Monthly Archives: October 1989

Last Days of the Film Festival

“We were filling the gap in the 60s. We started changing people’s tastes in filmgoing to make them want to see more of this kind of product. And now the theaters that used to show it all have stopped showing it because the distributors do not buy foreign product anymore and foreign product is not being shown in the local theaters anymore. So, ironically, we’ve become the only source now, the festival, for this new kind of film.”

“I have always found that in Chicago, depending on the year, I find the critics to be a rather provincial lot, and they do tend to destroy their own [film festival] but they like seeing the very same film when they can get out of Chicago on a comp or a VIP tour to another festival. They seem to like it more when they can be extracted from their own city and relax and see films.”

“Kieslowski is a director we discovered, and the Decalogue would not exist without us, interestingly enough.”

These modest remarks by Michael J. Kutza, director of the Chicago International Film Festival, are quoted verbatim from John Callaway’s show Chicago Tonight on October 17. (In the interest of brevity, I’ve omitted Kutza’s groundless attacks on the aesthetic tastes of the programmers of the Toronto film festival and on the historical acumen of Dave Kehr.) Read more

Drugstore Cowboy

Set in Portland, Oregon, in 1971, this amiable, no-nonsense account of the exploits of a quartet of junkies who live together (Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and Heather Graham) fully lives up to the promise of Mala Noche, director Gus Van Sant’s previous feature. Based on an unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle that Van Sant adapted with Daniel Yost, the movie has the kind of stylistic conviction that immediately wins one over, conveying something of a junkie’s inner life (in the film’s editing rhythms, unorthodox use of sudden close-ups, and Dillon’s offscreen narration, as well as in a few hallucinatory passages) and the outer necessities of the life-style (which, in this case, include many drugstore robberies and changes of address). The characters are all quirky and life-size (the Dillon character’s superstitiousness is one of the principal motors of the plot, and the story’s outcome doesn’t prove him wrong), and, as with the burglaries in Breaking In, the treatment of drugs is refreshingly free of either moralizing or romanticizing. It’s one indication of Van Sant’s ease and assurance that he’s the first director to successfully integrate the persona of William S. Burroughs in a fiction film: all of the actors are used expertly, but it’s Burroughs, cropping up near the end, who articulates the film’s sociopolitical moral in a contemporary context. Read more


This is my first encounter with Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr (Family Nest) and I hope it won’t be my last. People who don’t have much use for the existential gloom of Antonioni and Tarkovsky are advised to stay away, because many of the hallmarks of that relentless black-and-white style and vision–lots of rain, fog, and stray dogs; murky and decaying bars; artfully composed long takes made up of very slow and almost continuous camera movements; offscreen mechanical noises–are so forcefully present here that one might argue that the film makes a voluptuous fetish of gloom. The rather bare story line in the middle of this–a reclusive loner (Miklos Szekely) is hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer (Vali Kerekes), hopes to find salvation in her, and gets her husband involved in a smuggling scheme so he can spend some time with her–seems almost secondary to the formal beauty of Tarr’s spellbinding arabesques around the dingiest of all possible industrial outposts. The near miracle is that something so compulsively watchable can be made out of a setting and society that seem so depressive and petrified (1987). (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, October 28, 9:00, and Sunday, October 29, 7:30, 281-4114) Read more

Queen of Hearts

Jon Amiel, a British director best known in this country for the miniseries The Singing Detective, directs a wonderful Italian family chronicle with a lot of style, lyricism, humor, and emotion. Tony Grisoni’s script deftly juggles a number of full-blown characters over 20-odd years while successfully employing a few touches of magical realism that Amiel makes the most of. Everything of consequence that happens stems from an incident in Italy that occurs without dialogue in the first few minutes: Danilo (Joseph Long) literally steals his lover Rosa (Anita Zagaria) away from an arranged marriage, and the angry groom Barbariccia (Vittorio Amandola) swears to take revenge. The couple go off to London with Rosa’s mother (Eileen Way) in tow, where they eventually have a lot of kids (their youngest son, played by Ian Hawkes, is the story’s narrator) and open a coffee shop in Soho; eventually Barbariccia comes to London as well, and gradually sets about achieving his revenge. Beautifully shot and richly detailed, this portrait of Italian life is leagues ahead of an effort like Moonstruck, and clearly marks Amiel as a talent to reckon with. (Fine Arts) Read more

Fat Man and Little Boy

The surprising thing about Roland Joffe’s movie about the building of the first atomic bomb is that, for all its unevenness as filmmaking–with a fragmented story line, unconvincing period dialogue, and a soupy Ennio Morricone score that would be more appropriate in a Sergio Leone epic–it still comes across as an unusually intelligent and provocative treatment of its subject. Concentrating on the power relationship between General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman in a carefully crafted performance) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (newcomer Dwight Schultz), with plenty of time left for Oppenheimer’s feisty wife Kitty (Bonnie Bedelia), the romance between a young scientist (John Cusack) and a nurse (Laura Dern), and various other subplots, the movie starts off as scattered, and never fully recovers from the splintered interests of Joffe and Bruce Robinson’s ambitious script. (The corny handling of Oppenheimer’s relationship to his Communist mistress, played by Natasha Richardson, is especially unfortunate.) But the film steadily grows in complexity and power, assisted by Vilmos Zsigmond’s superb cinematography, and by the end it actually winds up saying something persuasive and troubling about the network of forces that ultimately produced the bomb–a vast improvement on such earlier commercial treatments of the subject as The Beginning or the End (1947), which gave us Brian Donlevy as Groves and Hume Cronyn as Oppenheimer, without a trace of irony about either character. Read more

To Kill a Priest

This film in English by the gifted Polish writer-director Agnieszka Holland (who wrote Anna and directed A Woman Alone), receiving its exclusive U.S. premiere here, is a fiction film based on the real-life assassination of Solidarity chaplain Father Jerzy Popieluszko by secret police in 1984. While there’s a certain awkwardness inherent in making what is essentially an English-language Polish film on a Polish subject in France with English and American actors, this is a far cry from simple Solidarity agitprop. Holland is interested in exploring the moral complexity and ambiguity of Poland in the early 80s, and sets about this task with a great deal of intelligence and imagination, devoting even more attention to the police captain (Ed Harris in one of his better performances) who kills the priest (Christopher Lambert) than she does to the priest himself. In contrast to the kindergarten-level philosophizing of Woody Allen’s new Crimes and Misdemeanors, this is a film of some depth with a genuine sense of ethical nuance. Holland is generally well served by her cast, which also includes Joanne Whalley, Joss Ackland, Tim Roth, and Peter Postlethwaite (the father in Distant Voices, Still Lives). (Broadway, Commons, Plaza, 900 N. Michigan, Ridge, Bricktown Square, Hillside Square) Read more

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play Jack and Frank Baker, a second-rate cocktail-lounge piano duo with staying power who hire Susie Diamond, a sexy vocalist (Michelle Pfeiffer), to beef up their act, in the impressive directorial debut of screenwriter Steve Kloves (Racing With the Moon), who also wrote the script. Frank is the square brother who handles the business–he’s married, with kids, and not very musically inspired; Jack is remote, relatively irresponsible, and gifted–he plays jazz in his spare time and sounds like a leaner version of Bill Evans (his piano solos are dubbed by Dave Grusin, the film’s music director, and the dubbing is for the most part expertly done). Susie is a former call girl who brings some soul to the group, as well as some problems when she and Jack develop a mutual attraction, and Pfeiffer turns out to be a terrific singer. This pared-away comedy-drama, which concentrates exclusively on the three characters, has plenty of old fashioned virtues: deft acting, a nice sense of scale that makes the drama agreeably life-size, a good use of Seattle locations, fluid camera work (by Michael Ballhaus), a kind of burnished romanticism about the music, and a genuine feeling for the characters and their various means of coping. Read more


The 25th Chicago International Film Festival celebrates its longevity by offering more films this year than ever before. Not counting several special programs, about 130 films are being offered–and once again, quantity rather than quality is the festival’s principal calling card.

With the public tolerance for subtitles shrinking every year, and the number of foreign-language films distributed in this country decreasing correspondingly, any event that offers cinematic evidence of what is happening in other countries has to be valuable. Despite this built-in advantage, however, the Chicago festival unfailingly goes about its task with distressing unevenness. The number of insignificant-to-awful items set to be screened–along with some undeniably good and important films–continues to rankle, if only because festival director Michael Kutza doesn’t seem to have assembled this hodgepodge with any consistent aesthetic, historical, or political position in mind. If you entered a well-stocked bookstore and grabbed the first 130 titles in sight, you’d come up with a collection something like the films in this festival.

Thanks to this year’s large amount of retrospective items, and (one suspects) the critical input of Kutza’s assistant John Porter, who made some of the selections, the number of good films at the festival does seem higher than usual. Read more

Ashik Kerib

The latest film of Sergei Paradjanov (1988), a loose adaptation of a story by Mikhail Lermontov about a Turkish minstrel and maiden, is a relatively minor work with much personal and autobiographical significance. But minor Paradjanov qualifies as something very close to major from most other filmmakers. The style is somewhat akin to the frontal tableaux vivants of The Color of Pomegranates with the addition of some camera movement, dialogue, and offscreen narration; the Azerbaijani dialogue and the subtitled Georgian narration tell the story proper, and the limitation of the visuals in this case is that they tend to be more illustrative than is usual with Paradianov. But even if Ashik Kerib were only a collection of beautiful shots (and it is clearly more than that), they would still be some of the most beautiful shots to be found in contemporary Soviet cinema–richly colored, mysterious, and magical. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, October 13, 6:00, and Saturday and Sunday, October 14 and 15, 4:00, 443-3737) Read more

Film Festival Previews

Having now experienced two years’ worth of the Chicago International Film Festival, I’m not the least bit surprised to learn that the 25th-anniversary version, the largest to date, is starting on Thursday, October 12, three days before “opening night.” We’ll have plenty to say about this event when it gets fully under way next week; for the moment, here are reviews of the four films to be shown on Thursday, written by Gerald Peary, Ronnie Scheib, Barbara Scharres, and John Stevenson; films preceded by an asterisk (*) are recommended.

The Thursday films will be shown at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and the University of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St.; ticket prices are $6, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. For further information, call 644-3456. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

*Jesus of Montreal

Denys Arcand had his first worldwide hit in 1986, with the intellectual sex comedy The Decline of the American Empire, although this smart and witty Quebec director is no novice. A well-known name in Canadian film since a notorious banned sociopolitical documentary in 1970, Arcand turned to fiction features and has become one of the sharpest and most irreverent observers of North American culture and middle-class values working today. In Jesus of Montreal, Daniel, a young unemployed actor, is hired by a priest with patron-of-the-arts pretensions to revive a wheezy 50s passion play for performance on a mountainside above Montreal. Read more

Swamp Water

This is commonly known as Jean Renoir’s first American film (1941), although Renoir scholar Alexander Sesonske has established that Renoir’s creative role in the project was severely hampered by producer Darryl F. Zanuck and that he didn’t regard much of the film as his own. (The ending, for instance, was written by Zanuck and directed by Irving Pichel.) Nevertheless, the film has certain beauties and pleasures. Part of it was shot in Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp, and the treatment of the small community living nearby is often pungent and distinctive. With Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, Anne Baxter, Walter Huston, John Carradine, Ward Bond, and Eugene Pallette. 86 min. (JR) Read more

A Street To Die

The first feature of Australian director Bill Bennett (1985) focuses on a Vietnam war veteran (Chris Haywood) who contracts leukemia after his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange and proceeds to fight the government bureaucracy, with the aid of his wife (Jennifer Cluff), in order to get compensation. Acutely realist in presentation, with solid performances from all of the actors, this is a straightforward, serious drama with a great deal of quiet power. (JR) Read more

When The Whales Came

Paul Scofield and Helen Mirren are both certainly able as the stars of this ecological parable, which is set on England’s Isle of Bryher at the time of the outbreak of World War I. But it’s not hard to imagine this sentimental, goodhearted effort as a low-budget Technicolor MGM family picture of the early 50s, with, say, Greer Garson and Donald Crisp. Seventy years before the story opens, the Isle of Samson has been blighted by a curse brought by the inhabitants’ preying on a school of beached whales. One of the survivors, now a deaf social outcast known on Bryher as the Birdman (Scofield), teaches two children on the island (Helen Pearce and Max Rennie) how to appreciate and respect nature, and when the whales begin to turn up on Bryher, it becomes their job to avert a repetition of the disaster that befell Samson in 1844. Adapted by Michael Morpurgo from his own novel and directed by Clive Rees, this is a pleasant enough family picture, although not a very dynamic one. (JR) Read more

The Water Magician

Also known as White Threads of the Waterfall, this 1933 film by the sublime Kenji Mizoguchi is one of his two silent features to have survived intact. The plot concerns a female entertainer, whose act involves juggling jets of water, and her romantic relationship with a shy young man; years later the man has become a judge and presides over her trial for murder. A major reason why sound films came later to Japan than to almost everywhere else was the figure of the benshithe explainer of silent films who acted out all the parts and added commentary of his or her own, and whose popularity with Japanese audiences was such that they often went to hear and see their favorite benshi rather than their favorite film star. In the new subtitled print that will be shown, the sound track features music as well as narration by the late Shunsui Matsuda, one of the most acclaimed of the benshi perfomers. (JR) Read more

Vernon, Florida

Errol Morris’s second film (1981), made after Gates of Heaven and before The Thin Blue Line, is a 55-minute documentary about the eccentric residents of a small town. Not as interesting as Morris’s other films, although it has its moments. (JR) Read more