From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 2000); also reprinted in my book Essential Cinema. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Bruno Dumont
With Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquière, and Ginette Allegre.
One of my favorite Italian novels, long out of print in English, is Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, a sort of Roman police procedural from 1946 in which the central crime never gets solved. The book is so beloved in Italy that it’s known simply as Il pasticciaccio (“the awful mess”), and when Gadda died in 1973 at the age of 79, it had gone through several editions.
William Weaver, who did the 1965 English translation, wrote in the preface that “Il pasticciaccio occupies in contemporary Italian literature the position that Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Man Without Qualities occupy in the literature of their respective countries.” He also noted that many of Gadda’s other fictional works are “unfinished, but not incomplete. Even the briefest of Gadda’s fragments has its own curious wholeness; and if the ‘murder story’ aspect of Il pasticciaccio remains unresolved, one feels — at the end of this long, apparently ambling work — that it is better not to know who is responsible for the death of Signora Liliana.… Read more »
The Ontario Film Review Board has banned this history of U.S. marijuana laws because it contains 20 seconds of archival footage showing rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees smoking dope in a lab experiment. Apparently this violates the Ontario Theatres Act, which forbids abuse of an animal in making a film, although the board showed no concern about mice falling off a table or fish swimming sideways in the same sequence (at least the simians seem to be enjoying themselves). A better example of animal abuse might be compelling a filmmaker to submit his work to censors or incarcerating untold thousands of kids for having harmless fun while hypocritical state agents and presidents show an almost total lack of interest in the truth or falsity of their own antidrug propaganda. Director Ron Mann specializes in documentaries celebrating countercultural forms and practices (Comic Book Confidential, Twist, Poetry in Motion, Imagine the Sound); this hilarious yet frightening piece of agitprop, using found footage, period music, jaunty animated titles, and narration by Woody Harrelson (written by Solomon Vesta), is as entertaining and informative as anything Mann’s ever done and as good an example of grass humor as you’re likely to find. 80 min. Music Box, Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24, midnight.… Read more »
A recent black comedy from France (1998) that has been compared to Todd Solondz’s Happiness; considering the unpleasantness of the other longish Francois Ozon film I’ve seen. See the Sea (1997), this is probably apt. The plot concerns a repressed family whose repressions go away after the members are bitten by a pet rat: the son reveals he’s gay, the daughter shows she’s suicidal and sadomasochistic, and so on. (JR)… Read more »
Alison Maclean (Crush) directed Elizabeth Cuthrell’s sharp adaptation of Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories about a young junkie (Billy Crudup) in the 1970s. As a rule, I don’t much like movies about junkies because they tend to fall into dull and predictable patterns, like junkies themselves, but this is easily the liveliest and most inventive I’ve seen since Drugstore Cowboy (1989)which, coincidentally or not, was set during the same decade. Divided episodically into chapter headings and narrated by the hero, who occasionally backtracks to fill in details he’s missed, this is a deceptively rambling script that is actually carefully put together while adroitly showing the patterns of a disheveled mind. The ‘Scope framing is attractive, and the backup castheaded by Samantha Morton, and also including Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton, Greg Germann, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunteris first-rate. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
Two Berkeley undergraduates (Freddie Prinze Jr. and Claire Forlani) who first meet as kids on a plane start off as antagonists, become friends, and wind up as lovers. The material is familiar, the Berkeley locations are strictly boilerplate, and there are times when the characters seem more like high school students than college kids. But the cast is so charming and assured that it puts across most of this with a reasonable amount of conviction. Robert Iscove (She’s All That) directed this romantic comedy, from a script by a screenwriting team known as the Drews (i.e., Andrew Lowery and Andrew Miller); with Jason Biggs and Amanda Detmer. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »
Samuel L. Jackson stars as the title New York police detective in this 2001 feature, which seems less a remake than a retooling of the original 1971 blaxploitation thriller. It’s more street-smart, more PC, less dictated by sexist fantasy, and a lot closer to Dirty Harry, at least until a plot twist near the end turns it away from the other film’s indictment of the justice system. After arresting a spoiled white college kid (Christian Bale) who’s committed a blatantly racist murder, only to see him escape on bail, Shaft hopes to nab the kid when he returns to the city a couple of years later. Director John Singleton, who collaborated on the script with Richard Price and Shane Salerno, has some bitter observations to make about police corruption, though neither a consistent social critique nor any developed sense of character is ultimately allowed to intrude on the usual muddled studio committeethink. But as an action thriller with music by Isaac Hayes it’s not bad. With Vanessa Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Busta Rhymes, Dan Hedaya, and Toni Collette. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1987 Taiwanese feature is less powerful than the preceding A Time to Live and a Time to Die (showing at the Film Center Tuesday and Thursday, June 20 and 22) but much better than his subsequent Daughter of the Nile (which isn’t included in the center’s current retrospective). It follows two young lovers who move to the city (Taipei) to find work because they can’t afford to finish high school, and slowly but irrevocably their relationship is torn asunder. Hou’s feeling for the textures of everyday life, caught mainly in long takes and intricately framed deep-focus compositions, gives this unhurried but deeply affecting drama a deceptively subterranean impact that gradually rises to the surface. The very natural and, for the most part, underplayed performances by nonprofessionals are especially impressive. 109 min. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, June 9, 8:15, and Saturday, June 10, 6:00, 312-443-3737.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
It’s the mid-31st century, and A.E. stands for after earth in this brisk animated extravaganza directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Much of it is Starship Troopers without the irony, mixed together with the usual predictable sources (Star Wars, 2001, This Island Earth, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination), a lot of lousy rock, enough military hardware to destroy several planets (most of it rusty in more ways than one), and better-than-average action sequences that characteristically become monotonous through overkill. The modeling of human figures and the sense of depth are both impressive; the characters themselves are mainly idiotic. Five people are credited with the story and script; among the voices used are those of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo, and Janeane Garofalo, all obviously enlisted to make this intergalactic adventure sound as familiar as possible. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »
Seven thousand and twenty seconds is more like it. This celebration of auto thefta big-budget remake of H.B. Helicki’s populist B movie of 1974, with more explosions and fewer bell-bottomsstars Nicolas Cage as a former car thief who has to return to the profession and hijack 50 cars in a weekend, with a little help from his friends, in order to save the life of his kid brother (Giovanni Ribisi). The grungy tone is agreeable, the directorial savvy of Dominic Sena less so; apart from a couple of preposterous stunts, this doesn’t have as much suspense as it tries for, despite periodic reminders of how little time remains, because the movie only starts to breathe whenever it becomes laid-back. But I found it more pleasurable as a time waster than either Mission: Impossible. The backup castincluding Angelina Jolie, James Duval, Will Patton, Delroy Lindo, and Robert Duvallcertainly helps. Scott Rosenberg is credited with the script. (JR)… Read more »
This 1955 example of kitchen-sink realism about the awakening love life of a Bronx butcher (Ernest Borgnine) and his shy girlfriend (Betsy Blair), directed by Delbert Mann, has never been popular with auteurists, but Paddy Chayevsky’s script, adapted from his own TV play, shows his flair for dialogue at its best, and the film manages to be touching, if minor. Borgnine won an Oscar for his part, and he isn’t half bad.… Read more »
The directorial debut of French screenwriter Daniele Thompson (Cousin, Cousine, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) is set in Paris over a few days before Christmas. (The title refers to a traditional holiday dessert, la buche de Noel.) A recent widow (Francoise Fabian) is consoled by the three daughters from her first marriage, to a Russian-Jewish violinist (Claude Rich). The plot turns on the complicated lives of the daughters, who are played by Sabine Azema, Emmanuelle Beart, and Charlotte Gainsbourg; they, Fabian, and Rich are the main reasons for seeing this picture. Michel Legrand composed the scorewhich is pleasant, though it resembles many of his other scores so closely it hardly sounds originaland we also hear a lot of American pop versions of traditional Christmas tunes. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »
A program of films and videos by New York punk rebel Nick Zedd, described as a night of unbound political dissent. I’ve seen only the repugnant 18-minute Police Statewhich seems to replay the S and M strategies of Beth and Scott B.’s Black Box (1978) without Lydia Lunch, piling on brutality (with added offscreen mutilation) and unpersuasively calling it politically progressive. On the same program: They Eat Scum (75 min.), Ecstasy in Entropy (with Annie Sprinkle and Taylor Mead), Bogus Man, and Wild World of Lydia Lunch, which one hopes will compensate for her absence in Police State. (JR)… Read more »
A mad scientist (Tom Conway) in cahoots with African witch doctors tries to turn a shady explorer (Marla English) into a monster. Edward L. Cahn directed this 1957 horror flick for American International Pictures. 77 min.… Read more »
A failure, but an endlessly fascinating one. Between making his only SF film (The Damned) and his first successful art movie (The Servant), blacklisted expatriate Joseph Losey directed this 1962 film, adapted by Hugo Butler and Evan Jones from a James Hadley Chase novel, about a washed-up Welsh novelist of working-class origins (Stanley Baker) who unsuccessfully pursues a high-class hooker (Jeanne Moreau) while effectively driving his wife (Virna Lisi) to suicide. The film is pretentious and plainly derivative; I’ve always regarded as unwarranted and philistine Pauline Kael’s ridicule of Antonioni, Resnais, and Fellini in an article of the period called The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties, but she might well have included Losey’s film, with its clear debt to all three. It’s a painful testament of sorts (Losey himself can be glimpsed in a bar during a pan that also introduces the hero, showing his personal stake in the proceedings from the outset), though it makes wonderful use of locations in Venice and Rome and features an excellent jazz score by Michel Legrand (with a pivotal use of three Billie Holiday cuts). A decadent period piece and a sadomasochistic view of sexual relations, this singular, resonant, and at times even inspiring mannerist mess is far more interesting than a good many modest successes.… Read more »
A real departure for Japanese writer-director and poker-faced comic performer Takeshi Kitano, paradoxically more experimental and more mainstream than one might expect from him. His recent movies (such as Sonatine and Fireworks) are known for both their sentimentality and their violence; this 1999 feature has a lot of the former and virtually none of the latter. The minimal and ambiguous story involves a ne’er-do-well (Kitano) accompanying a nine-year-old boy on the road to visit the mother he’s never met. One can’t tell if the trip is unfolding over days, weeks, or even months, which is part of this comedy’s abstract strangeness and ultimately points more to the boy’s tragic sense of loss than to any of the duo’s picaresque adventures. A haunting and sometimes beautiful movie, full of eccentric inventions and stoically repressed emotions. In Japanese with subtitles. PG-13, 116 min. (JR)… Read more »