Daily Archives: February 1, 1988

Wise Blood

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.

Along with The Man Who Would Be King and The Dead, this is arguably John Huston’s best literary adaptation, and conceivably his very best film — a very close rendering of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable first novel about a crazed southern cracker (a perfectly cast Brad Dourif) who sets out to preach a church without Christ, and winds up suffering a true Christian martyrdom in spite of himself. The period, local ambience, and O’Connor’s deadly gallows humor are all perfectly caught, and apart from the subtle if highly pertinent fact that this is an unbeliever’s version of a believer’s novel, it’s about as faithful a version of O’Connor’s grotesque world as one could ever hope to get on film, hilarious and frightening in equal measure. O’Connor conceived her novel as a parody of existentialism, and Huston’s own links with existentialism — as the director of the first U.S. stage production of No Exit, as well as Sartre’s Freud script — make him an able interpreter. With Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Daniel Shor, Ned Beatty, and Huston himself as the hero’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather. The producer is Michael Fitzgerald, whose family’s friendship with O’Connor guaranteed the fidelity and seriousness of the undertaking (1979).… Read more »

Siesta

One of those films that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Music video director Mary Lambert draws on the themes rather than the forms of her metier to give us an art movie that promises the satisfactions of a thriller, but delivers instead a kind of allegory out of Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The story follows five days in the misadventures of a daredevil acrobat (Ellen Barkin) who runs out on a scheduled publicity stunt in the U.S. in order to see a former lover (Gabriel Byrne) in Spain, suffers a bout of amnesia, and then has to piece together the missing days, with the help of a few decadent jet-setters she runs into, including Julian Sands and Jodie Foster (the latter of whom provides the film with some much-needed verve). Martin Sheen, Isabella Rossellini, and Grace Jones are also around in secondary parts, and Miles Davis provides a score that is a bargain-basement version of his Sketches of Spain album. The screenplay by Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin, is an embarrassment, but Barkin and Lambert both dive into it as if it were food for thought and caviar to be savored.… Read more »

She’s Having A Baby

Kevin Bacon plays Jake Briggs, a young man terrified of marriage and even more frightened by the fact that his wife Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) is pregnant. This John Hughes comedywritten, produced, and directed by the individual probably most responsible for bringing complacent sitcom sensibility to moviesbranches out from previous efforts by including a good many fantasy sequences and flashbacks. The problems faced involve career, meddling in-laws, keeping a house in the suburbs, and overextended credit. One could play a depressing little game matching this movie with Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend as an indication of how low ordinary movies have sunk since the early 50s. The viewpoint of the older generation (Spencer Tracy in the earlier films) has been supplanted by that of the nerdy young husband (Bacon), but the conformist middle-class context and the undercurrents of castration anxiety (revealed in dream sequences) remain basically the same; the main difference is that the earlier model had some vestiges of soul and wit beneath its reactionary humor. Even though Kristy is seen mainly through the uncomprehending eyes of Jake, McGovern manages to fare better with the cliches thrown at her than Bacon does; but neither has a prayer of scoring at a game whose rules and players might have been dreamed up by a computer.… Read more »

The Serpent And The Rainbow

An unusually ambitious effort from horror movie specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), filmed on location in Haiti (as well as the Dominican Republic). This genuinely frightening 1988 thriller follows the efforts of an anthropologist (Bill Pullman) sent by a U.S. pharmaceutical company to find the chemical mixture used in zombificationthe voodoo practice that simulates death while leaving the victim alive and conscious. Depending largely on hallucinations and psychological terror (a la Altered States), and working from a Richard Maxwell and A.R. Simoun screenplay inspired by Wade Davis’s nonfiction book of the same title, Craven provides more atmosphere and creepy ideas than fluid storytelling. But it’s nice for a change to see some of the virtues of old-fashioned horror filmsmoody dream sequences, unsettling poetic images, and passages that suggest more than they showrather than the usual splatter shocks and special effects (far from absent, but employed with relative economy). Cathy Tyson plays the hero’s Haitian guidea psychiatrist alert to some of the cultural ramifications of voodooand Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, and Brent Jennings, as other agents of the hero’s dark education in prerevolutionary Haiti, are effective as well. (JR)… Read more »

The Savage Innocents

Victimized by a rather insensitive reception at the time of its release (1959), Nicholas Ray’s epic film about Eskimo life and its remoteness from civilized values represents his firstand, in many ways, most ambitiousattempt to break free from the Hollywood studios and forge an independent route. Scripted by Ray himself, and shot on location and in studios in several different countries, the film contains one of the few bearable performances of Anthony Quinn; the Japanese actress Yoko Tani plays his wife, and a dubbed Peter O’Toole plays a government official. Couched in the form of a parable, this is one of Ray’s most powerful films about honor and alien folkways, and the icy landscapes are hauntingly beautiful. 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hospital

Set in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, Frederick Wiseman’s feature-length documentary of 1969 is one of the most powerful in his continuing series of investigations of various American institutions. Most of the emphasis in this setting is given to the emergency ward and outpatient clinics. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hairspray

John Waters’s 1988 musical comedy set in 1962 Baltimore represented a good many firsts for the celebrated underground bad taste writer-director-producer: his biggest budget, his first period foray, his first PG-rated movie, and his first real brush with politicsthe issue of integrating a local TV dance show in Baltimore during the height of the civil rights movement. The cast includes Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Divine (in a dual role), Jerry Stiller, Ruth Brown, and cameo appearances by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora as beatniks. Not only Waters’s best movie, but a crossover gesture that expands his appeal without compromising his vision one iota; Ricki Lake as the hefty young heroine is especially delightful. With many arcane dance steps and hit singles from the period. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Wuthering Heights

From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.

Like William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel, as well as Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevant, Luis Buñuel’s 1954 Mexican version discards the original framing strategy of telling the story from the viewpoint of two outsiders—a regrettable elision in all three cases, because much of the novel’s power and meaning stem from this crucial distancing strategy. Yet Buñuel’s low-budget melodrama has a certain gothic ferocity that’s missing in the other versions; the results are mixed, but seldom unworthy of the master. With Iraseme Dilian, Jorge Mistral, and Lilia Prado; in Spanish with subtitles. 91 min.

-… Read more »

The World Of Gilbert And George

English performance artists Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, who have been appearing in tweed suits and making bizarre forays into the art world since 1968mysterious appearances and performances that are somewhere between dry social analyses and deadpan put-onshave made their own film about their activity, shot by German cinematographer Martin Schafer (1980). On the same program, Helene Klo< -daw<-sky’s U.S. documentary about the controversial political collage painter Sue Coe, Painted Landscapes (1986).

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Walker

Like Alex Cox’s previous films (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), this delirious fantasy about William Walker, the American who ruled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857, is all over the place and excessive, but as a radical statement about the U.S.’s involvement in that country it packs a very welcome wallop. The witty screenplay is by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer (Nog, Slow Fade), whose previous screenwriting forays include Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Ed Harris plays the crazed Walker, Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) is his deaf-mute fiancee, and Peter Boyle is Cornelius Vanderbilt. Deliberate and surreal anachronisms plant the action in a historical version of the present, and David Bridges’s cinematography combined with a liberal use of slow motion creates a lyrical depiction of carnage and devastation. Significantly, most of the film was shot in Nicaragua, with the cooperation and advice (but without the veto power) of the Sandinista government, and Edward R. Pressmanwhose previous credits include Badlands and True Storieswas executive producer. One can certainly quarrel with some aspects of the film’s treatment of history, but with political cowardice in commercial filmmaking so prevalent, one can only admire this movie’s gusto in calling a spade a spade, and the exhilaration of its anger and wit.… Read more »

The Rise Of Louis Xiv

One of Roberto Rossellini’s supreme masterpieces, and perhaps the greatest of the TV films that mark his last period. Made in 1966, the film chronicles the gradual steps taken in the Sun King’s seizure of power over 21 years; the treatment is contemplative, wise, and quietly humorous, and Rossellini’s innovative trick shots to integrate the real decor of Versailles are deftly executed. The color photography is superb. (JR)… Read more »

Reichsautobahn

It lacks the range and analytical bite of his Images of Germany (1983), but Hartmut Bitomsky’s 1986 feature documentary about the highway system built by the Nazis does create some interesting reflections on the massive project. Alternating archival footage of the construction, contemporary interviews with some of the workers, and kitschy propaganda films made by the Third Reich (which attempted to sell the Autobahn to a recalcitrant public), Bitomsky puts together a kind of cultural history that may be long-winded and dry in spots but still adds up to an absorbing document about a monument designed to provide not the shortest but the noblest connection between two points. (JR)… Read more »

Radium City

Carole Langer’s explosive and shocking documentary about radioactivity in Ottawa, Illinois, and the 65 years the town’s inhabitants worked for the Radium Chemical Company. A large number of workersspecifically women who filled in the numbers on clock dials with luminous paintdied of cancer, but the story doesn’t end there; the high school building where the women worked was eventually dismantled, with pieces from it distributed all over town, and the whole environment became radioactive. Langer’s approach to this subject is patient, thorough, and profoundly human; she lets the facts emerge from the material and follows the complex ramifications of the story right up to the present. The result is something more than powerful investigative journalism: one comes to know a great deal about the inner workings of this community and the frightening degree of irresponsibility and callousness on the part of the government, but Langer’s approach is anything but preachy, and the sympathetic rapport that she achieves with many of the town’s inhabitants creates a multidimensional portrait. (JR)… Read more »

The Pick-up Artist

James Toback’s fourth feature translates the macho/manic obsessions of the previous three (as well as The Gambler, which he scripted) into a light and fairly innocuous youth picture. At once easier to take and easier to forget than his more feverish efforts, this romantic thriller set in New York and environs (with a side trip to Atlantic City), nicely shot by Gordon Willis, is all sweetness and light compared to the pseudo-Dostoyevskian bombast of Fingers and Exposed. Molly Ringwald, Bob Downey, Mildred Dunnock, Danny Aiello, and even scroungy Dennis Hopper and sinister Harvey Keitel come across like charming refugees from a John Hughes teenpic. It’s hard to know exactly how this came about, but apparently Warren Beatty, the ghost producer, had the final cut. (JR)

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Party Girl

A film that might be regarded as Nicholas Ray’s farewell to Hollywood (if not commercial filmmaking), as well as his tribute to Chicago in the 20s, this 1958 feature is also one of his most affecting love stories. An unlikely alliance between a crippled and crooked lawyer (Robert Taylor) and a dancing showgirl (Cyd Charisse), both of whom try to escape the power of a tyrannical mobster (Lee J. Cobb), forms the basis for a flamboyant poem in delirious color and ‘Scope that is treated with a mixture of violence and lyricism unique to Ray. This is the only movie he made at MGM, and he makes the most of the production resources available; Taylor and Charisse have never been better, and rarely has Ray’s theme of two flawed individuals trying to strike a symmetrical balance achieved a more beautiful and convulsive expression. With John Ireland and Kent Smith. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »