Monthly Archives: September 1992

Mr. Saturday Night

Under two tons of unconvincing makeup and three tons of schmaltz, Billy Crystal treats us to half a century in the life of a borscht belt comic who’s a cross between Milton Berle and Don Rickles, focusing on his complex relationship with his manager brother (David Paymer). In the process, Crystal surprisingly reveals that he may have more gifts as a director and writer (collaborating here with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) than as an actor. The main dramatic subtext is that the title hero isn’t very nice, and despite a few sentimental retreats from this premise, it’s still what we’re left with. Crystal and company are especially good in handling the various Jewish details (a scene in which both brothers slurp glasses of tea is a near classic), and if they never seem to be entirely sure where their story is leading them, they’re pretty adroit at ducking the usual show-biz cliches. With Julie Warner, Helen Hunt, Jerry Orbach, and Ron Silverand watch for a brief but enjoyable cameo by Jerry Lewis. (JR) Read more

Mr. Baseball

Not being much of a fan of either Tom Selleck or baseball, I wasn’t looking forward to this comedy about a major league ballplayer who finds himself on a Japanese team, but it’s surprising how honestly and directly it handles American and Japanese attitudes colliding with each other. (Could this be the first instance of Japanese ownership of Hollywood studios affecting content? If so, the influence seems benign.) The producer-director, Fred Schepisi, already showed a lot of feeling for cultural clashes in his early Australian feature The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith; unlike that film, this one is no masterpiece, but it sustains interest on its own modest level. Selleck is used intelligently for what he is rather than asked to be someone he isn’trather as Howard Hawks used Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. Written by Gary Ross, Kevin Wade, and Monte Merrick; with Ken Takakura, Aya Takanashi, Toshi Shioya, and Dennis Haysbert. (JR) Read more

Life On A String

Visually impressive and intellectually provocative, though at times emotionally uninvolving, Chen Kaige’s tale about two blind musicians in northwest China, master (Liu Zhongyuan) and apprentice (Huang Lei), is in part a reflection on the power of music and the libido, individually and in competition with each other; the relation of the two musicians to a feud between two clans and the younger musician’s affair with a village woman (Xu Qing) are also important elements in the plot. Somewhat self-conscious as spectacle and multifaceted parable, the film certainly offers a lot of food for thought, though the allegorical meanings are at times difficult to read. Outside the work of Douglas Sirk, blindness as a spiritual metaphor probably hasn’t been explored as exhaustively as here, and the metaphoric use of the banjolike sanxian and a kite flown by the master musician are equally suggestive. Adapted by Chen from a short story by Shi Tieshing (1991). (JR) Read more

Laws Of Gravity

In his first featurea cut-rate effort shot in only twelve days for $38,000writer-director Nick Gomez, the editor of Hal Hartley’s Trust, catches the surface behavior of Italian-American hoods in Bensonhurst so perfectly that you may not even care that you already know this material like the back of your hand. The inconsequential plot involves the efforts of a couple of petty criminals (Peter Greene and Adam Trese) to unload an illegal stash of handguns; what really matters are the dead-on performances and the overlapping dialogue with its compulsive four-letter words (Chill fuckin’ out is a typical remark) and the even more compulsive characters. It’s an impressive debut, though it would be nice to see what Gomez can do outside of Scorseseland. With Edie Falco, Arabella Field, Paul Schulze, and Saul Stein. (JR) Read more

The Good Woman Of Bangkok

A more apt title might be The Good Man of Brisbane. It seems that 43-year-old Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke was hurting so bad when his long-term marriage ended that he went to Thailand with the express purpose of hiring a prostitute, making a documentary about her, and falling in love with hernot necessarily in that order. Setting a new low in both exploitation and self-deception, his film constantly uses the alibi that it’s honest about what it’s doing. Then why does O’Rourke film the prostitute, her mother and aunt, and many obnoxious male tourists and strip joints at great lengthand keep himself out of frame entirely? We learn a bit, none of it surprising, about the prostitute’s unhappy life, despair, and hatred of men, but thanks to some Mozart arias, printed titles, and O’Rourke’s offscreen voice expressing concern for her, we learn even more about the filmmaker’s bleeding heart and unavailing generositythe film’s true subject. There’s a school of thoughtlet’s call it a primary schoolthat believes that if you’re up-front about paying a prostitute to record her pain on camera you’re making a profound social/aesthetic statement. That school’s students should have a ball with this atrocity (1991). (JR) Read more

Echoes From A Somber Empire

Werner Herzog’s 1990 documentary about the bloody 13-year reign of Jean Bedel Bokassaself-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic, subsequently sentenced to life in prisonproceeds mainly through indirection. The soft-spoken Michael Goldsmith, a journalist once arrested and tortured by the dictator for arbitrary reasons, questions one of Bokassa’s wives, talks to some of his 50-odd children, and tours his former headquarters; these loping stretches are intercut with archival footage, and various pieces of classical music are effectively employed. Herzog’s fascination with mad tyrants is no more analytical here than in Aguirre: The Wrath of Godhe seems more concerned with gaping than with understanding. But he joins his visionary style, his sense of offbeat details and anecdotes, and his taste for romantic excess with a masterful and seductive sense of film rhythm. 91 min. (JR) Read more

La Discrete

When a self-centered, rakish, and somewhat dandyish French writer is jilted by his lover, an older friend persuades him to hatch a revenge plot against women in general by hiring a young typist, getting her to fall in love with him, and then leaving her. But the typist he selects is a lot more than he bargained for. In his first feature (1990) Christian Vincent shows a remarkable flair for handling his talented castFabrice Luchini, a veteran of many Rohmer films, is especially impressive as the writerand, with the help of Jean-Pierre Ronssin, offers them a well-measured script to deliver his bittersweet observations. Apart from a few well-placed 17th- and 18th-century references, this is too barbed to qualify as Rohmer-esque, but it’s certainly literate and funny. With Marie Bunel, Maurice Garrel, and Judith Henry. (JR) Read more

The Cyclist

Made between The Peddler and Marriage of the Blessed, this 1989 Iranian feature by the highly talented Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a filmmaker comparable in some ways to Martin Scorsese, follows the exploitation of an Afghan refugee who embarks on a bicycle marathon in order to raise money for his wife’s medical expenses. A searing expressionist work about man’s inhumanity, filmed in a hypnotic and feverish style. With Moharram Zaynalzadeh and Esmail Soltanian. (JR) Read more

A Boy Ten Feet Tall

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1963 British film with Edward G. Robinson and Constance Cummings follows the adventures of an orphaned boy travelling alone through Africa on his way to visit his aunt during the 1956 Suez Crisismda 2,000 mile journey. Fergus McClelland plays the boy. Read more

Bob Roberts

A sometimes brilliant if overloaded pseudodocumentary satire, Tim Robbins’s first feature as writer-director (1992) is an angry catalog of media abuses in the realm of politics. (Properly speaking, there are no real characters here, only types and images, which is part of the point.) Robbins plays a folksinging Pennsylvania conservative running for the U.S. Senate against fuddy-duddy liberal incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) shortly before the Persian Gulf war. The functioning of media itself is Robbins’s true subject, and it’s exciting to see him appropriating some of the ideas of his mentor Robert Altman and giving them more bite than Altman ever has. Robbins is attempting too much here, but the 70 percent or so that he brings off borders on delightful. With Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, and some deadly cameos by John Cusack (in a brutal takeoff on Saturday Night Live), Peter Gallagher, Bob Balaban, Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward, and James Spader. R, 101 min. (JR) Read more

Blast ’em

The world of paparazzi and celebrity assault photography sounds like a great topic for a movie, but the risk of simply replicating and extending this world rather than analyzing it is fairly high. This Canadian documentarymost of which centers on photographer Victor Malafronte pursuing Michael J. Fox, Sigourney Weaver, and other stars, though other celebrity photographers are also profiled and intervieweddoesn’t entirely avoid this pitfall. But it does do a pretty good job of explaining how the market value of certain celebrity photos (e.g., of John F. Kennedy Jr. on roller skates) gets defined and redefined, how the photos are marketed and used, and how the hostile relations between many photographers and the celebrities they shoot fuel as well as undercut their mutual dependencies. Directed by Joseph Blasioli, who also wrote the script, and Egidio Coccimiglio. (JR) Read more

Afraid Of The Dark

This is a disappointing and rather unpleasant, though thoughtfully conceived, first feature by Mark Peploe — cowriter of The Passenger, The Last Emperor, and The Sheltering Sky. A psychological English thriller, it concerns a lonely and disturbed boy (Ben Keyworth) and a slasher who goes after blind people, including the boy’s mother (Fanny Ardant) and a friend of hers (Clare Holman). Nothing is quite what it seems, but without giving away any of the surprises, I can point out that the operative film references — Peeping Tom, The Fallen Idol, Repulsion — are boringly predictable. Coscripted by Frederick Seidel; with James Fox and Paul McGann. (JR) Read more

Adam’s Rib

Not to be confused with the 1949 George Cukor comedy of the same title, this is a tragicomic 1991 Soviet feature by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich, based on Anatole Kourtchatkine’s novel House of Young Women. A family of women live in a small three-room flat: an invalid grandmother (Elena Bogdanova), a mother (Inna Churikova), and the mother’s two daughters from two previous marriages (Svetlana Ryabova and Maria Golubkina). The assortment of problems that characterize their lives is the main bill of fare, building to a birthday party for the grandmother that’s attended by the mother’s current lover and both her former husbands, an awkward and agonizing event of escalating awfulness. Nicely played and measured, and a good indication of some of the confusions that plague contemporary Russian life. (JR) Read more