Monthly Archives: January 1992

Kafka

Steven Soderbergh’s 1991 follow-up to Sex, Lies, and Videotape suffers from a dumb screenplay written more than a decade earlier by Lem Dobbs and subsequently tinkered with by others. It takes someone vaguely like Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons, in what may well be his first uninteresting performance) and plants him inside a formulaic mystery plot (shot in black and white) involving anarchists in Prague around 1919 that eventually turns into a formulaic SF plot (shot in color) involving mad scientists. The Prague locations are well used, and the color SF sets that belatedly appear are also striking, but the story built around them is much less compelling, and the connections with the real-life Kafka and his writing are so tenuous and simpleminded they don’t even make much sense as a postmodernist joke. The distinguished castwhich includes Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinnessperforms ably, and a few of the film’s fantasy conceits are memorable. But thanks to the script, none of these pluses add up to much, and a few nods to Orson Welles’s The Trial and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil don’t help much either. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Juice

Directed and cowritten by Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee’s cinematographer, this 1992 ghetto melodrama plays for much of its running time like a good Spike Lee imitation, full of surface liveliness but without the narrative momentum needed to give the story maximum impact. The plot involves four friends in Harlem (Omar Epps, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, and Tupac Shakur), none of them very likable, whose crime-ridden lives are so blighted that they wind up destroying each other. Written with Gerard Brown, shot fairly effectively by Larry Banks, and scored by Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad. R, 92 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Inner Circle

Since moving to the West, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has proved invaluable not only for his considerable talent but also for his capacity to translate Russian dramatic forms into American entertainments. Returning to Russia to film (in English) the story, partly based on fact, of Joseph Stalin’s personal projectionist, he broaches a disturbing and important reality about Russian history that our own culture has tended to ignore: an overwhelming majority of simple, ordinary Russians not only kowtowed to Stalin but genuinely loved and revered him. The projectionist (Tom Hulce), a simpleton from the provinces, loves Stalin more than he loves his own wife (effectively played by Lolita Davidovich); unfortunately, Hulce’s performance is often gratingly hammy and occasionally undercut by lines of dialogue indicating more awareness than the character otherwise shows. Even if, as Murray Kempton has suggested, the lack of complexity in Konchalovsky’s characters diminishes the overall accomplishment, the film still deserves to be seen; as Kempton puts it, its intention is nonetheless heroic, and its achievement admirable. Coscripted by Anatoli Usov; with Bob Hoskins, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., and, in the part of Stalin, Alexandre Zbruev. (JR)… Read more »

Grown-ups

Probably the best of the Mike Leigh TV films that I’ve seen, this remarkable British feature gradually charts what happens when an unexceptional young couple (Lesley Manville and Philip Davis) move into a flat in Canterbury that’s next door to the home of their former religious instructor (Sam Kelly) and his wife (Lindsay Duncan). What starts out as a clever comparison between the economic and personal styles of the two couples eventually leads to a sustained hysterical climax involving the young wife’s unloved and meddling older sister (Brenda Blethyn) and the two couples, a kind of polyphonic epiphany that has to be seen to be believed. Next to Leigh’s subsequent High Hopes, this is the most subtle and penetrating look at Thatcher England that I’ve seen. (JR)… Read more »

Grand Canyon

Although there’s a pointed and perhaps ironic reference to Sullivan’s Travels toward the end of this long New Age state-of-the-union address, this is paradoxically Lawrence Kasdan’s own version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the naive message movie that Sullivan’s Travels makes mincemeat of. Ridiculously ambitious, though often likable and touching in its sincerity, this very southern California film takes on two extended urban familiesone (including Kevin Kline and Mary McDonnell) white and reasonably well-to-do, the other (including Danny Glover) black and besieged by ghetto violenceand many supplementary characters (Steve Martin, Mary-Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard) to worry over What We’re Coming To. Scripted by Kasdan and his wife Meg, this resembles at times a topical talkfest like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1951 People Will Talk, but without Mankiewicz’s acerbic bite. There are two striking dream sequences, a nicely handled driving lesson, and a very engaging performance by Glover. The maddening mixture of integrity and well-intentioned wrongheadedness at least offers a welcome alternative to the avoidance of social issues in mainstream Hollywood. (JR)… Read more »

Four Days In July

To the best of my knowledge, this 1985 feature is writer-director Mike Leigh’s only foray beyond the confines of Englanda look at two Irish couples in Belfast, one Catholic and one Protestant, both about to have their first children. Aficionados of Leigh’s work for British TV consider this one of his finest works. With Brid Brennan, Des McAcleer, and Stephen Rea. (JR)… Read more »

Forbidden Zone

Richard Elfman directed this 1980 collection of flaky fun and games, vaudeville style. Herve Villechaize and Susan Tyrrell rule the underground Sixth Dimension, which is mainly a campy black-and-white concoction of old Betty Boop cartoons and grade-Z musicals. Marie-Pascale Elfman and Viva are also around to perform their expected cult duties. More fun to think about than to watch. 76 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Emperor Jones

Paul Robeson gives one of his greatest film performances in this arty, dated, but interesting 1933 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play about a former Pullman porter who escapes from a chain gang to become king of a Caribbean island. The underrated Dudley Murphy directed; with Dudley Digges, Frank Wilson, and Fredi Washington. 72 min. (JR)… Read more »

Bleak Moments

Mike Leigh’s auspicious first feature focuses on the painful gaps in communication between a lonely accountant’s clerk (Anne Raitt) and an uptight schoolteacher she halfheartedly tries to seduce. Kitchen-sink realism with a vengeance, punctuated by painful and awkward silences, this was made before Leigh formed a fully coherent social and political view of his material, but his feeling for the characters never falters. One can find a glancing relationship with Cassavetes’s first feature, Shadows, but the style and milieu is English to the core. This might seem overlong, and the drabness and emotional constipation may drive you slightly batty, but the film leaves a powerful aftertaste. (JR)… Read more »

Bitter Rice

Giuseppe De Santis’s belated neorealist effort about the exploitation of women working in the Po Valley rice fields (1948) was sold to the American public using shots of a nubile Silvana Mangano wading in the water with her skirt hiked up. The movie went on to make Mangano a star, and if memory serves, it’s a lot more substantial than the cheesecake ads made it appear. With Vittorio Gassman, Raf Vallone, Doris Dowling, and Lia Corelli. 108 min. (JR)… Read more »

Abigail’s Party

A videotaped version of a Mike Leigh stage play (1977) that is one of his most scathing and extreme works, aptly described by one commentator as a cocktail party from hell. A highly insensitive, aggressive, and garish housewife (Alison Steadman) entertains three neighbors (Janine Duvitsky, John Salthouse, Harriet Reynolds) while bickering with her uptight husband (Tim Stern). (The title party isn’t her own but that of the teenage daughter of one of the guests; we hear it off-stage but never see it.) A ferocious portrayal of the English middle class, this might be termed Leigh’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; it provides an interesting contrast to his other TV films by showing how his dramaturgy works onstage. Highly recommended, but you should go prepared to squirm along with the host, hostess, and guests. (JR)… Read more »