Monthly Archives: January 1989

The Chocolate War

Best known for his work as an actor (he played the young Roy Scheider in All That Jazz and the lead in Home Movies), writer-director Keith Gordon makes his directorial debut in this odd, cold stylistic exercise set at a Catholic school and based on a novel of the same title by Robert Cormier. The plot involves the school’s drive to sell twice as many boxes of chocolates as it sold the previous year, and the intervention of a sadistic hazing club at the school known as the Vigils. Some reviewers have been bothered by the relative absence of characters’ backgrounds and motivations, but for Gordon’s arty purposes the stripped-down story and cast of characters are modeled to fit, and the insistent use of pop music on the sound track is equally effective. Thematically, the film recalls Calder Willingham’s End as a Man and the film version made of it (The Strange One, 1957); the presiding influence here seems to be Kubrick, and while the viewer may remain relatively uninvolved, the film’s address commands attention. With John Glover, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Wally Ward, Doug Hutchinson, Jenny Wright, and Bud Cort, all of them quite serviceable. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Simple Slimeballs [DANGEROUS LIAISONS]

From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1989). — J.R.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Christopher Hampton

With Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick, and Uma Thurman.

Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, first published more than 200 years ago, is one of the greatest novels ever written, but one would never guess it from the watchable but shallow comedy-melodrama of manners that Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears have extracted from it. They’ve stuck fairly close to the general outlines of the original plot, but they’ve jettisoned the form entirely, so that what remains is a distortion as well as a simplification of what is conceivably the best French novel of the 18th century.

Admittedly, Roger Vadim’s updated French film adaptation of 30 years ago, set partially at a contemporary ski resort, was no less reductive, and a third film version presently being prepared by Milos Forman, Valmont, is unlikely to avoid similar problems. Laclos’ 1782 masterpiece is an epistolary novel consisting of 175 letters written by at least ten separate characters, preceded by a “Publisher’s Note” and an “Editor’s Preface” and accompanied by several “editorial” footnotes throughout — an intricate dialectical construction that offers us several independent and often contradictory versions of practically everything that happens, and more than one interpretation of what all the various events mean.… Read more »

Peking Opera Blues

Set in Hong Kong in 1914, Tsui Hark’s highly energetic and quickly paced comedy-thriller pits three women of different classes–a housemaid, the daughter of a warlord, and the daughter of the owner of the Peking Opera–against a group of powerful warlords. The three actresses are reportedly Hong Kong’s three most popular; the lighting and the nonstop pacing smack of Spielberg–for better and for worse. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, January 21, 2:00 and 7:45, and Sunday, January 22, 6:00, 443-3737; also Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Wednesday, January 25, 7:00, 702-8574)… Read more »

The January Man

The flair of screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) for old-fashioned, Hollywood-style characters and dialogue is put to the test in this enjoyable, ludicrous Manhattan cop thriller about tracking down a serial murderer. The situations are consistently cliche-ridden and outlandish, but somehow the stylish writing keeps things spinning. Kevin Kline is the antiestablishment former detective who’s reinstated to solve the case; Harvey Keitel is his establishment brother; Susan Sarandon plays Keitel’s wife and Kline’s former lover; Rod Steiger is the mayor; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is the mayor’s daughter; and Danny Aiello plays the police captain. Pat O’Connor’s direction doesn’t exactly minimize the cartoonish aspects of the plot and characters (Steiger, busting his gasket as usual, does a fair takeoff of Edward Koch), but keeps us amused as long as we don’t think too much about what were watching; Norman Jewison produced. (Burnham Plaza, Grove, Ridge, Water Tower, Woodfield, Deerbrook, Evanston, Evergreen, Hillside Square, Webster Place, Norridge)… 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) with the help of his mother and uncle, but his jealous and spiteful father contrives to prevent him from deciphering the 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 spare, hypnotic, percussive score. Conceivably the greatest African film ever made, sublimely mixing the matter-of-fact with the uncanny, 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. Winner of the jury prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 6, 7:30; Saturday, January 7, 4:00 and 7:30; and Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, January 8, 10, and 12, 6:00; 443-3737)… Read more »

Something Wicked This Way Comes

After all the free advertising Ray Bradbury had given Walt Disney over the years, the Disney studio finally returned the compliment in 1983 by letting him write his own adaptation of his fantasy novel and giving his script a polished, respectful treatment, including tasteful direction by Jack Clayton. The plot concerns a mysterious carnival outside a small town in the early 1900s that grants the wishes of the town’s citizens, with dark consequences. With Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, James Stacy, Pam Grier, and Royal Dano. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nanou

Imogen Stubbs plays a young English photographer vacationing on the continent who gets involved with a radical French activist (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey) in a small town in Lorraine. This first feature by Conny Templeman, produced by Simon Perry (Nineteen Eighty-Four), is an Anglo-French production, but for all practical purposes it is an English realist film with French dialogue and French and Swiss settings. It’s sensual and absorbing, although at times the ambiguities about the characters are a little more than the plot can withstand. Striking cameos are provided by Daniel Day-Lewis and Lou Castel, and the locations are used effectively. (JR)… Read more »

Husbands

Made soon after his first commercial success (Faces), this 1970 film is John Cassavetes’s most irritating, full of the male braggadocio and bluster that mar even some of his best work. But it’s impossible to dismiss or shake off entirely, and the performancesas is usually the case in his workare potent. Three middle-aged pals (Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk) take off for Europe when their best friend dies; they gamble, booze, womanize, and generally try to have a good time, eventually slouching back home to their spouses and children. The sadness of suburbanites trying to liberate themselves, already the subject of Faces, is given some further inflections here. With Jenny Runacre, Jenny Lee Wright, and Noelle Kao. 131 min. (JR)… Read more »

We The Living

An unauthorized Italian adaptation of Ayn Rand’s first novel made in Italy in 1942 without Rand’s knowledge, suppressed by the Mussolini governmentwhich considered it antifascist in spite of its anti-Soviet materialand reedited by Rand herself before her death. Based on Rand’s youth in 1920s Russia, the plot concerns a melodramatic triangle made up of a counterrevolutionary engineering student (The Third Man’s Alida Valli), a dispossessed aristocrat she falls in love with (Rossano Brazzi), and a loyal party member (Fosco Giacchetti) who befriends and falls in love with her. Directed by Goffredi Alessandrini, this 170-minute film (it was originally about an hour longer) remains engrossing throughout. Roughly speaking, it registers as an Italian Gone With the Wind, with postrevolutionary Russia taking the place of the postbellum south. Highly atmospheric and romantic, and rich with well-defined secondary characters, it manages to combine Rand’s distinctive brand of hero worship and anticommunism with a great deal of narrative fluidity, effective schmaltz, and showmanship. (JR)… Read more »

Vincent: The Life And Death Of Vincent Van Gogh

A 1987 feature from Paul Cox (Lonely Hearts, Man of Flowers), a Dutch filmmaker based in Australia, combining John Hurt’s offscreen readings of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo from 1872 until his suicide in 1890 with shots of his works and the places he lived in and painted, as well as occasional period re-creations of his milieu, using actors but no dialogue. (Most of the visuals are depicted from the artist’s viewpoint, and van Gogh himself is seen only through his self-portraits.) This is certainly more than an illustrated slide lecture, but often comes across as something less than a fully articulated filmalthough Cox’s reticence about certain matters (such as van Gogh’s celebrated severing of his ear) is arguably defensible. The film doesn’t ignore van Gogh’s bouts with madness, but its overall emphasis is on his sensibility as a conscious artist. It is to the film’s credit that a wide range of his work is shown, including many pieces that are not readily available, and that some of the letters are newly translated by Cox. On the other hand, the perennial problem of how to show paintings in a film is not wholly solved here: Cox’s conventional use of details and a panning camera has a somewhat touristic effect, and we’re seldom allowed to linger on any single work.… Read more »

Three Fugitives

Nick Nolte plays a bank robber in Tacoma who has just been paroled when he finds himself taken hostage by an inept amateur (Martin Short), desperate to raise money to care for his disturbed little girl (Sarah Rowland Doroff). These are the three fugitives in Francis Veber’s literal (apparently shot-by-shot) remake of his own French comedy Les fugitifs, which starred Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard. I haven’t seen the original, but nothing in this crude, mainly unfunny farce makes me want to. Short’s usually effective comic persona is lamentably milked here for Chaplinesque pathos, while Nolte looks like he’d rather be somewhere else (a sentiment easy to share); Doroff, on the other hand, is effectively nonsentimental in her mainly silent part, although the film manages to maul her talents as well. The gags veer from Three Stooges head knocking to dressing Short in women’s clothes; James Earl Jones, as Detective Dugan, starts out as an important character and then is absentmindedly forgotten; Alan Ruck and the late Ken McMillan also put in appearances. Haskell Wexler (of all people) is the cinematographer, and David McHugh provided the awful Muzak score. (JR)… Read more »

Project A

Jackie Chan directs a lavish comedy set at the turn of the century that involves pirates and the British navy (1983). Chan stars as a marine cadet who eventually quits his job to attack the pirates, and his frequent comic sidekick Samo Hung plays a criminal boss who helps him out. As usual, Chan performs many spectacular and death-defying stunts, one of which (screened under the film’s final credits) nearly finished him off. With Maggie Cheung. (JR)… Read more »

Peking Opera Blues

Set in Hong Kong in 1914, Tsui Hark’s highly energetic and quickly paced comedy-thriller (1987) pits three daughtersof a housemaid and the warlord owner of the Peking Operaagainst a group of powerful warlords. The lighting and nonstop pacing smack of Spielbergfor better and for worse. In Cantonese with subtitles. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Medea

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s disappointing 1970 version of the Greek tragedyshot in Syria, Turkey, and Italyoffers soprano Maria Callas in her only film role, playing the lead part but not singing it. Pasolini’s Marxist, Catholic, and pagan impulses infuse the film with some life, but it’s a step backward after Oedipus Rex (1967). It’s worth seeing nevertheless. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Hurrah

John Ford’s lifelong disaffection for Boston may have something to do with the peculiar detachment of his 1958 adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s novel about the final campaign of a political boss of the old school (Spencer Tracy). The results are recognizably Fordian, but not as energetic as his best work, despite the interesting secondary cast: Pat O’Brien, Jeffrey Hunter, Basil Rathbone, Edward Brophy, James Gleason, Dianne Foster, John Carradine, Ricardo Cortez, Frank McHugh, and Jane Darwell. 121 min. (JR)… Read more »