Monthly Archives: August 2004

Vanity Fair

Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) directed this adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s best-known novel. It’s no Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 take on Thackeray), but the first half is better than average for an opulent Classics Illustrated film, thanks to realistic period detail, brisk storytelling, and Reese Witherspoon as the saucy rags-to-riches antiheroine Becky Sharp. Then the whole lumbering weight of the production catches up with the filmmakers, slowing the proceedings to an interminable crawl. With Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Romola Garai, Gabriel Byrne, and Bob Hoskins; written by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet, and Julian Fellowes. PG-13, 137 min. (JR) Read more

The Last Emperor (director’s Cut)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually ravishing spectacle (1987) about the life of Pu Yi (1905-’67) is a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time. Pu Yi (played by three children at ages 3, 8, and 15, and by John Lone as an adult) remained an outsider to contemporary China for most of his life, and Bertolucci uses his remoteness from China as an objective correlative of our own cultural distance as Westerners (virtually all of the dialogue is rendered in English). Working with visual and thematic rhymes, Bertolucci is interested in charting the gradual substitution of the state for the familyand two key agents in this process are the father figures of his Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole) and a governor at a Chinese prison. This 219-minute director’s cut, a full hour longer than the U.S. release version that won Oscars for best picture and directornever before seen theatrically in Chicago, though long available on DVDfills out this pattern in much greater detail. (JR) Read more

The Blonds

Filmmaker Albertina Carri was four in 1977, when she lost her leftist parents to Argentina’s dirty war. In this thoughtful and witty 2003 experimental documentary she uses an actress (Analia Couceyro) playing herself to question the neighbors about her family during that era, sometimes joins her on-screen, and reflects on the elusiveness of memory and truth. In Spanish with subtitles. 89 min. (JR) Read more


My all-time favorite movie, this 1967 French comedy by actor-director Jacques Tati almost certainly has the most intricately designed mise en scene in all of cinema. Dave Kehr had it right: “Tati attempted nothing less than a complete reworking of the conventional notions of montage and, amazingly, he succeeded. Instead of cutting within scenes, Tati creates comic tableaux of such detail that, as Noel Burch has said, the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully. Within the film’s three large movements, Tati’s M. Hulot goes from fear of his ultramodern, glass-towered environment to a poetic transcendence of it.” This restored 70-millimeter version, with four-track DTS sound, expands the possibilities of becoming creatively lost in Tati’s vast frames and then finding one’s way again. His studio-constructed vision of Paris begins in daytime with nightmarishly regimented straight lines and right angles and proceeds to night with accidental yet celebratory curves of people instinctively coming together. It peaks in an extraordinary sequence, set in a gradually disintegrating restaurant, that comprises almost half the film: once various musicians start to perform, the viewer’s gaze inevitably follows the customers in a kind of improvised dance, collecting and juxtaposing simultaneous comic events and details. Read more

Certain Women

A low-rent version of Erskine Caldwell’s trashy 1957 novel of the same title, shot on various cheap video formats and cast with nonprofessionals. This small-town tale about working-class women was inspired by the filmmakers’ academic interest in the story’s alleged protofeminism. Peggy Ahwesh codirected with Bobby Abate; a talented and adventurous filmmaker on other outings, she seems limited this time by her pedagogical agenda. The picture also suffers from a tendency to slip in and out of period. 75 min. (JR) Read more

We Don’t Live Here Anymore

Adapted by Larry Gross from two stories by Andre Dubus (We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Adultery), this well-acted drama about two tightly interconnected married couples (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern, Peter Krause and coproducer Naomi Watts) in a small college town in Washington State is especially acute about the complex dynamics whereby a lousy spouse can be a good parent and vice versa. John Curran directed; the very capable Maryse Alberti handled the cinematography. R, 104 min. (JR) Read more


Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, presents a critical analysis of American social problems in this 136-minute video, the first installment of a four-part, daylong lecture that’s also available on VHS and DVD. This may sound forbiddingly dry, but Avakian (making what’s reported to be his first public appearance since 1979) is skillful, lucid, charismatic, and less dogmatic than you might imagine. This first part lacks the sort of tactical information found in the later ones, and to its detriment Avakian focuses on American horror stories such as lynchings while ignoring the victims of Stalin and Mao. But his dissection of contemporary America is often strong and never condescending; come with an open mind and you might be surprised. (JR) Read more

Red Lights

A disaffected middle-aged couple (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Carole Bouquet) drive south to pick up their kids from summer camp, the husband drinking steadily along the way. After a nasty separation, the husband gives a lift to an escaped convict (Vincent Deniard), and what began as domestic melodrama veers in the direction of Hitchcockian suspense and existential dread. Over time the imagery becomes increasingly inflected by the husband’s viewpoint until it periodically starts to register like a nightmare. Director Cedric Kahn, Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, and Gilles Marchand collaborated on the well-honed script, derived from a Georges Simenon novel. The film works well with quiet tensions, but becomes less convincing and interesting once it moves beyond them. In French with subtitles. 106 min. (JR) Read more

A Lucky Day

Filmed in 2000 during the riots in Buenos Aires, this vibrant 2001 indie feature by Sandra Gugliotta may already be a little dated, but it’s still the only Argentinean film I saw in last year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival that seemed to reflect current events. After a brief fling with a visiting Italian, a young woman at loose ends (vividly played by Valentina Bassi) tries to raise money by dealing drugs so she can split for Rome. Her relationships with her grandfather, an emigre anarchist from Italy, and with a local partner in crime who loves her are both touching, but the film is most potent in capturing a time and place. In Spanish with subtitles. 97 min. Facets Cinamatheque. Read more


The title of Gillo Pontecorvo’s monumental 1969 film about 19th-century colonialism and revolution was going to be QuemadaSpanish for burneduntil Spanish authorities pressured him into substituting Portugal as the imperial power. In his favorite performance, Marlon Brando plays an English agent sent to a Caribbean island circa 1840 to foment a slave revolt; a decade later he returns to crush the rebellion for a sugar company. Cut by 20 minutes, retitled Burn!, and dumped, the film never had a chance to reach a wide public. This restored version has the drawback of Brando being dubbed into Italian, but it’s still remarkableconceptually and intellectually more ambitious than Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, even if not as successful. Brando departs from habit in playing someone intelligent but callous rather than dumb but sensitive. With subtitles. 132 min. (JR) Read more

Intimate Strangers

An attractive married woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) wanders into the office of a tax accountant (Fabrice Luchini) and, mistaking him for a psychiatrist whose office is nearby, begins blurting out confidences. Their sessions continue even after she belatedly discovers her error, and the accountant, a mousy bachelor, becomes obsessed with her. Like Monsieur Hire (1990), which also paired Bonnaire with director Patrice Leconte, this is both a claustrophobic psychological thriller (paradoxically shot in ‘Scope) and a French bourgeois melodrama mired in prudery (the French title translates as Overly Intimate Secrets). This held me, but I was grateful when it released me. Jerome Tonnerre wrote the script. In French with subtitles. R, 105 min. (JR) Read more

Code 46

In a near future when international travel is subject to totalitarian restrictions, a married insurance inspector (Tim Robbins) travels to Shanghai to find a forger of travel permits (Samantha Morton), then falls in love with her. Michael Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People) directed a script by his usual collaborator, Frank Cottrell Boyce, that suggests more than it explains. Many of my colleagues have voiced appreciation for the love story and the versatility of the writer-director team, but for me this film sounds better than it plays; there are too many echoes of Alphaville (finding the future in contemporary urban locations) and of the dreamy drift of Blade Runner. But the style of the opening and closing credits is pretty spiffy. R, 92 min. (JR) Read more


Bela Tarr made this remarkable color video (1982, 67 min.) for Hungarian television, though it also served as his film-school thesis. Taped in a Budapest cellar and environs, it reduces the Shakespeare play to only two shots (the first, running about four minutes, appears before the main title), and all the witches are men. Most of the action occurs in the foreground, and the elaborate movements of the camera and actors are masterfully staged. Tarr has described this as a kind of documentary of the actors’ performances, and as such it’s a transition between the social realism of his earlier projects (Family Nest, The Outsider, and The Prefab People) and the diabolical formal virtuosity of his later ones (Almanac of Fall, Damnation, Satantango, and Werckmeister Harmonies). In Hungarian with subtitles. (JR) Read more

Gideon’s Day

With its eccentric mix of realism and mannerism, London locations and stylish sets, John Ford’s 1958 adaptation of a John Creasey novel is decidedly un-Hollywood. Chronicling a packed day in the life of a Scotland Yard inspector (Jack Hawkins), it seems almost plotless at first, which may explain why the U.S. release, titled Gideon of Scotland Yard, was ultimately cut by almost a quarter. The American version was also printed in black and white, which is unfortunate, because the vivid and very English colors are one of the best things about the original, a restored print of which will be shown here. This offers lots of Fordian comedy and a wealth of fine English actors, including Cyril Cusack, the formerly blacklisted Anna Lee, Anna Massey (Peeping Tom, Frantic) in her screen debut, and Hawkins, who’s especially effective playing some version of Ford himself. 88 min. Gene Siskel Film Center. Read more

Zhou Yu’s Train

Like some of Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’s studio vehicles, this soapy romance exists only for what Gong Li can bring to it: a certain amount of soul and nuance. What it brings to her, by contrast, is dubious. She plays a ceramic painter who travels by train every weekend to visit her retiring poet boyfriend (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and on one trip meets a veterinarian who tries to woo her. Writer-director Sun Zhou costarred with Gong in The Emperor and the Assassin and directed her in Breaking the Silence; his achronological narrative is daring, but his execution is too reminiscent of arty TV commercials, and casting Gong in a smaller second role only confuses matters. In Mandarin with subtitles. 106 min. (JR) Read more