Scripted by Akira Kurosawa four years before his death in 1998, this Edo-period tale (2002) about prostitutes, adapted from Shugoro Yamamoto’s novel The Smell of an Unknown Flower Before the Dew Dries, seems more characteristic of Kenji Mizoguchi. Director Kei Kumai, best known for his socially conscious films, was recommended for this assignment by Kurosawa himself, who admired Kumai’s handling of women characters. Following the master’s own sketches for sets and costumes, Kumai makes this a real eye pleaser, impressive in its use of color and its treatment of weather (including a climactic flood). The banal score seems more appropriate for a western, and there’s a certain self-conscious theatricality in the mise en scene, yet this is both handsome and affecting. In Japanese with subtitles. 119 min. (JR)
Two race movies made for segregated black audiences. The 69-minute The Girl From Chicago (1932) was written and directed by independent black pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who’d been an able filmmaker in the silent era but became mannerist and slapdash once he turned to talkies, consistently selecting terrible camera angles, extracting stridently false performances from his players, and apparently making up his scripts as he went along (on occasion he can be heard offscreen feeding lines to the actors). The muddled plotabout a Secret Service agent (Carl Mahon) courting a small-town schoolteacher while fighting the numbers racketis made all the more indigestible by a lousy 16-millimeter print. However hokey, Bernard Ray’s Broken Strings (1940, 60 min.), showing in an excellent 35-millimeter print, is comparatively touching and professional. Clarence Muse (frequently a servant in Hollywood pictures) stars as a classical violinist whose hand is paralyzed in an accident. His adolescent son (Walter Washington) saves the day by becoming a star swing violinist. (JR)
This is radically different from Olivier Assayas’s two previous features (Late August, Early September and Les destinees), but it suggests a continuation of his Irma Vep (1996) in its narrative ambiguity and its feeling for contemporary conspiracy. The main difference is that Assayas seems more deliberate now in tapping his unconscious, making the aura of mystery somewhat more willful. This begins as a sleek paranoid thriller about a multinational conglomerate, dominated by women (Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny, Gina Gershon), that traffics in 3-D manga porn, and though the backdrop shifts from Tokyo to Paris to rural Texas, the film ultimately slides into a netherworld where it’s impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy. It’s gripping and provocative, making effective use of actor Charles Berling and the music of Sonic Youth, though I wish it were a little less indebted to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. In English and subtitled French. 128 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.
The saddest thing about Woody Allen’s effort to retool his brand of romantic comedy for the youth market isn’t the absence of laughsit’s the bitterness that cuts through everything, which is hardly sweetened by all the Billie Holiday numbers on the sound track. Jason Biggs is a young writer who falls in love with freewheeling actor-singer Christina Ricci (shades of Annie Hall) and who’s saddled with loser agent Danny DeVito (shades of Broadway Danny Rose). Allen plays Biggs’s sour mentor, who goes walking with him in Central Park (allowing us to get two versions of Woody at once), and Stockard Channing does a turn as Ricci’s mother, who also wants to be a singer. The film’s hatred of Ricci and Channing and its affectionate tolerance of the hero’s mousy hypocrisy and his mentor’s negativity are familiar Allen motifs, but the faint echoes of his best work only make this one seem grimmer. 108 min. (JR)