum, allowing the characters to reveal themselves as their daily routines are recorded, usually by the middle-aged Mani. Oldest of the five and owner of the apartment, he displays an aggressive if affable sense of entitlement as he tracks his cohorts: an expatriate woman visiting from New York, an Iranian Turk who was once an Islamic cleric, a divorced father mostly seen visiting with his young son, and a country boy completing his military duty. No less transgressive are Ehsan Fouladi’s Gasoline (2004, 24 min.) and Mahdi Zarringhalami’s Shiny Muddy Beast (2006, 10 min.): in the former a woman kills and disfigures her boyfriend while the camera periodically turns upside down; the latter features a kind of spastic choreography between the camera-wielding lead actress and the camera filming her. All three are in Farsi with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Mixed Blessings (5th column, 2004)

From Cinema Scope #18 (Spring 2004). — J.R.

First of all, the good news:

centerstage2

After my announcement in this magazine three years ago that the original negative of my all-time favorite Hong Kong feature (1992) was destroyed, and that the two-and-a-half-hour original version was virtually lost (see “Stanley Kwan’s Actress: Writing History in Quicksand,” Cinema Scope issue 7, spring 2001 —- about to be reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema, with the same misinformation), this ideal version has just come out on DVD in France, under the title Center Stage, in a lovely two disc-set distributed by Universal Pictures Video.

Ruan_Lingyu_funeral

Ruan Lingu funeral

The bad news? It’s subtitled only in French — although an interview with Kwan comprising the only bonus, on the second disc, is conducted in English and can easily be followed that way.

Cinema09

Also subtitled in French —- or in French without subtitles —- are invaluable DVDs included in the last three issues of Bernard Eisenschitz’s indispensable, lavishly illustrated (and therefore pricey) two-issue-a-year journal Cinéma, published by www.leoscheer.com. Issue 05 (printemps 2003) has a restoration of a surviving fragment from Kenji Mizoguchi’s La marche de Tokyo (1929); 06 has two late TV documentaries by Jean Eustache, Offre d’emploi (1980) and Le jardin des délices de Jerôme Bosch (1979); and 07, scheduled to appear this spring, will have my all-time favorite Iranian film, Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 La maison est noire, as well as Ebrahim Golestan’s 1959 Un feu, which she edited.Read more »

The Comedy Of Work

Luc Moullet’s 1987 film looks at the bureaucratic contradictions of the French labor exchange and at various characters who pass through it. As critic Jill Forbes once remarked, Moullet seems characteristically amused that an organization dedicated to keeping people in work should in fact turn out to keep them out of work in order to keep itself in work. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Girl Is A Gun

This 1971 film is Luc Moullet’s feature Une Aventure de Billy le Kid with funny English dubbing. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Rachel Kesterber costar with some scene-stealing landscapes. 77 min.… Read more »