Daily Archives: May 1, 1989

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From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1989). I can happily report that this expertly realized tour de force — a brilliant adaptation of what is essentially highly theatrical material, rehearsed and blocked to the nines — is now out on a Twilight Time Blu-Ray. For all its nervy desire to wear its sordidness, black comedy, and sheer roughness on its sleeve, which kept it from having a commercial success in the 70s  and may still alienate some viewers now, this is basically a comedy about sexual vulnerability and shifting power plays between jaded Hollywood types with more bark than bite, and a surprisingly sweet aftertaste shining through all the harsh pseudo-toughness. — J.R.

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John Byrum’s controversial first feature, made in 1976, stars Richard Dreyfuss as a burned-out Hollywood genius director of the 20s, reduced in the 30s to making porn films in his own mansion. Wittily scripted and engagingly acted (by Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Veronica Cartwright, and Bob Hoskins), the film restricts all its action to a few hours in the director’s mansion, and is peppered liberally with inside movie references. Chances are you’ll either be bored stiff by the conceits or exhilarated; personally, I found it gripping throughout. (JR)

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Stavisky…

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

Alain Resnais’ comeback in 1974 after five years’ absence (precipitated by the commercial failure of Je t’aime, je t’aime), and like many other of his films, it has improved with age. Scripted by Jorge Semprun (La guerre est finie, Z), it tells the true story of a notorious international financier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) whose ruin in 1933 led to a major political scandal and his own death. While the script isn’t always lucid — some attempts to counterpoint Stavisky’s destiny with that of Leon Trotsky, given political asylum in France during the time of the events covered, appear a bit forced — the power of Resnais’ evocative editing is as strong as ever. Using a gorgeous original score by Stephen Sondheim, elegant sets and locations, and beautiful color cinematography by Sacha Vierny, Resnais models his liquid, bittersweet style on Lubitsch, and the shimmering, romantic results are often spellbinding and haunting. With Anny Duperey, Charles Boyer (in what may be his last great screen performance), Michel Lonsdale, Francois Perier, Claude Rich, and, in an early cameo, Gerard Depardieu. (JR)

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Signs Of Life

In point of fact, the only real signs of life to be found in this top-heavy American Playhouse theatrical production, at once overloaded and undernourished, come from Arthur Kennedy’s performance as Owen Coughlin, an aging, cantankerous New England shipbuilder. All the other characters and intersecting miniplots seem to come straight from the American Playhouse pork barrel: a pathetically retarded adolescent (Michael Lewis) modeled loosely after Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a family man desperate for cash (Beau Bridges), two young workers who dream of salvage diving in Florida (Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin J. O’Connor), the latter’s frustrated girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker), Coughlin’s practical-minded housekeeper (Kate Reid), and a gaggle of picturesque Portuguese fishermen. John David Coles directed this dusty material, scripted by Mark Malone, with the strained piety one expects in this sort of movie. (JR)… Read more »

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder are back together, playing respectively a blind man and a deaf man who join forces to catch some murderous spies. This tasteless, formulaic, mainly unfunny, but otherwise harmless romp was scripted by five people (Earl Barret, Arne Sultan, Andrew Kurtzman, Eliot Wald, and Wilder) and is served up like meat and potatoes by hack director Arthur Hiller (Silver Streak), apparently following the surefire principle of scanning the market and concluding that the combination of disability (e.g., Rain Man), a buddy-movie plot, and Pryor plus Wilder gives us everything that we could possibly want. With Joan Severance, Kirsten Childs, and Anthony Zerbe. (JR)… Read more »

Scandal

A breezy yet serious docudrama about the notorious John Profumo-Christine Keeler sexual scandal of 1963 that shook England’s Conservative government, written by Michael Thomas and directed by Michael Caton-Jones. At the center of this complex but deftly conveyed intrigue is the ambiguous figure of Dr. Stephen Ward (John Hurt), a society osteopath, portrait artist, and hedonist whose discovery and cultivation of Keeler, coupled with his friendly liaison with British intelligence, set all the essential wheels in motion. Hurt is at his best in suggesting the contradictory layers of this man, who proved to be the establishment’s scapegoat in the affair, but another part of what makes this movie so absorbing is its heady celebration of London during this period, as well as a healthy enjoyment of the erotic elementsdemonstrating overall that good, trashy fun doesn’t necessarily entail dumbness or irresponsibility. With Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Keeler, Bridget Fonda as her friend and fellow playgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, Ian McKellen as Profumo, Leslie Phillips as Lord Astor, and Britt Ekland as the orgiastic party thrower Mariella Novotny. (JR)… Read more »

How To Get Ahead In Advertising

With his second feature as a director (after Withnail and I), Bruce Robinson, who previously scripted The Killing Fields, offers a genuine oddity. A successful English advertising executive named Dennis Bagley (Richard E. Grant) has a crise de conscience while suffering a creative block about how to launch a new pimple cream. A boil grows on the side of his neck and assumes the identity of an alter ego, speaking with its own glibly proadvertising voice and gradually overtaking his life, until Bagley’s own head is reduced to the size and status of a boil. What’s even odder than this story concept is the Kafkaesque literalism with which Robinson treats it, so that what emerges is not exactly (or purely) comedy or satire or allegory or horror-fantasy, but a daffy and at times wordy story with hints of all these elements that proceeds on its own terms. It’s hard to know whether to recommend this or not, but it must be conceded that nothing else is remotely like it, and Richard E. Grant certainly attacks his part with brio. With Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, and Jacqueline Tong. (JR)… Read more »

Hotel Colonial

John Savage, Rachel Ward, Massimo Troisi, and Robert Duvall on a slow road to hell paved with the best of intentionscourtesy of director Cinzia TH Torrini, and writers Enzo Monteleone and Robert Katz, who collaborated with her on the script. Savage flies to Colombia when he hears about the alleged suicide there of his brother, a former Red Brigades terrorist; from there he proceeds into the wilds on a sort of meandering Heart of Darkness quest, half-travelogue and half-polemic, regarding man’s inhumanity to man. Neither Savage nor the confused script is up to the task of expressing the moral outrage that this movie has in mind; the polyglot cast seems discombobulated, and not even Fellini cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno or Welles associate Alessandro Tasca (executive in charge of production) can bring much distinction to a project so helplessly adrift. (JR)… Read more »

Who Killed Vincent Chin?

Christine Choy and Renee Tajima’s 1987 documentary about the 1982 murder of a young Chinese-American engineer by a white autoworker, who thought the engineer was Japanese and who got off virtually scot-free, offers a fascinating and disturbing picture of overlapping concerns: racial attitudes, the auto industry, the media, Asian-Americans, and various legal issues. While the legal questions aren’t treated as thoroughly as one might like, this rapidly cut and provocative piece of investigative journalism never fails to hold interest. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

Warm Nights On A Slow Moving Train

Wendy Hughes plays a chameleonlike woman who takes care of her crippled brother (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), teaches at a Catholic girls’ school, and devotes her Sunday nights to working as a prostitute on a train, where she assumes a separate identity with each customer. Very well acted (the cast also includes Colin Friels, Norman Kaye, John Clayton, and Rod Zuanic) and competently written (by Bob Ellis and Denny Lawrence) and directed (by Ellis), this Australian film sustains interest over its mainly episodic structure, yet it never builds up much momentum or leads to anything more interesting than its separate scenes. (JR)… Read more »

Vampire’s Kiss

A Manhattan literary agent (Nicolas Cage) who has problems with women imagines that he’s turning into a vampire. The script by Joseph Minion, his first to be produced since After Hours, reflects some of that earlier film’s obsessions with predatory or defenseless females and New York as expressionist landscape; the variable but generally competent direction is by British newcomer Robert Bierman. Practically nothing happens other than gradual deterioration of any distinction between reality and fantasy, and the theme is closer in some ways to Jekyll and Hyde (with the emphasis almost entirely on Hyde) than to Dracula or Nosferatu. What really makes this worth seeing is Cage’s outrageously unbridled performance, which recalls such extravagant actorly exercises as Jean-Louis Barrault’s in Jean Renoir’s The Testament of Dr. Cordelier and Jerry Lewis’s Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor. Even for viewers like myself who have never been especially impressed with Cage, his over-the-top effusions of rampant, demented asociality are really something to see, and they give this quirky, somewhat out-of-control black comedy whatever form and energy it has. With Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, and Kasi Lemmons. (JR)… Read more »

Torch Song Trilogy

The long-awaited film adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s play proved to be one of the strongest and best-made dramatic films of 1988. Starring Fierstein himself as a professional female impersonator, and directed by veteran Paul Bogart, known mainly for his TV work, the film masterfully mixes comedy, tragedy, and music into a first-rate entertainment. Chronicling two of the hero’s love affairs with men (Brian Kerwin and Matthew Broderick) and his troubled relationship with his strong-willed mother (Anne Bancroft) in the 70s and early 80s, the movie is never preachy or moralistic in its depiction of gay life. Much of its power can be attributed to the high-voltage performances of Fierstein and Bancroft, as well as to a superb use of jazz and popular music. (Woody Allen could learn a lot from this movie.) Although the material shows some of its theatrical origins, the transfer to film is intelligent and effective. One would hate to find this film treated as a special interest picture because of its gay characters; its superb theatricality deserves to be enjoyed by everyone. (JR)… Read more »

Talk Radio

Oliver Stone directs a taut and effective drama about an aggressive radio talk-show host and the hatred he manages to project at and elicit from his call-in listeners. Stone and Eric Bogosian adapted the screenplay from Bogosian’s play of the same title and Stephen Singular’s book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg. Stone does a very capable job of handling the theatricality of the piece without making it seem unduly stagy, but Bogosian himself plays the lead, and it’s essentially his show all the way. The overall effect is disturbing yet mesmerizing; most of the movie takes place in the radio studio while the hero is on the air, and the moral questions raised by his incendiary brand of broadcasting are left provocatively open. (An extended flashback that has been added to the original material, purporting to give us the psychological lowdown on the hero, tells us even less than we already know about him, and its overall usefulness is questionable.) With Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, and John Pankow. (JR)… Read more »

Roadhouse

This vehicle for Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), directed by Rowdy Herrington, begins as a kind of contemporary western, with the hero arriving in a rowdy Missouri town to clean up a roadhouse called the Double Deuce as a cooler who manages the bouncers; eventually it mutates into a paranoid revenge plot that might be called Walking Short, with the hero up against Ben Gazzara as the evil villain who runs the town and destroys everyone who gets in his way. The film gets campier by the minute, though it makes occasional good use of Sam Elliott as a wizened sidekick of Swayze; Kelly Lynch, who plays a local doctor and the romantic interest, is distinguished according to the Manichaean plot by her cool manner and relatively small breasts, in contrast to the brasher and bustier stripper types who hang out at the Double Deuce and help to provoke the various slugfests. Written by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin; with Marshall Teague, Julie Michaels, and Red West. (JR)… Read more »

The Rainbow

Ken Russell, who adapted D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love in 1970, takes on the Lawrence novel whose narrative action precedes it. It’s about the sexual awakening of Ursula Brangwen (Sammi Davis), a rebellious country girl at the turn of the century whose erotic mentor is her swimming instructor Winifred (Amanda Donohoe). While no one could ever accuse Russell of excessive subtlety, this has none of the campiness associated with most of his features; as in Women in Love, he seems relatively subdued by the material. But as a consequence of this piety, the film seems rather inconclusive, and one comes away from it feeling that something is missingin particular, the raison d’etre of the original novel. With David Hemmings, Christopher Gable, and Glenda Jackson. (JR)… Read more »

Poulet Au Vinaigre

One of the more flagrant injustices of foreign-film distribution has been the near total eclipse of Claude Chabrol in this country. This delightful, acidic 1984 mystery — set in a corrupt small town rife with land speculation, murder, and diverse other intrigues — was a big enough hit in France to prompt a sequel the following year (Inspecteur Lavardin), but American audiences weren’t allowed so much as a peek at it. Adapted by Dominique Roulet and Chabrol from Roulet’s novel Une mort en trop, this sexy and adroit intrigue starring Jean Poiret, Stephane Audran, and Michel Bouquet is one of Chabrol’s best efforts in his lighter vein, and proves that the classic French cinema has never been quite as dead as U.S. release policies have suggested. (JR)… Read more »