This is the first Ang Lee film I’ve seen that I’ve liked without qualification. More important, it’s the most exuberant action movie in ages, putting most recent Hollywood blockbusters to shame. The two most significant reasons for this are the choreography of Yuen Wo-ping–who charted out the fights in The Matrix and here does for flying what Esther Williams did for swimming–and the powerhouse cast of Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. But there’s an undeniable lift in watching Zhang, a little girl, wipe out the ruffians who go after her, while the affectionate references to King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (among other Hong Kong action touchstones) also add something flavorsome to the brew. Adapted by James Schamus (one of the executive producers), Wang Hui Ling, and Tsai Kuo Jung from Wang Du Lu’s novel of the same title, this sincere and magical fairy tale might be self-conscious at times about being Lee’s celebratory homecoming movie (his first Asian film since Eat Drink Man Woman), but it still succeeds in putting the same spirited spin on martial arts that Singin’ in the Rain did on early Hollywood. 119 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, McClurg Court, Pipers Alley. Read more
Somewhere in writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s bombastic movie, about a 12-year-old boy (Giuseppe Sulfaro) during the Italian fascist period who has the hots for a mistreated war widow (Monica Bellucci), is a pretty good short story about the fickleness of community and the cruelty of gossip. Part of what prevents it from emerging more clearly is the movie’s compulsion to be Fellini-like at all costs: Ennio Morricone’s score periodically apes Nino Rota, and the scenes of family farce play more like Radio Days than anything elsein effect they’re an imitation of imitation Fellini. But I prefer this to Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, if only for its more nuanced views. Tornatore’s script was inspired by Luciano Vincenzoni’s story Ma l’amore no . . . In Italian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 2000). — J.R.
When Robert Zemeckis starts getting serious, it’s time to clear the streets. According to David Denby, Cast Away demonstrates that the director is now ready to tackle Melville, but I’m not sure he’s even ready for Defoe: this is at best an OK variation on the Robinson Crusoe saga sandwiched between sections of an unsatisfying love story. It’s several cuts down from Luis Buñuel’s 1952 Defoe adaptation and seriously hampered by the absence of any Friday (unless one counts a blood-smeared volleyball treated like a fetish and surrogate human), but it’s certainly enhanced by Tom Hanks. Less unctuous than he was as Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Hanks plays a FedEx employee who finds himself on a desert island with all the time in the world. The film holds one’s interest, and there’s some nice if underdeveloped ironic poetry when the hero has to depend on diverse FedEx packages to keep himself alive. But this is too full of its own heavy breathing to work as the primordial storytelling it’s aiming for — a so-so adventure story is closer to the mark. Written by William Broyles Jr.; with Helen Hunt and Nick Searcy. 142 min. Read more
I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, nor do I know what kind of material got deleted from this adaptation, which was reduced by about one of its original three hours (the apparently preferred length of director and coproducer Billy Bob Thornton), but despite some choppiness here and there the movie holds together pretty well. This is a melancholy, lyrical, and elegiac western, set around 1949, in which a young and dispossessed rancher in west Texas (Matt Damon) rides off with his best friend (Henry Thomas) to the Rio Grande, picking up a teenage renegade (Lucas Black) en route, and eventually falls in love with the daughter (Penelope Cruz) of a Mexican rancher he works for. The landscapeswhich come close to outshining the worthy actors in the opening and closing stretchesare beautiful, and the plot, which is basically a grim coming-of-age story, holds one’s interest throughout. Scripted by Ted Tally; with Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Miriam Colon, Bruce Dern, and Sam Shepard. 112 min. (JR) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 2000). — J.R.
I don’t get it. Maybe my bias against drug dealers, drug barons, and drug addicts as interesting characters is responsible, but I don’t see this slightly better-than-average drug thriller, with slightly better-than-average direction by Steven Soderbergh, as anything more than a routine rubber-stamping of genre reflexes. (Even the film’s racism — the implication that drug taking by teenage white girls logically leads to their having sex with black males — seems depressingly typical.) Nothing especially new or fresh has been added to the formula by Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay, which shuttles between southern California, Mexico, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., but if you’re happy just to see Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Albert Finney, among others, move across the screen and deliver lines, here’s your chance to indulge. 147 min. (JR) Read more
This ambiguous comic masterpiece (1999, 118 min.) could be Abbas Kiarostami’s greatest film to date; it’s undoubtedly his richest and most challenging. A media engineer from Tehran (Behzad Dourani) arrives in a remote mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan, where he and his three-person camera crew secretly wait for a century-old woman to die so they can film or tape an exotic mourning ritual at her funeral. To do this he has to miss a family funeral of his own, and every time his mobile phone rings the poor reception forces him to drive to a cemetery atop a mountain, where he sometimes converses with a man digging a deep hole for an unspecified telecommunications project. Back in the village the digger’s fiancee milks a cow for the engineer while he flirts with her by quoting an erotic poem that gives the movie its title. Over half the major characters–including the crew, the dying woman, and the digger–are kept mainly or exclusively offscreen, and the dense and highly composed sound track often refers to other offscreen elements, peculiarities of Kiarostami’s style that solicit the viewer’s imaginative participation. What’s most impressive about this global newspaper and millennial statement is how much it tells us about our world at the moment–especially regarding the acute differences in perception and behavior between media “experts” and everyone else. Read more
Personally, I find the notion of a politically correct Marquis de Sade ridiculous enough to be hilarious, but this didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying Philip Kaufman’s silly romp, adapted by Doug Wright from his own play. This version of French history has it that the real sadist wasn’t Sade (Geoffrey Rush) but the hypocritical doctor (Michael Caine) who kept him locked up in a lunatic asylum, and that the real issues posed by Sade’s work basically boil down to freedom of expression. Check your brain at the concessions counter and you’re likely to have as much fun as I did, not only because the good guys and the villains are easy to spot but because Kaufman is an adroit, sexy storyteller and his cast is delightful. With Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Billie Whitelaw. 123 min. (JR) Read more
Written for a Film Comment poll; its web site doesn’t say which issue this appeared in. — J.R.
The Wind Will Carry Us — Kiarostami. City / country, rich / poor, modernity / antiquity, onscreen / offscreen, fast / slow, media / nature, private / public, documentary / fiction: an accurate and very funny report on the current state of the planet.
Hou Hsiao-hsien. The 21st century belongs to Asia, and Hou is its historian, its prophet, and its poet laureate.
Ten Best/Most Underrated (alphabetical): Actress, A Brighter Summer Day (230-minute version), Dead Man, From the East, Histoire(s) du Cinéma (final version, eight parts), Inquietude (Oliveira), The Puppetmaster, Sátántangó, When It Rains (Burnett, 12 minutes), The Wind Will Carry Us Read more
It’s been brought to my attention that a charge I made in my piece on Luis Bunuel (November 10) about the final sequence in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter may well be false. I said the action was faked, attributing my information to cinematographer Alan Raymond. Raymond says he has no recollection of having made the accusation. My apologies to Raymond, the filmmakers, and the other participants. Certainly there are plenty of documentaries guilty of fakery, including a few great ones–Nanook of the North and Land Without Bread both come to mind–so I should have picked a more appropriate example.
Jonathan Rosenbaum Read more
A Manhattan investment broker and playboy (Nicolas Cage) wakes up one morning to find himself living in New Jersey as a tire salesman, married to a woman he broke up with years before, and with kids. At first I thought I was watching yet another version of A Christmas Carol; then I wondered if it was a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life; finally I gave up trying to find anything at all in it that was unfamiliar. Brett Ratner directed this 2000 comedy from a script by David Diamond and David Weissman; with Don Cheadle, Tea Leoni, and Jeremy Piven. 126 min. (JR) Read more
The consequences of a housewife smoking or not smoking a single cigarette branch out into a dozen separate destinies and parallel universes, each with its own conclusion, in these two French features by Alain Resnais. Adapted and translated from six of the eight comic plays comprising British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, they can be seen alone or together, and in either order. The project, a tour de force for two actors playing multiple roles (Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema), succeeded at the box office when released in France in 1993, and as a unit the two films swept the Cesars (French Oscars) for best picture, director, actor, and set design. They’ve taken quite a while to surface here; some Americans are put off by the curiosity of typical Yorkshire residents speaking French and by the extreme stylization and deliberate artificiality of the sets. Not everyone will like this interactive experiment, but like every other Resnais film, Smoking (135 min.) and No Smoking (142 min.) are definitely worth checking out. (JR) Read more
Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire costar in this 1942 musicalwhich is closer to a revue, without much plot but with loads of Irving Berlin tunes. Mark Sandrich directed; with Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale. 101 min. (JR) Read more
By reputation at least, this 1945 romantic melodrama, produced by David O. Selznick, is one of director William Dieterle’s more potent features. Jennifer Jones plays a woman who suffers amnesia from war shock and falls in love with Joseph Cotten. The famous theme song is by Victor Young, the script by Ayn Rand (adapting Chris Massie’s novel Pity My Simplicity); Lee Garmes did the reportedly lush cinematography. 101 min. (JR) Read more
Film editor Sophie Tatischeff, the second oldest child of Jacques Tati, was born during the shooting of Jour de fete and a few years back helped to restore the color version. This 1998 feature, Le comptoir, marks her debut as a director, and to her credit she’s pretty much her own person as a filmmaker. Apart from a penchant for long shots, the only thing Tati-esque about this is its lighthearted nostalgia for traditional French life and its curiosity about the changes brought to it by technology. Marie (Mireille Perrier) purchases a bar for her family’s tavern when she moves into a village in Brittany, and much of the film follows the history of this imposing object and the village, before and after the arrival of electricity, during wartime and the occupation, and after the arrival of tractors. Tatischeff seems more comfortable in portraying the present than in imagining the past, and her film suffers at times from its dispersed focus. But this is a likable, low-key effort with an especially good feel for locale and landscape. 93 min. (JR) Read more
Bob Hope stars as a racetrack con artist who has to pay off gangsters in a 1951 comedy adapted from a Damon Runyon story. The direction is credited to Sidney Lanfield, but in fact this is the feature debut of Frank Tashlin, the screenwriter, who did most of the work. With Marilyn Maxwell, Lloyd Nolan, Jane Darwell, Fred Clark, and William Frawley; the film is often remembered today for its Christmas song, Silver Bells. 91 min. (JR) Read more