Monthly Archives: November 1989

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Four tales about Reinette (Joelle Miquel), a country girl who paints and operates according to certain principles, and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde), her less rigorous friend from the city; they meet in the country in the first episode, and share an apartment in Paris during the remaining three. This feature was shot in 16-millimeter by Eric Rohmer in 1986, shortly before he completed Summer in the same format and with the same method of letting his leading actors improvise dialogue rather than his usual strict adherence to scripts. Not part of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series, and deliberately light and nonambitious (very little of consequence occurs in any of the tales), this nevertheless shows the filmmaker at nearly peak form–sharply attentive to the sights and sounds of country and city alike and to the temperamental differences between his two heroines. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 24 through 30) Read more

The Long Weekend (o’Despair)

Shot for the astonishing sum of $5,000, Gregg Araki’s second feature is accurately described by its writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor as “a minimalistic gay/bisexual postpunk antithesis to the smug complacency of regressive Hollywood tripe like The Big Chill.” A college reunion of sorts takes place when Rachel (Maureen Dondanville), a lesbian, and Sara (Nicole Dillenberg), a hetereosexual, decide to visit their gay friend Michael (Bretton Vail) in LA for a weekend; their new lovers (Andrea Beane and Marcus D’Amico) are in tow, and Michael’s former lover Alex (Lance Woods) happens to turn up as well. All three couples quarrel and gripe to one another about how bored and directionless they are, and there’s a certain amount of tentative breaking up, infidelity, and coming back together again, but basically very little happens. The characters chiefly talk, and Araki’s well-scripted and mainly well-synchronized dialogue essentially carries the movie. An authentic expression of the dead-end feeling of a generation, Araki’s film can be irritating in spots: the defeatist attitude toward politics (epitomized especially in the semiparodic treatment of Rachel’s girlfriend Leah) seems assumed rather than explored, and there are times when the overall existential angst seems as much a matter of fashion here as it was 25 years ago in Antonioni films. Read more

Kung Fu Master!

Not a martial arts movie (the title refers to a video game) but a provocative French feature starring and based on a story by the talented English/French actress Jane Birkin, written and directed by Agnes Varda (Vagabond). Birkin plays a 40-year-old divorcee with two daughters who befriends, falls in love with, and eventually has a fleeting affair with a 14-year-old boy (Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son) who is also in love with her. The very matter-of-fact treatment that this taboo subject receives ties it in persuasively with the film’s comfortably domestic middle-class milieu and the surrounding cultural climate of France and England (in particular, the impact of AIDS). And to compound the personal (if not autobiographical) nature of the project, Birkin’s two daughters are played by her actual daughters (including The Little Thief’s Charlotte Gainsbourg). Neither salacious nor flippant, the film is the serious working-through of a fantasy of Birkin’s that shirks neither its implications nor its consequences. Varda’s serene and unrhetorical handling of such a loaded subject underlined with sympathy and understanding for all of the characters, and full of both wit and tenderness–is what gives this picture its charge (1988). (Fine Arts) Read more

Bangkok Bahrain

Amos Gitai’s documentary about workers in Thailand, with an extended side trip to Bahrain, features interviews with prostitutes, a former film censor who currently recruits workers, a company owner showing off his house, the manager of a luxury hotel, and others. A particularly strong aspect of Gitai’s informative, antitouristic style is his original approach to sound recording and sound mixing; his densely layered sound track nearly always encompasses parts of the surrounding environment that are not visible on screen, so that one’s perceptions of the various milieus being explored are constantly expanded beyond the borders of the frame (1984). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 19, 6:30, 443-3737) Read more

The Peddler

An impressive, often powerful Iranian feature (1987) by Mohsen Makmalbaf–who started out as an anti-Shah activist and fiction writer–composed of three sketches dealing with the poor in Tehran. The first, freely adapted from an Alberto Moravia story, follows the appalling misadventures of an impoverished couple with four crippled children as they try to get their fifth and latest child adopted, in the hope that she won’t wind up crippled as well. The second follows the equally pathetic life of a scatterbrained, spastic Jerry Lewis type who devotes his life to caring for his aged and senile mother. (The couple from the first part reappear briefly in this episode.) The third part, shot in film noir style, is largely devoted to the grim fantasies of a clothes peddler who is afraid of being killed by fellow traffickers. Each episode has a different cinematographer (like most of Kieslowski’s recent Decalogue), and all three are shot very adroitly and fluidly, although the more self conscious stylistics of the third part sit rather oddly with the first two episodes, which are often much closer to neorealism. According to Makmalbaf, the film as a whole deals with the three stages of man–birth, “journey through life,” and death. Read more

Onion City Film Festival

Now in its sixth year, this festival of experimental films will be screening its prizewinners on two consecutive nights. Only two films will be shown both nights, the special jurors’ award winner (Fred Marx’s Dreams From China, a pungent, ambivalent personal essay about his two years in that country) and one of the first-prize winners (Sal Giammona’s Wall in the Woods, a densely compacted reverie about a cosmic eggbeater, featuring lots of special effects and imaginative graphics). My other favorites in the Friday show include Phillip Roth’s Boy’s/Life, an unfashionably joyous celebration of safe sex (group masturbation parties) and affection (fondling in public places) among gay men; the spirited and literally dotty J. P. Somersaulter’s Dot to Dot Cartoon; and two bits of wacky Dada from Heather McAdams (Mr. Glen W. Turner and Fetal Pig Anatomy), made mainly with found footage. Among the other Saturday selections that I previewed, I especially liked Jay Rosenblatt’s Paris X 2 (a dreamy love story filmed in San Francisco and Paris, throbbing with remembered movie moments and ambiguous street and studio photography), David Stoff’s delightfully color-splashed My Electric Coloring Book, Francois Miron’s Dismal Universal Hiss (full of aggressive optical printing and flicker effects), and Amy Kravitz’s brooding black-and-white animation The Trap. Read more

The Suitors

An Iranian businessman brings his young wife to New York, where a misunderstanding quickly leaves her a widow and the object of the attentions of some of her husband’s friends. Writer-director Ghasem Ebrahimian’s location shooting in 16-millimeter employs a strikingly vivid use of color, but his talents as a storyteller are unevenshots are often held too long without any discernible rhythmic or narrative function. As a plot with both comic and thriller elements, the film’s beginning and closing sections are provocative (if not always convincing) while the middle tends to sag. Overall, this is a fitfully interesting first feature with a few things to say about the clashes between American and Iranian cultures, but not a fully realized piece of filmmaking. With Pouran, Ali Azizian, Shahab Navab, and Assurbanipal Babila (1988). (JR) Read more

Steel Magnolias

I haven’t seen the popular play by Robert Harling that Harling himself has adapted here, expanding the all-female original to accommodate some menfolk (Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Sam Shepard) in smaller parts, but it must have something more to offer than director Herbert Ross’s corny, all-star mounting of it, with Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts heading the cast. Full of either fake or slippery southern accents (MacLaine and Dukakis are the worst offenders) and humor that largely consists of sentences ending with butt or where the sun don’t shine, the film at least has the authentic and good-natured sincerity of Parton and Field and the talent and charm of Hannah to guide one over some of the stickier sections. If you can survive the sentimental harmonica music of Georges Delerue, the overall ambience of this tribute to the camaraderie of southern women is facile and a mite mechanical, but otherwise tolerable (1989). (JR) Read more

Staying Together

Shot on location in South Carolinaalthough it’s actually a story that could have been set in numerous other locationsLee Grant’s second feature as a director (after Tell Me a Riddle in 1980) is a low-key but reasonably effective comedy-drama recounting what happens to three brothers (Tim Quill, Dermot Mulroney, and Sean Astin) after their father (Jim Haynie) decides to sell his local fast-food chicken restaurant; others in the capable cast include Stockard Channing, Melinda Dillon, Dinah Manoff, Daphne Zuniga, and Levon Helm (former drummer and lead singer of the Band). Scripted with sincerity and sensitivity (despite a certain familiarity in some of the material) by Monte Merrick, the movie is nothing spectacular, but the ensemble acting keeps it consistently watchable. (JR) Read more

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

William Shatner wrote the story (with Harve Bennett and screenwriter David Loughery) and makes his awkward if sincere directorial debut in this 1989 sequelan exceptionally feeble entry whose ideas, visual and otherwise, consist of hand-me-downs from 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Superman III, and whose special effects, despite the hefty budget, look strictly bargain basement. The Enterprise crew (Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei) encounter a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) who wants to usurp the starship for a dangerous quest to find God at the center of the universe. David Warner also stars, although it looks like most of his part wound up on the cutting-room floor. (JR) Read more

Shirley Valentine

Pauline Collins plays Shirley Valentine-Bradshaw, an English housewife and mother who at 42 wants to get back in touch with the dreams of her rebellious youth, and who gets her chance when a friend invites her to come along on a two-week holiday in Greece. Adapted by Willy Russell from his own play (which had only one character when Collins won a Tony for playing her on the stage, but has been amply fleshed out for the film version), and directed by Lewis Gilbert, the movie is reminiscent in certain ways of two other Gilbert filmsAlfie (which was also narrated by the leading character addressing the camera) and Educating Rita (another actorly piece adapted by Russell from his own play)but, thanks to a delightful script and an equally delightful performance by Collins, Shirley Valentine is arguably a better work than either. With Tom Conti (as a Greek waiter), Julia McKenzie, Alison Steadman, Joanna Lumley, and Bernard Hill. (JR) Read more

Sex, Lies, And Videotape

Winner of the grand prize at the 1989 Cannes film festival, this is an extremely well made chamber piece about sexual attitudes and impulses. At the center of this stylish comedy-drama are an up-and-coming yuppie lawyer (Peter Gallagher); his sexually repressed wife (Andie MacDowell); his sexually uninhibited mistress (Laura San Giacomo), who happens to be his wife’s sister; and his former college chum, who’s just moved back to town (James Spader, who won the prize for best actor at Cannes)an impotent eccentric who likes to videotape women talking about their sexual experiences. Cunningly scripted and acted, and talky in the best sense, the film is engrossing to watch but not especially interesting to ponder afterward; it’s certainly an improvement on formulaic Hollywood, but on a thematic level there’s still more windup than deliveryit’s a film that ultimately seeks to satisfy more than to provoke. Writer-director Steven Soderbergh works mainly in close-ups and medium shots, and while his close concentration on his quartet of characters makes for a narrative intensity, the relative absence of a wider social context leads to a certain overall preciosity. You should see this, but don’t expect any major revelations. (JR) Read more

Harlem Nights

Eddie Murphy stars, writes, produces, and debuts as a director with this semicomic gangster movie mainly set in 1938. Playing the adopted son and partner of a crooked Harlem nightclub tycoon (Richard Pryor), Murphy struts his usual stuff as an actor and icon in the midst of opulence, this time doing battle against a white mobster (Michael Lerner) and white cop (Danny Aiello) who are trying to take away their business. The plot exposition gets laborious in spots, the period flavor is only occasional and approximate, and the direction tends to be clunky, yet the strong secondary castRedd Foxx, Della Reese, Berlinda Tolbert, Stan Shaw, Jasmine Guy, Vic Polizos, Lela Rochon, Arsenio Hall, and othershelps to take up some of the slack; the so-so score is by Herbie Hancock (1989). (JR) Read more

Weapons Of The Spirit

Pierre Sauvage’s fascinating personal documentary about the remarkable French town of Le Chambon, only 20 miles from Vichy, where the 5,000 inhabitants, most of them devout Protestants, managed to shelter 5,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation. Whatever one’s misgivings about the ultraconventional form of this documentary and the excessive use of musicwhich tends to register as so much lily gildingthe story that this film has to tell is such a remarkable and inspiring one that it still has the force of a revelation. Sauvage is a Jew who was born in Le Chambon in 1944, and as he interviews many of the surviving inhabitants of the town today, their simple and unpretentious goodness, which somehow managed to subvert even certain Vichy officials, gives us a look at that era that forces us to revise somewhat the conclusions reached in Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Hotel Terminus. Offering a healthy and bracing alternative to the ethnocentrism that informs so much commentary about the Holocaust, this is a film that quite simply restores one’s faith in humanity. (JR) Read more


For its first half or so, director Milos Forman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s free adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liasons dangereuses holds a great deal of promise. Beautifully mounted and attractively shot in ‘Scope (by Miroslav Ondricek), seductively acted (especially by Colin Firth as Valmont and Annette Bening as Merteuil), and crisply and economically edited, the film dives straight into the novel’s central intrigue without any preliminaries, and holds one’s interest with sheer storytelling flair before one has any opportunity to wonder what this story (in contrast to the novel) is actually about. Unfortunately, it gradually emerges that Forman and Carriere are pretty much in the dark themselves about what their story means. Neither a reductive simplification of the original (like Carriere’s versions of Proust in Swann in Love and Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) nor a reductive subversion (like Forman’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and not even a combination of the two (like Forman’s Ragtime), the film winds up subtracting meaning from the original without really adding any strong independent meaning of its own. All the major characters (with the possible exception of the simple-hearted Danceny) are reduced to ciphers, either through a withdrawal of their original motivations (Merteuil and Tourvel) or a softening of their natures (in the case of Valmont), so that what emerges by the end is genuinely bafflingand not very interesting as an enigma either. Read more