Daily Archives: January 1, 1992

Northwest Passage

King Vidor’s 1940 adaptation of Kenneth Roberts’s book about Rogers’ Rangers opening up a trade route and triumphing over fatigue, hunger, rage, insubordination, weakness, and even cannibalism as they slaughter Indians. (The grim violence and outright racism may remind you in spots of the Vietnam sections in The Deer Hunter.) Spencer Tracy is effective as the leader and all-purpose daddy figure; Robert Young and Walter Brennan are among the greenhorn recruits. Much of this is effective in terms of action and adventure, and the color cinematography is memorable, but don’t expect an enlightened historical view. With Ruth Hussey. (JR)… Read more »

Native Son

A genuine oddity: a 1950 adaptation of Richard Wright’s great novel of black Chicago, with the author himself as the hero, Bigger Thomas, shot in Buneos Aires by French director Pierre Chenal. Wright is clearly too old for the part, and there are many other ways in which the film can’t begin to do justice to the extraordinary power and density of the original, but it’s still a noble and interesting if highly uneven effort. With Jean Wallace, Gloria Madison, and Nicholas Joy. (JR)… Read more »

Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

A fascinating 1991 postmortem on the making of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), mainly consisting of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in the 70s that has been intelligently selected, augmented, and arranged by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Like the Coppola film itself, this documentary at times seems to value self-styled profundity and rhetoric over observation and common sense; one especially regrets the absence of any thoroughgoing political or historical critique of Apocalypse Now in relation to the Vietnam war. Moreover, this movie only compounds the self-satisfied myopia that regards peasants of the Philippines (where Apocalypse was shot) and those of Vietnam as interchangeable. But the various personalities involvedincluding Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Coppola himselfkeep this watchable. Too bad that Michael Herr, who wrote Apocalypse’s effective narration after the film was shot, is overlooked in the kaleidoscopic clashes of male egos, but it’s nice to see that Orson Welles’s radio and screenplay adaptations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are acknowledged as precedents and influences. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hard Labour

Mike Leigh’s first TV film (1973) concentrates on the dreary existence of a middle-aged maid (Liz Smith) and her relationships with her well-to-do employers, her insensitive and demanding husband (Clifford Kershaw), her unsympathetic children, and a cynically unconcerned priest. As usual with Leigh, there’s some bite and vision behind the gloom, and the talented castincluding Alison Steadman, Ben Kingsley, Polly Hemingway, and Bernard Hillmakes it lively and interesting. (JR)… Read more »

Wax Or The Discovery Of Television Among The Bees

A fascinating if numbing independent feature by David Blair, transferred from video to film with remarkable computer graphics and other special effects. The intricate science-fantasy plot, which is narrated in an offscreen monotone by Blair, involves, among many other things, a beekeeper and cinematographer (represented by a photo of William S. Burroughs) who films the moving spirits of the dead circa 1914; his grandson (played by Blair), half sister, and brother-in-law; the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and the Trinity nuclear test site there; the moon; the planet of television; the Tower of Babel; the Garden of Eden Cave (a town the size of Manhattan beneath the New Mexican desert); and the gulf war. The images obliquely illustrate the narrative, and the constant visual flux often suggests a graphic novel translated into MTV, which helps to account for the numbing effect. The results are highly watchable, though more intellectually than emotionally involving (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Until The End Of The World

Wim Wenders’s most ambitious feature (1991), budgeted at $23 million and shot in no fewer than nine countries, certainly qualifies as a failure, but it’s also well worth seeing for its often stunning cinematography (by Robby Muller) and some of its SF notions about life on this planet in the near future. The first part of the film follows Solveig Dommartin as she rushes across Europe on the heels of a hitchhiker (William Hurt) who’s stolen money she’d been carrying to Paris for some bank robbers; she is followed in turn by a sympathetic former lover and novelist (Sam Neill). The second part, restricted to the Australian outback, deals with the scientific experiments Hurt needs the money for, which will enable his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau) to see visual recordings of the remainder of her family. Scripted by Wenders and Australian novelist Peter Carey and based on an idea by Wenders and Dommartin, the film fails largely because of the flatness of its characters and the awkwardness of its dialogue (though there’s a likable turn by Rudiger Vogler as a German Hammett-style gumshoe); the SF experiments in Australia also borrow rather heavily and gracelessly from the work of Chris Marker (e.g., La jetee and Sans soleil).… Read more »

Medicine Man

Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco play scientists who fall in love in the Brazilian rain forest. Recluse jungle dweller Connery is close to producing a cure for cancer when Bracco is dispatched by a pharmaceutical corporation to see what he’s up to. John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October), directing a script by Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) and Sally Robinson, does some lovely things with the scenery and ‘Scope framing, and finds an attractive way to subtitle the native dialogue, but the characters are too mechanically conceived to give the story much drive; with Jose Wilker and Rodolfo de Alexandre. (JR)… Read more »

Meantime

What produces a skinhead is the subtle subject of Mike Leigh’s powerful and mysterious 1983 feature for British TV, though it may take you most of the film to realize it. We’re treated to the bitter inertia of a family on the dole in a cramped high rise in London’s East End, with particular emphasis on a raspy layabout (Phil Daniels) who berates and undermines his nearly catatonic kid brother (Tim Roth); a street punk; a young woman in the neighborhood; and the boys’ aunt, who has married into the middle class. Watch for an interesting early performance by Gary Oldman, as well as contributions from Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina. (JR)… Read more »

Kuffs

Christian Slater plays a San Francisco high school dropout who sets out to catch his brother’s killers. Directed by newcomer Bruce A. Evans from a script he authored with producer Raymond Gideon, this is an aggressively smart-ass movie with no discernible sense of humor but loads of show-off film-school technique brandished at every opportunity. With Tony Goldwyn, Milla Jovovich, Bruce Boxleitner, Troy Evans, and George De La Pena. (JR)… Read more »

The Kiss Of Death

This is the most enigmatic Mike Leigh comedy I’ve seen, and certainly one of the most interesting. It focuses on the life of a young coroner’s assistant (David Threlfall), a solitary character with a single friend who laughs compulsively in most social situations; things come to a head when his friend’s girlfriend introduces him to a shoe-store clerk. The ensuing tortured and abortive courtship, which culminates in a disastrous double date at a disco, brings out the best in Leigh’s social observation and uses of real time. Made for the BBC in 1976. (JR)… Read more »

Kafka

Steven Soderbergh’s 1991 follow-up to Sex, Lies, and Videotape suffers from a dumb screenplay written more than a decade earlier by Lem Dobbs and subsequently tinkered with by others. It takes someone vaguely like Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons, in what may well be his first uninteresting performance) and plants him inside a formulaic mystery plot (shot in black and white) involving anarchists in Prague around 1919 that eventually turns into a formulaic SF plot (shot in color) involving mad scientists. The Prague locations are well used, and the color SF sets that belatedly appear are also striking, but the story built around them is much less compelling, and the connections with the real-life Kafka and his writing are so tenuous and simpleminded they don’t even make much sense as a postmodernist joke. The distinguished castwhich includes Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinnessperforms ably, and a few of the film’s fantasy conceits are memorable. But thanks to the script, none of these pluses add up to much, and a few nods to Orson Welles’s The Trial and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil don’t help much either. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Juice

Directed and cowritten by Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee’s cinematographer, this 1992 ghetto melodrama plays for much of its running time like a good Spike Lee imitation, full of surface liveliness but without the narrative momentum needed to give the story maximum impact. The plot involves four friends in Harlem (Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, and Tupac Shakur), none of them very likable, whose crime-ridden lives are so blighted that they wind up destroying each other. Written with Gerard Brown, shot fairly effectively by Larry Banks, and scored by Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad. R, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Intruder In The Dust

It’s a critical commonplace that the only good film of William Faulkner’s work is The Tarnished Angels, though some critics give an additional nod to Tomorrow for Robert Duvall’s performance. I would add this 1949 adaptation of Faulkner’s early response to southern racism, improbably made at MGM, though shot mainly on location in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Perhaps because he was a southerner himself, Clarence Brown, best known as Greta Garbo’s favorite director, brought an unusual amount of feeling and taste to the material. An uppity black man (Juano Hernandez) is accused of murder, a potential lynch mob forms as he refuses to defend himself, and a white boy he’s befriended tries to get to the bottom of what actually happened. The story is treated with an unsensationalized clarity that seems unusually sophisticated for the period, and the other cast membersDavid Brian, Claude Jarman Jr., Porter Hall, and Elizabeth Pattersonare almost as good as Hernandez. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Inner Circle

Since moving to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has proved invaluable not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Even if, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters diminishes the overall accomplishment, the film still deserves to be seen; as Kempton puts it, its intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable. Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev. (JR)… Read more »

Grown-ups

Probably the best of the Mike Leigh TV films that I’ve seen, this remarkable British feature gradually charts what happens when an unexceptional young couple (Lesley Manville and Philip Davis) move into a flat in Canterbury that’s next door to the home of their former religious instructor (Sam Kelly) and his wife (Lindsay Duncan). What starts out as a clever comparison between the economic and personal styles of the two couples eventually leads to a sustained hysterical climax involving the young wife’s unloved and meddling older sister (Brenda Blethyn) and the two couples, a kind of polyphonic epiphany that has to be seen to be believed. Next to Leigh’s subsequent High Hopes, this is the most subtle and penetrating look at Thatcher England that I’ve seen. (JR)… Read more »