Perhaps the most neglected of all the major French directors, at least in the U.S., Jean Gremillon (1901-1959) was a figure of such versatility that it’s difficult to make generalizations about his work. (One can, however, speak about its close attention to sound and rhythm–he started out as a musician–and its frequent focus on class divisions.) White Shanks (Pattes blanches), made in 1949, is not one of his very best efforts–I prefer Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le ciel est a vous (1944). But this moody melodrama of adultery set on the Normandy coast is still full of punch and fascination, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a taste for the classic French cinema. Coscripted by Jean Anouilh (who originally intended to direct), it’s a noirish tale about a promiscuous flirt from the city (Suzy Delair) who marries a local tavern keeper and becomes involved with a plotting local malcontent (Michel Bouquet) and a faded aristocrat (Paul Bernard), nicknamed “White Shanks” because of his spats, who is the target of a revenge plot. A sensitive maid with a hunchback who loves the aristocrat rounds out this odd quintet, who are regarded with a caustic compassion that recalls Stroheim. The lovely camera work is by Philippe Agostini, and the great Leon Barsacq is in charge of the sets.… Read more »
Two hippies from the 60s (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) emerge from a Central American jungle, where they’ve been smoking dope and hiding from the feds, come to New York, and discover what the U.S. in 1989 is all about. Aaron Russo (Bette Midler’s former manager) and David Greenwalt codirected this comedy from a script by Neil Levy and Richard LaGravenese; Julie Hagerty and Robert Carradine play the heroes’ now-yuppified friends who are gradually inspired to return to their former values. As disheveled in some ways as its leading characters are, this movie is still something of a rarity: a sincere, somewhat nuanced, relatively uncliched, and actually judicious look at both the 60s and 80s and what they mean in relation to each other. A far cry from the more reductive treatment of these issues in various sitcoms, this movie is genuinely interested in the question of what happened to 60s ethics, and in spite of an occasionally awkward plot that weaves in and out of comedy, it manages to come up with a few answers. The costars include Louise Lasser, Cindy Williams, Cliff De Young, Andrea Martin, and Buck Henry; the latter two are especially funny in the one extended sequence in which they appear.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 24, 1989). — J.R.
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Steven Soderbergh
With Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher.
As its lowercase title suggests, sex, lies, and videotape is an example of lowercase filmmaking: lean, economical, relatively unpretentious (or at least pretentiously unpretentious), and purposefully small-scale. Its having walked off with the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or — making first-time writer-director Steven Soderbergh at 26 the youngest filmmaker ever to win that prize — saddles it with more of a reputation than it can comfortably live up to. In a time of relative drought, it’s certainly a small oasis, but the attention it’s been getting befits something closer to a breakthrough geyser.
All the fuss may be a sign of panic over more than just movies. Sexual repression is reflected in various ways in current pictures, but this is the only one that deals with it forthrightly as its central subject — specifically, as the main preoccupation of its two leading characters — and broaches sexual problems such as impotence and frigidity in the bargain. I haven’t heard such giddy, unnatural-sounding laughter in a movie theater since The Decline of the American Empire hit the art-house circuit a few years ago — the same sort of forced, hyped-up hilarity at the mere mention of words like “fucking” and “penis” and “getting off.” This makes it only that much harder to discuss a movie like Soderbergh’s, which tries to be level-headed and truthful about such matters.… Read more »
From the August 18, 1989 Chicago Reader; this piece is also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
Directed and written by Terence Davies
With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones, Michael Starke, and Vincent Maguire.
An autobiographical film about growing up in a Catholic working-class family in Liverpool in the 40s and 50s. Achronological glimpses of a traumatic family life, with particular emphasis on a funeral and two weddings. A collection of radio shows and nostalgic songs sung at parties and pub gatherings. A highly condensed, triple-distilled family album of faces and feelings organized around a few key locations. A series of emotional and visceral jolts whose brute power and intensity could not be conveyed by a conventional linear story. A seamless block of passionate memories defined by the beauty and terror of the everyday.
The problem with all these descriptions of Distant Voices, Still Lives is that though each is partially accurate, they only dance around the periphery of what is a primal experience; that they represent the shards of my attempts to describe the essence of a masterpiece that reinvents filmgoing itself. I saw it twice at the Toronto film festival last September, and twice again earlier this month, and the inadequacy of my efforts is largely due to the fact that great films have a way of imposing their own laws and definitions that ordinary descriptions can’t reach.… Read more »
The virtues as well as the limitations of this bizarre fantasy from New Zealand, winner of half a dozen Australian Oscars, stem from its literary conception. Though the story is an original (by director Vincent Ward), and Ward’s use of both black and white and color gives it a very distinctive look, it feels like an idea translated into cinematic terms rather than a cinematic conception. In a remote English mining village threatened by the Black Death in 1348, a visionary boy (Hamish McFarlane) has a troubled dream that spells out possible salvation, which involves digging through the center of the earth to a celestial city and placing across on the spire of a cathedral. He sets out with four miners to fulfill this mission, and they eventually wind up in a modern (i.e., 1988) metropolis. Rather than play this conceit for satire, Ward and his cowriters Kely Lyons and Geoff Chapple stick pretty close to the funereal rhythm and doom-ridden mood that they establish at the outset. What emerges is not entirely successful; the switches between black and white and color often seem more mechanical than integral, and the hallucinatory atmosphere is occasionally diluted rather than enhanced by the blocky narrative continuity.… Read more »
Four films by an Illinois-based film and video maker whose experimental and political interests pointedly inform and reinforce one another. Dream Documentary (1981), which is especially impressive, uses found footage, inventive editing, and an effectively selective sound track to comment on the ways that we look at the third world. Hiding Out for Heaven (1982), which l haven’t seen yet, is a two-film projection piece about grading student writers. House of Un-American Activities (1983) is a documentary that mixes personal and public history as it describes the 1956 persecution of Marx’s father–a Jewish refugee who fled Germany in 1939 and joined the Communist Party in 1945. Dreams of China was shot while Marx was working as an English teacher in China between 1983 and 1985 and was finished only recently; the portrait of China that it presents is highly personal, full of fascinating details, and, for the most part, given Marx ‘s leftist background, unfashionably negative. Marx will be present at the screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 11, 8:15, 443-3737)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (August 4, 1989). This was my second column about Do the Right Thing; my first one is here. — J.R.
It’s readily apparent by now that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is something of a Rorschach test as well as an ideological litmus test, and not only for the critics. It’s hard to think of another movie from the past several years that has elicited as much heated debate about what it says and what it means, and it’s heartening as well as significant that the picture stirring up all this talk is not a standard Hollywood feature. Because the arguments that are currently being waged about the film are in many ways as important as the film itself, and a lot more important than the issues being raised by other current releases, it seems worth looking at them again in closer detail. I don’t mean to review the movie a second time, but I do want to address some of the deeper questions being raised by it. Ultimately most of these questions have something to do with language and the way we’re accustomed to talking about certain things — race relations and violence as well as movies in general.
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After a long and successful career in day care, Ruby L. Oliver made this, her first feature, in her late 40s. Now receiving its world premiere, it’s a remarkable debut: assured, highly focused, surprisingly upbeat considering the number of problems that it addresses without flinching–and conceivably the best low-budget Chicago independent that I’ve seen. Set in contemporary Chicago, it concerns a 17-year-old girl from the ghetto whose plans for the future are jeopardized when she finds herself pregnant. In addition, her brothers are gradually drifting into a life of crime, her mother is having difficulty maintaining a day-care center without a license, and her stepfather is an alcoholic and philanderer. The plot line is concentrated and purposeful, and the cast–including Carol E. Hall, Audrey Morgan (particularly impressive as the mother), Earnest Rayford, Andre Robinson, and Kearo Johnson–is uniformly fine. In addition to writing, directing, producing, and financing the film, Oliver is also credited with casting, served as set decorator and location manager, and sang as well as wrote the lyrics to the film’s theme song. (Film Center, Saturday, August 5, 8:00, and Sunday, August 6, 6:00)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, August 1, 1989. This wonderful film has just become available on an excellent Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. — J.R.
Tyrone Power and Kim Novak star in this biopic and musical melodrama, directed by George Sidney in 1956, about the life and career of the celebrated pianist and bandleader during the 30s and 40s. It’s not a movie that gets revived often, but it’s certainly one of the best Hollywood weepies of the 50s, comparable to the best of Douglas Sirk in both its imaginative mise en scene and its strong feeling. Carmen Cavallaro dubbed all the keyboard solos, and Victoria Shaw and James Whitmore are the main secondary players. (JR)
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The power and value of this docudramaabout the kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture of half a dozen high school activists by Argentina’s military dictatorship in the mid-70sare almost exclusively a matter of its effectiveness as agitprop. Made by Hector Olivera (Funny, Dirty Little War) in 1986, the film is marred by an obtrusive music score that needlessly underlines melodramatic moments and an occasional reliance on raw effect over logic (for instance, when the activists who demonstrate in favor of cheaper bus fares and against certain restrictions at school first learn that two of their members have been taken away, they don’t even mention the names of these martyrs). Based on the testimony of Pablo Diaz, a student who was eventually released after four years of imprisonment (in contrast to the fate of others still missing), this horror story of torture, rape, and Kafkaesque totalitarian bureaucracy certainly has a brutal impact. One is made to share the pain and confusion of these bound and blindfolded teenagers (and the frustration of their parents, who try to learn their whereabouts), as well as their few moments of respite when they are able to communicate with one another from their separate cells (1989). (JR)… Read more »
The pits. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) tries to get reborn through the pregnancy of his enemy Alice (Lisa Wilcox) in the last installment (1989) of the horror series. The few halfway decent ideas in the story (by John Skip, Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem) and production design (by C.J. Strawn) are mercilessly and fatally crushed by the inept direction of Stephen Hopkins and the flaccid editing. After the genuine interest of Renny Harlin’s fourth installment, the series here takes a depressing nosedive into zero-degree filmmaking. With Danny Hassel, Kelly Jo Minter, and Joe Seely. R, 89 min. (JR)… Read more »
The virtues as well as the limitations of this bizarre fantasy from New Zealand, winner of half a dozen Australian Oscars (1988, 91 min.), stem from its literary conception. Though the story is an original (by director Vincent Ward), and Ward’s use of color as well as black and white gives it a very distinctive look, it feels like an idea translated into cinematic terms rather than a cinematic conception. In a remote English mining village threatened by the Black Death in 1348, a visionary boy (Hamish McFarlane) has a troubled dream that spells out possible salvation, which involves digging through the center of the earth to a celestial city and placing a cross on the spire of a cathedral. He sets out with four miners to fulfill this mission, and they eventually wind up in a modern (i.e., 1988) metropolis. Rather than play this conceit for satire, Ward and his cowriters Kely Lyons and Geoff Chapple stick pretty close to the funereal rhythm and doom-ridden mood that they establish at the outset. What emerges is not entirely successful; the switches between color and black and white often seem more mechanical than integral, and the hallucinatory atmosphere is occasionally diluted rather than enhanced by the blocky narrative continuity.… Read more »
He made us laugh, wrote Bob Woodward in his book about the death of John Belushi, and now he can make us think. Unfortunately, there are only a few laughs in this interminable screen adaptation, about half of which seem unintentional, and no thoughts at all. Although Michael Chiklis does a creditable job of impersonating Belushi, the lack of any discernible raison d’etre behind this lame replay of All That Jazz and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Callingmovies that were at least motivated by their status as confessions and auto-critiquesmakes for a peculiarly rudderless biopic bound for nowhere. There are no insights offered into either Belushi or his milieu, and all that keeps this movie going is its arsenal of hand-me-down arty conceits: a very square-looking Woodward (J.T. Walsh) walking around with a notepad, Belushi visiting his own past under the custody of a Puerto Rican guardian angel (Ray Sharkey), and some faltering attempts to juice things up with various kinds of disjunctive editing. Earl Mac Rauch’s script and Larry Peerce’s direction are equally uninspired. This is the movie that Hollywood didn’t want you to see; now you know why. With Patti D’Arbanville, Lucinda Jenney, Alex Rocco, and Gary Groomes.… Read more »
Spanish surrealist playwright Fernando Arrabal loosely adapted his own autobiographical novel Baal Babylon, about a 12-year-old boy growing up during the Spanish civil war, into this violent, scatological, blasphemous, and extremely tiresome phantasmagoria, with very little filmic sense. If you like this, you might think it has something to do with Bosch, but it looked like bosh to me back in 1971, when misogynist visionary romps of this ilk were all the rage. In French with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 83 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. Synopsizing the film not only betrays but misrepresents it: while never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images conveyed by this language are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister; an evil doctor’s mysterious death by suffocation in a flour mill; a protracted dream sequence that manages to dovetail eerily into the narrative proper. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, which were all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous and haunting otherworldliness. (Vampyr was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versionsFrench, English, German, and Danish; most circulating prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.) If you’ve never seen a Carl Dreyer film and wonder why many critics, myself included, regard him as possibly the greatest of all filmmakers, this chilling horror fantasy is the perfect place to begin to understand.… Read more »