Monthly Archives: August 1990

Stormy Relations [Michael Almereyda's TWISTER]

From the Chicago Reader (August 31, 1990). — J. R.

TWISTER

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Michael Almereyda

With Suzy Amis, Dylan McDermott, Crispin Glover, Harry Dean Stanton, Lindsay Christman, Charlaine Woodard, Lois Chiles, and Jenny Wright.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The second part of the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina applies pretty well to the eccentric Kansas family in Michael Almereyda’s oddball comedy Twister, but in a way that’s only half the story. Not only is the family as a whole unhappy in its own particular way, most of its members are out of whack with themselves, each other, and everybody else too.

The father is Eugene Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton), a distracted, long-divorced retired multimillionaire who made his fortune in soda pop and miniature-golf courses. His main distraction is courting Virginia (Lois Chiles), the born-again hostess of “Wonderbox,” a local Sunday-morning TV kiddie show that teaches toddlers about “the weather, animals, and God.” Maureen, or Mo (Suzy Amis), his 24-year-old chain-smoking alcoholic daughter, is a crabby recluse who hasn’t quite grown up or broken away from home; she occasionally camps out in the backyard of the family mansion, which borders a golf course.… Read more »

Darkman

Writer-director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and its sequel) hits the big time with a fantasy thriller about a scientist (Liam Neeson) disfigured by villains, who transforms himself into a grisly avenger, unable to feel pain and getting angrier by the minute. Raimi’s flair for jazzy visual effects and extravagant action sequences, combined with direction that is full of punch and energy, makes this the best pop roller-coaster ride around. Unlike Tim Burton’s work on Batman, this shows a sensibility that really likes and understands comic books (although echoes of such classics as Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame aren’t far behind, and be prepared for a fair amount of nastiness and gore). Frances McDormand plays the hero’s dour girlfriend, and Raimi collaborated with Chuck Pfarrer, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin on the script. With Colin Friels and Larry Drake. (Biograph, Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Edens, Lincoln Village, McClurg Court, Ford City, Evanston, Hyde Park, Bel-Air Drive-In, Double Drive-In)… Read more »

Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, which, like his earlier Solaris, is a very free and allegorical adaptation of an SF novel (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic). After a strange meteorite hits the earth, the region where it fell is sealed off; known as the Zone, it is believed to have magical powers that can grant the most secret wishes of those who enter it, but it can be penetrated only illegally and with special guides. One such guide (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the stalker of the title, leads a writer and a professor (Nikolai Grinko and Anatoli Solonitsin) through the grimiest litter of industrial waste that you’ve ever seen to reach the Zone’s epiphany. What they find is pretty harsh and it has none of the usual satisfactions of SF quests. But Tarkovsky, who regards their journey as a contemporary spiritual quest, does such remarkable things with his mise en scene–particularly very slow and elaborately choreographed camera movements–that you may be mesmerized nonetheless. The film’s final scene is absolutely breathtaking. Not an easy film (and it runs 161 minutes), but almost certainly a great one. With Alice Friendlich (1979). (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Monday through Thursday, August 27 through 30, 7:30, 281-4114)… Read more »

Bad Ideas [on WILD AT HEART]

From the August 24, 1990 issue of the Chicago Reader. This is another film (see capsule review of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, posted earlier today) recently released on Blu-Ray by Twilight Time. For the record, I much prefer most or all of the features David Lynch has made since Wild at Heart, especially Inland Empire. — J.R.

WILD AT HEART

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by David Lynch

With Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Crispin Glover.

The progressive coarsening of David Lynch’s talent over the 13 years since Eraserhead, combined with his equally steady rise in popularity, says a lot about the relationship of certain artists with their audiences. A painter-turned-filmmaker, Lynch started out with a highly developed sense of mood, texture, rhythm, and composition; a dark and rather private sense of humor; and a curious combination of awe, fear, fascination, and disgust in relation to sex, violence, industrial decay, and urban entrapment. He also appeared to have practically no storytelling ability at all, and in the case of Eraserhead, this deficiency was actually more of a boon than a handicap. Like certain experimental films, the movie simply took you somewhere and invited you to discover it for yourself.… Read more »

After Dark, My Sweet

Although there are times when one feels that the filmmakers have bitten off a little more than they can chew, this is a bold, watchable adaptation (by director James Foley and coproducer Robert Redlin) of a noirish thriller by Jim Thompson that comes surprisingly close to capturing the grisly, hard-boiled, and unstable world of that author–thanks in part to a sharp feeling for sensual detail that includes everything from wet, squishy kisses to a scummy unused swimming pool. (Cinematographer Mark Plummer works wonders with light and scenery in striking ‘Scope compositions.) Jason Patric, calling to mind a slightly heavier James Dean at a low flame, stars as a former boxer who has escaped from an insane asylum; whether he’s actually nuts or merely on the edge is one of the central ambiguities that keep the plot moving, and the fact that he narrates the story off-screen in classic noir fashion only complicates one’s uncertainty. He falls in with a salty, alcoholic English widow (Rachel Ward) and a small-time con man and ex-cop (Bruce Dern) in southern California who are plotting to kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family, and paranoia and other complications start to unravel the trio’s uneasy rapport.… Read more »

Reinventing the Present [PUMP UP THE VOLUME]

From the Chicago Reader (August 17, 1990). — J.R.

PUMP UP THE VOLUME

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Allan Moyle

With Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, Annie Ross, Cheryl Pollak, and Andy Romano.

It’s hard to talk seriously about the 60s today, because TV and a lot of assholes have almost ruined it. When I taught film courses in southern California in the mid-80s, I was appalled to discover that college students thought of the 60s as a traumatic, troubled period — a time characterized by young people losing their way, freaking out on bad acid trips, denouncing their parents, getting killed in Vietnam, and protesting the way American society was being run and abjectly failing at it. For students of the 80s, the golden age was the repressive, bland, stultifying 50s, when staunch family and property values were both firmly in place — the mythical past that Uncle Ronnie and all his furry friends comfortingly evoked.

Many of these students didn’t realize — and some of them still don’t — that the 60s was a more prosperous period than the 50s, economically as well as spiritually. Some people actually had fun at demonstrations and on hallucinogens, and they often accomplished and learned important things in the process.… Read more »

Metropolitan

From the Chicago Reader (August 10, 1990). Even though this is favorable, I think I underestimated the achievement of this first feature; reseeing it a quarter of a century later, in preparation for a very enjoyable public Skype conversation with Whit Stillman held at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it looked much better and much richer, and the tenderness shown towards almost all of the characters is indelible. — J.R.

metropolitan

Whether it’s “accurate” or not, Whit Stillman’s crafty independent feature about wealthy Park Avenue teenagers and a middle-class boy who joins their ranks over one Christmas vacation is certainly well imagined, and impressively acted by a cast of newcomers (including Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Elizabeth Thompson). The simple but offbeat form of the film — which concentrates mainly on a series of social gatherings among a circle of friends, separated by fade-outs — has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested (1990). (Fine Arts)

metropolitan2Read more »

The Two Jakes

Jack Nicholson directs and stars as upscale Los Angeles detective Jake Gittes in the much-awaited, much delayed sequel to Chinatown (1974), scripted, like its predecessor, by Robert Towne and set 11 years later, when Gittes is fatter and even more cynical about his work. Harvey Keitel costars as the other Jake, Meg Tilly plays his unfaithful wife, and this time the local real estate issue is oil rather than water. Despite an extremely complex plot that’s not always easy to follow, Towne’s script, brimming with witty and cynical dialogue, has the functional beauty of a well-made car. Nicholson’s eclectic direction, which occasionally strains after unorthodox angles, doesn’t always have the story-telling mastery that the script requires (although it’s well served by Vilmos Zsigmond’s lush cinematography and evocative production design), but otherwise this is a worthy successor to Chinatown–full of ecological and geological insights into Los Angeles history that recall Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald and give a view of southern California that probably could be written only by a native. With Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Ruben Blades, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Mantell, and Perry Lopez. (Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Golf Mill, Esquire, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak)… Read more »

Disjointed [MO' BETTER BLUES]

This review, originally published in August 3, 1990 Chicago Reader, was one of my first sustained efforts to write about the employment of jazz in movies. The movie isn’t as good or as entertaining as Lee’s latest messy Brechtian musical, Chiraq, although the latter film suggests once again that he still doesn’t have a clear sense of how to use music. — J.R.

MoBetterBlues

MO’ BETTER BLUES ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington, Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Bill Nunn, Dick Anthony Williams, and John Turturro.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

First the good news: strictly as an exercise de style, Spike Lee’s fourth joint is in certain respects the liveliest and jazziest piece of filmmaking he’s turned out yet. From the arty close-ups behind the opening credits of — and liquid pans past, and dissolves between –- trumpet, lips, and lovers’ grasping hands in blue, yellow, amber, and green to the matching semicircular crane shots that frame the story, this is a movie cooking with ideas about filmmaking. Bringing back a good many of the featured players in Do the Right Thing, and introducing to the Spike Lee stable the highly talented Denzel Washington, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and Dick Anthony Williams (among others), it’s a movie bursting with personality and actorly energy as well.… Read more »

The Unbelievable Truth

A highly intriguing if not always fully successful first feature by independent writer-director Hal Hartley, shot in his hometown on Long Island, gives us, among other characters, a mechanic mistaken for a priest (Robert Burke) returning from a prison sentence, a politically alienated teenager (Adrienne Shelly), and the teenager’s mercenary redneck father (Christopher Cooke). Fantasies about global annihilation obsess the teenager, fantasies about money obsess her father, and fantasies about a pair of murders apparently committed by the mechanic obsess almost everyone else. The unvarnished quality of some of the acting limits this effort in spots, but the quirky originality of the story, characters, and filmmaking keeps one alert and curious. With Julia McNeal, Mark Bailey, and Gary Sauer. (Fine Arts, Old Orchard)… Read more »

Disjointed

MO’ BETTER BLUES

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington, Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Bill Nunn, Dick Anthony Williams, and John Turturro.

First the good news: strictly as an exercise de style, Spike Lee’s fourth joint is in certain respects the liveliest and jazziest piece of filmmaking he’s turned out yet. From the arty close-ups behind the opening credits of–and liquid pans past, and dissolves between–trumpet, lips, and lovers’ grasping hands in blue, yellow, amber, and green to the matching semicircular crane shots that frame the story, this is a movie cooking with ideas about filmmaking. Bringing back a good many of the featured players in Do the Right Thing, and introducing to the Spike Lee stable the highly talented Denzel Washington, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and Dick Anthony Williams (among others), it’s a movie bursting with personality and actorly energy as well.

Unfortunately, when it comes to characters, story, music, and the relationships between the three, Mo’ Better Blues is both confused and unconvincing–a lot of loose ideas and platitudes rattling around in search of a movie. If I hadn’t expected more from Lee than simple diversion, the fair-to-middling music and the razzmatazz visuals might have sufficed.… Read more »

Vampyr

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1990). — J.R.

The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 82 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. While never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous, haunting otherworldliness. It was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versions — French, English, German, and Danish; most prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.) (JR)

Read more »

Small Time

An interesting if unevenly acted independent feature by Chicago native Norman Loftis, strikingly shot in black and white on the streets of New York, about a young black petty criminal (Richard Barboza) and his relationships with other criminals, his mother, and his girlfriend (Carolyn Kinebrew). Eclectic in its brushes with modernist techniques, it’s not always successful, but it’s certainly worth a look (1988). (JR)… Read more »

The Sky’s The Limit

A moody wartime Fred Astaire musical (1943), full of period flavor, in which Astaire plays a flier on leave who meets and falls for a news photographer (Joan Leslie); musical highlights include My Shining Hour and Astaire dancing alone to his own choreography in One for My Baby. With Robert Benchley, Robert Ryan, and Elizabeth Patterson. (JR)… Read more »

Night Angel

This campy horror movie about the Lilith legend is dreadful on every countscript (coproducer Joe Augustyn and Walter Josten), direction (Dominique Othenin-Girard), and acting (Isa Andersen as Lilith, and, as her diverse victims, Karen Black, Linden Ashby, Doug Jones, and Gary Hudson), although the fact that it regards sex with even more disgust than the darkest moments of David Lynch may give it some limited distinction. Still, it’s so strident and unpleasant that I suggest you take a pass. With Debra Feuer and Helen Martin. (JR)… Read more »