Monthly Archives: August 2002

Pilgrimage

According to many John Ford specialists (including his best biographer, Joseph McBride), this offbeat Ford feature (1933, 95 min.) about a woman who sends her son off to his death in World War I in order to break up his romance is one of his greatest, though also one of his most disturbing. Ford regular Dudley Nichols wrote the script with Philip Klein and Barry Conners, adapting a story by I.A.R. Wylie; with Henrietta Crosman, Heather Angel, Norman Foster, and Hedda Hopper. (JR) Read more

Beat And Beyond: Films By Alfred Leslie

These three films by painter-provocateur Alfred Leslie constitute a sort of healthy beatnik sandwich. The first bread slice is Pull My Daisy (1959, 29 min.), his legendary Lower East Side collaboration with Robert Frank (who shot and codirected), Jack Kerouac (the writer and narrator), Anita Ellis and David Amram (jazz vocalist and jazz composer respectively), and Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky (all silent actors here, along with Delphine Seyrig in her first film performance). The second slice is the lesser known Birth of a Nation 1965 (1997, 25 min.), a tantalizing fragment salvaged from a two-hour sound feature that was shot on 8-millimeter in the 60s and then largely lost in a fire. Goofy, funny, challenging, and unruly in the best sense, it’s mainly a group grope with unrelated subtitles, plus a guest appearance by Willem de Kooning as Captain Nemo and the voice of Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade. Laid between these irresponsible and lighthearted works is The Last Clean Shirt (1964, 40 min.), a teasing bit of Zen minimalism and a prestructural-filmmaking prank that I hope won’t drive the audience out of the theater. It runs us several times through the same uneventful car ride, timed by a clock that’s mounted on the dashboard and accompanied on the sound track by the woman passenger’s untranslated chatter in what sounds like an eastern European language; various sets of subtitles translate the chatter, reveal the black driver’s thoughts, and creatively confuse us even further. Read more

Secret Ballot

Highly entertaining and deceptively simple, this comic road movie (2001, 105 min.) by Iranian-born writer-director Babak Payami traces the bristling relationship between an idealistic woman collecting votes in the Iranian national election and the suspicious rube of a Turkish-Iranian soldier assigned to chauffeur her. The setting is Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, and the comic clash of personalities sometimes recalls The African Queen. Payami subtly explores just what weAmericans, Iranians, and othersmean by democracy, theoretically as well as practically, and he never forgets that this movie was in production during the Florida recount in 2000. Beautifully assembled in sound as well as image, this employs long takes and both realistic and surrealistic touches to let the audience make up its own mind about the characters and varied situations, yet it’s also a finely crafted entertainment that works better than most current Hollywood movies. In Farsi with subtitles. (JR) Read more

One Hour Photo

About a decade ago Robin Williams went through a significant career change, no longer choosing projects that couldn’t be understood by a child of ten. The only way this first feature by music video director Mark Romanek violates this norm is by offering some ambiguity about whether a couple of scenes are real or imaginedthough ten-year-olds who’ve mastered Carrie should sail through them without much difficulty. The tale of a lonely photo-counter worker who becomes obsessed with a family whose snapshots he develops, this watchable if relatively threadbare movie has taken on an undeserved reputation as an art film because of its many festival showings. It’s actually a discreet exploitation effort, the more lurid events being mainly left to the imagination on the apparent assumption that the audience wants to imagine such stuff. The character played by Robin Williams is at best a well-formulated theorem rather than a human being, and the other characters aren’t any more substantial. I was intrigued by the details of how a Kmart-type store is run, but the people in this story could be products on the shelves. With Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole (a bit warmer than the other participants), and Erin Daniels. 98 min. Read more

The Miles Davis Story

Mike Dibb’s 2001 documentary about the great jazz trumpet player, produced for England’s Channel Four, is fairly absorbing as biography, a multifaceted portrait from the vantage points of many people who were close to him (lovers, wives, children, other relatives, fellow musicians, and a couple of key record executives). But don’t go hoping to hear any extended music or even much commentary about Davis’s art, and if, like me, you’re steeped in his 40s, 50s, and 60s work and began to lose interest once he went electric, be aware that his later music is heard and discussed more than anything else. 124 min. (JR) Read more

Merci Pour Le Chocolat

Claude Chabrol is seldom more elegant as a stylist than when he’s working with familiar elements, and this 2000 movie has a slew of them: dysfunctional families (this one has two); Isabelle Huppert as a perverse individual smoldering under an appearance of placid normality; scenic settings (in this case Lausanne, in the French part of Switzerland); and the plot of an American thriller transposed to the French bourgeoisie (adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, a child psychiatrist who also helped write The Ceremony). New elements include actor Jacques Dutronc, a fair amount of classical music (two of the main characters are pianists), and, unfortunately, a conclusion stuffed with so many improbabilities that it left me gaping in disbelief. Prior to that, this is pretty much fun. In French with subtitles. 99 min. (JR) Read more

Mostly Martha

As a portrait of a compulsive and neurotic chef trying to coexist with other people–in particular an eight-year-old niece whose mother has been killed and an Italian sous chef who joins her kitchen staff–this is a well-made and entertaining romantic comedy-drama, providing ample proof that German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck can turn out a classier commercial feature than most of her Hollywood contemporaries. (She’s helped in particular by ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher, whose selection of accompanying music–much of it drawn from his own catalog, including two fine Keith Jarrett cuts–is excellent.) But as a showcase for Martina Gedeck, a beautiful and highly creative actress I’ve never seen before, this is better than good, it’s wonderful: if facial expressions can be compared to colors, Gedeck works with an unusually broad palette, constantly surprising us, and she helps make her costars shine. These include Maxime Foerste as the niece and Sergio Castellitto as the sous chef. 107 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre. Read more

Elvis On Tour

Following the design of Woodstock, Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel shot and edited this 1972 documentary in a multiscreen format, so don’t expect it to look like much on video. 93 min. (JR) Read more

The Beast Of The City

Despite the fact that this opens with a message from Hoover (Herbert, not J. Edgar) urging us to glorify policemen rather than gangsters, this 1932 talkie is said to be better than average, as a police chief (Walter Huston) sets out to battle organized crime. Adapted by John Lee Mahin from a W.R. Burnett story, it was directed by Charles Brabin (The Mask of Fu Manchu), and certainly its cast is exceptional: Jean Harlow, Wallace Ford, Jean Hersholt, Tully Marshall, and 11-year-old Mickey Rooney. 87 min. (JR) Read more

The World According to John Coltrane

I was lucky enough to see John Coltrane’s classic quartet several times in the 60s and was always amazed by his total relaxation amid the cascading wails and yodeling fast runs that came out of his saxophone. He, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones were completely absorbed, listening to one another so intently that one couldn’t help but join them, even in a noisy nightclub. This 1992 documentary by writer-director Robert Palmer, codirected by Toby Byron, starts off with familiar talk about family and church, some of it voiced over scratchy and blotchy TV performance footage, so I was prepared for the worst. Then comes a lively sequence that cuts between still photographs in sync with “Giant Steps,” and from then on this is pure pleasure. Byron and Palmer are among the few jazz documentarians with the good sense to let us listen to the music for reasonably long stretches without interruption; they present an entire fine Coltrane solo on “So What” with Miles Davis, a relatively stiff rendition of “My Favorite Things” on TV followed by a much better version in concert, a complete performance of “Impressions” with Eric Dolphy on alto sax and a fleet solo by Tyner, an equally full version of “Alabama” punctuated by talking heads, and two healthy chunks of “Naima” that exemplify Coltrane’s later and freer style. Read more

Possession

Two literary scholars (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) doing research in England on separate Victorian poets jointly discover that these poets–one of them married (Jeremy Northam), the other a lesbian (Jennifer Ehle) with a live-in lover–may have had a secret affair. While chasing after clues, the scholars develop a possible relationship of their own. Oscillating between past and present, this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s prizewinning novel sounds like it could be too precious for words, but I was wooed by its sexy romanticism all the way through the mysterious and beautiful coda. Director and cowriter Neil LaBute has a mixed record in my book, but if I’m reading the signals correctly, here he’s serving the material rather than playing auteur, and his two cowriters–David Henry Hwang (the author of M. Butterfly) and Laura Jones (who scripted An Angel at My Table)–are unusually skillful. Reportedly the biggest departure from the novel is making Eckhart’s character an American; Paltrow handles the manner of an English academic with grace and aplomb. 102 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Crown Village 18, Esquire, Lake, Webster Place. Read more

Happy Times

A poor, middle-aged bachelor (comic actor Zhao Benshan) who keeps failing to find a spouse through a dating service finally meets a chubby divorcee with a son and stepdaughter who strikes him as ideal. After planning a lavish wedding he can’t afford, he contrives with a friend to spruce up an abandoned bus as the Happy Times Hotel and rent it out on an hourly basis to couples seeking privacy, but his own prudishness ruins the plan. Meanwhile, he becomes acquainted with his fiancee’s spoiled son and neglected, blind stepdaughter, the latter dreaming that her father will return to pay for an operation that restores her eyesight. Zhang Yimou’s disappointing stab at comedy and soap operaa far cry from The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), which in retrospect may be his best filmis interesting as a look at both failed patriarchy and middle-class aspirations in mainland China, but as a tug at the heartstrings it’s simply too calculated and contrived to register with much conviction. In Mandarin with subtitles. 106 min. (JR) Read more

{die Hard} Trilogy

Bruce Willis, stripped for action like Rambo, stars in these three adventure thrillers, playing a New York detective who’s perpetually running into terrorists while he’s off the clock. In Die Hard (1988, 131 min.) he visits Los Angeles to see his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and arrives at her Century City office building just as it’s being taken over by a gang headed by Alan Rickman. This serviceable if rather overblown thriller features a spectacular Cecil B. De Mille-like conclusion and makes good use of its skyscraper set, but the script is fairly routine and much of the wit consists of characters calling one another dickhead; John McTiernan directed. As for Die Hard 2 (1990, 124 min.), if your idea of a good time is watching stupid, unpleasant people insult and brutalize one another, this second installment will be right up your alley. Here the bad guys cause planes to crash at Dulles Airport in Washington and make unwitty wisecracks before they shoot people. The talented Renny Harlin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) directed this gory, violent, protofascist nonsense, but I wonder if even D.W. Griffith could have transcended the mean-spirited and dehumanizing script. I haven’t seen the third and (to date) final installment, Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, 128 min.), Read more

Nine Queens

Fabian Bielinsky’s hugely entertaining first feature (2000) is a brisk comic thriller about a young con artist (Gaston Pauls) and an older one (Richard Darin) trying to top one another over a day in Buenos Aires. It’s been compared to David Mamet, quite understandably, but there are two highly significant aftereffects: the plot falls to pieces as soon as one stops to think about it (not that this matters much, given the subject matter), and even more interestingly, the mood and milieu eerily predict the current economic crisis in Argentina. In Spanish with subtitles. 115 min. (JR) Read more

Moscow Elegy

Alexander Sokurov’s heartfelt video documentary (1987, 88 min.) about his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky, completed shortly after the latter’s death in exile. As far as I can tell, it’s called Moscow Elegy only because Tarkovsky spent many of his early years in Moscow; indeed, Sokurov’s customary fetishism of place extends to schools Tarkovsky attended, apartments and houses he lived in, and (climactically) a tree he once planted. Most of the footage concerns the making of Tarkovsky’s last two films, in Italy and Sweden, as well as his death in France, though there’s also a fair-sized chunk of him as a young actor in the 1963 Russian opus Ilyich Gates (which looks very much like Jacques Rivette’s first feature). Despite the blotchiness of some images and the seemingly disordered structure, this is a document (more than a documentary) that Tarkovsky fans won’t want to pass up; others may find the experience of one Russian mystic brooding over another a bit like white on white. In Russian with subtitles. (JR) Read more