Daily Archives: October 1, 2000

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

After making what are still probably their two best features, the Coen brothers came up with their worst (2000), a piece of pop nihilism about three convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) on the run. Fargo dealt with their home state (Minnesota) and the present and The Big Lebowski with LA at the time of the gulf war. But when it comes to Mississippi and the Depression, the Coens are so contemptuous they can’t even come up with characters. What they really seem to care about are yuppie collectibles, like Robert Johnson albums. A movie’s in trouble when its best sequence is a whimsical musical number featuring the Ku Klux Klanwhich the Coens seem to regard as yet another antique. With John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. 106 min. (JR) Read more

Life As A Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease

Fans of Woody Allen’s noncomic features might well go for this glum spiritual study of a physician adjustingmainly with dignity and common senseto his own death from inoperable cancer. Despite the jokey title, this has only a modicum of wisecracks, and its mordant Polish wisdom, while genuine, mainly seems all too familiar. It begins with a medieval-looking film-within-the-film about a horse thief and the religious guide who prepares him offscreen for death by hanging, then shifts to the doctor on the movie’s location; he remains the focus thereafter, as he gradually learns about his terminal illness. I’ve never seen any of Krzysztof Zanussi’s most famous films, which are highly respected, and perhaps I approached this picture with the wrong kind of expectations. It certainly isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Zbigniew Zapasiewicz is commanding as the hero; Krystyna Janda costars. 99 min. (JR) Read more

Thomas In Love

If you’re intrigued by notions of virtual sex in cyberspace, this Belgian-French SF effort by Pierre-Paul Renders seems calculated to exhaust that fascination. The eponymous, agoraphobic hero in the not-so-distant future hasn’t left his home in eight years, and after his on-line psychoanalyst signs him up with a dating service and his insurance broker hooks him up with specialized prostitutes, a procession of real or virtual potential sex partners appears on his computer screen. The minimalist conceit of this movie is that Thomas is heard but never seen; his subjective stand-inas in Robert Montgomery’s 1946 Lady in the Lake and in Orson Welles’s unrealized screenplay adapting Heart of Darknessis the movie camera. Such a gimmickcamera eye equals Ibecomes particularly monotonous when the camera doesn’t move: Thomas is a couch potato as well as a recluse, and a terminal bore to boot. The women, real and simulated, are only slightly more interesting, and then only when they talk back. 97 min. (JR) Read more

A Belly Full

The original French title of Melvin Van Peebles’s crudely overblown farce means The Tale of the Full Belly, referring both to the name of the provincial bistro (Le Ventre Plein) run by a middle-aged couple (Andrea Ferreol and Jacques Boudet) with an unmarried, pregnant daughter and to the faked pregnancy of the poor black woman (Meiji U. Tum’Si) they hire as a waitress. That hoax eventually allows the couple, posing as racially tolerant liberal employers, to pass off their daughter’s baby as hers. The flamboyant manner of this feature puts it in the category of the cinema of vulgar excess, and the highly eclectic visual style (leering wide-angle close-ups, fast action in the manner of silent slapstick, arbitrary superimpositions) seems to reflect Van Peebles’s boredom with the material. I’m not clear why the story is set in 1967; one possible reason is that Van Peebles wrote it back then and had to wait 30-odd years to find financing for it. In French with subtitles. 102 min. (JR) Read more

The Mole People

As a 13-year-old, I liked this low-budget Universal-International production (1956) about ancient Sumerians, but older people told me it was bad and, roughly a decade later, lots of others decided it was camp. Virgil Vogel directed; with John Agar. 78 min. (JR) Read more

Berlin-cinema (titre-provisoire)

Samira Gloor-Fadel’s nonfiction feature about Berlin drifts in more ways than one, and the sense that it’s a notebook is captured by the French subtitle, which means provisional title. Mixing color with black and white, this 1999 Swiss-French coproduction is less a documentary or essay than a box full of loose objects, some of them fairly interesting. We see and hear Wim Wenders ruminating about Berlin, film and video, stories, texts, buildings, and absence, mainly in French and sometimes in conversation with architect Jean Nouvel. We hear (but don’t see) R Read more

La Revelateur

Philippe Garrel’s silent, 35-millimeter black-and-white experimental feature of 1968. Shot in Munich and environs, it’s less a narrative than a series of allegorical scenes in which actors Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff (both of whom Garrel had just met at a film festival) and a little boy portray a kind of hippie nuclear family. Beautifully filmed and inflected (the lighting and camera movements are especially striking and intense), often totally enigmatic, this haunting and poetic work helps to explain why Garrel has been a key influence on Leos Carax. Cinematographer Michel Fournier, who often worked with Garrel during this period, considers this their best collaboration, and it’s easy to see why, especially in the ingenious filming of both natural settings and interiors to give this low-budget effort a studio flavor. (Some moments of sped-up action suggest that Garrel may have intended this to be seen at 18 frames per second, the traditional silent-film speednot an option, alas, for this screening, at which the film will run a little over an hour.) (JR) Read more

Destroy Yourselves

This 1968 feature was one of the first Zanzibar films, a group of low-budget experimental works made in France during the late 1960s. By turns fascinating and frustrating, it mixes playful nihilism with political exhortation. At one point an abstraction of a flashing ambulance light leads to a flicker sequence of black and white frames, and later a dialogue plays out in voice-over against a black screen. Though the film has minimal dialogue, a number of monologues shot in long takes seem crucial: in one sequence, filmed at the University of Nanterre only a month before the revolutionary action of May 1968, art critic Alain Jouffroy lectures on the need for revolution to a large hall with only four people in it. Director Serge Bard made this first film at age 21 and directed two more before converting to Islam and renouncing cinema in 1969. 75 min. (FC) Read more

Love Unto Death

Alain Resnais’ film maudit in more ways than one, this haunting and rarely seen 1984 feature, his third and final collaboration with screenwriter Jean Gruault, is one of his boldest experiments in musical form. Resnais commissioned avant-garde composer Hans Werner Henze, who previously wrote the score to Muriel, to write a chamber piece consisting of 52 discontinuous short sections; until the film’s final shot, when this music is finally combined with the action, it is performed exclusively between scenes, over a black background that is most often traversed by drifting motes resembling snowflakes. The plot, featuring the same actors as Resnais’ subsequent Melo, is a love story about an archaeologist (Pierre Arditi) who is pronounced dead by a doctor in the film’s first scene only to come back to life a few moments later; though he and his devoted wife (Sabine Azema) are atheists, they are subsequently preoccupied with the meaning and reality of death and how this will or won’t separate them, which they discuss with a couple who are their friends and neighbors (Andre Dussollier and Fanny Ardant), both Lutheran ministers. A creepy film that was being written while Francois Truffaut (whom Gruault worked with often, on films including Jules and Jim and The Green Room) was dying, this recalls certain efforts of Ingmar Bergman in both its austerity and its morbidity; the music functions basically as a zone of meditation as well as a kind of metaphor for death and nonbeingthough many of these passages are quite brief and sometimes the motes are simply distracting. Read more

Dr. T & The Women

Prior to its hyperbolic final act, this is one of Robert Altman’s most skillful and least bombastic features in some time. But I’m uncomfortable with the blatant misogyny at its center, which isn’t mitigated by the fact that the script was written by a womanAnne Rapp, who also wrote Cookie’s Fortune. This comedy about a devoted gynecologist in Dallas, well played by Richard Gere, takes much of its energy from enumerating the ways that most of the women in Dr. T’s upper-class orbit turn out to be basket cases: his patients, his wife (who has a nervous breakdown and regresses to her girlhood early in the picture), his receptionist, and at least one of his daughters (a closet lesbian about to get married). The most prominent exception is the golf pro he falls for (Helen Hunt), and though the film doesn’t quite fault her for her independence, it confusedly treats the hero’s desires as far more important than hers. Dallas is lampooned as glibly and creatively as Nashville was in the Altman film of that title, and the mise en scene and overlapping dialogue are both handled deftly. With Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Liv Tyler, and Kate Hudson. 122 min. Read more

Gimme Shelter

This grim 1970 film by David and Albert Maysles documents the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where one spectator was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. It’s been widely applauded as a more truthful look at the counterculture than Woodstock offered earlier that year, but Woodstock is a great film and Gimme Shelter, despite some great Stones footage, is crippled by its rhetorical pretensions. As Dave Kehr wrote in his original Reader capsule, The film is a strong example of the cinema verite style at work, yet few films of the school show up the crisis of its ‘noninvolvement’ policy more tellingly. There is a horrible sense of helplessness as the Maysleses’ camera looks on while the Hell’s Angels stab an unruly fan to death, and the implications of hippie fascism contained in that image are not meaningfully developed in light of the film’s own excessive idolization of Jagger and company. The camera that looks up too easily looks down. 91 min. (JR) Read more

Smiling Fish And Goat On Fire

An affecting and offbeat American independent feature (1999), presented by Martin Scorsese, about two orphaned brothers, an accountant and a sometime actor (played by real brothers, Derick and Steven Martini), living on the fringes of Hollywood, sharing a house, and pursuing variable relationships. (The title refers to their Native American grandmother’s nicknames for them.) Though the outstanding presence and performance here comes from jazz singer Bill Henderson, as a former soundman for an Afro-American film company in the 40s, mourning the loss of his wife, all the players are resourceful and unpredictable, and the lively script and dialogue (by director Kevin Jordan and the two Martinis) gives them plenty to work with. With Christa Miller, Nicole Rae, Amy Hathaway, and Rosemarie Addeo. 90 min. (JR) Read more

Curtis’s Charm

To say that John L’Ecuyer’s lovely black-and-white, 16-millimeter adaptation of an autobiographical story by Jim Carroll (1995) is incomparably better than the movie version of The Basketball Diaries unfortunately isn’t saying very much. Better to say that it’s sweeter, warmer, sharper, and filled with more human understanding than Trainspotting as it deals with a comparable portrait of friends going in and out of drug addiction, this time within the lower reaches of New York City. Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema served as executive producers, and the performances of Maurice Dean Witt as a crackhead who thinks that his wife and mother-in-law are casting voodoo spells on him and Callum Keith Rennie as the friend who tries to talk him through his fantasy are highly charismatic as well as letter-perfect. Carroll, incidentally, likes this movie himself, and it isn’t hard to see why. (JR) Read more

Treasure Island

Raul Ruiz’s transgressive French version of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic was made in the mid-80s but has long been tied up in litigation. I haven’t seen either Ruiz’s original four-hour cut or this shortened version, edited by the great filmmaker Chris Marker, but considering the high level of Ruiz’s work during this period, I suspect it’s well worth seeing. Be prepared to share Ruiz’s predilection for the magical and the irrational. The varied cast includes Jean-Pierre Leaud, Lou Castel, and Anna Karina. (JR) Read more


Paul Muni is the title character in this 1939 costume epic, fighting for Mexican independence in the 1860s when France was trying to colonize Mexico. The original script included John Huston among its authors, but Muni had it rewritten by his brother-in-lawto ruinous effect, according to Huston. Reportedly performances by Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard are the film’s main interest. William Dieterle directed; with Brian Aherne, John Garfield, Claude Rains, Gilbert Roland, Louis Calhern, and Joseph Calleia. 132 min. (JR) Read more