Daily Archives: January 1, 1990

The Poseidon Adventure

An ocean liner turns over in the Mediterranean, and a lot of Hollywood starsGene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, and Arthur O’Connelldutifully go through their disaster-movie paces, some more adeptly than others. Ronald Neame directed this 1972 feature. 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Plot Against Harry

Writer-director Michael Roemer’s only well-known feature previous to this was the skillful Nothing but a Man (1964), about the experiences of a black couple living in Alabama. The Plot Against Harry was shot in black and white in 1969 but neither completed nor shown until 1989. A delightful, offbeat comedy, it follows a sad-eyed, small-time New York numbers racketeer named Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest) who has just emerged from prison after many years. Finding that life has passed him by, he gamely tries to buy his way into middle-class respectability, though his wife despises him and he’s a total stranger to his kids. In the course of conducting business, he passes through a picaresque succession of locations and noisy eventsbar mitzvah, fashion show, dog-training session, and an endless stream of partiesyet the movie’s pace is leisurely, the humor quiet and affectionate, in striking contrast to the brassy world Harry moves through. Beautifully shot (by coproducer Robert M. Young, a director in his own right) and featuring a wonderful cast of unknowns (including Ben Lang, Maxine Woods, Henry Nemo, Jacques Taylor, Jean Leslie, Ellen Herbert, and Sandra Kazan), this is both a lovely piece of filmmaking and an exquisitely detailed portrait of a milieu and period, like a time capsule recently opened.… Read more »

The Paper Chase

The drudgery and challenge of Harvard Law School for a beginning student (Timothy Bottoms) might not have seemed a promising subject for a commercial picture, but this was so popular it became a TV series. Assisted by Gordon Willis’s cinematography and John Houseman’s performance (which turned him from a stage and film producer into a popular actor) as the demanding Professor Kingsfield, director James Bridges manages to do a fair job with the semihokey material. Adapted from John Jay Osborn Jr.’s novel; with Lindsay Wagner, Graham Beckel, and Edward Herrmann (1973). (JR)… Read more »

Panic In The Streets

This best and most neglected of Elia Kazan’s early features (1950) is an expert and taut thriller about a public health doctor (Richard Widmark) trying to find a gang of thieves, one of whom may be infected with bubonic plague. Filmed on location in New Orleans with a superb secondary cast: Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel. Scripted by Richard Murphy and Edward and Edna Anhalt; the Anhalts won an Oscar for their original story. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »

On The Waterfront

Not as good as its reputation would suggest, this Elia Kazan-directed 1954 melodrama about union corruption on the New York docks gets pretty pretentious in spotsand Leonard Bernstein’s tortured score doesn’t help. But it’s hard to deny that Marlon Brando’s performance as a dock worker and ex-fighter who finally decides to rat on his gangster brother (Rod Steiger) is pretty terrific. Budd Schulberg’s script has flavor and bite, and Boris Kaufman’s crisp black-and-white cinematography in Hoboken and environs is fairly strong as well. The main problem is that Kazan and Schulberg use waterfront corruption partially as a pretext for a more personal storytheir own ostracism by their colleagues after they agreed to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 50s and supply the names of former communists. Considering the content, making Brando into a Christlike martyr who suffers for informing on his coworkers seems a bit self-serving, but Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb are all as good as they’ve ever been. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 feature gives us three stories occurring over the same day in a sleazy section of Memphis: a young Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) visit the rock shrines of their demigods; an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) whose husband has just died on their honeymoon shares a hotel room with an American woman (Elizabeth Bracco) who has just left her English boyfriend; and the English boyfriend (Joe Strummer) hangs out with two buddies (Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) and shoots a clerk in a liquor store. There’s some thoughtful work in the selective color of Robby M… Read more »

Music Box

The main excuse for this Costa-Gavras thriller (1989) about an attorney defending her Hungarian father against charges of brutal wartime crimes isn’t so much the investigation of Nazi atrocities that constitutes its plot as the all-stops-out star performance of Jessica Lange as the attorney. As a courtroom attention grabber the movie is just serviceable, but the script by Joe Eszterhas reeks with false piety (embodied largely in Frederic Forrest’s prosecuting attorney) and the kind of wobbly soapbox oratory that used to furnish Abby Mann scripts for Stanley Kramer vehicles on related subjects, and the final denouement is less than wholly persuasive. Armin Mueller-Stahl is commanding as the accused anticommunist patriarch and family man, and Donald Moffat is appropriately sinister as the heroine’s ex-father-in-law, but it’s Lange who commands most of the attention and interest, giving the material slightly more than it’s worth. With Lukas Haas and Cheryl Lynn Bruce. 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

Men Don’t Leave

Paul Brickman’s first film after Risky Business stars Jessica Lange as a recently widowed mother of two children (Chris O’Donnell and Charlie Korsmo) who has to raise her kids single-handedly, moving to Baltimore from a small town after selling their house to pay off debts, and encountering a number of emotional, familial, and economic difficulties as she struggles to keep her family whole and happy. Brickman’s handling of actors is sensitive and sure and his lyrical talents as a filmmaker continue to impress, but one wishes he’d come up with a more interesting script than Barbara Benedek’s loose adaptation of Moishe Mizrahi’s La vie continue. A sweet-tempered musician (Arliss Howard) who comes along to set the family right again seems a little too good to be true, and the picture seems to forget about most of the problems that it sets up rather than attempt to resolve them. The results are both appealing and supremely watchable, thanks to first-rate performances and inventive mise en scene, but not entirely satisfying. With Joan Cusack, Kathy Bates, and Tom Mason (1990). (JR)… Read more »

Man On A Tightrope

One of Elia Kazan’s weakest filmsconceivably his very worst, apart from The Sea of Grassthis 1953 anticommunist adventure about a circus troupe trying to escape from Czechoslovakia has a decent enough cast (Fredric March, Cameron Mitchell, Adolphe Menjou, Gloria Grahame, Terry Moore, and Richard Boone), which Kazan knows how to use effectively. But a pretty dated and uninteresting script by Robert Sherwood ultimately defeats their best efforts. (JR)… Read more »

Mack The Knife

Considering that this English-language adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera was written for the screen and directed by executive producer Menahem Golanwhose previous and highly uneven directorial credits include a Sylvester Stallone weepie (Over the Top) and such action pictures as The Delta Force and Enter the Ninjait’s surprising how inoffensive it turns out to be. Not inspired, mind you, and not terribly memorable if you’ve seen other versions, but a respectable enough reading of a classic pop opera. Raul Julia is MacHeath, Richard Harris and Julie Walters are Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, Julia Migenes is Jenny, and Roger Daltrey is the Street Singer; others in the mainly English cast include Clive Revill, Erin Donovan, and Rachel Robertson. (JR)… Read more »

The Machine To Kill Bad People

This rarely shown early film by Roberto Rossellini (1948), one of his few comedies, anticipates with remarkable prescience the conceits of Godard and others about photography in the 60s. A professional small-town photographer finds that he has the power to kill his subjects by taking their picture, turning them into statues of themselves. Rossellini left this project before it was finished, and it was edited and released a few years later without his approvalbut it still comes across as a remarkably suggestive fable. (JR)… Read more »

June Night

This is the last of Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish films before she came to the U.S. in the early 40s; by many accounts it’s the best of the lot. Directed by the celebrated but relatively unknown Per Lindberg, it charts the difficulties of a young woman who shoots her lover in a quarrel, changes her name, and moves to Stockholm to begin a new life (oddly anticipating the scandalmongering media that subsequently persecuted Bergman, there’s even a reporter who won’t let her be). Attractively photographed, well acted, and at times subtly nuanced, this isn’t anything extraordinary, but Bergman’s beauty and passion and Lindberg’s direction make it shine in spots (1940). (JR)… Read more »

The Great Garrick

Conceivably the most neglected of James Whale’s better works, this hilarious period farce (1937) imagines a hoax perpetrated by the Comedie-Francaise to teach the conceited English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) a lesson in acting. The only problem is, Garrick is in on the gag, which leads to a variety of comic complications at a country inn. This boisterous movie helps to justify critic Tom Milne’s claims that Whale was a kind of premodernist Jean-Luc Godard. Rarely have the art and pleasure of acting, demonstrated here in countless varieties of ham, been expressed with as much self-reflexive energy, and Whale’s enjoyable cast (including Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Melville Cooper, Lionel Atwill, Lana Turner, Marie Wilson, Albert Dekker, Fritz Leiber, and the wonderfully manic Luis Alberni) takes full advantage of the opportunity. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Gods Must Be Crazy Ii

For my taste, this is somewhat funnier and less politically offensive than the original, although it’s just as lightweight. Writer-director Jamie Uys plots out a new set of comic adventures for bushman Xixo (N!xau) in the Kalahari Desert, this time involving his two youngest children, Xisa and Xiri, who disappear when they accidentally fall into a poacher’s truck, as well as a stranded New York attorney (Lena Farugia) and a research zoologist (Hans Strydom) who eventually become an unlikely romantic couple, and a Cuban soldier (Erick Bowen) and an isolated Unita scout (Treasure Tshabalala) who keep taking each other prisoner. The gentle, whimsical satire of civilization is again pointed up by the use of Xixo as a sort of wise noble savage providing a shining example with his good sense. Uys’s juggling of the separate yet interlocking plotlines is fairly adroit, and his whimsy continues to be good humored, although once again it’s purchased with a sentimental and complacent view of African life designed to flatter the viewer. (JR)… Read more »


A historically fascinating 1990 picture about the Civil War’s 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, made up of black enlisted men and headed by a white colonel (Matthew Broderick). Directed by TV award winner Edward Zwick (Thirtysomething) from a script by Kevin Jarre (Rambo: First Blood Part II), the film suffers from some of the war- and liberal-movie cliches one might expect from filmmakers with these credits, but the castwhich also includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Cary Elwesis strong, and the training and battle scenes seem carefully researched. Lurking somewhere in the background of this true-life tale is some caustic irony about the outcome of the black soldiers’ desire to fight that the movie never confronts directly enough. But this is still a pretty watchable and always interesting period film, well photographed by English cinematographer Freddie Francis. 122 min. (JR)… Read more »