Monthly Archives: May 2007

China Seas

Vintage MGM hokum (1935) with more assets than you can shake a swizzle stick at: Clark Gable (as a sea captain sailing from Hong Kong to Singapore), Rosalind Russell (for upscale romance), Jean Harlow (for downscale romance), C. Aubrey Smith (for colonialist nostalgia), Robert Benchley (for drunk jokes), plus character turns by Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone. Pirates and a hidden cache of British gold notwithstanding, the raucous action is more diversion than plot. Jules Furthman wrote the salty, snappy dialogue, and Tay Garnett, a specialist in studio-bound sea yarns, directed. 87 min. (JR) Read more

Out 1

An eight-part serial running about 12 and a half hours, this 1971 comedy drama is Jacques Rivette’s grandest experiment and most exciting adventure in filmmaking. Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, about a few Parisians who hope to control the city through their hidden interconnections, inspired its tale, dominated by two theater groups and two solitary individuals. Some of the major actors of the French New Wave participated (Juliet Berto, Francoise Fabian, Bernadette Lafont, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Michel Lonsdale, Bulle Ogier), creating their own characters and improvising their own dialogue, and Rivette juxtaposes their disparate acting styles; acting exercises dominate the first episodes (including one 45-minute take) until fiction gradually and conclusively overtakes the documentary aspect. What emerges is the definitive film about 60s counterculture: its global and conspiratorial fantasies, its euphoric collective utopias, and its descent into solitude, madness, and dissolution. Out 1 has always been the hardest of Rivette’s films to see, so this screening, spaced over two days with breaks for food and rest, is a major event. Reviewed this week in Section 1. a Sat 5/26, 2:30 (episodes 1 and 2) and 7 PM (3 and 4), and Sun 5/27, 2:30 (5 and 6) and 6:45 PM (7 and 8), Gene Siskel Film Center. Read more

Fay Grim

Hal Hartley’s fall from fashion seems to correspond to his shift away from emulating 60s Godard and toward more ambitious contemporary satire (though his underrated The Girl From Monday managed to balance the two). Shot in New York, Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul, this sequel to Henry Fool (1997) is a cloak-and-dagger pastiche that sometimes asks to be taken halfway straight as it comments on American paranoia toward the Muslim world. The involved backstory and Hartley’s own generic music both prove burdensome; the main attraction is the cast’s amusing way of handling Hartley’s mannerist dialogue and conceits. With Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Saffron Burrows, and Jeff Goldblum, occasionally hilarious as a CIA operative. 118 min. (JR) Read more

Charged In The Name Of Terror: Portraits By Contemporary Artists

Former Chicagoan Paul Chan curated this hour-long program of video documentaries about remarkable, patriotic Americans who’ve been persecuted for their political convictions, partly thanks to the Patriot Act. All the shorts are experimental in their pairing of sound and image yet plainspoken in their address, and their portraiture is partly concerned with the glory of particular ways of being alive. The first and best is Chan’s Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, the Law, and Poetry (2006), in which the human-rights lawyer reads poetry and reflects on her life, work, and prospects. The others are Jim Fetterley and Angie Waller’s Steve Kurtz Waiting (2006); Susan Youssef’s For the Least, about Catholic Workers who marched to Guantanamo, and Mary Billyou and Annelisse Fifi’s Mohamed Yousry: A Life Stands Still (2006), about an academic who worked as Stewart’s translator. (JR) Read more

Cosmic Voyage

Made in 1935 and set 11 years later, Vasil Zhuravlev’s silent Soviet feature is a space opera about a privately financed and successfully launched rocket to the moon, with hero, heroine, and scientist on board. Furnished with charming constructivist sets and miniatures and quaint-looking intertitles that weren’t translated in the version I previewed (unlike the one to be screened), this exudes the slightly campy innocence one associates with SF movies made a decade earlier, though the science appears to be less silly than in Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon. (Here, at least, the cosmonauts wear space suits equipped with oxygen.) 70 min. (JR) Read more

First On The Moon

Deftly combining actual and ersatz archival footage, Alexei Fedorchenko’s 2005 Russian pseudodocumentary maintains that the first flight to the moon occurred in 1938 but remained a secret after the rocket crash-landed in Chile. A deadpan satire about Stalinist secrecy and surveillance that draws upon diverse sources, including the 1936 Cosmic Voyage (see separate listing), this video is more ingenious than absorbing, perhaps because it’s twice as long as it needs to be. It isn’t really a mockumentary because it mainly exploits rather than unpacks the potential deceptions of the documentary form. I might have enjoyed its cynical gallows humor more if I’d seen it with an audience. In Russian with subtitles. 76 min. (JR) Read more

Death by Hanging

One of Nagisa Oshima’s very best, this Japanese feature from 1968 is concerned with the death penalty and the public’s understanding of a rape and murder committed by a Korean youth. The inventive staging is not merely dazzling but purposeful: a group of Japanese officials discovers, through a fantasy conceit, that the Korean prisoner refuses to die because the issues of his crime and his punishments aren’t understood, and the film works through a series of imaginative reconstructions of the events leading up to the rape and murder. (The issue of Japanese persecution of Koreans is also pertinent to the proceedings.) The results are Brechtian in the best sense: entertaining, instructive, gripping, mind-boggling, often humorous, and very much alive. In Japanese with subtitles. 117 min. a Tue 5/22, 7 PM, Univ. of Chicago Doc Films. Read more

Brand Upon the Brain!

This weekend four special screenings of Guy Maddin’s latest piece of deranged heterosexual camp feature live onstage narration by Crispin Glover, sound effects by a trio of Foley artists, music by the ten-piece Ensemble Noamnesia, and vocals by an alleged castrato. (The rest of the screenings this week will feature a recorded soundtrack with narration by Isabella Rossellini.) A house painter named Guy Maddin comes home after 30 years to fulfill his dying mother’s request that he repaint the sinister orphanage she runs inside a lighthouse. The kids all have mysterious holes in their heads, and additional intrigues involve a teenage sleuth and a harpist posing as her brother. Enhanced by Jason Staczek’s superb score, this is characteristically intense and, unlike most of Maddin’s silent-movie models, frenetically edited. 95 min. Tickets for the special screenings are $30; to order visit a Music Box. Read more

Syndromes and a Century

The unpredictable and provocative Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady) offers a mysterious and beautiful experimental feature (2006) based on memories of his parents, who were both doctors. It’s divided into two parts, both set in the present, with many rhyme effects between them. The first, set in and around a rural clinic, centers on his mother; the second, set in the vicinity of a Bangkok hospital, focuses on his father, though it’s a kind of quizzical remake of the first and both characters appear in each section. There’s nothing here that resembles narrative urgency, but this is a quiet masterpiece, delicate and full of wonder. In Thai with subtitles. 105 min. a Gene Siskel Film Center. Read more

Documentaries on Paradjanov and Mamoulian

French director Patrick Cazals will attend this screening of his excellent video documentaries Sergei Paradjanov, the Rebel (2004, 52 min.) and Rouben Mamoulian: The Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood (2006, 63 min.), which look at two very different directors born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The Paradjanov portrait skimps on the more conventional early features, but it’s priceless for its interviews with the eccentric director (shot during production of his last feature, Ashik Kerib) and its sampling of the collages he produced during his long prison terms. The Mamoulian documentary also features fascinating interviews with its subject, covering both his stage and his movie work, and it confirms that Mamoulian, remembered mainly as a technical innovator, was an underrated and highly cultivated filmmaker. Clips are limited to trailers (from Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp and Blood and Sand) and audio from the directors’ features, but Cazals proves that excerpts aren’t essential if the insights are sufficiently sharp. In English and subtitled French and Armenian. a Wed 5/16, 6:30 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center. Read more

Away From Her

However great Julie Christie might be, she’s not generally regarded as a tragedienne. Yet after seeing this wonderful adaptation of Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” I began to think of Christie’s roles in Petulia (1968) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) as way stations toward this career-defining performance. She plays a stylish woman in a successful 44-year marriage who struggles to keep her dignity after finding herself afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The other leads (Michael Murphy, Olympia Dukakis, and Gordon Pinsent as Christie’s husband) are fine as well, but it’s Christie who places this powerful love story about the cruelties of aging within hailing distance of Leo McCarey’s sublime Make Way for Tomorrow. This is a film I expect to be carrying around with me for quite some time. Canadian actress Sarah Polley wrote and directed, in her feature debut. 110 min. Reviewed by J.R. Jones this week in Section 1. a Landmark’s Century Centre. Read more

Who’s Camus Anyway?

At the time of writer-director Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s Fire Festival (1985), Dave Kehr in the Reader called him the leading Japanese filmmaker of his generation. Made 20 years later, this recent Yanagimachi featureset at a Tokyo film school, and focusing on the lives of students who are about to shoot a featurehas stimulated a lot of favorable buzz since it showed at the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2005. In Japanese with subtitles. 115 min. (JR) Read more

Who Killed Jessie?

Czech director Vaclav Vorlicek’s black-and-white slapstick fantasy is from 1966, the same year as Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and it’s hard to think of two more gleefully anarchic comedies made under a communist regime. This one is slighter and more conventional, but its premise is still pretty outrageous. A scientist develops a formula that transforms bad dreams into good. She tests it on a sleeping cow, whose nightmare of being attacked by flies (viewed on a TV monitor) gives way to an idyll of lounging in a hammock. But things go awry when she tries the serum out on her wimpy husband, who, under the influence of a comic book, is dreaming of being rescued from the clutches of an overweight Superman clone and an ornery Wild West gunslinger by a sexy sci-fi heroine a la Barbarella. All three fantasy characters materialize in the real world, bringing their dialogue bubbles with them. The ensuing pandemonium is exceptionally silly and mostly delightful. For the record, the mistranslated title should have been Who Wants to Kill Jessie? In Czech with subtitles. 80 min. (JR) Read more


The popular literary biopic is mainly a hopeless subgenre, but this account of Sylvia Plath and her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes manages to test the rule thanks to its unusual seriousness and first-rate performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow scrupulously avoid taking sides in the volatile marriagea delicate task given the four decades of verbal and legal warfare between the couple’s partisans, not to mention the aura of myth that surrounds Plath’s suicide at 30, which brought her a level of recognition she never achieved in life. Though constrained from quoting Plath’s work at length, the film manages to convey that the sexiness of poetry itself was the honey that drew the couple together and made them, at least initially, inseparable. (This is rated R, though I suspect the same film from a major studio would have won a PG-13.) Paltrow’s mother, Blythe Danner, plays Plath’s mother with such insight that I was sorry the role wasn’t made bigger, proportionate to the importance she had in Plath’s life. Jared Harris and Amira Casar fare much better in their respective roles as poet Al Alvarez and Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill. 100 min. Read more

The Human Stain

Even though I haven’t read the Philip Roth novel on which Nicholas Meyer based his screenplay, I sensed while watching this that I was in the presence of an especially meticulous attempt at translation. The film retains Roth’s habitual alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), a storyteller-within-the-story, like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Through this narrative filter we learn the story of a widowed classics professor (Anthony Hopkins) wholike literary critic Anatole Broyardwas born black but has lived most of his life on the other side of the color line. Director Robert Benton allows the cast (which includes Ed Harris and, as a janitor Hopkins has an affair with, Nicole Kidman) to shine, but I was left wondering why such a very literary construction as this needed to be made into a movie. R, 106 min. (JR) Read more