Monthly Archives: April 2006

United 93

To the credit of British writer-director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), this taut, partly speculative account of the 9/11 flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field has practically none of the exploitative melodrama one would expect from a major studio release. The film cuts between the delayed Newark-to-San Francisco flight, a military air-defense facility, and air-traffic-control centers in Boston and New York (with some of the real-life participants playing themselves), then switches to real time once the plane takes off. Greengrass takes pains to keep events believable and relatively unrhetorical, rejecting entertainment for the sake of sober reflection, though one has to ask how edifying this is apart from its reduction of the standard myths. (One myth it perpetuates is that the passengers succeeded in storming the cockpit before the plane crashed.) R, 111 min. (JR) Read more

Stick It

Jessica Bendinger, author of the cheerleader comedy Bring It On, wrote and directed this inspirational Disney tale about a 17-year-old with attitude (Missy Peregrym) who has a brush with the law and gets sent to an exclusive gymnastics academy for girls. The always capable Jeff Bridges plays her tough-love coach, and by the end her diffident alienation has given way to group spirit and achievement. Despite the familiar story arc and MTV visuals, Bendinger puts this across with a certain amount of pizzazz, and the competitive gymnastics are often spectacular. Rap and black slang abound, though the movie doesn’t have a single black character. PG-13, 105 min. (JR) Read more

A One And A Two… (Yi Yi)

Edward Yang’s most accessible movie is also his best since A Brighter Summer Day, displaying a comparable mastery that won him the prize for best direction in Cannes. In keeping with the musical connotation of the English title, the thematic counterpoint between generations is as adroit as the focus on a single generation was in his earlier masterpiece. Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral in the same contemporary Taipei family, the film takes almost three hours to unfold, and not a moment seems gratuitous or squandered. Working again with nonprofessional actors, Yang coaxes a standpout lead performance from Wu Nienjen (a major screenwriter and director in his own right) as a middle-aged partner in a failing computer company who has a secret Tokyo rendez-vous with a former girlfriend he jilted 30 years ago, now living in Chicago, while trying to team up professionally with a Japanese games designer. (The chats between the latter two are all in English, and Yang’s own background in American computers serves him well.) Other major characters include the hero’s spiritually traumatized wife, her comatose mother, his pregnant sister and her debt-ridden husband, his teenage daughter, and his eight-year-old son. The lattera comic and unsentimental marvel named Yang-Yangmay come closest to serving as Yang’s own mouthpiece; the kid becomes obsessed with photographing what people can’t see, such as the backs of their own heads, which comprises for him the half of reality that’s missed. Read more


I was the head of the critics’ jury at the Hong Kong film festival last spring that awarded half its first prize to this macabre comedy-thriller from Thailand (1999, 114 min.) It’s as commercial as anything from Hollywoodas was writer-director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s previous feature, which I liked even more, a crazed Tarantino spinoff called Fun Bar Karaoke (1997). Ratanaruang spent eight years in New York studying at the Pratt Institute and working as a freelance illustrator and designer, so his mastery of American-style entertainment obviously owes something to a prolonged absorption in this culturethough I find the Thai and global traits on view here no less striking. This picture might be described broadly as a clever version of Hitchcock lite, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have pertinent things to say about the present Asian economic crisis. (JR) Read more

Place Vendome

This 1999 feature by former actress Nicole Garcia is striking above all because of its lead performanceCatherine Deneuve as the widow of a big-time jeweler, a former alcoholic whose life suddenly springs back to action when she discovers seven diamonds squirreled away by her late husband. What transpires after that may have some of the trappings of an exotic thriller, but it’s basically a character study, and Deneuve and her fellow actorsin particular Emmanuelle Seigner and Jean-Pierre Bacri (Same Old Song)shine in these circumstances. This is the first film in the Film Center’s European Union film festival, a welcome event that over the next couple of weeks brings about two dozen new European features to town. (JR) Read more

When Do We Eat?

This 2005 farce about a hellish Passover seder panders to middle-class Jews as gleefully as Tyler Perry’s movies pander to middle-class African-Americans, though there’s less religiosity and a greater degree of self-hatred in the vulgar stereotypes. The dysfunctional family includes a father (Michael Lerner) who manufactures Christmas tree ornaments, a Hasidic son, a lesbian daughter, another daughter who makes a living as a sexual surrogate, and a druggy son who slips dad some ecstasy (his psychedelic trip is accompanied on the sound track by Jewish folk tunes). Salvador Litvak directed a script he cowrote with Nina Davidovich; among the old pros gamely attempting to navigate the strident humor are Mili Avital, Jack Klugman, and Lesley Ann Warren. R, 93 min. (JR) Read more

The Fastest Gun Alive

If memory serves, this is a slightly better than average black-and-white western (1956), directed by Russell Rouse, with a pacifist theme recalling the much superior The Gunfighter (1950). Rouse, a writer-director who started off ambitiously with such projects as The Well (1951) and The Thief (1952) and would later direct the ingenious House of Numbers (1957), eventually won an Academy Award for writing Pillow Talk (1959), then wound up making The Oscar (1966); this Glenn Ford effort comes just before the decline. With Broderick Crawford, Jeanne Crain, and Russ Tamblyn. 92 min. (JR) Read more

The Notorious Bettie Page

Writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and cowriter Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) offer a refreshingly open-minded take on the 50s pinup/porn queen, effectively played by Gretchen Mol as a good-natured airhead. The film captures the garish colors and wispy black and white of home movies and lurid magazines of that period, and there’s something provocative about making Page–who dropped out of modeling after she found religion half a century ago–an almost blank slate on which we’re invited to write various feminist and queer theories. Which, as it turns out, objectifies her almost as much as porn did. With Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, and Lili Taylor. R, 91 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Landmark’s Century Centre. Read more

Samad Film Festival

Underground, experimental, and in some cases banned videos from Iran. Reviewing Mohammad Shirvani’s Navel (2004, 83 min.), Joshua Katzman wrote, Five Iranians share a cramped Tehran apartment in this low-budget video drama, shot mostly after dark with night vision that renders the characters as ghostly apparitions with glowing eyes. . . . Shirvani keeps the narrative to a bare minimum, allowing the characters to reveal themselves as their daily routines are recorded, usually by the middle-aged Mani. Oldest of the five and owner of the apartment, he displays an aggressive if affable sense of entitlement as he tracks his cohorts: an expatriate woman visiting from New York, an Iranian Turk who was once an Islamic cleric, a divorced father mostly seen visiting with his young son, and a country boy completing his military duty. No less transgressive are Ehsan Fouladi’s Gasoline (2004, 24 min.) and Mahdi Zarringhalami’s Shiny Muddy Beast (2006, 10 min.): in the former a woman kills and disfigures her boyfriend while the camera periodically turns upside down; the latter features a kind of spastic choreography between the camera-wielding lead actress and the camera filming her. All three are in Farsi with subtitles. (JR) Read more

The Comedy Of Work

Luc Moullet’s 1987 film looks at the bureaucratic contradictions of the French labor exchange and at various characters who pass through it. As critic Jill Forbes once remarked, Moullet seems characteristically amused that an organization dedicated to keeping people in work should in fact turn out to keep them out of work in order to keep itself in work. 90 min. (JR) Read more

A Girl Is A Gun

This 1971 film is Luc Moullet’s feature Une Aventure de Billy le Kid with funny English dubbing. Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud and Rachel Kesterber costar with some scene-stealing landscapes. 77 min. Read more

Opening Tries

Luc Moullet’s miniature 1988 epic shows the director’s baroque ingenuity at trying to remove a twist-off cap from a large bottle of Coke. 15 min. (JR) Read more

The Smugglers

Shot in black and white, 1967’s The Smugglers (1967, 81 min.) is the closest thing to a testament in Lulc Moullet’s oeuvre; despite some derisive allusions to adventure thrillers, the tone is closer to sweet-tempered absurdism, with throwaway gags about backpackers and imaginary borders in the French Alps. 81 min. (JR) Read more

Subject Two

An eclectic and not very successful medical student (Christian Oliver) accepts a job from a mysterious doctor (Dean Stapleton) and reports to a remote cabin in the snowy Rocky Mountains. As it turns out, the doctor thinks he can restore life to the recently deceased and needs the student as a guinea pig (his second, hence the title) to be killed and resurrected repeatedly. Writer-director Philip Chidel has a disturbing and gripping story to tell, made all the more resonant by the skilled acting and strong homoerotic undertones. He comes close to ruining this at the end, however, with a self-referential twist that’s too clever for its own good. 93 min. (JR) Read more

The Wild

A lion cub from a New York zoo gets shipped off to Africa accidentally, and his dad sets out to rescue him, accompanied by some animal pals. This computer-animated Disney feature shares the same premise as the Dreamworks hit Madagascar (2005), and the macho-colonialist message comes through even louder and clearer: the American animals may be stupid innocents, but they still triumph over the savage jungle beasts, with their primitive religion. The CGI characters seem less like artwork than humans wearing animal suits, but despite the overall ugliness and sitcom timing, this has enough action, violence, and invention to keep kids amused. Steve Spaz Williams directed. G, 94 min. (JR) Read more