Daily Archives: January 1, 1991

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.).

Read more »

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 »

Obsession

One of Brian De Palma’s better thrillers (1976) — perhaps because its true auteur is neither De Palma nor screenwriter Paul Schrader but composer Bernard Herrmann, who contributed one of his last scores to the film. It was Herrmann who insisted on cutting the third act of Schrader’s already excessive script (a rather tortured hommage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo), about a businessman (Cliff Robertson) who feels responsible for the death of his wife (Genevieve Bujold) in a kidnapping plot, and who meets and marries her double 15 years later. There’s nothing in the aesthetic and neo-Freudian delirium within hailing distance of Vertigo, and the plot’s often more complicated than complex, but Herrmann’s overpowering score and De Palma’s endlessly circling camera movements do manage to cast a spell. With John Lithgow. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Motel

Christian Blackwood’s wonderful offbeat documentary about a few motels in the American southwest and the people he finds there: the three hardened and resourceful divorcees who run the Silver Saddle in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the guests at the Blue Mist in Florence, Arizona, who visit friends and relatives incarcerated in the state prison across the way; and a couple who occupy an abandoned motel in Death Valley Junction, Californiaan artist and ballerina who performs, sometimes for imaginary audience members, in a refurbished opera house, and her devoted and sympathetic husband. Each segment is a fascinating slice of Americana, although the third is downright inspirational (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Mr. Freedom

William Klein’s over-the-top fantasy-satire (1968) is conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made, but only an American (albeit an expatriate living in France) could have made it. Despite Klein’s well-deserved international reputation as a still photographer, his films are almost unknown in the U.S., so this spirited and hilarious second feature offers an ideal introduction to his volatile talent. Filmed in slam-bang comic-book style, it describes the exploits of a heroic, myopic, and knuckleheaded free-world agent (Playtime’s John Abbey) who arrives in Paris to do battle against the Russian and Chinese communists, embodied by Moujik Man (a colossal cossack padded out with foam rubber) and the inflatable Red China Man (a dragon that fills an entire metro station). Donald Pleasence is the hero’s sinister, LBJ-like boss, and Delphine Seyrig at her giddiest plays the sexy, duplicitous double agent who shows him the ropes. Done in a Punch and Judy manner that occasionally suggests Godard or Kubrick, and combining guerrilla-style documentary with expressionism, this feisty political cartoon remains a singular expression of 60s irreverence. In English and subtitled French. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Men Of Respect

I’ve never seen Joe Macbeth, a 1955 British attempt to adapt the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a 30s gangster milieu, but I doubt it could be any more heavy-handed and forced than this contemporary New York Mafia melodrama, written and directed by William Reilly, which adopts the same gimmick. The results are full of sound and fury, but not much else. Lots of thunderstorms, abrasive sound effects and music throbbing with vibrato, underlit night scenes, very silly dialogue (Not a man of woman born can do shit to me), and overall portentousness can’t hide the fact that Shakespeare without his language isn’t really Shakespeare, and some strained efforts on the part of John Turturro (in the Macbeth part) to make sense of it all don’t help. With Katherine Borowitz, Dennis Farina, Peter Boyle, Stanley Tucci, Julie Garfield, Lilia Skala, Steven Wright, and a cameo by Rod Steiger. (JR)… Read more »

Meet The Applegates

Michael Lehmann, the writer-director of Heathers, is back with more facetious satire about the Way We Livethis time a fantasy about mutating giant insects from a Brazilian rain forest disguising themselves as a typical suburban American family (Ed Begley Jr., Stockard Channing, Cami Cooper, and Bobby Jacoby) in an effort to rid the world of humans and their ecological crimes, starting with a local nuclear power plant. The lures of bad human habits confound their plans before they can get very far, although they bump off some of their suburban neighbors to get themselves out of sticky situations. Roughly speaking, this story, coscripted by Redbeard Simmons, bears some relationship to Parents and The ‘Burbs (both much better movies) as well as to Heathers, but Lehmann’s sneering antihumanism, which some critics have called subversive, seems like chic glibness to me; Channing has her moments, however. With Dabney Coleman and Glenn Shadix. (JR)… Read more »

The Long Walk Home

Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg star as a well-to-do southern lady and her servant in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott that launched the civil rights movement in the mid-50s. Thanks to good dialogue and meticulous research involving the place and period, this 1990 drama is much more creditable and authentic than either Mississippi Burning or Driving Miss Daisy, and the self-congratulatory tone of those films is kept to a relative minimumalthough one regrets the degree to which the focus gradually shifts here from Goldberg’s character to Spacek’s, a well-meaning white liberal. The only flaw in the otherwise fine casting and handling of southern accents is in the directing of some of the black actors, including the otherwise effective Goldberg, who curiously are made to seem less southern than the white folks. With Dwight Schultz, Ving Rhames, Dylan Baker (who’s especially good), Erika Alexander, and narration by Mary Steenburgen. Richard Pearce directed from a script by John Cork. (JR)… Read more »