Daily Archives: March 1, 1988

Little Nikita

An intermittently watchable but ultimately rather thin and bewildering attempt to update the communist spy thrillers of the 50s, this movie with a San Diego setting teams Sidney Poitier as an FBI agent with River Phoenix as the son of onetime Soviet agents who gradually discovers his parents’ secret. For all his misguided red-baiting, Leo McCarey created a deep and troubling melodrama out of a related scenario in 1952 with My Son John, but here the filmmakersscreenwriters John Hill and Bo Goldman (working from a story by Tom Musca and Terry Schwartz) and director Richard Benjaminaren’t concerned with digging very deeply into much besides a few timeworn conventions, leavened by a few traces of Yankee glasnost (the parents are redeemed by being former agents, while the Soviet villains are strictly formulaic). Marvin Hamlisch contributes a pleasant score, and Laszlo Kovacs handles the cinematography capably, but Phoenix can’t give the material any emotional depth, and the story never rises much beyond TV tepid. (JR) Read more

The Last Stand In The Philippines

Without a doubt our best patriotic film, wrote Spanish film historian Emilio Sanz de Soto of this 1945 film directed by Antonio Roman. The film concerns Captain Las Moreras and his small squadron, who resisted the conquering U.S. and Filipino armies for almost a year after the end of the Spanish-American War; the film was a big success with critics and audiences in Spain when it came outas well as a triumph of propaganda for the Franco regime. (JR) Read more

The Lady With The Dog

The perfect antidote to Nikita Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes, Josif Heifits’s 1959 Soviet film about adultery, adapted from the same story, may be the best Chekhov adaptation on film: subtle, exquisite, a perfect miniature. With Iya Savvina, Alexei Batalov, and Ala Chostakova. (JR) Read more

The Gruesome Twosome

Just about the only distinctive thing about drive-in auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis is his unlimited capacity for gore, most of it usually directed against women for all-male yahoo audiences. This minor and obscure piece of his oeuvre, written, oddly, by a woman (Louise Downe), concerns a wig maker and her retarded son (Rodney Bedell), who scalps young women unfortunate enough to be boarding in their house. (JR) Read more

The Good Love

Francisco Regueiro’s 1963 Spanish feature El buen amor, his first film, follows a coupleSimon Andreu and Marta del Valwho take a vacation from university classes in Madrid to travel together to Toledo. A humorous love story with serious undertones by the director of the recent comedy Padre nuestro. Read more

From The Pole To The Equator

A remarkable feature (1987) by Italian avant-gardists Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, made up exclusively of footage shot by Luca Comerio, an official documentarian to the Italian royal family, around 1910tinted, step-printed into slow motion, and accompanied by an effective, wordless sound track. The images, as suggested by the title, come from all overAfrican jungles, Indian villages, European landscapes, polar icebergsand the overriding themes are photography as imperialism and imperialism as photography. At once mesmerizing, haunting, and thoughtful, this fascinating and unique compilation, edited by D.A. Pennebaker, stays in the mind for a long time. 96 min. (JR) Read more

55 Days At Peking

Nicholas Ray’s last commercial film and second blockbuster for Samuel Bronston (after King of Kings) effectively ended his career as a Hollywood director, and the unwieldiness of this spectacular about the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 Peking helps in part to explain why. Not really a personal film, compared with the works that preceded it, although Ray himself puts in a fleeting appearance as an ambassador in a wheelchair. Scripted by Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon, scored (bombastically) by Dmitri Tiomkin, and starring Charlton Heston, David Niven, Ava Gardner, and Flora Robson. (JR) Read more

Dominick And Eugene

The lachrymose scenario runs as follows: In Pittsburgh, Dominick Luciano (Tom Hulce), a young man who is retarded from a childhood injury, works on a garbage truck to put his twin brother Eugene (Ray Liotta) through medical school. When Eugene gets a scholarship to attend Stanford, he faces the problem of having to abandon his beloved brother. Alvin Sargent and Corey Blechman’s script from a story by Danny Porfirio, far from avoiding the sentimental excess of such a situation, lays it on with a trowel–the death of Dominick’s pet dog is neatly timed to coincide with the news that his brother is leaving him–and the subsequent plot revelations smack of middle-level TV drama, while Jamie Lee Curtis is enlisted to provide Eugene’s semigratuitous love interest. Director Robert M. Young (Alambrista) does some creditable things with the local neighborhood, and Todd Graff as Dominick’s coworker turns in a refreshing, nonstereotyped working-class portrait. But the film’s shameless efforts to reach for the jugular mainly land in bathos. (JR) Read more

Dark Eyes

Once upon a timein 1959, to be preciseSoviet director Josef Heifits filmed a lovely, exquisite, and by now all but forgotten adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s story The Lady With the Dog, which wisely restricted itself to Chekhovian dimensions, giving the plot and characters their full due but never any more. By grotesque contrast, writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov’s elephantine set piece for Marcello Mastroianni (1987)which came about through Mastroianni’s desire to work with the Soviet filmmakerloosely adapts that Chekhov story along with elements from three others (My Wife, The Birthday Party, and Subjugated Anna) to produce a film so sprawling and ungainly that Chekhov is turned into chopped liver. Atrociously out-of-sync dubbing, shameless mugging and prancing from Mastroianni, and an unearned (and decidedly un-Chekhovian) grandiosity are the main elements on the bill of fare, all working overtime to register life’s little ironies; Elena Sofonova, Marthe Keller, Silvana Mangano, and a cute little dog are on hand to teach Mikhalkov and Mastroianni a few lessons in restraint, but alas, to no avail. (JR) Read more

The Cursed Village

The most famous silent Spanish film, this 1929 feature directed by Florian Rey, La aldea maldita, is a melodrama whose political overtones made it a favorite among progressive critics of the period. The plot concerns the diastrous forced separation of a family from their idyllic country life and from each other; when they finally reachieve this stability, the romantic notions of their earlier life are thrown into question. Filmed largely on location with many nonprofessionals in the cast. Read more

The Counterfeit Traitor

Although William Holden stars in this wartime spy story of an oil importer blackmailed by the Allies into becoming a double agent, George Seaton’s direction is so limp and his dialogue so long-winded that this might be billed as a counterfeit thriller. With Lilli Palmer, Hugh Griffith, and Eva Dahlbeck (1962). (JR) Read more

Clara The Brunette

Taking advantage of a favorable populist political climate in 1936, Spanish director Florian Rey filmed this interracial love story in which a prominent young judge falls in love with a Gypsy servant (Imperio Argentina). The film proved to be an enormous box office success, established Argentina as a star, and continued to be screened for both Republicans and rebels after the Spanish civil war broke out. (JR) Read more

Carmen, The Girl From Triana

A Spanish-German production of 1938starring Imperio Argentina, the biggest Spanish star of the period, and directed by Florian Reythis version of the famous Carmen plot, spruced up for the Spanish censors, allowed Germany to break into the Latin American film market. A very popular and successful movie when it came out, the film reportedly features Argentina’s singing and dancing at its most effective. Read more

Bruce Connor And The Cinema Of “Found Footage”

An interesting parallel to Hollywood’s recycling mania is the much more fruitful phenomenon of the found-footage filma practice within independent cinema of working creatively with already existing film footage. In recent years, many of the most inventive experimental filmmakers in the U.S. ranging from Ken Jacobs and Leslie Thornton have worked in this mode, but there is almost certainly no figure who has done more with the form than Bruce Connor. This program features 11 of his best shorts and two other major examples by other filmmakers, Joseph Cornell’s remarkable Rose Hobart (1939) and J.J. Murphy’s more recent Print Generation (1974). The Connor films to be shown: A Movie (1958), Cosmic Ray (1961), the extraordinary Report (1967the best film treatment to date of the assassination of John F. Kennedy), Vivian (1964), The White Rose (1967), Breakaway (1967), Permian Strata (1969), Marilyn X 5 (1973), Mongoloid (1978), Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1975), and Valse Triste (1977). Connor works wonders with nostalgic and historical materials of various kinds, reshuffling and juxtaposing media fragments into mosaics that are simultaneously analytical and evocative. If you’ve never encountered his work before, this program offers a superb introduction to his very special talent. Read more

Tales Of The Brothers Quay

The films of the London-based American twins provide an interesting test case for someone like me who resists both puppet films and the gallows humor of eastern European animation. In a selection of films made between 1986 and 1993, ranging from their magnum opus Street of Crocodiles to their Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, one certainly encounters a good deal of invention and unkempt activity built around their distinctive brand of nostalgic old-country surrealism. As critic Raymond Durgnat points out, the theoretical implications of this work are fascinating, because puppetry knows so many (and such heterogeneous) syntheses of realistic and nonrealistic elements as to blur all possible elements between them. But most of the esoteric quasi-narrative structures employed by the brothers Quay and their collaborator Keith Griffiths make their movies closer to work than to play: arcane intertitles that usually seem to have a vague or tenuous relation to the action are flashed on the screen so quickly that one often feels at a loss trying to follow the obscure meaning structures, and the thematic bases of these shortswhich also include The Comb (1985) and Anamorphosis, among other itemsoften seem to get in the way of their free-floating pleasures. At their best, as in Street of Crocodiles, these films give off some of the eerie mood and texture of a David Lynch film, and one clearly can’t accuse the Quay brothers of predictability. Read more