by Marc Glassman.
Sleepwalking. William Maher, director; Zac Stanford, script. Starring: Nick Stahl (James), AnnaSophia Robb (Tara), Charlize Theron (Joleen), Dennis Hopper (Mr. Reedy), Woody Harrelson (Randall)
CJ7. Stephen Chow, director, co-prod; co-script. Starring: Stephen Chow (Ti), Xu Jiao (Dicky), Kitty Zhang (Miss Yuen), Lee Sheung-ching (Mr. Cao)
A low-key entry into the American Gothic genre, Sleepwalking turns the stereotype of the simple, honest farmer on its head, revealing the demons lurking underneath the surface. When Joleen’s latest loser boyfriend gets busted for growing pot, she moves into brother James’ apartment lock, stock–and daughter. The young lady, 12 year-old Tara, has issues with her mom, who keeps claiming to be “dealing with” her life—but is clearly doing so unsuccessfully.
One day, Joleen leaves unannounced, saddling sad-eyed, laconic James with a niece that he is ill equipped to mentor. (Joleen has given us her evaluation of her brother in an early, pivotal scene: “James,” she says, “you’re too nice.”) The authorities agree with that assessment and haul Tara away to a “home,” bleak enough to inspire a modern Dickens to eviscerate. Trying to handle Joleen and Tara has unsettled James so much that he’s lost his job as a road worker; even his best pal Randall can’t help him get it back.
You’re thinking: OK, how much tougher can it get? Way harder, it turns out. James decides to spring Tara out of Child Services’ hell and they take off on the road, another familiar American motif. But James doesn’t know where to go. Tara, who has seen enough movies to know, suggests Mexico, but they’re in a desolate, wintry landscape—likely the Dakotas—with $300, making that idea difficult to execute.
So James makes a very bad move. He decides to take Tara to meet his dad, who still operates a horse farm nearby. Tara has never met her grandfather—in fact, Joleen and James haven’t spoken to him, since they ran away from home 13 years ago. (Do the math; the movie sidesteps the issue.) Mr. Reedy (he’s given no first name) turns out to be the archetypal mean old man. You see immediately that his angry obsessive nature would be enough to drive people away—or crush them. If you’re thinking that this is set-up for disaster, you’re right but, as James later tells Tara, “I feel like I’ve been sleepwalking and now I’ve awakened.”
There’s nothing particularly unique in Sleepwalking. Such major post-WW2 playwrights as William Inge (Picnic, Bus Stop) and Tennessee Williams explored this turf decades ago; heck, even Oklahoma! had its dark side with a Wild West settler appropriately named Jud Fury. What the film does have is a strong, terrifying performance by Dennis Hopper as the father you’d never want to have and an arresting turn by Charlize Theron as Tara’s out of control mom. But they’re doing character roles, as is Woody Harrelson (also fine as James’ best friend). For Sleepwalking to work, AnnaSophia Robb as Tara and Nick Stahl as James have to engage and move us. Robb is fine but Stahl simply isn’t a strong enough lead. You want James Dean and you get, well, a reasonably good performance. It’s like Joleen said: as a lead, Stahl is “too nice.”
Stephen Chow is a superstar in China, loved for his wild combination of martial arts bravado, low-tech sci-fi, slapstick comedy and wacky plots. His last two films Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer were huge hits in China while making modest incursions into the North American market. Hopes were high for his latest, CJ7.
The film is doing extremely well in China, where it was released in January, but success in this continent is unlikely to occur. This time Chow has moved away from action—and, indeed, from himself. CJ7 is an attempt at a funny, moving family film. It’s a departure for Chow, who tries hard, but can’t make the elements mesh as well as he has in past “adult” films.
Chow plays Ti, a poor but honest labourer who has saved all of his money to send his son to a private school. 9 year-old Xu Jiao is the star, playing Dicky, who has to deal with bullies and a pretentious teacher, Mr. Cao, at school. He doesn’t fare much better at home, where his loveable but cantankerous dad doesn’t understand his desire for fancy clothes and toys (which will help him fit in with his schoolmates.) Dicky’s main ally is the beautiful teacher Ms. Yuen—that is, until dad brings home CJ7.
Like everything else Dicky gets, CJ7 has been plucked from a garbage heap by Ti, but this apparently discarded toy turns out to be from outer-space. Yep, CJ7 is a cuddly “E.T.” and with its somewhat wonky assistance, Dicky’s life starts to change for the better. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Stephen Chow movie if it didn’t have complicated plot twists—and this one has enough for three movies. There’s death, a stunning resurrection, two giant kids who fight each other, UFOs, a funny dream sequence which is then repeated with reverse effects “in reality,” a goal shattered by a “bent” free kick worthy of Beckham and even a bit of romance.
What’s lacking, however, is the genuine development of a relationship between father and son. Chow spends so much time on set pieces he forgets to make us care about Ti and Dicky. And that, ultimately, makes CJ7 a very minor film, indeed.