From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1996). — J.R.
Charles Burnett’s fifth feature (and the first he didn’t write), made for the Disney Channel in 1996. Adroitly scripted by coproducer Bill Cain from Gary Paulsen’s sketchy and rather lurid short novel for young adults, this is a powerful, skillful tale about one antebellum plantation slave (the title character, played by Carl Lumbly of To Sleep With Anger) teaching another slave (the narrator, a 12-year-old girl played by Allison Jones) how to read. As a parable about empowerment through reading this is at least as strong as Fahrenheit 451, and as a didactic fairy tale about the relationship between slavery and literacy it’s even stronger. In keeping with their Disney origins, Burnett delivers the story and drama in broad strokes, though he depicts even the white villains with humanity and some complexity (as in his only other film involving white as well as black characters, The Glass Shield). A wonderful, fully realized work — passionate, stirring, and beautiful. With Beau Bridges, Lorraine Toussaint, Bill Cobbs, and Kathleen York. 95 min. (JR)
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From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1995). — J.R.
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Tedi Sarafian
With Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell, Naomi Watts, Ice-T, Don Harvey, Reg E. Cathey, Scott Coffey, Jeff Kober, Iggy Pop, and Ann Cusack.
I wasn’t exactly encouraged by the opening sequences of Tank Girl, a spin-off of a British comic book with a postapocalyptic setting. The movie starts with a kind of music-video visual dribble, set to the pounding strains of Devo’s “Girl U Want,” a song whose chanting refrain (“She’s just a girl — the girl you want”) seems to promise the kind of machocentric SF soft-core porn dished out by Barbarella 27 years ago. I’d been prepared for a steady influx of contemporary rock and rap and the concomitant collapse of any believable vision of the future, but this particular anthem seemed designed to cater only to guys. My expectations were raised, however, by the first appearance of Lori Petty, in the title role of Rebecca Buck — a hard-nosed renegade punk who clearly wouldn’t let herself be palmed off as a bimbo. But Kesslee, the movie’s arch-villain (played by the original movie punk, Malcolm McDowell), brought me back to the facetious S and M rhetoric of the glib and cutesy Barbarella.… Read more »
From the August 3, 2007 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
KILLER OF SHEEP ****
DIRECTED AND WRITTEN BY CHARLES BURNETT
WITH HENRY GAYLE SANDERS, KAYCEE MOORE, CHARLES BRACY, EUGENE CHERRY, JACK DRUMMOND, AND ANGELA BURNETT
WHEN Opens Fri 8/3
WHERE Music Box, 3733 N. Southport
Thanks to the excellent restoration work of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the patient heroism of Milestone Films’ Dennis Doros — who has spent years acquiring the music rights for a film largely built around pieces of music — Charles Burnett’s monumental first feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), is finally getting its first commercial release. Shot by Burnett himself in black-and-white 16-millimeter for less than $10,000 — as his master’s thesis at UCLA — this portrait of everyday life in Watts has steadily grown in resonance and reputation over the past 30 years. It’s centered on the melancholy off time of the title hero — a weary abattoir worker (the wonderful Henry Gayle Sanders) — with his family and friends. The slow burn and slow drip of this off time while he stews in his own juices is essential to the movie’s experience.
We also catch a few glimpses of the hero at his job, but most of what we know about his work and how he feels about it comes from seeing his general alienation and exhaustion when he’s at home: repairing the kitchen sink or laying out linoleum, sluggishly dancing with his wife in the living room, berating his son for addressing her in a “country” fashion as “dear,” refusing to participate in a robbery being planned by a couple of neighbors, or trying to fix a broken down car.… Read more »