Daily Archives: June 1, 1988

Salome’s Last Dance

The conceit of Ken Russell’s version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome is that Wilde’s favorite London brothel is staging a version just for him (Nickolas Grace) in 1892, with his male lover Bosie (Douglas Hodge) playing John the Baptist and the brothel keeper (Stratford Johns) Herod. (Glenda Jackson plays Herodias, Imogen Millais-Scott is the rather unexciting Salome, and Russell himself turns up in an uncredited cameo as a photographer who helps with the sound effects.) Perhaps the biggest problem with this rather static (if mainlyand, for Russell, uncharacteristicallystraightforward) version of the play is that it tries too visibly to be outre, what with Jewish midgets cavorting, one character belching or farting whenever the action flags, and everyone else straining hard to be lewd and decadent. (In that department, as well as lushness, the unfortunately unexported Day-Glo version of the play by Italian avant-garde director Carmelo Bene in the 70s makes Russell’s efforts look even more feeble.) The tacky score, which runs the gamut from Schubert to Satie to Hollywood schmaltz, seems emblematic of the overall uncertainty. (JR) Read more

Wedding In Galilee

The mukhtar (chief) of an occupied Arab Palestinian village (Ali Mohammed Akili) wants to hold a traditional, full-scale wedding for his son (Nazih Akly), but the Israeli military governor will allow it only if he and his officers are the guests of honor. As the ceremonies and festivities gradually unfold over a tense day and night, Belgian-based writer-director Michel Khleifi, who grew up in Nazareth, paints an intimate and multilayered view of the village and its various factions, including the three generations of the mukhtar’s family. Beautifully filmed and edited, and effectively acted by nonprofessionals, this 1987 feature moves between an alienated grandfather, a group of flirtatious teenage girls, an angry group of young male terrorists, an impotent groom and resourceful and beautiful bride (Anna Achdian) who are expected to offer proof of their marriage’s consummation in the form of a bloody sheet, a horse that has strayed into a minefield, an Israeli woman soldier who changes into Arab clothes, and other diverse elements, with the mukhtar in most cases providing both the narrative linkage and a sense of how the village is run from within. Eschewing propaganda for an in-depth portrait, this is a fluid and lovely film that speaks volumes about Palestinian life. Read more

Utamaro And His Five Women

Kenji Mizoguchi’s first postwar film (1946), made under the censorship pressure of the American occupation, might be interpreted as a story about the director’s own artistic confinement as well as that of the great 18th-century wood-block printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). (A less offensive and more accurate translation of the title would be Five Women Around Utamaro, which is what the film is called in England.) The film isn’t without its difficulties — a plot with no easy identifications due to a virtual absence of close-ups, a large cast of characters, and a periodic displacement of narrative centers — but these are all intimately related to the its uncommon achievements. Significantly, Utamaro’s artistry only becomes visible at any length in the film’s final shot, and many of the moments of greatest beauty and power take place in the margins of the story proper. A neglected and important film by one of the supreme masters. With Minosuke Bando and Kinuyo Tanaka. In Japanese with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)

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To Sleep So As To Dream

This awkward title is attached to a new Japanese feature by a 26-year-old director, Kaizo Hayashi, that sounds quite fascinating. An intricate detective story involving a mysterious couple’s kidnapped daughter leads the two heroes toward and apparently into a silent sword fight scene that was shot in 1915 but that can only be completed with their involvement. Hayashi created the silent footage himself. The film also features one of the few surviving benshisthe live, offscreen commentators of silent films in Japan who were often more popular than the films they accompanied, and whose influence delayed the coming of sound in Japanese cinema (1986). (JR) Read more

A Taxing Woman

Juzo Itami’s third featureafter The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1986)follows the fanatical efforts of a dedicated tax official (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, who also played the female lead in Tampopo) to catch a variety of individuals who cheat on their tax forms, ranging from middle-income businessmen to big-time crooks. Although the action covers about a year and is partially a string of vignettes, much of it concentrates on the official’s attempts to nail down a ruthless real estate speculator who runs a clandestine adult hotel (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Lacking most of the comic gusto of Itami’s previous films, this one has a pretty icy objectivity, and whether the director sympathizes more with his determined heroine or with her various antagonists remains an open question; there’s a fair amount of unpleasantness on both sides. The result is a thoughtful film about a lively subject in Japanso successful in its native country that a sequel was madethat is still less compelling than Itami’s previous features (1987). (JR) Read more

Riders Of The Storm

A group of seven scuzzy Vietnam vets, including Dennis Hopper and Michael J. Pollard, have taken over an old B-29 bomber, dubbed it Uncle Slam, and jammed the nation’s airwaves with their own anarchic brand of dissidence, S and M TV. The principal target of their irreverence is Willa Westinghouse (Nigel Pegram), a right-wing female impersonator running for president as a womanfooling the entire American public with his impersonation, but not the viewer of this inept and offensively misogynistic movie, who should be able to spot the disguise in about four seconds. With a pigheaded script (by Scott Roberts) and direction (Maurice Phillipswho gets everyone in sight to overact), this 1986 throwaway production, originally known as The American Waya would-be SF satire that is so inattentive to the American yahoo subjects it tries to tackle, such as TV evangelists and Pentagon pontificators, that it inadvertently builds up sympathy for themmight be taken as camp if you’re stoned enough not to see or hear more than a fraction of what’s in front of you. I found it torture from beginning to end. (JR) Read more

Red Heat

Like Esther Williams in the 50s, Arnold Schwarzenegger seems fairly auteur-proof as a star, automatically trampling underfoot any director with a personal style and/or visionin this case, Walter Hill. But thanks to a fairly good script (by Harry Kleiner, Hill, and Troy Kennedy Martin), this thriller about a Soviet cop (Schwarzenegger) sent to Chicago to apprehend a Soviet drug dealer (Ed O’Ross) is a respectable enough star vehicle. (James Belushi plays Schwarzenegger’s American partner, and Peter Boyle plays a police commissioner, but the show really belongs to the Soviet hero and villain; Belushi is more or less assigned the Gabby Hayes part.) Lurking in the background is a cross-cultural comparison of Soviet and American attitudes that, for once, seems to give the Soviet characters the edge. (JR) Read more

The Presidio

The 1,400-acre military compound located at the base of Golden Gate Bridge is the partial setting for this mystery thriller, in which the army and the San Francisco police join forces to investigate a murder. Sean Connery is the military detective, and Mark Harmon plays his police partner; the strained relationship between the two is exacerbated when Harmon starts an affair with Connery’s daughter (Meg Ryan). At first, this promises to be a somewhat-better-than-average formula thriller; but the director, alas, is Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010)better equipped as a cinematographer here than as a tight storytelling craftsmanand Larry Ferguson’s script rarely moves beyond the shopworn. It’s a pity that an actor as talented and as likable as Connery seems routinely called upon to perform those mechanical mugging gymnastics that are widely applauded as Oscar performances; Jack Warden is enlisted here to pluck a few extra heartstrings. The San Francisco locations are serviceable. (JR) Read more

Le Paltoquet

A singular virtue of the French cinema compared to our own is the use of well-known actors in low-budget, offbeat projects. Michel Deville’s very theatrical adaptation and direction of a whodunit novel by Franz-Rudolf Falk isn’t especially compelling as storytelling, but it allows one to see eight of the best movie actors in FranceFanny Ardant, Daniel Auteuil, Richard Bohringer, Philippe Leotard, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Claude Pieplu, and Jean Yanneacquitting themselves honorably; Ardant and Piccoli are particularly delightful. Better yet, it permits the neglected and prolific Deville to forge an interesting stylistic exercise in mise en scene, restricting most of the action to a cavernous bar resembling a warehouse. The dialogue bristles with breezy wordplay that is not easily translated (the title means the nonentity, and refers to Piccoli’s ambiguous role as bartender), but Deville’s ingenious use of ‘Scope framing in charting out the space keeps things lively, fluid, and unpredictable (1986). (JR) Read more

Gates Of Heaven

Errol Morris’s widely admired first documentary feature (1978) is a detailed look at pet cemeteries. Morris’s use of talking-head interviews initially appears cool and conventional, but there’s a lot more to it in terms of form and attitude than initially meets the eye, and the apparent cruelty of the deadpan satire gradually gives way to something more compassionate, as well as deeper and stranger. 85 min. (JR) Read more


Hugh Leonard’s adaptation of his autobiographical play of the same title, partially based in turn on his book Home Before Night, offers a charming mix of childhood memoir and speculative wish fulfillment. An Irish playwright living in New York (Martin Sheen) returns to Ireland to attend the funeral of his father (Barnard Hughes), and then proceeds to have lengthy conversations with the old codger, with his younger self (Karl Hayden), his mother (Doreen Hepburn), and a former employer (William Hickey) all becoming a part of the discussion. As touching as most of this is, one’s tolerance for good-natured, sentimental blarney is occasionally stretchedas in some of John Ford’s depictions of Irish life, such as The Quiet Manbut the actors and director Matt Clark manage to keep most of it fluid and likable. (JR) Read more

Coming To America

Eddie Murphy is an African prince looking for an American bride in Queens in a comedy directed by John Landis and written by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, based on a story by Murphy. Murphy takes on a softer edge than usual this time: the plot recalls a Jeanette MacDonald operetta of the Depression, the mythical African country looks like a Beverly Hills fever dream, and, true to Murphy’s idealized black middle-class view of things, everybody gets what he wants without much fuss or sacrifice, and virtually the only poor people in evidence are white. Murphy and his pal Arsenio Hall, who plays his royal assistant, also impersonate a few other characters. With James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, John Amos, and Shari Headley (1988). (JR) Read more

Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney’s slender 1984 novel about yuppie despair gets treated with a lot of respect, pizzazz, and talent; it remains superficial, but in many respects the movie improves on the original. Director James Bridges and cinematographer Gordon Willis punch up McInerney’s script with a lot of dressy visuals, Michael J. Fox does a respectable job as the lead (a young writer who loses his wife and his job, and snorts a lot of coke), and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen supplies the disco score. A hollow view of hollowness with a very polished surface; with Kiefer Sutherland, Swoosie Kurtz, Phoebe Cates, Frances Sternhagen, Tracy Pollan, Jason Robards, Dianne Wiest, and, in cameos, John Houseman and William Hickey. The hero works for a magazine called Gotham, which is a transparent cover for the New Yorker. (JR) Read more

The Big Trail

Big-scale 1930 Fox western, originally shot in a 70-millimeter, wide-screen format known as the Grandeur process. Directed by Raoul Walsh, this story of a wagon train traveling from Saint Louis to Oregon has not only impressive landscape work but a very young John Wayne in his first starring role. Marguerite Churchill is the romantic interest. (JR) Read more

Big Business

Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin star as two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth by a myopic nurse. One pair is raised in a well-to-do New York family, the other is brought up in the sticks, and 30 years later they all come together during a calamitous weekend at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. It would be nice to report that two times Midler plus Tomlin equals twice as much fun, but the combination of Dori Pearson and Marc Rubel’s mechanical script with Jim Abrahams’s routine direction yields something akin to a standard Bob Hope farce of the 50s. The country caricatures are so crudely sketched in that they make Li’l Abner look like neorealism, and the repeated opening and closing of elevator doors to keep the twins apart eventually gets tiresome. A few laughs here, but most of them are forced. (JR) Read more