Alexander Dovzhenko’s first color film and last completed feature (1948, 103 min.) was based on his play Life in Bloom, a biography (verging on hagiography) of the celebrated Russian botanist Ivan Michurin. Both the play and its screen adaptation attracted the interest of Joseph Stalin, who dictated various revisions; in fact Dovzhenko may have removed his name from the film in protest, as the credits list his wife, Julia Solntseva, as director and identify him only as the producer and screenwriter. Certain characteristic touches show up here and there — some signature landscapes, a powerful passage evoking John Ford that shows Michurin’s grief over his wife’s death — but generally this is a feel-good Stalinist biopic. Perhaps the most interesting propaganda comes in the opening scene, when a wealthy American (speaking in English) attempts to lure Michurin to the States with untold riches. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)
A collaboration between the living Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick seems entirely appropriate to a project that reflects profoundly on the differences between life and nonlife, not to mention the human and the nonhuman. It’s easy to say that Kubrick thought about questions that Spielberg only knows how to approach emotionally, but that surely oversimplifies the range of both filmmakers. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say that Kubrick started this picture and came up with the idea that Spielberg should direct it, and after inheriting a 90-page treatment Kubrick had prepared with Ian Watson and 600 drawings he’d done with Chris Baker, Spielberg finished it in so much his own manner that it may be his most personal film, as well as his most thoughtful. It nonetheless delivers more of a posthumous statement from Kubrick than I would have believed possible, a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Eyes Wide Shut (with an equally offbeat view of New York) as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. A film that might make you cry, it’s just as likely to give you the creeps afterward, which is as it should be. Read more
Critic Robin Wood recently cited this stunning 1964 Russian version of Shakespeare’s tragedy as the only one that “could be claimed as having the stature, as film, that the play has as theatre,” and it’s easy to see what he means. Shot in black-and-white ‘Scope, in dank interiors and seaside exteriors every bit as atmospheric as those in Orson Welles’s Othello, this runs 140 minutes but feels more stripped-down for brisk action than such vanity productions as Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s, and consequently may be more compelling as narrative. Director Grigori Kozintsev (The New Babylon, The Youth of Maxim) adapted a translation by Boris Pasternak, and Dmitri Shostakovich contributed the score. Playing the title role, Innokenti Smoktunovsky isn’t as likable as some other Hamlets, but his struggles seem more evenly matched with those of the other characters. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Thursday, August 23, 6:30, 773-281-4114.
From the Chicago Reader (September 7, 2001). — J.R.
Hit and Runway
Directed by Christopher Livingston
Written by Jaffe Cohen and Livingston
With Michael Parducci, Peter Jacobson, Judy Prescott, Kerr Smith, Hoyt Richards, John Fiore, and J.K. Simmons.
Hit and Runway — a comedy about a straight aspiring screenwriter in Greenwich Village taking on a gay playwright as a writing partner — comes from the writing team of Jaffe Cohen, who’s gay, and Christopher Livingston, who’s straight (he also directed). I knew nothing about this semiautobiographical movie until I saw it and nothing about the filmmakers until I looked at the press book, and I was fascinated to learn how semi the autobiographical aspects were.
That this movie exists at all deserves some consideration. It won a couple of festival prizes for best screenplay in 1999 and was copyrighted in 2000. I assume one reason it’s taken so long to get released — apart from being an independent feature without the clout of a major studio behind it — is the way it defies the assumptions of most publicists by refusing to address itself to either a straight or a gay audience to the exclusion of the other. It might not seem subversive for gay and straight viewers to watch the same comedy at the same time or even to laugh at the same jokes, but apparently this possibility conflicts with the way the big studios think about us as customers. Read more
One festival brochure described this 1986 feature as a dazzling film noir thriller, yet the distinctive talents of French director Leos Carax have relatively little to do with storytelling. The vaguely paranoid plot concerns a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help them steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus, but the noir and SF trappings are so feeble that they function at best as a framing device, a means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in the wonderful leads, Lavant and Juliette Binoche, which comes to fruition during the former’s lengthy attempt to seduce the latter, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true source of Carax’s style is neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema, with its melancholy, its innocence, its poetics of close-up, gesture, and the mysteries of personality. In French with subtitles. 119 min. (JR)
The Japanese title literally means “not yet,” a child’s response to the query “Are you ready?” in a game of hide-and-seek, and Akira Kurosawa’s 1993 film is his own way of saying the same thing. Written and directed by Kurosawa at age 83, this very personal film, set between 1943 and about 20 years later, concerns a retired professor (Tatsuo Matsumura), his circle of adoring former students (all male), his cat, and his wife. It?s full of moving moments, but unlike the exquisite Rhapsody in August (1991) it can’t be regarded as major Kurosawa. Basically a series of sketches drawn from the writings of Hyakken Uchida, the film periodically calls to mind John Ford’s The Long Gray Line as an extended valediction (one long birthday gathering seems to go on forever). Madadayo has the expressionistic simplicity of Kurosawa?s other late films, their distillation and intensity of emotion; one of the lengthiest episodes, about the loss of the hero’s cat, is especially powerful. There’s something undeniably hermetic and at times sluggish about the film’s style, but the sheer freedom of the discourse—the way Kurosawa inserts brief flashbacks into the narrative whenever he feels like it or ends the movie with a dream—is comparable in some ways to late Buñuel, and the film shares his poignant sense of wonder. Read more
This appeared in the March 20, 1998 issue of the Chicago Reader. —J.R.
Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed and written by Michael Paxton
Narrated by Sharon Gless.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Elaine May
With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Larry Hagman, and Maura Tierney.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Two highly partisan political movies are opening this week, a right-wing independent documentary and a left-wing Hollywood feature — though it’s not clear that the filmmakers of either would categorize their work in this way. Certainly it wouldn’t be any exaggeration to call both films the efforts of special interest groups — a movie about Bill Clinton put together by people who mainly qualify as his supporters and friends and a sincere hagiography of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand fashioned by many of her disciples and acolytes. How far they actually carry their respective loyalties is a different matter, however. Ultimately both movies flounder as well as triumph because of their insider points of view, though not always for the same reasons.
Whenever Ayn Rand’s name comes up, I have an impulse to scoff, an impulse I think is shared by many others. Read more
As you well know it was God who created this Earth and everything on it. And he thought it was all great. All painters and poets and musicians sang and celebrated the creation and that was all OK. But not for real. Something was missing. So about 100 years ago God decided to create the motion picture camera. And he did so. And then he created a filmmaker and said, “Now here is an instrument called the motion picture camera. Go and film and celebrate the beauty of the creation and the dreams of human spirit, and have fun with it.”
But the devil did not like that. So he placed a money bag in front of the camera and said to the filmmakers, ‘Why do you want to celebrate the beauty of the world and the spirit of it if you can make money with this instrument?” And, believe it or not, all the filmmakers ran after the money bag. The Lord realized he had made a mistake. So, some 25 years later, to correct his mistake, God created independent avant-garde filmmakers and said, “Here is the camera. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1992). This masterpiece about money, love,and art looks even better today, over three decades after it was made. Catch it now on MUBI before it leaves! — J.R.
Jon Jost’s ravishing independent feature about art, money, and loneliness in Manhattan — beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Jost himself and with a wonderful, Gil Evans-ish big-band jazz score by Jon A. English — can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Jost’s earlier Rembrandt Laughing (1988), which dealt with several friends and acquaintances over several months in San Francisco. The main characters here are three young women who share a spacious apartment — Emmanuelle Chaulet (from Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends), Katherine Bean, and Grace Phillips — and a Wall Street broker (Stephen Lack) who loves the Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum. As in Jost’s other features, the narrative is elliptically constructed — the film seems more concerned with evoking a place, time, and milieu than with a dramatically shaped story — but there’s still a lot of lyrical passion and drama in the sounds, images, and characters themselves (1990). (JR)
A bored festival report that I did for Cinemaya, Winter 1991-1992. -– J.R.
The Chicago International Film Festival is now 27 years old, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the U.S. because its founder, Michael Kutza, has remained its director, it might be said to have retained its overall focus — or, in fact ,the lack of focus — since the beginning, which might be described as an emphasis on quantity rather than a discernible critical position. (Having moved to Chicago in 1987, I’ve been present only for the last five festivals, but local critics who have been around much longer assure me that it hasn’t gone through any radical changes.)
To cite one instance of what I mean, it is the only festival that comes to mind that has consciously and deliberately programmed bad films on occasion for their camp appeal. Certain other titles often appear to be picked at random, and the festival has at times shown enough inattentiveness to various year-long non-commercial film venues in Chicago to reprogram certain films that have already been shown at the Art Institute’s Film Center or Facets Multimedia Center.
One hundred and twenty features were scheduled at the festival in 1991, and while a few of these never turned up, there were still many more films shown over 15 days in mid-October than the critics knew what to do with. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (January 10, 1992). — J.R.
David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece since Videodrome breaks every rule in the book when it comes to adapting a literary classic — perhaps On Naked Lunch would be a more accurate title — but justifies every transgression with its artistry and sheer audacity. Adapted not only from William S. Burroughs’s free-for novel but also from several other Burroughs works (e.g., Exterminator and the introduction to Queer), it pares away all the social satire and everything that might qualify as celebration of gay sex, yielding a complex and highly subjective portrait of Burroughs himself (expertly played, under his William Lee pseudonym, by Peter Weller) as a tortured sensibility in flight from his own femininity, who proceeds zombielike through an echo chamber of projections (insects, drugs, and typewriters) and disavowals. According to the densely compacted metaphors that compose this dreamlike movie, writing equals drugs equals sex, and William Lee, as politically incorrect as Burroughs himself, repeatedly disavows his involvement in all three activities. Maybe it’s Cronenberg himself who’s doing all the disavowing; like David Lynch, his imagination seems to depend on ideological unawareness, but here, at least, it produces the most ravishing head movie since Eraserhead. Read more
From the Chicago Reader. I’ve lost track of when this was published, but I know it wasn’t in October 1985, which is listed on the Reader’s web site — over two years before I joined the staff there. I would guess this probably appeared around fourteen years later. — J.R.
I’ve seen about a dozen of the 57 features directed by the fascinating and criminally neglected Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), and while no two are alike in style, many are socially subversive and most skirt the edges of exploitation filmmaking. This 1965 black-and-white ‘Scope comedy is also known as Yakuza Soldier; Shintaro Katsu, star of the popular Zatoichi films, plays an amiable, earthy yakuza thug drafted into Japan’s war with Manchuria prior to World War II, during which his main companion, the story’s narrator, is an intellectual with a similarly jaundiced view of military discipline. Made a year before the even more remarkable violent antiwar film Red Angel, this film features a lot of slapping and bone crunching, all of it administered by Japanese against other Japanese; significantly, the violence involving Manchurians is ignored. The irreverent ambience at times suggests Mister Roberts, with the pertinent difference that desertion is regarded as a sane and reasonable response to a soldier’s life. Read more
Whether you like this or not — and it’s quite possible that you won’t — this has got to be one of the weirdest and most original movies around. Written and directed by former film critic and scriptwriter-turned-director Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), whose previous solo feature never hit these shores, this is produced by Julie Corman, wife of Roger, and harks back to a lot of 60s Corman productions in various ways, for better and for worse; it also may be the first U.S. exploitation film to show the influence of Raul Ruiz in its striking use of colors and color filters, and Jasper Johns springs to mind in relation to some of the set painting. Mayersberg’s starting point and putative focus is Isaac Asimov’s famous SF story, set on the planet Lagash, where it is always daylight, shortly before its civilization collapses; David Birney, Sarah Douglas, Andra Mylian, and Alexis Kanner head the cast, and much of the action and decor reflect a series of interesting solutions for representing an alien culture as cheaply as possible. If you’re looking for something different, make sure to catch this oddity. Read more
Terry Gilliam’s third fantasy feature (1989) may not achieve all it reaches for, but it goes beyond Time Bandits and Brazil in its play with space and time, and as a children’s picture offers a fresh and exciting alternative to the Disney stranglehold on the market. The famous baron (John Neville) sets off with a little girl stowaway (Sarah Polley) on an epic journey to save a city in distress; among the other actors are Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Valentina Cortese, and Robin Williams in a wonderful uncredited cameo as the Moon King. PG, 126 min. (JR)