Monthly Archives: March 2002

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


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


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

Black Russians

Kara Lynch’s sometimes thoughtful 117-minute video documentary about black people living in Russia takes on a fascinating subject, though it’s periodically handicapped by a diffuse focus (an overreliance on intercutting between sound bites of mainly unrelated black individuals) and incomplete research (my hopes of learning something substantial about the Russian careers of Paul Robeson and the lesser-known Wayland Ruddwhose Russian acting career srarted in Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consolerweren’t met). Lynch interviews and follows the shifting fortunes of several black or semiblack individuals from North America, Africa, and the Caribbean, and, not surprisingly, their experiences are extremely varied; some are students currently studying abroad and some (including an eloquent Russian poet) are the offspring of black and Russian parents who got together in the 30s. (In my preview copy, the names of all the interviewees were perversely occluded by a timer code, but I assume the general audience will be luckier.)The forms and expressions of Russian race prejudice are monitored with some sensitivity for nuance, and the archival footage, though sufficiently all-over-the-place to contribute to the cluttered effect, holds one’s interest throughout. (JR) Read more

California Trilogy

Three 90-minute experimental features by James Benning, each a sequence of 35 stationary landscape shots that last 150 seconds apiece and a 150-second cast list specifying the subject of each shot, the owner of the property involved, and its location. El Valley Centro (1999) concentrates on California’s Central Valley, Los (2001) on greater Los Angeles, and Sogobi on the California wilderness. It’s a lot to deal with in one four-and-a-half-hour block, and the cookie-cutter form leads to various anomalies and distortions when Benning identifies his cast. But his eye and ear are as sharp as ever, and as a multifaceted landscape portrait of California this has a lot to recommend it. (JR) Read more

Trembling Before G-d

Religion or ethnicity can seem cosmic to some people: I may laugh during The Godfather, Part II when the church organist at a baptism launches into Nino Rota’s theme music, but many other viewers would never bat an eye at this conceit. Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d explores the torment of devout Orthodox Jews who are homosexual and what their families and communities often do to them. But considering all the similarities between Islamic fundamentalism and Orthodox Judaismprohibitions about verbal and visual representation (exemplifed in both the film’s title and the way DuBowski blurs and darkens many people’s faces to protect their identities), certain kinds of wry humor and obligatory head covering, a taste for philosophical rumination, a shared misogyny and patriarchy, and a desert-climate sensualityI can’t see what prompts the film to limit its theme of sexual intolerance to one religion or ethnic group (or even one kind of sexual preference), apart from a certain unexamined tribalism of its own. That said, DuBowski focuses on religious faith as much as sexual preference, which may be the most interesting aspect of the film. In Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles. 84 min. (JR) Read more

Last Orders

English kitchen-sink realism isn’t ordinarily my cup of tea, but the way Australian writer-director-coproducer Fred Schepisi follows four friends across 40 years hooked me from the start. It’s a tale revolving around the delivery of a butcher’s ashes to Margate by three of his former pub mates (Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins) and his resentful son (Ray Winstone). Michael Caine plays the butcher in flashbacks, and it’s one of his strongest performances; no less affecting is Helen Mirren as his wife. Adapted from Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, this movie will probably mean the most to viewers old enough to know who Courtenay and Hemmings are and thus to ponder what age has done to their faces, though the actors found to play them and the others in their youth are uncannily persuasive. But you don’t have to know that Caine is staying in the same hospital where his real-life father (a fish porter) died to recognize that he feels this character down to his marrow (2001, 109 min.). (JR) Read more