Monthly Archives: March 1992

Raise the Red Lantern

Completing a loose trilogy that began with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou’s grim adaptation of a novel by Su Tong once again stars Gong Li as a young woman who marries a much older man, and once again tells a story that explicitly critiques Chinese feudalism and indirectly critiques contemporary China. This time, however, the style is quite different (despite another key use of the color red) and the vision is much bleaker. The heroine, a less sympathetic figure than her predecessors, is a university student in the 1920s who becomes the fourth and youngest wife of a powerful man in northern China after her stepmother can no longer afford to pay for her education. She quickly becomes involved in the various intrigues and rivalries between wives that rule her husband’s world and family tradition: each wife has her own house and courtyard, and whoever the husband chooses to sleep with on a given night receives a foot massage, several lighted red lanterns, and the right to select the menu for the following day. The film confines us throughout to this claustrophobic universe of boxes within boxes, where wives and female servants virtually devote their lives to scheming against one another; the action is filmed mainly in frontal long shots.… Read more »

The Private Eyes

The biggest hit of Hong Kong comedy star and director Michael Hui is also considered his best movie, or his next best (after Security Unlimited), by many fans and critics. Having seen an unsubtitled print of this episodic comedy, I can only say that I still laughed a lot at the frenetic slapstick and rapid-fire bursts of rhythmic invention. Hui plays the mean-spirited head of a private detective agency, and among his employees are Hui’s likable brothers Sam and Ricky (1977). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 21, 6:00, and Sunday, March 22, 2:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

King of Chess

Though writer-director Yim Ho (Homecoming) disowned this film after producer Tsui Hark took over the direction, it is still one of the most interesting and original Hong Kong pictures I’ve seen. Adapted from two different novels called King of Chess, by Chung Ah Shing and Cheung Hay Kwok, the story alternates between a rather bitter satire of capitalism centered on the Taipei TV industry and an equally critical look at the Cultural Revolution on the mainland many years earlier. Both stories involve the exploitation of chess masters–a boy with psychic powers in the Taiwanese story, a poor man in the mainland flashbacks–and they are connected in terms of plot by the memories a character from Hong Kong in the Taipei story has about visiting a cousin in a reeducation camp. The powerful and talented Yim directed the mainland sections with a highly emotional lyricism that reminds me at times of Bertolucci; the slicker and more action-oriented Tsui handled the brittle Taipei sections. The results may not be what Yim wanted, but it’s still a singular and fascinating work, with a great deal of intelligence and feeling (1991). (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, March 15, 6:00, 702-8575; also Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, March 19, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

The Last Command

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). A new score by Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Arnold Brostoff will be conducted by Brostoff and performed by members of the CSO at this special screening. (Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, Saturday, March 7, 8:00, 435-6666) … Read more »

Straight Talk

Not even the talents of Dolly Parton and James Woods can save the shaky premise of this Disney comedy with a Chicago setting, directed by Barnet Kellman from a script by Craig Bolotin and Patricia Resnick. Fired from a dance instructor job, Parton leaves her fiance and her small town for Chicago, where she accidentally winds up on the radio as a talk-show psychologist dispensing advice to callers; her show is such a runaway hit that Chicago Sun- Times reporter James Wood decides to investigate her credentials. This starts off brightly enough, but the fatal mistake of the filmmakers is to assume that the profound common sense and populist appeal of the heroine can be inferred from Parton’s natural charms rather than actually demonstrated. The movie never manages to paper over this gaping hole, but some agreeable secondary performancesby Griffin Dunne, Michael Madsen, Deirdre O’Connell, John Sayles, Spalding Gray, Jerry Orbach, and Philip Bosco, among othersprovide partial compensation. (JR)… Read more »

Shaking The Tree

Duane Clark’s independent feature (1990), shot in Chicagoa conventional buddy movie about a quartet of longtime (if dissimilar) chums, set at Christmas 1989 and sparked intermittently by decent acting. If you’ve nothing else to do, it goes down easily, but don’t expect much more. With Arye Gross, Gale Hansen, Doug Savant, Steven Wilde (who scripted the movie with Clark), and Courteney Cox. (JR)… Read more »

Shadows And Fog

Now we all know what German expressionist is: extended chunks of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel (recast with John Malkovich and Mia Farrow) and The Magician (recast with Kenneth Mars and Woody Allen), Nosferatu’s pointed ears, the dull center framing of any Woody Allen movie (no diagonals or tilted angles, please), lots of kvetching with New York accents, central-casting prostitutes played by guest stars (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates), reams of dialogue we’ve all heard before in countless other movies, a strangler lurking in dank cobblestone alleyways, the opening passage of Kafka’s The Trial (who needs to read any further?), music by Kurt Weill, and, to top it off, shadows, silhouettes, and fog filmed in black and white. In short, Woody Allen’s feeblest semicomedy and postmodernist pastiche since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, bravely forsaking the streets of Manhattan for the soundstages of Astoria, explores the dark night of the soul with lots of famous people. With Michael Kirby, Donald Pleasence, Philip Bosco, Kate Nelligan, Julie Kavner, John Cusack, Madonna (for a minute or two), and others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten. You’ll forget them, too. (JR)… Read more »

Security Unlimited

Michael Hui directs and stars with his brothers Ricky and Sam in a typically broad and frenetic but hilarious Hong Kong farce about the misadventures of three security guards. The plot is rather episodic, but some of the piecessuch as a bank robbery and an attempt to burglarize an exhibition of Chinese antiquitiesare classics of their kind. Hui’s exquisite sense of rhythm, often accompanied by short bursts of music, and his antiheroic sense of character keep this hopping (1981). (JR)… Read more »

Notebook On Cities And Clothes

It’s a toss-up between this 1989 essay film and Until the End of the World (in the abbreviated U.S. version) for Wim Wenders’s worst movie. Until the End of the World is silly and boring, but it has a few redeeming moments; this has a few moments too, but it’s ideologically much more offensive. Wenders interviews and philosophizes about chic fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, whose clothes he wears (in exchange for making this movie?), films female models, blithely decapitating them, and ruminates about the meaning of video, himself, life in generalthat sort of thing. A rich boy’s movie made by a talented artist whose view of the social world has shrunk to the dimensions of his hotel room. (JR)… Read more »

White Men Can’t Jump

After the disappointing Blaze, writer-director Ron Shelton got back on track with the same mixture of sports action, sexual sparring, and comic, slangy dialogue that sparked Bull Durham. Like that earlier comedy, this is enough of a structural mess to lose itself somewhere before the end, but the jazzy surface action is even more lively and seductive. Basically the movie is a string of episodes involving two basketball hustlers (Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes) in Los Angeles, with racial differences serving both to help their hustles along and to define the limits of their friendship; Do the Right Thing’s feisty Rosie Perez plays Harrelson’s girlfriend, who longs to be a contestant on Jeopardy, while Tyra Ferrell is accorded the less interesting and less prominent part of Snipes’s wife. Shelton’s flair for fancy dialogue and his preoccupation with scoring often make him seem like the Preston Sturges of southern jive; unfortunately he doesn’t have a matching sense of plot and continuity. This picture is packed with fun, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and elements that summon up memories of The Hustler don’t work in its favor (1992). (JR)… Read more »

Toto Le Heros

Winner of the Camera d’Or at the 1991 Cannes film festival, this first feature by Belgian writer-director Jaco van Dormael leapfrogs between childhood, adulthood, and old age as it explores the memories and fantasies of a malcontent (Michel Bouquet) who has believed since childhood that he was switched at birth with the boy next door. Well crafted and easy to watch, this is at times like a mainstream version of an Alain Resnais feature (Je t’aime, je t’aime or Providence), but without a soupcon of Resnais’ style or poetryclever and effective on its own level, but ultimately fairly shallow. Mireille Perrier, Joe de Backer, and Thomas Godet costar. (JR)… Read more »

Ruby

As Todd Gitlin has pointed out, even if all the mysteries about the John F. Kennedy assassination were cleared up tomorrow, nothing in our current political situation would change. This camp spin-off of the already campy JFK simultaneously deconstructs assassination countermyths and contrived movie packages through its very ineptness. Danny Aiello as Jack Ruby may sound like dream casting, but without a script or a character of any substance Aiello encounters trouble the moment familiar historical details loom into view, and so does the rest of the movie, whose cast includes Sherilyn Fenn as one of Ruby’s strippers and Arliss Howard as a CIA operative. Adapting his own play Love Field, Stephen Davis seems strapped for ideas about what made Ruby tick, and John Mackenzie’s sluggish direction only compounds the awkwardness. As a general principle, I don’t like to recommend bad movies, but this is such a hoot you might well find it as enjoyable as I did. (JR)… Read more »

Roadside Prophets

The acting is raw and unglued, the guest-star appearances of aging 60s icons (Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, David Carradine) are self-conscious and arch, and the sprawling episodic construction is underlined by conceptions that are sentimental to a fault. But this odd little road moviea first feature written and directed by Abbe Wool, who cowrote Sid & Nancystill got to me, mainly because of its sincerity and its relative novelty in trying to locate the dregs of American counterculture in various portentous and philosophical roadside encounters. The semifantastical plot concerns the absurdist journey of two bikers (John Doe and Adam Horovitz, members respectively of the bands X and the Beastie Boys) from southern California through parts of Nevada. Doe, the older biker, is a grizzled factory worker literally searching for a place called El Dorado, where he wants to scatter the ashes of an acquaintance (David Anthony Marshall) who died in a freak accident; Horovitz is a younger biker with a Motel 9 fixation who insists on tagging along. At its worst, this registers like an unconscious parody of Easy Rider; at its best, it suggests a flea-bitten yahoo version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows. It clearly isn’t for everybody, but if you like it at all you’ll probably wind up moved as well as charmed by its ambitions and conceits.… Read more »

Raise The Red Lantern

Completing a loose trilogy that began with Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou’s grim 1991 adaptation of a novel by Su Tong once again stars Gong Li as a young woman who marries a much older man, and once again tells a story that explicitly critiques Chinese feudalism and indirectly contemporary China. This time, however, the style is quite different (despite another key use of the color red) and the vision is much bleaker. The heroine, a less sympathetic figure than her predecessors, is a university student in the 1920s who becomes the fourth and youngest wife of a powerful man in northern China after her stepmother can no longer afford to pay for her education. She quickly becomes involved in the various intrigues and rivalries between wives that rule her husband’s world and family tradition: each wife has her own house and courtyard within the palace, and whoever the husband chooses to sleep with on a given night receives a foot massage, several lighted red lanterns, and the right to select the menu for the following day. The film confines us throughout to this claustrophobic universe of boxes within boxes, where wives and female servants devote their lives to scheming against one another; the action is filmed mainly in frontal long shots.… Read more »

The Private Eyes

The biggest hit of Hong Kong comedy star and director Michael Hui is also considered his best movie, or his next best (after Security Unlimited), by many fans and critics. Having seen only an unsubtitled print of this episodic comedy, I still can say that I laughed a lot at the frenetic slapstick and rapid-fire bursts of rhythmic invention. Hui plays the mean-spirited head of a private detective agency, and among his employees are Hui’s likable brothers Sam and Ricky (1977). (JR)… Read more »