Daily Archives: May 7, 2007

Who Killed Jessie?

Czech director Vaclav Vorlicek’s black-and-white slapstick fantasy is from 1966, the same year as Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and it’s hard to think of two more gleefully anarchic comedies made under a communist regime. This one is slighter and more conventional, but its premise is still pretty outrageous. A scientist develops a formula that transforms bad dreams into good. She tests it on a sleeping cow, whose nightmare of being attacked by flies (viewed on a TV monitor) gives way to an idyll of lounging in a hammock. But things go awry when she tries the serum out on her wimpy husband, who, under the influence of a comic book, is dreaming of being rescued from the clutches of an overweight Superman clone and an ornery Wild West gunslinger by a sexy sci-fi heroine a la Barbarella. All three fantasy characters materialize in the real world, bringing their dialogue bubbles with them. The ensuing pandemonium is exceptionally silly and mostly delightful. For the record, the mistranslated title should have been Who Wants to Kill Jessie? In Czech with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

When It Rains

From the Chicago Reader (May 7, 2007). — J.R.

One of my all-time favorite films, this beautiful 12-minute short by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, The Glass Shield), made for French TV in 1995, is a jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts and one of those rare movies in which jazz forms directly influence film narrative. The slender plot involves a Good Samaritan and local griot (Ayuko Babu), who serves as poetic narrator, trying to raise money from his neighbors in the ghetto for a young mother who’s about to be evicted, and each person he goes to see registers like a separate solo in a 12-bar blues. (Eventually a John Handy album recorded in Monterey, a countercultural emblem of the 60s, becomes a crucial barter item.) This gem has been one of the most difficult of Burnett’s films to see. (JR)… Read more »

Sylvia

The popular literary biopic is mainly a hopeless subgenre, but this account of Sylvia Plath and her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes manages to test the rule thanks to its unusual seriousness and first-rate performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow scrupulously avoid taking sides in the volatile marriagea delicate task given the four decades of verbal and legal warfare between the couple’s partisans, not to mention the aura of myth that surrounds Plath’s suicide at 30, which brought her a level of recognition she never achieved in life. Though constrained from quoting Plath’s work at length, the film manages to convey that the sexiness of poetry itself was the honey that drew the couple together and made them, at least initially, inseparable. (This is rated R, though I suspect the same film from a major studio would have won a PG-13.) Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, plays Plath’s mother with such insight that I was sorry the role wasn’t made bigger, proportionate to the importance she had in Plath’s life. Jared Harris and Amira Casar fare much better in their respective roles as poet Al Alvarez and Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill. 100 min.… Read more »

The Human Stain

Even though I haven’t read the Philip Roth novel on which Nicholas Meyer based his screenplay, I sensed while watching this that I was in the presence of an especially meticulous attempt at translation. The film retains Roth’s habitual alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a storyteller-within-the-story, like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Through this narrative filter we learn the story of a widowed classics professor (Anthony Hopkins) wholike literary critic Anatole Broyardwas born black but has lived most of his life on the other side of the color line. Director Robert Benton allows the cast (which includes Ed Harris and, as a janitor Hopkins has an affair with, Nicole Kidman) to shine, but I was left wondering why such a very literary construction as this needed to be made into a movie. R, 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Spy Kids 3-d: Game Over

Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino return as married secret agents whose son (Daryl Sabara) and daughter (Alexa Vega) have become junior spies. Series regulars Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub are back as well, joined on this outing by Salma Hayek, George Clooney, and Elijah Wood. Sylvester Stallone costars as the evil Toymaker, who imprisons Vega inside his surrealistic 3-D video game (viewers are instructed when to don glasses). Working as writer, producer, director, production designer, cinematographer, editor, and composer, Robert Rodriguez has a sure sense of scale and pacing as well as an artisan’s relaxed control of the material. PG, 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hell’s Heroes

Down With Ford! Long Live Wyler! was the title of a 1948 article by French writer and filmmaker Roger Leenhardt, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a more dubious pronouncement by a major critic. But it starts to become plausible if one compares William Wyler’s gritty and beautifully photographed western Hell’s Heroes (1929) with John Ford’s sentimental remake, 3 Godfathers (1948). Three escaping bank robbers find themselves caring for an orphaned baby in the cruel desert, and Wyler does a matchless job of keeping this Christian allegory life-size and unsentimental without ever diluting its emotional power. With Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler. 68 min. (JR)… Read more »