This was published at the end of my first year at the Reader, in their Christmas issue. –J.R.
BROADCAST NEWS *** (A must-see)
Directed and written by James L. Brooks
With Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, William Hurt, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, and Jack Nicholson.
WALL STREET ** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stone and Stanley Weiser
With Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Terence Stamp, Hal Holbrook, and Sylvia Miles.
Both Broadcast News and Wall Street score as punchy, energetic movies that are designed to feel as contemporary as possible without taking place in the literal present, and both pivot around a moral reckoning that accompanies economic cutbacks -– as if to remind us that this country’s Reagan-inspired spending spree, which tripled our trillion-dollar national debt, seems to be drawing to a fearful close. Apart from offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of their all-encompassing, hothouse professional turfs, both movies are built around the mise en scene of a moral crisis that splits the major characters apart –- each one charting a mutual seduction that leads to recriminations and the characters isolated in opposing moral camps. Yet the undisputed effectiveness of these films as entertainment seems at least partially predicated on fudging or at least mystifying the moral issues that they are bold enough to raise.… Read more »
The 37 items on view in this package, which range from 30 seconds to eight minutes, include TV commercials and logos, music videos, abstract work, old-fashioned cartoons, and documentary bits that explain how several segments (the Amazing Stories logo, a sequence from The Great Mouse Detective, an ad for the National Canned Food Information Council) were made. Two disturbing aspects of 90 minutes of this stuff in one go are: an overreliance on the same formal devices and stylistic models (including the same tacky colors), and an obsessive thematic interest in either objects resembling people/animals or people/animals resembling objects. Anthropomorphism has always been a basic part of animation, and Tanya Weinberger’s Kiss Me You Fool is a nice classic example: a funny version of the frog prince story. But most of the other animation seems hung up on robotics of one kind or another; after awhile all that heavy metal starts to clank. The dehumanized climate even extends to the narrator’s voice in the documentary sections; and in Philippe Bergeron’s French-Canadian Tony de Peltrie–featuring a digitized pianist who resembles the Elephant Man–the posthuman tendency assumes truly nightmarish proportions. Three of the better works–Luxo, Jr., Red’s Dream, and Oilspot and Lipstick–were already shown in the last International Tournee of Animation, and many others may be familiar from TV.… Read more »
Jose Alvaro Morais’s first feature, O bobo, winner of first prize at the Locarno Film Festival, is set in 1978 during the onset of the right-wing backlash against the Portuguese revolution. A group of friends are staging a play adapted from Alexandre Herculano’s novel The Jester–a mythic romance built around scenes from Portuguese history–in the abandoned film studio Lisboa Filmes. The film alternates between scenes from the play and intrigues among the friends who are putting it on–including the murder of the instigator of the project, whose body is discovered in the studio during the rehearsal of the final scene. Six years in the making, the film presupposes a certain knowledge about Portuguese culture and recent history that admittedly I don’t have; but even though I occasionally found myself at sea in following all the significations, the beauty of the mise en scene and Mario de Carvalho’s photography, and the grace with which Morais negotiates between different time frames and modes of narration, kept me entranced. Combining the meditative offscreen dialogue of a film like India Song with the use of a historical play to investigate national identity (as in Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream), The Jester offers a complex, multilayered view of revolutionary retrenchment that is worthy to stand alongside some of the best films of Manoel de Oliveira.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1987). — J.R.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tom Stoppard
With Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers.
THE LAST EMPEROR
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe
With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
“The first major Hollywood studio production ever to shoot in the People’s Republic of China” and “the first Western production to be made about modern China with the full cooperation of the Chinese government” are the two blockbusters of the season, and the dizzying gulf that stretches between them has a lot to do with the conceptual ranges of the two filmmakers who stand behind them. While the two movies need to be considered separately before they can be meaningfully juxtaposed, one preliminary generalization seems in order: while both films attack difficult subjects, Bernardo Bertolucci’s spectacular is predicated on a number of self-imposed limitations — emotional, dramatic, visual, linguistic, historical, and (more broadly) conceptual; Steven Spielberg’s, on the other hand, sprawls in the same half-dozen areas.
Empire of the Sun is based on an autobiographical novel by J.G.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1987). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jon Jost
With Marshall Gaddis, Sarah Wyss, Terri Lyn Williams, Kristi Jean Hager, Dan Cornell, Hal Waldrup, Ron Hanekan, Alan Goddard, and Anne Kolesar.
The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality. — James Agee
1. Jeff Doland (Marshall Gaddis), a Vietnam veteran in Butte, Montana, sits watching a baseball game on TV. Passing through the kitchen, he tells his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss) that he’s going out to pick up some more beer. Cathy continues to unpack groceries and switches on a tiny toy train that runs in an elaborate loop on the kitchen table. Jeff returns with a six-pack and resumes watching TV. Cathy comes into the room and announces that she’s leaving him.
Bell Diamond‘s point of departure is about as ordinary and as banal as a plot can get — and not much happens after it, either. Neither Jeff nor Cathy is especially interesting or attractive or articulate, and the same can be said of the rest of the characters in this mainly eventless movie.… Read more »
Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually ravishing spectacle about the life of Pu Yi (1905-1967), the last Chinese emperor, is a genuine rarity: a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time. Pu Yi (played by three children at ages 3, 8, and 15, and by John Lone as an adult) remained an outsider to contemporary Chinese history for most of his life, being confined to the Forbidden City for 12 years, seeking assistance from the Japanese after he was ousted in 1924, and winding up as the puppet ruler of the new state of Manchukuo in the early 30s; after Japan’s surrender in 1945, he spent five years in a Siberian prison camp and nine more as a political prisoner of the People’s Republic of China before he was released as an ordinary Chinese citizen in 1959, ending his days happily as a gardener and researcher. Interestingly, Bertolucci uses Pu Yi’s remoteness from China as an objective correlative of our own cultural distance as Westerners (virtually all of the dialogue is rendered in English), and, with scriptwriter Mark Peploe, brilliantly employs a dialectical flashback structure that shows Pu Yi’s life from the vantage point of his “reeducation” in the 50s.… Read more »
Jean-Luc Godard’s short feature about the PLO was initially shot with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the Middle East in 1970, but when he edited the footage with Anne-Marie Mieville several years later, many of the soldiers that had been filmed were dead. Reflecting on this fact, as well as on the problems of recording history and of making political statements on film, Godard and Mieville produced a thoughtful and provocative essay on the subject. Coming after the mainly and reaches of Godard’s “Dziga Vertov Group” period (roughly 1968-1973), when his efforts were largely directed toward severing his relation with commercial filmmaking and toward forging new ways to “make films politically,” this film assimilates many of the lessons he learned without the posturing and masochism that marred much of his earlier work. The results are a rare form of lucidity and purity. All proportions guarded, it is a little bit like hearing John Coltrane’s “Blues for Bessie” after the preceding explorations of “Crescent” and “Wise One” on his Crescent album. This film, which will be projected in a video copy, will be accompanied by a lecture by Dr. Julia Lesage. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, December 15, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
On Criterion’s recent and very attractive DVD release of Alex Cox’s Walker, there’s a pretty funny bonus feature consisting of Cox reading aloud from the almost exclusively negative and dismissive U.S. reviews that the film received when it came out in 1987. I’m sorry that he doesn’t read from — and apparently wasn’t aware of — my near-rave in the Reader, written during my first year at the paper, so I’m reprinting it here.
For me, this ties in with the surprisingly warm and appreciative welcome accorded to William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1967) when I showed it in my 60s world cinema course a few years ago. It even sold out every ticket at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s larger auditorium, which I doubt would have happened even in the 60s. I guess it takes a George W. Bush or a Donald Trump to make 60s radicalism both fashionable and available again.
(For more on William Klein, go here.)
Walker is scripted by the novelist Rudy Wurlitzer — who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop (also recently released on an excellent Criterion DVD set) and has recently published his first novel in almost a quarter of a century, The Drop Dead of Yonder, a sort of Buddhist Western which I strongly recommend.… Read more »
To the editors:
Jonathan Rosenbaum screwed up in his review of the movie Cross My Heart ["A Time to Lie," November 20]. Rick Moranis, not Martin Short, portrayed the unctuous and egocentric Dick Cavett on SCTV, including the SCTV skit in which Cavett interviewed himself, which was one of the most brilliantly conceived, written, and performed moments in the history of television. Short was probably backstage at the time, playing Kate Hepburn rearranging her privates.
President, Committee to Discredit Dick Cavett, Martin Short, and Jonathan Rosenbaum
Chicago… Read more »
Rita Moreno and Anne Francis were still in their teens when this 1950 melodrama about inhuman conditions in a girls’ correctional school was made. Paul Henreid plays a crusading doctor; Catherine McLeod and Anne Jackson are also in the cast; and Bernard Vorhaus directed. This is the concluding program in the Psychotronic Film Society’s They Hate You month.… Read more »
Woody Allen’s worst film and second pure noncomedya desperate low-energy recycling operationfeatures four (or, arguably, five) cases of unrequited love among six characters stagebound in a New England summer house for about 18 hours: a suicidal depressive (Mia Farrow), loved by both her flamboyant mother (Elaine Stritch) and a middle-aged widower (Denholm Elliott), loves only an unfulfilled writer (Sam Waterston), who loves only the suicidal depressive’s best friend (Dianne Wiest), who doesn’t know who or what she wants. To add a little contrast, the mother is happily married to a physicist (Jack Warden), but just to make sure that we don’t jump to any wrong conclusions about this, the latter imparts to us the helpful wisdom that the meaninglessness of the universe is more depressing than the threat of nuclear annihilation (perhaps the key to Woody’s no-sweat politics). Wiest remarks at another point that she’s married to a radiologist, but she won’t let him x-ray her because she doesn’t want him to know what’s inside her. Most of the writing is on this glib and wretched level, and the laws of diminishing returns and what James Agee once called rigor artis set in with a stultifying vengeance. The actors hold up bravely under the circumstances, propping up the material with whatever they have on hand, but to no avail; this isn’t even an honorable or interesting failure like Interiors or Stardust Memories.… Read more »
Jean-Luc Godard’s short feature about the PLO was initially shot with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the Middle East in 1970, but when he edited the footage with Anne-Marie Mieville several years later, many of the soldiers that had been filmed were dead. Reflecting on this fact, as well as on the problems of recording history and of making political statements on film, Godard and Mieville produced a thoughtful and provocative essay on the subject. Coming after the mainly arid reaches of Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group period (roughly 1968-1973), when his efforts were largely directed toward severing his relation with commercial filmmaking and toward forging new ways to make films politically, this film assimilates many of the lessons he learned without the posturing and masochism that marred much of his earlier work. The results are a rare form of lucidity and purity. All proportions guarded, it is a little bit like hearing John Coltrane’s Blues for Bessie after the preceding explorations of Crescent and Wise One on his Crescent album. (JR)… Read more »
This 1958 Pathecolor camp item pits the isle of Wongo (with beautiful cavewomen and ugly cavemen) against the nearby isle of Goona (with beautiful cavemen and ugly cavewomen). The film scholars of the Psychotronic Film Society have discovered that two versions of this film were madea serious release version, and a more obviously comic version designed to be shown at military bases; they will be showing the latter along with clips from the former as part of their They Hate You month. Cedric Rutherford wrote the script and James Wolcott directed; the cast includes Ed Fury and Adrienne Bourbeau (not to be confused with former nude model and TV star Adrienne Barbeau, according to Steven H. Scheuer). (JR)… Read more »
Oliver Stone’s follow-up to Platoondeveloped from a script by Stanley Weiser, who is credited as cowriter with Stonejuxtaposes an experienced multimillionaire corporate raider (Michael Douglas) and a young broker faced with moral conflicts (Charlie Sheen), set against the background of the bull market in 1985 and 1986. Structured like a morality play, the film flirts in its first part with a megabuck fantasy out of Ayn Rand, with comic book flourishes and campy macho initiations suggesting an urban western; the second half is a masochistic liberal fantasy that asks us to feel guilty about the first part. The oscillation of the young hero between bad father (Douglas) and good father (Martin Sheen) recapitulates the same metaphysics as Platoon, and the only function of women in this world is to serve as status symbols: Daryl Hannah as first prize is given such conflicting drives that she eventually cancels herself out of the movie; an unrecognizable Sean Young serves as Douglas’s parodically proplike wife, and the young hero’s mother is conspicuously absent. Stone and Weiser keep much of this entertaining with rapid-fire ticker-tape dialogue and brisk pacing; there’s an amusing montage sequence about outfitting a yuppie apartment, and other assorted scenic splendors along the way.… Read more »
Danny DeVito’s directorial debut (1987) stars himself and Billy Crystal as two writers who become embroiled, through a misunderstanding, in a comic plot of prefigured cross murders patterned after Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. For all his labors, DeVito can’t entirely transcend the silliness and dogged unpleasantness of Stu Silver’s script, although he intermittently squeezes some genuine laughs out of the material just the same. Perhaps more importantly, he shows a directorial inventiveness that becomes especially apparent in the editing and various flashy transitions, which augurs well for the future. As performers, Crystal gets a bit overheated while DeVito himself is a mite undercooked; but Kim Greist is delightful as Crystal’s tolerant girlfriend, Kate Mulgrew adequate as his scheming ex-wife, and Anne Ramsey suitably grotesque as DeVito’s tyrannical mother. PG-13. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »