The Sleep of the Just

Nightjohn: Sometimes a filmmaker can pour ideas he was hatching for one movie into another that gets funded. While developing Nightjohn (which premiered on cable but has been screened at film festivals), the gifted Charles Burnett must have used his research for an unrealized project about Frederick Douglass to add texture and detail to Gary Paulsen's teen novel Nightjohn. Despite his film's awkward, prosy patches, Burnett delivers a surprisingly full account of slave life in the 1850s, as well as a potent fable of literacy. Carl Lumbly brings bedrock conviction to the character of Nightjohn, who feels that his people can't begin to know who they are (or what they can do) until they can spell their names. Lumbly makes you believe that this Johnny Appleseed of reading and writing would return to slavery from a free life up North and risk mutilation for his teaching. And Allison Jones is pleasingly unactressy as Sarny, his twelve-year-old disciple. With these two and Lorraine Toussaint (as Sarny's surrogate mother) providing a strong core, Burnett is able to throw the supporting cast some brilliant bits. For one whole astonishing minute, Bill Cobbs, as a slave called Old Man, bitterly spits out the alphabet, conveying hidden danger and tragedy in every letter. The scenes between the driven plantation owner (Beau Bridges) and his restive son recall the eloquent tension of the Southern major and his son in 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident, which I mean as high praise.

When We Were Kings: Athletic feats are often described as poetry in motion, but a Muhammad Ali fight, good or terrible, was an act of imagination that the imaginer worked out before our eyes. That was never more the case than with his most astonishing triumph, the "Rumble in the Jungle" -- Ali's October 30, 1974, title bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, that climaxes Leon Gast's exuberant and thrilling documentary. (It won the 1996 Academy Award for best documentary but only played in wide release this past year.)

As Gast lays it out with the help of Ali's 1991 biographer Thomas Hauser and eyewitnesses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who appear in on-screen interviews, sportswriters considered the then-32-year-old Ali hopelessly mismatched against the surly 26-year-old Foreman. In the superb cutting between Gast's shot-in-Zaire footage and the new interviews with the experts, we get to hear Mailer describe Foreman punching an indentation the size of a watermelon into the heavy bag and then see Foreman doing it. Taylor Hackford directed the Nineties interviews and pitched in on the editing; but Mailer is, next to Ali himself, the film's creative star. His acute and gutsy observations are what great journalism is all about.

Conspiracy Theory: Directed by Richard Donner, coproduced by Donner with Joel Silver (the pair created the Lethal Weapon franchise), and written by Brian Helgeland (cowriter of L.A. Confidential), the best of '97's summer movies gives slick a good name. It doesn't have the shock or originality of a classic such as The Manchurian Candidate, but it doesn't deteriorate into a mass of effects, either. The cogs interlock; the loose screws enhance rather than detract from the alternate-universe plausibility of the unhinged cabby hero, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a paranoid whose delusions about government plots have a scary way of coming true. As Fletcher and classy Department of Justice lawyer Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts) elude competing government agencies, they gun down the amorous barriers between them. The effect is double-barreled bittersweet. What stays with you is the characters' expressions -- Gibson and Roberts give their best star performances.

The Designated Mourner: In David Hare's spare, absorbing version of Wallace Shawn's spiky, paradoxical stage play, Mike Nichols' portrait of an educated yet hollow and debased Everyman is a film-acting debut that makes other movie turns look like puny dry runs. He locks us into the melodious whining of the antihero Jack, a "former student of English literature who went downhill from there." Jack, his wife Judy (Miranda Richardson), and her poet-intellectual father Howard (David de Keyser) describe both a marital and a political catastrophe -- a crackdown on dissident thinkers in the unnamed nation. Judy and Howard become martyrs; Jack drops them at a crisis point. Together the trio generates an apocalyptic heat. You may wince at Jack's loathsomeness, but Nichols is so magnetically, infuriatingly entertaining you can't tune out anything he says. You grow addicted to his verbal buzz. Jack's motivation is straightforward: He wants to survive. What makes his story arresting is that Nichols and Shawn illuminate how this ethical speck of a person can be emotionally and intellectually complicated.

Rough Magic: As she showed in her debut film, the seductively enchanting High Season (1987), director Clare Peploe knows how to use exotic locales to catalyze farce, mystery, and lovemaking. This comically haywire high-wire act, set (like L.A. Confidential) in the atomic Fifties (and now available on video), is about magic as illusion and magic as genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively. Bridget Fonda plays an L.A. magician's assistant who runs away from her uranium-honcho fiance to Mexico, where she teams up with Alex Ross (Russell Crowe, also from L.A. Confidential), a Bogart-cynical reporter, and Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a British quack on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. As the movie roves into the Mayan heartland, it generates a mystic aura: The physical ruins of a vanished civilization merge with the craggy grandeur of the surroundings. This Lost World, unlike Spielberg's, has spiritual and emotional dimensions -- but it never evaporates into a New-Age fog. The action is too goofy and iconoclastic. Broadbent is the standout in a seamless, slaphappy ensemble; it takes an actor with his gusto, wisdom, and authority to bring off phrases such as "as the fates would have it."

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