Sam Fuller’s first and greatest war film (1951) is even better in its terse and minimalist power than the restored version of The Big Red One released last year. The first Hollywood movie about the Korean war, this introduced Gene Evans, the gruff star Fuller was to use many more times, as a crude, bitter, savvy sergeant who, despite his obvious racism, bonds with a South Korean war orphan. In addition to being visually and aurally brilliant, the film includes virtually unprecedented debates about America’s racial segregation and the internment of Japanese during World War II. An independent production, The Steel Helmet did so well that it immediately won Fuller a contract at 20th Century Fox. With Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton, and James Edwards. 84 min. (JR)
I headed the critics’ jury at Rotterdam in 2004 that gave its top prize to Yutaka Tsuchiya’s exceedingly weird fiction documentary video about teenyboppers drifting around Shibuya, Tokyo’s fashionable shopping district. (Another big fan of the film, incidentally, is Claire Denis.) Bewildering in the best sense, this kinky low-tech digital video is fascinating for its Martian-like characters — dressed like fairy-tale figures and preoccupied with obscure rituals — and its singular use of space, which combines the claustrophobia imposed by small cubicles, TV screens, and surveillance cameras with the vast exterior reaches of the urban landscape, confounding our usual grasp of inside and out, public and private. Imagine Blade Runner restaged inside someone’s closet. In Japanese with subtitles. 98 min. (JR)
It seems like hardly anyone in the U.S. ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, despite its enormous success elsewhere, apparently not so much because kids had trouble with it as because of the adult suits handling it. But Roger Ebert gave this film only two and a half stars while assigning Mr. and Mrs. Smith three stars the same week (June 10, 2005), suggesting that one of us was probably wrong — or maybe just that Japanese kids and I are both helplessly out of touch with the American mainstream as defined by some grown-ups. — J.R.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Directed and Written by Hayao Miyazaki
With the voices of Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson, and Billy Crystal
The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3-D
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Rodriguez and Racer Rodriguez
With Cayden Boyd, Taylor Dooley, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Jacob Davich, David Arquette, and Kristin Davis
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
no stars (Worthless)
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Simon Kinberg
With Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Adam Brody, Kerry Washington, and Keith David
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Sometimes movies earmarked for kids are a lot more nuanced, sophisticated, and mature than the ones that are allegedly for grown-ups. Read more
A disgusting account of what the evil Vietnamese did to poor, innocent Americans stands at the center of this Oscar-laden weepie about macho buddies from a small industrial town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and John Cazale, wasted in his last screen performance). It begins with an extended wedding sequence cribbed from Visconti and ends with a world-weary rendition of God Bless America. While the results are far from unprofessional — the cast is uniformly good, including a characteristically slapped-around Meryl Streep, and the two deer-hunting sequences mark director Michael Cimino as an able student of Disney’s Bambi and Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light — the male self-pity is so overwhelming that you’ll probably stagger out of this mumbling something about Tolstoy (as many critics did when the film first came out in 1978) if you aren’t as nauseated as I was. I much prefer Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. 183 min. (JR)
Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s fresh meat market—a sleazy Las Vegas porn show with clunky production numbers that resemble body-building exercises, backed by heaps of big studio money. The story, a low-rent version of All About Eve, charts the rise of one bimbo showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley) at the expense of another (Gina Gershon); alas, the only actor who seems comfortable is Kyle MacLachlan. It must be admitted that, as with Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, which I also underrated initially, this 1995 movie has only improved with age—or maybe it’s just that viewers like me are only now catching up with the ideological ramifications of the cartoonlike characters. In this case, the degree to which Las Vegas (and by implication Hollywood) is viewed as the ultimate capitalist machine is an essential part of the poisonous package. With Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Gina Ravera. R, 131 min. (JR)
While I can’t vouch for how well this 1991 documentary interprets Stephen Hawking’s best-selling book, this is my favorite Errol Morris picture after Fast, Cheap & Out of Control — a cogent and fascinating presentation of Hawking’s theories about the origin and fate of the universe, intercut with an account of Hawking’s life (including how he has managed to cope with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). I find the material from the book much more important and fascinating than the inspirational life story; though interesting in its own right, it’s a standard triumph-over-adversity scenario that periodically threatens to trivialize Hawking’s ideas and work. However, the alternation between Morris’s usual talking-head approach for the biography and Hawking’s computer-generated voice and various kinds of illustrations to recount most of the theory creates a dialectic that the film profits from stylistically. Philip Glass composed the music. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1997). — J.R.
A turning point in the history of Taiwanese cinema, Edward Yang’s 1985 masterpiece suggests a rough parallel with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in relation to Iranian cinema by virtue of featuring the other key Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien, in a leading role, much as Mohsen Makhmalbaf is featured in Kiarostami’s film. Hou, who also collaborated on the script, plays an alienated businessman working for a textile manufacturer who was an ace baseball player in his youth; when his girlfriend (pop star Tsai Chin) loses her job at a computer firm, their relationship begins to crumble. But this couple’s malaise is only part of a multifaceted sense of confusion and despair that affects three generations of Taipei residents during a period of economic boom, and Yang’s mastery in weaving together all his characters and subplots against a glittering urban landscape anticipates the major themes of his subsequent works. Essential viewing. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1997). — J.R.
Writer-director Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath) tries his hand at outrageous screwball comedy, with very mixed results. Playing the lead part himself and shooting with a cast of unknowns in Louisiana, where he grew up, he proceeds largely by peppering his dialogue with various non sequiturs and stretches of nonsense (pacifist cottage . . . Belgian disregard . . . nose army . . . Vienna dog is one fair sample) and bad puns (I may vote Republican, says a dentist, but I’m a firm believer in gum control) and throwing in irreverent asides (No fish was harmed during the making of this film, reads an opening title, and one sign posted to a tree reads, Idea missing). Given the audacity, it would be a pleasure to report that the results are hilarious, but most of it isn’t even funny, and the sense of anything goes hangs heavy over the film as it develops. An authentic curiosity, but proceed at your own risk. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 22, 2003). — J.R.
Shot on a shoestring and none the worse for it, Jean-Luc Godard’s gritty and engaging first feature had an almost revolutionary impact when first released in 1960. It lays down most of the Godardian repertoire that the later films would build upon: male bravado spiced with plug-ugly mugging and amusing self-mockery (brought to perfection in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s wonderful performance); a fascination with female beauty and treachery (the indelible Jean Seberg as the archetypal American abroad); an emulation of the American gangster movie, and a love-hatred for America in general; radically employed jump cuts that have the effect of a needle skipping gaily across a record; and a taste for literary, painterly, and musical quotations, as well as original aphorisms. Less characteristic of Godard’s later work are the superb jazz score (by French pianist Martial Solal), a relatively coherent and continuous narrative, and postsynchronized dialogue. In French with subtitles. 89 min. (JR)
From the Chicago Reader (October 21, 2002). — J.R.
Much as A.I. Artificial Intelligence can be considered a posthumous message from Stanley Kubrick, conveyed by a sympathetic interpreter with a style of his own (Steven Spielberg), this can be regarded as the last word from Krzysztof Kieslowski, though delivered by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and true to his own manner. There aren’t many examples of this in film history — the posthumously realized film projects of Alexander Dovzhenko by his widow, Julia Solntseva, could be cited, but not George Hickenlooper’s extensive revamping of Orson Welles’s The Big Brass Ring — and it’s therefore an accomplishment to be applauded and treasured. Working with his usual cowriter, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieslowski was planning a trilogy loosely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy when he died, and the script for Heaven was reportedly the only one close to completion. After the police refuse to heed her accusations, an English teacher in Turin (Cate Blanchett) plants a bomb in an office building to destroy a drug dealer she holds responsible for the death of her husband. Her plan goes awry; held for questioning, she insists on speaking English, and the young police officer (Giovanni Ribisi) who offers to translate her testimony immediately falls in love with her. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1994). — J.R.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski
With Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Frederique Feder, and Jean-Pierre Lorit.
A film of mystical correspondences, Red triumphantly concludes and summarizes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy by contriving to tell us three stories about three separate characters all at once; yet it does this with such effortless musical grace that we may not even be aware of it at first. Two of the characters are neighbors in Geneva who never meet, both of them students — a model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) and a law student named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit )– and the third is a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who lives in a Geneva suburb and whom Valentine meets quite by chance, when she accidentally runs over his German shepherd.
Eventually we discover that Auguste and the retired judge are younger and older versions of the same man (neither of them meet, either). Another set of correspondences is provided when, in separate scenes, Valentine and the judge are able to divine important facts about each other: he correctly guesses that she has a younger brother driven to drug addiction by the discovery that his mother’s husband is not his real father; she correctly guesses that he was once betrayed by someone he loved — which also happens to Auguste during the course of the film. Read more
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s major work (1990) consists of ten separate films, each running 50-odd minutes and set mainly around two high-rises in Warsaw. The films are built around a contemporary reflection on the Ten Commandments—specifically, an inquiry into what breaking each of them in today’s world might entail. Made as a miniseries for Polish TV before Kieslowski embarked on The Double Life of Veronique and the “Three Colors” trilogy, these concise dramas can be seen in any order or combination; they don’t depend on one another, though if you see them in batches you’ll notice that major characters in one story turn up as extras in another. One reason Kieslowski remains controversial is that in some ways he embodies the intellectual European filmmaking tradition of the 60s while commenting directly on how we live today. The first film, illustrating “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” is about trust in computers; the often ironic and ambiguous connections between most subsequent commandments and their matching stories tend to be less obvious. (One of the 60s traditions Kieslowski embodies is that of the puzzle film, though he takes it on seriously rather than frivolously, as part of his ethical inquiry.) Read more
From 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003). — J.R.
The Double Life of Véronique Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first feature after his Decalogue, launching the European coproduction mode of making films that would lead to his trilogy Three Colors(Blue, White, and Red), is an exquisite enigma following the parallel lives of two 20-year-old women, one in Poland and one in France, both played by the beautiful Irene Jacob. As in Three Colors, European coproduction becomes not only a means of financing, but part of the formal and thematic conceptualization of the project. The Polish Veronika is a talented singer with a heart condition; the French Veronique quits her voice lessons and gets involved with a puppeteer who writes children’s books. Masterfully directed, this rather dreamlike 1991 production is simultaneously an effort on Kieslowski’s part to hold onto to his Polish identity and an equally determined effort to move beyond it — almost as if the filmmaker were dreaming of a resurrected artistic identity for himself as Polish state financing went the route of Polish communism. With Philippe Volter, Halina Gryglaszewska, Kalina Jedrusik, and Aleksander Bardini. (JR)
With Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delphy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr, Grzegorz Warchol, and Jerzy Nowak.
“Imagine a kind of filmmaking that’s truly in tune with the ways you think and relate to other people. A deeply humane kind of filmmaking, but free from ‘humanist’ lies and sentimental evasions. Not a dry, ‘realistic’ kind of filmmaking, but one in which all the imaginative and creative efforts have gone into understanding the way we are. A kind of filmmaking as sensitive to silence as to speech, and alert to the kind of meanings we prefer to hide away. To my knowledge, only two directors in the world are currently making films like that. One is Krzysztof Kieslowski in Poland. The other is Edward Yang in Taiwan.”
These rousing words by Tony Rayns in the June issue of Sight and Sound were just what I needed to read after returning last month from Cannes, where wonderful films by Yang and Kieslowski about contemporary life were showing in competition. They were the two best competing films that I saw, though neither won any prizes. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (February 11, 1994). — J.R.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
With Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Very, Helene Vincent, Emmanuelle Riva, and Philippe Volter.
Indisputably the work of a master, to a much greater degree than anything else around at the moment, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first feature without reference to his native Poland is sufficiently contemporary and allegorical to take the future of Europe, and a “unified” Europe at that, as one of its themes. Palpably concerned with loss and regeneration, suffering and transcendence, Blue calls to mind some of the better late works of Ingmar Bergman in its powerful sense of dramatic concentration; it doesn’t have quite the undertow of neurosis that presumably made those films so exemplary for Woody Allen, but it does have a much bolder grasp of the movements and vagaries of consciousness.
In the opening moments of Blue the leading character, Julie (Juliette Binoche), loses both her husband, a famous French composer, and her five-year-old daughter in a car crash; the remainder of the film charts her mental and spiritual recovery. The film’s remarkable economy is already apparent in the opening shot — a close-up of the spinning right front wheel of the car, seen from behind, as it speeds down a highway. Read more