From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003); also reprinted in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. I’m delighted to report that Wichita became available on DVD, and in the correct CinemaScope format, in 2009. — J.R.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Daniel B. Ullman
With Joel McCrea, Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Walter Coy, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Jack Elam, and Mae Clarke.
One reason why Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) remains a major but neglected Hollywood filmmaker is that elusiveness is at the core of his art. A director of disquiet, absence, and unsettling nocturnal atmospheres whose characters tend to be mysteries to themselves as well as to us, he dwells in uncertainties and ambiguities even when he appears to be studiously following genre conventions. In other words, his brilliance isn’t often apparent because he tends to stay in the shadows. As with Carl Dreyer, it took me years to fully appreciate the textures of his work, but now I can’t get enough of his films.
A case in point is Wichita (1955), Tourneur’s first film in CinemaScope and possibly the most traditional of all his westerns, showing in LaSalle Bank’s classic film series this Saturday.
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Played with pizzazz by Jessica Alba (TV’s Dark Angel), 22-year-old Honey struggles to teach hip-hop and break dancing to the kids in her inner-city neighborhood in an energetic musical that’s like Flashdance with a social conscience, or Saturday Night Fever with an expanded one. It’s a hokey heart-warmer that works, not just because the dancing is great but because first-time director Bille Woodruff (a music-video veteran) and first-time writers Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson clearly believe in what they’re doing. The secondary cast, which includes 8 Mile’s Mekhi Phifer, Joy Bryant, and a raft of hip-hop stars doing cameo turns, brims with charisma. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »
An interesting companion piece to Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, this 2002 French feature is also set entirely inside a movie theater, though here it’s a Pigalle fleapit that shows heterosexual porn mainly to bisexual, transsexual, and transvestite men cruising for sex with straight men. Written and directed by Jacques Nolot (who has scripted and acted in films by Paul Vecchiali and Andre Techine), the story gradually homes in on the theater’s middle-aged cashier (Vittoria Scognamiglio), a wry 50-year-old writer who’s asymptomatic HIV positive (Nolot), and a young projectionist (Sebastien Viala) who attracts the other two. Too preoccupied with personality and emotion to qualify as porn, but still very much concerned with the kind of interaction that goes on in such a place, this is a touching if relatively specialized chamber piece. The French title, La Chatte a Deux Tetes, is a reference to Cocteau meaning literally The Two-Headed Pussy. In French with subtitles. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
A greeting card disguised as a historical drama about Jan Vermeer and his 17th-century Dutch milieu. Scarlett Johansson plays Grete, a 16-year-old domestic in the household of the dashing young painter (Colin Firth), who sublimates his feelings for her into his painting. The maid is lit like a Vermeer portrait even when she isn’t posing or mixing his paints, which reduces his art to photo-realism and undercuts the reverence accorded to him as a sacred visionary. The period detail is more vibrant than the minimal story (adapted by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier’s novel), which includes Grete’s romance with a butcher’s assistant. Tom Wilkinson plays Vermeer’s patron as a lascivious ogre. Peter Webber, a first-timer, directed. PG-13, 99 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jacques Tourneur’s first and best film in CinemaScope (1955) is also one of his strangest westerns, though the basic materialsfrom the Tex Ritter theme song to the Daniel B. Ullman script, in which Wyatt Earp (Joel McCrea) becomes the reluctant marshal of Wichitaare pretty standard, as is the secondary cast. What Tourneur brings to the story is both visual and metaphysical: distinctive compositions, sets, and interplay between background and foreground; shockingly abrupt and arbitrary violence from raucous cattlemen; an eerie sense of Earp as an angel of death who, like the villains he sets out to disarm, can’t act otherwise or escape his destiny; and an interesting commentary on capitalism whereby the hero upsets the town’s leaders by outlawing all firearms except his own, which is bad for business. With Vera Miles, Lloyd Bridges, Edgar Buchanan, Peter Graves, Walter Coy, Wallace Ford, Jack Elam, and other familiar faces. 81 min. (JR)… Read more »
A low-budget exploitation item (1973) about an escaped lunatic menacing a small New England town. Its main point of interest appears to be its secondary cast, which includes John Carradine, Mary Woronov, Walter Abel, and Candy Darling. Patrick O’Neal stars and Theodore Gershuny directed. 87 min. (JR)… Read more »
Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow play best friends who decide with some trepidation to attend their high school reunion. Despite the aggressive silliness of this enjoyable comedy, the emotional focus on the painful social experience of high school makes the film real and immediate, and the flavorsome dialogue in Robin Schiff’s script gives the leads a lot to work (as well as play) with. Directed fairly well by David Mirkin, though this movie really belongs to the actresses and screenwriter. With Janeane Garofalo. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (December 5, 2003). Criterion has released a Blu-Ray of this film. P.S. If you hit and load the second and third illustrations below, you can see them move slightly. — J.R.
I only recently caught up with Jaromil Jires’s overripe 1970 exercise in Prague School surrealism, now that it’s become available again, and I’m miffed that I had to wait so long. The 13-year-old title heroine, who’s just had her first period, traipses through a shifting landscape of sensuous, anticlerical, and vaguely medieval fantasy-horror enchantments that register more as a collection of dream adventures, spurred by guiltless and polysexual eroticism, than as a conventional narrative. Virtually every shot is a knockout — for comparable use of color, you’d have to turn to some of Vera Chytilova’s extravaganzas of the same period, such as Daisies and Fruit of Paradise. If you aren’t too anxious about decoding what all this means, you’re likely to be entranced. In Czech with subtitles; a 35-millimeter print will be shown. 77 min. Gene Siskel Film Center.
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Played with pizzazz by Jessica Alba (TV’s Dark Angel), 22-year-old Honey struggles to teach hip-hop and break dancing to the kids in her inner-city neighborhood in an energetic musical that’s like Flashdance with a social conscience, or Saturday Night Fever with an expanded one. It’s a hokey heart-warmer that works–not just because the dancing is great but because first-time director Bille Woodruff (a music-video veteran) and first-time writers Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson clearly believe in what they’re doing. The secondary cast, which includes 8 Mile’s Mekhi Phifer, Joy Bryant, and a raft of hip-hop stars doing cameo turns, brims with charisma. 95 min. Burnham Plaza, Century 12 and CineArts 6, Chatham 14, Crown Village 18, Ford City, Gardens 7-13, Golf Glen, Lawndale, Lincoln Village, Norridge, North Riverside, River East 21, 62nd & Western, Webster Place.… Read more »