Monday, April 29, 2019

Looking back at John Singleton's Rosewood

As a tribute to John Singleton, the gifted filmmaker who died Monday at the ridiculously young age of 51, I offer my original 1997 review of his “Rosewood.”

Given the facts that inspired the makers of Rosewood, it shouldn't be surprising that so much of the movie, for good or ill, has the look and feel of fiction.

During the first week of January 1923, the residents of Rosewood, a predominantly black settlement in Central Florida, were savagely attacked by angry whites from the nearby mill town of Sumner. Until then, the people of both areas had co-existed in relative harmony. Indeed, many of them knew each other, had done business with one another. But this familiarity did little to diminish the bloodlust of the Sumner mob once a white woman announced that she had been assaulted by a black man. Over a period of four days, many black men and women were shot, lynched or burned alive in and around Rosewood. The exact number of the victims remains a subject of historical dispute — estimates range as high as 250. The survivors fled into the swamps to escape certain death, leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They never returned. Rosewood was wiped off the map. In effect, the mob from Sumner murdered the entire town.

The history and destruction of Rosewood remained unknown to the rest of the world for more than six decades. Survivors rarely talked of the tragedy outside of their immediate families. At first, their silence could be attributed to fears of reprisal. (After all, the folks of Sumner were alive and well and, quite possibly, ready to return to their vigilante ways.) As time went by, however, it became obvious to the descendants of those who had escaped Rosewood that the survivors were too traumatized — and, perhaps, too ashamed — to say anything of what had happened.

By the time a tenacious reporter for the St. Petersburg Times began to piece together the story of Rosewood in 1982, most of the survivors had died, and those who remained alive were reluctant to talk. Eventually, journalist Gary Moore — no relation, presumably, to the TV variety show host of yesteryear — tracked down about 20 survivors and their descendants. From their accounts, he fashioned a story that attracted the interest of producers from TV’s 60 Minutes. The resultant publicity fueled the efforts of Arnette Doctor, the son of a Rosewood survivor, to demand reparations for the survivors and their families. Finally, in 1994, the Florida state legislature passed a bill providing for payments to the Rosewood survivors. By that time, inevitably, Hollywood had begun to take notice. Producer Jon Peters acquired the rights to the story, beginning the process that has led to the release of Rosewood.

Unfortunately, by now there is very little first-hand information about what happened in the Florida town more than 70 years ago. Director John Singleton, the immensely talented young filmmaker who made his first impression with Boyz N the Hood, and screenwriter Gregory Poirier spoke to a few survivors and their relatives. For the most part, however, they were forced to extrapolate from oral histories and local legends. Clearly, the filmmakers have based many of their speculations on other accounts of racial tensions in Central Florida during the 1920s. Just as clearly, they also have tossed a healthy dose of Hollywood hokum into the mix.

Surprisingly enough, the mix jells into something truly substantial. Rosewood is such a cunningly constructed and emotionally overwhelming piece of work that, even when it veers off into Wild West clich├ęs and Saturday matinee heroics, the drama remains powerful and persuasive. Singleton and Poirier take care to sprinkle a few complex characters among the familiar archetypes, and ground the entire story in reality by vividly evoking the specifics of time, place and attitudes. This may not be precisely how things happened in real life. But Rosewood is more than convincing enough to help us accept the more fanciful touches of dramatic license.

Mann, the most brazenly stereotypical of the lead characters, is also, according to the film’s production notes, the only character Poirier invented entirely out of whole cloth. Played with taciturn dignity and hulking authority by Ving Rhames, Mann comes across as a classic gunfighter hero — eager to settle down, reluctant to involve himself in scrapes, lethally efficient when push comes to shove. The big differences is, he’s African-American. More precisely, he’s a black World War I veteran who rides into Rosewood on a handsome horse, and is greatly impressed by a place the locals describe as “heaven on earth” for black people.

Rosewood is indeed usual for its time, being a town where most of the residents are black, and many of them are, by standards of the era, prosperous. One of the few white citizens, John Wright (Jon Voight), is a store owner who actually treats his black neighbors with respect. Whether he does this only because it’s good for business isn't initially clear. In any case, Wright has managed to earn the wary admiration of Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle), a family matriarch who doesn't always speak highly of her fair-skinned neighbors. Mr. Wright, she tells Mann, “is a half-way decent white man — if there ever was such a thing.”

For a long time, Mann functions primarily as a plot device, serving as the audience’s surrogate while he is introduced to the major residents of Rosewood. In addition to John Wright and Sarah Carrier, the notables include Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), Sarah’s son, a proud piano teacher who defiantly insists on treating white men as his equals; and Scrappie (Elise Neal), a 17-year-old schoolteacher who makes Mann think seriously about giving up his wandering ways. Rosewood takes ample time to let us know these people, to appreciate the simple pleasures and satisfactions of their everyday lives, before Singleton and Poirier ignite the nightmare. The slatternly white women who claims she was attacked by a black man — possibly an escaped convict — is a liar. (The audience sees her being assaulted by her brutal white lover.) More important, just about everyone in Sumner, even her husband, suspects she is lying. But that doesn't stop the rumors from spreading or the anger from blazing.

Rosewood makes it very clear that virulent racism isn't the only thing feeding the mob’s bloodlust. Most of the white folks in Sumner are depicted as low-income rednecks who bitterly resent the apparent prosperity of “those niggers” in Rosewood. In one telling scene, a sneering redneck wonders aloud why Sylvester Carrier can afford a piano while he, a white man, can’t. A friend points out that the redneck doesn’t even know how to play the piano. But that information is brushed aside as insignificant. It’s the principle that matters.

When the full fury of the hate-filled mob begins to hammer down on Rosewood, the spectacle is at once horrifying senseless and painfully familiar. By sheer coincidence, I saw Rosewood at the recent Berlin Film Festival, just a few hours after seeing Calling the Ghosts, a documentary about Croat and Muslim women who were raped and beaten by their Serbian captors during the Bosnian civil war. These women, like most of the other prisoners in their internment camp, had lived for years alongside their Serbian neighbors, and had assumed these people were their friends. Just like the black townspeople in Rosewood thought they knew, and were known by, the good folks of Sumner.

Late in Rosewood, there is a scene where the white mob dumps dozens of black corpses into a massive grave. Once again, the scene was all the more chilling for me because I viewed it in the context of a film festival where ample evidence of man’s inhumanity to man abounded. I couldn't help thinking of other things I had seen in Berlin — documentaries and dramatic films about wartime horrors and, even more joltingly, an exhibition at The Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, that showed Nazis disposing of their many victims in a fashion very similar to that of the racists thugs in Rosewood. Hate is a virus. It takes different forms, but the symptoms never seem to change very much.

With all that fresh in my mind, I may have been more willing than most moviegoers to forgive the makers of Rosewood for wanting to show heroism and self-empowerment as well as evil and destruction — for wanting to provide some glimmer of hope in something like a happy ending. The movie is tremendously effective as a large-scale reconstruction of terrible historical events that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, Rosewood also gives us in Mann and John Wright two characters who transcend their differences, and their own mutual suspicions, to save as many lives as possible. (Voight is exceptionally good at illuminating Wright's moral complexities.)

To say more would risk spoiling the impact of the movie’s pulse-pounding climax. Suffice it to say that, by embellishing the known facts with a few romanticized flourishes, Singleton and Poirier have struck a fair balance between their responsibility to historical truth and their desire to entertain — and, yes, inspire — audiences.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Star Wars trailer

Yeah. I’ll cop to it. I’m geeked. By the way, here is a ranking of Star Wars movies I prepared for Variety around the time The Last Jedi was released. Guess I’ll be updating it to include this one and Solo… eventually.

Looking back at Trust, looking forward to “A Conversation with Hal Hartley”

Back in 1991, I selected Hal Hartley’s Trust to present as my Critic’s Choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. I am pleased and honored to report that on Saturday, April 13, I will be hosting “A Conversation with Hal Hartley” (10 am at the Westin Houston Hotel), and joining the director for a special screening of Trust (3 pm at the Memorial City Cinemark Theatre) for WorldFest/Houston. Here is my original 1991 review of that film.

Hal Hartley has done something altogether extraordinary for a filmmaker with just two films to his credit. With last year’s The Unbelievable Truth, his debut feature, and Trust, which opens today at the Cineplex-Odeon River Oaks Plaza, he has firmly established himself as a true original, an artist with a distinctive and impressive style.

Hartley is a humane satirist, a sly and compassionate trickster who illuminates his dark comedies with wary skepticism and reluctant optimism. He has a unique vision of life’s absurdities, and a well-tuned ear for the words we use to express and repress our true feelings. And, perhaps most important, he is able to make us laugh out loud at, and with, his sometimes hopelessly confused, sometimes misguidedly resolute characters.

In Trust, Hartley once again sets his story in a drab neighborhood of his native Long Island, and once again focuses on an anxious young woman played by Adrienne Shelly, the leading lady of Unbelievable Truth. As Maria, a 17-year-old high-school senior noted for her purple lipstick and surly attitude, Shelly makes one hell of an entrance. The movie begins with Maria’s informing her parents that she has dropped out of school, plans to marry her jock boyfriend — and, by the way, is pregnant. Her father, understandably upset, snarls: “Slut!” Maria slaps his face, and walks out the door. Dad has a sudden heart attack, and falls down dead.

Meanwhile, over at a nearby computer assembly plant, Matthew — a decade or so older than Maria, with an even worse attitude — is disgusted with the shabby merchandise he is building, and contemptuous of the foreman who wants to keep production flowing. When the foreman gets a little too insistent for Matthew’s taste, Matthew grabs the foreman’s head and clamps it in a vise.

And then things get really grim.

Maria is rejected by her mother (Merritt Nelson), dropped by her football-playing boyfriend (he doesn't want anything, least of all parental responsibilities, to interfere with his scholarship prospects), and nearly raped by a convenience-store clerk. Worse, she inadvertently witnesses a baby-snatching by an even more desperate character.

Matthew's day is somewhat less traumatic, but every bit as debilitating. He is the grudgingly dutiful slave of his father (Jim MacKay), a blue-collar manic-depressive who's never quite satisfied with Matthew’s housekeeping efforts. Matthew drowns his sorrows — or at least douses his pent-up rage — at his local tavern, where the wiser regulars know they had better keep out of his way. Then he wanders into his favorite haunt, a deserted house where, of course, Maria has sought refuge.

At its simplest, most emotionally affecting level, Trust is a love story in which the leads are profoundly skeptical about the very existence of love. At first, Maria and Matthew are exceedingly mistrustful of each other. And even when they let their guard down, there are problems. Matthew shows her his prized possession, a hand grenade that he says he carries with him at all times. “Why?” she asks. “Just in case,” he responds. “Are you emotionally disturbed?” she inquires.

As it turns out, both Maria and Matthew bear some serious psychological scars. Each is responsible, albeit inadvertently, for the death of a parent, and each is being guilt-tripped about it. And, yes, each is the product of a dysfunctional family, though that sort of jargon doesn’t begin to describe the full extent of their bummed-out, mixed-up condition. “A family’s like a gun,” Matthew notes. “You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody.”

Trust – can you think of another recent movie more aptly named? —begins with Maria and Matthew each realizing that the other needs saving, and gains richer, ever more intriguing complexities as each realizes the need for more self-directed rescue work. There is a quietly brilliant scene where Maria realizes how insignificant she must have seemed to her ex-boyfriend, and a heart-wrenching one where Maria writes in her diary: “I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid.”

For his part, Matthew decides that he needs to be mature, and accept adult responsibility, if he will provide for Maria. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a way that is practically guaranteed to trigger his tripwire temper. And his hand grenade.

Trust has the stark, no-frills look of a small-budget, grimly serious independent production, which only serves to make its deadpan hilarity all the more jarring and amusing. Everyone speaks with a rapid-fire intensity, as though each character is determined to cram the most information, or the greatest threat, into a listener’s limited attention span. Almost all of the supporting actors are perfectly attuned to Hartley's offbeat rhythms, playing their roles and conveying their ill-proportioned passions with the utmost sincerity. And the leads are even better.

Martin Donovan has just the right air of rumpled, seething self-loathing as he plays Matthew as a man who doesn’t really care that he’s drowning, but is determined to toss someone else a life preserver. Matthew doesn’t want Maria to misunderstand — he respects and trusts her, and that’s not love, but it should be enough. Donovan makes it very clear that Martin isn’t any better at convincing himself than he is at convincing Maria.

As Maria, Adrienne Shelly has the more challenging role — her character evolves from mini-skirted bimbo to self-effacing victim, and from there to something far more formidable — and she plays it with uncommon skill, grace, intelligence and conviction. Trust is probably the only movie ever made where the heroine must put on, not take off, her glasses before the hero even thinks of kissing her. Shelly makes braininess, and budding confidence, very attractive indeed. When she smiles, you get the feeling she could inspire a man to do anything. She might even get him to give up his hand grenade.

Postscript: Adrienne Shelly was cruelly and abruptly taken from us in 2006. But her films — including Waitress (released in 2007), a charming comedy she wrote and directed, and which later was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical — remain forever in the present tense.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Wishing Happy Birthday to Jakie Chan with two more blasts from my KRPC-TV past

I interviewed Jackie Chan for the first time back in July 1996, during a New York junket for Supercop, at a time when he was making a major push to expand his international superstardom to the United States in the wake of Rumble in the Bronx. He was extremely ingratiating, but seemed just a tad anxious. Two years later, however, he came across as appreciably more self-confident while launching his first bona fide U.S. blockbuster, Rush Hour. (On both occasions, you'll note, he was quite the spiffy dresser.) My favorite parts of the interviews: He talks about idolizing Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, and studying Fred Astaire before choreographing a comic fight scene.

Extending birthday wishes to Russell Crowe with two blasts from my KPRC-TV past

As a birthday tribute to Russell Crowe, I have delved into the archives to post two interviews dating back to my days at KPRC-TV. In the first, I chat with the Oscar-winning actor (before he actually won, you know, the Oscar) about working with Denzel Washington and director Brett Leonard on the 1995 sci-fi thriller Virtuosity. In the second…

Well, before the cameras started rolling, I jokingly complained about “all you Australian actors coming over here and stealing jobs away from Americans.” He laughed — but I think he took the remark semi-seriously, because this triggered a long conversation about international cinema circa 1997. We had relatively little time left to talk about the movie he was on the junket to promote — L.A. Confidential. (At the very end of the clip, by the way, I owe up to my passion for Judy Davis. It was a different time, and you could do such things.) 

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

A free seminar with three indie filmmakers: This weekend at WorldFest/Houston. (I did say free, didn't I?)

To kick off the opening weekend of the 2019 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, fest ramrod J. Hunter Todd has slated a free seminar showcasing three directors — Steve De Jarnatt, Kevin Sorbo and Richard Krevolin — who have movies on tap during this year’s H-Town cinematic smorgasbord. The event is scheduled for 2 pm Saturday, April 6, in the Water Fall “024” Lounge of The Westin Memorial City Hotel. And because a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, I’ll be hosting conversation, and encouraging questions from the audience.

De Jarnatt will be at WorldFest 2019 for the 30th anniversary screening of his cult-fave thriller Miracle Mile. (You can read more about that here.) Popular film and TV actor Sorbo (God’s Not Dead, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) is director and star of Miracle in East Texas (pictured above), one of the dozens of features in the festival lineup, while Krevolin is director and co-scripter of Attachments, which will have its world premiere at WorldFest 2019.

So what is Attachments all about? According to the official WorldFest synopsis:

One millennial I.T. nerd plus one computer illiterate senior citizen equals one unlikely attachment. Attachments stars Academy Award nominated actress Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Donnie Darko) as Eileen Roth, a widow who needs to learn how to use a computer in order to communicate with her beloved granddaughter in China. As a result, she ends up reaching out to a young, socially awkward I.T. professional. It’s a warm, funny love story about two alienated and lonely people who change each other’s lives. Control. Alt. Cute meet.

And Miracle in East Texas?

Inspired by a true story, “Doc” Boyd (Kevin Sorbo) and “Dad” Everett (John Ratzenberger) are Bible-quoting con-men in the 1930’s. After being run out of Oklahoma, they set up their oil-rig scam in Texas, seducing wealthy widows and the members of the only black church in the county. But just as their plan comes to fruition, everything suddenly goes awry, and they are faced with the most important decision of their lives. Funny, engaging and uplifting, this is the incredible story of two men discovering the good buried within themselves.

All WorldFest 2019 films will be shown at the Memorial City Cinemark Theater. Complete info about plotlines and showtimes is available at the festival’s website

30 Years Later: Miracle Mile returns to WorldFest/Houston -- And director Steve De Jarnatt will be on hand for a Q&A with yours truly

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will return this weekend to the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, for 9 pm Saturday screening at the Cinemark Memorial City Theater here in H-Town. But wait, there's more: It's my great pleasure and privilege to announce that I'll be serving as host (or facilitator, or whatever the hell they call it) for an on-stage Q&A with De Jarnatt after the screening. I am especially geeked about the occasion because, back in 1989, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I introduced De Jarnatt's devastating thriller as my critic's choice at WorldFest/Houston, where it wound up rocking the house and winning best of fest honors. 

A few weeks later, during a Cannes Film Festival reception, I was told by one of the muckety-mucks at Hemdale -- the outfit that had originally bankrolled the film -- that because of the enthusiastic response at the H-Town fest, his company was giving Miracle Mile a wider theatrical release than originally planned. He also said my rave review -- blurbed in all the original advertising and, later, on the homevideo packaging -- was another factor considered when the Hemdale brass made their decision. 

Maybe he was telling me the truth, maybe he was stoking my ego. But consider: De Jarnatt thanked me in a 2015 Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film shortly before I conducted a post-screening Q&A with him in Austin. So I can only assume that I played some role, however small, in getting Miracle Mile out into the world. And that makes me very happy.

So what's it all about? As I wrote in my 1989 review:

Miracle Mile is an audacious doomsday thriller with a 20-megaton impact. Deceptively simple and relentlessly gripping, it represents American independent moviemaking at its most exciting and accessible for mainstream audiences. Be prepared to be blown through the back of the theater...

Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds) and Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire) are the lead players, and they are exceptionally well-cast. Edwards is excellent as Harry, a soft-spoken, sweet-natured would-be jazz musician who moves to Los Angeles in search of a musical career and, perhaps, romance. Like most newcomers to Los Angeles, he checks out the sights on the Miracle Mile, the long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that runs from the towering skyscrapers of Century City to the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits. On a museum tour near the pits, Harry meets Julie (Winningham), a lovely waitress who just happens to be fond of jazz. Love blooms, instantly.

Unfortunately, Harry oversleeps, and arrives at the diner where Julie works three hours late for their midnight date. He tries to call her from a pay phone, but she doesn’t respond -- she has taken a sleeping pill, turned on her answering machine, and dozed off. Harry is depressed. Worse, he doesn’t know exactly where Julie lives, so he can’t drop by to apologize.

Then the pay phone rings, and Harry picks up the receiver. On the other end is an anxious young man calling from a missile base somewhere in North Dakota. It’s a wrong number -- the caller was trying to reach his father in another area code, to warn him that World War III is about to begin, that nuclear missiles will likely hit Los Angeles in 70 minutes.

Harry thinks the caller is a practical joker. But then he hears gunshots. And then he hears a stern voice on the line, warning him to “forget everything you’ve just heard, and go back to sleep.” 

This is not a dream. This is not a test. This is an actual alert.

And that is all the detailed plot synopsis you will get from me. Suffice it to say that Harry moves heaven and earth to get to Julie, so she can join him for a last-chance flight to safety. Naturally, several obstacles, and not a few people, get in his way. And even when the lovers are reunited, they have to contend with the panicky mobs who have been tipped off about the approaching apocalypse.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt draws you slowly, steadily into his frightfully plausible plot before he yanks you by the lapels and drags you onto a high-velocity roller coaster. Better still, even while he skillfully, even mercilessly, escalates the suspense, he develops a credible, compelling love story. Edwards makes a strong impression as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, while Winningham is attractive, persuasive and, particularly in the final scenes, achingly poignant. The supporting players are strong, and the dialogue, often darkly comical, rings true.

Miracle Mile flies economy class, with more emphasis on human drama than special effects, but it never looks or sounds cheap. The first-rate cinematography is by Theo Van de Sande, and the ominous musical score is by Tangerine Dream.

You can take a look at the entire April 5-14 WorldFest/Houston lineup here.