Monthly Archives: March 1991

PARADE

Written for Criterion’s laserdisc release of Parade and apparently posted on its web site (criterion.com) — at least if it had a web site that early — on March 31, 1991. — J.R.

Parade audience

It seems incredible that it’s taken seventeen years for a film as truly great as Parade — Jacques Tati’s final work — to become available in the U.S., and that it’s reaching the public, for the first time, on laserdisc. But old habits die hard, including our biases about technology as well as spectacle. Tati was the first major filmmaker to shoot a feature in video, and he brought to this challenge the same sort of innovative craft that he brought to the movie — although the technical options available in video in 1973 were far from what they are today. He began by shooting with an audience at a circus in Sweden for three days, using four video cameras. Then, he spent 12 days in a studio reshooting portions of the stage acts on film.

parade1

The first “gag” in Parade takes place in front of a theater and is so subtle it hardly qualifies as a gag at all. A teenager in line picks up a striped, cone-shaped road marker on the pavement and dons it like a dunce cap; his date laughs, finds another road marker, and does the same thing.

Read more »

The Five Heartbeats

Four years after his hilarious satire (Hollywood Shuffle), writer-director-actor Robert Townsend returns with an impossibly ambitious movie about an African American R & B singing group (Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) between 1965 and the present, scripted with Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). The results are a long and unevenly realized chronicle of friendship that is teeming with subplots, unusually candid about the harshness of the music business, and generally packed with energy. The women in the cast (including the commanding Diahann Carroll, as well as Troy Beyer, Theresa Randle, Tressa Thomas, and Deborah Lacey) unfortunately aren’t given much to do, but there are striking performances by John Canada Terrell as a singer who replaces one of the original members, Chuck Patterson as the Heartbeats’ manager, Harold Nicholas (one of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers) as their choreographer, and Hawthorne James as the villainous record executive “Big Red.” (Biograph, Burnham Plaza, Chestnut Station, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, Hyde Park, Norridge, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak) … Read more »

Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound

From the Chicago Reader (March 22, 1991). — J.R.

FrankensteinUnbound

One of the most underrated films of 1990, representing Corman’s directorial comeback after 19 years, adapts Brian Aldiss’s intellectually ambitious novel about a 21st-century scientist (John Hurt) who finds himself in Geneva in 1816, where he meets Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and her famous fictional creations, Frankenstein and his monster. Far from a total success (and apparently hampered by some studio recutting), this metaphysical reflection on technology with SF and monster-movie trimmings is packed with wit, originality, and eccentricity. If you missed it the first time around — which wasn’t hard to do, given its perfunctory promotion and distribution — you should definitely catch it. With Raul Julia and Michael Hutchence. (Music Box, Monday, March 25)

FrankensteinUnboundRead more »

The Long Walk Home

Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg play 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; Richard Pearce directed from a script by John Cork. Thanks to good dialogue and meticulous research involving the place and period, this is a much more creditable and authentic job than either Mississippi Burning or Driving Miss Daisy, and the self-congratulatory tone of the aforementioned films is kept to a relative minimum–although one regrets the degree to which the focus gradually shifts 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 Pearce’s direction 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 Alexander, Dylan Baker (who’s especially good), Erika Alexander, and narration by Mary Steenbergen. (Esquire, Wilmette) … Read more »

McCarthyism Made Simple [GUILTY BY SUSPICION]

From the Chicago Reader (March 22, 1991). — J.R.

GUILTY BY SUSPICION

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Irwin Winkler

With Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Barry Primus, Gailard Sartain, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, and Martin Scorsese.

There are plenty of bones one can pick with Guilty by Suspicion, the first Hollywood feature devoted in its entirety to the film-industry blacklist (The Front dealt with TV). Of course there are plenty of bones one can pick with just about any movie, if one is so inclined. But critics, at least, seem more inclined to be so inclined with movies that deal with political subjects. This is not to say that most critics reprove such movies on political grounds; on the contrary, they usually harp on other aspects. But one still winds up feeling that it’s frequently the politics that gets their hackles up.

Having seen this movie more than a week later than most of my colleagues, due to some interesting circumstances that I’ll discuss later, I’ve had ample opportunity to read and (more often) hear some of their carping, most of it hyperbolic invective about the acting and directing. Some of them have expressed so much antipathy for the picture that I went to the first screening at Webster Place last weekend expecting the worst.… Read more »

Digging Up Nazis: A Comedy [THE NASTY GIRL]

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

THE NASTY GIRL

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Michael Verhoeven

With Lena Stolze, Monika Baumgartner, Michael Gahr, Fred Stillkrauth, Elisabeth Bertram, Robert Giggenbach, and Hans-Richard Muller.

We’re told at the outset of Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl that Anja Rosmus inspired this film. What we aren’t told is who Rosmus is or how closely this film is based on what happened to her in the 1980s.

Born in 1960 and raised in the Bavarian city of Passau — where Adolf Hitler spent part of his childhood and where Adolf Eichmann was later married — Anja Elisabeth Rosmus, the daughter of two schoolteachers, had a comfortable, middle-class, Catholic upbringing. When she was 20, she won first prize in a national essay contest, writing about privacy and public freedom in European politics and history. The following year she entered another national essay contest, this time settling on a local topic: “An Example of Resistance and Persecution: Passau, 1933-1939.” Having been brought up to believe that her hometown was a bastion of resistance against the Nazis, largely through the efforts of the local Catholic church, she thought she was undertaking a project that would enhance local pride and was surprised by the defensiveness and hostility she encountered from certain quarters outside the church.… Read more »

Menopause and Racism [PRIVILEGE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 8, 1991). — J.R.

PRIVILEGE

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Yvonne Rainer

With Alice Spivak, Novella Nelson, Blaire Baron, Rico Elias, Gabriella Farrar, Dan Berkey, and Yvonne Rainer.

Approached as a narrative, Yvonne Rainer’s sixth feature takes forever to get started and an eternity to end. In between its ill-defined borders, the plot itself is repeatedly interrupted, endlessly delayed or protracted, frequently relegated to the back burner and all but forgotten. All the way through, the action proceeds like hiccups.

Yet approached as an essay, Privilege unfolds like a single multifaceted argument, uniformly illuminated by white-hot rage and wit — a cacophony of voices and discourses to be sure, but a purposeful and meaningful cacophony in which all the voices are speaking to us as well as to one another.

Everything in the movie can and should be experienced as part of an ongoing dialogue, and it’s no small tribute to its overall coherence and impact that one wants to have an ongoing dialogue with the movie–talk back to it, argue with it — and that one has to if the movie is going to make any sense at all. The dialogue may deliberately go in and out of sync with the on-screen characters, the characters may be periodically played by different actors, and the shots may shift without notice between color and black and white.… Read more »

Love

This 1927 silent vehicle for Greta Garbo, which costars John Gilbert, doesn’t make too much sense as an adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s great novel about adultery. At least half of the plot–everything involving the character Levin–is pared away in Frances Marion and Lorna Moon’s script, and the direction, by Edmund Goulding, is more serviceable than inspired. The real reason you should see this, apart from Garbo’s imperishable radiance, is that Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Arnold Brostoff has composed a lovely original score for the film that members of the CSO will play while he conducts. If you’ve never seen a silent film with live orchestral accompaniment, it’s a galvanizing experience, perhaps the only one that can approximate the excitement of seeing such a film when it premiered. I haven’t seen the new print that will be shown on this occasion (the version with a happy ending–an alternative prepared at MGM after Tolstoy’s original ending proved too distressing to some audiences), and while I’ve heard Brostoff’s score, I haven’t been able to hear it in sync with the images. But I’ve little doubt that this presentation–which has already been given in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and Moscow–will do things to your appreciation of both Garbo and silent film that will be indelible.… Read more »

Swordsman

Begun by the stylish Hong Kong director King Hu (who also did the production design), completed by producer Tsui Hark, and worked on intermittently by four other directors (Ann Hui, Ching Siu-tung, Lee Wai-man, and Kam Yeung-wah), this fast-paced action fantasy, set during the Ming dynasty, features an agile swordsman (Sam Hui) with a young female sidekick in male disguise (Cecilia Yip); Jackie Cheung costars (1990). (JR)… Read more »

The Spirit Of ’76

Harmless nonsense from Lucas Reiner, the son of Carl and the younger brother of Rob (both of whom put in brief appearances). Three time travelers from the year 2176 (David Cassidy, Olivia d’Abo, and Geoff Hoyle) en route to 1776 accidentally find themselves in the year 1976, where they discover that they have only 12 hours to locate the documents, tools, and artifacts needed to save the nation’s future (in 2176 all history and memory have been wiped out by a magnetic war, and they need a copy of the U.S. Constitution to make a fresh start). A lot of this comes across like Earth Girls Are Easy without Julien Temple’s sense of style, but the mood is amiable enough, as long as one can put up with some hyperbolic mugging. Reiner directed this comedy from a script that he wrote with executive producer Roman Coppola; Leif Garrett, Jeff and Steve McDonald, and Liam O’Brien costar, and among the other celebrities who appear in cameos are Julie Brown, Tommy Chong, Devo, and Moon Zappa. (JR)… Read more »

The Nasty Girl

Conducting us on a tour of her own life in Bavaria, Sonja (Lena Stolze) recounts how her prizewinning high school essay, Freedom in Europe, won her a free trip to Paris, and how her next attempt in an essay contest, My Hometown in the Third Reich, landed her in big trouble. Michael Verhoeven’s crowd-pleasing 1990 comedy begins hilariously and develops entertainingly: he makes jokey use of the heroine’s narration as a kind of ersatz TV reporting, and there’s a certain stylistic flair in the artificial moving backgrounds. But by the time this serious comedy about Germany’s Nazi past is over, a certain moral as well as stylistic monotony has set in; Verhoeven has something to say and an engaging way of saying it, but he winds up glutting us as well as himself on his discoveriesrather as if he were a fly that landed in a pot of honey and invited us to dive in as well. Before he hits overdrive, however, this is a good movie, and the cast is adept and sprightly. In German with subtitles. PG-13, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Hot Spot

Considering that the script for this 1990 movie (by the late Charles Williams and his wife Nora Tyson, adapted from Williams’s novel Hell Hath No Fury) was in development for about 30 years and that the film is Dennis Hopper’s worst as a director, this is still pretty enjoyable as a piece of campy sleazeespecially for the first half hour, before the storytelling starts to dawdle. There’s a score by John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, who pursue waspy duets, and Hopper’s eye for color and composition is as sharp as ever. But even if one overlooks the noirish misogyny (no easy matter), the story is still an overheated hoot. Just when one hopes that the scumbag charactersincluding a footloose hustler (Don Johnson) who sidles into a job as a car salesman in a sleepy Texas town, his boss’s sexpot wife (Virginia Madsen), and a seedy, bemused banker (Jack Nance)will develop beyond their cliches, they become even sillier. And the apparently innocent accountant (Jennifer Connelly) who becomes entangled in the morass isn’t any more believable. Some may view the film’s liabilities (e.g. the inexpressive Johnson filling the foreground like a block of wood) as assets and coast along with the steamy sex, but it’s still pretty slim pickings from the man who once made Out of the Blue.… Read more »

The Hard Way

It’s our old friends the big city serial killer and the cop team of hard-nosed New York veteran (James Woods) and unlikely buddy partner (Michael J. Fox). The twist this time is that Fox is a movie star who specializes in Indiana Jones-type roles, wants to do something serious, and figures he can land a cop part he covets by studying Woods as a role model. There’s a halfhearted effort to satirize both characters in Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs’s screenplay, from a story by Dobbs and Michael Kozoll, but any contrast between reality and fantasy gets jettisoned immediately for the sort of slam-bang assault on the senses that director John Badham specializes in; despite the obvious influence of Sullivan’s Travels, this movie doesn’t have the insight or backbone to come within light-years of the Sturges classic. Annabella Sciorra is appealing as Woods’s girlfriend, the two leads do their best with the frenetic material, and the movie’s nonstop aggressiveness helps to glide one over the excess, but the glut of product plugs and cornball, derivative ideasculminating in a forced set piece inspired by the tacky climax of the Marx Brothers’ Love Happyinduces nausea as well. With Stephen Lang, Delroy Lindo, Luis Guzman, and a cameo by Penny Marshall.… Read more »

Zou Zou

A fascinating relic of the French cinema in the mid-30sa semimusical starring the great black dancer Josephine Baker in all her glory that remains very interesting for the racial attitudes it reveals. As in the subsequent Princess Tam Tam, Baker is paired with a white male starthis time Jean Gabin as a brother by adoption and sailor-turned-electricianwho is set up as a potential lover, but who eventually passes her over for a white woman. (Baker and Gabin grow up together in the circus and wind up working at the same Paris music hall.) One of the biggest French box-office hits of its year (1934), scripted by Baker’s real-life manager and lover, Pepito Abatino, and directed by Marc Allegret, this is a vehicle designed to show off Baker as the ultimate in exotic chic, and it concludes with a delirious production number inspired by Busby Berkeley that shouldn’t be missed. In French with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Vanishing Point

After driving nonstop from San Francisco to Denver, a silent macho type (Barry Newman) accepts a bet that he can make it back again in 15 hours; a blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) cheers him on while the cops doggedly chase him. While Richard Sarafian’s direction of this action thriller and drive-in favorite isn’t especially distinguished, the script by Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante (writing here under the pseudonym he adopted as a film critic, G. Cain) takes full advantage of the subject’s existential and mythical undertones without being pretentious, and you certainly get a run for your money, along with a lot of rock music. With Dean Jagger and Victoria Medlin (1971). (JR)… Read more »