Yearly Archives: 1990

Life Is Cheap . . . but Toilet Paper Is Expensive

The wildest and liveliest effort to date of Chinese American filmmaker Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum, Slamdance) might have been called Two or Three Things I Know About Hong Kong. Like Godard’s films in the late 60s, this beautifully shot essayistic poem–putatively a thriller and full of scatological gags as well as macabre violence and humor–evokes a contemporary city in all its contradictions and paradoxes. (The film’s full title perfectly captures its jaundiced socioeconomic view and its stylistic irreverence.) The Hong Kong presented here is not only the city we know from films made there (with plenty of in-jokes and guest appearances, including Allen Fong as a cabdriver) but also the city that looks forward to joining the Chinese mainland in 1997. A satiric semidocumentary in which the city’s natives periodically address the camera, Wang’s shocker also includes one of the longest (and surely the most dizzying) chase sequences ever filmed. Originally saddled with an X rating, it has gone out uncut with a self-imposed “A” rating for adults; translated, this is a grown-up movie without the power of the Hollywood industry behind it, which suggests a freedom that Wang takes full advantage of (1989). (Music Box, Saturday, November 3, midnight, and Sunday through Thursday, November 3 through 8) Read more

Jacob’s Ladder

A bold, powerful psychological horror film about a recently returned Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins), apparently working as a postman in New York City, who’s plagued by nightmarish paranoid visions. Thanks to a remarkable script by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote the script for Ghost and the original story for Brainstorm) and the directorial skills of Adrian Lyne–who makes even more effective use here of an infernal vision of New York than he did in Fatal Attraction–this is both a stream-of-consciousness puzzle thriller that offers the viewer not one but many “solutions” and an emotionally persuasive statement about the plight of many American vets who fought in Vietnam–a statement that is more expressionistic and metaphysical than “realistic,” but is no less compelling for that. One doesn’t want to say too much about a film that depends on surprises, ambiguities, and many shifting levels of reality and consciousness, but there are moments when this disturbing, unpredictable movie recalls The Manchurian Candidate, albeit without the comic irony. Robbins fully meets the unusual demands of his part, and Elizabeth Pena and Danny Aiello are equally impressive. (Esquire, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, Ford City, Harlem-Cermak) Read more

Allegro non troppo

Bruno Bozzetto’s parody of Disney’s Fantasia is a collection of animated sketches accompanying classical music pieces (by Debussy, Dvorak, Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Vivaldi), with live-action slapstick sequences featuring cowriter Maurizio Nichetti (The Icicle Thief). It’s not only a hilarious send-up of Disney’s excesses but a splendid cartoon feature in its own right–funny and imaginative and lively. The “restored” version of this 1976 Italian picture includes more Nichetti footage, and, for the first time in the U.S., a stereo sound track. (Music Box, Friday through Sunday, November 2 through 4) 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 the participants’ latter-day doings to American Graffiti-style titles at the endwhich 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 (1990). (JR) Read more

Steel And Lace

For a splatter film, this is somewhat inventive. A rape victim (Clare Wren) commits suicide after the man who raped her (Michael Cerveris) is acquitted, and her scientist brother (Bruce Davison) creates an android killing machine in her image, equipped with various disguises and designed to hunt down and gorily dispatch both the rapist and his friends who lied on his behalf; the android, which develops something of a mind and will of its own, is also equipped with a TV camera that enables the brother to monitor the killings and to watch the deaths in playback. Meanwhile, a sketch artist at the original trial (Stacy Haiduk) plays detective when her former boyfriend (David Naughton), a cop, is assigned to the case. Joe Dougherty and Dave Edison’s script never strays too far from the formulaic, but Ernest Farino’s direction keeps it fairly fresh. (JR) Read more

The Nun (la Religieuse)

Jacques Rivette’s controversial though chaste second feature (1966), originally banned for a year both in France and for export, was trimmed and slightly reedited by its U.S. distributor (years later it was restored to its original form and 140-minute running time). As a direct and indirect commentary on institutional repression and the depravity that arises from compulsory religious training, it’s a feminist movie with particular relevance for the Jesse Helms era. Adapted from Denis Diderot’s famous 18th-century novel about Suzanne Simonin (the remarkable Anna Karina)an illegitimate teenager forced to enter a convent by her familythis is the most accessible by far of all of Rivette’s features. It has a straightforward narrative that mainly concentrates on Suzanne’s experiences at two conventsone severe and punitive, the other progressive and more worldly (though no less stifling for Suzanne when she finds herself pursued by the lesbian mother superior)before she escapes to encounter a different kind of oppression in the world outside. Far from a nonbeliever, Suzanne is a devout character without a religious calling, and the film as a whole is a complex celebration of her continuous drive toward freedom. Rivette’s highly original and formal cellular construction uses a striking contemporary score (by Jean-Claude Eloy) and selective sound effects (by Michel Fano) to balance the feeling of confinement with a nearly constant sense of the world outside; the intense mise en scene and use of camera movements often recall Carl Dreyer (though Rivette’s conscious model was Kenji Mizoguchi); and the metallic colors and resourceful use of settings conspire to create a world that’s both material and abstract. Read more

Home Alone

A large, well-to-do family in a Chicago suburb rushes off to Paris for Christmas, accidentally leaving behind an eight-year-old (Macaulay Culkin) who has to guard the house from a pair of burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). John Hughes wrote and produced this 1990 comedy, and Chris Columbus directed it. The movie is quite enjoyable as long as it explores the fantasy of a neglected little boy having an entire house of his own to explore and play in, and it still manages to be fun when he exhibits superhuman ingenuity and resourcefulness in holding down the fortwith Culkin doing a fair job of mugging. But the physical cruelty that dominates the last act leaves a sour taste, and the multiple continuity errors that make the last scene possible strain one’s suspension of disbelief to near the breaking point. With John Heard and Catherine O’Hara as the negligent parents, Jeffrey Wiseman (in a nicely tuned performance), and John Candy in a cameo designed to assist a product placement. PG, 102 min. (JR) Read more

Hollywood Mavericks

Produced by Florence Dauman for the American Film Institute, this is a watchable if often predictable documentary about Hollywood directors who have tended (to varying degrees) to go against the systeman honor roll that includes, among others, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes, Francis Coppola, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, D.W. Griffith, Dennis Hopper, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Alan Rudolph, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, and Orson Welles. Most of these men (no lady mavericks like Ida Lupino, Barbara Loden, and Elaine May need apply) are articulate, and so much of what they have to say about themselves and each other is interesting, if not always accurate (e.g., Scorsese’s claim that Stroheim forced his extras to wear special underwear is a studio-produced legend; Sternberg’s claim that everything except the sea in his remarkable The Saga of Anatahan is artificial is contradicted by that film’s powerful use of newsreel footage). Some of the clips are too brief to leave lasting impressions, and a commentary about Altman’s innovative methods of sound recording unfortunately accompanies a clip from M*A*S*H, made four years before he introduced those methods in California Split. But this is still basically good, instructive funmuch of it about directors and films that deserve wider attention. Read more

H-2 Worker

Shot clandestinely over three and a half years, Stephanie Black’s documentary about the exploitation of Jamaican and other Caribbean sugarcane workers in Florida is a good example of investigative reporting of outrages that occur under our very nosesgood enough to win the prize for best documentary at the 1990 United States Film Festival. The workers in question (more than 10,000 annually) are granted six-month H-2 visas in order to harvest sugarcane by handwork so dangerous and underpaid that Americans aren’t willing to do itand are required to live as virtual slaves. Black makes effective offscreen use of the cards and letters some of these workers write to their relatives back home, though this is otherwise a conventionally shaped documentary. Still, the facts speak loud and disturbingly for themselves (1989). (JR) Read more

Young Doctors In Love

A dumb and crass attempt to do for doctor movies what Airplane! did for disaster flicks. Most of the participantsMichael McKean, Sean Young, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabney Colemanshould have stayed at home. Incidentally, this was Garry Marshall’s first feature as a director (1982). (JR) Read more

The Wild Child

This is one of Francois Truffaut’s best middle-period films (1969), albeit one of his darkest and most conservative. Filmed in black and white by the gifted Nestor Almendros, it’s based on the true story of a nine-year-old boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found living in the wilderness and educated by a young physician (played by Truffaut himself). There are certain parallels here with Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, about the civilizing of Helen Keller, but Truffaut’s message is more pessimistic than inspirational; it suggests that the joys of primitivism are incompatible with the achievement of culture. (JR) Read more

Vincent & Theo

Pared down from an English miniseries by the director himself, this 1990 feature by Robert Altman about Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo, scripted by Julian Mitchell, is basically an extended reflection on the uneasy relationship between art and commerce that has relatively little to do with painting per se. It opens with a videotape of a present-day auctioning of a van Gogh canvas, and the bulk of what follows concentrates on the quirky acting styles of Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as Theo. As in Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns, there is little effort to create a persuasive European period flavor, and the ambience is strictly postmodern. Still, this was Altman’s most watchable theatrical feature in about a decade, and the actors always keep you guessing. With Jip Wijngaarden, Johanna Ter Steege, and Jean-Pierre Cassel. 138 min. (JR) Read more

Three Men And A Little Lady

A sequel to a remakethat is, part two of Three Men and a Baby, which was a remake of 3 Men and a Cradle. Five-year-old Mary (Robin Weisman) and her mother (Nancy Travis) are now living with the three bachelors (Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson, and Tom Selleck), who have trouble adjusting when the mother opts for a marriage and job in London. The utopian sense of family love central to the original premise is still present here, but it’s upholstered with the sort of unfelt, mechanical sitcom characters and gags that one would expect to find in the lamest Bob Hope vehiclesfrom the mother’s snooty English fiance to the repressed and predatory female director of an upper-crust English girls’ school. Consequently, just about the only fitful life to be found here is in the dregs of the original conception as fleshed out by the five stars. Directed by Emile Ardolino from a script by Charlie Peters (1990). (JR) Read more

Rocky V

Having suffered irreversible brain damage from his last bout in the Soviet Union, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) returns to Philadelphia and discovers that he has lost all his money through the scams of a crooked accountant. After his wife (Talia Shire) persuades him to retire, a young fighter named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) convinces Rocky to train him; Tommy rises to fame on a steady stream of knockouts (his opponents appear to be exclusively nonwhite) while Rocky neglects Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone) in order to live vicariously on Tommy’s triumphs. Meanwhile, a Mephistophelian black promoter (Richard Gant) lures Tommy away from Rocky, and only after a climactic street fight between Rocky and Tommy are things set right again. John G. Avildsen directs Stallone’s primitive script with the corn it calls for, hoping to distract from the simplicity with a few fancy montages, and does a fairly good job with the climactic slugfest; but the dramatic moves are so obvious and shopworn that not even the star’s mournful basset-hound expressions can redeem them. With Burt Young (1990). (JR) Read more

The Mahabharata

Peter Brook’s nearly three-hour condensation and adaptation of his own nine-hour stage version of the national epic of India, a 100,000-stanza poem in Sanskrit written more than 2,000 years ago. Written by Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Marie-Helene Estienne, the film features a mode of narration in which past and present, story and storytelling coexist within the same space. Unfortunately, this space is clearly that of a soundstage, and one of the major limitations here, as in earlier film adaptations by Brook of his own stage works, is that the theatrical and often declamatory style of acting never quite jells with the filmic presentation. Although the story has certain contemporary movie elementssuch as gore, fantasy, and the odd special effect or twothe action sequences are too ceremonial to carry much suspense; the sustaining source of interest is the introduction offered to the original material, which is undeniably fascinating. In the dual role of Ganesha and Krishna, Bruce Myers gives the most striking line readings in an extremely varied (and variable) cast (1989). (JR) Read more