Monthly Archives: January 1994

The Last Bolshevik

One of the major essays of Chris Marker–which automatically makes this one of the key works of our time–this remarkable video is provisionally about his friend and mentor, the late Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin (1900-1989), in the form of six video “letters” sent to him posthumously. More profoundly, it is about the history of Soviet cinema and the Soviet Union itself, about what it meant to be a communist, about what these things mean now. In the process of redefining these issues, Marker produces a guarded self-portrait and autocritique, implicitly asking himself what his own leftism has meant and continues to mean. Eloquent and mordantly witty in its poetic writing, beautiful and often painterly in its images, this is as moving and as provocative in many respects as Marker’s Sans soleil (1982), which places it very high indeed. Not to be missed. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, January 30, 2:15, 443-3737.… Read more »

The Thing Called Love

The late River Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney, and Sandra Bullock all play young country-music hopefuls in a touching romantic comedy-drama inspired by Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. For perverse reasons known only to itself, Paramount has elected to bury this movie, but the Music Box, bless it, has decided to open it anyway. It bears as little relation to the real Nashville as Altman’s 1975 feature, but director Peter Bogdanovich, the talented cast, and the credited (Carol Heikkinen) and uncredited screenwriters (Bogdanovich, cast members, and Pump Up the Volume’s Allan Moyle) are so busy conjuring up a charming world of their own that I certainly didn’t mind. Mathis and Bullock are especially good, and Phoenix and Mulroney do a fair job of playing out a jealousy-prone friendship as if they were Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. With Trisha Yearwood. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 21 through 27.… Read more »

In the Name of the Father

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, a real-life Irishman wrongly sentenced to life in prison for the IRA bombing of a London pub in the mid-70s, and Peter Postlethwaite plays his father, who was also jailed. Adapted by director Jim Sheridan and Terry George from Conlon’s book, the movie falls over backward trying to avoid taking a political position and seems a few years off in its depiction of hippie London. But the acting’s so good it frequently transcends the simplicities of the script, and whenever Day-Lewis or Posthlethwaite are on screen the movie crackles. Emma Thompson is on hand as a lawyer who becomes interested in the Conlons’ case after they’re convicted. Evanston, Webster Place, McClurg Court.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Hession.… Read more »

D’est

From the Chicago Reader (January 20, 1994). — J.R.

d'est

Chantal Akerman’s haunting 1993 masterpiece documents without commentary or dialogue her several-months-long trip from east Germany to Moscow — a tough and formally rigorous inventory of what the former Soviet bloc looks and feels like today. Akerman’s painterly penchant for finding Edward Hopper wherever she goes has never been more obvious; this travelogue seemingly offers vistas any alert tourist could find yet delivers a series of images and sounds that are impossible to shake later: the countless tracking shots, the sense of people forever waiting, the rare occurrence of a plaintive offscreen violin over an otherwise densely ambient sound track, static glimpses of roadside sites and domestic interiors, the periphery of an outdoor rock concert, a heavy Moscow snowfall, a crowded terminal where weary people and baggage are huddled together like so many dropped handkerchiefs. The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves — the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.… Read more »

Careful

The third feature of the wild and weird Guy Maddin, the brilliant independent Canadian filmmaker (Tales From the Gimli Hospital, Archangel) based in Winnipeg whose poker-faced period extravaganzas all suggest early, scratchy talkies. This 1992 film is his first in color, but that means various subdued pastels in some spots, lush tinting of black-and-white footage in others. The typically outrageous plot–set in a remote alpine village where everyone has to speak in whispers to avoid setting off avalanches and where other forms of everyday repression result in diverse cases of deranged incestual lust–seems characteristic of Maddin in its dual nature: in part a hilarious satire about Canadian timidity, it also comes across periodically as a formalist gem about nothing at all. The ably somnambulistic cast includes Australian director Paul Cox and Canadian character actor Jackie Burroughs, along with Sarah Neville, Brent Neale, and Victor Cowie in prominent parts; film academic George Toles (who also worked on Archangel) assisted Maddin on the script. If you like the early work of David Lynch you should definitely check this out; Maddin’s work is every bit as beautiful and in certain respects a lot more sophisticated. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, January 14 through 20.… Read more »

The Saint of Fort Washington

It would appear that many of my colleagues have been trashing this powerful and moving look at friendship among the homeless in New York–directed by Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) from a script by Lyle Kessler (Orphans) and starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillon at their rare best–simply because of its subject matter and authenticity; apparently, contemporary man-made tragedies are inappropriate topics for the big screen, unlike ghosts, dinosaurs, mythical serial killers, and former holocausts. But if epic grandeur is what you’re looking for, this movie gives you glimpses of the Fort Washington Armory, which currently shelters 700 people nightly, that recall the famous shot of the Confederate wounded in Gone With the Wind, and if noir finality is your meat, this movie tells you things about New York’s potter’s field that easily might have found their way into Pickup on South Street. This isn’t a perfect movie, and it may occasionally err on the side of Dickensian sentiment, but I it has so much to say about the world we live in and says it with such grace, wit, and raw feeling that I recommend it without qualification. With Rick Aviles, Ving Rhames, Nina Siemaszko, and Joe Seneca. McClurg Court.… Read more »

Road and The Firm

These two recent short features for British television by the late Alan Clarke (1935-1990), each running a little over an hour, are separate entries but should be seen back to back. They’re not only strong examples of Clarke’s corrosive social vision and his skill in directing actors but also impressive demonstrations of his stylistic range. Road (1987), written by playwright Jim Cartwright, offers a potent look at poverty and alcoholism in Lancashire, with impressive on-location camera work and dialogue that exults in its own theatricality and musicality (rather like that of Alan Bowne in Forty Deuce and John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation). The energetic cast includes Life Is Sweet’s Jane Horrocks, Naked’s David Thewlis, and Lesley Sharpe. The Firm (1988), not to be confused with the John Grisham cream puff, is a horrifying look at middle-class thugs who start fights at soccer games. Filmed naturalistically, it was written. by Al Hunter; the cast includes Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, and Philip Davis. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, January 7, Road: 6:00, The Firm: 7:15, 443-3737.… Read more »

Sunset

A Jewish smorgasbord from the former Soviet Union, a fantasy on Isaak Babel’s story of the same title, directed by Alexander Zeldovitch. This freewheeling 1990 feature interweaves erotic pageantry, illustrated tales from the Old Testament, and diverse stylistic exercises around the central story of a son of a Jewish laborer who becomes involved with the decadent Odessa underworld in the 20s. Sergei Eisenstein planned his own film version of this story with Babel himself in 1925, and while this is undoubtedly another kettle of gefilte fish, some over-the-top acting and lively mise en scene keep it watchable. (JR)… Read more »

The Saint Of Fort Washington

Some colleagues trashed this powerful look at friendship among the New York homeless(1993)directed by Tim Hunter from a script by Lyle Kessler and starring Danny Glover and Matt Dillonsimply because of its subject matter; apparently, contemporary man-made tragedies are inappropriate topics for the big screen, unlike ghosts, dinosaurs, mythical serial killers, and former holocausts. But this movie gives you glimpses of the Fort Washington Armory (sheltering 700 people nightly) that recall the famous shot of the Confederate wounded in Gone With the Wind in its epic grandeur; and it tells you things about New York’s potter’s field that easily might have found their way into Pickup on South Street. This may occasionally err on the side of Dickensian sentiment, but it has so much to say about the world we live in, and says it with such grace, wit, and raw feeling, that I recommend it without qualification. With Rick Aviles, Ving Rhames, and Nina Siemaszko. R, 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Harms Case

If Ken Russell invented the postmodernist biopic, Slobodan D. Pesic has taken the form to delirious extremes. Pesic directed this daffy tragicomedy about the late Russian literary visionary Danil Harms in Yugoslavia in 1988. Apart from a prologue and epilogue in color, the picture is in black and white with occasional dabs of yellow; several characters (both male and female) are played arbitrarily in drag; and among the anachronistic elements is post-50s elevator music that accompanies scenes from the 30s and 40s. Harms sounds like a fascinating figure, though something tells me this picture isn’t the best way to find out about him. Still, it can be recommended as an intriguing novelty, bursting with irreverence and eclecticism. (JR)… Read more »

The War Room

An entertaining if humdrum 1993 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that follows Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, with particular emphasis on master strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, shot on video and transferred to film. Seeing the actual deliberations behind image making has a certain built-in interest, but I expected more surprises. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

Romeo Is Bleeding

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1994). Whatever it is, “avant-garde cinema” it isn’t. — J.R.

RIB

This gory, postmodernist fruit salad may be the most misogynistic piece of noir since Body Heat, though as in Basic Instinct a certain amount of giddy dominatrix worship — in this case focused on Lena Olin as an evil mobster — gets mixed into the brew of producer Hilary Henkin’s script. It’s the sort of fancy-pants movie that can have a wealthy hoodlum (Roy Scheider) threatening its hero (Gary Oldman), a crooked cop on the take, by recounting an anecdote about Robert Lowell. As in The Grifters, another exercise in Hollywood noir directed by a non-American (here it’s the Hungarian Peter Medak, who works mostly in England), one can’t easily tell whether this is taking place in the 40s or half a century later; but with so many baroque plot moves and narrative devices, and so much self-consciously ornate dialogue and voice-over narration, you’re not supposed to notice or care. The film certainly held me, and even fooled me in spots (when it wasn’t simply confusing), but when the whole thing was over I felt pretty empty. It would be facile to say it substitutes style for content; actually, it substitutes stylishness for style.… Read more »

Road

This corrosive short feature, directed by the late Alan Clarke for British television and adapted by Jim Cartwright from his play of the same title, offers a potent look at poverty and alcoholism in Lancashire, with impressive on-location camera work and dialogue that exults in its own theatricality and musicality (rather like that of Alan Bowne in Forty Deuce and John Guare in Six Degrees of Separation). The energetic cast includes Life Is Sweet’s Jane Horrocks and Naked’s David Thewlis and Lesley Sharpe. (JR)… Read more »

The Pelican Brief

As a writer-director with a well-honed sense of paranoia a la Fritz Lang, Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent) does a good job of adapting and directing this John Grisham thriller about a New Orleans law student (Julia Roberts) fleeing for her life, with a Washington reporter (Denzel Washington) as her only ally, after her speculative legal brief about the murder of two Supreme Court justices leads to another murderof her lover and law professor (Sam Shepard). It’s too bad that Pakula allows this 1993 movie to dawdle after its climax, but prior to that he’s adept at suggesting unseen menace and keeping things in motion. With John Heard, Tony Goldwyn, James B. Sikking, William Atherton, Robert Culp, Stanley Tucci, and, in cameos, Hume Cronyn and John Lithgow. (JR)… Read more »

One Way Street

The very notion of an experimental arty documentary about the great German writer Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) seems rather comic, so one may well wonder why Australian filmmaker John Hughes made this hour-long film (1992), complete with dramatized events from Benjamin’s life, interviews with intellectuals, clips from Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, contemporary globe-trotting that takes in the Eiffel Tower as well as the small town where Benjamin committed suicide, and loads of fabulous sound bites and printed or spoken aphorisms delivered like slogans. The fact that Hughes’s spelling is occasionally faulty seems symptomatic: there’s something faintly absurd about a film about Benjamin made for semiliterates. One can learn a little here, and I enjoyed hearing the intelligent talk of Elizabeth Young-Bruehl and Susan Buck-Morss, among others. But some of this is tacky beyond words (e.g., an Australian actor who looks like Groucho Marx reenacting Benjamin’s morphine overdose on camera). You might consider your time better spent reading or rereading Benjamin. (JR)… Read more »