Monthly Archives: November 1991

Beauty and the Beast

Although there are times when the narrative seems excessively streamlined, this is the best Disney animated feature to come along in years (not that it even mildly threatens Jean Cocteau’s luminous version of the same fairy tale). Full of charm and humor, it seems to benefit from the benign influence of Pee-wee’s Playhouse (anthropomorphized household objects that manage the Beast’s castle like enlightened domestics), as well as the filmmakers’ fond memories of Busby Berkeley production numbers and the village night scenes in Frankenstein. The most fascinating buried textual references, however, seem to be to another recent Disney picture, Pretty Woman, which this cartoon trashes in very agreeable ways: both the heroine, Belle, and the handsome-prince version of the Beast seem modeled after Julia Roberts, while her suitor, the insufferably vain and boorish Gaston, a dead ringer for Richard Gere, hopes to convert Belle into a gratefully kept woman; the Beast, by contrast, is a ferocious spoiled brat who is eventually ennobled by love. (There’s also some pleasant propaganda on behalf of books–Belle is an avid reader–though it’s here that one wishes the movie had indulged in more flights of fancy.) Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, and featuring the voices of Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, Richard White, Angela Lansbury, and Jerry Orbach. Read more

Palombella Rosa

Perhaps the wildest comedy yet from Italian writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti, a European cult favorite here starring as a water-polo player and Communist politician suffering from amnesia. Interspersing clips from a TV screening of Doctor Zhivago and Moretti’s own Super-8 work from the 70s as well as cameo appearances by Raul Ruiz as a metaphysical priest, Moretti concocts a dreamy satire about the ambiguous status of the Communist Party in contemporary Italy, with water polo serving as a ruling metaphor (the title refers to a goal-scoring technique); journalism and advertising are singled out for particular comic abuse. Even if you don’t get all the jokes, you’ll get plenty of insight into Italy in the 80s as well as a look at one of the most original film talents now working there (1989). You won’t have any trouble getting the jokes in Luc Moullet’s hilarious Barres, the accompanying short about ways to sneak onto the Paris metro–a delightfully structured piece that evokes Wile E. Coyote as well as Jacques Tati. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, November 22, 8:00, and Sunday, November 24, 4:00, 443-3737) Read more

Women’s Story

Peng Xiaolian’s aptly titled feminist feature from the People’s Republic of China (1988) follows the adventures of three peasant women who leave their oppressive village to sell wool in Beijing and a provincial city before returning to their ambiguous fates in the village. Peng sticks exclusively to the viewpoints of her three heroines, revealing herself to be a remarkable director of actors, and her incisive feeling for the options of her characters–both as women and as peasants–gives this melodrama a cumulative force and authority. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, November 17, 6:00, 443-3737) Read more

Larks on a String

Made in 1969, only three years after his Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, Jiri Menzel’s lovely, sensual Czech satire waited 21 years to pass the censors, then went on to win the top prize at the Berlin film festival. Cowritten by Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal from a collection of Hrabal’s stories, the comic tale, set in the early 50s, centers on a group of “bourgeois dissidents”–including a philosophy professor, a librarian who promoted Western literature, a Seventh-Day Adventist cook (Vaclav Neckar), a saxophonist, and a public prosecutor-assigned to work on a scrap heap in the town of Kladno. Male and female political prisoners work in adjacent yards, and the flirtations between the two groups comprise much of the action of this surprisingly cheerful picture, which treats party officials and guards as hapless victims of the system along with the prisoners. The bureaucratic absurdities reach a sort of climax when the cook falls in love with a female prisoner (Jitka Zelenohorska): they wind up getting married, but the bride’s grandmother has to serve as her proxy. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, November 15 through 21) Read more

Short Films

John Greyson’s hilarious and wonderful The Making of “Monsters” from Canada is an audacious pseudodocumentary–a short about the making of a musical about a gay-bashing incident that results in murder. If that sounds offbeat, consider that the two creative minds behind the musical are George Lukas (identified as the Marxist literary critic who directed American Graffiti and Star Wars) and Bertolt Brecht (played by a catfish in a tank). If the brilliance doesn’t quite sustain itself over half an hour, there are still some pretty far-out musical numbers. Equally worth seeing are four shorts by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho): The Discipline of DE (1978), a very literal and funny adaptation of a William S. Burroughs text that deftly mixes essay and fiction, reminiscent of Jane Campion’s Passionless Moments; My Friend (1983) and My New Friend (1985), two three-minute diary entries about short-lived pickups; and the recent Thanksgiving Prayer, starring Burroughs, which I haven’t seen but which sounds fabulous. As if this weren’t enough, the program also includes Christopher Newby’s strikingly shot English short Relax (1990), David Weissman’s lightweight Complaints, Garth Maxwell’s Red Delicious from New Zealand, and Cathy Joritz’s German “scratch-animation” Give AIDS the Freeze. Running as part of the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival. Read more

7 Women

A commercial disaster when it came out in 1966, generally relegated to the lower half of double bills, and dismissed by most critics, John Ford’s magnificent last feature is surely one of his greatest films–not merely for its unsentimental distillation of Fordian themes, but for the telegraphic urgency and passion of its style, which is aided rather than handicapped by the stripped-down studio sets. The film effectively transposes the gender and settings of many of Ford’s classic westerns: it’s set in 1935, during the apocalyptic last days of a female missionary outpost in China that’s about to be invaded by Mongolian warriors (including Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode). Anne Bancroft stars as an atheistic but humanist doctor who turns up at the mission, immediately challenging its sexual repressiveness and sense of propriety with her acerbic manner and lack of inhibitions; she ultimately emerges as perhaps the most stoic of all of Ford’s sacrificial heroes. The other women, all superbly cast–Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, and Betty Field–provide a creditable summary of the possible human responses to impending disaster, and Ford’s handling of their diverse emotions–ranging from lesbian longings and charitable instincts to competitiveness and hysteria–is both subtle and masterful. Read more

The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe

A film version of Lily Tomlin’s much-celebrated one-woman show, in which she plays a dozen separate characters and satirizes New Age lifestyles (among other things). Written by executive producer Jane Wagner and directed and shot by John Bailey, this has a lot of added sound effects (designed by Wagner), as well as a good many fast transitions from Tomlin on a bare stage to Tomlin in costume on various sets and back again. Packed with virtuosity, this may still be the best solo performance on film since Richard PryorLive in Concert; Wagner’s writing may not have the personal urgency of Pryor’s (whose does?), but the level of performance is often nearly as high. (Tomlin can be as funny playing men as Pryor is playing various white folks.) If you like Tomlin at all, you shouldn’t miss this. (JR) Read more


The first English feature to come from the gay community, Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s independent film about the double life of a gay schoolteacher studiously avoids sensationalism, and reaches its dramatic climax when the hero has a frank discussion about himself with his 14-year-old students (1978). (JR) Read more


Good campy fun from the combined talents of Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet; Chayefsky was apparently serious about much of this shrill, self-important 1976 satire about television, interlaced with bile about radicals and pushy career women, and so were some critics at the time. Peter Finch, in his last performance, effectively plays a network news commentator who blows his top and his mind on the air and quickly becomes a self-styled messiah; William Holden plays the wizened TV executive who has the Truth, which pushy, nihilistic program director Faye Dunaway wants; and Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight are around for comparably juicy hyperbole. R, 121 min. (JR) Read more

Here Comes The Groom

A low-grade Capra effort about Bing Crosby adopting a couple of war orphans who will be sent overseas if he doesn’t win Jane Wyman back from millionaire Franchot Tone. At least there’s a brief guest appearance by Louis Armstrong (1951). (JR) Read more

Women’s Story

Peng Xiaolian’s aptly titled feminist feature from the People’s Republic of China follows the adventures of three peasant women who leave their oppressive village to sell wool in Beijing and a provincial city before returning to their ambiguous fates in the village. Peng sticks exclusively to the viewpoints of her three heroines, revealing herself to be a remarkable director of actors, and her incisive feeling for the options of her charactersboth as women and as peasantsgives this melodrama a cumulative force and authority (1988). (JR) Read more

White Dog

Samuel Fuller’s 1982 masterpiece about American racismhis last work shot in this countryfocuses on the efforts of a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to deprogram a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Very loosely adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a memoir by Romain Gary, and set in southern California on the fringes of the film industry, this heartbreakingly pessimistic yet tender story largely concentrates on tragic human fallibility from the vantage point of an animal; in this respect it’s like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, and Fuller’s brilliantly eclectic direction gives it a nearly comparable intensity. Through a series of grotesque misunderstandings, this unambiguously antiracist movie was yanked from U.S. distribution partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it’s one of the key American films of the 80s. With Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, and, in cameo roles, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Christa Lang, and Fuller himself. PG, 89 min. (JR) Read more


Patsy Kensit addresses the camera as a young girl recounting her recent life, in an English comedy partially set in New York that’s directed by Don Boyd (the producer of Aria), who wrote the script with Zoe Heller. The results show some improvement over Boyd’s first feature (Intimate Reflections, made in 1975 and never released here), but his dotty determination to opt for odd camera angles at arbitrary junctures reveals an overall uncertainty about his material that not even Kensit’s cheekiness can override. The various subplots, which never quite seem to come together, include the heroine’s adulterous affair with a twit she doesn’t much like (Patrick Ryecart), and her more serious relationships with a Scottish junkie (Rufus Sewell), her two best friends (Sophie Thompson and Maynard Eziashi), and her father (Jack Shepherd). What Boyd seems to have in mind is a kind of updating of trendy 60s British movies like Darling and A Taste of Honey, but the strategy doesn’t pay off. (JR) Read more

Tora! Tora! Tora!

A turkey by reputation, this 144-minute epic (1970) contrives to reconstruct the events leading up to Pearl Harbor from the Japanese as well as American viewpoint, with four directors (Richard Fleischer, Ray Kellogg, Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasuku) and three writers (Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima). Among the actors are Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Jason Robards, Edward Andrews, George Macready, and Leon Ames. (JR) Read more

Together Alone

Voted best feature by gay and lesbian film festival audiences in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this 16-millimeter black-and-white U.S. independent feature by P.J. Castellaneta chronicles the talk and interaction between two young men (Todd Stites and Terry Curry) who get together for a one-night stand. The writing and performances are mainly fluid, in spite of a few self-consciously theatrical or expositional stretches, and it’s a pity that Castellaneta doesn’t trust his material enough to let it play without music, which often proves intrusive. The frank conversation moves from AIDS to sexual etiquette to homosexuality versus bisexuality to lengthy accounts of former relationships, and the writer-director and actors generally do a fine job of keeping us interested (1990). (JR) Read more