Monthly Archives: January 2007

The Take

Made by the couple Avi Lewis (director) and Naomi Klein (writer), this 2004 documentary chronicles how laid-off workers in Argentina took over some 200 closed factories and started them up again as leaderless co-ops, with every worker receiving the same salary. The filmmakers aren’t blind to some of the contradictions and anomalies of this movement–they interview one co-op worker who’d recently voted for the neoconservative Carlos Menem, which is a bit like an American union worker supporting Bush–but they’re primarily interested in the story’s potential as an inspirational object lesson for the rest of the world. (Klein’s best-selling account of the antiglobalization movement, No Logo, has a similarly positive and almost festive air in spots.) In English and subtitled Spanish. (JR)… Read more »

Smokin’ Aces

A Las Vegas entertainer (Jeremy Piven) decides to snitch on the mob and as a result lots of people try to kill him. Based on this outing, writer-director Joe Carnahan (Narc) can’t tell a story worth a damnespecially not a complicated mishmash like this one. But given the advanced case of Quentin Tarantino syndrome on display, he’s obviously hoping that a sufficient number of baroque mutilations, tortures, and corpse disposals with lots of fancy-tough dialogue and elaborate deaths that we’re encouraged to applaud will carry us over the rough and empty spots. He even has the chutzpah to claim some sort of moral agenda at the end, but designer butchery is what dominates throughout. With Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Jason Bateman, Ray Liotta, and Alicia Keys. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wave: New Experimental Films From China

These films and videos are as all over the map as China itself, and not just because curator Li Zhenhua has drawn works from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In contrast to the mainly propagandistic hymns to industrialization of early Soviet cinema, these chronicles of disorienting changes are full of ambivalence and skepticism. From the musical deconstruction of TV newscasters in 8GG’s News Dance to the kinky surrealism of Cao Fei’s Burners, and the eclectic inventiveness of Yang Fudong’s Backyard-Hey! Sun Is Rising to the weird, unattractive puppet animation of Zhou Xiaohu’s Beautiful Cloud, the sole common trait here seems to be aggressiveness. The only things resembling tone poems are a few stray intervals in the otherwise frenetic San Yuan Li, a 40-minute documentary in black-and-white ‘Scope by a dozen artists about the rapid urban development around Guangzhou. In Mandarin with subtitles. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Romantico

Mark Becker’s 2005 documentary focuses on Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez, a 57-year-old mariachi player who returns to his family in Salvatierra, Mexico, after struggling as an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco. It’s old-fashioned in many respects: Becker shot it in 16-millimeter and Super-16 over three and a half years, and Muñiz Sanchez tells much of the story himself in voice-over. Regrettably Becker seems more interested in what’s typical about his protagonist than in what’s exceptional, so this proves to be fairly dull. I was amused by the fact that Muñiz Sanchez and his musical partner call themselves a trio because it’s more commercial, but when the film follows his other jobs (working at a car wash in the U.S., running a pushcart in Mexico) it seems to aim for the generic. 80 min.… Read more »

Merry Go Round

Erich von Stroheim was the director for the first five weeks of shooting on this opulent Universal production (1923), set in a studio-built Vienna, until Irving Thalberg replaced him with the more docile and relatively unmemorable Rupert Julian. Reportedly only about 600 feet of Stroheim’s footage remains, but at least portions of his story and production design persist in the rest. With Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin; George Siegmann replaced Wallace Beery, who resigned in protest when Stroheim was fired. 110 min. (JR)… Read more »

God’s Step Children

This freakish 1938 melodrama by African-American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, about a light-skinned child (Jacqueline Lewis) and woman (Gloria Press) hoping to pass for white, has often been cited as an indication of Micheaux’s own alleged racism on the matter of skin color. It’s also a prime instance of how this skillful silent director never seemed to find the budgets or the wherewithal to adapt fully to sound, sometimes with disorienting and even deconstructive results, as when actors are seen clearly reading their lines from cue cards. 65 min. (JR)… Read more »

Baby Doll

From the Chicago Reader (January 17, 2007). — J.R.

One of Elia Kazan’s most underrated movies is his only pure comedy, scripted by Tennessee Williams and shot on location in rural Mississippi. Carroll Baker stars (in her debut) as a virgin child bride hitched up to Karl Malden at his most unsavory; Eli Wallach (in another debut) is brilliant as Malden’s business rival who manipulates both of them. Though this film was roundly condemned for salaciousness by the Legion of Decency when it came out (1956), its plot actually pivots around the ambiguous matter of whether sex actually takes place or not, and it’s the seediness of the southern milieu — Baker’s dirty neck rather than her dirty mind or morals — that seemed to have the censors up in arms. But it’s largely Kazan’s authentic feeling for the locale, aided by Boris Kaufman’s superb black-and-white cinematography, that makes this movie so special, combined with first-rate ensemble work. With Mildred Dunnock. 114 min. (JR)

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My favorite online film magazine (Chicago Reader blog post, 2007)

My favorite online film magazine

Posted By on 01.17.07 at 04:36 PM

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I’m a frequent contributor to Rouge, so I hope nobody thinks I’m tooting my own horn if I come right out and say that I regard it as the best film magazine going that’s exclusively online. It’s been around since 2002, and it happens to be based in Australia, but you might not even notice this if you were scanning the table of contents of any issue, because it’s far and away the most international of film magazines in English. The latest issue, number ten, has contributors from Australia, Brazil, France, Hungary, Japan, Portugal, Russia, and the U.S., including some filmmakers (Pedro Costa and Mark Rappaport) as well as critics writing about films from most of those countries plus England, India, and Bosnia. About half of the 16 contributors are writing in English, about a third are translated from French, Japanese, or Portuguese, and a couple more express themselves exclusively in the form of a photograph or film frames. In fact, one of the most fascinating of Rouge‘s former issues, number five (2004), devoted itself exclusively to images selected by 52 contributors.

It’s fairly highbrow, and relatively austere in spite of its ingenious uses of images, so I can’t pretend that Rouge is geared to every taste.

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Alpha Dog

Teenage drug dealers in swank southern California, determined to collect from a stubborn client, kidnap his 15-year-old brother (Anton Yelchin), but the kid has the time of his life being a hostage. Apart from the grim forebodings of tragedy, writer-director Nick Cassavetes seems to have modeled this ambitious, fictionalized account of a true story on Larry Clark’s kiddie-porn shockers, but he doesn’t know what to leave out, and the movie becomes excessively complicated with ancillary agendas. The actorsincluding Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, and Harry Dean Stantonham it up even as Cassavetes keeps swerving away from them for new distractions. With Justin Timberlake. R, 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood’s powerful companion film to Flags of Our Fathers looks at the fighting on Iwo Jima in World War II from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers. I prefer it to Flags because the story is less familiar, even if it’s told more conventionally, and because an American war film in which Americans become the enemy, emotionally if not intellectually, is a nervy undertaking. Inspired by letters written to his family by the pro-American general Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who was sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for his views, Iris Yamashita’s screenplay sketches out as many impossible moral dilemmas as Flags did. Eastwood is boldly implying in both films that distinguishing between meaningful and senseless wars may be a civilian luxury. In Japanese with subtitles. R, 142 min. (JR)… Read more »

Arthur And The Invisibles

An enterprising ten-year-old (Freddie Highmore), hoping to save his granny (Mia Farrow) from a foreclosure on her house, shrinks himself and enters the land of the tiny Minimoys in her backyard to recover some rubies buried by his grandfather. Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) has never been one of my favorite filmmakers, but he seems to have found his metier in children’s fantasy, and this semianimated adventure is enjoyable and imaginative despite its formulaic qualities. U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein, who mistrusts anything that lacks his fingerprints, had already cut 18 minutes from the French original when this was screened for the press, and since then he’s added some music cues and narration. Among the voice talents in this English version are Madonna, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel. PG, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Victory

Maurice Tourneur adapted Joseph Conrad’s novel when it was still contemporary, in 1919. I haven’t seen it, but given the castLon Chaney in his first major role, Jack Holt, and Seena Owenand Tourneur’s uncommon talent and intelligence, I would imagine that this hour-long feature is well worth watching. (JR)… Read more »

Five 2006 Favorites

From Sight and Sound (January 2007). – J.R.

 

In order to write briefly about five films that I first saw in 2006 that are especially important to me, I have to violate a taboo against acknowledging works that aren’t (yet) readily available. More specifically, the first two on my list haven’t yet been seen very widely outside of film festivals and/or the countries where they were made, while the last two, even more rarefied, have only been shown under special circumstances, in both cases because their filmmakers are under no commercial pressures to release them and would like to oversee and monitor their exhibition. Although I’m aware that this may irritate some readers, I’d rather address them like adults than succumb to the infantile consumerist model of instant gratification, according to which works should be known about only when they can be immediately accessed. After all, some pleasures are worth waiting for.

Coeurs

Coeurs

Alain Resnais’ dark, exquisite, and highly personal adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears of Public Places, which I saw at film festivals in Venice and Toronto, is eloquent testimony both to how distilled his art has become at age 84 and how readily Ayckbourn’s examples of English repression can be converted into French equivalents.… Read more »

M. Butterfly

I haven’t seen David Henry Hwang’s much-praised play, based on an implausible-but-true story, but it’s easy to see how the audience’s imaginative participation in the central premise could make it work. An accountant at the French embassy in Beijing in 1964 falls in love with the male diva who plays Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Peking Opera, thinking he’s a woman, and over the course of a lengthy affair gets coerced into spying for the Chinese government. The fundamental problems with David Cronenberg’s disastrous 1993 adaptation, written by Hwang himself, are twofold: the unsuitability of such a premise for film, where the actors and audience no longer share the same space, and the miscasting of Jeremy Irons as the accountant and John Lone as the diva. The bravura final sequence gives some indication of the movie that might have been. With Barbara Sukowa and Ian Richardson. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

Los Muertos

From the Chicago Reader (January 5, 2007). — J.R.

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A taciturn ex-convict (nonprofessional actor Argentino Vargas) leaves prison after a 20-year sentence and crosses a tropical forest by boat and on foot to find his daughter. This 2004 feature is the second by Lisandro Alonso (La Libertad), a singular and essential figure of the Argentinean new wave; he’s not quite the minimalist some claim, but he can make the simple act of filming feel so monumental that storytelling seems secondary. The hero’s crime, though indicated in the film’s title and opening shot, is acknowledged only fitfully in the spare dialogue, and his killing and gutting of a goat is shown with the same matter-of-factness as his visit to a prostitute. Vargas and the wilderness are such great camera subjects that a sense of quiet revelation is nearly constant. In Spanish with subtitles. 82 min.

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