Monthly Archives: October 1990

To Sleep With Anger

It seems scandalous that Charles Burnett, the most gifted black American director offering purely realistic depictions of black urban life, has had to wait for more than a decade to get any of his films distributed in this country, and that this one only got made because Danny Glover agreed to play a leading role in it. (He also served as an executive producer.) Unlike Burnett’s previous and undistributed Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, his new feature is steeped in folklore, but that doesn’t prevent the film from giving us a depiction of contemporary black family life richer than we can find anywhere else. The plot concerns the arrival of one Harry Mention (Glover), an old friend from the rural south, on the doorstep of a family living in Los Angeles, and the subtle and not-so-subtle havoc that he wreaks on their lives. The family is headed by a retired farmer (Paul Butler) and his midwife spouse (Mary Alice), whose two married sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) are in constant conflict. Babe Brother (Brooks) is married to an upwardly mobile realtor (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and his relative distance from the family’s traditional ways is further exacerbated by the outsider’s influence on him. Read more

Fest or Famine

The 26th Chicago International Film Festival moves into its second and final week with well over 60 programs to choose among. The range of selections, as usual, runs all the way from indispensable (Secret Love, Hidden Faces) to awful (The Mad Magician), from interesting and oddball (Vincent and Theo, Archangel, Recollections of the Yellow House) to slick and conventional (Superstar and Shaking the Tree).

It’s always a risk to go hunting at random with a festival as uneven as this one. But you’re almost certainly better off taking your chances with the films shown in the festival than lining up for an overpriced commercial release that will be out on video a few months from now anyway. By contrast, most of the foreign films showing this week at the festival are now-or-never propositions; if you don’t see them now, chances are you won’t get a second opportunity. And good or bad, most of them will tell you something about another part of the world that you probably didn’t already know. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the festival films are a dollar cheaper than the bad new Hollywood efforts that are currently clogging the multiplexes.

Reviews preceded by a checkmark are highly recommended by their respective reviewers. Read more

Tales From the Winnipeg Film Group

If Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital whetted your appetite for more comic/nostalgic/facetious strangeness–or if you haven’t seen the Maddin film but have such an appetite anyway–you’ll probably get a kick out of this entertaining assortment of shorts by Maddin’s neighbors and colleagues, all members of the Winnipeg Film Group of Manitoba, Canada; producer Greg Klymkiw will introduce and discuss their work. The ones I’ve been able to sample include Tracy Traeger and Shawna Dempsey’s We’re Talking Vulva, a funny rap-music video featuring performance artist Dempsey in a vulva suit; John Paizs’s hilariously deadpan evocations of 50s educational shorts in Springtime in Greenland and The Obsession of Billy Botski; and Lome Bailey’s memorable The Milkman Cometh, about a businessman who becomes so entranced by the Alpine landscape on a can of evaporated milk that his life gradually becomes overtaken by it. Also to be shown are films by John Kozak (Two Men in Search of a Plot) and the Winnipeg Film Group as a whole (Rabbit Pie). (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday, October 10, 8:00, 281-8788) Read more


Much as history is written by survivors, film history is frequently written by distributors. So the greatness of the serials of both Louis Feuillade and Jacques Rivette must remain a postulate for Americans who can’t see them, and the towering importance of the fascinating ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch is usually something U.S. viewers can only read about. Rouch was a pioneer in working with sync sound and in mixing fiction and narrative with documentary, usually through the creative intervention of the subjects being filmed–aspects that were to fundamentally influence the French New Wave. Fortunately, one of Rouch’s finest (and earliest) features–about three young men who leave Niger to find work in Ghana prior to its independence–has been unearthed for a rare screening. This film was made before sync sound was available, and Rouch invited the major characters to improvise a narrative over the footage, which is an amazing and often funny document in its own right. If you care about cinema and haven’t yet encountered Rouch, this shouldn’t be missed (1953). Chicago documentary filmmaker Judy Hoffman, a member of the Kartemquin collective who has worked with Rouch, will introduce the film and lead a discussion. (Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Friday, October 5, 8:00, 281-8788) Read more

Quigley Down Under

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1990). — J.R.

Quigley Down Under

Tom Selleck plays Matthew Quigley, the best marksman in the world, who leaves the wild west for Australia in the 1860s to work for a wealthy British cattle rancher (Alan Rickman), until he discovers that his boss is a genocidal meanie who wants to wipe out the aborigines; Laura San Giacomo plays Crazy Cora, another American a long way from home, whom Quigley takes under his wing. In fact, this very old-fashioned liberal western in ‘Scope, directed by Simon Wincer from a script by John Hill, has a hero who’s so superhuman, virtuous, and universal in his appeal — the aborigines, who clearly consider him the Great White Father, call him the spirit warrior — that he makes Roy Rogers seem like both an amateur and a degenerate. Nevertheless, as a kind of winsome and naive throwback to the sort of scenic, action-packed western that people used to believe in, this is fairly enjoyable stuff. (JR)

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A skillfully pared-down (if psychologically thin) horror thriller (1990), adapted by William Goldman from a Stephen King novel and crisply directed by Rob Reiner. A best-selling novelist (James Caan), who’s recently killed off his beloved romantic heroine in order to do more personal writing, gets caught in a blizzard, suffers a nearly fatal car accident, and is saved by a fanatic admirer (Kathy Bates) who holds him captive in her isolated house. The setup recalls Martin Scorsese Read more


Frank Sinatra plays one of three paid assassins who take up residence in a California town as part of a plot to kill the president, who’s passing through on a fishing trip. Released in 1954, well before JFK was assassinated, this is a reasonably efficient but fairly unpleasant black-and-white thriller, written by Richard Sale and directed by Lewis Allen. Worth seeing mainly for the actingby Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, and others. (JR) Read more

Speaking Directly: Some American Notes

A key work in the American independent cinema, Jon Jost’s first feature (1974) is an essay film devoted to self-definition and moral reckoning. Made on an impossibly slim budget$2,500this multifaceted work includes everything from the tools and preconditions of its own making to Jost’s personal relationships at the time to a cogent political analysis of the U.S. in relation to the rest of the world (Vietnam in particular). Its equally varied technique includes everything from extended takes and elaborate camera movements to liquid, lyrical dissolves and incidental animation. Certain sections are bound to irritate, others may amuse or enlightenbut all are versions of what the title promises, and collectively they have more to say about the 60s counterculture than you could find in a lifetime of TV misinformation. If you’re curious why some critics have called Jost the American Godard, this is the perfect place to find a credible answer. (JR) Read more

Sibling Rivalry

Comedy director Carl Reiner is at his lowest ebb in this threadbare effort, scripted by Martha Goldhirsh, about an uptight married older sister (a frenetic Kirstie Alley) and a flaky and footloose younger one (Jami Gertz)derived, it would seem, from the sisters in sex, lies, and videotape. By overwhelming coincidence number one, the older sister has an unprecedented sexual fling with a stranger (Sam Elliott)her husband’s brother as it turns out, expected for dinner that very nightwho then dies of a heart attack; by overwhelming coincidence number two, after the brother’s corpse is discovered by a blinds salesman (a very unfunny Bill Pullman), the salesman’s cop brother (Ed O’Neill) investigates the case and winds up making a match with the flaky sister. Reiner chugs through it all as if he had his mind on something else, as well he should have. (JR) Read more

Night Of The Living Dead

George Romero scripted and served as executive producer on this 1990 color remake of his own low-budget scare classic, although he left the directorial duties to makeup specialist Tom Savini, making his feature debut here. Aficionados of the original will want to see this in order to notice the interesting variations in both plot and overall emphasis, but this version is a good deal coarser and considerably more bitter than its predecessor. The emphasis on family ties in the 1968 version is supplanted by more noticeable amounts of self-interest and cruelty, and purely as a suspense and horror vehicle, this is markedly less effective, largely because of Savini’s detached direction. But the film can’t simply be discounted as a skim job on the original; Romero’s dark social commentary, which grew in impact over his entire Dead trilogy, is still very much present here, even if it no longer has the same bite and urgency. With Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, and Tom Towles. R, 96 min. (JR) Read more

High Anxiety

Not everything one wants it to be, but Mel Brooks’s parody of Hitchcock, in which he plays a psychiatrist, has enough high spirits to guide it over some of the rough and low spots; he does a particularly nice bit singing in a nightclub. If you can put up with his usual hit-or-miss attack, you might find yourself amused. With Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, and Charlie Callas (1977). (JR) Read more

Henry & June

A 1990 film by Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), coscripted with Rose Kaufman, about the secret affair between writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin in Paris in the early 30s, based on a posthumous book by Nin drawn from her journals. Though the film is stylistically and thematically confused in spotsthe inappropriate references to Jules and Jim help to pinpoint how relatively timid Kaufman’s vision of these erotic writers isthe claustrophobic feeling for the cozy yet dank and smoky Parisian interiors is rather seductive over the long haul. Fred Ward does a surprisingly adept job of impersonating Miller’s vocal and facial mannerisms, Uma Thurman is haunting as Miller’s enigmatic wife June, and Maria de Medeiros is sensuous in a particularly 30s manner. The film never seems to understand these three in spite of all its fascination with them, but if Kaufman’s art-movie reflexes never quite add up to a sustained style or vision, this is still a fairly sexy and charming outsider’s view of bohemian passion. (JR) Read more

Hail The Conquering Hero

Preston Sturges’s last feature for Paramount (1944) takes on wartime patriotism with a brio and vengeance that may take your breath away. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) gets discharged from the marines due to chronic hay fever, but some service buddies decide to present him to his hometown as if he’s a returning war hero. As usual, Sturges’s stock company of wonderful bit actorsincluding William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, and Jimmy Conlinis orchestrated and conducted like a pop symphony, and Ella Raines does duty as the love interest. A scathing delight. 100 min. (JR) Read more

White Palace

A refined 27-year-old yuppie (James Spader) in Saint Louis, still grieving over the death of his wife in a car accident, gets involved in a passionate affair with an aggressive 43-year-old waitress (Susan Sarandon) at a White Palace hamburger joint, and their class differences pose even more problems for them than their age difference, especially when the yuppie’s mother and friends come into the picture. Neither character is especially well defined, particularly if one discounts the strident overdefinition of their respective milieus, but as an old-fashioned Hollywood romance in which anything can happen, this is reasonably watchable, and at times mildly funny. Adapted by Tedd Tally and Alvin Sargent from a novel by Glenn Savan, directed by Luis Mandoki (Gaby–A True Story), and costarring Jason Alexander, Kathy Bates, and Eileen Brennan (1990). (JR) Read more

Waiting For The Light

A charming period comedy set in 1962, chiefly during the Cuban missile crisis, written and directed by Christopher Monger and produced by the enterprising Edward R. Pressman. A single parent (Teri Garr) who lives with her semidelinquent kids (Hillary Wolf and Colin Baumgartner) and magician aunt (a relatively subdued Shirley MacLaine), whose influence often gets the kids into trouble, leaves Chicago for a small town in Washington after she inherits a run-down diner. After a scrape with their reclusive next-door neighbor (Vincent Schiavelli, a dead ringer for underground actor Taylor Mead), the kids and aunt secretly take revenge by manufacturing a miracle that the local community takes seriously, turning the diner into a thriving tourist location. Unfashionably leisurely and depending more on character and ambience than on plot and action, this is a pretty agreeable old-fashioned sort of picture, attractively shot by Gabriel Beristain. (JR) Read more