Released by: Twilight Time
Released on: November 15, 2016
Director: Paul Mazursky
Cast: Robin Williams, Maria Conchito Alonso, Cleavant Derricks, Savely Kramarov, Elya Baskin, Alejandro Rey, Natalya Ivanova
Year: 1984 Purchase From Screen Archives
Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams) is a shy, gentle soul who plays saxophone for the Moscow Circus. He lives with his extended family in a crowded apartment, sneaking off for an occasional tryst with his girlfriend, Sasha (Natalya Ivanova), at his co-worker Anatoly’s (Elya Baskin) place. He’s unwilling to join the Communist Party or marry Sasha, even though doing either would make it more likely that he’d get a place of his own.
As the Circus prepares for a goodwill trip to NYC, Anatoly, a clown, tells Vladimir of his plans to defect once they get there. Vladimir says little but is pissed off at having to choose between betraying his best friend and obeying the law by ratting him out. Reluctantly, he keeps mum. On the troupe’s last day in the States, they are given half an hour to shop at Bloomingdale’s. While Vladimir scores Calvin Klein jeans for Sasha, Anatoly works himself into an anxiety attack over defecting. Things reach a head when their hard-ass Communist handler, Boris (Savely Kramarov), gets wind of what’s going on and tries to physically force Anatoly from the store. This raises the hackles of black security guard Lionel Witherspoon (Cleavant Derricks), but his attempt to calm things down only escalates the confusion. When things do settle, Anatoly chickens out and voluntarily boards the bus to the airport.
Vladimir, on the other hand, decides to defect. He demands asylum, the FBI shows up, and Lionel takes Vlad home to his own extended family, in his own crowded apartment. Thus begins the new expatriate’s assimilation into the Free World, assisted by an amazing grasp of English and a new, hot girlfriend named Lucia (Maria Conchito Alonso).
With a handful of exceptions (One Hour Photo, The Night Listener, and Insomnia come most immediately to mind), Robin Williams’ films mostly fall between two extremes. On the one end are the zany Mork-from-Ork rehashes (Williams’ idol was improv genius Jonathan Winters, don’t forget). On the other are the films where you can literally feel yourself becoming a Better Person as you watch them. Moscow on the Hudson is about four-fifths of the way along the latter continuum.
It’s an oddly-named film, given that the two cities evoked in the title are presented as very unlike each other. Pre-Gorbachev Moscow is a sad, cold place, in which sad, cold people stand in long lines to buy shoes, chickens, and toilet paper. (For some reason, the film’s Russians, much like the Germans, are inordinately fond of poop and butthole references.) Everyone who lives in the Mother Country fears and resents the government, which for its part seems to do everything it can to nurture those sentiments.
Then there’s Reagan-era New York City, equally cartoonish with its struggling (though not TOO much) minorities living in awful (but not really THAT awful) ghettos. Nobody is all that homeless, hungry, under educated, or otherwise disadvantaged. Even the least favored by society are clean, literate, well-fed, and reasonably happy, because, you know, they live in America. More to the point, everybody KNOWS how lucky they are. This is especially true of the characters who came to the States from elsewhere. Lucia, raised in rural Italy, relishes the sexual independence she has found in New York and fears losing it if she falls in love with Vladimir. Vladimir’s immigration lawyer (the late Alejandro Rey, best remembered as Carlos Ramirez in ABC’s sixties sitcom The Flying Nun) practically tackles Vladimir for the chance to represent him, so anxious is he to share the joy that comes from escaping Castro’s Cuba. Similarly, Vlad’s adopted African-American family doesn’t think twice about taking him in, even though at least five of them are already crammed into a Harlem tenement, presumably living on what Lionel makes at Bloomingdale’s. When Vladimir does get mugged (not TOO badly, though) and wonders aloud whether America’s really all that great, another Russian defector appears from out of nowhere to set him straight.
Williams was one of those actors who didn’t seem to age normally, and for much of the running time, it’s easy to forget that Moscow on the Hudson is more than three decades old. Every so often, though, something pops up to remind you. Yakov (“Send him back”) Smirnoff makes a brief (yet still too long) cameo. There’s also a pair of nude scenes of the sort one has to subscribe to HBO to see these days. And there’s an appearance by that reliable stock character of days gone by, the Gay Sissy, still swishing loud and proud through mainstream American cinema during the mid-eighties… back when few things could generate laughs as reliably as an effeminate man being called a “fag” and responding with a sassy “bitch.” All together now: Yuk-yuk-yuk.
Still, the whole enterprise is sweet spirited enough that it’s hard to work up much umbrage over its missteps. In its own ham-fisted, propagandistic way, Moscow on the Hudson does remind us that, however bad it gets at times, there really are far worse places in the world to live than in the United States.
Moscow on the Hudson comes to Blu-ray courtesy of boutique label Twilight Time with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition on a BD50. The film is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 and looks quite good. No sharpening tools appear to have been used to minimize grain, which provides a healthy underlying structure to the images. The opening credit sequence is a tad bit soft, as is to be expected when opticals are in play, but once it’s over, there’s a high level of detail to be found. Some of New York City’s skyscapes look stunning in hi-def. The tall buildings, tunnel walls with their ‘white brick’ facades, occasional cobblestone streets, the periodic trees that often line neighborhood streets… it all looks very good. Interiors fare just as well, with furniture and fabric revealing minute details that contribute to a pleasing whole, providing clarity to the many well-constructed frames. Well-lit shots are also brimming with color, particularly reds, while skin tones appear natural. (Note that the scenes set in Russia are intentionally more drab than those set in the United States.)
Twilight Time has opted to provide the primary soundtrack in two tracks: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. This reviewer opted for the 5.1 track, which was nice. This isn’t an action film with lots of loud explosions or flesh sizzled by lightsabers. It’s a heartwarming comedy, and the track reflects that. Still, the sounds of the city or even the more muted atmosphere of homey apartments is well reflected by the placement of ambient sounds. Purists may prefer the 2.0 track, but both are lossless, and there are no issues to report for either. English subtitles are provided for the deaf and hearing impaired. For anyone who loves the film’s score, it’s provided on a third track, also in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Thankfully, it is not accompanied by sound effects, which makes it all the more pleasing to listen to. Just note that, because this is a dialogue-driven film, there are long silent passages during the track’s playback.
The only real extras are two audio commentaries, but what extras they are. The first is from Twilight Time’s resident historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. It starts off appropriately enough with a brief discussion about the pronunciation of Julie’s last name, then moves directly into the 2016 presidential election, which stands to change the rules governing immigration to the United States. The two historians do not hesitate to place the film in its proper setting (Reagan’s America), or to cover its left-wing presentation of the positive aspects of immigration. The commentary is breezy and laid back, yet it’s also informational and interesting and full from start to finish. In some respects, it’s a fascinating dissection of the film as a literary work.
The second commentary comes from late director Paul Mazursky himself, who recorded the commentary for a previous DVD release. Mazursky delves deep into the making of the film, beginning with how he came up with the idea to how a studio in Munich was turned into Russia. He talks about the actors, their performances, how they became involved in the film, and what they contributed to it. He also discusses the crew, how he met some of them, how they achieved what they achieved, and so on. For cineastes who absolutely adore Moscow on the Hudson, these two commentaries should be a treat, real treasure troves of information and critical thought. Both are presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.
Rounding out the package is an 8-page booklet containing liner notes written by the talented Julie Kirgo. As a reflection of the message presented in the film, Kirgo makes a passionate plea for inclusion as the United States undergoes a massive political transformation alluded to in her commentary with Redman.
The Final Word:
Moscow on the Hudson is a delightful, entertaining little film, a warm-hearted comedy-drama with a heartfelt central performance from one of cinema’s giants. Twilight Time’s release is highly detailed and, where appropriate, colorful. There aren’t a whole lot of extras, but the two commentaries are well worth a listen and provide a boatload of information for those who give them a shot.
Moscow on the Hudson is a limited release of 3,000 units and is region free.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.
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