Daily Archives: November 1, 1991

The Shanghai Gesture

Not exactly Josef von Sternberg in his heyday (1941), but still choice goodsa perverse dream bubble adapted by Sternberg, Jules Furthman, and others from a creaky but serviceable John Colton play about the madam of a Shanghai brothel (Ona Munson) taking revenge on a British official and former lover (Walter Huston) by corrupting his daughter (Gene Tierney). Victor Mature is also around, and surprisingly effective, as a decadent bisexual; other exotic cameos are doled out to Maria Ouspenskaya, Albert Bassermann, Eric Blore, Phyllis Brooks, and Mike Mazurki. Given the censorship of the period, much of the decadence is implied rather than stated. But Sternberg’s adept handling of claustrophobic space and sinister atmospherics made this melodrama an understandable favorite of the surrealists, and the icy tone cuts through the funk like a knife. (JR)… Read more »

The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe

A film version of Lily Tomlin’s much-celebrated one-woman show, in which she plays a dozen separate characters and satirizes New Age lifestyles (among other things). Written by executive producer Jane Wagner and directed and shot by John Bailey, this has a lot of added sound effects (designed by Wagner), as well as a good many fast transitions from Tomlin on a bare stage to Tomlin in costume on various sets and back again. Packed with virtuosity, this may still be the best solo performance on film since Richard PryorLive in Concert; Wagner’s writing may not have the personal urgency of Pryor’s (whose does?), but the level of performance is often nearly as high. (Tomlin can be as funny playing men as Pryor is playing various white folks.) If you like Tomlin at all, you shouldn’t miss this. (JR)… Read more »

Nighthawks

The first English feature to come from the gay community, Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s independent film about the double life of a gay schoolteacher studiously avoids sensationalism, and reaches its dramatic climax when the hero has a frank discussion about himself with his 14-year-old students (1978). (JR)… Read more »

Network

Good campy fun from the combined talents of Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet; Chayefsky was apparently serious about much of this shrill, self-important 1976 satire about television, interlaced with bile about radicals and pushy career women, and so were some critics at the time. Peter Finch, in his last performance, effectively plays a network news commentator who blows his top and his mind on the air and quickly becomes a self-styled messiah; William Holden plays the wizened TV executive who has the Truth, which pushy, nihilistic program director Faye Dunaway wants; and Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight are around for comparably juicy hyperbole. R, 121 min. (JR)… Read more »

Here Comes The Groom

A low-grade Capra effort about Bing Crosby adopting a couple of war orphans who will be sent overseas if he doesn’t win Jane Wyman back from millionaire Franchot Tone. At least there’s a brief guest appearance by Louis Armstrong (1951). (JR)… Read more »

Women’s Story

Peng Xiaolian’s aptly titled feminist feature from the People’s Republic of China follows the adventures of three peasant women who leave their oppressive village to sell wool in Beijing and a provincial city before returning to their ambiguous fates in the village. Peng sticks exclusively to the viewpoints of her three heroines, revealing herself to be a remarkable director of actors, and her incisive feeling for the options of her charactersboth as women and as peasantsgives this melodrama a cumulative force and authority (1988). (JR)… Read more »

White Dog

Samuel Fuller’s 1982 masterpiece about American racismhis last work shot in this countryfocuses on the efforts of a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to deprogram a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Very loosely adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a memoir by Romain Gary, and set in southern California on the fringes of the film industry, this heartbreakingly pessimistic yet tender story largely concentrates on tragic human fallibility from the vantage point of an animal; in this respect it’s like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, and Fuller’s brilliantly eclectic direction gives it a nearly comparable intensity. Through a series of grotesque misunderstandings, this unambiguously antiracist movie was yanked from U.S. distribution partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it’s one of the key American films of the 80s. With Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, and, in cameo roles, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Christa Lang, and Fuller himself. PG, 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

Twenty-one

Patsy Kensit addresses the camera as a young girl recounting her recent life, in an English comedy partially set in New York that’s directed by Don Boyd (the producer of Aria), who wrote the script with Zoe Heller. The results show some improvement over Boyd’s first feature (Intimate Reflections, made in 1975 and never released here), but his dotty determination to opt for odd camera angles at arbitrary junctures reveals an overall uncertainty about his material that not even Kensit’s cheekiness can override. The various subplots, which never quite seem to come together, include the heroine’s adulterous affair with a twit she doesn’t much like (Patrick Ryecart), and her more serious relationships with a Scottish junkie (Rufus Sewell), her two best friends (Sophie Thompson and Maynard Eziashi), and her father (Jack Shepherd). What Boyd seems to have in mind is a kind of updating of trendy 60s British movies like Darling and A Taste of Honey, but the strategy doesn’t pay off. (JR)… Read more »

Tora! Tora! Tora!

A turkey by reputation, this 144-minute epic (1970) contrives to reconstruct the events leading up to Pearl Harbor from the Japanese as well as American viewpoint, with four directors (Richard Fleischer, Ray Kellogg, Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasuku) and three writers (Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima). Among the actors are Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Jason Robards, Edward Andrews, George Macready, and Leon Ames. (JR)… Read more »

Together Alone

Voted best feature by gay and lesbian film festival audiences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this 16-millimeter black-and-white U.S. independent feature by P.J. Castellaneta chronicles the talk and interaction between two young men (Todd Stites and Terry Curry) who get together for a one-night stand. The writing and performances are mainly fluid, in spite of a few self-consciously theatrical or expositional stretches, and it’s a pity that Castellaneta doesn’t trust his material enough to let it play without music, which often proves intrusive. The frank conversation moves from AIDS to sexual etiquette to homosexuality versus bisexuality to lengthy accounts of former relationships, and the writer-director and actors generally do a fine job of keeping us interested (1990). (JR)… Read more »

The Rapture

A so-so student film (1991), tacky and pretentious if somewhat unpredictable, that catapulted into national prominence simply because it takes some of the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity seriously and seriously questions certain othersproving yet again that all it takes to get some critics worked up is novelty, not accomplishment: there are no insights here that you couldn’t find on most street corners. A telephone operator in Los Angeles (Mimi Rogers) who indulges in freewheeling mate swapping with her boyfriend (Patrick Bauchau) has a religious experience, transforms her life, and fervently awaits the apocalypse, which the movie delivers in solemn, drive-in exploitation style, complete with low-budget special effects and strained acting. Written and directed by former Village Voice writer Michael Tolkin, this clunky exercise goes the standard puritanical route of aiming to be as tawdry as possible before the heroine starts to see the light, then turning solemn and pristine in order to cash in on the conversion, which is questioned (and flaunted) as glumly as the carousing was. I was mildly interested and mildly bored, occasionally intrigued but never convinced. With David Duchovny, Kimberly Cullum, and Will Patton. (JR)… Read more »

The Prince Of Tides

Barbra Streisand stars in her second feature as a director (after Yentl), an adaptation of Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel about the adulterous relationship that develops between the twin brother (Nick Nolte) and the New York psychiatrist (Streisand) of a tortured southern poet who attempts suicide (Melinda Dillon); Conroy and Becky Johnston collaborated on the script, and Blythe Danner, Kate Nelligan, Jeroen Krabbe, and Jason Gould (Streisand’s real-life son, here playing her movie son) costar. For better and for worse, Streisand’s directorial style calls to mind Delmer Daves in the 60s (Spencer’s Mountain, Youngblood Hawke), both in her delirious crane shots and in her willingness to place most of the emotional climaxes into the filmic equivalent of italics (which often means overproduced magazine-cover settings and soaring music). The results may seem overripe and dated in spots, but she coaxes a fine performance out of Nolte, and the other actors (herself included) acquit themselves honorably (1991). (JR)… Read more »

The People Under The Stairs

A horror film by writer-director Wes Craven about a 13-year-old ghetto boy (Brandon Adams), whose family is about to be evicted by an evil slumlord (Twin Peaks’s Everett McGill), stumbling into a group of brutalized kids held captive in the slumlord’s house, which the demented fellow shares with his equally deranged sister (Twin Peaks’s Wendy Robie) posing as his wife. Most of this works pretty well in terms of shocks, suspense, and cartoonlike violence, but less well as social metaphor. With A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Sean Whalen, and Jeremy Roberts (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Liebestraum

For those like myself who basically enjoyed Mike Figgis’s first feature, Stormy Monday, his third (he made Internal Affairs in between) begins promisingly as a thriller with the same hard-edged look, high-contrast lighting, and skeptical English view of American culture. An architecture professor (Kevin Anderson), adopted as a child then orphaned, is sent for by his real mother (Kim Novak), who’s dying. He encounters an old college friend (Bill Pullman) who’s supervising the demolition of a cast-iron department store that has been closed since an adulterous couple were murdered there in the early 50s. The hero starts to become involved with his friend’s wife (Pamela Gidley), who shares his architectural enthusiasms, and eventually the two plot strands come together. Unfortunately, by that time the sheer pretentiousness of the proceedingsreplete with brooding pauses, studied dialogue, and hothouse eroticism a la Two Moon Junctionand the occasional incoherence of the narrative (which appears to have lost at least one subplot, perhaps to studio recutting) have turned this whole farrago into borderline camp. And even though any appearance by Kim Novak is welcome, the story regrettably entails the use in flashbacks of a younger self who looks nothing like the Novak we know. (JR)… Read more »

Let Him Have It

The sober, relatively uninspired account of a real-life crime that shook postwar London, when a retarded epileptic of 17 was sentenced to death for his indirect role in the shooting of a policeman by a 16-year-old hoodlum. Directed by Peter Medak (The Krays) from a script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade; with Christopher Eccleston, Paul Reynolds, Tom Bell, Eileen Atkins, Clare Holman, Michael Gough, and Tom Courtenay (1991). (JR)… Read more »