Monthly Archives: August 2003

The Magdalene Sisters

Peter Mullanwho memorably played the title role in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe and subsequently wrote and directed Orphans (2000)follows up those features with this equally harrowing 2002 account of young women found guilty of real or imagined sexual indiscretions and incarcerated in Irish labor camps run by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order. (A reported 30,000 women suffered this fate before these convent laundries finally closed in 1996.) Set in the mid-60s, it concentrates on four inmates (Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, Nona-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy) and often calls to mind women-in-prison films; its brutal take on living under totalitarian rule periodically suggests Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mullan makes the authority figures (such as the nun played by Geraldine McEwan) grimly believable, but as in Orphans, there are times when he doesn’t know when to quit. 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

Open Range

Vengeance may be the most overrated and overused theme in movies, but director Kevin Costner makes effective use of it in this classic western tale in which a feud between “freegrazers” (Costner, Robert Duvall, Diego Luna, Abraham Benrubi) and an evil rancher (Michael Gambon) culminates in an extended gunfight. Costner and screenwriter Craig Storper wisely let Duvall take charge most of the time, so that the movie begins to falter only after Costner takes over as lead. Curiously, for a film that aspires to classical storytelling, the principal model appears to be Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller–less for the narrative style than for the look of the town (smoky, makeshift, muddy) and some of its inhabitants. Storper is pretty good at playing with and against certain western cliches in his treatment of the good guys (including Annette Bening’s character), but resorts to pure cliche when it comes to the villians (e.g., Gambon and James Russo). As in McCabe, the handsome ‘Scope landscapes were filmed in Canada. 135 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, City North 14, Crown Village 18, Esquire, Ford City, Gardens 1-6, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, North Riverside, 62nd & Western.… Read more »

Le Divorce

James Ivory collaborated with his usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, in adapting Diane Johnson’s witty novel about contemporary Americans in Paris, and the result is close to the original in spirit even if it differs in some specifics. Kate Hudson plays a footloose Santa Barbaran who arrives in Paris to visit her older sister (Naomi Watts), a poet whose painter husband (Melvil Poupaud) is leaving her, and winds up having an affair with a TV pundit and former diplomat roughly three times her age (Thierry Lhermitte). As in other Ivory-Jhabvala adaptations, ritzy consumerism is very much on display, but what makes this better than most is Johnson’s amused admiration for nearly all her characters, regardless of nationality. (One exception is a crazed American entertainment lawyer, played by Matthew Modine and handled awkwardly throughout.) Especially fine are Glenn Close as a stand-in for Mary McCarthy and Stephen Fry as an art appraiser from Christie’s. With Jean-Marc Barr and Leslie Caron. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »


Writer-director Todd Graff pays tribute to Stagedoor Manora musical-theater summer camp he attended in Loch Sheldrake, New Yorkby using it as the location for this virtual remake of Fame. It’s surefire material, with diverse romantic, sexual, and chemical intrigues punctuated by numbers from well-known musicals, and to his credit Graff addresses many issues of gender and sexual preference that were dodged by that hokey 1980 feature. But some of his story lines, which hinge on a straight guy (Daniel Letterle) flirting with everyone in sight, seem familiar or perfunctory, and a cameo by Stephen Sondheim, who turns up briefly to bestow his blessing on the semifictional Camp Ovation, fails to give this the socko credentials it clearly hungers for. Still, if you can get into the spirit of the proceedings, you’re likely to find some fun. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

And Now . . . Ladies And Gentlemen

According to common usage, the French word stupide comes closer to silly than to dumb, which is how I might rationalize my affection for this harebrained, obvious, but euphoric tale (2002) from Claude Lelouch. Mainly set in and around Fez, Morocco, it traces the budding romance between an international jewel thief (Jeremy Irons) sailing around the world and a touring French jazz vocalist (Patricia Kaas), both of them subject to bouts of amnesia. Hitchcock is one of the acknowledged inspirations (specifically To Catch a Thief), and Michel Legrand wrote the score, both of which may explain my pleasure. Among the other settings are Paris and London, and the secondary cast includes Thierry Lhermitte, Alessandra Martines, Jean-Marie Bigard, and Claudia Cardinale. Much of the dialogue is in English and the rest (mainly French) is subtitled. 133 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Gatekeeper

John Carlos Frey, the writer-director-producer-star of this powerful 2002 independent feature, was born in San Diego, a half mile from the Mexican border, and his harrowing story about the enslavement of illegal immigrants has the feel of something observed firsthand. A sadistic Border Patrol agent, ashamed of his Mexican-American heritage and driven by his hatred of Mexicans, conspires with some equally xenophobic pals to join a group of illegals sneaking across the border and thus dramatize the patrol’s ineffectuality, but he undergoes a gradual conversion once he experiences what the Mexicans endure after their trek to the U.S. Thematically the film starts off like The Believer, Henry Bean’s 2001 drama about an anti-Semitic Jew, and winds up like Sullivan’s Travels without the comedy. Stylistically it recalls a Warners protest feature from the early 30s crossed with 70s exploitation: the dramaturgy may be crude in spots, but the content is shocking and, for the most part, frighteningly believable. With Michelle Agnew and Anne Betancourt. 103 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »


A self-styled ladies man (David DeLuise) meets his match in a single woman (Missi Pyle) who moves into the apartment next door. This 2003 indie comedy by John Putch isn’t very funny, but it’s surprisingly likable for the sheer gusto and flamboyance of Putch, DeLuise, and costar Rodney Lee Conover. Don’t go expecting too much and you might be charmed. Conover wrote the script with Jeff Hause and Dave Hines. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Lives Of Dentists

Craig Lucas’s adaptation of the Jane Smiley novella The Age of Griefthe interior monologue of a repressed dentist who’s fairly sure his wife, also a dentist, is carrying on an affairsat on the shelf for over a decade after the death of the slated director, Norman Rene, but Alan Rudolph has done a fine job with it. I haven’t read the novella, but reportedly the script’s main alteration is expanding a minor character (played by Denis Leary), a spiky trumpet player and patient of the hero, into a major fantasy projection so that his neo-Joycean monologue becomes a dialogue. It’s an excellent idea that feels right psychologically. The couple (Hope Davis and Campbell Scott) have three daughters, all drawn as persuasively as the parents, and the film is equally good in handling the discrepancy between skilled and unskilled parents (the father is much better than the mother) and the complications that ensue when an entire family comes down with the flu (2002). 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

O Fantasma

The title of this sexually explicit Portuguese feature (2000) means the phantom, and that’s clearly how the young hero (Ricardo Meneses), a lonely garbage collector in Lisbon, sees himself. Haunted by kinky homoerotic obsessions, drawn to bouts of anonymous sex, and kept company mainly by a loyal dog, he spies on and picks through the trash of a biker, creeping through the night like a cat burglar. Director Joao Pedro Rodrigues lists Lang, Pasolini, and Cronenberg among his favorite directors, but O fantasma reminded me most of Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, with bondage and latex replacing incarceration and cigarettes. This is not to say that it’s equally good or poetic, but the eroticizing of a whole universe is no less apparent. In Portuguese with subtitles (though the dialogue is fairly sparse). 90 min. (JR)

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The Housekeeper

Emilie Dequenne, the teenage heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999), is nearly unrecognizable as a Parisian maid at loose ends who seduces her much older employer (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a divorced and depressed sound engineer who reluctantly lets himself fall for her. The story of their affair, adapted by director Claude Berri from a novel by Christian Oster, is fairly predictable, but the two leads’ impressively nuanced performances make it less so, and Berri makes skillful use of both actors, as well as Catherine Breillat (director of Fat Girl, here cast as the ex-wife) and jazz pianist Rene Utreger (whose trio performs on-screen). In French with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew

Matthew Buzzell’s 2002 documentary profiles the eloquent and eccentric jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott, whose permanent falsetto, the result of an adolescent disorder, enhanced his singular style of phrasing. Although Scott was a friend and musical colleague of Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton in the 50s and 60s, he had a penchant for trusting the wrong agents, and after a series of unreleased or maginalized albums he disappeared from the scene until the 1990s, when a meteoric comeback led to engagements around the world. After seeing this film last year at the Savannah film festival, I immediately ordered one of Scott’s albums. 78 min. (JR)… Read more »

Give A Girl A Break

The main claim to fame of this low-budget, mainly mediocre 1953 musical, an early effort by Stanley Donen, is that it was shot on sets built for another picturea ploy Jacques Rivette consciously emulated in his 1995 Up Down Fragile. Maybe this is why Donen disowns the film, though Dave Kehr has remarked that, in spite of its saccharine story and saccharine players (Debbie Reynolds, for one) . . . [it] still has its points of interest, including a madly overdone production number involving balloons, confetti, reverse motion, and an impossibly young Bob Fosse, at the start of his career. Marge and Gower Champion are also present, and the latter gets a chance to dance with Fosse. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »


Can you buy the notion of Jennifer Lopez as a hit woman, even in a romantic comedy? It doesn’t look like she, costar Ben Affleck, or writer-director Martin Brest can, even though that’s the setup. Lopez and Affleck play heavies assigned by a crime lord to watch over the kidnapped, mentally challenged young brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor, but this is less a narrative than a lecture-demonstration on the innate superiority of the New Agey woman’s brains, style, femininity, and open bisexuality over the old-fashioned man’s bad taste, violence, and seemingly straight macho bluster. For the most part I was able to accept this thesis and enjoy Lopez in her usual superwoman role, but the script does get awfully preachy in spots. Brief but flamboyant cameos by Christopher Walken and Al Pacino helped keep me distracted from the noble intentions and the silliness. 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Juve vs. Fantomas

To my mind French director Louis Feuillade is the greatest filmmaker of the teens–greater even than D.W. Griffith or Maurice Tourneur–yet aside from this single episode of his first great serial, Fantomas (1913), his work hasn’t been screened commercially in the U.S. for 90 years. Like his masterpiece Les vampires (1915), this thriller pits high-tech master criminals against staid bourgeois types and more resourceful working-class stiffs, mixing fantastic and surreal imagery with documentary glimpses of Paris. Fortunately Les vampires is now available here on VHS and DVD, and a disc of the complete and restored Fantomas can be ordered from France, but this rare theatrical screening of Feuillade’s work is still a major event. 64 min. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films.… Read more »