Monthly Archives: October 2004


I can’t go along with my colleagues who regard Alexander Payne’s entertaining but familiar comedy as one of 2004’s best movies: it lacks the insolence of his Election and the freshness of his work with Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. A depressive, divorced unpublished novelist (American Splendor’s Paul Giamatti) and a cheerful, horny former TV star (Thomas Haden Church) who’s about to be married embark on a tour of the California wine country that includes sexual adventures. The performances of both leads (especially Church), Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh are effective, and Payne does know how to capture two kinds of male menopause. But I can’t say he ever surprised me. R, 123 min. (JR) Read more


Taylor Hackford’s epic biography of Ray Charles differs from other authorized Hollywood musical biopics in one striking detail: its subject, still alive when most of this was made, is almost never shown as a likable person (though reportedly this was even more true of the director’s cut, now available on DVD). The script, by Hackford and James L. White, follows roughly the first half of Charles’s 56-year careeruntil he got off heroin in the mid-60sand then abruptly signs off, apart from a couple of pro forma nods to his virtue. We also get some flashbacks to a childhood trauma and his early struggle with blindness that are supposed to explain something or other. Jamie Foxx expertly captures the singer’s mannerisms, and there are some knowing asides on the corruption of the music business. With Kerry Washington, Regina King, and Clifton Powell. PG-13, 152 min. (JR) Read more


A photographer in Copenhagen (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) betrays his girlfriend (Maria Bonnevie) to pursue an adulterous fling with a Swedish woman (Bonnevie again) who’s visiting with her novelist husband. This arresting brain twister is narrated by the husband, and the shifting of certain particulars implies that either the whole tryst or some aspects of it may be occurring in his jealous imagination. The ambiguities suggest Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Providence, but the show-offy, high-tech visual style couldn’t be further from Resnais’ aesthetics and sensibility. Christoffer Boe makes his directing debut with this feature, and Bonnevie does a fine job of making her double role something more than a gimmick. In Danish and Swedish with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) Read more


Known for his work on gay subjects and for his neo-Brechtian strategies, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson teamed up with South African video activist Jack Lewis for this eclectic period narrative, based on a 1735 sodomy trial that led to the execution of a Dutch sailor (Neil Sandilands) and a Hottentot (Rouxnet Brown). The original trial transcript was translated from Middle Dutch to Afrikaans and then into English; the translation process is part of a distancing strategy that also includes deliberate anachronisms and, for better and for worse, periodically recalls some of the archness of Peter Greenaway. Greyson directed a script he cowrote with Lewis, who also produced. In Afrikaans and Nama with subtitles. 97 min. (JR) Read more

The Burning Soil

Although the great director F.W. Murnau shifted his style from film to film, he’s often better known for his expressionism and use of sets (as in The Last Laugh, Faust, and Sunrise) than for shooting on locations (as in Nosferatu and Tabu). Released in 1922, just after Nosferatu, and long believed to be lost, this tale about two rural brothers is often discussed as a major early work of the second type, and the extracts I’ve seen are impressive. In German with subtitles. 110 min. (JR) Read more

Vera Drake

Mike Leigh paints a warm and tragic portrait of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a good-hearted wife and mother in 1950 London who works as a cleaning lady but also as an unpaid abortionist. Much of the film’s potency derives from its personal edge–the passion for precise period decor, the title dedicating the film to Leigh’s parents (a doctor and midwife), and even the childlike classification of many characters as either good souls or villains. Leigh evokes British director Terence Davies in a brief cinemagoing scene, and the same innocence Davies brought to his stories of postwar Britain informs this parable of a person whose good works land her in prison (also the great theme of Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51). The detailing of Vera’s family is close to perfection. With Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, and Alex Kelly. R, 125 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre. Read more


In all three of his features to date–George Washington, All the Real Girls, and now Undertow–David Gordon Green, who’s still under 30, brings a poetic sensibility to portraits of working-class southerners in which storytelling generally plays second fiddle to character and ambience. This time he’s experimenting with a fairy-tale thriller that only superficially resembles the work of Terrence Malick (the film’s coproducer) and The Night of the Hunter (two kids flee across the wilderness from a murderous adult), two references frequently cited by critics. To these one might add Huckleberry Finn–but the absence of any clearly defined place or period makes Undertow more fanciful than any of them. Despite a few narrative confusions, I found it pure magic. 107 min. Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre. Read more

Dear Frankie

One should know as little as possible in advance about the plot of cinematographer Shona Auerbach’s subtle and graceful directorial debut, written by Andrea Gibb. So let’s just say that the main characters are a single mother (Emily Mortimer), her deaf nine-year-old son (Jack McElhone), his mysteriously absent father, a sailor hired by the mother to briefly impersonate the man, and the Scottish port setting. Considering this film and David Mackenzie’s Young Adam, an exciting new Scottish cinema may be taking shape. PG-13, 105 min. (JR) Read more

In The Battlefields

Danielle Arbid’s first feature is set in 1983 Beirut, where the isolated 12-year-old heroine and her dysfunctional, middle-class Christian-Arab family periodically rush off to bomb shelters. I have a hard time relating to narrative films shot largely in close-ups, even when they’re directed by Carl Dreyer or Sergio Leone; Arbid’s picture is so claustrophobic I couldn’t process all the emotional interchanges. In Arabic with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) Read more


If one discounts the facile and unconvincing ending, this first feature by Guka Omarova, a former actress and writer for Sergei Bodrov (who collaborated with her on the script for this film), offers a convincingly bleak view of how a 15-year-old boy could get ahead in rural Kazakhstan in the early 90s. Hired by a hood to find miners willing to participate in murderous amateur boxing matches, he winds up delivering the prize money of a fighter who dies to the boxer’s girlfriend and son, and eventually gets pushed into crime. 86 min. In Russian with subtitles. (JR) Read more

The Final Cut

This debut feature by writer-director Omar Naim takes place in a future age when a person can have a video chip implanted in his brain, record his entire life, and arrange for the images to be edited down into a funeral memorial. Robin Williams plays Alan Hakman, an editor of such tributes, who’s haunted by a childhood memory and seems modeled on the Gene Hackman character in The Conversation (1974). Naim’s premise has possibilities, but its execution often feels slapdash, and considering that The Conversation itself was a reworking of Blowup (1966), the viewer’s sense of deja vu may be even more excessive than the characters’. With Mira Sorvino and Jim Caviezel. PG-13, 105 min. (JR) Read more

Axis Of Evil: Perforated Praeter Naturam

Arts organizer Jim Swanson, hoping to shed light on the myths of evil and its doers through the philatelic art of the postage stamp and literature, invited Michael Hernandez de Luna to curate an exhibit of stamp art with particular (but not exclusive) attention paid to President Bush. The exhibit yielded a handsome coffee-table book and served as the backdrop for this thoughtful talking-head documentary, directed by Carmine Cervi and narrated by Warren Leming. Among the participants are Bernardine Dohrn, Daniel Ellsberg, Martha C. Nussbaum, Gerhard Schutte, and Howard Zinn, though the DVDlike the bookregisters more as a collection than as a single coherent statement. 84 min. (JR) Read more

10 On Ten

Abbas Kiarostami directs his own making of DV documentary (2003) about his feature 10, and virtually all of it, apart from a few clips, consists of him driving around the hills in northern Tehran where he shot Taste of Cherry, speaking about the advantages of digital video as well as such topics as The Camera, The Subject, The Script, The Location, and The Music. This will be mainly familiar to his fans and useful to viewers who are puzzled by his methods, though the implication that everything in a film can be explained by rational strategy is a little disingenuous. Because of all the verbiage, a sometimes awkward English voice-over has been added instead of subtitles. 83 min. (JR) Read more

Un Chant D’amour

The only film (1950) by the great writer Jean Genet. Silent and wordless, it poetically and delicately recapitulates some of the themes of his novelsspecifically the erotic encounters between two men in separate prison cells. 26 min. (JR) Also on the program: Frederic Moffet’s video Jean Genet in Chicago (26 min.), which reimagines the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention through Genet’s eyes. Read more

Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & The Selling Of American Empire

Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally, both academics in the field of communications, make a persuasive if by now fairly familiar argument that the Bush administration has exploited the September 2001 terror attacks to promote its neoconservative foreign policy. Among the talking heads are Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Tariq Ali, and retired military officers Stan Goff and Karen Kwiatkowski; their anger is well-founded and often energizing. It’s as blotchy looking as Michael Moore’s recent work, but the content is more important. Julian Bond narrates. 68 min. (JR) Read more