Daily Archives: November 1, 1989

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

The Toxic Avenger Part Iii

Third series installment, subtitled The Last Temptation of Toxie, about the superhero from New Jersey (Ron Fazio), scripted by Gay Partington Terry and Lloyd Kaufman, and directed, like its predecessors, by Michael Herz and Kaufman. Fans of the earlier entries may have some fun with the stridently campy badness of the gags and gore; after sampling the first 20 minutes or so, I found it unwatchable. With Phoebe Legere, John Altamura, Rick Collins, and Lisa Gaye. (JR) Read more


A French film written and directed by Pierre-Henry Salfati, this rather tedious period picture takes off from the alleged practice in late 18th-century England of well-to-do salons adopting as house pets and conversation pieces hermits who were ejected from British monasteries for being too pious. According to this movie, the craze for salon hermits was exported to the Continent, at least to the extent that one such hermit turns up in a crate at the wealthy estate of a French noble family. The wife of the nobleman, whose name is Tolerance, takes this bearded, unkempt hermit pretty seriously, which winds up threatening the stability of her marriage; the hermit asks the nobleman at one point to teach him debauchery, which for him represents the ultimate self-sacrifice. None of this is very convincing, and the satirical possibilities of the conceit, which cry out for the steely control of a Peter Greenaway, are frittered away in peripheral details. I previewed thisor, rather, most of thison video, and some decorous cinematography and Mozart on the soundtrack weren’t enough to keep my finger from the fast-forward button. With Ugo Tognazzi (as the nobleman), Rupert Everett, Anne Brochet, and Laszlo Szabo. Read more


Amos Gitai’s fascinating social history of the growing and processing of pineapple, which extends back to 1898, when Sanford Dole became the first governor of Hawaii. This 1983 documentary leaps geographically between the Dole headquarters in San Francisco, plantations in the Philippines, processing plants in Hawaii, and the wholly automated label-printing plant in Tokyo, contrasting the very different perceptions of management and workers. As he did in the subsequent Bangkok Bahrain, Gitai experiments with the sound track; here he concentrates on mixing discourses (particularly using a whispered chant and other kinds of music behind the various interviews), which reach a climactic cacophony in the final sequence. It’s an interesting and suggestive technique, though there are times when it becomes more distracting than illuminating. 78 min. (JR) Read more

Phantom Of The Opera

The latest remake of this war-horse stars Robert Englund as the phantom, along with Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy, Terence Harvey, Stephanie Lawrence, and Alex Hyde-White, and was directed by Dwight H. Little. (JR) Read more

The Peddler

An impressive, often powerful Iranian feature (1987, 95 min.) by Mohsen Makhmalbafwho started out as an antishah activist and fiction writercomposed of three sketches dealing with the poor in Tehran (1987). 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’s afraid of being killed by fellow traffickers. Each episode has a different cinematographer and all are shot very adroitly and fluidly, though 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 Makhmalbaf, the film as a whole deals with the three stages of existencebirth, journey through life, and death. Critic Gerald Peary has compared the film to Rossellini’s Paisan, and it’s certainly true that the first episode is as wrenching as anything in that film or in Germany, Year Zero. Read more


Jacques Tati’s last filmhis least-known work, shot mostly on videotape for Swedish televisionis seldom shown, but it’s a far greater achievement than most accounts would lead you to expect. Ostensibly nothing more than a series of circus and music-hall acts (including several of Tati’s most famous pantomimes) hosted by Tati and performed for an ordinary family audience, it is in fact a powerful testament that further develops the radical formal and social ideas of his masterpiece Playtime in more modest terms without sacrificing any of that work’s revolutionary implications. It’s literally impossible to determine when one act ends and another one begins, because of a complex process of displaced emphasis and a graceful dovetailing of details; it’s equally impossible to tell from the brilliant and deceptively simple mise en scene how much is straight documentary and how much contrived fiction. All this proceeds so naturally and effortlessly that one might misread the film as nothing more than minor light entertainment (although it certainly succeeds on that level). But Tati is clearly after much morea vision of spectacle, of dexterity versus awkwardness, of seeing versus being seen that carries the filmmaker’s antielitism to the point of dissolving all distinctions between stars and stargazers, performers and spectators, accomplished acrobats and children at play. Read more