4 Little Girls
This surprisingly humble documentary by Spike Lee may be his best film to date apart from Do the Right Thing. It’s not weighed down by an ounce of flab or hype, and the story it tells is profoundly affecting. On September 15, 1963, four little black girls attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a central meeting place in the civil rights movement, were killed in a racist bombing. This is a detailed exploration of what that event meant 34 years ago–to family, friends, and the movement–as well as what it means today. In the only picture Charlie parker ever painted–a beautiful portrait of a daughter who died in infancy–he imagined what she might have looked like in her 30s, and in 4 Little Girls Lee gets us to imagine something comparable. He uses John Coltrane’s “Alabama” with tact and sensitivity, making up for his crude use of the piece in Malcolm X, and he seems to have learned a fair amount about my home state. Perhaps for the first time, Lee actually finds something to say about history–my only quibble is that he doesn’t tell us more about the belated sentencing of the bomber. A must-see.… Read more »
Telling Lies in America
Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas–about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland–is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed–as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter)–what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering–like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America–is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show. Everyone here gives a good performance; as the hero’s father Maximilian Schell plays beautifully against the expected stereotype, and Calista Flockhart is equally impressive as the coworker the boy has a crush on.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 24, 1997). — J.R.
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Chantal Akerman.
This weekend the Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of its exhibit “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” is presenting not only Chantal Akerman, one of the finest filmmakers working anywhere, but also the two features I would describe as her greatest achievements — the 200-minute narrative Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and the 107-minute documentary From the East (D’est, 1993). To make the program even more fully rounded, the museum is also showing a 64-minute self-portrait, Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996), which provides an excellent introduction to her work as a whole. (This film and Akerman herself will appear on Sunday; From the East shows on Friday, and Jeanne Dielman on Saturday.)
Despite her significant and still growing international reputation, Akerman isn’t yet considered an “established” mainstream or avant-garde artist, because many critics in both spheres still treat her as something of an interloper, even an irritation or a threat. A friend who’s a highly respected novelist and film critic recently told me that he regards all her work as worthless, even though he hasn’t bothered to look at all of it.… Read more »
Adapted from “Cannes, tour de Babel critique,” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, in Traﬁc no. 23, automne 1997. –- J.R.
By common agreement, the ﬁftieth anniversary of the Cannes
Film Festival, preﬁgured as a cause for celebration, wound up serving
more often as an occasion for complaint. Disappointment in the over-
all quality of the ﬁlms ran high, even if the arrival over the last four days
of ﬁlms by Abbas Kiarostami, Atom Egoyan, Youssef Chahine, and
Wong Kar-wai improved the climate somewhat. But I don’t mean to
suggest that the shared feelings of anger and frustration demonstrated
any critical unanimity. On the contrary, the overall malaise of Cannes this
year forced to a state of crisis the general critical disagreement and lack
of communication that has turned up repeatedly, in a variety of forms.
If the pressing question after every screening at Cannes is whether a ﬁlm
is good or bad (or, more often, given the climate of hyperbole,
wonderful or terrible) — a question that becomes much too pressing, because
it short-circuits the opportunity and even the desire to reﬂect on a ﬁlm for
a day or week before reaching any ﬁnal verdict about it — the widespread
disagreements at the festival derived not only from different and
irreconcilable deﬁnitions of “good” and “bad,” but also from different and
irreconcilable deﬁnitions of “ﬁlm.” And the ensuing Tower of Babel
brought into sharp relief the competing agendas — in some cases
implicit, in come cases explicit — of such an occasion.… Read more »
As the Chicago International Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, the remaining schedule includes plenty of things worth seeing. Most of these, however, will open here in the weeks or months ahead: 4 Little Girls (to be shown at the Music Box and eventually on HBO), The Sweet Hereafter (expected to open around Christmas), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (sometime next year), and Love and Death on Long Island (February). Less likely to turn up in the foreseeable future and eminently worth seeing are The Life of Jesus and the short film The Spitball Story. And though I can only recommend them guardedly, Artemisia (which Mirimax, in a burst of inspiration–and with its usual indifference to the workings of festivals, the press, and filmgoers–has just decided to rename Untitled Agnes Merlet Project) and Post coitum, animal triste are also unlikely to return. For the rest, check out the capsules below and follow your instincts. (Reviews preceded by a check mark are especially recommended by the reviewer.)
The festival runs through Sunday, October 19, with screenings at the 600 N. Michigan theater. Tickets can be bought at the festival store (located in the Viacom Entertainment Store at the theater) or at the box office an hour before show time.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (October 17, 1997). — J.R.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature (after Hard Eight) is a two-and-a-half-hour epic about one corner of the LA porn industry during the 70s and 80s — a seemingly limited subject that becomes the basis for a suggestive and highly energetic fresco. The sweeping first hour positively leaps with swagger and euphoria as an Orange County busboy (Mark Wahlberg) is plucked from obscurity by a patriarchal pornmeister (Burt Reynolds at his near best) to become a sex star. Alas, this being the American cinema, tons of gratuitous retribution eventually come crashing down on practically everybody in mechanical crosscutting patterns, and because Anderson has bitten off more than he can possibly chew, a lot of his minor characters are never developed properly. Moreover, just as Hard Eight at times slavishly depended on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, Anderson’s idea of a smart move here is to “outdo” Tarantino (in a fabulous late sequence with Alfred Molina) and to plagiarize a sequence from Raging Bull that itself quotes from On the Waterfront, rather than come up with something original. But notwithstanding its occasional grotesque nods to postmodernist convention, this is highly entertaining Hollywood filmmaking, full of spark and vigor.… Read more »
God save us when director Taylor Hackford decides to become a metaphysician and Al Pacino decides to demonstrate his genius by reading the phone bookor, to be precise, a script only slightly less repetitive and long-winded. Keanu Reeves plays a hotshot Florida lawyer who’s lured with his wife (Charlize Theron) to sin-filled Manhattan aka Babylon by a huge law firm overseen by Satan aka John Milton (Pacino), who rolls his eyes and gesticulates to show how clever and charismatic he is. Hackford makes this awkwardly told story go on forever, throwing in special effects whenever he suspects we might be napping, and eventually turns it all into a (you guessed it) cautionary fable with a couple of glib twists at the end. At half its present length it might make an OK midnight camp item. With Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, and Craig T. Nelson; written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy from a novel by Andrew Neiderman. (JR)… Read more »
A charming, watchable, but ultimately unsatisfying British feature (1997) about celebrated photographs of fairies made by two little girls in 1917. The gullible Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played here by Peter O’Toole) fell hook, line, and sinker for this hoaxconfessed to much later by one of the perpetrators on her deathbed. But rather than set about explaining or describing the hoax (as science writer Martin Gardner has cogently done), this film, as the title coyly suggests, prefers to treat it as fact or metaphor or fable about real fairiesanything but the actual boondoggle it was. If you can’t swallow this malarkey, at least you can enjoy the special effects and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. Directed by Charles Sturridge from a screenplay by Ernie Contreras; with Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath, Paul McGann, and Phoebe Nicholls. PG, 97 min. (JR)… Read more »
The End of Violence
A cool contemplation of the relation of violence to American culture, this is easily Wim Wenders’s most watchable and entertaining movie since Wings of Desire (1988). Bill Pullman plays a wealthy producer of violent action movies who is kidnapped; Andie MacDowell plays his wife, and others in the cast include Gabriel Byrne as a surveillance expert, Traci Lind as a stuntwoman, Loren Dean as a police inspector, and K. Todd Freeman as a gangsta rap producer. The witty script is by Nicholas Klein, and the sense of LA space and drift is nicely caught. Fine Arts.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.… Read more »
The 33rd Chicago International Film Festival
When people ask me to compare the Chicago International Film Festival to other festivals, it’s hard to know how to respond. I attend some festivals as their guest, and for the past four years I’ve gone to Cannes as a member of the New York film festival selection committee. As part of that same stint, which just concluded, I’ve also spent two weeks in New York in late summer for the last four years previewing seven or eight dozen additional films. I go to some other festivals–Berlin two years ago, Vienna later this month–as a jury member. By contrast I don’t “attend” the Chicago festival in the same fashion, because I’m usually too busy coordinating the Reader’s coverage of the event, not to mention the paper’s coverage of current releases and the International Children’s Film Festival. The closest I’ve come to attending in any extensive way was in 1992, when I served on the main jury and therefore saw all the films in competition–creating a logistical nightmare that entailed staying at a downtown hotel with my fellow jurors and thus relating to Chicago and the festival as if I were a tourist.
Being what it is and coming when it does, the Chicago festival can’t help but be something of a hand-me-down event, skimming items from various international festivals that precede it and adding a few selections of its own.… Read more »
I still haven’t figured out why there’s an apparent necessity to transfer most of Henry James’s fiction to the screen, especially when it seems perfectly at home on the page. But in the mechanical run-through of the James oeuvre that’s been carried out in recent years by film companies stuck for ideas, this is the best English-speaking adaptation I’ve seennot nearly as good as The Innocents (1961), but still better to my taste than either Merchant-Ivory’s or Campion’s, not to mention a good many lesser lights. Directing a script by Carol Doyle, Agnieszka Holland coaxes a performance out of Jennifer Jason Leigh that’s less tic ridden and show-offy than usual, and veterans Albert Finney and Maggie Smith fare even better; the only serious mistake here is Ben Chaplin’s pointless impersonation of Montgomery Clift in The Heiress (a 1949 film based on the play derived from the same novella). The period flavor is charming and Holland’s feeling for the moral nuances seems fairly Jamesian; still, why exactly we need this movie when we already have the book is anybody’s guess. (JR)… Read more »
The X-Files’s David Duchovny plays a drug-addicted doctor who loses his license and is then hired by a drug lord (Timothy Hutton) to perform impromptu surgery after gunfights. Although Andy Wilson’s direction never gets beyond the pedestrian, the script by Mark Haskell Smith makes this slightly better than average as a crime thriller; back in the 50s it would have been strictly routine. With Angelina Jolie, Michael Massee, and Peter Stormare. (JR)… Read more »
The House Is Black
Forugh Farrokhzad’s 20-odd-minute, black-and-white 1962 documentary about a leper colony in northern Iran is the most powerful Iranian film I’ve seen. Farrokhzad (1935-’67) is commonly regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony–people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play–that’s spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. This beautiful 35-millimeter print, longer than the video that was a Critic’s Choice last March and recently subtitled for the New York film festival, will be sent back to Switzerland after these two screenings, so don’t expect to see it again in the foreseeable future. On the same program, four recent Iranian videos, all made for the same new private production company in Iran: The Day the Aunt Was Ill by Hannah Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen); The Project by Abbas Kiarostami and his son Bahman, in which the father acts out the leading role in his masterpiece The Taste of Cherry as a “visual screenplay” for the film to come; Ardekoul, a documentary on the recent Khorasan earthquake by Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon); and Iraj Karimi’s Tehran’s World War Cemetery.… Read more »
Creosote and More: Videos by Eric Saks
Eight years have passed since Eric Saks released his remarkable first feature, the pseudodocumentary Forevermore: Biography of a Leach Lord, but judging from this eye-opening collection of videos, which he’ll present in person, he hasn’t been idle. Touch Tone (1995), reportedly also available in a graphic novel version, loosely recalls Forevermore in its overall form: a hallucinatory first-person monologue preoccupied with technology plays over a surreal collage of processed images. Combining all sorts of found materials, the film at times evokes the animated work of Louis Klahr. The sinister KNBR (1993) employs fatuous radio talk over home movies and obscure printed titles, all of it apparently grouped around the subject of Torrance, California. Gun Talk (Part 1) (1991) features Sluggo from the comic strip Nancy and various nightmarishly masked and voice-distorted individuals discussing firearm-related experiences. But none of these quite prepared me for Saks’s latest work, the 42-minute Creosote. In infernal black and white and spooky multiple exposure, it recounts a fractured narrative as creepy as any of the millennial visions found in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. A scary and essential program. Kino-Eye Cinema at Xoinx Tea Room, 2933 N. Lincoln, Friday, October 3, 7:00, 773-384-5533.… Read more »
Jean Bach, director of the remarkable A Great Day in Harlem, utilizes the same techniques of oral history and thumbnail jazz portraiture to tell the story of why Dizzy Gillespie was fired from the Cab Calloway band and how this transformed his career. This isn’t on the same level as Bach’s previous film, but it’s still a precious document, especially for its footage of Gillespie shortly before his death. 21 min. (JR)… Read more »