Daily Archives: September 2, 2004

Modern Times

I don’t have much patience with colleagues who dismiss Charlie Chaplin by saying that Buster Keaton was better (whatever that means). To the best of my knowledge, with the arguable exception of Dickens, no one else in the history of art has shown us in greater detail what it means to be poor, and certainly no one else in the history of movies has played to a more diverse audience or evolved more ambitiously from one feature to the next. The opening sequence in Chaplin’s second Depression masterpiece (1936), of the Tramp on the assembly line, is possibly his greatest slapstick encounter with the 20th century, and as Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have brilliantly observed, the famous shot of his being run through machinery equates him with a strip of film. Still, there’s more hope here than in Chaplin’s preceding City Lights, perhaps because this time the Tramp has Paulette Goddard, another plucky urchin, to keep him company. 89 min. (JR)

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House Of Sand And Fog

First-time director Vadim Perelman directs his own adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novela tragic melodrama about real estatewith a fine sense of balance. Jennifer Connelly plays a recovering alcoholic who loses her house after an error is made in her tax assessment; Ben Kingsley is an Iranian colonel in exile who acquires the house at auction and won’t sell it back. Responsibility for the ensuing tragedy is so finely calibrated that neither can be comprehensively blamed or exculpated. Shohreh Aghdashloo is especially good as the colonel’s wife; Ron Eldard is also fine as a cop and family man who falls for the dispossessed woman, although the script doesn’t accord his character as much depth as it does the central figures. R, 126 min. (JR) Read more

Looney Tunes Cartoon Extravaganza

A dozen Warner Brothers cartoon classics, including Chuck Jones’s imperishable What’s Opera, Doc? and One Froggy Evening as well as There They Go-Go-Go, Little Beau Pepe, Rabbit Seasoning, No Barking, Rabbit’s Kin, Fractured Leghorn, Zoom and Board, Bunker Hill Bunny, Heaven Scent, and Hot Cross Bunny. (JR) Read more

The Cremator

While it’s a bit programmatic for my taste, this 1968 black comedy in black and white is undeniably creepy — once director Juraj Herz enters the fractured mind of his protagonist, he refuses to budge. Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks (who cowrote the screenplay with Herz) and set in Prague before and during the German occupation, it concerns a smugly bourgeois crematorium operator (Rudolf Hrusinsky) who loses his sanity and drifts into collaboration with the Nazis, ultimately turning on his half-Jewish wife and their children. An outlying figure of the Czech New Wave, Herz demonstrates an undeniable flair for telegraphic, almost subliminal editing and deep-focus mise en scene. In Czech with subtitles. 95 min. (JR) Read more


With a minimum of dialogue, Francisco Athie’s 2002 experimental narrative feature follows the spiritual journey of an elderly Mexican miner who’s fatally injured in a cave-in, then visited by an androgynous, extraterrestriallike Mayan fairy who helps him prepare for death. I loved the beauty and simplicity of this film’s special effects as well as its sound and music, but its underlying meaning, which seems less fresh, didn’t hold me as much. Certain scenes involving occult rituals reminded me of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov; other sequences suggested an Eraserhead with fewer laughs. But on the whole it’s a triumph of style over content. In Maya with subtitles. 86 min. (JR) Read more

Big Fish

A young man (Billy Crudup) comes to terms with his dying, self-mythologizing father (Albert Finney) in this fantasy directed by Tim Burton (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!) from a script by John August based on Daniel Wallace’s novel. The illustrations of the old man’s tall tales would seem tailor-made for Burton, a magical realist par excellence, but there’s not much substance underlying the whimsy. The Alabama setting is as phony as the one in Forrest Gump, and for all of Finney’s effectiveness as a yarn-spinning geezer, his whoppers seem disconnected from his character and each othera weakness Burton fails to resolve with an awkward Felliniesque finale. With Ewan McGregor (as the father’s younger self), Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny DeVito, and Steve Buscemi. PG-13, 110 min. (JR) Read more

The Company

The most interesting aspect of Robert Altman’s feature with and about Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet is how hard it is to separate its documentary elements from its fictional ones. Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of the company’s artistic director as a blowhard and asshole is at least partially fictional, and too familiar as an Altman type to seem fresh; the exciting footage of the dance performances is obviously documentaryand exemplary in its unfussy use of long shots. Between these two poles are scenes whose relation to reality is more indeterminatein particular those focusing on the rehearsals, which comprise the heart of the film. Neve Campbell, who cowrote the story with scenarist Barbara Turner, plays one of the dancers; although her character isn’t especially interesting, her story furnishes a minimal narrative thread to hold the rest together. PG-13, 112 min. (JR) Read more