Monthly Archives: May 1990

Longtime Companion

Thankfully, the first commercial feature about AIDS doesn’t follow the obscene Reagan-Bush approach–saving all its tears for children, with the unmistakable implication that other AIDS victims don’t count. It follows a group of adult friends and acquaintances, including a few who work for television, who spend their vacations on Fire Island and who are all struck directly or indirectly by AIDS. Though it contains some useful information, this is not really a preachy film–it is simply a very human and compassionate one about a tragedy that affects us all. Written by Craig Lucas (author of the recent play Prelude to a Kiss) and directed by Norman Rene. With a good cast that includes Stephen Caffrey, Patrick Cassidy, Brian Cousins, Bruce Davison, John Dossett, Mark Lamos, Dermot Mulroney, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Schoeffling, and Campbell Scott. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, May 25 through 31)… Read more »

15th Annual Festival of Illinois Film and Video

Prizewinning film and video shorts in four categories–experimental, animation, documentary, narrative. Because I was one of the five judges in this year’s competition, I’ve seen them all, and they’re certainly a far ranging bunch. The first-prize winners are Francois Miron’s visually intoxicating What Ignites Me, Extinguishes Me (experimental), Ian Fowler’s intriguing In Passing (animation, although the film features live action as well), Thomas Almada’s moving and powerful Chicago House: A Community Together (the first AIDS documentary I’ve seen that dares to be positive and upbeat), and Josef Steiff’s highly original and evocative narrative film Borders. The honorable mentions include two narrative films (James Chia-Min Liu’s A Scent of Incense and Steiff’s Catching Fire), two documentaries (Peter Kuttner and Kartemquin Films’ talking-head video Power to the People about the Black Panthers, and Wing Ko’s totally different Surfaces, a lyrical piece about skateboarding), and Susan Anderson’s witty and cerebral experimental film Lusitania, which recalls the work of Werner Schroeter. (Music Box, Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19)… Read more »

Presumed Guilty

Michael Niederman’s hour-long Chicago-made documentary about the 1968 murder trial and conviction of Dr. John Branion Jr. The film does an excellent job of persuading us that Branion was convicted of killing his wife on the basis of insubstantial, inconclusive, and even contradictory evidence, largely because of an inadequate defense and the various racial tensions that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King (Branion is black). The fact that Branion skipped bail and fled to Africa for many years has dissuaded various judges from retrying his case, in spite of the fact that virtually no one now believes that Branion was guilty as charged. Although this is much more simply made than, say, The Thin Blue Line, the facts and implications are equally disturbing, and Niederman does a fine job of juggling interviews (including one with Oscar Brown Jr., the first cousin of Branion’s murdered wife) with other elements in building his case. A Chicago premiere. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Saturday, May 12, 8:00 and 9:15, 281-8788)… Read more »

Motion and Emotion: The Films of Wim Wenders

Though very polite and British, this feature-length documentary about German filmmaker Wim Wenders offers the most penetrating insights and the best overall critique of his work that I have encountered anywhere. Paul Joyce, who directed it, has also made documentaries about Nicolas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Nagisa Oshima, and Dennis Hopper, and he knows the conventional format well enough to get the most out of it. There are good clips and interesting commentaries from the interviewed subjects, who include Wenders himself, cinematographer Robby Muller, filmmaker Sam Fuller, novelist Patricia Highsmith, musician Ry Cooder, actors Harry Dean Stanton, Peter Falk, and Hanns Zischler, and critic Kraft Wetzel, who is especially provocative. A must-see for Wenders fans, highly recommended for everyone else (1989). (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, May 17, 6:00, 443-3737) … Read more »

Sweetie’s Secret

To the editors:

J. Rosenbaum’s laudatory review of Sweetie, Jane Campion’s first feature film (March 30 issue) contained a crucial and almost offensive blindspot. He describes Sweetie as a “compulsive flirt” writing that “even when she bathes her own father, she’s quite capable of dropping the soap into the tub as an excuse for groping him.” His easy “when she bathes her own father” makes it seem as if such an act were a normal part of any father/daughter relationship. Excuse me?

Sweetie’s “madness” and pain come from somewhere, are rooted in some past events or state that Jane Campion never shows us directly. I believe that the scene Mr. Rosenbaum so superficially describes is, in fact, the biggest hint: that Sweetie is a victim of incest. The scene is important because of how it is shown to us in relation to Kay (Sweetie’s sister). Kay witnesses this bath scene (we see it through her eyes); the next cut is of Kay lying on her bed, troubled and pensive, obviously deeply affected by what she just saw. It is the first time Kay sees this act of bathing but by the familiarity between both Gordon (the father) and Sweetie (indeed, by the very fact of her bathing him) we see — as Kay does — that this has happened before.… Read more »

Letter to the Next Generation

A watchable and interesting personal documentary by James Klein, the codirector (with Julia Reichert) of Union Maids and Seeing Red, about the current lives and values of students at Kent State University and how these differ from those of Kent State students at the time of the killings 20 years ago. While none of the discoveries made by Klein are startling, the honesty and thoughtfulness of his investigation and his probing intelligence are apparent throughout. Not content with a simplistic contrast between the political commitments of the 60s and the preoccupations with business and self-interest of the present, he digs deeper and comes up with some interesting observations, including some ideas about how and why historical events are remembered or forgotten. He also finds that freshmen and sophomores at Kent State today tend to be more politically involved than juniors and seniors. A Chicago premiere. (Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, May 6, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, May 7 through 10, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114)… Read more »

Starlight Hotel

A soporific road movie about a runaway girl (Greer Robson) and a rebellious worker in flight from the law (Peter Phelps) who team up during the Depression, this New Zealand film, despite some picturesque locations, is essentially defeated by colorless acting and a mediocre script. Directed by Sam Pillsbury, with a screenplay by Grant Hinden Miller which adapts his owen novel, The Dream Monger. (JR)… Read more »

Show Boat

Not the classic, authentic, and lovely 1936 James Whale version, but the inert and racist MGM color remake of 1951, directed by George Sidney. Most of Sidney’s musicals tend to be vulgar but energetic; this one, it appears, was done in his sleep. Still, Jerome Kern’s music and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics provide fine accompaniment to the sleepwalking. Derived from an Edna Ferber novel; with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Marge and Gower Champion, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Sterling, and William Warfield. 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hudson Hawk

A bizarre throwback to the 60s subgenre of farcical James Bond spin-offs (Our Man Flint, Casino Royale, Modesty Blaise, et al), involving lots of mechanical action, tons of repartee, and a master plot to take over the world. Crooks force a former cat burglar (Bruce Willis) to resume his profession in order to recover three separate parts of a machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci that converts lead into gold. Directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers), this expensive romp features Danny Aiello as the hero’s best friend, Andie MacDowell as the romantic interest, Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard (who intones, This is supposed to be torture, not therapy) as the baroque villains, and James Coburn as a sinister CIA operative (a direct reminder of the Flint movies). It doesn’t have the polish or the momentum of an Indiana Jones adventure, and isn’t too engaging on the plot level, but at least the filmmakers keep it moving with lots of screwball stunts. Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters are credited with the script, based on a story by Willis (whose production company made the movie) and executive producer Robert Kraft. (JR)… Read more »

Home From The Hill

One of Vincente Minnelli’s best ‘Scope and color melodramas (1960), adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank from William Humphrey’s novel. Set in a small town in Texas, the plot centers on a troubled family: a promiscuous patriarch (Robert Mitchum) and his frigid wife (Eleanor Parker) compete for the loyalty of their son (George Hamilton), who discovers that he has an illegitimate half brother (George Peppard). With Luana Patten, Everett Sloane, and Constance Ford. 150 min. (JR)… Read more »

Twentieth Century

To register a minority opinion, I find this knockdown screwball farce (1934), directed by Howard Hawks four years before Bringing Up Baby, six years before His Girl Friday, and fifteen before I Was a Male War Bride, a great deal funnier than all three. It costars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard at their hyperbolic best as egomaniacal theatrical monsters, a director and a star in a series of duels. The story comes from a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that lampoons theatrical excess as much as The Front Page lampoons journalistic excessa subject that Hawks can view with greater familiarity. The show here belongs almost entirely to the fast-talking stars, mainly having it out on the cross-country train of the title, and the movie is a veritable concerto for their remarkable talents, put across by Hawks with maximal energy and voltage. 91 min. (JR)… Read more »

Total Recall

This loud, fast, bone-crunching 1990 action thriller has two virtues of good SF literature: the creation of a foreign (if vaguely familiar) landscape and the sensation of displacement. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker in 2084 who discovers that he’s been implanted with false memories and a false identity; to clear things up, he has to make it to Marsnow colonized by greedy capitalists who create and abuse mutants through their control of the air. A worthy entry in the dystopian cycle launched by Blade Runner, this seems less derivative than most of its predecessors yet equally accomplished in its straight-ahead storytelling, with plenty of provocative satiric undertones and scenic details. Paul Verhoeven directed; with Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone (her first major role)not to mention 68 stuntpeople, some swell production design, and Rob Bottin’s gory makeup. R, 109 min. (JR)… Read more »

Presumed Guilty

Michael Niederman’s 1990 Chicago-made documentary about the 1968 murder trial and conviction of Dr. John Branion Jr. (who died in September 1990). The film does an excellent job of persuading us that Branion was convicted of killing his wife on the basis of insubstantial, inconclusive, and even contradictory evidence, largely because of an inadequate defense and the various racial tensions that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King (Branion was black). The fact that Branion skipped bail and fled to Africa for many years dissuaded various judges from retrying his case, even though hardly anyone still believed that Branion was guilty as charged. Although this is much more simply made than, say, The Thin Blue Line, the facts and implications are no less disturbing, and Niederman does a fine job of juggling interviews (including one with Oscar Brown Jr., the first cousin of Branion’s murdered wife) with other elements in building his case. 60 min. (JR)… Read more »

Preston Sturges: The Rise And Fall Of An American Dreamer

A conventionally made but for the most part extremely well done documentary about the great writer-director and comic genius Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), whose life is as fascinating and remarkable as his meteoric career in Hollywood. Produced and directed by Kenneth Bowser, written by the able critic and journalist Todd McCarthy, and narrated by actor Fritz Weaver, the film draws on a wide range of materialsradio interviews, cameos by Sturges in other people’s pictures, interviews with relatives and associates, numerous still photographs, detailed biographical and production informationand does a very professional job of making this exposition concise and entertaining. Best of all are the clips from Sturges’s brilliant pictures, though one regrets the relatively short shrift given to Sturges’s remarkable stock company of bit actors and to his underrated last feature, The French They Are a Funny Race. If you’re a Sturges fan (and you should be), or are in the least bit curious about what this remarkable inventor-millionaire-restaurateur-playwright-filmmaker did to revolutionize the American sound comedy, you can’t afford to miss this. (JR)… Read more »