Monthly Archives: December 1988

Performance Art [TORCH SONG TRILOGY & TALK RADIO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1988). — J.R.

TORCH SONG TRILOGY

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Paul Bogart

Written by Harvey Fierstein

With Harvey Fierstein, Anne Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, Brian Kerwin, Karen Young, Ken Page, and Eddie Castrodad.

TALK RADIO

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Eric Bogosian and Stone

With Bogosian, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, and John Pankow.

As different as they are, Torch Song Trilogy and Talk Radio, both movie adaptations of plays, have several striking things in common. Each was written by and stars the author of the original play — Harvey Fierstein and Eric Bogosian, respectively. Both deal with marginal aspects of American life that seldom find their way into the commercial mainstream, which makes them new and vital in ways that most other recent releases are not. Both are effectively (if not literally) one-man shows whose auteurs are more their Jewish writer-stars than their directors, and the impact of each is directly tied to the uncommon theatrical skills of these individuals. And perhaps most significantly, both are a good deal more professional, entertaining, intense, and compelling than any other new Hollywood releases around, even if their commercial fates are substantially more precarious than those of most of their competitors.… Read more »

A Year at the Movies [1988]

From the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1988). — J.R.

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The Puttnam Problem

Some of the year’s most ominous film-industry developments followed directly from the forced departure of David Puttnam as head of Columbia Pictures. During his brief and controversial tenure at Columbia, Puttnam — the outspoken Englishman who produced Chariots of Fire and other “quality” films — had attempted to reverse the overall trend in Hollywood of assigning more power and artistic control to stars and less to directors and writers by developing low-budget projects that weren’t completely subject to the whims of stars and their agents.

After Puttnam’s departure, the desire to discredit his strategies at Columbia was so pronounced that most of his projects were deliberately sabotaged through a flagrant lack of promotion — demonstrating once again that the major aims of Hollywood are often not so much the making of money as the fulfillment of various personal forms of vanity. (Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is a good example of the sort of serious Puttnam project that was virtually foredoomed at the box office by the pressure of anti-Puttnam sentiments.) Adding insult to injury, a series of anti-Puttnam articles appeared in the trade magazine Variety, which attempted to appease Puttnam’s enemies by demonstrating that his films were commercially unsuccessful, conveniently overlooking the fact that very few of them were given even a sporting chance to succeed.… Read more »

Little Dorrit

Conceivably the best and most serious Dickens adaptation ever filmed, Christine Edzard’s two-part, six-hour English movie tells the story as the novel does, from two consecutive points of view. Perhaps the greatest strength of the picture is its remarkably dense rendering of 19th-century England; no single art director or production designer is credited, but the use of sets is especially fine. Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, and Sarah Pickering in the title role head a uniformly distinguished cast. This is a far cry from the polished competence of Masterpiece Theatre; Edzard’s Dickensian universe is one that sweats as well as breathes. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

A Perversion of the Past [MISSISSIPPI BURNING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 16, 1988). — J.R.

MISSISSIPPI BURNING

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Alan Parker

Written by Chris Gerolmo

With Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Gailard Sartain.

This whole country is full of lies. — Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”

The time in my youth when I was most physically afraid was a period of six weeks, during the summer of 1961, when I was 18. I was attending an interracial, coed camp at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee — the place where the Montgomery bus boycott, the proper beginning of the civil rights movement, was planned by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in the mid-50s. As a white native of Alabama, I had never before experienced the everyday dangers faced by southern blacks, much less those faced by activists who participated in Freedom Rides and similar demonstrations. But that summer, my coed camp was beset by people armed with rocks and guns.

I believe that we were the first group of people who ever sang an old hymn called “We Shall Overcome” as a civil rights anthem, thanks to the efforts of the camp’s musical director, Guy Carawan. But the songs, powerful as they were, weren’t the main thing that kept us together; it was the fear of dying.… Read more »

Anything for a Laugh [THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1988). — J.R.

THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by David Zucker

Written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft.

With Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, O.J. Simpson, and Nancy Marchand.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I find the latest comedy by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the ZAZ team) a notch below their previous Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984). This shouldn’t matter much to anyone looking for an irreverent, anything-goes farce with a fair number of laughs; The Naked Gun is certainly that, and I don’t intend for the following to scare anyone away from it. But I do want to consider what’s been happening to the ZAZ team’s distinctive brand of satire over the past eight years.

All three ZAZ movies use as their point of departure the crystallized form of some bad formula movie. The lead characters wear deadpan expressions through their cliche roles, and the laughs derive largely from non sequiturs in their dialogue and from lunatic gags that surround them as they trudge through their routine plots, impervious to the silliness.

Airplane! stuck to this pattern pretty consistently, lampooning the disaster blockbusters of the 70s like Earthquake, the Airport sequels, and The Towering Inferno.… Read more »

The Sound of German

From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 1988); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

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THE DEATH OF EMPEDOCLES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

With Andreas von Rauch, Howard Vernon, William Berger, Vladimir Baratta, Martina Baratta, and Ute Cremer.

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Three pretentious but relevant quotes: “Aesthetics are the ethics of the future” (Lenin). “To make a revolution also means to put back into place things that are very ancient but forgotten” (Charles Peguy). “When the Green of the Earth Will Shine Freshly for You” (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s subtitle for The Death of Empedocles).

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For spectators who don’t know what to do with their films, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet offer a rigorous program that’s all work and no play — a grueling process of wrestling with intractable texts, often in languages that one doesn’t understand, without the interest provided by easy-to-read characters or compelling plots. But in fact every one of Straub-Huillet’s 15 films to date (10 features and 5 shorts) offers an arena of play as well as work, and opportunities for sensual enjoyment as well as analytical reflection. To find this arena of play and pleasure, one has to go beyond what we usually associate with the enjoyment of culture–beyond parameters that are usually limited by mutually exclusive notions of “art,” “entertainment,” “education,” and “scholarship,” notions that generally make us smile or groan in advance, regardless of what is placed in front of us.… Read more »

Ground Zero

This provocative, grim Australian adventure thriller, attractively shot in ‘Scope–written by Mac Gudgeon and Jan Sardi, and directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles–concerns the atomic bomb tests conducted by the British government on the Australian mainland between 1953 and 1964, and their disquieting aftereffects. A professional cameraman (Colin Friels) discovers that the death of his cameraman father in 1953 was not accidental, as he supposed, and most of the film focuses on his quest for the telltale footage shot by his father that led to his murder. Charges that thousands of aborigines died because of the tests, the unearthing of a radioactive World War II jet bomber, and the theft of home movies from the hero’s flat all become part of the disturbing mystery, much of it based on fact. With Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, and Natalie Bate. (Hillside Mall)… Read more »

Falkenau, the Impossible: Samuel Fuller Bears Witness

From the Chicago¬† Reader (December 2, 1988). — J.R.

Falkenau the Impossible

The very first film ever shot by the great American director Samuel Fuller was an amateur effort: as a U.S. army officer he filmed the liberation of a Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia. French filmmaker Emil Weiss had the excellent idea of reviving this footage, getting Fuller to comment on it, and showing us various relevant locations in Europe today. Fuller’s commanding presence — as a speaker, thinker, and moral conscience — makes this an unforgettable and indelible experience. On the same program with this new short feature is a 1944 Nazi film I haven’t seen but that sounds like the most horrifying film ever made: Kurt Gerron’s The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. A fake documentary produced by the Third Reich as propaganda, the film fabricates an image of Jews living and working happily in a model city. In fact, the film was made by Jews — virtually or literally at gunpoint — and, after it was finished, the director and cast were exterminated in Auschwitz. Fuller’s statement in Falkenau stresses the necessity of remembering the truth of the death camps today, and of denouncing the lies and fabrications of earlier and more recent Nazi apologists, the most chilling evidence of which would seem to be offered in this propaganda feature.… Read more »

Hellbound: Hellraiser Ii

Even if you’ve seen its predecessor, the plot of this gory horror movie is so incoherent that it’s not worth trying to figure out. Indeed, apart from a few stylish, M.C. Escher-influenced touches in Mike Buchanan’s production design, the only possible appeal of this adaptation by Peter Atkins of a Clive Barker story, directed by newcomer Tony Randel, is to fans of torture, gratuitous four-letter words, and immoderate amounts of blood. With Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Kenneth Cranham, and Imogen Boorman. (JR)… Read more »

My Stepmother Is An Alien

Widower scientist Dan Aykroyd sends out radar signals to another galaxy, and alien Kim Basinger turns up to try to elicit more of the same. Written by many hands (Jerico and Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris, and Jonathan Reynolds), and directed by Richard Benjamin, this is an inordinately silly comedy that manages to be pretty likable if one can get past some of its harebrained premises (such as requiring Basinger to be simultaneously a member of a highly advanced civilization and a typical dumb blond). The movie pilfers from so many sources that it comes across as sub-Ron Howard as well as sub-Spielberg (Basinger essentially plays the Daryl Hannah part in Splash), but it’s interesting to discover that Basinger registers more effectively on-screen when exploited for her unreality, like Marilyn Monroe, than as a real person, as in Nadine. Alyson Hannigan plays Aykroyd’s 13-year-old daughter, and Jon Lovitz plays his brother. (JR)… Read more »

Little Dorrit

Conceivably the best and most serious Dickens adaptation ever filmed, Christine Edzard’s two-part, six-hour English movie tells the story as the novel does, from two separate points of view. Perhaps the greatest strength of the picture is its remarkably dense rendering of 19th-century England; no single art director or production designer is credited, but the use of sets is especially fine. Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, and Sarah Pickering in the title role head a uniformly distinguished cast. This is a far cry from the polished competence of Masterpiece Theatre; although Garry Wills has argued that this adaptation eliminates the novel’s revolutionary content, Edzard’s Dickensian universe is one that sweats as well as breathes. (JR)… Read more »

Law Of Desire

Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant treatment of gay life in post-Franco Madrid has a lot to recommend it, but little of this has to do with its contrived plot, which bears a queasy resemblance to the earlier Fatal Attraction and resorts to hackneyed devices such as amnesia. What keeps this 1987 movie alive are the characters: a porn director (Eusebio Poncela); his transsexual sister and onetime brother (the wonderful Carmen Maura), whom he casts as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s The Human Voice; a devout little girl (Manuela Velasco), whom the sister takes over from her lesbian ex-lover (Bibi Andersen) as her own; the director’s working-class lover (Miguel Molina); and the lover’s neurotic replacement (Antonio Banderas), who causes all the trouble. It’s typical of Almodovar’s wit that he casts a man as the little girl’s real mother and a woman as her false one. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

Keenen Ivory Wayans wrote, directed, and plays hero Jake Spade in this 1988 parody of blaxploitation movies. In many respects this is a black counterpart to The Naked Gun, and very nearly as funny; the bounty of antimacho gags is both unexpected and refreshing. With Bernie Casey, Antonio Fargas, Isaac Hayes, Dawnn Lewis, and John Vernon. R, 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

Robert Wiene’s groundbreaking 1919 silent, the most famous and influential work of the German expressionist cinema, involves a mad doctor (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist who does his bidding (Conrad Veidt). Aided and abetted by one of Carl Mayer’s best scripts and remarkable, distorted sets painted by Hermann Warm, Walter R… Read more »