Monthly Archives: April 1989

Powwow Highway

The unusual thing about this pleasant (if at times formulaic) shaggy-dog road movie set in Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, and environs is that it’s all about contemporary Cheyenne Indians. The story of a huge traditionalist Cheyenne named Philbert (Gary Farmer) and his beat-up wreck of a car (purchased with pot), which he regards as his “pony,” the movie follows the wayward adventures that ensue when Philbert’s political friend Buddy (A Martinez) gets him to drive the two of them from Montana’s Lame Deer reservation to Santa Fe, to get Buddy’s sister Bonnie (Joanelle Romero) out of jail. Directed by Jonathan Wacks from a script by Janet Heaney and Jean Stawarz based on David Seals’s book, there’s more pleasure to be found here in character and incident than in plot per se, but in addition to offering an interesting cross section of Cheyenne life and attitudes, there’s a fair amount of fun to be had along the way–including attractive scenery and some good laughs. With Amanda Wyss. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Zou Zou / Princess Tam Tam

Two fascinating relics of the French cinema in the mid-30s, both semimusicals starring the great black dancer Josephine Baker in all her glory, and both very interesting for the racial attitudes they reveal. In each feature Baker is paired with a white male star–Jean Gabin as a brother-by-adoption and sailor-turned-electrician in Marc Allegret’s Zou Zou (1934), and Albert Prejean as an aristocratic novelist in Edmond Greville’s Princess Tam Tam (1935)–who is set up as a potential lover, but who eventually passes her up for a white woman. (Even with these supposed safeguards, these movies were deemed virtually unexportable to the U.S. at the time, when big-budget movies starring blacks were unheard of; Princess Tam Tam, the more racist of the two, had a brief American run during the 40s, but only in a highly censored version.) In Zou Zou, which has the somewhat more plausible plot of the two (and was one of the biggest French box-office hits of its year), Baker and Gabin grow up together in the circus and wind up working at the same Paris music hall; in Princess Tam Tam she’s a Tunisian native–almost a Rousseau-like noble savage–discovered by Prejean, a Parisian abroad who uses her as the raw material for his novel, in which he imagines her taking Paris by storm (as Baker herself did in the 20s) and making his wife jealous.… Read more »

See You in the Morning

Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances to date in an absorbing romantic comedy-drama written and directed by Alan J. Pakula about the emotional confusions and adjustments that take place when a divorced psychiatrist (Bridges) and a widow/photographer (Alice Krige), both of whom have two children from their previous spouses, decide to get married. The New York setting and the economic bracket and well-educated veneer of the characters (as well as the effective use of familiar songs) suggest the world of Woody Allen, but this is incomparably better in its insights and density than any of Allen’s efforts; the characters steadily grow in interest and complexity as the plot unfolds, and although the two-hour movie may be slightly longer than it has to be, it does a surprisingly deft job of acquainting us with about a dozen major characters, not one of whom is a stock figure. With Farrah Fawcett (as the psychiatrist’s former wife), Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, George Hearn, Theodore Bikel, and Linda Lavin. All these actors are very fine, but the always able Bridges surpasses himself–his performance is a series of inventive and unexpected grace notes throughout. (Ford City East, Edens, McClurg Court, Orland Square, Woodfield, Forest Park, Burnham Plaza, Oakbrook, Golf Mill, Lincoln Village, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place)… Read more »

Seated Figures

Any new film by experimental filmmaker and artist Michael Snow is a major event, and this 41-minute “road” movie of shifting landscapes shot from the bottom of a truck, and accompanied by the sounds of a film audience, is no exception. The title apparently stems from the common identity of Snow, who drove the truck, and the audience watching the film. Judging from a first viewing, Seated Figures lacks the pristine excitement of Snow’s monumental camera movement trilogy of the late 60s and early 70s (Wavelength, Back and Forth, and La region centrale), but it is full of different kinds of suspense and surprises for spectators who are prepared to experience a painterly film without a story line but with a great deal of luscious Canadian landscape, seen at close range and in motion. Snow himself will be present to answer questions, and he’ll also be showing his wonderful So Is This (1982), a remarkable film consisting of words flashed on a screen that manages to extend that minimal conceit into complex and entertaining strategies for addressing an audience. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Monday, April 17, 7:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

High Hopes

Mike Leigh’s very watchable up-to-the-minute bulletin from Thatcher England centers on a posthippie working-class couple in London named Cyril (Philip Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen), who are beautifully conceived and realized, as well as on Cyril’s mother (Edna Dore), his middle-class sister (Heather Tobias) and brother-in-law (Philip Jackson), and his mother’s yuppie next-door neighbors (Leslie Manville and David Bamber), most of whom live around King’s Cross. The texture of everyday life in contemporary London is precisely rendered. Leigh, a household name in England because of his extensive theater and TV work and one previous feature (the 1971 Bleak Moments), tends to satirize and even caricature the upper-class characters, but the jabs are generally accurate, and the overall construction of this episodic movie is deft and ingenious, pointing up parallels and contrasts in the sexual habits of his three couples and making interesting connections between other characters as well. Alternately bleak and hilarious, saddening and refreshing, this very political reflection on the state of England today is not to be missed. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Films by Vincent Grenier

French-Canadian experimental filmmaker Vincent Grenier, currently a teacher at the Art Institute, will show and discuss his most recent works: the 14-minute short Time’s Wake (1987) and the nearly hour-long I.D. (1988). Part of the fascination of both stems from Grenier’s capacity to build his images and sound tracks in densely woven yet constantly interacting and changing layers. Time’s Wake–made from diverse materials shot over a decade in color and black and white, and described as “a collection of ‘windows’ on a personal past”–features lyrical superimpositions and a very musical sense of camera movement. The black-and-white I.D. utilizes superimpositions of image and sound to capture a series of monologues and dialogues by acquaintances of Grenier in Binghamton, New York; the camera and microphone capture the people and their surroundings elliptically yet far from objectively, functioning largely as participants in the encounters. Original and often beautiful, these films encourage us to reconsider phenomenological experience as well as memory in fresh and interesting ways. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, April 7, 8:00, 281-8788)… Read more »

Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1989). — J.R.

henry_portrait

This gory slasher movie was made in Chicago in 1986 but held in limbo until 1989 because of its disturbing content. Very capably acted (by Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, and Tom Towles), written (by Richard Fire and John McNaughton), and directed (by McNaughton), this, like every other slasher movie, has its roots in Psycho. The tensions developed here are more behavioral and psychological than those essayed by Hitchcock, though the insights into the personality of a compulsive killer are at best partial and perfunctory. What mainly registers is the nihilism of the warped ex-con (Rooker) and his dim-witted friend and accomplice (Towles), who joins him in a string of senseless murders, which the film makes chillingly believable. Certainly not for everyone, but if slasher movies are your cup of tea this is a lot better than most, and the use of Chicago locations is especially effective. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Song Without End

Weighing in at 141 minutes, this lush 1960 biopic about Franz Liszt (Dirk Bogarde) isn’t inaptly named. Director Charles Vidor (Gilda) died in the middle of shooting, and George Cukor took over. As often happens in this sort of picture, the musical sequences are absorbingMorris Stoloff and Henry Sukman received an Oscar for the scoringbut what comes between them tends to be relatively lethargic. Shot in ‘Scope by James Wong Howe; with Capucine, Genevieve Page, Martita Hunt, and Alex Davion as Chopin. (JR)… Read more »

See You In The Morning

Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances in an absorbing romantic comedy-drama written and directed by Alan J. Pakula about the emotional confusions and adjustments that take place when a divorced psychiatrist (Bridges) and a widow/photographer (Alice Krige), both of whom have two children, decide to get married. The New York setting and the economic bracket and well-educated veneer of the characters (as well as the effective use of familiar songs) suggest the world of Woody Allen, but this is incomparably better in its insights and density than any of Allen’s efforts; the characters steadily grow in interest and complexity as the plot unfolds, and although the two-hour movie may be slightly longer than it has to be, it does a surprisingly deft job of acquainting us with about a dozen major characters, not one of whom is a stock figure. With Farrah Fawcett (as the psychiatrist’s former wife), Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, David Dukes, Frances Sternhagen, George Hearn, Theodore Bikel, and Linda Lavin. All these actors are very fine, but the always able Bridges surpasses himself his performance is a series of inventive and unexpected grace notes throughout. (JR)… Read more »

Seated Figures

Any film by experimentalist Michael Snow is a major event, and this 41-minute road movie of shifting landscapes shot from the bottom of a truck, and accompanied by the sounds of a film audience, is no exception. The title apparently stems from the common identity of Snow, who drove the truck, and the audience watching the film. Seated Figures lacks the pristine excitement of Snow’s monumental camera movement trilogy of the late 60s and early 70s (Wavelength, Back and Forth, and La region centrale), but it is full of different kinds of suspense and surprises for spectators who are prepared to experience a painterly film without a story line but with luscious Canadian landscapes, seen at close range and in motion. (JR)… Read more »

Say Anything . . .

At last, a teenage love story with real characters instead of cliches, poses, and attitudes (1989). The directorial debut of Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), it follows two very different high school graduates in Seattleaspiring kickboxer Lloyd (John Cusack) and brilliant student Diane (Ione Skye), who’s just won a fellowship to study in Englandas, to everyone’s surprise, they gradually get involved. John Mahoney plays Diane’s devoted but demanding father. Produced by Polly Platt, with James L. Brooks serving as executive producer, the movie stands out mainly because its attention to detail is so precise; Cusack and Skye are especially fine, but the overall treatment of contemporary teenagers is so refreshing that it almost makes up for dozens of phony and superficial predecessors (and for once the adults aren’t viewed exclusively from the wrong end of the telescope). As in Brooks’s Broadcast News, it’s the characters and their interrelationships that make the story. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Winter People

Gallons of PBS-style piety are lavished here on a trite tale about a widowed clock maker (Kurt Russell) with a little girl who settles down with an unwed mother (Kelly McGillis) in a southern mountain community in the 30s, and then becomes involved in various intrigues involving the father of her child and two feuding families. Adapted by Carol Sobieski from a novel by John Ehle and directed by Ted Kotcheff, the film has a likable performance by Lloyd Bridges as the unwed mother’s father. McGillis strives hard to be believable in what is essentially an impossible role for her, while Kurt Russell is amiably professional but predictable. The film is shot (by Francois Protat) in ‘Scope, but the effort is essentially wasted by dull center framing that makes the format superfluous (1989). (JR)… Read more »

The Perfect Model

This low-budget, Chicago-made romantic comedy by Darryl Roberts, written by Roberts, Theresa McDade, and Ivory Ocean, deals with the class conflicts that ensue when a black movie star (Anthony Norman McKay) becomes involved with a woman (Liza Cruzat) who still lives and works in the ghetto. To paraphrase Edmund Wilson on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, this movie commits almost every error that a movie can possibly commit (at least on a purely technical level), but it does not commit the unpardonable errorit does not fail to live. As Wilson put it, The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life. The issues that it deals with are real issues, and the fact that Roberts’s total shooting budget was only $31,000 commands respect and support. Consequently, if you can put up with dialogue scenes out of sync and other technical flaws, you may find that the sincerity, energy, and personality of this movie make it a lot more watchable and enjoyable than the technically more accomplished current releases that have no good reasons for existing; I certainly felt that way. With Stoney Jackson, Tatiana Tumbtzen, Catero Colbert, and Reggie Theus. (JR)… Read more »

Paris Vu Par . . . Vingt Ans Apres

Two young French filmmakers, Bernard Dubois and Philippe Venault, had the provocative idea of making a follow-up to the 1964 anthology film, Paris vu par, that became a manifesto for the emerging directors of the New Wave. Unfortunately, the unity of that movement is long gone, and this new project is wildly uneven, ranging from the brilliant (Chantal Akerman’s opening sketch, J’ai faim, j’ai froid, is an entire coming-of-age film compressed into 12 frenetic, hilarious, and ultimately touching minutes) to the intriguing (Philippe Garrel’s Rue Fontaine offers a rare Stateside opportunity to see the work of this acclaimed avant-gardist, whose work suggests a crossing of John Cassavetes with early German expressionism) to the mediocre (the segments by Dubois, Venault, and Frederic Mitterrand) to the unwatchable (Vincent Nordon’s Paris-Plage, certainly the longest 13 minutes in film history). A sad lesson emergesthat the French have no more new ideas than we dobut the Akerman itself is worth it all. (JR)… Read more »

Parents

The first feature directed by actor Bob Balaban (1989) brings back the late 50s in the form of a highly original comic nightmare. Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid star as the parents of a disturbed little boy (Bryan Madorsky) who has bad dreams about his parents’ sex lives and carnivorous habits; Sandy Dennis does one of her best turns as the neurotic school psychologist. Some critics have compared Balaban to David Lynch, but the differences are revealing. Balaban’s sense of the awfulness of the physical and spiritual decor of the 50s is actually closer in some ways to John Waters, while his politics are virtually the reverse of Lynch’s in Blue Velvet: nostalgia for innocence and purity couldn’t be further from his agenda. The script runs out of ideas long before he does, and the film doesn’t build dramatically as much as it could. But it’s an impressive debut, full of bizarre imagination and visual flaira must for fans of offbeat horror films. R, 82 min. (JR)… Read more »