Daily Archives: July 1, 1988

The Spook Who Sat By The Door

Possibly the most radical of the blaxploitation films of the 70s, this movie was an overnight success when released in 1973, then was abruptly taken out of distribution for reasons still not entirely clear. A mild-mannered social worker (Lawrence Cook) is recruited by the CIA as a token black and proceeds to learn (and later apply) the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare in Chicago (though most of the filming was done in Gary, Indiana). Corrosively ironic and often exciting, this adaptation by Sam Greenlee of his own novel, directed by Ivan Dixon, remains one of the great missing (or at least unwritten) chapters in black political filmmaking. 102 min. (JR) Read more

The Seven Year Itch

Although it was directed by Billy Wilder, this 1955 CinemaScope classic sometimes seems presided over by Frank Tashlin, with its satire of 50s puritanism and its use of wimpy Tom Ewell as the married and harried book editor driven to dreams and distraction by his upstairs neighbor (Marilyn Monroe, magnificent) while his wife and son are on holiday. Scripted by Wilder and George Axelrod (who bowdlerized his own play to appease the censors); with Sonny Tufts, Evelyn Keyes, and Robert Straussalso memorable employment of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. 105 min. (JR) Read more


Basil Dearden’s neglected 1959 British thriller is about an attractive young music student who’s found dead and who, it’s discovered by police inspectors Nigel Patrick and Michael Craig, had been passing for white. A detective story that reveals something of London’s black community in the late 50s. (JR) Read more

No Man’s Land

The title of Alain Tanner’s melancholy 1985 film refers to the rural zone between Swiss and French customs, where a group of small-time smugglers eke out a precarious, in-between existence. Films about border tensions (La grand illusion, Touch of Evil, Luc Moullet’s unjustly neglected Les contrebandieres) tend to treat their locations metaphorically, and this one is no exception, although it’s also a losers’ club movie in the manner of The Asphalt Jungle about a band of assorted malcontents who dream of escaping to a better life. Decorously framed and shot, with stately camera movements, lingering landscape shots, and a wonderful Terry Riley score, this movie glides along with a kind of graceful inertia that eventually defeats its spectators as well as its characters by gradually leading both to the same impasse. With Hughes Quester, Myriam Mezieres, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey. In French with subtitles. (JR) Read more

Hans Christian Andersen

The best thing about this glossy musical biopic of 1952 is the Frank Loesser score, which includes such tunes as Wonderful Copenhagen, Inch-worm, Thumbelina, and the title song. Purists might object to the Hollywood treatment of the author’s life, but at least we can see Danny Kaye (as the lead), Jeanmaire (who performs several dance sequences with Roland Petit), and Farley Granger; Charles Vidor directed. (JR) Read more

A Handful Of Dust

Elegant but tedious, this Masterpiece Theatre-like mounting of Evelyn Waugh’s famous (and partially autobiographical) novel about upper-class adultery in the 30s reunites the producer (Derek Granger) and one of the directors (Charles Sturridge) of Brideshead Revisited. Eileen Diss’s production design is certainly handsome, as are the main actors (James Wilby and Kristin Scott Thomas as Tony and Brenda Last; Rupert Graves as John Beaver, Brenda’s layabout lover), and the transposition of Waugh’s satirical nastiness seems reasonably faithful, but as cinema this is for fans of Merchant-Ivory’s congealed if polished miniaturescompetent and intelligent, but also rather passionless and remote. With Judi Dench. (JR) Read more

Young Guns

Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) joins an Englishman (Terence Stamp) and a group of young renegade hired guns to fight the hoodlums terrorizing their town in New Mexico. Other young hombres include Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Lou Diamond Phillips. Christopher Cain directed this western from a script by John Fusco, and on the whole seems much more comfortable with the scroungy and scatological dialogue than he does with the action sequences. Full of odd notions and interludesa Brian Keith cameo, a peyote session among the young guns overseen by the Navajo in the group, a lot of gratuitous grinning from villain Jack Palancethe movie never really comes together, but fitfully suggests a cross between Boys Town and Greaser’s Palace. (JR) Read more

A World Apart

The first feature directed by the excellent English cinematographer Chris Menges, based on a sensitive autobiographical script by Shawn Slovo, is set in Johannesburg in 1963. A white, middle-class antiapartheid activist (Barbara Hershey) is arrested for her activities after her husband has had to leave the country for related reasons, and her 13-year-old daughter (Jodhi May), through whose eyes much of the story is told, has to adjust to the breakup of her home. In many respects, this film succeeds admirably in everything that Cry Freedom tried with much awkwardness to achieve; while the focus is once again on the sacrifices and dedication of committed whites to the struggle against South African racism, there is never any sense of inflated melodrama or displaced emphasis in the story the filmmakers have to tell, and the performancesby Hershey, May, Jeroen Krabbe, Paul Freeman, and David Suchetare especially powerful. (JR) Read more

Wings Of Desire

Wim Wenders’s ambitious and audacious feature (1988) focuses mainly on what’s seen and heard by two angels (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) as they fly over and walk through contemporary Berlin. These are the angels of the poet Rilke rather than the usual blessed or fallen angels of Christianity, and Wenders and coscreenwriter Peter Handke use them partially to present an astonishing poetic documentary about the life of this city, concentrating on an American movie star on location (Peter Falk playing himself), a French trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), and a retired German professor who remembers what Berlin used to be like (Curt Bois). The conceit gets a little out of hand after one of the angels falls in love with the trapeze artist and decides to become human; but prior to this, Wings of Desire is one of Wenders’s most stunning achievements, certainly in no way replaceable by City of Angels, the ludicrous 1998 Hollywood remake. In English and subtitled French and German. PG-13, 128 min. (JR) Read more

The Wind

While less impressive than Souleymane Cisse’s subsequent Brightness, this 1982 feature about campus rebellion and ancestral, tribal memories in contemporary Africa is full of fascination. Bah, the grandson of a traditional chieftain, and Batrou, the daughter of a military governor representing the new power elite, become involved with a campus rebellion, drugs, and each other)which leads to their arrests. Although the social forces of contemporary Mali contrive to keep them and their traditions apart, a recurring dream sequence illustrated by a little boy filling a gourd with water, which symbolizes sharing and the exchange of knowledge, points to deeper links that unite generations as well as this couple. (JR) Read more

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

Weighing in at 173 minutes, this visually expansive but intellectually and formally simplified adaptation of Milan Kundera’s fine novel holds one’s interestthanks in large part to the talented and attractive leads (Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin) and the polish that cinematographer Sven Nykvist and coscreenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere bring to the occasion. But Philip Kaufman’s effort to create a romantic epic around a Czech menage a trois before, during, and after the Russian invasion of 1968 shortchanges the original by making virtually all of the action strictly linear and eliminating most of the essayistic material that is essential to the story’s meaning. Arguably, most of the participants make the best of a bad bargainDay-Lewis does what he can with an underscripted character, and he and the two female stars cope honorably with the unenviable task of speaking English with Czech accents, while Kaufman does a good job of matching his own re-creation of the Russian invasion with newsreel footage. But these achievements and othersincluding an undeniable erotic charge to some of the scenesadd up to less than the sum of their parts without a strong enough overall vision to shape them. When Kaufman reaches beyond the novel to flesh things outwith the old-fashioned musical taste of Russian officials, the sexual exploits of the hero, or the expanded part of a pet pighe usually flattens rather than enhances what’s left of the material (1988). Read more

Pascali’s Island

The first theatrical feature of James Deardenson of British filmmaker Basil Dearden and author of Fatal Attraction’s original screenplayis adapted from Barry Unsworth’s novel of the same name and set on a small Greek island in 1908, when the Ottoman Empire is crumbling. Basil Pascali (Ben Kingsley), an alienated Turkish spy, offers to lend his assistance as an interpreter for a British gentleman (Charles Dance) in negotiating a lease so that he can conduct archaeological studies on the pasha’s land. Nothing, however, is quite what it seems to be, and other figures on the islanda painter who lives in the Turkish quarter (Helen Mirren), a German munitions supplier, an American yachtsman, and othersthicken the atmosphere of intrigue and duplicity. Kingsley is at his best as the unhappy Pascali, through whose viewpoint the whole story is told in a rather Jamesian fashion; Roger Deakins (Stormy Monday) is the able cinematographer; and Dearden does a very effective job in telling this story with maximal impact. (JR) Read more

Outrageous Animation

If you thought you might be spared yet another replay of Bambi Meets Godzilla in this international assortment of nearly two dozen irreverent cartoons, collectively R-rated, think again (1988). By rough estimate, eight of these shorts are concerned with sex and eight more with extreme violence (including torture and dismemberment), leaving five devoted to bathroom jokes, and a couple more that might be described as eastern European variations of Saul Steinberg concepts. Nearly half of them coast along on their determination to be scuzzy and/or nasty, but my own favorites in the bunch are good simply because they’re inventive and funny: Bruno Bozzetto’s Strip Tease and Guido Manuli’s Erection (both Italian and raunchy), Wes Archer’s punky Jac Mac and Rad Boy . . . Go! and Bill Plympton’s original and oddball One of These Days (both American and violent), and Michel Ocelot’s French, pithy, and scabrous religious parable Four Wishes. (JR) Read more

The Old Man And The Sea

John Sturges’s 1958 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s famous short novel encountered a lot of technical difficulties on its way to the screen, and while Spencer Tracy provides a solid performance in the title role and Dimitri Tiomkin won an Oscar for his score, the overall effect of trying to film this rather unfilmable novel is a bit like an illustrated slide lecture. With Harry Bellaver and Felipe Pazos. (JR) Read more

Monkey Shines: An Experiment In Fear

Despite a hokey prologue and ending (the latter imposed by producer Charles Evans), this 1988 feature is one of George Romero’s most effective and interesting horror thrillersnot as profound as his remarkable Living Dead trilogy, but unusually gripping and provocative. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same title, the plot concerns Allan (Jason Beghe), a law student who becomes a quadriplegic. His best friend (John Pankow), a scientist who has been experimentally injecting human brain tissue into a monkey named Ella, decides to have the monkey trained by a professional (Kate McNeil) to take care of Allan. But Allan, who becomes involved with the monkey trainer, gradually discovers that Ella is both tapping into and acting upon his repressed ragewith dire consequences for his overbearing mother, shrewish nurse, and former fiancee among others, climaxing in a highly suspenseful confrontation. Like other Romero films, this is both crude and powerful on the level of genre and sophisticated and subtle in its social and psychological implications (which, in this case, mainly have to do with sexual undertonesthe competition of various females, including the monkey, for the hero’s care and affection). Certain characters, like the nurse and the mother, are crudely drawn, but their functions in the overall scheme are shrewdly orchestrated, and what emerges represents an interesting variation on themes from Val Lewton (mainly Cat People) and Alfred Hitchcock (mainly Rear Window). Read more