Monthly Archives: October 2001

Domestic Disturbance

It’s usually a pleasure to watch John Travolta (not counting his recent act of piety toward L. Ron Hubbard in Battlefield Earth), even when he’s miscast. Which he might be in this fairly conventional thriller, playing a divorced boat builder who takes his 12-year-old son’s side when the boy witnesses his stepfather committing a murder and no one else will believe him. It’s predictable stuff, though with a nice old-fashioned edge: when a villain supposedly gets killed, he comes back to life only once. With Vince Vaughn, Teri Polo, Matt O’Leary, and Steve Buscemi; Harold Becker directed from a screenplay by Lewis Colick. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »

Enigma

As a longtime fan of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which begins with British code breakers during World War II, I’m a sucker for the romantic and paranoid atmosphere of this thriller on the same subject, adapted by Tom Stoppard from the novel by Robert Harris. Production designer John Beard has a field day, his period re-creations so rich you can taste them, and the fine cast includes Dougray Scott (who suggests a young James Mason), Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, and Saffron Burrows (though she’s chiefly used as a glamorous icon). The film has other old-fashioned virtues as well: director Michael Apted’s intelligent and creative use of Hitchcock (the romantic obsession of Vertigo, some of the mechanics of the early English thrillers) is in a different class from Brian De Palma’s literal applications. The two main producers make an interesting team—Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger, who also turns up as an extra in one of the flashbacks. In ‘Scope; 117 min.… Read more »

Waking Life

Richard Linklater’s exciting and innovative feature (2001) was shot on digital video, then transformed into a new kind of animation that works wonders with the subtleties of body language and creates hallucinatory effects with palpitating backgrounds. There isn’t much of a story in any ordinary sense: a young college graduate walks around Austin, Texas, trying to decide if he’s dreaming or awake. In a way the movie rethinks and replays most of Linklater’s previous features: the overall narrative drift through Austin recalls Slacker; the hero is Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are discovered in bed, continuing a conversation they started in Before Sunrise; and Linklater himself puts in a couple of appearances. You might be frustrated if you’re looking for plot rather than movement, action rather than pulsing vibration, but I had a ball. 97 min. (JR)… Read more »

Good Vibrations (WAKING LIFE)

From the Chicago Reader (October 26, 2001). — J.R.

Waking Life

****

Directed and written by Richard Linklater.

The cinema is an antiuniverse where reality is born out of a sum of unrealities. –Jean Epstein

I must have come across this statement by Epstein, a French theorist and filmmaker (1897-1953), in the late 60s or early 70s, but I no longer remember where. I’ve scanned his writings on several occasions since, but I haven’t found the quote. Sometimes I wonder if I read or heard about it in a dream — making it one of the unrealities Epstein is referring to.

Wherever the quote comes from, it applies beautifully to the animated feature by Richard Linklater that premiered at Sundance early this year and is currently playing at the Music Box. The movie is a string of paradoxes and reflections about what’s real and what’s not, about when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake, and the unusual way it’s put together seems calculated to complicate all of the issues it raises rather than resolve any of them. Over 25 days Linklater, one of his coproducers, and a sound person shot a first version of everything we see in this movie with two relatively low-tech digital video cameras in and around Austin and in San Antonio and New York — basically taping a lot of people talking and walking, as well as listening and sitting.… Read more »

Life and Debt

Stephanie Black’s eye-opening documentary focuses on how the International Monetary Fund has devastated Jamaica’s agriculture and industry, but it also powerfully illustrates what globalization has been doing to underdeveloped countries around the world. An ideal companion to No Logo, Naomi Klein’s bible of the antiglobalization movement, the film shows in depressing detail how Jamaica’s independence from British rule in the early 60s only ripened it for new kinds of exploitation, to the point where today it can no longer afford to use, much less develop, its own resources (unless one counts the tourist trade, which is shown in sarcastic counterpoint to the high interest rates crippling the local economy). The narration, derived by Jamaica Kincaid from her 1988 book A Small Place and read by Belinda Becker, alternates with interviewees ranging from former prime minister Michael Manley to IMF deputy director Stanley Fischer; under it all one hears a generous sampling of Jamaican music from Belafonte to Marley to Buju Banton and Anthony B. 86 min. Music Box, Friday through Thursday, October 26 through November 1. … Read more »

Thirteen Ghosts

Mercifully short by today’s standards, but at 91 minutes still a tad longer than William Castle’s more comic 1960 original, this pile-driving and pounding ghost thriller from Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis’s Dark Castle Entertainment, which also remade Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, has to its credit Tony Shalhoubplaying, as he usually does, someone with a recognizable resemblance to a human being. That sets him apart from the rest of the castand from the spiffy glass-house set by production designer Sean Hargreaves that’s full of mad-scientist machinery. This house is not a house. It is a machine, says one character, and the same can be said of the moviewhich offers so much frenetic fast cutting to so little purpose that it becomes an ordeal. The others in the cast who are supposed to be human include Embeth Davidtz, Matthew Lillard (who bleeds a lot), Shannon Elizabeth, Rah Digga, and F. Murray Abraham, who does his standard mad-scientist cackle. Neal Marshall Stevens and Richard D’Ovido adapted Robb White’s original script, and the directionor machine supervisionis by Steve Beck. (JR)… Read more »

Waking Life

Richard Linklater’s exciting and innovative feature was shot on digital video, then transformed into a new kind of animation that works wonders with the subtleties of body language and creates hallucinatory effects with palpitating backgrounds. There isn’t much of a story in any ordinary sense–just a lot of encounters and philosophical dialogues as a young college graduate walks around Austin, Texas, trying to decide if he’s dreaming or awake. In a way the movie rethinks and replays most of Linklater’s previous features in the fresh terms of this animation process: the overall narrative drift through Austin recalls Slacker; the hero is Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are discovered in bed, continuing a conversation they started in Before Sunrise; and Linklater himself puts in a couple of appearances. The writer-director worked on oil rigs before teaching himself film and filmmaking, and the inquiries here are basically those of an autodidact lost in college bull sessions. (Fellow independent Caveh Zahedi is around to hold forth on the film theory of Andre Bazin and its religious implications.) You might be frustrated if you’re looking for plot rather than movement, action rather than pulsing vibration, but I had a ball.… Read more »

Scared New World

Michael Gilio’s Kwik Stop–showing again this week at the Chicago International Film Festival–is a quirky no-budget American independent feature made by a Chicago actor. It’s framed by emblematic yet enigmatic shots, beginning with a high-angle shot of a sloppily overflowing Slushee machine and ending with a low-angle shot of a mobile representing the solar system that hovers over an infant’s cradle. In between these significant yet cryptic bookends, what transpires in terms of genre, tone, style, character, and narrative focus is shifting and ambiguous–just as much of the world around me these days seems to be. I’m not sure whether a shifting, ambiguous world is a good or a bad thing, and I’m equally stumped as to whether Kwik Stop is a good or a bad movie. I’m inclined to say good because I like to be stumped by movies, though I know plenty of people feel otherwise. The film has no distributor, and things being what they are, it may never get one–so Wednesday night at Landmark’s Century Centre may be your last chance to see it.

Not knowing where the world is going can create contradictory impulses: a desire for terra firma, which usually means a retreat to familiar standbys, or an appetite for exploration and adventure.… Read more »

The Reckless Moment

Here’s a timely opportunity to see the noir melodrama recently remade as The Deep End; to my mind this 1949 feature directed by Max Ophuls is a much better film in almost every respect. As Dave Kehr once wrote in these pages, “It’s one of the director’s most perverse stories of doomed love, with Joan Bennett as a bored middle-class housewife…and James Mason as an engagingly exotic Irishman who attempts to blackmail her. Naturally, they feel a certain attraction.” Adapted by Henry Garson and R.W. Soderborg from Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, this 82-minute thriller gets wonderful performances from both leads and makes interesting use of certain elements–such as a black maid and a Christmas setting–discarded in the remake. A 35-millimeter print will be shown, and WBEZ film critic Jonathan Miller will lecture at the Tuesday screening. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday, October 5, 8:00, and Tuesday, October 9, 6:00, 312-846-2800.… Read more »

The Great Garrick

From the Chicago Reader (October 5, 2001). — J.R.

Conceivably the most neglected of James Whale’s better works, this hilarious period farce (1937, 91 min.) imagines a hoax perpetrated by the Comedie Francaise in order to teach the famous and conceited English actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) “a lesson in acting.” The only problem is, Garrick is in on the gag from the beginning, leading to a variety of comic complications at a country inn. Boisterous and high-spirited, this sport of a movie helps to justify critic Tom Milne’s claims that Whale was a kind of premodernist Jean-Luc Godard; rarely have the art and pleasure of acting, demonstrated here in countless varieties of ham, been demonstrated with as much self-reflexive energy (with the possible exception of Sylvia Scarlett), and Whale’s enjoyable cast (including Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Melville Cooper, Lionel Atwill, Lana Turner, Marie Wilson, Albert Dekker, Fritz Leiber, and the wonderfully manic Luis Alberni) takes full advantage of the opportunity. Ernest Haller’s cinematography creates an intriguing period film noir atmosphere, and Ernest Vajda’s script gives the players all the chances to cut up that they need. On the same program, Bob Clampett’s Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Cookin’, Doc?Read more »

Joy Ride

John Dahl’s undeserved reputation as a neonoir master should be revised. He simply has a slick way of handling nastiness and crueltythough at some point in this endless thriller the suspense turns into an extremely unpleasant ordeal that he doesn’t know when to stop. Another of those school-break movies, this shows what happens when a couple of brothers (Steve Zahn and Paul Walker) on the road play a CB prank on a horny truckera virtually unseen character throughoutgetting him so mean and ornery that the payback seems to go on for years. The movie entertains fantasies about mangling Leelee Sobieskiwho belatedly joins the cross-country trekthat aren’t much fun either. Written by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

K-pax

A man who claims to be from a remote planet named K-Pax (Kevin Spacey) winds up in a New York psychiatric hospital, where he’s treated by a dedicated if troubled shrink (Jeff Bridges), and the two do interesting things for each other. As storytelling this held me throughout, integrating elements of both SF and psychological thrillers without succumbing to the strictures of either or quelling their sometimes contradictory impulses. On the other hand, this is the kind of story that starts coming apart as soon as you think about it afterward (though it has a little more staying power as a poetic idea, even if you hate it). Both actors are so good that one might easily overlook the Pollyannaish subplot, in which the purported alien brings enlightenment to his hospital warda seductive development only if you’re willing to generalize about psychiatric patients. Director Iain Softley previously turned out a good cyberthriller (Hackers) and then translated late Henry James into soft-core porn (The Wings of the Dove); his work here is equally stylish if superficial. Screenwriter Charles Leavitt adapted a novel by Gene Brewer; with Mary McCormack and Alfre Woodard. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Wide Blue Road

With all due respect to the late Pauline Kael, who celebrated Gillo Pontecorvo as a political filmmaker (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!), and to Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman, who have now resurrected as well as restored the first of his five features, I’m not convinced that he’s any sort of master. He may not deserve the scorn Jacques Rivette heaped on his second feature, Kapo (similar to the contempt of some American cinephiles for Stanley Kramer), but this 1957 color feature about a struggling fisherman off the Dalmatian coast who snares his fish with illegal explosives doesn’t show much subtlety or nuance. It does, however, have the Italian-born Yves Montand, who keeps the movie alive when several other elementsincluding a miscast Alida Valli as his wife and the often clunky script and directionperiodically threaten to kill it. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »

Life And Debt

Stephanie Black’s eye-opening 2001 documentary focuses on how the International Monetary Fund has devastated Jamaica’s agriculture and industry, but it also powerfully illustrates what globalization has been doing to underdeveloped countries around the world. An ideal companion to No Logo, Naomi Klein’s bible of the antiglobalization movement, the film shows in depressing detail how Jamaica’s independence from British rule in the early 60s only ripened it for new kinds of exploitation. The narration, adapted by Jamaica Kincaid from her 1988 book A Small Place and read by Belinda Becker, alternates with interviewees ranging from former prime minister Michael Manley to IMF deputy director Stanley Fischer; we also get a generous sampling of Jamaican music. 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Picturing A Metropolis: Nyc Unveiled

This sounds like an interesting program: 96 minutes of rarely seen short films shot in New York, from the silent era and later, by filmmakers ranging from Billy Bitzer, Edwin S. Porter, and Robert Flaherty to Jay Leyda, Lewis Jacobs, and Rudy Burckhardt. (JR)… Read more »