Yearly Archives: 1990

The Third Animation Celebration

A better-than-average compilation of animated shorts from Czechoslovakia, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, the USSR, and the U.S., which predominates (12 shorts out of 20). Among the highlights are some excellent examples of claymation from England (Peter Lord’s War Story) and Czechoslovakia (Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness), two striking animal fables from the Soviet Union (Alexei Karaev’s Welcome and Mikhail Aldashin’s Poumse), and some funny and imaginative American efforts (Michael A. Kory’s Bonehead, Sylvie Fefer’s Personality Software, George Griffin’s New Fangled, Lidia Przyluska and J. Otto Siebold’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and John Kricfalusi’s Big House Blues). One has to put up with inevitable and relatively routine spin-offs from previous animation collections, but otherwise the level of achievement is quite high. (Music Box, Tuesday, December 25, through Thursday, January 3)… Read more »

Miserable Mistake

To the editors:

May I correct a gaffe that crept into the last sentence of my review of Misery [December 7]? While I originally concluded that “‘success’ in a movie of this kind mainly boils down to successful counterfeiting,” the phrase now reads, “‘success’ in a genre movie mainly boils down to successful counterfeiting” — an inadvertent charge that takes in musicals, westerns, and anything else that might be considered a genre movie. Actually, I was only referring to movies like Misery — psychological horror movies derived from Psycho — not genre movies in general.

Jonathan Rosenbaum… Read more »

Awakenings

A lot of boiling and scraping has been required to bring Oliver Sacks’s 1973 case studies of postencephalitic patients–victims of the “sleeping sickness” epidemic of the 20s–to the screen, and many of the standard Hollywood blunt instruments are used to perform this task: changing Sacks himself into an American with a different name (Robin Williams), concentrating almost exclusively on a single patient (Robert De Niro), and scenes and emotional reactions that seem designed at times to duplicate the successes of Rain Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (among other films). Director Penny Marshall (Big) often aims for slick effects, and Steven Zaillian’s script helps this process along by simplifying Sacks’s book to the point of banality. But the material is still powerful, and the offbeat story of the patients remains both engrossing and moving even after all this abridgment. One needs to raise certain questions about Sacks’s own talent for poeticizing neurological disorders, but at the same time it is difficult not to be affected by his talent. Randy Newman contributed the score, and John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow costar. (Starts Thursday, December 20, Esquire)… Read more »

Phantom

F.W. Murnau made this feature the same year (1922) as his much better known Nosferatu, but it isn’t a fantasy or horror picture, as the title might suggest. Coadapted by Thea von Harbou (M) from a novel by Gerhart Hauptmann, it moves into high gear and becomes downright dazzling at a few privileged expressionist moments that convey the hero’s slightly deranged sensibility, as when surrounding buildings seem to collapse on him or a camera cranes over his head in a nightclub to reveal a motorcyclist. Otherwise somewhat stodgy in its seriousness, Phantom remains a secondary work by a great filmmaker. With Alfred Abel, Lil Dagover, and Lya De Putti. In German with subtitles. 125 min. (JR)… Read more »

Films By Louis Hock

Three early shorts by experimental filmmaker and School of the Art Institute graduate Louis Hock, who went on to make the remarkable video documentary The Mexican Tapes. All three shorts are structural in orientation: Elements (1972), Silent Reversal (1973), and Zebra (1974). Recommended. (JR)… Read more »

Havana

A professional Yankee gambler (Robert Redford) falls for the politically committed wife (Lena Olin) of a wealthy Cuban radical (Raul Julia) on the eve of the Cuban revolution (Christmas 1958), and finds himself, like Casablanca’s Rick, getting sucked into politics in spite of himself. The plot’s a lot skimpier than Casablanca’s, but the running time is 40-odd minutes longer, thanks to the film’s efforts (mainly successful) to re-create the place and period in some detailalthough Castro’s rebels don’t put in much of an appearance, and the movie’s determination to slip as many Sinatra tunes as possible into the sound track occasionally seems labored. (David Grusin’s score also features other period hits, romantic schmaltz, and the umpteenth rip-off of Sketches of Spain.) In fact, elaborate visual mounting and iconographic placement of the romantic leads are the movie’s preoccupation, with the overthrow of Batista merely providing local color; American fence-sitting may be part of what the liberal filmmakersscreenwriters Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel and director Sydney Pollackhave in mind, but the revolution itself is scaled to the hero’s narrow vision, and consequently remains in the wings throughout. What emerges is watchable enough in terms of spectacle, with a good secondary castincluding Alan Arkin, Tomas Milian, Richard Farnsworth, Mark Rydell, and Fred Asparagus (the latter essaying a sort of Cuban Sydney Greenstreet)but is nonetheless thematically limited (1990).… Read more »

The Whole Of Life

Described as a Godardian semidocumentary, Bruno Moll’s Swiss film about a 50-year-old lesbian with a rocky past features both the woman herself and an actress (Serena Wey) portraying her.… Read more »

The Third Animation Festival

A better-than-average compilation of animated shorts from Czechoslovakia, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, the USSR, and the U.S., which predominates (12 shorts out of 20). Among the highlights are some excellent examples of Claymation from England (Peter Lord’s War Story) and Czechoslovakia (Jan Svankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness), two striking animal fables from the Soviet Union (Alexei Karaev’s Welcome and Mikhail Aldashin’s Poumse), and some funny and imaginative American efforts (Michael A. Kory’s Bonehead, Sylvie Fefer’s Personality Software, George Griffin’s New Fangled, Lidia Przyluska and J. Otto Siebold’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and John Kricfalusi’s Big House Blues). One has to put up with inevitable and relatively routine spin-offs from previous animation collections, but otherwise the level of achievement is quite high (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Mermaids

An eccentric, promiscuous single Jewish mother (Cher) with daughters aged 15 (Winona Ryder) and 9 (Christina Ricci) keeps pulling up stakes and moving whenever her relationships with men go bad. Finally resettling with her girls in a small coastal town in Massachusetts, she becomes acquainted with the kindhearted proprietor of a shoe store (Bob Hoskins), while her older daughter, set on becoming a nun, becomes infatuated with the caretaker of the nearby convent (Michael Schoeffling). Adapted by June Roberts from Patty Dann’s novel and directed by Richard Benjamin, this comedy-drama set in 1963 is amiable enough and capably acted, but it never becomes as singular or as memorable as it wants to be. However, the interplay between Ryder and Cher is certainly well handled (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Freak Orlando

Virginia Woolf meets the German camp underground in this 126-minute extravaganza of performance art and oddity by Ulrike Ottinger. Actually, the political focus is closer to that of Tod Browning’s Freaks than to Woolf’s Orlando, though Ottinger has taken from Woolf the notion of an ideal protagonist [who] represents all the social possibilitiesman and womanwhich we normally do not have. The five episodes situate the hero/heroine in the Freak City department store (along with her seven dwarf shoemakers), in the Middle Ages, toward the end of the Spanish Inquisition, in a circus (where he falls in love with Delphine Seyrig, one of a pair of Siamese twins), and on a grand European tour with four bunnies (during which she appears at an annual festival of ugliness). The whole movie is as variable as a circus, but there are some priceless bits, including a virtuoso solo performance of Christ on the cross (1981). (JR)… Read more »

Did They Buy It?: Nicaragua’s 1990 Elections

A fascinating 45-minute video documentary by Chicagoan Bob Hercules, filmed on location with a crew of four, that concentrates largely on the U.S. media coverage of the Nicaraguan elections. What emerges is not only a sharp piece of alternative news coverage that helps to explain the outcome (a matter that most mainstream coverage tended to obfuscate) and an informative account of the various powers at play, but also a revealing and multifaceted (and alternately funny and chilling) look at how the U.S. news about Nicaragua actually gets “created.” Particular attention is given to journalists from NBC Newsweek, and National Public Radio as they put together their reports, but many other observers (including many Nicaraguans) are heard from; especially lucid and eloquent are Ed Asner and a couple of Nicaraguan women speaking about their sons in the army. To be shown on a large screen; presented by the Committee for Labor Access. (Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union Hall, 333 S. Ashland, Friday, November 30, 8:00, 850-1300)… Read more »

Berkeley in the Sixties

A near-definitive account of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 60s, including the campus protests that preceded and followed it during the decade. Mark Kitchell, the young filmmaker who put this together over six years, combines a vivid oral history recounted by many of the participants (including, among many others, Susan Griffin, Todd Gitlin, Bobby Seale, John Searle, and Chicagoan Jack Weinberg) with fascinating archival footage and still photographs (which feature, among others, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King Jr., Mario Savio, the Grateful Dead, and Governor Ronald Reagan). What emerges is neither a simple exercise in nostalgia nor watered-down, TV-style history, but a detailed inquiry, with a sharp analytical sense of where the Free Speech Movement came from and how it developed, informed throughout by a keen sense of political and historical process. One regrets that Kitchell limited his coverage of what the participants are doing today to American Graffiti-style titles at the end–which suggests a form of historical closure that one would like to think a film of this sort would avoid. But in all other respects this is essential viewing. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, November 24, 6:00 and 8:15, and Sunday and Thursday, November 25 and 29, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Route One/USA

I’ve only seen about half of Robert Kramer’s 253-minute epic, but I can certainly recommend it very highly on that basis. This is a fictional documentary in which a character named Doc (Paul McIsaac), who figured in two earlier Kramer films, travels with cinematographer-director Kramer from Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, looking for a job and a home while taking in what’s been happening to this country lately. Doc attends a Pat Robertson-for-president meeting in New Hampshire, visits Walden Pond, and is interviewed for a job in a Manhattan ghetto school. Kramer is an American independent with a background in radical documentaries whose political fiction films (including The Edge and Ice) made a decisive mark in the 60s, but he’s been living in Europe since 1979 and making most of his films there, which regrettably kept both his name and his work out of general circulation in the U.S. This multifaceted road movie represents both a return to his sources and a striking out in fresh directions (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 18, 2:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Betty Boop Scandals

This fabulous 1974 compilation of 20s and 30s cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer, highlighting (but not exclusively) their Betty Boop cartoons, looks just as wild and as wacky as it did 16 years ago. Over the years Tex Avery has become recognized as the surrealist master of the Hollywood cartoon, and with reason. But one shouldn’t forget that the Fleischers anticipated many of his free-form imaginative flights with charming and creepy fantasies and radical transitions that are in some ways even more dreamlike. The plots are minimal, as are the leading characters (Betty, Koko, and Bimbo), but the intricate and integral uses of live action, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, bouncing-ball sing-alongs (complete with scat lyrics in some cases), rampant and delirious anthropomorphism, and daffy wit make these cartoons enduring classics. All the black-and-white and triumphantly uncolorized) selections here will be seen in good 35-millimeter prints: Koko’s Earth Control (1928), the only silent film in the bunch; Koko’s Harem Scarem (1929); Bimbo’s Initiation (1931); Minnie the Moocher (1932); Stoopnocracy (1933); Boilesk (1933); and Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934). Stoopnocracy, a demented concerto about insanity, is alone worth the price of admission. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 16, 6:00, 443-3737)… Read more »

Storytelling/Artist on Fire

Two highly original and personal documentaries by Canadian feminist filmmaker Kay Armatage, both of which gracefully fuse traditional and experimental methods of art making to offer passionate views of creativity. Storytelling (1983) intercuts between the performances of several master storytellers, each representing a different style and tradition. Most of the storytellers are women–an old Irish woman tells a folktale, a middle-aged woman tells an Inuit folktale, a very young woman performs in a highly theatrical style, and Constance de Jong tells a postmodern story about stories and their effects–but the film also makes room for a male metis elder, an elderly black man who tells a story gospel style, and a 23-year-old male rap artist. Individually these stories proceed like serials; collectively they suggest an evolution from creation and birth to death and regeneration. Artist on Fire (1987) is subtitled The Work of Joyce Wieland, but “The World of Joyce Wieland” or “The Vision of Joyce Wieland” might be more apt because we learn a great deal about this remarkable Canadian artist’s view of life while we only glimpse her paintings, sculpture, and films. A collage of many offscreen voices (including those of Michael Snow and Armatage herself) guides us through the multiple aspects of Wieland’s remarkable work, which assimilates art from Tiepolo to Miro, from traditional quilts to Canada’s Group of 7, while situating itself within a variety of activities and contexts.… Read more »