From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.
Pedro Almodovar’s poorly made 1990 follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has an offensive premise and a pathetic, almost pleading desire to outrage our sensibilities with it. A 23-year-old simpleton (Antonio Banderas), released from a mental asylum where he’s lived for most of his life, kidnaps a small-time movie actress and junkie (Victoria Abril) he’s fallen for after a brief encounter during one of his many escapes from the institution. He firmly believes that in time she will return his affection, and — what do you know? — he proves to be absolutely right. If someone made an equivalent black comedy about a victim of racism falling in love with his or her oppressor, people would really be outraged, but I guess it’s OK if you’re simply trashing a trashy woman. There’s also a feeble subplot here about the actress’s director (Francisco Rabal) and sister (Loles Leon) that goes nowhere. The two lead characters are cardboard constructions, which sinks the film into tedium despite enough nudity to earn it an X rating. 111 min. (JR)
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A soporific road movie about a runaway girl (Greer Robson) and a rebellious worker in flight from the law (Peter Phelps) who team up during the Depression, this New Zealand film, despite some picturesque locations, is essentially defeated by colorless acting and a mediocre script. Directed by Sam Pillsbury, with a screenplay by Grant Hinden Miller which adapts his owen novel, The Dream Monger. (JR)… Read more »
Not the classic, authentic, and lovely 1936 James Whale version, but the inert and racist MGM color remake of 1951, directed by George Sidney. Most of Sidney’s musicals tend to be vulgar but energetic; this one, it appears, was done in his sleep. Still, Jerome Kern’s music and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics provide fine accompaniment to the sleepwalking. Derived from an Edna Ferber novel; with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Marge and Gower Champion, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Sterling, and William Warfield. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »
This powerful, provocative, and highly disturbing 1989 Austrian feature by Michael Haneke (Cach… Read more »
A bizarre throwback to the 60s subgenre of farcical James Bond spin-offs (Our Man Flint, Casino Royale, Modesty Blaise, et al), involving lots of mechanical action, tons of repartee, and a master plot to take over the world. Crooks force a former cat burglar (Bruce Willis) to resume his profession in order to recover three separate parts of a machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci that converts lead into gold. Directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers), this expensive romp features Danny Aiello as the hero’s best friend, Andie MacDowell as the romantic interest, Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard (who intones, This is supposed to be torture, not therapy) as the baroque villains, and James Coburn as a sinister CIA operative (a direct reminder of the Flint movies). It doesn’t have the polish or the momentum of an Indiana Jones adventure, and isn’t too engaging on the plot level, but at least the filmmakers keep it moving with lots of screwball stunts. Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters are credited with the script, based on a story by Willis (whose production company made the movie) and executive producer Robert Kraft. (JR)… Read more »
One of Vincente Minnelli’s best ‘Scope and color melodramas (1960), adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank from William Humphrey’s novel. Set in a small town in Texas, the plot centers on a troubled family: a promiscuous patriarch (Robert Mitchum) and his frigid wife (Eleanor Parker) compete for the loyalty of their son (George Hamilton), who discovers that he has an illegitimate half brother (George Peppard). With Luana Patten, Everett Sloane, and Constance Ford. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.
The four films to date of independent Chicago filmmaker Peter Thompson form two diptychs: not films to be shown simultaneously side-by-side, but successive works whose meanings partially arise out of their intricate inner rhymes and interactions. Two Portraits (1982), which has already had limited exposure in Chicago, describes the filmmaker’s parents: Anything Else, devoted to his late father, combines stop-frame images of the latter, in an airport and outdoors, with a painful recording of his voice taken in a hospital and a multifaceted verbal portrait delivered by his son; Shooting Scripts juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, Betty Thompson, reading from her own diaries with a minimalist view of her sleeping on a beach chair, alternating stop-frames with privileged moments of movement. Together these films create a rich tapestry, but the more recent hour-long pair, Universal Hotel and Universal Citizen (1987), receiving its premiere here, creates a still more ambitious and dense interweaving of objective and subjective elements. As Thompson puts it, this diptych deals with three main themes: the emotional thawing of men by women, the struggle to disengage remembrance from historical anonymity, and nonrecoverable loss. In the first film, Thompson describes his involved research about medical experiments in deep cold conducted on a Polish prisoner and a German prostitute by Dr.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.
Though crippled by studio recutting that tried to adjust this neurotic 1962 melodrama for the family market, Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s novel is one of his last great pictures, reversing the Henry James model of innocent Americans encountering corruption abroad — it’s the Americans who are decadent here. Intelligently scripted by Charles Schnee, the film reunites the director, writer, producer (John Houseman), star (Kirk Douglas), and composer (David Raksin) of The Bad and the Beautiful, describing the attempted comeback of an alcoholic ex-star (Douglas), asked to help a director friend (Edward G. Robinson) with a new picture in Rome, who encounters both his destructive ex-wife (Cyd Charisse) and a redemptive young Italian woman (Daliah Lavi) in the process. George Hamilton plays a spoiled young actor who falls under Douglas’s tutelage, and Claire Trevor plays Robinson’s wife. The costumes, decor, and ‘Scope compositions show Minnelli at his most expressive, and the gaudy intensity — as well as the inside detail about the movie business — makes this compulsively watchable. 107 min. (JR)
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To register a minority opinion, I find this knockdown screwball farce (1934), directed by Howard Hawks four years before Bringing Up Baby, six years before His Girl Friday, and fifteen before I Was a Male War Bride, a great deal funnier than all three. It costars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard at their hyperbolic best as egomaniacal theatrical monsters, a director and a star in a series of duels. The story comes from a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that lampoons theatrical excess as much as The Front Page lampoons journalistic excessa subject that Hawks can view with greater familiarity. The show here belongs almost entirely to the fast-talking stars, mainly having it out on the cross-country train of the title, and the movie is a veritable concerto for their remarkable talents, put across by Hawks with maximal energy and voltage. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »
This loud, fast, bone-crunching 1990 action thriller has two virtues of good SF literature: the creation of a foreign (if vaguely familiar) landscape and the sensation of displacement. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker in 2084 who discovers that he’s been implanted with false memories and a false identity; to clear things up, he has to make it to Marsnow colonized by greedy capitalists who create and abuse mutants through their control of the air. A worthy entry in the dystopian cycle launched by Blade Runner, this seems less derivative than most of its predecessors yet equally accomplished in its straight-ahead storytelling, with plenty of provocative satiric undertones and scenic details. Paul Verhoeven directed; with Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone (her first major role)not to mention 68 stuntpeople, some swell production design, and Rob Bottin’s gory makeup. R, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »
Michael Niederman’s 1990 Chicago-made documentary about the 1968 murder trial and conviction of Dr. John Branion Jr. (who died in September 1990). The film does an excellent job of persuading us that Branion was convicted of killing his wife on the basis of insubstantial, inconclusive, and even contradictory evidence, largely because of an inadequate defense and the various racial tensions that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King (Branion was black). The fact that Branion skipped bail and fled to Africa for many years dissuaded various judges from retrying his case, even though hardly anyone still believed that Branion was guilty as charged. Although this is much more simply made than, say, The Thin Blue Line, the facts and implications are no less disturbing, and Niederman does a fine job of juggling interviews (including one with Oscar Brown Jr., the first cousin of Branion’s murdered wife) with other elements in building his case. 60 min. (JR)… Read more »
A conventionally made but for the most part extremely well done documentary about the great writer-director and comic genius Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), whose life is as fascinating and remarkable as his meteoric career in Hollywood. Produced and directed by Kenneth Bowser, written by the able critic and journalist Todd McCarthy, and narrated by actor Fritz Weaver, the film draws on a wide range of materialsradio interviews, cameos by Sturges in other people’s pictures, interviews with relatives and associates, numerous still photographs, detailed biographical and production informationand does a very professional job of making this exposition concise and entertaining. Best of all are the clips from Sturges’s brilliant pictures, though one regrets the relatively short shrift given to Sturges’s remarkable stock company of bit actors and to his underrated last feature, The French They Are a Funny Race. If you’re a Sturges fan (and you should be), or are in the least bit curious about what this remarkable inventor-millionaire-restaurateur-playwright-filmmaker did to revolutionize the American sound comedy, you can’t afford to miss this. (JR)… Read more »
Though very polite and British, this feature-length documentary about German filmmaker Wim Wenders offers the most penetrating insights into and the best overall critique of his work that I’ve encountered. Paul Joyce, who directed it, has also made documentaries about Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima, and Dennis Hopper, and he knows the conventional format well enough to get the most out of it. There are good clips and interesting commentaries from the interviewed subjects, who include Wenders himself, cinematographer Robby Muller, filmmaker Sam Fuller, novelist Patricia Highsmith, musician Ry Cooder, actors Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Falk, and Hanns Zischler, and critic Kraft Wetzel, who is especially provocative. A must-see for Wenders fans, highly recommended for everyone else (1989). (JR)… Read more »
The last film of radical documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio (Point of Order, In the Year of the Pig), completed only a few months prior to his death in December 1989, proves to be not only a moving testament to the power and conviction of his career but also a remarkable formal departure that’s pungent and provocative. Addressing the camera, de Antonio mounts a comprehensive frontal attack on J. Edgar Hoover, discussing in detail his own FBI file, which he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and which ran to more than 10,000 pages. He proceeds from there into a witty and forthright self-portrait that includes a lengthy conversation with composer John Cage about indeterminacy, a discussion with a college audience about the McCarthy and the Iran-contra hearings, and a good many personal reminiscences. De Antonio comes across as an excellent raconteur and a lucid political thinker, and his unorthodox method of cutting between several different blocks of material creates a number of interesting ambiguities. In all, a fascinating, self-reflexive personal essaycomparable in some respects to Orson Welles’s Filming Othello. (JR)… Read more »
A musical about a showboat singer (Bing Crosby) who has a questionable reputation, with comic interludes offered by W.C. Fields (including a famous poker game). Based on a Booth Tarkington story and directed by Edward A. Sutherland, with a score by Rodgers and Hart. Among the other actors are Joan Bennett, Queenie Smith, and a briefly glimpsed Ann Sheridan (1935). (JR)… Read more »