Yearly Archives: 2003

Alexandra’s Project

Common threads of rage and revenge run through Australian director Rolf de Heer’s previous featureThe Tracker, an avant-garde aboriginal westernand this thriller in which a man comes home to an empty house and watches a video prepared for him by his wife. While extremely unpleasant, Alexandra’s Project (2003) is compulsively watchable, and actors Gary Sweet and Helen Buday both turn in tour de force performances. What begins as a story about a smug and insensitive husband getting his just deserts crosses a line that will have some blanching at the wife’s behavior as well. Like the work of Neil LaBute and David Mamet’s Oleanna, de Heer’s film puts us all on the spot. 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Talking Picture

Before turning 70 in 1978, Manoel de Oliveira had made just five features; since then he’s directed another 20, some of them masterpieces and some just mannerist curiosities. A comic parable deceptively couched in the form of a 19th-century travel narrative, this 2003 film is a little of both. A young Portuguese history professor and her daughter sail from Lisbon to Bombay, tracing the roots of civilization during stopovers in France, Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Three famous women (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, Irene Papas) join the voyage and dine every night with the American captain (John Malkovich). In some ways this seems naive and archaicespecially the assumption that civilization is basically found north and not south of the Mediterraneanbut it conceals a Bu… Read more »

Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election

For those who regard the 2000 presidential contest a stolen election, this 50-minute video documentary by Richard R. Perez and Joan Sekler supplies a dossier of revealing facts about the Florida recount, and those who think George W. Bush won fair and square might well test their convictions against the evidence presented here. The directors are far from disinterestedhow could they be?but their subjectivity is defined more by their trust in democratic institutions than by their party affiliation: Al Gore’s strategy of asking for recounts in only four counties rather than the entire state is deemed both foolish and fatal. Especially telling is the video’s account of how tens of thousands of black voters were illegally but strategically disqualified as convicted felons. Peter Coyote narrates. (JR)… Read more »

Gothika

Halle Berry plays a psychiatrist specializing in the criminally insane who finds herself incarcerated for an act of criminal insanity in this dopey, violent horror thriller. Director Mathieu Kassovitz and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez are so bent on keeping spectators glued to their seats that they don’t mind violating plot or character credibility, a tendency already evident in the opening sequence when Penelope Cruz, as one of Berry’s patients, shifts gears emotionally right in the middle of a monologue. The movie seems equally inclined to natural and supernatural solutions for its mysteries (apparently whichever is closer to hand), and the natural ones are almost as outlandish as the supernatural ones. Robert Downey Jr. supposedly costars, but the dominance of Berry’s action sequences reduces him to a prop. R, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dreamcatcher

I’ve read enough of Stephen King to know that his narrative talent sometimes allows him to break the golden rule of restricting fantasy and horror tales to one fantastic premise apiece. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan is no slouch as a storyteller either, but in this adaptation of King’s novel, he and cowriter William Goldman managed to lose me almost completely. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, and Timothy Olyphant play four men who gained telepathic powers from a supposedly disabled pal when they were boys and now have to battle a group of alien body snatchers in snowbound Maine. For most of the running time I was confused, as well as mildly nauseated by the gross-out details of a tale that tends to be more slimy than scary. As the complications proliferated (apparently a second alien race has been fighting the first one, and for years Morgan Freeman, a noncomedic military man in black, has been chasing down both groups), I started to shift my focus toward waiting for this elaborate mishmash to end. And believe me, it took a while. With Tom Sizemore, Donnie Wahlberg, and Rosemary Dunsmore. 145 min. (JR)… Read more »

Road To Morocco

After goofing their way across Singapore (1940) and Zanzibar (1941), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby star in their third colonial-imperialist romp through the third world (1942). Bing sells Bob to a slave trader; watch for Anthony Quinn and Yvonne De Carlo. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thunderbolt

Except for The Saga of Anatahan, this 1929 release is probably the most underrated of Josef von Sternberg’s sound pictures, and it’s underrated for the same reason: Sternberg is known almost exclusively as a visual stylist, but the most exciting thing here is the highly creative sound track. It’s Sternberg’s first talkiea near remake of Underworld, a spiritual romance about a doomed gangster, with the same lead (George Bancroft) and Fay Wrayand although this is a minority opinion, I find it better than the original in many ways. With Richard Arlen and Tully Marshall. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Thunderbolt

Except for The Saga of Anatahan, this 1929 release is probably the most underrated of Josef von Sternberg’s sound pictures, and it’s underrated for the same reason: Sternberg is known almost exclusively as a visual stylist, but the most exciting thing here is the highly creative sound track. It’s Sternberg’s first talkie–a near remake of Underworld, a spiritual romance about a doomed gangster, with the same lead (George Bancroft) and Fay Wray–and although this is a minority opinion, I find it better than the original in many ways. With Richard Arlen and Tully Marshall. 85 min. An archival 35-millimeter print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Looney Tunes: Back In Action

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck costar with Brendan Fraser (playing the hapless son of superspy Timothy Dalton) and Jenna Elfman (playing a Warners executive who fires Daffy) in this spirited, quintessential, and often hilarious Saturday matinee romp by Joe Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers). The movie scavenges from Who Framed Roger Rabbit for its mix of animated and live-action characters and from the Austin Powers movies for its espionage spoof and over-the-top villain (Steve Martin), but actually it’s more indebted to 50s and early-60s pop cinema: Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface, Hope and Crosby’s Road to Bali, and assorted cartoon, horror, and SF touchstones of the period (everything from This Island Earth to Psycho), referenced both in Larry Doyle’s script and in peripheral visual details. I had a ball. PG, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cliffhanger

The idea behind this Exquisite Corpse experiment (2003) is intriguing: using the same cast, 11 separate Chicago crews taped successive segments of this 92-minute narrative, each with only a week to view the previous episode or episodes, then write and shoot the next installment in its own style. There’s some attractive photography in chapter two, bizarre camera angles in three, good acting in five, striking electronic music and color filters in seven, and other felicities along the way. But I found the convoluted storywhich has something to do with a snuff videoalmost impossible to follow until things began to coalesce in the final chapters, by which time I had lost interest. The problem is that the shifting styles and accumulating plot turns become distractions rather than serving the story as a whole. (JR)… Read more »

Cet Amour-la

Josee Dayan’s 2001 film about French writer Marguerite Duras (1914-’96) is based on an autobiographical novel by Yann Andrea, a onetime philosophy student 38 years her junior who spent 16 years with her as friend, confidant, lover, drinking companion, and secretary. It’s a curious blend of soap opera a la Beloved Infidel (Sheilah Graham’s account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days) and halfhearted portrait of Duras as a person and writer. Jeanne Moreau, who looks nothing like Duras but was a friend of hers, does a fine job capturing her personal style (including her alcoholic abuse of Andrea). But there’s something self-defeating about approaching an unconventional artist so conventionally, and the story becomes touching only insofar as it overrides much of what made Duras special. In French with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Cowards Bend The Knee

The title of this 64-minute, 2003 video by Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary) refers to its having been commissioned as a gallery installation for the Rotterdam film festival, to be watched through a succession of arcade-style peep-show machines. Screening here as a self-contained work, it seems Maddin’s most personal project yet: the hero is a hockey player named Guy Maddin; his mother, like Maddin’s, runs a beauty salon; and Maddin even casts some of his own family members. But the overall feel is phantasmagoricpitched, like most of Maddin’s work, in the style of a half-remembered late silent feature or early talkie. (JR)… Read more »

When It Rains

One of my all-time favorites, this beautiful 12-minute short by Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, The Glass Shield), made for French TV in 1995, is a jazz parable about locating common roots in contemporary Watts and one of those rare movies in which jazz forms directly influence film narrative. The slender plot involves a Good Samaritan and local griot (Ayuko Babu), who serves as poetic narrator, trying to raise money from his ghetto neighbors for a young mother who’s about to be evicted, and each person he goes to see registers like a separate solo in a 12-bar blues. (Eventually a John Handy album recorded in Monterey, a “countercultural” emblem of the 60s, becomes a crucial barter item.) This gem has been one of the most difficult of Burnett’s films to see; it screens with his fine feature To Sleep With Anger (see separate listing). Northwestern Univ. Block Museum of Art.… Read more »

Cowards Bend the Knee

The title of this 64-minute video by Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary) refers to its having been commissioned as a gallery installation for the Rotterdam film festival, to be watched through a succession of arcade-style peep-show machines. Screening here as a self-contained work, it seems like Maddin’s most personal project yet: the hero is a hockey player named Guy Maddin; his mother, like Maddin’s, runs a beauty salon; and Maddin even casts some of his own family members. But the overall feel is phantasmagoric–pitched, like most of Maddin’s work, in the style of a half-remembered late silent feature or early talkie. Also on the program are Maddin’s justly celebrated six-minute short The Heart of the World (2000), showing in 35-millimeter, and his five-minute Odilon Redon, or the Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (1995). Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Eden’s Curve

I’m sorry to say that Anne Misawa’s direction of her actors didn’t allow me to believe in Hart Monroe and Jerry Meadors’s story about a hunky, innocent freshman at a ritzy Virginia college juggling relationships with his troubled roommate, the roommate’s girlfriend, and his handsome poetry professor. The problem isn’t so much the plot as the labored performance style, though the crude dialogue didn’t help. A striking camera style and the blurry, leafy textures of the setting provide some visual distraction. 93 min. (JR)… Read more »