Monthly Archives: April 1989

Miss Firecracker

In his first feature, TV director Thomas Schlamme films Beth Henley’s own adaptation of her play The Miss Firecracker Contest, with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) re-creating her stage role as Carnelle Scott, determined to follow in the footsteps of her cousin Elain (Mary Steenburgen) and win the local Miss Firecracker Contest on July Fourth in Yazoo City, Mississippi; Tim Robbins plays another cousin who turns up before the event, an aspiring poet named Delmount. Schlamme has some intermittent problems in establishing a rhythmthere are a number of inconclusive and slightly awkward fade-outs at the ends of certain scenesbut the first-rate cast, which also includes Alfre Woodard and Scott Glenn (both at their best), helps considerably, as does the location shooting. (JR) Read more

Melody Time

A rarely shown Disney cartoon feature from 1948, split into seven sections that were subsequently distributed as shorts: Once Upon a Wintertime, Bumble Boogie, Johnny Appleseed, Little Toot, Trees, Blame It on the Samba, and Pecos Bill. The lively Bumble Boogie is probably the best of these, while the insipid Trees is probably the worst. Some of the voices are furnished by Frances Langford, Dennis Day, Roy Rogers, and the Andrews Sisters. (JR) Read more

Major League

A baseball movie set in Cleveland, with Tom Berenger as a seasoned catcher, Charlie Sheen as a rookie pitcher, and Corbin Bernsen as a third baseman, written and directed by David Ward. The plot suggests an unacknowledged remake of The Producers: the Cleveland Indians are inherited by a former showgirl (Margaret Whitton) who wants to move the team to Miami, but can only do so legally if it plays so badly in Cleveland that attendance collapses. The motley, eccentric team that she picks eventually gets wind of her scheme, and guess what? Unfortunately, this has none of the cynicism, humor, or energy of The Producers (or of Bull Durham, for that matter); slick predictability is about all it has in mind, down to the last trite freeze-frame. (JR) Read more

Magdalena Viraga: Story Of A Red Sea Crossing

Described by its maker as a hallucinogenic journey through the boundless vortex of unadulterated Female space, Nina Menkes’s experimental featureshot in East Los Angeles and starring her sister Tinka Menkes and Claire Aguilarcharts the spiritual evolution of a young prostitute who is charged with the murder of one of her clients. Ambitious and at times audacious, the film alternates between such settings as a prison cell, a cathedral, a dance hall, and a brothel bedroom, where the camera focuses at length on the heroine’s boredom and anguish as she services no less than nine separate customers. The performances range from straightforward naturalism to toneless recitations of unidentified fragments of texts by Anne Sexton, Mary Daly, and Gertrude Stein, with long wordless stretches in between. While Menkes has stated that she started from absolutely no cinematic reference, the overall ambience seems very close to certain minimalist German films of the 70s. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association declared this the best independent-experimental film of 1986, and other critics I admire speak highly of it, but I found it rather stultifying. (JR) Read more

Love Affair

On an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, a cultivated European playboy (Charles Boyer) meets a woman from New York (Irene Dunne), and the romance that develops is threatened by a misunderstanding and a physical accident. Writer-director Leo McCarey was one of the true masters, able to transform cliche formulas to the richest art by imbuing them with a profound human insight. Characteristically mixing comedy with tragedy here (with Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart assisting him on a screenplay derived from a Mildred Cram story), he fashions one of the great love stories of the 30s. He remade this picture in the 50s as An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and while both versions have their claims to greatnessas powerful tearjerkers that earn their excesses almost every step of the waythe original is arguably the finer of the two. With Maria Ouspenskaya and Lee Bowman (1939). (JR) Read more


Jacques Demy’s first and in some ways best feature (1961), shot in exquisite black-and-white ‘Scope by Raoul Coutard, is among the most neglected major works of the French New Wave. Abandoned by her sailor lover, a cabaret dancer (Anouk Aimee) brings up their son while awaiting his return and ultimately has to choose among three men. Chock-full of film references (to The Blue Angel, Breathless, Hollywood musicals, the work of Max Ophuls, etc) and lyrically shot in Nantes, the film is a camera stylo love letter, and Michel Legrand’s lovely score provides ideal nostalgic accompaniment. In his third feature and biggest hit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy settled on life’s disappointments; here at least one major character gets exactly what she wants, and the effect is no less poignant. With Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, and Elina Labourdette (the young heroine in Robert Bresson’s 1945 Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne). In French with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) Read more


It’s our old friend the sexually warped serial killer (D.W. Moffett), this time stalking a slightly rebellious 14-year-old (Staci Keanan of My Two Dads) who lives with her single mother (Cheryl Ladd) and who, without realizing it, has been flirting with him on the phone. Before this movie gets around to its predictable violent conclusion, it does a surprisingly good job of exploring the fantasy world of a young teenager and her variable relationship with her mother, thanks in part to Keanan’s excellent performance. Writer-director Gary Sherman (Vice Squad, Poltergeist III), collaborating on the script with Karen Clark, is reasonably if conventionally skilled in setting up thriller foreplay, and if he loses his assurance at climactic moments, the audience is probably too revved up by then to notice. With Tanya Fenmore. (JR) Read more

Lawrence Of Arabia

David Lean’s 1962 spectacle about T.E. Lawrence’s military career between 1916 and ’18, written by Robert Bolt and produced by Sam Spiegel, remains one of the most intelligent, handsome, and influential of all war epics. Combining the scenic splendor of De Mille with virtues of the English theater, Lean endeared himself to English professors and action buffs alike. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture and direction, yet the ideological crassness of De Mille and most war movies isn’t so much transcended as given a high gloss: the film’s subject is basically the White Man’s Burdendespite ironic notationswith Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif called upon to represent the Arab soul, and Jose Ferrer embodying the savage Turks. The all-male cast helps make this one of the most homoerotic of all screen epics, though the characters’ sexual experiences are at best only hinted at. 221 min. (JR) Read more


Bill Donovan’s documentary feature, eight years in the making, about Michael Hernstadt, a gun-toting millionaire who ran for political office twice as a libertarian candidate, advocated cutting taxes and televising executions, and was shot to death by the chief of police of Aspen, Colorado, after an argument at an all-night drug party. The subject is fascinating, but the treatment is disappointingly cursory for the most part. Friends and relatives offer bite-sized psychoanalytical theories about Hernstadt’s isolated childhood, and the subject offers several spiels of his own. But on the whole we seem to get too much theorizing about the man and not enough straight information. (JR) Read more

Field Of Dreams

Well-made treacle (1989), adapted by writer-director Phil Alden Robinson from W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe. A fledgling farmer (Kevin Costner) hears a voice in an Iowa cornfield and has a vision that convinces him that if he builds a baseball diamond in his field, Shoeless Joe Jackson, of the notorious 1919 White Sox, will turn up to play there. Other messages and signs follow, leading the hero to meet a former novelist in hiding (James Earl Jones) and a deceased ballplayer who ended his life as a doctor (Burt Lancaster). The strange mixture of nostalgia, poetry, pop mysticism, and innocence suggests both Ray Bradbury and Steven Spielberg, at their best as well as their worst; the conception is sentimental, but the storytelling remains assured and effective. With Amy Madigan as the hero’s sympathetic wife, Gaby Hoffmann as their daughter, and Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe. PG, 106 min. (JR) Read more

84 Charlie Mopic

The title refers to a cameraman (Byron Thames) who accompanies a six-man reconnaissance unit in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1969 (Mopic is a contraction of motion picture). A tour de force, this first feature by Patrick Duncan shows us only what the cameraman recordsan intensely physical rendering of the unit’s experiences on a mission, with the sound often carrying as much impact as the images. By dedramatizing the material and at the same time contriving to hold an audience’s interest, Duncan takes a courageous dive straight into the contradictions of what makes an honest yet compelling film about combat in Vietnam; what we see and hear certainly registers as real, although the verisimilitude seems at times to get in the way of storytelling (we don’t always make out everything that the characters are saying). Effectively shot in super-16-millimeter (by Alan Caso) and persuasively acted (by Jonathan Emerson, Nicholas Cascone, Jason Tomlins, Christopher Burgard, Glenn Morshower, and Richard Brooks), this uncompromising bug’s-eye view may not be for everyone, and it’s far from an unqualified success, but it certainly commands respect and attention. (JR) Read more

The Dressmaker

Despite expert performances by Billie Whitelaw and Joan Plowright (among others) in this adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge’s novel (known in the U.S. as The Secret Glass), the spirit and feeling of high-tone British TV is never very far away. Set in Liverpool in 1944, the plot concerns the problems that arise in a family of three women when the youngest (Jane Horrocks) becomes involved with an American soldier (Tim Ransom). Competently written by John McGrath and directed by Jim O’Brien, with an acceptable period flavor, this rather morbid tale about respectability and sexual repression never really catches fire, although fans of Whitelaw and Plowright will certainly get their money’s worth. With Peter Postlethwaite, Rosemary Martin, and Pippa Hinchley. (JR) Read more

Disorganized Crime

Jim Kouf, the writer of Stakeout, scripted and directed this shaky heist film, which is a comic variant on The Asphalt Jungle and its numerous successors. Four crooks (Lou Diamond Phillips, Ruben Blades, Fred Gwynn, and William Russ) are summoned to Montana by a criminal mastermind (Corbin Bernsen) to pull off a bank robbery, but their leader gets arrested by two New Jersey cops, obliging his four recruits to fend for themselves. There’s a great deal of bungling on everybody’s partcops, crooks, criminal mastermind (after he breaks away), and also, alas, the filmmakers, who never manage to give this the right amount of snap and periodically fall back on stale scatological jokes and silly plot contrivances. Apart from a nice use of Montana locations, this is strictly routine. (JR) Read more


One of Satyajit Ray’s greatest early films (1962), full of sensuality and ironic undertones, Devi is sufficiently critical of Hindu superstition that it was banned from foreign distribution until Nehru interceded. The plot concerns a wealthy and devout landowner in the 19th century who believes his daughter-in-law (Sharmila Tagore) is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali and convinces her that he’s right. With Soumitra Chatterji and Chhabi Biswas. In Bengali with subtitles. 93 min. (JR) Read more

Dead Calm

A thriller filmed in ‘Scope near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, directed by Phillip Noyce (Newsfront) and coproduced by George Miller. The plot concerns the dark events that unfold after a couple on a sailing yacht (Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) encounter an enigmatic and crazed lone survivor from another ship. The screenplay by coproducer Terry Hayes is based on Charles Williams’s novel of the same title, a book that also served as the basis for an unfinished Orson Welles film known as The Deep, shot in the late 60s. The main problem with this adaptation is that it takes a suspense story that is already stripped down to essentials and jettisons practically everything that gives it psychological interest. What results is a semiserviceable if formulaic thriller that steadily becomes more contrived and ludicrous, ending with a resurrection out of Fatal Attraction that is silliness incarnate. A depressing sign of decline from a director who once showed some promise. (JR) Read more