Monthly Archives: November 2007

Eruptions and Disruptions in the House of Lava

Written for the Second Run DVD of Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava, released in the U.K. in 2012, and developed from separate articles in the Chicago Reader, November 15, 2007, and the Portuguese collection cem mil cigarros: OS FILMES DE PEDRO COSTA, edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo, Lisboa: Orfeu Negro, 2009. — J.R.

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The cinema of Pedro Costa is populated not so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw, human essences — souls, if you will. This is a trait he shares with other masters of portraiture, including Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur. It’s not a religious predilection but rather a humanist, spiritual, and aesthetic tendency. What carries these mysterious souls, and us along with them, isn’t stories — though untold or partially told stories pervade all of Costa’s features. It’s fully realized moments, secular epiphanies.

Born in Lisbon in 1959, Costa grew up, by his own account, without much of a family. Speaking about O sangue, his first feature, he admitted that there was a personal aspect in his concentration on the incomplete family in that film “because I never really had a family.… Read more »

No Country For Old Men

A major Coen brothers movie drawn from a minor Cormac McCarthy novel, this is a highly accomplished thriller that’s also rather hypocritical when it tries to get moralistic about its bloodbaths. (Even more than its source, it taps into fundamentalist religious despair as an alibi for the violence.) Javier Bardem plays a psycho killer with a cattle stun gun, and Tommy Lee Jones costars as a Texas sheriff nearing retirement who wonders what the world’s coming to. Josh Brolin is a welder who stumbles upon $2 million left in the wake of a blown drug deal and gets tracked by Jones, Bardem, and Woody Harrelson (a hired gun and comic relief). The storytelling is fluid, especially when directors Joel and Ethan Coen start eliding some of the murders and ask us to imagine them for ourselves. R, 122 min. (JR)… Read more »

Notes On Marie Menken

As a follow-up to her brilliant and definitive In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002), Czech-Austrian filmmaker Martina Kudlacek’s 2006 documentary about the lesser-known experimental film pioneer Marie Menken disappointed me a little. But on reflection I suspect this has more to do with my preference for Deren over Menken than with the solid historiography and the sensitivity of this work. Menken’s improvisatory, nonnarrative shooting style looks a bit rough alongside Deren’s polished professionalism, but it may have had a stronger impact on other experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol, and this offers an intriguing and valuable look at her milieu as well as her work. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

You Am I

Alienated from his professional life in the city, a young architect retreats to the wilds and builds an idyllic glass house in a tree, where he lives alone and fantasizes about gradually becoming an aboriginal. Before starting this project, he has a one-night stand with a divorced friend, and later he becomes briefly acquainted with a vacationer who’s visiting some of her friends across the lake. The most curious aspect of this leisurely story (2006) by Lithuanian writer-director Kristijonas Vildziunas is that it almost isn’t a story at all, apart from the concentration on the natural setting and the building of the housethough the film temporarily shifts focus midway to the more conventional vacationers across the lake. In Lithuanian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Diringas

In his first feature (2006), Lithuanian video maker and former adman Ignas Miskinis picks his previous profession as a satiric target. But his premise is so straineda hustler muscles his way into an ad agency by seducing two women who work there and bamboozles everyone into thinking he has a hot new product to sell called Diringasthat none of this proves to be very funny. And his characters are so uniformly unpleasant that the seemingly homophobic treatment of a couple of them ultimately seems incidental; Miskinis’s scorn is sufficiently democratic to encompass everyone. In Lithuanian with subtitles. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Seven Invisible Men

Apart from some apocalyptic violence at the end, next to nothing happens in this eighth feature (2005) by Sarunas Bartas, Lithuania’s most prestigious filmmaker, but that’s nothing new. The title characters are small-time criminals, outcasts, and idlers (their backgrounds remain vague) who wind up in a run-down farm near the Crimean Sea along with a few wives or girlfriends, hanging out with the locals and drinking and smoking. As frequently happens in his work, Bartas is largely concerned with somber moods and dark visual textures (the cinematography is exquisite), brooding landscapes and quiet desperation. In Russian with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

What’s Going On In The Beely Circus?

Popular during the silent and early sound eras, German actor-director Harry Piel specialized in action thrillers, nearly all of which were destroyed during World War II. In this nocturnal mystery, restored from a tinted nitrate print recently discovered in Italy, he plays a debonair Douglas Fairbanks type named Harry Piel who… Read more »

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 2007). — J.R.

breakdown

Three early examples of the master’s skill in tailoring his storytelling gifts to the 26-minute format of his celebrated TV show. Included are the very first episode of the series, Revenge (1955), a grim tale costarring Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker, and from the third season, Lamb to the Slaughter (1958), a more characteristic exercise in black comedy adapted from a Roald Dahl story and starring Barbara Bel Geddes. But the real gem is Breakdown (1955), a minimalist tour de force starring (and narrated by) Joseph Cotten as a businessman paralyzed in a car wreck; it belongs among Hitchcock’s neglected masterpieces. 78 min. (JR)… Read more »

That Day

From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 2007). — J.R.

Most of Raul Ruiz’s films have some element of deadpan surreal farce; this one’s a farce through and through. When an ethereal Swiss lunatic (Elsa Zylberstein) comes in line to inherit the equivalent of several countries, her venal father (Michel Piccoli) schemes to have her bumped off by another nutcase. As corpses pile up, a couple of local cops indulge in some hilarious rationalizations for doing nothing. The sweetness of Zylberstein’s performance and the ambience in general are oddly old-fashioned — reminiscent of Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace – while the gracefully meandering camera echoes the domestic thrillers of Claude Chabrol. Alas, this is second-best Ruiz and wears out its welcome before the end. Still, it has its share of wit and invention. In French with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)

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Three Key Moments from Three Alain Resnais Films

Here are three of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007), each of which describes an extraordinary scene from an Alain Resnais film involving camera movement. (There’s also a pretty amazing crane shot in Wild Grass, by the way.) — J.R.

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1961 / Last Year at Marienbad - The camera rushes repeatedly through the doors of Delphine Seyrig’s bedroom and into her arms.

France/Italy. Director: Alain Resnais. Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi. Original title:L’année dernière à Marienbad.

Why It’s Key: A climax of erotic reverie in a film of erotic reveries.

Alain Resnais’ most radical departure from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s published screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad is his elimination of what Robbe-Grillet calls a “rather swift and brutal rape scene”. In this ravishing puzzle film about an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) in a swank, old-style hotel trying to persuade another guest (Delphine Seyrig), also unnamed, that they met and had sex there the previous year, illustrated throughout by subjective imaginings that might be either his or hers, Resnais includes only the beginning of such a scene when the man enters the woman’s bedroom and she moves back in fear.… Read more »

The Actual Definitive Ultimate Director’s Cut (BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT)

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2007). For all its inventiveness and resourcefulness, I find the recent sequel too long and difficult to follow, but I love the appearances of Harrison Ford/Deckard and his dog. — J.R.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut |****

Directed by Ridley Scott

It took 25 years, but the makers of Blade Runner finally got it right. Preceded by at least six editions, five of them seen by the general public, this “final cut” is the optimal form of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Neither a complex revision nor a simple restoration, it’s a retooling that presents the project as it was originally conceived. Although some of the violence has been intensified and stretched out, new footage isn’t really the point. The focus instead is on redressing technical errors and making other helpful adjustments, giving the film a fully comprehensible narrative. For the first time every detail falls into place.

Along with the equally pessimistic and misanthropic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner sets the standard for movies about androids in the post-Metropolis era. It presents a dark view of humanity where the artificial beings known as replicants (who tragically have a lifespan of just four years) command most of our sympathy.… Read more »

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

I prefer Sidney Lumet’s previous feature, the neglected Find Me Guilty. But this ambitious and well-directed crime thriller, with an intricate flashback structure redolent of Reservoir Dogs, gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a fascinatingly ambiguous character (a passive-aggressive corporate executive and drug addict) to work with, and he does wonders with the part. Marisa Tomei’s character, on the other hand, the executive’s wife and the lover of his softer loser brother (Ethan Hawke), is strictly standard-issue. This tale of buried family resentments rising to the surface as the brothers plot to rob their parents’ jewelry store is concerned only with the guys, and it’s marred by an uncharacteristically mannered performance by Albert Finney as the father. R, 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bee Movie

According to the press notes, Jerry Seinfeld finally agreed to make a movievoicing the central character in an animated feature as well as cowriting and producingafter pitching just the title to Dreamworks’ Steven Spielberg over dinner. If part of the premise is that zillions of bees can collectively run a honey factory or land an airplane, another part seems to be that zillions of one-liners can add up to a narrative that works as an ecological parable while equating reality with brand-name recognition. (My sweater’s Ralph Lauren and I have no pants, the bratty hero proudly explains at one point.) The whole thing’s pretty cute and breezy, but don’t expect logic or coherence. Other voices include those of Renee Zellwegger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, and Chris Rock. PG, 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Not to be confused with the mislabeled director’s cut that’s been around for 15 years, this seventh edition of Ridley Scott’s SF masterpiece (1982) is arguably the first to get it all right, finally telling the whole story comprehensibly. This visionary look at Los Angeles in 2019a singular blend of grime and glitter that captures both the horror and the allure of Reagan-era capitalismwas a commercial flop when it first appeared. Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it follows the hero (Harrison Ford) as he tracks down and kills replicants, or androids. Much of the film’s erotic charge and moral and ideological ambiguity stem from the fact that these characters are very nearly the only ones we care about. (We never know for sure whether Ford is a replicant himself.) With Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, and William J. Sanderson. R, 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains

Jonathan Demme’s documentary on Carter promoting his controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is as much about the American press as it is about the former president. It even helps to show why, among free presses, the U.S. press ranks only 48th in the world, according to the annual study by Reporters Without Borders. The portrait of Carter has been described as hagiography, but it isn’t a stretch to view his quiet integrity as saintly next to the track records of his successors. It’s interesting to see, when he’s interviewed successively for Israeli TV and for Al Jazeera, that he comes across as more sympathetic to the Israelis in the interview with the Arabs. My favorite moment shows Alan Dershowitz overcome by his own virtue once he decides, after checking out another Carter interview clip, not to label him an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. PG, 125 min. (JJ)… Read more »