Monthly Archives: May 1993

Various Techniques In The Avant-garde

Another varied program in a weekly series of experimental shorts, this one differs somewhat from its immediate predecessors in its highlighting of a single filmmaker, Peter Kubelka, four of whose films will be shown: Adebar, Schwechater, Arnulf Rainer, and Unsere Afrikareise. On the same program, another smorgasbord: Bruce Baillie’s To Parsifal (1962), Robert Breer’s delightful, animated 69 (1968), Louis Hock’s 1973 Zebra, Robert Fulton’s Path of Cessation and Patrick O’Neal’s Saugus Series (both 1974).… Read more »

Utz

A likable minor-key effort about a Czech baron (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who collects porcelain figures, adapted by Hugh Whitemore from a novel by Bruce Chatwin and directed by George Sluizer (the Dutch filmmaker best known for The Vanishing and its U.S. remake). This British-German production, with effective secondary performances by Paul Scofield, Brenda Fricker, and Local Hero’s Peter Riegert, is partially a wry satiric look at Eastern European communism and partially an exercise in fragmented storytelling. It shows a fair amount of wit and restraint in both departments and qualifies as a civilized entertainment, if not much more. (JR)… Read more »

This Boy’s Life

Thanks to its trio of sterling lead performances, by Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this adaptation by writer Robert Getchell (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal) of Tobias Wolff’s memoir about growing up with a cruel and bullying stepfather in the 50s mainly triumphs over its own problems with aggressiveness and insecurityan unnecessary and tiresome pushiness in its use of period songs, some occasional uncertainties and false notes in the dialogue. Like the book, the film aims more for identification with Wolff’s plight than for detailed psychological analysis; the leads work overtime to make their characters and their relationships pungent, believable, and moving (though with regard to the rest of the cast, the movie seems less focused and confident). (JR)… Read more »

Posse

Not to be confused with the better-than-average western directed by Kirk Douglas in 1975, this 1993 movie about blacks in the west directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) breaks with standard genre myth to come closer to historical truth. Pretty good in terms of action and character, but since historical verisimilitude is at issue I certainly could have done without the blatantly anachronistic music (I seriously doubt that chanteuses resorted to flatted fifths in turn-of-the-century saloons). The plot follows the exploits of veterans of the Spanish-American War (including Van Peebles, Charles Lane, Tone Loc, Tiny Lister Jr., and Big Daddy Kane), all but one of them (Stephen Baldwin) black, who have banded together to form a posse. As in New Jack City, Van Peebles displays a distinctive visual style of tilted angles and frequent camera movement, and the script by Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane also keeps things moving, but perhaps the best sequence of all is the opening one, which features the great Woody Strode. With Billy Zane, Melvin Van Peebles, and Pam Grier. (JR)… Read more »

Paths Of Glory

The 1957 film that established Stanley Kubrick’s reputation, adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson from Humphrey Cobb’s novel about French soldiers being tried for cowardice during World War I. Corrosively antiwar in its treatment of the corruption and incompetence of military commanders, it’s far from pacifist in spirit, and Kirk Douglas’s strong and angry performance as the officer defending the unjustly charged soldiers perfectly contains this contradiction. The remaining cast is equally resourceful and interesting: Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Ralph Meeker, and the creepy Timothy Carey, giving perhaps his best performance. Banned in France for 18 years, this masterpiece still packs a wallop, though nothing in it is as simple as it may first appear; audiences are still arguing about the final sequence, which has been characterized as everything from a sentimental cop-out to the ultimate cynical twist. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Much Ado About Nothing

Kenneth Branagh’s second attempt to popularize Shakespeare for the screen (Henry V was the first) yields a smashing piece of entertainment. The comedy was cut and deprived of its urban setting so that the whole thing could be shot in and around a 14th-century Tuscan villa, but the trade-off seems worth it, and most of the cast shinesI especially enjoyed Michael Keaton. Denzel Washington is sufficiently elegant to enable one to forget his American accent most of the time. Branagh may be the price we have to pay to get Emma Thompson, yet they’re both more at home than Keanu Reeves. If you appreciate the effort to make Shakespeare comprehensible, the high spirits, sensual trappings, and juicy language of this buoyant, handsome 1993 production are pretty contagious. PG-13, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Man Bites Dog

In theory this well-shot, low-budget, black-and-white pseudodocumentary and satiric dark comedy (1992), codirected by and starring Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde, should have been scathing. (The original French title literally means It Happened Close to Where You Live.) A documentary crew headed by director Belvaux and cameraman Bonzel film the exploits of a small-town serial killer and tiresome autodidact (Poelvoorde) who carefully explains his techniques and airs his opinions about life and art; gradually the crew become more and more implicated in the killer’s crimes, which include rape and theft as well as murder. The media’s heroizing of serial killers is certainly ripe for unpacking, but this bold yet rather self-satisfied treatment of the theme often seems nearly as heartless and exploitive as what it’s attacking. What emerges is fairly original in look and feel, but not terribly convincing. In French with subtitles. NC-17, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Juno And The Paycock

Though praised when it came out (1930), Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Sean O’Casey’s play, with some of the original Dublin cast (including Sara Allgood as Juno), is a fairly deadly case of canned theater that’s pretty close to what Hitchcock many years later would refer to as photographs of people talking. (JR)… Read more »

Jamaica Inn

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1993). — J.R.

By common consent, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s poorest and least personal works (1939), though it has some compensations. The last film he made in Britain before moving to the U.S., it’s adapted — like Rebecca, his first American picture — from a Daphne du Maurier novel, about an 18th-century nobleman in Cornwall who doubles as the head of a band of smugglers. If this quirky pasteboard effort belongs to anyone, it’s Charles Laughton, who plays the lead with some wit and energy and also served as coproducer. Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison, and J.B. Priestley all worked on the script, and Maureen O’Hara, Leslie Banks, and Robert Newton costar. 98 min. (JR)

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Identification Of A Woman

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1982 feature (he didn’t make another until the 1995 Beyond the Clouds) focuses on an Italian filmmaker (Tomas Milian) and his chance encounters with two women. The most openly erotic of Antonioni’s features, and visually one of the most beautiful (what he does with fog in one famous sequence is particularly memorable), it’s also one of his most elusive in terms of plot and character. With Christine Boisson, Daniela Silverio, and Sandra Monteleoni. In Italian with subtitles. 129 min. (JR)… Read more »

Emma And Elvis

This entertaining first fiction feature of Julia Reichert (Union Maids) is at least 25 times better than Paul Mazursky’s The Pickle at making a filmmaker’s creative/midlife crisis meaningful, engaging, and interesting. The filmmaker is a married woman (Kathryn Walker) in Dayton, Ohio, who’s bogged down in finishing a documentary about the 60s counterculture. She becomes involved with a bitter, disaffected cable-access video artist (Jason Duchin) in his 20s, which creates an ongoing dialogue between 60s and contemporary approaches to political protestparticularly when both join an anticensorship protest involving a gay activist with AIDS. The story is set in spring 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests, and all the characters are fresh and unpredictable. The film-within-a-film features interviews about the 60s with Angela Davis, Tom Hayden, David Horowitz, Greil Marcus, and Holly Near. Mark Blum is effective as the filmmaker’s neglected husband; Steven Bognar and Martin M. Goldstein collaborated with Reichert on the lively script. (JR)… Read more »

Elstree Calling

Some Hitchcock esoterica from 1930, shot at the studios of British International Pictures at Elstreean all-star vaudeville and revue entertainment apparently intended as an English equivalent of early sound show-biz anthologies such as The King of Jazz and The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Hitchcock is credited with directing the sketches and other interpolated items. Tommy Handley serves as host to about a dozen performers borrowed from current West End musicals, including xylophonist Teddy Brown and his orchestra, the Three Eddies tap-dancing in blackface, Helen Burnell and the Adelphi Girls, and comic and singer Will Fyffe. Donald Calthorp and Anna May Wong contribute a comedy skit about The Taming of the Shrew. (JR)… Read more »

Confessions Of A Suburban Girl

The first documentary of Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), made with British money in 1992, is a predictable 50-minute account of her return at age 40 to Huntingdon Valley, a Philadelphia suburb, to look up her old girlfriends and reminisce about what it was like to be a well-to-do Jewish female teenager. It’s backed up by the usual postmodernist trimmingsmainly corny found footage from the 60s and home movies, though also some clips from Seidelman’s underrated She-Devil. None of the analysis, if you want to call it that, digs very deep; in place of it we get an assumption of entitlement that seems to go with the environment. (JR)… Read more »

Cliffhanger

It’s hard to think of a movie my feelings have been more divided on. An action adventure directed by ace craftsman Renny Harlin, in spectacular mountain settings (supposedly the Rockies, though most of the picture was filmed in Italy), this is often breathtaking and beautifully put together; the action never flags, and despite the presence of Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the silly boy’s fantasy of a script with Michael France), sheepdog expressions and all, the movie comes across as if somebody half-believed in it. On the other hand, the brutality and sadism it delivers at every opportunity, which we’re supposed to take for granted as part of the fun, left me feeling that any civilization that can create such an entertainment may not deserve to survive; except for our recent turkey shoots in Panama and the Persian Gulf, savagery has seldom been celebrated as shamelessly or as disgustingly. Maybe the way those scenic mountain vistas recall the pre-Nazi star vehicles of Leni Riefenstahl isn’t just coincidence: the movie seeks to make proto-Nazi thugs out of all of us. With John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Paul Winfield, and Ralph Waite. (JR)… Read more »

Blackmail

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 masterpiece, his last silent, follows the plight of a murderer caught between her blackmailer and her detective boyfriend. For all the experimental interest of the sound version that followed (the first full-length talkie released in England), this is more fluid and accomplished. Apart from two suspenseful set piecesan attempted date rape in an artist’s studio that ends with the murder of the artist-rapist, and a chase through the British Museum, Hitchcock’s first giddy desecration of a national monumentwhat most impresses is the masterful movement back and forth between subjective and objective modes of storytelling, as well as the pungent uses of diverse London settings. As someone who’s always preferred Lang’s treatment of serial killers to Hitchcock’s, I would opt for this thriller over the much better known The Lodger as Hitchcock’s best silent picture, rivaled only by his less characteristic but formally inventive The Ring. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »