Yearly Archives: 1988

Talking To Strangers

Rob Tregenza’s excitingly new Baltimore-made independent feature, shot in wide-screen 35-millimeter and Dolby sound, consists of only nine shots, each a ten-minute take. Each shot features the same character (Ken Gruz), a young man whose identity appears to shift somewhat from one sequence to the next (in terms of his occupation and whether he is a local or a drifter); in the first and last shots he is alone, and in the seven intervening sequencesthe order of which was determined at randomhe encounters one or more strangers. The existential suspense underlying this remarkably open work is a function of many factors operating at once. The sequences range from dramatic (a female potter who has slept with the hero the previous night provokes his ire by admitting that she used to be stripper and, possibly, a prostitute) and action packed (a nihilistic, punkish gang takes over a bus and rapes a passenger) to enigmatic (the hero tries to engage in conversation with fellow passengers on a taxi boat) and minimalist (the hero walks for several city blocks, and almost boards three separate buses). Each sequence was shot only once, so the possibility of accident and error hovers over every moment suspensefully, as in a jazz improvisation. Read more

The Power Of Emotion

Alexander Kluge’s 1983 West German Die Macht der Gefuehle, perhaps his most striking and interesting essay film, is a rigorous yet free-wheeling combination of fact and fiction that includes footage from silent films, opera, and such characters as a fire chief, a fur thief, and assorted lovers, murderers, victims, actors, and officials. Recommended. (JR) Read more

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever

Vincente Minnelli’s last musical (1970) is not one of his bestthe film was hampered by studio cutting, depriving us of (among other things) a Jack Nicholson musical numberbut some of the master’s magic intermittently leaks through. The plot concerns a woman (Barbra Streisand) whose psychiatrist (Yves Montand) discovers that she led a previous life in 19th-century England. Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane furnished the score, and Bob Newhart and Nicholson round out the cast. Streisand certainly gives the title tune her (and its) maximum voltage. G, 129 min. (JR) Read more

Oliver & Company

Disney’s all-animated version of Oliver Twist (1988) translates Dickens’s novel into animal adventures set in New York: Oliver is an orphaned kitten taken in by a pack of pickpocket dogs, although Fagin, no longer Jewish or a villain, remains human. Ethnic characters are restricted to the animal kingdom, and the most enjoyable of these is Tito, a Chihuahua whose appeal is almost wholly a function of Cheech Marin’s voice. (Bette Midler similarly dominates Georgette, an upper-class poodle.) The animation is fairly unexciting though serviceable, and the overall mystification of class difference would probably have made Dickens shudder, but kids should find this tolerable enough. George Scribner directed, and among the other voices used are those of Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Roscoe Lee Browne, Dom DeLuise (as Fagin), and Robert Loggia. (JR) Read more

Occasional Work Of A Female Slave

Alexander Kluge’s 1973 West German feature, featuring Kluge’s sister Alexandra in the lead part, concerns a 29-year-old housewife who operates an illegal abortion clinic to support her family. Kluge’s third feature, one of his most Brechtian (and Godardian), reveals the writer-director as easily one of the best minds in the contemporary cinema, but not necessarily one of the best eyes: one often has the sense of a high-powered intelligence translating ideas into film rather an intelligence that thinks and creates in filmic terms. Political paradox is the central concern here, and while Kluge’s grasp of his heroine’s plight is witty and complex, his black-and-white images often have a second-degree quality about them. (JR) Read more

Midnight Run

Robert De Niro plays a former cop who’s hired by a bail bondsman to track down an accountant (Charles Grodin) who has ripped off the mob and then jumped bail; a five-day chase and numerous complications develop as they attempt to elude both the mob and the FBI. Martin Brest directed this comedy thriller from a George Gallo script. Considering all the shopworn materials used here, including the aggressive banality of Danny Elfman’s pop score, one’s expectations quickly sink to zero; but miraculously, De Niro and Grodin turn this sow’s ear into a plausible vehicle for a buddy movie, and thanks to both of them, this movie springs to life. (JR) Read more


Nacho Martinez plays a lame former bullfighter who longs for the thrill of sex that ends in murder; Assumpta Serna plays a successful criminal lawyer with related sexual predilections and a comparable list of corpses to her credit. With a nod to the last scene of Duel in the Sun, Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar builds his grisly black-comedy melodrama around these two, using a more innocent couple (Antonio Banderas and Eva Cobo) as contrast; Almodovar himself plays a bit part as a fashion designer. This 1986 film is one of Almodovar’s better features, although, like many of the others, it partially plays the role of popularizing stronger stuff (in this case, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), and resorts to some contrived plot devices (including mental telepathy and a solar eclipse) in order to fuse its diverse story elements. Nevertheless, Almodovar manages to do something fairly interesting and watchable with his material. In Spanish with subtitles. NC-17, 102 min. (JR) Read more

A Man’s Woman

This feature-length video by Laura Kipnis, which was funded by England’s Channel Four, takes the form of a pseudodocumentary about the career and assassination of Clovis Kingsley (Petrea Burchard), an antifeminist, profamily media personality who is investigated by reporter Connie Yu (well played by Chicago actress and formerReader staffer Lisa Tejero). On the plus side, Kipnis’s tape uses a pluralism of voices and some witty self-referential devices in order to raise some interesting questions about women, power, and the media. (One of the suggestions made is that Kingsley’s success in the media is both motivated and implemented by submerged feminist goals that aren’t acknowledged as such.) Unfortunately, the execution of the narrative isn’t always up to the ideas, and some of the secondary performances are unnecessarily broad. (A French psychoanalytical theorist, for instance, flaunts an accent that no French person would ever have.) The results are intermittently witty and frequently provocative, although the implied effort to find progressive elements in conservative rhetoric has at times a touch of desperation about it. (JR) Read more

The Land Before Time

Ironically, this Spielberg-Lucas collaboration (1988) came closer to reviving the classic character animation of Disney in its heyday than Disney’s simultaneously released Oliver & Company. What we get is a kind of dinosaur Bambi featuring an all-prehistoric casta tale about growing up set in an adventure about a survival trek. Spielberg reportedly found the original cut too scary and violent, and changes were expensive. Some of the action sequences feel abbreviated, but the overall handling of landscape and character is well done, and some of the old Disney mysticism about parental and ancestral roots manages to shine through. Not a masterpiece, but nicely crafted. Don Bluth directed. G, 70 min. (JR) Read more

The Lair Of The White Worm

Producer-writer-director Ken Russell updates the last novel of Dracula’s Bram Stoker (known as The Garden of Evil in the U.S.), about the discovery of a somewhat vampiristic ancient anti-Christian cult built around a giant white worm in rural England. For once, Russell’s over-the-top conceits are anchored in a fairly humdrum horror story and allowed to flourish mainly at privileged moments of hallucinatory delirium; the rest of the time the storytelling is serviceable if occasionally lumpy. But the mad campy momentswhich chiefly involve snake woman Amanda Donohoe slinking around in various stages of undress or in dominatrix outfitsare worth waiting for. With Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns, and a great many B-film accessories, including snakes, worms, dildos, caves, dungeons, and tatty special effects (1988). (JR) Read more

I Married A Monster From Outer Space

The title tells all, or almost all, about this 1958 release in which Gloria Talbott discovers that her husband (Tom Tryon) is an alien monster, and that aliens are mating with earth women. Gene Fowler Jr. produced, directed, and scripted (with Louis Vittes). Other roles are played by Ken Lynch, Maxie Rosenbloom, and a German shepherd. (JR) Read more

Ground Zero

This provocative, grim Australian adventure thriller, attractively shot in ‘Scopewritten by Mac Gudgeon and Jan Sardi, and directed by Michael Pattinson and Bruce Mylesconcerns the atomic bomb tests conducted by the British government on the Australian mainland between 1953 and 1964, and their disquieting aftereffects. A professional cameraman (Colin Friels) discovers that the death of his cameraman father in 1953 was not accidental, as he supposed, and most of the film focuses on his quest for the telltale footage shot by his father that led to his murder. Charges that thousands of aborigines died because of the tests, the unearthing of a radioactive World War II jet bomber, and the theft of home movies from the hero’s flat all become part of the disturbing mystery, much of it based on fact. With Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, and Natalie Bate. (JR) Read more

Far North

Sam Shepard directs his own script in a comedy-drama set in Minnesota. Just as an eccentric family is about to celebrate the 100th birthday of Gramma (Nina Draxten), Bertrum (Charles Durning) has an accident while racing his buckboard as Mel, the family horse, looks on. Bertrum tries to convince his oldest daughter Kate (Jessica Lange) to shoot Mel in revenge, and various complications ensue. This is far from being the abysmal failure many critics claimed it to be, although the minimal narrative development takes some getting used to. While Shepard’s focus in much of his theater work has been essentially on Marlboro men, for better and for worse, here it’s basically concerned with the absence of same, and the eccentricity and/or insanity that this seems to create in the womenfolk. The premise is certainly questionable, but some of the theatrical turns coaxed out of the actresses are worth watching, and the overall flavor, curiously enough, seems more evocative of Tennessee Williams than of earlier Shepard. With Tess Harper, Donald Moffat, Ann Wedgeworth, and Patricia Arquette. (JR) Read more

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

A silly science fiction quickie (1956, 83 min.), directed by Fred Sears and featuring Ray Harryhausen special effects of various national monuments being demolished (Orson Welles borrowed a few clips for his F for Fake). With Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor. (JR) Read more

Distant Thunder

John Lithgow stars as a Vietnam combat veteran who lives with a group of other veterans in a forest in the Pacific northwest, and who begins to make contact with his son (Ralph Macchio), whom he hasn’t seen since he was an infant. Overall, this is a good, sensitive job, with fine, understated performances by the two leads as well as by Kerrie Keane, Denis Arndt, Reb Brown, and Jamey Sheridan. While the plot is not devoid of melodramatic contrivance, the film at least has the merit of suggesting that the trauma of Vietnam for this country is a two-way streetpredicated not only on the inability of certain veterans to cope with the present, but equally on the incapacity of a younger generation to cope with the pastand the beautiful use of natural locations (the film was shot in British Columbia) is especially fine. Directed by Rick Rosenthal from a script by Robert Stitzel, which is based in turn on a story by Stitzel and Deedee Wehle. (JR) Read more