This is the uncut version of a book review written for Stop Smiling no. 27 in 2006 (“Ode to the Midwest”), which had to be cut at the last minute due to space problems. My thanks to editor James Hughes for granting me permission to print the fuller version here. –J.R.
ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES by Alexander Nemerov. Berkeley: University of Calornia Press, 2005. 213 pp.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Most film criticism has been hampered by the habit of dealing with narrative movies strictly and exclusively in terms of their stories. What’s overlooked by this practice is the fact that virtually all films are made up of nonnarrative as well as narrative elements—what might be described as both persistence and fluctuation, or nonlinearity as well as linearity. Even though we often prefer to think we experience movies only as unfolding narratives—which is apparently why what most people mean by “spoilers” always relate to plot and not to formal moves—how we remember these movies is part of that experience, and this partially consists of static images.
Consequently, it could be argued that we need more art historians writing about movies and fewer literary critics who operate from the model of narrative fiction.… Read more »
I’m not a fan of photographer Diane Arbus, but I suspect the basis of her talent was a capacity to turn all her camera subjects into freaks and not a simple interest in freaks per se. This arty and moody account of her formation as an artist, as its subtitle declares, is basically invented. Its nerviness only pays off in a few details and in Nicole Kidman’s resourcefulnessmainly a way of suggesting morbid curiosity as erotic stimulation, though the script manages to find diverse excuses for undressing her. Directed by Steven Shainberg, and written by Erin Cressida Wilson (who also wrote Shainberg’s previous feature, Secretary), this traces Arbus’s artistic roots as an oppressed 50s housewife and vicarious mother to an upstairs neighbor who looks like the beast in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, sounds and acts like Robert Downey Jr., and introduces her to countless other freaks. With Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, and Jane Alexander. R, 122 min. (JR)… Read more »
Based on a true story and written by Shawn Slovo (A World Apart), this Philip Noyce feature shows how a relatively apolitical young man in South Africa (Derek Luke) becomes a dedicated terrorist in the early 80s after he and his wife (Bonnie Henna) are wrongly arrested for a bombing and he’s tortured extensively. Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, The question nags as to what pressing need there is, 25 years after the fact, for a thriller that hinges on apartheid in South Africa when there are so many new pressing and pertinent political and cultural issues. The answer is that torture may now be radicalizing Iraqi citizens. That said, the film never strays much beyond the obvious, despite a conscientious effort by Tim Robbins to humanize a white security officer. PG-13, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »
Based on a memoir by Augusten Burroughs, this first feature by writer-director Ryan Murphy clearly aims to outdo other comedy dramas about dysfunctional families through sheer hyperbole. The young hero (Joseph Cross) boasts an alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and an unglued mother (Annette Bening), who deposits him in the no less dysfunctional household of her therapist (a satirically funny Brian Cox). Maybe all this really happened, but I didn’t believe a second of it as portrayed. Bening (whose Oscar nomination for American Beauty seems to have turned her toward playing monsters) tries very hard, as do Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Jill Clayburgh, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But Murphy seems either incapable of or uninterested in creating a recognizable world, so local comic effects count for everything. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »
God speaking through Neale Donald Walsch (Henry Czerny) seems to be a secondary and not especially memorable part of this story; the primary part is Putnam paying $1.5 million for world rights to Walsch’s first inspirational book, Conversations With God. Not a bad deal for someone who was once a jobless and homeless wretch with a broken neck, and writer Eric DelaBarre and director Stephen Simon deliver Walsch’s apotheosis without any trace of irony. But their treatment of his misfortunes has some of the ring of truth, even though the movie lingers far too long over its own epiphanies. With Ingrid Boulting. PG, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2006). — J.R.
Death of a President **
Directed by Gabriel Range
Written by Simon Finch and Range
With Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Patricia Buckley, Jason Abustan, and Chavez Ravine
I dislike few buzzwords more than mockumentary, which even academics now use casually and uncritically. People often assume it’s a neutral descriptive term, but unlike pseudodocumentary — an honest and serviceable label — mockumentary leads many to conclude that the documentary form that’s being imitated is also being made fun of. Most of the works that get labeled mockumentaries are actually honoring the form, by using its techniques to make them seem more real.
According to Wikipedia, the term was first used by Rob Reiner while describing his own This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a popular spoof that led to many successors, including movies directed by Christopher Guest like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. But these films weren’t so much mocking the documentary form as mocking documentary content. Of course there are films that mock documentary form much more directly, including Peter Watkins’s The Battle of Culloden, Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and F for Fake.… Read more »
One of Clint Eastwood’s most accomplished westerns, based on a rather elaborate script by David Webb Peoples (who cowrote Blade Runner). Like Bird, this 1992 film seems at times to equate dark cinematography with artistry (albeit with stunning locations in Canada and California and beautifully composed results), and as with White Hunter, Black Heart its view of reality depends almost entirely on countercliches and their implied critique of the machismo of earlier Eastwood movies. Consequently, there’s not much dramatic urgency apart from the revisionist context. Eastwood plays a reformed alcoholic killer, now a widower, father, and failing hog farmer in Kansas, who’s lured into a bounty hunt by a brash kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and persuades an old partner (Morgan Freeman) to join them. With Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, and Saul Rubinek. R, 127 min. (JR)… Read more »
It’s possible that a good half of the greatest African movies ever made are the work of novelist-turned-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (Black Girl, Xala, Ceddo). Camp Thiaroye (1987), cowritten and codirected by Thierno Faty Sow, recounts an incident that occurred in 1944. Returning from four years of European combat in the French army, Senegalese troops are sent to a transit camp, where they have to contend with substandard food and other indignities. An intellectual sergeant major (Ibrahima Sane) gets thrown out of a local bordello when he goes there for a drink; mistaken for an American soldier, he’s arrested and beaten by American MPs, which provokes his men into kidnapping an American GI. Then when the Senegalese troops discover that they’re about to be cheated out of half their back pay, they launch a revolt. Leisurely paced, this is a novelistic (and often witty) treatment of a complex subject in which all the characters get their due. In French and Wolof with subtitles. 147 min. (JR)… Read more »
Gabriel Range’s English pseudodocumentary (2006), written with Simon Finch, shows the imagined aftereffects of the assassination of George W. Bush in Chicago in 2007. Some infotainment reports to the contrary, this film in no way celebrates such an event but shows it leading to further legislation curtailing civil liberties in the name of security once Cheney becomes president. And the larger theme, at least by intention, is the consequences of anti-Muslim bias. But the film proceeds more like a mystery thriller than an invitation to reflect, and that theme gets muddled. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »
Like many of Manoel de Oliveira’s features, this lush 2005 drama was adapted from a Portuguese novel by Agustina Bessa-Luis. A childless, depressive rich woman (Leonor Silveira) has her head turned by a professor (Michel Piccoli, speaking all his lines in English) and becomes obsessed with the idea of the Virgin Mary making a personal appearance in front of her. Meanwhile her servant (Ricardo Trepa) plots with a counterfeiter to fake an apparition. None of the melodramatic expectations set up in the story is met, but the very dry comedy makes this one of Oliveira’s more accessible works. In Portuguese with subtitles. 137 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 20, 2006). — J.R.
Manoel de Oliveira’s sequel — or tribute, or speculative footnote — to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere’s Belle de Jour (1967) differs from that transgressive classic by being less about Severine (played here by Bulle Ogier, in the original by Catherine Deneuve), a devoted wife who secretly works as a prostitute to fulfill her secret masochistic desires, and more about Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli in both films), a rakish aristocrat who discovers her secret. (It’s also more about class and less about sexual desire.) Husson arranges a meeting with a reluctant Severine many decades later, and de Oliveira stages their dinner like a lush religious ceremony, albeit one with a couple of witty and pungent punch lines. In French with subtitles. 70 min.
… Read more »
Unlike many colleagues, I’m not a fan of Amores Perros or 21 Grams, scripted by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez I… Read more »
Most features composed of sketches by different filmmakers are wildly uneven. This one is consistently mediocre, albeit pleasant and watchable. It helps that none of the episodes runs longer than five or six minutes. Many of the most famous areas of Paristhe Latin Quarter, the Champs-Elyseesare omitted, but Olivier Assayas, Gurinder Chadha, Sylvain Chomet, Joel and Ethan Coen, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Christopher Doyle, Vincenzo Natali, Alexander Payne, Bruno Podalydes, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, Nobuhiro Suwa, Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant, among others, do pretty well with their chosen parts of the city. In English and subtitled French. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »
A working-class kid in the mid-80s (James McAvoy) is admitted to Bristol University, where he appears on a college quiz show and tries to romance a well-to-do teammate. The main novelty of this conventional, slight, but charming youth picture is that it’s English and therefore more class-conscious than most American equivalents, so I’m not sure why so many allusions to The Graduate are slotted in. David Nicholls adapted his own novel, Tom Vaughan directed, and Tom Hanks was one of the producers. With Rebecca Hall and Alice Eve. PG-13, 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
Rachid Bouchareb’s stirring war movie does for the North Africans what Ousmane Sembene and Thierno Faty Sow’s Camp Thiaroye (1987) did for the Senegalese: it acknowledges the important role they played fighting alongside the French in World War II and reveals the harsh and dismissive treatment of them that followed, a result of persistent colonialist attitudes. This was Algeria’s official Oscar entry this year and also won the Cannes film festival’s prize for best actor, which was shared by all five leads; they play a pied-noir sergeant and four North African enlistees traveling across Italy and France and into Alsace. In French and Arabic with subtitles. R, 120 min. (JR)… Read more »