Daily Archives: January 1, 1990

Killer Of Sheep

KillerofSheep2

The first feature (1977) of the highly talented black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who set most of his early films in Watts (including My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger); this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker. Shot on a year’s worth of weekends for under $10,000, this remarkable work is conceivably the single best feature about ghetto life. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works in American cinema — ironic and belated recognition of a film that, until this recent restoration, had virtually no distribution. It shouldn’t be missed. With Henry Gayle Sanders. 87 min. (JR)

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Sweetie

Those lucky enough to have seen Jane Campion’s eccentric and engaging shorts had reason to expect her first feature to be a breakthrough for the Australian cinema. But nothing prepared one for the freshness and weirdness of this 1989 black comedy about two sisters (Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston) locked in a deadly struggle. Practically every shot is unorthodox, unexpected, and poetically right, and the swerves of the plot are simultaneously smooth, logical, and so bizarre you’ll probably wind up pondering them days later. The mad behavior of both sisters may make you squirm, and there are plenty of other things in this pictureincluding the other charactersto make you feel unbalanced, but Campion does so many beautiful, funny, and surprising things with our disquiet that you’re likely to come out of this movie seeing the world quite differently. In short, this is definitely not to be missed. With Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry, and Michael Lake. R, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Street And The Student Of Prague

Karl Grune’s 1923 silent German feature combines expressionist lighting with a naturalistic middle-class drama about a kind but confused middle-aged protagonist who gives in to the temptations of the city streets. 74 min. Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague (1926), one of the most famous doppelganger films in the silent German cinema, is actually a remake of a 1913 feature said to be the earliest surviving German expressionist film; this version stars Conrad Veidt in the title role. (JR)… Read more »

Solaris

Although Andrei Tarkovsky regarded this 1972 SF spectacle in ‘Scope as the weakest of his films, it holds up remarkably well as a soulful Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, concentrating on the limits of man’s imagination in relation to memory and conscience. Sent to a remote space station poised over the mysterious planet Solaris in order to investigate the puzzling data sent back by an earlier mission, a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) discovers that the planet materializes human forms based on the troubled memories of the space explorersincluding the psychologist’s own wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who’d killed herself many years before but is repeatedly resurrected before his eyes. More an exploration of inner than of outer space, Tarkovsky’s eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker’s boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals. In Russian with subtitles. 165 min. (JR)… Read more »

Skidoo

Otto Preminger took LSD before making this demented, vulgar 1968 screwball musical about hippies taking over the world, in which his own trip is re-created as Jackie Gleason’s. This isn’t exactly funny, and it’s the last Preminger film one would pick to convince a skeptic of his talent, but it’s fascinating throughout. The satirical plot pits hippies against corporate gangsters lorded over by someone named God (Groucho Marx in his last film performance), whom Gleason used to work for. The cast mainly consists of aging TV stars (Gleason, Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang) and Hollywood has-beens (Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Fred Clark). Preminger’s celebration of the counterculture may be peculiar (Channing serves as the major go-between and, oddly enough, the sanest character), but it’s certainly sincere. Don’t miss the hallucinatory Garbage Can Ballet — the apotheosis of this cheerful garbage can of a movie — and the sung credits at the end. 98 min. (JR)

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Sidewalk Stories

Disarming in the simplicity and sentimentality of its basic conception, this mainly silent black-and-white comedy reworks the basic coordinates of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in terms of the homeless in late-80s lower Manhattan. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Charles Lane, the movie focuses on a young, black sidewalk portrait artist who finds himself caring for a two-year-old girl after her father is murdered in an alley. The comparisons provoked by Lane between himself and Chaplin are not always fortunate; in spite of his obvious talent and sincerity, the filmmaker-performer doesn’t come across as any sort of genius. It’s just as clear that 1921, the year of The Kid, is not 1989; the gags tend to be both more modest and less plentiful, and the characters are even simpler than Chaplin’s. Nevertheless, Lane’s conceit is handled with such unassuming sweetness and charm that it never comes across as presumptuous or pretentious, and the simple authority of his conclusionwhich uses dialogue in order to point out what most of us refuse to hear when we’re walking down the streetis unimpeachable. One should also credit Marc Marder with a memorable jaunty score that subtly enhances the pantomime without belaboring it. With Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, and Darnell Williams.… Read more »

Scar Of Shame

Lucia Lynn Moses and Harry Henderson star in this silent melodrama about class divisions within black society, produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation in 1927. The story of a successful concert pianist who marries a darker-skinned, working-class woman, it was one of the first black independent features made in this countrythough it’s worth noting that Frank Peregini, the director, was white. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Nuts

Before he was blacklisted in 1951, director Martin Ritt received much of his training in live television, and the virtues as well as limitations of 50s TV drama at its best are reflected in his movies. This all-star courtroom drama, adapted by Tom Topor, Darryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, centers on a hearing held to determine whether high-class hooker Claudia Draper (Barbra Streisand), arrested on a manslaughter charge, is insane or not. Richard Dreyfuss is her appointed lawyer, Robert Webber is the prosecutor, and James Whitmore is the judge; Eli Wallach plays her appointed psychiatrist, and Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden portray her grief-stricken parents. While the movie holds one’s attention throughout, and its liberal message is compelling, we are clued in to certain facts about the heroine so early on that the audience is never really tested along with the characters. What might have been a sharper existential confrontation of our received ideas about sanity merely comes across as an effective courtroom drama, with strategically placed revelations and climaxes. Streisand produced, developed the script, and composed most of the music for this showpiece, and her efforts, as usual, pay off, above all in her angry and lively performance.… Read more »

Nothing But A Man

A sincere, intelligent, and effectively acted independent feature from 1964, about a black worker (Ivan Dixon) and his wife (Abbey Lincoln) struggling against prejudice and trying to make a life for themselves in Alabama. Directed by the able and neglected Michael Roemer (who made The Plot Against Harry five years later) from a script written in collaboration with Robert Young, who served as cinematographer; with Gloria Foster, Julius Harris, Martin Priest, and Yaphet Kotto. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Night Shift

Henry Winkler, directed by his old Happy Days partner Ron Howard, plays a shy financial wizard working the graveyard shift at a morgue whose loose coworker and friend (Michael Keaton) convinces him to turn the place into a brothel. This isn’t as snappily directed or as caustically conceived as the subsequent Risky Business, which has a similar theme, but it’s arguably just as sexy and almost as funny. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; with Shelley Long, Gina Hecht, Pat Corley, and Bobby DiCicco (1982). (JR)… Read more »

Window Shopping

Chantal Akerman’s French-Belgian musical, set in a shopping mall, and patterned more after the rondelets of Jacques Demy, such as Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort, than after Hollywood models. It has a touching score and a likable cast (including Delphine Seyrig, Charles Denner, Fanny Cottencon, Myriam Boyer, John Berry, and Jean-Francois Balmer), but it never ignites to the degree it wants to. Part of the problem is that Akerman’s considerable talentsher eye for composition and her penchant for melancholic moodsare not especially suited to the musical form, and the strain shows. The crisscrossing characters and multiple mini-plots carry some interest and feeling, but the movie aches for the sort of movement and rhythm that is beyond its grasp; the absence of choreography hardly helps. But this is still worth seeing as one of the most ambitious efforts of a strikingly original independent. Script by Akerman, Jean Gruault, Pascal Bonitzer, Henry Bean, and Leora Barish (1986). (JR)… Read more »

Where The Heart Is

An oddly fanciful comedy from John Boorman, scripted with his daughter Telsche. Dabney Coleman plays a New York demolition tycoon who decides to teach his three spoiled kids (Suzy Amis, David Hewlett, and Uma Thurman) a lesson by letting them fend for themselves in a run-down Brooklyn tenement, where they’re joined by various eccentric boarders and, eventually, by their mother (Joanna Cassidy) and father after his business collapses. Fatally miscalculated on many levels (the players are all encouraged to overact stridently, the dialogue is stilted, the storytelling is flabby, and Peter Martin’s score is truly insipid), the movie is nevertheless far from unsympathetic, and is clearly a personal work on just as many levels. It harks back to the playful whimsy of some of Boorman’s earliest moviesHaving a Wild Weekend (1965) and, even more to the point, Leo the Last (1970)while carrying over some of the family sitcom antics of the more recent Hope and Glory (1987), with a similarly pastoral finale. It’s hard to know the precise reasons for all that goes wrong here, but one might venture that Boorman’s previous American picturesPoint Blank, Deliverance, and Exorcist II: The Hereticdidn’t start from his own scripts. Also the mythical underpinnings of his best work, such as Point Blank and Zardoz, are missing; perhaps they can’t find roots in such apparently alien soil as contemporary America.… Read more »

Les Visiteurs Du Soir

An eerie and often beautiful medieval fantasy parable about the devil sending two messengers to earth to break up a court romance, directed by Marcel Carne during the French occupation from a script coauthored by Jacques Prevert (1942). An obscure antifascist message may have been intended, but it doesn’t come across with much clarity; more sustaining are the film’s memorable look and atmosphere, and the capacity of the messengers to freeze the action into tableaux that anticipate by nearly 20 years images in Last Year at Marienbad. Also known as The Devil’s Envoys. With Jules Berry (The Crime of Monsieur Lange), Arletty, Alain Cuny, Fernand Ledoux, and Marie Dea. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tom Jones

Popular, irreverent adaptation of Fielding’s classic novel, scripted by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson in 1963. Despite the fitful energy and the beauty of the settings, the ugliness of the mise en scene and the crudity of the editing tend to triumph. Aping the stylistic eclecticism of Truffaut and Godard during the same period, the movie is too lacking in grace and finesse to provide anything more than broad and mainly random vaudeville turns. The precredits prologuesupposedly done in the style of silent films but blithely introducing handheld camera movement and a zoomis all too typical. Not even the gifted castAlbert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Dame Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, and George Devinecan survive all the willful jauntiness. which is aggressively underlined by John Addison’s score. 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Rouge

This evocative 1987 ghost story from Hong Kong, directed by Stanley Kwan, opens in the present, when a female ghost (Anita Mui) dressed in the style of a courtesan of the 30s turns up at the classified department of a newspaper, searching for her lover of half a century ago (Leslie Cheung). The young head of the department takes her home, where he encounters the wrath of his girlfriend. Eventually the young couple become enmeshed in the ghost’s search, which leads to an account of what happened in the mid-30s. Visually graceful and strongly atmospheric, this is one of the best Hong Kong films I’ve seen, though Kwan surpassed it in 1991 with Actress. (JR)… Read more »