These are expanded Chicago Reader capsules written for a 2003 collection edited by Steven Jay Schneider. I contributed 72 of these in all; here are the first dozen, in alphabetical order. — J.R.
Stanley Kwan’s 1991 masterpiece (also known as Ruan Ling-yu and Center Stage) is still possibly the greatest Hong Kong film I’ve seen; perhaps only some of the masterpieces of Wong Kar-wai, such as Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love (both of these also significantly period films) are comparable in depth and intensity. The story of silent film actress Ruan Ling-yu (1910-’35), known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema, it combines documentary with period re-creation, biopic glamour with profound curiosity, and ravishing historical clips with color simulations of the same sequences being shot — all to explore a past that seems more complex, sexy, and mysterious than the present. Maggie Cheung won a well-deserved best actress prize at Berlin for her classy performance in the title role, despite the fact that her difference from Ryan Ling-yu as an actress is probably more important than any similarities. In fact, she was basically known as a comic actress in relatively lightweight Hong Kong entertainments prior to this film, and Actress proved to be a turning point in her career towards more dramatic and often meatier parts.… Read more »
I no longer recall who asked me to write this or why, but I estimate that I must have written it in late 1997 or early 1998, and probably for some foreign publication. I’m happy to see that much of what I wrote, especially about the Times, is now out of date. — J.R.
The New York Film Festival is held every fall, usually in late September and early October. Unlike every other major film festival that comes to mind, it features relatively few programs, less than thirty — a concentration that allows the festival to give more of its attention to each film it shows than many others do. (As a rule, every feature is accorded a press conference, and public dialogues with the filmmaker usually follow each screening.) This often means that many of the foreign and independent films that show at the festival have a more substantial commercial launching than most of those that don’t. (It’s different for Hollywood films, which already have enormous promotional budgets at their disposal. In fact, most mainstream American releases aren’t even submitted, in part because the studios are afraid that a New York Film Festival showing might handicap a movie with the stigma of “art film”.)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (July 16, 1993). — J.R.
The late Sergei Paradjanov’s greatest film, a mystical and historical mosaic about the life, work, and inner world of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, has previously been available only in the ethnically “dry-cleaned” Russian version — recut and somewhat reorganized by Sergei Yutkevich, with chapter headings added to clarify the content for Russian viewers. This superior version of the film, recently found in an Armenian studio, shouldn’t be regarded as definitive (some of the material from the Yutkevich cut is missing), but it’s certainly the finest we have and may ever have: some shots and sequences are new, some are positioned differently, and, of particular advantage to Western viewers, much more of the poetry is subtitled. (Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell why the “new” shots were censored.) In both versions the striking use of tableaulike frames recalls the shallow space of movies made roughly a century ago, while the gorgeous uses of color and the wild poetic conceits seem to derive from some utopian cinema of the future, at once “difficult” and immediate, cryptic and ravishing. This is essential viewing (1969). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, July 16 and 17, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, July 18, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, July 19 through 22, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1991). — J.R.
Directed and written by Spike Lee
With Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, and Anthony Quinn.
Trusting to luck means listening to voices. — Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s
Compared to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is inspired overreaching, an exciting mess — and conceivably even more important. If the earlier movie somehow marshaled its sprawling elements into a single story in a single setting with a single theme, this one has two settings (Harlem and Bensonhurst), three plot lines, and at least four themes (interracial romance, breaking away from one’s family, crack addiction, and corporate advancement for blacks), all of which are crammed together more willfully than logically, yielding a misshapen story that is neither singular nor plural in focus, but somewhere obscurely in between.
First plot: Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an upscale Afro-American architect with a wife and daughter living in Harlem, starts an affair with his new temp secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), a single Italian American who lives with her working-class father and brothers in Bensonhurst. Flipper tells his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), who tells his wife (Veronica Webb), who tells Flipper’s wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), who responds by throwing Flipper out.… Read more »