From the Chicago Reader (October 3, 1995); slightly tweaked in late 2013. — J.R.
If, like me, you find things to admire in many of Gus Van Sant’s films, you may be especially gratified by what he’s done with this satirical anti-TV script by Buck Henry — suggested by a real-life crime and adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel — and a spot-on performance by Nicole Kidman that may be the best of its kind since Tuesday Weld’s wicked sexual turns in Pretty Poison and Lord Love a Duck. Charting the ruthlessness of an ambitious bimbo telecaster in Little Hope, New Hampshire, this staccato black comedy sustains its brilliant exposition and narration until the plot turns to premeditated murder, complete with hapless and semicoherent teenage accomplices. The movie loses much of its pitch and many of its laughs at this juncture, and there’s an uncomfortable tendency to equate the falsity and venality of TV too exclusively with Kidman’s character, thereby bypassing golden opportunities offered by Wayne Knight (as a station boss) and an uncredited George Segal to make the target less gender specific. But much of this is good nasty fun, with a fine secondary cast that includes Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Alison Folland, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, and Dan Hedaya; also look for striking cameos by David Cronenberg and screenwriter Buck Henry.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (February 1, 1988). — J.R.
Along with The Man Who Would Be King and The Dead, this is arguably John Huston’s best literary adaptation, and conceivably his very best film — a very close rendering of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable first novel about a crazed southern cracker (a perfectly cast Brad Dourif) who sets out to preach a church without Christ, and winds up suffering a true Christian martyrdom in spite of himself. The period, local ambience, and O’Connor’s deadly gallows humor are all perfectly caught, and apart from the subtle if highly pertinent fact that this is an unbeliever’s version of a believer’s novel, it’s about as faithful a version of O’Connor’s grotesque world as one could ever hope to get on film, hilarious and frightening in equal measure. O’Connor conceived her novel as a parody of existentialism, and Huston’s own links with existentialism — as the director of the first U.S. stage production of No Exit, as well as Sartre’s Freud script — make him an able interpreter. With Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Daniel Shor, Ned Beatty, and Huston himself as the hero’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather. The producer is Michael Fitzgerald, whose family’s friendship with O’Connor guaranteed the fidelity and seriousness of the undertaking (1979).… Read more »
Written for Artforum (February 2015). — J.R.
Doomed by shifting postwar social and political agendas, the never-completed documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey — launched in April 1945 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and shelved in September — might have been the key nonfiction film on the subject had it been finished and shown as originally planned, as required viewing for German prisoners of war. Shot by trained GI cameramen accompanying British, American, and Russian troops as they liberated the camps, it might even have served as the principal disclosure to the rest of the world of the hitherto unthinkable conditions these troops uncovered.
Produced by Sidney Bernstein — an old chum of Alfred Hitchcock’s who would later produce, uncredited, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), and I Confess (1953), and who persuaded Hitchcock to come to London to supervise the documentary’s postproduction — the film was halted by British embarrassment about the tangled fate of camp survivors (many of whom chose to remain in the camps, having nowhere else to go), combined with a reluctance to further demoralize the postwar German populace. But there was still enough of a desire to educate (or browbeat) the Germans to engage Billy Wilder to make a short film using parts of the atrocity footage, yielding Death Mills, which premiered in 1945 to five hundred viewers in Würzburg after a Lilian Harvey operetta, although only seventy-five or so remained to the end.… Read more »