Monthly Archives: August 2006

Something Sweet

Dan Turgeman’s 2004 Israeli feature is a passable warmhearted middle-class soap opera, though I could have done with less of the comic relief, which reeks of warmed-over Yiddish theater, and more of the music, which is restricted to the weddings in the first and last scenes. Set in a northern farming village where a Jewish-Moroccan family operates a pastry-baking business, the movie makes use of a hokey, grandmotherly shaman but fails to spell out the story’s ethnic and geographical specifics. In Hebrew with subtitles. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

House Of Sand

In 1910 a fanatical Brazilian settler drags his pregnant wife (Fernanda Torres) and her mother (Fernanda Montenegro) to his new patch of land, a sandy spot in northerly Maranhao, and despite the wife’s serious misgivings, she remains there for six decades. This pretentious 2005 art movie is somewhat interesting for its wide-screen photography of the striking locale, but the storytelling is awkward and confusing. Director Andrucha Waddington cast his own wife and mother-in-law in the leads, and his decision to give Torres a second role as the wife’s daughter proves disastrous, making both characters seem more stereotypical. Only samba star Seu Jorge (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou), as a descendant of a runaway slave, manages to escape the allegorical typecasting. In Portuguese with subtitles. R, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Boynton Beach Club

Set at a Florida retirement community and focusing on a local “bereavement club,” this funny, nervy, and pointedly unrated geriatric sex comedy is both enhanced and occasionally limited by being targeted at baby boomers. The sound track abounds with golden oldies (“Love and Marriage,” “Papa Loves Mambo”), the story culminates in a sock hop, and sometimes the ensemble portrait even recalls teen flicks of the 50s and 60s. So part of the kick–along with seeing Dyan Cannon, Joseph Bologna, Brenda Vaccaro, and Sally Kellerman thrive in this special context–is generational nostalgia. Writer-director Susan Seidelman, who made her name with Desperately Seeking Susan but has been working in TV for more than a decade, based this on the experiences of her mother, Florence (who also coproduced and worked on the script). With Len Cariou and Michael Nouri. 104 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire.… Read more »

Empire Of The Sun

Steven Spielberg’s first film following The Color Purple performs a comparably misplaced act of adapter’s piety: taking a novel whose distinction largely rests on its absence of sentimentality and converting it into a three-handkerchief weepie (1987). The source of this Spielburger is J.G. Ballard’s remarkable autobiographical novel about his experiences as a child in Shanghai during World War II; apart from a few sentimental adjustments, Spielberg and screenwriter Tom Stoppard remain surprisingly faithful to the letter of the book while almost completely betraying its spirit. Turned out with the director’s characteristic craft and slicknesswith able performances from Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Haversthe film also has a certain De Mille-like touch of sweeping spectacle. But the pseudomystical vagueness that seems to be Spielberg’s stock-in-trade stifles most of the particularity of the source. PG, 152 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cinema as a Social Act [THE ILLUSIONIST]

From the Chicago Reader (August 18, 2006). Fox has reissued this film in a  two-disc edition, combining a Blu-Ray with a DVD of the film on a second disk — the latter including an audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger which clarifies and amplifies how well he understands the mechanics as well as the overall concept of his own film. He’s especially enlightening on the subject of late 19th century magic and how he incorporated many of his findings in the film, utilizing the expertise of several contemporary magicians, including Ricky Jay.

I haven’t yet seen any of Burger’s three subsequent features — The Lucky Ones (2008), Limitless (2011), and Divergent (2014) — and am curious to learn more about them. Correction (thanx to Paul Mollica): I saw and even reviewed the first of these, here. — J.R.

The Illusionist

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Neil Burger

With Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, and Jake Wood

Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams. — Steven Millhauser, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”

At first glance Neil Burger’s first two features couldn’t be further apart. Interview With the Assassin (2002) is a scruffy-looking pseudodocumentary and thriller about two marginal characters — a young, out-of-work cameraman (Dylan Haggerty) and his 60-ish solitary neighbor (Raymond J.… Read more »

Making Waves

Documentarian Michael Lahey recounts the brief but rocky history of the Tucson pirate station KAVL FM, which was launched in response to the 1996 Telecommunications Act that permitted media monopolies to buy up more local stations. It’s a chilling and instructive tale about the curtailment of free expression, though Lahey’s video (2004, 64 min.) favors crankiness and jokey found footage over polemics. A better reason for attending this program is Paul Chan’s Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, the Law, and Poetry (18 min.), an experimental yet plainspoken work in which the radical human-rights lawyer, unjustly convicted in February 2005 of aiding foreign terrorists, reads poems and reflects on her life and prospects while Chan finds original and lyrical ways of depicting her. (JR)… Read more »

Idlewild

OutKast’s Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) and Antwan A. Patton (Big Boi) star in this black musical set in a prohibition-era nightclub and directed by Bryan Barber, known for his OutKast videos. Purists might object to the anachronistic hip-hop numbers, MTV editing, and razzle-dazzle overkill of the digital effects, mise en scene, and violence; this could be the most show-offy, mannerist period musical since Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971). I wouldn’t call the sound track especially memorable either. But Barber and his cast display so much gusto they broke down my resistance; I wound up enjoying this much more than the Oscar-bestrewn Chicago. With Paula Patton, Terrence Howard, Malinda Williams, Macy Gray, and Ving Rhames. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Material Girls

Hilary and Haylie Duff are sister heiresses of a cosmetics company who lose and regain their fortune in this painfully unfunny comedy. Director Martha Coolidge is known for her satirical bent (Valley Girl), but any attempt to satirize these spoiled brats would have been doomed by the movie’s view that most classes, races, and sexual persuasions are equally grotesque. Under the circumstances, Anjelica Huston and Lukas Haas manage not to embarrass themselves, but only because they’re pretending to be in a different movie. PG, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Boynton Beach Club

Set at a Florida retirement community and focusing on a local bereavement club, this funny, nervy, and pointedly unrated geriatric sex comedy is both enhanced and occasionally limited by being targeted at baby boomers. The sound track abounds with golden oldies (Love and Marriage, Papa Loves Mambo), the story culminates in a sock hop, and sometimes the ensemble portrait even recalls teen flicks of the 50s and 60s. So part of the kickalong with seeing Dyan Cannon, Joseph Bologna, Brenda Vaccaro, and Sally Kellerman thrive in this special contextis generational nostalgia. Writer-director Susan Seidelman, who made her name with Desperately Seeking Susan but has been working in TV for more than a decade, based this on the experiences of her mother, Florence (who also coproduced and worked on the script). With Len Cariou and Michael Nouri. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Familia

Louise Archambault’s flawed but absorbing and ambitious French-Canadian melodrama (2005) focuses on a divorced aerobics teacher (Sylvie Moreau) with a teenage daughter and an unacknowledged addiction to gambling that repeatedly wreaks disaster on both their lives. The dysfunctional pair become only more unstrung after they’re put up by an old friend (Macha Grenon) in a suburban neighborhood and try to settle down. In French with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Great New Wonderful

Set in New York a year after 9/11, this Crash-like tale of crisscrossing destinies among five sets of characters tries way too hard to be clever and shrewd. Danny Leiner (Dude, Where’s My Car?, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) directed a script by Sam Catlin, and though both have their moments, they’re rarely the same moments. At times the film seems as pushy as some of its characters, among them a prodding shrink (the always interesting Tony Shalhoub), a couple (Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy) with a spoiled ten-year-old son, and two East Asian security professionals (Sharat Saxena and Naseeruddin Shah). The other story lines involve a trendy pastry designer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and an aging woman (Olympia Dukakis) who reconnects with an old friend. With Will Arnett, Jim Gaffigan, Stephen Colbert, and Edie Falco. In English and subtitled Hindi. R, 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Loin

Like Andre Techine’s current release, Changing Times, this 2001 feature by the French director is set in Tangier, and though it has a sharper sense of place, its story is less ambitious. A French trucker (Stephane Rideau) who drives between North Africa and western Europe takes a crack at drug smuggling, though most of the plot involves his intense but painfully undefined relationship with a North African Jewish woman (Lubna Azabal ) and his friendship with a former street acrobat (Mohammad Homaidi) who wants to sneak into Europe. There’s also some unfocused material about an actor-director (Gael Morel, playing some version of himself) and an American emigre whose lines are all drawn from the literature of Paul Bowles. Azabel, who plays twins in Changing Times, is wonderfully expressive. The title translates as Far. In English and subtitled Arabic, French, and Spanish. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Illusionist

Writer-director Neil Burger follows his skillful debut feature, the pseudodocumentary thriller Interview With the Assassin (2002), with this spellbinding tale set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Adapted from a Steven Millhauser story, it involves a mysterious magician (Edward Norton) and his amorous attachment to a duchess (Jessica Biel) who’s coveted by the crown prince (Rufus Sewell). This lush piece of romanticism may seem antithetical to Burger’s previous film, but both share a Wellesian integration of the viewer’s imagination and an equally Wellesian preoccupation with power. Paul Giamatti, at his best, plays a police inspector who serves as an audience surrogate; the effective score is by Philip Glass. PG-13, 110 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, River East 21, Webster Place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): August 18, 2006.… Read more »

Heading South

This bold departure by French director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) follows three middle-aged Americans (Karen Young, Charlotte Rampling, Louise Portal) whose vacations in Haiti during the brutal reign of “Baby Doc” Duvalier include encounters with male prostitutes. Cantet is concerned not only with the women’s psychologies and complex interrelations as they compete for the same local hunk (Menothy Cesar) but also with the global economics at work. The film tackles more than it can master, but it’s never less than fascinating, and all three leads are exceptional. Screenwriter Robin Campillo adapted three short stories by Dany Laferriere. In English and subtitled French and Creole. 106 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Films From Lebanon

This benefit screening for Lebanese war relief pairs two remarkable experimental shorts; both are painfully relevant and uncommonly beautiful, though formally and conceptually they’re worlds apart. Jayce Salloum, a multimedia artist who spent 22 years in the U.S. before settling in Vancouver, made Untitled Part 3b: (As if) Beauty Never Ends (2003, 12 min.), whose dazzling and painterly use of color and texture provides a counterpoint to glimpses of Palestinian refugee camps. Wael Noureddine, a Lebanese poet and journalist now based in Paris, explores remote corners of battle-scarred Beirut in Ca Sera Beau (From Beyrouth With Love) (2005, 30 min.), evoking music with his percussive editing and camera movement. The hour-long program will also include video statements and readings of more contemporary written statements by each artist. Suggested donation is $5; for more information call 312-480-1966. Fri 8/18, 7:30 PM, and Sat 8/19, 4 PM, Columbia College Ludington Bldg.… Read more »