Monthly Archives: July 1993

American Fabulous

One hundred and five minutes of spontaneous talk from a homosexual named Jeffrey Strouth, seated in the back of a 1957 Cadillac in Columbus, Ohio, may sound like thin fare for a feature, but Reno Dakota’s 1992 movie–a tribute to his wild and uninhibited friend, who subsequently died of AIDS–kept me mesmerized and entertained. Recounting various episodes in his difficult life–bouts with his alcoholic and abusive father; being kept at age 14 by a 400-pound drag queen; hitchhiking to Hollywood with a campy boyfriend, a tiny dog, and a caged bird; numerous tragicomic scrapes with the police; and much, much else involving sex and drugs–Strouth often calls to mind some of the comic gross-outs of William Burroughs (whom he openly imitates at one point) and the picaresque hard-luck stories of Nelson Algren, not to mention the road adventures of Kerouac. This has more of the flavor of an epic American narrative than most conventional features, and it certainly offers a more comprehensive look at our national life. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and August 1.… Read more »

Chain of Desire

While nothing major, this soft-core daisy chain of sexual linkages and loosely connected dramatic sketches about life in contemporary Manhattan, written and directed by Temistocles Lopez, is fun, mainly for its cast and playful form. This form has been compared by some critics to La ronde, but more apt cross-references might be The Leopard Man, The Phantom of Liberty, and Slacker. The cast includes Linda Fiorentino, Elias Koteas, Patrick Bauchau, Angel Aviles, Grace Zabriskie, Malcolm McDowell, Jamie Harrold, Tim Guinee, Dewey Weber, Holly Marie Combs, Seymour Cassel, Sabrina Lloyd, Assumpta Serna, and Suzzanne Douglas; the sexual preferences include straight and gay, diverse forms of adultery, bondage, discipline, phone sex, voyeurism, and masturbation. The New York regionalism–the conviction that the city is the hub of the universe–adds to the energy as well as the unwarranted self-importance; don’t expect too much and you’ll probably be entertained. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 23 through 29.… Read more »

Afro-Pop [MOZART QUARTER]

From the Chicago Reader (July 23, 1993). — J.R.

MOZART QUARTER

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Bekolo

With Serge Amougou, Sandrine Ola’a, Jimmy Biyong, Essindi Mindja, Atebass, and Timoleon Boyongueno.

I cannot tell a lie. I couldn’t follow all the plot details of Mozart Quarter – Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s delightful comic fantasy about contemporary sex relations in a working-class neighborhood in Yaounde, Cameroon — even after I saw it a third time. Some of my confusion was probably due to the subtitler’s effort to render part of the French African dialogue in American inner-city slang — an understandable goal, but one that sometimes sacrifices lucidity for superficial familiarity and occasionally produces outright gibberish. Another problem is that certain Western cultural artifacts have meanings specific to the oral story-telling culture out of which Mozart Quarter arises.

Yet this wasn’t an obstacle to my enjoyment of the film, which is playing five times this week at the Film Center; on the contrary, it operated more as an incentive. If the common liberal error in understanding non-Western societies is to assume they’re exactly like us and the common conservative error is to assume they’re nothing like us, any movie that confounds both sides is bound to have a few things to teach us.… Read more »

The Color of Pomegranates: The Director’s Cut

The late Sergei Paradjanov’s greatest film, a mystical and historical mosaic about the life, work, and inner world of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, has previously been available only in the ethnically “dry-cleaned” Russian version–recut and somewhat reorganized by Sergei Yutkevich, with chapter headings added to clarify the content for Russian viewers. This superior version of the film, recently found in an Armenian studio, shouldn’t be regarded as definitive (some of the material from the Yutkevich cut is missing), but it’s certainly the finest we have and may ever have: some shots and sequences are new, some are positioned differently, and, of particular advantage to Western viewers, much more of the poetry is subtitled. (Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell why the “new” shots were censored.) In both versions the striking use of tableaulike frames recalls the shallow space of movies made roughly a century ago, while the gorgeous uses of color and the wild poetic conceits seem to derive from some utopian cinema of the future, at once “difficult” and immediate, cryptic and ravishing. This is essential viewing (1969). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, July 16 and 17, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, July 18, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, July 19 through 22, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Delivered Vacant

This is the first documentary feature about gentrification I’m aware of, and it’s an uncommonly good one–made by School of the Art Institute graduate Nora Jacobson over eight years in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the neighborhood where she still lives. Alert and lucid without a trace of sentimentality, she focuses on a number of related events, including the torching of rent-controlled buildings (and subsequent condo conversions), and interviews local residents, landlords, developers, activists, and others about what’s going on. This is an eye-opener. (1992) Jacobson will attend both screenings. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, July 17, 7:45, and Sunday, July 18, 6:00, 443-3737. … Read more »

Dead Alive

New highs (or lows) in free-flowing gore and nonstop, torrential splatter are reached in this modest-budget comic horror extravaganza from New Zealand by Peter Jackson, originally and more appropriately known as Braindead. The standard-issue plot, with all the usual steals from Psycho and Night of the Living Dead, emanates from the poisonous bite of a rat monkey from Sumatra in a Wellington zoo circa 1957. Yet the only meaningful bill of fare here is deliberately stomach-turning showstoppers involving dismemberment, disfigurement, disembowelment, countless gallons of spewing blood and bile, and related gross-outs–more the stuff of animated cartoons than live action. Ordinarily I don’t care for this kind of thing at all, but something must be said for the endless reserves of giddy energy and the general absence of the calculated mean spiritedness of more prestigious directors like Spielberg and Renny Harlin (perhaps because this is so clearly meant to be silly). I was also charmed quite a bit by Diana Penalver as the Spanish heroine. This clearly isn’t for everyone, but the preview audience had a ball; with Timothy Balme, Elizabeth Moody, and Ian Watkin; cowritten by Jackson, Stephen Sinclair, and Frances Walsh. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, July 16 through 22.… Read more »

Beautiful and Barbaric

This appeared in the June 11, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader; I’ve also appended an irate response from a reader that appeared in a subsequent issue, along with my response. –J.R.

CLIFFHANGER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone

With Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Leon, Paul Winfield, and Ralph Waite.

Kitsch is the daily art of our time, as the vase or the hymn was for earlier generations. For the sensibility it has that arbitrariness and importance which works take on when they are no longer noticeable elements of the environment. In America kitsch is Nature. The Rocky Mountains have resembled fake art for a century.

There is no counterconcept to kitsch. Its antagonist is not an idea but reality. To do away with kitsch it is necessary to change the landscape, as it was necessary to change the landscape of Sardinia in order to get rid of the malarial mosquito. –Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (1959)

Cliffhanger #1 (rating: four stars): Towering mountain ranges, yawning chasms, awesome expanses of stony matter, endless reaches of empty space, daunting inclines, imposing immensities that cause your jaw to drop and freeze into a painful rictus.… Read more »

American Friends

A satisfying if small-scale love story, written by and starring Monty Python regular Michael Palin and inspired by his great-grandfather’s unpublished travel diaries. Not really a comedy, though it has its share of humor, this is about a senior tutor at Oxford’s Saint John’s College (Palin), a middle-aged bachelor who takes a holiday in Switzerland in 1861 and meets two American women, a philanthropic Bostonian (Connie Booth) and her 18-year-old niece and ward (Trini Alvarado). Some romantic stirrings pass between him and the niece, but this is the 19th century and he’s an Oxford tutor, unable to keep his job unless he’s single–a lot more has to happen before the two can deal with their mutual attraction, even after the two women make the daring move of visiting him in Oxford. The director is English TV veteran Tristram Powell, son of the novelist Anthony Powell, and he does a fine job (1991). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, July 9 and 10, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, July 11, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, July 12 through 15, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.… Read more »

Apollo 13

Ron Howard directed this 1995 adaptation of Lost Moon, astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger’s book about the harrowing flight of Apollo 13. This meticulous but ultimately rather pedestrian drama gradually won me over as a minor if watchable example of the victory through defeat brand of military heroism that John Ford specialized in. But it’s a long way from Howard’s best movie, not to mention Ford’s worst, and at 139 minutes it repeatedly risks overstaying its welcome. With Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan. (JR)… Read more »

Do Yourself a Favor [HOUSE OF CARDS]

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 1993). For all my enthusiasm back then, I can’t remember any of this film now. — J.R.

HOUSE OF CARDS

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Michael Lessac

With Kathleen Turner, Tommy Lee Jones, Asha Menina, Shiloh Strong, Esther Rolle, and Park Overall.

If one of the surest signs of story-telling talent is the capacity to put across an outlandish plot, the first feature of writer-director Michael Lessac is impressive — riveting, exciting, and oddly believable on its own provocative terms throughout. On the page, however, it may sound contrived and pretentious, bordering on some new-age brand of science fiction. So if you want a story that unfolds with all the dramatic force and internal logic needed to compel suspension of disbelief, go see House of Cards before you hear very much more about it, including what I have to say below. I don’t give away all of the plot, but the film does a much better job than I could hope to of laying out its agenda; at best I can only explain part of why it works as well as it does.

Films of ideas — whether they’re mainstream or art movies — are far from fashionable, even when the ideas are dramatically integrated, as they are here.… Read more »

The Firm

This starts out as a piece of yuppie consumerist pornography calculated to get audiences drooling. Then it suddenly and purposefully turns into an enjoyable, nimble thriller that manages to sustain interest for its full running time of a little over two and a half hours. It’s the first Sydney Pollack movie I’ve ever liked. A lot of what makes it work is a well-constructed script by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel, rather freely adapted from the best-selling John Grisham novel, and an excellent cast that Pollack (as producer-director) gets the most out of–including, among others, Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Gary Busey, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley, and Paul Sorvino. Cruise plays a lawyer fresh out of Harvard who’s hired by a wealthy Memphis firm that he discovers is working for organized crime; Dave Grusin provides the vamping jazz piano. Ford City, Evanston, Hyde Park, Norridge, Webster Place, Burnham Plaza, Golf Mill, Lincoln Village, Water Tower.… Read more »

Histoire(s) Du Cinema

Jean-Luc Godard’s ten-part video series, made for French TV. Daunting, provocative, and very beautiful, it looks at the history of the 20th century through cinema and vice versa, mainly through a rich assortment of film clips (sometimes several at once), sound tracks, poetic commentary (with plenty of metaphors), and captions. Indispensable. In French with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Tom And Jerry: The Movie

Given that the famous cartoon cat and mouse speak and sometimes play second fiddle to a little-girl heroine, this doesn’t have much to do with the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. It has a lot more to do with screenwriter Dennis Marks and producer-director Phil Roman trying to imitate the late-80s animation successes of Disney. Overplaying wealth and villainy, it has a so-so Henry Mancini score that may remind you of his work on Hatari! and overall a better feeling for action than character (1992). 84 min. (JR)… Read more »

Robin Hood: Men In Tights

More mud pies and occasional musical numbers from Mel Brooks in his parodic Blazing Saddles mode (has he any other?)predictably slapdash but indefatigably good-natured and sometimes funny to boot. Completely disregarding the PC guidelines of left and right alike, this medieval romp features gags about Jews, blacks, gays, blind people, and the clergy, among others, but none of it seems mean spirited. Dom DeLuise does a very funny impersonation of Brando impersonating Don Corleone; with Cary Elwes, Amy Yasbeck, Isaac Hayes, Roger Rees, Tracey Ullman, and Brooks himself as a rabbi. Evan Chandler and J. David Shapiro collaborated with Brooks on the script. (JR)… Read more »

Rising Sun

Some of my colleagues criticized this Philip Kaufman cop movie for softening the anti-Japanese feeling of the Michael Crichton novel it adaptsfor coming down on corporate capitalism in general more than Japanese capitalism in particular, and diluting or at least complicating the racial implications by making the principal hero black instead of white. But I found it pretty entertaining, as well as provocative in some of its comments about contemporary life. Just about everyoneincluding Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery as a couple of LA cops uncovering a business conspiracy while investigating a murderturns out to be somewhat corrupt, and the Connery character’s pithy explanations for the cultural and behavioral differences between the Japanese and American characters help to ameliorate some of the traces of xenophobia that remain. I’d rather see Kaufman upgrading the hackwork of Crichton than degrading the good work of Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). While most of the opportunities to make this a first-rate thriller are wasted, it’s still a pretty good second-rater. Written by Kaufman, Crichton, and Michael Backes; with Harvey Keitel, Cary-Horoyuki Tagawa, Mako, Ray Wise, and Tia Carrere. (JR)… Read more »