Daily Archives: April 1, 1999

Aprile

Comic film essayist Nanni Moretti may be an acquired tastea taste acquired by a good many viewers in Italy and France, where he’s a major cult figurebut I can’t think of a better introduction to his work than this 1998 feature about his struggles with fatherhood and Italian politics and how they interface. I don’t know if this means Aprile is his best film, but either because familiarity breeds affection or because his style is becoming fleeter, this is the Moretti feature I’ve found easiest to enjoy. The month of April is when his son is born and when Italy’s first left-wing government is elected; it’s also when Moretti decides to delay his favorite film projecta musical centered on a Trotskyite pastry chefto make a documentary about the upcoming election. Neither movie gets made, but we wind up getting tantalizing glimpses of both and learning a lot about contemporary Italyand Moretti’s special blend of the personal and the politicalin the process. 78 min. (JR)… Read more »

Shorts International Film Festival

I’ve seen five of the seven short films in this touring program, reportedly culled from a thousand entries representing 32 countries (though except for Canadian and Belgian entries and a Spanish-language film shot by an American student in Ecuador, everything here is from the U.S.). Most of them are pretty good, even if the categories under which they are listed (and presumably were submitted) can be enough to drive you bonkers. Bill Cote’s cutesy time-lapse account of his wife’s entire pregnancy, 17 Seconds to Sophie, is inexplicably termed experimental, while a genuinely experimental found-footage itemJay Rosenblatt’s Human Remains, a funny, creepy, and obviously speculative film on the lives of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, and Stalinis perversely labeled documentary. The best direction is found in Enrique Chediak’s El rio, the funniest sensibility in Debra Solomon’s animated and satirical Everybody’s Pregnant. Also included: Sylvie Rosenthal’s Canadian film La bombe au chocolat ( a quirky look at information overload), Martine Doyen’s Belgian film Christmas in the Air, and Scott and Adam Fields’s The Script Doctor. (JR)… Read more »

The Winslow Boy

It’s hard to imagine a more uncharacteristic David Mamet project: an adaptation of a genteel Terence Rattigan play from the mid-1940s about family affection and loyalty (previously adapted for a 1948 film directed by Anthony Asquith), which is based in turn on the 1910 trial of English naval cadet George Archer-Shee for a minor theftan event that became a national scandal due to the intransigence of both the government and the boy’s father. But this may be the most accomplished Mamet movie since House of Games, not only because he works so fruitfully with his excellent cast (Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon, Gemma Jones, Guy Edwards, and Matthew Pidgeon), but also because he offers a sturdy object lesson in how to attack period material of this kind without self-serving irony or condescension. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

Erotikon

Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty’s erotic 1929 silent feature is less impressive than his subsequent and most famous film, Ecstasy (1933), but it remains a striking mannerist work with affecting poetic touches. Chronicling a Prague playboy’s one-night stand with a provincial stationmaster’s daughter and the aftermath when she becomes pregnant, the film is somewhat dated in its conventional morality, yet its camera work is fluid and free, and overall the film vibrates with sensuality. (Credited as scene designer is Alexander Hackenschmied, who years later collaborated with Maya Deren on her early films under the name Alexander Hammid.) Machaty, a former assistant to Griffith and Stroheim, never fulfilled the promise of his early work and wound up making classy commercials for European TV, but he’s still a key figure in early Czech cinema, and the richer sections of this picture show why. (JR)… Read more »

Winstanley

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s passionate 1975 account of the nonviolent efforts of Gerrard Winstanley (Miles Halliwell) to form a commune in Surrey, England, in 1649 is a quixotic yet hardy attempt to change the way we think about history. Made independently between the late 60s and early 70s and shot in black and white, the film strives for a period verisimilitude so uncompromising and multifaceted that the filmmakers made strenuous efforts to use species of birds, cows, and pigs similar to those that populated 17th-century Surrey. The style is deliberately patterned after silent cinema (Brownlow’s specialty as a film historian), though the script is partly derived from a contemporary novel about Winstanley, David Caute’s Comrade Jacob. Refusing to make facile links between Winstanley’s religious sect, the Diggers, and the English hippies of the 70s, Brownlow and Mollo regard the past with the same sort of awe that SF writers and directors commonly show regarding the future, and the results, while frequently dedramatized, are hauntingly mysterious and often beautiful. This may not be sufficiently achieved to deserve the label masterpiece, but it’s stayed with me longer than most period masterpieces have; in some ways, despite its meager budget, its only peer is Stanley Kubrick’s similarly underrated Barry Lyndon, made during the same period.… Read more »

It Happened Here

This speculative 1966 feature by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo exemplifies English independent filmmaking at its most resourceful and intransigent. Paralleling Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which imagined what North America might have become had Hitler won, the film portrays what England might have been like in 1944 had it been invaded and occupied by Germany four years earlier. Fanatically dedicated to period detail and refusing to fall back on stock footage, Brownlow started the film in 1956 at age 18, some time before enlisting military scholar Mollo as a full collaborator and a full decade before the film was finally released. Their decision to use real English fascists and proto-Nazis to express the views of their 1944 counterparts on Jews and euthanasia led to the film’s most interesting sequence being suppressed in the 60s, and it took Brownlow over 30 years to regain the rights to the film so he could restore it, making this the Chicago premiere of the film’s full and original version. As narrative it can be dry and unemphatic (most of the actors are nonprofessionals), but as speculation it’s highly convincing and endlessly fascinating. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography is by Peter Suschitzky, who went on to work for John Boorman, Ken Russell, George Lucas, Tim Burton, and most recently David Cronenberg.… Read more »

The Adopted Son

A striking first feature (1998) from Kyrgyzstanin fact, the first independent feature ever made in that countryabout everyday life in a rural village, including the pastimes of little boys. The young hero discovers that he’s adopted, following a local tradition of large families giving babies to childless couples. The beautiful cinematography is mainly in black and white, but every shift to color feels like a small miracle, and filmmaker Aktan Abdikalikov is equally adept at building his nuanced sound track piece by piece. (JR)… Read more »

Western

An interesting, offbeat 1997 French road movie by Manuel Poirier, about a Spanish lady-killer (Sergi Lopez) and a Russian immigrant (Sacha Bourdo) traveling and quarreling their way through Brittany. A rambling but ultimately rather affecting comedy-drama by a talented filmmaker who’s almost completely unknown here, this has a deft feel for lower-middle-class life in rural France that registered strongly on its home front. (JR)… Read more »

Brother

Another Russian gangster film, you may groan at first, as I did at the onset of this 1997 feature by writer-director Alexei Balabanov (who made the remarkable 1995 short Trofilm). But the further this movie develops, the better it gets — not only as a hard-edged look at Russian life today but also as a finely nuanced psychological study. Starring Sergei Bodrov Jr. (Prisoner of the Mountains), this follows the ups and downs of a young man who returns to Saint Petersburg after leaving the army and discovers that his brother is a hit man. In Russian with subtitles. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bird On A Wire

Mel Gibson plays a state’s witness in hiding who runs into his college girlfriend (Goldie Hawn), now a prominent lawyer, who thought he died in the 60s. They wind up fleeing cross-country together from two murderous corrupt DEA agents (Bill Duke and David Carradine), who are using the government’s computer technology to track them down. John Badham directed this romantic comedy-adventure romp from a script by David Seltzer, Louis Venosta, and Eric Lerner; it isn’t exactly art but it works pretty well as entertainmentat least until the overproduced and undernourished conclusion, where formulaic predictability sets in, along with certain gaps in logic and continuity (e.g., escaping from the deadly killers, the couple write them a note explaining where they’re going). Hawn and Gibson work well together, and both are encouraged to show a lot of leg; with Stephen Tobolowsky and Joan Severance, who manages to shine in a small part despite some far-fetched dialogue. (JR)… Read more »

Bigger Than Life

Nicholas Ray’s potent 1956 CinemaScope melodrama dealt with the ill effects of cortisone on a frustrated middle-class grammar-school teacher (James Mason) at about the same time that the first wave of wonder drugs hit the market. But the true subject of this deeply disturbing picture is middle-class valuesabout money, education, culture, religion, patriarchy, and getting ahead. These values are thrown into bold relief by the hero’s drug dependency and resulting megalomania, which leads to shocking and tragic results for his family (Barbara Rush and Robert Simon) as well as himself. Ray’s use of ‘Scope framing and color to delineate the hero’s dreams and dissatisfactions has rarely been as purposeful. (It’s hard to think of another Hollywood picture with more to say about the sheer awfulness of normal American family life during the 50s.) With Walter Matthau in an early noncomic role as the hero’s best friend; scripted by Cyril Hume, Richard Maibum, and an uncredited Clifford Odets. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »