Monthly Archives: October 1988

Bird

From the Chicago Reader (October 28, 1988). — J.R.

Clint Eastwood’s ambitious and long-awaited biopic about the great Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker), running 161 minutes, is the most serious, conscientious, and accomplished jazz biopic ever made, and almost certainly Eastwood’s best picture as well. The script (which accounts for much of the movie’s distinction) is by Joel Oliansky, and the costars include Diane Venora as Chan Parker, Michael Zelniker as Red Rodney, and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie. Alto player Lennie Niehaus is in charge of the music score, which has electronically isolated Parker’s solos from his original recordings and substituted contemporary sidemen (including Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Walter Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, John Guerin, and others), mainly with acceptable results. The film is less sensitive than it might have been to Parker’s status as an avant-garde innovator and his brushes with racism, and one is only occasionally allowed to listen to his electrifying solos in their entirety, without interruptions or interference (as one was able to do more often with the music in Round Midnight), but the film’s grasp of the jazz world and Parker’s life is exemplary inmost other respects. The extreme darkness of the film, visually as well as conceptually, leaves a very haunting aftertaste.… Read more »

Bad Blood

The distinctive and unusual talents of French filmmaker Leos Carax have relatively little to do with story telling, and it would be a mistake to approach this, his second feature, with expectations of a “dazzling film noir thriller,” which is how it was described for the Chicago Film Festival last year. Dazzling it certainly is in spots, but the film noir, thriller, and SF trappings–hung around a vaguely paranoid plot about a couple of thieves (Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer) hiring the son (Denis Lavant) of a recently deceased partner to help steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus–are so feeble and perfunctory that they function at best only as a literal framing device, an artificial means for Carax to tighten his canvas. The real meat of this movie is his total absorption in his two wonderful lead actors, Lavant and Juliette Binoche (The Incredible Lightness of Being), which comes to fruition during a lengthy attempt at the seduction of the latter by the former, an extended nocturnal encounter that the various genre elements serve only to hold in place. The true sources of Carax’s style are neither Truffaut nor Godard but the silent cinema–its poetics of close-ups, gestures, and the mysteries of personality, its melancholy, its silence, and its innocence.… Read more »

Things Change

David Mamet’s second feature as a director, coscripted with Shel Silverstein, is a little bit of a letdown after House of Games, but as a Mafia fairy tale with a tour de force performance by Don Ameche (soft-pedaling all the way), it is certainly watchable and enjoyable enough in its own right. Over a weekend, a low-ranking Chicago mobster on probation (Joe Mantegna) is asked to coach and chaperone an elderly Sicilian shoe-shine man (Ameche) who, in exchange for money, has agreed to take the rap for a murder he didn’t commit. He decides to take the old man to Lake Tahoe for a final fling before he goes to prison, at which point a series of misunderstandings leads to the Sicilian being mistaken for a big-time Mafia chieftain. Basically a low-key comedy, this exhibits some of the same tart, triple-distilled flavor of Mamet’s dialogue in earlier efforts; what disappoints after the darker and harder edges of House of Games is a slight veering toward slickness and a touch of sentimentality. Despite some attempt to be “cinematic” here, Mamet’s talk is still his strongest suit. With Robert Prosky, J.J. Johnston, Ricky Jay, and Mike Nussbaum, all effective (as is Mantegna). (Chicago Ridge, Golf Mill, River Oaks, Woodfield, Yorktown, Evanston, Fine Arts, Hillside Square)… Read more »

Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair

If this country’s electorate cared more about honesty and truth, this film would be getting more attention in the media than the Bush-Dukakis debates. Unfortunately, stylish cover-up is the name of the game, and this straightforward account of how our country and Constitution are being sold down the river will only interest that portion of the populace that cares about one of the major international political scandals that the presidential campaign and the national media have been virtually ignoring, if not suppressing. Of course this is nothing new: enough of the Watergate story was already apparent before Nixon was reelected to have affected that election if the public had wanted to hear about it. Considerably more of the Iran-contra affair is apparent (including the Reagan-Bush administration’s heavy involvement in the hard-drugs trade) in this first-rate, compulsively watchable documentary–directed by Barbara Trent, scripted by Eve Goldberg, and narrated by Elizabeth Montgomery, with music by Ruben Blades, Richard Elliott, Pink Floyd, and Lou Reed. But from the looks of things, the American public won’t be interested until it’s too late to make a difference. Spectators who feel differently are urged to take a look at this, and to bring their friends. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W.… Read more »

Cinema Sprawl

The 24th Chicago International Film Festival, running from Monday, October 24, through Sunday, November 6, promises fewer programs this year — a little less than 100 versus last year’s 131 — with a good many more repeats; and the screenings occupy a much wider geographic spread, with films showing on the University of Chicago campus and at the Three Penny as well as at the two standbys from last year, the Biograph and the Music Box. Although some countries are unrepresented–including the People’s Republic of China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Korea, Mexico, and most of Africa and the Middle East–the overall international spread (or sprawl) is as far-flung as ever, including such unlikely coproductions as Rowing With the Wind (Spanish/Norwegian in English) and Consuelo, an Illusion (Chilean/Swedish). The festival is also broadening its plans for question-and-answer sessions with directors after their films; specifics will be announced at the relevant screenings.

Like last year’s selection, the films on offer, taken as an unwieldy whole, make up an indigestible hodgepodge, reflecting neither a critical position nor an all-purpose cornucopia. (A total absence of retrospectives — apart from an Alan Parker tribute, which is surely the last thing that we need — is especially striking and unfortunate.) But there are still clearly a number of things worth seeing.… Read more »

Bird Watching

BIRD

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Joel Oliansky

With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, and Damon Whitaker.

CELEBRATING BIRD

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons

Written by Gary Giddins.

Two telling documents that we have about Charlie Parker, both from the early 50s:

(1) During a live radio broadcast from Birdland on March 31, 1951, there’s an electrifying moment when Parker leaps into his solo on “A Night in Tunisia,” combining cascading machine-gun volleys of notes — wailing 16th notes and dovetailing triplets — into what sound like two successive melodic somersaults, each one in a separate direction, that miraculously turn the rhythm around with shifting accents — an awesome tumble in midair over four free bars until he triumphantly splashes into the next chorus.

To understand the genius of that moment — a fusion of passionate acrobatics and spontaneous formal patterning — it might help to detect the evidence of rage that one hears just before the number begins. Symphony Sid Torin, an obnoxiously loquacious disc jockey, has been blathering at length about “Round Midnight,” the previous number played by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, which he has repeatedly called “Round About Midnight.” He is recounting a long, self-serving anecdote about Billie Holiday when Gillespie plaintively bleats out, “Let me play my number!” Momentarily coming to his senses, Sid turns to Parker and says, “What we gonna do, Bird?… Read more »

The Accused

Something of a first, this is a serious movie about rape, and as such might be said to represent penance of a sort for the crude milking of antifeminist sentiments in the previous film of producers Sherry Lansing and Stanley R. Jaffe, Fatal Attraction. Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) is gang-raped in a bar, and Deputy District Attorney Katheryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) agrees to take over her case. A courtroom drama with certain faint echoes of Anatomy of a Murder and the more recent Nuts (the latter of which had the same screenwriter, Tom Topor), this attention-holder explores such issues as the public’s received ideas about rape and the question of ultimate responsibility without ever stacking the deck or being unduly preachy; and director Jonathan Kaplan, who previously gave an edge to Over the Edge, guides things along capably. Not a brilliant film, but an intelligent and thoughtful one that builds to an effective climax, with an exceptional performance by Foster. (Evergreen, Hillside Square, Webster Place, Old Orchard, Norridge, Hyde Park, Forest Park, Woodfield, Water Tower, River Oaks, Plaza, Orland Square, Ridge)… Read more »

Muddled Americans [TRACK 29]

From the Chicago Reader (October 14, 1988). — J.R.

TRACK 29

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Dennis Potter

With Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd, Colleen Camp, Sandra Bernhard, and Seymour Cassel.

As a rule, I tend to be favorably disposed toward non-American movie depictions of American life, at least as a source of fresh perspectives. If we accept the premise that the U.S. continues to function as a stimulus for fantasy projections all over the world, here as well as everywhere else, it stands to reason that European projections about America would at least have the virtues of relative distance and detachment. Consequently, movies as diverse as Bunuel’s The Young One, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Passer’s Born to Win, Demy’s The Model Shop, Wenders’s Hammett and Paris, Texas, and even — to cite two recent and contentious examples — Konchalovsky’s Shy People and Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe have things to tell us about this country that we would never learn from the likes of John Ford or Frank Capra. The truths of these movies may be more oblique and specialized (and harder to encapsulate) than those of our semiofficial laureates, but at least they give us some notion of how we look to outsiders.… Read more »

Liberals in Hiding [RUNNING ON EMPTY]

From the Chicago Reader (October 11, 1988). — J.R.

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RUNNING ON EMPTY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Naomi Foner

With Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Martha Plimpton, Jonas Abry, Ed Crowley, and Steven Hill.

It’s a truism that the distant past is easier to see clearly than the more recent past, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that current movie depictions of the 40s and 50s — Tucker, to name just one — tend to be more accurate, at least about the dreams and fantasies of those periods, than movies about the 60s and 70s. Paul Schrader’s recently departed Patty Hearst offers a salient case in point: it can only broach the early 70s through a sitcom or comic-book reduction of the way that radicals talk and think — a myopic 80s reading of the period that leaves a number of gaps in the picture. Schrader fills in some of these gaps by clever employments of style and attitude, the stock-in-trade of any current music video, but in the end one huge gap remains: Who was Patty Hearst? What was the Symbionese Liberation Army? Why should anyone be concerned with them? The attention-getting nowness of the film blots out any possibility for history or social observation; just as Schrader’s earlier Mishima seemed to have more to do with Las Vegas than with any reading of Japanese history or culture, his take here on 60s/70s radicalism seems mired exclusively in the preoccupations of the present.… Read more »

Track 29

Flawed but fascinating, Nicolas Roeg’s direction of an original script by Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective) yields a provocative and multilayered depiction of American infantilism. In a North Carolina town, Theresa Russell plays a bored, alcoholic, and frustrated housewife married to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers playing with his model railroad to dallying with her. Into the picture comes an enigmatic young English stranger (Sid and Nancy’s Gary Oldman) who may or may not be her long-lost son, who was forcibly taken from her at childbirth and who, like much else in the film, may or may not be real. Roeg and Potter’s grasp of Americana may be flawed in certain details, but the overall drift of their parable carries an undeniable charge. Russell’s southern accent only works intermittently, and it’s a pity to see actors as interesting as Sandra Bernhard and Seymour Cassel wasted (Colleen Camp fares somewhat better as Russell’s best friend), but Roeg’s talent as a stylist, purveyor of the bizarre and kinky, and poet of disturbed mental states (as experienced from within) keeps this alive and humming. If you’re looking for something different, this is definitely worth a visit. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Someone to Love

Henry Jaglom’s latest let-it-all-hang-out gabfest, this one set in a beautiful, about-to-be-destroyed Los Angeles theater, where Jaglom invites his friends on Valentine’s Day. It certainly has its moments–most of them provided by Orson Welles (in one of his last extended film performances), his vivacious long-time companion Oja Kodar, and the venerable Sally Kellerman–but most of this largely improvised movie, as critic Elliott Stein has pointed out, is pretty much the equivalent of the Donahue show, with all the strengths and limitations that this implies, and Jaglom’s own earnest inquiries about what makes so many people lonely can get a bit cloying after awhile. However, Welles, as the equivalent of a talk-show guest, is very much in his prime, and his ruminations about feminism, loneliness, drama, and related subjects certainly give the proceedings an edge and a direction that most of the remainder of this floundering movie sadly lacks. Among the other participants in this encounter session are Jaglom’s brother Michael Emil, Andrea Marcovicci, Ronee Blakley, and Monte Hellman. A Chicago premiere (1987). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday through Sunday, October 7 through 9, 6:00 and 8:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Wellesian: Quixote in a Trashcan [New York University Welles Conference]

From the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

“I earn a good living and get a lot of work because of this ridiculous myth about me,” Orson Welles told Kenneth Tynan in the mid-60s. “But the price of it is that when I try to do something serious, something I care about, a great many critics don’t review that particular work, but me in general. They write their standard Welles piece. It’s either the good piece or the bad piece, but they’re both fairly standard.”

Standard Welles pieces were for once not the main bill of fare at a major Welles; retrospective and conference held last May at New York University and the Public Theater. A welcome amount of concrete research into Welles’ work in radio, theatre and film was aired, along with the obligatory theoretical exercises. Sidebars included an extensive exhibition of Welles’s radio shows and materials documenting stage productions, and an effectively staged reading of Moby Dick — Rehearsed, a prime instance of how Wellesian magic could be conjured out of suggestively minimal sounds and images.

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In his keynote address, James Naremore offered some fascinating glimpses into the Welles archive in Bloomington, Indiana. The original version of THE STRANGER was half an hour longer, with a flashback structure, a surreal early scene set on a dog-training farm in Argentina and a nightmarish dream sequence.

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Seven Women/seven Sins

On the whole, a disappointing episodic feature of seven shorts by women filmmakers, commissioned by German television. Perhaps the best parts are Ulrike Ottinger’s Pride with Delphine Seyrig and Chantal Akerman’s appropriately unassuming (though slight) Sloth. Maxi Cohen’s Anger is certainly striking and provocative, but also highly questionable and exploitative; Laurence Gavron’s Envy, Valie Export’s Voluptuousness, and Helke Sander’s Gluttony are relatively forgettable; and the worst of the lot, alas, is Bette Gordon’s feeble Greed. Certainly this is worth seeing if you want to keep up with the work of these filmmakers, but don’t go expecting any major revelations. (JR)… Read more »

What Maisie Knew

The first feature of Babette Mangolte, an American-based experimental filmmaker also known for her remarkable work as a cinematographer for Chantal Akerman, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Marcel Hanoun, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, and others. This 1975 film is not a literal adaptation of Henry James’s novel, but it incorporates the idea of a little girl’s subjective view of the adult world in a relatively nonnarrative framework: a low-angle look at the sexual intrigues and other preoccupations of grown-ups in a country house, seen by a spectator who is virtually invisible herself. By implication, the viewer is invited to make his or her own imaginative contributions to this subjectivity. (JR)… Read more »

The Trial Of Joan Of Arc

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) is perhaps the most extreme instance of Robert Bresson’s dedramatizing technique, exercised here in a rigorous treatment of its subject that couldn’t be further from Dreyer’s handling of the same subject. It’s been more than a quarter of a century since I’ve seen this spare, elliptical work, so it would be unfair to make a judgment, but as one of the most infrequently screened works of one of the greatest living filmmakers, I’m sure it warrants a look. (JR)… Read more »