Monthly Archives: August 1988

Looking for America [UNCOMMON SENSES]

From the Chicago Reader (August 26, 1988). — J.R.

Film Still

UNCOMMON SENSES

Directed and written by Jon Jost.

The film essay, as opposed to the documentary, remains in some respects the most neglected of contemporary film genres, by filmmakers and audiences alike, perhaps because it is seldom acknowledged as a film form at all. The only recent mainstream examples that come to mind are the first two parts of Godfrey Reggio’s trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Powaqqatsi (1988). As an English reviewer remarked of Koyaanisqatsi — a film that, incidentally, owed most of its exposure to Francis Ford Coppola’s distribution — “Its vainglorious appeal as a ‘new cinematic experience’ is really to an audience that would rather be open-mouthed than open-minded.” I found its glib borrowings from the avant-garde so irritating that I had no sense of regret about missing its sequel.

On the other hand, the most masterful examples I can think of from the last two decades — Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) and Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1982) — both flopped commercially in this country. And most of the other distinguished examples from the 70s and 80s seem to appear only on the experimental film circuits: Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (1982) and Naked Spaces (1985), Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson’s Universal Hotel/Universal Citizen (1986-87; available on tape at Facets), Jane Campion’s 1984 Passionless Moments (which showed at the Film Center last weekend), and Jon Jost’s Speaking Directly: Some American Notes (1973; also available on tape at Facets).… Read more »

Betrayed

The usual limitation of director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) is that he makes well-crafted thrillers with liberal political themes that preach to the converted. The interesting thing about his latest movie, scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge), is that it does something rather different–more unsettling and morally ambiguous and, as a look at the underground white supremacist movement in the U.S., more disturbing and explosive. Debra Winger plays a federal agent who infiltrates a murderous group in the rural midwest in order to discover the murderer of a racist-baiting Chicago radio talk-show host (inspired in part by Alan Berg, the Jewish radio personality who was murdered in Denver). She becomes involved with one of the leaders (Tom Berenger) and his homespun all-American family, and is forced by her Chicago-based operative (John Heard) to hang on for dear life. Rather than give us stock racist villains, the film offers a relatively three-dimensional view of their life, their community, and their all-American eccentricities. (Berenger’s character, for example, hunts down blacks in cold blood and teaches anti-Semitism to his cute little girl, but he won’t shake the hand of an American Nazi.) To complicate matters further, the ethical issue of Winger’s own role as an infiltrator who is both personally drawn to Berenger and nauseated by his ideology is played for all it’s worth.… Read more »

Self-Portraits [TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM & THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST]

This originally appeared in the August 19, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler

With Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, Martin Landau, Frederic Forrest, Mako, and Dean Stockwell.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Paul Schrader

With Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Verna Bloom, Randy Danson, and Andre Gregory.

While it might initially seem like a shotgun marriage to consider together movies as different in tone and subject as Tucker: The Man and His Dream and The Last Temptation of Christ, it is worth noting first of all that these films represent comparable watersheds in the careers of their respective directors. Even if we put aside that Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are contemporaries (born in 1939 and 1942, respectively) with Italian and Catholic backgrounds, and that both became star directors during the same period — with Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972 and Scorsese’s Mean Streets in 1973 — we are still left with the fact that their latest features are both intensely personal projects, nurtured by their creators over many years and through a number of vicissitudes.… Read more »

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History/Films by Jane Campion

One hundred and two cane toads were brought into Queensland, Australia, in 1935 with the hope that they would get rid of sugar-cane grubs. The toads quickly overran the countryside, eating everything except cane grubs. In this documentary featurette, filmmaker Mark Lewis extracts as much grim humor as possible from this problem–which persists–with all its grotesque ramifications. (The strange mating habits of cane toads are described in detail; their poison has not only caused ecological disaster in the area, but also has served as an illegal hallucinogenic drug; many children treat the toads as pets; and so on.) On the same program, and much more interesting as filmmaking, are three highly original independent shorts by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, all of them made while she was attending the Australian Film and Television School: Peel (1981) and A Girl’s Own Story (1984) are about family quarrels and transgressions; the remarkable Passionless Moments (1984), made with Gerard Lee, is a series of fictional miniessays that defy description. All three Campion films are strikingly photographed and edited, and comprise the most interesting Australian independent work that I’ve seen. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, August 20, 6:00 and 8:00, and Sunday, August 21, 4:00 and 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Robert Englund is back as Freddy Kreuger in the fourth installment of the popular horror series; Finnish director Renny Harlin directed from a story by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland. Having missed the three previous installments in the cycle, I found much of the story only semicomprehensible–even after a few explanatory plot points were thrown my way about 40 minutes into the film–but it’s hard to think of many other movies where narrative is so thoroughly beside the point. This is a series of extravagant visual set pieces, one right after the other, drawing upon such sources as Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and Through the Looking Glass, with the usual collection of Silly Putty special effects that one expects from current horror films. Harlin’s arsenal of conceits and visual effects–pirouetting overhead angles, dancing trigonometry formulas, a pizza flavored with tiny human heads, a lot of fancy play with a water bed, and much, much more–keeps it consistently watchable and inventive. With Lisa Wilcox, Andras Jones, Tuesday Knight, Ken Sagoes, Danny Hassel, and Toy Newkirk; and the combined special effects talents of Steve Johnson, John Buechler, Kevin Yagher, and Screaming Mad George. (Bolingbrook, Chestnut Station, Forest Park, Golf Mill, Orland Square, Plaza, Woodfield, Dearborn, Hyde Park, Norridge, Evanston, Evergreen, Hillside Square, Bel-Air Drive-In, Double Drive-In)… Read more »

Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Francis Coppola’s stylish and heartfelt tribute to the innovative automobile designer Preston Thomas Tucker turns out to be one of his most personal and successful movies. While the tone throughout is basically light, the overall treatment–including effective uses of 40s decor, big band music, charismatic performances, and zippy pacing–makes it euphoric. Coppola’s own personal investment in the story (his father invested in Tucker’s cars, and he clearly identifies with many aspects of Tucker’s idealism) gives it an undeniable lift, and Jeff Bridges (as Tucker) and Martin Landau (as his business partner) are especially good in sustaining the movie’s overall high. While the populist orientation of the movie, which relates to Tucker’s extended family as well as his ideals, isn’t delved into very deeply–and the darkness of the ethics of American big business is treated so perfunctorily that it counts for little more than comic shading–Coppola makes the most of his nostalgic Norman Rockwell depiction of benign American individualism. Scripted by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler; with Joan Allen, Frederic Forrest, Mako, and Dean Stockwell (in a fanciful cameo as Howard Hughes), and superb production design and cinematography by Dean Tavoularis and Vittorio Storaro respectively, as well as some inventive camera staging by Coppola.… Read more »

60s Wisdom [CANDY MOUNTAIN]

It seems like one way of characterizing a Robert Frank film nowadays would be to say that it’s likely a film for which it’s almost impossible to find any adequate illustrations on the Internet. This is why I’m mainly had to depend on a couple of posters here, as well as the book jacket for the recent reprint of Rudy Wurlitzer’s first novel. –J.R.

CANDY MOUNTAIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer

Written by Wurlitzer

With Kevin J. O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, Roberts Blossom, Leon Redbone, and Dr. John.

Is it my imagination, or has “60s” become less of a dirty word lately? Appearances can be deceptive, but in recent movies as diverse in quality (as well as in subject matter) as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Young Guns, and Tucker, we seem finally to be acknowledging that certain 60s values persist in our minds and habits as something more positive than war wounds. The recognition comes slowly and begrudgingly, though — almost as if the Reagan era has kept it under lock and key, and plastered it over with warnings about freak-outs, burnouts, and death. So when something that might be called 60s wisdom makes an appearance in our midst, it deserves to be treasured and savored rather than hastily filed away.… Read more »

Tartuffe

If you think you know all there is to know about F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise, Tabu)and it’s not likely that you would, because he never repeated himself, and major portions of the work of this consummate master of the silent era are now losttake a look at this underrated 1926 adaptation of the Moliere comedy, framed with a modern story. The mise en scene is beautifully modulated and the performancesby Emil Jannings, Lil Dagover, and Werner Krauss, among othersare first-rate. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stealing Home

An aging ball player (Mark Harmon) comes home to his New Jersey town after a rebellious childhood friend (Jodie Foster) commits suicide and entrusts him in her will with the disposition of her ashes; after a long period of living in obscurity, he begins to relive memories of his youth. What this uneven nostalgia piece mainly has going for it is sincerity; alternately mawkish and touching, it has plenty of feeling, but only intermittently does it come up with a very clear sense of what to do with it. Written and directed by the team of Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis; with Harold Ramis, Jonathan Silverman, Blair Brown, William McNamara, and John Shea. (JR)… Read more »

A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Robert Englund is back as Freddy Krueger in this 1988 installment of the popular horror series; erstwhile Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin directed from a story by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland. Having missed the three previous installments in the cycle, I found much of the story only semicomprehensibleeven after a few explanatory plot points were thrown my way about 40 minutes into the filmbut it’s hard to think of many other movies where narrative is so thoroughly beside the point. This is a series of extravagant visual set pieces, one right after the other, drawing upon such sources as Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and Through the Looking Glass, with the usual collection of Silly Putty special effects that one expects from 80s horror films. Harlin’s arsenal of conceits and visual effectspirouetting overhead angles, dancing trigonometry formulas, a pizza flavored with tiny human heads, a lot of fancy play with a water bed, and much, much morekeeps it consistently watchable and inventive. With Lisa Wilcox, Andras Jones, Tuesday Knight, Ken Sagoes, Danny Hassel, and Toy Newkirk, and the combined special effects talents of Steve Johnson, John Buechler, Kevin Yagher, and Screaming Mad George. R, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Hungarian Fairy Tale

Gyula Gazdag’s 1986 Hungarian feature follows the adventures of Andris (David Vermes), who is searching for his father, and Antal (Frantisek Husak), a local clerk who once persuaded Andris’s mother to assign her son an imaginary father in order to acquire a birth certificate. The film starts out as a satire about Hungarian bureaucracy and gets progressively stranger and more unpredictable as it proceeds, finally winding up as a wide-eyed fantasy with provocative allegorical overtones about Hungarian identity. Elemer Ragalyi’s superb black-and-white cinematography and Gazdag’s very personal handling of editing and mood somehow hold it all together. With Maria Varga and Eszter Csakanyi. (JR)… Read more »

The Wizard Of Loneliness

Lukas Haas stars as a 12-year-old boy sent to live with his grandparents in Vermont during World War II, after his mother dies and his father joins the army. This is the third adaptation of a John Nichols novel (after The Sterile Cuckoo and The Milagro Beanfield War); Nancy Larson scripted, and Jenny Bowen directed. What appears to be a very careful and conscientious adaptation is enhanced by location shooting and able performances (John Randolph is especially good as the grandfather, and Haas certainly holds his own as the lead), but the overall focusan alienated, morbid, and bookish boy gradually comes to accept and cherish the humanity of those around himnever strays very far from the obvious. When the film tries for something more, in the deranged character of Duffy (Dylan Baker), the overall American Playhouse ambience proves to be more of a hindrance. Bowen’s direction is thoughtful and often affecting, but it never digs very deeply, and there are moments when one can almost see the chalk marks in the calculated staging. With Lea Thompson. (JR)… Read more »

Uncommon Senses

Jon Jost’s 1988 essay film, also known as Plain Talk & Common Sense, is in effect his state-of-the-union address, shot largely during a drive across the country and back, and articulated through an impressive variety of means. Overall the message is pessimistic but honestly and meticulously arrived at, and the Whitman-esque rhetoric of America’s multiplicity is both used and critiqued in a highly original fashion. This sequel of sorts to Jost’s ground-breaking Speaking Directly lives up to its predecessor as a multifaceted self-portrait and as a highly nuanced political statement. Even if you don’t agree with what Jost has to say about the U.S. in the 80s, there’s a lot to chew on; the film offers a veritable workshop of ideas about filmmaking as well as precise applications of these ideas. (JR)… Read more »

This Is The Night

Cary Grant’s feature film debut was in this urbane sex comedy of 1932 set in Paris and Venice. Scripted by George Marion Jr. and Benjamin Glazer from two or more plays of the period, the film benefits from its racy precode dialogue (I’m just a young girl living by her hips) and costumes, and the sets are attractively lush. Unfortunately, director Frank Tuttle was no Ernst Lubitsch or Rouben Mamoulian (who were making similar films at the same studio, Paramount, around the same time), and although the movie has its period charms, a unifying style that might make it something more is missing. Still, the playful use of incidental music is appealing, as is the cast, which includes Lily Damita, Charles Ruggles, Roland Young, and Thelma Todd. (JR)… Read more »

My Sister Eileen

A pretty good 1955 musical remake of the 1942 hit based on Ruth McKenney’s stories of bohemian life in Greenwich village. Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett are the Ohio sisters trying to make their way in the big city, and Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse (who also choreographed) are among their suitors. Richard Quine, the underrated director, had appeared as an actor in the original film; Blake Edwards contributed to the screenplay. One of the few decent musicals to have emerged from Columbia Pictures during the 50s. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »