Daily Archives: March 1, 1991

The Five Heartbeats

Four years after his hilarious satire Hollywood Shuffle, writer-director-actor Robert Townsend gave us this impossibly ambitious 1991 movie following a fictional African-American R & B singing group (Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) from 1965 to the 90s, scripted with Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). The result is a long and unevenly realized chronicle of friendship, teeming with subplots, packed with energy, and unusually candid about the harshness of the music business. The women in the cast (Troy Beyer, Theresa Randle, Tressa Thomas, Deborah Lacey, and the commanding Diahann Carroll) 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 Heartbeats, Chuck Patterson as the group’s manager, Harold Nicholas (one of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers) as their choreographer, and Hawthorne James as the villainous record executive Big Red. (JR)… Read more »

Closet Land

A young woman (Madeleine Stowe) who writes children’s books gets arrested without warning in the dead of night because her work is deemed subversive, and a male interrogator (Alan Rickman) tries without success to break down her defenses with various forms of physical and psychological coercion. There are some very striking uses of animation (by Sheila M. Sofian and David Fain) to illustrate the heroine’s consciousness. This two-character piece, a first film written and directed by Radha Bharadwaj and confined to a single set (designed, along with the costumes, by Eiko Ishioka), has most of the drawbacks of film allegorynameless characters in a nameless country that we are asked to accept as universal, and a certain conceptual pretentiousness that can work against the obvious seriousness of the subject. But if one can accept certain givenswhich include torture of one kind or another occurring for most of the film’s running timeit’s hard to fault the execution of the material, which is crisp, taut, and purposeful. (JR)… Read more »

Ay, Carmela!

Carmen Maura (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and Andres Pajares star as the headlining couple in the Elegant Variety Show, a vaudeville troupe entertaining Spanish Republican soldiers in 1938, shortly before their defeat by the fascists in the Spanish civil war. Traveling with a young deaf-mute assistant (Gabino Diego), they’re arrested in a town recently occupied by the fascists and are eventually compelled to perform a morale-boosting show for the fascist troops — as well as for Polish prisoners who are about to be shot — that an Italian lieutenant (Maurizio di Razza) will direct. Carlos Saura, directing an adaptation of Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s play Carmela by novelist and veteran screenwriter Rafael Azcona, was the most prominent filmmaker based in Spain during the latter part of Franco’s reign, so the multiple tensions and conflicts expressed in this finely tuned 1990 drama are deeply felt as well as cogently expressed. Maura is quite wonderful as the title heroine, and the period flavor is handled with a great deal of potency; the title tune, a popular song in the Republican zone during the Spanish civil war, is especially stirring. (JR)… Read more »

L’atalante

Jean Vigo’s only full-length feature (1934, 89 min.), one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema, was edited and then brutally reedited while Vigo was dying, so a definitive restoration is impossible. (The reassembled version released in France in 1990 is almost certainly the best and most complete we’ll ever be able to seeit’s wondrous to behold.) The simple love-story plot involves the marriage of a provincial woman (Dita Parlo) to the skipper of a barge (Jean Daste), and the only other characters of consequence are the barge’s skeletal crew (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebvre) and a peddler (Gilles Margaritis) who flirts with the wife at a cabaret and describes the wonders of Paris to her. The sensuality of the characters and the settings, indelibly caught in Boris Kaufman’s glistening cinematography, are only part of the film’s remarkable poetry, the conviction of which goes beyond such categories as realism or surrealism, just as the powerful sexuality in the film ultimately transcends such categories as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and even bisexuality. Shot by shot and moment by moment, the film is so fully alive to the world’s possibilities that magic and reality seem to function as opposite sides of the same coin, with neither fully adequate to Vigo’s vision.… Read more »