Daily Archives: October 1, 1989

An Innocent Man

Tom Selleck plays someone who’s accidentally busted by two crooked narcotics cops (David Rasche and Richard Young) and is then sentenced to six years in a maximum security prison when the cops stick to their charges to cover up their mistake. Once inside, he gets a brutal education in how to survive prison life, and after he’s paroled and returns to his devoted wife (Laila Robins), he decides to get even with the cops. Written by Larry Brothers and directed by Peter Yates, this is a halfway decent formula action film that is periodically made unbearable by Howard Shore’s ghastly Muzak score and some moments of camp stolidity in Selleck’s performance. More interesting, from an actorly standpoint, are F. Murray Abraham and, in a regrettably brief part, Todd Graff. (JR)… Read more »

Gross Anatomy

Christine Lahti, Matthew Modine, and Daphne Zuniga, all deserving much better, are asked to prop up a formulaic, cliche-ridden comedy-drama about first-year medical studentsa sort of Paper Chase clone with Lahti assuming the John Houseman part. Written by Ron Nyswaner and Mark Spragg and directed by Thom Eberhardt, the film remains pretty hopeless, and not even Modine and Zuniga can do enough to make it otherwise. Lahti, however, as gifted an actress as we have, is so astonishingly good in her impossible part that she doesn’t so much transcend her role as make it seem irrelevant. All things considered, seeing her in the part of Dr. Rachel Woodruff, a stern medical professor, is like hearing Charlie Parker play I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles with Guy Lombardo; even she can’t transform the material, but what she does with it is a wonder to behold. With Todd Field, John Scott Clough, Alice Carter, and Zakes Mokae. (JR)… Read more »

Great Balls Of Fire

After The Big Easy, Dennis Quaid and director Jim McBride reunited for this 1989 musical biopic about rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis. More fanciful than factual, less likable than either The Big Easy or Breathless, McBride’s previous two features, the movie tries hard to re-create the euphoria of 50s rock films, but the poor-white milieu is treated with such crude derision that all the characters wind up seeming like two-dimensional geeks. Winona Ryder turns in a particularly fresh performance as Lewis’s teenage bride, Myra, but the filmmakers’ remoteness from their real-life models (including Lewis’s cousin Jimmy Swaggart, played by Alec Baldwin) eventually lands the movie in confusionby the end, we don’t even know for sure whether the Killer is triumphing or going down in flames. Still, there are a few striking touches and entertaining broad strokes, and the musical sequences are lively. Scripted by McBride and Jack Baran and very loosely based on the biography Myra Lewis wrote with Murray Silver; with John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, Trey Wilson, and cameos by Steve Allen and Joe Bob Briggs. (JR)… Read more »

Fat Man And Little Boy

The surprising thing about Roland Joffe’s movie about the building of the first atomic bomb is that, for all its unevenness as filmmakingwith a fragmented story line, unconvincing period dialogue, and a soupy Ennio Morricone score that would be more appropriate in a Sergio Leone epicit still comes across as an unusually intelligent and provocative treatment of its subject. Concentrating on the power relationship between General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman in a carefully crafted performance) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (newcomer Dwight Schultz), with plenty of time left for Oppenheimer’s feisty wife Kitty (Bonnie Bedelia), the romance between a young scientist (John Cusack) and a nurse (Laura Dern), and various other subplots, the movie starts off as scattered, and never fully recovers from the splintered interests of Joffe and Bruce Robinson’s ambitious script. (The corny handling of Oppenheimer’s relationship to his communist mistress, played by Natasha Richardson, is especially unfortunate.) But the film steadily grows in complexity and power, assisted by Vilmos Zsigmond’s superb cinematography, and winds up saying something persuasive and troubling about the network of forces that ultimately produced the bomba vast improvement on such earlier commercial treatments as The Beginning or the End (1947), which gave us Brian Donlevy as Groves and Hume Cronyn as Oppenheimer, without a trace of irony about either character.… Read more »

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, this 1932 screen adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic is a remarkable achievement that deserves to be much better known. Fredric March won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as the lead, and Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart play the two women who match the opposite sides of the hero’s nature. The transformations of Jekyll are a notable achievement for March and Mamoulian alike, and the disturbing undercurrents of the story are given their full due (as they weren’t in the much inferior 1941 Victor Fleming version with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner). Mamoulian was at his peak in the early 30s, as this film shows. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Dear Cardholder

The third feature of Australian filmmaker Bill Bennett (1987) is a somber comedy about creditspecifically, the adventures of a widower in a tax office who decides to buy a computer on credit in order to design a computer program. Despite many mishaps, he also manages to fall in love with a poor chicken farmer (Jennifer Cluff). (JR)… Read more »

Dangerous Liaisons 1960

Surprisingly, Roger Vadim’s contemporary pseudoadaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century masterpiece Les liaisons dangereusesthe film’s title now in English and the year of the original U.S. release addedhasn’t dated at all. It’s just as silly as it ever wasa surprisingly puritanical reading of the novel that tries strenuously to seem depraved. There’s a fadeout before every bout of lovemaking, and the comeuppance of the plot’s two leading characters, whom Vadim comically turns into a married couple (Gerard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau), is a lot more moralistically severe than anything meted out to them in the novel. Beginning with a hokey on-camera appearance by Vadim himself explaining the story’s moral, the movie unleashes fancy (if gratuitous) mise en scene around its trendy libertine and Barbie-doll characters, who spend their time at parties and at a Swiss ski resort, with jazz by Thelonious Monk and others used like ambient wallpaper. There are at least a dozen French films released in 1960 better than this one, but it’s reasonably diverting on its own limited terms. Scripted by Roger Vailland and Claude Brule; with Annette Vadim, Jeanne Valerie, Simone Renant, and a very young looking Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was previously featured in Vadim’s better and more genuinely antibourgeois And God Created Woman.… Read more »

Damnation

One of Susan Sontag’s favorite films, and it’s easy to see why (1987). People who don’t have much use for the existential gloom of Antonioni and Tarkovsky are advised to stay away, because many of the hallmarks of their relentless black-and-white style and visionlots of rain, fog, and stray dogs; murky and decaying bars; artfully composed long takes made up of very slow and almost continuous camera movements; offscreen mechanical noisesare so forcefully present that the gloom almost seems like a fetish. The rather bare story line in the middle of thisa reclusive loner (Miklos Szekely) is hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer (Vali Kerekes), hopes to find salvation in her, and gets her husband involved in a smuggling scheme so he can spend some time with herseems almost secondary to the formal beauty of Tarr’s spellbinding arabesques spun around the dingiest of all possible industrial outposts. The near miracle is that something so compulsively watchable can be made out of a setting and society that seem so depressive and petrified. (JR)… Read more »

Crimes And Misdemeanors

The first serious Woody Allen film with Jewish characters (1989) might seem like an improvement after the pseudoprofundities of Interiors et al, but it can’t be said to dig any deeper. Martin Landau plays a wealthy ophthalmologist who plots the murder of his mistress (Anjelica Huston) when she threatens to expose his adultery and embezzlement. In quasi-comic counterpoint is the plight of an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker (Allen) who’s stuck in an unhappy marriage, goes to work for his obnoxious brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a successful producer of TV sitcoms, and falls in love with one of his assistants (Mia Farrow). The overall philosophical thrustthat good guys finish last and that crime does payis designed to make the audience feel very wise, but none of the characters or ideas is allowed to develop beyond its cardboard profile (though Alda has a ball with his part). With Claire Bloom and Sam Waterston (as the perfect all-purpose symbolic Allen charactera rabbi going blind). PG-13, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Come Back, Africa

Early activist filmmaker Lionel Rogosin was able to film this powerful 1960 apartheid drama on location in South Africa by telling the authorities he was making a musical. Using many nonprofessional actors, the film focuses on the story of a black man named Zacariah who looks unsuccessfully for a steady job in Johannesburg. (JR)… Read more »

Carnival Of Souls

The main disappointment of this 1962 black-and-white cult horror filmmade for $30,000 by two industrial filmmakers, director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, on location in Kansas and Utahis that, despite the low budget, uneven acting, clunky editing, corny music, tatty ghoul makeup, and familiar story (one of many variants of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), it still isn’t very good even as camp. There’s a certain interest in the period flavor and the very un-Hollywoodish actors (Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Frances Feist, Stanley Leavitt, and Art Ellison), and decent cinematography by Maurice Prather, but apart from a slight creepiness in the overall story and ambience (a church organist emerges from a car wreck to find herself intermittently pursued by demons and treated by others as invisible), there isn’t very much here to sustain interest. 83 min. (JR)… Read more »

Call Me Madam

Ethel Merman plays the hostess with the mostestWashington socialite and ambassadress Perle Mestain a 1953 Irving Berlin musical adapted from the stage and directed by Walter Lang; starring Donald O’Connor, Walter Slezak, Vera-Ellen, and George Sanders. Lively and topical (for 1953). (JR)… Read more »

Bye Bye Birdie

George Sidney’s tacky 1963 musical fantasy-satire about the Elvis craze, based on the Broadway show of the same title, isn’t exactly good, but if you like what he does with Ann-Margret, Janet Leigh, and pink decor, it’s sort of magnificent. The story centers on the visit of rocker Conrad Birdie to a small town to bestow a kiss on one of his biggest fans (Ann-Margret); Paul Lynde is pretty funny as her father. With Dick Van Dyke, Maureen Stapleton, and Ed Sullivan (playing himself). 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Bedford Incident

A serviceable but not very exceptional cold-war thriller (1965) by onetime Kubrick producer James B. Harris (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), who later went on to forge a much more idiosyncratic directorial vision of his own in such films as Some Call It Loving, Fast-Walking, and Cop. Everything takes place on a U.S. destroyer, where a navy captain (Richard Widmark) has an ongoing debate with a skeptical journalist (Sidney Poitier). Fair to middling suspense and secondary performances from James MacArthur, Wally Cox, and Martin Balsam. 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Backlash

BacklashAustralian filmmaker Bill Bennett’s second feature follows two Sydney police officers (David Argue and Gia Carides) as they escort to trial a beautiful young aborigine (Lydia Miller) who’s accused of killing her employer by castrating him with garden shears. Made on a minuscule budget and with improvised dialogue, this is the feature that introduced Bennett to an international audience (1986). (JR)… Read more »