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 »

Money Changes Everything [GREED on video]

From Movieline (April 21, 1989, Vol. V, issue 99). — J.R.


It is a strange, grim tale, not typical of 1920s Hollywood entertainment.A gentle, burly dentist from the California mines named McTeague (Gibson Gowland) moves to San Francisco, where he befriends Marcus (Jean Hersholt), who works at the local dog hospital, and falls in love with Trina (Zasu Pittts), Marcus’s cousin and prospective fiancée. Out of friendship, Marcus relinquishes all claims on Trina, who gets engaged to “Mac”. But when she wins $5,000 in a lottery, Marcus feels cheated, and ruins Mac’s career by revealing that he has been pulling teeth without a license. After her marriage, the shy and frigid Trina becomes obsessed with the money she has won, refusing to spend any of it, and driving the impoverished Mac to drink and eventually to violence and murder….

Perhaps the least glamorous movie ever to have come out of a major studio, Greed (1924) is more than just a polemic about the power of money to destroy love and friendship. Finally appearing on video 65 years after its commercial release, it remains one of the most powerful of all silent movies, as well as one of the most modern in style and substance.… 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 »

Rotterdam ’89: Magic from Rivette and Ivens

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1989). — J.R.

When he died last July, Hubert Bals had already selected twenty films for his eighteenth Rotterdam Festival, and embarked on retrospectives devoted to John Cassavetes and Jacques Rivette. Rather than try to second-guess his preferences for the rest of the programme, interim director Ann Head and her able staff invited several filmmakers associated with Bals to complete the selection with neglected titles of their own or other choices. This quick galvanizing of energies resulted in the best of the six consecutive Rotterdam festivals I’ve attended. The event was haunted by recent losses – Cassavetes and Jacques Ledoux, as well as Bals – but the legacies they left behind were vibrantly present on the screen.

Raul Ruiz brought two engaging new featurettes, Tous les nuages sont des horloges ( a free adaptation of a Japanese mystery coscripted by his students) and L’Autel de l’amitié (a series of Diderotesque dialogues about the French Revolution), both bristling with visual invention. A lush and aggressive 27-minute videotape by Godard, Puissance de la parole [see below], concentrates on a lovers’ quarrel conducted by phone from opposite sides of the globe.Read more »

The Studly American [APARTMENT ZERO]

From the Chicago Reader (November 17, 1989). — J.R.

APARTMENT ZERO

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Donovan

Written by Donovan and David Koepp

With Colin Firth, Hart Bochner, Dora Bryan, Liz Smith, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, James Telfer, Mirella D’Angelo, Juan Vitali, and Francesca d’Aloja.

Although it qualifies technically as an American movie, Martin Donovan’s ambitious, disturbing thriller Apartment Zero is one of those international hodgepodges that are somewhat disorienting almost by definition. Set in Buenos Aires, made with actors and technicians from three continents, and filmed in English by an Argentinean director who has lived mainly in Italy and England since the 70s, it has the sort of multinational sprawl that only a strong script and a forceful style could hold together. Fortunately, Apartment Zero has both script and style in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it’s an exciting piece of controlled cinematic delirium.

I first encountered this movie at a midnight screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, having been guided to it by a perceptive rave in Variety by Todd McCarthy. Ever since then I’ve been wondering when and how it would eventually turn up in Chicago. It lacks most of the usual commercial calling cards (big stars, lovable nerds, genre cliches, babies, body switches, Spielberg lighting), it was passed up by the New York and Chicago film festivals, and it didn’t seem the sort of picture that Vincent Canby would like.… Read more »

A Cut Above [HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER]

From the Chicago Reader (April 14, 1989). — J.R.

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by John McNaughton

Written by Richard Fire and McNaughton

With Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, and Tom Towles.

Properly speaking, the slasher movie made its debut almost 30 years ago, with two features by middle-aged Englishmen, which coincidentally opened on separate continents within a few months of each other — Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which premiered in England in May 1960, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which opened in the United States three months later. The parallels between these two movies remain striking — especially their puritanical and voyeuristic underpinnings, which give us sexually repressed heroes whose morbid scopophilia (pleasure in gazing) leads directly to their brutal murders of women. And both occasioned critical protests of rage and disapproval when they first appeared.

But it was Psycho and not Peeping Tom that went on to launch a subgenre and receive exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis. And from the vantage point of the present, it is probably the shower murder of Psycho rather than the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin that has become the most chewed-over montage sequence in the history of cinema. But how much concrete edification has grown out of this close study?… 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 »

John Cassavetes Obituary

From Sight and Sound, Spring 1989. — J.R.

The news of John Cassavetes’ death reached the Rotterdam Festival just as his retrospective was winding to a close, and my initial response was to recall Billy Wilder’s remark at Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral. ‘No more Lubitsch,’ a friend said,  and Wilder replied, ‘Worse than that — no more Lubitsch films.’ On the face of it, it’s hard to think of many directors more dissimilar than Lubitsch and Cassavetes, but each brought to cinema a kind of personal passion that it’s never had before or since, despite the fact that each has had a host of imitators and emulators. It even seems possible that Cassavetes influenced almost as many directors as Lubitsch did. Just for starters, one could cite Peter Bogdanovich, Jean Eustache, Henry Jaglom, Elaine May, Rob Nilsson, Maurice Pialat, Jacques Rivette and Martin Scorsese.

In the case of Cassavetes, though, what I had in mind was something specific — the fact that he hadn’t lived long enough to make a film of his remarkable play A Woman of Mystery, which I had been lucky enough to see during its limited run in a tiny Beverly Hills theatre the summer before last, and which remains one of the key theatrical experiences of my life.… Read more »

Well-Done Debut (PARENTS) & Sex and the Single Codger (THE LAST GOOD TIME)

Here, for a change, is a double header — reviews of two films I’m especially fond of, both by Bob Balaban, made and reviewed about six years apart, Parents and The Last Good Time.

From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1989). — J.R.

PARENTS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Bob Balaban

Written by Christopher Hawthorne

With Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky, Sandy Dennis, Juno Mills-Cockell, Kathryn Grody, Deborah Rush, and Graham Jarvis.

Having already opened and speedily closed in both Los Angeles and New York, Parents arrives in Chicago under a bit of a cloud. Brilliant but uneven, this ambitious feature doesn’t have a script that’s worthy of its high-powered direction, doesn’t build as dramatically as it might have, and clearly bites off more than it can chew. But it is still the most interesting and exciting directorial debut that I have encountered in some time  – a “failure” that makes most recent successes seem like cold mush. Choosing a movie to take with me to a desert island, I would opt without a second’s hesitation for Parents over such relatively predictable Oscar-mongering exercises as Rain Man, The Accidental Tourist, or Dangerous Liaisons, because it’s a movie that kept me fascinated, guessing, and curious — even when it irritated me.… 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 »