Monthly Archives: August 1989

White Shanks

Perhaps the most neglected of all the major French directors, at least in the U.S., Jean Gremillon (1901-1959) was a figure of such versatility that it’s difficult to make generalizations about his work. (One can, however, speak about its close attention to sound and rhythm–he started out as a musician–and its frequent focus on class divisions.) White Shanks (Pattes blanches), made in 1949, is not one of his very best efforts–I prefer Lumiere d’ete (1943) and Le ciel est a vous (1944). But this moody melodrama of adultery set on the Normandy coast is still full of punch and fascination, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a taste for the classic French cinema. Coscripted by Jean Anouilh (who originally intended to direct), it’s a noirish tale about a promiscuous flirt from the city (Suzy Delair) who marries a local tavern keeper and becomes involved with a plotting local malcontent (Michel Bouquet) and a faded aristocrat (Paul Bernard), nicknamed “White Shanks” because of his spats, who is the target of a revenge plot. A sensitive maid with a hunchback who loves the aristocrat rounds out this odd quintet, who are regarded with a caustic compassion that recalls Stroheim. The lovely camera work is by Philippe Agostini, and the great Leon Barsacq is in charge of the sets.… Read more »

Rude Awakening

Two hippies from the 60s (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) emerge from a Central American jungle, where they’ve been smoking dope and hiding from the feds, come to New York, and discover what the U.S. in 1989 is all about. Aaron Russo (Bette Midler’s former manager) and David Greenwalt codirected this comedy from a script by Neil Levy and Richard LaGravenese; Julie Hagerty and Robert Carradine play the heroes’ now-yuppified friends who are gradually inspired to return to their former values. As disheveled in some ways as its leading characters are, this movie is still something of a rarity: a sincere, somewhat nuanced, relatively uncliched, and actually judicious look at both the 60s and 80s and what they mean in relation to each other. A far cry from the more reductive treatment of these issues in various sitcoms, this movie is genuinely interested in the question of what happened to 60s ethics, and in spite of an occasionally awkward plot that weaves in and out of comedy, it manages to come up with a few answers. The costars include Louise Lasser, Cindy Williams, Cliff De Young, Andrea Martin, and Buck Henry; the latter two are especially funny in the one extended sequence in which they appear.… Read more »

The Navigator

The virtues as well as the limitations of this bizarre fantasy from New Zealand, winner of half a dozen Australian Oscars, stem from its literary conception. Though the story is an original (by director Vincent Ward), and Ward’s use of both black and white and color gives it a very distinctive look, it feels like an idea translated into cinematic terms rather than a cinematic conception. In a remote English mining village threatened by the Black Death in 1348, a visionary boy (Hamish McFarlane) has a troubled dream that spells out possible salvation, which involves digging through the center of the earth to a celestial city and placing across on the spire of a cathedral. He sets out with four miners to fulfill this mission, and they eventually wind up in a modern (i.e., 1988) metropolis. Rather than play this conceit for satire, Ward and his cowriters Kely Lyons and Geoff Chapple stick pretty close to the funereal rhythm and doom-ridden mood that they establish at the outset. What emerges is not entirely successful; the switches between black and white and color often seem more mechanical than integral, and the hallucinatory atmosphere is occasionally diluted rather than enhanced by the blocky narrative continuity.… Read more »

Films by Fred Marx

Four films by an Illinois-based film and video maker whose experimental and political interests pointedly inform and reinforce one another. Dream Documentary (1981), which is especially impressive, uses found footage, inventive editing, and an effectively selective sound track to comment on the ways that we look at the third world. Hiding Out for Heaven (1982), which l haven’t seen yet, is a two-film projection piece about grading student writers. House of Un-American Activities (1983) is a documentary that mixes personal and public history as it describes the 1956 persecution of Marx’s father–a Jewish refugee who fled Germany in 1939 and joined the Communist Party in 1945. Dreams of China was shot while Marx was working as an English teacher in China between 1983 and 1985 and was finished only recently; the portrait of China that it presents is highly personal, full of fascinating details, and, for the most part, given Marx ‘s leftist background, unfashionably negative. Marx will be present at the screening. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, August 11, 8:15, 443-3737)… Read more »

Leola

After a long and successful career in day care, Ruby L. Oliver made this, her first feature, in her late 40s. Now receiving its world premiere, it’s a remarkable debut: assured, highly focused, surprisingly upbeat considering the number of problems that it addresses without flinching–and conceivably the best low-budget Chicago independent that I’ve seen. Set in contemporary Chicago, it concerns a 17-year-old girl from the ghetto whose plans for the future are jeopardized when she finds herself pregnant. In addition, her brothers are gradually drifting into a life of crime, her mother is having difficulty maintaining a day-care center without a license, and her stepfather is an alcoholic and philanderer. The plot line is concentrated and purposeful, and the cast–including Carol E. Hall, Audrey Morgan (particularly impressive as the mother), Earnest Rayford, Andre Robinson, and Kearo Johnson–is uniformly fine. In addition to writing, directing, producing, and financing the film, Oliver is also credited with casting, served as set decorator and location manager, and sang as well as wrote the lyrics to the film’s theme song. (Film Center, Saturday, August 5, 8:00, and Sunday, August 6, 6:00)… Read more »

The Night Of The Pencils

The power and value of this docudramaabout the kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture of half a dozen high school activists by Argentina’s military dictatorship in the mid-70sare almost exclusively a matter of its effectiveness as agitprop. Made by Hector Olivera (Funny, Dirty Little War) in 1986, the film is marred by an obtrusive music score that needlessly underlines melodramatic moments and an occasional reliance on raw effect over logic (for instance, when the activists who demonstrate in favor of cheaper bus fares and against certain restrictions at school first learn that two of their members have been taken away, they don’t even mention the names of these martyrs). Based on the testimony of Pablo Diaz, a student who was eventually released after four years of imprisonment (in contrast to the fate of others still missing), this horror story of torture, rape, and Kafkaesque totalitarian bureaucracy certainly has a brutal impact. One is made to share the pain and confusion of these bound and blindfolded teenagers (and the frustration of their parents, who try to learn their whereabouts), as well as their few moments of respite when they are able to communicate with one another from their separate cells (1989). (JR)… Read more »

A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

The pits. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) tries to get reborn through the pregnancy of his enemy Alice (Lisa Wilcox) in the last installment (1989) of the horror series. The few halfway decent ideas in the story (by John Skip, Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem) and production design (by C.J. Strawn) are mercilessly and fatally crushed by the inept direction of Stephen Hopkins and the flaccid editing. After the genuine interest of Renny Harlin’s fourth installment, the series here takes a depressing nosedive into zero-degree filmmaking. With Danny Hassel, Kelly Jo Minter, and Joe Seely. R, 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

The virtues as well as the limitations of this bizarre fantasy from New Zealand, winner of half a dozen Australian Oscars (1988, 91 min.), stem from its literary conception. Though the story is an original (by director Vincent Ward), and Ward’s use of color as well as black and white gives it a very distinctive look, it feels like an idea translated into cinematic terms rather than a cinematic conception. In a remote English mining village threatened by the Black Death in 1348, a visionary boy (Hamish McFarlane) has a troubled dream that spells out possible salvation, which involves digging through the center of the earth to a celestial city and placing a cross on the spire of a cathedral. He sets out with four miners to fulfill this mission, and they eventually wind up in a modern (i.e., 1988) metropolis. Rather than play this conceit for satire, Ward and his cowriters Kely Lyons and Geoff Chapple stick pretty close to the funereal rhythm and doom-ridden mood that they establish at the outset. What emerges is not entirely successful; the switches between color and black and white often seem more mechanical than integral, and the hallucinatory atmosphere is occasionally diluted rather than enhanced by the blocky narrative continuity.… Read more »

Wired

He made us laugh, wrote Bob Woodward in his book about the death of John Belushi, and now he can make us think. Unfortunately, there are only a few laughs in this interminable screen adaptation, about half of which seem unintentional, and no thoughts at all. Although Michael Chiklis does a creditable job of impersonating Belushi, the lack of any discernible raison d’etre behind this lame replay of All That Jazz and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Callingmovies that were at least motivated by their status as confessions and auto-critiquesmakes for a peculiarly rudderless biopic bound for nowhere. There are no insights offered into either Belushi or his milieu, and all that keeps this movie going is its arsenal of hand-me-down arty conceits: a very square-looking Woodward (J.T. Walsh) walking around with a notepad, Belushi visiting his own past under the custody of a Puerto Rican guardian angel (Ray Sharkey), and some faltering attempts to juice things up with various kinds of disjunctive editing. Earl Mac Rauch’s script and Larry Peerce’s direction are equally uninspired. This is the movie that Hollywood didn’t want you to see; now you know why. With Patti D’Arbanville, Lucinda Jenney, Alex Rocco, and Gary Groomes.… Read more »

Viva La Muerte

Spanish surrealist playwright Fernando Arrabal loosely adapted his own autobiographical novel Baal Babylon, about a 12-year-old boy growing up during the Spanish civil war, into this violent, scatological, blasphemous, and extremely tiresome phantasmagoria, with very little filmic sense. If you like this, you might think it has something to do with Bosch, but it looked like bosh to me back in 1971, when misogynist visionary romps of this ilk were all the rage. In French with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Vampyr

The greatness of Carl Dreyer’s first sound film (1932, 83 min.) derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with Dreyer’s radical recasting of narrative form. Synopsizing the film not only betrays but misrepresents it: while never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity, inventing a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images conveyed by this language are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin, from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister; an evil doctor’s mysterious death by suffocation in a flour mill; a protracted dream sequence that manages to dovetail eerily into the narrative proper. The remarkable sound track, created entirely in a studio (in contrast to the images, which were all filmed on location), is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous and haunting otherworldliness. (Vampyr was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versionsFrench, English, German, and Danish; most circulating prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse.)… Read more »

Uncle Buck

A comedy written and directed by John Hughes about a disreputable bachelor uncle (John Candy) assigned to take care of two nieces and a nephew (Jean Kelly, Gaby Hoffmann, and Macaulay Culkin) in the suburbs while their parents are away (1989). Candy manages to be both funny and likable as a kind of updated Fatty Arbuckle in the lead part, and the treatment of the teenager in his care (Kelly) seems a bit less formulaic than usual for Hughes. But don’t be fooled; heaping gobs of the usual fake sentiment eventually come crashing down, defeating even Candy’s ebullience in the process. Even so, Hoffmann and Culkin both manage to project a certain cuteness without being too sickening about it, and Amy Madigan isn’t bad as Candy’s beleaguered girlfriend. 100 min. (JR)… Read more »

Tango Bar

Raul Julia, Valeria Lynch, and Ruben Juarez star in this rather enervating 1988 musical about the tangoa Puerto Rican-Argentine coproduction directed by Marcos Zurinaga from a script that he authored with Jose Pablo Feinnman and Juan Carlos Codazzi. Set in Buenos Aires, the film centers on a cabaret show and its three stars, who form a menage a trois offstage. The main problem is that, as in many low-budget backstage musicals, the narrative is so slight that it barely seems to justify its own existence. Some of the actual tangos, however, are well executed and nicely photographed, and there is a series of enjoyable clips from American, European, and Latin American films in which tangos are featured. (JR)… Read more »

Rude Awakening

Two hippies from the 60s (Eric Roberts and Cheech Marin) emerge from a Central American jungle, where they’ve been smoking dope and hiding from the feds, come to New York, and discover what the U.S. in 1989 is all about. Aaron Russo (Bette Midler’s former manager) and David Greenwalt codirected this comedy from a script by Neil Levy and Richard LaGravenese; Julie Hagerty and Robert Carradine play the heroes’ now-yuppified friends who are gradually inspired to return to their former values. As disheveled in some ways as its leading characters are, this movie is still something of a rarity: a sincere, somewhat nuanced, relatively uncliched, and actually judicious look at both the 60s and 80s and what they mean in relation to each other. A far cry from the more reductive treatment of these issues in various sitcoms, this movie is genuinely interested in the question of what happened to 60s ethics, and in spite of an occasionally awkward plot that weaves in and out of comedy, it manages to come up with a few answers. The costars include Louise Lasser, Cindy Williams, Cliff De Young, Andrea Martin, and Buck Henry; the latter two are especially funny in the one extended sequence in which they appear.… Read more »

Relentless

Judd Nelson gives the sweatiest performance as a psycho serial murderer that I’ve seen since John Barrymore Jr. in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps. In other respects though, this slightly better than routine cop film is striking only for the consistent incompetence of the LA police department as it operates throughout the plot. William Lustig (Maniac Cop) directed; Robert Loggia, Leo Rossi, and Meg Foster costar. (JR)… Read more »