Yearly Archives: 2002

Afghan Alphabet

Made in December 2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 44-minute documentary focuses on Afghan refugee children during their first day of school in a village near the Iranian border. It’s indicative of the highly interactive and sometimes competitive nature of recent Iranian cinema that the title of this film can probably be traced to Kiarostami’s recent ABC Africa, which can be traced to Amir Naderi’s A, B, C . . . Manhattan (1997). And at times Makhmalbaf, who doubles as offscreen narrator and interviewer, may be trying (without a great deal of success) to emulate Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (1962), even down to the cadences of the poetry he recites near the end. There’s something moving about kids seeing education as a precious luxury and crowding classrooms to capacity even when they can’t officially enroll, and given that America was attacking their country one can understand a boy saying he doesn’t like either America or the Taliban. Yet I’m not entirely comfortable with Makhmalbaf’s aggressive efforts to persuade one little girl to remove her veil: the film is structured around the children’s first lessonsaying, writing, and reading the Afghan word for waterand getting the girl to show her face long enough to wash it. Read more

Children Of The Century

I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this lush 1999 period picture, which chronicles the tempestuous affair between George Sand and Alfred de Musset, and it certainly doesn’t provide a sense of what either was like as a writer or even as a thinker. But as a literary bodice ripper this is better than average, partly because of its glimpses of early-19th-century bohemianism in France and Italy but mostly because Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel manage to keep the story hot and unpredictable. As the opening title acknowledges, the age difference between Sand and Musset was only six years, yet curiously the film depicts their relationship as if she were twice his age. Director Diane Kurys collaborated with Murray Head and Francoise Olivier Rousseau on the script; this originally ran 135 minutes but has been trimmed down to two hours for American audienceswhich perhaps accounts for the confusing and cryptic allusion to Sand’s ten-year relationship with Chopin. In French with subtitles. (JR) Read more

Magic Sun And Cry Of Jazz

Two short films featuring Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz artist whose big band the Arkestra got its start in Chicago. I haven’t seen Phill Niblock’s Magic Sun (1968, 17 min.), but most accounts suggest its visuals may be more striking than its music. Whether this is true or not, the music in Edward O. Bland’s eccentric Chicago-made short Cry of Jazz (1959, 31 min.) is absolutely essential. The paradox here is that Bland’s film centers on jazz and needs various kinds of performance to illustrate its points, yet what’s being played is only adequate; if the music were good enough to distract one from the talk, the film wouldn’t work as well. Lucid and provocative, this is recommended viewing for any jazz novice, one of the best social readings of jazz form I know. (JR) Read more

The Bank

Hot on the heels of the Enron scandal comes the U.S. release of this slick, efficient industrial thriller from Australia, a hokey but highly entertaining tale of corporate greed that should be especially satisfying if you’re pissed off at big business. Anthony LaPaglia makes a wonderful villain as the slithering CEO, David Wenham plays the mathematical wizard he hires, and Sibylla Budd is the latter’s girlfriend. This 2001 release is Robert Connolly’s first feature as writer-director, and he seems to know what he’s doing every step of the way. 103 min. (JR) Read more

We Can’t Go Home Again

Nicholas Ray ended his Hollywood career with his most expensive production, 55 Days in Peking (1963), and followed it ten years later with his least expensive, an experimental and politically radical independent feature made with his film students. Each movie is a shambles, though if I had to choose between them I’d probably opt for this one, which is certainly the more original. Ray and his students play themselves in docudrama situations that culminate in Ray’s (fictional) suicide, and often he combines several images into crowded frescoes. The film reeks of countercultural alienation and anguish, and when it premiered at Cannes in 1973, Ray spoke of trying to make what in our minds is a Guernica out of such materials as a broken-down Bolex and a Mitchell that costs $25 out of navy surplus. He tinkered with the film for years, and the 1976 date commonly assigned to it refers to a second unfinished version, which, lamentably, is unavailable. It’s upsetting in many ways, but as a document of its time there’s nothing remotely like it. 90 min. (JR) Read more

Land Of The Pharaohs

Howard Hawks’s only attempt at a wide-screen blockbuster (1955), much disparaged afterward by Hawks and many others, is actually fairly awesome if you can get beyond the clunky dialogue (some of it written by William Faulkner, as well as Harry Kurnitz) and the campy evilness of the Joan Collins character. An epic about the building of the pyramids, it comes a lot closer to Red River than some critics would care to admit; Jack Hawkins is the pharaoh, and Hawks discovery Dewey Martin and James Robertson Justice fill out the cast. 106 min. (JR) Read more

Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet

This 1966 release could be as dumb as its title, but the planet is actually Venus, the footage mainly from a Russian movie (Planet of Storms), and the director Curtis Harrington, working under the pseudonym Jonathan Sebastian. With Basil Rathbone (whose scenes were shot on the sets of Planet of Blood) and Faith Domergue. 80 min. (JR) Read more

Revolution #9

A creepy portrait of American helplessness (2001, 91 min.) by writer-director Tim McCann, whose only previous feature is Desolation Angels (1995). The title, taken from a sound collage on a Beatles album, refers to a TV commercial closely studied by a young schizophrenic in Manhattan (Michael Risley), who believes it’s sending him secret messages. As in his earlier film, McCann is something of a pathologist, but the object of his scrutiny is less the schizophrenic than the way practically everyone in his orbit tries or doesn’t try to cope with himfriends, relatives, acquaintances, employers, doctors, HMO bureaucrats (tellingly, many of the social functionaries are named after film noir directors: Karlson, Lang, Fuller, Hathaway). The only person who’s really attending to him is his fiancee (Hal Hartley discovery Adrienne Shelley), though she doesn’t get much help from anyone else. Spalding Gray has a hilarious cameo as the director of the commercial, whose vanity blinds him to the hero’s madness when he’s asked to give an interview, but in fact just about everyone in this sharp, passionate feature is chillingly good. (JR) Read more

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

Jean-Luc Godard’s devastating 1991 film about the collapse of the Berlin Wall is probably the most underrated and neglected of his major late films, perhaps because its hour-long running time makes it difficult to program theatrically. The basic conceit is that Lemmy Caution, the American-style tough guy of Godard’s Alphaville–Eddie Constantine in his last performance–has been working as a mole in East Berlin since the 60s; cast adrift in West Germany, he wanders through a puzzling post-cold war landscape littered with historical memories of various kinds. Sorrowful and funny, bittersweet and elegiac, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero has an emotional directness rare in Godard’s work, and it’s certainly the most accessible of his late films. Also on the program is Alain Resnais’ extraordinary documentary Night and Fog (1956, 32 min.), one of the first and still one of the best cinematic treatments of the Holocaust. Written by Jean Cayrol (who subsequently scripted Resnais’ Muriel), with music by Hanns Eisler, the film is both a formal and a philosophical precursor to Shoah in its use of contemporary death-camp locations. The Godard film, screening in a 16-millimeter print, is in French and German, the Resnais, screening in 35-millimeter, is in French; both are subtitled. Read more

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes’s best feature to date–a provocative companion piece to his underrated Safe (1995), which also starred Julianne Moore as a lost suburban housewife but is otherwise quite different. This brilliantly and comprehensively 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 and accompanied by a classic Elmer Bernstein score, 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 that the originals never did. Though technically an independent feature, this is in fact the best Hollywood movie around, telling the kind of story that might have been told half a century ago if a contemporary filmmaker had been transported back to the studio system and given a free hand. Don’t miss it. 107 min. Read more

Jon Jost in Chicago

A major filmmaker who has lived in Europe for the past several years, Jon Jost is back in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade to present two programs on successive nights at different venues. Among the most original, resourceful, and independent of American independents, with an awesome body of work to his credit, he’s recently been reinventing himself through digital video, with results that range from the soporific London Brief (1998) to the beautiful, endlessly fascinating Muri Romani. Judging from what I’ve been able to sample so far, the silent In the Rays of Light of Ria Formosa (1999, 112 min.), which Chicago Filmmakers and Columbia College are presenting on Wednesday, ranks much closer to the latter. Described by Jost as “a spiritual portrait of a place and time,” it offers a meditative look at Cabanas, Portugal, that exploits the quirks of the discontinued Sony DX700 camera for exquisite out-of-focus impressionist effects. The following evening the Gene Siskel Film Center will present Six Easy Pieces (2001, 68 min.); shot in Portugal and Italy and employing various kinds of narration and music, it too explores video as a painter’s medium, with subjects that include a museum, a car trip, cobblestones, street kids, and little girls swimming. Read more

The Weight Of Water

Like Neil LaBute’s Possession, this melodrama features a lot of historical sleuthing in the present intercut with a lot of repressive sexual chicanery in the 1800s, as an English photographer (Catherine McCormack) sails to the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast to investigate the long-ago murders of two young women. But whereas Possession was relatively light on its feet, this is so overloaded from the outset that it can only sink. If all that interests you is the solution to the mystery story (which is pretty good, featuring Sarah Polley, Vinessa Shaw, Ciaran Hinds, and the late Katrin Cartlidge), then this will keep you engaged roughly half the time. If you’re more interested in the sexual machinations on board the sailboat (with Sean Penn as the photographer’s famous-poet husband, Josh Lucas as his brother, and Elizabeth Hurley as the latter’s flirtatious English girlfriend), then you may be irritated by the flashbacks that keep interrupting them. Even if you like both stories, you may be puzzled by director Kathryn Bigelow’s overwrought mixmaster effects. Screenwriters Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle adapted a novel by Anita Shreve. 114 min. (JR) Read more

Satin Rouge

While looking for her teenage daughter in a cabaret, a widowed seamstress (Hiam Abbas) befriends a belly dancer and winds up becoming a popular dancer herself in this sensual Tunisian feature about self-discovery. Writer-director Raja Amari, who grew up watching Egyptian musicals and once studied belly dancing, seems more interested in the film’s nervy female-empowerment fantasy than in depicting a social milieu in any detail, but that’s OK with me. Similarly, Abbas often comes across more as a performer than as an actress, but her beauty, her authority as a dancer, and the obvious pleasure she takes in her craft wind up counting for more than dramatic skill. In short, I never quite believed the story, but this movie is more about feeling than thinking. In Arabic with subtitles. 99 min. (JR) Read more

Songs From The Second Floor

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, much of whose background is in commercials, has described the influences behind this highly depressive and highly stylized look at modern life as painterly. But his long takes and stationary camera setups also suggest the stagespecifically Ionesco’s absurdist theaterwhich is one reason this 2000 feature, with its endless traffic jam, its petty and multiple cruelties, its pasty-faced executives, and its surreal details often seems more old-fashioned than modern. The plot, in which a tired businessman whose son has been institutionalized burns down his own factory in a fit of despair, is finally less striking than some of the eerie images, which grow more monumental toward the end. In Swedish with subtitles. 98 min. (JR) Read more

Space Is The Place

In John Coney’s 1974 video the avant-garde jazz artist Sun Ra turns up in Oakland after years in outer space, rapping with ghetto youths and playing cards with the devil. Its lighthearted surrealist high jinks, dressed up with SF trappings and black-power rhetoric, make for pleasant enough viewing, but the music seems strictly incidental. 63 min. (JR) Read more