Monthly Archives: May 2003

Cremaster 5

The third installment sequentially (1997) of writer-director Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle is just as lethargic and self-satisfied as the others I’ve seen, though less monotonous rhythmically. An opera set in late-19th-century Budapest, with extended portions of the action taking place underwater, it stars Ursula Andress in the only singing role (though her voice is dubbed by Adrienne Csengery) and Barney in three parts that seem to sum up his self-image (Diva, Magician, Giant). This avant-garde pageant is characteristically mythoprosaic (to coin a term), though it does make the most of its Hungarian locations. If it were less doggedly florid and had any sort of humorcamp or otherwiseit might qualify as a big-budget remake of an early Werner Schroeter opus. The music is by Jonathan Bepler. 55 min. (JR) Read more

Cremaster 4

With or without a comprehensible story, crosscutting is one of the least interesting forms of editing, and Matthew Barney addresses the problem much as Robert Altman does when he’s on autopilotby pretending it doesn’t exist. This lumbering avant-garde spectacular (1994) stars Barney as the Loughton Candidate, a tap dancing and crawling satyr juxtaposed with two motorcycle teams racing across the Isle of Man. The film invites us to consider the multiple meanings of its elaborate surrealist imagerymuch of it viewed from Barney’s favorite camera position, the celestial overhead shotbut all I could think about was hype and money. The colors are characteristically lurid. 42 min. (JR) Read more

Cremaster 1

Sculptor, writer-director, and former football player Matthew Barney returns to Bronco Stadium in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to stage a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine while two Goodyear blimps float overhead. Inside each blimp are four air hostesses and an elaborately set banquet table, and under each table lies a winsome figure known as Goodyear (Marti Domination), whose idly created configurations of green or purple grapes are duplicated by the dancing girls below. This slick spectacle (1995), packed with metaphors relating to procreative biology, tries very hard to impress us with its production values, but I was bored by its programmatic literalism and mechanical crosscutting. 41 min. (JR) Read more

A Family Affair

An arch Jewish-lesbian comedy without laughs (2001), made outside the usual American independent circuits, this is largely the work of writer-director-star Helen Lesnick, who models her persona on Woody Allen (and even includes a couple of references to him in the dialogue, in case we’ve missed the point). After splitting up with her girlfriend in New York (Michele Greene), she visits her gay-sensitive parents in San Diego and hits it off with a California WASP (Erica Shaffer); a Jewish wedding between the two is threatened by Greene’s reappearance. The couple’s parents have a bit more personality than the other characters, but on the whole this is strictly by the numbers. 100 min. (JR) Read more

The Decay Of Fiction

Eight years in the making, this haunting and highly watchable 35-millimeter experimental feature by Pat O’Neill (2002, 73 min.) is partly a color documentary on the ruins of Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel (site of the first Oscar ceremony as well as the Robert Kennedy assassination) and partly a speculative patchwork of its decaying fictions. Working with sound designer George Lockwood and a team of 45 actors, O’Neill has superimposed transparent characters and props over the settings and added dialogue, music, and sound effects from black-and-white Hollywood features. A special-effects wizard whose day job is working on Hollywood blockbusters, O’Neill showed in his 1989 Water and Power a poetic feeling for human evanescence in relation to southern California locales; here he proves equally astute at showing how our sense of history becomes tainted by and entangled with Hollywood myths. (JR) Read more

The Last Letter

Frederick Wiseman’s first fiction film (2002), a one-woman performance by the Comedie Francaise’s skillful and expressive Catherine Samie, is so well made that I can only feel guilty for not liking it more. Its text is taken from a Russian novel by Vasili Grossman; in it the author tries to imagine a letter written to him by his mother, a Jewish doctor in a German-occupied Ukrainian city, shortly before her extermination. The text is vivid and powerful and the performance riveting, although the fancy configurations of expressionist shadow Wiseman employs throughout this black-and-white film suggest that he felt the package needed something more. It does: a little more breathing room for the viewer. In French with subtitles. 61 min. (JR) Read more

Todo El Poder

Fernando Sarinana’s slick and show-offy Mexican comedy (1999, 102 min.) starts out as fun, but the laughs have drained away by the end. A recently divorced filmmaker (Demian Bichir) making a documentary about urban crime borrows his ex-wife’s car while she’s on holiday, then he and his young daughter are robbed by a masked gang who make off with the car. The ensuing mystery-thriller plot features a goofy crook who appears to be playing Nicolas Cage playing Elvis (Luis Felipe Tovar), a love interest (Cecilia Suarez), and an attack on police corruption; it all adds up to more than the movie can handle, especially when much of the cinematography looks like it was printed on sandpaper. In Spanish with subtitles. (JR) Read more

The Matrix Reloaded

The first of two sequels to The Matrix released in 2003, courtesy of the original writer-directors, the Wachowski brothers, who have amplified the camp elements of the originalincluding the ultrasolemn performances of Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Mosswhile retreading the same metaphysical conceits. Lines like We’re all here to do what we’re here to do reverberate more than long enough for us to ponder their full profundity, and the martial arts choreography is neither graceful nor excitingit’s worthy of a video game. Only after cars, trucks, and a motorcycle join the actioneasily outclassing all the actorsdoes the movie take on a modicum of vitality. But if you’re 14 or younger in age or sensibility, you may giggle at some of the bons mots. 138 min. (JR) Read more

Lilya 4-ever

The 16-year-old title heroine (Oksana Akinshina), living in the former Soviet Union, is abandoned when her mother leaves for the States, befriended by an equally desperate 14-year-old boy, and ultimately forced into white slavery in Sweden after being promised a job and furnished with a fake passport. For all the social realism of this 2002 feature, it still seems rather dubious; writer-director Lukas Moodysson lays on the misery and the tear-jerking dream sequences (complete with angel feathers), not to mention the techno tunes, seldom bothering with character nuance or social analysis. The production company was the one behind Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, and one finds here a similar kind of sadism posing as humanism, albeit without von Trier’s flair for melodrama. The result is grimly effective, but it made me long for Hollywood junk. In Russian and Swedish with subtitles. 109 min. (JR) Read more

Almost Salinas

This first feature by writer-director Terry Green begins a bit archly and ends with numerous loose ends tied in Hollywood bows, but in the middle section, when what we know about the central characters isn’t nailed down, I was moved by the economy of the writing and ensemble playing and the sweet mysteries they generated. Near the spot where James Dean had his fatal road accident, a remote diner gets taken over for a few days by a movie crew shooting a Dean biopic, and all the localsthe owner (John Mahoney), the cook (Ian Gomez), a couple of waitresses (Virginia Madsen and Amanda Pitera), and a tourist guide (Nathan Davis)are affected. Lindsay Crouse has a wonderful cameo as the owner’s ex-wife, and Linda Emond isn’t bad as a visiting journalist. 94 min. (JR) Read more

City of Ghosts

Matt Dillon’s directing debut (2002) has been getting a bad rep among some critics, but it kept me intrigued and entertained. Cowritten by Dillon and noir novelist Barry Gifford, it’s a sort of bargain-basement Graham Greene story about an insurance scam artist (Dillon) who travels to Cambodia in search of his seedy mentor (James Caan), and the players–among them Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone, and Gerard Depardieu at his hammiest–keep things bubbling. This is very much the work of a cinephile, calling to mind such middle-period Orson Welles jumbles as The Lady From Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin as well as dozens of other movies I only half remember, a familiarity that’s essential to its charm. 117 min. Century 12 and CineArts6, Landmark’s Century Centre, Water Tower. Read more

Blue In The Face

Easy to take but even easier to leave alone, this 1995 instant spin-off of Smoke was shot in less than a week, shortly after the earlier film wrapped. Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (director and writer of Smoke, respectively) concocted a series of improvs set in and around the same Brooklyn cigar store, featuring a few of the same actors (chiefly Harvey Keitel, who served as executive producer) and numerous guest stars. Madonna turns up to deliver a singing telegram, Jim Jarmusch ruminates on what he claims will be his last cigarette, Lily Tomlin impersonates a street person, Keith David plays the ghost of Jackie Robinson, John Lurie jams with a couple of percussionists, Michael J. Fox does nothing much at all, and so on. The clubhouse atmosphere is a major drawback: the actors seem to be having more fun than the audience, though if you aren’t expecting much you might be diverted. 84 min. (JR) Read more