Daily Archives: November 22, 2007

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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