Monthly Archives: February 2006

Night Watch

Adapted from Sergei Lukyanenko’s best-selling fantasy novel, this $4 million feature (2004) grossed four times that amount in its native Russia. Kazakhstan-born director Timur Bekmambetov claims in press notes that there were no fantasy movies shot in Russia before this one, a statement thatlike the movie, with its Moscow rubble and abundant goreindicates an exclusive diet of postapocalyptic vampire flicks from Hollywood. The plot involves forces of good and evil that have maintained an uneasy truce since the Middle Ages, though the punchy, nonstop visual effects (including an animation segment and stylized subtitles that sometimes suggest an online chat) crowd out coherent storytelling. R, 116 min. (JR)… Read more »

Travelling Actors

Japanese director Mikio Naruse cited this funny 1940 farce as one of his favorites among his own films, and though it’s uncharacteristic of his work, the overriding sense of class deprivation is typically Narusean. Performing in the boondocks, two Kabuki actors who play a horse learn that they may be replaced onstage by the real thing; the older of them proclaims his pride in his craft, but that doesn’t deter him from mangling the horse costume while he’s drunk. Also known as Actors Who Play the Horse. In Japanese with subtitles. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

Husband And Wife

Also known as A Couple, this 1953 Japanese feature is another of Mikio Naruse’s dramas about unhappy marriages, the tension exacerbated in this case by the fact that the spouses (Ken Uehara, Yoko Sugi) share living space with a quirky landlord (Rentaro Mikuni). The ending is uncharacteristically hopeful, and the film is notable for its references to abortion and its dashes of Anglo-American culture (a performance by a Chaplin impersonator, renditions of Jingle Bells and Silent Night). In Japanese with subtitles. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Iberia

As in Flamenco (1995), Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura places live music and dance in the abstract space of a soundstage, effectively isolating his material (in this case, music by 19th-century composer Isaac Albeniz) from its social and historical roots. The various numbers are named after locations in southern Spain, but despite all the mirrors, shadows, and projections of period photographs, the ambience is decidedly postmodern (some orchestrations reek of cool jazz, while some dance steps suggest Bob Fosse). The most striking effects in this 2005 feature involve fancy lighting on what looks like yards of cellophane and, at the end, a rainstorm. One can certainly enjoy the performances, but only inside a rather sterile spacio-temporal void. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Pink Panther

Whether one regards this Steve Martin vehicle as a prequel to the Peter Sellers/Blake Edwards comedy series or a rehash of the 70s installments (when Sellers was sometimes too distracted even to sustain Inspector Clouseau’s French accent), it’s decidedly rough sledding. Kevin Kline awkwardly replaces Herbert Lom as the vituperative Inspector Dreyfus, and Cato the houseboy has been replaced by Jean Reno as Clouseau’s bored assistant. Martin, who cowrote the screenplay with Len Blum, halfheartedly imitates Sellers’s accent rather than any actual French one. The vintage 007 babes (notably Emily Mortimer and Beyonce Knowles) are the principal decor, and Shawn Levy is the hack director. The mirthlessly sadistic gags tend to target people in wheelchairs or hospital beds and betray a mild if all-encompassing disgust for the source material and the audience. PG, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wife

Japanese director Mikio Naruse drew on the fiction of Fumiko Hayashi for some of his best features (Late Chrysanthemums, Floating Clouds), and this 1953 drama about a bad marriage begins promisingly with separate disgruntled voice-overs from the wife and husband. But the script, adapted by Toshiro Ide from Hayashi’s novel, fails to dig as deeply into the material as Naruse’s best. (The semiliterate subtitles, with their unsure grasp of English idiom, don’t help.) But this comes from one of Naruse’s richest periods, and the quirky performances by many cast members keep this interesting. In Japanese with subtitles. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

The 13th Letter

Otto Preminger’s 1951 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), a nasty noir thriller about a series of poison-pen letters that terrorize a small town, shifts the action to Quebec, where much of the film was shot. The original film courageously if covertly attacked the sleaziness of collaboration during the German occupation of France; Preminger’s version, scripted by Howard Koch, projects a more generalized as well as sanitized misanthropy. But it’s still one of his best efforts of the periodhe’s so adroit at raising doubts about all the characters that the denouement can’t help but disappoint a little. With Michael Rennie, Charles Boyer, Linda Darnell, and Constance Smith. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Statues Also Die

When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture. So begins the commentary of a remarkable half-hour French documentary (1953) about African sculpture, cosigned by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet. (I haven’t been able to preview the English subtitles, so the translation here is my own.) To my mind, it’s the first major work by all three menthough it comes five years after Resnais’ Van Gogh, which won him his only Oscar to date. One reason why it’s almost never been seen in its integral form is that the French government suppressed its final reel, a blistering attack on French colonialism, for almost 40 years. The beauty and anger of Marker’s provocative text are perfectly matched by Resnais’ exquisite editing and Cloquet’s piercing images. As a poetic meditation on how we perceive, exploit, and sometimes destroy other cultures, this is essential viewing. Showing with Sans soleil (1982, 100 min.), perhaps Marker’s greatest feature-length film essay. (JR)… Read more »

The Case Of The Grinning Cat

I can’t think of a better portrait of contemporary Paris or the zeitgeist of 2001-’04 than Chris Marker’s wise and whimsical 58-minute 2004 video. Marker, now in his 80s, shot the images on the streets of Paris and in its metro stations: graffiti, posters, demonstrations, musical performances, cats (real and cartoon). The original conveys Marker’s commentary only through pithy intertitles, but the English version screening here has an unfortunate voice-over delivered in a heavy French accent by actor Gerard Rinaldi that tries to explain as well as translate these titles. Still, no one can film people in the street better than Marker or combine images with more grace and finesse. (JR)… Read more »

Hard Candy

Torture and mutilation as entertainment seem to be on the rise, in life as well as in movies; what served as mere titillation in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Audition (2001) now gets stretched out to feature length. Tautly directed by David Slade, this drama probably offers more sadism than anyone could want, as a 14-year-old girl and a 32-year-old photographer (Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson, both good) meet on the Internet and arrange to rendezvous in person. The characters are absurd, but if you’re up for this sort of thing, then surely you can con yourself into accepting them. Personally, I’d rather have this movie obliterated from my memory. R, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »

Brooklyn Lobster

Danny Aiello runs a lobster farm on Sheepshead Bay, a family business that’s been put up for auction because the bank has defaulted on a loan; his wife (Jane Curtin) quietly leaves him, and he firmly resists every offer of help from their friends and grown children. Kevin Jordan (Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire), a protege of Martin Scorsese, wrote and directed this dull 2005 autobiographical feature; it feels real, but solid performances fail to enliven the characters. Ancient pop songs turn up on the sound track periodically, as if to compensate for the lack of energy. With Daniel Sauli and Heather Burns. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Scenes From The Life Of Andy Warhol

Jonas Mekas’s 36-minute diary film, shot between 1965 and 1982 and released in 1990. The interest of Mekas’s celebratory hand-held camera style is almost wholly dependent on his choice of subjects; and despite the home-movie charm that infuses all Mekas’s diary films, this one is limited by the fact that his subject is more the Warhol scene than Warhol’s work. Though Mekas has been one of the most passionate defenders of Warhol’s filmmaking, his own stylenostalgic, sentimental, highly personal, and poeticis fundamentally at loggerheads with Warhol’s. Consequently, this selection of glimpses of Warhol and others (including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Lee Radziwill, Mick Jagger, and several children), mainly at festive gatherings or on vacation, hasn’t anything more to say about the work than Chuck Workman’s slick documentary about Warhol, Superstar. (JR)… Read more »

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

A contemporary western with political overtones and acerbic gallows humor, Tommy Lee Jones’s first theatrical feature as director (2005) is impressive. Inspired by the unpunished 1997 killing of 18-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., the script by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros) concerns the accidental and unpunished shooting of the title character, a Mexican ranch hand (Julio Cesar Cedillo) working in west Texas. Jones plays the ranch hand’s foreman and friend, who kidnaps the border patrolman responsible (Barry Pepper) and drags him and Estrada’s corpse across the border, determined to fulfill his friend’s wish to be buried in his remote hometown. A very capable piece of storytelling, clearly showing the influence of Sam Peckinpah and beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Chris Menges, this recaptures some of the grandeur of the classic western while adding modernist and absurdist ironies. With Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo. R, 121 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre, River East 21.… Read more »