Monthly Archives: April 2002

Hollywood Ending

I would nominate this as the worst of Woody Allen’s color comedies to date, though there’s a morbid fascination in the degree to which it exposes both his cynicism and his contempt for his audiencesomething expressed more directly in Stardust Memories, a more interesting picture. Here Allen plays a neurotic film director whose career is on the skids and whose ex-wife (Tea Leoni) campaigns to get him hired on a $60 million picture. Still in a rage over her leaving him for the studio boss (Treat Williams) she’s now engaged to and works for, the director goes psychosomatically blind just as the picture begins shooting, a fact that he and she contrive to keep secret. I’m sure Allen knows that blind people know which directions voices come from, just as I’m sure he knows that Jerry Lewis stopped being in vogue in France about 25 years ago. But he also knows that some people will laugh at gags predicated on misinformation about these matters and proceeds accordingly, as if to demonstrate how much he despises them for laughing. (For more than a decade it’s been Allen, not Lewis, whom French audiences have adored.) I only laughed once here, at a Treat Williams reaction shot; the rest of the time I was trying to figure out why Allen made this movie.… Read more »

Umberto D

Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini likely deserves as much credit as director Vittorio De Sica for such masterpieces of Italian neorealism as The Bicycle Thief (1947) and this 1952 feature about a retired civil servant (schoolteacher Carlo Battisti) who discovers that his meager pension won’t pay the rent for his room. He’s befriended by a maid in the same flat who’s pregnant but unsure of the father’s identity; apart from her the only creature he feels close to is his dog, and though he contemplates suicide, he has to find someone to care for it. This simple, almost Chaplinesque story of a man fighting to preserve his dignity is even more moving for its firm grasp of everyday activities–such as the maid’s skirmishes against ants in the kitchen. Clearly Zavattini’s contribution, this fascination with the ordinary anticipates Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). This is truly a great film, recently celebrated at length in My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Italian cinema. 89 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, April 26 through May 2. … Read more »

Human Nature

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, tries for something equally wacky, in a comedy purporting to be about civilized and uncivilized behavior. A woman (Patricia Arquette) with a hormonal disorder that causes her to grow large amounts of body hair becomes a recluse living in the forest and writing about nature. Later she gets involved with a stunted scientist (Tim Robbins) who’s reduced by his own upbringing to teaching table manners to lab mice, and both link up with a feral man (Rhys Ifans) the scientist wants to civilize. All this leads to a lot of easy laughs as well as to declining narrative interest; the characters remain stuck in their cliche profiles, and the directionby music video specialist Michel Gondrydoesn’t improve matters. The castwhich also includes Miranda Otto, Rosie Perez, Robert Forster, and Mary Kay Placedoes pretty well with the limited material. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Crush

Writer-director John McKay’s first feature is a charming comedy drama about three women friends in rural Englandthe American headmistress of a private school (Andie MacDowell), a spiky and much divorced physician (Anna Chancellor), and a somewhat older divorced police inspector (Imelda Staunton) with a grown sonwho get together regularly to smoke, drink gin, eat chocolate, and bitch. Their bonds are tested when the headmistress becomes involved with a former student (Kenny Doughty) and the other two disapprove. There aren’t many movies that deal with middle-aged women, and this one manages to do so with a fair amount of wit and heart. With Bill Paterson. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Murder By Numbers

It’s been suggested that director Barbet Schroeder nowadays makes two kinds of pictures — mainstream thrillers like this one and edgy art house fare like Our Lady of the Assassins — but one could also argue that the same meticulous craft, as well as a certain morbid soullessness (filmmaking by numbers?), characterizes his work in both spheres. On this outing, Schroeder’s focus on a creepy pair of young murderers (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) clearly patterned after Loeb and Leopold is as unpleasant as anyone might wish, and despite the charm of Sandra Bullock as a hard-nosed homicide detective, why anyone might wish to see something so unpleasant isn’t clear. Neither the crime nor its detection is especially interesting, and screenwriter Tony Gayton doesn’t appear to be aiming for psychological insights. With Ben Chaplin as Bullock’s junior partner, Agnes Bruckner, Chris Penn, and R.D. Call. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Better Luck Tomorrow

Wealthy, disaffected Asian-American teenagers in Orange County progress from cheating to theft to murder in this controversial shocker by writer-director Justin Lin. There’s something refreshing about the violation of ethnic stereotypes, especially when the stereotype is politically correct and the violation is more than a simple counterstereotype, and Lin clearly wants to make the kids’ amorality troubling and difficult to process–not confused and ambivalent, as one reviewer has maintained. He charts the lifestyles of his “Chinese Mafia” without bothering to show us any of their parents, which limits the material somewhat, but his sense of how some of them conspire to get good grades is convincing, and it’s telling that the kids being shown, especially the overachieving narrator-hero, wind up seeming much more American than Asian. The performances are strong without calling attention to themselves (which is more than I can say for the occasionally hackneyed use of rock on the sound track). 101 min. Lin will take part in a discussion at the Friday screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, Friday, April 5, 8:15, and Saturday, April 6, 10:15.… Read more »

The Lady And The Duke

My favorite Eric Rohmer features are mainly his period filmsPerceval, then The Marquise of O (despite its emotional toning down of the Heinrich von Kleist novella), and now this fascinating antirevolutionary take on the French Revolution. Inspired by the memoirs of Scottish royalist Grace Elliott (beautifully played by Lucy Russell), it centers on her relationship with Philippe Egalite, erstwhile duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who brought her to France in 1786. For the exteriors of this 2001 film Rohmer uses digital-video technology to superimpose the actors against painted landscapes, and the results are charming as well as historically plausible. Influenced by the use of stationary camera setups in D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, this is absorbing throughoutnot just a history lesson but, as always with Rohmer, a story about individuals. In French with subtitles. 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Abc Africa

The most accessible film to date by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, though some have been scared away (unwarrantedly, in my opinion) by its subject matter: the many Ugandan children orphaned by AIDS. In fact, much of this 2001 digital video documentary focuses on the kids singing and dancing. But a brief scene in a hospital and a few interviews tell us all the disturbing facts we need to know, and the second half moves beyond conventional documentary into Kiarostami’s brand of provocative philosophical inquiry. One scene in total darkness recalls Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, and another set in a ruined house in the rain is as lovely as anything in Life and Nothing More. Like virtually all of Kiarostami’s mature work, this centers on the issues raised when a well-to-do filmmaker interacts with poor people and expresses his admiration for their resilience. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Believer

Inspired by a true story, this stylistically inventive 2001 film about a young Jewish proto-Nazi (Ryan Gosling) is the masterful first feature of writer-director Henry Bean, whose previous work as a writer has been on features as varied as Deep Cover, Internal Affairs, Enemy of the State, Murder by Numbers, and Chantal Akerman’s musical, Window Shopping. Persuasive, intelligent, and provocativethough it makes no attempt to offer a comprehensive psychological explanation for its antihero (assorted clues are offered)this is both a film about hatred in the tradition of Samuel Fuller and a film about being Jewish. Gosling is compelling throughout and the secondary cast, including Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, and Billy Zane, is excellent; Bean himself plays a bit part as a Jewish investment banker and former ambassador whom the protagonist plans to assassinate. (Shown recently on cable, this is belatedly getting a theatrical release.) 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

La Commune (paris, 1871)

Peter Watkins’s 1999 made-for-TV film about the revolutionary Paris Commune formed in 1871 offers a stunning lesson in understanding the past in relation to the present. Using contemporary talk-show and TV-news reporting techniques, Watkins shot the 345-minute film in only 13 days in an abandoned Paris factory. His cast consisted of 220 Parisians and illegal aliens from North Africa, most of whom had no acting experience, and he got them to do their own research on the Paris Commune and to collaborate in the construction of their characters and dialogue (in late scenes these actors, still in costume, discuss the relevance of the Commune to their own lives and contemporary issues). In some ways this work is more fascinating as an idea than in its execution. But it’s full of exciting moments and very effectively shot, in black and white and with extended mobile takes. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Rookie

This semitiresome buddy-cop movie is generally understood to be director-star Clint Eastwood paying his commercial dues for making his wonderful (if relatively uncommercial) White Hunter, Black Heart. The problem is, Eastwood is only as good as his scripts, and this one, by Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel, is both mechanical and unfelt. There’s a lot of undigested clinical stuff about why the younger cop (Charlie Sheen), who comes from a wealthy family and who replaces Eastwood’s partner after the latter is killed by the leader of a stolen-car ring (Raul Julia), wants to be a cop at all. Eastwood’s slightly out-of-date loner persona doesn’t really mesh with a buddy plot in any case, and the script’s ploy of endlessly repeating cute bits of dialogue to show how Charlie learns to become a man just like Clint is strictly from hunger. Fortunately, the movie begins and ends with excellent action sequences, and there’s some kinky stuff involving Julia’s mistress (Sonia Braga) and a serviceable score by Lennie Niehaus, all of which give this movie some fitful, intermittent life between the obligatory slugfests and other genre reflexes. But don’t expect a story you can care about or believe in (1990). (JR)… Read more »

The Cat’s Meow

Peter Bogdanovich’s first theatrical feature in almost a decade imagines what might have happened the weekend of November 19, 1924, when newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann) hosted a yachting party that included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). In some ways Dunst gives the most impressive performance, uncannily embodying the flighty if mainly loyal Davies, though Herrmann’s portrayal of Hearst is equally sympathetic and multilayered. Shot in 31 days in Germany and Greece for $6 million, the film looks more polished than Hollywood features costing ten times as much, and if it speaks with a quieter voice than many of Bogdanovich’s early pictures, what it has to say seems substantially more personal and thoughtful. Steven Peros wrote the script, adapting his own play; with Joanna Lumley, Victor Slezak, James Laurenson, and Claudia Harrison. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ellipses, Reels 1-4

My exposure to Stan Brakhage’s massive oeuvre has been somewhat limited, but these four works made in 1998 are among the most exciting and ravishing I’ve seen, rivaling even Scenes From Under Childhood (1970). Aptly described by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice as scratch-and-stain films, these mainly nonphotographic works are, among other things, a visual analogue to Abstract Expressionism. Reel 1 (22 min.) registers as visual music in its development of motifs and its use of rests to divide the work into discrete sections-a music that pulses, throbs, and sometimes winks on and off like a strobe light. Reel 2 (15 min.) credits Sam Bush as the visual musician and Brakhage as the composer; more staccato, dramatic, and richly orchestrated than the first reel, it occasionally recalls early Stravinsky in its fierce rhythms. Reels 3 (15 min.) and 4 (20 min.) are my favorites: the former uses bursts of photography (water, sky, birds, forest, sand, a nude child, merry-go-round horses), and the latter often suggests animation, with a black field disrupted by tantalizing bursts and smears of color. Also on the program are two Brakhage works I haven’t seenCoupling (1999, 5 min.) and Night Mulch & Very (2001, 7 min.).… Read more »

Our Times

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, the most famous woman filmmaker in Iran, directed this documentary about women candidates and the youth movement during Iran’s 2001 presidential election, interviewing various film actors and artists (among them her daughter) and some of the 48 women whose candidacies were refused by the government. Well over half the current population of Iran is under 21, and the voting age there is much lower than in the U.S., so this should be an eye-opening look at Iranian politics. 65 min. (JR)… Read more »

Just A Movie

A program of experimental works using found footage. I’ve seen only two of them, but they alone are worth the price of admission: Bruce Conner’s first film, A Movie (1958), which draws material from diverse sources, and Martin Arnold’s Piece Touchee (1989), which manipulates footage from the 50s Hollywood feature The Human Jungle. Also showing are Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Love (1994), Scott Stark’s Noema (1998), and Naomi Uman’s Removed (1999). 122 min. (JR)… Read more »