From the Chicago Reader, April 21, 1995. It’s lamentable that, although Black Girl is now available on DVD from New Yorker, the color sequence in it appears in black and white. (In fact, I only saw this sequence in color for the first time when I showed this film in a course on world cinema of the 60s that I taught in Chicago in 2008.) To see this sequence in color, order the film’s BFI edition from Amazon UK. — J.R.
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed and written by Ousmane Sembène
With Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Momar Nar Sene, Anne-Marie Jelinck, Robert Fontaine, Ibrahima Boy, and the voices of Toto Bissainthe, Robert Marcy, and Sophie Leclerc.
If you trace African film back to its first fiction feature, it is only 30 years old. Yet far from being underdeveloped, it begins on a more sophisticated level than any other cinema in the world. By some accounts Ousmane Sembène’s hour-long Black Girl was made in 1965, by others 1966, a characteristic ambiguity when it comes to African movies. Do you date them according to when they were made or when they were first shown? And given the scant and largely unreliable print sources that we have to check, how can we be sure about either date?… Read more »
Though it loses some of its steam before the end, this is an uncommonly affecting and unhackneyed story about a friendship between two alienated 11-year-old boys from neighboring middle-class, single-parent homes, one of whom has AIDS. Working from an original script by Robert Kuhn that mixes comedy and tragedy as if they were kissing cousins, actor Peter Horton makes an impressive directorial debut. Though the story is provisionally about intolerance of and ignorance about AIDS, it focuses on the boys’ friendship and adventures–including a Huckleberry Finn-like escape down the river in search of the cure of the title–and the actors do an exceptional job with it, especially Brad Renfro (The Client) and Annabella Sciorra. With Joseph Mazzello, Diana Scarwid, and, in a part that seems to have been severely trimmed, Bruce Davison. Ford City, Norridge, Gardens, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, Water Tower. … Read more »
Apart from its plot structure, there are scarcely any traces left of the Henry Hathaway noir thriller scripted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer that this supposedly reprises; but even though it proceeds in fits and starts, it’s still a pretty good crime thriller on its own terms. Director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female), a onetime French New Wave producer who’s done a better job of adapting to the Hollywood mainstream than any of his former colleagues, does an able job with Richard Price’s script about an ex-con (David Caruso) who gets pulled back into crime by both the mob and the police, the latter forcing him to become a police spy. The movie never quite discovers a style of its own, but it manages to tell a pretty good story about contemporary corruption inside the law as well as outside, and even if Nicolas Cage’s edgy portrait of a psycho criminal can’t hold a candle to Richard Widmark’s in the original, the secondary castincluding Samuel L. Jackson, Stanley Tucci, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames, Helen Hunt, and Kathryn Erbedoes a nice job of filling out the canvas. (JR)… Read more »
A sensationalist grunge festival spiked with dollops of poetry on the sound track, provisionally derived (by Bryan Goluboff) from Jim Carroll’s autobiographical book of the same title. Leonardo DiCaprio does an impressive job as the hero-narrator, but the parade of horrors offered by the script and Scott Kalvert’s direction sheds a lot more heat than light on the problems of a Catholic teenager in New York City who plays basketball, becomes hooked on drugs, and enters a life of crime and degradation. Significantly, the movie keeps the hero’s reformation offscreen as well as unexplained; it’s more interested in shock effects than in candor or elucidation. With Bruno Kirby, Lorraine Bracco, Ernie Hudson, Patrick McGaw, James Madio, and Mark Wahlberg (1995, 102 min.). (JR)… Read more »
Though it loses some of its steam before the end, this is an uncommonly affecting and unhackneyed story about a friendship between two alienated 11-year-old boys from neighboring middle-class, single-parent homes, one of whom has AIDS. Working from an original script by Robert Kuhn that mixes comedy and tragedy as if they were kissing cousins, actor Peter Horton makes an impressive directorial debut. Though the story is provisionally about intolerance of and ignorance about AIDS, it focuses on the boys’ friendship and adventuresincluding a Huckleberry Finn-like escape down a river in search of the cure of the titleand the actors do an exceptional job with it, especially Brad Renfro (The Client) and Annabella Sciorra. With Joseph Mazzello, Diana Scarwid, and, in a part that seems to have been severely trimmed, Bruce Davison. (JR)… Read more »
Commissioned and published for the Voyager laserdisc of F for Fake in 1995. My thanks to Marcio Sattin in São Paulo for giving me a printout of this untitled “lost” essay in Spring 2015, which I’ve slightly re-edited.-– J.R.
Orson Welles’ two major documentary forays stand roughly at opposite ends of his film career: It’s All True (1942) and F for Fake (1973), and together the two projects’ very titles express a dialectical relationship to the documentary. Both belong to a form of documentary known as the essay film that interested Welles throughout his career. Notwithstanding some Wellesian hyperbole, it seems safe to say that both titles accurately convey the overall essence of their respectiive projects: Most of the never-completed It’s All True, as Welles conceived and shot it, was true; most of F for Fake is fake -– a fake documentary about fakery, with particular attention devoted to art forger Elmyr de Hory, to author Clifford Irving, and to Welles himself. As Welles put it in a 1983 interview, “In F for Fake I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it . . . because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing.… Read more »
This 94-minute Imax documentary by Stephen Low (1991) has the same nonaesthetic features of other films in this format–most notably a TV-like lack of precise composition necessitated by the curved screen–but its subject, the risky Canadian-American-Russian expedition to pick over the wreckage of the Titanic, has an inherent fascination and haunted poetry that triumphs over the sometimes hokey, often trumped-up presentation; at times the film becomes a kind of undersea 2001. Oddly, the crew participants are encouraged to relate to the camera like actors and some of the camera angles suggest those of a fiction film (significantly, storyboards are alluded to in the final credits). But a judicious combination of period photographs (some genuine, some composites), a contemporary interview with one of the few living survivors, and views of the ship’s remnants two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface give this the curious, paradoxical feel of a scientific ghost film. There will be a 15-minute intermission. Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street at Lake Shore Drive, Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15, 6:30 and 8:30; Sunday, April 16, 6:30; and Thursday, April 20, 6:30 and 8:30; 684-1414. … Read more »
My 1995 liner notes for the Voyager/Criterion laserdisc of Orson Welles’ Othello in its original, untampered-with form, which is unfortunately now unavailable commercially on DVD or VHS. The reason for this is stated accurately in a post at IMDB: “As Welles’ daughter [Beatrice] owns the rights to Othello, that’s the 1992 `restored’ version which she also helped on, it is the only one currently available for purchase in the U.S. (as she receives no money for the 1995 CR laserdisc, she forced Criterion to stop making it.)” A less polite way of putting it would be to say that she’s effectively made her father’s version of the film (as well as, more indirectly, his final feature, Filming Othello), illegal, so that she can make more money on her own version. (Postscript, 12 hours later: Sean Gandert has alerted me to an item posted on Wellesnet last August which suggests that Beatrice Welles has in fact sold the rights of the film to the Dax Foundation.) – J.R.
There are two ways of viewing the film career of Orson Welles which have tended, by and large, to be mutually exclusive. One can regard it as a fascinating but largely frustrating attempt to make mainstream Hollywood movies — an effort that yielded one indisputable triumph (Citizen Kane) and five other brilliant if uneven studio releases (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and Touch of Evil) hampered by dealings with studio management.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 7, 1995). — J.R.
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Written by Tedi Sarafian
With Lori Petty, Malcolm McDowell, Naomi Watts, Ice-T, Don Harvey, Reg E. Cathey, Scott Coffey, Jeff Kober, Iggy Pop, and Ann Cusack.
I wasn’t exactly encouraged by the opening sequences of Tank Girl, a spin-off of a British comic book with a postapocalyptic setting. The movie starts with a kind of music-video visual dribble, set to the pounding strains of Devo’s “Girl U Want,” a song whose chanting refrain (“She’s just a girl — the girl you want”) seems to promise the kind of machocentric SF soft-core porn dished out by Barbarella 27 years ago. I’d been prepared for a steady influx of contemporary rock and rap and the concomitant collapse of any believable vision of the future, but this particular anthem seemed designed to cater only to guys. My expectations were raised, however, by the first appearance of Lori Petty, in the title role of Rebecca Buck — a hard-nosed renegade punk who clearly wouldn’t let herself be palmed off as a bimbo. But Kesslee, the movie’s arch-villain (played by the original movie punk, Malcolm McDowell), brought me back to the facetious S and M rhetoric of the glib and cutesy Barbarella.… Read more »
People who have Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice encoded in their nervous systems and are looking for restimulation may be amused by this formulaic sass machine and police procedural, but I was writhing in my seat. Martin Lawrence and Will Smith play undercover Miami buddy cops who briefly exchange identities while holding a witness (Tea Leoni) in a drug murder under wraps, and the banter is so heavy that the movie seems to be doing all your laughing for you. The cops never seem to know what they’re doing, but then neither do the filmmakers, though I can’t imagine that casual audiences will care since there are plenty of big explosions at the end to reward them. Directed by Michael Bay from a script by several hacks; with Tcheky Karyo and Theresa Randle. (JR)… Read more »
An excellent one-hour documentary (1987) that charts the pivotal year in the career of Elvis Presley when he went from being an obscure rockabilly/blues performer who drove a truck to a national icon with several gold records to his credit. Armed with fascinating archival footage and rare still photographs, Alan and Susan Raymond, who originally made this for cable, do a persuasive job of suggesting that, contrary to most versions of the all-American success myth, Elvis’s artistic freedom and the authenticity of his relationship with his audience dwindled as he became more and more rich and famous. Indeed, the shape and direction of his career as a whole can be discerned during his first year as a star–which went from southern dances to singing “Hound Dog” in a tux to a basset hound in a top hat on Steve Allen’s TV show. On the same program, the Raymonds’ documentary Sweet Home Chicago (1993) about the history of Chess Records, including footage of and interviews with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and other blues performers. To be shown on video. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8, 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, April 9, 5:30 and 7:45, 281-4114… Read more »
A slight but charming parable with metaphysical undertones, this is a romantic comedy about a 21-year-old (Johnny Depp) who believes himself to be Don Juan. After threatening suicide, he’s arrested and turned over to a psychiatric clinic, where a doctor on the verge of retirement (Marlon Brando) takes over his case, falls under the spell of the youth’s imaginary past, and finds his own romantic feelings for his wife (Faye Dunaway) rejuvenated. This first feature by former novelist and psychologist Jeremy Leven has a fairly rudimentary mise en scene, but the actors take over the proceedings with aplomb, and Brando and Dunaway have the grace to turn much of the show over to Depp, who carries the burden with ease. Coproduced by Francis Ford Coppola. With Rachel Ticotin, Bob Dishy, Talisa Soto, Marita Geraghty, and Richard Sarafian. Ford City, Norridge, Old Orchard, Webster Place, Golf Glen, Lincoln Village, North Riverside, Water Tower.… Read more »
Monte Hellman’s remarkably hip avant-garde western (1967) was sold straight to television in the U.S.; while overseas it became a standard reference point for cinephiles, here, alas, it remains a cultist legend that’s never received the attention it deserves. A provocative and often witty head scratcher, it stars Jack Nicholson (who also produced) as a hired gun and Warren Oates, both at their near best, along with Will Hutchins and Millie Perkins. With its existentialist approach to treks through the wilderness, this is one of the key forerunners of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. (JR)… Read more »
A lot of time is squandered in setting up this celebration of the English music hall by writer-director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song). The needlessly cluttered plot offers an obscure intrigue involving French smugglers, and there’s a mainly wasted Jerry Lewis. But once the film settles in Blackpool, where the putative hero (Oliver Platt), a failed comic, goes in search of new material as well as his childhood roots, English music hall comics (Freddie Davies, George Carl, andespeciallyLee Evans) gradually take over the movie, and it gets better and better, eventually climaxing in a jaw-dropping finale. Passing compensations are offered by Lewis and Leslie Caron, and also on hand are Richard Griffiths and Oliver Reed; Peter Flannery collaborated on the screenplay. (JR)… Read more »
For many of its historical details, I found this James Ivory-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala account of Thomas Jefferson’s five-year stint as ambassador to France (1784-’89) a lot more absorbing and interesting than their usual brand of Classics Illustratedeven if the Gourmet-style consumerist spreads remain pretty much the same. But by the time they get around to articulating a story, the inhibitions imposed by their good taste begin to seem more like gutlessness, and what initially promises to be an exposure of American liberal doublethink about slavery winds up as a querulous wimp out on a subject that the underrated Mandingo is better equipped to deal with. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the accuracy of this portrait of Jefferson, but Nick Nolte does what he can to suggest unplumbed depths, and the other actorsincluding Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow, Thandie Newton, Seth Gilliam, Simon Callow, Nancy Marchand, Charlotte de Turckheim, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Michael Lonsdale, and James Earl Jonesvie with the varied decor in holding one’s respectful attention (1995). (JR)… Read more »