Monthly Archives: November 1987

Sign o’ the Times

Prince’s concert film–deftly and seamlessly integrating live performances in Antwerp and Rotterdam last summer with thematically related interludes shot in his Minneapolis studio–starts fairly effectively and builds steadily from there. Leroy Bennett’s lighting and production design and Peter Sinclair’s cinematography both help to make this a rousing show, full of sound and fury and signifying plenty, but Prince remains the undisputed auteur. The rapid editing recalls the scattershot method of certain rock videos, but the cinematic and musical savvy with which this is done avoids the coitus interruptus of The Cotton Club: the overall spectacle is enhanced, not curtailed or compromised. Dancer Cat Glover and (especially) drummer Sheila E. shine in these razzle-dazzle surroundings; Dr. Fink (keyboards) and Atlanta Bliss (trumpet) play “Now’s the Time” much too fast and still manage to swing; and Prince himself, passing through a spectrum of costumes and sexual roles, is never less than commanding, as performer, composer, and director. Songs include “Hot Thing,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “The Cross,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Play in the Sunshine,” “Forever in My Life,” and the title tune; see this in Dolby if you can. (Forest Park, Oakbrook, Plaza, Ridge, River Oaks, Water Tower, Woods, Evergreen, Hyde Park)… Read more »

Two Portraits and Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen

The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to Thompson’s late father, combines stop-frame images of him, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving their premiere here, create a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: “the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss.” In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr.… Read more »

Nuts

Before he was blacklisted in 1951, director Martin Ritt received much of his training in live television, and the virtues as well as limitations of 50s TV drama at its best are still reflected in his movies. This all-star courtroom drama, adapted by Tom Topor, Darryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, centers on a hearing held to determine whether high-class hooker Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand), arrested on a manslaughter charge, is insane or not. Richard Dreyfuss is her appointed lawyer, Robert Webber is the prosecutor, and James Whitmore is the judge; Eli Wallach plays her appointed psychiatrist, and Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden portray her grief-stricken parents. While the movie holds one’s attention throughout, and its liberal message is compelling, we are clued into certain facts about the heroine so early on that the audience is never really tested along with the characters. What might have been a sharper existential confrontation of our received ideas about sanity merely comes across as an effective courtroom drama, with strategically placed revelations and climaxes. Streisand produced, developed the script, and composed most of the music for this showpiece, and her efforts, as usual, pay off, above all in her angry and lively performance.… Read more »

A Time to Lie (CROSS MY HEART)

From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.

MSDCRMY EC002

CROSS MY HEART

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Armyan Bernstein

Written by Armyan Bernstein and Gail Parent

With Martin Short, Annette O’Toole, Paul Reiser, and Joanna Kerns.

Like a 3-D movie, in which the illusion of depth is utterly dependent on the spectator’s rigidly foursquare frontal viewing position, Armyan Bernstein’s Cross My Heart is flat and fuzzy around the edges; tilt your head slightly, and the roundness of the characters vanishes immediately. But because the characters holding the center of the screen are nearly always Martin Short and Annette O’Toole — consummate pros commanding and regulating the space between and around them like two generals at a summit conference — there’s rarely any reason to look aside; our attention is riveted.

For all their charisma, one wouldn’t have thought O’Toole or Short capable of such mastery on the basis of their separate and earlier outings. Despite his frequent brilliance on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, mainly as a parodist of narcissistic TV and movie personalities ranging from Dick Cavett to Jerry Lewis (by way of Katharine Hepburn), Short was both literally and figuratively dwarfed by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos, although admittedly all three amigos were mainly stranded by the anemic comic material.… Read more »

Hey Babu Riba

Based on the personal memories of Yugoslavian writer-director Joven Acin and executive producers George Zecevic and Petar Jankovic, this nostalgic account of growing up in Belgrade in the early 50s centers on a mystery: Miriana (Gala Videnovic), the beautiful mascot of an inseparable male rowing team, becomes pregnant, and the four loyal youths, all of whom love her, row her illegally across the border to her father in Italy, but jointly refuse to declare who the father of the child is. In the course of solving this mystery through an extended flashback, the film offers a fresh and evocative look at the political and cultural tensions of the period, when American incursions like black-market blue jeans and jazz were vying against the lingering, Soviet presence. Two movies of the period figure significantly in this conflict: Bathing Beauty, an Esther Williams musical that furnishes the five friends with their theme song and Miriana with her nickname, Esther; and One Summer of Happiness, a soft-core Swedish art film (mislabeled She Only Danced One Summer by the English subtitler), which plays a role in Miriana’s eventual pregnancy. Like The Last Picture Show, Hey Babu Riba is sentimental, saccharine in spots, and affecting–a bit simplistic in some of its moral shadings, but a heartfelt account of a time, place, and group of friends nonetheless.… Read more »

Family Life/La pirate

In its latest act of trail blazing, the Film Center is offering the first U.S. retrospective devoted to Jacques Doillon, a post-New Wave French director whose singular movies have received next to no attention here. Emotionally unbridled and extreme in their depictions of passion and familial tensions, they are not for every taste, but it’s hard to think of many other films like them. La pirate (1984), probably the wildest in the bunch, centers on the amour fou of an anguished lesbian couple (Jane Birkin and Maruschka Detmers) reigniting their affair, with the former’s husband (perversely played by Birkin’s brother), a mysterious little girl, and an eccentric friend named Number Five (Philippe Leotard) all in tow. Family Life (1985), which begins with a comparable amount of screaming and thrashing around, eventually settles down into a quieter study–this time of a broken family and the efforts of an estranged father (Sami Frey) to establish rapport with his ten-year-old daughter (Maro Goyet) during an extended car trip to Spain. Aiming for the intensity of a Racinian tragedy, La pirate sticks so closely to the hothouse atmosphere generated by its five characters that we’re made to feel like intruders on a cryptic, brutal psychodrama; the more naturalistic Family Life allows us and the characters to breathe more freely, but a sense of emotional impasse is equally present.… Read more »

The Epic That Never Was

If it had ever been completed, Josef von Sternberg’s big-budget 1937 adaptation of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius for Alexander Korda might have been his masterpiece. But a series of calamities plagued the production, and all we have left today are some tantalizing rushes–and this excellent 1968 British documentary about the doomed project hosted by Dirk Bogarde, which includes many of these rushes and interviews with surviving participants, including Graves, Sternberg, Merle Oberon, and Emlyn Williams. But the best reason for seeing this film is the glimpse we get of Charles Laughton’s extraordinary performance as the crippled, stuttering, and otherwise afflicted Claudius. An actor who underwent torturous preparations for some of his roles, Laughton drove Sternberg and others crazy with his agonizing over getting this part right. But when he finally locked Claudius into place, he produced what is arguably the greatest piece of acting in all of sound cinema: better than Brando, better than Olivier, better even than Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux. The evidence is there to be seen (and heard) in two stunning scenes–Claudius’s groveling at the feet of Caligula to save his own life, and, even better, his assuming power over the Roman senate–and the wonderful thing about this documentary is that it allows us to see him building and refining this monumental role step-by-step.… Read more »

Our Man in Nicaragua [on WALKER]

Probably Alex Cox’s most underrated movie. From the Chicago Reader (December 4, 1987). — J.R.

WALKER

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Alex Cox

Written by Rudy Wurlitzer

With Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Marlee Matlin, Peter Boyle, Blanca Guerra, and Miguel Sandoval.

Walker-ad

What is it about the American mind that insists on regarding itself as apolitical? It would be easier to understand such an attitude in a country with less political freedom than this one; here it seems willfully self-denying, like ordering a hamburger in a Chinese restaurant. From a Marxist and existential standpoint, being “apolitical” means accepting, hence supporting, the status quo — a political position like any other, acknowledged or not. Yet there is something in the national consciousness that resists such acknowledgment.

Reagan’s appeal has always rested in part on this form of self-deception, which can be traced back to most of his movie roles — the assumption that anyone as bland and as familiar as a favorite uncle can’t be sullied by anything as dirty as politics or ideology. The belated discovery that Reagan’s “apoliticism,” so closely linked with his triumph as Pure Image, chiefly consists of his capacity to do nothing at all, hasn’t eliminated the desire to fill the void with another static, charismatic presence — another movie, in short, to tide us over the many crises to come.… Read more »

Slamdance

The virtual effacement of a promising talent is the regrettable consequence of this muddled 1987 thriller from onetime independent director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum). Apart from a few incidental flickers of Wang’s sidelong humor, there’s little of his personality evident in this film about a divorced underground cartoonist (Tom Hulce) finding himself enmeshed in a murder plota story that steadily loses coherence and interest the longer it proceeds. The script is credited to Don Opper, although reportedly Aaron Lipstadt worked on some of the earlier drafts. With Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Virginia Madsen, Millie Perkins, Adam Ant, and Harry Dean Stanton. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sign O’ The Times

Deftly and seamlessly integrating live performances in Antwerp and Rotterdam with thematically related interludes shot in his Minneapolis studio, Prince’s 1987 concert film starts fairly effectively and builds steadily from there. Leroy Bennett’s lighting and production design and Peter Sinclair’s cinematography both help to make this a rousing show, full of sound and fury and signifying plenty, but Prince remains the undisputed auteur. The rapid editing recalls the scattershot method of certain rock videos, but the cinematic and musical savvy with which this is done avoids the coitus interruptus of The Cotton Club: the overall spectacle is enhanced, not curtailed or compromised. Dancer Cat Glover and (especially) drummer Sheila E. shine in these razzle-dazzle surroundings; Dr. Fink (keyboards) and Atlanta Bliss (trumpet) play Now’s the Time much too fast and still manage to swing; and Prince himself, passing through a spectrum of costumes and sexual roles, is never less than commanding, as performer, composer, and director. Songs include Hot Thing, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man, The Cross, If I Was Your Girlfriend, Play in the Sunshine, Forever in My Life, and the title tune. (JR)… Read more »

Hope And Glory

John Boorman’s account of the pleasures of the London blitz, mainly as experienced by himself as a seven-year-old (Sebastian Rice Edwards), is a lively look at the coziness of disaster filtered through nostalgia. The most thoroughly English film Boorman has made, it lacks the recklessness of his wide-screen adventures, but is an obvious labor of love that a superb castincluding Sarah Miles as the hero’s mother, Sammi Davis (a delight) as his volatile teenage sister, and Ian Bannen as his irascible grandfatherhelps to make funny and poignant. Anthony Pratt’s flavorsome production design, re-creating the quaint optimism in the lower-income suburban housing of the period, is also a strong asset, as is the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot (Diva, The Emerald Forest, Therese). But the love and enthusiasm that Boorman feels for his characters and subject carry the day here, and as evocative period re-creation, the film succeeds triumphantly in achieving everything that Radio Days set out (and failed) to do. The only lingering doubts one has concern the virtual absence of corpses, which is what makes Boorman’s rosy-eyed view of the war possible. (JR)… Read more »

Hiding Out

A crossbreeding of two genres, thriller and teen comedy, yields two mediocre movies for the price of one. A stockbroker (Jon Cryer) called as witness in a criminal case narrowly escapes death, and hides out incognito as a small-town high school student (thriller); his nerdy high school cousin (Keith Coogan) helps him out, and has various misadventures trying to get a driver’s license (teen comedy). Annabeth Gish plays the hero’s girlfriend; Bob Giraldi directed, after a fashion. (JR)… Read more »

Hey Babu Riba

Based on the personal memories of Yugoslavian writer-director Joven Acin and executive producers George Zecevic and Petar Jankovic, this nostalgic account of growing up in Belgrade in the early 50s centers on a mystery: Miriana (Gala Videnovic), the beautiful mascot of an inseparable male rowing team, becomes pregnant, and the four loyal youths, all of whom love her, row her illegally across the border to her father in Italy, but jointly refuse to declare who the father of the child is. In the course of solving this mystery through an extended flashback, the film offers a fresh and evocative look at the political and cultural tensions of the period, when American incursions like black-market blue jeans and jazz were vying against the lingering Soviet presence. Two movies of the period figure significantly in this conflict: Bathing Beauty, an Esther Williams musical that furnishes the five friends with their theme song and Miriana with her nickname, Esther; and One Summer of Happiness, a soft-core Swedish art film (mislabeled She Only Danced One Summer by the English subtitler), which plays a role in Miriana’s eventual pregnancy. Like The Last Picture Show, Hey Babu Riba is sentimental, saccharine in spots, and affectinga bit simplistic in some of its moral shadings, but a heartfelt account of a time, place, and friendship nonetheless.… Read more »

The Year One

Jacques Doillon’s first feature, adapted by political cartoonist Gebe from his own cartoon book, departs from a favorite French fantasy that grew out of the events of May 1968: going back to zero and starting the world over again from scratch. Developed episodically, with intermixed documentary and staged footage, this lighthearted comedy even makes room for brief sequences done by Alain Resnais and Jean Rouch that show the effects of the world revolution on Wall Street and Africa, respectively. I haven’t seen this black-and-white movie since it opened in Paris in 1973, but at the time it was sprightly fun; there’s also an opportunity to see Gerard Depardieu and Miou-Miou at the beginning of their screen careers. (JR)… Read more »

The Whales Of August

The ages of the five principal actors in Lindsay Anderson’s featureLillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern, and Harry Carey Jr.added up to just under four centuries, and this fact alone tended to tower over all the other particulars in this film. Adapted by David Berry from his own slender play about growing old gracefully, the film is set on an island off the coast of Maine where two sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis), have spent the past 60 summers. Very little happens, and the issue of whether the blind and cantankerous Libby is willing to spend the money to install a picture window becomes a major pivot in the plot. Obviously, Anderson jumped at the opportunity to use these two distinguished actresses, but unfortunately what he gives them to work with is so flimsy and sentimental that not even the awesome power of Gish (here in her early 90s) can transform the material. What seems missing, paradoxically, is a sufficiently developed sense of history; Anderson’s idolatry of John Ford, reflected in his use of Harry Carey Jr. (at 66, the youngest in the bunch), doesn’t emulate any of Ford’s power to evoke the past, and apart from Mike Fash’s pretty location photography, the story is so threadbare that it doesn’t even seem lived in.… Read more »