Monthly Archives: April 2019

Baby Boy

From the Chicago Reader (June 1, 2001). — J.R.

BabyBoy

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 »

Half-Caste Agit-Prop [THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH]

From The Soho News (September 3, 1980). –- J.R.

 

CHANTOFJIMMIEBLACKSMITH

 

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Written and directed by Fred Schepisi

Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally

For a good 80 percent or so of its running time, the experience

of seeing  The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith affords a

salutary, beautiful shock. Films that are even halfway honest

about racism — Mandingo and Richard Pryor Live in

Concert are the most recent examples that spring to mind

— are so unexpected that they’re often accused of being racist

themselves, perhaps because of the deeply rooted taboos that

they expose and violate.

 

There’s no question that Fred Schepisi’s powerhouse Australian

movie — adapted from a novel by Thomas Keneally (who plays a

small but significant role as a lecherous cook), and “based on real

events that took place in Australia at the turn of the century”

(just before the federation of Australian colonies) – is agit-prop,

ideologically slanted. But then again, it’s hard to think of any

other current release — including, say, The Empire Strikes

Back and Dressed to Kill -– that isn’t.

The aforementioned hits perform in part the not-so-innocent

task of turning contemporary objects of confusion and disgust

(recent architecture and sex, respectively) into occasions for

exhilarated lyricism.… Read more »

Dubbed and Dubber (CAN DIALECTICS BREAK BRICKS?)

From the Chicago Reader (February 21, 1997). — J.R.

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Rene Vienet (and Doo Kwang Kee)

Written by Vienet (and Ngai Hong)

With Pai Paiu, Chan Hung Liu, Ingrid Wu, and the voices of Jacques Thebaut, Patrick Dewaere, Michelle Grellier, and Dominique Morin.

“This is a situationist film. This is not a situationist film,” begin Keith Sanborn’s notes to Rene Vienet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? — a French film in color being shown at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday in a subtitled, black-and-white, letterboxed video version. I think Sanborn, an experimental filmmaker, is referring to the fact that Vienet’s film was made in 1973, the year after the Situationist International disbanded and two years after Vienet — who joined the situationists in 1963 — resigned from their ranks.

I don’t know much about the situationists, but according to critic Peter Wollen they formed out of a split within an earlier radical artistic and political group, the lettrists, who sort of took over the mantle of the French avant-garde from the surrealists after World War II under the leadership of Isidore Isou. The “dissident Revolutionary Lettrists,” as Wollen called them, were led by two young filmmakers, Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, who went on to become situationists.… Read more »

A Walk on the Wilde Side [AN IDEAL HUSBAND]

From the Chicago Reader (June 25, 1999). — J.R.

An Ideal Husband

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Oliver Parker

Written by Oscar Wilde and Parker

With Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, John Wood, Lindsay Duncan, Peter Vaughan, and Jeroen Krabbe.

Reviewing a collection of Oscar Wilde’s critical writings almost 30 years ago, Cyril Connolly made a useful distinction between “Wilde” and “Oscar,” the two sides of the same man. “Wilde is Wilde in these essays and seldom ‘Oscar,'” Connolly noted with justifiable admiration. “The change is beneficial. In some cases he is both: thus The Soul of Man Under Socialism in places seems almost inspired; it is a breath of fresh air in which the idealistic aspects of Socialism (or Christian Democracy) have seldom been so well expressed — in his denunciation of private property for example.

Then ‘Oscar’ intervenes. ‘There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.‘”

Connolly goes on to explain, “When I think of ‘Oscar,’ it is against a background of servants, of butlers announcing him and footmen with salvers, of a hansom cab hired by the day, the driver nodding under his tarpaulin while Wilde and Bosie display far into the night.”… Read more »

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 1998). — J.R.

Seeing this singular 1968 American experimental feature by William Greaves a second time (on video; the first time was in 1981, in its original 35-millimeter format) has led me to value it more, though arguably the fact that it loses relatively little impact on video constitutes one of its limitations. Greaves, a pioneering black actor whose career stretches back to postwar films made for black audiences as well as the underrated Hollywood feature Lost Boundaries, went on to direct over 200 documentaries, host and executive produce NET’s Black Journal, and teach acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For this eccentric venture, he got two white actors to play a quarreling couple in Central Park and proceeded to film not only them (in both rehearsal and performance) but also himself and his camera crew and various other people in the vicinity, often juxtaposing two or three camera angles simultaneously in split screen in the final edit. The crew’s own doubts and speculations about the film being made were also recorded later and edited into the mix. The couple’s quarrel is vitriolic and singularly unpleasant, the acting variable, the collective insight into what Greaves is up to mainly uncertain.… Read more »

Film on Film: Documenting the Director

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1990). — J.R.

DOCUMENTING THE DIRECTOR

It’s no secret that over the past few years, while “entertainment news,” bite-size reviews, and other forms of promotion in all the media have been steadily expanding, serious film criticism in print become an increasingly scarce. (I’m not including academic film interpretation, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field that has by now developed a rhetoric and a tradition of its own — the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating book Making Meaning, published last year.) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, in some cases supplanting the sort of work that used to appear only in print.

There are plenty of talking-head “documentaries” about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios — currently clogging cable TV, but what I have in mind is something quite different: analytic films about films and filmmakers. Many of these films are shown in film festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic film courses, but very few of them ever wind up in commercial theaters, with the consequence that they’re rarely reviewed outside of trade journals.… Read more »

Benjamin Schwarz on David Thomson: A defense of Orson Welles [Chicago Reader blog post, 1/12/07]

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

Posted By on 01.12.07 at 03:30 PM

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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.

Read more »

A Staggering Statistic [Chicago Reader blog post, 6/28/07]

Film A Staggering Statistic

Posted By on 06.28.07 at 05:42 PM

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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.

Read more »

Two Heads [EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES]

From the Chicago Reader (May 27, 1994). — J.R.

** EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES

(Worth seeing)

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 »

Comeback Kid [LITTLE BUDDHA]

From the Chicago Reader (June 3, 1994). — J.R.

** LITTLE BUDDHA

(Worth seeing)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Bertolucci

With Keanu Reeves, Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, Alex Wiesendanger, Ying Ruocheng, Jigme Kunsang, Raju Ial, and Greishma Makar Singh.

“Nirvana” is a word that comes from Sanskrit, the Reader’s Encyclopedia informs me, meaning “blowing out, extinction”; in Buddhist teaching it refers to “a complete annihilation of the 3 main ego-drives, for money, fame, and immortality.”

Bernardo Bertolucci has said that his aim in Little Buddha is low-key. Of the third film in his self-described orientalist trilogy, following The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), he says, “My hope is to open the eyes for a glimpse of something, my hope is to trigger a curiosity about something. I can’t teach or ask anything more than just for others to participate in my emotional discovery of Buddhism.” But Little Buddha is a multimillion-dollar project designed to make money and to exploit and perpetuate Bertolucci’s fame while catering to the viewer’s desire for immortality. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that nirvana, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought, plays a reduced role in Bertolucci’s “emotional discovery,” whereas reincarnation as a means of immortality plays a major role.… Read more »

Villain the Blank [BLOWN AWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (July 15, 1994). — J.R.

Blow_Away_1994_Film_Poster

* BLOWN AWAY

(Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

Written by Joe Batteer, John Rice, and M. Jay Roach

With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn, and Stephi Lineburg.

In the Roy Rogers westerns I saw as a kid, I could always figure out in a flash who the villain was. If memory serves, Roy Rogers always played a cowboy named Roy Rogers, whom the good characters invariably called Roy and the bad guy referred to as Rogers. This sometimes made it possible to know who the bad guy was even before Roy figured it out himself.

There’s a popular kind of suspense movie that’s been with us at least since Dirty Harry in which the villain is often just as easy to detect: he or she is someone who has it in for the hero and wants to hurt him very, very badly, most often by hurting or killing whomever the hero is supposed to protect: his daughter’s pet rabbit (Fatal Attraction), his wife, his mistress, and his daughter (Cape Fear), the citizens of Gotham City (the Batman movies), the president of the United States (In the Line of Fire), the passengers in a local bus (Speed), a coworker and a pet dog and a wife and a daughter (Blown Away).… Read more »

Ford Rambler: Review of Tag Gallagher’s JOHN FORD

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1987). –- J.R.

JOHN FORD: The Man and His Films

by Tag Gallagher

University of California Press/$35

‘I shall almost always be wrong, when I conceive of a man’s character as being all of one piece.’ Appearing at the outset of Tag Gallagher’s massive critical biography of Ford, this quotation from Stendhal serves both as apologia and as fair warning to readers hoping to find a unified portrait of its subject. Written over the past two decades, Gallagher’s exasperating yet invaluable compendium of diverse thoughts and data may lack the coherence of previous Ford studies by Anderson, McBride/Wilmington, Place and Sinclair (among others). Yet in its outsized efforts to do justice to the contradictions and complexities of the man and his work, it still offers a range of information and insight that dwarfs all competitors.

For one thing, Gallagher certainly goes beyond his predecessors in contriving to grapple with all the surviving films, most of which he arranges in four periods: The Age of Introspection (1927 35), Age of Idealism (1935-47), Age of Myth (1948-61) and Age of Mortality (1962-65). Believing Ford’s best films (Pilgrimage, Judge Priest, Stagecoach, Young Mr Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, Mogambo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Civil War, Donovan’s Reef and 7 Women) to lie in all four periods, Gallagher is able to tease out a surprising number of threads that recur throughout the oeuvre.… Read more »

Rainer’s Persistence of Memory

From the Santa Barbara News & Review, October 24, 1985.–- J.R.

The Man Who Envied Women, introduced by filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, will be shown at 8 pm Monday, Oct. 28, Isla Vista Theatre II, Embarcadero Del Norte. Free admission.

It doesn’t really do justice to Yvonne Rainer’s exhilarating The Man Who Envied Women to call it avant- garde — or even the best feature to date by New York’s most celebrated avant-garde filmmaker. To do that is to consign it to a gilt-eged ghetto presided over by experts. The fact that Santa Barbara is fortunate enough to be getting this movie in advance of both New York and Los Angeles — and with Rainer herself in attendance -– shouldn’tmean that we need any big-city explicators to crack the surface of her intellectual vaudeville. Admittedly, there’s enough theoretical discourse on display to choke a horse, and two actors rather than one (a favorite Rainer ploy) portraying the title character — a complacent, womanizing academic named Jack Deller whose second wife, a nameless voice, leaves him in the opening moments of the film. But the delightful thing about Rainer’s word and image salad is that its deliberate overload virtually guarantees that if we miss a particular gag or argument, we’ll find its near-equivalent lying in wait for us a few minutes later.… Read more »

Painter Pics [FRIDA & WOLF AT THE DOOR]

From the Chicago Reader, September 4, 1987. — J.R.

FRIDA

** (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 »

The Life of Oharu (1975 review)

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 »