Monthly Archives: May 1994

Widows’ Peak

When it comes to Irish grudge matches, it’s conceivable there hasn’t been so much comic bluster and roustabout blarney on-screen since John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The differences between this film and that, however, are as instructive as the similarities. The setting is an Irish lakeside village in the mid-20s; the antagonists this time are women, with Mia Farrow as the old-timer (and only nonwidow in the ruling oligarchy) who develops an immediate hostility to an American newcomer (the John Wayne part) played by Natasha Richardson, with Joan Plowright essaying a rough equivalent of Barry Fitzgerald. Adrian Dunbar and Jim Broadbent are among the costars, and everyone does a swell job. Scriptwriter Hugh Leonard has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and John Irvin’s beautiful direction honors them all while doing everything you might hope he would with the location. There’s a lovely old-fashioned score by Carl Davis as well. See this. Old Orchard, Fine Arts.… Read more »

Two Heads [EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES]

From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1994). — J.R.

** EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES

(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gus Van Sant

With Uma Thurman, Rain Phoenix, John Hurt, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Angie Dickinson, Sean Young, Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, and Carol Kane.


Sissy Hankshaw, born with oversize and decidedly phallic thumbs that inspire her to become a compulsive and virtuoso hitchhiker, never stopping anywhere long enough to pitch a tent, works occasionally as a model for a decadent New York queen known as the Countess, who uses her in feminine-hygiene-spray ads. He wants her to appear in a commercial featuring a flock of whooping cranes that periodically migrate through his dude ranch and beauty salon, the Rubber Ranch, and he sends her there, not realizing that the cowgirls running the place are on the verge of seizing it and turning it into a radical feminist collective with a different set of priorities.

This is the central premise of Tom Robbins’s 1976 hippie novel, though it hardly begins to describe its proliferating characters and issues. For starters, there’s a Mr. Natural sort of guru hiding out in the mountains overlooking the Rubber Ranch — a Japanese American known as the Chink, who periodically has sex with one of the cowgirls, Bonanza Jellybean, and eventually impregnates Sissy, and who maintains a Rube Goldberg sort of timepiece that was bestowed on him by a group of renegade Indians known as the Clock People.… Read more »

L’etrange Monsieur Victor

In his finest work, including this masterful 1938 noir, the remarkable French filmmaker Jean Gremillon (1901-1959), trained as a composer and musician, used mise en scene, script construction, editing, and dialogue delivery to explore the complex relationship between film and music. Raimu, one of the greatest French actors, plays the “strange” title hero, a respectable Toulon merchant who secretly operates as a fence for local thieves; after he murders a potential blackmailer, an innocent local shoemaker (Pierre Blanchar) is sent to prison for his crime. Seven years later the fall guy escapes, returns to Toulon to see his son, and, unaware of Victor’s guilt, persuades the merchant to shelter him, then becomes involved with his wife. None of the moral ambiguities of these and other complications are lost on Gremillon, who eschews the usual distinctions between heroes and villains to make this a troubling and offbeat melodrama. Shot both in Toulon and in Berlin’s UFA studio, this potent dissection of appearance and reality may be less impressive than Gremillon’s subsequent Lumiere d’ete (1943), which benefits from Jacques Prevert’s dialogue, but it’s brilliant filmmaking all the same. With Madeleine Renaud and Vivianne Romance; coscripted by Albert Valentin, Charles Spaak, and Marcel Achard.… Read more »

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. (For some briefer and more recent comments about Carax’s Merde and Holy Motors, go here.) — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) accept beautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point.… Read more »

Three From Vietnam

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 1994). I’m delighted that stills from these and other Vietnamese films have finally become available on the Internet — which didn’t appear to be the case in October 2010, when I participated in a panel related to the first of these films in Washington, D.C. — J.R.

*** THE LITTLE GIRL OF HANOI

(A must-see)

Directed by Hai Ninh

Written by Hoang Tich Chi, Hai Ninh, and Vuong Dan Hoang

With Lan Huong, Tra Giang, The Anh, and Kim Xuan.

*** THE GIRL ON THE RIVER

(A must-see)

Directed and written by Dang Nhat Minh

With Minh Chau, Ha Xuyen, Anh Dung, and Tran Van Son.

** THE RETIRED GENERAL

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Nguyen Khac Loi

Written by Nguyen Huy Thiep

With Manh Linh, Doan Anh Thang, Hoang Cuc, and Tran Van.

“16 January 1990

“UNITED NATIONS FORCES ATTACK IRAQ, LAYING THE FIRST BLOW ON SADDAM HUSSEIN . . .

“In Powershift [Alvin] Toffler discusses power in its three forms, violence, wealth and knowledge. Now that knowledge is in the hands of everyone, all people, all Nations, television and satellites have forever made it impossible for one group to manipulate the knowledge of what is happening; World television is bringing this vital knowledge to everyone without being diminished.Read more »

Being Human

Some of the precise meanings of this Bill Forsyth comedy eluded me, but the vibes couldn’t have been nicer. What’s off-putting at first is that both the title and the man-through-the-ages format–Robin Williams playing no fewer than five fellows named Hector: a caveman, a Roman Empire slave, a medieval traveler, a Portuguese shipwreck survivor, and a divorced landlord in contemporary Manhattan–promise the worst kind of universalist banality; fortunately, it never materializes. The overall conceit may be arch, but as narrator Theresa Russell periodically points out, this is a story about stories; and this being a Forsyth movie, everything–even customary overactors like Williams, John Turturro, and Lorraine Bracco–is scaled down to human proportions. At the same time, the movie leaves you feeling there’s more here than meets the eye. Unfortunately, many publicists and reviewers are apparently so insulted by the fact that it confounds their ordinary reflexes that they’re treating it as a turkey; in fact it’s one of the few truly original and personal commercial movies to have appeared this year, and if you’re looking for something a little different you should rush to see it before it disappears. With Anna Galiena, Vincent D’Onofrio, Hector Elizondo, and Lindsay Crouse. Norridge, Webster Place, Edens, 900 N.… Read more »

The Little Girl of Hanoi

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Hai Ninh’s 1974 Vietnamese propaganda feature, partly filmed during the U.S. bombing of Hanoi in 1972, is how strong and accomplished and beautiful it is, particularly given the almost impossible circumstances under which it was made. The simple but powerful story centers on a little girl wandering through the rubble of the city, looking for her parents until a soldier takes her under his wing. Told partially through flashbacks and incorporating everything from animation to documentary footage to studio rear projection, the film is remarkable not only for its sincerity and emotional directness, but for its accomplished visual style. And though it was clearly designed to boost morale, its anti-American feeling is remarkably mild given what we were doing to Vietnam at the time, especially compared to the anti-Vietnamese sentiments expressed in The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter; there’s even a sympathetic American character, a nurse shown caring for wounded Vietnamese. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Sunday, May 8, 5:30, 281-4114.… Read more »

On the Bridge

A fascinating documentary (1992) that’s much easier to watch than you’d think. Filmmaker Frank Perry (David and Lisa, Mommie Dearest) charts his own determined fight against inoperable cancer, and the amazing thing is how cheerful it makes him. Part of his philosophy (and the film’s) is that state of mind influences state of body, which means that he tries out all sorts of alternative healing methods, many of which seem to work; perhaps even more important is the attitude he takes toward his search and his joyful sense of discovery. The film is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes (we learn nothing about his family or his closest friends, apart from his cameraman and sound person), but what it includes seems like very strong medicine. Music Box, Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and 8.… Read more »

Red Rock West

A rather ho-hum if watchable neo-noir, though it’s been treated in some quarters as something special. Given the competition, I suppose in some way it is; but don’t expect to remember it too vividly for long. Nicolas Cage winds up in a small town in Wyoming looking for an oil-rigging job and gets mistaken for a hit man (Dennis Hopper) hired by a bar owner (J.T. Walsh) to bump off his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). You can figure out the rest. Directed by John Dahl and written by Dahl and his brother Rick (1993, 98 min.). (JR)… Read more »

The Flintstones

Considering the 32 writers (including Tom S. Parker, Jim Jennewein, and Steven E. de Souza) who worked on this live-action adaptation of the 60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series about a Stone Age family, one might have expected a few funny lines here and there, but this is mirthless (and worthless) from top to bottom. If the original cartoon series was a bargain-basement rip-off of TV sitcoms like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, getting real actorsJohn Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O’Donnell, and Elizabeth Taylorto imitate already derivative and reduced cartoon figures makes this an exercise in futility, and the cliched script doesn’t begin to justify the conceit. The architectural look of the moviemainly southern California tacky, with most of the stone made to resemble plastichas some minor novelty but it quickly wears off, and the morphing effects mainly seem motivated by a desire to fill the screen at all costs. Brian Levant directed, if that’s the word. (JR)… Read more »

Crooklyn

Spike Lee goes on automatic pilot in this 1994 drama, chewing over sweet-and-sour family memories with two of his siblings, cowriters Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee, and it’s difficult to tell whether the problem here is lack of artistic distance or simple exhaustion. Either way, despite very good performances from Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard as the parents, this is anemic and uninspired filmmaking: shapeless as narrative, awkward and drifting as drama. Much as Lee’s compulsive avoidance of silence supersedes any creative decisions about his sound tracks (and for the record, Terence Blanchard’s score here is virtually interchangeable with the scores for most of Lee’s other pictures), his use of a distorting anamorphic lens for the daughter’s trip to visit an aunt and uncle isn’t so much a creative decision as a gimmick designed to free him from making real creative decisions. (Disappointingly, his role as an actor this time is kept to cameo proportions, as a neighborhood glue sniffer.) With Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams, Sharif Rashid, Chris Knowings, and David Patrick Kelly. 132 min. (JR)… Read more »

Serie Noire

A 1979 adaptation by French writer-director Alain Corneau of the Jim Thompson thriller A Hell of a Woman (which Orson Welles once adapted for an unrealized feature)one of those tales of desperation escalating into madness and murder that Thompson seemed to specialize in. The late Patrick Dewaere stars as an unsuccessful salesman living in a Paris suburb whose wife leaves him; he then becomes involved with a woman (Marie Trintignant) whose aunt is hiding a small fortune in her house. You can already hear those James Cain wheels turning. Georges Perec collaborated on the script. In French with subtitles. 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harvey

James Stewart plays an amiable drunk whose avowed constant companion is an invisible rabbit that’s over six feet tall, and the point, as in Don Quixote, is that a victim of delusions may be better off than the rest of us. The undistinguished Henry Koster directed this popular piece of whimsy (1950), adapted from a popular play; Josephine Hull, playing Stewart’s sister, won an Oscar for her pains. 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Widows’ Peak

When it comes to Irish grudge matches, it’s conceivable there hasn’t been so much comic bluster and roustabout blarney in a film since John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The differences between this film and that, however, are as instructive as the similarities. The setting is an Irish lakeside village in the mid-20s; the antagonists this time are women, with Mia Farrow as an old-timer (and only nonwidow in the ruling oligarchy) who develops an immediate hostility to an American newcomer (the John Wayne part) played by Natasha Richardson, with Joan Plowright essaying a rough equivalent of Barry Fitzgerald. Adrian Dunbar and Jim Broadbent are among the costars, and everyone does a swell job. Scriptwriter Hugh Leonard has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and John Irvin’s beautiful direction honors them all while doing everything you might hope with the location. There’s a lovely old-fashioned score by Carl Davis as well. See this. PG, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

When A Man Loves A Woman

Apart from a confusing and unnecessary beginning and slick and corny Hollywood ending, this is a fairly serious and honest (if a mite overlong) tearjerker about the delicate and subtle relationship between a family’s dysfunctionality and the wife’s alcoholism: not merely what unspoken forces drive her to drink, but also to what extent the husband relies on her weakness both before and after she stops drinking. The family consists of an airline pilot (Andy Garcia), schoolteacher (Meg Ryan), and two young daughters, and while no one in the cast can be accused of underplaying, everyone does a creditable enough job under the occasionally lax direction of Luis Mandoki (whose variable talent in such projects as White Palace and the atrocious Born Yesterday remake is fully evident here), despite the avalanche of syrupy music competing for attention. The script by Ronald Bass and Al Franken steers refreshingly clear of putting hard-won understandings into the mouths of clinical professionals, preferring to let the couple make their own discoveries; with Tina Majorino, Mae Whitman, Lauren Tom, and a cameo by Ellen Burstyn. (JR)… Read more »