Monthly Archives: April 2006

Subject Two

An eclectic and not very successful medical student (Christian Oliver) accepts a job from a mysterious doctor (Dean Stapleton) and reports to a remote cabin in the snowy Rocky Mountains. As it turns out, the doctor thinks he can restore life to the recently deceased and needs the student as a guinea pig (his second, hence the title) to be killed and resurrected repeatedly. Writer-director Philip Chidel has a disturbing and gripping story to tell, made all the more resonant by the skilled acting and strong homoerotic undertones. He comes close to ruining this at the end, however, with a self-referential twist that’s too clever for its own good. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wild

A lion cub from a New York zoo gets shipped off to Africa accidentally, and his dad sets out to rescue him, accompanied by some animal pals. This computer-animated Disney feature shares the same premise as the Dreamworks hit Madagascar (2005), and the macho-colonialist message comes through even louder and clearer: the American animals may be stupid innocents, but they still triumph over the savage jungle beasts, with their primitive religion. The CGI characters seem less like artwork than humans wearing animal suits, but despite the overall ugliness and sitcom timing, this has enough action, violence, and invention to keep kids amused. Steve Spaz Williams directed. G, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Shipwrecked On Route D17

The slickest work to date by French director Luc Moullet, perhaps because he ceded the producer’s chores to the resourceful Portuguese independent Paulo Branco. This 2002 feature isn’t my favorite Moullet comedy, but it provides a good introduction to his subtle humor. Set in 1991 during the gulf war, it shuttles back and forth among a champion racer whose car has broken down on a nearly abandoned highway, his randy female assistant, a couple of astronomers (including Mathieu Amalric of Kings and Queen), a clueless French army unit searching for Saddam Hussein, and various local rustics. In French with subtitles. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »

La Promesse

A powerful 1996 neorealist feature by the French Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne that follows the instinctive, makeshift moral progress of a 15-year-old boy named Igor (Jerome Renier), the son of a slum landlord who rents to recently arrived immigrants, some of them illegal. One tenant, from Burkina Faso, falls from a scaffold and makes a dying request to the boy to take care of his wife (Assita Ouedraogo) and infant son; Igor spends the remainder of the movie trying to honor that request, even when it means breaking away from his own father and coping with the scorn and incomprehension of the widow. This is a beautifully realized, richly detailed story, full of humor as well as pathos, and part of the Dardennes’ strength in telling it is their openness to experience and the world around them without being hampered by didacticism. in French with subtitles. 93 min (JR)… Read more »

J. Edgar Hoover And The Great American Inquisitions

An engrossing two-hour video documentary portrait (1995) by Chicago filmmaker Dennis Mueller. A hatchet job, though a convincing one, this compilation of intelligent talking heads and fascinating archival footage documents Hoover’s behind-the-scenes involvement in major historical events and wisely eschews such personal matters as his closet homosexuality to concentrate on the illegality of many of his investigative methods and proceduresa litany of abuses ranging from blackmail to embezzlement and beyond. Little of the indictment is new, but as a lucid survey and historical refresher course this is essential viewing. (JR)… Read more »

L’Enfant

Few contemporary filmmakers can tell a story as well as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose gripping features all take place among marginal people in a nondescript French-Belgian industrial city. In La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and now this volatile 2005 drama, the camera sticks close to the protagonists but neither the plot nor the characterization is ever simpleminded. Jeremie Renier (La Promesse) plays a petty thief who sells his newborn son, then struggles to buy him back after the mother recoils from the deed. Whether the title refers to the baby or the thief remains an open question, and the viewer is left to decide whether the theme of redemption should be perceived in Christian terms. This builds to a suspenseful climax, and as in Hitchcock’s best work, that suspense is morally inflected. In French with subtitles. R, 100 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Music Box.… Read more »

Films by Luc Moullet

The Gene Siskel Film Center’s monthlong retrospective on French director Luc Moullet peaks this week with screenings of some of Moullet’s best work. Both parts of his career are represented–his neoprimitive beginnings, when he shamelessly flaunted his lack of money and technique while alluding to Hollywood genres (The Smugglers, A Girl Is a Gun), and his mature mastery as a comic performer and a director, when he pushed situations to hilarious extremes (The Comedy of Work, Opening Tries).

Shot in black and white, The Smugglers (1967, 81 min.) is the closest thing to a testament in Moullet’s oeuvre; despite some derisive allusions to adventure thrillers, the tone is closer to sweet-tempered absurdism, with throwaway gags about backpackers and imaginary borders in the French Alps. It screens with the miniature epic Opening Tries (1988, 15 min.), which shows Moullet’s baroque ingenuity at trying to remove a twist-off cap from a large bottle of Coke. (Sat 4/15, 5 PM, and Mon 4/17, 6 PM) The delirious and erotic color “western” A Girl Is a Gun (1971, 77 min.) is Moullet’s feature Une Aventure de Billy le Kid with funny English dubbing. Jean-Pierre Leaud and Rachel Kesterber costar with some scene-stealing landscapes. (Sat 4/15, 3 PM, and Wed 4/19, 6 PM)

The Comedy of Work (1987, 90 min.) looks at the bureaucratic contradictions of the French labor exchange and at various characters who pass through it.… Read more »

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing And Charm School

A baker (Robert Carlyle) mourning the death of his wife happens upon a serious freeway accident, and as he and the injured man (John Goodman) wait for a rescue team and ride together in the ambulance, the latter relates (in awkward flashbacks) his attachment to a fellow student at the title school 40 years earlier and the much-delayed appointment he was hoping to keep with her. Writer-director Randall Miller adapted this 2005 feature from a half-hour short he made in 1990; I haven’t seen the original, but this expanded version registers as an obscure allegory, with unconvincing period detail and distracting elements like Carlyle’s unexplained Scottish accent. This has its moments, but most of these are engulfed by the overall murk. The largely squandered cast includes Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Ernie Hudson, David Paymer, and an unbilled Danny DeVito. PG-13, 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

Take The Lead

A Manhattan ballroom dancer (Antonio Banderas) offers to instruct inner-city high school kids, and proceeds to teach them trust, respect, teamwork, tolerance, and hope. This inspirational vehicle, based on a true story, is as hokey as it sounds, and it sometimes cuts too fast to allow us to see the dancing properly. But as in Saturday Night Fever, the sense of reality giving way to fantasy on a dance floor is potent, and writer Dianne Houston and director Liz Friedlander are so sincere that they make much of it work. With Alfre Woodard, Rob Brown, and Yaya DaCosta. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Don’t Come Knocking

Two decades after Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders directs another Sam Shepard script, this time with the writer starring, and at times the deja vu is overwhelming. Shepard plays yet another Marlboro man with a fractured past, a dissolute western star who walks out on an expensive movie shoot, visits his mother (Eva Marie Saint), learns he may have an illegitimate child, and sets off for Montana to find him, dogged by another illegitimate child (Sarah Polley). Shooting in ‘Scope, Wenders still has a handsome eye for landscapes, and he works wonders with Butte. But the theatrical monologues come close to defeating him, and only Jessica Lange, as one of Shepard’s abandoned girlfriends, manages to avoid cliche. With Gabriel Mann and Tim Roth. R, 122 min. (JR)… Read more »

Friends With Money

Jennifer Aniston comes into her own with this funny and sensitive comedy about four lifelong friends. The ones with money–Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, and Catherine Keener–all have husbands and careers; Aniston works as a maid, smokes dope, and can’t sustain a relationship. In her third feature Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing) leapfrogs between characters with wit and grace, gathering them in various clusters and adroitly showing how money or the lack thereof really does inflect their lives and interactions. With Greg Germann, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, and Scott Caan. R, 88 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Rain Man

When it opened, this 1988 Oscar winner sounded like a worst-case scenario for the most lachrymose movie of the year: Tom Cruise attends the funeral of his long-estranged father and discovers that the entire estate has been left to an older brother (Dustin Hoffman) whose existence he’s never known aboutan autistic, institutionalized idiot savant with a photographic memory for numbers. He abducts his brother in an attempt to claim half of the inheritance, but in the course of a cross-country journey gradually learns to care for his sibling. Fortunately, the script by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow isn’t half bad, and both Barry Levinson’s direction and the performances are agreeably restrained. Valeria Golino is appealing as Cruise’s girlfriend; Hoffman makes his character pretty believable without milking the part for pathos and tears, and it’s nice to see Cruise working for a change in a context that isn’t determined by hard sell and hype. R, 133 min. (JR)… Read more »

Shade

This gripping, old-fashioned tale of poker hustlers conning one another, (2003) sharply written by director Damian Nieman, suggests The Hustler more than House of Games, though it lacks the metaphysical conceits of either. Instead it offers flashy performances by Gabriel Byrne, Stuart Townsend, Thandie Newton, Sylvester Stallone, Melanie Griffith, Jamie Foxx, Bo Hopkins, and Roger Guenveur Smith as an exceptionally creepy villain. (There are also cameos by Hal Holbrook, Dina Merrill, and Patrick Bauchau.) Nieman overplays his hand once or twice in an effort to startle, but for the most part he kept me fooled and primed for more developments. In ‘Scope. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »