Monthly Archives: April 1991

Wall of Sound (on MORTAL THOUGHTS)

This appeared in the Chicago Reader on April 26, 1991. Consider this review Part 2 of a long-term re-evaluation of Alan Rudolph’s use of music and his treatment of working-class people, preceded by my 1979 review of Remember My Name forĀ  Film Quarterly. — J.R.



** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Written by William Reilly and Claude Kerven

With Demi Moore, Glenne Headly, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, John Pankow, and Billie Neal.

For all his talent and sophistication, Alan Rudolph has frequently shown a romantic slant toward the working class that borders on stylistic gentrification. Even in my two Rudolph favorites, Remember My Name (1978) and Choose Me (1984), the ironic casting of a construction worker and his wife with real-life mod couple Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson and the creation of a dream-bubble ambience in a gritty bar suggest a kind of put-on.

Life is a dream, Rudolph always appears to be saying, and the more sordid and low-down the life is, the more seductive and precious the dream becomes. It’s a viable enough premise for a mannerist, and he invariably makes the most of this conceit; yet there are times when his taste for cardboard funk causes his worlds to totter like houses of cards.… Read more »

Touki Bouki

This first feature by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety is one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. Beautifully shot and strikingly conceived, it follows the comic misadventures of a young motorcyclist and former herdsman (Magaye Niang) who gets involved in petty crimes in Dakar during an attempt to escape to Paris with the woman he loves (Mareme Niang). The title translates as “hyena’s voyage,” and among the things that make this film so interesting stylistically are the fantasy sequences involving the couple’s projected images of themselves in Paris and elsewhere (1973). Cosponsored by Blacklight. (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, April 28, 5:00, 702-8575) … Read more »

The Comedy of Money

Even this minor film from Max Ophuls has so much energy it makes the major work of figures like Spielberg and De Palma shrink to virtual nothingness. Ophuls was effectively imported to the Netherlands to make this 1936 feature to help beef up the lackluster Dutch film industry. Based on an original Ophuls story (and coscripted by Walter Schlee, Alex de Haan, and Christine van Meeteren) and featuring songs and commentary from a neo-Brechtian clown who stands outside the plot, the film describes the misadventures of a bank courier (Herman Bouber) who is robbed of bank funds and fired, only to be appointed as head of a finance company by crooked businessmen who believes that he has the stolen money. Rather light and on the cutesy side as narrative, this comedy is worth seeing mainly for the inventive mise en scene (with the great Eugen Schufftan as cinematographer); it’s full of unexpected camera angles and Ophuls’s usual delight in camera movement (watch for an especially giddy dream sequence). With Rini Otte and Cor Ruys. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, May 2, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1991). — J.R.


A delightful if fanciful treatment (1991) of the events leading up to the romance between assertive George Sand (Judy Davis) and prudish Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) — roughly from 1836 to 1838 — that also involves such artists as Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), and Eugene Delacroix (Ralph Brown), as well as Liszt’s lover and Sand’s friend Marie d’Agoult (Bernadette Peters) and Sand’s former lover Felicien Mallefille (Georges Corraface), a tutor to her children. James Lapine, best known as the director and librettist of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods, fluidly directs a lively script by his wife Sarah Kernochan, and a generous number of piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt are smoothly integrated into the story. Especially good in the cast are Davis (adept in translating Sand’s boldness in dress and manner into body language) and Anna Massey as her mother. PG-13, 108 min. (JR)

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Feudal Attraction [JU DOU]

From the Chicago Reader (April 19, 1991). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Zhang Yimou, in collaboration with Yang Fengliang

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Wei, Zhang Yi, and Zheng Jian.


Like most people reading this, I know next to nothing about the history of China, which is thousands of years older than the U.S. and has a population over four times as large. In high school I was required to take courses in Alabama and American history; world history was an elective, but if that course had anything to do with China, I no longer recall any details. I also managed to get through seven years of college and graduate school without further edification on the subject.

I suspect that most people in China are comparably uninformed about the U.S. When my youngest brother was in Kenya in the late 60s, he spent time conversing with some Red Guard members who were stationed there, and used to have friendly arguments with them about where Coca-Cola, which they liked, came from; they were convinced it was a product of Kenya. It was difficult for them to accept that anything they liked came from the U.S., just as it’s difficult for many of us to accept that anything we like about China (e.g., the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square — routinely and misleadingly labeled prodemocracy in the American press) isn’t American in origin.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 1991). — J.R.


It’s a pity that Jerry Schatzberg’s most recent picture — and one of his very best — has had to wait two years for its Chicago premiere. Adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Fred Uhlman, and shot in ‘Scope by Bruno De Keyzer, this French-English-West German production is a story about a Jewish lawyer in New York (Jason Robards) who’s returning to Stuttgart, Germany, after a 55-year absence to discover what happened during the early 30s to his best friend (Samuel West) — an ambassador’s son who didn’t share the racism of his aristocratic family. Most of the story is told in flashback (Christien Anholt plays the hero as a youth), and much of what’s impressive about its unfolding is the meticulous re-creation of Germany during the rise of Nazism (the superb production design is by the great Alexandre Trauner, who appears in a cameo in a warehouse office), as well as a sensitive (and perhaps timely) depiction of how the gradual changes in national thinking were reflected in everyday life. It’s a story that’s been told before, but seldom with such feeling for detail and nuance; one has to adjust to the curious mix between English dialogue and street signs in German, but the performances — including those by Francoise Fabian, Maureen Kerwin, Barbara Jefford, and Bert Parnaby in small parts — are impeccable (1989).… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1991), and reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Albert Brooks

With Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry.

From the very titles of his four comedy features, we know that Albert Brooks is both a serious and an honest filmmaker, because each one is a precise and accurate indication of what the movie is about: Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. But what makes Brooks funny is much harder to get at or agree on.

You can’t demonstrate how funny Albert Brooks is by quoting any of his one-liners, the way you can the vastly more popular and respected Woody Allen. And you can’t say that Brooks is funnier than Allen if you’re measuring by the average number of laughs produced. (I find most of Modern Romance too painfully accurate to laugh at, although the comic conception remains flawless; and even though the laughs come more readily in Brooks’s other pictures, the degree of emotional pain being seriously dealt with is well beyond Allen’s range.) Nevertheless, I think Brooks is the best comic writer-director-actor we have in this country at the moment — certainly the most original and thoughtful, and the one who has the most to tell us about who we are.… Read more »

Cassandra Cat

A genuine oddity from 1963 Czechoslovakia, long banned because of its satirical and antiauthoritarian tendencies, this fantasy in ‘Scope and color by Vojtech Jasny describes what happens when a magic show featuring a cat with a pair of eyeglasses turns up in a fairy-tale town. When the eyeglasses are removed, people are obliged to show their “true colors”–folks in love turn red, liars purple, thieves gray, betrayers yellow and the local schoolchildren see through the duplicity of the adults for the first time. To complicate matters, the magic show and cat are described in advance by a salty local layabout (Jan Werich) who serves as a sort of narrative equivalent to the stage manager in Our Town and who entertains schoolchildren with his tales while serving as their art-class model; when the magic show and cat arrive in the town, the magician is played by the same actor. Whimsical, likable, and inventive, if never wholly successful, this colorful cross between the Pied Piper and Bye Bye Birdie qualifies as one of the best early examples of the Czech New Wave; significantly, Ivan Passer worked on it as an assistant. Also known as That Cat… and One Day a Cat; with Vlastimil Brodsky and Jirina Bohdalova.… Read more »

The Deadman

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1991). — J.R.

Running 37 minutes, Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s free and liberating (as well as liberated) 1989 adaptation of Georges Bataille’s untranslated story Le morte is one the most exciting and accomplished experimental film I saw during the 1990s. It charts the adventures of a nearly naked heroine who leaves the corpse of her lover in a country house, goes to a bar, and sets in motion a scabrous free-form orgy before returning to the house to die. The film manages to approximate the transgressive poetic prose of Bataille while celebrating female sexual desire without the usual patriarchal-porn trimmings. Equally remarkable for its endlessly inventive sound track and its beautiful black-and-white photography, it bears the earmarks of an authentic classic. The relationship between the visual storytelling, the ornate printed titles, and the occasional voice-over is both subtle and complex, mixing tenses and cross weaving modes of narration with a unique fusing of abandon and rigor. (JR)

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A womanizing male chauvinist (Perry King) is killed by three of his former conquests, reincarnated in the body of a woman (Ellen Barkin), and told he can enter heaven if he can find one female who likes him. Writer-director Blake Edwards in a burned-out mode seems so taken with this rickety concept that he hasn’t bothered to flesh it out with characters or much of a plot; it’s merely a soapbox from which he can deliver a few would-be feminist gibes. Ellen Barkin copes resourcefully with the limited material, but the rest of the castJimmy Smits, JoBeth Williams, and Lorraine Braccois left high and dry (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Superstar: The Life And Times Of Andy Warhol

Chuck Workman’s entertaining 1990 documentary about Andy Warhol disappoints only if you’re looking for something more than a good, breezy account of the life and times of Warhol, as well as the scene and mystique — don’t expect much information about or insight into the specifics of his art, his filmmaking, or his intelligence. Among the many people interviewed are Bob Colacello, Henry Geldzahler, Dennis Hopper, Sally Kirkland, Fran Leibowitz, Roy Lichtenstein, Gerard Malanga, Taylor Mead, Sylvia Miles, Bobby Short, Ultra Violet, Viva, and Holly Woodlawn, as well as several members of Warhol’s family. (JR)

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Six In Paris

Also known by the French title Paris vu par . . . , this is probably the best of the French New Wave sketch films (1964). Six directors are assigned separate sections of Paris, and each sketch is shot in 16-millimeter. The most powerful episodes are those by Jean Rouch (one of his few purely fictional works, shot documentary style in only one or two takes and costarring the future director of Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder) and Claude Chabrol (a convulsive bourgeois family melodrama featuring Chabrol himself and his then-wife Stephane Audran). Eric Rohmer contributes a mordant and well-crafted story set around l’Etoile, and the interesting if uneven Jean-Daniel Pollet, whose other films are woefully unavailable in the U.S., is represented by a bittersweet comic short starring the Harry Langdon-like Claude Melki. Jean Douchet (best known as a Cahiers du Cinema critic) offers a fairly undistinguished depiction of a Left Bank seduction, and Jean-Luc Godard presents a more detailed version of a story told in his feature A Woman Is a Woman, shot by Albert Maysles and starring Joanna Shimkus. Like most sketch films, this is patchy, but the Rouch, Chabrol, and Rohmer segments shouldn’t be missed. (JR)… Read more »

No Way Out

Not the Kevin Costner feature or the Alain Delon Mafia thriller, but a much better movieJoseph L. Mankiewicz’s hard-hitting, action-packed 1950 melodrama about a young black doctor (Sidney Poitier in his film debut) and a white gangster (Richard Widmark) who provokes a race riot after Poitier fails to save his brother’s life. Made long before such a theme was fashionable in Hollywood, this benefits from Mankiewicz’s flair for snappy dialogue and strong performances by the leads and secondary cast, which includes Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis. 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Night Of The Ghouls

Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 1960 follow-up to Plan 9 From Outer Space is a grade-Z effort about the walking dead featuring Kenne Duncan (a stunt man in serials), Valda Hansen, and Tor Johnson. The film remained in the lab for 23 years because Wood couldn’t afford to pay for the processing. Also known as Revenge of the Dead. 69 min. (JR)… Read more »


This peculiar 1949 thriller by Otto Preminger about a kleptomaniac (Gene Tierney) under the control of a Mabuse-like hypnotist (Jose Ferrer) hasn’t much of a reputation in America, and the acting (which includes Richard Conte as Tierney’s psychoanalyst husband) and cornball script (by Andrew Solt and Ben Hecht hiding under a pseudonym) help explain why. But the French enthusiasm for this moody and creepy melodrama, sparked mainly by Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, isn’t without defenses: Preminger’s ambiguous relation to his characters and his sense of moral relativity have seldom been put to such haunting use. Based on a Guy Endore novel; with Charles Bickford, Constance Collier, and Fortunio Bonanova. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »