Monthly Archives: January 1995

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

Vermont Is For Lovers

In this low-budget independent comedy from 1992, writer-director John O’Brien gives us a young, quarreling couple from New York who drive up to rural Vermont to get married. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s idea of a good laugh is playing a jazzy version of The Farmer in the Dell every time he shows a cow or a goose. Shot cinema-verite style with impromptu zooms and jump cuts, this is an uneasy blend of folk documentary and romantic comedy in which the authentic locals are in effect invited to upstage the petulant, fictional couple. Part of the intention is clearly to celebrate old-time American lifestyles on the verge of extinction, but the cuteness and the contrivance keep getting in the way. With George Thrush and Marya Cohn. (JR) Read more

The Testament Of Dr. Cordelier

Jean Renoir’s uncharacteristic free adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the great Jean-Louis Barrault (1959). Shot in black and white for French TV, this oddball horror comedy allowed Renoir to experiment with TV techniques, using multiple cameras and microphones to follow his actors from different angles at the same time. Barrault’s performance in the title rolea retiring middle-class professor who, after inadverently releasing the fury of his own id, delights in such activities as abusing cripples on the streetis one of the most sublime, disturbingly funny, and complex actorly creations ever committed to film, and it illuminates many corners of Renoir’s oeuvre in provocative ways: Cordelier’s shambling walk can be traced all the way back to Michel Simon’s Boudu, and, as Dave Kehr and French critic Jean Douchet have noted, the film is the dark mirror of the Dionysian fantasy of Picnic on the Grass, made the same year; here liberation from repression leads to nightmare rather than utopia. (JR) Read more


Ken Loach’s first theatrical feature (1969), adapted from a novel by Barry Hines, focuses on an alienated working-class schoolboy in Barnsley, England, and his pet kestrel, which he trains to hunt. Widely applauded at the time of its original release, the film did much to establish Loach’s international reputation; like most of its successors, it was shot cheaply on location using a nonprofessional cast. With David Bradley and Colin Welland. 113 min. (JR) Read more

Bullets Over Broadway

Writer-director Woody Allen mounts a lively farce (1994) set in Manhattan in 1928in a milieu that interfaces prohibition gangsters with Broadway theaterand has a number of amusing things to say about the interactions between art and commerce, both seen here in their crasser forms. Like Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, though to somewhat less effect, this shows a certain improvement in Allen’s work; the material is certainly lively, though the plot becomes a bit mechanical toward the end. The performances, however, are very enjoyable, with first honors going to Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest. Most of the othersJohn Cusack as the playwright-director hero, Jennifer Tilly as a gangster’s moll forced into Cusack’s production as an actress, Rob Reiner, Jack Warner, Mary-Louise Parker, and Harvey Fiersteinaren’t too far behind. 99 min. (JR) Read more


Just as The Ten Commandments (1956) was the apotheosis of Eisenhower conservatism, this 1960 blockbuster, which broke the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, seems the quintessence of Kennedy liberalism. Anthony Mann directed the first sequence but then was replaced by Stanley Kubrick, who said he enjoyed the most artistic freedom in the scenes without dialogue. Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are appealing as the eponymous rebel slave and his love interest; no less juicy is the Roman triumvirate of Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Laurence Olivier, playing one of the first bisexual characters in a major Hollywood film (unfortunately one also has to put up with the embarrassing accents and performances of Tony Curtis, John Dall, and Nina Foch, among others). This may be the most literate of all the spectacles set in antiquity. This restored version, including material originally cut, runs 197 minutes, including Alex North’s powerfully romantic overture. (JR) Read more