4 Little Girls
This surprisingly humble documentary by Spike Lee may be his best film to date apart from Do the Right Thing. It’s not weighed down by an ounce of flab or hype, and the story it tells is profoundly affecting. On September 15, 1963, four little black girls attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a central meeting place in the civil rights movement, were killed in a racist bombing. This is a detailed exploration of what that event meant 34 years ago–to family, friends, and the movement–as well as what it means today. In the only picture Charlie parker ever painted–a beautiful portrait of a daughter who died in infancy–he imagined what she might have looked like in her 30s, and in 4 Little Girls Lee gets us to imagine something comparable. He uses John Coltrane’s “Alabama” with tact and sensitivity, making up for his crude use of the piece in Malcolm X, and he seems to have learned a fair amount about my home state. Perhaps for the first time, Lee actually finds something to say about history–my only quibble is that he doesn’t tell us more about the belated sentencing of the bomber. A must-see. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, October 31 through November 6. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): movie still.
Telling Lies in America
Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas–about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland–is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed–as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter)–what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering–like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America–is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show. Everyone here gives a good performance; as the hero’s father Maximilian Schell plays beautifully against the expected stereotype, and Calista Flockhart is equally impressive as the coworker the boy has a crush on. I don’t know if I could call this movie profound, but most of it feels true, and I’ve loved every minute of it all three times I’ve seen it. Fine Arts. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
As the Chicago International Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, the remaining schedule includes plenty of things worth seeing. Most of these, however, will open here in the weeks or months ahead: 4 Little Girls (to be shown at the Music Box and eventually on HBO), The Sweet Hereafter (expected to open around Christmas), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (sometime next year), and Love and Death on Long Island (February). Less likely to turn up in the foreseeable future and eminently worth seeing are The Life of Jesus and the short film The Spitball Story. And though I can only recommend them guardedly, Artemisia (which Mirimax, in a burst of inspiration–and with its usual indifference to the workings of festivals, the press, and filmgoers–has just decided to rename Untitled Agnes Merlet Project) and Post coitum, animal triste are also unlikely to return. For the rest, check out the capsules below and follow your instincts. (Reviews preceded by a check mark are especially recommended by the reviewer.)
The festival runs through Sunday, October 19, with screenings at the 600 N. Michigan theater. Tickets can be bought at the festival store (located in the Viacom Entertainment Store at the theater) or at the box office an hour before show time. They’re also available (with a service charge) by phone at 312-332-3456 or at Ticketmaster (312-902-1500); on-line at www.ticketmaster.com or www.chicago.ddbn.com/filmfest/; by mail at 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601; or by fax at 312-425-0944. General admission to most programs is $3 for weekday matinees (before 5 PM) and $9 for most of the other screenings ($7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members). Passes and other savings of various kinds are also available; call 312-332-3456 for information. Our on-line guide to the festival, at www.chicagoreader.com, will provide the complete remaining schedule and whatever last-minute changes we can uncover.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature (after Hard Eight) is a two-and-a-half-hour epic about one corner of the LA porn industry during the 70s and 80s–a seemingly limited subject that becomes the basis for a suggestive and highly energetic fresco. The sweeping first hour positively leaps with swagger and euphoria as an Orange County busboy (Mark Wahlberg) is plucked from obscurity by a patriarchal pornmeister (Burt Reynolds at his near best) to become a sex star. Alas, this being the American cinema, tons of gratuitous retribution eventually come crashing down on practically everybody in mechanical crosscutting patterns, and because Anderson has bitten off more than he can possibly chew, a lot of his minor characters are never developed properly. Moreover, just as Hard Eight at times slavishly depended on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, Anderson’s idea of a smart move here is to “outdo” Tarantino (in a fabulous late sequence with Alfred Molina) and to plagiarize a sequence from Raging Bull that itself quotes from On the Waterfront, rather than come up with something original. But notwithstanding its occasional grotesque nods to postmodernist convention, this is highly entertaining Hollywood filmmaking, full of spark and vigor. With Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Nicole Ari Parker. Gardens, Pipers Alley. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.