Monthly Archives: November 2007

Where Lies Your Hidden Smile?

It isn’t necessary to have seen anything by Jean-Marie Straub and the late Daniele Huillet to appreciate this sublime and often hilarious 2001 account of their editing a film together. (Even so, it’s a pity the 1999 film they’re editing, Sicilia!, isn’t being shown as well.) This quarrelsome, loving, eccentric couple and director Pedro Costa are avant-gardists with an unusually keen understanding of so-called classical cinema (Chaplin, Ford, Hawks, Mizoguchi, Ozu), and this becomes clear in Straub’s monologues, Huillet’s precise cuts (which we observe in detail), and Costa’s beautiful way of capturing them both. Australian film critic Adrian Martin calls this probably the best documentary of any kind I have ever seen; it’s certainly the best film ever made about editing. Thierry Lounas codirected. In French and Italian with subtitles. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Memories Of Tomorrow

Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s 2006 tearjerker concerns a successful advertising salesman pushing 50 (Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe) who discovers he has Alzheimer’s around the same time his only daughter is about to get married. Despite Watanabe’s skill in conveying this character’s growing desperation, he has to compete with such a hectoring, melodramatic score and so much directorial nudging that I emotionally checked out of this at the end of the first half hourafter which the film still had another hour and a half of solid grief to go. Some nuances persist, but they tend to get smothered. In Japanese with subtitles. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Funny Kind of Tribute [I'M NOT THERE]

From the Chicago Reader, November 22, 2007. –J.R.

I’m Not There 

Directed by Todd Haynes

I’ve owned copies of Don’t Look Back and Nashville Skyline for decades, but I’d never describe myself as a hard-core Bob Dylan fan. Obvious as his talent may be, he often mixes metaphors and combines images in a way that skirts the edge of incoherence. And as the appointed spokesman for my generation — born in 1941, only a couple of years before me — he sometimes strikes me as little more than a series of shifting masks and poses. So I went into I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s ambitious new film about the man, fully prepared to feel out of step, and was surprised to find my misgivings addressed at every turn. Widely described as a tribute, it frequently comes across as a series of insults.

To call the film biographical is misleading. If anything, it’s a speculative essay that uses Dylan to comment on his audience and the 60s in general. Haynes, a graduate of the semiotics department at Brown University, isn’t really concerned with Dylan as an individual; rather he presents him as a cluster of signs and texts, spread across six characters embodying phases or distinct aspects of his early career.… Read more »

I’m Not There

Todd Haynes’s multilinear treatment of Bob Dylan’s early career encompasses no less than six actors and characters: an 11-year-old black musician calling himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a white folksinger (Christian Bale), an actor who plays the folksinger in a movie (Heath Ledger), a poet who invokes Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a rock icon in swinging London (Cate Blanchett), and a western outlaw known as Billy the Kid (Richard Gehr). What emerges is a speculative, critical essay about the 60s, weighted down in spots by political correctness and a conflicted desire to mock Dylan’s denseness while catering to his hard-core fans, but otherwise lively, fluid, and watchable. Even if Haynes never comes up with anything as fleet or as funny as the Subterranean Homesick Blues sequence at the beginning of Don’t Look Back (a source he plunders repeatedly), he gives us plenty to chew on. With Charlotte Gainsbourg and Julianne Moore. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »

Margot At The Wedding

After his charmingly painful Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1998) and his more painfully autobiographical The Squid and the Whale (2005), writer-director Noah Baumbach announces No more Mr. Nice Guy in this hysterically hyperbolic and unpleasant if still witty dissection of family traumas. The neurotically judgmental title heroine (Nicole Kidman), a successful fiction writer, takes her son (Zane Pais) to the country to attend the wedding of her estranged, New Agey sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a confused slacker she’s recently met (Jack Black). Apart from John Turturro in a cameo, all the characters are monsters and/or basket cases (and the next-door neighbors are a nightmare projection of the family’s class and ethnic fears). Though no family on earth is likely to be as dysfunctional as this one, realism is no longer Baumbach’s register. It’s almost as if Woody Allen had shifted his allegiance from Bergman to Strindberg while tripling his skill in handling actors. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Down To Earth

My favorite Pedro Costa feature to date, an inviting “Open, sesame” to all his work, is his second (1994), a very personal remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943). It follows an obscurely motivated Lisbon nurse (Ines de Medeiros) accompanying a construction worker in a coma (Isaach de Bankolé) back to his native village, on a spectacular volcanic island in Cape Verde, once a hub of the slave trade. (The film’s original and much better title is “Casa de Lava,” or “House of Lava”). While she waits for him to wake she gets to know some of the villagers, including another European (the terrific Edith Scob) who unlike her has succeeded in going native. Gorgeously shot, with fabulous Creole music, this mysterious and voluptuous spiritual adventure has afforded me far more pleasure than any new film I’ve seen this year. In Portuguese and Creole with subtitles. 110 min.

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In Vanda’s Room

Pedro Costa’s longest and most challenging film (2000) is also the one in which he most fully discovers his present method (shooting beautifully composed tableaux without camera movement in digital video, with scripted dialogue) and subject matter (immigrants from Cape Verde and junkies, all nonprofessional actors playing themselves, inhabiting hovels in a Lisbon slum that are audibly and visibly being razed). The title heroine, who lives with her mother and sister, spends most of her time getting stoned or selling vegetables door-to-door, and we get to know the daily rituals of many of her neighbors equally well. Sandwiched between Costa’s Bones (1997) and Colossal Youth (2006), which feature some of the same people and settings, as well as comparably exquisite lighting and employment of color, this is passionate and demanding chamber cinema of a very special kind. In Portuguese with subtitles. 178 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Big Sky

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 2007). — J.R.

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TheBigSky

Though this sublime 1952 black-and-white masterpiece by Howard Hawks is usually accorded a low place in the Hawks canon, it’s a particular favorite of mine — mysterious, beautiful, and even utopian in some of its sexual and cultural aspects. Adapted (apparently rather loosely) by Dudley Nichols from part of A.B. Guthrie’s novel, this adventure stars Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin as Kentucky drifters who join an epic trek up the Missouri River, along with the latter’s uncle (Arthur Hunnicutt), an Indian princess (Elizabeth Threatt), and a good many Frenchmen. The poetic feeling for the wilderness is matched by the camaraderie, yet there’s also a tragic undertone to this odyssey that seems quintessentially Hawksian — a sense of a small human oasis in the center of a vast metaphysical void. 140 min. (JR)

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Limite

From the Chicago Reader (November 22, 2007). — J.R.

limite1

Sometimes cited as the greatest of all Brazilian films, this silent experimental feature (1931) by poet and novelist Mario Peixoto, who never completed another film, was seen by Orson Welles and won the admiration of everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to Walter Salles. But its status as a poetic narrative — about a man and two women lost at sea in a rowboat, whose pasts are conveyed in flashbacks — has kept it in the margins of most film histories, where it’s been known mainly as a provocative and legendary cult item. The remarkably luscious and mobile cinematography (for which cameraman Edgar Brazil had to build special equipment) alone makes it well worth seeing. 115 min. (JR)

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25 Watts

A very charming and funny derivation of the Jarmusch manner from Uruguay (2001), written and directed by Juan Pablo Rebella (who took his own life in 2006) and Pablo Stoll. The basic focus is on three hungover slackers one busy Saturday in Montevideo. I served on the jury for the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film that awarded its acting prize to the three likable leads (Daniel Hendler, Jorge Temponi, Alfonso Tort), and the film won many well-deserved festival prizes elsewhere (including a couple in Rotterdam). In Spanish with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films of the Future [on Pedro Costa]

From the Chicago Reader (November 15, 2007). Last week, in mid-October 2011, I spent a very pleasant couple of days hanging out with Pedro and a few other friends at a Costa retrospective being held in Bloomington, Indiana. On Sunday, October 16, at 8 pm, thanks to the generosity of both Pedro and Jon Vickers (the event’s organizer), as well as Gabe Klinger, Costa’s most recent feature, Ne Change Rien, will be showing in Chicago at Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. MIlwaukee (4th floor), a very comfortable loft, at which Gabe and I will lead a discussion afterwards, and on October 21, at 5:30 pm, the Music Box (theater #1) will show Colossal Youth. — J.R.

Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa Gene Siskel Film Center, 11/17—12/4

The cinema of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw essences — souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It’s not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn’t stories — though untold or partially told stories pervade all six of Costa’s features.… Read more »

Redacted

It’s hard for me to remember a film I’ve felt more conflicted about than Brian De Palma’s low-budget effort about the Iraq occupation, based on the real-life story of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was raped and killed by American soldiers. It shows rare courage in protesting the widespread abuse of innocent Iraqis, but its pseudodocumentary form is full of awkward misfires (such as a protracted use of theme music from Barry Lyndon) and its acting is often terrible. In some respects a remake of De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), which was derived from a real-life atrocity committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, this film goes much further in its rejection of American justifications for war, but it’s also a good deal coarser in much of its overall conception as well as its style. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Southland Tales

Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) describes his extravagant SF turkey as big and political and sprawling, and at least he’s right about the first and third adjectives. A nuclear bomb goes off in Abilene, the U.S. becomes a police state monitored by Miranda Richardson, and a cackling Wallace Shawn launches a dirigible and stands poised to take over the planet. A Republican action hero (Dwayne Johnson) gets his memory erased by butt-kicking women (including Cheri Oteri) called neo-Marxists, meanwhile hanging out with a former porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a beach cop with a twin (Seann William Scott) and pitching his visionary script. You can’t be both political and incoherent, and even though Kelly’s models are Kiss Me Deadly and Blade Runner, this vision of the near-future suggests a random blend of Dr. No and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! R, 144 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Blood

With milky whites, inky blacks, and delicate leafy shadows inspired by such 50s films as The Big Heat and Pickpocket and fairy-tale poetics evoking The Night of the Hunter, Pedro Costa’s tender first feature (1989) is gripping even if you can’t fathom all of the plot. Between Christmas and New Year’s in a small riverside village, the father of two boys, ages 10 and 17, mysteriously dies and a loving schoolteacher (Ines de Medeiros) and three sinister men (an uncle from Lisbon and two debt collectors) seem to take over their lives. As in Costa’s later work, a sense of vibrant enigma is constant. In Portuguese with subtitles. 95 min. See my piece on the Film Center’s Costa retrospective, which this is part of, for more. [JR]… Read more »

Bones

A young mother with an unwanted infant in a battered slum outside Lisbon repeatedly attempts suicide; the confused father carries the boy around, not knowing what to do with him, begging and periodically becoming involved with other women. Pedro Costa’s unsettling third feature (1997), a transitional work between his films made with actors and large crews (The Blood, Down to Earth) and his DV chamber pieces (In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth), started out as a documentary before becoming an elliptical story, mainly with nonprofessional actors playing characters. Like Costa’s other films, it looks exquisite, but the Bressonian vacancy of the leads sometimes feels spooky rather than soulful. With Ines de Medeiros and Vanda Duarte (who plays herself in the next two Costa features). In Portuguese with subtitles. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »