Daily Archives: May 1, 2002

Bowling For Columbine

Michael Moore’s best film to date (2002) is this comic and grimly entertaining reflection on America’s gun craziness and why we kill one another. It’s closer to speculative editorial than investigative journalism, and the shrewdness of most of its arguments has enraged some reviewers as much as its occasionally questionable methodology. They’ve dismissed the 135-minute polemic as an ego trip and called it anti-American, though Moore proves how American he is every time he conflates the U.S. and the planet, as when he sarcastically includes It’s a Wonderful World on the sound track. He also takes unfair, unfunny swipes at a few hapless working people, most notably an LA cop trying to do his job. But despite these faults, the movie says, with wit and passion, truthful things no other film is saying. (JR)… Read more »

The Ring

Four Seattle teenagers die exactly one week after watching an eerie experimental video and receiving phone calls that predict their deaths. A newspaper reporter (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend (Martin Henderson) watch the same video and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. But either there’s no bottom or this 2002 movie lost me long before it got there. A remake of Ringu, a Japanese film by Hideo Nakata that I wish I’d seen instead, this moodless version is pushed along by the slick and mechanical direction of Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt, The Mexican) and a by-the-numbers script by Ehren Kruger (Scream 3). It’s a treasure hunt reduced to isolated jolts and more clues than you can shake a stick at (every fly on the wall and child’s drawing bristles with unholy significance), and an utter waste of Watts; there’s not a trace here of the talent on display in Mulholland Drive, perhaps because the script doesn’t bother to give her a character. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Magnificent Ambersons

Orson Welles’s second feature (1942, 88 min.) is in many ways his most personal and most impressive, but of his Hollywood films it’s also the one most damaged by insensitive reediting (like the sublime and personal Don Quixote is among his independent features); in his absence RKO cut the movie by almost 45 minutes and tacked on a few lamentable new scenes (including the last one). For the most part, this is a very close adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s underrated novel about the relentless decline of a wealthy midwestern family through the rise of industrialization, though Welles makes the story even more powerful through his extraordinary mise en scene and some of the finest acting to be found in American movies (Agnes Moorehead is a standout). The emotional sense of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is so palpable you can taste it. With Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Ray Collins, and Richard Bennett. (JR)… Read more »

Possession

Two literary scholars in England (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) specializing in separate but contemporary Victorian poetsone of them married (Jeremy Northam), the other a lesbian with a live-in lover (Jennifer Ehle)jointly discover that these poets had a secret affair, meanwhile developing a possible relationship of their own while chasing after the various clues. Admittedly this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s prizewinning novel, oscillating between past and present, sounds almost too precious for words, but I was wooed by its sexy romanticism all the way through to the mysterious and beautiful coda. Director and cowriter Neil LaBute has a mixed record in my book, but on this outing he’s more in the service of the material than playing auteur, and his two cowritersDavid Henry Hwang and Laura Jonesare unusually skillful. The film departs from the novel in making Eckhart’s character an American, but Paltrow handles the English academic manner and accent with grace and aplomb. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent epic about class struggle in a city of the 21st century still has a lot of popular currency, but it’s never been a critics’ favorite. This 124-minute version is the longest since the German premiere, and the unobtrusive use of intertitles to fill in the blanks makes it more coherent. The restoration clarifies the relationships among the hero (Gustav Fr… Read more »

Girls Can’t Swim

This psychologically acute first feature (2000) by Anne-Sophie Birot about the passionate friendship between two teenage girls, adroitly played by Isild Le Besco and Karen Alyx, could have made a swell entry in the excellent French TV series of the mid-90s All the Boys and Girls in Their Time, in which various better-known filmmakers dramatized stories set during their teenage years. This one has a contemporary setting (in a Breton coastal village during the summer), but it shares with the aforementioned TV films a frankness about teenage sexuality that French filmmakers seem especially comfortable with. According to the implications of Birot’s disturbing scenario, the fathers of teenage girls pose a particular problem in relation to their sexuality either through absence or excessive presence. This follows the more promiscuous girl (Le Besco) first, then boldly switches to her troubled best friend (Alyx) before bringing the two together in an uneasy reunion. In French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bubba Ho-tep

Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is alive but not exactly well, living in a decrepit east Texas rest home after having changed places with an impersonator years before his supposed death. He and a fellow resident who thinks he’s JFK (Ossie Davis) wind up doing battle with an evil Egyptian deity that looks like a giant cockroach. Adapted from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, this might have squeaked by as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, albeit with jokes about toilets and erections in old age. Writer-director Don Coscarelli piles on unpleasant details and cynical asides as if they were the stuff of wisdom, though they seem intended to produce guffaws rather than thoughts. R, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Road To Perdition

Sam Mendes’s 2002 follow-up to American Beauty finds him every bit as adept, arty, and Oscar hungry. This time he’s using the considerable talents of cinematographer Conrad Hall to offer a view of Irish-American crime in 1931 Chicago and environs. The Rembrandt lighting evokes the Godfather movies, the Good Country People might have stepped out of Bonnie and Clyde, and Paul Newman and Tom Hanks sanction the patriarchal bonding and the violence, which comes complete with a moral disclaimer at the end. (The story is David Self’s adaptation of a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.) The result is classy entertainment in which women play only decorative parts at best, very shrewdly and cleverly put together but probably most rewarding if you invest in Fox or Dreamworks. Among the secondary cast members, particular standouts are Stanley Tucci, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, and Tyler Hoechlin as the boy narrator-hero; Jennifer Jason Leigh’s talents are mainly wasted. 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Les Destinees

Jacques Charonne’s novel Les destinees sentimentales follows a Protestant minister turned factory owner over the first three decades of the 20th century, and one suspects that director Olivier Assayas was attracted to the material partly as a way of exploring his own Protestant roots. The hero (Charles Berling), doubting the fidelity of his wife (Isabelle Huppert), asks her to leave their home in the Charente region of France, and she takes their daughter with her. Years later he decides he was wrong, gives his wife the fortune from his family’s porcelain factory, leaves the ministry, and marries a friend’s niece (Emmanuelle Beart); his life takes another unexpected turn after his uncle dies and he’s asked to take over the factory. Assayas is masterful in using offscreen sounds to conjure up a novelistic sense of milieu and in handling various ceremonies, and the film’s lush texture explains why he called it his anti-Dogma film. Even at 173 minutes, this 2000 release is surprisingly brisk for a period picture. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

The 17th Parallel

The title refers to the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and this 1968 feature by the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens offers a chance to spend a couple of hours with some of the villagers and soldiers we were bombing the hell out of back then. Ivens, along with his companion and collaborator Marceline Loridan, lived among the Vietnamese for two months, dodging our ammo and shooting whatever he could. In contrast to the lush colors and Dolby rock music of Apocalypse Now Redux (which was filmed in the Philippines), this is in grainy black and white with sync sound, so it has all the advantages and disadvantages of being real. The film shows underground bomb shelters being built, bombed, repaired, and used, and some of the sequences shot there are unexpectedly beautiful. By the end of the film, you may feel you’re getting to know a few things about this community: the card games played by the children, the work in the fields, the diverse preparations (both practical and ideological) for the aerial bombardment. Have a look at what we did, if you can bear to do so. 113 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films By Joris Ivens

Three characteristically lyrical short films by the great Dutch documentarian: The Seine Meets Paris (1957, 32 min.), with a commentary written by poet Jacques Prevert and spoken by singer Serge Reggiani; . . . A Valparaiso (1963, 37 min.), about the Chilean port city, with commentary by Chris Marker; and The Mistral (1965, 30 min.), about the wind in southern Francea theme that anticipates Ivens’s final masterpiece, A Tale of the Wind. (JR)… Read more »

Billie Holiday: The Long Night Of Lady Day

John Jeremy (Born to Swing) is the most able of English jazz documentarians, and his 1984 portrait of the great jazz singer, made for British television, is probably the best film or video treatment she’s received so far. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Reports

An impressive program consisting of short films that alter and subvert found footage in various ways: Bruce Conner’s unforgettable Report (1967) and his subsequent Television Assassination (1995), which I haven’t seen; Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966); Warren Sonbert’s Noblesse Oblige (1981); and Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99 (1991). The full program lasts 113 minutes. (JR)… Read more »

On An Island With You

Esther Williams finds romance with naval officer Peter Lawford to the strains of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra in this quintessential Technicolor MGM-musical package (1948). Shot on location in Hawaii. Richard Thorpe directed; with Jimmy Durante, Ricardo Montalban, Marie Windsor, and Cyd Charisse. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films By Joris Ivens, Program Four

One of the most ambitious as well as most widely seen documentaries ever made, Joris Ivens’s Song of the Rivers (1954, 90 min.) lyrically celebrates the labor movements alongside half a dozen of the world’s great rivers: the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. Given the amount of coordination necessary between separate film crews, 32 cinematographers, and many other collaborators (including Bertolt Brecht, Paul Robeson, and Dmitri Shostakovich), Ivens’s experiences as a world traveler and his skills as an editor made him ideally suited for the job. On the same program, Ivens’s clandestinely filmed Indonesia Calling (1946, 22 min.), about the exiled Dutch East Indies government in Australia, which cost Ivens his Dutch citizenship. (JR)… Read more »