Monthly Archives: August 1993

Twist

An exemplary and entertaining history of a crucial decade in North American social dancing, roughly from the time of Arthur Murray ballroom lessons and the lindy hop in Harlem (both circa 1953) to freestyle dancing and the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964. Ron Mann–the Canadian documentarist whose former features include investigations into free jazz (Imagine the Sound), poetry (Poetry in Motion), and comic books (Comic Book Confidential)–combines a collector’s zeal for exhaustive inventories (all the ephemeral dance steps are duly noted) with a sharp sense of social history, so apart from the pleasure of watching all sorts of 50s and 60s film and TV clips and recent interviews with major participants (dancers as well as singers), one gets a sense of how dance styles developed and were merchanidised. Among the provocative highlights are a white couple explaining how for their appearance on American Bandstand as teenagers they were coached to claim credit for the Strand, a dance developed by blacks, and an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who expounds on the twist being “like conversation without words.” A dry-cleaned version of this film has shown on the Disney Channel, shorn of certain lurid steps and ideological points; you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen without cuts (1992).… Read more »

The Secret Garden

With the help of screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) turns Frances Hodgson Burnett’s rather gothic children’s book of 1911 into a splendid, evocative, beautifully realized picture. I haven’t seen the 1949 MGM version since my childhood, but it’s hard to believe it could be as effective as this one. The plot concerns three very different lonely and neglected children (Heydon Prowse, Kate Maberly, and Andrew Knott) in a remote part of rural England who discover a locked and equally neglected garden, and in the course of befriending one another slowly bring it back to life. Maggie Smith plays the somewhat Dickensian and unfriendly housekeeper who blocks their way to freedom, and the lovely musical score is by Zbigniew Preisner; Francis Ford Coppola served as executive producer. As a children’s movie with a fine sense of magic (without fantasy) and a great deal of feeling (without sentimentality), this beats the usual Disney junk hands down, and it can also be recommended wholeheartedly to adults as an expert piece of story telling. Ford City, Wilmette, Biograph, Lincoln Village, Golf Glen, Norridge, Esquire.… Read more »

Scorn in the USA [RISING SUN]

From the Chicago Reader (August 13, 1993). — J.R.

RISING SUN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Kaufman, Michael Crichton, and Michael Backes

With Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kevin Anderson, Mako, Ray Wise, Stan Egi, Stan Shaw, and Tia Carrere.

Before seeing Rising Sun and then reading the Michael Crichton thriller it’s based on, I happened to read four negative reviews of the movie, and was more than a little taken aback by them. Here are samples of what I found:

“Following the cut-and-dried police procedural structure of the book, cowriter and director Philip Kaufman has soft-pedaled the critique of Japanese behavior stateside, which may reduce justification for protests against the film, but also removes much of the material’s bite.” (Todd McCarthy, Variety)

“Trying to transcend the material, the director loses the novelist’s crude but compelling urgency.” (David Ansen, Newsweek)

“Crichton’s novel was largely powered by his animus against the Japanese business culture, and perversely, you miss his outrage.” (Richard Schickel, Time)

“Crichton, in his novel, was accused (with some justification) of Japan-bashing, but if his vision of Japanese executives as omnipotent control freaks had a racist tinge, it was also sinister fun.… Read more »

Searching for Bobby Fischer

One of the craftiest and most satisfying pieces about gender politics to come along in ages–all the more crafty because audiences are encouraged to see it simply as a movie about a seven-year-old chess genius, based on Fred Waitzkin’s nonfiction book about his son Josh. Very well played (with Max Pomeranc especially good as Josh), shot (by Conrad Hall), and written and directed (by Steven Zaillian), it gradually evolves into a kind of parable about how a gifted kid learns to choose–and choose what he needs from–his parents, teachers, and other role models. The part played by gender in all this is both subtle and complex, relating not only to chess strategy (i.e., when to bring your queen out) and the personality of Bobby Fischer, but also to the varying attitudes toward competition taken by his parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen) and two teachers (Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley). It makes for a good old-fashioned inspirational story, easily the most absorbing and pointed since Lorenzo’s Oil. Water Tower, Lincoln Village, Old Orchard, Webster Place.… Read more »

The Meteor Man

Writer-director-actor Robert Townsend hits paydirt with the first black superhero. An equivalent of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne (Townsend), the hero is a mousy inner-city schoolteacher and part-time musician in Washington, D.C., who assumes extraordinary powers after being hit by an emerald green meteor and proceeds to do battle against a big-time drug syndicate that’s menacing the ghetto. The results are very funny, delightfully stylized, and euphorically energetic–also a bit slapdash in the manner of Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, though I didn’t mind at all. With Robert Guillaume, Marla Gibbs, Eddie Griffin, James Earl Jones, Marilyn Coleman, Another Bad Creation, and loads of cameos–by Big Daddy Kane, Bill Cosby, Nancy Wilson, and Frank Gorshin, among others. Bricktown Square, Burnham Plaza, Golf Glen, North Riverside, Plaza, Ford City, Bel-Air Drive-In, Double Drive-In, Esquire, Hyde Park, Pipers Alley.… Read more »

Son Of The Pink Panther

Technically speaking, this feeble effort is the ninth Pink Panther or Inspector Clouseau comedy, but only the third without Peter Sellers. Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) does what he can as Inspector Clouseau Jr. (which isn’t much, given the degree of prominence accorded to a hackneyed kidnapping plot), and Blake Edwards, the presiding auteur of all the previous installments (apart from the 1968 Inspector Clouseau), directs from a script that he wrote with Madeline and Steve Sunshine; with Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk, and Claudia Cardinale. (JR)… Read more »

Sofie

A sensitive and worthy if long (145 minutes) and occasionally dull account of a young Jewish woman (Karen-Lise Mynster) in Copenhagen at the end of the 19th century, Liv Ullmann’s directorial debut is her own adaptation (cowritten by Peter Poulsen) of Henri Nathansen’s 1932 Danish novel Mendel Philipsen & Son. The title heroine falls in love with a Christian painter (Jesper Christensen) who paints her parents’ portrait, but her family frowns on the match and forces her into a marriage with her cousin (Torben Zeller), a dull Orthodox Jew. After a move to the Swedish countryside, she has a son and her husband gradually descends into madness. The most interesting and accomplished performance here is given by Erland Josephson as Sofie’s father, but Ullmann does a creditable job with all the actors and the period settings are well handled (1992). (JR)… Read more »

The Secret Garden

Screenwriter Caroline Thompson and director Agnieszka Holland have turned Frances Hodgson Burnett’s rather gothic 1911 children’s book into an evocative, beautifully realized picture (1993). Three lonely and neglected children (Heydon Prowse, Kate Maberly, Andrew Knott) in a remote part of rural England discover a locked and equally neglected garden, and in the course of befriending one another they slowly bring it back to life. Maggie Smith plays the unfriendly, somewhat Dickensian housekeeper who blocks their way to freedom, and the lovely musical score is by Zbigniew Preisner. As a children’s movie with a fine sense of magic (without fantasy) and a great deal of feeling (without sentimentality), this beats the usual Disney junk hands down, and adults will find it an expert piece of storytelling. G, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Searching For Bobby Fischer

One of the craftiest and most satisfying pieces about gender politics to come along in ages (1993)all the more crafty because audiences are encouraged to see it simply as a movie about a seven-year-old chess genius, based on Fred Waitzkin’s nonfiction book about his son Josh. Very well played (with Max Pomeranc especially good as Josh), shot (by Conrad Hall), and written and directed (by Steven Zaillian, who also scripted Schindler’s List), it gradually evolves into a kind of parable about how a gifted kid learns to choose his role models and choose what he needs from them. The part played by gender in all this is both subtle and complex, relating not only to chess strategy (e.g., when to bring your queen out) and the personality of Bobby Fischer, but also to the varying attitudes toward competition taken by his parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen) and two teachers (Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley). It makes for a good old-fashioned inspirational story, absorbing and pointed. (JR)… Read more »

Needful Things

Max von Sydow brings a great deal of elegance and wit to his part as the devil — posing as the proprietor of a nostalgia shop that he establishes in a small town in Maine– in this adaptation by W.D. Richter of the Stephen King novel. (Fostering feuds between the townspeople in exchange for magical goods that remind people of their pasts, he eventually goads the populace into outright warfare.) Unfortunately, the film’s elegance and wit more or less begin and end with this performance, and the pulpiness of the material, even when it veers into Christian parable, is never really transcended, despite a promising cast that also includes Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, and J.T. Walsh. The director is Fraser Heston, son of Charlton; this is his first theatrical feature. (JR)

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Heart And Souls

Four San Francisco bus passengers (Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Tom Sizemore, Kyra Sedgwick) perish in an accident in 1959, then watch over the growth of a baby born at the same instant, who becomes an adult played by Robert Downey Jr. With his assistance, the four are given one last chance to straighten out their lives on earth before they go to heaven. There’s enough whimsy and Capracorn here to choke a horse, and things get even more complicated when the four dead people enter the body of Downey in turnto help him help them. Fortunately the talents of the actorsespecially Downey and Woodardsometimes make this effective (i.e., funny or moving) in spite of all the goo. Ron Underwood (City Slickers) directed from a script by Erik Hansen, Gregory Hansen, S.S. Wilson, and Brent Maddock. (JR)… Read more »

Hard Target

The inauspicious U.S. debut (1993) of violent Hong Kong action director John Woo, starring Jean-Claude Van Dammeless amusing as a showcase for Van Damme than Universal Soldier and decidedly less balletic than Hard-Boiled, Woo’s previous picture. The setting is New Orleans and environs, where Van Damme is pitted against a group of sadists who hunt down homeless men for the fun of it. Aficionados of explosions and baroque mutilations may be appeased by the bones (not to mention ears, eyes, and groins) thrown their way by the childish script of Chuck Pfarrer (who plays the movie’s first victim), but the relative absence of homoeroticism and extended virtuoso action choreography, Woo’s two staples, places an inordinate burden on the sort of nasty one-liners only preteen boys are likely to find very enjoyable. With Lance Henriksen and Yancy Butler. (JR)… Read more »

Zardoz

From the Chicago Reader (August 1, 1993). — J.R.

zardoz4

Probably John Boorman’s most underrated film — an impossibly ambitious and pretentious but also highly inventive, provocative, and visually striking SF adventure with metaphysical trimmings (1974). Set in a postapocalyptic society in 2293, it stars Sean Connery as a warrior and noble savage with dawning awareness; interestingly enough, the plot in many ways resembles that of Boorman’s best film, Point Blank. (JR)

zardoz2Read more »

The Wedding Banquet

A young Taiwanese businessman living in New York with his physical therapist boyfriend decides to marry a Chinese artist who needs a green card; the next thing he knows his parents from Taiwan, not knowing he’s gay, have decided to come to the wedding. Director Ang Lee collaborated on the script with Neil Feng and producer James Schamus; this 1993 feature, his second, is a very adroit and entertaining social comedy. Satire about and for the middle class with more heart than edge, it’s pitched mainly at liberal straight people, though the Chinese cultural details should be fascinating to all non-Chinese viewers. With Winston Chao, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Sihung Lung, May Chin, and Ah-leh Gua. In English and subtitled Mandarin. R, 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Twist

An exemplary and entertaining history of a crucial decade in North American social dancing, roughly from the time of Arthur Murray ballroom lessons and the lindy hop in Harlem (both circa 1953) to freestyle dancing and the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964. Ron Mannthe Canadian documentarist whose former features include investigations into free jazz (Imagine the Sound), poetry (Poetry in Motion), and comic books (Comic Book Confidential)combines a collector’s zeal for exhaustive inventories (all the ephemeral dance steps are duly noted) with a sharp sense of social history, so apart from the pleasure of watching all sorts of 50s and 60s film and TV clips and recent interviews with major participants (dancers as well as singers), one gets a sense of how dance styles developed and were merchandised. Among the provocative highlights are a white couple explaining how for their appearance on American Bandstand they were coached to claim credit for the strand, a dance developed by blacks, and an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who expounds on the twist being like conversation without words. A dry-cleaned version of this film has been shown on the Disney channel, shorn of certain lurid steps and ideological points; you owe it to yourself to see it without the cuts (1992).… Read more »