Monthly Archives: January 2007

Rotterdam #2 [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Still-Life

Film Rotterdam #2: Another venue, another timetable

Posted By on 01.29.07 at 06:11 PM

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It’s hard at many festivals apart from the biggest ones to determine whether a film is really “new” or not: “new” in relation to where? I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life in Venice last year and then resee it in Toronto a week or so later. It’s playing in Rotterdam now, and perhaps it will reach Chicago a year from now, or maybe a little sooner. In the busy cafe-bar of the Lantaren/Venster, the oldest of the festival’s three multiscreen multiplexes (where virtually the entire festival was taking place the first year I attended, 1984), between two programs, I buy a Chinese DVD of this film, priced around $10 in Euros from a clerk who assures me that this version has English subtitles, even though they aren’t mentioned on the box — something I may not be able to confirm until I’m back in Chicago next month. But then, just before a Chinese indy film called Weed starts a few minutes later, I find I’m sitting a row away from Chinese film expert and sometime Reader reviewer Shelly Kraicer, who assures me that (1) this version is subtitled, and (2) it can be bought on the streets of Beijing for about $1.10 — or 80 cents if it’s from a pirated source.… Read more »

A brief dispatch from Rotterdam [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

A brief dispatch from Rotterdam

Posted By on 01.28.07 at 04:32 PM

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I’m posting this from a public, stand-up facility at the Rotterdam film festival, which means I have to keep this brief. I’ve seen only one feature so far that I’ve cared for very much — a documentary called Murch by Edie and David Ichioka, about film editor Walter Murch (whom I once had the pleasure of working with on a re-edited version of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil). The film offers a fascinating glimpse of some of the tricks of Murch’s trade, presented with wit and lucidity. Edie Ichioka is a former assistant of Murch’s, and she and her husband clearly knew the right sort of questions to get him started.

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Otherwise, I’ve been mainly seeing things that I don’t last all the way through. (Walking out of films is something of a luxury for me, since for obvious professional reasons I can’t do this when I’m reviewing in Chicago.) The main exceptions have been a couple of interesting experimental shorts, both of which find novel ways of combining animation with live action — called, respectively, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light and Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp) — and Summer Palace, a sort of dirge about a female college student in Beijing before, during, and after the Tiananmen Square events, by Lou Ye, the director of Suzhou River, which I stayed to the end of mainly because of jetlag and inertia. 

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Inland Empire

From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 2007). — J.R.

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David Lynch’s first digital video is his best and most experimental feature since Eraserhead (1978). Shot piecemeal over at least a year and without a script, this 179-minute meditation builds on Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) as a sinister and critical portrait of Hollywood. But it resists any narrative paraphrase, with several overlapping premises rather than a single consecutive plot. Laura Dern plays an actress who’s been cast in a new feature, as well as a battered housewife and a hooker; there are also Polish characters and a sitcom with giant rabbits in human clothes. The visual qualities include impressionistic soft-focus colors, expressionistic lighting, and disquietingly huge close-ups. With Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Karolina Gruszka, Harry Dean Stanton, and Grace Zabriskie. In English and subtitled Polish. R. (JR)

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The Take

Made by the couple Avi Lewis (director) and Naomi Klein (writer), this 2004 documentary chronicles how laid-off workers in Argentina took over some 200 closed factories and started them up again as leaderless co-ops, with every worker receiving the same salary. The filmmakers aren’t blind to some of the contradictions and anomalies of this movement–they interview one co-op worker who’d recently voted for the neoconservative Carlos Menem, which is a bit like an American union worker supporting Bush–but they’re primarily interested in the story’s potential as an inspirational object lesson for the rest of the world. (Klein’s best-selling account of the antiglobalization movement, No Logo, has a similarly positive and almost festive air in spots.) In English and subtitled Spanish. (JR)… Read more »

Smokin’ Aces

A Las Vegas entertainer (Jeremy Piven) decides to snitch on the mob and as a result lots of people try to kill him. Based on this outing, writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc) can’t tell a story worth a damnespecially not a complicated mishmash like this one. But given the advanced case of Quentin Tarantino syndrome on display, he’s obviously hoping that a sufficient number of baroque mutilations, tortures, and corpse disposals with lots of fancy-tough dialogue and elaborate deaths that we’re encouraged to applaud will carry us over the rough and empty spots. He even has the chutzpah to claim some sort of moral agenda at the end, but designer butchery is what dominates throughout. With Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Jason Bateman, Ray Liotta, and Alicia Keys. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wave: New Experimental Films From China

These films and videos are as all over the map as China itself, and not just because curator Li Zhenhua has drawn works from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In contrast to the mainly propagandistic hymns to industrialization of early Soviet cinema, these chronicles of disorienting changes are full of ambivalence and skepticism. From the musical deconstruction of TV newscasters in 8GG’s News Dance to the kinky surrealism of Cao Fei’s Burners, and the eclectic inventiveness of Yang Fudong’s Backyard-Hey! Sun Is Rising to the weird, unattractive puppet animation of Zhou Xiaohu’s Beautiful Cloud, the sole common trait here seems to be aggressiveness. The only things resembling tone poems are a few stray intervals in the otherwise frenetic San Yuan Li, a 40-minute documentary in black-and-white ‘Scope by a dozen artists about the rapid urban development around Guangzhou. In Mandarin with subtitles. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Romantico

Mark Becker’s 2005 documentary focuses on Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, a 57-year-old mariachi player who returns to his family in Salvatierra, Mexico, after struggling as an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco. It’s old-fashioned in many respects: Becker shot it in 16-millimeter and Super-16 over three and a half years, and Muñiz Sanchez tells much of the story himself in voice-over. Regrettably Becker seems more interested in what’s typical about his protagonist than in what’s exceptional, so this proves to be fairly dull. I was amused by the fact that Muñiz Sanchez and his musical partner call themselves a trio because it’s more commercial, but when the film follows his other jobs (working at a car wash in the U.S., running a pushcart in Mexico) it seems to aim for the generic. 80 min.… Read more »

Merry Go Round

Erich von Stroheim was the director for the first five weeks of shooting on this opulent Universal production (1923), set in a studio-built Vienna, until Irving Thalberg replaced him with the more docile and relatively unmemorable Rupert Julian. Reportedly only about 600 feet of Stroheim’s footage remains, but at least portions of his story and production design persist in the rest. With Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin; George Siegmann replaced Wallace Beery, who resigned in protest when Stroheim was fired. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

God’s Step Children

This freakish 1938 melodrama by African-American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, about a light-skinned child (Jacqueline Lewis) and woman (Gloria Press) hoping to pass for white, has often been cited as an indication of Micheaux’s own alleged racism on the matter of skin color. It’s also a prime instance of how this skillful silent director never seemed to find the budgets or the wherewithal to adapt fully to sound, sometimes with disorienting and even deconstructive results, as when actors are seen clearly reading their lines from cue cards. 65 min. (JR)… Read more »

Baby Doll

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 2007). — J.R.

One of Elia Kazan’s most underrated movies is his only pure comedy, scripted by Tennessee Williams and shot on location in rural Mississippi. Carroll Baker stars (in her debut) as a virgin child bride hitched up to Karl Malden at his most unsavory; Eli Wallach (in another debut) is brilliant as Malden’s business rival who manipulates both of them. Though this film was roundly condemned for salaciousness by the Legion of Decency when it came out (1956), its plot actually pivots around the ambiguous matter of whether sex actually takes place or not, and it’s the seediness of the southern milieu — Baker’s dirty neck rather than her dirty mind or morals — that seemed to have the censors up in arms. But it’s largely Kazan’s authentic feeling for the locale, aided by Boris Kaufman’s superb black-and-white cinematography, that makes this movie so special, combined with first-rate ensemble work. With Mildred Dunnock. 114 min. (JR)

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My favorite online film magazine (Chicago Reader blog post, 2007)

My favorite online film magazine

Posted By on 01.17.07 at 04:36 PM

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I’m a frequent contributor to Rouge, so I hope nobody thinks I’m tooting my own horn if I come right out and say that I regard it as the best film magazine going that’s exclusively online. It’s been around since 2002, and it happens to be based in Australia, but you might not even notice this if you were scanning the table of contents of any issue, because it’s far and away the most international of film magazines in English. The latest issue, number ten, has contributors from Australia, Brazil, France, Hungary, Japan, Portugal, Russia, and the U.S., including some filmmakers (Pedro Costa and Mark Rappaport) as well as critics writing about films from most of those countries plus England, India, and Bosnia. About half of the 16 contributors are writing in English, about a third are translated from French, Japanese, or Portuguese, and a couple more express themselves exclusively in the form of a photograph or film frames. In fact, one of the most fascinating of Rouge‘s former issues, number five (2004), devoted itself exclusively to images selected by 52 contributors.

It’s fairly highbrow, and relatively austere in spite of its ingenious uses of images, so I can’t pretend that Rouge is geared to every taste.

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Michel Gondry: Coping with the Metaphysics of Overload

The following short essay was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in early 2007 for a brochure accompanying a retrospective (“Michel Gondry: The Science of Dreams”) presented between May 11 and June 23, and a Regis Dialogue that I conducted with him on June 23. –J.R.

What’s sometimes off-putting about the postmodernity of music videos is tied to both the presence and absence of history in them — the dilemma of being faced simultaneously with too much and too little. On the one hand, one sees something superficially resembling the entire history of art — often encompassing capsule histories of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and film — squeezed into three-to-five-minute slots. The juxtapositions and overlaps that result can be so violent and incongruous that the overall effect is sometimes roughly akin to having a garbage can emptied onto one’s head. Yet on the other hand, radical foreshortenings and shotgun marriages of this kind often have the effect of abolishing history altogether, making every vestige of the past equal and equivalent to every other via the homogenizing effect of TV itself. Back in 1990, sitting through nearly eight hours of a touring show called “Art of Music Video,” I was appalled to discover that the two most obvious forerunners of music videos, soundies from the 40s and Scopitone from the 60s, were neither included in the show nor even acknowledged in its catalog’s history of the genre.… Read more »

Alpha Dog

Teenage drug dealers in swank southern California, determined to collect from a stubborn client, kidnap his 15-year-old brother (Anton Yelchin), but the kid has the time of his life being a hostage. Apart from the grim forebodings of tragedy, writer-director Nick Cassavetes seems to have modeled this ambitious, fictionalized account of a true story on Larry Clark’s kiddie-porn shockers, but he doesn’t know what to leave out, and the movie becomes excessively complicated with ancillary agendas. The actorsincluding Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, and Harry Dean Stantonham it up even as Cassavetes keeps swerving away from them for new distractions. With Justin Timberlake. R, 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood’s powerful companion film to Flags of Our Fathers looks at the fighting on Iwo Jima in World War II from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers. I prefer it to Flags because the story is less familiar, even if it’s told more conventionally, and because an American war film in which Americans become the enemy, emotionally if not intellectually, is a nervy undertaking. Inspired by letters written to his family by the pro-American general Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who was sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for his views, Iris Yamashita’s screenplay sketches out as many impossible moral dilemmas as Flags did. Eastwood is boldly implying in both films that distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars may be a civilian luxury. In Japanese with subtitles. R, 142 min. (JR)… Read more »

Arthur And The Invisibles

An enterprising ten-year-old (Freddie Highmore), hoping to save his granny (Mia Farrow) from a foreclosure on her house, shrinks himself and enters the land of the tiny Minimoys in her backyard to recover some rubies buried by his grandfather. Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) has never been one of my favorite filmmakers, but he seems to have found his metier in children’s fantasy, and this semianimated adventure is enjoyable and imaginative despite its formulaic qualities. U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein, who mistrusts anything that lacks his fingerprints, had already cut 18 minutes from the French original when this was screened for the press, and since then he’s added some music cues and narration. Among the voice talents in this English version are Madonna, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel. PG, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »