Daily Archives: January 1, 1995

In The Mouth Of Madness

Director John Carpenter turns gothic and modernist at the same time in this scary if overloaded paranoid story (1994) by Michael De Luca, about an insurance adjuster (Sam Neill), hired to track down a best-selling horror author, who finds himself trapped inside the occult fantasy world of the writer (J├╝rgen Prochnow). Carpenter establishes an unnerving atmosphere through elliptical suggestions and various shock cuts, conjuring up a semimythological world inspired by the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Even if the old-fashioned horror thrills don’t always mesh with the self-referential modernist conceits, he keeps things moving and provocative throughout. With Julie Carmen and Charlton Heston. Read more

Putney Swope

Robert Downey Sr.’s low-budget, hit-or-miss dadaist (or gagaist) 1969 satire, about a group of blacks taking over a Madison Avenue ad agency, is a bit of a relic now, though a decidedly offbeat one. Only a fraction of the jokes ever worked, but the determined goofiness of some of the conceits (e.g., German midgets Pepi and Ruth Hermine as the U.S. president and first lady) and the interspersed parodic TV commercials (all of them in color, though the rest of the movie is in black and white) give one a better idea of the jaunty excesses of the late 60s than Hollywood movies of the same period. If you’re in a silly enough mood, you might have a good time. With Arnold Johnson, Stanley Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Antonio Fargas, and a fleeting bit by Mel Brooks. 84 min. (JR) Read more

Chasing Butterflies

An elegant if rather remote ironic comedy (1993) by Otar Iosseliani (Favorites of the Moon), a Georgian filmmaker based mostly in France in recent years. Like Tati, Iosseliani films his characters and their whimsical behavior almost exclusively in medium and long shots, and like Bunuel, he seems more than a little amused by decadent aristocrats. But unlike these masters, he doesn’t really qualify as a social observer; the worlds of his recent films suggest parables or allegories dreamed up by an expatriate more than concrete engagements with French life. I didn’t much like this picture, though I feel I should have; I just couldn’t get into the detached humor. (JR) Read more

Minboor The Gentle Art Of Japanese Extortion

A broad satirical farce by Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) about the efforts of a luxury hotel in Tokyo to rid itself of yakuza who are using the place as a hangout (1992). These efforts prove ineffectual, thanks to the gangsters’ not-so-gentle art of intimidation, until the hotel hires a lawyer (Nobuku Miyamoto, Itami’s wife and frequent leading lady) who’s well versed in the problems involved and who plans various counterattacks. Eventually this picture turns solemn and serious in order to hammer home points that are made more effectively through comedy, and there’s a corny Western-elevator-music score (broken only occasionally by sinister patches of percussion) that may set your teeth on edge. But one sign of the relevance of this movie is that Itami was brutally attacked by three gangsters less than a week after it opened in Japan, leaving him with permanent scars he wears as badges of honor. (JR) Read more

Sex And Zen

There isn’t a whole lot of Zen here, barring the opening and closing scenes with a priest, but there’s plenty of lively sex, both conventional and otherwise, in this high-spirited porn romp from Hong Kong, adapted by Lee Ying Kit from Li Yu’s Ming dynasty erotic novel Prayer Mat of the Flesh and directed by Michael Mak. At times the overall ambience suggests a Chinese version of The Arabian Nights and the Decameron; one central character is a flying thief, and one riotous slapstick sequence details the complications that ensue when the hero, a lecherous scholar whose penis is shorter than he would like, arranges to have a transplant from a horse. (JR) Read more

Cape Fear

This 1962 thriller is better than the Scorsese remakeabove all for Robert Mitchum’s chilling performance as a vengeful ex-con and an overall brute force in the crude story linethough it’s arguably still some distance from deserving its reputation as a classic. Stolid Gregory Peck plays the family man, and Polly Bergen is his menaced wife; Bernard Herrmann wrote the score. Based on John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners; with Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas, and Barrie Chase. J. Lee Thompson directed. 105 min. (JR) Read more

Before Sunrise

Richard Linklater goes Hollywood (1995)triumphantly and with an overall intelligence, sweetness, and romantic simplicity that reminds me of wartime weepies like The Clock. After meeting on a train out of Budapest, a young American (Ethan Hawke) and a French student (Julie Delpy) casually explore Vienna for 14 hours; what emerges from their impromptu date has neither the flakiness of Linklater’s Slacker nor the generational smarts of his Dazed and Confused (though it’s closer in its picaresque form and lyricism to the former), but it does manage to say a few things about the fragility and uncertainty of contemporary relationships. Linklater’s tact in handling such potentially mawkish material is as evident in what he leaves out as in what he includes, and if Hawke sometimes seems a mite doltish and preening, Delpy is a consistent delight. Kim Krizan collaborated with Linklater on the script, which abounds in lively dialogue and imaginative digressions. R, 101 min. (JR) Read more

Picnic On The Grass

A delicious dalliance from Jean Renoir (1959), this satirical comedy about a stuffy scientist (Paul Meurisse) campaigning for the presidency of a united Europe on a platform promoting artificial insemination for everyone accidentally meets Catherine Rouvel in the country, and his idealism gets unwound. Adapting the TV shooting techniques of his previous film, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, and using ravishing color, Renoir manages to inject an uncommon amount of feeling into all the frivolity and whimsy; the results are both absurdist and sublime. (JR) Read more

Family Life

Adapted by David Mercer from his TV play In Two Minds, Ken Loach’s grim and harrowing 1971 British drama, also known as Wednesday’s Child, was closely associated with the then-fashionable theories of R.D. Laing. It describes the history of a troubled 19-year-old girl gradually driven into schizophrenia by the naive understanding of her family. She winds up in a mental hospital where she makes some progress thanks to a Laingian group therapist, but after he’s dismissed she’s treated with drugs and electroshock, with devastating results. With Sandy Ratcliff and Bill Dean. (JR) Read more

Ladybird, Ladybird

Based on a true story, Ken Loach’s powerful and disturbing British drama (1994) about a single working-class mother with four children from four different fathers is made unforgettable by stand-up comedian Crissy Rock’s lead performance and by the filmmakers’ determination to make the story as messy and as complex as life itself. After many abusive relationships, Maggie, the heroine, settles down with a gentle Paraguayan refugee (beautifully played by Vladimir Vega), but then has to contend repeatedly with the state taking away her children. This sounds like a simple antiwelfare polemic, but Loach doesn’t allow us to walk away from the movie with any settled or monolithic message. As written by Rona Munro and played by Rock, Maggie is a volcanic conundrum, and the deeper we become involved in her fate, the less sure we become about anything. Highly recommended. (JR) Read more

Mysterious Island

An unlikely collaboration between the neglected, blacklisted expatriate director Cy Endfield and special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, this 1961 British adaptation of Jules Verne’s two-part sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea follows some Confederate prisoners who hijack an observation balloon and wind up joining some shipwrecked passengers on an uncharted island, where they’re menaced by prehistoric beasts and helped by Captain Nemo. Bernard Herrmann composed the score, and the cast is a lively one: Joan Greenwood, Michael Craig, Herbert Lom, Michael Callan, and Gary Merrill. John Prebble, Dan Ullman, Crane Wilbur, and an uncredited Endfield all worked on the script. This fantasy adventure is hardly one of Endfield’s most personal efforts, but it’s still a pretty enjoyable romp. (JR) Read more

Demon Knight

This has been packaged as another Tale From the Crypt, but apart from its being a horror picture, it bears virtually no relation to the visual or narrative style of the 50s EC comic book; it’s better described as a high-tech thriller in the vein of Night of the Living Dead, with semicoherent underpinnings relating to the blood of Christ and the Crusades, and some manic flourishes that call to mind the Gremlins movies. It’s competently directed by former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (best known for his work on Spike Lee’s films). The plot concerns a renegade seeking refuge in a run-down boarding house; he possesses an ancient key with occult powers that a character known as the Collector is trying to retrieve from him. The silly story is basically just an excuse for some thrills and goofy one-liners, but even if the more likable characters tended to get killed off too early for my taste, I wasn’t bored. Written by Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris, and Mark Bishop; with Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Bakke, CCH Pounder, Dick Miller, Thomas Haden Church, John Schuck, Gary Farmer, and Charles Fleischer. (JR) Read more

The Terence Davies Trilogy

The first three films of Terence DaviesChildren (1974), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983)make up an 85-minute semiautobiographical trilogy about a Catholic working-class Liverpudlian named Robert Tucker, who’s seen as a victimized schoolboy, a closeted middle-aged homosexual, and an 80-year-old dying in a hospital. The emotional power of Davies’s subsequent great symphonic works (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) is already present, as are the dry wit and visual mastery, though in terms of range and technical means these short films remain sketchy chamber pieces by comparison. (JR) Read more

Road To Bali

More or less contemporary with Mad when it was still a comic book, this late (1952) entry in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour road series, the only one in color, displays a similar penchant for what critic J. Hoberman has termed vulgar modernismloads of self-referential gags and parodic allusions to movies of the periodwithout the street-smart social satire. I loved this at the age of nine and suspect that some of it’s still pretty funny when it isn’t being self-congratulatory; the Technicolor and guest-star appearances undoubtedly help. Hal Walker directed. 90 min. (JR) Read more

The Secret Adventures Of Tom Thumb

London’s Guardian has aptly described this hour-long animated puppet nightmare by Dave Borthwick (1993) as taking place in a filmic netherworld where Eraserhead and Pinocchio meet. Part of what makes it so creepy is the use of real people as well as puppets, part is the overall surrealist imagination. I didn’t much care for the story, which mixes Star Wars medievalism with Brazil futurism, but the images are eerie enough to stock a solid month of bad dreams. The music is by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. (JR) Read more