Monthly Archives: February 1991

The Ill and the Sick [on PRINCES IN EXILE and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS]

This article appeared in the February 22, 1991 issue of the Chicago Reader, about three months after  the UN Security Council authorized the use of “all means necessary” to eject Iraq from Kuwait and roughly a month after the U.S. Congress cheerfully authorized our going to war, with all flags waving. I’ve rarely felt as alienated from the taste and desires of the mass audience as I did when I reviewed The Silence of the Lambs — an experience made all the more painful by my admiration for much of Jonathan Demme’s previous work — at least until the release of No Country for Old Men during a second and (ultimately, but not initially) much less popular Gulf war. And it wasn’t until I saw John Gianvito’s The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein that I found my own emotions about the war reflected in an American feature. —J.R.

 

 

PRINCES IN EXILE

Directed by Giles Walker

Written by Joe Wiesenfeld

With Zachary Ansley, Nicholas Shields, Stacie Mistysyn, Andrea Roth, Gordon Woolvett, Chuck Shamata, and Alexander Chapman.

 

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Written by Ted Tally

With Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, and Ted Levine.… Read more »

Next of Kin

The first feature (1985) of Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing, Speaking Parts) is probably his least-known work. But thanks to its dynamic camera style and its bizarre premise, it is in many ways his most immediately engaging. In the course of undergoing family therapy with his parents, a young Canadian WASP (Patrick Tierney) comes across a video of an Armenian family (Berge Fazlian, Sirvart Fazlian, and Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) who put their son up for adoption 20 years ago. Flying to the city where this family lives, the hero poses as the missing son and becomes much better integrated in their family than he is in his own. As in Egoyan’s subsequent films, video not only has an important function in the plot but is also employed metaphorically. Egoyan’s use of realistic details often proves deceptive; just as we’ve settled into accepting his plot on a literal level, he starts unhinging our expectations with ambiguities and details that don’t fit comfortably within a realistic scenario. (One particular ambiguity that is never resolved is the young man’s relationship with his “sister.”) The result is a very impressive debut, beautifully acted by all the leads and engaging and provocative in its treatment of the differences (as well as the similarities) between role-playing and pretending.… Read more »

He Said, She Said

Try to imagine Siskel and Ebert not as Chicago film critics but as a heterosexual couple in Baltimore, both of them general interest reporters whose combative instincts and political and temperamental differences become the focus of a TV show, and you more or less have the premise of this romantic comedy. Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins play the leads, and a real-life couple (Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver) direct the separate versions of their story (both scripted by Brian Hohlfeld). The attempt to tell the same story twice from separate viewpoints a la Rashomon or Les Girls doesn’t always yield as much ambiguity or complexity as one might wish. But on the whole, this is an honorable attempt to revive the feeling and ambience of a Hoilywood comedy of the 50s, complete with sumptuous romantic music (score by Miles Goodman), ‘Scope framing, and a magical last-minute resolution, and, as such, it’s pretty pleasurable to watch. With Sharon Stone. (Esquire, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City, Lincoln Village) … Read more »

Stage, Screen and Television [PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 1991). — J.R.

PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS: ON THE SET OF DEATH OF A SALESMAN

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Christian Blackwood.

I’ve never seen Volker Schlondorff’s 150-minute made-for-TV film of Death of a Salesman (1985), which Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies awards high marks: “Stunning though stylistic remounting of [Dustin] Hoffman’s Broadway revival of the classic Arthur Miller play with most of the cast from that 1984 production. A landmark of its type. Executive-produced by Hoffman and Miller. Hoffman and [John] Malkovich both won acting Emmys. Above average.” But a friend who has seen it, and who loves the play, tells me that she disliked the film: all the actors seemed to be off on their own tangents, she said, and there was little interplay between them.

Whether the Schlondorff film is good or bad, Private Conversations: On the Set of Death of a Salesman, the 82-minute documentary that Christian Blackwood made about the making of it, is endlessly fascinating, for reasons largely irrelevant to the worth of the Miller play or this particular production of it. Part of the open-endedness of Blackwood’s film comes from the fact that if Schlondorff’s film works the reasons are here, and if it doesn’t work the reasons are here — perhaps in the same circumstances.… Read more »

Lines of Fire

At the end of a day when more than 1,000 allied bombing missions had been carried out against Iraq and Kuwait, ABC’s Ted Koppel said, “Since that Scud missile hit Tel Aviv earlier today, it has been a quiet night in the Middle East.” A comparable obliviousness to the fate of nonwhites led to the U.S. delivery of airplanes and 2,4-D herbicide to Burma’s brutally repressive, totalitarian military regime–ostensibly to be used to wipe out opium fields. In fact, the gifts were also used against students and ethnic rebels of the National Democratic Front; food crops, cattle, people, and water supplies were sprayed in an effort to quell the civil war that has been raging in Burma for almost 40 years. The complexity of a situation in which one of the most prominent rebels, commanding about 12,000 troops in his fight for the independence of the Shan state, is also an opium warlord wasn’t lost on Brian Beker, the producer, director, and narrator of this fine hour-long documentary, filmed at great risk in 1989. The film also offers videotape coverage of the 1988 uprising, when around 15,000 civilians were slaughtered by government troops. As an introduction to some of the intricacies of a revolution in the largest country in Southeast Asia–and evidence of what the “noble intentions” of the U.S.… Read more »

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

I’m not much of a James Ivory fan, but this adaptation of Evan S. Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) deserves to be seen and cherished for at least a couple of reasons: first for Joanne Woodward’s exquisitely multilayered and nuanced performance as India Bridge, a frustrated, well-to-do WASP Kansas City housewife and mother during the 30s and 40s; and second for screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s retention of much of the episodic, short-chapter form of the original. It’s true that she and Ivory have toned down many of the books’ darker aspects, but as critic Georgia Brown has suggested, Woodward’s humanization of her character actually improves on the original. Connell’s imagination and compassion regarding this character have their limits, and Woodward triumphantly exceeds them. There are other fine performances as well from Paul Newman (as uptight Mr. Bridge), Blythe Danner (as India’s troubled best friend), Simon Callow, and Austin Pendleton. If the Bridges’ three children are realized less acutely than their parents, this period portraiture shows nonetheless a great deal of taste and intelligence. With Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Sean Leonard. (Fine Arts) … Read more »

Sleeping With The Enemy

An abused wife (Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts) escapes from her psychopathic investment-counselor husband (Patrick Bergin) by faking her death, changing her name, and moving from Cape Cod to a university town in Iowa, only to find that he’s still hot on her trail. Although it’s directed by the at times estimable Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather), who does what he can with the script, the script itselfcredited to Ronald Bass, and adapted from Nancy Price’s novelis a tissue of so many stupid and implausible contrivances that the only possible way of enjoying it is by taking your brain out to lunch. It’s the sort of movie where all of the characters and plot moves (if one wants to call them that) are tailored to the thriller mechanics and have no existence apart from their crude functionality. Kevin Anderson costars as a young drama teacher who provides the alternative love interest. (JR)… Read more »

The Silence Of The Lambs

An accomplished, effective, grisly, and exceptionally sick slasher film (1991) that I can’t with any conscience recommend, because the purposes to which it places its considerable ingenuity are ultimately rather foul. Like Thomas Harris’s novel, which screenwriter Ted Tally adapts here, Jonathan Demme’s film proposes that the psychotic serial killer is the essential religious figure of our time: saint, guru, seer, and soothsayer rolled into one. In fact, this characterization applies literally to only one of the two serial killers here, a psychiatrist (Anthony Hopkins) who cannibalizes his victims and is now held in maximum security. The heroine (Jodie Foster), an FBI trainee, appeals to him for insight in tracking down another mad killer (Ted Levine), who flays his victims (and is a transvestite to boot, allowing Demme to cash in on the homophobia market). In the course of parceling out his wisdom, the psychiatrist also analyzes the trainee, becoming an even more commanding father figure to her than the boss (Scott Glenn) who sends her on this mission. The radical premise that our society implicitly worships as well as fears serial killers underlies the queasy impact of this gory thriller without becoming its overriding thesis, and while Demme has said that this story takes some really good pokes at patriarchy, this is mainly wishful thinking.… Read more »

Shadey

A black comedy about a mind reader, this new feature, directed by Philip Saville, with Antony Sher, Katherine Helmond, and Patrick Macnee, is being presented as a special sneak preview.… Read more »

Scenes From A Mall

A middle-aged couple (Woody Allen and Bette Midler) in southern California celebrating their 15th anniversary go to a shopping mall, and they proceed to decompose and recompose their relationship on the basis of various revelations. Although this only runs for about 90 minutes, it’s the emptiest and most long-winded movie Paul Mazursky (working here with his frequent cowriter Roger L. Simon) has ever made, a disappointingly steep descent after his Enemies, a Love Story. The characters never come to life, and restricting almost all of the action to a gigantic mall only makes the narrowness and boredom of the movie more obvious. Mazursky has returned with a vengeance to his special universe where the upper middle class is the only thing that exists, and this time he has absolutely nothing to say about it. (JR)… Read more »

Nine Months

If you can put up with the tinny drone of the theme music (why do so many sensitive east European films have scores that belong on ski lifts?), there’s a lot to recommend this beautifully shot and tactile feminist love story by Hungarian filmmaker Marta Meszaros. The camera takes possession of unexceptional industrial landscapes so that we remember them afterward like places we know firsthand, and the characters — including the strong-willed, independent heroine (well played by Lili Monori) — tend to improve with familiarity as well. With Jan Nowicki (1976). (JR)… Read more »

Next Of Kin

The 1985 first feature of Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) is probably his least-known work. But thanks to its dynamic camera style and bizarre premise, it’s in some ways his most immediately engaging. In the course of undergoing family therapy with his parents, a young Canadian WASP (Patrick Tierney) comes across a video of an Armenian family (Berge Fazlian, Sirvart Fazlian, and Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) who put their son up for adoption 20 years before. Flying to the city where this family lives, the hero poses as the missing son and becomes much better integrated into their family than his own. As in most of Egoyan’s subsequent films, video not only has an important function in the plot but is also employed metaphorically. Egoyan’s use of realistic details often proves deceptive; just as we’ve settled into accepting his plot on a literal level, he starts unhinging our expectations with ambiguities and details that don’t fit comfortably within a realistic scenario. (One particular ambiguity that is never resolved is the young man’s relationship with his sister.) The result is a very impressive debut, beautifully acted by all the leads and engaging and provocative in its treatment of the differences (as well as the similarities) between role-playing and pretending.… Read more »

He Said, She Said

Try to imagine Siskel and Ebert not as Chicago film critics but as a heterosexual couple in Baltimore, both of them general interest reporters whose combative instincts and political and temperamental differences become the focus of a TV show, and you more or less have the premise of this romantic comedy. Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins play the leads, and a real-life couple (Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver) direct the separate versions of their story (both scripted by Brian Hohlfeld). The attempt to tell the same story twice from separate viewpoints a la Rashomon or Les Girls doesn’t always yield as much ambiguity or complexity as one might wish. But on the whole this is an honorable attempt to revive the feeling and ambience of a Hollywood comedy of the 50s, complete with sumptuous romantic music (score by Miles Goodman), ‘Scope framing, and a magical last-minute resolution; as such, it’s pretty pleasurable to watch. With Sharon Stone. (JR)… Read more »

Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

A disappointing hour-long profile (1978) of the maverick producer-director by Christian Blackwood that unhappily never strays far from a strictly promotional skim job. The interviews with various Corman regulars and alumniAllan Arkush, Paul Bartel, David Carradine, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, Jonathan Kaplan, and Martin Scorseseas well as Corman himself never dig very deeply. And the decision to restrict the film mainly to Corman’s then-recent films leaves many lacunae; early interesting effortssuch as Rock All Night and The Stranger, Corman’s one serious venture into social problems, specifically racism and the civil rights movementgo completely unmentioned. (JR)… Read more »

Private Conversations On The Set Of Death Of A Salesman

A fascinating 1985 documentary by Christian Blackwood about the shooting of a TV film of Death of a Salesman, focusing on the creative deliberations of director Volker Schlondorff, actor Dustin Hoffman, and playwright Arthur Miller (the latter two served as executive producers). Blackwood mainly addresses some of the technical and aesthetic problems involved in translating a stage work into film, although the personalities and quirks of the participants (including actors John Malkovich, Charles Durning, Stephen Lang, Kate Reid, and Miller’s Crossing’s Jon Polito, as well as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) also play a substantial role. The presence of Blackwood’s camera and microphone raises the question of how much this documentary is producing or alteringas opposed to merely recordingthe behavior and deliberations that we’re privy to. (JR)… Read more »