Daily Archives: November 1, 2001

The Business Of Strangers

Patrick Stettner’s intriguing debut feature is a psychological drama about two women, stranded at an airport hotel, who find themselves at opposite ends of the career track: a middle-aged go-getter (Stockard Channing) and the young assistant (Julia Stiles) she’s just fired. Things get increasingly complicated and ambiguous once they start drinking and a corporate headhunter (Frederick Weller) joins them. The film raises many interesting questions about our own responses, but it may finally be too open-ended for its own good. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone

I hear the J.K. Rowling books are great, and on the basis of this 2001 movie I’m ready to believe it; the fantasy of empowerment whereby the Cinderella-like hero (Daniel Radcliffe) takes a 19th-century train from the present back to the medieval Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is by itself worth the price of admission. I also got a kick out of some of the digital effectsespecially the cat that turns into a professor (Maggie Smith) and a giant and ferocious three-headed dog. But this 152-minute movie seems both padded and undernourished. It’s designed for kids who’ve read the books, with underdeveloped characters and clunky storytelling for those who haven’t, and portions that are too draggy or mechanically fast for anyone. The English cast is fun, but the Steve Kloves script deserves better handling than director Chris Columbus has given it. With Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Julie Walters. PG. (JR)… Read more »

Iranian Women: The Legal Structure Of Family And The Quest For Identity

A screening of clips from Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Kim Longinotto’s excellent 1998 documentary Divorce Iranian Style will precede a panel discussion on related issues, moderated by Columbia College film professor Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. The panelists include Mir-Hosseini, Debra Zimmerman (director of Women Make Movies), and Mehranghiz Kar (lawyer, activist, and expert in Iranian and Islamic law). (JR)… Read more »

The Man From Elysian Fields

I still haven’t forgiven George Hickenlooper for his egregious rewriting of Orson Welles in The Big Brass Ring (1999), but in this 2001 drama he reveals himself to be a skilled handler of actors. Philip Jayson Lasker’s script, about a happily married but unsuccessful novelist in Pasadena (Andy Garcia) who hires on at a male escort service, seems familiar and obvious (the moral seems to be that if you become a prostitute other people will treat you like one). But the castincluding Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, and Anjelica Hustonkeeps this pretty watchable, and casting Mick Jagger as director of the escort service was inspired. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harakiri

In 1919, between the first and second (and, as it turned out, only) episodes of his crime serial The Spiders, Fritz Lang directed this 80-minute version of Madame Butterfly. It’s beautifully designed pictorially but lacks the urgency and craft of his early masterpiece Destiny, released two years later. Lil Dagover plays the poised (if not very Japanese-looking) heroine who gets involved with an American naval officer. (JR)… Read more »

Va Savoir

Having won more mainstream accolades than most of his other work combined, this enjoyable romantic comedy by 73-year-old Jacques Rivette may be his first real hit (1991′s La belle noiseuse is the only other contender). I can’t begrudge this fine director a rare commercial success, but aside from Hurlevent (1985) this is the only one of his 20 features that I have no desire to see again. After showing much distinction as a modernist (1960-’76) and a postmodernist (1978-’98) Rivette has made his first premodernist film: it’s fluffy, sometimes funny, and likably acted by Jeanne Balibar, Sergio Castellitto, Marianne Basler, Jacques Bonnaffe, Helene de Fougerolles, and Bruno Todeschini (call it Rivette Lite or, because it involves an Italian production of As You Desire Me being staged in Paris, call it Six Characters in Search of Billy Wilder). But it lacks the scariness, the mystery, and even much of the curiosity of Rivette’s better work; if you can’t stand something like Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), there’s a good chance that you’ll love this one. In French with subtitles. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »

Spies

Perhaps Fritz Lang’s most neglected major work, this stunning silent German thriller (1928) both summarizes and refines his first Dr. Mabuse film while introducing some of the principles of editing continuity found in M. Scripted by Thea von Harbou (Lang’s second wife), it pits a government agent (Willy Fritsch) against a wheelchair-bound international banker (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) whose spy ring is stealing classified documents, and its fanciful and imaginative approach to the thriller form clearly inspired both Alfred Hitchcock and Thomas Pynchon. This restoration of the 175-minute German release is almost twice as long as the much more common version released for export, yet Lang edited both of them, and each has glories of its own. Erotic, mysterious, abstract, full of uncanny images and ideas, and rich with multiple identities and intrigue, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in the great director’s work. With Gerda Maurus. (JR)… Read more »

First Steps: Early Efforts By Renowned Hollywood Directors

A slight misnomer, because not all the artists are Hollywood directors or renowned, and one who’s both (Gregg Toland) isn’t renowned as a director. But this sounds like an interesting program all the same: Frank Capra’s Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House (1921), Charles Vidor’s The Bridge (1929), Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s The Life and Death of 9413A Hollywood Extra (on which Toland worked, 1927), Orson Welles’s Hearts of Age (1934, five minutes of juvinelia codirected by William Vance), Lewis Jacobs’s Tree Trunk to Head (1936), and Warren Newcombe’s The Enchanted City (1922). (JR)… Read more »

Come Undone

I like the French title better, which is more descriptive and accuratePresque rien, meaning almost nothing. This first feature by Sebastien Lifshitz is a gay coming-of-age story that resembles so many others I’ve seen that for weeks I’ve been trying and failing to come up with something that might distinguish it apart from the clumsy flashback structure. Teenage boy meets teenage boy during a summer vacation near the beach (lots of rolling around in the surf), falls in love, comes out, and decides to move in with his lover rather than go to college. Neither of the boys is especially interesting, and the few other characters in the story are even more forgettable. If you’ve seen it all before, here’s your chance to see it once again. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crime Wave

Andre de Toth’s 1954 noir is gritty, powerful, and economically told. Sterling Hayden plays a sour, toothpick-chewing LA cop on the trail of an ex-con (a rare dramatic role by dancer Gene Nelson) who’s forced to participate in a bank robbery. Among the secondary cast are Crane Wilbur, Brian Foy, Phyllis Kirk, and Charles Buchinsky (later known as Charles Bronson). 74 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Man Who Wasn’t There

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2001). — J.R.

manwhow2

Joel and Ethan Coen stay true to their bent for dense heroes and neonoir, and to their unshakable conviction that life usually turns out to be splendidly horrific. Here they’ve cast Billy Bob Thornton as a self-effacing small-town barber in the late 40s who’s slowly enmeshed in a doomed crime plot. Apart from a couple of screwy Coen-style flashbacks, several fancy plot twists, and a few other postmodern indulgences, this is straight out of James M. Cain, though the high contrasts of Roger Deakins’s glorious black-and-white cinematography suggest at times Fellini’s 8 1/2 more than noir classics. Thornton seems born to play the sort of slow-witted poet of the mundane that the Coens find worthy of their condescending affection. It’s a story that’s easier to rent than buy, but it does look good on the big screen. Others in the cast, all pretty effective, include Frances McDormand (in the Barbara Stanwyck part), Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini. 116 min. (JR)

themanwhowasntthere5Read more »