Monthly Archives: July 1988

Brightness

Souleymane Cisse’s extraordinarily beautiful and mesmerizing fantasy is set in the ancient Bambara culture of Mali (formerly French Sudan) long before it was invaded by Morocco in the 16th century. A young man (Issiaka Kane) sets out to discover the mysteries of nature (or komo, the science of the gods), but his jealous and spiteful father prevents him from deciphering the elements of the Bambara sacred rites and tries to kill him. In the course of a heroic and magical journey, the hero masters the Bambara initiation rites, takes over the throne, and ultimately confronts the magic of his father. Apart from creating a dense and exciting universe that should make George Lucas green with envy, Cisse has shot breathtaking images in Fujicolor and has accompanied his story with a hypnotic, percussive score. Conceivably the greatest African film ever made, this wondrous work provides an ideal introduction to a filmmaker who, next to Ousmane Sembene, is probably Africa’s greatest director. Not to be missed (1987). Winner of the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes Festival. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday and Sunday, July 29 and 31, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

A Fish Called Wanda

Charles Crichton, the septuagenarian British director who made his biggest mark with The Lavender Hill Mob in 1951, teams up with actor, cowriter, and executive producer John Cleese to make a madcap caper comedy about another large-scale robbery that is every bit as funny as its predecessor. Like many of the best English comedies, much of the humor here is based on character, good-natured high spirits, and fairly uninhibited vulgarity (a speech impediment and dead dogs supply the basis for some of the gags). The superlative cast includes Americans Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, the latter at her sexiest, as well as Michael Palin and Cleese; and Crichton keeps the laughs coming with infectious energy. (Commons, Water Tower, Harlem-Cermak, Yorktown, Hillside Square, Webster Place, Norridge, Old Orchard, Deerbrook)… Read more »

Ivan the Terrible

From the Chicago Reader (July 27, 1988). — J.R.

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Sergei Eisenstein’s controversial, unfinished trilogy, with a Prokofiev score and a histrionic, campy (albeit compositionally very controlled) performance in the title role by Nikolai Cherkassov (1945). The ceremonial high style of the proceedings has been interpreted by critics as everything from the ultimate denial of a cinema based on montage (under Stalinist pressure) to the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made. Thematically fascinating both as submerged autobiography and as a daring portrait of Stalin’s paranoia, quite apart from its interest as the historical pageant it professes to be, this is one of the most distinctive great films in the history of cinema–freakishly mannerist, yet so vivid in its obsessions and expressionist angularity that it virtually invents its own genre. 184 min. In Russian with subtitles.

IvantheTerrible-colorRead more »

A Few Ways of Looking at MIDNIGHT RUN

I’m mainly reprinting this early review for the Chicago Reader, run in their July 22, 1988 issue, for theoretical reasons rather than because of any intrinsic or enduring interest in the movie involved —- which may well limit or even eliminate the piece’s interest for some readers. When I started reviewing for the Reader and discovered that I had to assign a rating, from one to four stars, to all the films I reviewed at any length, a longstanding Chicago custom, my impatience with this requirement, which struck me as both arbitrary and absurd, is part of what yielded the following. Another part is the sometimes necessary pretense of knowledge by reviewers about matters they know little about. –- J.R.

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by George Gallo

With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.

by Jonathan Rossenbaum

Review #1

There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case.… Read more »

When Bad Films Happen to Good Actors

MIDNIGHT RUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by George Gallo

With Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, and Dennis Farina.

There’s a certain unavoidable imposture in the way critics (and the Academy Awards) generally break commercial movies into constituent parts and distinct contributions. To do this is to assume, first of all, that a movie’s official credits are an accurate indication of who did what offscreen, which is often not the case. It assumes further that one can easily isolate such separate aspects of movies as photography, direction, script, and acting while experiencing and judging their combined effects, the movie as a whole–it assumes, that is, that one can reverse the filmmaking process and, through powers of sheer induction, come up with precise recipes, the same way that producers and packagers do.

Like a butcher slicing up a carcass and pricing its various parts, the film reviewer typically regards each movie as a collection of individual expressions, each one to be rated on a separate evaluative scale. Of course, some of the greatest films tend to elude such divisions: how can one separate Chaplin’s acting from his directing in Monsieur Verdoux, or Tati’s directing from his script in Playtime?… Read more »

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Possibly the most radical of the “black exploitation” films of the 70s, this movie was an overnight success when it was released in 1973, and then was abruptly taken out of distribution for reasons that are still not entirely clear. A mild-mannered social worker (Lawrence Cook) is recruited by the CIA as a token black, and then proceeds to learn (and later apply) the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare in Chicago (although most of the filming was done in Gary, Indiana). Corrosively ironic and often exciting, this adaptation by Sam Greenlee of his own novel, directed by Ivan Dixon, remains one of the great missing (or at least unwritten) chapters in black political filmmaking. Chicagoan Greenlee will be present at this rare screening to discuss the making of the film, its subsequent repression, and its effect on his career. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, July 22, 8:15, 443-3737)… Read more »

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

One of the most underrated of all children’s fantasies, and conceivably the most interesting movie that Stanley Kramer ever produced. Dr. Seuss wrote the screenplay (with Alan Scott); his wartime buddy Carl Foreman was originally supposed to direct, but the Hollywood witch-hunts soon made this impossible, and Roy Rowland took Foreman’s place. The plot basically consists of the florid nightmare of a ten-year-old boy (Tommy Rettig) about his authoritarian and vaguely foreign piano teacher (Hans Conried); in the dream, the piano teacher forces 500 boys to play his monotonous exercise on a continuous keyboard located in his gargantuan palace, while the boy’s mother is locked, hypnotized, in a gilded cage. Dr. Seuss originally wrote the part of an elderly plumber who befriends the boy for Karl Malden, but “commerce” intervened, and Kramer insisted on using radio star Peter Lind Hayes instead, with Hayes’s partner Mary Healy as the mother. Despite these and other problems–the film proved to be a financial disaster–the film remains a unique and truly imaginative wonder, fascinating both ideologically as an expression of its period (1953) and aesthetically as a very inventive form of delirium. Cinematographer Franz Planer, production designer Rudolph Sternad, and choreographer Eugene Loring all made astonishing contributions–their dungeon ballet, with an assist from Dr.… Read more »

Portfolio Without Artist [JOHN HUSTON & THE DUBLINERS]

From the July 8, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

JohnHuston&TheDubliners

 

JOHN HUSTON & THE DUBLINERS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lilyan Sievernich.

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The on-location production documentary, a movie chronicling the shooting of a movie, is a fairly recent phenomenon, although its equivalent in print has been around much longer. (For instance, Micheal MacLiammoir’s Put Money in Thy Purse, about Orson Welles’s Othello, and Lillian Ross’s Picture, about John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, were both published in 1952.) One usual difference between the written and the filmed reports is that the latter tend to be inside jobs financed by the producers of the features in question, and consequently are promotional in nature rather than critical: Chris Marker’s short feature about the making of Ran and Ron Mann’s documentary about the making of Legal Eagles are two recent examples, and Lilyan Sievernich’s hour-long account of John Huston shooting The Dead belongs in this category. Yet there are a few things about Sievernich’s film that make it rather special.

Huston was 82 and very close to dying when he made The Dead, and everyone connected with the film was acutely aware of it. He directed from a wheelchair, was hooked up to an oxygen machine for his emphysema, and generally viewed the actors on the set from a TV monitor.… Read more »

Celine and Julie Go Boating

One of the great modern films, Jacques Rivette’s 193-minute comic extravaganza is as scary and as unsettling in its diverse narrative high jinks as it is hilarious and exhilarating in its uninhibited slapstick. Its slow, sensual beginning stages a mysterious, semiflirtatious meeting between a shy librarian (Dominique Labourier) and a nightclub magician (Juliet Berto). Eventually, an outlandish plot-within-a-plot magically takes shape between them–a Jamesian, Victorian, and somewhat sexist melodrama featuring Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder (the film’s producer), and a little girl–as each of them, on successive days, visits an old dark house where the exact same events take place. Oddly enough, both of the plots in this giddy comedy are equally outlandish, but the remarkable thing about this intricate balancing act is that each one holds the other in place; the elaborate, Hitchcockian doublings are so beautifully worked out that this movie steadily grows in resonance and power, and the final payoff is well worth waiting for. The four main actresses scripted their own dialogue in collaboration with Eduardo de Gregorio and Rivette, and the film derives many of its most euphoric effects from a wholesale ransacking of the cinema of pleasure (cartoons, musicals, thrillers, and serials). The use of locations (Paris’s Montmartre in the summertime) and direct sound is especially appealing, and cat lovers are in for a particular treat (1974).… Read more »

A World Apart

The first feature directed by the excellent English cinematographer Chris Menges, based on a sensitive autobiographical script by Shawn Slovo, is set in Johannesburg in 1963. A white, middle-class antiapartheid activist (Barbara Hershey) is arrested for her activities after her husband has had to leave the country for related reasons, and her 13-year-old daughter (Jodhi May), through whose eyes much of the story is told, has to adjust to the breakup of her home. In many respects, this film succeeds admirably in everything that Cry Freedom tried with much awkwardness to achieve; while the focus is once again more on the sacrifices and dedication of committed whites to the struggle against South African racism, there is never any sense of inflated melodrama or displaced emphasis here in the story the filmmakers have to tell, and the performances by Hershey, May, Jeroen Krabbe, Paul Freeman, and David Suchet–are especially powerful. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Where the Boys Are [BULL DURHAM]

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

BULL DURHAM

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Ron Shelton

With Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, and Jenny Robertson.

I cannot tell a lie: Bull Durham gave me so much old-fashioned moviegoing pleasure the first time around, in spite of my complete lack of interest in baseball, that I wasn’t too concerned about the sources of my fun. Entertaining movies are often deft at discouraging reflection. But two weeks later, when I went back to see this one again — mainly to refresh my memory — I came out feeling a little embarrassed about how and why I’d been taken in.

It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its share of singular virtues, especially considering that it’s Ron Shelton’s first feature as a director (he also wrote the script). Genuine star performances — as opposed to those in hyped-up vehicles like Big, Red Heat, The Presidio, and Big Business – are not all that commonplace these days, and Shelton gets them here from both Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. He also strikes a very satisfying balance between the fast and furious dialogue — much of it slangy, staccato jargon that reflects Shelton’s ball-playing backgroundand the transitional montage sequences, overlaid with pop songs, that allow us to glide and drift between the gabfests.… Read more »

The Spook Who Sat By The Door

Possibly the most radical of the blaxploitation films of the 70s, this movie was an overnight success when released in 1973, then was abruptly taken out of distribution for reasons still not entirely clear. A mild-mannered social worker (Lawrence Cook) is recruited by the CIA as a token black and proceeds to learn (and later apply) the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare in Chicago (though most of the filming was done in Gary, Indiana). Corrosively ironic and often exciting, this adaptation by Sam Greenlee of his own novel, directed by Ivan Dixon, remains one of the great missing (or at least unwritten) chapters in black political filmmaking. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Seven Year Itch

Although it was directed by Billy Wilder, this 1955 CinemaScope classic sometimes seems presided over by Frank Tashlin, with its satire of 50s puritanism and its use of wimpy Tom Ewell as the married and harried book editor driven to dreams and distraction by his upstairs neighbor (Marilyn Monroe, magnificent) while his wife and son are on holiday. Scripted by Wilder and George Axelrod (who bowdlerized his own play to appease the censors); with Sonny Tufts, Evelyn Keyes, and Robert Straussalso memorable employment of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sapphire

Basil Dearden’s neglected 1959 British thriller is about an attractive young music student who’s found dead and who, it’s discovered by police inspectors Nigel Patrick and Michael Craig, had been passing for white. A detective story that reveals something of London’s black community in the late 50s. (JR)… Read more »

No Man’s Land

The title of Alain Tanner’s melancholy 1985 film refers to the rural zone between Swiss and French customs, where a group of small-time smugglers eke out a precarious, in-between existence. Films about border tensions (La grand illusion, Touch of Evil, Luc Moullet’s unjustly neglected Les contrebandieres) tend to treat their locations metaphorically, and this one is no exception, although it’s also a losers’ club movie in the manner of The Asphalt Jungle about a band of assorted malcontents who dream of escaping to a better life. Decorously framed and shot, with stately camera movements, lingering landscape shots, and a wonderful Terry Riley score, this movie glides along with a kind of graceful inertia that eventually defeats its spectators as well as its characters by gradually leading both to the same impasse. With Hughes Quester, Myriam Mezieres, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »