Monthly Archives: February 1988


Like Alex Cox’s previous films (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), this delirious fantasy about William Walker, the American who ruled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857, is all over the place and excessive, but as a radical statement about the U.S.’s involvement in that country it packs a very welcome wallop. The witty screenplay is by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer (Nog, Slow Fade), whose previous screenwriting forays include Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Ed Harris plays the crazed Walker, Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) is his deaf-mute fiancee, and Peter Boyle is Cornelius Vanderbilt. Deliberate and surreal anachronisms plant the action in a historical version of the present, and David Bridges’s cinematography combined with a liberal use of slow motion creates a lyrical depiction of carnage and devastation. Significantly, most of the film was shot in Nicaragua, with the cooperation and advice (but without the veto power) of the Sandinista government, and Edward R. Pressmanwhose previous credits include Badlands and True Storieswas executive producer. One can certainly quarrel with some aspects of the film’s treatment of history, but with political cowardice in commercial filmmaking so prevalent, one can only admire this movie’s gusto in calling a spade a spade, and the exhilaration of its anger and wit.… Read more »

The Rise Of Louis Xiv

One of Roberto Rossellini’s supreme masterpieces, and perhaps the greatest of the TV films that mark his last period. Made in 1966, the film chronicles the gradual steps taken in the Sun King’s seizure of power over 21 years; the treatment is contemplative, wise, and quietly humorous, and Rossellini’s innovative trick shots to integrate the real decor of Versailles are deftly executed. The color photography is superb. (JR)… Read more »


It lacks the range and analytical bite of his Images of Germany (1983), but Hartmut Bitomsky’s 1986 feature documentary about the highway system built by the Nazis does create some interesting reflections on the massive project. Alternating archival footage of the construction, contemporary interviews with some of the workers, and kitschy propaganda films made by the Third Reich (which attempted to sell the Autobahn to a recalcitrant public), Bitomsky puts together a kind of cultural history that may be long-winded and dry in spots but still adds up to an absorbing document about a monument designed to provide not the shortest but the noblest connection between two points. (JR)… Read more »

Radium City

Carole Langer’s explosive and shocking documentary about radioactivity in Ottawa, Illinois, and the 65 years the town’s inhabitants worked for the Radium Chemical Company. A large number of workersspecifically women who filled in the numbers on clock dials with luminous paintdied of cancer, but the story doesn’t end there; the high school building where the women worked was eventually dismantled, with pieces from it distributed all over town, and the whole environment became radioactive. Langer’s approach to this subject is patient, thorough, and profoundly human; she lets the facts emerge from the material and follows the complex ramifications of the story right up to the present. The result is something more than powerful investigative journalism: one comes to know a great deal about the inner workings of this community and the frightening degree of irresponsibility and callousness on the part of the government, but Langer’s approach is anything but preachy, and the sympathetic rapport that she achieves with many of the town’s inhabitants creates a multidimensional portrait. (JR)… Read more »

The Pick-up Artist

James Toback’s fourth feature translates the macho/manic obsessions of the previous three (as well as The Gambler, which he scripted) into a light and fairly innocuous youth picture. At once easier to take and easier to forget than his more feverish efforts, this romantic thriller set in New York and environs (with a side trip to Atlantic City), nicely shot by Gordon Willis, is all sweetness and light compared to the pseudo-Dostoyevskian bombast of Fingers and Exposed. Molly Ringwald, Bob Downey, Mildred Dunnock, Danny Aiello, and even scroungy Dennis Hopper and sinister Harvey Keitel come across like charming refugees from a John Hughes teenpic. It’s hard to know exactly how this came about, but apparently Warren Beatty, the ghost producer, had the final cut. (JR)

Read more »

Party Girl

A film that might be regarded as Nicholas Ray’s farewell to Hollywood (if not commercial filmmaking), as well as his tribute to Chicago in the 20s, this 1958 feature is also one of his most affecting love stories. An unlikely alliance between a crippled and crooked lawyer (Robert Taylor) and a dancing showgirl (Cyd Charisse), both of whom try to escape the power of a tyrannical mobster (Lee J. Cobb), forms the basis for a flamboyant poem in delirious color and ‘Scope that is treated with a mixture of violence and lyricism unique to Ray. This is the only movie he made at MGM, and he makes the most of the production resources available; Taylor and Charisse have never been better, and rarely has Ray’s theme of two flawed individuals trying to strike a symmetrical balance achieved a more beautiful and convulsive expression. With John Ireland and Kent Smith. 99 min. (JR)… Read more »


One of the most remarkable and innovative documentaries ever made, this hour-long film made by Francoise Romand for French TV (1986) follows the famous true story of two English women who as babies got switched in the hospital and 20 years later discovered that they’d been raised by the wrong sets of parents. Romand enlists all the surviving family members in her haunting and bizarre investigation, which involves not only a recounting but a reenactment of all the significant events in the two daughters’ emotional histories. Composed in an elaborate visual form that involves parallel shots, diptych compositions employing windows and mirrors, home-movie footage, stylized group portraits, and striking use of the families’ homes and possessions, and featuring inventive work with sound and music, the movie burrows so deeply into the subject and its ramifications that one emerges with enough material for a 500-page novel. The mix-up of the title refers not only to the putative subject but to many stylistic and formal collisions: fiction versus fact, French versus English, memory versus imagination. An astonishing film debut. (JR)… Read more »

Mein Kampf

One of the better documentary compilations about Nazi Germanya German/Swedish production, directed by Erwin Leiser in 1961, and narrated by Claude Stephenson. (JR)… Read more »

The Last Train

French hack Pierre Granier-Deferre directed this World War II thriller (1973) about a French radio repairman (Jean-Louis Trintignant) fleeing with his family from the German invasion and meeting Romy Schneider en route.… Read more »

King Of Kings

Nicholas Ray’s 1961 retelling of the story of Jesus for producer Samuel Bronston may have spelled the beginning of his downfall as a commercial director, and Orson Welles, who narrates, was so offended that he didn’t want his name on the credits. Yet this quirky ‘Scope biblical spectacular is a lot more thoughtful and interesting than most. Jeffrey Hunter’s Christ wears a red cloak that calls to mind James Dean’s jacket, and Ray’s conception of the Sermon on the Mount as a series of personal exchanges is arresting to say the least. Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar) signed the script, and Robert Ryan, Siobhan McKenna, Hurd Hatfield, Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors, and Rita Gam figure in the cast. In some ways this blockbuster, simple and emotional, might be regarded as Jesus Christ Superstar avant la lettre. 168 min. (JR)… Read more »

I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing

Polly (Sheila McCarthy), the organizationally impaired heroine of Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema’s whimsical first feature (1987), gets a secretarial job at a chic Toronto art gallery and becomes infatuated with Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the sophisticated curator, while taking everyday photographs and indulging in eccentric daydreams in her spare time. Her rude encounters with the corruption and hypocrisy of Gabrielle’s world form the main substance of the story, which caters to middlebrow cultural insecurities even more doggedly than Woody Allen does. While it’s refreshing to find lesbian sensibilities represented honestly in a mainstream context (the performances are adept, and the conclusion is intriguingly open-ended), the cutesy style tries to promote the heroine’s dimwitted innocence in such anti-intellectual fashion that the movie’s self-righteousness may set your teeth on edge. The very title of the film, which misquotes a line from Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is symptomatic of the pretensions in store. (JR)… Read more »

Fire From The Mountain

A stirring and informative account of the Sandinista struggle, made up almost exclusively of personal testimonies from Sandinistas, this documentary by Deborah Shafferwho won an Oscar in 1985 for her Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clementsis loosely based on Omar Cabezas’s book about his own training as a guerrilla fighter in response to the Somoza dictatorship. The physicality and mythical dimensions of the guerrillas’ experiences in the mountains are an important part of the story here, but the film includes much more: newsreel footage and Nicaraguan witnesses speak of American invasions throughout this century, and the commentaries of Cabezas (then vice minister of the interior of the Nicaraguan government) and others are intelligent and pointed, moving beyond slogans to give a detailed portrait of their history, problems, and aspirations. Music is provided by bassist and composer Charlie Haden. Fernando Cardenal, the minister of education of Nicaragua, will speak after the film.… Read more »


The underrated and very interesting James B. Harrisformer producer of Kubrick (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), and writer-director of The Bedford Incident, Some Call It Loving, and Fast Walkinghas adapted James Ellroy’s novel Blood on the Moon, about an obsessed LA detective tracking down a serial killer. James Woods, who previously teamed up with Harris on Fast Walking, doubles here as star and coproducer (with Harris); Lesley Ann Warren, Charles Durning, and Charles Haid also figure in the cast. For a long time now, Harris seems to have had a bee in his bonnet about the corruption of sexual innocencea theme that yielded his one (very unconventional) masterpiece, Some Call It Loving. A related obsession is operative here, with misogynistic overtones, but this time there’s not enough distance on it to make for much lucidity: the film is both provocative and murky, and good performances from Woods, Warren, and Durning don’t suffice to clear up or objectify the unpleasantness in any edifying way. A rather oddball film that uses Woods as its mouthpiece to denounce the self-imposed innocence of women, it doesn’t look long or hard enough on its hero’s motivations to place them in any broader context. (JR)… Read more »

Buffet Froid

Bertrand Blier’s 1979 black comedy stars Gerard Depardieu, Jean Carmet, and Blier’s father Bernard as three hapless individuals who discover that they all enjoy killing people. Cold Cuts was the original English title given to this strange farce, although Cold Buffet would be a more accurate translation. With Genevieve Page, Carole Bouquet, and Michel Serrault. (JR)… Read more »

And God Created Woman

Roger Vadim’s own American semiremake of his influential New Wave sex romp, some 30 years later, with Rebecca De Mornay taking over the part once assigned to Brigitte Bardot. R.J. Stewart is credited as screenwriter, and Vincent Spano, Frank Langella, and Donovan Leitch also figure in the cast. The sad thing about this update is how uninteresting its is, despite tolerable direction and performances, and an obvious effort on Vadim’s part to make it contemporary. De Mornay plays a convict who befriends a gubernatorial candidate and marries a carpenter (Spano) in order to get paroled, then forms a rock band to perform the songs she’s written about freedom while refusing to have sex with her husband. As a portrait of the New Woman, the movie is sincere but simplistic, and the erotic charge of the originalwhich was mainly about saucy Bardot scandalizing Saint-Tropez with her brazen sexuality, energy, and desirereceives at best only a pale echo here. (JR)… Read more »