Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (1973)

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fourstar

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Self-described as a “non-science fiction, not quite realistic, and not strictly historical film” and a “comedy of anxieties” Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (sometimes distributed under the ridiculous title Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future) is both just like & completely unique from every zany comedy title that immediately comes to mind. It’s easy to see echoes of the film’s sense of flippant, whimsical humor in works as varied as Monty Python, Scooby-Doo, and ZAZ comedies, but at the same time I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything exactly like it before. I’m not sure how many Soviet Russian slapstick comedies the average American movie buff watches in their lifetime, but this was a first for me.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession is remarkable for its ability to dabble in the same visual play & artistic pranksterism as titles like the infamous, surreal Czech comedy Daisies while maintaining the accessibility of a sketch comedy show or a weekly sitcom. It’s about as fun as any crossroads between camp & high art as you’re ever likely to see and it’s one that boasts an unlikely specificity & context due to its USSR setting. Rarely is a comedy this artistically rich so recommendable for its entertainment value & basic humorous appeal to audiences who would normally turn up their noses at the idea of watching a hoity-toity foreign film outright. I could easily see it sitting among the works of folks like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson as the perfectly attractive gateway drug to drag youngsters into a life of art cinema geekery. Basically, I’m saying I greatly enjoyed this film as an adult, but really wish someone had shown it to me in high school. It would’ve saved me a lot of time in helping define & develop my own cinematic tastes.

The film’s plot is an exercise in cartoonish artificiality. A scientist/inventor risks losing the attentions of his beautiful actress wife by constantly hammering away at his latest project: a time machine. On the first, disastrous operation of his “apparatus”, the scientist opens the wall to his apartment to a hundreds-years-old castle setting and, through machinations not worth describing in detail, winds up swapping the places of his landlord, Ivan Vasilievich, with the 16th century dictator Ivan the Terrible. The landlord has a difficult time adjusting to his new digs. He’s initially mistaken for a demon by his newfound contemporaries before he disastrously assumes the throne of Ivan the Terrible in disguise (in addition to sharing a name & similarly predatory occupations, they also share an exact likeness). The “real” Ivan the Terrible, by contrast, does fairly well in the modern world. After briefly struggling with confounding inventions like recorded music, lightbulbs, and racy pin-ups, he somewhat comfortably settles into a world that still finds his demanding, violent attributes disconcertingly appealing. While the befuddled scientist struggles to return both Ivans to their proper places in time, the film bifurcates itself into being both a fish out of water comedy in modern times & a violent comedy of errors in ancient ones. It’s all very silly.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of Ivan Vassiliech without making it sound like a very thin, minimal work. Indeed, even certain gags within the film feel like something out of Benny Hill sketch or a mimicry of silent-era hamming. What’s most incredible about this film to me is in the way it distinguishes itself in the details. Its central time-bending apparatus is bizarre mess of sciency vagueness that makes Rick Moranis‘s goofy shrink ray in Honey I Shrunk the Kinds look downright realistic by comparison. Visual techniques like alternating between color and black & white film and mixing live action photography with animation heightens the film’s consistent playfulness to its own unique artform. The shattered fourth wall & movie-within-a-movie meta structure leads to inspired gags like the “real” Ivan the Terrible auditioning for a leading part in a movie about Ivan the Terrible. Ivan Vasilievich is flexible enough to both impress the idea with its meticulous, color-coded set design & to inspire guttural laughter with lines like “Please don’t put me to death, kind sir!” It’s an old-fashioned song & dance comedy that leaves enough room for genuine awe in its majestic Russian castle settings, which are used almost like a playground. Even the would-be bummer of a cop-out ending is significantly softened by the very polite concluding title card of “Ciao! Thank you for your attention.”

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession hits that perfect sweet spot of smart, well-crafted cinema that’s also eager to please & easy to digest. As soon as the first watch I felt like it had already been in my life for decades, like a fuzzy memory triggered by a particular scent. That kind of instant familiarity is difficult to come by, especially with a product this silly & this finely tuned.

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator Genisys (2015)

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threehalfstar

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In the recent flood of reboots, remakes, reimaginings and good, old-fashioned sequels that have effectively taken over Hollywood, there’s been an occasional uproar about what these films are doing to the credibility of the films they’re resurrecting. A few rehashes of long-dead properties have been lauded as critical darlings (such as the fever dream action monster Mad Max: Fury Road), but a lot of them have been met with aploplectic rage, such as Paul Feig’s not-even-released-yet take on Ghostbusters. Part of what Feig is getting flack for is tampering with the original formula, trying his damnedest to give his reboot its own reason to exist, and being met with a resounding opposition that claims he’s “ruining their childhood.” It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t endeavor, creatively speaking, since studios are pouring so much money into these retreads instead of fresh material, but it’d also be entirely pointless to just remake the original film faithfully, except with temporal markers like smart phones & drone-operated cameras to provide modern context (like in the utterly useless Poltergeist remake).

Terminator Genisys has a fun time not only acknowledging the fact that reboots & sequels have a tendency to tarnish the memory of the films that came before them (according to a hypersensitive few), but it revels in the idea. Using the time travel paradox theme from the first couple films in the series, Genisys tinkers with & dismantles its predecessors in a dismissive, disrespectful way that feels alarmingly bold for a film that eventually amounts to a long string of chase scenes. The first hour of the film features a jumble of timelines that interact not only with the 1984 & 1991 stories told in The Terminator & T-2: Judgement Day, but also fleshes out some of the 2024 revolution, makes a pitstop in 1972 that changes the whole game of the first film, and sets up an entirely new Skynet timeline that needs to be dismantled in 2017. It’s a doozy of an opening sequence that features cheap, literal imitations of exact scenes from the earlier movies & repurposes them for its own ends, the implications of how it unravels the first two films be damned. I respect its moxy in this respect, even if the execution was far from flawless.

There’s a televised news report in Terminator Genisys that features the hilariously self-aware headline “Has Genisys gone too far?” This plays like a direct nod to how the film is not only disrespectful to its audience as Terminator fans, but also calls them out as a bunch of technology-obsessed dolts who would allow a computer program to end human existence as long as it promised to make their lives easier. The idea of a killer app that links all of the world’s smartphone technology into one conveniently vulnerable control is far from unique. At the very least, I’ve already seen that concept play out twice this year in Furious 7 & Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s still interesting to see it tie into an action movie’s larger overriding idea that its own audience is worth disdain. There are so many shots of people emptily gazing into their smart phones as a doomsday scenario swirls around them that even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s give-the-people-what-they-want one-liners like “I’ll be back” feel like a dig at the audience’s expectations. It’s so weird to see a film both fulfil movie-goer’s desire to see an old scenario play out yet again & subvert that desire by tearing apart the timelines of the original films by making them irrelevant, or as Schwarzenegger’s cyborg says of himself in this film, obsolete.

Speaking of Arnold, he’s the only enjoyable member of the film’s cast, performing with a weary, but endearing charm that says both “I’m too old for this shit” & “This is all I know how to do”. As a lifelong fan, I’m delighted by the idea of Arnold stretching himself to try new things, but if that means more snoozers like Maggie instead of the one-liner-fueled killing machine performances like in Genisys & the surprisingly enjoyable The Last Stand, I’m also more than happy to just see him filling this role for the rest of his life. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression at all, which (along with a who-cares 2017 climax sequence) tampers my enthusiasm for the film a bit, but that’s okay too.

Look, this is a franchise that’s already been dragged through the mud. Its first two entries are undeniable classics, but Terminator 3 & worse yet, Salvation weren’t exactly memorable cinema. Although I admire Terminator Genisys‘ mission to go back in time & effectively murder its predecessors, it’s an impossible mission. No matter what, those movies still exist & they’re still great. You can revisit your un-ruined childhood anytime you want through Netflix or blu-Rays or murderous smart phone apps or whatever you like, really. They’re still there. We just now also have a serviceable sequel that jumbles the timelines of those films into a barely-coherent mess just to watch its audience squirm under the pressure. I happen to find that tactic pretty hilarious, even if it did have trouble sticking the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

Predestination (2015)

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fourstar

There has been a recent push to update the sci-fi genre in varied, interesting ways. While there have certainly been a few throwbacks to the traditional rocket ships & gunfire Flash Gordon adventure epics like Guardians of the Galaxy & Edge of Tomorrow, titles like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, Coherence, The Congress, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are searching for new territory for the genre to mine. They’re all unique works that can hardly be compared to one another individually, but as a group they feel like a refreshing revitalization of a genre that can sometimes get trapped within its own tropes & clichés. No matter how much I love these movies and what they’re attempting to accomplish, however, there’s just no denying the inherent draw of the sci-fi aesthetic of yesteryear. My favorite film from last year was Interstellar, not because it carved out new sci-fi territory, but because it felt authentic to old school sci-fi pulp you could read serialized in special interest quarterlies or hear in long gone radio plays. There’s a draw to this old fashioned sci-fi aesthetic that I’m glad to see hasn’t been left by the wayside in the wake of our recent crop of experimental exercises in the genre.

With its muted noir tone & a setting that spans from the 1950s through the 70s, Predestination firmly plants itself within this brand of sci-fi throwbacks. Based off of a 1959 Robert Heinlein short story titled “All You Zombies” (which was first published in an issue Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, the exact type of old school serials I’m describing), the film has an authentically old fashioned take on sci-fi as a genre. It is undeniably cheap & trashy in the way its twists & turns are revealed to the audience (some of those reveals are not nearly as surprising as the movie seems to think they are) but that potential flaw is severely undercut by its straightforward style of storytelling. On paper the movie’s plot about time travel, secretive government agencies, and self-fulfilling paradoxes wouldn’t add up to much of value, but the way the story is framed as a drunken, embittered bar patron spinning a yarn for the barkeep is a perfect, no-nonsense approach to material that is nothing but nonsense.

There are some typical sci-fi adventure aspects to Predestination, like virtual reality helmets, “time jumps”, and young girls recruited to be male astronauts’ “companions” (an idea that reminded me of the similarly pulpy Journey to the Seventh Planet), but they’re counteracted with more concrete, noir-influenced images like trench coats, smoke-filled bars, homemade bombs, and a fedora on fire. Just as the always-tricky time travel aspect of the story starts to get overwhelmingly intricate, it also boils down to a typical action movie plot of trying to prevent a bomb from going off and catching the bad guy before he gets away. Even the story’s peculiar play with gender identity, which you would expect to mark it as a modern work, feels old fashioned & outlandish as it’s dealt with here, but straightforward performances from the two leads Ethan Hawke & Sarah Snook anchor that aspect well, just like the barroom storytelling framing device anchors the movie’s outlandish plot.

Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere pulp sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory the genre’s been exploring in recent years. I appreciate the movie the way that any audience can appreciate a great storyteller, especially a rapt audience in a late night barroom who has nothing better to do than listen to a good yarn that becomes increasingly more outlandish as it stretches on.

-Brandon Ledet