Monthly Archives: June 2002

Men In Black Ii

The best argument for a sequel to Men in Black (1995) was Linda Fiorentino as the plucky morgue pathologist, but this new installment replaces her with Rosario Dawson, whose function is more decorative than comic. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as Jay and Kay, government agents who monitor the high jinks of extraterrestrials on earth, and though director Barry Sonnenfeld (or somebody) has added a lot more beasties and other conceptual doodling (as well as product placements), the down-home satire of how we cope with cultural difference has evaporated, replaced by jazzy effects that wear out their welcome by the halfway mark. (The earth’s fate hanging in jeopardy near the end seems less urgent than whether Hope or Crosby will get Dorothy Lamour at the end of a Road comedy.) Michael Jackson has a cameo, Rip Torn and Tony Shalhoub reprise their original bits, and Lara Flynn Boyle as the head alien sprouts zillions of wormlike tentaclesbut a talking bulldog named Frank steals the show. 82 min. (JR) Read more

The Fast Runner (atanarjuat)

Based on an Inuit legend and made almost entirely by Inuit filmmakers, this totally absorbing 172-minute feature (2001), winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, is exciting not as ethnography but as storytelling, as drama, and as filmmaking. In this respect, one might even wind up perversely missing the exoticism and implied critique of Western values found in Nanook of the North or The Savage Innocents, but only if one insists on finding arctic natives interesting because of their relation to other cultures and not on their own terms. Certainly the plot elements are universal: sexual competition, adultery, murder, pursuit, subterfuge, and justice, all seen in relation to the needs and preservation of a particular community and way of life. This story is set at the dawn of the first millennium, but the fact that we tend to forget about historical time frames entirely while watching it is a tribute to its power to grab and hold us. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and written by Kunuk and Paul Apak Angilirq; with Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, and Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq. In Inuktitut with subtitles. (JR) Read more


Earth (1930) is the most famous of Alexander Dovzhenko’s masterpieces, but this white-hot war film, made the previous year and screening only once in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable Dovzhenko retrospective, is in many ways his most dazzling silent picture. Though it was commissioned to glorify the 1918 struggle of Bolshevik workers at a Kiev munitions factory against White Russian troops, Dovzhenko’s view of wartime and battlefront morality is too ambiguous and multilayered to fit comfortably within any propaganda scheme. More clearly influenced by Sergei Eisenstein than any of Dovzhenko’s other pictures, it’s certainly the one that uses fast editing in the most exciting fashion, and some of the poetic uses of Ukrainian folklore that were Dovzhenko’s specialty have an almost drunken abandon here–as in the singing horses. A 35-millimeter print will be shown, and David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment. 92 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Saturday, June 15, 4:15, 312-846-2800. Read more

ABC Africa

This is the most accessible film to date by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, though some people have been mistakenly scared away by its subject matter: the enormous number of Ugandan children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. In fact, much of this 2001 digital-video documentary focuses on the kids singing and dancing–at times it resembles a musical–which has led some critics to fault Kiarostami for failing to address the crisis adequately. But the video is only superficially superficial, and it grows in meaning and resonance as it progresses. 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 set in almost complete darkness recalls Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, and a sequence 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. This is Kiarostami’s first film that’s mainly in English; the balance is subtitled. Read more

The Lady and the Duke

My favorite Eric Rohmer features are mainly his period films–Percival, 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. Their romance had ended well before the revolution (and before this picture begins), but they remained close friends in spite of their growing political differences. Percival was shot on studio sets, The Marquise of O on location; for the exteriors of this 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 throughout–not just a history lesson but, as always with Rohmer, a story about individuals (2001, 129 min.). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 7 through 13. Read more

Chelsea Walls

Actor Ethan Hawke turns to directing, in digital video, in Nicole Burdette’s 2001 adaptation of her own play. This consists of five separate downbeat stories happening on the same day at New York’s artist-friendly Chelsea Hotel. The cast is certainly impressive, and probably reason enough for seeing this; it includes, among others, Kevin Corrigan, Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kris Kristofferson, Robert Sean Leonard, Natasha Richardson, Jimmy Scott, Uma Thurman, Mark Webber, Tuesday Weld, Harris Yulin, and Steve Zahn. The main problem is the film’s inability to stay with any one story or character for long: too many ideas compete for attention without any clear through line. Hawke, who gets some very interesting visual effects and sound overlaps, is hardly alone in failing to solve this difficulty; for me, much of Robert Altman’s workreflecting his TV background and the reliance on sound bites that it entailsshows comparable limitations. Many of the smaller moments of both directors are priceless, but the larger picture tends toward either vagueness or banality (such as the American flag at the end of Altman’s Nashville). 109 min. (JR) Read more

Diplomatic Pouch And Love Berry

A striking demonstration of how adroit and creative Alexander Dovzhenko was as a commercial director just before he started making his own more personal and sometimes more difficult films, the first of which was the 1927 Zvenigora. Diplomatic Pouch (1927, 72 min.) is said to have some remote connection to the director’s stint as a diplomat, but in fact it’s an entertaining spy thriller with British villains, inspired by the assassination of Soviet diplomat Teodor Nette. It’s the only Dovzhenko film in which he appears as an actor (stoking the engine on a ship), and the editing is very inventiveas it is in the lively half-hour comedy Love Berry (1926), about a vain barber trying to dispose of his illegitimate offspring, which shows the influence of Chaplin. (JR) Read more

Gangs Of New York

Martin Scorsese’s epic about gang wars in mid-19th-century lower Manhattan starts off with a lot of promise and excitement but winds up 165 minutes later feeling empty and affectless. Critics and the public alike have discouraged Scorsese from growing upapplauding relatively adolescent slugfests like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas while showing less enthusiasm for his more adult fare. Much of the problem here is that this film shines only when it stays on the level of a boys’ adventure, part pirate movie and part 19th-century revenge tale; it falters when it and its characters try to become something more. As often happens in large-scale celebrations of bloodshed, the creators’ ironic ruminations on the meaning of it all get swamped by the storytelling, and by the time the movie arrives at the 1863 Civil War draft riots, the parallels with The Birth of a Nation are far from encouraging. The script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan is especially weak when it comes to handling the heroine (Cameron Diaz), but Daniel Day-Lewis is very impressive in a charismatic post-Brando performance as the villain and ambivalent father figure to Leonardo DiCaprio’s hero. With Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, and Brendan Gleeson. Read more

Maid In Manhattan

A maid at a ritzy Manhattan hotel (Jennifer Lopez) is mistaken for a guest by Ralph Fiennes, who’s running for the Senate. This version of the Cinderella story was originally offered to Julia Roberts, implying that a Pretty Woman redux was intended, but what makes this comedy so appealing is that, unlike the 1990 Disney celebration of prostitution and patriarchy, it manages to infuse a fairy-tale fantasy with a healthy dose of realityabout not only what a maid’s life and milieu are like but also the inner workings of a big hotel. There’s an unusual number of genuine characters (as opposed to types) in the storya credit to the script (Kevin Wade, working from a draft by John Hughes), direction (Wayne Wang), and high-energy cast, which also includes Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Garcia Posey (as the maid’s unstereotypical and supportive son), Marissa Matrone (who plays a very rough approximation of the fairy godmother), Frances Conroy, Chris Eigeman, and an especially astute Bob Hoskins. 105 min. (JR) Read more

Rabbit-proof Fence

An Australian western with epic sweep directed by Phillip Noyce and dealing with the stolen generation of aboriginal children who were torn from their families by misguided state functionaries. It’s based on a true story about three girls taken from their mother in 1931 and sent to a state-run facility a thousand miles away; they escape and set off for home on foot, dodging the law en route. The story is so black-and-white that one feels like hissing the villain (Kenneth Branagh) and cheering the heroines, but the simplicity of the telling seems warranted. David Gulpilil, the aboriginal star of Walkabout, is memorable here too. Adapted by Christine Olsen from a book by Doris Pilkington and shot by the matchless Christopher Doyle. 94 min. (JR) Read more

Die Another Day

Maybe I’ve seen too many James Bond movies by now, or maybe the trouble with this 20th installment is that the filmmakers are trying too hard to top the excesses of the predecessors. I suppose that the baroque North Korean villains here might serve to inspire enlistments for a theoretical World War IV, assuming that we’re still around to enjoy such a caper. And I guess that if you can manage to overlook how much Pierce Brosnan is beginning to resemble Fred MacMurray, you might find this 007 romp more neat than ridiculous. The problem for me is that the story is so entirely at the service of the special effects. I like Halle Berry a lot, but neither she nor the other deadly sex object, Rosamund Pike, seems to be having much fun. With Judi Dench, Toby Stephens, Michael Madsen, and John Cleese. 123 min. (JR) Read more


Atom Egoyan takes on the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of an estimated two-thirds of the Armenian population, and though the result has generally been judged a failure, I much prefer it to any number of modest art house successes. As usual, Egoyan structures the film as an achronological roundelay of various plotsin this case, a film crew making a movie about the massacre, the troubled past of an Armenian-Canadian woman whose son is working on the project, and a protracted encounter between this son and a customs officer whose gay son’s lover is acting in the same pictureand sometimes this seems mechanical. But the film expresses with uncommon power the highly relevant issue of public indifference to genocide, which is especially well dramatized by a scene with Elias Koteas as an actor playing a Turk. The rest of the cast is pretty interesting too, including David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Arsinee Khanjian, and Christopher Plummer. 116 min. (JR) Read more

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes’s best feature to datea provocative companion piece to his underrated Safe (1995), which also starred Julianne Moore as a lost suburban housewife but is otherwise quite different. This captures the look, feel, and sound of glamorous 50s tearjerkers like All That Heaven Allows, not to mock or feel superior to them but to say new things with their vocabulary. The story, set in 1957, concerns a traditional if well-to-do homemaker who falls in love with her black gardener (a superb performance by Dennis Haysbert) around the time that she discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual. Frankly, I find this movie more emotionally powerful, more truthful about the 50s, and more meaningful than any of the Technicolor Douglas Sirk pictures it evokes, even though it trades in obvious artifice in a way the originals never did. Though technically an independent feature, this is in fact one of the best Hollywood movies around. 107 min. (JR) Read more


If you think 85 minutes devoted to a difficult French philosopher is bound to be either abstruse or watered-down, think again: offscreen interlocutor Amy Ziering Kofman, a former student of Jacques Derrida, collaborating with codirector Kirby Dick, has worked out a very accessible and unpretentious way of conveying both the philosophy and likable personality of her subject. There’s an admirable effort to interconnect the banal facts of his everyday life with his philosophical inquiries without being coy or fussy about it. Following Derrida around in a variety of circumstances (lecturing, visiting South Africa, chatting with friends), this 2002 documentary explores some aspects of his difficult childhood as a Jew in Algeria as well as his philosophy, with his excellent English frequently coming into play to clarify or amplify his subtitled French. (JR) Read more

Femme Fatale

Try to imagine a synthesis of every previous Brian De Palma film; you’ll come up with something not very different from his first made-in-France movie, a personal project for which he takes sole script credit. I enjoyed every minute of it, maybe because De Palma took such obvious pleasure in putting it all together. If you decide at the outset that this needn’t have any recognizable relationship to the world we live in, you might even find it a delight. With Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, and Peter Coyote. 114 min. (JR) Read more