From the Chicago Reader (June 23, 1989). — J.R.
SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM *** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Trinh T. Minh-ha.
How many, already, have been condemned to premature deaths for having borrowed the master’s tools and thereby played into his hands? — Trinh T. Minh-ha
Uncertainty is a difficult premise on which to build a documentary, although there are times when it may be the only honorable perspective. To be without certainty usually means to be without authority, and it is the position of authority that generally determines the form and address of the documentary as we know it.
As a rule, we depend on the solidity of an authority figure in order to feel unified and legitimized as spectators. No matter how many people may be behind the filming or taping of a news broadcast or documentary, and no matter how many people may be watching it, the pretense of some form of one-on-one communication between spectacle and spectator is nearly always maintained in order to facilitate the “transmission of information.” Whether it’s an anchorperson addressing the camera, a voice-of-God narrator providing offscreen commentary, or an interview subject addressing an interviewer who becomes our surrogate, the illusion is always fostered that information is traveling directly from an authority to an individual spectator, who is made to feel authoritative in turn because of the implied intimacy and directness of address.… Read more »
A remarkable and beautiful 160-minute family saga by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Dust in the Wind) that begins at the end of Japan’s 51-year colonial rule in Taiwan and ends in 1949, when mainland China becomes communist and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreats to Taipei. Perceiving these historical upheavals through the varied lives of a single family, Hou again proves himself a master of long takes and complex framing, with a great talent for passionate (though elliptical and distanced) story telling. Given the diverse languages and dialects spoken here (including the language of a deaf-mute, rendered in intertitles), this is largely a meditation on communication itself. It is also one of the few masterworks of the recent contemporary cinema, and a film that deserves a lot more attention than the couple of screenings it’s getting locally; it’s depressing to think that even the best new Asian films usually can’t get distributed in this country (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, June 23, 4:30, and Sunday, June 24, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »
A shocking and powerful documentary by Nina Rosenblum–narrated by Susan Sarandon and shot by Haskell Wexler-about the recent “experimental” torture and attempted brainwashing of three women prisoners in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Each woman was arrested for political activity, given an unusually long prison sentence, and then isolated in a basement cell for almost two years, kept under 24-hour surveillance, periodically awakened several times a night, and strip searched daily. Though this horrific unit was eventually shut down by court order after the protests of human-rights groups, the ruling was overturned last fall. Many more such prison units are now under construction. The three prisoners who underwent this ordeal because of their radical political involvement (in support of civil rights, Puerto Rican nationalism, and the antiwar movement) show a great deal of lucidity and resilience about their ordeal, in spite of the severely debilitating psychological and physical effects of the torture. One regrets the use of “simulations,” even though they’re identified as such, to demonstrate some of the prisoners’ treatment, because their use shows so little trust in the imagination of the audience. But this is still a remarkable look at part of what Bush’s “kinder, gentler” nation is up to, and something you aren’t likely to hear about elsewhere.… Read more »
An American doctor (Blair Brown) living and working in London meets a mysterious and romantic stranger (Bruno Ganz) while vacationing on the Continent, and he proceeds to woo her back in London. Eventually she discovers he’s not everything he seems to be, and under the additional pressures of Thatcher cutbacks in national health and a faltering relationship with her younger sister (Bridget Fonda) who lives with her, her life gradually spins out of control. Written and directed by David Hare (Plenty), this is the sort of so-called woman’s picture that could only have been conceived by a man; although it remains sincere, fairly watchable, well acted, and otherwise competent throughoutat least up to a somewhat muddled conclusionit proves to have more windup than delivery. With Alan Howard and Hugh Laurie (1989). (JR)… Read more »
This 1989 feature by Alejandro Jodorowsky is just as silly and pretentious as his previous El topo and The Holy Mountain, but it’s similarly watchable and fun in a campy, sub-Fellini sort of wayif only because of its dogged devotion to surrealist excess. (The Mel Brooks of vulgar surrealism, Jodorowsky’s basic principle is that if you throw 30 outrageous ideas at the audience, 2 or 3 are bound to make an impression.) It’s basically a sadomasochistic circus story about a crazed former magician (played at different ages by Jodorowsky’s sons Axel and Adan) whose father (Guy Stockwell) ran a circus and whose mother (Blanca Guerra) is a religious fanatic who worshiped an armless saint and lost her own arms. Many years after a traumatic (if, for Jodorowsky, characteristic) family incident that involves the mother’s mutilation and the father’s mutilation and suicide, the mother compels her son to become her lost hands, forcing him, among other things, to murder lots of women (Thelma Tixou, Zonia Rangel Mora, Gloriella). A deaf-mute the son loved as a child (Sabrina Dennison and Faviola Elenka Tapia) turns up later to redeem him. Scripted by Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, and Claudio Argento, and filmed in Mexico in English.… Read more »
Hit-or-miss is Mel Brooks’s middle name, and this set of period sketches runs the gamut from wonderful to awful, as is usual with his work. But the wonderful stuff is so funny that it makes most of the awful stuff tolerable; the big production number called The Inquisition, for instance, goes beyond The Producers‘s Springtime for Hitler in outrageousness. Keep in mind that Brooks is more verbal than visual in orientation and you’ll be amply rewarded. With Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, Sid Caesar, Pamela Stephenson, Henny Youngman, and Orson Welles (as narrator). (JR)… Read more »
A distinctive adaptation of Sandra Bernhard’s off-Broadway show, directed and coscripted by John Boskovich. Bernhard’s acta mixture of comic monologues and songs that parody such figures as Nina Simone, Diana Ross, and Patti Smithis planted in a black nightclub in Los Angeles similar to the places she played at the beginning of her career, where she performs for a totally unenthusiastic audience. A parody of show-biz mannerisms and phoniness that at times seems as slick and fabricated as what’s being attacked, this is certainly entertaining and provocative. It’s a matter of debate how deep this movie digs, but you won’t be bored for an instantand it’s entirely possible that your hair will be raised (1990). (JR)… Read more »
A shocking and powerful documentary (1990) by Nina Rosenblum about the experimental torture and attempted brainwashing of three women prisoners in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Each woman was arrested for political activity, given an unusually long prison sentence, and then isolated in a basement cell for almost two years, kept under 24-hour surveillance, periodically awakened several times a night, and strip-searched daily. Though this horrific unit was eventually shut down by court order after the protests of human-rights groups, the ruling was then overturned. The three prisoners who underwent this ordeal because of their radical political involvement (in support of civil rights, Puerto Rican nationalism, and the antiwar movement) show a great deal of lucidity and resilience about their ordeal, in spite of the severely debilitating psychological and physical effects of the torture. One regrets the use of simulations, even though they’re identified as such, to demonstrate some of the prisoners’ treatment, because their use shows so little trust in the imagination of the audience. But this is still a remarkable look at part of what Bush the elder’s kinder, gentler nation was (and still is) up to, and something you aren’t likely to hear about elsewhere. Narrated by Susan Sarandon; the cinematographer is Haskell Wexler.… Read more »
For viewers like me who harbor passionately fond memories of Jacques Demy’s 1967 tribute to the American musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Demy’s 1988 musical (his last film) is clearly worth seeing, even if the recommendation has to come with reservations. While Michel Legrand’s score for The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of the greatest for any musical, his comparably jazzy and airy work for the this one is only a pale reflection of his best. Similarly, the references to touchstones such as Silk Stockings, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon are all too fleeting, in striking contrast to the full-scale tributes in the earlier film to West Side Story, An American in Paris, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The difference between the two is partly a matter of scale and budget, and partly that the more recent film centers on Yves Montand, an eminence grise who looks more and more like Milton Berle. Playing himself, Montand arrives in Marseilles to launch an autobiographical musical revue that he plans to take on a world tour. He spends his spare time looking for an old lover, a onetime prostitute now a baroness (Francoise Fabian), whose husband is in jail for theft and whose 22-year-old daughter (Mathilda May), who knows nothing of her mother’s past, has a burning desire to make it in show biz.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1990), tweaked in April 2014. This film is finally available now in a DVD that does its visuals (and John Alton’s cinematography) something approaching full justice. One of the juicier actors in this action romp that I should have mentioned is Arnold Moss, seen in the first still below with Robert Cummings. — J.R.
Along with James Whale’s The Great Garrick, this 1949 melodrama about the French Revolution, also known as The Black Book, is one of the few period pictures that qualify as film noir; Anthony Mann directed it with sumptuously arty chiaroscuro (cinematography by John Alton). With the two leads (Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl) periodically steering it in the direction of camp, this film is loads of fun. Richard Basehart also stars (as Maximillian Robespierre, no less); Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie coscripted. 88 min. (JR)
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The remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis plays the remarkable Christy Brown, an Irishman born with a severe case of cerebral palsy who eventually taught himself to paint and write with his left foot. Director Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton adapted this 1990 film from Brown’s autobiography, but far from milking the subject for conventional sentimentality, they use it as the basis for an engaging and idiosyncratic character study. Day-Lewis’s performance is necessarily a bit showyone has to strain at times to understand all his dialogue because of the character’s contorted featuresbut he puts on a terrific drunk scene, and for all his character’s travails the film as a whole winds up surprisingly upbeat. With Alison Whelan, Kirsten Sheridan, Declan Croghan, Fiona Shaw, Cyril Cusack, and Brenda Fricker, also fine as Brown’s mother. (JR)… Read more »
A heartbreaking French melodrama (1990), adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon (Les fiancailles de M. Hire) about a shy and reclusive tailor (Michel Blanc) obsessively spying on a beautiful neighbor (Sandrine Bonnaire), who discovers and is touched by his voyeuristic interest. The plot also involves the mysterious death of a girl in the neighborhood. Paradoxically, director Patrice Leconte, who collaborated with Patrick Dewolf on the script, filmed this elegant, affecting, and highly claustrophobic chamber piece in ‘Scope; Michael Nyman contributed the haunting score. With Luc Thuillier and Andre Wims. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »
This very bawdy 1989 collaboration between cartoonist Roland Topor and director Henri Xhonneux gives us human actors in elaborate animal masks (designed by Topor) enacting a story rather similar to that of the Marquis de Sade during the French Revolution. (The marquis is a dog who carries on long philosophical dialogues with his equally talkative penis; his principal adversaries are a rooster prison governor and a Jesuit camel.) I’ve only seen portions of this odd, poker-faced Belgian-French production, but it’s unique, intelligent, and often funny. (JR)… Read more »
This 1990 sequel to the beastie movie of 1984, directed like its predecessor by the irreplaceable Joe Dante, relocates the hero and heroine (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates) in New York, where they’re both working for a vain tycoon named Daniel Clamp (John Glover)an obvious conflation of Donald Trump and Ted Turnerin a midtown skyscraper, where the gremlins manage to run loose and cause all sorts of mischief. Solid, agreeable entertainment that basically consists of plentiful gags and lighthearted satire spiked with Dante’s compulsive taste for movie references, humorously scripted by Charlie Haas but without the darker thematic undertones and the more tableaulike construction of the original. You may want to see this more than once in order to catch all the peripheral details, but there aren’t any depths to explore, just a lot of bright, free-floating comic invention. With Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Kathleen Freeman, and many cameos (including Daffy Duck and Leonard Maltin). 106 min. (JR)… Read more »
Bulle Ogier runs an all-female acting school, many of whose students (newcomers Laurence Cote, Fejria Deliba, Bernadette Giraud, and Ines de Medeiros) share a suburban house and get involved with the same creepy guy (Benoit Regent), who’s either a cop or a criminal. In short, it’s conspiracy time once again in Jacques Rivette’s highly charged and scary world, where a fanatical devotion to theater and paranoia are often viewed as the only viable alternatives in a tightly closeted universe. This 1988 feature was the best Rivette to reach the U.S. in at least a decade, full of the sexual tensions and female cameraderie found in his Celine and Julie Go Boating (though without much of the comedy), as well as the kind of haunting and chilling aftereffects that are common to his work. More classical and less experimental than his previous features, it’s almost a summary and compilation of his major themes and preoccupationsan ideal introduction to his work. In French with subtitles. 160 min. (JR)… Read more »