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Column Fri Jan 22 2010

Extraordinary Measures, 35 Shots of Rum, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Extraordinary Measures

Less than a month ago, I named the ensemble drama Crossing Over as the single worst movie I saw in 2009. The overwrought film that dealt with the many aspects of immigration literally buried itself with do-gooder intention, terrible writing, and largely phoned-in performances, including what I would consider the single laziest and least-inspired work I've ever seen from Harrison Ford. But Ford's latest work, Extraordinary Measures, might be just a tiny bit worse, but not because Ford isn't trying. If anything, he's trying waaaaay too hard, as is the movie-of-the-week screenplay that lays the groundwork for one of the most overly sentimental films I've seen outside the Lifetime network in a very long time.

The film is actually the real-life story of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser, looking puffier than ever) and his wife Aileen (Keri Russell), who find out that two of their three children have a rare genetic disorder known as Pompe disease, which attacks the musculature and inevitably results in death before a child reaches the age of 10. In doing copious research on the disease, which has so few victims that very little research has been done and no pharmaceutical companies have bothered trying to find a medicinal treatment, Crowley keeps coming across the name of a University of Nebraska professor, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), whose research is fairly theoretical up to this point but doesn't have the funding to see his ideas through.

Crowley flies to Nebraska where he meets the rough, ragged, and short-tempered Stonehill, a man who is used to being a one-man show and not having to play with others in his lab; he doesn't even see patients, nor does he want to. But when Crowley promises to raise the necessary funds to cover the research costs, Stonehill agrees to partner with the ambitious and desperate man. Despite this being a true story, the character of Dr. Stonehill is a composite. If you didn't know that going in, the fact that Ford has chosen to play him as this ill-mannered curmudgeon might not bother you as much. But even if I hadn't known Stonehill was fictional, he feels 100 percent manufactured for this movie. It's apparently not enough that he is attempting to create a drug that stops the progression of this fatal illness; he must also have his hard heart melted by the love the Crowley parents have for their children. The sick-kid manipulation is in full effect in Extraordinary Measures.

Now I'll admit, the ways director Tom Vaughan (What Happens In Vegas) and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (The Water Horse), working from the Geeta Anand book "The Cure," come up with to make the very internal process of research a little more palatable for a visual medium get the job done. And when the film sticks to the science and the ways in which Crowley and Stonehill worked around the medical establishment to find this cure, Extraordinary Measures feels like it might have a shot at telling a compelling, lean story. Instead what we get are excuses to watch Ford yell and scream and throw things (I don't remember if he actually throws things, but in my head, I feel like he did). Ultimately Ford's antics overshadow any good that might have come out of this movie.

Things only get worse (for the audience, not the Crowleys) when Stonehill's research progresses to the point where they can take their findings to a pharmaceutical company, which wants to add Stonehill to one of their teams to come up with an actual medicine. Crowley immediately sees that the way the company is set up to actually have researchers working in competition rather than together as a unit will not result in finding a cure in time to save his children's lives, so he sets out to change he corporate structure (personified by the woefully underwritten Dr. Kent Webber, played by Jared Harris, who does little more than look befuddled and act as a human roadblock).

When you compare a movie like Extraordinary Measures to something like the far superior 1992 work Lorenzo's Oil, in which the parents themselves take a hand in the research that ultimately leads to a cure for their son's rare illness, you immediately see how one can made a beautiful film about living with illness and being inspired to act on behalf of your child when the world around refuses to do so. What we get, instead, is contrivance after frustrating contrivance. I'm certainly not against seeing Harrison Ford give us a taste of his acting chops every so often; I've certainly enjoyed him when he hasn't been in action or sci-fi mode, but with this film, I feel like he's trying to prove something about his abilities. And I don't think I need proof or a reminder that Ford knows how to play a jerk. Extraordinary Measures is an embarrassing exercise in pathos, one that sacrifices any real opportunity for drama by focusing too much on finding the Tin Man a heart and trying to make the audience cry. If it makes the filmmakers feel any better, I cried watching this movie, but it's because I was in excruciating pain.

To read my interview with Extraordinary Measures star Harrison Ford, go to Ain't It Cool News.

35 Shots of Rum

The latest work from French master director Claire Denis is a difficult film to encapsulate in a traditional review, because the means Denis uses to introduce us to her various characters is so casual and matter-of-fact, you feel you're being dropped into their lives on a string for a few days and then withdrawn just as suddenly. These brief moments we get to spend with Paris Metro train driver Lionel (Alex Descas) and his college-age daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) are not the most important in their lives, but they do mark slight turning points in their respective lives. None of the characters--who also include neighbors and co-workers--are waxing poetic about life and/or love. And aside from one brief moment of tragedy, nothing much happens in this film to disturb the gentle balance of things in anybody's life.

Yet, 35 Shots of Rum is as fascinating as any film I've seen recently simply because this small crew of mostly black characters seem like genuinely good people who you would be lucky to meet in your own life. It's easy to imagine being friends with Lionel or developing a crush on Josephine. We spot hints that some of the supporting characters might have deeper feelings about the leads that go largely unexplored, but that's like life--not every emotional event needs to be put into words and projected into the world. Very often, people keep such feelings inside.

I was especially impressed with Denis' use of silence (or more specifically, no dialogue). There are scenes of the father and daughter sharing a perfectly ordinary evening at home eating dinner, but they don't speak. There's no tension; they just don't feel the need to chatter after a tough day of working or studying. An evening when a few characters decide to go to a concert turns into a rainy night where they must hide out in a bar waiting for a tow truck, and end up having a much more interesting time than they would have at the show. I realize 35 Shots of Rum is a tough sell on a good day, even for the most open-minded moviegoer, but this complicated but absolutely authentic father-daughter relationship strikes all the right chords, managing to make you feel pleased and a little sad for the day when Josephine finally shows more than a passing interest in men and is taken away from her father once and for all. The film isn't just about family or interactions or work or Paris; it's about life and how these and other moments weave a delicate inter-connective tissue among them. It's not for everyone, but if you don't mind paying close attention to behavior and less to talking, you'll probably get a lot out of 35 Shots of Rum, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk

I don't usually get the chance to review IMAX shorts, but for some reason the timing of a recent screening of Grand Canyon Adventure worked out, and I said to myself, "Hey, self. Why don't you go check this one out?" I wish I'd looked a little closer at the title or the press notes before I head out to Navy Pier in the frigidity to see this, because then I would be probably guessed correctly that I was about to be lectured by a hippie for 45 minutes...in truly awe-inspiring 3-D. Did I mention the movie features a score and songs by the Dave Matthews Band? Yeah, I really wish I'd read those fucking press notes.

I'll admit, I rarely take the time to see shorter IMAX works, even ones in 3-D. It's a combination of a slightly inconvenient location and the elevated cost that has kept me at bay, but the ones I've seen, I tend to like, which made me think an IMAX movie shot in the Grand Canyon would be visually mind blowing, which it is. But the combination of anthropologist Wade Davis', river advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (and their respective daughters), as well as the noble narration by Robert Redford and the whiny strains of Dave Matthews just ate chunks out of my soul. And, yes, I feel guilty as hell for saying that because I believe the Colorado River needs to be protected (the depletion statistics are shocking beyond words) and their cause is an admirable one. But Grand Canyon Adventure is a talky, self-important bore, punctuated by river rapids footage that felt so real, I almost puked. Now that's why you go to a 3-D IMAX movie, dammit! But those moments of coolness are few and far between, as we get shot after shot of these four adventurers--along with their guide, Havasupai tribe member Shana (the first Native American to become a National Park Ranger), and her daughter, the only two interesting people on this journey--staring out over the canyons and down river.

I can think of 50 better ways to tell this story or any story about the Grand Canyon that would be more effective than Grand Canyon Adventure, and most of those ideas would not feature these self-righteous boners. If you wanted to scare youngsters (and make no mistake, this movie is aimed at a younger crowd) into caring about water conservation, make it clear that water will one day be more valuable to this planet's survival than oil or any other natural resource. Hell, I learned that from The Quantum of Solace, and it made more of an impact on me. Don't show me acres of crops doing irrigation the wrong way. That image gave me flashbacks to schools the teachers used to force us to watch in junior high on agriculture, and its impact on Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz........

All of that said, there's no denying that the few quieter moments when the filmmakers don't inundate us with Message, there is something truly beautiful and exhilarating to behold. Aerial shots traveling down the mouth of the Grand Canyon are extraordinary, and the white water sequences are a blast. But anyone who wants to get into nature filmmaking for IMAX or any other format should consider Grand Canyon Adventure a checklist on how to make your movie as ham-fisted an ordeal for the viewer as humanly possible. I was in an practically empty IMAX theater to see this movie, and I still found myself rolling my eyes for an audience of no one but me. I couldn't help myself. Flagrant attempts at uplifting cinema give me a involuntary twitch in my optic nerve. Feel free to save your money and time.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

When I sat down to watch this account of the life and career of legendary civil rights and defense attorney William Kunstler, I wasn't aware of who the filmmakers were, a fact that usually isn't as vital to a viewer as it is in this case. For Chicagoans, Kunstler is best known as one of the defense lawyers for the Chicago 7 in 1970, and with his clients and fellow attorneys he was tossed in jail for contempt of court after he refused to listen to pretty much everything the judge had to say after Black Panther party founder/chairman Bobby Seale was bound and gagged in the courtroom. He went on to defend the undefendable, and as a result found a way to get just about everyone to hate him. He didn't trust the government (with good reason), he thought all white people were racists, and he never missed an opportunity to buck the system. He defended a flag burner in front of the Supreme Court (and won), defended mob kingpin John Gotti, cop shooters, and even Leona Helmsley. And I'm sure a very strong documentary could have been culled together from Kunstler's life, which is practically its own highlights reel.

But Disturbing the Universe is made special because of who its filmmakers are--Kunstler's daughters from his second marriage, Emily and Sarah, who are given the kind of access that an impartial observer simply would not have gotten even with cooperating interview subjects and countless, unrestricted research. And while it would have been easy to simply cull together a few facts about each of Kunstler's dozens of best-known cases and clients--a defendant in the Central Park Jogger "wilding" case, a conspirator in the first World Trade Center bombing, the draft-record-burning religious leaders of the Catonsville Nine, the prisoners who took over Attica Prison (for whom Kunstler was a spokesperson during the ordeal), Native Americans who held off a military assault at Wounded Knee Reservation--this film allows us the opportunity of peaking into the private life of this husband and father, who, on more than one occasion, put his family at risk for what he believed to be the greater good.

The Kunstler sisters keep their personal commentary to a minimum, but I think what the feelings and remembrances they contribute are worthy and make the film and its subject more accessible. So often in a film about noted historical figures, the families are reduced to footnote status in the shadow of the subject's accomplishments. In Disturbing the Universe, the family members (including Kunstler's first wife and daughter) are as much a part of the man's life as any of his great accomplishments. Of course, first-hand knowledge of your subject also means the filmmakers are far more aware of their father's shortcomings, including his love of the spotlight no matter how hated his high-profile clients may be, and the very real possibility that he may have been slightly unbalanced later in life. This film is not simply a biographical portrait; it's the story of a man, his wife, and their daughters seen through the filter of some of the greatest historical moments of the late 20th century. I can't think of a better way to personalize history and make it infinitely more interesting than a textbook might.

The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center . Directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler will be present for audience discussion after the 7:45pm screenings on Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23.

 
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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