Monthly Archives: November 1988

A Christmas Commodity: SCROOGED

From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 1988). — J.R.

SCROOGED

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Richard Donner

Written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue

With Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, and Alfre Woodard.

It must have been in the late 50s or early 60s when, as a teenager, I happened across a story in a movie fan magazine, probably Photoplay, about the pop/movie star Fabian. Fabian, the magazine explained, was getting so popular that he couldn’t go out on a date without being besieged by reporters and photographers. Recently, however, he’d eluded them and been able to take out a lovely lady; the magazine was celebrating the event — I swear I’m not making this up — with a two-page spread of photos and captions that chronicled the evening from beginning to end, from the moment he called on his date to the good-night kiss on her doorstep. “An intimate look,” I think they called it.

A comparable game for the gullible is performed by Scrooged, which attempts to obfuscate its own apparatus as thoroughly as that magazine did 20-odd years ago. I know we’re all supposed to be more knowledgeable and therefore more cynical about the media today.… Read more »

Full Moon Over Blue Water

Set mainly in and around a lakeside establishment called the Blue Water Grill in Texas, this is a small film, but within its own terms a delightful and virtually perfect one. The characters–the dreamy grill owner (Gene Hackman), who compulsively watches home movies of his long-vanished wife; his grumpy yet serene father-in-law (Burgess Meredith); a slightly retarded handyman (Elias Kotias); and a bus driver (Teri Garr) who has her sights set on the grill owner–all seem to come out of Erskine Caldwell and Tennessee Williams, but Bill Bozzone’s capable script, Peter Masterson’s deft direction, and Fred Murphy’s handsome photography all show them off to best advantage, and the movie’s playlike story moves effortlessly. Funny and appealing, this is the kind of quiet and assured Hollywood movie that used to be more common in the 50s; the local flavor is caught perfectly, and every member of the cast shines. (Deerbrook, Ridge, Golf Glen, McClurg Court, Oakbrook, Plaza)… Read more »

The Land Before Time

Ironically, it is this Spielberg-Lucas collaboration–directed by Don Bluth, and scripted by Stu Krieger, Judy Freudberg, and Tony Geiss–not the Disney studio’s new Oliver & Company, that comes closest to reviving the classic character animation of Disney in its heyday. In this case, what we get is a kind of dinosaur Bambi featuring an all-prehistoric cast. It’s a tale about growing up as well as an adventure about a trek for survival. Reportedly, Spielberg found the original version of this too scary and violent, requiring expensive changes, and it must be admitted that some of the action sequences feel abbreviated–but the overall handling of landscape and character is well done, and some of the old Disney mysticism about parental and ancestral roots manages to shine through. Not a masterpiece, but a nicely crafted piece of animation. (Biograph, Chicago Ridge, Edens, Nortown, Orland Square, Ridge, Water Tower, Woodfield, Ford City East, Yorktown, Hillside Square, Norridge)… Read more »

Liberals Kick Ass [THEY LIVE]

This appeared in the November 18, 1988 Chicago Reader. I’d probably rank this film higher now. — J.R.

THEY LIVE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by “Frank Armitage” (John Carpenter)

With Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, and Raymond St. Jacques.

John Carpenter has managed to remain one of the few genuinely personal writer-directors left in genre moviemaking, having returned to relatively low-budget features with last year’s Prince of Darkness after the debacle of Big Trouble in Little China. From his clean ‘Scope compositions to his throbbing minimalist scores, he projects a simplicity of conception and a usually deft approach to story telling and straight-ahead action that are both refreshing and reassuring in an era of filmmaking when these modest virtues can no longer be taken for granted. As a disciple of Howard Hawks, he might even be said to preserve a scaled-down version of some of the familiar Hawks trademarks: cranky individualist heroes, flaky male/female relationships, camaraderie among professionals, confined spaces, and usually clear lines of demarcation between friends and foes.

All of these qualities are present to some degree in They Live, a paranoid science-fiction thriller about alien invaders loosely based on a short story by Ray Nelson.… Read more »

Commissar

Perhaps the most striking instance of a suppressed Soviet film thawed out by glasnost, this 1967 first feature by Aleksandr Askoldov was apparently controversial only because it expresses overt sympathy for the Jews who were persecuted during the Russian civil war, and because the lead character is a pregnant woman whose combined characteristics challenged traditional stereotypes. As a first feature, the film is in many respects remarkable, if not an unqualified success. The black-and-white ‘Scope images are often clearly influenced by the silent Soviet masters, and the uses of subjective camera are especially striking; but the film’s effectiveness as narrative only works intermittently. Still, for anyone with an interest in the subject and in the Soviet cinema, this shouldn’t be missed. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, November 18 and 19, 6:45 and 9:00; Sunday, November 20, 5:00 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, November 21 through 24, 6:45 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

The Year My Voice Broke

An Australian memory piece written and directed by John Duigan, set in New South Wales in 1962. Danny (Noah Taylor), a teenager, has an obsessive crush on Freya (Loene Carmen), an older childhood friend, and when she starts to become romantically involved with Trevor (Ben Mendlesohn), his loyalty is put to the test. Although most of this is rather familiar stuff, even in a small-town Australian setting, the treatment is sufficiently sincere and nuanced to give it a touch of poignancy; the overall modesty and sweetness of the performances help. Note: This film sneaked in last week before we had a chance to recommend it, and will be gone after these last screenings. (Fine Arts, matinees, Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12)… Read more »

Hoxsey: How Healing Becomes a Crime

A fascinating documentary by Ken Ausubel that starts off as provocative muckraking and winds up as an informative and thoughtful essay. The muckraking concerns former coal miner Harry Hoxsey and his virtually lifelong battle with the American Medical Association about his apparently effective folk remedies for cancer. The AMA and the U.S. government essentially outlawed Hoxsey’s practice in the U.S., but his remedies are still used today in a clinic in Tijuana. The essay, more historical in nature, concerns the ongoing battle between the “established” medical profession as we know it today and the alternative practices of folk medicine. Along the way are some fascinating glimpses into the profitable aspects for doctors of conventional cancer treatment and the ambiguities about Hoxsey’s controversial and still scientifically untested methods (Hoxsey himself ultimately died of cancer). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12, 8:00; Sunday, November 13, 1:00, 2:30, and 4:00; and Monday through Thursday, November 14 through 17, 6:00 and 8:00; 281-8788).… Read more »

Hotel Terminus

Running close to five hours with an intermission, Marcel Ophuls’s fascinating portrait of the Nazi “Butcher of Lyons,” who later went onto work for the U.S. Counterintelligence Corps and pursue a career as a drug and information trafficker in Bolivia, is a worthy successor to Ophuls’s earlier The Sorrow and the Pity. While the format is basically talking-heads interviews with acquaintances and victims of Barbie (as well as other specialists), arranged in order to give a lucid chronological account of his career, Ophuls manages to treat his subject with a great deal of intelligence and irony–households with Christmas decor are plentiful among the settings–and only occasionally does he overplay his intermittent bent toward whimsy (e.g., looking under cabbages for a subject who doesn’t want to be interviewed). Nearly a hundred people are interviewed in the film, but the film represents only about a 14th of what Ophuls shot, and there is little sense of excess in the running time. This isn’t a work of art in the sense that Shoah is, but it is investigative journalism at its best, solid and penetrating. (Starts Saturday, November 12, Fine Arts, Old Orchard)… Read more »

Onion City Film Festival

Now that Chicago Filmmakers is mainly neglecting new experimental work in favor of documentaries and other Chicago venues are dealing with this area of cinema only intermittently, occasions to keep abreast of the latest developments in this branch of film art are becoming fewer and fewer. All the more reason to be grateful that the Experimental Film Coalition has been screening all of the film entries of the Onion City Film Festival at a private loft since last week and will be showing the festival winners along with other selections at the Film Center on Monday night. It’s worth noting that the nine films I previewed from the entries were mainly selected at random, but the overall level of originality and accomplishment is unusually high. Although Mike Hoolboom’s Grid is rather slight, there isn’t a stinker in the bunch; and the superiority on every level–intelligence, freshness, craft, watchability–of the films I saw to about 80 percent of the recent commercial releases makes the neglect of this kind of movie in relation to genre atrocities like Pumpkinhead doubly unjust. The animated Machine Song (Chel White) and Bar Yohai (Robert Asher), and the evocative nonnarrative What’s Left Is Wind (Leighton Pierce)–all showing on Saturday–are strikingly fresh.… Read more »

Lies of the Mind [TALKING TO STRANGERS]

From the November 4, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader. This piece is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies.

The absence of Rob Tregenza’s three features — Talking to Strangers, The Arc, and Inside/Out– on DVD continues to be a major cultural gap, although he says that does have plans to release them all when he can. (Regarding Inside/Out, here are two more links.) And there’s a fourth feature that he shot late last summer in Norway, called Gavagai, that I hope we’ll get to see soon.  — J.R.

TALKING TO STRANGERS

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Rob Tregenza

With Ken Gruz, Marvin Hunter, Dennis Jordan, Caron Tate, Henry Strozier, Richard Foster, Linda Chambers, and Sarah Rush.

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. . . . All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things.Read more »

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Todd Haynes’s 1985 short with Barbie dolls created something of a cult for its black-comedy treatment of anorexia nervosa, the 70s, and popular interest in the Carpenters. The film is certainly memorable, although for best ironic use of the Carpenters’ hit (They Long to Be) Close to You, Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid comes a close second. 43 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Summer Story

This adaptation by Penelope Mortimer of a John Galsworthy story has pretty country landscapes and a pretty heroine (Imogen Stubbs), but not much else. The story of a young, well-to-do barrister (James Wilby, in a part that’s much less sympathetic than it’s supposed to be) becoming involved with a country lass in 1922 is endlessly protracted, and neither Piers Haggard’s direction nor Georges Delerue’s portentous score (incongruously supplemented by a pop tune over the end credits) can do very much with the slender and mainly trite material. With Ken Colley, Sophie Ward, and Susannah York, the last regrettably wasted in an uninteresting part as the heroine’s aunt. (JR)… Read more »

Spike Of Bensonhurst

Chock-full of crude ethnic stereotypes and Italian pop songs on the sound track, Paul Morrissey’s semicomedy has as much affectionate contempt for people as most of his other movies, but not nearly as much wit. Sasha Mitchell, Morrissey’s sullen Joe Dallesandro replacement, stars as the eponymous lead, a young prizefighter who gets into trouble by romancing the daughter (Maria Pitillo) of a Mafia boss (Ernest Borgnine), leading to loads of complications. Talisa Soto is very appealing as a Puerto Rican woman the hero also gets involved with, and Sylvia Miles does a bit as a Jewish congresswoman. Alan Bowne collaborated with Morrissey on the script, but this is a far cry from this team’s Forty Deuce, much less Mixed Blood. (JR)… Read more »

Show People

A silent King Vidor comedy (1928, 82 min.) about a naive young actress (Marion Davies) who makes it in Hollywood. Most of the interest here is the generous number of cameos by stars of the period (Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, and Mae Murray, among others), and the overall behind-the-scenes glimpses of moviemaking are often fresh and entertaining. (JR)… Read more »

Ship Of Fools

As glib as Stanley Kramer often is, there is probably nothing glibber in his entire output than this Abby Mann adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about passengers on a German ocean liner in 1933. The cast, howeverwhich includes Oskar Werner, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer, George Segal, Elizabeth Ashley, Jose Greco, and Michael Dunnis invited to act up a storm, which intermittently gives this self-congratulatory black-and-white allegory (1965) whatever distinction it has. (JR)… Read more »