All posts filed under: Cinema

When Norman Jewison Turned His Camera on the Ultimate Superstar

While some critics would later struggle to find a thematic through-line connecting Norman Jewison’s films, the Canadian director often identified his signature theme as betrayal. His 1973 musical drama Jesus Christ Superstar, adapted from the 1970 concept album of the same name, allowed Jewison to tackle the archetypal betrayal narrative in Western culture while simultaneously creating something completely original: the first filmed rock opera. Some thought it was an odd subject for a Jewish director. But contrary to popular misunderstanding (which can be traced in part to his 1971 adaptation of the Jewish-themed musical comedy-drama Fiddler on the Roof), Jewison isn’t actually Jewish. In fact, he grew up in Toronto as the son of a Protestant convenience store owner. Coming off his work on Fiddler, he joked to a friend, “I thought I should do something for the goyim.” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had begun writing the songs that would become Jesus Christ Superstar in 1969, when they were still in their mid-20s. Rice was inspired by a few lines from Bob Dylan’s …

Remembering John Ball, the Writer Who Gave Us Virgil Tibbs

Sidney Poitier, who retired from acting 20 years ago, turned in many unforgettable screen performances over a career that spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. But his best known is almost certainly his portrayal of police officer Virgil Tibbs, the protagonist of Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, one of the first films to impress the combined issues of policing and racism on popular culture. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best movie lines of all time places Poitier’s “They call me Mister Tibbs!” at number 16 (right between “E.T., phone home.” and “Rosebud”). As portrayed in the film, Tibbs is a Philadelphia detective who happens to be passing through a small Mississippi town when a murdered body is discovered by the police. A racist local cop goes to the station to see if anyone might be trying to hastily catch a train out of town. There he finds Tibbs who, after visiting his mother in …

‘Allen v. Farrow’: Intellectually Dishonest Propaganda Meets Emotional Blackmail

Two days before the February 23rd premiere of Allen v. Farrow, the four-part HBO documentary exploring the child sexual abuse allegations against the famed filmmaker, the Los Angeles Times ran a review by television critic Lorraine Ali under a headline proclaiming it “the nail in the coffin of Woody Allen’s legacy.” This no doubt describes one of the goals of the documentary, which was made by directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick and producer/investigative journalist Amy Herdy as both a brief for the prosecution and a Farrow family hagiography. Ali and other sympathetic reviewers have described it as “devastating,” “horrifying,” and “damning.” And indeed, the documentary, whose final episode aired March 14th, may well sway casual viewers who are unaware of what it leaves out. But it is very unlikely to change any minds among those who have followed the case. Before I discuss the film, a word about the story behind this article, which was originally supposed to run in late February. Like other interested journalists, I had requested—and was promised—access to an advance …

Before ‘Groundhog Day’: The Time-Loop Novel that Started It All

On March 4th, the Ringer, a website that covers pop culture, featured an article entitled “We’re in a Time Loop of Time-Loop Movies.” Similar articles have appeared in many other pop-culture venues of late. Suddenly, time-loop stories seem to be everywhere. This month Hulu began streaming director Joe Carnahan’s new sci-fi action film Boss Level, the tale of a soldier in the near future who wakes up every morning only to relive the day of his death. Carnahan has described the film as “Groundhog Day as an action movie.” A few weeks before the release of Boss Level, Amazon Prime released director Ian Samuels’s film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which could be described as Groundhog Day as a teenage romance. Last July, Hulu released director Max Barbakow’s film Palm Springs, a time-loop story starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons. The film is both a romance and an action film. It’s no surprise that time-loop stories seem suddenly relevant to many pop-culture consumers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the various quarantines …

Struggling with Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In the COVID era, my wife and I are homeschooling our small children. Their endless questions often send me to Google. Why do clouds change color? Where did language come from? Why did our ancestors paint on cave walls? They are not only curious about life after death, but also about life before life. They have concocted the Not-Existing World—an antechamber to life where they were friends before birth. So they naturally loved Soul, Pixar’s foray into the twin metaphysical realms of the Great Before (pre-life) and the Great Beyond (afterlife). Soul opens on Joe Gardner (a black middle-aged jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) becoming a permanent teacher at a public school as his dreams of professionally performing music fade. Miraculously, there’s a coveted opening in the Dorothea Williams quartet that same day, and Joe nails the audition. Euphoric, he struts through NYC, oblivious to its dangers, and plummets down an open manhole. Suddenly, he’s a fuzzy green-blue blob among other blobs—disembodied souls. (Joe is distinguished by his glasses and spiffy hat.) The souls …

Carl Th. Dreyer’s ‘Day of Wrath’ and the Power of the Punished

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. Part of what makes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s greatest films so rewarding is their moral ambivalence. The Danish director’s oeuvre spans several decades, from the 1910s to the 1960s, but it was in his final three feature films, Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) that this theme became fully apparent. Gertrud can be read as a feminist liberation story or a compelling case against sexual liberation. Ordet might be an expression of religious truth, but it might also be anti-theist (it might even be both). Day of Wrath may be about the cruel persecution of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but it can also be read as a story about the evil of witches and the strange benevolence of their flawed persecutors. I sympathise with Dreyer’s uncertainty. It is difficult to believe in heaven, but it is also difficult not to believe in a heaven. This paradoxical sensibility appears repeatedly in Dreyer’s work. He speaks for the undecided—those who see something wondrous but are blinded and confused by …

Ray Russell’s Incubus: A Lost Gem from America’s Twentieth Decade

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil. Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The …

Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen: Kindred Spirits to Illuminate our Tragicomic Existence

One of the delights of Woody Allen’s recently released memoir, Apropos of Nothing, is its celebration (all too-brief, alas) of Tennessee Williams. “I always wanted to be Tennessee Williams,” Allen writes. “I grew up idolizing [him]. The movie of Streetcar is for me total artistic perfection… the most perfect confluence of script, performance, and direction I’ve ever seen.” I wanted to be Tennessee Williams, too, when I discovered his works at age 18. And I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since seeing the Jazz-age romantic fantasy A Purple Rose of Cairo when it was released a year later, in 1985. Yet only with Blue Jasmine (2013), his homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, did I realize how deep his love of Williams flowed. And only now, upon reading his memoir, do I discover how much Allen consciously strove to channel Williams’s techniques. “I don’t want realism, I want magic,” is how Blanche put it. Looking back on A Purple Rose of Cairo—in which Mia Farrow’s Cecilia so yearns to escape her dismal reality that she …

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

A Reasoned Judgment and a Reputation in Ruins

Well, now it’s not just the word of British tabloid the Sun, it’s also the rather weightier opinion of Mr Justice Nicol: Johnny Depp is a wife-beater who assaulted Amber Heard on at least 12 separate occasions during their relationship. Like many others who have brought libel actions to clear their names, Depp has found that using the law to defend your reputation is a very expensive way of shattering it—in this case, probably beyond hope of repair. A lot of his fans don’t like it, of course. #JusticeforJohnny has been trending, along with out of context—or simply invented—quotations from the judgment. There have also been lurid suggestions that it was “corrupt” for Nicol J to sit on the case because he once co-wrote a book on media law with Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose wife was friendly with Jennifer Robinson, a barrister who had advised Heard. That ground of appeal, I can confidently predict, will get him nowhere. Nevertheless, dubious or false allegations of physical or sexual violence are by no means unheard of, whether …