Monthly Archives: June 1991

Hearing Voices [JUNGLE FEVER]

From the Chicago Reader (June 21, 1991). — J.R.

JUNGLE FEVER

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, and Anthony Quinn.

http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/dynamic/imgs/080924/Spike-Lee/Jungle-Fever-Snipes_l.jpg

Trusting to luck means listening to voices.  — Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s

Compared to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is inspired overreaching, an exciting mess — and conceivably even more important. If the earlier movie somehow marshaled its sprawling elements into a single story in a single setting with a single theme, this one has two settings (Harlem and Bensonhurst), three plot lines, and at least four themes (interracial romance, breaking away from one’s family, crack addiction, and corporate advancement for blacks), all of which are crammed together more willfully than logically, yielding a misshapen story that is neither singular nor plural in focus, but somewhere obscurely in between.

First plot: Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an upscale Afro-American architect with a wife and daughter living in Harlem, starts an affair with his new temp secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), a single Italian American who lives with her working-class father and brothers in Bensonhurst. Flipper tells his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), who tells his wife (Veronica Webb), who tells Flipper’s wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), who responds by throwing Flipper out.… Read more »

An Angel at My Table

Jane Campion’s stirring follow-up to Sweetie adapts the autobiographical trilogy of New Zealand writer Janet Frame into a 163-minute feature, originally made for New Zealand TV–clearly a labor of love by a masterful talent responding to a soulmate. The poetic empathy, the beautiful, offbeat framing and unexpected transitions, and the magnificent handling of actors are all pure Campion. (Her work is especially impressive with the three who play Frame at different ages–Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox–whose suggestions of fragility, painful shyness, and passionate inner life effortlessly dovetail into one another.) On the other hand, the form–a miniseries about the formation of a writer–is a lot more conventional and straightforward than that of Sweetie, as are the script (by High Tide’s Laura Jones) and cinematography (by Stuart Dryburgh). Basically composed of short, elliptical scenes, this work’s three parts were intended to be seen separately, which a theatrical presentation regrettably makes impractical. (In a better world, PBS would have snapped this up, but perhaps it would have been too glaring a contrast to the pallidness of its other dramatic offerings.) Charting Frame’s life through the hell of being different (misdiagnosed as schizophrenic during her teens, she was forced to submit to hundreds of shock treatments) toward some adult fulfillment, Campion makes this a genuinely inspirational story without a breath of sentimentality.… Read more »

Symbol Life [SWAN LAKE -- THE ZONE]

From the Chicago Reader (June 14, 1991). — J.R.

SWAN LAKE — THE ZONE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yuri Illienko

Written by Sergei Paradjanov and Illienko

With Victor Solovyov, Liudmyla Yefymenko, Maya Bulhakova, Pylyp Illienko, and Victor Demertash.

One of the most fascinating things about Russian cinema is that we still know next to nothing about it. There are the socialist realist holdovers (Little Vera, for example, and Freeze — Die — Come to Life) and wannabe American releases (Taxi Blues), but the rest of the recent Soviet pictures that have made it to Chicago are interesting mostly because of what remains obscure and intractable about them — their refreshingly and, at times, bewilderingly different views of life and art.

The films that constitute the most obvious reference points in Soviet film history — a few key classics by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Vertov, and closer to the present, the films of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky — have practically nothing to do with what ordinary Soviet moviegoers see most of the time. Even worse, we can’t take it for granted that these avant-garde works necessarily represent the best that innovative Soviet cinema has to offer, or that what we see of the Soviet mainstream is necessarily the best either.… Read more »

Strand: Under the Dark Cloth

A fascinating and intelligent Canadian documentary by John Walker about the life and career of the great American photographer Paul Strand that includes interviews with Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Brown, Fred Zinnemann, Leo Hurwitz, and Virginia Stevens, as well as tantalizing clips from Strand’s films (including Manhatta, arguably the first American experimental film, The Wave, Heart of Spain, and Native Land). The film does a good job with both the work and the enigmatic personality of Strand, and for people like me whose acquaintance with Strand’s work is limited, this makes an ideal introduction (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, June 18, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Sangkuriang

This lively and enjoyable Indonesian feature (1982) in ‘Scope, directed by Gautana Sisworo Putra from a screenplay by Ignatius Sukardjasman, is based on an ancient Sunda legend with oedipal overtones; the hero accidentally kills his father (although sometime after the latter has been turned into a dog) and almost marries his mother. It’s full of enchantment, alternately campy and exhilarating in its employment of fantasy and magic (with some beautifully choreographed martial arts that include Superman-like flights), but unfortunately it’s been censored somewhat for stateside consumption. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Monday, June 10, 7:00, 281-4114) … Read more »

Poetry in Motion [THELMA & LOUISE]

From the June 7, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

THELMA & LOUISE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Callie Khouri

With Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Pitt, Timothy Carhart, and Lucinda Jenny.

I’m not quite sure precisely when Thelma & Louise kicks into high gear. Does it happen when Thelma (Geena Davis) holds up a convenience store, or much earlier, when Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots a rapist (Timothy Carhart)? Does it happen when Thelma’s tyrannical husband (Christopher McDonald) steps on a pizza, or when Louise divests herself of her watch and jewelry in exchange for an old coot’s sun hat?

Whenever it happens, something starts to click, and the movie becomes mythical — mutates into a sort of classic before one’s eyes. This isn’t to say that it can thenceforth do no wrong; the flashback shots that punctuate the final credits are lamentable, a cheap attempt to add uplift to an ending that doesn’t need it. But the movie does take on a certain charmed existence, persuading one to forgive such lapses. After a rather slow beginning, this prosy film turns poetic; and when that happens, we’re no longer passive bystanders but active participants, along for the ride morally as well as physically.… Read more »

Jungle Fever

Spike Lee’s high-powered, all-over-the-place movie about interracial romance (Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra), crack addiction (a remarkable turn by Samuel L. Jackson), breaking away from one’s family (a theme that crops up in at least five households, with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Anthony Quinn, and Frank Vincent among the parents), and corporate advancement for blacks (Snipes again), chiefly set in two New York neighborhoods (Harlem and Bensonhurst). The disparate themes never quite come together, but with strong and inventive direction, juicy dialogue, and many fine performances–John Turturro, as Sciorra’s ex-boyfriend, is especially impressive, Lonette McKee is good as Snipes’s aggrieved wife, and Lee is also around briefly as Snipes’s best friend–you won’t be bored for a minute. There’s also a richly upholstered score featuring Stevie Wonder, a huge orchestra, and the Boys Choir of Harlem, along with recordings by Mahalia Jackson, Frank Sinatra, and others. The overall effect is that of a kind of living newspaper, with stories and subplots crowding one another for front-page space, and so many voices heard that you may feel at times like you’re swimming through a maelstrom; but thanks to Lee, it’s a maelstrom that’s superbly orchestrated. (Broadway, Burnham Plaza, Chestnut Station, Golf Glen, Plaza, Evanston, Hyde Park, Norridge, Harlem-Cermak, Double Drive-In, Bel-Air Drive-In) … Read more »

Strand: Under The Dark Cloth

A fascinating and intelligent Canadian documentary by John Walker about the life and career of the great American photographer Paul Strand that includes interviews with Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Brown, Fred Zinnemann, Leo Hurwitz, and Virginia Stevens, as well as tantalizing clips from Strand’s films (including Manhatta, arguably the first American experimental film, The Wave, Heart of Spain, and Native Land). The film does a good job with both the work and the enigmatic personality of Strand, and for people like me whose acquaintance with Strand’s work is limited, this makes an ideal introduction (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Straight Out Of Brooklyn

This straight-from-the-gut message film from the Brooklyn ghetto (1991) by writer-director-producer-actor Matty Rich (who was only 19 at the time) is raw and unfinished in terms of craftbut it’s certainly heartfelt, and it lacks the usual exploitation frills. Seething with rage about the racism that has made him a professional failure (he works at a filling station), a man living in a Red Hook housing project (George T. Odom) regularly gets drunk, smashes dishes, and mercilessly beats his wife. His daughter is appalled that her mother accepts these beatings, and his son, bent on saving his family and escaping from Brooklyn, plans to rob a drug dealer with his two best friends (Mark Malone and Rich), over the objections of his girlfriend. Winner of a special jury prize at Sundance, this movie’s urgency very nearly makes up for what it lacks in polish; Rich may not have mastered certain skills, but he has so much to say about his subject that some irreducible street wisdom still gets across. R, 79 min. (JR)… Read more »

Seance On A Wet Afternoon

The underrated (albeit uneven) Bryan Forbes directed this 1964 British thriller cum melodrama about a fake medium (Kim Stanley) who gets her husband (Richard Attenborough) to kidnap a child so she can demonstrate her psychic powers finding it. Adapted by Forbes from Mark McShane’s novel; with Nanette Newman and Patrick Magee. 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

Native Land

A fascinating relic from 1942, codirected, cowritten, and partially shot by the great still photographer Paul Strand in collaboration with Leo Hurwitz. Narrated by Paul Robeson and with a score by Marc Blitzstein, this documentary feature uses newsreel footage, still photographs, and extended reenactments to dramatize the findings of the U.S. Senate’s La Follette Committee regarding union busting and corporate labor spying; more generally, it’s concerned with everyday violations of the Bill of Rights that most citizens knew (and know) nothing about, including those fostered in the south by the Ku Klux Klan. Made over a three-year period, this is the most ambitious work of Strand’s Frontier Films collective, but because it was released shortly after Pearl Harbor, its impact was severely blunted, which discouraged Strand from doing further work in film. If you subscribe, as I do, to the notion that the most dated films are often the ones that have the most to teach us about their respective periods, you shouldn’t miss this singular work. 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Narrow Margin

An engaging, exciting noir thriller (1952) set almost entirely on a train going from Chicago to Los Angeles, with a gruff cop (Charles McGraw) guarding a saucy prosecution witness (the underrated Marie Windsor). Richard Fleischer directed this nearly perfect B picture with no fuss and lots of grit and polish from a script by Earl Fenton; the capable cinematography belongs to George E. Diskant. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Naked Gun 2: The Smell Of Fear

A feeble sequel to The Naked Gun that’s about one and a half rungs down from its predecessor and a good four or five down from Airplane! Still, if you have nothing better to do, you might laugh a few times. Directed and cowritten by David Zucker and starring Leslie Nielsen as Lieutenant Frank Drebin; with Priscilla Presley, O.J. Simpson, George Kennedy, and Robert Goulet. Pat Proft collaborated on the script. (JR)… Read more »

Heaven Can Wait

Not the sublime Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, but a 1978 comedy that had the brass to steal its title. Warren Beatty’s first flight out as a director was codirected by Buck Henry, but Beatty’s also around as producer, cowriter (with Elaine May), and star, so you can’t exactly accuse him of lacking confidence. A charming but not very profound comedy about a football player (Beatty) accidentally killed before his appointed time who gets fixed up with a new body formerly owned by an eccentric millionaire, this is actually a remake of Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), with football substituting for prizefighting. It’s certainly likable enough and was a big hit when it came out, but one could hardly call it an auspicious artistic debuta crafty commercial entertainment with a certain amount of intelligence is more like it. With Julie Christie, Jack Warden, James Mason (as the archangel Mr. Jordan), Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, and Vincent Gardenia. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tatie Danielle

A French comedy about a nasty old lady (Tsilla Chelton) who is taken in by her well-intentioned great-nephew (Eric Prat) and his family in Paris, then challenged by a teenager (Isabelle Nanty) hired to watch over her while the family leaves on vacation. This movie is intermittently funny, but virtually strangled at birth by the sort of bourgeois complacency that it makes a few token gestures toward satirizing. Directed by Etienne Chatiliez (Life Is a Long Quiet River) from a script by Florence Quentin; with Catherine Jacob and Laurence Fevrier (1990). (JR)… Read more »