Monthly Archives: November 2019

Truth is Stronger Than Fiction (THE FINAL INSULT)

Even though the following review for the Chicago Reader, originally published on March 27, 1998, is fairly mixed, it seems worth reviving as a reminder of how neglected significant portions of Charles Burnett’s work continue to be. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing The Final Insult again and reconsidering it. (James Naremore gives it a thoughtful treatment in his excellent recent book on Burnett.)

It’s worth noting that When it Rains is now happily available on DVD, along with Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding, even though one has to look for it (its placement isn’t made clear on the jacket), on the two-disc set of Killer of Sheep, which also includes two separate versions of My Brother’s Wedding. —J.R.

The Final Insult

** Worth seeing

Directed by Charles Burnett

With Ayuko Babu and Charles Bracy.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Given the difficulties he had in the 70s and 80s getting his films made and seen, Charles Burnett [see photo at end of article] seemed in danger of becoming the Carl Dreyer of the black independent cinema—the consummate master who makes a film a decade, known only to a small band of film lovers. Seven years passed between Killer of Sheep (1977) and My Brother’s Wedding (1984), and then another six before To Sleep With Anger (1990), which tried and failed to make a dent in the mainstream, as did The Glass Shield (1994).… Read more »

Hollywood’s Jazz

From the March 1978 American Film, when Hollis Alpert was still the editor. If memory serves, this was my first contribution to this magazine. I suspect that the not-quite-accurate title wasn’t mine; like American Film and its parent organization, the American Film Institute, its agenda tends to be needlessly and provincially restricted to American industrial product, unlike those of, say, the British Film Institute or the Cinémathèque Française.

One important informational update: David Meeker’s invaluable reference book has more recently been expanded into an even more invaluable online reference tool that can be accessed here. — J.R.

Cuing the audience into the threat of impending violence in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), director Richard Brooks has very different aces up his sleeve. In the earlier film, he uses jazz — a blaring, evil-sounding Stan Kenton record. It’s played on a jukebox by Josh (Richard Kiley), a mild-mannered jazz buff and schoolteacher, who is mugged by a gang in an alley while the song is still playing. In the more recent film — where, incidentally, Richard Kiley plays the heroine’s bombastic father — Brooks uses disco singles blasting away in bars, and a strategically placed strobe light.… Read more »

Divine Inspiration (THE APOSTLE & KUNDUN)

From the January 30, 1998 Chicago Reader. Since I barely remember Kundun today, I’m pretty sure I must have overrated it, at least in relation to The Apostle (which I remember far better today, even in its truncated version). –J.R.

The Apostle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by

Robert Duvall

With Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Walter Goggins, Rick Dial, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Kundun

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Melissa Mathison

With Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tencho Gyalpo, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Geshi Yeshi Gyatso, and Robert Lin.

For all their obvious differences, both Kundun and The Apostle are spiritual but nonreligious movies about religious leaders, suffused with a perpetual sense of mystery and driven by an abiding curiosity that provokes our own curiosity as well. As a commercial property, each film amounts to an act of defiance, judging by their critical reception so far. Many mainstream critics have stepped out of Kundun asking, “What could Scorsese have been thinking of?,” and some have come out of The Apostle complaining that it’s basically an ego trip for its writer-director-star.

Both reactions perversely miss the point, telling us more about stereotypical commercial expectations in general than about either project in particular.… Read more »

Elmer Gantry

From the October 1, 1999 Chicago Reader. A personal note: This was the first film I ever saw in Chicago, when I was 17. I saw it at the Chicago Theater in between two train rides — the first from Sheffield, Alabama to Chicago, the second from Chicago to a Jewish camp in Wisconsin. — J.R.

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Elmer Gantry Jean Simmons as Sister Falconer

Burt Lancaster on the Bible-thumping circuit, in Richard Brooks’s juicy (and considerably watered-down) 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. Brooks was the ultimate vulgarizer of serious literature, as his versions of The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim made clear; this is somewhat better only because of Lancaster’s energetic performance, which won him an Oscar, and a few bits of colorful period ambience. Other Oscars went to supporting actress Shirley Jones and to Brooks for his highly dubious script. With Jean Simmons and Dean Jagger. (JR)

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A Stranger Among Us

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1992). — J.R.

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There’s apparently something about Hasidic Jews that makes normally talented and reasonable filmmakers — David Mamet in Homicide, screenwriter Robert J. Avrech (Body Double) and director Sidney Lumet here — turn otherwise straightforward thrillers into harebrained hootfests. The best that can be said for this movie, which stars Melanie Griffith as an underground cop who lives with the Hasidim of Brooklyn while trying to solve the murder of a jewel merchant, is that apart from the talents of Griffith and Eric Thal (who plays a young Hasidic Jew she mildly flirts with) it has some educational value as a form of exposition about a fascinating subculture. The worst is that most of the other actors (and characters for that matter) get bent out of shape while trying to conform to the contours of the dotty plot. With John Pankow, Tracy Pollan, Lee Richardson, Mia Sara, Jamey Sheridan, Burtt Harris, and a lot of quotes from the cabala. (JR)

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Falkenau, the Impossible: Samuel Fuller Bears Witness

From the Chicago  Reader (December 2, 1988). — J.R.

Falkenau the Impossible

The very first film ever shot by the great American director Samuel Fuller was an amateur effort: as a U.S. army officer he filmed the liberation of a Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia. French filmmaker Emil Weiss had the excellent idea of reviving this footage, getting Fuller to comment on it, and showing us various relevant locations in Europe today. Fuller’s commanding presence — as a speaker, thinker, and moral conscience — makes this an unforgettable and indelible experience. On the same program with this new short feature is a 1944 Nazi film I haven’t seen but that sounds like the most horrifying film ever made: Kurt Gerron’s The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews. A fake documentary produced by the Third Reich as propaganda, the film fabricates an image of Jews living and working happily in a model city. In fact, the film was made by Jews — virtually or literally at gunpoint — and, after it was finished, the director and cast were exterminated in Auschwitz. Fuller’s statement in Falkenau stresses the necessity of remembering the truth of the death camps today, and of denouncing the lies and fabrications of earlier and more recent Nazi apologists, the most chilling evidence of which would seem to be offered in this propaganda feature.… Read more »

A Year at the Movies [1988]

From the Chicago Reader (December 23, 1988). — J.R.

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The Puttnam Problem

Some of the year’s most ominous film-industry developments followed directly from the forced departure of David Puttnam as head of Columbia Pictures. During his brief and controversial tenure at Columbia, Puttnam — the outspoken Englishman who produced Chariots of Fire and other “quality” films — had attempted to reverse the overall trend in Hollywood of assigning more power and artistic control to stars and less to directors and writers by developing low-budget projects that weren’t completely subject to the whims of stars and their agents.

After Puttnam’s departure, the desire to discredit his strategies at Columbia was so pronounced that most of his projects were deliberately sabotaged through a flagrant lack of promotion — demonstrating once again that the major aims of Hollywood are often not so much the making of money as the fulfillment of various personal forms of vanity. (Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is a good example of the sort of serious Puttnam project that was virtually foredoomed at the box office by the pressure of anti-Puttnam sentiments.) Adding insult to injury, a series of anti-Puttnam articles appeared in the trade magazine Variety, which attempted to appease Puttnam’s enemies by demonstrating that his films were commercially unsuccessful, conveniently overlooking the fact that very few of them were given even a sporting chance to succeed.… Read more »

The Visitors

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1988). — J.R.

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On the evidence of Elia Kazan’s recent autobiography, it is this low-budget, independent feature of 1972, shot in super-16-millimeter, that comprises his true last (or at least last personal) film, rather than The Last Tycoon, which he embarked on mainly for the money four years later. Scripted by Kazan’s son Chris and shot in and around their Connecticut homes, the film offers some disturbing yet relevant echoes of themes in other Kazan pictures: the pacifist who finds himself driven to violence and the hatred-provoked hero who squeals on his buddies (reflecting Kazan’s naming of names to the HUAC in the early 50s). Two Vietnam vets released from Leavenworth after serving time for the rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman go to visit the former buddy who turned them in, who is now living with his girlfriend and their young son in the home of her father, a macho, alcoholic novelist. There’s a lot of prolonged waiting around while the two convicts circle their prey and prepare their revenge. While Kazan makes the most of the ambiguous personalities involved — he is especially good with his James Dean-ish discovery Steve Railsback, as well as with an early James Woods performance — the abrasive sexism of the overall conception, which recalls Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in spots, makes this the most unpleasant of all his films.… Read more »

The Man With Two Brains

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

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This 1983 Steve Martin vehicle may be a little slapdash here and there as filmmaking, but it probably has more laughs than any other Martin comedy (with the possible exception of The Jerk). Martin plays a brain surgeon who contrives to resurrect his bitchy, beautiful late wife (Kathleen Turner) with the transplanted brain of a gentler soul. Far from avoiding the tackier implications of this concept, the film revels in them like a puppy in clover; Martin’s delivery of the line, “Into the mud, scum queen!” is alone nearly worth the price of admission. With David Warner; directed by Carl Reiner. (JR)

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The Lighted Field

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). The stills are copyrighted by the Estate of Andrew Noren. — J.R.

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Andrew Noren’s first film since Charmed Particles offers 59 minutes of ecstatic delight in relation to the everyday: it’s all black and white and silent, and mainly nonnarrative, but so sensually rich and rhythmically alive that watching it is an almost constant pleasure. Noren calls himself a light thief and shadow bandit, and this pulsing compendium of home-movie moments is charged with musical energy. It differs from Charmed Particles, the previous episode in his The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, mainly in seeming to have more thematic ambitions and in verging somewhat closer to narrative — none of which is allowed to detract much from the overall beauty and intensity of the filmmaking. (JR)

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Diary Of A Chambermaid

From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1988). — J.R.

Diary of a chambermaid

Oddly enough, Jean Renoir’s 1946 Hollywood version of Octave Mirbeau’s novel was a lot crueler and more “Buñuel-esque” than this, Buñuel’s own remarkable and neglected 1964 French version. It was the first of his many fruitful collaborations with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and producer Serge Silberman, and, if I’m not mistaken, his only encounter with ‘Scope (in black and white). Formally and thematically, this is one of Buñuel’s subtlest and most intriguing late works; the novel’s action is updated to the 30s and includes a commentary on the French fascism of the period. Jeanne Moreau plays the heroine, and others in the cast include Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, and Francoise Lugagne. The absence of a musical score makes Buñuel’s use of sound especially beguiling. In French with subtitles. 101 min. (JR)

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The Death Of Empedocles

From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 1988). — J.R.

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The tenth and latest feature of European avant-garde filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet — filmed in Sicily and using as its text the first of three versions of Friedrich Holderlin’s unfinished 1798 verse tragedy — is one of their most beautiful works; but like all the best avant-garde work, watching and listening to it requires some adjustments in our usual activity as spectators — adjustments that involve new areas of play as well as work. This is a film in which sound matters at least as much as image, and where the lovely natural settings (filmed in 35-millimeter by Renato Berta) are as important as the actors and the text. The sound of Holderlin’s highly metered German blank verse is the most sensually rich use of that language that I have ever heard, and even if, like me, you don’t understand the language, the selective subtitles should be regarded as footnotes to glance at rather than as a substitute for the main text. Unlike the texts in Straub and Huillet’s early work, the text here is dramatically and expressively acted, and the compelling cast includes Andreas von Rauch as Empedocles (a Greek philosopher expelled from his community for blasphemy, and bent on suicide), Howard Vernon (who acted in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr.Read more »

Driving Miss Daisy

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 1990). — J.R.

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Alfred Uhry adapts his own play about the relationship between a crotchety, elderly Jewish woman living in Atlanta (Jessica Tandy) and the slightly younger black man (Morgan Freeman) hired by her businessman son (Dan Aykroyd) to drive her around (1990, 99 min.). Uhry’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is a sentimental actors’ vehicle so fundamentally theatrical in conception that nothing can really make it into a film; aided by a lachrymose Hans Zimmer score, it fairly drips with the kind of nostalgic liberal platitudes that make its upscale target audience applaud at the end  — they’re actually applauding themselves. Fortunately, the three actors manage to get a lot of mileage out of the material: although one never quite believes that Tandy’s character is Jewish, she is remarkable in every other respect, and Freeman and Aykroyd are wonderful throughout. The movie also has something legitimate and instructive to say about the subtlety and intricacy of everyday race relations in the South during the period covered (roughly 1948 to ’73). The self-conscious period decor by Bruno Rubeo is never quite convincing — Atlanta is never made to seem like a large city — and the mise en scene of director Bruce Beresford basically consists of letting the actors do their utmost.… Read more »

Pocahontas

From the Chicago Reader (July 13, 1995). — J.R.

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After some belated glimmers of ecological and postcolonial conscience in The Lion King, the Disney animation people go even further in revising some of their social priorities relative to the racism of Walt, and in their first cartoon feature based on real people do a conscientious and at times imaginative job of trying to illustrate aspects of the John Smith and Pocahontas story without reverting to all of the usual Hollywood lies. Contradictions confound certain aspects of this project — such as the language spoken by Pocahontas (which, in the Hollywood tradition, oscillates between tribal talk and the unaccented chatter of a contemporary Valley girl) — but overall this seems like a reasonable stab at an impossible agenda. Unsurprisingly, the film is usually more at home with animals (including a pampered English bulldog lifted from Tex Avery’s Spike) than with people, but it isn’t afraid to give both Pocahontas and John Smith some sex appeal. Personally, I prefer Hawks’s The Big Sky on this interracial, intercultural subject, but there’s something to be said for this movie’s monumental and anthropomorphic handling of landscapes — a constant in Disney cartoon rhetoric since Bambi — which reveals that the Leni Riefenstahl influence still persists in some ways.… Read more »

The World According to Harvey and Bob

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1995). — J.R.

The Glass Shield

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Charles Burnett

With Michael Boatman, Lori Petty, Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Richard Anderson, Don Harvey, Michael Ironside, Michael Gregory, Bernie Casey, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Smoke

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Wayne Wang

Written by Paul Auster

With William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau, Giancarlo Esposito, Ashley Judd, and Forest Whitaker.

My dozen favorite films at Cannes this year? Terence Davies’s ecstatic wide-screen The Neon Bible, set in a perfectly imagined Georgia of the early 40s, with Gena Rowlands; Emir Kusturica’s Yugoslav black-comedy epic Underground; Hou Hsiao-hsien’s beautiful if difficult Good Men, Good Women; Jim Jarmusch’s transgressive western Dead Man; Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, an Iranian urban comedy about children that unfolds in real time; Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, a cross between Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman — with Gong Li taking the place of Marlene Dietrich — and Billy Bathgate; and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Convent (Ruizian metaphysics and theology with John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve). Then there were such pleasures on the market as Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, a mordant treatment of the collapse of communism in Albania; lively low-budget musicals by Jacques Rivette and Joseph P.… Read more »