The putative setting is New Mexico, but this is basically Kentucky-style ethnic cleansing that harks back to mountain feuds like the McCoys versus the Hatfields. Strictly 90s are the nonstop gore and the unpleasantness of all the characters. Adapted by Don Jakoby from John Steakley’s novel Vampire$, this dull splatterfest (1998) follows an exceptionally mean and single-minded vampire slayer (James Woods) who heads a team of Vatican mercenaries bent on finding and destroying a 600-year-old vampire priest (Thomas Ian Griffith) and not caring much who gets mauled in the process. Apart from the bitter glee of the anti-Catholic asides and the obligatory nods to Howard Hawks, the nastiness of the good guys is so unrelentingit extends even to Daniel Baldwin, who plays Smiley Burnette to Woods’s Gene Autrythat I was rooting for the vampires, albeit without much enthusiasm. It’s hard to be on anyone’s side when the genocidal fervor is so dogged and dehumanizing that characterization scarcely exists and the closest thing to wit is an epithet directed at a woman stabbed in the heart: How d’ya like your stake, bitch? (JR) Read more
Though not really as accomplished as it’s cracked up to be, this Cannes and Sundance prizewinner about a young rap poet (Saul Williams) finding himself in prison with the help of a sensitive writing teacher (Sonya Sohn) has all the inspirational uplift it strives for, and some pretty good rap performances as well. The fact that it wears its good intentions so clearly on its sleeve limits it. Directed by Marc Levin from a script he authored with Richard Stratton, Sohn, Williams, and costar Bonz Malone. (JR) Read more
The first feature of Samira Makhmalbaf (the eldest daughter of Iranian writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who furnished the script and edited) is a wonder–a comic, lyrical, and “politically incorrect” poetic docudrama so acutely focused in its characters and ethics that it can afford to be relaxed about them, all the more remarkable coming from a director still in her teens. The film reenacts the true story of illiterate, 11-year-old twin sisters who were kept in their house from birth, until a social worker discovered them and enabled them to step outside. Their encounters with the world outside their home and the neighborhood’s reaction to them are the twin subjects that keep this feature going, exposing how involved people are in their neighbors’ lives, for better and for worse, in everyday communal Iran. (The twins and most of the other participants play themselves.) These two screenings are previews; the film will open commercially in Chicago at a later date. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, October 24, 6:00, and Sunday, October 25, 4:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still. Read more
Teenage siblings from a broken family (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) find themselves transported via a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts) to the “perfect” town of a 50s black-and-white sitcom called Pleasantville; eventually they bring about changes in the town and TV show, introducing rain, fire, reading, rock, jazz, and above all color. The directorial debut of Gary Ross (screenwriter of Big and Dave), this ideologically confused but fascinating postmodernist fantasy is about five years off — the date is 1958, but the clothes and decor are much closer to 1953. Furthermore, one might argue that Ross, who also scripted and coproduced, is even more hypocritical than he claims the 50s were: his film is about the 90s bringing life and spirit to the 50s, yet its emotional thrust — which is what makes it so interesting — is to reject the 90s in toto, in favor of the 50s and the onset of the 60s. It’s axiomatic that we’re supposed to be more sophisticated than our predecessors, but then people in the 50s could choose between color and black-and-white movies, while black-and-white movies can be made or seen today only with arcane excuses (like the plot of this one). Read more
As the 34th Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second week, my favorite new movie among the selections this year, Manoel de Oliveira’s Anxiety, has come and gone, but a lot of other worthy fare is playing. An especially welcome last-minute addition, though I haven’t seen it, is Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, winner of the top prize at Cannes this year.
My major recommendations day by day this week begin with Monte Hellman and Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop, probably the most underrated road movie of the 70s, playing Friday at 7:00 at the Music Box along with a short film about Hellman by George Hickenlooper, and Ko I-cheng’s Taiwanese feature Blue Moon–a film designed to be shown each time with the reels in a different order–showing at the same location at 9:30. If interactive cinema isn’t your thing, you might want to check out Stefan Rozowitzky’s Austrian rural parable, The Inheritors, playing at the other Music Box screen at 9:30, about the efforts of Alpine farmhands to collectively run the farm they inherit shortly after World War I.
For Saturday I strongly recommend the talented Tsai Ming-liang’s apocalyptic musical of Taiwanese alienation, The Hole, at 600 N. Read more
As was apparent in the uneven Funny Bones, there’s something pretty shameless about director Peter Chelsom when he goes into tear-jerking mode, and this six-handkerchief weepieadapted by Charles Leavitt from Rodman Philbrick’s novel Freak the Mightypulls out all the stops. A large, friendless, apparently retarded 13-year-old (Elden Henson) who lives with his grandparents (Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton) teams up with the fast-talking, brilliant cripple (Kieran Culkin) who’s moved in next door with his mother (Sharon Stone); together they come on like gangbusters. There’s a lot of magical-realist stuffor should I say guff?about King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, most of which I could have done without, an offscreen narration by Henson that I rarely believed in, and a snarling villain out of D.W. Griffith. But portions of this inspirational claptrap touched me in spite of everything. (JR) Read more
“See for yourself” is the slogan of the 34th Chicago International Film Festival–which, as one of my colleagues has noted, could probably be translated as “Don’t listen to the critics.” Such an admonition would be understandable given what many in my profession do in relation to world cinema. As Stuart Klawans remarks in the October 12 issue of the Nation, reporting on the Toronto film festival last month, only a few dozen members of the international press and industry went to see the sole Congolese feature made in the last 12 years–an opportunity they weren’t likely to have again–but several hundred made tracks to the Robert Towne movie that Warner Brothers was releasing the following day. Since I made it to neither movie, I’d rather recall the time a few years back when a colleague I otherwise admire admitted to me that he’d rather see four bad movies than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango, which attracted fewer press people in Toronto than the Congolese film–though it nearly packed the house at the Chicago Film Festival a month later, and most of the audience stayed to the end.
My colleague didn’t give me his reasons for avoiding this Hungarian film, but they’re easy enough to guess: a long foreign-language masterpiece from an unfashionable country is precisely what his fashion-magazine editors didn’t want to hear about. Read more
The 1998 first feature of Samira Makhmalbaf (the eldest daughter of Iranian writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who furnished the script and edited) is a wondera comic, lyrical, and politically incorrect poetic docudrama so acutely focused in its characters and ethics that it can afford to be relaxed about them, all the more remarkable coming from a director still in her teens. The film reenacts the true story of illiterate 11-year-old twin sisters, kept in their house from birth until a social worker discovered them and enabled them to step outside. Their encounters with the world outside their home and the neighborhood Read more
Daniele Wilmouth’s striking 13-minute Curtain of Eyes (1997), an experimental film working with elements of Japanese butoh. On the same program, Wilmouth’s work in progress Pinman and a short video by Ximena Musch entitled Compose. (JR) Read more
This 1992 feature about impoverished bricklayers was originally banned in Iran, then mutilated through the addition of an offscreen narration by its boy hero, which director Abolfazl Jalili had nothing to do with; this year it surfaced at the Locarno film festival in its original form and won several prizes. It Read more
Though one might critique its sexual politics, this is a lovely, memorable feature from Burkina Faso (1994), directed by Dani Kouyate, about a young boy who’s torn between the influence of a modern schoolteacher and the influence of a griot. Well worth checking out. 94 min. (JR) Read more
A rough-and-ready and, if memory serves, heroic piece of radical agitprop produced by Newsreel in 1969 about a student strike at Columbia over the University’s policy toward the surrounding community of Harlem. On the same program, two 25-minute Newsreel documentaries of the same year, San Francisco State: On Strike and People’s Park. For a genuine whiff of this era, you probably couldn’t do much better. (JR) Read more
I prefer this hard-edged comedy-drama to director Cedric Klapisch’s more sweet-tempered When the Cat’s Away, not because I’m a grouch but because the material is much denser, with half a dozen characters who surprise us at every turn. A family gathers for an acrimonious dinner in its own cafe; practically everyone treats everyone else badly, and despite a couple of faux-lyrical flashbacks we never really discover why. The mother shows more love toward the paralyzed family dog than toward any of her kids; her favorite son abuses his wife (Catherine Frot); her other son (Jean-Pierre Bacri), the family scapegoat, has recently alienated his wife; and her daughter (Agnes Jaoui) sneers at everyone, including the thoughtful waiter with whom she’s having an affair (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). This ‘Scope film won Cesars (the French equivalent of Oscars) in 1997 for best screenplay, supporting actress (Frot), and supporting actor (Darroussin), and all three were fully deserved. The screenplay is adapted from a play by Jaoui and Bacri, a couple who’ve scripted the last three Alain Resnais features, and while it isn’t bad, Klapisch and the authors haven’t fully turned it into a moviein some ways Bacri and Jaoui are more impressive as quirky actors. Klapisch hasn’t the foggiest notion of when or how to use music, but he does a fine job with the actors, and like the play itself he has a warm feeling for outcasts and a nice way of rewarding the audience for sharing those feelings. Read more
Mojtaba Raei’s episodic, three-part 1997 feature is a good example of the vital Iranian cinema our cultural gatekeepers rarely allow us to see, without the packaging and automatic charm of Gabbeh or The White Balloon but with plenty of artistic credentials of its own, a film so deeply involved in its own brand of Islamic thought that the absence of easy access to outsiders is part of its special fascination. (This is also true of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s very bad early feature Fleeing From Evil to God, though in contrast Raei is clearly in command of the material.) Filmed in remote mountain areas of northern Iran and Azerbaijan, Birth of a Butterfly can be recommended for its landscapes, compositions, and employment of color. From the first episode, which begins with a montage of abstract rock formations leading to dwellings carved into a hillside, Raei’s choice of settings and sense of how to film them is often astonishingthough I didn’t always understand what was going on thematically or emotionally, I was held throughout by the enchantment of the natural surroundings. Ironically, the last and most comprehensible episode culminates in kitschy calendar art and a heavenly choir evoking 50s Hollywood religiosity, but prior to that I was reminded more of Alexander Dovzhenko or Sergei Paradjanov. Read more