Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Legend Of Drunken Master

A fleet, enjoyable Jackie Chan romp, this dubbed and retitled 1994 version of Drunken Master II (a belated sequel to the 1979 Drunken Master, which served to launch Chan’s career) brings back his turn-of-the-century folk hero Wong Fei-hung exercising his virtuoso drunken fist sallies against thugs after a long string of provocations. The climactic choreographic rumble is well worth waiting for. The credited director, Lar Kar-leung, who was responsible for the original, was fired by Chan halfway through the shooting, and this appears to be Chan’s show all the way. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blame It On Fidel

In early-70s France, a thoughtful nine-year-old (Nina Kervel) undergoes a series of crises when her middle-class French mother and Spanish father become radical leftists, committed to feminist, anti-Franco, and pro-Allende activities. The script was adapted from an Italian novel by Domitilla Calamai, though because director Julie Gavras is the daughter of left-wing filmmaker Costa-Gavras, it’s tempting to speculate on whether this first feature reflects some of her own experiences. Most of the story is told from the girl’s viewpoint; her confusion about the political issues is complicated by her conservative grandparents and anticommunist Cuban nanny (who provides the film’s title). The young heroine is rather humorless, but Gavras’s intelligence and skillful touch are evident throughout. With Stefano Accorsi and Julie Depardieu (Gerard’s daughter). In French with subtitles. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Feast Of Love

This heart-warmer by Robert Benton has some of the tender wisdom and humor of his other features (e.g., Nobody’s Fool), though Benton’s decision to hang his dramatic payoff on the pronouncements of a fortune-teller suggests a certain stickiness along with the sweetness. Adapted by Allison Burnett from a novel by Charles Baxter, the story considers various couples in Portland, Oregon, but centers on a coffeehouse owner (Greg Kinnear) whose wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for a woman and whose best friend (Morgan Freeman), a happily married professor on indefinite leave, advises him while nursing his own heartbreak. Their torments and triumphs moved me even as I regretted some of the script’s emotional simplifications. With Radha Mitchell, Alexa Davalos, Toby Hemingway, and Fred Ward. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Man Of Cinema: Pierre Rissient

Sometimes the most powerful and influential people are protected by their relative obscurity, and it’s hard to think of a better illustration of this principle in the film world than the multifaceted, eccentric, controversial Pierre Rissient, whom I’ve known for 35 years. Among other achievements, he’s probably discovered more important filmmakers than anyone else I knowfigures ranging from Cy Endfield to Lino Brocka to Jane Campion to Abbas Kiarostami. It takes most of Todd McCarthy’s well-used 110 minutes in this lively documentary to explain all the creative, behind-the-scene activities Rissient generates in relation to criticism, filmmaking, distribution, exhibition, and programming, and even though this is mainly the sympathetic view of a friend, the portrait is complex and nuanced. Among the many interviewees, Olivier Assayas is especially perceptive when he describes Rissient as being like a teenager. In English, French, and Mandarin with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The Silence Before Bach

Silence Before Bach, The

Though Pere Portabella is a major talent in experimental narrative film, working atypically in 35-millimeter, he’s still relatively unknown because his early features could be shown only clandestinely in Franco’s Spain and none is commercially distributed. The Silence Before Bach is his most pleasurable and accessible film to date, above all for its diverse performances of the title composer’s work. Gracefully leapfrogging between fact and fiction in at least two centuries and several countries, it recalls some playful aspects of his Warsaw Bridge (1989) while juxtaposing past and present as if they were attractions in a theme park. In Spanish, Italian, and German with subtitles. 102 min. (JR)

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One Fine Day

Michael Hoffman (Restoration, Soapdish) directs Michele Pfeiffer and George Clooney in a beautifully contrived romantic comedy with a Manhattan setting that is exploited to the utmost. A veritable anthology of the perils of single parentingdemanding jobs, cellular phones, busy schedules, transportation hasslesthis 1996 film works a lot better than most Hollywood fluff because the leads are so good (and so well defined in Terrel Seltzer and Ellen Simon’s deft script), and because Hoffman is a pro at keeping everything in motion. With Mae Whitman, Alex D. Linz, Ellen Greene, and Charles Durning. (JR)… Read more »

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors

Adapted from a novel by Ukrainian writer M. Kotsyubinsky, Sergei Paradjanov’s extraordinary merging of myth, history, poetry, ethnography, dance, and ritual (1964) remains one of the supreme works of the Soviet sound cinema, and even subsequent Paradjanov features have failed to dim its intoxicating splendors. Set in the harsh and beautiful Carpathian Mountains, the movie tells the story of a doomed love between a couple belonging to feuding families, Ivan and Marichka, and of Ivan’s life and marriage after Marichka’s death. The plot is affecting, but it serves Paradjanov mainly as an armature to support the exhilarating rush of his lyrical camera movements (executed by master cinematographer Yuri Illyenko), his innovative use of nature and interiors, his deft juggling of folklore and fancy in relation to pagan and Christian rituals, and his astonishing handling of color and music. A film worthy of Dovzhenko, whose poetic vision of Ukrainian life is frequently alluded to. In Ukrainian with subtitles. 100 min. a Sat 9/22, 6:15 PM, Sun 9/23, 3 PM, and Thu 9/27, 8:15 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

My Brother’s Wedding

The least known of Charles Burnett’s first three features (1983)the other two are Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Angerfocuses on the family pressure exerted on a young man in Watts (Everett Silas), who works at his parents’ dry cleaners, to abandon his disreputable ghetto friends and adjust to a more middle-class existence. This struggle is pushed to the limit when he has to choose between attending his older brother’s wedding to a woman from an affluent family and attending the funeral of his best friend, a former juvenile delinquent. Burnett’s acute handling of actors (most of whom are nonprofessionals) never falters, and his gifts as a storyteller make this a movie that steadily grows in impact and resonance as one watches. (JR)… Read more »

Good Luck Chuck

In a game of spin the bottle, a ten-year-old goth girl puts a hex on the title hero after he refuses to bare his penis. The result: when he grows up to become Dane Cook, each woman he has sex with marries the next guy she meets. Then he falls in love with a penguin specialist (Jessica Alba) andis there any point in continuing? Writer Josh Stolberg and director Mark Helfrich think so little of this premise that they periodically debunk it themselves, leaving me to conclude that for them any excuse for Cook and sidekick Dan Fogler’s vulgar shticksuch as sex with an obese woman who fartswas good enough. Some of the audience seemed to be having fun, but for me it was like a Farrelly brothers gross-out without the laughs. R, 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Story Of Three Loves

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2007). — J.R.

Released in 1953, this glitzy, entertaining MGM art movie is fascinating partly because it testifies to the influence of patriarchal French existentialism on American pop culture. Gottfried Reinhardt (son of Berlin stage director Max Reinhardt) directed the first of its three episodes, about a ballet dancer with a heart condition (Moira Shearer) who’s driven to the breaking point by an enthusiastic choreographer (James Mason), and the third, a suspenseful tale about Parisian trapeze artists (Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli) who learn to commit to one another in a post-Holocaust context by taking inordinate risks. But the best episode is Vincente Minnelli’s fantasy about a disgruntled boy in Venice (Ricky Nelson) who, with the help of an American witch (Ethel Barrymore), becomes a grown man (Farley Granger) long enough to date his French nanny (Leslie Caron). 122 min. (JR)

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The Freed Woman

From the Chicago Reader (September 14, 2007). –J.R.

FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN ***

DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY JENNIFER FOX

There’s something nervy about the way Jennifer Fox, in her new autobiographical six-part, six-hour miniseries, showing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, tries to combine her life, her art, and her politics. Made with funding from the Danish Film Institute over a four-year period ending in late 2006, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman recounts the privileges, confusions, and self-examinations of Fox, a Manhattan-based filmmaker in her mid-40s who grew up associating her freedom with being like a boy, feeling much closer to her permissive father than to her disapproving mother, and never having the slightest interest in getting married or (until recently) having kids.

Known for such PBS documentaries as Beirut: The Last Home Movie (1987) and An American Love Story (1999), a miniseries about the everyday life of an interracial couple, Fox does a fair amount of globe-trotting, and during the time frame of Flying she’s juggling two lovers on separate continents who know about each other. The less serious relationship is with Patrick, a Swiss-German cinematographer she sees more often, mainly in New York (he’s credited as the film’s “technical supervisor”).… Read more »

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis follows up his Oscar-winning Crash with this searing drama that uses the police procedural to explore the moral and psychological devastation of the Iraq war for U.S. soldiers (and, incidentally, for Iraqi citizens). Inspired by real events, it focuses on a grief-stricken father (Tommy Lee Jones, at his best) who, assisted by a police detective and single mother (Charlize Theron), tries to solve the murder of his son, who has been dismembered near a New Mexico army base shortly after going AWOL and returning from Iraq. With Josh Brolin and Susan Sarandon. R, 121 min. Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman

The best miniseries I’ve seen this year, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, made by Adam Curtis for the BBC, hasn’t reached U.S. screens yet (although you can find it online). But the second best, a six-part, six-hour essay by Jennifer Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie, An American Love Story), has a related theme–how a free and independent filmmaker in her mid-40s can create her own set of traps. Still unmarried and childless by choice, she has lovers on two continents–one of them with a wife and kids–and finds her life turning into a frantic juggling act; meanwhile, she tapes her conversations with women from around the globe about their own ideas of freedom. There are times when Fox’s nervy endeavor to combine art and life obliges one to give way to the other, but her efforts and reflections throughout are riveting. Reviewed this week in Section 1. a Parts 1-2: Fri 9/14, 8:15 PM, and Sat-Sun 9/15-9/16, 3 PM; parts 3-4: Sat 9/15, 5:30 PM, and Tue 9/18, 6 PM; parts 5-6: Sat 9/15, 8:30 PM, and Tue 9/18, 8:30 PM; Gene Siskel Film Center. –Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg’s follow-up to A History of Violence–starring the same lead, Viggo Mortensen, in a very different part–lacks the theoretical dimension of its predecessor, but it’s no less masterful in its fluid storytelling and shocking choreography of violence. A Russian mafia tale with a London setting, scripted by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), it confirms Cronenberg’s position as an old-fashioned, almost Dickensian moralist. He refuses to fetishize corruption the way the Godfather films do, while working wonders with a charismatic villain (Armin Mueller-Stahl in a remarkable performance) and creating a charged homoerotic atmosphere. With Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel. R, 96 min.  River East 21. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

The Bubble

Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water) cowrote and directed this sweet tempered but occasionally simplistic youth picture about three young, progressive Israelis who share a flat in a chic section of Tel Aviv. One of them, a music store clerk and part-time army reservist, falls in love with a Palestinian man he met while serving at a security checkpoint, and the flatmates find their lives complicated when they decide to help the Palestinian remain in the city illegally. In Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. 117 min. (JR)… Read more »