The Lesser Works of Janusz Kaminski

Toward the end of my grad school experience, I was approached about an assistant editorship with Reservoir, a new, student-written publication designed to showcase the vibrant community of Columbia College Chicago. The following year I was promoted to Managing Editor and given an opportunity to mold the magazine into something cool, quirky and unique to that singular university. In a classic cliche, Reservoir folded after its third year under pressure from uptight administrators. I’d moved on by then, but I was still mighty sad to see it go. Here’s a piece I originally published in Reservoir Magazine, February 21, 2007.

With the Academy Awards just around the corner, Reservoir would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the work of Columbia College’s Oscar-winningest alum. That would be on Janusz Kaminski, a 1987 graduate who has been Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer since 1991. Kaminski won Best Cinematography Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and his epic vision has colored everything from the dystopian prisonscapes of “Minority Report” to the slick office antics of “Jerry Maguire” to the lush river voyage of “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” Kaminski returns to the alma mater this May, when he receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Columbia’s commencement ceremony.

Not to diminish Kaminski’s achievements, but it’s easier to do great work when you’re given great material to work with. The true test of an artist’s ingenuity comes when he or she is tasked with sprucing up the subpar. Janusz Kaminski’s camera work has more than once been the only grace note in an otherwise forgettable production. Treat yourself to a showcase of Kaminski’s minor works as a reminder that even the best of us have bills — and dues — to pay.

“Grim Prairie Tales” (1990)
You don’t see a whole lot of Western/horror movies, and this flick is a pretty good illustration of why. It’s one of those no-budget scare anthologies with sort-of-famous actors collecting paychecks in none-too-demanding parts that sometimes turn up on shows like “Svengoolie” (See also: “Creepshow,” “Merlin’s Shop of Wonders,” “Tales from the Hood”). Here it’s former Oscar nominees James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif hamming it up as wayfaring Westerners swapping tales of moderate terror. Look for lots of flickering campfire shots from Kaminski.

“Pyrates” (1991)
This out-of-print Gen X obscurity is most notable as the first big-screen pairing of real-life spouses Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. They play a star-crossed couple whose sexual encounters are so hot, they literally start fires each time they make love. No, seriously — that’s the actual plot. The early ’90s were a weirder time than they get credit for. This bizarre flick does have a bit of a cult following, probably due in part to Kaminski’s creative framing of those incendiary couplings.

“Little Giants” (1994)
Nowadays, a kiddie sports flick starring Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis doesn’t sound that appealing, but in 1994? OK, it didn’t sound so great back then either. Perhaps the best thing to come out of “Little Giants” was Roger Ebert’s savagely vitriolic one-star review, in which he condemned the film as “a perfectly-honed retread of every other movie about how a team of losers wins the big game” that would make viewers “bitterly resent the fate that drew them into the theater.” For Kaminski’s part, he was saddled with the unenviable task of making guest star John Madden look photogenic.

“How to Make an American Quilt” (1995)
With a needlepoint-heavy plot and a cast including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jean Simmons, Alfre Woodard and a slew of other esteemed women of the theater, this quintessential girls’ night movie seems to have been conceived with an eye toward endless repeats on the Lifetime network. The acting is uneven and the storyline frustratingly slight, but Kaminski’s eye is put to good use in lustrous shots of Americana. Unfortunately, even the most flattering camera angles can’t make Winona Ryder appear more expressive than your average block of wood.

“Cool As Ice” (1991)
That’s right — Kaminski is one of the lucky few who got a ringside seat for the ultimate early ’90s ego-driven train wreck. Intended as the launching pad for Vanilla Ice’s film career, this debacle instead hastened his journey toward becoming a national punch line. Still, imagine the thrill of being on the scene when the Ice Man first delivered immortal lines like “I’m gonna go across the street and, uh, schling a schlong” and “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” Awards be damned, it’s moments like those that make a career in the arts all worthwhile.

Movie review: Somers Town

Originally published in City Pages, April 15, 2009

On its surface, Somers Town might be mistaken for the kind of standard-issue coming-of-age story that frequently fills space on festival programs, but this impeccably observed slice of life is much more interested in being-of-age. The plot, such as it is, centers on an unexpected friendship struck between two teens in lower-middle-class London: shy, Polish-born photography buff Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and brash-talking suburban runaway Tomo (Thomas Turgoose). As director Shane Meadows‘s naturalistic, black-and-white camera follows the boys on a rambling series of moneymaking schemes and attempts at wooing a gorgeous coffee-shop waitress, the storyline takes a backseat to the players’ personalities. Turgoose (who also starred in Meadows’s well-received This Is England) turns in an indelible performance as a damaged young man whose foul-mouthed bluster doesn’t come close to covering up his vulnerability. His pairing with the lanky, bright-eyed Jagiello sometimes brings to mind Superbad played straight and directed by Mike Leigh. Buoyed by some fine supporting work by Ireneusz Czop as Marek’s embattled single father and Perry Benson as a soft-hearted junk dealer, Somers Town emerges as an unfiltered, universal portrait of all the angst, joy, passion, and pain that comes with being 16 in the city. —Ira Brooker

Movie review: The Taqwacores

Originally published in City Pages, April 14, 2010

The phenomenon of Islamic punk rock in America has recently inspired a number of bemused news articles and at least one documentary, so it’s only natural that a feature film would follow close behind. Eyad Zahra‘s debut tracks the goings-on in a Buffalo rental house populated by young Muslims/punk archetypes, each of whom has a different recipe for reconciling faith and lifestyle. That religious wrinkle colors every action and adds tension to familiar punk clashes like drunks vs. straight-edgers and activists vs. anarchists. The Taqwacores is at its best when it hews closest to a documentary style, capturing the squalor of flophouse parties and the stupid thrill of shocking the squares. In true punk fashion, the film largely eschews metaphor in favor of bold, noisy statements, leading to too many awkwardly on-the-nose observations reminiscent of early Spike Lee joints. (One character actually utters the sentence, “I’m too wrapped up in my mix-matching of disenfranchised subcultures, man.”) Fortunately, Zahra also shares Lee’s gift for cinematic catharsis, especially in an indelible late-film concert scene that encapsulates a world in which one man’s easy hook-up is another man’s unforgivable sin. —Ira Brooker

Movie review: The Necessities of Life

Originally published in City Pages, April 14, 2010

It’s difficult to describe The Necessities of Lifewithout making it sound like either a relentless downer or a mawkish tearjerker, but Benoit Pilon‘s soft-spoken feature avoids those pitfalls with a matter-of-fact approach and a trio of wonderfully restrained performances. Natar Ungalaaq (Atanarjuat—The Fast Runner) is remarkable as Tiivii, an Inuk hunter and family man diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent from his Far North home to a sanitarium in early-’50s Quebec. Separated from his wife and daughters and only partially grasping the reasons for his internment, Tiivii struggles to connect with the French-speaking “Whites” who surround him. Ungalaaq’s expressive face is tasked with conveying everything from fascination at seeing x-rays of his own chest to bafflement at eating a plate of spaghetti to despair at facing another day of isolation. Ungalaaq carries much of the film, but he’s well-assisted by Eveline Gelinas as his empathetic nurse and Paul-Andre Brasseur as a taciturn Inuit orphan whose arrival in the ward gives Tiivii a new lease on life. The film’s exploration of cultural barriers and human connections may be familiar, but Pilon’s documentarian approach elevates a potentially sentimental storyline to something much more affecting.—Ira Brooker

Movie review: Rough Tender

Originally published in City Pages, April 13, 2011

On the surface, Rough Tender looks like a standard-issue bad-boy-meets-good-girl movie. Beneath the surface, that’s still pretty accurate, but the film carries enough darkly comic charisma to elevate itself. The players here are violence-prone loner Barrett, who dresses like a ’50s greaser and lavishes affection on his ’68 Nova, and customer service rep Melanie, whose wholesome good looks are offset by her habit of babbling semi-coherently about every little thing. As their mismatched affair unfolds, director Joe Dressel maintains a peculiar tension that keeps the proceedings engaging even as he hits many of the expected notes. Michael P. Nelson‘s photography masterfully captures the crisp foreboding of a Twin Cities autumn, and the leads share an offbeat chemistry that stays just shy of too quirky. While the film’s low budget sometimes shows, the end result is a friendly, funny dual character sketch infused with just the right amount of Minnesota gloom. —Ira Brooker

Movie review: The Interrupters

Originally published in City Pages, April 13, 2011

If it isn’t part of your daily existence, Chicago’s recent epidemic of street violence is the kind of domestic issue that can seem just as distant as the revolutions in the Middle East. Hoop Dreams director Steve James‘s latest documentary spans that distance by placing viewers at the epicenter of the killings and introducing us to a host of people who are undeniably heroic yet unmistakably human. James captures an astounding amount of drama, frustration, and redemption over one tumultuous year with Chicago’s CeaseFire, a community action group dedicated to defusing confrontations before violence erupts. The titular Interrupters are former gang members, felons, and convicted killers whose knowledge and street cred helps them connect with kids wary of more traditional authorities. Upsetting, uplifting, and packed with characters twice as compelling as those in even the best crime fiction, The Interrupters shines a much-needed light on America’s tragic war at home. —Ira Brooker

Movie review: “Everybody’s Famous”

Toward the end of my undergrad career, I finally got my act together enough to get involved with the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily. I mostly wrote reviews of movies none of the other staffers wanted to see. It was a good time for the empire.

“Everybody’s Famous” review: Belgian waffling
Originally published in the Minnesota Daily, July 20, 2001

There is a certain group of American moviegoers that takes a misguided pride in seeing foreign films. These fetishists believe in the sanctity of subtitles, elevating the most mundane material to the level of art just because it was made on foreign shores. They will laugh uproariously at a French toilet joke that would be beneath them were it delivered in English. Belgium’sEverybody’s Famous was tailor-made for this audience.

A lackluster comedy with far less bite than its subject demands, the film focuses on Jean, a laid-off factory worker chasing a dream of musical stardom. Much of his ambition is projected on his teenage daughter, an awkward karaoke singer with very little talent and even less stage presence. When Jean is presented with the opportunity to kidnap Belgium’s number one pop star, he sets in motion a harebrained scheme to land his daughter on the top of the charts.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably seen Martin Scorcese’s superb The King of ComedyEverybody’s Famous is basically a lite-comedy remake of that chilling film, and a strong affirmation of the superiority of Scorcese’s vision. Juicy topics like media manipulation, parental tyranny and the general lust for fame are just barely grazed. Rather than making a meaningful comment on any issue, the filmmakers seem intent on keeping the whole enterprise as inoffensive as possible. With such potentially explosive material, that approach simply doesn’t work.

Aside from some rather catchy pop songs, the film’s only real redeeming quality is the lead performance of Josse De Pauw, who conveys a haunting desperation despite the relentless optimism of the rest of the proceedings. In the hands of a lesser actor, Jean’s actions could easily seem disturbing, but De Pauw maintains a sweetness that overrides such concerns.

How, with all of its glaring flaws, was Everybody’s Famous nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar? The answer lies with its distributor, Miramax Films, notorious for high pressure campaigns that garner nominations for undeserving pictures (witness the five Oscar noms for the sweet but slight Chocolat). Miramax’s marketing is a god-send for the aforementioned foreign film fetishists and a slap in the face for those who believe that countries like Belgium are fully capable of producing schlock. Compare Everybody’s Famous to similarly-themed films like The King of ComedyDog Day Afternoon or even Jimmy Hollywood, and it should be evident that Americans can still do it better sometimes.

-Ira Brooker

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