Monthly Archives: April 1995

The Glass Shield

The fourth feature (1995) by this country’s most gifted black filmmaker, Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), is his first with a directly political edgea heartfelt and persuasive look at the racism and corruption of the Los Angeles police force, based on a true story and calculated to burn its hard lessons straight into your skull. The plot concerns the adjustments made by a sincere black rookie cop (Michael Boatman) who joins an all-white precinct and wants to be accepted by his fellow officers; his only real ally turns out to be the one woman in the precinct (Lori Petty, in a singular performance), a Jew who gets plenty of abuse herself. When a murder case arises involving a black suspect (Ice Cube), the hero’s decision to perjure himself in order to support his white partner opens a Pandora’s box of ironies and ambiguities that the movie squarely faces. The distributor forced him to tone down the anger and despair of his original ending, but this still packs a mighty punch. With Elliott Gould and M. Emmet Walsh. 108 min. (JR) Read more

Risk

This quirky 1993 love story with tragic overtones by independent writer-director Deirdre Fisher about an unsuccessful woman artist and a disturbed petty thief is kept interesting mainly by the leads, David Ilku and Karen Sillas (What Happened Was . . . , Simple Men). But even they can’t redeem the sketchy material, and then you have to be able to bear the John Paul Jones rock score (I couldn’t). With Molly Price and Jack Gwaltney. (JR) Read more

While You Were Sleeping

A lonely Chicago subway cashier (Sandra Bullock) saves a commuter (Peter Gallagher) from a speeding train, and while he remains in a coma she’s mistaken for his fiancee and virtually adopted by his family. The plot of this 1995 romantic comedy, directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings) from a script by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow, is pretty stupid throughout, and the filmmakers show no compunction in shaking its silliness in your face, but the film’s casual warmth may make you tolerate some of the shortcomingsespecially since Bullock seems to be having such a fine time with her first starring role. With Bill Pullman, Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, and Jack Warden. 103 min. (JR) Read more

New Jersey Drive

In his second feature (after the low-budget, promising, but overly familiar Laws of Gravity), Nick Gomez acquires a much bigger budget, Spike Lee as executive producer, and an even more familiar pool of moves and stances copied from other movies, although this time he’s working in a black rather than an Italian American milieu. His story, derived from reporter Michel Marriott’s investigation of a scandal within the Newark police department, is about two joyriding car thieves and their tangles with the police. On one level, this is a bracing, scary account of police brutality; on another, it’s a black street-crime drama that we’ve all seen before. With Sharron Corley, Gabriel Casseus, Donald Adeosun Faison, Gwen McGee, and Saul Stein. (JR) Read more

Farinelli

A fairly watchable period film from Belgium by Gerard Corbiau, but ultimately a rather incoherent one due to the overall evasiveness about its two real-life central charactersFarinelli (born Carlo Broschi, 1705-1782), a famous castrato singer born in Naples, and his older brother Riccardo, a composer whose fame depended on his brother’s performance of his works. The curious psychosexual bond between these siblings is an important part of this movie’s subject, but the speculative portrait offered isn’t fully developed; at times one is tempted to read the whole thing as a fractured allegory about art and commerce that’s trying to become another Amadeus. A conceptual movie without a concept, it features a villainous Handel (Jeroen Krabbe), many 18th-century female opera groupies, overblown music, sumptuous sets, and a weird notion of what opera consists of (most of the excerpts make it seem like a one-man show). Still, there are many arresting details around the edges. With Stefano Dionisi, Enrico Lo Verso, Elsa Zylberstein, and Caroline Cellier. (JR) Read more

Stuart Saves His Family

Director Harold Ramis’s first film afterGroundhog Day was adapted by Al Franken from his book I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!, and it differs from other recent Saturday Night Live comedy spin-offs in having vestiges of plausible life experience to supplement its central shtick. Franken himself plays a nerdy outcast in Chicago who goes into a psychic funk when he loses his self-help TV show on public-access cable. A visit to his dysfunctional family in Minneapolis reveals an alcoholic father (Harris Yulin), a dope-smoking layabout brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hysterical sister (Lesley Boone), and a mother trapped in denial (Shirley Knight); most of the rest of the movie is devoted to Stuart’s efforts to negotiate this unstable background. (The title is something of a misnomer, because his success is only partial.) Even if you find Franken hard to bear, as I do, the movie’s take on how he functions in the world is both authoritative and compelling, and the movie steadily grows in stature. Like Groundhog Day, it’s actually dealing with the contemporary worlda rare virtue in movies nowadaysand some of it’s pretty funny too. With Laura San Giacomo. (JR) Read more

India

An amiable 1994 Austrian road movie/buddy comedy by Paul Harather, derived from a theater piece about two government health inspectors, temperamentally at loggerheads, who become the closest of friends. The original theater work was written by the two actors, Josef Hader and Alfred Dorfer, and it remains very much their show. The tone becomes somewhat darker when one of the heroes develops terminal cancer, but the overall mood is funny and affirmative. (JR) Read more

Titanica

This 94-minute Imax documentary by Stephen Low (1991) has the same nonaesthetic features of other films in this formatmost notably a TV-like lack of precise composition necessitated by the curved screenbut its subject, the risky Canadian-American-Russian expedition to pick over the wreckage of the Titanic, has an inherent fascination and haunted poetry that triumphs over the sometimes hokey, often trumped-up presentation; at times the film becomes a kind of undersea 2001. Oddly, the crew participants are encouraged to relate to the camera like actors and some of the camera angles suggest a fiction film (significantly, storyboards are alluded to in the final credits). But a judicious combination of period photographs (some genuine, some composite), a contemporary interview with one of the few living Titanic survivors, and views of the ship’s remnants two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface give this the curious, paradoxical feel of a scientific ghost film. (JR) Read more

Elvis ’56

An excellent one-hour documentary (1987) that charts the pivotal year in the career of Elvis Presley when he went from being an obscure rockabilly/blues performer who drove a truck to a national icon with several gold records to his credit. Armed with fascinating archival footage and rare still photographs, Alan and Susan Raymond, who originally made this for cable, do a persuasive job of suggesting that, contrary to most versions of the all-American success myth, Elvis’s artistic freedom and the authenticity of his relationship with his audience dwindled as he became more and more rich and famous. Indeed, the shape and direction of his career as a whole can be discerned during his first year as a starwhen he went from performing at southern dances to singing Hound Dog in a tux to a basset hound in a top hat on Steve Allen’s TV show. (JR) Read more

Night Moves

Released in 1975, near the end of Arthur Penn’s most productive period (which began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde), this haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life. Gene Hackman plays an LA detective tracking a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith in her screen debut) to the Florida Keys while evading various problems of his own involving his father and his wife. The labyrinthine mystery plot and pessimistic mood suggest Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and like them screenwriter Alan Sharp has more than conventional mystery mechanics on his mind. One of Penn’s best features; his direction of actors is sensitive and purposeful throughout. With Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Kenneth Mars, and James Woods. 95 min. (JR) Read more

Little Women

I haven’t read Louisa May Alcott’s novel or seen any of the previous screen adaptations, so what I like so much about Gillian Armstrong’s lovely 1994 version, adapted by Robin Swicord, is basically what it says and does on its own terms. Set mainly in Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, and focusing on a mother (Susan Sarandon) and four daughters (Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis), the film has a fresh and imaginative feel for period detail that the talented castwhich also features Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, and Mary Wickesobviously benefits from. The craft, intelligence, storytelling ability, and feeling for character that Armstrong previously showed in My Brilliant Career and The Last Days of Chez Nous are revealed again with the magical creation of this film’s universe. Armstrong, as an Australian, brings an outsider’s perspective to the material, revealing facets and nuances of the American past that natives might be less likely to discover. Sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic in spots, this movie still has a tough clearheadedness that isn’t usually found in commercial movies, especially those by male directors (The Age of Innocence included); maybe if you went back to The Magnificent Ambersons, you’d find something closer. Read more

Hoop Dreams

This epic, compulsively watchable 170-minute documentary (1994), about two Chicago inner-city basketball whizzes, William Gates and Arthur Agee, striving to land the right grades and scholarships to make it to the big time (and stay there), is a heady dose of the American dream and the American nightmare combineda numbing investigation of how one point on an exam or one basket or turnover in a game can make all the difference in a family’s fortunes. It’s a depressing (albeit energizing) saga that often feels like a noncomic application of the worldview of Preston Sturges. Chicago filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert, with Kartemquin Films and Minnesota’s KCTA TV, spent seven years tracking the lives and careers of their two principals, and there’s little doubt that the presence of the camera and filmmakers becomes part of the unfolding story (a fact that the movie might have acknowledged a little more). (JR) Read more