Daily Archives: November 1, 1990

Berkeley In The Sixties

A near definitive account of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60s, including the campus protests that preceded and followed it during the decade. Mark Kitchell, the young filmmaker who put this together over six years, combines a vivid oral history recounted by many of the participants (including, among many others, Susan Griffin, Todd Gitlin, Bobby Seale, John Searle, and Chicagoan Jack Weinberg) with fascinating archival footage and still photographs (which feature, among others, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Savio, the Grateful Dead, and Governor Ronald Reagan). What emerges is neither a simple exercise in nostalgia nor watered-down, TV-style history, but a detailed inquiry, with a sharp analytical sense of where the Free Speech Movement came from and how it developed, informed throughout by a keen sense of political and historical process. One regrets that Kitchell limited his coverage of the participants’ latter-day doings to American Graffiti-style titles at the endwhich suggests a form of historical closure that one would like to think a film of this sort would avoid. But in all other respects this is essential viewing (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Steel And Lace

For a splatter film, this is somewhat inventive. A rape victim (Clare Wren) commits suicide after the man who raped her (Michael Cerveris) is acquitted, and her scientist brother (Bruce Davison) creates an android killing machine in her image, equipped with various disguises and designed to hunt down and gorily dispatch both the rapist and his friends who lied on his behalf; the android, which develops something of a mind and will of its own, is also equipped with a TV camera that enables the brother to monitor the killings and to watch the deaths in playback. Meanwhile, a sketch artist at the original trial (Stacy Haiduk) plays detective when her former boyfriend (David Naughton), a cop, is assigned to the case. Joe Dougherty and Dave Edison’s script never strays too far from the formulaic, but Ernest Farino’s direction keeps it fairly fresh. (JR)… Read more »

The Nun (la Religieuse)

Jacques Rivette’s controversial though chaste second feature (1966), originally banned for a year both in France and for export, was trimmed and slightly reedited by its U.S. distributor (years later it was restored to its original form and 140-minute running time). As a direct and indirect commentary on institutional repression and the depravity that arises from compulsory religious training, it’s a feminist movie with particular relevance for the Jesse Helms era. Adapted from Denis Diderot’s famous 18th-century novel about Suzanne Simonin (the remarkable Anna Karina)an illegitimate teenager forced to enter a convent by her familythis is the most accessible by far of all of Rivette’s features. It has a straightforward narrative that mainly concentrates on Suzanne’s experiences at two conventsone severe and punitive, the other progressive and more worldly (though no less stifling for Suzanne when she finds herself pursued by the lesbian mother superior)before she escapes to encounter a different kind of oppression in the world outside. Far from a nonbeliever, Suzanne is a devout character without a religious calling, and the film as a whole is a complex celebration of her continuous drive toward freedom. Rivette’s highly original and formal cellular construction uses a striking contemporary score (by Jean-Claude Eloy) and selective sound effects (by Michel Fano) to balance the feeling of confinement with a nearly constant sense of the world outside; the intense mise en scene and use of camera movements often recall Carl Dreyer (though Rivette’s conscious model was Kenji Mizoguchi); and the metallic colors and resourceful use of settings conspire to create a world that’s both material and abstract.… Read more »

Home Alone

A large, well-to-do family in a Chicago suburb rushes off to Paris for Christmas, accidentally leaving behind an eight-year-old (Macaulay Culkin) who has to guard the house from a pair of burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). John Hughes wrote and produced this 1990 comedy, and Chris Columbus directed it. The movie is quite enjoyable as long as it explores the fantasy of a neglected little boy having an entire house of his own to explore and play in, and it still manages to be fun when he exhibits superhuman ingenuity and resourcefulness in holding down the fortwith Culkin doing a fair job of mugging. But the physical cruelty that dominates the last act leaves a sour taste, and the multiple continuity errors that make the last scene possible strain one’s suspension of disbelief to near the breaking point. With John Heard and Catherine O’Hara as the negligent parents, Jeffrey Wiseman (in a nicely tuned performance), and John Candy in a cameo designed to assist a product placement. PG, 102 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hollywood Mavericks

Produced by Florence Dauman for the American Film Institute, this is a watchable if often predictable documentary about Hollywood directors who have tended (to varying degrees) to go against the systeman honor roll that includes, among others, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes, Francis Coppola, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, D.W. Griffith, Dennis Hopper, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Alan Rudolph, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, and Orson Welles. Most of these men (no lady mavericks like Ida Lupino, Barbara Loden, and Elaine May need apply) are articulate, and so much of what they have to say about themselves and each other is interesting, if not always accurate (e.g., Scorsese’s claim that Stroheim forced his extras to wear special underwear is a studio-produced legend; Sternberg’s claim that everything except the sea in his remarkable The Saga of Anatahan is artificial is contradicted by that film’s powerful use of newsreel footage). Some of the clips are too brief to leave lasting impressions, and a commentary about Altman’s innovative methods of sound recording unfortunately accompanies a clip from M*A*S*H, made four years before he introduced those methods in California Split. But this is still basically good, instructive funmuch of it about directors and films that deserve wider attention.… Read more »

H-2 Worker

Shot clandestinely over three and a half years, Stephanie Black’s documentary about the exploitation of Jamaican and other Caribbean sugarcane workers in Florida is a good example of investigative reporting of outrages that occur under our very nosesgood enough to win the prize for best documentary at the 1990 United States Film Festival. The workers in question (more than 10,000 annually) are granted six-month H-2 visas in order to harvest sugarcane by handwork so dangerous and underpaid that Americans aren’t willing to do itand are required to live as virtual slaves. Black makes effective offscreen use of the cards and letters some of these workers write to their relatives back home, though this is otherwise a conventionally shaped documentary. Still, the facts speak loud and disturbingly for themselves (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Young Doctors In Love

A dumb and crass attempt to do for doctor movies what Airplane! did for disaster flicks. Most of the participantsMichael McKean, Sean Young, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabney Colemanshould have stayed at home. Incidentally, this was Garry Marshall’s first feature as a director (1982). (JR)… Read more »

The Wild Child

This is one of Francois Truffaut’s best middle-period films (1969), albeit one of his darkest and most conservative. Filmed in black and white by the gifted Nestor Almendros, it’s based on the true story of a nine-year-old boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found living in the wilderness and educated by a young physician (played by Truffaut himself). There are certain parallels here with Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, about the civilizing of Helen Keller, but Truffaut’s message is more pessimistic than inspirational; it suggests that the joys of primitivism are incompatible with the achievement of culture. (JR)… Read more »

Vincent & Theo

Pared down from an English miniseries by the director himself, this 1990 feature by Robert Altman about Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo, scripted by Julian Mitchell, is basically an extended reflection on the uneasy relationship between art and commerce that has relatively little to do with painting per se. It opens with a videotape of a present-day auctioning of a van Gogh canvas, and the bulk of what follows concentrates on the quirky acting styles of Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as Theo. As in Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns, there is little effort to create a persuasive European period flavor, and the ambience is strictly postmodern. Still, this was Altman’s most watchable theatrical feature in about a decade, and the actors always keep you guessing. With Jip Wijngaarden, Johanna Ter Steege, and Jean-Pierre Cassel. 138 min. (JR)… Read more »

Three Men And A Little Lady

A sequel to a remakethat is, part two of Three Men and a Baby, which was a remake of 3 Men and a Cradle. Five-year-old Mary (Robin Weisman) and her mother (Nancy Travis) are now living with the three bachelors (Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson, and Tom Selleck), who have trouble adjusting when the mother opts for a marriage and job in London. The utopian sense of family love central to the original premise is still present here, but it’s upholstered with the sort of unfelt, mechanical sitcom characters and gags that one would expect to find in the lamest Bob Hope vehiclesfrom the mother’s snooty English fiance to the repressed and predatory female director of an upper-crust English girls’ school. Consequently, just about the only fitful life to be found here is in the dregs of the original conception as fleshed out by the five stars. Directed by Emile Ardolino from a script by Charlie Peters (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Rocky V

Having suffered irreversible brain damage from his last bout in the Soviet Union, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) returns to Philadelphia and discovers that he has lost all his money through the scams of a crooked accountant. After his wife (Talia Shire) persuades him to retire, a young fighter named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) convinces Rocky to train him; Tommy rises to fame on a steady stream of knockouts (his opponents appear to be exclusively nonwhite) while Rocky neglects Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone) in order to live vicariously on Tommy’s triumphs. Meanwhile, a Mephistophelian black promoter (Richard Gant) lures Tommy away from Rocky, and only after a climactic street fight between Rocky and Tommy are things set right again. John G. Avildsen directs Stallone’s primitive script with the corn it calls for, hoping to distract from the simplicity with a few fancy montages, and does a fairly good job with the climactic slugfest; but the dramatic moves are so obvious and shopworn that not even the star’s mournful basset-hound expressions can redeem them. With Burt Young (1990). (JR)… Read more »

The Mahabharata

Peter Brook’s nearly three-hour condensation and adaptation of his own nine-hour stage version of the national epic of India, a 100,000-stanza poem in Sanskrit written more than 2,000 years ago. Written by Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Marie-Helene Estienne, the film features a mode of narration in which past and present, story and storytelling coexist within the same space. Unfortunately, this space is clearly that of a soundstage, and one of the major limitations here, as in earlier film adaptations by Brook of his own stage works, is that the theatrical and often declamatory style of acting never quite jells with the filmic presentation. Although the story has certain contemporary movie elementssuch as gore, fantasy, and the odd special effect or twothe action sequences are too ceremonial to carry much suspense; the sustaining source of interest is the introduction offered to the original material, which is undeniably fascinating. In the dual role of Ganesha and Krishna, Bruce Myers gives the most striking line readings in an extremely varied (and variable) cast (1989). (JR)… Read more »

The Little Theater Of Jean Renoir

Renoir’s challenging and lovely last feature (1969) consists of three sketches and a brief song sung by Jeanne Moreau, with Renoir himself appearing to introduce each section. At the time of this film’s release critics tended to glide over or dismiss everything but the final sketch, a warm account of an old man learning to accept his young wife’s infidelity that summed up the generous and realistic manner that was all more conservative spectators expected from Renoir. But the film as a whole is a complex manifesto of his pluralistic approaches to both realism and style, and the other sketchesa highly artificial and sentimental fairy tale about a homeless couple and a bizarre, aggressive contemporary opera about a housewife’s burning desire for an electric waxerare essential. Indeed, what is most remarkable about Renoir’s swan song is the subtle interaction between these facets of his vision. Far from being a grab bag of unconnected pieces, as most critics have contended, it’s a musical suite in four movements, with each movement illuminating the others. If you want some notion of this great filmmaker’s range and breadth, here’s an essential key. (JR)… Read more »

Landscape In The Mist

Theo Angelopoulos (The Travelling Players), a Greek filmmaker of stature and talent whose works are scarcely known in this country, captured many hearts and minds with this melancholy road picture (1988), including those of many critics I respectbut not, I’m afraid, my own. If back in the 70s Angelopoulos seemed like an intelligent disciple of Antonioni, here he seems more like an intelligent disciple of early Fellini (which is not necessarily an improvement). There are some visually striking and dramatically effective moments in this film about two children who leave home for Germany in search of their father, but the 126 minutes seemed to last forever. With Tania Paleologou, Michalis Zeke, and Stratos Giorgioglou. In Greek with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Juliet Of The Spirits

Federico Fellini followed up his magisterial 8<4 with a similar stream-of-consciousness exercise (1965), this one in color and dealing with the alienation of a middle-aged housewife (Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife and the star of his earlier La strada and Nights of Cabiria). The results are unwieldy, uneven, and overlong to say the least. The charming fantasy sequences and use of psychedelic color can't make up for the structural looseness, which became the fatal flaw in many subsequent Fellini features, and one never feels that Fellini understands his heroine with any depth. With Mario Pisu, Sandra Milo, Valentina Cortese, and Sylva Koscina. 137 min. (JR) … Read more »