From the April 28, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. I was just reminded of Khroustaliov, My Car! when, thanks to Roger Alan Koza, I recently discovered a more recent and rather amazing feature by the son of Alexi Guerman (or German), Alexei Guerman Jr.’s Paper Soldier (2008). — J.R.
Fun and infuriating in roughly equal proportions, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is an unusually bold experiment for a major studio. Its plot is outlandish and its characters the most overblown parodies this side of Robert Altman. In some respects, it’s even more cockamamy than James Toback’s Black and White and its sensationalist riffs. So you can’t laugh at much of it without feeling either self-satisfied or stupid.
The silliness and the daring of Timecode are often made to seem like opposite sides of the same coin — a kind of cagey self-protection that cheerfully self-destructs to ensure that the movie poses little threat to anyone. Back in the 60s, critic Noël Burch tartly observed that there would always be an 8½ to provide a refuge from the implications of a Last Year at Marienbad. Timecode suggests an unlikely synthesis: a flamboyantly obvious and carnivalesque satire of Tinsel Town and its excesses tied to an open-ended, highly interactive, and somewhat abstract form.… Read more »
A beautiful restoration of the 1924 silent version, one of the loveliest movies for and about children ever made. Though he’s forgotten now, director Herbert Brenon was a formidable figure in the teens and 20s, also known for his work with Annette Kellerman and Theda Bara, his subsequent James Barrie adaptation A Kiss for Cinderella, and his 1926 adaptations of Beau Geste and The Great Gatsby. Peter Pan also benefits from a script by Willis Goldbeck, the superb cinematography of James Wong Howe, and some very charming special effects by Roy Pomeroy, the same man who parted the Red Sea in De Mille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments. The cast includes Betty Bronson in the title role, Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, and Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily. (My own favorite is the only carryover from the stage production, George Ali as Nana the dog.) David Drazin will provide piano accompaniment and, judging from what he played at the preview, this will be a wonderful enhancement, especially sensitive when it comes to dealing with Tinkerbell. Children under 12 will be admitted free when accompanied by an adult. 105 min. Univ. of Chicago Doc Films, 1212 E. 59th, Thursday, May 4, 7:00, 773-702-8575.… Read more »
I’ve been late in catching up with Sadie Benning’s magnum opus to date (1998)–a 50-minute black-and-white video shot on both film and Pixelvision in Milwaukee, concentrating on the inner life of an androgynous 11-year-old girl–but it’s certainly everything I hoped it would be. It begins and ends with a montage of rusty urban landscapes that uncharacteristically recalls the work of her father, James Benning, but the really startling thing about this video is that all the characters wear strikingly painted, life-size masks, which gives a kind of surrealist overlay to the feeling of intimacy captured by Benning’s uses of Pixelvision. Her mode is still autobiographical/confessional, but the use of fiction gives her a lot more freedom, accounting for not only the masks but some animation as well. Gender issues are still at the forefront of her concerns, widened here to include the relations between family members and playmates as well as friends and lovers, and the lyricism of Benning’s angle of vision remains as weird and wonderful as ever. 57 min. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, May 4, 7:30, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
A bold experiment from Mike Figgis, at once fun and infuriating. The film’s undercut by an overblown satirical plot and grotesquely thin characters that suggest Robert Altman at his worst; you can barely laugh without feeling either glib or stupid. In 93 minutes of real time, four digital cameras simultaneously shoot the trajectories of various characters who have some connection to auditions for a stupid-sounding movie on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard and a pitch being made for another movie (which approximates this one); we view the results of all four cameras at once while hearing enough to follow the main strands of the plot, which mainly have to do with who’s sleeping with whom. The action, which features a series of earthquake aftershocks, is synchronized with stopwatches, but the dialogue is improvised. The cast includes, among many others, Figgis regular Saffron Burrows, Holly Hunter (mainly wasted), Richard Edson, Salma Hayek, Kyle MacLachlan, Laurie Metcalf, Mia Maestro, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgard, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. (JR)… Read more »
Joe Gould’s Secret
This charming and evocative period piece about Greenwich Village in the 40s is also a subtle cautionary tale for writers against the danger of losing all your work in talk. The delicate and wryly witty screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, perhaps best known for his work with Steven Soderbergh, tells the true story of shy southern New Yorker editor Joseph Mitchell (Stanley Tucci, who also directed) discovering and profiling the legendary Joe Gould (Ian Holm in a career-defining performance). Gould, a homeless bohemian and raging lunatic–kind of a Mr. Natural before the fact–professes to be writing something called “The Oral History of Our Time,” but it never quite materializes. The fact that Mitchell himself retreated into silence after writing a second Gould profile in the 60s suggests either that Gould’s dissipation had a snowball effect or that Mitchell became Gould’s doppelganger. Either way, this is a movie to savor, not one to scarf. With Patricia Clarkson, Hope Davis, and Susan Sarandon. Fine Arts.
–Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »
This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). I’m delighted that this feature and many others by Chytilová (including, most recently, her long-neglected Something Different) are now available in excellent DVD editions from Second Run in the U.K. — J.R.
My favorite Czech film, one of the most exhilarating stylistic and psychedelic explosions of the 1960s, is Vera Chytilová’s highly aggressive feminist farce Daisies, which erupts in all directions. At any given moment, shots can switch from luscious color to black-and-white to sepia to a rainbow succession of color filters, shatter into shards like broken glass, rattle through rapid-fire montages like machine-gun volleys, and leap freely between time frames and locations. While many American and Western European filmmakers during this period prided themselves on their subversiveness, it is quite possible that the most radical film of the decade, ideologically as well as formally, came from the East — from the liberating ferment building towards the short-lived political reforms of 1968′s Prague Spring.
Featuring two giggling, nihilistic 17-year-olds, both named Marie — a brunette (Ivana Karbanova) and a redhead (Jitká Cerhova) — Daisies does not have a narrative or even characters in the ordinary sense: Just a good deal of provocation that typically garners more laughter from the women in the audience than the men.… Read more »
This appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the April 14, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
THE RIVER **** Directed by Tsai Ming-liang Written by Tsai, Yang Bi- ying, and Tsai Yi-chun With Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen Shiang-chyi,Chen Chao-jung, and Ann Hui.
1. I wouldn’t know how to plunge headlong into a single approach towards a film as strange and as shocking as The River – Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, playing this week at Facets Multimedia — so a series of alternative perspectives seems desirable. The problem is, even starting off by labeling this movie a masterpiece reminds me how such an assertion in some cases amounts to a gamble more than a certainty, however much one may prefer to pretend otherwise.
What’s my alibi for this lack of confidence? First of all, a sense that when one encounters something as downright peculiar as The River, the first impulse is not to assert anything at all but to ask, “What the hell is this?” And to pretend to answer such a question, one ultimately has to fall back on one’s experience before even attempting an analysis.
In my case, I’ve experienced The River twice, both times in less than ideal circumstances: with German subtitles at the Vienna Film Festival two and a half years ago, and, just before writing this, a copy of an English commercial video, with English subtitles, that a friend was kind enough to make for me when I discovered that there wasn’t any other way I could see this film again before reviewing it.… Read more »
An Australian journalist (Rachel Griffiths) who’s pushing 40 wonders what her life would have been like if she’d married her boyfriend, had kids, and settled down to a more conventional existenceand lo and behold, she turns into a woman who’s done precisely that and finds out. In her feature debut, writer-director Pip Karmel, who worked as an editor on Shine, brings a fair amount of sincerity but very little originality to this good-natured comedy, apart from a willingness to include graphic gags about such domestic chores as inserting a diaphragm and teaching toilet training. Some women viewers may respond more favorably than I did; I found this easy to take but ultimately rather aimless.104 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 2000). — J.R.
Beyond the Clouds
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (with Wim Wenders)
Written by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Wenders
With John Malkovich, Ines Sastre, Kim Rossi-Stuart, Sophie Marceau, Chiara Caselli, Peter Weller, Fanny Ardant, Jean Reno, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Irene Jacob, and Vincent Perez.
Chicago has had a plethora of film festivals lately — Women in the Director’s Chair, Polish Movie Springtime, Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Asian American Showcase. This is probably good for filmmakers who want their work shown, but I’m not sure it’s a boon for moviegoers. For one thing, the screening of so many films at once makes it easy for good work to get lost. Billions of dollars are now spent annually making and promoting a few dozen movies — most of them dogs — that the media obligingly make visible and label important, and everything else is consigned to relative oblivion. The most any obscure film can hope for — good or bad, major or minor — is to compete with all the other obscure films. This is tantamount to tripling the number of passengers in steerage without increasing the provisions: more people get to travel, but everyone gets brutalized in the process.… Read more »
An imprisoned bank robber (Paul Newman) fakes a stroke in order to get transferred to a nursing home, where he’s put in the care of a former beauty queen (Linda Fiorentino) who’s locked into a dull marriage with her childhood sweetheart (Dermot Mulroney). She takes a shine to her new charge and asks him to help make her life more interesting. Without ever containing the spark of such late Newman vehicles as Nobody’s Fool and Twilight, this caper movie starts off as enjoyable guff before turning strictly formulaic and winding up as unenjoyable guff. Marek Kanievska (Another Country, Less Than Zero) directed a screenplay by E. Max Frye, Topper Lilien, and Carroll Cartwright. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »
A pretty good English documentary about the 26-month life span of the Sex Pistols, by Julien Temple, who tries to correct some of the false impressions left by his first feature, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which was made 20 years ago and privileged the role played by the punk band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. For my taste, this corrected version has way too many clips from Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. I also would have enjoyed more animated material, since what we have is loads of fun. The period ambience (call it funk) is irresistible, but the main points of interest here are sociological rather than musical. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »
In his directorial debut, actor Edward Norton plays a Catholic priest who, along with his best friend, a rabbi (Ben Stiller), falls for a woman (Jenna Elfman) whom apparently neither of them can marry. This isn’t quite a comedy, but the overall mood is light and warm and the charm of the three leads makes it a movie worth seeing. As a director, Norton bites off more than he can chewhe doesn’t seem to know how to handle sight gags, and some material about Stiller’s unseen brother suggests that either Stuart Blumberg’s screenplay is disjointed or a lot of footage got discarded. The handling of New York settings is pretty good, and so are the costars, including Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, and Milos Forman in parental and/or avuncular parts. 128 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jack Smith directed this 1963 experimental film centered on his love of B-movie star Maria Montez. Not really a finished work, judging from the previous versions I’ve seen, but a rollicking piece of Smithiana just the same. (JR)… Read more »
A beautiful restoration of the 1924 silent version, one of the loveliest movies for and about children ever made. Though he’s forgotten now, director Herbert Brenon was a formidable figure in the teens and 20s, also known for his work with Annette Kellerman and Theda Bara, his subsequent James Barrie adaptation A Kiss for Cinderella, and his 1926 adaptations of Beau Geste and The Great Gatsby. Peter Pan also benefits from a script by Willis Goldbeck, the superb cinematography of James Wong Howe, and some very charming special effects by Roy Pomeroy, who parted the Red Sea in De Mille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments. The cast includes Betty Bronson in the title role, Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, and Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily. (My own favorite is the only carryover from the stage production, George Ali as Nana the dog.) 105 min. (JR)… Read more »
Alexei Guerman’s mad, brilliant sequel to My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982) was begun when the Soviet Union still existed and completed in 1998 with finishing money from France. Set in 1953, during the last days of Stalin’s regime, it has a narrative of sortsthe central character is a brain surgeon and former alcoholic Red Army general who’s sent to the gulag during the anti-Semitic doctors purge and released in a last-ditch effort to save Stalinbut one generally experiences it more as a visionary nightmare. Filmed in high-contrast, deep-focus black and white, in cluttered, claustrophobic interiors and snowy exteriors, often in long takes and with a moving camera, it suggests The Magnificent Ambersons, especially in the way its baroque mise en scene is organized around a subjective camera and various activities in the foreground. But its overall ambience certainly isn’t nostalgic as with the Welles film; it leaves one with a corrosive and unforgettable whiff of the Stalinist era. (JR) 137 min.… Read more »