Monthly Archives: July 1989

Cult of Personality (LET’S GET LOST)

From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LET’S GET LOST ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bruce Weber.

Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.

This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker.… Read more »

The Jester

Jose Alvaro Morais’s first feature, O bobo, winner of first prize at the Locarno film festival, is set during the onset of the right-wing backlash against the Portuguese revolution in 1978. A group of friends are staging a play adapted from Alexandre Herculano’s novel The Jester–a mythic romance built around scenes from Portuguese history–in the abandoned film studio Lisboa Filmes. The film alternates between scenes from the play and the intrigues among the friends who are putting it on–including the murder of the instigator of the project, whose body is discovered in the studio during the rehearsal of the final scene. Six years in the making, the film presupposes a certain knowledge of Portuguese culture and recent history that I don’t have; but though I occasionally found myself at sea in following all the significations, the beauty of the mise en scene and Mario de Carvalho’s photography, and the grace with which Morais negotiates between different time frames and modes of narration kept me entranced. Combining the meditative offscreen dialogue of a film like India Song with the use of a historical play to investigate national identity (as in Raul Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream), The Jester offers a complex, multilayered view of revolutionary retrenchment that is worthy of standing alongside some of the best films of Manoel de Oliveira.… Read more »

The Last of England

Derek Jarman’s kaleidoscopic experimental film–a dark, poetic meditation on Thatcher England–is visionary cinema at its best. A work that manages to combine more than a half century of home movies of Jarman’s family, a documentary record of industrial and ecological ruin, and sustained looks at Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Spencer Leigh, the film was shot in Super-8, transferred to video for additional touches and processing, and then transferred to 35-millimeter. The results are often astonishing and spellbinding. Over an evocative narration by Jarman (which includes apocalyptic quotes from such poets as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and stirring uses of music and sound effects, images in black and white, sepia, and color explode and merge with mesmerizing intensity and build toward a powerful personal statement (1987). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday and Sunday, July 15 and 16, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Dream Stuff [on MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA]

From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein

Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi

With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.

1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?

Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »

Great Freaks of Nature [GREAT BALLS OF FIRE]

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

GREAT BALLS OF FIRE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jim McBride

Written by Jack Baran and McBride

With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Trey Wilson.

Given that Jim McBride’s film debut was a pseudodocumentary designed to look real (David Holzman’s Diary, 1968), and was followed by an actual diary film that was made to seem fictional (My Girlfriend’s Wedding, 1969), it should be no surprise that Great Balls of Fire, which purports to be a biopic of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, is actually a musical-comedy fantasy about virtually imaginary characters.

For those who accept the a priori assumption that most movies are simply dreams and lies, this is only business as usual; in fact, in playing fast and loose with the facts McBride and his longtime collaborator Jack Baran are working in a grand tradition peopled by the makers of most other simpleminded Hollywood biopics. The difference here is that the falsity of their concoction is made nakedly apparent: at least two-thirds of the picture resembles a feature-length music video, patterned in some ways after the rock musicals of 30 years ago.… Read more »

Young Einstein

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

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Postmodernism with a vengeance. This 1988 Australian comedy made some tidal waves on its home turf — perhaps because, like the subsequent and even more enjoyable Children of the Revolution, it offers a cheerful alternative to the usual Australian self-hatred. A distant cousin of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it has the charm and advantage of a genuine visual style of its own, both laconic and witty, as well as a likably dopey plot and cast of characters. Directed, written, coproduced by, and starring Yahoo Serious, the movie follows the adventures of a teenage Tasmanian apple farmer named Albert Einstein, who splits the atom in order to produce a beer that contains bubbles, falls in love with Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio) and follows her to Paris, meets Charles Darwin, and invents rock ‘n’ roll in the process of draining off the atomic energy in a nuclear beer keg fashioned by the villain (John Howard). Invert the auteur’s name and you get a partial notion of what he’s up to — which is not exactly serious in its own right, but is at least serious from a yahoo standpoint. 90 min.… Read more »

It Came From Outer Space

Directed by Jack Arnold and scripted by Ray Bradbury (though his hand isn’t readily apparent), this scary black-and-white SF effort from 1953 was shot in 3-D, and on occasion it’s shown that way. Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush star, and there’s a chilling cameo by an oversize extraterrestrial eye. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »

Slaughterhouse-five

George Roy Hill’s very professional, very entertaining 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s time-traveling novel, with the pseudoprofundities nicely tucked into place as peppy one-liners and narrative tricks. With Michael Sacks and Valerie Perrine. R, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills

Two male servants (Robert Beltran and Ray Sharkey) at adjoining Beverly Hills households make a bet to see who can seduce the other’s female employer first; the ladies involved are Jacqueline Bisset and Mary Woronov, and friends and relatives in the two households include Wallace Shawn, Ed Begley Jr., Arnetia Walker, and directors Paul Bartel and Paul Mazursky (the latter as a ghost). Despite a partially amusing script by Bruce Wagner (from a story by Bartel and Wagner) and some nice moments from the cast (particularly Bisset and Walker), this campy, irreverent 1989 farce is essentially defeated by Bartel’s awkward and unnuanced direction, which manages to crush most of the gags underfoot before they can blossom. On the other hand, viewers who weren’t troubled by this problem in Eating Raoul may be amused. R, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nude Restaurant

Viva, Taylor Mead, Alan Midgette, Ingrid Superstar, and other Warhol regulars talk a lot as they circulate in G-strings, as either waiters or customers, in a New York restaurant. This 1967 feature is one of the more enjoyable of Warhol’s voyeuristic gabfests, punctuated, or fractured, by strobe cuts in which the camera is shut off for reasons that are sometimes arbitrary. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Night In Havana: Dizzy Gillespie In Cuba

For viewers (and listeners) who feel that the great Dizzy Gillespie didn’t receive his due in Bird, this conventionally made but charismatic and enjoyable documentary by John Holland (1998, 85 min.) about the jazz trumpeter’s concert in Cuba, occasioned by the fifth International Jazz Festival of Havana, goes a long way toward making up the difference. Gillespie’s personality and music shine in this setting, and his contributions to Afro-Cuban music — including his association with Cuban drummer Chano Pozo and many of his best tunes in the 40s — are acknowledged in this congenial context. Fidel Castro makes a cameo. (JR)… Read more »

New York Stories

A trio of short films, all set in New York, by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, who launched this 1989 feature. Whether it happened by chance or design, the sketches have more than just New York in common: all three have something to do with middle age, as well as with romantic relationships. Scorsese’s sectionrelatively weak in plot, but very strong in style and characterstars Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette, both at their best, as a painter and his disaffected mistress and apprentice; Richard Price wrote the script. Coppola’s epsiode, scripted by Coppola and daughter Sofia (then 17), stars Heather McComb as the precocious daughter of a well-to-do flute player (Giancarlo Giannini) who tries to reunite him with her mother (Talia Shire). The most experimental of the three segments but also the most arch, the film contrives, though set in the present, to give us a fairy-tale Manhattan out of the 40s and the world of Noel Coward populated mainly by children. Allen’s episode, which he wrote and stars in, is a welcome throwback to the purely comic, pre-art-house Woody, following the psychoanalytical history of a lawyer (Allen) menaced by his aggressive mother (Mae Questel); Mia Farrow and Julie Kavner also star.… Read more »

The Haunting

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1989). This film is now available on a Blu-Ray from Warners, with an excellent audio commentary by Robert Wise, all four of the lead actors, and screenwriter Nelson Gidding. And for the record, a recent look confirms that it isn’t at all “stiff in the joints”; Jack Clayton’s The Innocents may be more accomplished, but this is still a rousing, intelligent, and provocative horror film.– J.R.

TheHaunting

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Robert Wise’s 1963 black-and-white ‘Scope translation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was pretty effective when it came out; it may be a little stiff in the joints by now, but it’s still a much better scare show than the stinker remake, and clearly aided by Wise’s skill as an editor. With Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Julie Harris. 112 min. (JR)

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Harry And Tonto

Art Carney stars as Harry, a septuagenarian sitcom version of Lear who sets out on a cross-country journey with his aging cat Tonto, in this sentimental and reflective comedy of Paul Mazursky. Carney won an Oscar for his work here, and the secondary castincluding Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Josh Mostel, and Arthur Hunnicuttis unusually fine, but you may find much of this, despite the apparent sincerity, too cutesy and self-satisfied for its own good (1974). (JR)… Read more »

Hanussen

Writer-director Istvan Szabo and actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer, who previously joined forces on Mephisto and Colonel Redl, reunite in a muddled allegory about an Austrian sergeant in World War I who becomes a magically endowed clairvoyant and hypnotist in Austria and Germany during the rise of Nazism. As in Mephisto, Szabo’s handling of period detail is often sloppy (some scat singing heard at a decadent party is a good two decades ahead of its time) or silly (there’s a rather unconvincing character based on Leni Riefenstahl named Henni Stahl), and the dubbing of some of the secondary roles is clumsy. But Brandauer’s command as a performer and the movie’s incidental glimpses of European high life in the late teens and 20swhich apparently had something to do with this film getting an Oscar nominationmake it intermittently watchable. Erland Josephson, Walter Schmidinger, and Grazyna Szapolowska also star; it was cowritten by Peter Dobai. (JR)… Read more »