Daily Archives: August 23, 2002

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