Monthly Archives: November 1989

Sex, Lies, And Videotape

Winner of the grand prize at the 1989 Cannes film festival, this is an extremely well made chamber piece about sexual attitudes and impulses. At the center of this stylish comedy-drama are an up-and-coming yuppie lawyer (Peter Gallagher); his sexually repressed wife (Andie MacDowell); his sexually uninhibited mistress (Laura San Giacomo), who happens to be his wife’s sister; and his former college chum, who’s just moved back to town (James Spader, who won the prize for best actor at Cannes)an impotent eccentric who likes to videotape women talking about their sexual experiences. Cunningly scripted and acted, and talky in the best sense, the film is engrossing to watch but not especially interesting to ponder afterward; it’s certainly an improvement on formulaic Hollywood, but on a thematic level there’s still more windup than deliveryit’s a film that ultimately seeks to satisfy more than to provoke. Writer-director Steven Soderbergh works mainly in close-ups and medium shots, and while his close concentration on his quartet of characters makes for a narrative intensity, the relative absence of a wider social context leads to a certain overall preciosity. You should see this, but don’t expect any major revelations. (JR)… Read more »

Harlem Nights

Eddie Murphy stars, writes, produces, and debuts as a director with this semicomic gangster movie mainly set in 1938. Playing the adopted son and partner of a crooked Harlem nightclub tycoon (Richard Pryor), Murphy struts his usual stuff as an actor and icon in the midst of opulence, this time doing battle against a white mobster (Michael Lerner) and white cop (Danny Aiello) who are trying to take away their business. The plot exposition gets laborious in spots, the period flavor is only occasional and approximate, and the direction tends to be clunky, yet the strong secondary castRedd Foxx, Della Reese, Berlinda Tolbert, Stan Shaw, Jasmine Guy, Vic Polizos, Lela Rochon, Arsenio Hall, and othershelps to take up some of the slack; the so-so score is by Herbie Hancock (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Weapons Of The Spirit

Pierre Sauvage’s fascinating personal documentary about the remarkable French town of Le Chambon, only 20 miles from Vichy, where the 5,000 inhabitants, most of them devout Protestants, managed to shelter 5,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation. Whatever one’s misgivings about the ultraconventional form of this documentary and the excessive use of musicwhich tends to register as so much lily gildingthe story that this film has to tell is such a remarkable and inspiring one that it still has the force of a revelation. Sauvage is a Jew who was born in Le Chambon in 1944, and as he interviews many of the surviving inhabitants of the town today, their simple and unpretentious goodness, which somehow managed to subvert even certain Vichy officials, gives us a look at that era that forces us to revise somewhat the conclusions reached in Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Hotel Terminus. Offering a healthy and bracing alternative to the ethnocentrism that informs so much commentary about the Holocaust, this is a film that quite simply restores one’s faith in humanity. (JR)… Read more »

Valmont

For its first half or so, director Milos Forman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s free adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liasons dangereuses holds a great deal of promise. Beautifully mounted and attractively shot in ‘Scope (by Miroslav Ondricek), seductively acted (especially by Colin Firth as Valmont and Annette Bening as Merteuil), and crisply and economically edited, the film dives straight into the novel’s central intrigue without any preliminaries, and holds one’s interest with sheer storytelling flair before one has any opportunity to wonder what this story (in contrast to the novel) is actually about. Unfortunately, it gradually emerges that Forman and Carriere are pretty much in the dark themselves about what their story means. Neither a reductive simplification of the original (like Carriere’s versions of Proust in Swann in Love and Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) nor a reductive subversion (like Forman’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and not even a combination of the two (like Forman’s Ragtime), the film winds up subtracting meaning from the original without really adding any strong independent meaning of its own. All the major characters (with the possible exception of the simple-hearted Danceny) are reduced to ciphers, either through a withdrawal of their original motivations (Merteuil and Tourvel) or a softening of their natures (in the case of Valmont), so that what emerges by the end is genuinely bafflingand not very interesting as an enigma either.… Read more »

The Toxic Avenger Part Iii

Third series installment, subtitled The Last Temptation of Toxie, about the superhero from New Jersey (Ron Fazio), scripted by Gay Partington Terry and Lloyd Kaufman, and directed, like its predecessors, by Michael Herz and Kaufman. Fans of the earlier entries may have some fun with the stridently campy badness of the gags and gore; after sampling the first 20 minutes or so, I found it unwatchable. With Phoebe Legere, John Altamura, Rick Collins, and Lisa Gaye. (JR)… Read more »

Tolerance

A French film written and directed by Pierre-Henry Salfati, this rather tedious period picture takes off from the alleged practice in late 18th-century England of well-to-do salons adopting as house pets and conversation pieces hermits who were ejected from British monasteries for being too pious. According to this movie, the craze for salon hermits was exported to the Continent, at least to the extent that one such hermit turns up in a crate at the wealthy estate of a French noble family. The wife of the nobleman, whose name is Tolerance, takes this bearded, unkempt hermit pretty seriously, which winds up threatening the stability of her marriage; the hermit asks the nobleman at one point to teach him debauchery, which for him represents the ultimate self-sacrifice. None of this is very convincing, and the satirical possibilities of the conceit, which cry out for the steely control of a Peter Greenaway, are frittered away in peripheral details. I previewed thisor, rather, most of thison video, and some decorous cinematography and Mozart on the soundtrack weren’t enough to keep my finger from the fast-forward button. With Ugo Tognazzi (as the nobleman), Rupert Everett, Anne Brochet, and Laszlo Szabo.… Read more »

Pineapple

Amos Gitai’s fascinating social history of the growing and processing of pineapple, which extends back to 1898, when Sanford Dole became the first governor of Hawaii. This 1983 documentary leaps geographically between the Dole headquarters in San Francisco, plantations in the Philippines, processing plants in Hawaii, and the wholly automated label-printing plant in Tokyo, contrasting the very different perceptions of management and workers. As he did in the subsequent Bangkok Bahrain, Gitai experiments with the sound track; here he concentrates on mixing discourses (particularly using a whispered chant and other kinds of music behind the various interviews), which reach a climactic cacophony in the final sequence. It’s an interesting and suggestive technique, though there are times when it becomes more distracting than illuminating. 78 min. (JR)… Read more »

Phantom Of The Opera

The latest remake of this war-horse stars Robert Englund as the phantom, along with Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey, Stephanie Lawrence, and Alex Hyde-White, and was directed by Dwight H. Little. (JR)… Read more »

The Peddler

An impressive, often powerful Iranian feature (1987, 95 min.) by Mohsen Makhmalbafwho started out as an antishah activist and fiction writercomposed of three sketches dealing with the poor in Tehran (1987). 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’s afraid of being killed by fellow traffickers. Each episode has a different cinematographer and all are shot very adroitly and fluidly, though 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 Makhmalbaf, the film as a whole deals with the three stages of existencebirth, journey through life, and death. Critic Gerald Peary has compared the film to Rossellini’s Paisan, and it’s certainly true that the first episode is as wrenching as anything in that film or in Germany, Year Zero.… Read more »

Parade

Jacques Tati’s last filmhis least-known work, shot mostly on videotape for Swedish televisionis seldom shown, but it’s a far greater achievement than most accounts would lead you to expect. Ostensibly nothing more than a series of circus and music-hall acts (including several of Tati’s most famous pantomimes) hosted by Tati and performed for an ordinary family audience, it is in fact a powerful testament that further develops the radical formal and social ideas of his masterpiece Playtime in more modest terms without sacrificing any of that work’s revolutionary implications. It’s literally impossible to determine when one act ends and another one begins, because of a complex process of displaced emphasis and a graceful dovetailing of details; it’s equally impossible to tell from the brilliant and deceptively simple mise en scene how much is straight documentary and how much contrived fiction. All this proceeds so naturally and effortlessly that one might misread the film as nothing more than minor light entertainment (although it certainly succeeds on that level). But Tati is clearly after much morea vision of spectacle, of dexterity versus awkwardness, of seeing versus being seen that carries the filmmaker’s antielitism to the point of dissolving all distinctions between stars and stargazers, performers and spectators, accomplished acrobats and children at play.… Read more »

Ok Mister

Like his first feature, The Mongols (a bizarre, quasi-Godardian comedy about Iranian myths), Parviz Kimiavi’s OK Mister is a far cry from realism. In this 1978 farce about the Western exploitation of Iran for oil, an Englishman named D’Arcy (Farrok Gaffari) recruits an American journalist, an anthropologist, and none other than Cinderella herself, all of whom arrive via balloon, to assist him in gaining the support of a remote Persian village while he digs for oil; numerous American gadgets and productsTV, Coca-Cola, T-shirtsalong with other symbols of the American way of life, are used to convert the populace. The overall spirit behind this satiric whimsy is sympathetic, but unfortunately the arch toneincluding the facetious employment of several songs from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsdoesn’t produce all the intended laughs, partially because the targets of Kimiavi’s ridicule seem loosely rather than pointedly conceived. Still, it must be admitted that the oddness of this movie (a distinct carryover from The Mongols) makes it a genuine novelty, particularly in relation to other Iranian pictures. (JR)… Read more »

Michelangelo: Self-portrait

Robert Snyder’s insufferably boring documentary about the life and career of Michelangelowith a commentary drawn by Michael Sonnabend from the artist’s diaries, letters, and poems, and various biographies, and anonymously intoned by someone who sounds a bit like Burgess Meredith. It follows the same basic scheme as Paul Cox’s Vincent, but the filmmaking skill is so meager that it makes Cox’s flawed film seem like a masterpiece in comparison. Predicated on the principle that nothing is worth looking atmuch less contemplating or thinking aboutlonger than about five seconds, the film dutifully runs through its material like a mechanized checklist, keeping the camera in almost perpetual motion (through pans and zooms) as it sweeps across paintings, sculptures, buildings, manuscripts, or (most often) fragments of the above, as if it were a package tour compiled for bored American vacationers. (The accompanying music by Monteverdi is also sliced into sound bites.) I don’t know Michelangelo’s writings, but it’s hard to believe that they’re as banal and as simpleminded as they’re made to sound here in collaged translation. The usual excuse for this sort of torture is that it’s educational and/or uplifting, but the notions of both art and education that are on display here are so alienated and alienating that the net effect is closer to antiart and antieducation.… Read more »

Looking For Langston

Isaac Julien’s frankly erotic black-and-white meditation on the Harlem renaissance of the 1930s. Part narrative, part polemical essay, part lyrical art film, part documentary on Langston Hughes, this 1988 British film employs clips from various kinds of archival footage (including three Oscar Micheaux films), quotes from Hughes, Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent, Hilton Als, and James Baldwin (the last read by Toni Morrison), and memorable glimpses of a period nightclub where black and white men in tuxedos dance together. The results are certainly strikingstylistically, intellectually, and sensually. 40 min. (JR)… Read more »

Look Who’s Talking

Amy Heckerling wrote and directed this romantic fantasy-comedy about an unwed pregnant woman of 35 (Kirstie Alley) who goes looking for an ideal father for her baby, which has ideas about the matter as well as an offscreen voice of its own (supplied by Bruce Willis). Heckerling still has some of the sensitivity she showed in handling actors in Fast Times at Ridgemont HighAlley, George Segal (as the selfish and adulterous father of the baby), John Travolta (as a boyish cabdriver, baby-sitter, and suitor), Olympia Dukakis (as the heroine’s mother), and Abe Vigoda (as Travolta’s grandfather) are all used well hereand she has a deft way of illustrating her heroine’s fantasies about possible mates without any fuss. But at the core of this movie, and providing the apparent reason for its immense popularity, is the smart-alecky baby-babble provided by Willis, which seems to prove that infantile male desirebeginning at the sperm level and continuing unabatedis still basically calling all the shots (1989). (JR)… 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 litte 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 towards 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 as it was 25 years ago in Antonioni films.… Read more »