Monthly Archives: June 1989

Comic Book Confidential

From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1989). — J.R.

A very enjoyable documentary survey of American comic books, from their inception in 1933 to the present, by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (Imagine the Sound, Poetry in Motion). Newspaper comic strips such as Little Nemo in Slumberland, Krazy Kat, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, and Peanuts are omitted, but within the comic-book field, Mann’s reach is fairly broad, extending from diverse superheroes such as Superman and the Fantastic Four to EC Comics to underground artists such as Robert Crumb and Spain Rodrigues to recent figures such as Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and Sue Coe. Jazzy graphic devices are employed to represent the work, including simplified animation and individual frames accompanied by the artists reading the captions and dialogue aloud, and the interviews are generally both lively and pertinent. Mann also gets a lot of amusing mileage out of archival footage of anti-comic-book propaganda from the 50s. One misses the kind of in-depth formal analysis given to comics by such overseas experts as Francis Lacassin, but otherwise Mann’s grasp of his subject is lively, penetrating, and affectionate. A Chicago premiere. (JR) (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, June 30 through July 6)

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Spike Lee Sees It All

From the Chicago Reader (June 30, 1989). I reviewed the film a second time several weeks later. — J.R.

DO THE RIGHT THING **** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Sam Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Savage, and John Turturro.

I can’t say that I’ve been an unqualified Spike Lee fan. His flair for publicity has tended to overwhelm his talents as a writer-director-actor, and the fact that he remains better known to the general public for his TV commercials than for either She’s Gotta Have It (1986) or School Daze (1988) points to an adeptness at working both sides of the street that has made it difficult to assess his work. More generally, the fact that he’s a black filmmaker whose first two features had all-black casts has undoubtedly made him overrated in some quarters and just as surely underrated and/or misunderstood in others.… Read more »

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

A charming and amiable Disney live-action feature, directed by newcomer Joe Johnston, about an inventor (Rick Moranis) who devises a gizmo that accidentally shrinks his two kids and their two friends (Amy O’Neill, Robert Oliveri, Jared Rushton, and Thomas Brown) to about a quarter of an inch high. While the plot abounds in improbabilities and even a few absurdities, and the special effects are uneven, the poetics of the basic idea really pay off: a suburban backyard is transformed into an endless jungle packed with adventures (including rides on a bumblebee and a friendly baby ant, and menacing attacks from a hose and a lawn mower). Written by Ed Naha and Tom Schulman, and based on a story by Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, and Naha; the setting and at least one character–the neighbor kids’ father (Matt Frewer, best known as TV’s Max Headroom)–recall Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs. On the same program is Tummy Trouble, a Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman cartoon directed by Rob Minkoff, with a live-action coda directed by Frank Marshall; the short isn’t quite as brilliant as Somethin’s Cookin’ (which opened Who Framed Roger Rabbit), but it’s full of extravagant Tex Avery-like action and reaction; Richard Williams unfortunately didn’t supervise the animation of this short, although some of his animators worked on it.… Read more »

The Man With Three Coffins

One of the boldest selections at the 1988 New York Film Festival, this experimental South Korean narrative feature, directed by Chang-ho Lee in 1987, seems closer in some ways to an Alain Resnais film than to most examples of Eastern cinema that come to mind. Interweaving several narrative strands and oscillating between the past and present, this allegorical parable is not always easy to follow in story terms, but its highly original editing, framing, and uses of color never fail to impress. (Facets Multimedia Center; 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, June 16 and 17, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, June 18, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, June 19 through 22, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

William Klein on His Film Work (1988 interview)

From a 1989 catalog that I did for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein. — J.R.

William Klein on His Film Work

Klein made the following remarks in a telephone conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum in early November 1988.

On Broadway by Light (1958) and Orson Welles

I did this book on New York: black-and-white, grungy photographs. People said, ‘What a put-down — New York is not like that. New York is a million things, and you just see the seamy side.” So I thought I would do a film showing how seamy New York was, but intellectually, by doing a thing on electric- light signs. How beautiful they are, and what an obsessive, brainwashing message they carry. And everybody is so thankful for this super spectacle. Anyway, I think it’s the first Pop film.

Afterwards, I went from New York to Paris on a boat. We were on the pier with all our suitcases when I saw Orson Welles with a cigar and a little attaché case – that’s all he had as luggage. I went up to him and said, “Listen, I’ve just shot a film. Would you like to see it?” I showed it to him in the boat’s movie theater, and he said, “This is the first film I’ve ever seen in which the color is absolutely necessary.”

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Documentary Expressionism: The Films of William Klein

From a 1989 catalog that I wrote most of for the Walker Art Center, Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein (an interview that accompanied this piece will also be posted on the site in a couple of days). I worked for Klein briefly in 1973, when I was living in Paris, translating a script of his called Demain la ville from French to English so that Elliott Gould, who was being considered as one of the leads, could read it. (A portion of this script was later transformed into Klein’s The Model Couple.)  — J.R.

Anybody who pretends to be objective isn’t realistic. — William Klein on cinéma-vérité (1)

I have a great feeling of nostalgia for the expressionist film. Although I don’t know why I say nostalgia: such films are still being made, and as far as l’m concerned we can never go beyond expressionism. Bill Klein’s Mr. Freedom, for example, is a completely expressionistic film. Maybe that’s why it provoked such violent reactions: some people just can’t accept having reality transposed to another level. — Alain Resnais (2)

One of the limitations of conventional film history, with its subdivisions of schools and movements, is that many interesting filmmakers who are unlucky enough to exist apart from neat categories tend to disappear between the cracks.… Read more »

Berlin 89: Akerman, Rivette, Jost

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

The degree to which contemporary cinema has become a desperate recycling operation was pain fully evident in Berlin this year, where even the better films seemed mired in familiar habits. Aki Kaurismaki’s Ariel, a hard-luck story of an unemployed miner pushed into a life of crime, is basically a Warners B-film of the 1930s, cleanly told and decked out with a few 80s ironies, but really nothing new. Martin Donovan’s Apartment Zero, a baroque male-bonding thriller set in Buenos Aires, superbly acted by Colin Firth and Hart Bochner, offers a chilling and complex view of the American abroad, yet its precise genre positionings would be unthinkable without its cues from Hitchcock, Chabrol and Polanski.

For many colleagues, a major disappointment in the competition was Chantal Akerman’s first English-language feature, Food, Family and Philosophy in French (or Histoires d’Amérique in French), a string of monologues and jokes by Jewish immigrants, delivered against Brooklyn exteriors within hailing distance of the Manhattan skyline over what appears to be a single night.… Read more »

Miracle Mile

Written and directed by Steve DeJarnatt, this taut, apocalyptic thriller shows some improvement over DeJarnatt’s previous direction of Cherry 2000 (which was released in this country only on videotape), apart from some faulty continuity in the final reel. Most of the film concerns what happens when the young hero (Anthony Edwards) accidentally intercepts a phone call that announces an impending nuclear holocaust only 70 minutes away, and is desperate to find the woman (Mare Winningham) he has just fallen in love with. The action all unfolds in and around the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that constitutes LA’s “miracle mile,” nearly all of it in the middle of the night, and the strongest B-film virtues here (apart from a running time of only 87 minutes) mainly have to do with a very nice feel for the particulars of this time, milieu, and place; the biggest drawback is that the film doesn’t wind up going anywhere in particular. Among the many interesting costars (including Lou Hancock, Danny de la Paz, Robert Doqui, Kelly Minter, and Denise Crosby), there’s a particularly nice cameo by John Agar as the heroine’s grandfather. (McClurg Court, Ridge, Oakbrook Center, Bricktown Square, Webster Place, Evanston)… Read more »

Vampire’s Kiss

A Manhattan literary agent (Nicolas Cage) who has problems with women imagines that he’s turning into a vampire. This is the first script by Joseph Minion to be produced since After Hours, and it reflects some of the same obsession with predatory and/or defenseless females and New York perceived as an expressionist landscape; the variable but generally competent direction is by British newcomer Robert Bierman. Practically nothing happens other than the 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 in Jean Renoir’s The Testament of Dr. Cordelier and Jerry Lewis as 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. (McClurg Court)… Read more »

Pink Cadillac

Clint Eastwood plays a “skip-tracer” cop with a taste for impersonations who is assigned to track down a woman (Bernadette Peters) on the lam with her eight-month-old baby. The wife of an ex-con (Timothy Carhart) who is linked to a group of white supremacists (a band of misfits and speed freaks that the movie has great fun ridiculing), she jumps bail after being arrested for passing counterfeit money; Eastwood follows her to Reno and then finds himself gradually shifting his loyalties. Buddy Van Horn (The Dead Pool) directed from a John Eskow script, but in fact this is very much an Eastwood movie, full of his cranky personality and quirky intelligence, and brimming with ideas. Not all of these ideas are successfully dramatized, and you may have trouble believing in most of the characters, but as a deeply personal work about free-floating existential identities, this has the kind of grit and feeling that few recent action comedies can muster, with Eastwood and Peters interesting and unpredictable throughout. With John Dennis Johnston and Michael Des Barres. (Ford City, Harlem-Cermak, Deerbrook, Biograph, Bolingbrook, Burnham Plaza, Chicago Ridge, Chestnut Station, Woodfield, Orland Square, Plaza. Evanston, Hyde Park, Bricktown Square, Oakbrook Center, Golf Mill)… Read more »

Surname Viet Given Name Nam

The third film of Trinh T. Minh-ha, the American-based Vietnamese experimental filmmaker (Reassemblage, Naked Spaces: Living Is Round), offers a multilayered, complex, and often moving depiction of Vietnamese women and their oppression, both in Vietnam and as refugees in the U.S. Organized musically and utilizing a variety of materials ranging from interviews to newsreel footage to diverse literary and critical commentaries on the sound track, the film is as much about how we as Westerners perceive Vietnamese women as it is about its subject. Trinh’s methods of questioning and dismantling the documentary forms that are generally used to confront such a subject are radically conceived, as well as cunningly and delicately employed. Not an easy film, but an unforgettable one (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Spider Baby, Or The Maddest Story Ever Told

Also known as The Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy, this low-budget black-and-white horror comedy from 1964 stars Lon Chaney Jr. (who also sings the title tune) as a member of and chauffeur to the inbred and deranged Merrye family, which includes two bloodthirsty nymphets and a drooling pinheadall of whom like to eat spiders, kill people, and do other nasty things. Jack Hill, the exploitation auteur best known for such works as Blood Bath, Coffy, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Switchblade Sisters, keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, and the threadbare budget deprives this movie of the grand-scale climax it seems to need. An inept cheapo by any standard, only marginally more sophisticated than an Edward Wood Jr. productionyet it carries a certain demented charm, and there’s reason to suspect that Tobe Hooper checked it out before making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With Carol Ohmart, Mantan Moreland, and Sid Haig. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nineteen Eighty-four

A remarkably good translation of George Orwell’s novel, deliberately (rather than coincidentally) made in 1984, and infinitely superior to the 1956 version. Written and directed by Michael Radford, this grim SF depiction of a totalitarian future is made especially vivid and relevant by addressing and bearing witness to three separate periods at once: the time when Orwell wrote the novel, the hypothetical future in which he set the action, and the actual present. Thus the film manages to remain true both to Orwell’s projections and their contemporary meanings; with powerful performances by John Hurt, Richard Burton (in his last significant screen appearance), Suzanna Hamilton, and Cyril Cusack. (JR)… Read more »

Vinyl

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

After paying $3,000 for the rights to Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, Andy Warhol made this very loose adaptation (1965) using direct sound, with such Warhol regulars as Ondine and Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga performing a whip dance, and music by the Velvet Underground. It’s one of Warhol’s very best — and most painterly — films, more interesting for what it does with crowded space than for the S and M. 64 min. (JR)

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Pierrot Le Fou

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“I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple,” Jean-Luc Godard said of this brilliant, all-over-the-place adventure and meditation about two lovers on the run (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina). Made in 1965, this film, with its ravishing colors and beautiful ‘Scope camerawork by Raoul Coutard, still looks as iconoclastic and fresh as it did when it belatedly opened in the U.S. Godard’s misogynistic view of women as the ultimate betrayers is integral to the romanticism in much of his 60s work — and perhaps never more so than here — but Karina’s charisma makes this pretty easy to ignore most of the time. The movie’s frequent shifts in style, emotion, and narrative are both challenging and intoxicating: American director Samuel Fuller turns up at a party scene to offer his definition of cinema, Karina performs two memorable songs in musical-comedy fashion, Belmondo’s character quotes copiously from his reading, and a fair number of red and blue cars are stolen and destroyed. In French with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)

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