Jean-Luc Godard’s zany, English-speaking quasi adaptation of the Shakespeare play has the most complex and densely layered use of Dolby sound in movies, and this screening offers one the first chance in Chicago to hear it properly. The “itinerary” of the film–one can’t quite consider it a plot — involves a post-Chernobyl view of culture in general and Shakespeare’s play in particular. Among the performers, mainly used by Godard as a painter might use colors, are stage director Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald (as Cordelia), Burgess Meredith (as Lear), a semiincoherent Godard (as someone called Professor Pluggy), and, in smaller parts, Norman Mailer, his daughter Kate Miller, film director Leos Carax, and Woody Allen. The film certainly qualifies as a perverse provocation on more levels than one, but one of these levels — believe it or not — is Shakespeare. It may drive you nuts, but it is probably the most inventive and original Godard film since Passion. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, March 31, 6:00 and 7:45, 443-3737)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: March 1989
Subtitled A Rustbowl Fantasy, this very agreeable and funny low-budget documentary by Tony Buba, set in a steel-mill town just outside Pittsburgh, follows the decline of the area as the mills shut down, as well as Buba’s own 15-year activity as a local independent filmmaker. Concerned with union organizing, his temperamental and eccentric star “Sweet Sal” Carullo, his dwindling finances, and his own soul, Buba has a lot of interesting things to say and show, and this witty and intelligent portrait of him and his community has charm to spare. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 18, 4:00 and 7:45, 443-3737) … Read more »
David Lean’s 70-millimeter spectacle about T.E. Lawrence’s military career between 1916 and 1918, written by Robert Bolt and produced by Sam Spiegel and released in 1962, remains one of the most intelligent and handsome of all war epics. It is also one of the most influential–films as diverse as Patton and Apocalypse Now, and even The Green Berets, Star Wars, and Dune, have all borrowed liberally from it. And as one of the first “thoughtful” blockbusters built around ambiguity, it also helped pave the way for such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Combining the scenic splendor of a De Mille epic (enhanced by Freddie Young’s remarkable desert photography) with virtues of the English theater–including literate, epigrammatic dialogue and superb performances–Lean endeared himself to English professors and action buffs alike, and the film won seven Oscars, including best picture and direction. What seems apparent more than a quarter of a century later, however, is that the ideological crassness of De Mille and most war epics is not so much transcended here as given a high gloss: the theme is still basically the White Man’s Burden–despite all the ironic notations on the subject–with Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif called upon to represent the Arab soul, and Jose Ferrer embodying the savage Turks.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 10, 1989). It’s sad to hear that the great and irreplaceable Jackie Burroughs passed away on September 22, 2010. — J.R.
A WINTER TAN
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker, and Aerlyn Weissman
Written by Burroughs
With Burroughs, Erando Gonzales, Javier Torres, and Diana d’Aquila.
A Winter Tan is startling because it mainly succeeds in its aims though they’re based on at least three dubious premises. The first is that a volume of letters can be adapted into a plausible dramatic film. The second is that the letters in question — an American woman’s descriptions of her sexual adventures in Mexico, written before she was murdered, probably as a result of a sexual escapade — can be seen as exhilarating and life-enhancing instead of just depressing. And the third dubious premise is that a film made collectively by five directors can come across with a singular voice and style, a consistent meaning and purpose.
I haven’t read Maryse Holder’s book Give Sorrow Words, which was published posthumously some years ago, first by Grove Press in hardcover and then by Avon in paperback, and is currently out of print in both editions.… Read more »
The most intricately and cleverly plotted of all the recent body-exchange and/or heaven movies, written by the sisters Perry and Randy Howze (Maid to Order, Mystic Pizza), and directed by Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing). I don’t want to give away too much of the story, which invites the spectator to flirt with the idea of at least two kinds of incest, but suffice it to say that the setup involves a happily married young lawyer (Christopher McDonald) who dies and is then reincarnated (as Robert Downey Jr.), and becomes involved with his former family. Because the presiding angel neglected to zap out his memory, he develops an advanced case of deja vu when he encounters his former wife (Cybill Shepherd) and best friend (Ryan O’Neal), while his 22-year-old daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) poses still other complications. Despite the sudsy, overlit look of William A. Fraker’s cinematography and Downey’s varying success with sight gags, this is still a lot of fun. An additional kicker is added by the picture’s crazed doublethink morality, which implies that incest is OK as long as you’ve got amnesia. (Harlem-Cermak, Burnham Plaza, Chicago Ridge, Golf Mill, Orland Square, Water Tower, Woodfield, Hillside Square, Norridge, Webster Place, Old Orchard)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 1989). — J.R.
NEW YORK STORIES
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Richard Prince
With Nick Nolte, Rosanna Arquette, and Patrick O’Neal.
“Life Without Zoe”
Directed by Francis Coppola
Written by Francis Coppola and Sofia Coppola
With Heather McComb, Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini, Don Novello, and Selim Tlili.
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Woody Allen, Mae Questel, Mia Farrow, and Julie Kavner.
With the exception of the recent and disappointing Aria, there have been no films made of late that consist of thematically related sketches, compilations of episodes by one director or more. New York Stories may help make the form fashionable again. The arbitrariness of the standard running time of features, at least from an artistic standpoint, makes a good many movies needlessly padded and a few others shorter than they should be, while the difficulty in marketing shorts discourages most commercially established filmmakers from even attempting to work in the form. New York Stories came about because Woody Allen wanted to make a short and decided that incorporating it within an anthology would make it commercially feasible.
The usual argument made against sketch movies is that they’re invariably uneven — which is true enough but also rather beside the point.… Read more »
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival, Zhang Yimou’s 1987 feature from the People’s Republic of China mixes local history and legend. It follows the adventures of a young bride who is sold by her father to an elderly and wealthy leper, then is carried off by a chair bearer posing as a highwayman, and eventually becomes the head of a sorghum-wine distillery. This is the first feature directed by the cinematographer of Yellow Earth and The Big Parade, and its main virtues are visual — handsome ‘Scope compositions of landscapes and sorghum waving in the wind, and a deft use of color filters. Narrated offscreen by the heroine’s grandson, the plot is set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and ends with the Japanese invasion of the area. While the action is often intriguing — lyrical in the early sections, whimsical toward the middle, and bloody and suspenseful toward the end — the overall narrative gets broken up quite a bit by the episodic structure, and the film registers mainly as detachable set pieces. (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.
James Benning’s 1988 feature, a substantial letdown after his Landscape Suicide, charts the filmmaker’s involvement with Lawrencia Bembenek, a former Milwaukee policewoman who, despite her persistent claims of innocenc, was convicted of killing her husband’s first wife in the early 80s. (Her case led to articles in Cosmopolitan and People, in part because of her achievements in prison reform while serving a life term.) Although several commentators have compared this film to The Thin Blue Line, there are many crucial differences: Benning’s friendship with his subject, a more extensive use of actors, and Benning’s background as an experimental filmmaker who generally uses narrative only in a skeletal and simplified form. (Bembenek’s own voice — like Benning’s — is used throughout, but an actress plays her on-screen.) Perhaps the principal problem lies in Benning’s failure to set down all the relevant facts of the case in an easily digestible form; he chooses, rather, to introduce them out of chronological sequence. In addition, his own semi-maudlin confessional letters, which are read offscreen (along with Bembenek’s terser ones), keep clouding the various issues raised. As in Benning’s earlier and better films, long takes that focus on midwestern landscapes are often employed, but without the sense of mystery and provocation that they usually have.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1989). — J.R.
Intricately and cleverly plotted body-exchange movie, written by the sisters Perry and Randy Howze (Maid to Order, Mystic Pizza), and directed by Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing). I don’t want to give away too much of the story, which invites the spectator to flirt with the idea of at least two kinds of incest, but suffice it to say that the setup involves a happily married young lawyer (Christopher McDonald) who dies and is then reincarnated (as Robert Downey Jr.), and becomes involved with his former family. Because the presiding angel neglected to zap out his memory, he develops an advanced case of deja vu when he encounters his former wife (Cybill Shepherd) and best friend (Ryan O’Neal), while his 22-year-old daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) poses still other complications. Despite the sudsy, overlit look of William A. Fraker’s cinematography and Downey’s varying success with sight gags, this is still a lot of fun. An additional kicker is provided by the picture’s crazed doublethink morality, which implies that incest is OK as long as you’ve got amnesia. (JR)
Tama Janowitz adapts her own collection of stories in James Ivory’s mainly studio-shot movie (1989) about the downtown art scene in Manhattan, a world of self- absorbed male artists, their girlfriends, and others struggling to promote themselves. Bernadette Peters plays the central character, and good as she’s been elsewhere as a foil to Steve Martin, she’s pretty much defeated by the studied flakiness of both her character (who often recalls the heroine of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in her helplessness, naivete, and Woody Allen-like nebbishness) and the movie as a whole, which etches out a view of Manhattan bohemia that’s every bit as caricatured as in Funny Face (without the benefit of Fred Astaire or Audrey Hepburn). Offering a view of predators and victims that mainly winds up being too cute for words (or images, for that matter), the film tries so hard to be with it that it winds up on another planetand not a very interesting one at that. With Chris Sarandon, Mary Beth Hurt, Madeleine Potter, Adam Coleman Howard, Nick Corri, Charles McCaughan, and Mercedes Ruehl. (JR)… Read more »
Michael Lehmann’s first film as a director and Daniel Waters’s first film as a screenwriter, this misanthropic 1989 black comedy about the cruelty of high school teenagers succeeds at least in being offbeat, but its inanities and glib pretensions are so thick that it mainly comes across as tacky and contrived. The plot centers on Veronica (Winona Ryder), member of an exclusive girls clique whose three other members all call themselves Heather (Kim Walker, Shannen Doherty, and Lisanne Falk), and her nihilistic boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater), whose pranks quickly turn into a string of murders made to look like suicides. The dialogue is relentlessly fancy without being witty, and the specious moralizing of the plot looks like it was tacked on to appease square adults; the real narrative force behind this movie is nihilist camp, as in Roger Corman’s 1966 The Wild Angels but without the same degree of filmmaking skill. If you’re in a low mood, you might find it funny in spots. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »
Based on the late Maryse Holder’s collection of letters published as Give Sorrow Words, this remarkable and unique Canadian feature follows Holder, as portrayed by Jackie Burroughs (The Grey Fox), on the extended sexual and sensual quest in Mexico that ultimately led to her death. Far from being depressing, the film is life embracing and often exhilarating, thanks in large part to Burroughs’s extraordinary presence and charismatic performance, and the beauty and intelligence of the letters. (Although Holder wrote at one point that she was on vacation from feminism, feminist insights about power and pleasure are still central to her writing.) The film’s methods of conveying the text are original but never simply contrived or clever; Burroughs neither recites nor acts the letters in any conventional manner, but often delivers them straight to the camera (or to the characters she’s with) with a disarming directness. Although the film is very much her show, it is also a collective effort, codirected by Burroughs, producer Louise Clark, cinematographer John Walker, sound person Aerlyn Weissman, and John Frizzell; the unity of their conception really works, and the film breathes with a single fiery voice and vision. (JR)… Read more »
Adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s novel by writer Hugh Stoddart and director Colin Gregg, this is a pleasant if unexciting example of British realism, as applied to a rather odd story set in the early 1950s. The central character is a solitary literary editor named Frank (Alan Bates), a semiautobiographical stand-in for Ackerley, whose former lover Johnny (Gary Oldman) is in jail. Much of the film focuses on Frank’s strained relations with Johnny’s working-class parents and wife (Frances Barber), with particular importance given to his gradually assuming responsibility for Johnny’s neglected German shepherd, Evie, who ultimately seems to become a kind of surrogate for Johnny. Modest in every respect, this well-acted comedy-drama does have its share of good dog scenes, as well as one of the ugliest babies in movies. With Liz Smith, Max Wall, and Kerry Wise. (JR)… Read more »
This very agreeable and funny low-budget documentary by Tony Buba, set in a steel-mill town just outside Pittsburgh, documents the decline of the area as the mills shut down and his own 15-year activity as a local independent filmmaker. Concerned with union organizing, his temperamental and eccentric star Sweet Sal Carullo, his dwindling finances, and his own soul, Buba has a lot of interesting things to say and show, and this witty and intelligent portrait of him and his community has charm to spare (1989). (JR)… Read more »
Robert De Niro, Ed Harris, and Kathy Baker star in a feature about two Vietnam veterans struggling to overcome their traumatic war experiences in the presentone (Harris) an all but broken man living with his schoolteacher sister (Baker), the other (De Niro) on the mend and gradually becoming involved with the schoolteacher. The film treats this theme sincerely, but unfortunately the script (by Stephen Metcalfe, based on his play Strange Snow) and direction (by David Jones) seem at times even more stunted than the heroes. If De Niro and Harris’s characters suffer from being partially stuck in the 60s, the movie often reaches all the way back to the cliches of the 40s and 50s to try to understand them, telegraphing most of its subtle touches with a heavy hand, including soupy, nudging music by Bruce Broughton. Still, the three leads are so good that it’s possible to overlook the material that they have to work with; Baker is especially touching and effective. (JR)… Read more »