Monthly Archives: May 1992

Angels with Dirty Faces (review of Robert Sklar’s CITY BOYS)

 Published in New York Newsday (Sunday, May 31, 1992). -– J.R.

CityBoys

CITY BOYS: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, by Robert Sklar. Princeton University Press, 311 pp., $27.50.

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BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this comparative study of the Hollywood careers of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield is that it lacks the deference to the film industry that one has come to expect nowadays from movie books, journalistic as well as academic. Eschewing the puffery of popular star biographies and the equally dubious (and self-serving) idealism of such academic buzz terms as “the classical Hollywood cinema” and “the genius of the system,” Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University, writes with the vernacular ease of a journalist without sacrificing the analytical rigor one expects from a prestigious university press. While he hasn’t always spread his net as widely as one might hope, he still offers a plausible portrait of three city boys and how they grew -– or didn’t.  

A social historian at heart, Sklar is basically interested in charting the diverse forces that molded and altered the screen images of Cagney, Bogart and Garfield. Their overlapping careers offer many instructive parallels: New York origins, theatrical training, evolving hard-boiled screen personalities, leftist sympathies, artistic and economic exploitation by the studios, struggles for independence (including the formation of their own production companies) with mixed results and elaborate enforced recantations of former political allegiances during the Hollywood witch hunts.… Read more »

Wind from the East (A TALE OF THE WIND)

From the Chicago Reader (May 29, 1992). . — J.R.

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A TALE OF THE WIND

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan

Written by Loridan, Ivens, and Elisabeth D.

With Ivens, Loridan, Han Zenxiang, Liu Zhuang, Wang Delong, Wang Hong, Fu Dalin, Liu Guillian, Chen Zhijian, Zou Qiaoyu, and Paul Sergent.

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The Old Man, the hero of this tale, was born at the end of the last century, in a country where man has always striven to tame the sea and harness the wind. Camera in hand, he has traversed the 20th century in the midst of the stormy history of our time. In the evening of his life, at age 90, having survived the various wars and struggles that he filmed, the old filmmaker sets off for China. He has embarked on a mad project: to capture the invisible image of the wind.”

That’s my translation of the French opening title of A Tale of the Wind. It follows the credits, which accompany shots of a plane flying through the clouds and Michel Portal’s primitive-modern jazz score for woodwinds and percussion. After the opening passage the giant blades of a Dutch windmill fill the screen, followed by shots of a little boy in an aviator suit on a windswept lawn, apparently preparing to fly away on a small plane to China, calling to his mother.… Read more »

Far and Away

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star in old-fashioned hokum on a very high level–the sort of thing Hollywood used to do well and more often–in a Ron Howard blockbuster about Irish immigration to the U.S. in the 1890s. Written by Bob Dolman and Howard and shot with Panavision super-70 camera equipment using 65-millimeter stock, this epic utopian fantasy about love overcoming class barriers (complete with a passing nod to It Happened One Night) is designed like a triptych, beginning in rural Ireland (where tenant farmer Cruise falls in with Kidman, the rebellious daughter of his wealthy landlord, when she decides to flee to the U.S.), continuing in Boston (where they share the same room, posing as brother and sister, and he triumphs for a while as a boxer), and concluding in the Oklahoma Territory (where they proceed separately to stake their claims). Never afraid of excess, Howard excels at giving imaginative density to the Boston locations and exploiting the chemistry between the two leads; he also shows a nice aptitude for story telling. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s mere overreaching and what’s nostalgia for Hollywood’s former grandiloquence–Howard certainly seems to love his fancy corkscrew crane shots–but for me this is the most enjoyable of his features to date.… Read more »

A Woman’s Tale

I’ve never been much of a Paul Cox fan, but this feature about a fiercely independent and passionate 79-year-old woman in Melbourne, Australia, is something rather special, largely because Cox regular Sheila Florance–who, like the character she plays, was dying of cancer over the course of the film–is magnificent. Affirmative without being sentimental, this is a deeply absorbing movie with no false notes or wasted motion; with Gosia Dobrowolska, Norman Kaye, and Chris Haywood (1991). (Fine Arts)… Read more »

Rembrandt Laughing

Jon Jost’s ninth feature focuses rather elliptically on the everyday lives of a group of friends in San Francisco–chiefly Claire (Barbara Hammes), who works in an architect’s office, two of her former lovers (Jon A. English and Nathaniel Dorsky), who are close friends, and a recent boyfriend (Jim Nisbet). Masterfully shot and for the most part very persuasively acted, mainly by nonprofessionals (the film’s use of locals is one reason it captures the San Francisco milieu so perfectly), Rembrandt Laughing is a good deal more ambitious than it might first appear. A sense of the timeless and the cosmic hovers over the seemingly casual scenes, and the uses of a Rembrandt self-portrait and Beethoven’s opus 132 string quartet are integral to the film’s overall project–to discover the universe in a bowl of miso soup. Part of Jost’s method, like Godard’s in A Married Woman, is to convert the dramatic into the graphic, and his various means of carrying that out are unexpected and frequently beautiful (1988). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, May 22, 8:00, 281-8788)… Read more »

A Tale of the Wind

This poetic masterpiece serves as the crowning testament of Joris Ivens, the great Dutch documentarist and leftist who made this film in collaboration with his companion Marceline Loridan shortly before his death at the age of 90. Neither a documentary nor a fantasy but a sublime fusion of the two, the film deals in multiple ways with the wind, with Ivens’s asthma, with China, with the 20th century (and, more implicitly, with the 19th and the 21st), with magic, and with the cinema. Ivens was born only two years after Georges Melies screened his first work, and part of this film’s imaginative, freewheeling, and often comic agenda is to reflect on film history, political history, and personal history that fact, as well as on the near century of intertwining made up Ivens’s life. For all its cosmic dimensions, this work is funny and lighthearted rather than pretentious and ponderous. It may even give you some renewed faith in life on this planet (1988). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, May 28, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Waterdance

Don’t let the subject of this movie–the interactions of three men (Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes, and William Forsythe) at a physical rehabilitation center–scare you away from one of the most intelligent, sensitive, serious, subtle, and gripping American movies around. Codirected by Neal Jiminez and Michael Steinberg from an excellent script by Jiminez (who wrote River’s Edge and cowrote For the Boys), this eschews the usual inspirational and sentimental tactics for an honest look at what paraplegics have to deal with, practically, sexually, and emotionally. Stoltz plays a novelist with a devoted girlfriend (Helen Hunt) married to someone else; Snipes is a hard-living teller of tales with a disintegrating marriage; Forsythe is a racist biker. All three actors are uncommonly good at keeping their characters unpredictable and lifelike. Elizabeth Pena costars as a nurse. (Chestnut Station)… Read more »

Performance Art Videos, Part I

Three videos, including the Chicago premieres of Maria Beatty’s Sphinxes Without Secrets (1990), an hour-long documentary about women performance artists (among them Diamanda Galas, Holly Hughes, Joan Jonas, Robbie McCauley, Annie Sprinkle, Rachel Rosenthal, and Adrian Piper), and Laurie Anderson’s 20-minute What You Mean We? (1986). Receiving its world premiere is Suzie Silver’s subversive, gender-bending four-minute A Spy (Hester Reeves Does the Doors), a wild and inventive music video featuring Hester Reeves lip-synching the Doors’ “The Spy.” (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16, 7:30 and 9:15, and Sunday, May 17, 6:00 and 7:45, 281-4114)… Read more »

Othello

Orson Welles’s 1952 independent feature is finally back in circulation, looking better than ever thanks to restoration work, but also sounding quite different because of the restorers’ debatable decision to redo the brilliant score and sound effects in stereo. For all the liberties taken with the play, this may well be the greatest of all Shakespeare films (Welles’s later Chimes at Midnight is the only other contender)–a brooding expressionist dream of the play shot in eerie Moorish locations in Morocco and Italy over nearly three years, yet held together by a remarkably cohesive style and atmosphere (and beautifully shot by Anchisi Brizzi, G.R. Aldo, and George Fanto). Welles, despite his misleading reputation in the U.S. as a Hollywood filmmaker, made about 75 percent of his films as a fly-by-night independent in order to regain the artistic control he’d had on Citizen Kane; Othello, the first of these features, is, arguably, an even more important film in his career than Kane, since it inaugurated the more fragmented shooting style that dominates his subsequent work. The most impressive performance here is that of Micheal MacLiammoir as Iago; Welles’s own underplaying of the title role meshes well with the somnambulistic mood, but apart from some magnificent line readings makes less of a dramatic impression.… Read more »

Five Easy Pieces [NIGHT ON EARTH]

From the Chicago Reader (May 15, 1992). — J.R.

 

 

NIGHT ON EARTH

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, and Matti Pellonpaa.

As the most popular American independent filmmaker around, Jim Jarmusch carries a special burden: his reputation makes his work particularly hard to evaluate. Other American independents who haven’t enjoyed his commercial success — he’s the only independent who comes to mind who works mainly in 35-millimeter and owns all his own pictures — envy and even resent him, questioning whether he offers a serious alternative to the commercial mainstream. Indeed, Jarmusch has come to be so identified with artistic freedom that it’s difficult to see how any of his movies can live up to his reputation.

“Jim Jarmusch’s planet is the Lower East Side,” began Karen Schoemer in an awestruck feature in the New York Times late last month. “Its bars, its bodegas and its pavement make up his home, his office and his hangout.” “The director finds drama in the ordinary” reads a pull quote in the following hagiography, and clearly so does the Times: it finds a special magic and potency in a run-down neighborhood simply because Jarmusch lives there.… Read more »

Edward II

My candidate for the best Derek Jarman movie to date is this politically potent and deliberately shocking and anachronistic adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe play that rethinks it in terms of contemporary English homophobia and just about everything else that might be summed up as the Thatcher-Reagan legacy. Shooting his spare settings in crisp 35-millimeter images, Jarman gives the tragedy a seriousness and potency that puts Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books to shame. Coscripted by Stephen McBride and Ken Butler; with Steve Waddington, Andrew Tiernan, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and Jerome Flynn, and music performed by the Elektra Quartet. (At one climactic juncture, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics performs Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”) (Broadway)… Read more »

A Midnight Clear

Writer-director Keith Gordon sustains rather than fulfills the interesting promise of his first feature (The Chocolate War, 1988) in another taut novel adaptation that shows the influence of Stanley Kubrick. The novel this time is by William Wharton, who also wrote the source novels for Birdy and Dad; it’s a semiautobiographical account of the members of a young World War II infantry squad, stuck in a deserted French chateau during the Christmas season in 1944, who form a sort of perverse family (two of the soldiers are nicknamed “Father” and “Mother”) and make uncertain contact with a small German squad that may or may not want to surrender. This fable about the futility of the war benefits not only from fine performances but an intelligent and literate offscreen narration that enhances the movie’s conceptual integrity. With Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Arye Gross, Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley, and John C. McGinley. (Water Tower, Evanston) … Read more »

The Station

A charming but fairly lightweight Italian comedy-drama by Sergio Rubini, who stars as a shy stationmaster taking care of his mother every day and working at the railway station every night. The plot concerns his nightlong encounter with a wealthy and beautiful young woman (Margherita Buy) fleeing from a weekend party and an exploitative and abusive boyfriend (Ennio Fantastichini). Apart from some efforts to goose up the story’s climax with American-style suspense, this is basically a chamber piece whose dimensions seem ideally suited for TV: not bad for a first feature, though not likely to linger long in one’s memory (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Sister Act

Simpleminded, slapdash fare (1992) about a two-bit Reno lounge singer (Whoopi Goldberg), the girlfriend of a ruthless mobster (Harvey Keitel), who accidentally witnesses a murder and flees for her life. With the help of the police’s witness protection program, she winds up posing as a nun in a convent, and comes into her own when she starts conducting the convent choir. If you’re one of those people who think that nuns behaving slightly irreverently is hysterically funny, then this is the movie for you, and it must be admitted that Goldberg shines in her part. Directed by Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing, Chances Are) from a script credited to Joseph Howard (though apparently the work of many hands); with Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makkena, and Bill Nunn, and a likable turn by Hollywood character actress Mary Wickes, who was doing comparable work in movies over 40 years ago. (JR)… Read more »

Night On Earth

Jim Jarmusch creates a comic sketch film (1991) out of five taxi rides and existential encounters occurring at the same time: a teenager (Winona Ryder) driving a Hollywood casting agent (Gena Rowlands) in Los Angeles at dusk; a former circus clown from Dresden (Armin Mueller-Stahl) chauffeuringor being chauffeured bya streetwise hipster (Giancarlo Esposito) from Manhattan to Brooklyn, with the hipster’s sister-in-law (Rosie Perez) getting corralled en route; an angry driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankole) picking up a self-reliant blind woman (Beatrice Dalle) in Paris; a speedy cabbie (Roberto Benigni) in Rome delivering an obscene confession to an ailing priest; and a morose driver in Helsinki recounting a hard-luck story to three drunken passengers at dawn. There’s a fair amount of craft and subtlety in the results, though a certain sense that Jarmusch is replaying his own golden oldies (Tom Waits is in charge of the score) is never very far away. R, 129 min. (JR)… Read more »