Monthly Archives: March 1992

Raise the Red Lantern

Completing a loose trilogy that began with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou’s grim adaptation of a novel by Su Tong once again stars Gong Li as a young woman who marries a much older man, and once again tells a story that explicitly critiques Chinese feudalism and indirectly critiques contemporary China. This time, however, the style is quite different (despite another key use of the color red) and the vision is much bleaker. The heroine, a less sympathetic figure than her predecessors, is a university student in the 1920s who becomes the fourth and youngest wife of a powerful man in northern China after her stepmother can no longer afford to pay for her education. She quickly becomes involved in the various intrigues and rivalries between wives that rule her husband’s world and family tradition: each wife has her own house and courtyard, and whoever the husband chooses to sleep with on a given night receives a foot massage, several lighted red lanterns, and the right to select the menu for the following day. The film confines us throughout to this claustrophobic universe of boxes within boxes, where wives and female servants virtually devote their lives to scheming against one another; the action is filmed mainly in frontal long shots.… Read more »

Noises Off

Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie made me laugh more and much harder than What’s Up, Doc? ever did, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed “Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines,” “Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach,” and “Props in Revolt in Cleveland”; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easier to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »

Intimate Passions: Rotterdam 1992

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The Private Eyes

The biggest hit of Hong Kong comedy star and director Michael Hui is also considered his best movie, or his next best (after Security Unlimited), by many fans and critics. Having seen an unsubtitled print of this episodic comedy, I can only say that I still laughed a lot at the frenetic slapstick and rapid-fire bursts of rhythmic invention. Hui plays the mean-spirited head of a private detective agency, and among his employees are Hui’s likable brothers Sam and Ricky (1977). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 21, 6:00, and Sunday, March 22, 2:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

King of Chess

Though writer-director Yim Ho (Homecoming) disowned this film after producer Tsui Hark took over the direction, it is still one of the most interesting and original Hong Kong pictures I’ve seen. Adapted from two different novels called King of Chess, by Chung Ah Shing and Cheung Hay Kwok, the story alternates between a rather bitter satire of capitalism centered on the Taipei TV industry and an equally critical look at the Cultural Revolution on the mainland many years earlier. Both stories involve the exploitation of chess masters–a boy with psychic powers in the Taiwanese story, a poor man in the mainland flashbacks–and they are connected in terms of plot by the memories a character from Hong Kong in the Taipei story has about visiting a cousin in a reeducation camp. The powerful and talented Yim directed the mainland sections with a highly emotional lyricism that reminds me at times of Bertolucci; the slicker and more action-oriented Tsui handled the brittle Taipei sections. The results may not be what Yim wanted, but it’s still a singular and fascinating work, with a great deal of intelligence and feeling (1991). (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, March 15, 6:00, 702-8575; also Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, March 19, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Ideal Women [THE FAMINE WITHIN]

From the Chicago Reader (March 13, 1992). This film can now be accessed online. — J.R.

TheFamineWitin-ad

THE FAMINE WITHIN

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Katherine Gilday.

Some theorists believe it is the larger North American society that needs healing, that women’s bodies today are the symbolic area in which a larger drama of cultural values is played out. — narrator, The Famine Within

Siskel and Ebert, among others, have been arguing that the documentary nominating committee of the Academy Awards needs a major revamping. Their beef is that the most popular and widely discussed documentaries of the past few years — like The Thin Blue Line, Paris Is Burning, Roger & Me, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — never get nominated. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the most popular movies are usually the best, a notion that the awarding of most of the remainder of the Oscars is predicated upon. To accept any serious challenge to this sacred premise would be to undermine our faith in distributors, exhibitors, critics, publicists — the film industry itself. Perish the thought: if we lost our faith in all of the above, we might actually have to start thinking for ourselves.… Read more »

The Last Command

Josef von Sternberg’s first encounter with Emil Jannings, which led to their collaboration on The Blue Angel two years later, was in this late silent Hollywood masterpiece about a Russian general (Jannings) reduced to the status of a Hollywood extra in a film about the Russian Revolution. Lajos Biros wrote the story, Jannings’s performance here and in The Way of All Flesh won him an Oscar, and Sternberg’s direction makes this second only to The Docks of New York as the most accomplished of his silent films. With Evelyn Brent and William Powell (1928). A new score by Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Arnold Brostoff will be conducted by Brostoff and performed by members of the CSO at this special screening. (Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, Saturday, March 7, 8:00, 435-6666) … Read more »

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s 1990 feature, his best prior to Elephant, is a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. Phoenix, a narcoleptic from a broken home, is essentially looking for a family, while Reeves, whose father is mayor of Portland, is mainly fleeing his. The style is so eclectic that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant, working from his own story for the first time, brings such lyrical focus to his characters and his poetry that almost everything works. Even the parts that show some strain — like the film’s extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight — are exciting for their sheer audacity. Phoenix was never better, and Reeves does his best with a part that’s largely Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. 102 min. (JR)

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Straight Talk

Not even the talents of Dolly Parton and James Woods can save the shaky premise of this Disney comedy with a Chicago setting, directed by Barnet Kellman from a script by Craig Bolotin and Patricia Resnick. Fired from a dance instructor job, Parton leaves her fiance and her small town for Chicago, where she accidentally winds up on the radio as a talk-show psychologist dispensing advice to callers; her show is such a runaway hit that Chicago Sun- Times reporter James Wood decides to investigate her credentials. This starts off brightly enough, but the fatal mistake of the filmmakers is to assume that the profound common sense and populist appeal of the heroine can be inferred from Parton’s natural charms rather than actually demonstrated. The movie never manages to paper over this gaping hole, but some agreeable secondary performancesby Griffin Dunne, Michael Madsen, Deirdre O’Connell, John Sayles, Spalding Gray, Jerry Orbach, and Philip Bosco, among othersprovide partial compensation. (JR)… Read more »

Shaking The Tree

Duane Clark’s independent feature (1990), shot in Chicagoa conventional buddy movie about a quartet of longtime (if dissimilar) chums, set at Christmas 1989 and sparked intermittently by decent acting. If you’ve nothing else to do, it goes down easily, but don’t expect much more. With Arye Gross, Gale Hansen, Doug Savant, Steven Wilde (who scripted the movie with Clark), and Courteney Cox. (JR)… Read more »

Shadows And Fog

Now we all know what German expressionist is: extended chunks of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (recast with John Malkovich and Mia Farrow) and The Magician (recast with Kenneth Mars and Woody Allen), Nosferatu’s pointed ears, the dull center framing of any Woody Allen movie (no diagonals or tilted angles, please), lots of kvetching with New York accents, central-casting prostitutes played by guest stars (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates), reams of dialogue we’ve all heard before in countless other movies, a strangler lurking in dank cobblestone alleyways, the opening passage of Kafka’s The Trial (who needs to read any further?), music by Kurt Weill, and, to top it off, shadows, silhouettes, and fog filmed in black and white. In short, Woody Allen’s feeblest semicomedy and postmodernist pastiche since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, bravely forsaking the streets of Manhattan for the soundstages of Astoria, explores the dark night of the soul with lots of famous people. With Michael Kirby, Donald Pleasence, Philip Bosco, Kate Nelligan, Julie Kavner, John Cusack, Madonna (for a minute or two), and others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten. You’ll forget them, too. (JR)… Read more »

Security Unlimited

Michael Hui directs and stars with his brothers Ricky and Sam in a typically broad and frenetic but hilarious Hong Kong farce about the misadventures of three security guards. The plot is rather episodic, but some of the piecessuch as a bank robbery and an attempt to burglarize an exhibition of Chinese antiquitiesare classics of their kind. Hui’s exquisite sense of rhythm, often accompanied by short bursts of music, and his antiheroic sense of character keep this hopping (1981). (JR)… Read more »

Notebook On Cities And Clothes

It’s a toss-up between this 1989 essay film and Until the End of the World (in the abbreviated U.S. version) for Wim Wenders’s worst movie. Until the End of the World is silly and boring, but it has a few redeeming moments; this has a few moments too, but it’s ideologically much more offensive. Wenders interviews and philosophizes about chic fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, whose clothes he wears (in exchange for making this movie?), films female models, blithely decapitating them, and ruminates about the meaning of video, himself, life in generalthat sort of thing. A rich boy’s movie made by a talented artist whose view of the social world has shrunk to the dimensions of his hotel room. (JR)… Read more »

White Men Can’t Jump

After the disappointing Blaze, writer-director Ron Shelton got back on track with the same mixture of sports action, sexual sparring, and comic, slangy dialogue that sparked Bull Durham. Like that earlier comedy, this is enough of a structural mess to lose itself somewhere before the end, but the jazzy surface action is even more lively and seductive. Basically the movie is a string of episodes involving two basketball hustlers (Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes) in Los Angeles, with racial differences serving both to help their hustles along and to define the limits of their friendship; Do the Right Thing’s feisty Rosie Perez plays Harrelson’s girlfriend, who longs to be a contestant on Jeopardy, while Tyra Ferrell is accorded the less interesting and less prominent part of Snipes’s wife. Shelton’s flair for fancy dialogue and his preoccupation with scoring often make him seem like the Preston Sturges of southern jive; unfortunately he doesn’t have a matching sense of plot and continuity. This picture is packed with fun, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and elements that summon up memories of The Hustler don’t work in its favor (1992). (JR)… Read more »

The Wages Of Fear

In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic, four out-of-work Europeans (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck), trapped in a squalid South American village that’s exploited by a U.S. oil company, agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of primitive roads in exchange for $2,000 eachif they survive. When this existentialist shocker opened in the U.S., 43 minutes had been hacked away, but the gripping adventure elements left intact were still enough to turn the film into a hit. (This restored and at least semicomplete version of the film, 148 minutes long, was released in the early 90s.) A significant influence on Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, this grueling pile driver of a movie will keep you on the edge of your seat, though it reeks of French 50s attitude, which includes misogyny, snobbishness, and borderline racism. It’s also clearly a love story between two men (Montand and Vanel). In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »