Monthly Archives: March 1991

The Five Heartbeats

Four years after his hilarious satire (Hollywood Shuffle), writer-director-actor Robert Townsend returns with an impossibly ambitious movie about an African American R & B singing group (Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) between 1965 and the present, scripted with Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). The results are a long and unevenly realized chronicle of friendship that is teeming with subplots, unusually candid about the harshness of the music business, and generally packed with energy. The women in the cast (including the commanding Diahann Carroll, as well as Troy Beyer, Theresa Randle, Tressa Thomas, and Deborah Lacey) unfortunately aren’t given much to do, but there are striking performances by John Canada Terrell as a singer who replaces one of the original members, Chuck Patterson as the Heartbeats’ manager, Harold Nicholas (one of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers) as their choreographer, and Hawthorne James as the villainous record executive “Big Red.” (Biograph, Burnham Plaza, Chestnut Station, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, Hyde Park, Norridge, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak) … Read more »

The Long Walk Home

Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg play 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; Richard Pearce directed from a script by John Cork. Thanks to good dialogue and meticulous research involving the place and period, this is a much more creditable and authentic job than either Mississippi Burning or Driving Miss Daisy, and the self-congratulatory tone of the aforementioned films is kept to a relative minimum–although one regrets the degree to which the focus gradually shifts 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 Pearce’s direction 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 Alexander, Dylan Baker (who’s especially good), Erika Alexander, and narration by Mary Steenbergen. (Esquire, Wilmette) … Read more »

Love

This 1927 silent vehicle for Greta Garbo, which costars John Gilbert, doesn’t make too much sense as an adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s great novel about adultery. At least half of the plot–everything involving the character Levin–is pared away in Frances Marion and Lorna Moon’s script, and the direction, by Edmund Goulding, is more serviceable than inspired. The real reason you should see this, apart from Garbo’s imperishable radiance, is that Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Arnold Brostoff has composed a lovely original score for the film that members of the CSO will play while he conducts. If you’ve never seen a silent film with live orchestral accompaniment, it’s a galvanizing experience, perhaps the only one that can approximate the excitement of seeing such a film when it premiered. I haven’t seen the new print that will be shown on this occasion (the version with a happy ending–an alternative prepared at MGM after Tolstoy’s original ending proved too distressing to some audiences), and while I’ve heard Brostoff’s score, I haven’t been able to hear it in sync with the images. But I’ve little doubt that this presentation–which has already been given in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and Moscow–will do things to your appreciation of both Garbo and silent film that will be indelible.… Read more »

Swordsman

Begun by the stylish Hong Kong director King Hu (who also did the production design), completed by producer Tsui Hark, and worked on intermittently by four other directors (Ann Hui, Ching Siu-tung, Lee Wai-man, and Kam Yeung-wah), this fast-paced action fantasy, set during the Ming dynasty, features an agile swordsman (Sam Hui) with a young female sidekick in male disguise (Cecilia Yip); Jackie Cheung costars (1990). (JR)… Read more »

The Spirit Of ’76

Harmless nonsense from Lucas Reiner, the son of Carl and the younger brother of Rob (both of whom put in brief appearances). Three time travelers from the year 2176 (David Cassidy, Olivia d’Abo, and Geoff Hoyle) en route to 1776 accidentally find themselves in the year 1976, where they discover that they have only 12 hours to locate the documents, tools, and artifacts needed to save the nation’s future (in 2176 all history and memory have been wiped out by a magnetic war, and they need a copy of the U.S. Constitution to make a fresh start). A lot of this comes across like Earth Girls Are Easy without Julien Temple’s sense of style, but the mood is amiable enough, as long as one can put up with some hyperbolic mugging. Reiner directed this comedy from a script that he wrote with executive producer Roman Coppola; Leif Garrett, Jeff and Steve McDonald, and Liam O’Brien costar, and among the other celebrities who appear in cameos are Julie Brown, Tommy Chong, Devo, and Moon Zappa. (JR)… Read more »

The Nasty Girl

Conducting us on a tour of her own life in Bavaria, Sonja (Lena Stolze) recounts how her prizewinning high school essay, Freedom in Europe, won her a free trip to Paris, and how her next attempt in an essay contest, My Hometown in the Third Reich, landed her in big trouble. Michael Verhoeven’s crowd-pleasing 1990 comedy begins hilariously and develops entertainingly: he makes jokey use of the heroine’s narration as a kind of ersatz TV reporting, and there’s a certain stylistic flair in the artificial moving backgrounds. But by the time this serious comedy about Germany’s Nazi past is over, a certain moral as well as stylistic monotony has set in; Verhoeven has something to say and an engaging way of saying it, but he winds up glutting us as well as himself on his discoveriesrather as if he were a fly that landed in a pot of honey and invited us to dive in as well. Before he hits overdrive, however, this is a good movie, and the cast is adept and sprightly. In German with subtitles. PG-13, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Hard Way

It’s our old friends the big city serial killer and the cop team of hard-nosed New York veteran (James Woods) and unlikely buddy partner (Michael J. Fox). The twist this time is that Fox is a movie star who specializes in Indiana Jones-type roles, wants to do something serious, and figures he can land a cop part he covets by studying Woods as a role model. There’s a halfhearted effort to satirize both characters in Daniel Pyne and Lem Dobbs’s screenplay, from a story by Dobbs and Michael Kozoll, but any contrast between reality and fantasy gets jettisoned immediately for the sort of slam-bang assault on the senses that director John Badham specializes in; despite the obvious influence of Sullivan’s Travels, this movie doesn’t have the insight or backbone to come within light-years of the Sturges classic. Annabella Sciorra is appealing as Woods’s girlfriend, the two leads do their best with the frenetic material, and the movie’s nonstop aggressiveness helps to glide one over the excess, but the glut of product plugs and cornball, derivative ideasculminating in a forced set piece inspired by the tacky climax of the Marx Brothers’ Love Happyinduces nausea as well. With Stephen Lang, Delroy Lindo, Luis Guzman, and a cameo by Penny Marshall.… Read more »

Zou Zou

A fascinating relic of the French cinema in the mid-30sa semimusical starring the great black dancer Josephine Baker in all her glory that remains very interesting for the racial attitudes it reveals. As in the subsequent Princess Tam Tam, Baker is paired with a white male starthis time Jean Gabin as a brother by adoption and sailor-turned-electricianwho is set up as a potential lover, but who eventually passes her over for a white woman. (Baker and Gabin grow up together in the circus and wind up working at the same Paris music hall.) One of the biggest French box-office hits of its year (1934), scripted by Baker’s real-life manager and lover, Pepito Abatino, and directed by Marc Allegret, this is a vehicle designed to show off Baker as the ultimate in exotic chic, and it concludes with a delirious production number inspired by Busby Berkeley that shouldn’t be missed. In French with subtitles. 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

Vanishing Point

After driving nonstop from San Francisco to Denver, a silent macho type (Barry Newman) accepts a bet that he can make it back again in 15 hours; a blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) cheers him on while the cops doggedly chase him. While Richard Sarafian’s direction of this action thriller and drive-in favorite isn’t especially distinguished, the script by Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante (writing here under the pseudonym he adopted as a film critic, G. Cain) takes full advantage of the subject’s existential and mythical undertones without being pretentious, and you certainly get a run for your money, along with a lot of rock music. With Dean Jagger and Victoria Medlin (1971). (JR)… Read more »

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ii: The Secret Of The Ooze

It might make an interesting study to determine why the only martial-arts movies to make major inroads in the American market are those with Muppet spin-offs as heroes. While pondering this question, one can have a reasonably amusing time with this predictable sequel, which is a bit longer on action and shorter on wit and character than the original (hence less good, in my opinion), but still diverting and harmless enough. Although the cast and director are different this timePaige Turco now plays April O’Neil, TV reporter and den mother to the turtles, and Michael Pressman is the directorTodd W. Langen, who collaborated on the script of the original, supplies the same sort of teen patter, and the late Jim Henson’s creature shop is back to provide a couple of drooling beasties. With David Warner and Ernie Reyes Jr. (JR)… Read more »

Taxi Blues

What’s fascinating about this Soviet film at the outseta character study focusing on a lonely cab driver (Piotr Zaitchenko) and an alcoholic, bohemian jazz saxophonist (Piotr Mamonov) who becomes his roommateis that it shows us a whole seedy cross section of Moscow life that we haven’t seen before. A first feature by Pavel Lounguine that won him the best director’s prize at Cannes, the film clearly knows something about both its characters and its milieu. But on reflection it seems that this film’s popularityat least in relation to other glasnost filmsrests in large part on its success in aping the American cinema (Lounguine acknowledges the direct influence of such films as The Last Detail, Scarecrow, and Taxi Driver), so that its appeal isn’t so much in what it teaches us about Russians as in the implication that they’re really just like us (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

rosencrantz guildenstern

Tom Stoppard freely adapts, directs, and all but destroys his own enjoyable and provocative absurdist play about two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), victims of a drama taking place in the wings that they can neither understand nor control. Critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that the play may have been the first to use another play as decor; if so, then the film uses two plays — Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — and often the consequences are even more confusing than Stoppard could have intended. I can’t imagine a play less suited for a film adaptation, although Stoppard might have turned this to his advantage had he confronted that paradox. Instead he tries to open up a work that depends upon a sense of claustrophobic limbo, then undermines that approach by focusing the camera so tightly on the characters that he muddles our sense of spatial continuity. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is something semi-inexplicable that happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while the screenplay turns it into something they’re obliged to chase after; unfortunately, Stoppard’s sense of film is so inferior to his feeling for the stage that he makes the same compromises and reductions a Hollywood hack might have brought to the material.… Read more »

Pump Up The Volume

An alienated and politically disaffected teenager (Christian Slater) in an Arizona suburb makes pirate radio broadcasts venting his spleen and libido, and finds himself heading a student revolution in an exciting and affecting comedy-drama (1990) with a genuine lift. Written and directed by Canadian independent filmmaker (Montreal Main, The Rubber Gun) and sometime actor (Outrageous!) Allan Moyle, this powerhouse, euphoric entertainment was probably the best radical youth movie since Over the Edge (1979), thanks to an excellent script and cast (including Samantha Mathis, Scott Paulin, Ellen Greene, and Annie Ross) and a driving, rebellious sound track of about a dozen pop and rock singles by everyone from Leonard Cohen to Liquid Jesus. A clarion call for freedom and collective action both hopeful and energizing, it qualifies as a generational statement as Rebel Without a Cause did in the 50s, but without the defeatism and masochism. Not to be missed. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Privilege

The sixth feature of experimental intellectual filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, this 1990 work is perhaps her most accessible, staging a kind of shotgun marriage between two volatile issues, menopause and racism. A black filmmaker decides to make a movie about her menopause and interviews a white friend who recounts a long story involving her unconscious racism when she was in her 20s. Rainer interweaves many other elementsarchival footage (including a Lenny Bruce routine), interviews with women about menopause, quotations from diverse sources, and fantasy interludesand the film is more multifaceted essay than straightforward narrative. Cantankerous, witty, caustic, and often deliberately unsettling in its modernist structure, it mounts a complex argument about how the privileges of being white, male, young, and well-to-do affect people’s minds and lives. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

M*a*s*h

The movie that made Robert Altman famous (1970)a somewhat adolescent if stylish antiauthoritarian romp about an irreverent U.S. medical unit during the Korean war (the TV sitcom it spawned practically reversed the spirit of the original). The film also helped launch the careers of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, and subsequent Altman regulars Rene Auberjonois and John Schuck, and won screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. an Oscar. But the misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy and the original use of overlapping dialogue. This is still watchable for the verve of the ensemble acting and dovetailing direction, but some of the crassness leaves a sour aftertaste. With Tom Skerritt, Fred Williamson, and Bud Cort. PG, 116 min. (JR)… Read more »