Daily Archives: December 1, 1990

Le Bonheur

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


A beautiful and disturbing 1965 feature by Agnes Varda about family happiness, full of lingering and creepy ambiguities. A happily married carpenter (Jean-Claude Drouot) with a beautiful wife (Claire Drouot) and two small children (Sandrine and Oliver Drouot) falls in love with a beautiful postal clerk (Marie-France Boyer), who becomes his mistress. After the wife dies for mysterious reasons (whether by accident or suicide isn’t clear), his idyllic family life continues with the postal clerk. Provocative and lovely to look at, this is one of Varda’s best and most interesting features (along with Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond). (JR)

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The Russia House

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1990). Twilight Time has recently released this on Blu-Ray. — J.R.


Glasnost or no glasnost, the cold war still rages here for CIA officials, who manage to ensnare a British publisher and jazz musician (Sean Connery) in a plot to intercept a book by a distinguished Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer); the scientist has spilled the beans about the Soviet defense program, and his book editor (Michelle Pfeiffer) becomes an unwitting pawn in the spy network. Part of what makes this a top-notch thriller (as well as a touching love story) is the literacy and intelligence of the dialogue, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from John Le Carre’s novel; another part is the taut professionalism of director Fred Schepisi, who knows precisely when to cut away to eavesdropping spies or fleeting flashbacks in order to add flavor or tension. But the film has many other virtues as well: the most thoroughgoing and effective use of Moscow and Leningrad locations ever in an American film, a good score by Jerry Goldsmith (with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery’s soprano sax solos), first-rate performances from the leads (Pfeiffer is especially fine), and a well-trained secondary cast including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J.T.… Read more »


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 »


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 »


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 »

The Grifters

A mannerist thriller (1990, 114 min.) that doesn’t begin to work despite the number of talented hands involved: Donald E. Westlake adapting a Jim Thompson novel, Stephen Frears directing, Martin Scorsese coproducing, and a more than capable cast. A small-time con artist (John Cusack) in Los Angeles meets up with his mother (Anjelica Huston), a hardened criminal working for a sadistic big-timer (Pat Hingle) who despises the crooked tart (Annette Bening) her son has as a lover; many double crosses later, the incestuous underpinnings in this uneasy triangle come to the fore. While the filmmakers manage to keep things interesting (sexy, kinky, and ambiguous) much of the time, the self-conscious piety that Frears lavishes on this material places it in an uncertain netherworld that prevents it from ever becoming fully convincing, even as a stylistic exercise. The time is apparently the present, but the style nudges us so insistently back into the 40s and 50s that the characters seem cut adrift, without a stable world to support them. Nevertheless, if one can overlook Elmer Bernstein’s irritating ricky-tick score and forget After Dark, My Sweet (a much superior Thompson adaptation), there are plenty of compensations: sleek cinematography by Oliver Stapleton, and, in addition to the aforementioned actors, nice turns in smaller roles by Henry Jones and J.T.… 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 »