Daily Archives: June 1, 2001

Steamboat ’round The Bend

John Ford’s third feature with Will Rogers (1935, 80 min.) proved to be their last together, and was released only after the popular actor died in an air crash. Rogers plays a steamboat captain in the 1890s who commands a floating wax museum and dispenses patent medicine with a high alcoholic contentideal Ford material, with two of his favorite screenwriters, Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, on board (adapting a novel by Ben Lucien Berman), as well as Stepin Fetchit, one of his favorite actors. But the movie is a distinct comedown from the previous Ford-Rogers pairing, the sublime Judge Priest, though it’s still an improvement on their first Dr. Bull. Ford complained 20 years later that producer Darryl F. Zanuck cut out most of the comedy, though the Americana that remains still carries a lot of flavor. With Irvin S. Cobb, Francis Ford, Eugene Pallette, and Charles Middleton. (JR)… Read more »

Three Films By Kiyoshi Kurosawa

The prolific Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been at work for nearly two decades, sometimes making straight-to-video features but more recently receiving some belated international recognition. This month the Film Center will show 35-millimeter prints of a half dozen of his recent thrillers, made between 1996 and 2000, and I can recommend all three that I’ve seenthough not without certain caveats. All three are fairly grisly, though Kurosawa’s frequent long shots impart a cool, detached tone to the cruelty and violence. And his plots can be difficult to understand, though his visual style is so riveting you might not mind. Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path, rhyming companion pieces made in 1997, both star Shoh Aikawa and involve yakuza intrigues and a father tracking down the men who kidnapped and killed his little girl; I often couldn’t figure out who was doing what to whom, but I didn’t much care, because the visual sweep of the former and the claustrophobia of the latter were both compelling. The engrossing Cure (1998), which is getting an extended run, stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, The Eel) as a troubled detective exploring a series of murders committed through hypnotic suggestion (as in The Manchurian Candidate), and while its creepy mystery plot is easy enough to follow even when it turns metaphysical, it’s unsatisfying as a story precisely because it aspires to create a mounting sense of dread by enlarging questions rather than answering them.… Read more »

The Anniversary Party

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming wrote, directed, and star in this watchable, if at times familiar, comedy-drama about an LA couple throwing a dusk-to-dawn party to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. Predictably, the dramatic revelations come at periodic intervals and escalate after someone at the party passes out some drugs; less predictable are the revelations themselves and the interesting suggestion that none of them necessarily provides the last word on these people. Shot in digital video by John Bailey; with Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, and John C. Reilly. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blow Out

This 1981 release is one of Brian De Palma’s more interesting and better-made thrillers, though it’s even more abjectly derivative than his Hitchcock imitations (borrowing mightily this time from Antonioni’s Blowup, as the title suggests). John Travolta plays a sound-effects man working in Philadelphia who, like many a De Palma hero, finds himself stumbling into trouble. With Nancy Allen and John Lithgow. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kartemquin Films Retrospective

Chicago-based Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn present a selective program of their political and social documentaries, among the best being made anywhere in this country. Only two of their films will be shown complete: What the Fuck Are These Red Squares? (1970, 15 min.) and Taylor Chain I: A Story in a Union Local (1980, 33 min.). The remainder will be excerpted: Home for Life (1967), The Last Pullman Car (1983), Hoop Dreams (1993), and Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998). It’s too bad they’re not showing anything from their fascinating art documentary Golub (1989), but you can’t have everything. 160 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bullet On A Wire

This peculiar, locally made black-and-white feature by Jim Sikora premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996, and surprisingly this is its first extended booking in town, despite the fact that it’s enjoyed well-received runs in both New York and Los Angeles and played at European festivals. Apart from John Terendy’s effective cinematography, the film is notable for its impressive leads: Jeff Strong is creepily enigmatic as a misfit whose gratuitous phone prank, referred to in the title, leads to a murder and the subsequent incarceration of a young woman (a superbly composed Lara Phillips) who was the patient of his sister (Paula Killen) at a health clinic. The style is mainly classic low-rent noir, but Sikora adds a few interesting touches, such as Strong evaporating from certain shots rather than making conventional exits, a few striking freeze-frames toward the end, and some odd uses of music by the Denison-Kimball Trio. Joe Carducci collaborated with Sikora on the script; with David Yow and Richard Kern. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Going Corporate

This independent mockumentary (2000, 99 min.) by Kevin Carr of Columbus, Ohio, has more to say about the formlike how tempting it must be for lazy writers and performersthan about corporate takeovers. Improvised by its cast with varying degrees of skill, it generates much of its lame humor by crosscutting sound bites (or, during one conference call, juxtaposing them with a split screen), and the characters’ behavior in the presence of a camera isn’t very convincing. Reportedly this has been used as a teaching aid at a Michigan business school, but I can’t imagine what lesson students might glean from it. (JR)… Read more »

Signs & Wonders

Director Jonathan Nossiter and screenwriter James Lasdun, who collaborated on the very promising Sunday (1997), reunite for this ambitious and ambiguous thriller (2000) involving an Americanized businessman in Athens (Stellan Skarsgard) who has twice left his Greek-American wife (Charlotte Rampling at her best) for another woman (Deborah Kara Unger) but still hasn’t given up on their marriage. Shot in digital video as if it were a documentary, the film at separate junctures evokes Nicolas Roeg, Graham Greene, and Richard Lester’s Petulia, even as it takes up multinational corporations, political amnesia, the mixed blessing of American idealism, and some of the monstrous ways love can turn sour. Clearly it bites off more than it can possibly chew, and ultimately it winds up in a pretentious heap. (Some may feel it starts off that way as well.) But Nossiter, an American who grew up in Europe, and Lasdun, an Englishman who currently lives in the U.S., share a sense of cultural displacement that allows them to create something original and provocative. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Fourth Dimension

This essay film about contemporary Japan is the most visually pleasing work to date by writer Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose films often approach foreign cultures through a series of contrasting and layered perspectives. Trinh shot it herself in digital video, an exploration that may account for its distinct look, though her aphoristic narration fails to provide the degree of unity found in most of her films. (Its method recalls her 1991 documentary about China, Shoot for the Contents, more than her earlier African documentaries, Reassemblage and Naked SpacesLiving Is Round.) When she isn’t shooting landscapes from bullet trains and reflecting on what this mode of transport suggests about the country, a good deal of what she shows falls under the category of public spectacle. But like most of her work, this is provocative, intelligent, poetic, and certainly worth a look. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Circle

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Mirror) takes a giant step forward with his third feature (2000), shifting his focus from little girls to grown women and presenting such a scorching look at what they put up with in their daily lives that it’s no surprise the film was banned in his native country. This masterpiece is radical in form as well: it begins one morning in a hospital and ends that evening in a jail cell, the camera revolving 360 degrees in each space, and its narrative passes from one character to the next as in Luis Bu… Read more »

Journeys From Berlin/1971

Yvonne Rainer’s 1980 experimental feature links the experience of a woman undergoing psychoanalysis (played by film theorist Annette Michelson) with German political terrorism, forging an equation of personal and social oppression. This is one of Rainer’s densest and most ambitious films, though for political lucidity, I tend to prefer her features that come afterwardsuch as Privilege, made ten years later (see separate listing). 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ecstasy

A gripping, stylish, unpredictable, and provocative thriller from Spain (1995) by Mariano Barroso. Javier Bardem stars as an ambitious petty criminal who insinuates himself into the theater world of Madrid by convincing a celebrated film director that he’s his illegitimate and long-abandoned son, meanwhile planning with his two roommates to rob him blind; with Frederico Lupi and Silvia Munt. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

La Belle Noiseuse

Winner of Cannes’ grand prix in 1991, Jacques Rivette’s absorbing if leering four-hour free adaptation of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece concerns the work of a painter (Michel Piccoli) with his beautiful and mainly nude model (Emmanuelle Beart), plus the input and pressures of the painter’s wife and former model (Jane Birkin), the model’s boyfriend, and an art dealer who used to be involved with the painter’s wife. The complex forces that produce art are the film’s obsessive focus, and rarely has Rivette’s use of duration to look at process been so spellbinding; hardly a moment is wasted. Rivette’s superb sense of rhythm and mise en scene never falters, and the plot has plenty of twists. With exquisite cinematography by William Lubtchansky, beautiful location work in the south of France (mainly at an 18th-century chateau), and drawings and paintings executed by Bernard Dufour. The title translates roughly as the beautiful nutty woman; it’s also the title of the masterpiece the painter is bent on finishing. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Bread and Roses

Who wants to think about Mexican janitors–illegal aliens, working in the buildings where movie stars do business with their agents, who decide to unionize to end their exploitation? Ken Loach–an unreconciled, unreconstructed Marxist–that’s who. And thanks to this stirring piece of agitprop, I do too. I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things about this picture from colleagues, but it seems like the principal crime Loach can be charged with–and it’s pretty serious–is being politically provocative and melodramatic. For me, that’s what makes Bread and Roses (2000) pretty exciting in spots. Gerald Peary, for instance, says the film “suffers from clumsy acting (mainly Hispanic amateurs), an obvious screenplay by Paul Laverty, and a simplistic view of the characters.” But I was struck by how compelling and believable many of those amateurs are (I especially enjoyed watching a black pro teach the heroine how to vacuum), and by the moral ambivalence and complexity of the heroine (Pilar Padilla). The screenplay is regrettably reluctant to offer certain details–such as management’s viewpoint of the labor dispute’s resolution–and it could have provided a more balanced and analytical view of the labor organizer’s tactics. That the movie aims at the gut bothered me less: that’s what many of the best political dramas do–such as Salt of the Earth, which this frequently brings to mind.… Read more »