Monthly Archives: December 1990

Movies: The Big Shill [on trailers & product plugs]

From the Chicago Reader (December 21, 1990). — J.R.

If my paranoid suspicions are correct, Hollywood has embarked on a 12-year plan regarding the public consumption of trailers. The plan, which has become fully apparent to me over the past year, will come to fruition in the year 2000, and its basic goal, as I see it, is to turn movies themselves into full-fledged commercials that people will pay money to see.

When Back to the Future II ended with a trailer for Back to the Future III, it was a harbinger of what’s to come. The ever-increasing proliferation of sequels has already accustomed the public to the notion that any hit movie eventually becomes, at least retroactively, an advertisement for its inevitable successor. Now, through a three-point program that might be termed standardization-infiltration-expansion, Hollywood is force-feeding us a diet of trailers in an apparent effort to alter our modes of perception. Most movie trailers are now designed to resemble one another as closely as possible, from the discontinuous, scattershot cutting to the near-subliminal card of credits flashed at the end. They appear in a variety of fresh contexts — at the beginning and end of videotapes, on “commercial-free” cable channels, and as integral parts of some features, like the aforementioned Back to the Future II – and they crop up so repeatedly in their more traditional venues, in movie theaters and on network TV, that we may come to know certain trailers as intimately as we know certain family members.… Read more »

The Third Animation Celebration

A better-than-average compilation of animated shorts from Czechoslovakia, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, the USSR, and the U.S., which predominates (12 shorts out of 20). Among the highlights are some excellent examples of claymation from England (Peter Lord’s War Story) and Czechoslovakia (Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness), two striking animal fables from the Soviet Union (Alexei Karaev’s Welcome and Mikhail Aldashin’s Poumse), and some funny and imaginative American efforts (Michael A. Kory’s Bonehead, Sylvie Fefer’s Personality Software, George Griffin’s New Fangled, Lidia Przyluska and J. Otto Siebold’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and John Kricfalusi’s Big House Blues). One has to put up with inevitable and relatively routine spin-offs from previous animation collections, but otherwise the level of achievement is quite high. (Music Box, Tuesday, December 25, through Thursday, January 3)… Read more »

The Godfather Part III

From the Chicago Reader (December 21, 1990). — J.R.

Godfather-3

Francis Coppola’s tragic and worthy (if uneven) conclusion to his Godfather trilogy, which he wrote in collaboration with Mario Puzo, represents a certain moral improvement over its predecessors by refusing to celebrate and condemn violence and duplicity in the same breath, or at least to the same degree. For 161 minutes, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino at his best) seeks absolution for his past sins, and although a cardinal grants it at one point (in a powerful confession scene), the film itself refuses to. While some of the allegorical implications persist (crime equals capitalism, Mafia equals family, both equal America), the decline of America in a world market where both European money and the Vatican are made to seem as corrupt as the Corleones leads to an overall change of focus; it ultimately lands this film in a metaphysical realm where the very plot seems formalized into semiabstract rituals. The inflated sense of self-importance in part two — epitomized by the playing of Nino Rota’s ubiquitous waltz theme on a church organ during a communion — is somewhat muted here, although a virtuoso set-piece climax finally strains credulity when too many important events dovetail in a single sequence.… Read more »

Miserable Mistake

To the editors:

May I correct a gaffe that crept into the last sentence of my review of Misery [December 7]? While I originally concluded that “‘success’ in a movie of this kind mainly boils down to successful counterfeiting,” the phrase now reads, “‘success’ in a genre movie mainly boils down to successful counterfeiting” — an inadvertent charge that takes in musicals, westerns, and anything else that might be considered a genre movie. Actually, I was only referring to movies like Misery — psychological horror movies derived from Psycho — not genre movies in general.

Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Love and Politics [THE RUSSIA HOUSE & HAVANA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 14, 1990). Note: Twilight Time has recently released The Russia House on Blu-Ray. – J.R.

THE RUSSIA HOUSE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Fred Schepisi

Written by Tom Stoppard

With Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, Ken Russell, David Threlfall, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.

HAVANA

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Written by Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel

With Robert Redford, Lena Olin, Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Raul Julia, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, Daniel Davis, and Tony Plana.

The Russia House and Havana are both lavishly mounted love stories, packed with action and developed in relation to political intrigues abroad. What’s surprising about both is that although they’re Hollywood movies to the core, the American characters aren’t exactly the good guys.

In The Russia House the only important American characters are villains, while the hero is British and the heroine Russian. In Havana the hero is as American as they come, and he certainly behaves heroically, yet the film as a whole raises doubts about whether he has missed the boat, historically speaking. We entertain fewer doubts in this respect about the heroine, a Swede with an American passport who’s married to a Cuban.… Read more »

Awakenings

A lot of boiling and scraping has been required to bring Oliver Sacks’s 1973 case studies of postencephalitic patients–victims of the “sleeping sickness” epidemic of the 20s–to the screen, and many of the standard Hollywood blunt instruments are used to perform this task: changing Sacks himself into an American with a different name (Robin Williams), concentrating almost exclusively on a single patient (Robert De Niro), and scenes and emotional reactions that seem designed at times to duplicate the successes of Rain Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (among other films). Director Penny Marshall (Big) often aims for slick effects, and Steven Zaillian’s script helps this process along by simplifying Sacks’s book to the point of banality. But the material is still powerful, and the offbeat story of the patients remains both engrossing and moving even after all this abridgment. One needs to raise certain questions about Sacks’s own talent for poeticizing neurological disorders, but at the same time it is difficult not to be affected by his talent. Randy Newman contributed the score, and John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow costar. (Starts Thursday, December 20, Esquire)… Read more »

Celebrity Guest [MISERY]

From the Chicago Reader (December 7, 1990). — J.R.

MISERY

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Rob Reiner

Written by William Goldman

With James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, and Lauren Bacall.

Although it didn’t impress me too much when I first saw it, The King of Comedy has gradually come to seem the most important and resonant of Martin Scorsese’s features, largely because of all it has to say about the values we place on both stars and fans in contemporary society. Part of what makes it so pungent is the casting: by all rights, talk-show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) should be the “hero” and his crazed kidnapper-fans Rupert and Masha (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) the “villains”; but De Niro after all is a charismatic star in his own right, while Lewis has long been someone Americans love to hate. The same kind of twist on stereotypes occurs in the story: Rupert is an obnoxious loser and Masha a borderline psycho, but Langford’s offstage persona is so morose and unpleasant that next to him they seem like models of humanity. To make matters even more disturbing, Masha clearly regards Langford as a substitute for her own neglectful parents, and Rupert’s climactic stand-up comedy debut, won as a ransom for kidnapping Langford, largely consists of contemptuously trashing his own family and background.… Read more »

Le Bonheur

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

Le-Bonheur

A beautiful and disturbing 1965 feature by Agnes Varda about family happiness, full of lingering and creepy ambiguities. A happily married carpenter (Jean-Claude Drouot) with a beautiful wife (Claire Drouot) and two small children (Sandrine and Oliver Drouot) falls in love with a beautiful postal clerk (Marie-France Boyer), who becomes his mistress. After the wife dies for mysterious reasons (whether by accident or suicide isn’t clear), his idyllic family life continues with the postal clerk. Provocative and lovely to look at, this is one of Varda’s best and most interesting features (along with Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond). (JR)

Le-Bonheur2Read more »

The Russia House

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1990). Twilight Time has recently released this on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

russia

Glasnost or no glasnost, the cold war still rages here for CIA officials, who manage to ensnare a British publisher and jazz musician (Sean Connery) in a plot to intercept a book by a distinguished Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer); the scientist has spilled the beans about the Soviet defense program, and his book editor (Michelle Pfeiffer) becomes an unwitting pawn in the spy network. Part of what makes this a top-notch thriller (as well as a touching love story) is the literacy and intelligence of the dialogue, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from John Le Carre’s novel; another part is the taut professionalism of director Fred Schepisi, who knows precisely when to cut away to eavesdropping spies or fleeting flashbacks in order to add flavor or tension. But the film has many other virtues as well: the most thoroughgoing and effective use of Moscow and Leningrad locations ever in an American film, a good score by Jerry Goldsmith (with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery’s soprano sax solos), first-rate performances from the leads (Pfeiffer is especially fine), and a well-trained secondary cast including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J.T.… Read more »

Phantom

F.W. Murnau made this feature the same year (1922) as his much better known Nosferatu, but it isn’t a fantasy or horror picture, as the title might suggest. Coadapted by Thea von Harbou (M) from a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann, it moves into high gear and becomes downright dazzling at a few privileged expressionist moments that convey the hero’s slightly deranged sensibility, as when surrounding buildings seem to collapse on him or a camera cranes over his head in a nightclub to reveal a motorcyclist. Otherwise somewhat stodgy in its seriousness, Phantom remains a secondary work by a great filmmaker. With Alfred Abel, Lil Dagover, and Lya De Putti. In German with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films By Louis Hock

Three early shorts by experimental filmmaker and School of the Art Institute graduate Louis Hock, who went on to make the remarkable video documentary The Mexican Tapes. All three shorts are structural in orientation: Elements (1972), Silent Reversal (1973), and Zebra (1974). Recommended. (JR)… Read more »

Havana

A professional Yankee gambler (Robert Redford) falls for the politically committed wife (Lena Olin) of a wealthy Cuban radical (Raul Julia) on the eve of the Cuban revolution (Christmas 1958), and finds himself, like Casablanca’s Rick, getting sucked into politics in spite of himself. The plot’s a lot skimpier than Casablanca’s, but the running time is 40-odd minutes longer, thanks to the film’s efforts (mainly successful) to re-create the place and period in some detailalthough Castro’s rebels don’t put in much of an appearance, and the movie’s determination to slip as many Sinatra tunes as possible into the sound track occasionally seems labored. (David Grusin’s score also features other period hits, romantic schmaltz, and the umpteenth rip-off of Sketches of Spain.) In fact, elaborate visual mounting and iconographic placement of the romantic leads are the movie’s preoccupation, with the overthrow of Batista merely providing local color; American fence-sitting may be part of what the liberal filmmakersscreenwriters Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel and director Sydney Pollackhave in mind, but the revolution itself is scaled to the hero’s narrow vision, and consequently remains in the wings throughout. What emerges is watchable enough in terms of spectacle, with a good secondary castincluding Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, and Fred Asparagus (the latter essaying a sort of Cuban Sydney Greenstreet)but is nonetheless thematically limited (1990).… Read more »

The Whole Of Life

Described as a Godardian semidocumentary, Bruno Moll’s Swiss film about a 50-year-old lesbian with a rocky past features both the woman herself and an actress (Serena Wey) portraying her.… Read more »

The Third Animation Festival

A better-than-average compilation of animated shorts from Czechoslovakia, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, the USSR, and the U.S., which predominates (12 shorts out of 20). Among the highlights are some excellent examples of Claymation from England (Peter Lord’s War Story) and Czechoslovakia (Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness), two striking animal fables from the Soviet Union (Alexei Karaev’s Welcome and Mikhail Aldashin’s Poumse), and some funny and imaginative American efforts (Michael A. Kory’s Bonehead, Sylvie Fefer’s Personality Software, George Griffin’s New Fangled, Lidia Przyluska and J. Otto Siebold’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and John Kricfalusi’s Big House Blues). One has to put up with inevitable and relatively routine spin-offs from previous animation collections, but otherwise the level of achievement is quite high (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Mermaids

An eccentric, promiscuous single Jewish mother (Cher) with daughters aged 15 (Winona Ryder) and 9 (Christina Ricci) keeps pulling up stakes and moving whenever her relationships with men go bad. Finally resettling with her girls in a small coastal town in Massachusetts, she becomes acquainted with the kindhearted proprietor of a shoe store (Bob Hoskins), while her older daughter, set on becoming a nun, becomes infatuated with the caretaker of the nearby convent (Michael Schoeffling). Adapted by June Roberts from Patty Dann’s novel and directed by Richard Benjamin, this comedy-drama set in 1963 is amiable enough and capably acted, but it never becomes as singular or as memorable as it wants to be. However, the interplay between Ryder and Cher is certainly well handled (1990). (JR)… Read more »