Yearly Archives: 1992

The Undistributed

This appeared in the Chicago Reader a little over 16 years ago—in their Christmas issue (December 25) in 1992—and it seems worth reviving now as a way of considering what’s changed since then and what hasn’t. Although the Jesus Franco atrocity claiming to be the Orson Welles Don Quixote is available here now on DVD, I couldn’t recommend this to anyone, but you can currently access the movie-theater sequence that I describe on YouTube. You can readily acquire Careful now (reportedly a remastered version has just appeared), and Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf can be acquired on DVD from France, albeit without subtitles; Antigone just came out there in a Straub-Huillet box set with optional French subtitles. Last year the BFI recently released an excellent edition of The Long Day Closes in the U.K., and the long version of A Brighter Summer Day with English subtitles was available for a time from one or two small fly-by-night labels; The Day of Despair showed in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center not so long ago, and it can be now found on DVD, but only on a Spanish label (as Un Dia de Desespero). On the other hand, if Mama, Family Portrait, and/or BoulevardS du crépuscule has become available anywhere on DVD, I have yet to hear about it.Read more »

Used People

Shirley MacLaine plays a Jewish widow with two unhappy daughters (Kathy Bates and Marcia Gay Harden) who’s wooed by an Italian widower (Marcello Mastroianni) in Queens in 1969. This delightful, affecting, and offbeat comedy-drama, written by actor Todd Graff (The Abyss, Five Corners) and adapted from his own off-Broadway work, The Grandma Plays, has been directed with verve and sensitivity by Beeban Kidron (Antonia and Jane), who’s done most of her previous work for British TV but seems perfectly at home here. The relatively uncommon virtue on full display here is a sense of character, which also extends to the heroine’s mother (Jessica Tandy), her mother’s best friend (Sylvia Sidney), and one of her grandsons (Matthew Branton), but the filmmakers are no slouches when it comes to period ambience either. This is a good deal less obvious and more original than Moonstruck–one of many reasons why I prefer it. (900 N. Michigan)… Read more »

Tous les matins du monde

Alain Corneau’s highly affecting and absorbing French feature about the legendary 17th-century classical musician and composer Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and his pupil Marin Marais (played by both Gerard Depardieu and his son, Guillaume Depardieu), who wound up playing in Lully’s orchestra at the court of Louis XIV by the time he was 20. So little is known about Sainte Colombe that the film virtually invents him as a stubborn, eccentric idealist with two daughters (Anne Brochet and Carole Richert), one of whom becomes involved with Marais. Adapted from Pascal Quignard’s novel of the same title (which means “all the mornings of the world”) by Quignard and Corneau, the film makes very good use of musical pieces by the main characters as well as by Lully, Couperin, and Jordi Savall (who conducts and helps perform the score). Winner of no less than seven Cesars and other prestigious French prizes, this is somewhat better than the middlebrow cultural monuments that usually get awarded such honors; the characters remain fascinating throughout, and the handling of the period is both delicate and highly evocative (1991). (Music Box, Friday, December 25, through Thursday, January 7)… Read more »

The Crying Game

An adroit piece of story telling from Irish writer-director Nell Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Miracle) that is ultimately less challenging to conventional notions about race and sexuality than it may at first seem. Like other Jordan features, this one centers on an impossible love relationship, and the covert agenda of the plot is to keep it impossible by any means necessary. The theories of literary critic Leslie Fiedler about the concealed and unconsummated lust of the white male for the nonwhite male in such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick seem oddly relevant to certain aspects of this tale about an IRA volunteer (Stephen Rea) who assists in the kidnapping of a black British soldier (Forest Whitaker) and subsequently becomes involved with his mulatto lover (Jaye Davidson) in London; the plot, held in place by a parable about a scorpion and a frog that’s filched from Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, features a startling twist about halfway through; among the cleverly concealed safety nets that hold this movie’s conceits in place is an implied misogyny that only becomes evident once the story is nearly over. Still, this thriller gives you an entertaining run for your money and some offbeat frissons along the way.… Read more »

Hollywood Radical [MALCOLM X]

From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1992); also reprinted in Movies as Politics. — J.R.

MALCOLM X

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Spike Lee

Written by Arnold Perl and Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, and Spike Lee.

At the top of 1968, over the vehement protests of my family and my friends, I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My family and my friends were entirely right; but I was not (since I survived it) entirely wrong. Still, I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure — not, luckily, that I will ever be allowed to repeat it: it is not an adventure which one permits a friend, or brother, to attempt to survive twice. It was a gamble which I knew I might lose, and which I lost — a very bad day at the races: but I learned something.” — James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976)

“If the complexity that was Malcolm X survives this moment as only a T-shirt or a trademark, then it is no wonder that Clarence Thomas has emerged as the perfect cooptive successor–an heir-transparent, a product with real producers; the new improved apparition of Malcolm, the cleaned-up version of what he could have been with a good strong grandfather figure to set him right.Read more »

Deadly Currents

A thoughtful and powerful Canadian documentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The filmmaker, Simcha Jacobovici, is the son of Holocaust survivors, but he has tried hard to make a nonpartisan overview of the conflict that shows some of the wisdom as well as some of the unreasoning hatred on both sides–and to an extent he has succeeded. Among the many people interviewed, my favorite is a pacifist anarchist street performer in Tel Aviv with an Arab father and a Jewish mother who has fought on both sides. (Jacobovici’s view is wide enough to include other performing artists as well, among them an Israeli dance company and a Palestinian music ensemble.) One might question at times the use of techniques associated with fiction films (e.g., point-of-view shots and flashbacks) and the occasional tendency of the filmmakers to provoke the people they are filming, though the film is sufficiently up-front to suggest that camera crews sometimes help create the violence they record. But the overall portrait that emerges, of a society propelled by suffocating hatred and intolerance on both sides, is disquieting, intelligent, and hard to forget. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, December 11 through 17)… Read more »

African Camera: 20 Years of African Cinema

An excellent documentary made in 1983 by Tunisian critic and filmmaker Ferid Boughedir (Halhaouine–Boy of the Terraces, Arabian Camera) that offers an intelligent and useful survey of African cinema. All the major figures are interviewed–including Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cisse, Djibril Diop Mambety, Med Hondo, Gaston Kabore, Dikongue Pipa, Safi Faye, Oumarou Ganda, and Ola Balogun. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by film scholars Virginia Keller and Deborah Tudor. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, December 8, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Single White Female

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the twisted and lonely roommate of Bridget Fonda in a psychological thriller directed by Barbet Schroeder, based on John Lutz’s novel SWF Seeks Same and adapted by Don Roos. As a psychological case study this is intelligent and adept, with fine performances by both of the lead actresses, and none of the Hitchcockian implications are lost on Schroeder. But there’s something dehumanizing about 90s horror thrillers that all but defeats the film’s impulses toward seriousness; no matter how much the filmmakers work to make the characters real, the genre contrives to turn them into functions and props. With Steven Weber and Peter Friedman. (JR)… Read more »

Scent Of A Woman

Al Pacino’s winning entry in the disability Oscar sweepstakes, with plenty of reminders of Dead Poets Society to take up the slack once it runs out of ways of emulating Rain Man. Among the able hands in this scurrilous, overlong enterprise are screenwriter Bo Goldman, producer-director Martin Brest, and costar Chris O’Donnell; the plot, a very loose Americanized remake of a 1975 Dino Risi comedy, transpires over a Thanksgiving weekend, when a scholarship student (O’Donnell) at an expensive New England prep school, wrestling with an anguished crise de conscience (he’s being pressured to inform on classmates), is hired to take care of a blind retired lieutenant colonel (Pacino), who drags him along to Manhattan on a wild, expensive weekend. An irascible bully who proves to have a heart of gold, Pacino’s character seems manufactured by a computer programmed with box-office grosses, and it’s disheartening to find a movie that professes to take a stand on behalf of personal integrity ripping off Chaplin’s theme song from City Lights without credit to generate some of its pathos. Given the talent on board, there’s an undeniable flair and effectiveness in certain scenes (such as Pacino dancing the tango with a stranger in a posh restaurant), but the meretricious calculation finally sticks in one’s throat.… Read more »

The Nation

A feature subtitled A Story of the Nation of Islam, produced, directed, and written by Juney Smith. Providing an alternative view to Spike Lee’s Malcolm Xit’s a much more accurate if dramatically and cinematically somewhat less pungent telling of the complex storyit concentrates on Elijah Muhammad’s relationship with Fard Muhammad as well as his influence on Malcolm X, Wallace Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan; it also deals with the influence of various women on the Black Muslim movement. With Reed McCants, Michael Whaley, Smoky Campbell, and Ben Guillory. (JR)… Read more »

Hoffa

Handsomely mounted and stylishly directed but otherwise rather unpleasant, this grandiloquent 1992 biopic about controversial Teamsters leader James R. Hoffa (Jack Nicholson)written by David Mamet (in his trademark plug-ugly monosyllabic style) and directed by Danny DeVito (who costars as a fictional loyal employee of Hoffa’s)may be vague around the edges as history but it’s conceptually clear about its own Godfather-style ambivalence. Its dark hagiography mixes a prounion stance with a more conservative view of crime and violence, seeing them as disturbing but impossible to eradicate. The period settings, though nicely handled, are less an original conception than dutiful homages to other movies. With Armand Assante, J.T. Walsh, John C. Reilly, Frank Whaley, and Kevin Anderson as Robert Kennedy. (JR)… Read more »

The Young Lions

Adapted by Edward Anhalt from Irwin Shaw’s celebrated novel about World War II and directed by Edward Dmytryk, this 167-minute omnibus in ‘Scope holds interest largely because of its three lead actorsMarlon Brando as a conflicted Nazi officer, and Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin (in one of his few serious roles) as U.S. soldiers; with Hope Lange, Barbara Rush, Maximilian Schell, Mai Britt, and Lee Van Cleef (1958). (JR)… Read more »

Used People

Shirley MacLaine plays a Jewish widow with two unhappy daughters (Kathy Bates and Marcia Gay Harden) who’s wooed by an Italian widower (Marcello Mastroianni) in Queens in 1969. This delightful, affecting, and offbeat comedy-drama (1992), written by actor Todd Graff (The Abyss, Five Corners), and adapted from his own off-Broadway work, The Grandma Plays, has been directed with verve and sensitivity by Beeban Kidron (Antonia & Jane), who did most of her previous work for British TV but seems perfectly at home here. The relatively uncommon virtue on full display here is a sense of character, which extends beyond the principals to the heroine’s mother (Jessica Tandy), the mother’s best friend (Sylvia Sidney), and a grandson (Matthew Branton), but the filmmakers are no slouches when it comes to period ambience either. This is a good deal less obvious and more original than Moonstruckone of many reasons I prefer it (1992). (JR)… Read more »

Trespass

Two firemen (Bill Paxton and William Sadler) from rural Arkansas head for an abandoned building in East Saint Louis after hearing about a hoard of buried treasure, only to find themselves unwitting witnesses to a murder committed by a local mob (including Ice-T and Ice Cube). Walter Hill directed this economical action thriller from a script by executive producers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Like Hill, Gale and Zemeckis show much more aptitude for warming over old genre movesthey’re especially good here in honoring the Aristotelian ground rules for place and timethan for detailed social observation, and the movie is ultimately limited by a schematic conception of most of the characters. (The major exception to this is a homeless squatter played by Art Evans, who in more ways than one walks off with the picture.) Otherwise, resourceful use is made of the decor (production design Jon Hutman), the spare and jangling music score (by Ry Cooder), and the secondary cast (including De’Voreaux White, Bruce A. Young, and Glenn Plummer) (1992). (JR)… Read more »

Toys

In the Gospel According to Barry Levinson, it would appear that the universei.e., the world, i.e., America, i.e., Hollywood, i.e., Levinson’s own brainis nothing but one gigantic toy factory. When factory owner (Donald O’Connor) dies, he leaves the business not to his elfin and playful son (Robin Williams) but to his military brother (Michael Gambon), who proceeds to install security systems and manufacture war toys. This is a movie Levinson wanted to make for a dozen years, and it’s possible that in the long career slide from the promise and coherence of Diner he’s forgotten why. Maybe with a smaller budget and less solipsism at its center this project might have retained certain possibilities. But in its present monstrous, cacophonous, and semicoherent form it constitutes a prime example of everything it is attempting to satirize. Coscripted by Valerie Curtin; with Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, LL Cool J, Arthur Malet, and Jack Warden (1992). (JR)… Read more »