Monthly Archives: December 1991

Boyz N the Hood

This 1991 first feature by writer-director John Singleton, then 23, about growing up black in South Central LA, shows some genuine talent in handling character and action, and equal amounts of confusion and attitude when it comes to matters of gender and ghetto politics. (Black women seem to bear the brunt of his anger about problems in the ghetto, and the white power structure is accorded a relatively free and guiltless ride.) With Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and Larry Fishburne. Stanley Clarke composed the score. Could the widespread popularity of this movie among whites be partially connected to the implicit acceptance of ghettos as an unchangeable fact of life? R, 107 min.… Read more »

The Double Life of Veronique

An exquisite enigma by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue) following the parallel lives of two 20-year-old women, one in Poland and one in France, both played by the beautiful Irene Jacob. The Polish Veronika is a talented singer with a heart condition; the French Veronique quits her voice lessons and gets involved with a puppeteer who writes children’s books. Masterfully directed, this rather dreamlike French-Polish coproduction explores a dual nature that seems uncannily to grow out of the coproduction situation itself almost as if Kieslowski were dreaming of a resurrected artistic identity for himself now that Polish state financing has gone the same route as Polish communism. With Philippe Volter, Halina Gryglaszewska, Kalina Jedrusik, and Aleksander Bardini. (Fine Arts) … Read more »

Life Is Sweet

This is British writer-director Mike Leigh at his near best–that is, not quite as good as High Hopes, but still a must-see. Most of the focus here is on a dysfunctional family consisting of a compulsively cheerful mother (Alison Steadman), a pipe-dreaming father (Jim Broadbent) who works as a chef, and twin daughters, one a well-adjusted plumber (Claire Skinner), the other an anorexic-bulimic malcontent (Jane Horrocks) in a perpetual state of agitation. To round out the thematic concern with food, there’s also family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a rather pathetic entrepreneur who attempts to open a gourmet restaurant. As in High Hopes, Leigh boldly accords different kinds and levels of stylization to his characters–Aubrey is handled much more parodically than the others–and the volatile mixture works. What starts off as sitcom material gradually widens to encompass a tragicomic story of complex characters and subtle interactions. (Music Box, Wednesday through Thursday, December 25 through January 2) … Read more »

America Becoming

A documentary by the great Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, To Sleep With Anger) that focuses on immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America in half a dozen communities in the U.S., including Chicago, Houston, Miami, and Philadelphia. Considering that it comes from Burnett, this is far from being as distinctive as it could be, but it remains both sympathetic and interesting. The narration is by CBS news correspondent Meredith Vieira. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, December 13 and 14, 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, December 15, 5:30 and 7:30, 281-4114) … Read more »

White Dog

Previously released only in Europe, expatriate Samuel Fuller’s powerful and corrosive masterpiece about American racism–his last work shot in this country–focuses 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 is 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 nine years ago partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it is 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 (1982). (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, midnight) … Read more »

Us and Them [BLOOD IN THE FACE]

From the December 6, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

BLOOD IN THE FACE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway

If memory serves, it was around my junior year in college, during the mid-60s, when a conservative classmate took my brother and me to a John Birch Society meeting in Hyde Park, New York, held inside a trailer in a trailer camp. The friend advised us to conceal our identities as liberal Jews (he was half Jewish himself) and try to blend in with the surroundings, which we did.

It was a sparsely attended meeting. Before that we made small talk with the handful of other people present — including the couple who owned the trailer and a young man who identified himself as the son of communists and who cheerfully explained that the society had deliberately adopted the structure of the Communist Party, complete with cell meetings like this one and vows of secrecy. He and everyone else in the room seemed friendly, normal everyday folks, until the film projector blew a fuse just as they began to screen a movie.

Then the paranoid speculations began: they made extensive flashlight searches of the yard around the trailer, looking for spies and saboteurs.… Read more »

Hook

Steven Spielberg’s $70 million post-Freudian, revisionist sequel (1994) to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, with Wendy now 80 years old (played by Maggie Smith) and Peter (Robin Williams) married to her granddaughter (Caroline Goodall) and working as a Wall Street lawyera character, one suspects, who is rather like Spielberg himself. Tinkerbell (a miniature, matted-in Julia Roberts) carries him back to Neverland to confront Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and his sidekick Smee (Bob Hoskins) after his kids (Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott) are kidnapped. The drama centers on Peter’s efforts to remember his past and, with the help of the Lost Boys (now a gang of ghetto urchins), win his son back from Hook, who has usurped his paternal role. (Perhaps the biggest failure of imagination here concerns what little girls are supposed to do in Neverland.) In overall narrative sweep and directorial confidence it’s a decisive return to form for Spielberg, who borrows liberally from his own 1941 as well as Altman’s Popeye to get some of his best comic and pictorial effects. But conceptually speaking, the amount of mental machinery required to get Peter flying again yields an overall self-consciousness that the movie never quite recovers from, and the moment-to-moment inventiveness never fully compensates for the thinness of the characters.… Read more »

High Heels

The plot of Pedro Almodovar’s goofy 1991 melodrama has more twists than a rattlesnake, but whether it’s meant mainly for laughs or for more serious engagement isn’t always clear, because it keeps shifting back and forth between modes. The story centers on the reunion of an aging pop star (Marisa Paredes) and her grown daughter (Victoria Abril), a TV anchorwoman, after a 15-year separation. The daughter’s husband, who owns the TV station where she works, turns out to be the mother’s former lover, and after he’s found murdered a number of bizarre facts are brought to light, including the diverse involvements of a female impersonator (Miguel Bose) who specializes in tributes to the mother. The results oscillate between Almodovar’s characteristically flaky irreverence and a more solemn treatment of the relationship between mother and daughter that intermittently suggests Douglas Sirk without his ironies. It’s a lot more fun to watch than Almodovar’s previous Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but those who miss the wildness of his premainstream work will probably be only partially appeased. In Spanish with subtitles. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

A knockout thriller that succeeds brilliantly at just about everything Scorsese’s Cape Fear didn’t. It’s another revenge plot in which the villain (Rebecca De Mornay) attempts to destroy a family (Annabella Sciorra, Matt McCoy, Madeline Zima) from within, but there’s no pretentious art agenda on the filmmakers’ minds; they merely work the genre for all it’s worth, which proves in this case to be plenty: the suspense is masterfully controlled, and the story, which makes effective use of Seattle locations, builds to a terrifying climax. Curtis Hanson’s direction and Amanda Silver’s screenplay are both models of no-flab craft and intelligence, and all the actors (who also include Ernie Hudson and Julianne Moore) are believable from the first frame to the last (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Pattes Blanches

Perhaps the most neglected of all the major French directors, at least in the U.S., Jean Gremillon (1901-’59) was a figure of such versatility that it’s difficult to make generalizations about his work. (One can, however, speak about its close attention to sound and rhythmhe started out as a musicianand its frequent focus on class divisions.) Pattes blanches (aka White Shanks), made in 1949, is not one of his very best effortsI prefer Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le ciel est a vous (1944). But this moody melodrama of adultery set on the Normandy coast is still full of punch and fascination, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a taste for the classic French cinema. Coscripted by Jean Anouilh (who originally intended to direct), it’s a noirish tale about a promiscuous flirt from the city (Suzy Delair) who marries a local tavern keeper and becomes involved with a plotting local malcontent (Michel Bouquet) and a faded aristocrat (Paul Bernard), nicknamed White Shanks because of his spats, who is the target of a revenge plot. A sensitive maid with a hunchback who loves the aristocrat rounds out this odd quintet, who are regarded with a caustic compassion that recalls Stroheim. The lovelycamera work is by Philippe Agostini, and the great Leon Barsacq is in charge of the sets.… Read more »

Rush

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric (After Dark, My Sweet) star as undercover narcotics agents, in a first feature directed by Lili Fini Zanuck from a script by Peter Dexter adapted from a book by Kim Wozencraft. The film addresses a serious subjectundercover agents who become implicated in the drug traffic they’re trying to stopbut while competent, it’s too routine to generate much interest. Leigh is effective as always, but has little to chew on; Patric has even less. With Sam Elliott, Max Perlich, Gregg Allman, Tony Frank, and William Sadler (1991). (JR)… Read more »

Madame Bovary

Isabelle Huppert stars in Claude Chabrol’s 1991 version of the Gustave Flaubert novel, previously adapted by Jean Renoir (1934) and Vincente Minnelli (1949). Chabrol claims to have opted for an overall faithfulness in terms of dialogue and details, and, on the face of it, Jean Yanne as Monsieur Homais seems inspired casting. With Jean-Francois Balmer (Charles Bovary) and Christopher Malavoy (Rodolphe). (JR)… Read more »

JFK

It’s a fair sign of the capriciousness of the American press that it took this crass 1991 movie to get the media to discuss the assassination of John F. Kennedy; sad to say, Oliver Stone’s three hours of bombast did little to raise the level of discussion. As someone who doesn’t believe much of the Warren Report, I’m favorably disposed toward any movie that seriously questions it, but Stone’s all-purpose conspiracy theory, built like a house of cards, rivals Mississippi Burning in its sheer crudeness and contempt for the audience. Like New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrisonwho investigated the assassination in the late 60s and is played as a spotless white knight by Kevin CostnerStone and cowriter Zachary Sklar, hampered by harassment and multiple cover-ups, find themselves stuck for a suspect and focus their anger on gay businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), hoping that homophobic melodrama (complete with a wholly invented male hustler played by Kevin Bacon and a dubious inflation of Shaw’s CIA connections) will paper over the gaps left in the argument. What emerges has its compelling moments, but the obfuscation needed to put it across matches the Warren Report’s desire to oversimplify. Given a mass of material that is probably even more intractable than the Dreyfus affair, it’s easy to see how Stone went off the rails, but even if one respects his desire to attack the ruling powers, more heat than light is produced in the scattershot barrage of assertions and oversentimentalized father worship.… Read more »

Father Of The Bride

Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett starred in the original 1950 classic comedy, scripted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett from a novel by Edward Streeter and directed by Vincente Minnelli. This sad little 1991 remake stars Steve Martin and Diane Keaton under the direction of Baby Boom’s Charles Shyer, with a script by Shyer and Nancy Meyers that borrows liberally from the original. The main problem here is the gross inferiority of the new version to the old: compare Tracy’s handling of the opening monologue with Martin’s and you’ll get a fair indication of what’s become of commercial filmmaking over the past four decades. The more challenging elements of the original (e.g., the father’s highly upsetting nightmare) have been pared away, and most of the laughs come less from the material than from the outsize grimaces that Martin superimposes on his part; none of the characters register with any believability beyond the sitcom minimum, and Diane Keaton’s discomfort with her role is painful to watch. With Kimberly Williams as the bride and Martin Short working overtime as an Italian wedding consultant who doesn’t seem especially Italian. (JR)… Read more »

Bugsy

Warren Beatty delivers some of his best acting in years as Bugsy Siegel, the gangster responsible for the inception of Las Vegas as we now know it. His Flamingo Hotel, built with funds from his thriving Hollywood protection racket, was the first of its kind. Annette Bening plays the Hollywood extra who turns him into a fool for love. Barry Levinson (Avalon) directs capably from an intelligent and evocative script by James Toback (The Pick-Up Artist); Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, and Joe Mantegna all effectively costar. A melancholy character study of romantic delirium and Napoleonic ambition with a nice sense of nuance, this is much more coherent than the general run of blockbusters (1991). (JR)… Read more »