Monthly Archives: July 2005

The World in a Beijing Theme Park

From the Chicago Reader (July 29, 2005). — J.R.

The World

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and Written by Jia Zhang-ke

With Zhao Tao, Chen Taishen, Jing Jue, Jiang Zhongwei, Huang Yiqun, Wang Hongwei, Liang Jingdong, Ji Shuai, and Alla Chtcherbakova

The title of Jia Zhang-ke’s 2004 masterpiece, The World — a film that’s hilarious and upsetting, epic and dystopian — is an ironic pun and a metaphor. It’s also the name of the real theme park outside Beijing where most of the action is set and practically all its characters work. “See the world without ever leaving Beijing” is one slogan for the 115-acre park, where a monorail circles scaled-down replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, London Bridge, Saint Mark’s Square, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids, and even a Lower Manhattan complete with the Twin Towers. Extravagant kitsch like this may offer momentary escape from the everyday, but Jia is interested in showing the everyday activities needed to hold this kitsch in place as well as the alienation in this displaced world — and therefore in the world in general, including the one we know.

Jia, with his choreographed wide-screen long takes in long shot, may be the best cinematic composer of figures in landscapes since Michelangelo Antonioni.… Read more »

The Dukes Of Hazzard

As soon as it became clear that this remake has nothing to do with real Georgia moonshiners and everything to do with car chases, smashups, and explosions, I could sit back and enjoy it as good, stupid funa celebration of lawlessness in a crooked county, with Burt Reynolds figuring (a little uncomfortably) as the top villain. Cousins Bo (Seann William Scott), Luke (Johnny Knoxville), and Daisy (Jessica Simpson) outwit and outdrive the cops while helping Uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson) keep his farm. With Joe Don Baker and Lynda Carter. Chicago native Jay Chandrasekhar directed the script by John O’Brien. PG-13, 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Writing the Wrecord

In my review of Karen Severns and Koichi Mori’s Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan [July 22] I said that Arata Endo was the only person with whom Wright ever agreed to share architectural credit, information I got from the documentary. But my brother Alvin Rosenbaum, author of the 1993 book Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America, tells me that Wright shared credit with at least one other person, Aaron Green, “on their joint San Francisco office,” adding that “their major collaboration, the Marin County Courthouse, was finished after Wright’s death.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum … Read more »

The World

From the Chicago Reader (July 29, 2005). — J.R.

Suggesting at different moments a backstage musical, a failed love story, a surreal comedy, and even a cartoon fantasy, this beautiful, corrosive, visionary masterpiece by Jia Zhang-ke (2004) is a frighteningly persuasive account of the current state of the planet. Set in an eerie Beijing theme park — a kind of Chinese Las Vegas, with scaled-down duplicates of the most famous global landmarks — it follows a bunch of workers as they labor, carouse, couple, and uncouple, but it’s really about propping up extravagant illusions through alienated labor. Jia, only 35, is the most talented director, and one of the most respected, in mainland China — though this film is his first to get an official release there. In Mandarin and Shanxi dialect with subtitles. 139 min. (I will introduce the 4:20 PM Saturday screening and lead a discussion afterward.) . Music Box

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Wright in Japan [Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan]

This originally appeared in the July 22, 2005 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve slightly extended it here, pictorially as well as verbally, on February  8, 2010. — J.R.

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION: **
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S
BUILDINGS AND LEGACY
IN JAPAN

DIRECTED BY KAREN SEVERNS
AND KOICHI MORI
WRITTEN BY SEVERNS
NARRATED BY AZBY BROWN AND
DONALD RICHIE

It’s widely known that Japan had a profound influence on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. But how many of us have the chance to discover that the reverse is also true? According to the commentary written by Chicago native Karen Severns for Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s  Buildings and Legacy In Japan – a 128-minute American documentary (2004) she made with her Japanese husband Koichi Mori, which also exists in a Japanese version —- the effort to distinguish between emulations and imitations of Wright in Japanese architecture criticism is no small affair, and “At one point, there were 32 Wright-related terms in the [Japanese] architectural lexicon.”

One could posit a certain analogy between this oscillating cultural exchange and a process set in motion by some young, maverick French film critics in the 50s. Their eccentric enthusiasm for some Hollywood directors produced a new kind of French cinema and French film criticism, and this wound up influencing 60s Hollywood and American film criticism in turn.… Read more »

Bad News Bears

Many repeat performances are being sought in this remake of Michael Ritchie’s 1976 comedy about unpromising Little Leaguers with an alcoholic coach and a star female pitcher, with its sound track of four-letter words and themes from Bizet’s Carmen. But this is also a spin-off of Bad Santa (with both that movie’s writers as well as its star, Billy Bob Thornton) and The School of Rock (with Richard Linklater back as hired-hand director). Fortunately almost everyone acquits himself coolly and admirably; only costars Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden ham it up. PG-13, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Velvet Smooth

Actress Johnnie Hill plays the title role in this 1976 blaxploitation mystery, cowritten by novelist Leonard Michaels (The Men’s Club), of all people. Michael L. Fink directed. R, 93 min. (JR)… Read more »

Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings And Legacy In Japan

One neglected aspect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career is his involvement with Japanincluding a series of visits that spanned 17 years in the early 20th century, the abiding influence of Japanese art and architecture on his work, and the impact of his own work on Japanese architects. This informative documentary by Chicagoan Karen Severns and her Japanese husband, Koichi Mori, doesn’t give the whole story; it favors the view from Japan and skimps on the Japanese influences on Wright’s American buildings. But it offers fascinating material about Wright assistants Arata Endo (with whom Wright even shared architectural credit on occasion) and Antonin Raymond (who became a leading Japanese modernist), and its account of the now-vanished Imperial Hotel, one of Wright’s masterpieces, is priceless. 128 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wright in Japan

Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Karen Severns and Koichi Mori

Written by Severns

Narrated by Azby Brown and Donald Richie

Frank Lloyd Wright readily acknowledged the influence of Japanese art–particularly the abstract shapes, lively colors, and unusual perspectives of wood-block prints–on his work. He soft-pedaled or denied the influence of Japanese architecture–but then he was always reluctant to admit any direct architectural influences. Both predilections are examined in Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan, a 2004 documentary Chicago native Karen Severns made with her Japanese husband, Koichi Mori. The film also shows that Wright had a profound influence on Japanese architecture. “At one point,” Severns says in her narration, read by Azby Brown, “there were 32 Wright-related terms in the [Japanese] architectural lexicon.”

The story of the two-way cultural traffic between Wright and Japan is so intricate that even a 128-minute film can barely scratch the surface. And the surface that’s scratched is mainly in Japan, not here. Wright’s visits to Japan spanned 17 years, starting with his very first trip abroad–in 1905, when he was 37–and culminating with his work on Tokyo’s awesome Imperial Hotel. They weren’t exactly casual visits.… Read more »

Happy Endings

A press release boasts that this 130-minute feature by writer-director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) tells no fewer than ten overlapping stories, but I couldn’t work up the energy to count them. The sensibility is Southern California Witless, and the jokey intertitles that periodically take up half the ‘Scope frames (This is a comedy. Sort of.) are even more smarmy than the characters. The latter include an aspiring filmmaker who blackmails a woman who once had an illegitimate child into helping him make a documentary, a rock singer who has successive affairs with a gay drummer and the drummer’s wealthy father, and similar fun types. With Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Jesse Bradford, Bobby Cannavale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Ritter, Tom Arnold, and Laura Dern. R. (JR)… Read more »

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Fingers, James Toback’s 1978 debut feature about a second-generation gangster who plays classical piano, was described by Dave Kehr as “dauntingly personal filmmaking, full of strange, suggestive ideas and deep feelings that are never made comprehensible for the audience.” Despite the enthusiasm of everyone from Pauline Kael to Edgardo Cozarinsky and Francois Truffaut, I never liked Toback’s piece of macho braggadocio, so this remake by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) couldn’t go anywhere but up. It’s more than a simple improvement, inverting some of the original’s qualities so that the impersonal, well-crafted filmmaking remains lucid throughout. Even more unexpectedly, the piano lessons taken by the hero (Romain Duris, very fine) from a Vietnamese woman (Linh-dan Pham) who speaks no French are more highly charged than any of the violence. Niels Arestrup is striking as the hero’s slumlord father. In French with subtitles. 107 min. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »

Red Desert

Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color feature (1964) uses colors expressionistically, and to get the precise hues he wanted, he had entire fields painted. The film came at the end of his most fertile period, just after L’avventura, La notte, and Eclipse, and it isn’t as good as the first and last of these, but the ecological concerns look a lot more prescient today. Monica Vitti plays a neurotic married woman briefly attracted to industrialist Richard Harris, and Antonioni does eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround her; she walks through a science fiction landscape spotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities. Like any self-respecting Antonioni heroine, she’s looking for love and meaning–more specifically, for ways of adjusting to new forms of life–and mainly finding sex. But the film’s most spellbinding sequence depicts a pantheistic, utopian fantasy of innocence, which she recounts to her ailing son. In Italian with subtitles. 118 min. DVD projection. Italian-literature scholar Terri Stough will lead a discussion after the screening; preregistration is required. Sun 7/17, 2 PM, Casa Italiana, 5430 N. Broadway, 773-275-5325.… Read more »

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

From the Chicago Reader (July 8, 2005). Nine years later, having recently reseen this fabulous film on Blu-Ray (a beautiful job from Warners, with many enticing extras), I would currently maintain that what I formerly called the “key cinematic sources” should probably have been called key cinematic cross-references — to which one should add Raul Ruiz’s City of Pirates for its own shot which purports to be a view of someone’s teeth from the inside of his mouth. — J.R.

charlieandthechocolatefactory

charlie2

Tim Burton finally fulfills the promise of Beetlejuice (1988) with this imaginative masterpiece, adapted from the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl but characterized by Burton’s special feeling for color, architecture, and nightmarish dislocation. Adapted by John August, this schematic fable of five children invited to tour a mysterious candy factory is well served by the surrealistic design, Johnny Depp’s mannerist performance as the androgynous chocolate tycoon Willy Wonka, and the deft digital wizardry that multiplies actor Deep Roy into the entire workforce of the Wonka factory, performing crazed production numbers. (Among the key cinematic sources here are the ice cream factory in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions and the hyperbolic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) There’s a streak of moralism, but it never becomes as sticky as the candy because the invention never flags.… Read more »

The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong And Cry Of Jazz

According to Scott Yanow’s book Jazz on Film, John Alomfrah’s British documentary The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong (2001, 65 min.) is marred by the interviewees — among them George Melly, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Max Roach, Gary Giddins, and Lil Hardin Armstrong — talking over the music. By contrast, both the talk and the music in Edward O. Bland’s eccentric Chicago-made short Cry of Jazz (1959, 31 min.) are absolutely essential. The paradox is that Bland’s film centers on jazz and needs various kinds of performance to illustrate its points, yet what’s being played is only adequate; if the music were good enough to distract one from the talk, the film wouldn’t work as well. Lucid and provocative, this is recommended viewing for any jazz novice, one of the best social readings of jazz form I know. (JR)… Read more »

Yes

Trained as a musician, English writer-director Sally Potter (The Tango Lesson) still thinks like one. All the dialogue in her timely masterpiece–a passionate post-9/11 love story about an unhappily married Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen) and a younger Lebanese chef (Simon Abkarian) set in London, Belfast, Beirut, and Havana–is written in rhyming iambic pentameter. Beautifully composed and deftly delivered, it becomes the libretto to Potter’s visual music, creating a remarkable lyricism and emotional directness. This is a story about class and age as well as cultural difference, so it matters that the scientist’s dying aunt is a communist and that her sympathetically portrayed estranged husband (Sam Neill) is an English politician. It matters even more that the action is framed by the married couple’s maid (Shirley Henderson), who addresses the camera as she discusses dirt and what we think about it. R, 100 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Landmark’s Century Centre.… Read more »