Daily Archives: April 1, 2005

Identity Politics

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth

*** (A must see)

Directed by Vicente Ferraz

The Journey: Portrait of Vera Chytilova

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Jasmina Blazevic

Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes

*** (A must see)

Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth is a 2004 Brazilian documentary about the making of the legendary 1964 Russian-Cuban production I Am Cuba, a preposterous, beautiful, mannerist epic of Marxist agitprop celebrating the Cuban revolution. Early on the documentary — which, like the other two films reviewed here, is showing this week at the Chicago International Documentary Festival — focuses on one of the key sequences in the original film. The coffin of a radical student slain by Batista’s police during a mass uprising is carried by his comrades through downtown Havana, surrounded by a crowd that swells to Cecil B. De Mille proportions. In a delirious, breathtaking two-and-a-half-minute shot, the camera moves ahead of a young woman and past a young man — catching him in close-up as he turns around, hoists the front of the coffin onto his right shoulder, and walks away with the other pallbearers — then cranes up the five floors of a building, past people watching from balconies and parapets.… Read more »

Golub: Late Works Are The Catastrophes

Chicago-based Kartemquin Films has added a 25-minute update and a subtitle to its documentary masterpiece (1988) about the Chicago-born leftist painter Leon Golub. I’m grateful for the new material, which documents the fatalistic yet playful later phase in Golub’s work up to his death in 2004 and fills another gap by better conveying the paintings of his wife, Nancy Spero. But I’m somewhat dismayed by the way the overall emphasis of the original has shifted away from the social reception of Golub’s political paintings toward a more conventional biographical approach. Tom Sivak’s music throughout remains striking and original. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Journey: Portrait Of Vera Chytilova

An irritating and frustrating 52-minute account (2004) of the woman I regard as the greatest Czech filmmaker, offering a meager sense of her transgressive and innovative work while allowing her to rattle on about her family and current domestic life without revealing much that’s distinctive about either. Clips from Chytilova’s films aren’t identified by Czech director Jasmina Blazevic until the closing credits, and even viewers who have some acquaintance with her workwhich apart from the 1966 classic Daisies can be difficult to findare set adrift with few signposts about the shape of her prolific and varied career. In Czech with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

I Am Cuba, Siberian Mammoth

An absorbing and intelligent Brazilian documentary about the legendary 1964 Soviet-Cuban coproduction I Am Cuba, a monumental revolutionary epic that was disastrously received, then shelved before being revived in the early 90s. Interviewing Cubans as well as Russians who worked on the film, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, Vicente Ferraz clarifies some facts about the productionrevealing among other things that cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky’s wife, Bella Friedman, played a significant creative role. He’s also attentive to the ironies implicit in the film’s fate without being derisive or uncritical. In Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill

Judy Irving’s graceful and laid-back 2003 documentary deals with at least three subjects, separately and in conjunction with one another. One is indicated by the title: the 45 or so wild parrots from South America that have mysteriously found their way to Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. A good many of them have been befriended, as it were, by the second subject: Mark Bittner, a jobless and sometimes homeless local bohemian who teaches us a lot about them and himself. The third subject is the citya sturdy and loving portrait of San Francisco and its people emerges from the details. The film is both wise and tender in its treatment of relationshipsbetween birds, between people, and between birds and people. G, 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Fever Pitch

A schoolteacher (Jimmy Fallon) finds his fanatical attachment to the Boston Red Sox getting in the way of his budding relationship with a business consultant (Drew Barrymore) in this slightly-better-than-average romantic comedy by Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). It doesn’t require any knowledge of baseball and in fact does a pretty good job of exploring the more regressive aspects of sports fandom, though it doesn’t advance very far beyond predictable formula. To call this Farrelly brothers lite may be a little redundant, but aside from the odd vomit gag, it goes relatively easy on their usual working-class taboo busting. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel wrote the script, adapting Nick Hornby’s memoir about his addiction to English soccer. PG-13, 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Steel Helmet

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

Sam Fuller’s first and greatest war film (1951) is even better in its terse and minimalist power than the restored version of The Big Red One released last year. The first Hollywood movie about the Korean war, this introduced Gene Evans, the gruff star Fuller was to use many more times, as a crude, bitter, savvy sergeant who, despite his obvious racism, bonds with a South Korean war orphan. In addition to being visually and aurally brilliant, the film includes virtually unprecedented debates about America’s racial segregation and the internment of Japanese during World War II. An independent production, The Steel Helmet did so well that it immediately won Fuller a contract at 20th Century Fox. With Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton, and James Edwards. 84 min. (JR)

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Early German Animation

This program includes Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (66 min.), about which Dave Kehr writes, Reiniger was the master (and perhaps the sole practitioner) of an elaborate form of cutout animation in which silhouetted characters perform before filigreed backgrounds. This film, released in 1926 after three years’ work, is her only feature; it is charming, accomplished, and somewhat arcane. Completing the program are Berthold Bartosch’s L’idee (1932), Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy’s classic Ballet mecanique (1924), the great Oskar Fischinger’s Wax Experiments (1927) and Muratti Marches On (1934), and Walter Ruttmann’s Opus II (1921), Opus III (1924), and Opus IV (1925). 140 min. (JR)… Read more »

In My Country

John Boorman directs a potent, liberal-minded drama about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings of the mid-90s, adapted by Ann Peacock from Antjie Krog’s book Country of My Skull. The plot focuses on two journalists, an Afrikaner poet (Juliette Binoche) who firmly believes in the South African concept of ubuntu (collective unity) and a Washington Post reporter (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s a lot more skeptical, seeing the hearings chiefly as a way for guilty whites to be pardoned for their crimes. Though the opposition between these characters as well as their growing rapport may seem somewhat diagrammatic at times, the story as a whole is sufficiently nuanced to develop in unforeseeable directions, and Boorman gets the most out of the material. R, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Ballad Of Jack And Rose

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 2005). — J.R.

the-ballad-of-jack-and-rose

The third feature by writer-director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity), daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, doesn’t succeed in everything it sets out to do. But as a statement about the death rattle of 60s counterculture it’s thoughtful and affecting, and Daniel Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as a defiant yet ailing idealist who once helped found a commune on an eastern seaboard island and now lives on the isolated property with his sheltered 16-year-old daughter (Camilla Belle). This arrangement becomes more troubled after he invites a lover (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons (Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano) to move in, and all five people begin to come unglued. With Beau Bridges. R, 111 min. (JR)

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Critters 2: The Main Course

For spectators who haven’t seen the original and don’t know all the donnees of the characters and situations, the makers of the sequel aren’t as forthcoming as they might have been. But there’s still a fair amount of disreputable amusement to be found from the eponymous, carnivorous rolling fur balls from outer space and the extraterrestrial bounty hunters on their trail. This minor Gremlins spin-off can’t boast much in the acting department, and most of the special effects are decidedly cut-rate, so good-natured nasty fun is the main bill of fare. Its not nearly as imaginative as Beetlejuice, but its callow little heart and its overbite are still both in the right place. With Don Opper, Scott Grimes, Liane Curtis, Barry Corbin, and Terrence Mann; directed by Mick Garris, written by Garris and David Twohy. (JR)… Read more »

Beatrice

128 minutes of slow-motion torture. Bertrand Tavernier’s misconceived catalog of suffering and squalor during the Middle Agesspecifically his grim account of incest and humiliation after a lord (Bernard Pierre Donnadieu) returns from the Hundred Years’ War to rape his daughter (Julie Delpy), berate his son (Nils Tavernier), curse God, and abuse a few othersis worthy of Woody Allen in one of his unfunny, self-flagellating moods. The toneless script is by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan, who previously collaborated with her ex-husband on that oatmeal manifesto known as A Sunday in the Country. If the earlier film was a square celebration of mediocrity, this one is an equally square and gutless attempt to do something down and dirty without knowing precisely how or why. A fine original score by jazz bassist Ron Carter and some good cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer get wasted in an art film that, like the worst of Allen, manages to bore you (and bore into you) with its relentless determination to be as depressing as possible for no reason in particular. (JR)… Read more »

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Judy Irving’s graceful and laid-back 2003 documentary deals with at least three subjects, separately and in conjunction with one another. One is indicated by the title: the 45 or so wild parrots from South America that have mysteriously found their way to Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. A good many of them have been befriended, as it were, by the second subject: Mark Bittner, a jobless and sometimes homeless local bohemian who teaches us a lot about them and himself. The third subject is the city–a sturdy and loving portrait of San Francisco and its people emerges from the details. The film is both wise and tender in its treatment of relationships–between birds, between people, and between birds and people. G, 83 min. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »