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 »
Monthly Archives: February 1988
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.
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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).
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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)
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 »
One of the most remarkable and innovative documentaries ever made, this hour-long film made by Francoise Romand for French TV (1986) follows the famous true story of two English women who as babies got switched in the hospital and 20 years later discovered that they’d been raised by the wrong sets of parents. Romand enlists all the surviving family members in her haunting and bizarre investigation, which involves not only a recounting but a reenactment of all the significant events in the two daughters’ emotional histories. Composed in an elaborate visual form that involves parallel shots, diptych compositions employing windows and mirrors, home-movie footage, stylized group portraits, and striking use of the families’ homes and possessions, and featuring inventive work with sound and music, the movie burrows so deeply into the subject and its ramifications that one emerges with enough material for a 500-page novel. The mix-up of the title refers not only to the putative subject but to many stylistic and formal collisions: fiction versus fact, French versus English, memory versus imagination. An astonishing film debut. (JR)… Read more »
One of the better documentary compilations about Nazi Germanya German/Swedish production, directed by Erwin Leiser in 1961, and narrated by Claude Stephenson. (JR)… Read more »
French hack Pierre Granier-Deferre directed this World War II thriller (1973) about a French radio repairman (Jean-Louis Trintignant) fleeing with his family from the German invasion and meeting Romy Schneider en route.… Read more »
Nicholas Ray’s 1961 retelling of the story of Jesus for producer Samuel Bronston may have spelled the beginning of his downfall as a commercial director, and Orson Welles, who narrates, was so offended that he didn’t want his name on the credits. Yet this quirky ‘Scope biblical spectacular is a lot more thoughtful and interesting than most. Jeffrey Hunter’s Christ wears a red cloak that calls to mind James Dean’s jacket, and Ray’s conception of the Sermon on the Mount as a series of personal exchanges is arresting to say the least. Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar) signed the script, and Robert Ryan, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors, and Rita Gam figure in the cast. In some ways this blockbuster, simple and emotional, might be regarded as Jesus Christ Superstar avant la lettre. 168 min. (JR)… Read more »
Polly (Sheila McCarthy), the organizationally impaired heroine of Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema’s whimsical first feature (1987), gets a secretarial job at a chic Toronto art gallery and becomes infatuated with Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the sophisticated curator, while taking everyday photographs and indulging in eccentric daydreams in her spare time. Her rude encounters with the corruption and hypocrisy of Gabrielle’s world form the main substance of the story, which caters to middlebrow cultural insecurities even more doggedly than Woody Allen does. While it’s refreshing to find lesbian sensibilities represented honestly in a mainstream context (the performances are adept, and the conclusion is intriguingly open-ended), the cutesy style tries to promote the heroine’s dimwitted innocence in such anti-intellectual fashion that the movie’s self-righteousness may set your teeth on edge. The very title of the film, which misquotes a line from Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is symptomatic of the pretensions in store. (JR)… Read more »
Roman Polanski’s first thriller after Chinatownset in Paris, and cowritten with Polanski’s usual collaborator, Gerard Brachdescribes the puzzling adventures of Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) after his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) disappears from their hotel room. It opens promisingly, with a fine sense of the disorientation of a monolingual tourist abroad and in trouble. But instead of things building from there, the energy gradually dissipates, and by the time the mystery is solved, it’s difficult to care very much. Polanski seems to have something in mind about American innocence and international power (the Statue of Liberty is used as a significant icon), but his usual surrealism is almost completely absent, and most of the visual motifsthe collection of garbage in the morning, the matching red dresses of Sondra and Walker’s loyal sidekick Michele (Emmanuelle Seigner) at the climaxregister mainly as empty signifiers (1988). 120 min. (JR)… Read more »