A potent and highly engrossing documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about a 1990 murder trial in New York State that attracted national media attention. The case involved the death of one of the four illiterate Ward brothers, all reclusive and eccentric bachelors who inhabited a two-room shack without running water on their dairy farm. Bill was found dead in the bed he shared with Delbert, who confessed the same day to suffocating his ailing brother in a mercy killing, but later retracted his confession and implied he was being framed. It’s amazing how many primal issues are engaged in this real-life mystery story, and Berlinger and Sinofsky, who contrived to follow the story from start to finish, do a superb job of keeping us on the edge of our seats (1992). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 26 through April 1.
Ken Loach, perhaps the last unreconstructed English realist (Kes, Family Life), takes a funky, intermittently comic, but generally uncompromisingly grim look at a group of men on a London building crew, placing particular emphasis on a young man from Glasgow (Robert Carlyle) and his affair with an aspiring singer (Emer McCourt). Shot on an actual building site complete with rats, with actors experienced in construction, and written by the late Bill Jesse, a former laborer himself, this film has a gritty authenticity about English working-class life that makes even Mike Leigh seem like a bit of an artificer (1991). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 19 through 25.
Paul Yule’s simple talking-head documentary, made for England’s Channel Four in 1991, was attacked in court by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, who called it “blasphemous and obscene”; Wildmon unsuccessfully tried to get it barred from the U.S. and sued the film’s producers for $8 million, which is why it’s a little late reaching us. The film is supposedly lethal because it presents both sides of the recent art-censorship debates and actually lets us see the contested Robert Mapplethorpe photographs and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, hear the 2 Live Crew music, and then make up our own minds. What it doesn’t do, alas, is present both sides of the debate on federal arts funding–an understandable omission considering the English audience the film was originally made for, like most audiences in the world, values art and education enough to dismiss out of hand the “con” position as it’s routinely expressed in this country, which usually defines federal support of business as “freedom” and federal support of art as “enslavement,” without worrying about who’s being freed and who’s being enslaved. (Only in America, it seems, can such a debate happily ignore what the rest of the world thinks about the subject.) Without being especially brilliant or original, this film remains compulsively watchable simply because it clarifies what people are attempting to do to limit some of our cultural choices. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, March 12 through 18)
Mikael Salomon, the cinematographer on The Abyss and Far and Away, directs his first feature (for Disney), and it’s a creditable job–an effective adventure story about two recently orphaned teenagers (Reese Witherspoon and Ethan Randall) fleeing from the ivory poachers who killed their parents and crossing the Kalahari Desert with the help of a young bushman (Sarel Bok). Adapted by Robert Caswell, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Sally Robinson from two books by Laurens van der Post, the film has a nice feeling for the terrain (shooting was done in Zimbabwe) as well as for the (mainly unstereotypical) characters. With Jack Thompson and Maximilian Schell. On the same program, a formulaic and predictably hysterical Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman cartoon, Trail Mix-Up. (Lincoln Village, Water Tower, Ford City, Evanston, Norridge, Webster Place)