Monthly Archives: July 1988

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 »

Mr. North

Not having read Thornton Wilder’s 1973 novel Theophilus North, it’s difficult for me to guess why this adaptation by Danny Huston (son of John) seems as pointless as it does, although on the basis of Wilder’s earlier Heaven’s My Destination, I suspect that satiric aspects in the original have somehow eluded the filmmakers. Janet Roach (Prizzi’s Honor) coscripted with the late John Huston, who was executive producer. John Huston also acted in the film, but after his death his scenes were reshot with Robert Mitchum as his replacement. The setting is Newport, Rhode Island, 1926, and the eponymous hero (Anthony Edwards) is a young man mistaken for a healer because of the electricity his body contains; he changes the lives of many around him, particularly the well-to-do in Newport. Despite an all-star cast including Lauren Bacall, Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston, David Warner, Virginia Madsen, Tammy Grimes, and Mary Stuart Masterson, the film falls rather flat. The director seems interested in a respectable literary adaptation in the tradition of many of his father’s films, but his technique regrettably isn’t up to it; the pacing is sluggish, and although nice use is made of the sumptuous period settings, all that results is a vague sort of Pollyanna story, with Edwards especially weak in the lead part.… Read more »

A Man Like Eva

A must-see for all Rainer Werner Fassbinder fans. Radu Gabrea’s campy 1983 biopic about the late director stars the very talented Eva Mattes in drag in the title role, manipulating his Munich stock company in a variety of perverse ways while coming on as a slob enfant terrible. Funny, insightful, and packed with inside references that enthusiasts of the director and his myth will particularly enjoy, this is good, decadent fun even for spectators with only a casual acquaintance with Fassbinder; Mattes’s hallucinatory performance has a fascination all its own. (JR)… Read more »

The Lost Weekend

Billy Wilder’s celebrated adaptation of the Charles Jackson novel about an alcoholic (Ray Milland) going off the wagon on a frightening weekend binge. The film won a whole slew of Oscars when it came out in 1945; today it’s less impressive but not without its virtues, including the location photography of lower Manhattan, the performances (by Milland, Jane Wyman, and Frank Faylen, among others), and a chilling sequence devoted to the DTs. 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

A Jumpin’ Night In The Garden Of Eden

A new feature-length documentary by Michael Goldman about the revival of klezmer musica form of Jewish eastern European music that originated about 500 years ago and that has incorporated Gypsy, Greek, and other Balkan influences along with a Yiddish beat. Unlike most such documentaries, this one gives a welcome amount of technical and cultural information without ever seeming esoteric; in many respects, this is a film about rediscovering Jewish and Yiddish roots, but the general appeal of the music is also emphasized. Included are performances by New York’s Kapelye Band and the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Band. (JR)… Read more »

Johnny Flash

A rather affectless (and feckless) low-budget comedy by experimental filmmaker Werner Nekes about a no-talent rock singer (Helge Schneiderthe Johnny Flash of the title), which might be enjoyed if one is in a sufficiently giggly mood. Set in Mulheim (in the Ruhr district), the movie features one actor, Andreas Kunze, in multiple parts ranging from theater manager to music store clerk to delivery man to doctor to the hero’s mother; there are also some occasional flashes of Nekes’s avant-garde background: successive takes of the same shot, jump cuts, achronological double exposures. A healthy contempt for both the rock scene and narrative film in general seems to lurk behind this curiosity item; unfortunately, Nekes is no Frank Tashlin, and his technique lacks even the dry wit of a Luc Moullet; the film does, however, feature the breasts of Heike Melba-Fendel (as a glitzy TV impresario) whenever it gets a chance. (JR)… Read more »

Johnny Be Good

Film editor Bud Smith makes his directorial debut with this comedy about a spectacular high school quarterback having to fend off unscrupulous college recruiters, written by Revenge of the Nerds’s Jeff Buhai and Steve Zacharias. Robert Downey Jr., Paul Gleason, Seymour Cassel, newcomer Uma Thurman, Howard Cosell, and Jim McMahonthe latter two playing themselvescostar.… Read more »

John Huston & The Dubliners

Lilyan Sievernich’s intimate documentary about John Huston at work on his last film, The Dead, is unusual as a production account in the degree to which it actually shows a director working (as opposed to talking about working, which this film also shows). Affectionately and judiciously put together, it is an affecting tribute. (JR)… Read more »

Ishtar

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1988). — J.R.

Treated as a debacle upon release, partially as payback for producer-star Warren Beatty’s high-handed treatment of the press, this Elaine May comedy was the most underappreciated commercial movie of 1987. It isn’t quite as good as May’s previous features, but it’s still a very funny work by one of this country’s greatest comic talents. Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, both cast against type, play inept songwriters who score a club date in North Africa and accidentally get caught up in various international intrigues. Misleadingly pegged as an imitation Road to Morocco, the film is better read as a light comic variation on May’s masterpiece Mikey and Nicky as well as a prescient send-up of blundering American idiocy in the Middle East. Among the highlights: Charles Grodin’s impersonation of a CIA operative, a blind camel, Isabelle Adjani, Jack Weston, Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, and a delightful series of deliberately awful songs, most of them by Paul Williams. 107 min. (JR)

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