The main reason to see Alexandre Rockwell’s flaky, independent black-and-white comedy about an aspiring filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) on New York’s Lower East Side–a movie one feels was made every few months during the late 60s–is John Cassavetes veteran Seymour Cassel, playing a petty crook with a heart of gold who suddenly appears to the hero like a fairy godfather (no pun intended, despite his compulsive displays of physical affection) to serve as his producer. The movie seems conceived according to the joint emblems of Jim Jarmusch (who appears in a cameo, along with Carol Kane) and Cassavetes–rather like the first episode in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, which used Gena Rowlands as a conduit into Cassavetes’s world. Here Cassel seems to be a variation on the noble/foolish hero played by Ben Gazzara in Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but you certainly don’t have to know this source to respond to Cassel’s enormous funds of charm and charisma. (There’s also a wonderful performance by Sully Boyer as one of the crook’s incidental victims.) With Jennifer Beals, Pat Moya, and Will Patton (1992). (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 29 through February 4)… Read more »
Monthly Archives: January 1993
This is the first feature by the great Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, cowritten with Lasse Summanen, and it’s a worthy and assured debut. Based on an actual event during a severe drought in Sweden in the 1860s, the story calls to mind Victor Hugo’s Les miserables, which was published in the same decade: a desperate farmhand (Stellan Skarsgard), afraid that his wife (Ewa Froling) and baby daughter will starve, steals and slaughters an ox belonging to the farmer he works for (Lennart Hjulstrom); after he eventually confesses his crime to the local pastor (Max von Sydow), he’s sentenced to a harsh flogging and life imprisonment. Not surprisingly, what’s most impressive here is the way this film looks–especially the unforced and lovely handling of landscape and period–and the purity of the performances, including those of Ingmar Bergman veterans Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who appear in smaller parts (1991). (Music Box, Friday through Tuesday, January 22 through 26) … Read more »
From the Chicago Reader, January 15, 1993. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Cyril Endfield
Written by Endfield, Gene Piller, Michael Simmons, E. Maurice Adler, and Julius Harmon
With Edward Arnold, Horace McNally, Esther Williams, and Vicky Lane.
THE ARGYLE SECRETS
*** (A must-see)
Directed and written by Cyril Endfield
With William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, Barbara Billingsley, Alex Fraser, George Anderson, Mary Tarcai, and Kenneth Greenwald.
It’s a virtual truism that rewriting history entails — and to some extent derives from — rethinking the present moment. Just as the recent change in presidents can be linked to the public’s revised reading of the last 4 (or 8 or 12) years, our highly selective sense of film history is determined not only by which films have survived but also by the present-day concerns that dictate what interests us about the past.
Illustrations of this principle can be found in three separate programs showing this week at the Film Center. The first two are part of an invaluable series, “Romanov Twilight: Early Russian Cinema,” running throughout this month. I haven’t previewed the films for these programs — Yakov Protazanov’s two-part Satan Triumphant (1917) on Saturday at 4:30 and Evgenii Bauer’s Yuri Nagorny (1916) and V.… Read more »
This is a docudrama about a couple (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) whose five-year-old son who has a rare and mysterious degenerative disease called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). It’s hard to make such a project sound good, but in its own quiet way this is an astonishing film, both as a medical detective story that sustains taut interest over an extended running time and as a piece of cinema combining unusually resourceful acting and direction. Director George Miller, an Australian best known for his radically different Mad Max pictures and The Witches of Eastwick was trained as a doctor and authored the script with Nick Enright. He brings to this material an infectious political passion to make difficult concepts lucid to everyone and to place medical science in the hands of people who can do something about it–which means that this movie winds up having a great deal to say about AIDS as well as ALD, not to mention medical bureaucracies and power structures in general. Both Nolte, as an Italian economist, and Sarandon, as an Irish-American linguist, are in top form, and the secondary cast–which includes half a dozen actors as Lorenzo as well as Peter Ustinov, Kathleen Wilhoite, Gerry Bamman, and Margo Martindale–never let them down.… Read more »
Christopher Munch’s brilliant and concise account of what might have happened during John Lennon and Brian Epstein’s four days on vacation in Barcelona in 1963–written, directed, produced, and shot by Munch (who also photographed The Living End) on location in black-and-white 35-millimeter. Visually spare and running for only an hour, this benefits not only from one terrific performance (David Angus as Epstein) and a pretty good one (Ian Hart as Lennon), but also from a filmmaking confidence and lack of pretension that makes every passing nuance register keenly. On the same program, Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt’s Australian short Resonance (1990), about gay bashing in Sydney. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 8 through 14)… Read more »
Perhaps the most remarkable film-history revaluation currently in progress (highlighted at the Film Center this month) concerns Russian films made during the teens, fascinating today for their highly modern handling of space and decor, their resourceful mise en scene, their unambiguous feminism, and their embrace of tragic endings, among other things. If you assume, like most people, that world cinema has been steadily improving over the past 70-odd years, there’s plenty here to challenge that premise; this work, like the equally neglected work of Louis Feuillade from this period, is arguably in advance in some respects of not only D.W. Griffith’s films but also most contemporary mainstream movies. I’ve seen two of the four films on his program, which seems to be an excellent introduction to this cinema as a whole. Nicolai Larin’s beautifully shot rural thriller The Merchant Bashkirov’s Daughter (1913) belongs to the odd subgenre of “blackmail film” that flourished briefly during this era. (A film company would threaten to recreate a wealthy family’s scandal on film to procure hush money, then make the movie anyway with the significant names changed.) Petr Chardynin’s no less impressive The Wet Nurse (1914) concerns a peasant housekeeper made pregnant by her employer.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1993). — J.R.
Although I have no facts to support my impression, this erotic courtroom thriller looks as if it grew out of Madonna seeing Basic Instinct and saying, I wanna do one of those. Unfortunately, whatever the limitations of the earlier film, you can’t really do one of those without narrative punch and sweep, which director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) doesn’t manage to muster. While he may be marginally better at directing kinky sex scenes than Instinct‘s Paul Verhoeven, he’s stuck with a fairly ho-hum script by Brad Mirman — millionaire dies of heart failure after sex with his dominatrix girlfriend, who’s charged with murder after inheriting most of his fortune — as well as a performance by Madonna herself that tends to be awkward and unactorly whenever she has to deliver more than a couple of lines at a time. One’s attention is held but not exactly galvanized, even with the combined efforts of Willem Dafoe (the dominatrix’s defense lawyer), Joe Mantegna (the DA), Lillian Lehman (a black woman judge), Anne Archer, and Julianne Moore, not to mention Jurgen Prochnow and Frank Langella in smaller and slimier parts.… Read more »
After the unusual promise of Say Anything . . . , Cameron Crowe’s 1992 second feature as a writer-director, another romantic comedy, is so lightweight that you’re likely to start forgetting it before it’s even over. (Could the earlier movie’s distinctiveness be attributed in part to producers Polly Platt and James L. Brooks?) The skimpy plot follows half a dozen singles (Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Sheila Kelley, and Jim True) who drift around Seattle. (JR)… Read more »
Two short features by the prerevolutionary Russian auteur Evgenii Bauer. Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913), which I’ve seen, shows Bauer’s adept use of decor in his mise en scene; the film centers on the rape of a wealthy philanthropist by a slum dweller she’s trying to help. Silent Witnesses (1914), which I haven’t seen, also pivots on class differencesin this case an aristocratic woman and the maid in her Moscow mansion. Also on the program: Vasilii Goncharov’s The Pedlars (1910), a short that adapts the story line of a folk song and uses natural settings. (JR)… Read more »
The west coast’s answer to Woody Allen, Henry Jaglom lacks Woody’s verbal wit, but has tons of New Age understanding and 60s references to movies being movies to replace it with. Here he plays an independent writer-director-actor very much like himself at the 1989 Venice film festival, where he runs into an English former lover and leading lady (Suzanne Bertish) and embarks on a romance with a young French journalist (Nelly Alard) whose seriousness is certified by her being obsessed with his work. The self-infatuation on view is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a chain saw, and when the movie shifts to Venice, California, where the smitten French beauty follows the filmmaker, the society of admirers (including the filmmaker’s then-current girlfriend, Melissa Leo)all talking and acting with the same flaky earnestnessgets even gooier. Threaded through all this are talking-head interviews with real women about the failure of real-life romance to match up with movie romance; Jaglom cuts them together as if they’re the same person, yet another version of his wistful self repeating more or less the same glib homilies found in Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, Always, and Someone to Love. Don’t expect to find any curiosity about people or places here; the film makes it pretty clear at the outset that Jaglom is so much in touch with his own feelings that he has little left to learn about either movies or the human condition (1992).… Read more »
Josephine Baker plays a poor African woman educated and trained by a white writer and passed off as an Indian princess. This 1935 French feature was directed by Edmond T. Greville and written by Baker’s manager and lover, Pepito Abatino. It’s an intriguing follow-up to her previous French feature Zou Zou, ideologically and otherwise. In French with subtitles. 77 min. (JR)… Read more »
For all their human decency and liberal intelligence, the films of John Sayles are generally more memorable for their intentions than for their achievements; exemplary yet stodgy efforts, more literary than cinematic, they rarely linger with any sort of vibrancy. But Sayles has gradually gotten better over the years, and this 1992 drama set in the Louisiana swamplands may be as good as anything he’s done. It’s about the adjustments made between an embittered former soaps actress (Mary McDonnell) turned paraplegic by an auto accident and her nurse from Chicago (Alfre Woodard), who proves to be undergoing a kind of rehabilitation of her own. Sayles develops the characters and introduces us to the small-town milieu at a leisurely pace (the film runs 135 minutes), but this clearly works to the film’s advantage; Woodard, in particular, responds to this extra space by turning in the best performance I’ve seen from herfull of small, offbeat notations about a woman who’s keeping most of her past and emotions firmly under wraps. There are moments when one is quite aware that Sayles, who hails from Schenectady, is far from his home turf (his grasp of a couple of catty local women who visit the paraplegic smacks of Yankee caricature), but by and large his natural curiosity about the region enhances our own, and there are many appealing character sketches among the secondary parts here (from David Strathairn and Vondie Curtis-Hall, among others).… Read more »
This is the first feature by the great Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, cowritten with Lasse Summanen, and it’s a worthy and assured debut. Based on an actual event during a severe drought in Sweden in the 1860s, the story calls to mind Victor Hugo’s Les miserables, which was published in the same decade: a desperate farmhand (Stellan Skarsgard), afraid that his wife (Ewa Froling) and baby daughter will starve, steals and slaughters an ox belonging to the farmer he works for (Lennart Hjulstrom); after he confesses his crime to the local pastor (Max von Sydow), he’s sentenced to a harsh flogging and life imprisonment. Not surprisingly, what’s most impressive here is the way this film looksespecially the unforced and lovely handling of landscape and periodand the purity of the performances, including those of Ingmar Bergman veterans Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who appear in smaller parts (1991). (JR)… Read more »
John Goodman stars as the screen’s number one shock expert and ballyhoo specialist, Lawrence Woolsey (affectionately based on William Castle), who turns up in Key West in 1962 to present a preview of his latest horror B-film, Mant, about a man transformed by radiation into a giant ant. This highly enjoyable and provocative teenage comedy, set during the Cuban missile crisis, was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace) and written by Dante regular Charlie Haas and Jerico, who all have a lot of fun cooking up the black-and-white Mant and other period absurdities, especially those provoked by war fever. They’re also pretty adroit in suggesting some of the absurdities of the early 90s (Woolsey’s scare tactics are a somewhat more benign version of the government’s, and the movie cleverly exploits the parallels for all they’re worth). With Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton (an English teenager who does an astonishing job of sounding American), Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Lisa Jakub, and a number of enjoyable character actors including Jesse White, John Sayles, and Dick Miller. (JR)… Read more »
It’s hard to make a docudrama with this subjecta couple (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) with a five-year-old son who has a rare and mysterious degenerative disease called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD)sound good, but in its own quiet way this is astonishing, both as a medical detective story that sustains taut interest over an extended running time and as a piece of cinema combining unusually resourceful acting and direction (by Australian George Miller, best known for his radically different Mad Max pictures and The Witches of Eastwick). Trained as a doctor, Miller, who wrote the script with Nick Enright, brings to this material an infectious political passion to make difficult concepts lucid to everyone and to place medical science in the hands of people who can do something about itwhich means that this movie winds up having a great deal to say about AIDS as well as ALD, not to mention medical bureaucracies and power structures in general. Both Nolte, as an Italian economist, and Sarandon, as an Irish-American linguist, are in top form, and the secondary castwhich includes half a dozen actors as Lorenzo as well as Peter Ustinov, Kathleen Wilhoite, Gerry Bamman, and Margo Martindalenever let them down. If any movie deserves to be called inspirationala much-abused term that I hesitate to applythis one certainly does.… Read more »