Monthly Archives: April 1991

The Joke

Milan Kundera and director Jaromil Jires adapted Kundera’s novel about an ironic Czech professor and ladies’ man (Josef Somr) who’s sentenced to six years of hard labor for a jokey, irreverent postcard he sends a woman he’s trying to seduce. Later he tries to take revenge on the man who turned him in by seducing the man’s wife. Shot during the 1968 Prague Spring, this sour black-and-white comedy with New Wave cutting comes much closer to the spirit of Kundera than Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; it registers as both a well-crafted story and an acerbic reflection of life in Czechoslovakia during the Stalinist 50s. (JR) Read more

La Femme Nikita

The talentless but irrepressibly trendy Luc Besson (Subway, The Big Blue) dreamed up this idiotic story (1990, in French with subtitles) that seems vaguely inspired by Kubrick’s (not Anthony Burgess’s) A Clockwork Orange. A hardened junkie punk (Anne Parillaud) is sentenced to life in prison, then allowed to choose between death and becoming an assassin for the French secret police. Jeanne Moreau is around long enough to give her lessons in femininity, and Tcheky Karyo plays the paternalistic government official who shepherds the young woman through her recycling, thenafter she’s been released and has settled down with a pussycat boyfriend (Jean-Hugues Anglade)calls her at odd hours to send her on murderous missions, preferably in decorous surroundings. Go figure. 117 min. (JR) Read more

Dragons Forever

Jackie Chan, director Samo Hung, and Yuen Biao costar in this sprightly ecological action thriller from Hong Kong centered on a chemical plant that turns out to be a front for a drug-processing operation. The plant’s pollution of local fish farms and Chan and Hung’s infatuation with the local farmers’ star witness form part of the interest, but most important, of course, are the choreographed fights and stunts (1988). (JR) Read more

Defending Your Life

Albert Brooks’s 1991 feature is something of a departure from its predecessors (Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America) because of its fantasy premisea recently deceased adman (Brooks) has to defend his life (screened in the form of movie rushes) before a small tribunal in a sort of theme-park resort called Judgment Citybut it’s every bit as funny and serious. Meryl Streep plays the saintlike woman Brooks meets and falls in love with in this plastic purgatory while they pursue their separate trials, and the depth of feeling uncovered by their relationship works hand in glove with the daily examination sessions: the twin evils in this metaphysical netherworld, which has more than a passing resemblance to contemporary American society, are fear and stupidity, and over the course of the movie we and Brooks learn a great deal about both. Rip Torn (at his juiciest) plays Brooks’s defender, Lee Grant plays his prosecutor, and Buck Henry has a nice comic turn as another defender. A wonderful movie not only for its satirical richnessJudgment City is imagined in copious detailbut for the seriousness of its comedy. 111 min. (JR) Read more

The Dark Vampyr

John Lundin’s short, which adapts the same story (Le Fanu’s Camilla) that served as the basis for Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, registers in part as an eerie homage in color to that classic; the visuals are often effective, and only the uncertainty of some of the performances occasionally breaks the spell. (JR) Read more

Daddy Nostalgia

Not only is Jane Birkin at her best in this low-key, realistic 1990 drama, she’s also the element that ties the whole thing together. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier from a script by his ex-wife, Colo Tavernier O’Hagan, it’s basically a chamber piece for three voices about a Parisian screenwriter (Birkin), separated from her husband, who visits her ailing English father (Dirk Bogarde) and her French mother (Odette Laure) in a small villa on the Cote d’Azur, trying to create a closeness with her father that she has never felt (she speaks mainly English with her father and mainly French with her mother, from whom she feels even more remote). The characteristic strength of Tavernier’s direction is its capacity to take these unexceptional people as he finds them. A few fleeting flashbacks and snippets of offscreen narration barely intrude on the relatively eventless but finely nuanced action. Contributing to Antoine Duhamel’s score is jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles, and Birkin herself and Rowles sing These Foolish Things. In English and subtitled French. 112 min. (JR) Read more

Le Coup De Berger

Jacques Rivette’s first foray into professional filmmaking was this very uncharacteristic and relatively conventional half-hour 35-millimeter short. The plot, which involves the complex trajectory of a fur coat, dimly suggests Max Ophuls’s Madame de . . . ; Rivette himself narrates the anecdote in terms of chess moves, one of which serves as the film’s title. Claude Chabrol, who coproduced, also collaborated on the script with Rivette, and in some respects it now looks more like part of his work than Rivette’s; Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut put in cameo appearances (1956). (JR) Read more

The Comfort Of Strangers

Possibly the best of Paul Schrader’s filmsa dubious distinctionbut there’s still more windup than delivery (1990). The screenplay is Harold Pinter’s adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel, about what happens when an English couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) vacationing in Venice, trying to rekindle their relationship, fall under the baneful and kinky influence of an older resident couple, an Italian (Christopher Walken) and a Canadian (Helen Mirren). All four leads are effective, with Walken a particular standout (though Mirren seems more subdued than usual); cinematographer Dante Spinotti works very attractively with the local light and color; and Schrader integrates these blessings with resourceful mise en scene. But as with some of the earlier Pinter and Joseph Losey projects (which this often resembles), arty ambience with S and M trimmings is the basic bill of fare: it’s a vehicle designed to tease more than edifymore fun to watch than to think about afterward. (JR) Read more

The Comedy Of Money

A minor film from Max Ophuls, but minor Ophuls still has so much filmmaking energy that it makes even the major work of figures like Spielberg and De Palma shrink to virtual nothingness. Ophuls was effectively imported to Holland to make this 1936 feature and thereby beef up the lackluster Dutch film industry. Based on an original Ophuls story (and coscripted by Walter Schlee, Alex de Haan, and Christine van Meeteren) and featuring songs and commentary from a neo-Brechtian clown who stands outside the plot, the film describes the misadventures of a bank courier (Herman Bouber) who is robbed of bank funds and fired, only to be appointed as head of a finance company by crooked businessmen who believe that he has the stolen money. Rather light and on the cutesy side as narrative, this comedy is worth seeing mainly for the inventive mise en scene (with the great Eugen Schufftan as cinematographer); it’s full of unexpected camera angles and Ophuls’s usual delight in camera movement (watch for an especially giddy dream sequence). With Rini Otte and Cor Ruys. (JR) Read more

City Zero

A wacky, absurdist 1988 Soviet satire by Karen Shakhnazarov, also known as Zerograd, about a Moscow engineer who finds himself trapped in a provincial town. Odd and irrational events take place around himhe meets a nude secretary when he visits an air-conditioning company, a chef commits suicide after he refuses to eat a cake modeled after his own head, and he is asked to assume the identity of the chef’s son in a complex local intrigue involving the chef’s reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel many years earlier. None of this exactly goes anywhere, but Shakhnazarov manages to keep it amusing and watchable. This won a Gold Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival in 1989. (JR) Read more

Cassandra Cat

A genuine oddity from 1963 Czechoslovakia, long banned because of its satirical and antiauthoritarian tendencies, this fantasy in ‘Scope and color by Vojtech Jasny describes what happens when a magic show featuring a cat with a pair of eyeglasses turns up in a fairy-tale town. When the eyeglasses are removed, people are obliged to show their true colorsfolks in love turn red, liars purple, thieves gray, betrayers yellowand the local schoolchildren see through the duplicity of the adults for the first time. To complicate matters, the magic show and cat are described in advance by a salty local layabout (Jan Werich) who serves as a sort of narrative equivalent to the stage manager in Our Town and who entertains schoolchildren with his tales while serving as their art-class model; when the magic show and cat arrive in the town, the magician is played by the same actor. Whimsical, likable, and inventive, if never wholly successful, this colorful cross between the Pied Piper and Bye Bye Birdie qualifies as one of the best early examples of the Czech New Wave; significantly, Ivan Passer worked on it as an assistant. Also known as That Cat . . . and One Day a Cat; with Vlastimil Brodsky and Jirina Bohdalova. Read more