Monthly Archives: January 1991

Motel

Christian Blackwood’s wonderful offbeat documentary about a few motels in the American southwest and the people he finds there: the three hardened and resourceful divorcees who run the Silver Saddle in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the guests at the Blue Mist in Florence, Arizona, who visit friends and relatives incarcerated in the state prison across the way; and a couple who occupy an abandoned motel in Death Valley Junction, Californiaan artist and ballerina who performs, sometimes for imaginary audience members, in a refurbished opera house, and her devoted and sympathetic husband. Each segment is a fascinating slice of Americana, although the third is downright inspirational (1989). (JR)… Read more »

Mr. Freedom

William Klein’s over-the-top fantasy-satire (1968) is conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made, but only an American (albeit an expatriate living in France) could have made it. Despite Klein’s well-deserved international reputation as a still photographer, his films are almost unknown in the U.S., so this spirited and hilarious second feature offers an ideal introduction to his volatile talent. Filmed in slam-bang comic-book style, it describes the exploits of a heroic, myopic, and knuckleheaded free-world agent (Playtime’s John Abbey) who arrives in Paris to do battle against the Russian and Chinese communists, embodied by Moujik Man (a colossal cossack padded out with foam rubber) and the inflatable Red China Man (a dragon that fills an entire metro station). Donald Pleasence is the hero’s sinister, LBJ-like boss, and Delphine Seyrig at her giddiest plays the sexy, duplicitous double agent who shows him the ropes. Done in a Punch and Judy manner that occasionally suggests Godard or Kubrick, and combining guerrilla-style documentary with expressionism, this feisty political cartoon remains a singular expression of 60s irreverence. In English and subtitled French. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Men Of Respect

I’ve never seen Joe Macbeth, a 1955 British attempt to adapt the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a 30s gangster milieu, but I doubt it could be any more heavy-handed and forced than this contemporary New York Mafia melodrama, written and directed by William Reilly, which adopts the same gimmick. The results are full of sound and fury, but not much else. Lots of thunderstorms, abrasive sound effects and music throbbing with vibrato, underlit night scenes, very silly dialogue (Not a man of woman born can do shit to me), and overall portentousness can’t hide the fact that Shakespeare without his language isn’t really Shakespeare, and some strained efforts on the part of John Turturro (in the Macbeth part) to make sense of it all don’t help. With Katherine Borowitz, Dennis Farina, Peter Boyle, Stanley Tucci, Julie Garfield, Lilia Skala, Steven Wright, and a cameo by Rod Steiger. (JR)… Read more »

Meet The Applegates

Michael Lehmann, the writer-director of Heathers, is back with more facetious satire about the Way We Livethis time a fantasy about mutating giant insects from a Brazilian rain forest disguising themselves as a typical suburban American family (Ed Begley Jr., Stockard Channing, Cami Cooper, and Bobby Jacoby) in an effort to rid the world of humans and their ecological crimes, starting with a local nuclear power plant. The lures of bad human habits confound their plans before they can get very far, although they bump off some of their suburban neighbors to get themselves out of sticky situations. Roughly speaking, this story, coscripted by Redbeard Simmons, bears some relationship to Parents and The ‘Burbs (both much better movies) as well as to Heathers, but Lehmann’s sneering antihumanism, which some critics have called subversive, seems like chic glibness to me; Channing has her moments, however. With Dabney Coleman and Glenn Shadix. (JR)… Read more »

The Long Walk Home

Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg star as a well-to-do southern lady and her servant in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott that launched the civil rights movement in the mid-50s. Thanks to good dialogue and meticulous research involving the place and period, this 1990 drama is much more creditable and authentic than either Mississippi Burning or Driving Miss Daisy, and the self-congratulatory tone of those films is kept to a relative minimumalthough one regrets the degree to which the focus gradually shifts here from Goldberg’s character to Spacek’s, a well-meaning white liberal. The only flaw in the otherwise fine casting and handling of southern accents is in the directing of some of the black actors, including the otherwise effective Goldberg, who curiously are made to seem less southern than the white folks. With Dwight Schultz, Ving Rhames, Dylan Baker (who’s especially good), Erika Alexander, and narration by Mary Steenburgen. Richard Pearce directed from a script by John Cork. (JR)… Read more »

Life Is A Long Quiet River

This prosaic French comedy with a poetic title, made in 1987, is the first feature of Etienne Chatiliez, who was France’s leading director of TV commercials at the time. One of his best-known ads, for a French hamburger chain, declares, If you’re going to eat shit, then you might as well eat this shit. The same might be said, alas, about this rather heavy-handed satire about an upper-middle-class family and a poor family in a small town who discover that 12 years earlier two of their children (Valerie Lalande and Benoit Magimel) were switched shortly after birth by a nurse taking revenge on her lover (Daniel Gelin), the doctor who delivered both babies. An experimental documentary on a similar subject, Francoise Romand’s Mix-up, is one of the great films of the 80s; Chatiliez’s film is basically a glib sleaze item that suggests most of John Waters’s limitations while providing relatively little of his wit. Most of the laughs are provided by strident overdefinition of the lifestyles of the two families and the complications that ensue after the 12-year-olds are switched a second time. With Helene Vincent, Andre Wilms, Catherine Hiegel, Catherine Jacob, and Patrick Bouchitey. (JR)… Read more »

L.a. Story

Once again Steve Martin seems trapped in an uneasy compromise between the free-form goofiness of his early features (The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains) and a more conventional romantic picture with a coherent story line. This 1991 comedy, which he wrote, starts out very promisingly as a funny southern California counterpart to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but when the characters and plot are supposed to take over from the regional satireMartin plays an inept TV weatherman who falls in love with a British journalist (Victoria Tennant in the Diane Keaton part)they never really come to life. There are still plenty of laughs and some inventiveness along the waySarah Jessica Parker is very funny as a young, blissed-out clerk Martin becomes involved with, and there’s some nice business with an oracular freeway signalthough some of the gags and contrived plot moves stumble over their own cuteness. With Richard E. Grant and Marilu Henner; Mick Jackson directed. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Kramer Vs. Kramer

Misogynistic claptrap about a divorced husband (Dustin Hoffman) fighting for the custody of and learning to cope with his little boy (Justin Henry)a movie whose classy trimmings (including Nestor Almendros’s cinematography) persuaded audiences to regard writer-director Robert Benton as a subtle art-house director. In this adaptation of a novel by Avery Corman, Benton does manage to get some effective performances from Hoffman and Henry as well as Meryl Streep (the wife who walks out on husband and son) and Jane Alexander, but let’s hope that the slew of Oscars won by this picture (best picture, actor, screenplay, director, and supporting actress) gives the thoughtful some reason for pause (1979). (JR)… Read more »

Je, Tu, Il, Elle

Chantal Akerman directed and plays the lead in this early (1974) black-and-white feature that charts three successive stages of its heroine’s love life. In the first part she lives like a hermit, eating only sugar, compulsively rearranging the furniture in her one-room flat, and apparently writing and rewriting a love letter; in part two she hitches a ride with a truck driver and eventually gives him a hand job; in part three she arrives at the home of her female lover, and they proceed to make frantic love. This is every bit as obsessive and as eerie as Akerman’s later Jeanne Dielman and Toute une nuit, though not as striking on a visual level; as in all her best work, however, the minimalist structure is both potent and haunting. (JR)… Read more »

Green Card

Another step down the ladder for Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, Dead Poets Society); it’s hard to blame anyone else for this would-be romantic comedy (1990), because this time he’s writer-director-producer. For reasons best known to Weir, an uptight horticulturist in Manhattan (Andie MacDowell) agrees to help out the friend of a friend, a French composer (Gerard Depardieu), by marrying him so he can get a green card; then the two strangers have to take a crash course in each other when the immigration authorities become suspicious. As effective as MacDowell was in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, she’s clearly no match for the talented Depardieu (whose expressions manage to make up for his faltering command of English); perhaps she’d seem less out of her depth if the script wasn’t so implausible and threadbare. PG-13, 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ghost

Patrick Swayze plays a yuppie Wall Street executive in love with artist Demi Moore. He dies and as a ghost solves his own murder with the help of fake medium Whoopi Goldberg. Jerry Zucker’s first film as a solo director (after various collaborations with Jim Abrahams and David Zucker) combines elements of Spielbergian wistfulness a la Always (a dead man yearns to tell his beloved how much he loves her) and what appear to be very dim memories of Cocteau’s Orpheus (a hunk walks through walls). Despite a script by Bruce Joel Rubin that seems to reinvent the hero’s relation to the material world on a scene-by-scene basis, according to what each scene requires, the storytelling is effectively articulated, and it moves reasonably briskly for a 128-minute movie. However, there’s something offensive about the movie’s chintzy view of death and the way it periodically flirts with promising conceits (i.e., Goldberg offering her body as a surrogate so that Swayze and Moore can touch one another) only to back away from them in as cowardly a manner as possible. Swayze tries very hard to act this time, but never quite makes it; Moore and Goldberg (who is pretty funny in spots) fare much better, as do villains Tony Goldwyn and Rick Aviles, considering the mechanical paces the silly script puts them through (1990).… Read more »

Freeze — die — come To Life

Vitaly Kanevski spent eight years in a Soviet labor camp on unspecified charges, attended film school, and worked as a production assistant on many films. He based this, his first feature, on his youth in the Soviet Orient during World War II. Made on a minuscule budget, it deservedly won the Camera d’Or for best first film at Cannes in 1990. Many critics have compared it to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and despite the grimness of the subject, accentuated by the murky black-and-white photography and the harshness of the setting (a Siberian mining town), Kanevski’s feeling for the boy hero (Pavel Nazarov) and his resourceful female pal (Dinara Drukarova) have a related sensitivity and freshness. The efforts of these children to cope with the horrors around themthe nearby POW camp, the black market, the omnipresent mud and coldmake them more than simple victims (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Flight Of The Intruder

It seems pretty clear by now that John Milius has virtually only one interest as a directorfilming wide-eyed boys’ adventure stories that concentrate on male camaraderie. It’s the theme that serves him both well (The Wind and the Lion) and ill (Red Dawn, Farewell to the King). This wartime action film, based on Stephen Coonts’s best-selling novel, which was adapted by Robert Dillon and David Shaber, qualifies as one of his second bests. The Intruder of the title is a low-altitude navy bomber manned by a pilot and a bombardier/navigator and operating off the coast of North Vietnam in 1972. After a member of one such team is killed on a pointless mission, his partner and best friend (Brad Johnson) convinces the replacement (Willem Dafoe) to join him on an unauthorized mission to bomb a Hanoi military installation. Danny Glover plays their gruff, disapproving commander, and Rosanna Arquette figures briefly as a war widow who becomes a one-night stand for the hero. Needless to say, keeping the North Vietnamese faceless is an essential part of the enterprise, and Milius’s implicit support of renegade bombers raises plenty of separate issues that the film isn’t too concerned about addressing. But after many years in the doldrums, he shows enough sincerity and energy here to keep things watchable at a limited, dubious level, with good performances and nice pacing.… Read more »

Cyrano De Bergerac

With Alexander Trauner, Orson Welles helped to prepare the sets for this film, under the mistaken impression that he would be allowed to direct and star in it himself (1950). No such luck, and I’m not sure that I disagree with Dave Kehr’s description: Jose Ferrer with a rubber nose, essaying what is easily the worst performance ever to win an Academy Award. At least some of the lines in the Rostand play are good. Directed by Michael Gordon, with Mala Powers, William Prince, and Morris Carnovsky. (JR)… Read more »

Come See The Paradise

We had to wait almost half a century for a Hollywood feature about one of the most shameful incidents in America’s pastthe internment of 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps by executive order in 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II. But the filmmaker who took on this task, alas, was Alan Parker (1990). After the offensive distortions of Mississippi Burning, it’s nice to see him taking more care in researching his subject, but these characters (the script is his own) are of purest cardboard. In 1936 a militant labor organizer named Jack (Dennis Quaid) in flight from the law settles in LA’s Little Tokyo, gets a job as a movie projectionist, and falls in love with Lily Kawamura (Tamlyn Tomita), the daughter of his boss (Sab Shimono). In spite of Lily’s father’s opposition, and because of California laws forbidding intermarriage, the couple elope to Seattle, where they settle down and have a daughter. After Pearl Harbor the father is arrested for his involvement in Japanese cultural societies, and the rest of his family (including Lily and her daughter, back on a visit) are sent to a desert internment camp. Meanwhile Jack gets drafted and eventually goes AWOL to visit his family in the camp.… Read more »