Monthly Archives: June 1992

A Room In Town

Jacques Demy’s highly personal aesthetic coincided with public taste exactly onceon the 1963 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which became an international success. But later audiences never quite accepted Demy’s conception of a musical cinema, which combines location shooting, naturalistic narratives, and psychologically complex characters with the high stylization of sung dialogue. When released in France in 1982, A Room in Town died at the boxoffice, yet it is one of the most beautiful, assured, and cinematically inventive films of its period, a stylistic tour-de-force that doesn’t distort and destroy the real (as did Diva) but inflects and accentuates itthat brings out the lyricism, nobility, and tragedy inherent in ordinary situations. The action takes place in Nantes in 1955, during a violent ship-builders strike; one of the strikers (Richard Berry), though he is engaged to marry his pregnant girl friend, finds himself drawn to his landlady’s unhappily married daughter (Dominique Sanda). The epic, social background provides a counterpoint (literally, because the strike, too, is carried on in song), to the intimate domestic tragedy of the foreground, where the same broad issue (the relationship of workers and bourgeoisie) is replayed. But the simple material is not played simplistically: though Demy offers melodramatic figures of good (the innocent girl friend) and evil (Sanda’s husband, the cruel owner of a small electronics shop, played with operatic fury by Michel Piccoli), the emotional center of the film is an apparently marginal figurethe landlady, magnificently incarnated by Danielle Darrieux, who must witness the conflict, divided between her affection for Berry and her love for her daughter, between the romantic fulfillment that Berry promises and the financial security providedby Piccoli. Read more


A semichoreographed thriller about homeless kids who live on rooftops and crack dealers on New York’s Lower East Side, this is nicely cast with a group of relative newcomersJason Gedrick, Troy Beyer, Alexis Cruz, Eddie Velez, and Trisha Campbelland septuagenarian director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain) still knows a thing or two about razzle-dazzle action editing. But Terence Brennan’s script never gets beyond the formulaic, and the relentless wall-to-wall disco music, fancy dance sequences (with choreography by John Carrafa and Jelon Vieira), and other contrivances (including what looks like designer jeans, designer slum parties, and even designer blood) often make this come across as phony, despite the appealing performers. (JR) Read more


Along with Dumbo, which immediately followed it, this 1940 classic, the second of the Disney animated features, is probably the best in terms of visual detail and overall imagination as well as narrative sweep. Like Dumbo and Bambi, it might have given Dan Quayle cause for concern by validating single parenthood, but everyone else should be delighted. The richly and finely delineated characters include a cluster of European villains, an American hero and blue fairy, and a couple of father figures whose nationalities seem mid-Atlantic. The moral lessons include a literalization of metaphors about lying and other forms of misbehaving, and the grasp of a little boy’s emotions and behavior often borders on the uncanny. A razor-sharp restoration, with some stereo enhancement and vividly restored colors, appeared in 1992. (JR) Read more

Pictures Of Europe: European Cinema In The Nineties

A disappointing 1990 feature-length documentary, made over a three-year period for England’s Channel Four by the usually enterprising and discerning Paul Joyce. Given the array of interesting filmmakers on view — Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodovar, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mike Figgis, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Paul Schrader, Istvan Szabo, Bertrand Tavernier, Agnes Varda, Paul Verhoeven, Wim Wenders, and Krzysztof Zanussi — this is certainly not devoid of interest, but the sound-bite format proves less than ideal for the exploration of ideas about the economic, aesthetic, and existential future of European films. Tavernier and Verhoeven are two of the livelier commentators. (JR) Read more

Peyton Place

Critics turned up their noses at this tear-jerking ‘Scope blockbuster of 1957, based on Grace Metalious’s lurid best-selling novel. But people came out in droves for it, and it’s not at all hard to see whyit’s corn in the grand style, much of it delivered with sweep and conviction, and the intrigues come thick and fast. At the center is Diane Varsi as a girl coming of age in a picturesque New England town; sizzling around the edges are Lana Turner, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Philips, Terry Moore, Russ Tamblyn, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock, David Nelson, Barry Coe, Leon Ames, and Lorne Greene. Onetime Hitchcock employee John Michael Hayes wrote the script, Mark Robson directed, and Franz Waxman composed the effective if syrupy score. (JR) Read more

Patriot Games

If you weren’t bored stiff by The Hunt for Red October, you may enjoy this even duller follow-up thriller based on another Tom Clancy novel. This time CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) has to protect his family (Anne Archer and Thora Birch) from Irish terrorists (Sean Bean, Patrick Bergin, Polly Walker) and if you can accept them as characters you may care whether they live or die. W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart wrote the script and Phillip Noyce, who has shown more skill on other occasions (Newsfront, Dead Calm), directed; James Earl Jones and Richard Harris are also around to periodically insert their ham (1992). (JR) Read more

Monster In A Box

Performance artist Spalding Gray’s follow-up to his 1987 Swimming to Cambodia is easy and entertaining to watch, but has less thematic focus and directorial polish than its predecessor; Nick Broomfield directs this time, and though he’s resourceful, his resources clearly don’t match those of Jonathan Demme. Perhaps the overall sprawl of the material is partly to blame; the title refers to an 1,800-page novel Gray has been writing, which we see on the table in front of him, and most of the monologue is about professional activities that took Gray away from his work on it. Much of this qualifies as engaging but fairly lightweight sit-down comedy, capped by a stand-up routine in which Gray describes his experience playing the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town, complete with the negative reviews he got in the New York papers. Liberal guilt is once again a principal theme, and Gray’s approach to the subject is more playful than polemicalwhich means that we wind up feeling tweaked and tickled more often than challenged or enlightened. But his powers as a writer and performer certainly hold one’s attention. Incidentally, more than five dozen names appear in the credits of this one-man show, including Laurie Anderson (for the music) and Skip Lievsay (for the sound effects). Read more


From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 1992). — J.R.

High Spanish melodrama (1991), without the camp of a Pedro Almodovar, much less the humor of a Luis Buñuel. It’s pretty well executed for what it is, but without the sort of characters that can outlive their generic functions. During the mid-50s a young man from the provinces who’s finishing up his military service (Jorge Sanz) becomes engaged to his commandant’s virginal maid (Maribel Verdu) but then gets enmeshed in a steamy affair with his landlady (Victoria Abril), a glamorous widow with criminal connections and treacherous designs. Roughly speaking, this starts out like a Last Tango in Madrid before gravitating slowly toward James Cain country; Vicente Aranda directed and collaborated on the script. 103 min. Read more

Little Noises

An awkward and unsuccessful writer (Crispin Glover) who dates a playwright (Tatum O’Neal) and shares a room with an unsuccessful actor (Steven Schub) steals the poems of a deaf-mute (Matthew Hutton); claiming them as his own, he shows them to a literary agent (Rik Mayall) who is so impressed that he immediately advances the writer hundreds of dollars. It’s hard to imagine how a movie this terrible and unrealistic ever got made, much less distributed; perhaps some filmic equivalent of vanity publishing is responsible. Directed and cowritten (with Jon Zeiderman) by Jane Spencer; with Tate Donovan, John C. McGinley, Nina Siemaszko, and Carole Shelley. (JR) Read more

A League Of Their Own

It’s sentimental and overlong, the period dialogue doesn’t always sound authentic, and one has to put up with some strident overplaying by Tom Hanks. But most of what makes this movie about the wartime All American Girls Professional Baseball League score in spite of such drawbacks is the way it’s been deftly structured by director Penny Marshall (Big) and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to resemble a 40s musical (albeit, somewhat anachronistically, one in ‘Scope); the rest is mainly streamlined and spirited teamwork. The more prominent ballplayers include Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner, Bitty Schram, and Ann Cusack, and other significant cast members include Garry Marshall, Jon Lovitz, and Bill Pullman. (JR) Read more

Intimate Stranger

Alan Berliner’s highly original and mysterious hour-long documentary about his maternal grandfather Joseph Cassuto, a Palestinian Jew who worked for the Japanese Cotton Trading Company in Alexandria, Egypt, moved his family to Brooklyn in 1941, and then spent most of the next 15 years in Japan. Drawing together an enormous amount of personal archival material (letters, photographs, home movies, documents) and the contrasting off-screen voices of family members (mainly disgruntled) and Japanese friends (uniformly grateful) to compose this multifaceted portrait, Berliner derives much of his cutting rhythm from the sound of a typewriter. The result is a fascinating, moving, and highly evocative work. (JR) Read more

Incident At Ogala

A PBS-style documentary by Michael Apted (35 Up, Thunderheart) about the notorious Pine Ridge incident of June 1975, when two FBI agents illegally drove onto an Indian reservation and were killed in a shoot-out, along with a Native American. The deaths of the agents led to the biggest manhunt in the history of the FBI and the protracted persecution of one individual, Leonard Peltier, who’s still serving a life sentence. Narrated by executive producer Robert Redford, this is certainly compelling for the information it has to impart, and one would like to think that it might help change an intolerable situation. But the conventionality of the overall formattalking heads (some of which are fascinating), sound bites, and re-creations a la The Thin Blue Lineand the film’s tendency to turn everything into a mystery-story narrative and lose itself in trivial details render the material familiar and banal. What emerges is well-intentioned liberal head shaking, very little analysis, and no real discomfort for the spectatorin other words, business as usual (1992). (JR) Read more

Dirk Bogarde: By Myself

A must-see for Dirk Bogarde fans, and highly recommended to anyone who wants to hear an intelligent actor speak at length. This two-part British TV documentary by Paul Joyce features a fascinating discussion by Bogarde about his craft, with particularly interesting bits about Visconti’s blocking of his mise en scene to music by Mahler in Death in Venice, how Fassbinder allegedly destroyed Despair in the cutting room, the controversial early handling of a gay theme in Victim, experiences with Judy Garland and Joseph Losey, the Hollywood blacklist, and work with Bertrand Tavernier on Daddy Nostalgia, Bogarde’s farewell film. This riveting interview inspires thoughts on why this country can’t produce documentaries about film that are even a fraction as good (1991). (JR) Read more

Cousin Bobby

A fascinating and highly moving documentary by Jonathan Demme about his cousin Robert Castle, whom he hadn’t seen for 30 years before this film. A 60-year-old white Episcopal minister working in Harlem with a multiracial and multidenominational congregation, Castle is a passionately committed community organizer who started out in Jersey City and forged strong links with the Black Panthers and other radical organizations of the 60s and 70s. He comes across as something of a saintunpretentious and unself-conscious, though by no means simpleand this unpreachy film, which also shows us a lot of Demme’s developing friendship with his cousin, is similarly direct and unaffected. Some of our questions about Castle’s peripatetic family life are left unanswered, and it’s not clear precisely where home movie is meant to shade off into political document, but such ambiguity carries a certain charm and conviction; at the end one simply feels grateful for having spent some time with these people (1991). (JR) Read more

China Lake

A pretty good American independent feature by Dieter Weihl about a family reunion in a desert setting. This low-key example of undershirt realism gives us an overweight Polish American TV addict (L.A. Davis) and his directionless teenage son (Joe Toppe), who are visited in their mobile home by the father’s sister (Sandi Stutz) and her punk teenage daughter (Amilia Richer-Hart) from Milwaukee. Not very much happens, apart from a discernible emotional thaw on the part of the two males. The two actresses are especially lifelike (except for a contrived monologue by the daughter during a car ride that perhaps no actress could handle), and the jazzy score by Patricia Weiss and Norbert Stachel is often striking (1989). (JR) Read more