Monthly Archives: November 2007

Notes On Marie Menken

As a follow-up to her brilliant and definitive In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002), Czech-Austrian filmmaker Martina Kudlacek’s 2006 documentary about the lesser-known experimental film pioneer Marie Menken disappointed me a little. But on reflection I suspect this has more to do with my preference for Deren over Menken than with the solid historiography and the sensitivity of this work. Menken’s improvisatory, nonnarrative shooting style looks a bit rough alongside Deren’s polished professionalism, but it may have had a stronger impact on other experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol, and this offers an intriguing and valuable look at her milieu as well as her work. 97 min. (JR) Read more

You Am I

Alienated from his professional life in the city, a young architect retreats to the wilds and builds an idyllic glass house in a tree, where he lives alone and fantasizes about gradually becoming an aboriginal. Before starting this project, he has a one-night stand with a divorced friend, and later he becomes briefly acquainted with a vacationer who’s visiting some of her friends across the lake. The most curious aspect of this leisurely story (2006) by Lithuanian writer-director Kristijonas Vildziunas is that it almost isn’t a story at all, apart from the concentration on the natural setting and the building of the housethough the film temporarily shifts focus midway to the more conventional vacationers across the lake. In Lithuanian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) Read more

Diringas

In his first feature (2006), Lithuanian video maker and former adman Ignas Miskinis picks his previous profession as a satiric target. But his premise is so straineda hustler muscles his way into an ad agency by seducing two women who work there and bamboozles everyone into thinking he has a hot new product to sell called Diringasthat none of this proves to be very funny. And his characters are so uniformly unpleasant that the seemingly homophobic treatment of a couple of them ultimately seems incidental; Miskinis’s scorn is sufficiently democratic to encompass everyone. In Lithuanian with subtitles. 95 min. (JR) Read more

Seven Invisible Men

Apart from some apocalyptic violence at the end, next to nothing happens in this eighth feature (2005) by Sarunas Bartas, Lithuania’s most prestigious filmmaker, but that’s nothing new. The title characters are small-time criminals, outcasts, and idlers (their backgrounds remain vague) who wind up in a run-down farm near the Crimean Sea along with a few wives or girlfriends, hanging out with the locals and drinking and smoking. As frequently happens in his work, Bartas is largely concerned with somber moods and dark visual textures (the cinematography is exquisite), brooding landscapes and quiet desperation. In Russian with subtitles. 110 min. (JR) Read more

What’s Going On In The Beely Circus?

Popular during the silent and early sound eras, German actor-director Harry Piel specialized in action thrillers, nearly all of which were destroyed during World War II. In this nocturnal mystery, restored from a tinted nitrate print recently discovered in Italy, he plays a debonair Douglas Fairbanks type named Harry Piel who Read more

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 2007). — J.R.

breakdown

Three early examples of the master’s skill in tailoring his storytelling gifts to the 26-minute format of his celebrated TV show. Included are the very first episode of the series, Revenge (1955), a grim tale costarring Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker, and from the third season, Lamb to the Slaughter (1958), a more characteristic exercise in black comedy adapted from a Roald Dahl story and starring Barbara Bel Geddes. But the real gem is Breakdown (1955), a minimalist tour de force starring (and narrated by) Joseph Cotten as a businessman paralyzed in a car wreck; it belongs among Hitchcock’s neglected masterpieces. 78 min. (JR) Read more

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

I prefer Sidney Lumet’s previous feature, the neglected Find Me Guilty. But this ambitious and well-directed crime thriller, with an intricate flashback structure redolent of Reservoir Dogs, gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a fascinatingly ambiguous character (a passive-aggressive corporate executive and drug addict) to work with, and he does wonders with the part. Marisa Tomei’s character, on the other hand, the executive’s wife and the lover of his softer loser brother (Ethan Hawke), is strictly standard-issue. This tale of buried family resentments rising to the surface as the brothers plot to rob their parents’ jewelry store is concerned only with the guys, and it’s marred by an uncharacteristically mannered performance by Albert Finney as the father. R, 123 min. (JR) Read more

Bee Movie

According to the press notes, Jerry Seinfeld finally agreed to make a movievoicing the central character in an animated feature as well as cowriting and producingafter pitching just the title to Dreamworks’ Steven Spielberg over dinner. If part of the premise is that zillions of bees can collectively run a honey factory or land an airplane, another part seems to be that zillions of one-liners can add up to a narrative that works as an ecological parable while equating reality with brand-name recognition. (My sweater’s Ralph Lauren and I have no pants, the bratty hero proudly explains at one point.) The whole thing’s pretty cute and breezy, but don’t expect logic or coherence. Other voices include those of Renee Zellwegger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, and Chris Rock. PG, 88 min. (JR) Read more

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Not to be confused with the mislabeled director’s cut that’s been around for 15 years, this seventh edition of Ridley Scott’s SF masterpiece (1982) is arguably the first to get it all right, finally telling the whole story comprehensibly. This visionary look at Los Angeles in 2019a singular blend of grime and glitter that captures both the horror and the allure of Reagan-era capitalismwas a commercial flop when it first appeared. Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it follows the hero (Harrison Ford) as he tracks down and kills replicants, or androids. Much of the film’s erotic charge and moral and ideological ambiguity stem from the fact that these characters are very nearly the only ones we care about. (We never know for sure whether Ford is a replicant himself.) With Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, and William J. Sanderson. R, 117 min. (JR) Read more

Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains

Jonathan Demme’s documentary on Carter promoting his controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is as much about the American press as it is about the former president. It even helps to show why, among free presses, the U.S. press ranks only 48th in the world, according to the annual study by Reporters Without Borders. The portrait of Carter has been described as hagiography, but it isn’t a stretch to view his quiet integrity as saintly next to the track records of his successors. It’s interesting to see, when he’s interviewed successively for Israeli TV and for Al Jazeera, that he comes across as more sympathetic to the Israelis in the interview with the Arabs. My favorite moment shows Alan Dershowitz overcome by his own virtue once he decides, after checking out another Carter interview clip, not to label him an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. PG, 125 min. (JJ) Read more

The Gates

Made between 1979 and 2005, this 96-minute documentary about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates installation in Manhattan’s Central Park was the sixth time the environmental artists commissioned David and Albert Maysles to document one of their massive urban projects (the best known of which may have been wrapping Paris’s Pont-Neuf). The married couple financed their own construction of 23 miles of framed orange fabric threaded through the park but failed to get the city’s permission to proceed in 1979; Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave them the go-ahead 25 years later, and the project went up for two weeks in February 2005. The arguments for and against it often seem equally arcane. Raised in communist Bulgaria, Christo insisted on pursuing the project to please himself, denying any social aim, yet this engaging account arguably focuses more on New York as a complex social organism than on the artwork. (JR) Read more

Czech Modernist Films

Eight early Czech shorts: Jan Krizenecky’s Rendezvous at the Mill (1898), Alexander Hackenschmied’s Aimless Walk (1930) and Prague Castle (1932), Svatopluk Innemann’s Prague Shining in the Lights (1928), Martin Fric’s Black-and-White Rhapsody (1936), Elmar Klos’s The Highway Sings (1937), and Jiri Lehovec’s The Magic Eye (1939) and Rhythm (1941). For fans of Maya Deren, it might be worth knowing that Alexander Hammid, her husband and codirector on Meshes of the Afternoon, is the same person as Alexander Hackenschmied, whose own early Czech films are well worth seeing. (JR) Read more

Spy Game

Robert Redford plays a CIA officer on the edge of retirement in 1991 who sets out to free a former protege (Brad Pitt) from prison in China, where he’s being detained as a spy. The reasonably entertaining spy-versus-spy shenanigans are partially undercut by the hypocritical pretense that the CIA and its various forms of mischief are somehow being ridiculed. Yet the CIA-caused casualties, mainly non-American, count for next to nothing alongside the noble efforts of a sly American father figure to save his handsome American surrogate son; the rest of the world can go blow itself up for all the filmmakers care. To cover up the shallowness, director Tony Scott gives us a whirlwind of gratuitous camera movement and staccato freeze-frames to furnish us with a semblance of stylishness (as opposed to style). The script by Michael Frost Beckner and David Arata seems to depend mainly on distant memories of Le Carre and Greene; Catherine McCormack costars as the putative love interest, but the real romance, of course, is between the boy leads. 127 min. (JR) Read more