Monthly Archives: March 1988

The Greatest Living Soviet Filmmaker

The following was published in the Chicago Reader on March 25, 1988. It’s obviously out of date in certain respects, starting with its title, but I’d like to signal here an excellent source for more recent information about Paradjanov (or Parajanov, as it’s spelled in this case): a special issue of the Armenian Review, guest-edited by one of its contributors, James Steffen (who was kind enough to send me a copy). It’s dated 2001-2002, Volume 27, numbers 3-4 and Volume 28, numbers 1-2 —-a bit confusingly, because it’s only one issue of the journal, albeit a substantial one of 216 pages, with a detailed bibliography and filmography.

One missing item I should note from the latter is an unfinished film, The Confession (1990)—-just a fragment of only ten minutes or so, and woefully unavailable on DVD or video, yet it remains in some ways my favorite of all of Paradjanov’s works. Another great fragment, however, which I’ve seen even more recently, is readily available online, and for free, downloadable as a torrent (albeit in a less than ideal copy), from The Pirate Bay: Kiev Frescoes (1966), a sort of filmed “treatment” or trailer for a work that Paradjanov was never able to make.Read more »

Biloxi Blues

Based on a play that constitutes part two of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, concerned with the experiences of the hero (Matthew Broderick) at boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1943, this is an engaging, well-crafted comedy that receives very able direction from Mike Nichols. The period decor and details are nicely handled (apart from the silly decision to adapt clips from Buck Privates and Movietone News to the movie’s ‘Scope format, yielding an unnecessary anachronism), and while most of the characters are fairly standard types–sadistic drill sergeant (Christopher Walken), Jewish intellectual (Corey Parker), Polish lout (Matt Mulhern), raunchy prostitute (Park Overall), sophisticated girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller)–the actors all give them their best shot, including the somewhat miscast Walken. The nostalgic visual style of the film, successfully modeled on Norman Rockwell by production designer Paul Sylbert and cinematographer Bill Butler, is especially fetching, and the somewhat Woody Allen-ish offscreen narration shows Simon at his best. Perhaps this movie isn’t as wise or as profound as Simon wants it to be, but it is certainly a cut above sitcom complacency, and packed with wit and charm. (Chicago Ridge, Grove, Woodfield, Water Tower, River Oaks, Ridge, Orland Square, Oakbrook, Nortown, Norridge, Old Orchard, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak)… Read more »

D.O.A.

It’s a rare event for a remake to improve on the original, and while this spiffy new version of Rudolph Mate’s 1949 film noir with Edmond O’Brien may not be an unqualified success–due to overstrenuous efforts to impress, and a hackneyed score–it manages to come dangerously close. A good deal of the plot and setting has been reworked (the film now takes place in a college town), but the basic suspense framework–a man who is dying from radium poisoning has only a few hours left to discover his killer, and the story of his search is relayed in flashback–remains the same. Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue and codirectors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (the British creators of Max Headroom) work overtime in giving this story the kind of stylistic pizzazz that resembles a film course survey of the genre (characters, for instance, are given names like Nick Lang and Sydney Fuller, and iconographic references are just as plentiful); and stars Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Charlotte Rampling, and Jane Kaczmarek deliver the punchy dialogue for all it’s worth. In the final analysis, the stylistic showboating may count for more than the formula plot, but Morton and Jankel keep things moving and glittering so effectively that there isn’t much time to notice.… Read more »

The Theme

From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1988). — J.R.

The Theme

It’s not too much of a surprise that this angry Soviet film by Gleb Panfilov won the Golden Bear prize at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival over Platoon. It’s a more courageous film, especially considering the restrictions in its own country, which help to explain why this 1979 film could only surface after glasnost; it’s also a more impressive piece of filmmaking. Its novellalike plot follows a trip to the country taken by a celebrated middle-aged playwright (Mikhail Ulyanov) who has recently come to feel contempt for the compromises and complacencies of his own career. He develops an interest in an attractive young tour guide (beautifully played by Panfilov’s wife, Inna Churikova), whose low opinion of his work helps to focus his own self-hatred. But this masochistic attraction is frustrated when he discovers that her heart belongs to a young unpublished Jewish poet who, unlike him, has risked his career for his work and who, reduced by the authorities to a job as a grave digger, is planning to emigrate. Panfilov’s narrative style (the hero’s acerbic offscreen narration effectively punctuating the action) and visual distinction (a memorable use of snowy landscapes creating a striking black-and-white effect to play off against the color) keep this powerfully acted drama watchable even when little is happening.… Read more »

Off Limits

Yet another Vietnam picture, set in Saigon in 1968. This one is a mystery thriller about two plainclothes cops (Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines) assigned to investigate the murders of half a dozen local prostitutes whose babies were fathered by American servicemen; a high-ranking American officer proves to be one of the suspects. Directed and cowritten by TV veteran Christopher Crowe, and shot on location in Bangkok, the film has the singular virtue of giving more vent to Vietnamese attitudes about the U.S. than are usually found in such pictures, and the dialogue is often pungent and lively. One regrets the hokey finale as the film eventually succumbs to overly familiar generic patterns, but before this happens, some of the complexity of the American presence in Vietnam gets touched upon. (Golf Mill, Water Tower, River Oaks, Orland Square, Plaza, Dearborn, Hyde Park, Norridge, Ridge, Hillside Square, Forest Park, Grove, Woodfield, Deerbrook, Evergreen) … Read more »

Waters in the Mainstream

This is a review of the John Waters original (1988) — not the Adam Shankman remake (2007) derived from the Broadway musical, which I haven’t seen. Thanks to the seeming omnipresence of the latter, I originally found it very difficult to find any stills from the former on the Internet. My review appeared in the March 4, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. Today I persist in thinking that America would be a better place if John Waters were hosting The Tonight Show. — J.R.

HAIRSPRAY

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by John Waters

With Ricki Lake, Divine, Leslie Ann Powers, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ruth Brown, Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, and Shawn Thompson.

madison-time-hairspray-1988

As John Waters is the first to point out, Hairspray is “a satire of the two most dreaded film genres today — the ‘teen flick’ and the ‘message movie.’” But one of the nicest things about this exhilarating, good-natured pop comedy is that it actually is both a teen flick and a message movie. Satirical or not, it redeems as well as revitalizes both genres while celebrating their excesses.

This downscale, urban Dirty Dancing is a cunning crossover maneuver that opens as many doors to the mainstream audience as Waters can reach for, urging black and white, fat and skinny, blue collar and white collar, and generations some 25 years apart to join in the festive euphoria.… Read more »

The House on Carroll Street

Peter Yates, a craftsmanlike director who is generally at the mercy of his scripts, does a creditable job with a romantic thriller screenplay by former blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein (The Front), set in 1951 during the height of the cold war witch-hunts, which is strong in charm and period flavor but relatively weak in motivations. Aiming for an overall Hitchcockian ambience without the master’s undertow of guilt, the film makes pleasant use of Kelly McGillis as a witch-hunt victim who turns amateur sleuth, and Jeff Daniels (The Purple Rose of Cairo) as an FBI agent who befriends her; also on hand are Jessica Tandy, and an especially effective Mandy Patinkin as the sweet-talking cold warrior villain. Michael Ballhaus shot the film, and Georges Delerue handled the score. Nothing very profound emerges from the mixture, but this is still a rather stylish and sincere entertainment that passes the time agreeably. (Edens, Oakbrook Center, Water Tower)… Read more »

Susan Slept Here

The brilliant Frank Tashlin directed this 1954 feature about a Hollywood screenwriter (Dick Powell) and his misadventures with a volatile teenager (Debbie Reynolds). In some ways an early version of Tashlin’s Bachelor Flat (1962), it’s narrated by the hero’s Oscar statuette, and some of the gags about 50s Hollywood are priceless (among them a parody of Gene Kelly’s dream ballets). With Anne Francis. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Sixth Sense

A silent experimental film by Spanish architect Nemesio N. Sobrevila, El sexto sentido never received a general release, but it reportedly constitutes a rare and unique effort of its period (1926), heavily influenced by French Impressionist as well as German Expressionist cinema. The leading characters are given such names as The Vampiress, The Optimist, and The Pessimist, and the title refers to the capacities of the camera to get at truth that is inaccessible to the other five senses (which suggests shades of Dziga Vertov). (JR)… Read more »

The Search

The first feature of screenwriter Angelino Fons as director, this 1966 adaptation of Pio Baroja’s classic novel, set in Madrid at the turn of the century, describes the frustrations of a romantic young man from the country (Jacques Perrin).… Read more »

The Sacrifice

Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film (1986, 145 min.) isn’t on the same level as his extraordinary Stalker, but it’s a fitting apocalyptic statement, made when he knew he was dying of cancer. The first and penultimate shotsten-minute takes that are, in very different ways, remarkable and complex achievementsmanage to say more than most films do over their entire length. In between these shots one finds Tarkovsky working in a mode that bears a distinct relationship to Bergmanmade all the more apparent by the Swedish setting, the cinematography (by Bergman’s incomparable Sven Nykvist), and the casting of Erland Josephson in the leadbut the hallucinatory camera movements and the mysticism of the plot could belong to no one but Tarkovsky. As Alexander (Josephson), a university lecturer, celebrates his birthday with family and friends, a major nuclear crisis is reported on TV, followed by a power failure. Praying for the world to return to normal, Alexander promises to give up everything he has and winds up sleeping with his maid, reportedly a witch, to seal the bargain. As with Nostalghia, Tarkovsky’s previous work of exile, it’s possible to balk at the filmmaker’s pretensions and antiquated sexual politics and yet be overwhelmed by his mastery and originality, as well as the conviction of his sincerity.… Read more »

A New Life

There’s something fraudulent about writer-director-star Alan Alda’s implicit claim to be giving us the straight lowdown on midlife crises, in a story about a divorced middle-aged couple (himself and Ann-Margret) embarking on new relationships, when the gist of his message boils down to the usual Hollywood standbys: meeting Mr. (or Ms.) Right, facing up to one’s shortcomings, exercising self-improvement, steering clear of transsexuals in singles bars, and, above all, living one’s life as if Joseph Turrin’s tacky adaptations of baroque music were constantly playing on the sound track. The real trouble, as usual with Alda, is the auteur’s limitless self-absorption, which makes all the other characters elusive shadow figures, including those who are supposed to matter. Ann-Margret, for instance, makes a game try at bringing some reality to the hero’s ex-wife, who, like him, is having an affair with someone nearly half her age, but the material offered to her and her boyfriend John Shea is so elliptically threadbare that they have to build their performances in quicksand; Veronica Hamel as the doctor who becomes Alda’s second wife, and Hal Linden as his best friend and partner at the New York Stock Exchange, suffer from similar undernourishment. Part of the gimmick here is that Alda plays a deliberately abrasive character, very New York aggressive, whose gradual cleaning up of his act is supposed to inspire us all.… Read more »

Nada

Claude Chabrol’s 1973 thriller about a group of political kidnappers in Paris seems to record his disenchantment with the French left during this period as well as his cynical disapproval of the government. While it represents an honest attempt to break out of his preceding cycle of bourgeois melodramas, the plague on both houses delivered by this film is more despairing than edifying, and not very much fun to watch. (The title, which is Spanish for nothing, points to the overall nihilism.) (JR)… Read more »

The House On Carroll Street

Peter Yates, a craftsmanlike director who is generally at the mercy of his scripts, does a creditable job with a romantic thriller screenplay by former blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein (The Front), set in 1951 during the height of the cold-war witch-hunts, that is strong in charm and period flavor but relatively weak in motivations. Aiming for an overall Hitchcockian ambience without the master’s undertow of guilt, the film makes pleasant use of Kelly McGillis as a witch-hunt victim who turns amateur sleuth, and Jeff Daniels as an FBI agent who befriends her; also on hand are Jessica Tandy, and an especially effective Mandy Patinkin as the sweet-talking cold warrior villain. Michael Ballhaus shot the film, and Georges Delerue handled the score. Nothing very profound emerges from the mixture, but this is still a rather stylish and sincere entertainment that passes the time agreeably. (JR)… Read more »

Vice Versa

Thanks to a magically endowed skull that comes from a Buddhist temple, a young executive who buys for a Chicago department store (Judge Reinhold) and his semiestranged 11-year-old son (Fred Savage) unwittingly exchange bodies, and each has to go through a few days living the life of the other. If this sounds familiar, writer-producers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and director Brian Gilbert have little up their sleeve to make it otherwise. While a few decent laughs are wrung from the situation, most of this movie seems motored by what SF writer James Blish once termed an idiot plota story that can only advance because most of its major characters are idiotsand most of the sexual complications aren’t so much explored as sidestepped. Still, the Chicago locations are pleasant, and most of the castwhich also includes Corinne Bohrer as the hero’s girlfriend and Jane Kaczmarek as his ex-wifedo the best they can with the premise. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ imaginations extend no further than the basic gimmick, which is exploited mainly for silliness, and a lot of golden opportunities are lost in the process. (JR)… Read more »