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DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

Jim Hall: A Life in Progress

There are times when this film biography of the great jazz guitarist Jim Hall (who turns 68 on December 12) risks turning into an infomercial for his latest Telarc release, By Arrangement. In fact, the producer of that session, John Snyder, is co-executive producer of the film with Hall's wife, Jane. There are somewhat empty testimonials from some of the guest stars on the album (Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, and others), and there's footage from the recording session. But as the details, and the period footage, from Hall's extraordinary career accumulate, the film takes on breadth and texture. From John Lewis and Chico Hamilton, we find out about Hall's early role in what would be called "chamber jazz" with Hamilton's band and Jimmy Giuffre's. Nat Hentoff talks about the acceptance of the white Hall into the black jazz world. And there's priceless vintage TV footage of Hall playing with Hamilton and Sonny Rollins, interviews with Bill Evans and Art Farmer, and Hall's own self-effacing humor. By the end, we have a fair portrait of one of jazz's essential guitarists -- and one of the music's great lyric improvisers on any instrument.

-- Jon Garelick

Hard Core Logo

Punk's not dead, but it's got one foot in the grave as director Bruce McDonald -- playing himself -- hooks up with the members of the fictitious, long-running Vancouver hardcore band of the title in this vapid, derivative, dull mockumentary. We join McDonald's McPunks in '93, five years after their mohawked, misanthropic, blow-snorting singer Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon, playing a cross between Bill Murray and Lee Ving) squashed what might've been a shot at the big time by pissing in a record exec's beer mug. Dick brings the lads back together for a gig to benefit the band's obscure, reclusive mentor, who's supposed to have had his legs shot off; when the show proves lucrative, they set off on a brief reunion tour -- where road-trip clichés hungrily await.

There are predictable intra-band tensions with even more predictable results: guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith) has an offer to join Jennifur, a successful alterna-rock band whose members' faces grace the cover of SPIN; bassist John Oxenberger (John Pyper-Ferguson, doing his best Derrick Smalls impersonation) is a schizophrenic, philosophical tour diarist who's misplaced his meds; and the aging Dick is desperate for one last crack at rock-and-roll redemption. All that's left for McDonald to do with this disastrous plot is let it unravel -- which it does with a bit of Spinal Tap, a bit of Sid and Nancy, and a gratuitous acid sequence reminiscent of The Doors -- on its way to the inevitable punch line, which isn't very funny at all. The music (mostly fictitious) is surprisingly adequate -- more '77 than '88, if you're into that sorta thing.

-- Carly Carioli

Babe: Pig in the City

When your hero is a dinner-table staple, it's hard to make a comedy that's not a little dark. The problem with Babe: Pig in the City, however, isn't that it's dark but that it's murky. Pressured no doubt by the huge, unexpected success and Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, among others -- it won for Visual Effects) of his original, director George Miller has hammed up his sequel into a $90 million stew with an unsettling share of ill-mixed, half-baked, and sometimes indigestible ingredients.

The main course barely survives. A bit more petulant than before, the undaunted sheepherding pig must accompany Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) to a state fair to cash in on his fame when Farmer Hoggett (John Cromwell) falls down a well, incapacitating himself and leaving the farm prey to bank creditors. The well scene is disturbing enough, but when Mrs. Hoggett gets pulled aside for a strip search at the airport, it's easy to see why the MPAA demanded a re-edit for a "G" rating. Why the filmmakers agreed is another matter -- the result is a motley collection of some scenes that go too far, some that don't go far enough, others that go nowhere at all.

Stranded in the city (which is a morphed and matted composite of metropolises from Paris to New York to Batman's Gotham City), the pig and his mistress seek refuge at a hotel inhabited by a grotesque clown (Mickey Rooney, whose appearance is mercifully brief and wordless) and his circus troupe of primates, who are cohabiting with tightly structured societies of foundling dogs and cats (the cats have formed a choir). With such characters as the mandarin-like orangutan Thelonious (voiced by James Cosmo), the street-smart poetic chimp Bob (Steven Wright), and the surreal little mutt Flealick (Adam Goldberg), whose paralyzed back end is attached to wheels, this set-up almost achieves that irresistible imaginary world, somewhere between daydream and nightmare, that is the gift of the best children's fiction.

But the authorities and bad plotting intrude, with chases and births and colored balloons, and the film takes on the bloated air of Miller's The Witches of Eastwick. Although touched with moments of hilarity, pathos, and otherworldliness, this Pig in the City has lost its way.

-- Peter Keough

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