Monthly Archives: September 1989

The Girl in a Swing

Alan (Rupert Frazer), a wealthy English antique ceramics dealer, becomes smitten with a German secretary named Karin (Meg Tilly) during a business trip in Copenhagen, proposes to her, and marries her after she joins him in England. Although they’re passionately in love, a number of unsettling and seemingly supernatural events–including dreams and apparent hallucinations–begin to raise the question of Karin’s mysterious past, which continues to trouble her. Writer-director Gordon Hessler’s erotic psychological thriller, adapted from Richard Adams’s novel, isn’t an unqualified success (some choppy editing and miscalculated slow-motion occasionally interfere with the trancelike rhythms), but it shares with the memorable horror films of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur a preference for suggestion and understatement over explicitness, developing a gripping narrative and some disquieting and evocative moods in the process, along with some fairly steamy sex. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Privileged Moments (REMBRANDT LAUGHING)

From the Chicago Reader (September 29, 1989). — J.R.

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REMBRANDT LAUGHING

Directed and written by Jon Jost

With Jon A. English, Barbara Hammes, Jim Nisbet, Nathaniel Dorsky, Janet McKinley, Kate Dezina, and Jerry Barrish.

“The essence of Jean-Luc Godard’s La femme mariĆ©e,” John Bragin wrote in the mid-60s, “is the transmutation of the dramatic into the graphic.” While this formula doesn’t account for everything in Rembrandt Laughing, Jon Jost’s ninth feature, I think it provides a helpful clue to the overall direction taken by this masterful, elliptical account of a little over a year in the lives of a few friends in San Francisco.

For all his mastery and originality as a maverick independent, Jost has often alienated audiences with the harshness of his themes and the apparent distance from which he views his subjects and his characters. A 60s radical who spent over two years in federal prison for draft resistance, he has lived without a fixed address for most of his 26-year career as a filmmaker, and the alienation as well as the clarity stemming from his wanderlust has seeped into many of his fiction features. These have often centered on isolated individuals: a private detective in Angel City (1977), a drifter out of work in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) [see two images below], a drug dealer in Chameleon (1978), a Vietnam vet in Bell Diamond (1987).… Read more »

Home Remedy

A likable if minor low-budget comedy, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, which focuses on two eccentrics who live in the same neighborhood in Paramus, New Jersey: a frustrated housewife and mother (Maxine Albert) and a narcissistic recluse (Seth Barrish) who cultivates boredom. The editing and dialogue have their moments of wit as this unlikely pair gradually get acquainted. With Richard Kidney (1987). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 29, 6:00 and 7:45, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Second Animation Celebration: The Movie!

It’s one sign of just how good and lively this international assortment is that arguably the weakest item in the bunch, John Lasseter and William Reeves’s Tin Toy, won the last Academy Award for best animation–and that one isn’t too bad either. My own favorites: Tony Collingwood’s metaphysical fantasy from England, Rarg, which plays with conceits worthy of Borges and Calvino; Susan Young and Mike Smith’s tropical extravaganza Umbabarauma, which gives The Three Caballeros a decent run for its money; and a Soviet tribute to the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse by Mikhail Tumelya and Alexander Petrov called The Marathon. Other highlights include Gavrilo Gnatovich’s original (if grotesque) Lazar, some weird blackout gags by Cuban animator Juan Padron, a salute to the Olive Jar Animation Studio, and several funny episodes with Matt Groening’s Simpson family, but this list is far from exhaustive, and the overall level of this collection is unusually high. (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Family Viewing

Atom Egoyan’s striking and haunting Canadian feature concerns family ties and video technology, and the strange relationships between them. The plot concerns an alienated young man (Aidan Tierney) who lives with his father (David Hemblin) and his father’s mistress in a fancy high rise full of video equipment. The young man becomes increasingly worried about the fate of his grandmother, whom the father has shunted off to a convalescent home. At the institution he becomes acquainted with an ailing woman and her daughter (Arsinee Khanjian), an equally alienated individual who works as a purveyor of phone sex, which his father uses as a stimulus for his lovemaking. The use of video as a tool of voyeurism and as a means of sustaining distance punctuates the narrative with an eerie persistence; Egoyan’s measured style makes the most of it, while constructing a spellbinding plot that weaves a curious web of complicity and deceit around the major characters. It’s taken a couple of years for this highly accomplished feature to reach Chicago, but it’s still as fresh and as compelling as it was in 1987. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 22, 7:45, and Sunday, September 24, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Actor, Auteur [SHIRLEY VALENTINE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 22, 1989). — J.R.

SHIRLEY VALENTINE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Written by Willy Russell

With Pauline Collins, Tom Conti, Julia McKenzie, Alison Steadman, Bernard Hill, Joanna Lumley, and Tracie Bennett.

I had my first experience of English theater in London’s West End around the mid-1960s–a program of three one-act plays written by and starring Noel Coward. (I no longer remember the show’s title, but I believe it was Coward’s last theater piece.) [2011 postscript: this was Suite in Three Keys, in 1966.] The plots of all three plays were fairly slender, and the mise en scene, as I recall, was strictly conventional. What was remarkable about the overall performance, and quite characteristic (as I soon discovered) of the English theater in general, was the extraordinary, almost conspiratorial rapport between Coward the actor and his audience — a very cozy kind of intimacy that reflected the appeal of the three characters Coward was playing and very little else. The stories and direction were nothing more than the recipes and the cooking necessary to serve these characters up to the public for its delectation, and once combined the ingredients retained no attributes of their own; all that remained was Coward’s plump, juicy, quirky personality.… Read more »

A Dry White Season

First-rate agitprop about the ruthlessness with which South African apartheid is maintained, directed by Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley), and adapted from Andre Brink’s novel by Palcy and Colin Welland. More powerful than either Cry Freedom or A World Apart, particularly in its depiction of violence, this film is like those predecessors in concentrating on the situation of white rebels in South Africa, but its depiction of black oppression goes substantially further. Donald Sutherland stars as a liberal but blinkered schoolteacher who gradually becomes radicalized after a series of brutal events affecting his gardener that eventually split his family apart. Susan Sarandon plays a sympathetic journalist, and Marlon Brando, in a juicy comeback cameo that evokes Orson Welles’s Clarence Darrow impersonation in Compulsion, plays an antiapartheid lawyer. The relentless plot is effectively set up and expertly pursued, and Hugh Masekela makes some striking contributions to Dave Grusin’s musical score. With Janet Suzman, Jurgen Prochnow, and Zakes Mokae. (Oakbrook, 900 N. Michigan, Old Orchard)… Read more »

Videos by Stephen Roszell

The remarkable Writing in Water (1984), which runs less than half an hour, consists of a collective account by a family and their neighbors in rural Kentucky of a visit by an old friend who has clearly lost his mind. Beautifully articulated, this tape gradually constructs two stories at once–an oblique narrative of a man going to pieces, and an equally fascinating and challenging portrait of how the family and their neighbors deal with it, practically and emotionally. The narrative method recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but Roszell’s editing and juxtapositions of sound and image are so beautifully structured that the work becomes mesmerizing in its style and content–and wholly original. The 58-minute Other Prisoners (1987), which alternates stories by guards and inmates at a Kentucky prison, is a more conventional documentary. But it’s a vivid and illuminating one, with a feel for southern story telling and alternating views of reality, and for using speech patterns and images to orchestrate narrative rhythms. Roszell, who is based in Chicago, will be present at this must-see program to introduce and discuss his work. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, September 15, 8:00, 281-8788)… Read more »

Forevermore: Biography of a Leach Lord

For me, the major find of Barbara Scharres’s “Films From the Lunatic Fringe” series, which starts this week at the Film Center, is this highly distinctive pseudodocumentary by Eric Saks, an environmentalist based in Los Angeles. At once novelistic and poetic, this achronological collage of diary entries between the 1940s and 1990s by a fictional toxic-waste dumper named Isaac Hudak–the different stages of his life are played by three actors, including Saks–creates a haunting portrait of an alienated drifter’s existence that comprises the underside of our national heritage. Behind the dry recitation of ecological facts in the narration, there is a powerful overall sense of the poetics of waste (a register that recalls Thomas Pynchon), with writers as diverse as E.M. Cioran and Peter Handke used to flesh out some of the diary entries. Highly original in its form, its subject, its funereal tone, and its ghostly sense of presence, this is a remarkable and memorable first feature, full of haunting ideas and eerie aftereffects. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 8, 6:00 and 7:45, and Saturday, September 9, 4:15, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Second Animation Celebration: The Movie!

It’s one sign of just how good and lively this international assortment is that arguably the weakest item in the bunch, John Lasseter and William Reeves’s Tin Toy, won an Academy Award for best animationand that one isn’t too bad either. My own favorites: Tony Collingwood’s metaphysical fantasy from England, Rarg, which plays with conceits worthy of Borges and Calvino; Susan Young and Mike Smith’s tropical extravaganza Umbabarauma, which gives The Three Caballeros a decent run for its money; and a Soviet tribute to the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse by Mikhail Tumelya and Alexander Petrov called The Marathon. Other highlights include Gavrilo Gnatovich’s original (if grotesque) Lazar, some weird blackout gags by Cuban animator Juan Padron, a salute to the Olive Jar Animation Studio, and several funny episodes with Matt Groening’s Simpson family, but this list is far from exhaustive, and the overall level of this collection is unusually high (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Sea Of Love

Al Pacino plays a divorced New York cop who gets involved with a prime suspect (Ellen Barkin) in a serial murder casethe victims are men that she’s met through personal ads. Harold Becker directed from a script by Richard Price (The Color of Money); with John Goodman. What sets this thriller apart from its fairly routine script and adequate direction are the wonderful performances of Pacino and Barkin: Pacino forsakes much of the bombast of previous roles for a portrait of a disheveled, awkward individual touchingly trying to hold himself together, while Barkin keeps us guessing with elegance, imagination, and grace. (JR)… Read more »

Near Dark

Back in 1982 Kathryn Bigelow collaborated with another writer-director (Monty Montgomery) on a small independent feature called The Lovelessa rather inert road movie that was too studied but nevertheless visually striking. In her first solo featurea 1987 hillbilly vampire movie set in very similar locationsshe makes a much more impressive mark. Beautifully shot by Adam Greenberg, this alternately grisly and poetic horror picture begins as a love story, with its hero (Adrian Pasdar) meeting a sexy and spaced-out creature of the night (Jenny Wright) who travels with an extended family of bloodsucking weirdos. Kidnapped by this entourage, he becomes a sort of half vampire himself, hooked on the blood supplied to him by his vampire girlfriend but unwilling to commit carnage, while his father and kid sister try to track him down. One regrets the pounding Muzak of Tangerine Dream, but this is on the whole a striking directorial debut, at once scary and erotic, with lots of sidelong touches in the casting, direction, and script (written by Bigelow and coproducer Eric Red). 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Henry V

One can pick plenty of bones with Laurence Olivier’s direction of the Shakespeare play, but this 1945 film is still a powerful production from many standpoints, including Olivier’s performance and his detailed re-creation of what a play at the Globe in Shakespeare’s day might have been like. As cinema this isn’t within hailing distance of any of Orson Welles’s Shakespeare films, but it’s certainly Shakespeare. With Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, and Ernest Thesiger. (JR)… Read more »

Wild And Woolly

Douglas Fairbanks plays a quixotic and wealthy easterner who goes out west to Bitter Creek, Arizona, where the citizenry attempt to honor his preconceptions about what the wild west is like. This 1917 comedy, scripted by Anita Loos and directed by her husband, John Emerson, is witty, sophisticated, and loads of fun. 47 min. (JR)… Read more »

When Worlds Collide

An apocalyptic fantasy produced by George Pal in 1951, adapted from a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, this probably looks about as stodgy now as it did back then, although the Oscar-winning special effects include the flooding of Manhattan. Rudolph Mate directed, and Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, and John Hoyt all make a game try at sounding like real peoplewhich is not always easy, given Sidney Boehm’s script. (JR)… Read more »