Monthly Archives: May 2007

Who Killed Jessie?

Czech director Vaclav Vorlicek’s black-and-white slapstick fantasy is from 1966, the same year as Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and it’s hard to think of two more gleefully anarchic comedies made under a communist regime. This one is slighter and more conventional, but its premise is still pretty outrageous. A scientist develops a formula that transforms bad dreams into good. She tests it on a sleeping cow, whose nightmare of being attacked by flies (viewed on a TV monitor) gives way to an idyll of lounging in a hammock. But things go awry when she tries the serum out on her wimpy husband, who, under the influence of a comic book, is dreaming of being rescued from the clutches of an overweight Superman clone and an ornery Wild West gunslinger by a sexy sci-fi heroine a la Barbarella. All three fantasy characters materialize in the real world, bringing their dialogue bubbles with them. The ensuing pandemonium is exceptionally silly and mostly delightful. For the record, the mistranslated title should have been Who Wants to Kill Jessie? In Czech with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

When It Rains

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 2007). — J.R.

One of my all-time favorite films, this beautiful 12-minute short by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, The Glass Shield), made for French TV in 1995, is a jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts and one of those rare movies in which jazz forms directly influence film narrative. The slender plot involves a Good Samaritan and local griot (Ayuko Babu), who serves as poetic narrator, trying to raise money from his neighbors in the ghetto for a young mother who’s about to be evicted, and each person he goes to see registers like a separate solo in a 12-bar blues. (Eventually a John Handy album recorded in Monterey, a countercultural emblem of the 60s, becomes a crucial barter item.) This gem has been one of the most difficult of Burnett’s films to see. (JR)… Read more »

Sylvia

The popular literary biopic is mainly a hopeless subgenre, but this account of Sylvia Plath and her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes manages to test the rule thanks to its unusual seriousness and first-rate performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow scrupulously avoid taking sides in the volatile marriagea delicate task given the four decades of verbal and legal warfare between the couple’s partisans, not to mention the aura of myth that surrounds Plath’s suicide at 30, which brought her a level of recognition she never achieved in life. Though constrained from quoting Plath’s work at length, the film manages to convey that the sexiness of poetry itself was the honey that drew the couple together and made them, at least initially, inseparable. (This is rated R, though I suspect the same film from a major studio would have won a PG-13.) Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, plays Plath’s mother with such insight that I was sorry the role wasn’t made bigger, proportionate to the importance she had in Plath’s life. Jared Harris and Amira Casar fare much better in their respective roles as poet Al Alvarez and Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill. 100 min.… Read more »

The Human Stain

Even though I haven’t read the Philip Roth novel on which Nicholas Meyer based his screenplay, I sensed while watching this that I was in the presence of an especially meticulous attempt at translation. The film retains Roth’s habitual alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a storyteller-within-the-story, like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Through this narrative filter we learn the story of a widowed classics professor (Anthony Hopkins) wholike literary critic Anatole Broyardwas born black but has lived most of his life on the other side of the color line. Director Robert Benton allows the cast (which includes Ed Harris and, as a janitor Hopkins has an affair with, Nicole Kidman) to shine, but I was left wondering why such a very literary construction as this needed to be made into a movie. R, 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Spy Kids 3-d: Game Over

Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino return as married secret agents whose son (Daryl Sabara) and daughter (Alexa Vega) have become junior spies. Series regulars Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub are back as well, joined on this outing by Salma Hayek, George Clooney, and Elijah Wood. Sylvester Stallone costars as the evil Toymaker, who imprisons Vega inside his surrealistic 3-D video game (viewers are instructed when to don glasses). Working as writer, producer, director, production designer, cinematographer, editor, and composer, Robert Rodriguez has a sure sense of scale and pacing as well as an artisan’s relaxed control of the material. PG, 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hell’s Heroes

Down With Ford! Long Live Wyler! was the title of a 1948 article by French writer and filmmaker Roger Leenhardt, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a more dubious pronouncement by a major critic. But it starts to become plausible if one compares William Wyler’s gritty and beautifully photographed western Hell’s Heroes (1929) with John Ford’s sentimental remake, 3 Godfathers (1948). Three escaping bank robbers find themselves caring for an orphaned baby in the cruel desert, and Wyler does a matchless job of keeping this Christian allegory life-size and unsentimental without ever diluting its emotional power. With Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler. 68 min. (JR)… Read more »

Lucky You

Like The Hustler, this absorbing Las Vegas story about a professional poker player (Eric Bana) uses gambling to tell a tale of moral regeneration. But Bana can’t carry a picture like Paul Newman, and poker proves less photogenic than pool, so one’s attention gets diverted to Drew Barrymore, playing Bana’s goody two-shoes love interest, a fledgling nightclub singer. As the hero’s father (and poker rival), Robert Duvall is good as usual, though I couldn’t quite buy him as a former English teachereven if he did name his son Huckleberry. Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys) directed a script he cowrote with Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump). PG-13, 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Documentaries By Ebrahim Golestan

This remarkable program collects four pioneering shorts by Iranian writer and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, who began producing industrial films for the oil companies in the 50s and evolved into an ambitious and accomplished artist; in some ways his documentaries are comparable to the early work of Alain Resnais. The Wave, Coral and Rock (1961, 40 min.), the most conventional, chronicles the building of a jetty and the laying of pipelines, while A Fire (1961, 25 min.), edited by the great poet Forough Farrokhzad, chronicles a protracted oil fire. The Hills of Marlik (1963, 15 min.) beautifully and suggestively documents archaeological excavations, and The Iranian Crown Jewels (1965, 15 min.), commissioned and then banned by the shah’s cultural ministry, is a formally dazzling and politically provocative brief on its subject. The first three are in English and subtitled Farsi; the last is unsubtitled, but copies of the English text will be provided. (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Of The Treasure Of The Jinn Valley

Having moved to London in 1967, the distinguished Iranian writer, translator, producer, and director Ebrahim Golestan returned to his homeland to make this unpleasant allegorical comedy (1972), his second and final feature to date. A bitter satire about the shah’s corrupt regime, it centers on a poor peasant who plunges into a hidden cave, discovers a cache of valuable antiques, and becomes a grotesque nouveau riche tyrant. Golestan tackled a related theme in his exquisite 1965 short The Iranian Crown Jewels (see listing for Documentaries by Ebrahim Golestan), which was commissioned and then banned by the shah’s cultural ministry, but that film attacked the very elitism that subsumes this one. The print being shown is badly faded, but the period ambience is still vivid. In Farsi with subtitles. 118 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Hawk Is Dying

A brooding auto upholsterer (Paul Giamatti), living in central Florida with his divorced sister (an effective Rusty Schwimmer) and plagued with guilt after the death of his autistic nephew (Michael Pitt), becomes obsessed with training, or at least taming, a red-tailed hawk. Giamatti is commanding as ever (without attempting a regional accent anything like Schwimmer’s), and writer-director Julian Goldberger, adapting a novel by Harry Crews, impressed me with his lighting, framing, and minimalistic use of his own music. But these strengths seldom mesh persuasively, and the movie’s southern grotesquerie pales beside something like Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974). With Michelle Williams. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Brick and Mirror

A high point of Iran’s first new wave, this 1965 masterpiece by Ebrahim Golestan takes its title from the classical Persian poet Sa’adi, who wrote, “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror.” The philosophical implications of this are fully apparent in Golestan’s tale of a young man who finds a baby girl in his cab and spends a night with his girlfriend debating what to do with the infant. Though this black-and-white ‘Scope film superficially resembles Italian neorealism, especially in its indelible look at Tehran street life and nightlife in the 60s, its spirit is a mix of Dostoyevsky and expressionism: minor characters periodically step forward to deliver anguished soliloquies, contributing to an overall lament both physical and metaphysical. In Farsi with subtitles. 124 min. Golestan will take part in a discussion after the Saturday screening. Reviewed this week in Section 1. a Sat 5/5, 7:45 PM, and Thu 5/10, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. … Read more »

Before the Revolution

Ebrahim Golestan: Lion of Iranian Cinema

WHEN The Secret of the Treasure of the Jinn Valley Fri 5/4, 7:30 PM, Mon 5/7, 7:45 PM; early documentaries Sat 5/5, 3 PM, Wed 5/9, 8:15 PM; Brick and Mirror Sat 5/5, 7:45 PM, Thu 5/10, 6 PM

WHERE Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

PRICE $9, $7 students

INFO 312-846-2800

MORE Ebrahim Golestan in attendance on Friday and Saturday

A Symposium on Ebrahim Golestan

WHEN Sun 5/6, 1:30-4:30 PM

WHERE Northwestern Univ. Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston

PRICE Free

INFO 847-491-4000

MORE Ebrahim Golestan in attendance

Imagine how different our understanding of film history would be if we were denied access to everything made before the so-called sound revolution. A much more profound revolution interferes with our grasp of the history of Iranian film. During the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, the Islamic clergy said cinema was a form of Western exploitation as corrupt as prostitution and over 100 movie theaters were burned to the ground.

Much of what we know today as the Iranian New Wave — the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi — reflects some of that anxious background. But there were actually two new waves: most of the major figures from the first were driven into exile, their films rendered practically invisible in the process.… Read more »

Ebrahim Golestan (three capsule reviews & one essay)

Here is an essay about Ebahim Golestan that appeared in the Chicago Reader on May 3, 2007, along with capsule reviews of three Golestan programs that showed in Chicago the same week. I posted these shortly after reseeing the remarkable and criminally neglected Brick and Mirror at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, with Golestan, now in his early 90s, both present and eloquent in speaking about his work.  Note: if you hit the subtitled still below, you can see a very brief silent clip from Brick and Mirror. — J.R.

Brick and Mirror

A high point of Iran’s first new wave, this 1964 masterpiece by Ebrahim Golestan takes its title from the classical Persian poet Attaar, who wrote, “What the old can see in a mud brick, youth can see in a mirror.” The philosophical implications of this are fully apparent in Golestan’s tale of a young man who finds a baby girl in his cab and spends a night with his girlfriend debating what to do with the infant. Though this black-and-white ‘Scope film superficially resembles Italian neorealism, especially in its indelible look at Tehran street life and nightlife in the 60s, its spirit is a mix of Dostoyevsky and expressionism: minor characters periodically step forward to deliver anguished soliloquies, contributing to an overall lament both physical and metaphysical.… Read more »