September 21, 2004
FRESH FROM THE THEATERS
Coffee and Cigarettes (2004). Jim Jarmusch's delightful collection of black-and-white vignettes has, you could say, been years in the making. 17 years, actually. He's been making these shorts - two or three people meet and chat over, yes, coffee and cigarettes - between features with, basically, whoever's around, and of course, some very interesting people hang around Jim Jarmusch. A few of the meet-ups that have sparked the most praise: Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan; Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright; Bill Murray and The RZA and GZA; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits; and Cate Blanchett and a cousin she plays herself. [Rent]
Mean Girls (2004). "No one ever forgets what it's like to be a teenager; it's a subject that's much more satisfying to revisit than to live through," writes Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, arguing that while studios pitch teen comedies to kids, if they're done right, adults will eat them up as well. "Mark Waters's Mean Girls doesn't have as much depth or resonance as Fast Times or American Pie. But there's a sly intelligence at work here - in the writing [by SNL writer Tina Fey], the filmmaking and the acting - that makes it deeply pleasurable to watch." [Rent]
Twentynine Palms (2004). In a sharp, convincing and, at times, even passionate defense of the films of Bruno Dumont at Masters of Cinema, Nick Wrigley writes, "For me, Bruno Dumont's cinema is refreshingly devoid of the aristocratic notions and self-referential winking that can sometimes asphyxiate modern art cinema.... Twentynine Palms is a unique film which shows - in the simplest, bleakest terms - how senseless violence can engender further senseless violence. The visceral immediacy of this summation stays with you for days." [Rent]
Carandiru (2004). As an introduction, you can't beat Stephen Holden's first paragraph of his review in the New York Times: "The human life teeming through Carandiru, Hector Babenco's sprawling portrait of Brazil's criminal class crowded within a notorious São Paulo penitentiary, exudes a throbbing flesh-and-blood intensity so compelling that it's impossible to avert your eyes. Watching this messy epic is a little like being jammed into an unair-conditioned subway car on a steamy summer night as it rattles through an urban wasteland. At any second things could explode. And eventually they do." [Rent]
It's not that these Five Films from the director who did so much to shape American independent film were previously unavailable; it's that they're getting the Criterion treatment: Stunning new transfers, alternate versions, a feature-length doc and extras galore that include new video interviews with Cassavetes collaborators Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni, Lynn Carlin, and Al Ruban.
- Shadows (1959). The legendary first feature. While being interviewed on the radio, Cassavetes mentioned he'd be interested in turning one of the improvisations at his acting workshop into a film. To his surprise, listeners sent in around $20,000 in contributions; he matched the figure and started shooting without a script on 16mm black-and-white stock. The rest, as they say, is history. With Lelia Goldoni. [Rent]
- Faces (1968). Widely considered the rawest of Cassavetes's films, Faces departed from the script by actually having one - it's based on his own unproduced play, "The Marriage," about one that's most definitely not working. Very tough stuff. [Rent] Bonus Disc. [Rent]
- A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Not only a personal best for Gena Rowlands, her performance as Mabel surely ranks as one of the greats ever captured on film. Even so, she doesn't overshadow Peter Falk by any means. At times touching, at times infuriating, ultimately exhausting in the most rewarding way. [Rent]
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The 1976 Cut [Rent] and the 1978 Cut [Rent]. Noir a la Cassavetes, and widely regarded as his most underrated film.
- Opening Night (1977). Again, Cassavetes gives his wife, Gena Rowlands, a role she takes and runs with to places most of us would be too terrified to visit in private, never mind in front of a running camera. [Rent]
- Plus: A Constant Forge (1959). Charles Kiselyak's documentary on Cassavetes is, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, "possibly the most complete look at the man we've had yet and much easier to follow than most of the books published about him." [Rent]
La Dolce Vita (1960). Many think of Anita Ekberg looking like the very incarnation of sexual desire as she wades and splashes through the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or they translate the title with a smile and a wink or recall the way Americans flocked to art house theaters in the early 60s for a peek at southern European decadence. But many forget the sour note in Fellini's critique of "the sweet life." As Antonia Shanahan writes in Senses of Cinema, the film "takes up Italy of the economic boom... and the rise of its consumer society and celebrity culture.... The story of 'boom' life is told as tabloid events, flatlining intellectual debates, religion for exploitation value, and sterile love affairs.... The failure of Marcello to hear the words of the young innocent whose image concludes the film points to his unchecked descent and Fellini's increasing pessimism." But what sumptuous pessimism! La Dolce Vita is, after all, "a spectacular omnibus through Rome at the height of one of its most gloriously decadent periods, an existentialist feast rife with bitter truths about love, life, the loss of one's dreams and the decay of modern society," writes Eoliano. "Mastroianni gives a beautifully understated performance, with great support by Cuny, Aimée, an over the top Ekberg, Valeria Ciangottini as the girl at the beach and countless others, and a memorable score by Nino Rota." Discs 1 [Rent] and 2 [Rent].
Ichi the Killer: Episode 0 (2004). An animated prequel to Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. In our interview, Miike tells Jonathan Marlow that the project "had a simple beginning and I offered to dub Tadanobu's voice.... It wasn't that tough and I had a good time doing it." [Rent]
Two from Yoshitaro Nomura, both adapted from bestselling novels by Seicho Matsumoto, one of Japan's most beloved mystery writers. Zero Focus (1961) [Rent] is a tale of suspense shot in black and white with an almost documentary-like feel, while The Demon (1978) [Rent], a complex story of love and betrayal, is shot in luscious color.
Epidemic (1987). Lars von Trier's second feature is a movie-within-a-movie about a director (von Trier) and a screenwriter (Niels Vorsel) who whip up a story in record time about a plague ravaging Germany. Robert K. Elder in the Chicago Tribune: "The beauty of Epidemic is the fanciful way von Trier teases the viewer, never making it clear if the plague subplot is playing out simultaneously or is just part of the movie plot.... Shot in grainy black and white, Epidemic owes its visual surprises as much to David Cronenberg and David Lynch as the story does to Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello." With Udo Kier. [Rent]
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2001). Bahman Farmanara was one of the most respected Iranian filmmakers of the 70s but left his homeland in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. When he returned in the mid-80s, he submitted scripts to the state censors only to have every single one of them refused. Until he submitted this one, in which he plays an Iranian filmmaker who hasn't made a film in nearly a quarter of a century. "What humor the film has is of the attenuated, deeply ironic, death's-head-grin variety," writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. "In a sense, the whole film, with its cascade of miseries, seems like an elaborate joke on its protagonist's determined gloominess (and, indeed, on such death-obsessed Iranian films as Taste of Cherry).... In the end, the film's effect is as elusive as a breeze; it permeates your pores before you've fully understood its presence." [Rent]
The Star Wars Trilogy. Really, an introduction is pretty superfluous, isn't it. Still, Sean Axmaker has a pretty darn good one-sentence go at it in our Science Fiction primer: "It took Star Wars (1977), an updated cliffhanger serial with state-of-the-art effects and a delirious sense of adventure, to really kick the contemporary space opera back into gear." That it did. And George Lucas also made box office history, helped shape the minds of a generation of geeks and, much to Lucas's chagrin, gave the Reagan era a new moniker for its newfangled weapons system.
Fans have been clamoring for legit DVD releases for years, and finally, here they are: Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977) [Rent], Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) [Rent], Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) [Rent] and the Star Wars Trilogy Bonus Disc [Rent].
Vampiyaz (2004). Tagline: "Brothaz in Blood." [Rent]
How to Draw a Bunny (2002). Dennis Lim writes in the Village Voice: "Crazy-quilt portrait and red-herring murder mystery, How to Draw a Bunny revels in the sheer elusiveness of its subject: the late pop/performance/mail-art provocateur Ray Johnson. Indeed, filmmaker John Walter says that Johnson's enigmatic silhouette portraits were a structuring motif: 'You feel a mysterious presence at the center of Ray's story. Whatever people say about him, they're inevitably saying more about themselves.'" Voice critic J. Hoberman concurs: "One of the pleasures in Walter's documentary, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and leaves little doubt of Johnson's significance, is the parade of veteran painters, confounded dealers, and miscellaneous bohos who expound upon the subject's mysterious personality without ever explaining him: 'Everyone had a story about Ray Johnson.'" Among those telling them here: Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Judith Malina, Christo and many more. [Rent]
Popular. First Season (1999). Very high ratings so far here at GC. "The best and funniest show to be canceled," mourns ABrooks. Discs 1 [Rent], 2 [Rent], 3 [Rent], 4 [Rent], 5 [Rent] and 6 [Rent].
Requiem From the Darkness. Volume 1: Turmoil of the Flesh (2003). "Not a straight edge in sight," writes Trace Wilson for Anime News Network. "A palette of nothing but faded watercolors and black to work with. Edgar Allen Poe couldn't have done any better in creating a totally warped world for [aspiring writer] Momosuke and his encounters with the group of Mataichi the charm-selling monk, Ogin the puppeteer and Nagamimi the shapeshifter.... For anyone who's into the horror genre of anime, or just likes a good ghost story around the campfire, you must check this out." [Rent]
Gregory Horror Show. Volume 1: The Nightmare Begins (1999). A unique mix of comedy and horror. [Rent]
Stellvia. Volume 1: Foundation (2003). 2353 AD, 186 years after a supernova sparked a global catastrophe that wiped out 99 percent of the world's population. Now we've got huge space stations - "foundations" - strewn out across the solar system where kids learn how to prevent the next disaster. [Rent]
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