Yearly Archives: 1989

Female Trouble

This 1975 feature is the best of John Waters’s movies prior to Hairspray and his ultimate concerto for the 300-pound transvestite Divine, whose character will do literally anythingincluding commit mass murderto become famous. As in all of Waters’s early outrages, the technique is cheerfully ramshackle, but Divine’s rage and energy make it vibrate like a sustained aria, with a few metaphors about the beauty of crime borrowed from Jean Genet. With Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as some doubling on the part of Divine that allows the star to have sexual congress with himself, giving birth to . . . guess who? 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Blaze

This disappointing 1989 second feature by writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) stars Paul Newman as onetime Louisiana governor Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze Starr, a stripper who was Long’s mistress. Shelton still shows some flair for dialogue, and the materialmostly drawn from Starr’s as-told-to autobiographyis certainly ripe and colorful (Long was both an eccentric and a genuine visionary, as we know from A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana). But both Newman and Davidovich seem miscast, and despite their honorable efforts neither character registers with the punch that the story warrants. Shelton’s uneven script and fitful direction make much of the pacing sluggish, and while the movie draws some authenticity from its secondary castJerry Hardin, Gailard Sartain, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Garland Buntingand cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s feel for southern locations, the story itself seems to be taking place in a void. The sad irony is, although most of the major events in this movie actually happened, one never quite believes in them as they’re articulated here. (JR)… Read more »

The Big Picture

Christopher Guest’s hilariously canny 1989 satire about contemporary filmmaking in Hollywood was one of David Puttnam’s last projects at Columbia, made with the support of Steve Martin’s production company. The movie turns mushy and conventional whenever it tries to become serious (which fortunately isn’t too often), and ends with a querulous cop-out, but otherwise it’s pretty clear sailing. A prizewinning graduate (Kevin Bacon) of the National Film Institute (read: American Film Institute) is courted by the studios and gets a chance to direct a big Hollywood movie, but the bright ideas of the studio head (J.T. Walsh)whose office, incidentally, is said to be modeled directly after Spielberg’squickly make hash of his script, and other complications, personal as well as professional, follow. Director Guest collaborated on the screenplay with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean; Emily Longstreth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Short (at his absolute best as the hero’s agent), Teri Hatcher, and McKean costar, and Roddy McDowall and Eddie Albert, among others, offer cameos. (JR)… Read more »

Always

Simultaneously Steven Spielberg’s most personal film and his most tedious, this 1989 remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943), with the action transferred from World War II to a vaguely contemporary team of fire-fighting forest rangers, tells the story of a daredevil pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) who dies in an explosion, then returns as a ghost to guide a rookie pilot (Brad Johnson) in the air and into the arms of his own former girlfriend (Holly Hunter). John Goodman plays his best friend, and Audrey Hepburn is around briefly as an advising angel. After groping unsuccessfully for Only Angels Have Wings atmosphere with 1941 trimmings to frame its romantic love story, the movie settles down to some mawkishly earnest soul-searching, with Dreyfuss clearly standing in for Spielberg himself as a happy-go-lucky fellow who wants to do right by the people who go on without him. Despite the obvious sincerity of the project and the energy of both Hunter and Goodman, the disembodied quality of the production makes it far from involving: both the action sequences and the gags are surprisingly lukewarm for Spielberg, and the central dramatic situation — Dreyfuss hovering voyeuristically and paternally outside the action — seems too willed to flow naturally.… 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 music–which tends to register as so much lily gilding–the 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. A presentation of the Jewish Film Foundation. (Univ. of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St., Sunday, December 3, 6:00; also Deerbrook, Monday, December 4, 7:00; also Skokie, Tuesday, December 5, 7:00 and 9:00; 588-2763)… Read more »

Short Films

The only unifying principle behind this assembly of 16-millimeter and Super-8 shorts is that all are made by members, friends, or “reasonably close” acquaintances of Chicago’s wonderful Theater Oobleck. Yet for all the differences in style, theme, and technical proficiency, there’s a fair amount of homogeneity–at least among the films I was able to sample (about 75 percent of them). My favorites include Ross Lipman’s 10-17-88, which uses archival footage (including shots of European Jews during World War II), deft optical printing, and a fascinating musical collage by Reader staffer and former Ooblecker John Shaw to yield a densely layered combo of sound and image; Prunella Vulgaris’s crisp, six-minute Doors and Doors That Slam, narrated by and starring two Barbie dolls; and Laurie Dunphy’s Journalism Conducts a Tour, an acerbic account of what the media do to (and with) minds and bodies, with accompaniment by Al Jolson and an aggressively stuttering text. There’s also Frank Rawland’s goofy and silent Agoraphobia, Rachel X. Weissman’s grimly intriguing I Just Want to Talk to You, and some watchable home movies by several hands, among other items. Check it out. (Theater Oobleck, 3829 N. Broadway, Friday and Saturday, December 1 and 2, 9:00, 384-3346)… Read more »

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 Naked Spur

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1989). — J.R.

the-naked-spur-trio

An uncharacteristically nasty James Stewart plays an obsessive bounty hunter with Robert Ryan in tow in one of the very best Anthony Mann westerns — which means one of the very best westerns, period. This 1953 film has Janet Leigh in jeans, beautiful location shooting (and Technicolor cinematography) in the Rockies, and some of the most intense psychological warfare to be found in Mann’s angular and anguished oeuvre. With Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell, and a top-notch script by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom. 91 min. (JR)

the-naked-spurRead 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 »