Yearly Archives: 1988

Little Dorrit

Conceivably the best and most serious Dickens adaptation ever filmed, Christine Edzard’s two-part, six-hour English movie tells the story as the novel does, from two consecutive points of view. Perhaps the greatest strength of the picture is its remarkably dense rendering of 19th-century England; no single art director or production designer is credited, but the use of sets is especially fine. Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, and Sarah Pickering in the title role head a uniformly distinguished cast. This is a far cry from the polished competence of Masterpiece Theatre; Edzard’s Dickensian universe is one that sweats as well as breathes. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

A Perversion of the Past [MISSISSIPPI BURNING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1988). — J.R.

MISSISSIPPI BURNING

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Alan Parker

Written by Chris Gerolmo

With Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain.

This whole country is full of lies. — Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”

The time in my youth when I was most physically afraid was a period of six weeks, during the summer of 1961, when I was 18. I was attending an interracial, coed camp at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee — the place where the Montgomery bus boycott, the proper beginning of the civil rights movement, was planned by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the mid-50s. As a white native of Alabama, I had never before experienced the everyday dangers faced by southern blacks, much less those faced by activists who participated in Freedom Rides and similar demonstrations. But that summer, my coed camp was beset by people armed with rocks and guns.

I believe that we were the first group of people who ever sang an old hymn called “We Shall Overcome” as a civil rights anthem, thanks to the efforts of the camp’s musical director, Guy Carawan. But the songs, powerful as they were, weren’t the main thing that kept us together; it was the fear of dying.… Read more »

Anything for a Laugh [THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1988). — J.R.

THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by David Zucker

Written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft.

With Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, O.J. Simpson, and Nancy Marchand.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I find the latest comedy by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the ZAZ team) a notch below their previous Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984). This shouldn’t matter much to anyone looking for an irreverent, anything-goes farce with a fair number of laughs; The Naked Gun is certainly that, and I don’t intend for the following to scare anyone away from it. But I do want to consider what’s been happening to the ZAZ team’s distinctive brand of satire over the past eight years.

All three ZAZ movies use as their point of departure the crystallized form of some bad formula movie. The lead characters wear deadpan expressions through their cliche roles, and the laughs derive largely from non sequiturs in their dialogue and from lunatic gags that surround them as they trudge through their routine plots, impervious to the silliness.

Airplane! stuck to this pattern pretty consistently, lampooning the disaster blockbusters of the 70s like Earthquake, the Airport sequels, and The Towering Inferno.… Read more »

The Sound of German

From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 1988); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

empedocles

THE DEATH OF EMPEDOCLES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

With Andreas von Rauch, Howard Vernon, William Berger, Vladimir Baratta, Martina Baratta, and Ute Cremer.

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Three pretentious but relevant quotes: “Aesthetics are the ethics of the future” (Lenin). “To make a revolution also means to put back into place things that are very ancient but forgotten” (Charles Peguy). “When the Green of the Earth Will Shine Freshly for You” (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s subtitle for The Death of Empedocles).

empedokles5

For spectators who don’t know what to do with their films, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet offer a rigorous program that’s all work and no play — a grueling process of wrestling with intractable texts, often in languages that one doesn’t understand, without the interest provided by easy-to-read characters or compelling plots. But in fact every one of Straub-Huillet’s 15 films to date (10 features and 5 shorts) offers an arena of play as well as work, and opportunities for sensual enjoyment as well as analytical reflection. To find this arena of play and pleasure, one has to go beyond what we usually associate with the enjoyment of culture–beyond parameters that are usually limited by mutually exclusive notions of “art,” “entertainment,” “education,” and “scholarship,” notions that generally make us smile or groan in advance, regardless of what is placed in front of us.… Read more »

Ground Zero

This provocative, grim Australian adventure thriller, attractively shot in ‘Scope–written by Mac Gudgeon and Jan Sardi, and directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles–concerns the atomic bomb tests conducted by the British government on the Australian mainland between 1953 and 1964, and their disquieting aftereffects. A professional cameraman (Colin Friels) discovers that the death of his cameraman father in 1953 was not accidental, as he supposed, and most of the film focuses on his quest for the telltale footage shot by his father that led to his murder. Charges that thousands of aborigines died because of the tests, the unearthing of a radioactive World War II jet bomber, and the theft of home movies from the hero’s flat all become part of the disturbing mystery, much of it based on fact. With Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, and Natalie Bate. (Hillside Mall)… Read more »

Hellbound: Hellraiser Ii

Even if you’ve seen its predecessor, the plot of this gory horror movie is so incoherent that it’s not worth trying to figure out. Indeed, apart from a few stylish, M.C. Escher-influenced touches in Mike Buchanan’s production design, the only possible appeal of this adaptation by Peter Atkins of a Clive Barker story, directed by newcomer Tony Randel, is to fans of torture, gratuitous four-letter words, and immoderate amounts of blood. With Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Kenneth Cranham, and Imogen Boorman. (JR)… Read more »

My Stepmother Is An Alien

Widower scientist Dan Aykroyd sends out radar signals to another galaxy, and alien Kim Basinger turns up to try to elicit more of the same. Written by many hands (Jerico and Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris, and Jonathan Reynolds), and directed by Richard Benjamin, this is an inordinately silly comedy that manages to be pretty likable if one can get past some of its harebrained premises (such as requiring Basinger to be simultaneously a member of a highly advanced civilization and a typical dumb blond). The movie pilfers from so many sources that it comes across as sub-Ron Howard as well as sub-Spielberg (Basinger essentially plays the Daryl Hannah part in Splash), but it’s interesting to discover that Basinger registers more effectively on-screen when exploited for her unreality, like Marilyn Monroe, than as a real person, as in Nadine. Alyson Hannigan plays Aykroyd’s 13-year-old daughter, and Jon Lovitz plays his brother. (JR)… Read more »

Little Dorrit

Conceivably the best and most serious Dickens adaptation ever filmed, Christine Edzard’s two-part, six-hour English movie tells the story as the novel does, from two separate points of view. Perhaps the greatest strength of the picture is its remarkably dense rendering of 19th-century England; no single art director or production designer is credited, but the use of sets is especially fine. Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, and Sarah Pickering in the title role head a uniformly distinguished cast. This is a far cry from the polished competence of Masterpiece Theatre; although Garry Wills has argued that this adaptation eliminates the novel’s revolutionary content, Edzard’s Dickensian universe is one that sweats as well as breathes. (JR)… Read more »

Law Of Desire

Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director’s working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover’s neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It’s typical of Almodovar’s wit that he casts a man as the little girl’s real mother and a woman as her false one. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

Keenen Ivory Wayans wrote, directed, and plays hero Jake Spade in this 1988 parody of blaxploitation movies. In many respects this is a black counterpart to The Naked Gun, and very nearly as funny; the bounty of antimacho gags is both unexpected and refreshing. With Bernie Casey, Antonio Fargas, Isaac Hayes, Dawnn Lewis, and John Vernon. R, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

Robert Wiene’s groundbreaking 1919 silent, the most famous and influential work of the German expressionist cinema, involves a mad doctor (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist who does his bidding (Conrad Veidt). Aided and abetted by one of Carl Mayer’s best scripts and remarkable, distorted sets painted by Hermann Warm, Walter R… Read more »

The Boost

Sincere but mawkish, this drama about the dangers of cocaine and downers seems to aspire to the seriousness of Days of Wine and Roses, but thanks to choppy continuity, it often comes closer to Reefer Madness. James Woods and Sean Young star as a couple who move from New York to Los Angeles to live life in the fast lane; part of the problem is that the script seems to want us to accept Woods (a frenetic real estate hustler) as normal before drugs intervene. Darryl Ponicsan’s script adapts Benjamin Stein’s book Ludes; Harold Becker directed, and the secondary cast includes John Kapelos, Steven Hill, Kelle Kerr, and John Rothman. (JR)… Read more »

A Christmas Commodity: SCROOGED

From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1988). — J.R.

SCROOGED

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Richard Donner

Written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue

With Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, and Alfre Woodard.

It must have been in the late 50s or early 60s when, as a teenager, I happened across a story in a movie fan magazine, probably Photoplay, about the pop/movie star Fabian. Fabian, the magazine explained, was getting so popular that he couldn’t go out on a date without being besieged by reporters and photographers. Recently, however, he’d eluded them and been able to take out a lovely lady; the magazine was celebrating the event — I swear I’m not making this up — with a two-page spread of photos and captions that chronicled the evening from beginning to end, from the moment he called on his date to the good-night kiss on her doorstep. “An intimate look,” I think they called it.

A comparable game for the gullible is performed by Scrooged, which attempts to obfuscate its own apparatus as thoroughly as that magazine did 20-odd years ago. I know we’re all supposed to be more knowledgeable and therefore more cynical about the media today.… Read more »

Full Moon Over Blue Water

Set mainly in and around a lakeside establishment called the Blue Water Grill in Texas, this is a small film, but within its own terms a delightful and virtually perfect one. The characters–the dreamy grill owner (Gene Hackman), who compulsively watches home movies of his long-vanished wife; his grumpy yet serene father-in-law (Burgess Meredith); a slightly retarded handyman (Elias Kotias); and a bus driver (Teri Garr) who has her sights set on the grill owner–all seem to come out of Erskine Caldwell and Tennessee Williams, but Bill Bozzone’s capable script, Peter Masterson’s deft direction, and Fred Murphy’s handsome photography all show them off to best advantage, and the movie’s playlike story moves effortlessly. Funny and appealing, this is the kind of quiet and assured Hollywood movie that used to be more common in the 50s; the local flavor is caught perfectly, and every member of the cast shines. (Deerbrook, Ridge, Golf Glen, McClurg Court, Oakbrook, Plaza)… Read more »