Monthly Archives: April 1991

A Rage In Harlem

A delightful rendering of a Chester Himes novel with a 50s setting, adapted by costar John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford, directed by the adroit and resourceful TV director (The Killing Floor) and actor (Predator) Bill Duke, and featuring the gifts of coproducer Forest Whitakerwho plays a sort of bemused Jerry Lewis to Robin Givens’s sizzling Marilyn Monroein a funny, sexy, and violent crime comedy teeming with colorful Harlem types. Danny Glover is especially good as a kingpin named Easy Money, and Gregory Hines, Zakes Mokae, and Badja Djola are also lively in important roles. The characters may be more memorable than the plot, which involves the fate of some gold stolen in Mississippi, but they’re more than enough to carry this happy ride. Elmer Bernstein composed the score (1991). (JR) Read more

Perfectly Normal

A likable Canadian buddy comedy that teams Michael Riley as a withdrawn brewery worker with Robbie Coltrane as a flamboyant con artist who becomes his boarder; their dreams coincide when Coltrane convinces Riley to invest in a fancy operatic restaurant called La Traviata. The main interest here is the characters rather than the plot, and director Yves Simoneau does a good job of guiding the players through a quirky if ultimately predictable script by Eugene Lipinski (who plays a disgruntled brewery worker) and Paul Quarrington; Deborah Duchene also stands out as an aggressive waitress with designs on Riley, and Kenneth Welsh does what he can with the overly fancy part of the brewery foreman and company hockey coach. Richard Gregoire keeps things humming with his eclectic score, although you may be distracted by his vulgar and uncredited appropriations of Stravinsky (1990). (JR) Read more

The Pawnbroker

The pawnbroker of the title is an emotionally frozen Jewish concentration-camp survivor (Rod Steiger) whose remoteness from the life around him in Harlem is severely tested, in an ambitious but pretentious adaptation of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel by David Friedkin and Morton Fine, directed by Sidney Lumet. As usual, Lumet has a good feel for New York locations, enhanced here by Boris Kaufman’s superb black-and-white cinematography, and works well with the actors (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sanchez, Thelma Oliver, Juano Hernandez, and Raymond St. Jacques). But this 1965 film was made at the height of the French New Wave’s influence on American art cinema, and Lumet’s clumsy appropriations of Alain Resnais’ distinctive way with editing and flashbacks only increases the stridency of the material. Quincy Jones furnished the score. 116 min. (JR) Read more


John Landis in his dotage directs a lumbering Claude Magnier farce, adapted by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, about a day in the life of a wealthy Italian gangster (Sylvester Stallone) trying to go straight during prohibition. Whether Stallone is actually sedated or merely distracted from his surroundings by his own bulk, his lethargic and fumbling comic timing invariably throws off the rest of the castwhich includes Peter Riegert, Joey Travolta, Don Ameche, Richard Romanus, Eddie Bracken, Kurtwood Smith, Vincent Spano, Tim Curry, Joycelyn O’Brien, Elizabeth Barondes, Ornella Muti, and William Athertonall of whom convey the distinct impression that they’d rather be somewhere else. The sentiment is contagious. Kirk Douglas at least manages to contribute a feisty precredits death scene, but the film expires with him. (JR) Read more

One Good Cop

One lousy movie in my book. The theme has possibilities: a New York cop (Michael Keaton) loses his partner (Anthony LaPaglia) in action, then starts to become corrupted after he and his wife (Rene Russo) decide to take responsibility for the three little girls who are orphaned by his partner’s death. Unfortunately, Heywood Gould’s script and direction and Ralf Bode’s cinematography are mediocre to the point of tedium, and the treacly score is even worse. (JR) Read more

The Object Of Beauty

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a stage, TV, film, and music-video director whose credits include Let It Be and the codirection of Brideshead Revisited, shows himself to be a rather witty writer and visual storyteller in this 1991 comedy about a spoiled American couple (John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell) strapped for money in a posh London hotel. Their only present asset is a small Henry Moore bronze once given to MacDowell as an anniversary present by her estranged husband (Peter Riegert), and after she suggests the possibility of faking a theft of the bronze for the insurance, their mutual trust threatens to crumble when a deaf-mute cleaning lady (Rudi Davies) actually makes off with the object. The film runs a bit longer and slower than it should, and tends to lose some of its energy en route (the cleaning lady’s motives, which are part of the movie’s satiric point, take much too long to get spelled out), but Malkovich is at his unpredictable best as a prevaricating playboy, and Joss Ackland as the hotel manager manages to be quite funny as well. With Lolita Davidovich and Ricci Harnett. (JR) Read more

The Murdered House (la Maison Assassinee)

A French mystery story set in 1896 and 1914 about the infant survivor of a mysterious massacre at a provincial inn, who returns to the inn after serving in World War I, sets out to avenge his murdered parents by destroying it (hence the title), then gradually learns what actually happened. Georges Lautner (La cage aux folles III) does a routine job of directing Laurence Lemaire’s script, which is based on the novel of the same title by Pierre Magnan. Like any mystery worth its salt, this has more than a few surprises and delayed revelations up its sleeve, but in the meantime one has to put up with the implausibility of three attractive women in town (Agnes Blanchot, Anne Brochet, and Ingrid Held) flinging themselves at the mordant and inexpressive hero (Patrick Bruel); somewhat more interesting and appealing is his sensitive best friend (Yann Collette), another veteran, whose face is disfigured by a war wound. The various local cranks and other village characters cry out for the portraiture and shading of a Chabrol, and don’t get them, but this remains watchable enough for its sinuous plot (1988). (JR) Read more

Mortal Thoughts

Even when he’s not working with his own material, Alan Rudolph remains one of our sharpest film stylists. In this 1991 featurea somber thriller involving wife abuse and murder in New Jersey, written by William Reilly and Claude Kervenhe does such a good job with the storytelling and the actors that the broadness of the film’s depiction of a working-class milieu doesn’t seem unduly jarring, anchored as it is in an effectively distancing New Age score by Mark Isham. Demi Moore, who also coproduced, stars as the best friend and coworker of a hairdresser (Glenne Headly) married to an abusive layabout (Bruce Willis). If in the past Rudolph has tended to romanticize the sordidness of working-class life (as in Remember My Name and Choose Me), here he seems to be trying to overcompensate with a vengeance, but the fleetness of his camera moves and editing and the strength of his lead actors (who also include Harvey Keitel and Billie Neal as police detectives) keep one riveted to the screen. (JR) Read more

Mister Johnson

After the neocolonialist nostalgia of Driving Miss Daisy, some outright colonialist nostalgia from the same director, Bruce Beresford, albeit tempered by ambiguity and irony in the depiction of the title hero (Maynard Eziashi)the West African clerk of a British district officer (Pierce Brosnan). An Anglophile and con artist, Johnson is called upon to help organize the building of a road linking north and south Nigeria. Adapted from the Joyce Cary novel by William Boyd, this is a project that John Huston tinkered with before his death, and there are times when you suspect it could have wound up in the James Ivory canon as well. Polished, rather dull, and somewhat sentimental in its efforts to catch the noble pathos of a duplicitous yes-man who goes to his grave praising his white masters, it’s a bit too tasteful for its own good, although Eziashi and the other actorsincluding Edward Woodward, Femi Fatoba, Bella Enahoro, and Beatie Edneydo their best with the material. (JR) Read more

Marx: The Video

Subtitled A Politics of Revolting Bodies, Laura Kipnis’s video essay features Chuck Kleinhans as Karl Marx and focuses on the relationship between the writing of Das Kapital and Marx’s carbuncles and other bodily discomforts; this relationship is then commented on through discourses by drag queens, discussions by women about their discomfort with their own bodies, and related theoretical annotations. Interesting and watchable, though awfully familiar to anyone who’s been watching academic-theory films and videos over the past few years. (JR) Read more

The Marrying Man

In 1948, a few days before he’s scheduled to marry the daughter (Elisabeth Shue) of the head of a movie studio (Robert Loggia), a wealthy playboy (Alec Baldwin) gets the hots for the singer girlfriend (Kim Basinger) of Bugsy Siegel (Armand Assante); the gangster catches them and forces them to get married for what proves to be the first of many times. Told mainly in flashback from the vantage point of 1956, this somewhat overproduced and overextended Neil Simon romantic comedy, like its lead couple, has more persistence than lasting charm, but at least certain aspects of the trimmingstenor sax solos by Stan Getz, sleek production design by William F. Matthewsmake it pleasant and watchable. Directed by former animator Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster), the movie exhibits a fanciful period landscape that often suggests an animator’s background, and Basinger is a bit livelier than usual. Costars Paul Reiser, Fisher Stevens, Peter Dobson, and Steve Hytner compose a sort of kibitzing Greek chorus of friends to the hero and are meant to suggest, respectively, Phil Silvers, Sammy Cahn, Tony Martin, and Leo Durocher. (JR) Read more

Life With Father

One of the many 40s prototypes for family TV sitcom, this film adaptation by Donald Ogden Stewart of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s playbased in turn on Clarence Day’s autobiographical account of growing up in New York at the turn of the centuryfeatures William Powell as the lovable tyrant-father and Irene Dunne as his wife. Costars include Edmund Gwenn, Zasu Pitts, and Elizabeth Taylor; Michael Curtiz directed (1947). (JR) Read more

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Aki Kaurismaki’s flaky one-note comedy from Finland (1989) about an eight-piece Finnish band with weird hairdos and shoes that tours the American and Mexican boondocks. A reasonably enjoyable (if occasionally monotonous) piece of conscious camp, with Matti Pellonpaa and Kari Vaananen; director and hipster-in-arms Jim Jarmusch puts in a brief cameo. In Finnish with subtitles. 80 min. (JR) Read more

Judith Of Bethulia

D.W. Griffith’s last film for Biograph and first extended narrative (1914), based on a popular play of the period. To be shown with Griffith’s rarely screened The Avenging Conscience (also 1914), in conjunction with a lecture by Linda Williams. Read more

Ju Dou

The second feature by Zhang Yimou, this 1990 film is even more beautiful and complex than Red Sorghum, both in its ravishing uses of color and its grim critique of feudalism. Freely adapted by author Liu Heng from his contemporary novel Fu Xi, Fu Xi, the film centers on a dye factory in northwest China in the 1920s; the factory’s bitter, sadistic, and impotent owner purchases a third wife named Ju Dou (Gong Li) in hopes of gaining an heir, and he mercilessly beats and tortures her when she fails to produce one. She initiates a passionate affair with his adopted nephew, who works at the factory, and when she becomes pregnant with the nephew’s child, feudal custom dictates that they pretend her husband is the father. After the husband suffers a crippling accident they flaunt their relationship in front of him, but the son grows up hating the lovers: unlike the other major characters, the son is treated as an allegorical figure for the persistence of Chinese feudalism. In Mandarin with subtitles. 95 min. (JR) Read more