Monthly Archives: April 2005

Masculine Feminine

Jean-Luc Godard’s edgy, moribund reflection on the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” had an exemplary vitality when it came out in 1966, with its currency, its mainly nonprofessional cast, and its determination to address anything and everything. It’s still a lively and interesting artifact, limited by its sexual politics, which are manifested in Godard’s attraction toward and contempt for women. Jean-Pierre Léaud, in one of his most touching roles, and his communist sidekick are the children of Marx, while Léaud’s girlfriend (rock singer Chantal Goya) and her pals are the children of Coca-Cola (few of the females are asked or even allowed to think). The jagged form should keep you on your toes; as Dave Kehr has noted, “Godard is very strict in his sloppiness.” In French with subtitles. 103 min.

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Lost In America

Twenty years after its release, Albert Brooks’s third feature is still such a hilarious send-up of yuppie mentality that it might have been made yesterday. Brooks plays an obnoxious west-coast ad executive who’s so enraged when he fails to get an expected promotion that he quits his job, persuades his wife (Julie Hagerty) to do the same, and, spurred by fond memories of Easy Rider, takes off with her in a newly purchased Winnebago. As they travel cross-country with their $200,000 nest egg, an unforeseen disaster sends them deeper into the heart of the heartland than they’d counted on. All of Brooks’s comedies are good, but he hasn’t yet surpassed the first threeReal Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and this one. Director Garry Marshall has a great cameo as a Las Vegas casino owner, and Monica Johnson collaborated with Brooks on the script. R, 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Girl From Monday

Hal Hartley’s previous feature, No Such Thing (2001), had a clever philosophical premise, but its style was so theatrical that many of the best speeches withered into pontification. This futuristic follow-up, resourcefully shot in DV, is even wilder in its social satire, and its deadpan dialogue is hilarious. Suggested in part by Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, it imagines a “dictatorshp of the consumer” in which citizens carry bar codes on their wrists and are regarded as “investments with growth potential” (especially when they have sex). This has a frenetic visual and editing style all its own, and an appealing cast: Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd, Tatiana Abracos, and Leo Fitzpatrick. 84 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Girls From Abc

This 2003 Brazilian melodrama is more mainstream than the others I’ve seen by director Carlos Reichenbach (Suburban Angels, Buccaneer Soul, Two Streams), but his visual flair is still very much in evidence. Set in ABCthree suburban outposts that border Sao Paoloit focuses on the racially mixed working class, chiefly the young women who work the looms in a textile factory and the young toughs who hang out in a cafe pool hall. Racist attitudes and efforts to unionize the factory are highlighted, along with bouts of hot sex, violence, and singing and dancing at a local club. In Portuguese with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ox-bow Incident

William Wellman’s arty film version of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s anti-lynching novel packed a punch for many spectators in 1943 but has subsequently been written off by many reviewers as awkward and heavy-handed. I remember it as being somewhere between those extremes, and given the unheralded power of Wellman’s equally arty adaptation of Clark’s Track of the Cat (1954), I would imagine that this warrants a second look. With Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn. 75 min. (JR)… Read more »

Yesterday Girl

Alexander Kluge’s celebrated first feature (1966), regarded by some as the beginning of the New German Cinema, follows the hard times of a young woman from East Germany trying to establish herself in the West. Kluge’s sister Alexandra plays the title lead, and the writer-director himself, generally known as the preeminent filmmaker of the Marxist Frankfurt School, established himself with this film as a Brechtian social analyst. In German with subtitles. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

In My Country

John Boorman directs a potent, moving, liberal-minded docudrama about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings of the mid-90s, adapted by Ann Peacock from Antjie Krog’s novel Country of My Skull. The plot focuses on two journalists, an Afrikaner poet (Juliette Binoche) who firmly believes in the South African concept of ubuntu (collective unity) and a Washington Post reporter (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s a lot more skeptical, seeing the hearings chiefly as a way for guilty whites to be pardoned for their crimes. Though the opposition between these characters as well as their growing rapport may seem somewhat diagrammatic at times, the story as a whole is sufficiently nuanced to develop in unforeseeable directions, and Boorman gets the most out of the material. R, 104 min. Esquire.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomalies and Experiments (my 9th column)

From Cinema Scope (Spring 2005, issue 22). The down side of reproducing my old DVD columns is that many of the links are bound to be out of date and no longer functional; the up side is that they offer some kind of history of what used to be available (or unavailable). — J.R.

 

With the exception of a few film buffs at some of the more discerning labels, and still fewer at the major studios, decisions about what older films to release on DVD, as well as when or why, are often capricious to the point of absurdity. So asking why some things are readily available and some things aren’t is a bit like asking an illiterate about his or her reading taste. Some time ago, I was contacted about contributing to the extras of an ambitious DVD being planned for Elaine May’s infamous and underappreciated Ishtar – a project developed with loving care by some maverick film buffs at Columbia/Tristar over many months, eventually soliciting the unprecedented cooperation and input of May herself.

ishtar-song-in-club

It seemed like a golden opportunity for some thoughtful studio revisionism — especially in light of how much this prescient farce has to say about the dangerous blunders of American innocence and stupidity in the Middle East and how blind American reviewers were to this aspect of the movie back in 1987.Read more »

Identity Politics

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth

*** (A must see)

Directed by Vicente Ferraz

The Journey: Portrait of Vera Chytilova

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Jasmina Blazevic

Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes

*** (A must see)

Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth is a 2004 Brazilian documentary about the making of the legendary 1964 Russian-Cuban production I Am Cuba, a preposterous, beautiful, mannerist epic of Marxist agitprop celebrating the Cuban revolution. Early on the documentary — which, like the other two films reviewed here, is showing this week at the Chicago International Documentary Festival — focuses on one of the key sequences in the original film. The coffin of a radical student slain by Batista’s police during a mass uprising is carried by his comrades through downtown Havana, surrounded by a crowd that swells to Cecil B. De Mille proportions. In a delirious, breathtaking two-and-a-half-minute shot, the camera moves ahead of a young woman and past a young man — catching him in close-up as he turns around, hoists the front of the coffin onto his right shoulder, and walks away with the other pallbearers — then cranes up the five floors of a building, past people watching from balconies and parapets.… Read more »

Golub: Late Works Are The Catastrophes

Chicago-based Kartemquin Films has added a 25-minute update and a subtitle to its documentary masterpiece (1988) about the Chicago-born leftist painter Leon Golub. I’m grateful for the new material, which documents the fatalistic yet playful later phase in Golub’s work up to his death in 2004 and fills another gap by better conveying the paintings of his wife, Nancy Spero. But I’m somewhat dismayed by the way the overall emphasis of the original has shifted away from the social reception of Golub’s political paintings toward a more conventional biographical approach. Tom Sivak’s music throughout remains striking and original. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Journey: Portrait Of Vera Chytilova

An irritating and frustrating 52-minute account (2004) of the woman I regard as the greatest Czech filmmaker, offering a meager sense of her transgressive and innovative work while allowing her to rattle on about her family and current domestic life without revealing much that’s distinctive about either. Clips from Chytilova’s films aren’t identified by Czech director Jasmina Blazevic until the closing credits, and even viewers who have some acquaintance with her workwhich apart from the 1966 classic Daisies can be difficult to findare set adrift with few signposts about the shape of her prolific and varied career. In Czech with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth

An absorbing and intelligent Brazilian documentary about the legendary 1964 Soviet-Cuban coproduction I Am Cuba, a monumental revolutionary epic that was disastrously received, then shelved before being revived in the early 90s. Interviewing Cubans as well as Russians who worked on the film, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, Vicente Ferraz clarifies some facts about the productionrevealing among other things that cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky’s wife, Bella Friedman, played a significant creative role. He’s also attentive to the ironies implicit in the film’s fate without being derisive or uncritical. In Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill

Judy Irving’s graceful and laid-back 2003 documentary deals with at least three subjects, separately and in conjunction with one another. One is indicated by the title: the 45 or so wild parrots from South America that have mysteriously found their way to Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. A good many of them have been befriended, as it were, by the second subject: Mark Bittner, a jobless and sometimes homeless local bohemian who teaches us a lot about them and himself. The third subject is the citya sturdy and loving portrait of San Francisco and its people emerges from the details. The film is both wise and tender in its treatment of relationshipsbetween birds, between people, and between birds and people. G, 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Fever Pitch

A schoolteacher (Jimmy Fallon) finds his fanatical attachment to the Boston Red Sox getting in the way of his budding relationship with a business consultant (Drew Barrymore) in this slightly-better-than-average romantic comedy by Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). It doesn’t require any knowledge of baseball and in fact does a pretty good job of exploring the more regressive aspects of sports fandom, though it doesn’t advance very far beyond predictable formula. To call this Farrelly brothers lite may be a little redundant, but aside from the odd vomit gag, it goes relatively easy on their usual working-class taboo busting. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel wrote the script, adapting Nick Hornby’s memoir about his addiction to English soccer. PG-13, 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Steel Helmet

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

Sam Fuller’s first and greatest war film (1951) is even better in its terse and minimalist power than the restored version of The Big Red One released last year. The first Hollywood movie about the Korean war, this introduced Gene Evans, the gruff star Fuller was to use many more times, as a crude, bitter, savvy sergeant who, despite his obvious racism, bonds with a South Korean war orphan. In addition to being visually and aurally brilliant, the film includes virtually unprecedented debates about America’s racial segregation and the internment of Japanese during World War II. An independent production, The Steel Helmet did so well that it immediately won Fuller a contract at 20th Century Fox. With Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton, and James Edwards. 84 min. (JR)

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