Monthly Archives: October 1991

Extraordinary People [LITTLE MAN TATE]

From the Chicago Reader (October 25, 1991). — J.R.

LITTLE MAN TATE

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Jodie Foster

Written by Scott Frank

With Adam Hann-Byrd, Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest, Harry Connick Jr., David Pierce, Debi Mazar, and P.J. Ochlan.

Part of what’s refreshing about Jodie Foster’s first feature as a director is its quirky style and vision; even the picture’s limitations have a certain offbeat integrity. In 90 percent of the movies we see the flaws are the same old flaws endlessly recycled (inherited like family curses, passed along like viruses): sentimentality, cliched characters and behavior, and stock attitudes, camera placements, and audience manipulations. Relatively free of these familiar blemishes, Little Man Tate winds up with a few of its own — “missing pieces” might be more accurate — but most of these problems seem to have been arrived at honestly rather than automatically imported from other movies.

The title hero is a boy genius named Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd) who occasionally narrates his own story, which transpires mainly between his seventh and eighth birthdays. He’s gifted in so many ways that, at least on the schematic level of Scott Frank’s script, he often seems like several boy geniuses jammed together: a self-taught reader by age one, he also quickly reveals himself to be a talented visual artist, a remarkable classical pianist, an original and accomplished poet, and a mathematical wizard who breezes through a college course in quantum physics when he’s seven.… Read more »

City of Hope

John Sayles’s seventh feature, his first in ‘Scope, is a highly ambitious and grimly powerful look at urban corruption that represents a marked improvement over most of his earlier efforts while still revealing Sayles’s relative lack of skill in directing actors, framing, and editing. Set in the fictional Hudson City, New Jersey, which suggests a combination of Hoboken (where Sayles lives) and nearby Jersey City, the film centers on the troubled son (Vincent Spano) of a successful contractor who gets involved in an attempted burglary, which sets off a chain of events that ultimately involves all the other characters in this densely populated film: politicians, policemen, hoods, teachers, street people, and many others. As social analysis, the film is at once highly persuasive and dependent on an overall orientation that’s about as up-to-date as leftist thinking of the 30s. (The raving street person who is employed as a choral figure could have come straight out of Clifford Odets.) With Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Morton, Angela Bassett, Gloria Foster, and Sayles himself (in a very effective turn as a villain with a letter-perfect New Jersey accent). (Water Tower)… Read more »

This Week at the Film Festival

As the Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second week, there are still a lot of interesting and exciting movies to be seen. I feel compelled to note that none of the 16 features on this week’s program that I’m familiar with are as beautiful or as potent as Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague–one of the 39 films shown in Toronto last month that Chicago festival director Michael Kutza boasted to the press about having rejected. (Among the other 38 “rejected” titles are a charming minimalist comedy, A Little Stiff, shown at the Film Center last month, and a fascinating documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which premiered on cable last weekend.) So though, as always, Kutza’s selection is a mixed bag, there are nonetheless several titles included that are worth anyone’s time.

I especially recommend Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, Jan Oxenberg’s Thank You and Goodnight, George Cukor’s 1960 Let’s Make Love (mainly for Marilyn Monroe’s performance), Otto Preminger’s 1954 River of No Return (mainly for Preminger’s direction), Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, and Victor Erice’s The South (1982) on the basis of my own experience, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Delicatessen and Raul Ruiz’s Treasure Island on the basis of what I’ve heard.… Read more »

My Own Private Idaho

Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy we’re both certainly good, but this third feature from Gus Van Sant–who’s working for the first time with his own original material–is even better: a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. The first is a narcoleptic from a broken home, while the second is the son of the mayor of Portland; the one without a family is essentially looking for one while the one with a family is mainly in flight from it. The stylistic eclecticism is so far-ranging that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant’s poetic imagination and feeling for his characters are so lyrically focused that almost everything works, and even the parts that show some strain–such as an extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight that’s stitched into the plot like crazy-quilt patchwork–may excite you nonetheless for their audacity. Phoenix has certainly never been better, and Reeves does his best with a part that suffers from consisting largely of Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. One of the movie’s smallest accomplishments is providing the best metaphor for sexual orgasm to come along in years; one of its biggest is justifying an arsenal of road-movie conceits that until now seemed exhausted.… Read more »

Little Man Tate

Jodie Foster’s highly distinctive directorial debut, scripted by Scott Frank (Dead Again), gives us the year in the life of a boy genius (Adam Hann-Byrd) between his seventh and eighth birthdays. Foster herself plays his devoted working-class mother, and Dianne Wiest plays a child psychologist and former gifted child who fights for control of the little boy. This is largely played for comedy, and is often quite funny, but Foster also shows a great deal of sensitivity depicting the young hero’s social isolation and weighing the respective strengths and limitations of the two women as parental figures. (There’s virtually no father figure in sight, and part of what makes this movie so provocative is its discreet suggestion that one isn’t necessary.) Visually bold and imaginative and wonderfully acted (Foster and Hann-Byrd in particular give fine, expansive performances without a trace of sentimentality), this movie is also graced by a very effective jazz score by Mark Isham that helps counterbalance an overschematic script. Not a total success, but strongly recommended; with Harry Connick Jr., David Pierce, Debi Mazar, and P.J. Ochlan. (Old Orchard, Webster Place, Bricktown Square, Water Tower) … Read more »

Shadows

John Cassavetes’s exquisite and poignant first feature (1959), shot in 16-millimeter and subsequently blown up to 35, centers on two brothers and a sister living together in Manhattan; the oldest (Hugh Hurd), a third-rate nightclub singer, is visibly black, while the other two (Ben Carruthers and Lelia Goldoni) are sufficiently light skinned to pass for white. This is the only Cassavetes film made without a script, and the only one that focuses mainly on young people, with the actors improvising their own dialogue (and, to increase the feeling of intimacy, using their own first names for their characters). Rarely has so much warmth, delicacy, subtlety, and raw feeling emerged so naturally and beautifully from performances in an American film. This movie is contemporaneous with early masterpieces of the French New Wave such as Breathless and The 400 Blows, and deserves to be ranked alongside them for the freshness and freedom of its vision; in its portrait of Manhattan during the beat period, it also serves as a poignant time capsule. With Tony Ray (the son of director Nicholas Ray), Rupert Crosse, Dennis Sallas, Tom Allen, and Davey Jones–all very fine–and a wonderful jazz score by Charles Mingus. It’s conceivable that Cassavetes made greater films than this, but it’s the one I’ve seen and cherish the most.… Read more »

October Surprise

There’s a surprising amount to be learned about the state of the world from most international film festivals, and the Chicago International Film Festival, now in its 27th year, is no exception. A film festival can impart information that’s seldom available in the kind of print and TV journalism we’ve been getting in this country in recent years: the texture of everyday life in other countries and the fantasies of other cultures; the kinds of thought, emotion, and reflection that can’t necessarily be captured in sound bites, ancillary markets, and weekend grosses; aesthetic, political, intellectual, and erotic alternatives to the overhyped fare that Entertainment Tonight, At the Movies, Entertainment Weekly, et al are force-feeding us the rest of the year.

If art offers us a prism to illuminate such matters, what are the signs in European cinema of the recent collapse of communism? It’s probably too soon to compile a comprehensive list, but foremost among the immediate signs is the international coproduction. With the virtual collapse of state financing in some countries, and a substantial rethinking of what should get state financing in others–as well as a growing desire to reach international markets the way Hollywood movies do–a curious genre of polyglot production has been developing in Europe in which two or more nationalities get jammed together into a film’s cast, its production staff, sometimes even its language.… Read more »

The Garden

Derek Jarman’s lyrical visionary 1990 moviemade after he tested HIV positive and before he made his highly political version of Marlowe’s Edward IIalternates views of himself sleeping and dreaming and his seaside home and garden with enigmatic and apocalyptic images of the life of Jesus, the state-endorsed persecution of homosexuals (among other horrors of post-Thatcher England), and diverse fancies and fantasies that often combine these themes. Deftly mixing video and film shot with different stocks and in various gauges, this kaleidoscopic reverie also makes room for a mordant restaging of the Think Pink number from Funny Face, many glimpses of children and nature, offscreen recitations of poetry, and such Jarman regulars as actress Tilda Swinton and composer Simon Fisher Turner. For all its virtuosity and beauty (especially apparent in some of the editing patterns), this complex meditation intermittently depends on a fascination with sadomasochism that many viewers won’t share. But even if you find yourselfas I didwaiting out these sequences and bemused by portions of the personal symbolism, you’re likely to be transfixed by much of the rest. (JR)… Read more »

The Super

A greedy slum landlord (Joe Pesci), whose bigoted father (Vincent Gardenia) is even less compassionate, gets sentenced to house arrest in one of his own ghetto buildings until proper improvements are made, in a comedy directed by Rod Daniel (K-9) from a script by Sam Simon. While no sort of miracle, this movie goes surprisingly far in criticizing the greed and glibness of Reagan-era ghetto landlords, at least by pulling no punches when it comes to showing the squalor that their tenants are forced to live in; and Daniel’s serviceable direction manages to get some good laughs out of Pesci’s hard education and comeuppance. Pesci himself does his utmost to carry this feature on his shoulders, and though his success is hampered in part by a happy ending that seems more compromised than it absolutely needs to be, this is still more plausible as a social critique than the other yuppie self-help movies released about the same time (Regarding Henry, The Doctor, The Fisher King, et al). With Madolyn Smith Osborne and Ruben Blades. (JR)… Read more »

Stepping Out

Liza Minnelli stars in this stilted film adaptation of Richard Harris’s play about a tap dancing class in Buffalo, New York, directed by Lewis Gilbert (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine) in such a way that the obviousness and staginess of the material are underlined rather than minimized. Neither Minnelli nor the supporting casther tap dance students (Ellen Greene, Julie Walters, Bill Irwin, Robyn Stevan, Jane Krakowski, Sheila McCarthy, Andrea Martin, and Carol Woods) and rehearsal pianist (Shelley Winters)can be faulted for the flatness of the proceedings, which seems to emerge both from the writing and from a standard Broadway-show premise (professionals pretending to be amateurs pretending to be professionals) that requires a great deal of pizzazz to bring off. Minnelli herself is effective in a couple of dance numbers (despite some underlighting in the first of these), and Peter Matz’s background score is bouncy, but the thinness of the story and characters makes this a hopeless enterprise. (JR)… Read more »

Shattered

Easy to watch, easier still to forget, Wolfgang Petersen’s thriller, which he adapted from Richard Neely’s novel The Plastic Nightmare, starts off with an elaborate car crash that renders the wealthy hero (Tom Berenger) amnesiac. Nursed back to health by his beautiful wife (Greta Scacchi), who survived the same accident unharmed, he begins to uncover disturbing facts about both her and himself. As usually happens with such exercises, this turns out to be very surprising and very implausible in about equal proportions; the settings are in and around San Francisco, but Vertigo this ain’t. Bob Hoskins plays a likable detective and pet shop owner, and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Corbin Bernsen contribute a few smidgens of additional intrigue. (JR)… Read more »

Homicide

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

homicide

David Mamet shares with Ernest Hemingway a mannerist style of macho dialogue made up of short sentences and repeated phrases that lends itself to self-parody as well as parody. In this second step down the ladder from the promise of his first picture (House of Games), he seems to be approximating Hemingway in his mawkish For Whom the Bell Tolls period. Joe Mantegna plays an alienated cop who implausibly discovers his Jewish roots through a couple of cases he’s assigned to, and finds himself manipulated as much by Jewish terrorists as by his superiors on the police force. Despite the occasional snap and crackle of Mamet-talk at its most surreal (“They couldn’t find Joe Louis in a bowl of rice”), the movie is just plain silly when it isn’t merely unbelievable (the usually astute Mantegna, alas, never once springs to life), with a good many unsuspenseful suspense sequences and apolitical political ruminations. W.H. Macy, Natalija Nogulich, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Vincent Guastaferro are among the costars (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Home Of The Brave

This is one of the earliest features produced by Stanley Kramer (1949), an updated adaptation by Carl Foreman of an Arthur Laurents play about the traumatic effects of prejudice on an American soldier during World War 1. In the play the character who undergoes psychiatric treatment after being taunted by his fellow soldiers is a Jew; the film makes him a black man (James Edwards) during World War 2. Though the drama has its moments of power, the treatment of its subject now seems cautious and dated. With Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, Douglas Dick, and Steve Brodie; Mark Robson directed. (JR)… Read more »

Year Of The Gun

An American reporter in Rome (Andrew McCarthy) in 1978, covertly writing a novel about a well-known terrorist group, gets unwittingly involved in an intricate web of treachery, in a disappointing thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, adapted by David Ambrose from a book by Michael Mewshaw. Among the characters in the hero’s immediate circle are a former mistress (Valeria Golino), a professor friend (John Pankow), and an aggressive American photojournalist (Sharon Stone). Most surprising, given Frankenheimer’s previous record as a liberal, is the crudely xenophobic portrait accorded the terrorist Red Brigades; whatever else may be found here, don’t expect much edification or insight into European politics. (JR)… Read more »

Whore

Theresa Russell not only stars in Ken Russell’s adaptation of David Hines’s play Bondage but dominates it from beginning to end, and considering the narrowness of the character she’s playing, it’s an impressive performance. The material, adapted by the director and Deborah Dalton, is as relentlessly deglamorized and brutal a look at a street hooker’s existence as one can find in commercial movies, and virtually all of its interest resides in this fact; as drama or as character study it is fairly threadbare. A good deal of it consists of the heroine addressing the camera (her pimp, played by Benjamin Mouton, gets in an extended soliloquy as well) or supplying offscreen narration to flashbacks. Ken Russell, as usual, can’t quite trust the material to speak for itself and generally delivers it in shrieking neon (whenever someone bleeds in one of his films, you can always count on a hemorrhage), but he hasn’t prevented the overall message from coming through loud and clear. With Antonio Fargas, Sanjay, and Elizabeth Morehead (1991). (JR)… Read more »