During the Depression, a sexy orphaned teenager (Laura Dern) from a sharecropper family moves in with a well-to-do southern family (including Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd, and Lukas Haas) to take care of the kids and help with the housework. Adapted by Calder Willingham from his own autobiographical novel and directed by Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), this is a beautifully realized, finely felt period piece with strong characters and nuanced performances (all four of the leads shine) and an acute sense of the diverse incursions that female sexuality makes on southern gentility. While the film may not be fully achieved in every particular–John Heard is a mite awkward as the grown-up son in the film’s framing story–the ensemble playing and the overall attention to detail are first-rate. (Lincoln Village, Water Tower, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Ford City) … Read more »
Monthly Archives: September 1991
From the September-October 1991 issue of Film Comment; this was also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies. — J.R.
If one were to undertake a diagnosis of the cultural and historical amnesia that currently afflicts American society in general and the American cinema in particular, the suppression of radical politics as part of our history might be a useful place to start. It is a suppression that comes in many forms, many of them barely conscious.
When a radical youth movie — PUMP UP THE VOLUME — actually gets made and released in the United States today, a repudiation of the 1960s counterculture becomes an obligatory part of its argument, because otherwise many contemporary teenagers would dismiss it out of hand. And when the same film gets reviewed in the United States, even most sympathetic critics find it convenient to overlook the fact that the film is political, for fear of alienating the public. Or when a recent film about Vietnam such as JACOB’S LADDER has the rare courage to attack the Pentagon (unlike, say, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and CASUALTIES OF WAR), one can predict that, given the present climate in America, it will be attacked by some critics for being exploitative and unserious — and praised by others as entertainment — whereas the issues broached by the film won’t be addressed at all.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (September 6, 1991). — J.R.
A LITTLE STIFF
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins
With Zahedi, Erin McKim, Watkins, Patrick Park, Mike McKim, and Beat Ammon.
Minimalism seems to be getting a bad rep in some quarters these days, mainly from critics who identify that movement with the 70s and think that artistic styles should be up-to-date. But what if the artists themselves don’t identify with the overstuffed and unwieldy smorgasbords of 80s and 90s postmodernism? It seems to me that any serious assessment of minimalism has to consider what it manages to include as well as what it leaves out.
On both counts, Caveh Zahedi and Greg Watkins’s charming and delightful independent feature A Little Stiff, playing at the Film Center this weekend, beats what most commercial movies do with young romance hands down. Neither excessive nor undernourished, as its industry counterparts are prone to be, it strikes a happy balance. These filmmakers seem to know precisely what they’re doing every step of the way.
Minimal in budget as well as in style, form, and content — the entire production is said to have cost a mere $10,000 — this black-and-white 16-millimeter tragicomedy was shot by two UCLA film students chiefly on and around their own campus.… Read more »
A woman (Olivia de Havilland) has a breakdown and winds up in a mental hospital in one of the first Hollywood pictures (1948) to deal seriously with the subject of insane asylums. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak, the story adapted by Frank Partos and Millen Brand from a novel by Mary Jane Ward. De Havilland didn’t win the expected Oscar for her performance (it went to Jane Wyman for her role as a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda), but (if memory serves) this grim drama packs a punch. With Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, and Beulah Bondi. (JR)… Read more »
A brilliant series of impersonations and comic monologues by Eric Bogosian, performed before a live audience (over nine nights in Boston), and directedfor the most part effectively, though rather fussilyby John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). Bogosian’s characters, all of them pretty self-absorbed, include a subway panhandler, a vain English rock star, an entertainment lawyer, a New York street tough, a spaced-out posthippie, and a millionaire in a New Jersey suburb. As pointed as these monologues are, one hopes by the end that they’ll all add up to a single statement, but they never quite do; the larger conceptual framework seems to hover in the background, slightly out of focus and never pulled into full clarity. But from moment to moment, this 1991 feature is worth anyone’s time. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
A first-rate police thriller (1948) directed by Jules Dassin when he was still in his prime and before he was blacklisted, shot memorably in New York locations. It influenced many other documentary-style thrillers of the period and even launched a TV series. With Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, and Ted de Corsia; both the cinematography (William Daniels) and editing (Paul Weatherwax) earned well-deserved Oscars. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
A beautiful movie. Joseph B. Vasquez’s American independent feature focusing on four young friends from the south Bronxtwo of them black (Doug E. Doug, Mario Joyner), the other two Puerto Rican (John Leguizamo, Nestor Serrano)over one long Friday night is so superbly written, acted, and directed that not a single detail rings false. Evocative of early Cassavetes in its sensitivity to what makes its four heroes tick, this comedy drama allows itself only enough plot to make its dramatic points, which proves to be plenty for its purposes. (One can even tolerate the outlandish coincidences involving a couple of female characters because of the insights and developments they make possible.) It’s rare indeed that a commercial picture offers characters with this much substance and understanding (1991). (JR)… Read more »
Basil Dearden’s 1961 British thriller caused something of a flurry because of its subject: a lawyer (Dirk Bogarde) risks his reputation by tracking down a blackmailer who murdered his former male lover. It’s supposed to be pretty good, too. Scripted by Janet Green and John McCormick; with Sylvia Sims, Dennis Price, Nigel Stock, and Hilton Edwards. (JR)… Read more »
During the Depression, a sexy orphaned teenager (Laura Dern) from a sharecropper family moves in with a well-to-do southern family (including Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd, and Lukas Haas) to take care of the kids and help with the housework. Adapted by Calder Willingham from his own autobiographical novel and directed by Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), this is a beautifully realized, finely felt period piece with strong characters and nuanced performances (all four of the leads shine) and an acute sense of the diverse incursions that female sexuality makes on southern gentility. While the film may not be fully achieved in every particularJohn Heard is a mite awkward as the grown-up son in the film’s framing storythe ensemble playing and the overall attention to detail are first-rate (1991). (JR)… Read more »
For the record, Paradise is a town in Michigan where a young married couple whose child has died take in a little boy, who helps them to get over their grief. Mary Agnes Donoghue wrote and directed this remake of Jean-Loup Hubert’s domestically profitable but unmemorable autobiographical French feature Le grand chemin (1987), and while she manages to coax (or at least doesn’t interfere with) decent performances from real-life couple Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, her dialogue for the little boy (Elijah Wood) and his tomboy pal (Thora Birch) strains credibility at every turn and her direction of them is correspondingly ham-fisteda compounded failure that effectively sabotages the picture. (JR)… Read more »
Yves Robert’s 1990 follow-up to My Father’s Glory continues his adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs about his childhood in Provence, with basically the same cast and locations; much of the story concerns Marcel’s passing infatuation with an affected little girl and his family’s visits to a local chateau. Like many sequels, this is a bit of a step down from its predecessor; while the story, narration, and settings still carry a certain charm, the comedy and acting are somewhat broader. With Philippe Caubere, Nathalie Roussel, and Didier Pain. (JR)… Read more »
A curious little comedy (1991), directed by Michael Schultz (Cooley High, Car Wash) from a script by William M. Payne, about a black youth in Atlanta (a likable debut by T.C. Carson) who gets a job in local TV news. In part a small-scale remake of Network, with a similarly shrikelike, ratings-mad female producer (Blanche Baker) and some funny satirical jabs at white biases in reporting inner-city news, this uneven romp goes over the top as often as not but generally manages to hold one’s interest. With Lisa Arrindell, Nathaniel Afrika Hall, and Loretta Devine. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
Two young men (Brian Wimmer and Peter Berg) in flight from the law in 1962 unwittingly travel through time to 1991, where they try to reenter the lives of their relatives and friends in Santa Fe. The first feature by W.D. Richter after The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is an inauspicious comeback, with a script (by Mark Andrus) that dawdles endlessly in making its points and stumblebum heroes who are often even slower than the lethargic direction in registering them. With Marcia Gay Harden, Colleen Flynn, Peter Gallagher, and Bo Brundin. (JR)… Read more »
Josef von Sternberg’s first encounter with Emil Jannings, which led to their collaboration on The Blue Angel two years later, was in this late silent Hollywood masterpiece about a Russian general (Jannings) reduced to the status of a Hollywood extra in a film about the Russian Revolution. Lajos Biros wrote the story, Jannings’s performance here and in The Way of All Flesh won him an Oscar, and Sternberg’s direction makes this second only to The Docks of New York as the most accomplished of his silent films. With Evelyn Brent and William Powell (1928). (JR)… Read more »
Two brothers in a small Nebraska towna gentle, well-adjusted cop (David Morse) with a Mexican wife (Valeria Golino) and a child, and a ne’er-do-well (Viggo Mortensen) who enlisted in the army to fight in Vietnamare reunited in 1968. Before long, the veteran impregnates his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) and starts getting involved in drunken brawls. Sean Penn’s first film as writer-director, steeped in sullen Method acting, pretentious symbolism, and mannered slow motion, is obviously a sincere and considered effort, but I found it insufferably tedious, self-indulgent, and reeking with self-pity. A few sparks of interest are contributed in all-too-brief cameos by Charles Bronson and Sandy Dennis as the brothers’ parents and Dennis Hopper as a bartender. (JR)… Read more »