Daily Archives: October 1, 1999

L’humanite

The most disputed and reviled prizewinner at Cannes in 1999, this brave, ambitious, difficult, and highly memorable second feature by Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus) follows the police investigation of a rape-murder, sticking mainly to an oddball detective’s assistant who lives with his mother and who often hangs out with a female neighbor he silently loves and her loutish boyfriend. Dumont clearly views this sad sack as a Dostoyevskian hero, and though the stylization of the character is sometimes more than he can handle, I was held and often moved by the mulish persistence of the pacing, the precise and sensuous grasp of the locations, and the brute physiognomy of some of the characters (especially the love interest and the detective). Critics have called this dull and ugly, the hero laughably pathetic, and the plot and style ridiculousexactly my reaction to most Hollywood product. L’humanit… Read more »

Christ In Concrete

In some respects this is Edward Dmytryk’s best film, but sadly it’s also his least known. After he was blacklisted in Hollywood, and before he recanted and named names for the HUAC, Dmytryk went to England to direct this powerful 1949 story of an Italian bricklayer and his immigrant family struggling in New York during the Depression. Budgetary restrictions account for some awkwardness, yet this is a moving and durable work. Screenwriter Ben Barzman (another victim of the blacklist) adapted a novel by Pietro di Donato; coproducer Rod E. Geiger was the enterprising American who also brought Rossellini’s Open City to the U.S. With Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani (Orson Welles’s original choice for Desdemona in his Othello), Kathleen Ryan, and Charles Goldner. Also known as Give Us This Day and Salt to the Devil. (JR)… Read more »

Dill Scallion

For all its merits, This Is Spinal Tap has a lot to answer for: it spawned what could be the laziest of all current subgenres, the supposedly satiric pseudodocumentary (or, in the advertising lingo, the mockumentary). The title hero of this feeble entry is a school-bus driver (Billy Burke) who wins a free trip to Nashville at an Amarillo talent contest and becomes a country music star; when he accidentally injures his foot, his resulting shuffle becomes a national craze. Stand-up comic Jordan Brady wrote and directed; others in the cast include Kathy Griffin, Lauren Graham, David Koechner, and an embarrassed-looking Henry Winkler, who plays a brassy promoter and fiddles with his cigar at every opportunity. (JR)… Read more »

Thieves’ Highway

Perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Jules Dassin’s preblacklist Hollywood pictures and one of the best noirs ever made by anyone, this 1949 release is a terrific, fast-moving thriller about the corruption of the California fruit market business. Adapted by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, Track of the Cat) from his own novel, it has a pretty exciting cast as well: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese (in her American debut), Lee J. Cobb (in a role anticipating his part in On the Waterfront), Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, and Millard Mitchell. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Come Back, Little Sheba

Shirley Booth won a Tony playing a blowsy, over-the-hill housewife in William Inge’s play and collected an Oscar reprising the role in this grimly effective 1952 screen adaptation by Ketti Frings. Burt Lancaster is Booth’s drunken ex-chiropractor husband, Terry Moore is the couple’s boarder, and Richard Jaeckel is her boyfriend; the title refers to her lamented lost dog. Daniel Mann directed. (JR)… Read more »

The Color Of Paradise

An Iranian tearjerker about an eight-year-old blind boy whose father, a widowed coal worker, belatedly collects him from a school for the blind in Tehran, takes him to the family farm, and then tries to send him to become an apprentice. I haven’t seen any earlier films by Majid Majidi, director of the Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven, but if this 1999 drama is any indication, he’s an utterly conventional sentimental humanist, providing better-than-average storytelling skills, an eye for landscapes that would make him a pretty good calendar artist, but none of the challenges offered by Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf. If you aren’t looking for anything of artistic or social interest but are nonetheless attracted by Iranian cinema’s relative lack of obvious cynicism, this may be just what the doctor ordereda Middle Eastern counterpart to Disney or Spielberg. In Farsi with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Silence

A ten-year-old blind boy in a Tajik village, who works as a tuner for a maker of musical instruments, is the hero of this 1998 feature by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Built around a charming poetic conceit, the film feels overextended in spots, but it’s still an enormously likable effort. (JR)… Read more »

Tapage Nocturne

Also known as Night Noisesthough the title literally means something closer to disturbing the peacethis 1979 feature by the always provocative, erotic, and politically incorrect novelist and filmmaker Catherine Breillat focuses on a director like herself whose dissatisfactions with marriage and motherhood lead her into affairs, including a sadomasochistic relationship with another director. I haven’t seen it, but I’d be surprised if it’s uninteresting. With Dominique Laffin and Marie-Helene Breillat. (JR)… Read more »

Dry Cleaning

I liked this 1997 French feature by Anne Fontaine more than its cutesy predecessor (Augustin, 1995), but its portrait of middle-class sexual repression is every bit as calculated. A couple who’ve been married for 15 years and who run a dry-cleaning shop encounter a couple of sexual outlaws performing at a local nightclub, and their lives are turned topsy-turvy with ultimately grim results. Like a lot of bourgeois French cinema, this takes a fairly dark view of liberation; the acting isn’t bad, however, with Miou-Miou a particular standout as the wife. (JR)… Read more »

Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control

This 1997 documentary is Errol Morris’s best film, a clear advance on Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and A Brief History of Time. It alternates interviews with four unconnected individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat specialist, and a robot scientist. The result is more a poem than a documentary, made coherent by Morris’s formal precision: he links found footage with the interviews, black and white with color, in a dreamlike continuity that invites the viewer to trace his or her own connections. It’s not at all difficult to watch, as the premise might suggest; in fact it’s beautiful as well as moving, an achievement of synthesis that announces Morris’s arrival as a master. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

Secrets & Lies

Mike Leigh’s gripping, multifaceted 142-minute comedy-drama, winner of the grand prize at Cannes in 1996, may well be his most accessible and optimistic picture. A young black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) seeks out her white biological mother (Brenda Blethyn), a factory worker who put her up for adoption at birth, and as the two become acquainted, tensions build between the mother and another illegitimate daughter, between the mother and her kid brother (Timothy Spall), and between him and his wife, leading to a ferocious climax. The dense, Ibsen-like plotting of family revelations is dramatically satisfying in broad terms, though it leaves a few details unaccounted for. But the acting is so strongwith Spall a particular standoutthat you’re carried along as by a tidal wave. The younger daughter, a close cousin of the bulimic daughter in Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, is the weakest link in the chain of family discord, yet Leigh orchestrates the whole thing with such panache that you’re not likely to mind her too much. (JR)… Read more »

Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film won the grand prize at the Venice film festival, introducing Kurosawa (and through him the Japanese film) to most of the Western world. Set mainly in 12th-century Kyoto, the film, based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, offers the radically different eyewitness accounts of four people (including a dead man) about a violent incident involving ambush, rape, and murder in a forest. The philosophically subversive premise of the story, at least by implication, is that all four narrators are telling the truth; Kurosawa’s much more sentimental conclusion, made even worse by a hokey finale, is that everyone lies. This serious limitation aside, the film is still an impressive piece of work, visually and rhythmically masterful. With Toshiro Mifune (as the bandit) and Machiko Kyo. In Japanese with subtitles. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Elmer Gantry

Burt Lancaster on the Bible-thumping circuit, in Richard Brooks’s juicy (and considerably watered-down) 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. Brooks was the ultimate vulgarizer of serious literature, as his versions of The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim made clear; this is somewhat better only because of Lancaster’s energetic performance, which won him an Oscar, and a few bits of colorful period ambience. Other Oscars went to supporting actress Shirley Jones and to Brooks for his highly dubious script. With Jean Simmons and Dean Jagger. (JR)… Read more »

Secret Defense

Jacques Rivette’s 19th feature (1997) is perhaps the most classically constructed of all his films, in terms of mise en scène as well as plot. Sandrine Bonnaire stars as a research chemist whose kid brother (Grégoire Colin from The Dream Life of Angels) discovers that their father’s accidental death from falling off a train a few years earlier may have been a murder committed by his business partner (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who’s subsequently taken over the business. The brother plans to kill the partner, and the sister, fearful that he might bungle the job, takes a train to the country to perform the deed herself. Her journey, covering almost 25 minutes, displays Rivette’s genius in handling duration and nuanced acting and shows Bonnaire at her near best. As a rule, Rivette’s actresses shine more than his actors, but Radziwilowicz — a skillful veteran of Wajda, Kieslowski, and Godard pictures — gives a wonderfully dense and suggestive performance, and the brooding intimations of Greek tragedy are part of what keeps this 170-minute thriller fascinating throughout. With Laure Marsac (in an intriguing double role as sisters) and Françoise Fabian; Pascal Bonitzer and Emmanuelle Cuau collaborated with Rivette on the script. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W.… Read more »

Grand Illusion

One can safely assert without hyperbole that Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece about French and German officers during World War I is better than anything being presented by the Chicago International Film Festival. You might think you’ve already seen it, but a good print hasn’t been available since the 30s, so you might be in for a revelation; I know I was. (Unfortunately the subtitles, unlike the French dialogue, don’t explain the film’s title; a better translation might be “the great illusion”–the deluded belief that this war would soon end and be the last one.) A film about war without a single scene of combat, it suggests with a great deal of irony and plausibility that the true divisions in World War I were of class rather than nationality, a point embodied in the friendship between aristocratic captains played by Erich von Stroheim (in his greatest performance in a sound film) and Pierre Fresnay, both of whom ultimately become sacrificial victims to the nouveau riche Jewish officer (Marcel Dalio) and the French mechanic (Jean Gabin) who manage to escape from a German fortress to freedom. (It’s fascinating today to relate the faint traces of anti-Semitism in Stroheim’s character to the posthumous knowledge that he was himself a Jew in hiding.) And the relationship between the mechanic and a German widow (L’Atalante’s Dita Parlo), who barely speak each other’s language, is no less moving.… Read more »