Monthly Archives: October 1990

To Sleep With Anger

It seems scandalous that Charles Burnett, the most gifted black American director offering purely realistic depictions of black urban life, has had to wait for more than a decade to get any of his films distributed in this country, and that this one only got made because Danny Glover agreed to play a leading role in it. (He also served as an executive producer.) Unlike Burnett’s previous and undistributed Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, his new feature is steeped in folklore, but that doesn’t prevent the film from giving us a depiction of contemporary black family life richer than we can find anywhere else. The plot concerns the arrival of one Harry Mention (Glover), an old friend from the rural south, on the doorstep of a family living in Los Angeles, and the subtle and not-so-subtle havoc that he wreaks on their lives. The family is headed by a retired farmer (Paul Butler) and his midwife spouse (Mary Alice), whose two married sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) are in constant conflict. Babe Brother (Brooks) is married to an upwardly mobile realtor (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and his relative distance from the family’s traditional ways is further exacerbated by the outsider’s influence on him.… Read more »

Fest or Famine

The 26th Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second and final week with well over 60 programs to choose among. The range of selections, as usual, runs all the way from indispensable (Secret Love, Hidden Faces) to awful (The Mad Magician), from interesting and oddball (Vincent and Theo, Archangel, Recollections of the Yellow House) to slick and conventional (Superstar and Shaking the Tree).

It’s always a risk to go hunting at random with a festival as uneven as this one. But you’re almost certainly better off taking your chances with the films shown in the festival than lining up for an overpriced commercial release that will be out on video a few months from now anyway. By contrast, most of the foreign films showing this week at the festival are now-or-never propositions; if you don’t see them now, chances are you won’t get a second opportunity. And good or bad, most of them will tell you something about another part of the world that you probably didn’t already know. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the festival films are a dollar cheaper than the bad new Hollywood efforts that are currently clogging the multiplexes.

Reviews preceded by a checkmark are highly recommended by their respective reviewers.… Read more »

The Leopard Man

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

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This economically constructed and haunting chiller (1943, 66 min.) from the inspired team of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur doesn’t have the reputation of the two other films they worked on together in the early 40s, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. In part that’s because its ending is a bit abrupt and unsatisfactory — but it’s still one of the most remarkable B films ever to have come out of Hollywood. Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Alibi by Ardel Wray and Edward Dein, the film employs an audacious narrative of shifting centers, thematically related by a string of grisly murders in a small town in New Mexico. Depending for much of its effect on a subtle and poetic nudging of the spectator’s imagination, the film has a couple of sequences that are truly terrifying. With Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, and Jean Brooks. (JR)

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The Film Festival That Got Away

The 26th Chicago International Film Festival includes, at the latest count, 110 features and ten additional programs, spaced out over 15 days in two locations –a somewhat more modest menu than last year’s. Apart from this streamlining, it would be a pleasure to report some major improvements in the overall selection, but I’m afraid wanting isn’t having, and from the looks of things, this year’s lineup is not very inspiring.

About six weeks ago, when the festival issued a list of about 100 “confirmed and invited” films, I was hopeful. Based on what I’d already seen or heard about, the list was, barring some omissions, a fair summary of what was going on in world cinema, which is more than one could say for previous Chicago festival lineups. I pointed this out to a colleague, who replied, “Yeah, but let’s see how many of these actually turn up,” and I’m sorry to say his skepticism was warranted. Gradually, irrevocably, over half of the hottest titles were dropped from the list, including Kira Muratova’s remarkable The Asthenic Syndrome, Jean-Luc Godard’s La nouvelle vague, Nanni Moretti’s Palombella Rosa, Pavel Lounguine’s Taxi Blues, Charles Burnett’s soon-to-open To Sleep With Anger, Aki Kaurismaki’s The Match Factory Girl, Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgy, Otar Iosseliani’s Et la lumiere fut, and Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband.… Read more »

Tales From the Winnipeg Film Group

If Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital whetted your appetite for more comic/nostalgic/facetious strangeness–or if you haven’t seen the Maddin film but have such an appetite anyway–you’ll probably get a kick out of this entertaining assortment of shorts by Maddin’s neighbors and colleagues, all members of the Winnipeg Film Group of Manitoba, Canada; producer Greg Klymkiw will introduce and discuss their work. The ones I’ve been able to sample include Tracy Traeger and Shawna Dempsey’s We’re Talking Vulva, a funny rap-music video featuring performance artist Dempsey in a vulva suit; John Paizs’s hilariously deadpan evocations of 50s educational shorts in Springtime in Greenland and The Obsession of Billy Botski; and Lome Bailey’s memorable The Milkman Cometh, about a businessman who becomes so entranced by the Alpine landscape on a can of evaporated milk that his life gradually becomes overtaken by it. Also to be shown are films by John Kozak (Two Men in Search of a Plot) and the Winnipeg Film Group as a whole (Rabbit Pie). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday, October 10, 8:00, 281-8788) … Read more »

Red Desert

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990). — J.R.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature in color (1964) remains a watermark for using colors creatively, expressionistically, and beautifully; to get the precise hues he wanted, Antonioni had entire fields painted. A newly struck and restored print of the film makes clear why audiences were so excited a quarter of a century ago by his innovations, which include not only expressive uses of color for moods and subtle thematic coding but striking uses of editing as well. This film comes at the tail end of his most fertile period, immediately after his remarkable trilogy consisting of L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse; Red Desert may not be quite as good as the first and last of these, but the ecological concerns of this film look a lot more prescient today than they did at the time. Monica Vitti plays an extreme neurotic married to industrialist Richard Harris, and Antonioni does eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround her, which are shown alternately as threatening and beautiful; she walks through a science fiction lunar landscape spotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities. Like any self-respecting Antonioni heroine, she’s looking for love and meaning — more specifically, for ways of adjusting to new forms of life — and mainly finding sex.… Read more »

Jaguar

Much as history is written by survivors, film history is frequently written by distributors. So the greatness of the serials of both Louis Feuillade and Jacques Rivette must remain a postulate for Americans who can’t see them, and the towering importance of the fascinating ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch is usually something U.S. viewers can only read about. Rouch was a pioneer in working with sync sound and in mixing fiction and narrative with documentary, usually through the creative intervention of the subjects being filmed–aspects that were to fundamentally influence the French New Wave. Fortunately, one of Rouch’s finest (and earliest) features–about three young men who leave Niger to find work in Ghana prior to its independence–has been unearthed for a rare screening. This film was made before sync sound was available, and Rouch invited the major characters to improvise a narrative over the footage, which is an amazing and often funny document in its own right. If you care about cinema and haven’t yet encountered Rouch, this shouldn’t be missed (1953). Chicago documentary filmmaker Judy Hoffman, a member of the Kartemquin collective who has worked with Rouch, will introduce the film and lead a discussion. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, October 5, 8:00, 281-8788)… Read more »

Absence of Conscience [on GOODFELLAS]

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 1990).  From the vantage point of  2013, The Wolf of Wall Street might be regarded in certain respects as an inferior remake of GoodFellas, with all the limitations of the original dutifully preserved. — J.R.

GOODFELLAS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese

With Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Chuck Low, Frank Sivero, and Debi Mazar.

Greed, indiscipline and amorality drench the money-military culture, in its upper echelons and in its pits. Somebody destroyed the national superego. Does anyone have a plan to make one anew? — from a recent editorial in the Nation

The opening, white-against-black credits of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas whiz horizontally across the screen to the sounds of traffic in quick, isolated bursts, telling us at the outset that speed is of the essence. Using a cast of almost 150 players (including a delightful performance by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) and a sound track with about 40 pop singles that are both apposite and subtle in the way they comment on the action, Scorsese pushes the narrative along with a sense of gliding motion and legible fluidity that is often breathtaking.… Read more »

Quigley Down Under

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

Quigley Down Under

Tom Selleck plays Matthew Quigley, the best marksman in the world, who leaves the wild west for Australia in the 1860s to work for a wealthy British cattle rancher (Alan Rickman), until he discovers that his boss is a genocidal meanie who wants to wipe out the aborigines; Laura San Giacomo plays Crazy Cora, another American a long way from home, whom Quigley takes under his wing. In fact, this very old-fashioned liberal western in ‘Scope, directed by Simon Wincer from a script by John Hill, has a hero who’s so superhuman, virtuous, and universal in his appeal — the aborigines, who clearly consider him the Great White Father, call him the spirit warrior — that he makes Roy Rogers seem like both an amateur and a degenerate. Nevertheless, as a kind of winsome and naive throwback to the sort of scenic, action-packed western that people used to believe in, this is fairly enjoyable stuff. (JR)

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Misery

A skillfully pared-down (if psychologically thin) horror thriller (1990), adapted by William Goldman from a Stephen King novel and crisply directed by Rob Reiner. A best-selling novelist (James Caan), who’s recently killed off his beloved romantic heroine in order to do more personal writing, gets caught in a blizzard, suffers a nearly fatal car accident, and is saved by a fanatic admirer (Kathy Bates) who holds him captive in her isolated house. The setup recalls Martin Scorsese… Read more »

Suddenly

Frank Sinatra plays one of three paid assassins who take up residence in a California town as part of a plot to kill the president, who’s passing through on a fishing trip. Released in 1954, well before JFK was assassinated, this is a reasonably efficient but fairly unpleasant black-and-white thriller, written by Richard Sale and directed by Lewis Allen. Worth seeing mainly for the actingby Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, and others. (JR)… Read more »

Speaking Directly: Some American Notes

A key work in the American independent cinema, Jon Jost’s first feature (1974) is an essay film devoted to self-definition and moral reckoning. Made on an impossibly slim budget$2,500this multifaceted work includes everything from the tools and preconditions of its own making to Jost’s personal relationships at the time to a cogent political analysis of the U.S. in relation to the rest of the world (Vietnam in particular). Its equally varied technique includes everything from extended takes and elaborate camera movements to liquid, lyrical dissolves and incidental animation. Certain sections are bound to irritate, others may amuse or enlightenbut all are versions of what the title promises, and collectively they have more to say about the 60s counterculture than you could find in a lifetime of TV misinformation. If you’re curious why some critics have called Jost the American Godard, this is the perfect place to find a credible answer. (JR)… Read more »

Sibling Rivalry

Comedy director Carl Reiner is at his lowest ebb in this threadbare effort, scripted by Martha Goldhirsh, about an uptight married older sister (a frenetic Kirstie Alley) and a flaky and footloose younger one (Jami Gertz)derived, it would seem, from the sisters in sex, lies, and videotape. By overwhelming coincidence number one, the older sister has an unprecedented sexual fling with a stranger (Sam Elliott)her husband’s brother as it turns out, expected for dinner that very nightwho then dies of a heart attack; by overwhelming coincidence number two, after the brother’s corpse is discovered by a blinds salesman (a very unfunny Bill Pullman), the salesman’s cop brother (Ed O’Neill) investigates the case and winds up making a match with the flaky sister. Reiner chugs through it all as if he had his mind on something else, as well he should have. (JR)… Read more »

Night Of The Living Dead

George Romero scripted and served as executive producer on this 1990 color remake of his own low-budget scare classic, although he left the directorial duties to makeup specialist Tom Savini, making his feature debut here. Aficionados of the original will want to see this in order to notice the interesting variations in both plot and overall emphasis, but this version is a good deal coarser and considerably more bitter than its predecessor. The emphasis on family ties in the 1968 version is supplanted by more noticeable amounts of self-interest and cruelty, and purely as a suspense and horror vehicle, this is markedly less effective, largely because of Savini’s detached direction. But the film can’t simply be discounted as a skim job on the original; Romero’s dark social commentary, which grew in impact over his entire Dead trilogy, is still very much present here, even if it no longer has the same bite and urgency. With Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, and Tom Towles. R, 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

High Anxiety

Not everything one wants it to be, but Mel Brooks’s parody of Hitchcock, in which he plays a psychiatrist, has enough high spirits to guide it over some of the rough and low spots; he does a particularly nice bit singing in a nightclub. If you can put up with his usual hit-or-miss attack, you might find yourself amused. With Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, and Charlie Callas (1977). (JR)… Read more »