Monthly Archives: March 2002

The Screening Process [NO SUCH THING & THE SLEEPY TIME GAL]

From the Chicago Reader (March 29, 2002). — J.R.

No Such Thing ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Hal Hartley

With Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke, Helen Mirren, Baltasar Kormakur, Paul Lazar, Annika Peterson, and Julie Christie

The Sleepy Time Gal *** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Christopher Munch

With Jacqueline Bisset, Martha Plimpton, Nick Stahl, Amy Madigan, Frankie R. Faison, Carmen Zapata, Peggy Gormley, and Seymour Cassel.

On March 29 two new American independent features of some importance will debut. Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing — not one of his best movies — will open at Pipers Alley, and Christopher Munch’s The Sleepy Time Gal, which I prefer, will premiere exclusively on the Sundance cable channel. Chances are, a lot more people will see the Munch film, though they’ll have to be subscribers to the Sundance Channel or have a friend who is.

Considering these two films together is a breach of reviewing etiquette: movies that premiere in theaters are supposed to be in a different category than movies that premiere on TV. I first saw the Munch film, about a woman dying of cancer, last fall on video at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and I remember looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

The rerelease of this 1968 masterpiece in 70-millimeter, planned by director Stanley Kubrick well before his death, was so indifferently promoted by Warner Brothers in New York last year that most people were unaware it had even happened. Now the film is belatedly hitting Chicago in a limited release, digitally restored and with remastered sound, providing an ideal opportunity to rediscover this great spectacle, adventure, and mind-blowing myth of origin as it was meant to be seen and heard, an experience no video, laser disc, or DVD setup, no matter how elaborate, could ever begin to approach. The film remains threatening to contemporary studio-think in many important ways: Its special effects are used so seamlessly as part of an overall artistic strategy that, as critic Annette Michelson has pointed out, they don’t even register as such, and thus are almost impossible to trivialize, a feat unmatched in movies. Dialogue plays a minimal role, yet the plot encompasses the history of mankind (a province of SF visionary Olaf Stapledon, who inspired Kubrick’s cowriter, Arthur C. Clarke). And, like its flagrantly underrated companion piece, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it meditates at length on the complex relationship between humanity and technology — not only the human qualities that we ascribe to machines but also the programming we knowingly or unknowingly submit to.… Read more »

Big Trouble

This intricate farce with a Miami setting was adapted from a Dave Barry novel and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, and it’s a letdown from the man who brought us Men in Black and Addams Family Values. Various crooks and kooks converge on a mysterious suitcase, and it’s symptomatic of what’s wrong (as well as sometimes right) with the picture that the peripheral gags are usually the funniest. There are certainly worse entertainments around, but count on familiar types and gags rather than originality. With Tim Allen (the nominal hero, and Barry’s apparent stand-in), Rene Russo, Stanley Tucci, Tom Sizemore, Johnny Knoxville, Dennis Farina, and Janeane Garofalo. Written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, this was held up for months after September 11 because it concludes with a hijacking. 85 min. (JR)… Read more »

Panic Room

This closed-space thriller pits a divorced mother (Jody Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart) against three ruthless burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam) in a huge brownstone. It’s set up as a stylish exercise in suspense but, barring one or two fancy camera movements, doesn’t succeed as either style or suspense; it’s mainly a matter of applied mechanics. Director David Fincher has a way of squelching some of his best opportunities by shifting to slow motion when real time is what’s needed, and the script by David Koepp is much too predictable in showing that Whitaker has a heart after alland has too little idea of what it or we should do with this belated discovery. I was never bored but only occasionally interested. With Ann Magnuson and Patrick Bauchau. 112 min. (JR)… Read more »

No Such Thing

A brooding, hard-drinking, murderous monster (Robert John Burke) who’s older than humanity, which he despises, and yearns for his own destruction is brought from the wilds of Iceland to New York City by a young woman (Sarah Polley) working for a crass TV producer (Helen Mirren); the only person who can destroy him, a mad scientist named Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur), is also being held in New York. Despite the heavy-handed media satire, apt but stridently expressed, Hal Hartley’s odd American-Icelandic coproduction (2001), on which Francis Ford Coppola served as an executive producer, has a witty, suggestive script and able performances. The probable reason it doesn’t work better is that its conceptiona kind of postmodernist spin on Frankenstein and King Kongseems more theatrical than cinematic, needing the kind of direct address that only a stage can provide. R, 103 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Project Greenlight Movie: Stolen Summer

The script of local writer-director Pete Jones, set in 1976 Chicago, was the winning entry in an on-line screenwriting competition sponsored by Miramax and HBO, who’ve hawked their operations further by making the film the subject of an HBO documentary series that has subsequently become part of the film’s title. Oblivious to this background when I saw the film, I was alert only to the usual efforts of Miramax to provide heartwarming Oscar fodder, ample in this tale of an earnest eight-year-old Catholic boy who befriends a determined seven-year-old Jewish boy dying of leukemia. There are many plot complications, most designed to get us to applaud our tolerance of religious differences. The eight-year-old’s father, a fireman, saves the life of the seven-year-old; then the seven-year-old’s father, a rabbi, gets his temple to award a med-school scholarship to the eight-year-old’s older brother; but the fireman is too proud to allow him to accept it, until . . . Jones and the actorsAidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Mike Weinberg, Adi Stein, and Brian Dennehy as a humorous priestdo a pretty good job of filling in the blanks. I say give them all Oscars, send them home, and leave the rest of us in peace.… Read more »

James Benning’s CALIFORNIA TRILOGY

From the March 15, 2002 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

California Trilogy

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Benning.

Experimental films usually attempt to rearrange our reflexes along with our expectations. James Benning’s 270-minute, 16-millimeter “California Trilogy” does that in part by obliging us to rethink the way we interpret “directed by” and “written by.” If “directing” refers to the placement of camera and microphone, then Benning — who works alone, recording image and sound by himself — directed these three films. And if “writing” means the choice and identification of subjects — including the way they’re represented in the credits — then Benning is also the trilogy’s writer.

Benning — who will attend the March 21 screening of his film at the Film Center — placed his name at the end of the final credits of El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi, the three 90-minute features comprising his trilogy. Each feature consists of 35 shots lasting 150 seconds apiece, followed by final credits also lasting 150 seconds. Thirty-six times two and a half minutes equals an hour and a half; multiply that by three and you get 270 minutes, or four and a half hours.… Read more »

Hot Blood

Hot-Blood

While not really a success, Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film about urban Gypsies, made between two of his masterpieces (Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life), has its share of interesting moments and vibrant energies, many of them tied to Ray’s abiding interest in the folkloric. In some respects this color ‘Scope feature comes closer than any of his other movies to the musical that Ray always dreamed of making: there’s a defiant dance on the street performed by Cornel Wilde, a dynamic whip dance between Wilde and Jane Russell that’s even more kinetic, and a Gypsy chorus that figures in other parts. Definitely one of the more intriguing and neglected of Ray’s second-degree efforts. 85 min. A 35-millimeter ‘Scope print will be shown. Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Sunday, March 17, 6:00, 312-846-2800.

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Showtime

A world-weary LA police detective (Robert De Niro) is ordered by his boss to costar with a frustrated actor-turned-patrolman (Eddie Murphy) in a reality-based TV show (with Rene Russo as the producer). This labored pseudosatire, directed by Tom Dey from a script by Keith Sharon, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Jorge Saralegui, is a textbook example of Hollywood having it both ways: the movie supposedly tweaks the media but wallows in all their worst excesses, and there’s so little urgency to the plot that one eventually feels not even the actors and filmmakers believe in what’s going on. 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

Harrison’s Flowers

Though made mainly by a French director (Elie Chouraqui) and crew, this 2000 English-language picture is another of those let’s get audiences to care about a distant conflict by planting a couple of Hollywood actors over there moviesthere in this case meaning Bosnia (with the Czech Republic as its stand-in). Andie MacDowell and David Strathairn do duty as the key American characters. He’s a Newsweek photojournalist who disappears; she’s the wife back home who comes to find him. Other Yanks abroad are played by Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, and Brendan Gleeson. This is marginally better than most movies of its ilk: the scenes of warfare are grimly convincing and the aims of the film are honorable. But it’s ultimately a losing battle when the audience’s lack of interest in eastern Europeans is assumed at the outset. The script comes from several hands, including Isabel Ellsen, who adapted her own book, and Chouraqui. 130 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Time Machine

This begins unpromisingly, in the Time After Time/Kate & Leopold puppy-love mode. The chronological setting of the H.G. Wells novel has been slightly updated (from 1895 to 1899), and practically everything else gets jettisoned; the city has shifted from London to New York, and there’s even an anachronistic reference to Albert Einstein, who was only 20 in 1899. But once the hero (Guy Pearce) takes off in his Victorian machine, things start to improve; some of the notions about the near future in John Logan’s script are witty, and by the time the movie gets to the far future, when the world’s split between Eloi and Morlocks, it starts to bear some passing resemblance to the original. (The end is more giddy free-form invention, packed with action and a fancy Jeremy Irons cameo as the uber-Morlock.) As old-fashioned movie fun, this isn’t bad, evenespecially?when it skirts the edge of silliness, and it’s better than the 1960 George Pal version. The director, Simon Wellswho happens to be the great-grandson of H.G. and is mainly known for his animationkeeps things hopping and manages some fine visual effects. Pop singer Samantha Mumba, who has both Irish and Zambian roots, plays the Eloi heroine, and Mumba has her own kid brother in tow.… Read more »

E.t. The Extra-terrestrial

A digitally altered version of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 feature that includes scenes shot for but not used in that release, enhances or alters several details (including a substitution of the word hippie for terrorist), and deletes a few others (such as the guns carried by policemen). Dave Kehr wrote that the original achieves the level of decent, middling DisneyOld Yeller, for example, rather than Snow White or Pinocchiowhich is to say that the childhood myths being promulgated here are rather basic and unadorned, without the baroque touches and psychological penetration Disney could muster at his best. The extraterrestrial is a big-eyed, phallic-headed ancient baby, discovered by a suburban boy as implicit emotional compensation for his parents’ divorce. Though marred by Spielberg’s usual carelessness with narrative points, the film alternates sweetness and sarcasm with enough rhetorical sophistication to be fairly irresistible. With Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, and Peter Coyote. 120 min. (JR)… Read more »

Clockstoppers

One of the most poetic fantasy concepts ever used in a film is the freezing of time in Rene Clair’s 1924 The Crazy Ray, also known as Paris qui dort. Here the gimmick is the speeding up of molecules, which comes to virtually the same thing in terms of setting up gags. But if director Jonathan Frakes (a Star Trek veteran) or any of the four credited writers of this teenage romp knew about the Clair movie, they sure didn’t find a way of applying any of its lessons here. This moves back and forth between slightly clever and dopey or silly, kept vaguely watchable by the charming leads (Jesse Bradford and Paula Garces) and never aspiring to rise above Disney matinee fare. As that sort of diversion, it’s pretty good. With French Stewart, Michael Biehn, Robin Thomas, and Julia Sweeney. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »

Adieu Bonaparte

An Egyptian-French coproduction (1984) by the inimitable Youssef Chahine, about Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. Michel Piccoli, Mohsen Mohieddin, and Patrice Chereau head the cast. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 114 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Way We Laughed

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, this 1998 feature by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, Lamerica) wears its art, as well as its heart, on its sleeveso much so that I feel guilty for not liking it more. It explores the idealized love of an illiterate Sicilian worker (Enrico Lo Verso, who has the eyes of a rain-soaked basset hound) for his literate kid brother (Francesco Giuffrida) after they immigrate to Turin, but that love is supposed to spell out the meaning of his entire life, with other details (work, parents, wife and kids) made to seem strictly incidental. The same sense of hyperbole extends to Amelio’s arty and gloomy evocations of the period (1958-’64), though the literary way this is split up into six sections, each focusing on a single day and bearing its own one-word title, is rather elegant. In Italian with subtitles. 128 minutes. (JR)… Read more »