Monthly Archives: November 1989

Baby Knows Best [LOOK WHO'S TALKING]

From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1989). — J.R.

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Amy Heckerling

With Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, George Segal, Olympia Dukakis, Abe Vigoda, and the voice of Bruce Willis.

The biggest surprise in the film industry this season has been the box office performance of what is generally known as “the talking-baby movie.” Last month, only a week after a Variety reviewer plausibly predicted that this “yuppie-targeted programmer is destined for a short life in theaters, and its video future seems likewise limited,” Look Who’s Talking leapt to the top of the national charts, where it has remained ever since.

Having only just caught up with Look Who’s Talking, I must confess that I found the voice-overs of the talking baby, delivered by Bruce Willis, to be the silliest and least engaging aspect of the picture, although the audience I was seeing it with seemed to feel otherwise. I was probably biased by unpleasant childhood memories of the “Speaking of Animals” shorts — a rather odious series made by Jerry Fairbanks for Paramount during the 40s, which consisted of live-action animals with animated mouths spewing out wisecracks, usually in response (if memory serves) to the gag setups of the offscreen narrator.… Read more »

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Four tales about Reinette (Joelle Miquel), a country girl who paints and operates according to certain principles, and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde), her less rigorous friend from the city; they meet in the country in the first episode, and share an apartment in Paris during the remaining three. This feature was shot in 16-millimeter by Eric Rohmer in 1986, shortly before he completed Summer in the same format and with the same method of letting his leading actors improvise dialogue rather than his usual strict adherence to scripts. Not part of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series, and deliberately light and nonambitious (very little of consequence occurs in any of the tales), this nevertheless shows the filmmaker at nearly peak form–sharply attentive to the sights and sounds of country and city alike and to the temperamental differences between his two heroines. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 24 through 30)… Read more »

The Long Weekend (o’Despair)

Shot for the astonishing sum of $5,000, Gregg Araki’s second feature is accurately described by its writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor as “a minimalistic gay/bisexual postpunk antithesis to the smug complacency of regressive Hollywood tripe like The Big Chill.” A college reunion of sorts takes place when Rachel (Maureen Dondanville), a lesbian, and Sara (Nicole Dillenberg), a hetereosexual, decide to visit their gay friend Michael (Bretton Vail) in LA for a weekend; their new lovers (Andrea Beane and Marcus D’Amico) are in tow, and Michael’s former lover Alex (Lance Woods) happens to turn up as well. All three couples quarrel and gripe to one another about how bored and directionless they are, and there’s a certain amount of tentative breaking up, infidelity, and coming back together again, but basically very little happens. The characters chiefly talk, and Araki’s well-scripted and mainly well-synchronized dialogue essentially carries the movie. An authentic expression of the dead-end feeling of a generation, Araki’s film can be irritating in spots: the defeatist attitude toward politics (epitomized especially in the semiparodic treatment of Rachel’s girlfriend Leah) seems assumed rather than explored, and there are times when the overall existential angst seems as much a matter of fashion here as it was 25 years ago in Antonioni films.… Read more »

Kung Fu Master!

Not a martial arts movie (the title refers to a video game) but a provocative French feature starring and based on a story by the talented English/French actress Jane Birkin, written and directed by Agnes Varda (Vagabond). Birkin plays a 40-year-old divorcee with two daughters who befriends, falls in love with, and eventually has a fleeting affair with a 14-year-old boy (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son) who is also in love with her. The very matter-of-fact treatment that this taboo subject receives ties it in persuasively with the film’s comfortably domestic middle-class milieu and the surrounding cultural climate of France and England (in particular, the impact of AIDS). And to compound the personal (if not autobiographical) nature of the project, Birkin’s two daughters are played by her actual daughters (including The Little Thief’s Charlotte Gainsbourg). Neither salacious nor flippant, the film is the serious working-through of a fantasy of Birkin’s that shirks neither its implications nor its consequences. Varda’s serene and unrhetorical handling of such a loaded subject underlined with sympathy and understanding for all of the characters, and full of both wit and tenderness–is what gives this picture its charge (1988). (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Bangkok Bahrain

Amos Gitai’s documentary about workers in Thailand, with an extended side trip to Bahrain, features interviews with prostitutes, a former film censor who currently recruits workers, a company owner showing off his house, the manager of a luxury hotel, and others. A particularly strong aspect of Gitai’s informative, antitouristic style is his original approach to sound recording and sound mixing; his densely layered sound track nearly always encompasses parts of the surrounding environment that are not visible on screen, so that one’s perceptions of the various milieus being explored are constantly expanded beyond the borders of the frame (1984). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 19, 6:30, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Peddler

An impressive, often powerful Iranian feature (1987) by Mohsen Makmalbaf–who started out as an anti-Shah activist and fiction writer–composed of three sketches dealing with the poor in Tehran. The first, freely adapted from an Alberto Moravia story, follows the appalling misadventures of an impoverished couple with four crippled children as they try to get their fifth and latest child adopted, in the hope that she won’t wind up crippled as well. The second follows the equally pathetic life of a scatterbrained, spastic Jerry Lewis type who devotes his life to caring for his aged and senile mother. (The couple from the first part reappear briefly in this episode.) The third part, shot in film noir style, is largely devoted to the grim fantasies of a clothes peddler who is afraid of being killed by fellow traffickers. Each episode has a different cinematographer (like most of Kieslowski’s recent Decalogue), and all three are shot very adroitly and fluidly, although the more self conscious stylistics of the third part sit rather oddly with the first two episodes, which are often much closer to neorealism. According to Makmalbaf, the film as a whole deals with the three stages of man–birth, “journey through life,” and death.… Read more »

Onion City Film Festival

Now in its sixth year, this festival of experimental films will be screening its prizewinners on two consecutive nights. Only two films will be shown both nights, the special jurors’ award winner (Fred Marx’s Dreams From China, a pungent, ambivalent personal essay about his two years in that country) and one of the first-prize winners (Sal Giammona’s Wall in the Woods, a densely compacted reverie about a cosmic eggbeater, featuring lots of special effects and imaginative graphics). My other favorites in the Friday show include Phillip Roth’s Boy’s/Life, an unfashionably joyous celebration of safe sex (group masturbation parties) and affection (fondling in public places) among gay men; the spirited and literally dotty J. P. Somersaulter’s Dot to Dot Cartoon; and two bits of wacky Dada from Heather McAdams (Mr. Glen W. Turner and Fetal Pig Anatomy), made mainly with found footage. Among the other Saturday selections that I previewed, I especially liked Jay Rosenblatt’s Paris X 2 (a dreamy love story filmed in San Francisco and Paris, throbbing with remembered movie moments and ambiguous street and studio photography), David Stoff’s delightfully color-splashed My Electric Coloring Book, Francois Miron’s Dismal Universal Hiss (full of aggressive optical printing and flicker effects), and Amy Kravitz’s brooding black-and-white animation The Trap.… Read more »

Bear Essentials [THE BEAR]

From the November 10, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THE BEAR

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Written by Gerard Brach

With Douce, Bart, Jack Wallace, Tcheky Karyo, and Andre Lacombe.

Much of the immediate appeal of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s new feature, apart from its impressiveness as a technical feat, is the attraction of seeing animals more than people, which also means seeing a movie that’s virtually free of dialogue. In theory, at least, there’s something relatively uncorrupted about both experiences. We spend so much time watching actors in the media — people pretending to be what they’re not — that there’s something refreshing about watching animals being animals for a change, even when they are “acting” in a fiction film. Similarly, the sparsity of dialogue –  a total of 657 words shared by three actors in 93 minutes — brings us close to the purity of silent film and its strictly visual means of story telling, which produces that primal sense of unfolding narrative that most talkies miss. (Following a belt-and-suspenders principle when it comes to using dialogue and image, the average sound movie puts forth a redundancy of information and effect that leaves less freedom for the spectator’s imagination than the average silent movie.)

The Bear‘s story, adapted by Gerard Brach from The Grizzly Bear, a novel by James Oliver Curwood published in 1916, can be encapsulated in the four lines presented by Annaud to producer Claude Berri seven years ago: “An orphan bear cub.… Read more »

Penn & Teller Get Killed

From the Chicago Reader (November 3, 1989). — J.R.

Whether or not this goofy black comedy is a total “success” is debatable, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty different from anything else around. Postmodern comic magicians Penn Jillette and Teller play themselves in a script of their own devising that is deftly delivered by director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves). After Jillette brazenly announces on national TV that his life would be more exciting if someone tried to kill him, a bizarre series of murder attempts ensues during an engagement in Atlantic City, but it becomes increasingly difficult to determine who’s pulling the strings. Deconstructing illusion, Penn and Teller’s stock in trade, becomes the modus operandi of the plot — like a farcical version of House of Games, with heaps of good-natured gore added and a literally unbelievable grand finale — and the dynamic duo make the most of it. With Caitlin Clarke, David Patrick Kelly, Leonardo Cimino, and Celia McGuire. (Biograph)

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The Naked Spur

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

the-naked-spur-trio

An uncharacteristically nasty James Stewart plays an obsessive bounty hunter with Robert Ryan in tow in one of the very best Anthony Mann westerns — which means one of the very best westerns, period. This 1953 film has Janet Leigh in jeans, beautiful location shooting (and Technicolor cinematography) in the Rockies, and some of the most intense psychological warfare to be found in Mann’s angular and anguished oeuvre. With Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell, and a top-notch script by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. 91 min. (JR)

the-naked-spurRead more »

The Suitors

An Iranian businessman brings his young wife to New York, where a misunderstanding quickly leaves her a widow and the object of the attentions of some of her husband’s friends. Writer-director Ghasem Ebrahimian’s location shooting in 16-millimeter employs a strikingly vivid use of color, but his talents as a storyteller are unevenshots are often held too long without any discernible rhythmic or narrative function. As a plot with both comic and thriller elements, the film’s beginning and closing sections are provocative (if not always convincing) while the middle tends to sag. Overall, this is a fitfully interesting first feature with a few things to say about the clashes between American and Iranian cultures, but not a fully realized piece of filmmaking. With Pouran, Ali Azizian, Shahab Navab, and Assurbanipal Babila (1988). (JR)… Read more »

Steel Magnolias

I haven’t seen the popular play by Robert Harling that Harling himself has adapted here, expanding the all-female original to accommodate some menfolk (Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Sam Shepard) in smaller parts, but it must have something more to offer than director Herbert Ross’s corny, all-star mounting of it, with Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts heading the cast. Full of either fake or slippery southern accents (MacLaine and Dukakis are the worst offenders) and humor that largely consists of sentences ending with butt or where the sun don’t shine, the film at least has the authentic and good-natured sincerity of Parton and Field and the talent and charm of Hannah to guide one over some of the stickier sections. If you can survive the sentimental harmonica music of Georges Delerue, the overall ambience of this tribute to the camaraderie of southern women is facile and a mite mechanical, but otherwise tolerable (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Staying Together

Shot on location in South Carolinaalthough it’s actually a story that could have been set in numerous other locationsLee Grant’s second feature as a director (after Tell Me a Riddle in 1980) is a low-key but reasonably effective comedy-drama recounting what happens to three brothers (Tim Quill, Dermot Mulroney, and Sean Astin) after their father (Jim Haynie) decides to sell his local fast-food chicken restaurant; others in the capable cast include Stockard Channing, Melinda Dillon, Dinah Manoff, Daphne Zuniga, and Levon Helm (former drummer and lead singer of the Band). Scripted with sincerity and sensitivity (despite a certain familiarity in some of the material) by Monte Merrick, the movie is nothing spectacular, but the ensemble acting keeps it consistently watchable. (JR)… Read more »

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

William Shatner wrote the story (with Harve Bennett and screenwriter David Loughery) and makes his awkward if sincere directorial debut in this 1989 sequelan exceptionally feeble entry whose ideas, visual and otherwise, consist of hand-me-downs from 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Superman III, and whose special effects, despite the hefty budget, look strictly bargain basement. The Enterprise crew (Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei) encounter a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) who wants to usurp the starship for a dangerous quest to find God at the center of the universe. David Warner also stars, although it looks like most of his part wound up on the cutting-room floor. (JR)… Read more »

Shirley Valentine

Pauline Collins plays Shirley Valentine-Bradshaw, an English housewife and mother who at 42 wants to get back in touch with the dreams of her rebellious youth, and who gets her chance when a friend invites her to come along on a two-week holiday in Greece. Adapted by Willy Russell from his own play (which had only one character when Collins won a Tony for playing her on the stage, but has been amply fleshed out for the film version), and directed by Lewis Gilbert, the movie is reminiscent in certain ways of two other Gilbert filmsAlfie (which was also narrated by the leading character addressing the camera) and Educating Rita (another actorly piece adapted by Russell from his own play)but, thanks to a delightful script and an equally delightful performance by Collins, Shirley Valentine is arguably a better work than either. With Tom Conti (as a Greek waiter), Julia McKenzie, Alison Steadman, Joanna Lumley, and Bernard Hill. (JR)… Read more »