From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2001). — J.R.
Like John Singleton’s other features, this is far from flawless; at 129 minutes it’s longer than it needs to be, and the music hits you like a sledgehammer at moments when any music at all is redundant and something of an insult. But the characters are so full-bodied and the feelings so raw and complex that I’d call this the best thing he’s done to dateby which I mean the most convincing and serious, telling us at least as much about everyday life in South Central Los Angeles as did Boyz N the Hood, his first movie. The title character, well played by Tyrese Gibson, is a 20-year-old with a pronounced Oedipus complex who lives with his 36-year-old mother (A.J. Johnson), has fathered two kids with separate girlfriends (Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass), and starts to feel crowded when his mother falls for a reformed gangster (Ving Rhames, also especially good). Sexually explicit both visually and aurally, this shows rare inventiveness in exploring one character’s fantasies during an orgasm. With Omar Gooding and Snoop Dogg. (JR) Read more
A footnote to the following (February 7, 2018): I now regard Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane as the best of all the Welles biographies to date — at the very least, the most thoroughly researched. — J.R.
Film Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles
I sent the following letter to the Atlantic last August. I’m not surprised it wasn’t published. But I can’t resist reproducing it now that Benjamin Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, has shown further signs of his David Thomson idolotry while writing about Cary Grant in the current issue. This time Schwarz calls Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition, the “finest reference book on the movies.” (He also offers some other debatable critical judgments, such as calling Sylvia Scarlett “a mess of a picture” rather than an exciting forerunner of the French New Wave in its daring mix of genres.) But before getting to his assertion about Thomson’s book, let me reproduce my letter:
“It seems sadly characteristic of the mainstream reviewing of film books in general and those about Orson Welles in particular that nonspecialists routinely take precedence over specialists — and that biographers who forgo original research for the sake of speculation or invention, and even admit to doing this, can be deemed superior to actual scholars, at least if their biases match those of the reviewers.
Film A Staggering Statistic
Check out the June 26 post on Dave Kehr’s blog for an important piece of news and a staggering statistic.
The important piece of news is the launch of the Turner Classic Movies database, TCMDB, a potential alternative to the often less-than-reliable Internet Movie Database. (Sitting on a panel in Austin with Monte Hellman several years ago, I heard him recount writing to the IMDB to inform them that some of his film credits on the site were incorrect, only to be informed by them that because he wasn’t a qualified film scholar they couldn’t make the required corrections.)
As Dave points out, the TCMDB “has as its core the unsurpassable AFI Catalog of American Feature Films, previously accessible only with a $50 AFI membership (or through certain libraries). For those who don’t know it, the AFI Catalog is a towering work of scholarship that covers the period 1893 to 1971 in exquisite detail, with full credits, reliable plot summaries and significant side notes.” I can only concur with Dave. Indeed, there are times when I think that the only two irrefutably towering achievements of the American Film Institute are David Lynch’s Eraserhead, produced on its west-coast premises, and this reference work.
From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1994). — J.R.
** EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES
Directed and written by Gus Van Sant
With Uma Thurman, Rain Phoenix, John Hurt, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Angie Dickinson, Sean Young, Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, and Carol Kane.
Sissy Hankshaw, born with oversize and decidedly phallic thumbs that inspire her to become a compulsive and virtuoso hitchhiker, never stopping anywhere long enough to pitch a tent, works occasionally as a model for a decadent New York queen known as the Countess, who uses her in feminine-hygiene-spray ads. He wants her to appear in a commercial featuring a flock of whooping cranes that periodically migrate through his dude ranch and beauty salon, the Rubber Ranch, and he sends her there, not realizing that the cowgirls running the place are on the verge of seizing it and turning it into a radical feminist collective with a different set of priorities.
This is the central premise of Tom Robbins’s 1976 hippie novel, though it hardly begins to describe its proliferating characters and issues. For starters, there’s a Mr. Natural sort of guru hiding out in the mountains overlooking the Rubber Ranch — a Japanese American known as the Chink, who periodically has sex with one of the cowgirls, Bonanza Jellybean, and eventually impregnates Sissy, and who maintains a Rube Goldberg sort of timepiece that was bestowed on him by a group of renegade Indians known as the Clock People. Read more
From the Chicago Reader, September 4, 1987. — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Paul Leduc
Written by Leduc and Jose Joaquin Blanco
With Ofelia Medina, Juan Jose Gurrola, Salvador Sanchez, and Max Kerlow.
WOLF AT THE DOOR
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Henning Carlsen
Written by Carlsen, Christopher Hampton, and Jean-Claude Carrière
With Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow, Valerie Morea, Sofie Graboel, Fanny Bastien, and Merete Voldstedlund.
We live in an increasingly visual culture, but there are signs that we haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. We still confuse image with event and one medium’s capabilities and limitations with another’s, falling into the trap of assuming that everything is seeable, hence realizable on a TV or movie screen. We still let our (not all that) new toys decide for us what it is we’ll say and how it is we’ll say it. Don’t believe the Sunday supplements: we won’t truly have entered the age of visual literacy until we can turn on the television in the evening and see not one single image of a politician waving from the doorway of an airliner.
When that day comes, we’ll probably discover that the film biographies of painters have vanished as well. Read more
This review appeared in the March 1975 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.
Saikaku Ichidai Onna (The Life of Oharu)
Japan, 1952 Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
According to scriptwriter Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi’s ambitions for The Life of Oharu were largely stimulated by the prize accorded to Kurosawa, a relative newcomer, for Rashomon at Venice in 1951. The bet paid off, and Oharu was awarded the Silver Lion at Venice in 1952, thereby inaugurating Mizoguchi’s international reputation at the age of fifty-six, four years before his death. Differing substantially from Saikaku’s novel –- a looser collection of episodes narrated by an elderly nun recalling her decline from a promising youth, and ending with a scene of a prostitute entering a temple and hallucinating the faces of former lovers in the idols there -– Oharu’s script gravitates round the feudal persecutions of one woman. It appears that Mizoguchi was something of a Stroheim on the set -– requiring that the garden of Kyoto’s Koetsu temple be “rebuilt” instead of using the nearly identical original location, and firing his assistant, Uchikawa Seichiro, when the latter complained about making last-minute changes in the positions of the studio-built houses for the scene of Bunkichi’s arrest. Read more
Published in Sight and Sound, January/February 2019. Alas, this list was put together before I saw A Bread Factory, playing in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center this coming weekend. I’ll be introducing the Saturday screening at 2 pm and interviewing Patrick Wang afterwards. — J.R.
In alphabetical order:
Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)
The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
Ray Meets Helen (Alan Rudolph)
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
If ties are permitted, I would add The Image Book(best experimental film, Jean-Luc Godard) and First Reformed (best love story, Paul Schrader).
From the Chicago Reader (August 6, 1999). — J.R.
The Thomas Crown Affair
Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Alan R. Trustman, Leslie Dixon, and Kurt Wimmer
With Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, Denis Leary, Frankie R. Faison, and Faye Dunaway.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Seeing an original movie and its remake in reverse order is a bit like reading a novel (as opposed to a novelization) after you’ve seen the movie. It usually distorts your sense of priorities, forcing you to see the ideas and images of the original in terms of the remake. That’s why I suspect I’ll never know whether the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is inferior to the 1968 original. Both are entertaining pieces of trash, but look at them in succession — in either order — and they start to undermine each other.
Both are about a classy investigator for an insurance company (Faye Dunaway in 1968, Rene Russo in 1999) going after a debonair zillionaire (Steve McQueen then, Pierce Brosnan now) who pulls off elaborately planned, outrageous robberies with hired helpers just for the fun of it. In the original, set in Boston, he robs a bank; in the remake he steals a Monet from New York’s Metropolitan Museum and then, just to show how cool he is, replaces it without getting caught. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1995). — J.R.
This lovely first feature from Tunisia (1990) is the work of Ferid Boughedir, the best-known film critic in the Arab world, whose documentaries Camera d’Afrique and Camera d’Arabe are models of their kind. Exquisitely sensual without being prurient, sensitive without being arch or affected, this portrait of a 12-year-old boy’s life, family, and community is packed with humor and perception, and the film’s feeling for the labyrinthine architecture of the neighborhood is a source of wonder. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday and Saturday, June 16 and 17, 8:00, and Tuesday, June 20, 6:00, 443-3737.