In 2002, 20 black seventh graders from Baltimore’s inner city, many of them from troubled homes, were sent to Baraka, an experimental boarding school in Kenya. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady spent three years following four of them, and the resulting documentary is sensitive, intelligent, enlightening, and sometimes surprising. Ewing and Grady give us a nuanced sense of these boys’ options, and it’s typical of their attention to detail that during a long-distance phone call, cameras in Baraka and Baltimore record both sides of the conversation. R, 85 min. (JR)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: December 1989
Shortly before his third marriage Caveh Zahedi recounts and restages events from his life showing how his addiction to prostitutes doomed his first two. This deconstructive, minimalist comedy, like his 1990 A Little Stiff (codirected by Greg Watkins) and 1994 I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, re-creates events with the vain self-deprecation of one of his role models, Woody Allen. Here he adds critical commentary, animation, and playful asides about the perils and vicissitudes of low-budget filmmaking, and his offbeat intelligence and low-burning wit recall his inspired rap on film theory in Waking Life. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
If the Philip K. Dick story this was based on made sense, director John Woo and screenwriter Dean Geogaris have reduced it to gibberish in their eagerness to cut to the chase as frequently as possible. The eminently forgettable Ben Affleck plays a consultant who gets his memory erased periodically in order to protect the secrets of his employers; Uma Thurman plays his forgotten (yet paradoxically cherished) girlfriend. Armed with an esoteric collection of objects he bequeathed himself before his mind was wiped, the professional amnesiac must piece his past together while dodging a boardroom’s worth of corporate villains, led by a glowering Aaron Eckhart. The silliness only slows down for a few hokey romantic interludes. But if you like to see stuff crash or blow up, this is your movie. PG-13, 110 min. (JR)… Read more »
As a documentary, this sounds like a natural: a year in the life of a rural one-room schoolhouse where a dozen students, ages 3 through 11, are taught by a single teacher. Because the teacher appears to be very good and the filmmaker is Nicolas Philibert, whose earlier In the Land of the Deaf and La Moindre des Choses (about a psychiatric clinic) showed tact and sensitivity, this 2002 feature partly fulfilled my high expectations. But the sometimes intrusive role played by Philibert and his small crew seems inadequately dealt with, and I wondered if the segments showing the kids outside school mythologized country life, never alluding to such tokens of the outside world as TV. This is seductive storytelling and good investigative journalism, but I wasn’t always sure which mode I was in. In French with subtitles. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »
This low-budget independent feature is supposed to be a comedy about stand-up comics, but I didn’t hear a single laugh at the press screening. Writer-director Pete Schwaba stars as a longtime comedy contender in LA who’s told he can audition for the Tonight Show at a roadside bar in northern Wisconsin, where a talent scout returns annually for the Rocktoberfest. He winds up romancing a former high school teacher (Lauren Holly, the film’s only bright spot), who’s been dating a drug dealer, the title thug (Tony Goldwyn). Schwaba’s uncertainty as a director is underlined by the almost arbitrary jump cuts, freeze-frames, and sped-up action. R, 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the December 22, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
List in the Pocket
With both a year and a decade now drawing to a close, the number of lists indicating the best and the most seems greater than ever. So pronounced, in fact, is this listomania concerning the 80s that in many cases it had already moved into full gear by late October, while the decade still had a good nine or ten weeks to go. The Tribune‘s Sunday arts section, for example, got its critics to come up with their ten-best lists for the 80s in time for an October 22 publication date, while the movie magazines Premiere and American Film, which plan their issues much further in advance, hit the stands with their own hit parades in early November.
Should we attribute these premature evaluations to a general eagerness to have the 80s over and done with? Whatever the reason, a recent movie list issued by Baseline, “the entertainment industry’s information service,” based in New York and Beverly Hills, offers some additional causes for gloomy reflection. The list in question gives us “the top ten turkeys of the 80s.”
Once upon a time, a “turkey” was a bad film, and a movie that lost money was a “bomb.” This was certainly true in 1980, when Harry and Michael Medved published The Golden Turkey Awards.… Read more »
This international program of 17 animated shorts isn’t quite as strong as some previous years’, although a fair number of the selections are worth anyone’s time. Highlights include John Lasseter’s Knickknack (in 3-D, complete with glasses); Arnie Lipsey’s Canadian Jewish anecdote The Crow and the Canary; Steve Goldberg’s computer-generated Locomotion; Erica Russell’s cubist and semiabstract dance film from England, Feet of Song; and Brett Thompson and Ian Gooding’s hilarious time-travel tale, The Housekeeper. There’s also work from Holland and the Soviet Union, an irreverent experimental work by Cathy Joritz, and a full-blown studio cartoon from Steven Spielberg’s production company called Family Dog, made by Brad Bird and Tim Burton. (Music Box, Monday, December 25, through Thursday, January 4)… Read more »
The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer–brought to us through the courtesy of Clint Eastwood as executive producer–is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers in midstream to burying them under voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; and, adding insult to injury, the film also takes pains to give us two Monk tunes performed only adequately by a contemporary piano duo (Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) in unabridged form. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts (by friends and family) of the mental illness that accompanied his last years are usually not very illuminating–although here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding–and there is virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Still, in relation to the magnificence of much of the film’s musical footage, this is mainly quibbling: Monk is heard playing close to two dozen tunes, most of them his own compositions, with his talented quartet and octet, in concerts, at rehearsals, and at one recording session–and much of this is remarkable; his sizzling solo on “Evidence” that opens the film is alone worth the price of admission.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 15, 1989). — J.R.
THE WAR OF THE ROSES
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Danny DeVito
Written by Michael Leeson
With Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, DeVito, Marianne Sagebrecht, Sean Astin, and Heather Fairfield.
The proper tone for Danny DeVito’s second feature is set by a very short Matt Groening cartoon that precedes every print. A brief cadenza on familial hatred and violence is played out in a therapist’s office, where most of the hatred and violence is directed at the therapist, uniting the family in the process. The War of the Roses opens with another sort of therapist — Danny DeVito as high-priced lawyer Gavin D’Amato — talking to a client in his office. The landscape outside D’Amato’s office looks unusually fake, and DeVito’s delivery seems as self-consciously overarticulated as some of Woody Allen’s recent performances — to mix a metaphor, one can almost see the chalk marks in his verbal punctuation — but both of these oddities actually serve the story he is about to tell about a marriage and its demise.
Unlike the therapist in the Groening cartoon, D’Amato stands mostly outside the story he is telling, and he clearly represents the voice of reason rather than part of the problem.… Read more »
Kenneth Branagh’s superb version of the Shakespeare play, which he directed and adapted as well as stars in, presents a distinctly different view of this work from Laurence Olivier’s 1945 movie. While the earlier film, made during the war, was intended to whip up patriotic sentiment, Branagh’s version has a much darker view of England’s defeat of France, more relevant in certain respects to World War I. (The climactic battle is muddy, gory, and marked by the looting of corpses, and after it’s over, Henry’s face is streaked with blood and grime like a Jackson Pollock painting.) Another way of reading the difference would be to follow the argument that Henry stood at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; while Olivier’s vantage point was more that of the Renaissance, Branagh’s, like Orson Welles’s in Chimes at Midnight (1966)–an obvious influence and reference point–is closer to the Middle Ages. It should be added, however, that Branagh is no more a creative filmmaker like Welles than Olivier was; the value of this film, apart from the strength and confidence of its interpretation, lies in the degree to which it makes Shakespeare’s language and meanings lucid and accessible. The cast–including Derek Jacobi as the modern-dress chorus, Paul Scofield as the French king, Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly, Ian Holm as Fluellen, Emma Thompson as Katherine, and Robbie Coltrane in an effective cameo as Falstaff–is uniformly fine without any grandstanding, The only hint of occasional excess occurs in Pat Doyle’s score.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 8, 1989). Reseeing this about a quarter of a century later, on an Olive Films Blu-Ray, I was struck by how much it qualifies as Tashlinesque — stylistically if not thematically, insofar as you can’t find real villains (or very much malice) in Frank Tashlin’s movies, whereas the villains here, even if they’re ultimately redeemed, satisfy every possible requirement in a feminist and working-class revenge fantasy. Otherwise, the cartoon characters, the loud and vulgar colors, and the overall cheerfulness are very Tashlin-like. [P.S. You can animate the second still here by hitting it with your cursor.] – J.R.
Susan Seidelman’s funniest film since Desperately Seeking Susan is a feminist revenge comedy, adapted from Fay Weldon’s novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, and delivered as a broad farce starring Roseanne Barr as an abused housewife and Meryl Streep as the wealthy and famous romantic novelist her husband (Ed Begley Jr.) leaves her for. Considering the potential bitterness of the story line, the movie is surprisingly upbeat, high-spirited, and even inspirational, with lots to say about the empowerment of exploited women and the neglect of old people in this culture without ever being unduly preachy about it.… Read more »
Christopher Guest’s hilariously accurate and canny satire about contemporary filmmaking in Hollywood was one of David Puttnam’s last projects at Columbia, made with the support of Steve Martin’s production company. Needless to say, it’s getting dumped rather quickly, so this will probably be the last week you’ll be able to see it. If you want to have a better idea of how dopey decisions get made in the film industry, you should rush off to it without delay. Admittedly, the movie turns mushy and conventional whenever it tries to become serious (which fortunately isn’t too often), and ends with a querulous cop-out, but otherwise it’s pretty clear sailing, and few movies this year have made me laugh quite as much. A prizewinning graduate (Kevin Bacon) of the National Film Institute (read: American Film Institute) gets courted by the studios, and winds up getting a chance to direct a big Hollywood movie, but the bright ideas of the studio head (J.T. Walsh)–whose office, incidentally, is said to be modeled directly after Spielberg’s–quickly make hash of his script, and other complications, personal as well as professional, follow. Director Guest collaborated on the screenplay with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean; Emily Longstreth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Short (at his absolute best as the hero’s agent), and McKean costar, and Roddy McDowall and Elliott Gould, among others, offer cameos.… Read more »
It’s not normally our practice to feature screenings scheduled in advance of our Friday cover date, but William Klein’s Mr. Freedom rates an exception for the sake of those readers who pick up their papers on Thursday afternoon. An over-the-top fantasy-satire made in 1968, it’s conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made, though there’s no doubt that only an American (albeit an expatriate living in France) could have made it. Despite Klein’s well-deserved international reputation as a still photographer, his films are almost completely unknown in the U.S., so his spirited and hilarious second feature which inaugurates a small retrospective of his works at the Film Center–offers an ideal introduction to his volatile talent. Filmed in slam-bang comic book style, Mr. Freedom describes the exploits and adventures of a heroic, myopic, and knuckleheaded free world agent (Playtime’s John Abbey) who arrives in Paris to do battle against the Russian and Chinese communists, embodied by Moujik Man (a colossal cossack padded out with foam rubber) and the inflatable Red China Man (a dragon who fills an entire metro station). Donald Pleasence is the hero’s sinister LBJ-like boss, and Delphine Seyrig at her giddiest plays the sexy, duplicitous double agent who shows him the ropes and then some.… Read more »
This appeared in the December 8, 1989 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.
THE FILMS OF WILLIAM KLEIN
At a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is under siege — and not only from yahoos like Jesse Helms, but also from certain anarchists, leftists, and intellectuals — the general paucity of information and understanding about national funding of the arts in other countries only helps to underline how isolationist this country has become in cultural matters. As a rule, our overseas news coverage and our access to foreign films both seem to operate according to the same chillingly reductive circular reasoning: if people don’t already know about something or understand it, they aren’t likely to be interested.
Thus reports last spring of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square routinely assumed that any popular sentiments in China that didn’t support the status quo automatically had to be “pro-democracy”; a lifetime of U.S. reporting has been devoted to the principle that only two political positions exist in the world, not three or six or 30 or 600. By the same token, most of the foreign films that we wind up seeing are those that support rather than challenge our generally clichéd notions of what other countries are like.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1989). — J.R.
By far the most underrated of Sam Peckinpah’s films, this grim 1974 tale about a minor-league piano player (Warren Oates) in Mexico who sacrifices his love (Isela Vega) when he goes after a fortune as a bounty hunter is certainly one of the director’s most personal and obsessive works — even comparable in some respects to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in its bottomless despair and bombastic self-hatred, as well as its rather ghoulish lyricism. (Critic Tom Milne has suggestively compared the labyrinthine plot to that of a gothic novel.) Oates has perhaps never been better, and a strong secondary cast — Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts, and Emilio Fernandez — is equally effective in etching Peckinpah’s dark night of the soul. R, 112 min. (JR)