Monthly Archives: July 1988

Female Trouble [MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR]

From the July 29, 1988 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN FEAR

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by George A. Romero

With Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, and Janine Turner.

You’ve got to get through a few layers of foam rubber before you reach what’s good (or better than good) about George Romero’s new feature. There’s a series of obstacles — cultural, corporate, ideological, stylistic, aesthetic, commercial — standing in the way of what the movie is doing at its best; they may not count for much in the long run, but it’s better to be forewarned and forearmed.

First there’s the problem of the title. I appreciate that the producers did not want to suggest that the movie is a comedy — as sticking to the title of Michael Stewart’s source novel, Monkey Shines, would have done. So a subtitle is understandable as a means of labeling the contents. But An Experiment in Fear? Whose experiment and whose fear? The phrase describes nothing in the film (except for a brief undeveloped scene with a rodent and a beady-eyed behaviorist) and nothing you can say about the film (except as an easy platitude).… Read more »

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.

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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 »

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 »

Asya’s Happiness

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


Originally entitled The Story of Asya Klachina, Who Loved a Man but Did Not Marry Him Because She Was Proud, Andrei Konchalovsky’s remarkable 1967 depiction of life on a collective farm, one of his best films, was shelved by Soviet authorities for 20 years, apparently because its crippled heroine is pregnant but unengaged and because the overall depiction of Soviet rural life is decidedly less than glamorous. (The farm chairman, for instance, played by an actual farm chairman, is a hunchback.) Working with beautiful black-and-white photography and a cast consisting mainly of local nonprofessionals (apart from the wonderful Iya Savina as Asya and a couple others), Konchalovsky offers one of the richest and most realistic portrayals of the Russian peasantry ever filmed, working in an unpretentious style that occasionally suggests a Soviet rural counterpart to the early John Cassavetes. Many of the men in the cast relate anecdotes about war and postwar experiences that are gripping and authentic, the interworkings of the community are lovingly detailed, and the handling of the heroine and her boyfriends is refreshingly candid without ever being didactic or sensationalist. Episodic in structure and leisurely paced, the film is never less than compelling.… 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 »

A Nest Of Gentry

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

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Andrei Konchalovsky’s follow-up to his 1967 Asya’s Happiness was a much safer literary adaptation of a Turgenev novel about a cuckolded member of the Russian aristocracy of the mid-19th century who is the son of a servant girl and a nobleman and who struggles unsuccessfully to find a place for himself in society. Ambitious but rather slow, using a variety of camera techniques that suggest the influence of the French New Wave, this is a respectable if unexciting work by a talented filmmaker. Attractively filmed in color, and certainly more interesting than A Handful of Dust as a treatment of fading aristocracy, it nonetheless lacks the sense of discovery conveyed in Konchalovsky’s best Soviet and American work (1969). (JR)
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