Monthly Archives: November 2021

Dead Presidents

More ambitious than Menace II Society, this second feature (1995) by youthful codirecting twins Allen and Albert Hughes starts in 1968, a few years before they were born, when three friends from the Bronx (Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker, and Freddy Rodriguez) enlist in the marines. Back from Vietnam but not treated as heroes, they eventually find themselves plotting an armed robbery. Written with Michael Henry Brown, this 1995 picture shows flashes of political savvy and has some decent performances, and the period evocations are nothing to be ashamed of. But gratuitous gore and violence and a huffing and puffing heist sequence eventually compromise the movie’s claim to seriousness. With Keith David, N’Bushe Wright, and Bokeem Woodbine. R, 119 min. (JR)

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Tribal Trouble [CALENDAR]

From the Chicago Reader (August 19, 1994). — J.R.



Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Arsinee Khanjian, Ashot Adamian, and Atom Egoyan.

In terms of craft, originality, and intelligence, there are few young filmmakers in the world today to match Atom Egoyan — a Canadian writer-director with a bee in his bonnet about video, photography, voyeurism, sexual obsession, troubled families, and personal identity (not necessarily in that order). But of his half-dozen features to date, the only one I’m comfortable calling a flat-out masterpiece is his fifth, Calendar — in some ways the least premeditated or worked over of the bunch. (Its successor, Exotica, which showed at Cannes in May 1993, will probably surface in New York later this year, which means it probably won’t get to Chicago before next summer.)

There are various ways of categorizing Egoyan’s six features, but perhaps the most useful involves distinguishing between the relatively low-budget ones, which happen to be my favorites — Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), and Calendar (1993) — and the slicker, more expensive ones: Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Exotica (1994). Though all these movies have similar preoccupations and many have similar formal structures, a few distinctions between them are worth noting. Read more


I’ve appended a different title to this Chicago Reader review which ran on July 11, 2003 and restored a few details in my argument as well as phrases that a bleary-eyed editor, foregoing the Reader’s usual writer-friendly protocol, deleted at the last minute without telling me. Down with Love, in particular, continues to be a major revelation and source of pleasure for me. — J.R.

Down With Love

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Peyton Reed

Written by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake

With Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Sarah Paulson, David Hyde Pierce, and Tony Randall.

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Guy Maddin

With Zhang Wei-qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, CindyMarie Small, Johnny Wright, and Brent Neale.

If a more interesting and entertaining Hollywood movie than Down With Love has come along this year, I’ve missed it. Down With Love — which has already closed in Chicago — is entertaining thanks to Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake’s clever script, Peyton Reed’s mainly assured direction, inventive production and costume design, a musical number behind the final credits I’d happily swap all of Chicago for, and even a miscast Renee Zellweger pulling off a difficult climactic monologue. Read more

Menace II Society

From the June 4, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Don’t let the silly styling of the title put you off, this is a powerful, convincing, and terrifying look at teenage crime in contemporary Watts. Directed by 20-year-old twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes from a script they wrote with coproducer Tyger Williams, this shocking, violent, and unsentimental (albeit sensationalized) drama about a second-generation drug dealer (Tyrin Turner) and the callous world he lives in, produced by To Sleep With Anger’s Darin Scott, is terrifically acted, as much by the newcomers (Jada Pinkett, Larenz Tate, Erin Leshawn Wiley, Vonte Sweet, MC Eiht, and Too $hort) as by the old pros (Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, Charles S. Dutton), who are around for cameos. Bel-Air Drive-In, Double Drive-In, Hyde Park, Norridge, Pipers Alley, Ford City.

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Toronto 1982

Originally published in Artforum (December 1982). — J.R.

The Toronto Film Festival, now in its seventh year, takes place over ten days every September. Proudly dubbing itself a “Festival of Festivals,” it actually deserves that moniker a lot more than the New York Film Festival does, and not only because it shows about five times as many films. Insofar as its giddy pluralism derives from an overlap of disparate and even antithetical individual tastes rather than from a distillation based on committee decisions, Toronto democratically permits those attending to select their own festivals out of an overflowing mixed bag. This year, apart from the main standbys –- nightly galas chosen by festival director Wayne Clarkson and a large international selection by David Overbey, a Paris-based American critic – the multiple events included retrospectives devoted to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Brazilian and New Zealand cinema and Berlin underground director Lothar Lambert, as well as a superb new package by Kay Armatage featuring a wide array of independently produced work. While Armatage rightly pointed to many of her own choices as films that take risks, her fellow programmer Overbey, operating from a somewhat different set of preferences, should also be credited with selecting both of the films that wound up locking horns with the prudish Ontario Censor Board – Lambert’s Berlin-Harlem 1974 and Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et la peau. Read more

Regrouping: Reflections on the Edinburgh Festival 1976

I originally planned to include this essay in one of my collections, but eventually changed my mind. It’s an embattled Sight and Sound piece that appeared in their Winter 1976/77 issue and was written towards the tail end of my two and a half years on the staff of that magazine, shortly before I returned voluntarily to the U.S. to accept a short-term teaching job replacing Manny Farber in a San Diego suburb.

In this piece, I castigated mainstream critics for sneering at both the psychoanalytical film theory being practiced at the time at Screen and experimental filmmaking (the focus of each of the two weeks at that year’s Edinburgh Film Festival), at the same time I castigated the organizers of (and many participants in) those two Edinburgh events for various other kinds of narrowness and conformity. What was consciously if paradoxically intended by me as some form of bridge-building between warring factions was in some ways also a kind of bridge-burning, locating myself in the precise middle of the same makeshift and disintegrating bridge I was supposedly trying to construct. In any case, after going to the trouble of retyping this very lengthy report, I found myself too alienated from most of its approach to reprint it in a collection of mine. Read more


From the May 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Backstage backstabbing and other forms of skulduggery on a daytime soap opera called The Sun Also Sets are the main bill of fare in this 1991 satirical farce, written by Robert Harling (The First Wives Club) and Andrew Bergman (Honeymoon in Vegas) and directed by Michael Hoffman. It’s full of bizarre twists designed to prove that the cast of such a soap opera would generate juicier material than anything a writer could come up with. As the star of both the soap and this movie, Sally Field can’t quite keep up with the hamming of the rest of the frenetic cast — Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr., Cathy Moriarty, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, and Teri Hatcher — but as the center of a hurricane, she does nicely enough. This movie certainly has its dopey moments, but if you’re feeling indulgent you’re likely to have a good time with it. 95 min. (JR)

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This appeared in the May 28, 2004 issue of Chicago Reader. Coffee and Cigarettes, incidentally, proved to be one of the surprise hits of Jarmusch’s career — not as commercially successful as the subsequent Broken Flowers (though I prefer it to that), but more popular than anticipated. The overhead shots of expresso cups in a more recent Jamusch feature, The Limits of Control, recall those in Coffee and Cigarettes — providing even more of a contrast with some of the weird, transgressive, and uncharacteristic camera angles in the more recent film, starting with the very first shot. (Note: the first photograph below is by Jean-Daniel Beley, who has requested a credit.)—J.R.

Coffee and Cigarettes

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, and Taylor Mead.

At first Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, made over a span of 17 years, looks like a departure for him. It consists of 11 entertaining, mainly comic short films in black and white that show people mainly sitting around in coffeehouses mainly drinking coffee, mainly smoking cigarettes, and mainly talking. Read more

Powell & Pressburger: English To the Core

This essay originally appeared in The Soho News on December 3, 1980. I’ve taken the liberty of revising it slightly.–J.R.

Michael Powell and
Powell & Preesburger
Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 20—Jan. 5

By and large, the Englishman Michael Powell directs, while his longtime Hungarian collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, writes screenplays. But when they started their own  English production company, The Archers, in 1942 — an institution that lasted almost 15 years — the credits of their joint efforts usually read, “Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”.

A testimony to the rare capacity for collaborative work that helps to distinguish English life and culture from American individualism, the team of P & P offers the working assumptions of auteur criticism a number of interesting challenges. On the one hand many aspects of Powell’s style, temperament and preoccupations can be traced through films that Pressburger didn’t work on. At the same time it would be too simplistic to pretend that one could separate individual contributions to their joint ventures with anything like total assurance.

Indeed, as Ian Christie reminds us in the introduction to his very helpful collection Powell, Pressburger and Others (British Film Institute, 1978), auteur criticism is more a method of reading films than a means of establishing how they were put together. Read more


A commissioned review for Sight and Sound, published in their November 2021 issue. –J.R.

Texas, 1980. A year after firing him, rodeo boss Howard Folk rehires ex-rodeo champ Mike Milo to retrieve his son Rafo from his abusive mother in Mexico City. In a Mexican village on the way back, Milo teaches Rafo how to ride horses and becomes enamoured with a friendly widow. 

Regardless of what he may have intended in White Hunter Black Heart, Clint Eastwood’s neo-Brechtian, autocritical lead performance—Eastwood playing Eastwood imitating John Huston—remains one of his more telling gestures. It evokes Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe exploring the darker sides of their own charisma as Henri Verdoux and Lorelei Lee, though Eastwood’s minimalism gives him far less to work with (or critique). He musters even less at age 91 as Cry Macho’s Mike Milo, ex-rodeo saddle tramp–a much older, lamer version of Robert Mitchum’s Jeff McCloud in The Lusty Men, mauled by horses, bulls, and drugs and booze to kill the pain of their having landed on top of him.

Kidnapping 13-year-old Rafo in Mexico City from his abusive Mexican mother for his former boss, Rafo’s wealthy father, and driving the boy back to Texas, Milo finds redemption by hanging out with friendlier Mexicans and animals in the boondocks. Read more

Juggernaut (1974 review)

This review originally appeared in the October 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. —J.R.


U.S.A., 1974                                              Director: Richard Lester

A disconcerting aspect of Richard Lester’s last feature, The Three Musketeers, was the evidence of a director trying to play several separate games — and please several separate audiences — at the same time, often leading to a diffusion of interest as the film briskly bounced from one tone or style to another. Juggernaut, clearly designed as nothing more or less than  yet another ship-disaster blockbuster, is a marked improvement in this respect, because however unoriginal its base ingredients, it hardly ever slackens its pace or diverts attention from its central premises. After a rather deceptive Petulia-like opening — the camera panning up the legs of a girl trombonist in the band celebrating the Britannic’s launching, followed by a string of typical Lester vignettes extracted from the surrounding fanfare (mainly “overheard” one-liners singled out on the soundtrack and disembodied somewhat from the visuals, giving them a certain resemblance to comic-strip bubbles) — the plot settles down to the cross-cutting techniques common to the genre, and the short gags (e.g., Read more

Time-Tasting Places in 3 Current Releases [THE POWER OF THE DOG, PASSING, NO TIME TO DIE]

There’s an uncommon number of period films

among the end-of-the-year releases and screeners,

a clear indication that we don’t want to spend more

time than we have to in the present moment. Who

could want to? But the problem with most period

films in this country that are insufficiently inflected

with the usual genre reflexes (the beloved ahistorical

escape hatches of noirs, Westerns, and even musicals)

is that most of us know too little about the past

to make it believable enough to feel inhabitable.

A good case in point is Jane Campion’s sluggish The

Power of the Dog, which tries to critique the Western

genre’s gender stereotypes but winds up stranded in the

present almost by default, in its dialogue as well as its

overall ambience. One simply can’t imagine the

offscreen space of a Montana in the 1920s (e.g., the

nearest town) because the imaginative investments are

too meagre, relating more to the visible landscapes than

to the societies and cultures that the characters

supposedly inhabit.

A far more persuasive view of the U.S. in the 1920s is

found in Rebecca Hall’s densely packed and even

claustrophobic Passing, which is visually and

psychologically far more invested in interiors than in

exteriors, and where the novel being adapted is

contemporaneous with the action being shown. Read more

A Moon For All Seasons [on MOONWALK ONE]

From the Village Voice (December 7, 1972). – J.R.

 In case you’re wondering why MOONWALK ONE,

 a film produced for NASA by Francis Thompson, Inc., 

 is currently showing at the Whitney Museum — rather

 than, say, on CBS or Channel 13, or at the Little Carnegie

 or Radio City Music Hall — I can offer a clue, if not a

 definitive explanation. Feeling as intimidated as the next

 layman about my ignorance concerning the moon shot, I

 thought of boning up on the subject before writing this

 review, and checked the neighborhood bookstores to see

 what was available. Apart from [Norman] Mailer’s book

 [Of a Fire on the Moon],what do you think I found in the

 three fairly well-stockedshops that I visited? Absolutely nothing.

 No scientific accounts, no popular treatments, no picture books,

 no personal reflections. The moon landing may have been,

 according to Nixon, the most important event in the history of

 mankind since the birth of Christ, but apparently a lot of people

 would rather read about the making of STAR TREK. (On the

 other hand, if Christ had been born three years ago, I doubt that

 many people would want to read about that, either.)

 If people are somewhat tired of the moonwalk, this is probably

 because, as with the Kennedy assassination and Nixon’s trip to

 China, they’ve already seen it. Read more

SMILE (1975 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 42, No. 501, October 1975. — J.R.


U.S.A., 1974Director: Michael Ritchie


Thirty-three high school girls arrive in Santa Rosa, California, to compete in the annual Young American Miss Pageant. While the girls rehearse their individual and collective performances and are interviewed by a panel of judges — including former pageant winner Brenda DiCarlo [Barbara Feldon] and car dealer “Big Bob” Freelander [Bruce Dern], who codirect the event – Brenda’s husband Andy [Nicholas Pryor], a heavy drinker who runs a trophy shop, derides the silliness of the pageant and Freelander’s son, “Little Bob” [Eric Shea], takes orders from his friends for Polaroid nude snapshots of the girls. Professional choreographer Tommy French [Michael Kidd] arrives to train the girls in dance routines, “Little Bob” his caught with his Polaroid while the girls are undressing, a nude snapshot is confiscated by the police, and he is taken to see a psychiatrist by his father. Andy complains to “big Bob” about his sexual problems with Brenda, and is reluctantly persuaded to attend the Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (for local men who reach the age of 35) that night, the second evening of the pageant. Read more


From the Chicago Reader (September 28, 1990). This is the first time I wrote at length about what is still my favorite Eastwood film; the second time was many years later, and that piece can be found here. — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy

With Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin.

I can’t say that I’ve been one of Clint Eastwood’s partisans. He was amusing as the Man With No Name — the mean, laconic hombre whose supercoolness suggested a hip Gary Cooper — in Sergio Leone’s mid-60s western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), and fun in Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara shortly afterward. But for me the joke of this ornery, poker-faced, string-bean dude was already running thin as early as Dirty Harry (1971), a right-wing remake of High Noon that amplified Eastwood’s relation to Cooper and marked the point at which he was moving commercially into high gear. (To my mind, the gothic excesses and male hysteria of The Beguiled, made the same year — a Civil War tale in which Eastwood was seduced and unmanned by a bevy of females in a girls’ school — were much more interesting.) Read more