Monthly Archives: March 2007

Beauty In Trouble

A struggling Prague family loses everything in a flood, which pushes the husband into crime and imprisonment and his beautiful wife (Ana Geislerova) into the arms of the kind and wealthy Tuscany-based winegrower who sent him away. Writer Petr Jarchovsky and director Jan Hrebejk collaborated on the formidable Up and Down (2004), and this 2006 feature, which takes its title from a Robert Graves poem, is equally impressive for its mastery, intelligence, and ambition in juggling intricate plot strands and memorable characters. It also treats class difference and right-wing intolerance in the Czech Republic as ferociously as Mike Leigh has done in depicting Thatcherite England. In Czech with subtitles. 110 min. (JR) Read more

Ghosts

The principal characters in this 2005 German feature are two troubled, rebellious teenage girls who meet in a Berlin park and fall in love and a Frenchwoman who’s persuaded that one of them is her long-lost daughter, abducted as an infant. All three are lost souls who sometimes project their fantasies onto other people. Initially director Christian Petzold appears to be cross-referencing Celine and Julie Go Boating with the two girls, but the lack of any humor or sense of fun makes the allusion feel pointless. The enterprising experimental filmmaker Harun Farocki collaborated on the script, said to be derived from one of Grimm’s fairy tales, but I found most of this intractable. In German with subtitles. 85 min. (JR) Read more

Dead And Buried

James Farentino stars in this 1981 shocker set in a mysterious coastal town. Director Gary Sherman did the fine Raw Meat (aka Death Line) nine years earlier. 92 min. (JR) Read more

Last summer in Mar del Plata [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

Late summer in Mar del Plata

Posted By on 03.13.07 at 11:55 AM

It’s only when I stopped to count that I realized that this is my seventh trip to Argentina in eight years, something that started when the Buenos Aires branch of FIPRESCI, the international film critics organization, brought me there to give three lectures in the fall of 2000. The couple who became my host and hostess–critics Quintin and Flavia de la Fuentes, both of whom wrote for the monthly film magazine El Amante and would later review some films at the Chicago International Film Festival for the Reader–invited me back after Quintin became director of BAFICI, the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film, a remarkable event sponsored by the city every April. Quintin held the job for four years, and to my knowledge it was the only festival to be organized socially as well as intellectually around the principles of film criticism. Much of the programming centered on critical concepts, and a central meeting point — a cafe inside a huge shopping mall — served as the hub of discussions.

The event was also made delightful by certain unique forms of Argentinian hospitality, which are also evident at the Mar del Plata Film Festival: each guest is assigned an “angel,” a young person assigned to serve as overall guide and assistant, procuring tickets and taking one around to the various cinemas, etc.

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Bamako

A large portion of this highly original 2006 feature from Mali by Abderrahmane Sissako (Life on Earth, Waiting for Happiness) consists of a hearing devoted to the operations of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Africa, with judge, black and white lawyers, and witnesses all played by nonactors who’ve written their own speeches, many of them angry. All this is set outdoors, in a backyard in a poor section of Bamako, the capital of Mali, and the remainder of the film is devoted to glimpses of everyday African life taking place around this event. Sissako scrupulously avoids making any facile connections between his two blocks of material, and his cast, even when silent, are always eloquent. In French and Bambara with subtitles. 117 min. (JR) Read more

Hostage

A plane hijacker befriends a seven-year-old American boy, who serves as his voluntary hostage after a forced landing in Riga. Latvian filmmaker Leila Pakalnina likes to compose portions of her mise en scene in circular pans and other seemingly unmotivated camera movements, so part of the kick of her absurdist comedy and antithriller (2006) is that you’re never sure what’s coming next. Her Tatiesque pleasure in both animals and people is contagious. In English and subtitled Latvian. 74 min. (JR) Read more

The Iceberg

After a traumatic experience inside a frozen locker, the manager of a fast-food outlet leaves her family and heads north on a sailboat with a mute companion. Written and directed by three of the main performers (Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy) and working with a minimum of dialogue, this 2005 Belgian comedy wears its strangeness on its sleeve. I found it striking but often strident, and neither funny nor edifying. In French and Inuktitut with subtitles. 84 min. (JR) Read more

Me And My Sister

The French title of Alexandra Leclere’s 2004 debut feature translates as The Angry Sisters, but in fact only one of the siblings qualifies as such. Louise (Catherine Frot), a beautician from Le Mans, has written a first novel and comes to Paris to meet her publisher, full of positive energy; Martine (Isabelle Huppert), a miserable fussbudget, hates her upper-middle-class husband, her empty life, and herself, and her sister’s happiness fills her with rage. Leclere lays on the contrasts with a trowel, but each actress does a fine job making her character believable. In French with subtitles. 94 min. (JR) Read more

Red Road

If we agree that Rear Window, Blowup, The Conversation, and A Short Film About Love belong to the same erotic-thriller subgenre, then this adroit, sexually explicit Glasgow-based tale (2006) of an obsessive surveillance guard (Kate Dickie) tracking and stalking a locksmith and former convict (Tony Curran) qualifies as a minor entry, at least until it becomes an elusive psychological study. Despite the thick Scottish accents, filmmaker Andrea Arnold kept me intrigued, but beyond a certain point the movie’s ambiguity fades into indifference. 113 min. (JR) Read more

Mary Ellen Bute: Centennial

Short films made between 1934 and ’53 by the pioneering abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute (who years later created the daring James Joyce adaptation Passages From Finnegans Wake): Rhythm in Light, Dada, Spook Sport, Tarantella, Polka Graph, Abstronic, and Mood Contrasts. 70 min. (JR) Read more

The Ax

A comedy thriller without many laughs or thrills, this 2005 French feature by Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing), adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel, follows the machinations of a middle-aged engineer downsized from the paper industry who proceeds to murder all of his likeliest competitors in the job market. Jos Garcia, known for roles more comic than this one, brings a certain intensity to the part, but the story’s satirical possibilities remain largely untapped. Given the overall slickness, I was surprised to see Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’Enfant) credited among the coproducers; their signature actor Olivier Gourmet turns up in an effective cameo. In French with subtitles. 122 min. (JR) Read more

Color Me Kubrick

Alan Conway, a gay con artist in England who successfully impersonated Stanley Kubrick in the 90s, died in 1998, only a few months before Kubrick. His exploits are fascinating because the people he fooled, seduced, and/or exploited knew even less about the filmmaker than he did when he brandished Kubrick’s name and promised to hire or help them. This 2005 British feature by writer Anthony Frewin and director Brian Cook, both former Kubrick assistants, uses Conway’s unlikely saga to mount an appreciative send-up of a certain style of gay extravagance, with John Malkovich having a field day as Conway. 86 min. (JR) Read more

Zodiac

A dozen years after Seven, director David Fincher again treats a serial killer, only this time it’s a true story (adapted by James Vanderbilt from Robert Graysmith’s autobiographical best seller) and not at all metaphysical. In some ways, for better and for worse, this is even more about Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)who became obsessed with solving the Zodiac killings that terrorized northern California in the late 60sthan about the murderer. I’m not convinced this had to be 158 minutes long, so it’s all the more annoying when essential material gets elided (as in a sequence featuring an uncredited Ione Skye). But Fincher does keep this bubbling along, ably assisted by a cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, and Philip Baker Hall. R. (JR) Read more

Tears Of The Black Tiger

Wisit Sasanatieng’s self-consciously campy Thai western (2000) opens in the U.S. seven years late and six minutes shorter, but it’s still an enjoyably energetic genre romp. Staged in both open spaces and painted expressionist sets, it’s a classic doomed romance between a wealthy young woman and a peasant boy who becomes an outlaw (the Black Tiger of the title). Its giddy stylistics include extravagant use of color and rapid montage, said to be a direct homage to legendary Thai independent Ratana Pestonji. In Thai with subtitles. 97 min. (JR) Read more

Violent Saturday

The underrated Richard Fleischer (The Vikings, Compulsion) directed this better-than-average 1955 bank robbery thriller in color and CinemaScope. Adapting a novel by William L. Heath, screenwriter Sydney Boehm complicates the crime story with a portmanteau plot about dirty little secrets in an Arizona copper-mining town. Victor Mature is the nominal hero, and the good cast includes Richard Egan, Stephen McNally, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, Lee Marvin, Margaret Hayes, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carroll Naish, and Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer. 90 min. (JR) Read more