Monthly Archives: May 1996

Two Friends

Technically, this low-budget, 16-millimeter television film (1986, 76 min.) qualifies as Jane Campion’s first feature, though she didn’t write itthe script is by Australian Helen Garner, who also worked with Gillian Armstrong on The Last Days of Chez Nous. The mise en scene, though clearly Campion-esque in certain stretches of oddball inventiveness, is still some distance from the splendors of Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, and The Piano. Like Kaufman and Hart’s play Merrily We Roll Along and Pinter’s Betrayal, the story proceeds in reverse chronology, starting with the death of a teenage dropout (Kris Bidenko) from a drug overdose, then working through the previous year, with particular emphasis on a friendship with a classmate (Emma Coles). (Part of the point is how similar these friends were when they started school together.) Campion’s work with actors yields plenty of rewards, and the structure is certainly interesting, though one also feels at times that Campion and Garner have bitten off a little more than they can chew. (JR) Read more

The Gate Of Heavenly Peace

An immensely valuable three-hour documentary (1995) by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon about the events in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989what led up to them, what happened, what ensued. One of the most impressive things about this film is that it’s a view from the insideHinton has lived for most of her life in China; another is its refusal to adopt a single partisan position or to assume, as the filmmakers put it, that there is only one correct path for China. Drawing on a wide array of archival materials, the filmmakers have also made good use of expert advisers such as Orville Schell. This film is likely to revise the very terms of your understanding of the pivotal events it considers. (JR) Read more

Jazz Films On Video

I haven’t seen A Tribute to Billie Holiday, a one-hour special recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, but the three Duke Ellington shorts that precede itBlack and Tan (1929), Symphony in Black (1935), and Hot Chocolate (1941)are indispensible. (JR) Read more

Dead Man Walking

Tim Robbins’s second feature as a writer-director (1995), adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s autobiographical book of the same title, has its awkward and square moments directorially, but it’s also uncommonly honest and seriousrare enough qualities these daysand its two powerful lead performances (Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as a rapist and killer she’s trying to save in more ways than one) are ample reason to see the picture. Not the simple polemic against capital punishment one might have expected, this works very hard to see and even honor the viewpoint of the victims’ families, and ultimately respects the audience to make up its own mind. It’s a film about hatred on both sides of the lawthe kind of subject Samuel Fuller has often dealt withand it doesn’t kowtow to easy effects or platitudes. (JR) Read more

The Slingshot

I was afraid I’d find this 1994 Swedish period piece by Ake Sandgren cutesy, but I wound up liking it quite a bit. Based on an autobiographical novel by Roland Schutt, it’s set in Stockholm in the 20s. The ten-year-old hero’s mother is a Russian Jew, his father’s a revolutionary socialist, and his older brother, an aspiring boxer, keeps punching him in the nose. The anti-Semitism of Roland’s teacher and schoolmates and the illegal activities of his parentswhich include distributing condoms to workers and attending incendiary political meetingsmake him something of a defiant outcast. All the characters are treated with a fair amount of humor and affection (the father, played by Stellan Skarsgard, is indelible), the period details are well handled, and the episodic story line is fairly engaging. The film doesn’t dig too deep, but it might make you feel pretty good. With Jesper Salen and Basia Frydman. (JR) Read more