Monthly Archives: January 1991

Once Around

Holly Hunter’s best performance since Broadcast News: here she plays an Italian American still neurotically tied to her parents (Danny Aiello and Gena Rowlands) who’s looking for romance in her hometown of Boston. It’s a comedy with tragic undertones well scripted by Malia Scotch-Marmo and effectively directed by Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog); Laura San Giacomo plays her just-married younger sister, and Richard Dreyfuss plays the vulgar, assertive condo salesman from a Lithuanian family background who sweeps Hunter off her feet. Beautifully acted by all the leads (Hunter and San Giacomo have especially good broad Bostonian accents), sensitive and acute about family dynamics, this is a first-class entertainment that goes through some unexpected changes of tone (rather like Terms of Endearment) without ever losing its footing; the focus on family interactions is so concentrated that we never see much of the characters beyond this context, but they’re so well defined and developed that it hardly matters. With Roxanne Hart and Danton Stone. (900 N. Michigan) … Read more »

My Brother’s Wedding

My favorite of Charles Burnett’s three features (the other two are Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger) focuses on the family pressure exerted on a young man in Watts (Everett Silas) who works at his parents’ dry cleaners–pressure to abandon his disreputable ghetto friends and adjust to a more middle-class existence. This struggle is pushed to the limit when he has to choose between attending his older brother’s wedding to a woman from an affluent family and attending the funeral of his best friend, a former juvenile delinquent. Burnett’s acute handling of actors (most of whom are nonprofessionals) never falters, and his gifts as a storyteller make this a movie that steadily grows in impact and resonance as one watches. If a better film has been made about black ghetto life, I haven’t seen it (1983). (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, January 11 and 12, 6:30 and 9:00; Sunday, January 13, 5:00 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, January 14 through 17, 6:30 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91). -– J.R.

It’s no secret that serious film criticism in print has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while ‘entertainment news’, bite-size reviewing and other forms of promotion in the media have been steadily expanding. (I’m not including academic film criticism, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field which has developed a rhetoric and tradition of its own-the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating recent book, Making Meaning) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, and in some cases supplanting the sort of work which used to appear only in print.

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran. The problem with these efforts is that they further blur the distinction between advertising and criticism, and thus make it even harder for ordinary viewers to determine whether they are being informed about something or simply being sold a bill of goods. What I have in mind are films about films and film-makers which seriously analyse or document their subjects.… Read more »

Ticket of No Return

Of the many films by Ulrike Ottinger that I have seen, this lovely 1979 camp item has given me the most unbridled pleasure. A nameless heroine (Tabea Blumenschein) arrives in West Berlin on a one-way ticket in order to drink herself to death, and three prim ladies known as Social Question (Magdalena Montezuma), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika Von Cube) stand around and kibitz. Thanks to the heroine’s wardrobe, the diverse settings, the witty dialogue, the imaginative mise en scene, and an overall celebratory and festive spirit, this is a continuous string of delights–worth anybody’s time. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 4, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Killer of Sheep

The first feature (1978) of the highly talented and singular black filmmaker Charles Burnett, all of whose films (including My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger) are based in Watts; this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker (Henry Sanders). Shot on weekends over a year on a minuscule budget (less than $20,000), this remarkable work was recently selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works of the American cinema–an ironic and belated form of recognition for a film that still has had virtually no distribution and has seldom been seen. It shouldn’t be missed. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, January 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, January 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, January 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

Camp Thiaroye

It’s possible that a good half of the greatest African movies ever made are the work of novelist-turned filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (Black Girl, Xala, Ceddo). Camp Thiaroye, his first feature in 11 years, cowritten and codirected by Thierno Faty Sow, recounts an incident that actually occurred in 1944. Returning from four years of European combat in the French army, Senegalese troops are sent to a transit camp, where they have to contend with substandard food and other indignities. An intellectual sergeant major (Ibrahima Sane) gets thrown out of a local bordello when he goes there for a drink; mistaken for an American soldier, he is arrested and beaten by American MPs, which provokes his men into kidnapping an American GI. Then when the Senegalese troops discover that they’re about to be cheated out of half of their back pay, they launch a revolt. Leisurely paced, with some talky stretches devoted to debates among the soldiers, this lengthy feature is neither a simple tract nor a loose, undisciplined fresco, but a novelistic (and often witty) treatment of a complex subject in which all the characters get their due. Sane is especially fine, but the other characters–including a mute and traumatized Senegalese survivor of Buchenwald and a sympathetic if naive white officer–are delineated with comparable depth.… Read more »

The Sheltering Sky

A disappointingly reductive adaptation of Paul Bowles’s first novel (1949) by writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci and cowriter Mark Peploe. Debra Winger and John Malkovich star as a restless intellectual couple moving through North Africa and sexually estranged from each other despite their deep emotional ties. Both actors are as good as the script allows them to be, Bertolucci remains a director of some erotic intensity, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is as ravishing as one has any right to expect. But the virtual Hollywoodizing of Bowles’s not very filmable narrative isn’t accompanied by enough personal force to make one care very much about the characters, and Bowles’s own brief on- and offscreen participation, as a witness to the action who occasionally recites his own prose, can’t really make up the difference. It’s a pity that Bowles’s own music was passed up in favor of an unmemorable score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. With Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, and Eric Vu-An (1990). 138 min. (JR)… Read more »

Shakes The Clown

An alcoholic clown named Shakes (comedian and, here, writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait) working for a rent-a-clown agency in a town called Paulukaville is framed for the murder of his boss (Paul Dooley) by another clown whose appearance seems modeled after Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Julie Brown plays Shakes’s girlfriend, a dumb-blond waitress and bowling champ who speaks with a heavy lisp, and most of the remaining humor consists of clowns talking dirty or snorting coke and a plentiful supply of vomit jokes. Basically a redneck drive-in movie in style and delivery, but it played at the 1991 Chicago International Film Festivalfor reasons known only to God and Michael Kutza. (JR)… Read more »

Night Tide

Dennis Hopper has his first starring role in this odd and arresting black-and-white mood piece about a young sailor who falls in love with a carnival worker who may be a mermaid. Made in 1960 but not released until 1963, it was the first feature of Curtis Harrington. A poetic, low-budget independent effort, it can’t be called an unqualified success but certainly deserves to be seen. At moments it evokes some of the early magic of Jacques Demy, and as with Demy’s first feature, Lola, it’s questionable whether Harrington ever topped it in his subsequent, more commercial efforts. 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

White Fang

The Disney people present a live-action adaptation (by Jeanne Rosenberg, Nick Thiel, and David Fallow) of the Jack London novel. Not very much of London’s Marxist analysis of animal exploitation remains, but the story that emerges is watchable and well told. A city boy (Dead Poets Society’s Ethan Hawke) goes on a dangerous search through the Alaskan wilderness for his father’s gold mine, accompanied by a guide (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and an old codger (Seymour Cassel). Eventually he encounters and befriends the half-wolf, half-dog of the title, gradually winning its confidence after the animal has been abusively trained as a fighting dog. The settings are beautiful, and a fair amount of emotion is milked out of the romance between boy and dog. Randal Kleiser directed; James Remar and Susan Hogan costar. (JR)… Read more »

Viva Las Vegas

Vulgar, spirited, and neglected director George Sidney (Bye Bye Birdie, The Eddy Duchin Story, Kiss Me Kate) meets his match with this 1964 Elvis Presley vehicle: Presley, Ann-Margret, and Las Vegas itself are all ready-made for his talents, which mainly have to do with verve and trashy kicks. Unfortunately not as many sparks fly as one might hope. Still there’s Presley as a race car driver who doubles as a singing waiter, and, as critic Tom Milne describes it, Ann-Margret revs her chassis at him. There’s also William Demarest and, among the songs, The Yellow Rose of Texas. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Vanishing

Thematic echoes from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, The Lady Vanishes, and Rope crop up in this 1988 Dutch thriller, about the disappearance of a young woman from Amsterdam (Johanna Ter Steege) during a holiday in France with her husband (Gene Bervoets). Delayed exposition about what happened to her and why succeeds in holding some interest, but by the end you may feel you’ve been taken on an unenlightening ride around the block. Adapted by Tim Krabbe from his novel The Golden Egg, directed by George Sluizer, and costarring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. In Dutch with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

On Top of the Whale

One of Raul Ruiz’s best features, this is also one of his looniest — shot in Holland in about a week’s time, although it’s supposedly set in Patagonia. The putative SF plot concerns a French anthropologist and his Dutch wife who are hired to study the indecipherable language spoken by two members of an Indian tribe; in fact, this is a dazzling intellectual goof, with an average of one striking visual idea per shot (the gorgeous color cinematography, including many trick shots, is by the great Henri Alekan, who filmed Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), a lot of gags involving the pretensions of anthropologists and psychoanalytical theorists, and other forms of nonstop invention. This being a Ruiz film, you shouldn’t expect anything from the story or the performances; the dialogue is in five or six languages (one of them invented), and the lead actress appears to have learned her English lines phonetically (1982, 93 min.).

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Postcards From The Edge

Carrie Fisher doesn’t so much adapt as rewrite her own autobiographical novel about her drug problems and show-biz comeback, shifting the emphasis away from a couple of boyfriends and toward her relationship with her mother (Debbie Reynolds in real life). Mike Nichols’s direction makes a very old-fashioned and effective Hollywood entertainment out of it, with Meryl Streep at her best in the Fisher part, Shirley MacLaine equally fine as her show-biz mother, and an all-star backup cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, and Mary Wickes (1990). Among the pleasures to be found here are some amusing sidelong glances at how movies get made and the singing talent of Streep as well as MacLaine. There’s not much depth here, but Nichols does a fine job with the surface effects, and the wisecracks keep coming. (JR)… Read more »

Once Around

Holly Hunter is an Italian-American in Boston, still neurotically tied to her parents (Danny Aiello and Gena Rowlands) and looking for romance. This 1991 comedy with tragic undertones has been well scripted by Malia Scotch Marmo and effectively directed by Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog); Laura San Giacomo plays Hunter’s just-married younger sister, and Richard Dreyfuss is the vulgar, assertive condo salesman from a Lithuanian family who sweeps Hunter off her feet. Beautifully acted by all the leads, sensitive and acute about family dynamics, this is a first-class entertainment that goes through some unexpected changes of tone (rather like Terms of Endearment) without ever losing its footing; the focus on family interactions is so concentrated that we never see much of the characters beyond this context, but they’re so well defined and developed that you may not notice. With Roxanne Hart and Danton Stone. R, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »