Monthly Archives: January 1991

Lost in the Desert [THE SHELTERING SKY]

From the Chicago Reader (January 25, 1991). — J.R.

THE SHELTERING SKY ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci

With Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall, Eric Vu-An, and Paul Bowles.

Ever since the 60s the adjective “personal” has been frequently used in relation to commercial movies, and it has almost always been used as an expression of praise. As a reaction to the relatively “impersonal” directorial styles of a Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, or David Lean, the celebration of the “personal” styles of directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock ushered in a critical bias that favored the director’s subjective involvement in his or her material — an involvement that is often autobiographical in its implications (such as Ford’s feelings for the Irish and the military, or Hitchcock’s sexual repression and his fear of imprisonment) — over the self-effacement that has often been regarded as both the norm and the ideal of conventional filmmaking.

But in order to argue that the films of supposedly “invisible” stylists like Hawks were highly personal, many auteurists wound up overstating their case, arguing in effect that any director with a discernible “personality” was automatically better than any director without one.… Read more »

The Family That Preys Together (THE GODATHER PART III)

From the Chicago Reader (January 18, 1991). — J.R.

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THE GODFATHER PART III

*** (A must-see)

Directed By Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Mario Puzo and Coppola

With Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola, Eli Wallach, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, and Joe Mantegna.

Let’s agree from the outset that the conclusion of the Godfather trilogy is not giving audiences everything that they expected based on the two previous installments. Shorter at 160 minutes than either of the first two parts, it proceeds in fits and starts, without the sustained narrative sweep of the first or the comprehensive historical spread of the second. Overall, there is less of a continuous story line (and less lucidity, coherence, and conviction regarding what plot there is), less violence, and less dramatic conflict; the quality of the performances is more variable; the settings are less memorable. There are even moments of risible implausibility. (Suffering insulin shock while visiting Cardinal Lamberto in a garden, Michael Corleone requests something sweet, and a pitcher of orange juice appears within seconds; and the virtuoso climactic sequence at the opera ultimately strains credibility by drawing together too many events at once.)

But conceptually and morally, one can argue that The Godfather Part III is superior to the two films in the Corleone family saga that preceded it.… Read more »

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 »

Orson Welles: A Bio/Bibliography

From Film Quarterly, Winter 1990–91.-– J.R.

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Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography, by Bret Wood (Westport, CT: Greene Press, 1990).

 

 

Issued without dust wrappers and priced beyond the range of most individuals, this 364-page book is clearly intended for libraries, and not likely to get much attention outside of specialized publications. But as a multifaceted research tool for anyone investigating the career of Orson Welles it is a veritable godsend — more valuable in some ways than any of the Welles biographies published so far.

 

Not counting introduction, endnotes, index, a skeletal Welles chronology, an invaluable section devoted to special sources, and ten well-chosen illustrations, the book is divided into eight sections: Biographical Sketch, Theatre Credits, Radio Credits, Film Credits, Welles as Author, Discography (a brief section that regrettably excludes commercial releases of radio broadcasts), Books and Monographs on Welles, and Articles on Welles. Probably the most valuable of these sections in terms of fresh material are the two longest, Radio Credits (74 pages) and Film Credits (120 pages), containing not only listings but, in many cases, descriptive and critical annotations. (The length of the film section can largely be accounted for by the fact that Wood is as attentive to unrealized projects ashe is to finished works, and it is I don’t mean to suggest that Wood’s research skills are infallible or that his book doesn’t contain its share of typos, syntactical ambiguities, factual errors, and glaring omissions.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 »

Out of the Mush [The Best Movies of 1990]

From the Chicago Reader (January 4, 1991). — J.R.

Looking over a list of all the new movies I saw in 1990, I was shocked to discover how forgettable many of them were — so much so that it took considerable effort in many cases for me to remember much more than their titles. Crazy People, Bad Influence, Opportunity Knocks, I Love You to Death, Short Time, Cadillac Man, Die Hard 2, Another 48 Hrs., Funny About Love, and Sibling Rivalry all started turning into mush as soon as I saw them. Summoning them up weeks or months later is a bit like trying to remember what I had for lunch on the days I saw them.

Maybe it’s my middle-age talking, but I think something else is involved as well. We’ve been told repeatedly over the past couple of years that the most serious problem affecting this country is not poverty, not AIDS, not violations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not a warmongering president or racism or misogyny, and not corporate and governmental skulduggery and deception — but the sale of harmful drugs. Yet during this same period Hollywood movies that will cause comparable amounts of brain damage have commanded almost as much space and attention in the media as all these problems combined.… 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 »