Daily Archives: May 1, 2001

Apocalypse Now Redux

There’s 53 more minutes than in the original Apocalypse Now, though the flaws are also magnified. Francis Ford Coppola’s guilty-liberal rethink of John Milius’s right-wing update and transplanting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the war in Vietnam is above all an environmental experience, enhanced by what may still be Walter Murch’s best sound editing and Michael Herr’s best writing after Dispatches. Looking for a responsible or even coherent account of that war here would be barking up the wrong treeand the best way of glossing over this embarrassing lack would probably be to pretend, as many Western viewers do anyway, that this movie has no Vietnamese spectators. Like so many of our overseas escapades, this is really about American braggadocio and insanity in an exotic locale, spiced with a time-capsule sense of 60s counterculture, swell atmospheric expressionist effects, and many interesting performances (by Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, a teenage Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, and Dennis Hopper; a bald Marlon Brando is mainly used as a parade float). 203 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ghost World

Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) brilliantly negotiates the shift to fiction filmmaking in a very personal adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book, which either captures with uncanny precision what it’s like to be a teenage girl in this country or fooled me utterly into thinking it does. Thora Birch (American Beauty) plays Enid, a comic book artist who plans to share an apartment with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and befriends Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, much older collector of rare blues and jazz 78s, shortly after she almost graduates from high school. To get a diploma, she has to take an art course over the summer, and our glimpses of this add up to the funniest portrait of American art appreciation I’ve ever seen. Never predictable, this movie is often hilarious as well as touching, subtly adapting the mise en scene of Clowes’s original without being fancy or obtrusive about it. With Brad Renfro and Bob Balaban. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Set-up

A pungent noir from 1948, with Robert Ryan as an aging boxer preparing to take a fall and noir axiom Audrey Totter as his girlfriend, who’s getting fed up with the grim life he leads. Screenwriter Art Cohn improbably adapted a book-length narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (whose verse also inspired James Ivory’s 1974 feature The Wild Party), and Robert Wise directed during his best period, as an efficient studio craftsman. I probably wouldn’t tag this the greatest of all boxing pictures, but it’s certainly a contenderand I’d pick it in a flash over Raging Bull. 72 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cosmic Flight

A very late silent picture, shot in 1935 and released the following year, V. Zhuravlev’s rarely screened Soviet SF feature about a flight to the moon is more accurate than Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon (in which one character runs around the lunar surface without a space helmet, carrying a dowser’s wand in search of gold). But its charm today lies mostly in its more archaic aspectsthe vaguely futurist cityscape at the beginning, the golly-gee boy inventor who joins the flight, the clunky handling of gravity (the loss of which enables the characters to leap about like grasshoppers). Neither film compares favorably to the English feature Things to Come (1936), but this remains an intriguing period piece. 60 min. (JR)… Read more »

Too Early, Too Late

This 1981 color documentary by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, one of their few works in 16-millimeter, is almost certainly my favorite landscape film. There are no characters in this 105-minute feature about places, yet paradoxically it’s the most densely populated work in their oeuvre to date. The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the Notebooks of Grievances compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants’ resistance to English occupation prior to the petit-bourgeois revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film’s formal inspirations is Beethoven’s late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what’s remarkable about Straub and Huillet’s beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.… Read more »

Calle 54

This no-nonsense documentary (2000) by the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (an Oscar winner for Belle Epoque) is a welcome primer on Latin jazz, an expansive genre that can range from a Dizzy Gillespie big-band arrangement to a Charlie Haden ballad. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the minimal exterior footage of musicians, shot in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Sweden, is digital video while the much slicker footage in simple studio settings is on celluloidan appropriate combination, even if there’s a bit too much restless MTV-like cutting and angle changing. Much more importantly, Trueba’s commentaries are brief and to the point, and are never delivered over the music. A celebration of visual as well as aural delights, the film amply demonstrates how playing certain percussive instrumentsconga drums, vibes, even pianois much like dancing (though Trueba also provides actual dancing to go with Chano Dominguez’s jazz-flamenco fusions near the beginning and some Afro-Cuban drumming near the end). Apart from the percussiveness, the music is extremely varied, running the gamut from Eliane Elias’s lyrical piano to Gato Barbieri’s gruff but tender tenor sax to Chico O’Farrill’s wonderful big-band scoring; among the many other featured players are Paquito d’Rivera, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdes, and a couple of the latter’s relatives.… Read more »

My Secret Cache

The 1996 second feature of Shinobu Yaguchi, whose first was in eight-millimeter and whose third, the entertaining Adrenaline Drive (1999), turned up here last year. This one’s about an avaricious young bank teller whose life changes after her bank is robbed. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Day I Became A Woman

Ranking with The Apple, this three-part feature from Iran is one of the most impressive films to have emerged so far from the Makhmalbaf Film Housea utopian school run by Mohsen Makhmalbaf whose students are mainly family members. A first feature directed by his wife, Marziyeh Meshkini (and, like The Apple, which was directed by his daughter Samira, scripted by Makhmalbaf), it offers us three imaginative and poetic allegorical sketchesall filmed in southern Iran’s gorgeous Kish Islandabout what it means to be a woman: in childhood (a girl turns nine, which means forsaking her friendship with a boy), in young motherhood (a woman in a chador pedals down the coast chased by men on horses who insist she return to her household duties), and in old age (a dotty old lady on an extravagant and surrealist shopping spree). Lovely to watch and entrancing to think about, this is one of the most purely entertaining recent films in the Iranian new wave. In farsi with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Love Jones

Starting with the wonderful black-and-white documentary footage at the beginning, this 1997 first feature by writer-director Theodore Witcher is a fresh and agreeable romantic comedy about two young black artists in Chicagoa photographer (Nia Long) and a writer (Larenz Tate)whose relationship keeps foundering on issues of trust. Not every swerve in the plot is equally persuasive, and the narrative rhythm is choppy in spots, but the leads and costars are good enough to make these limitations secondary, and the sense of milieu in such spots as a poetry bar and a record shop gives this plenty of flavor. (The score by bassist Darryl Jones isn’t bad either.) With Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, and Khalil Kain. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

City Of Sadness

This beautiful family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien begins in 1945, when Japan ended its 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan, and concludes in 1949, when mainland China became communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreated to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) storytelling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this 1989 drama is largely a meditation on communication itself, and appropriately enough it was the first Taiwanese film to use direct sound. It’s also one of the supreme masterworks of the contemporary cinema, the first feature of Hou’s magisterial trilogy (followed by The Puppet Master and Good Men, Good Women) about Taiwan during the 20th century. In Mandarin and Taiwanese with subtitles. 160 min. (JR)… Read more »