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28 Weeks Later…

There is something about the nature of a virus that has always terrified me, the way that its sole purpose is to spread to another person, then another and another. That's pretty much the life's mission of a virus. The film 28 Days Later… preyed on that fear, along with the other very real nightmarish fear of being physically ravaged by screaming, bloody-eyed lunatics who have taken over one of the world's cradles of civilization. But sometimes these individuals infected by something called the Rage Virus don't want to just rip out your throat. No, sometimes they wanted to vomit their diseased blood right onto your face and make the virus spread. Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland tapped into a few core human fears and made one of the great modern horror films, one that seemed fueled by adrenaline, rage and terror.

Boyle and Garland have not returned for the sequel, 28 Weeks Later…, (Boyle is credited as an executive producer, however, if that means anything) but I have to admit the film still got to me. The movie opens during the initial outbreak. A group of mostly strangers to each other before these events have holed up at a country farm outside London. They seem to have established a protected and safe shelter, until a young boy arrives begging to be let in. It isn't until after he is brought into the house that he informs the group that he is being chased by the infected, and soon enough, the crazies are busting through the boarded up doors and windows to tear shit up and create more creatures like them. Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) stars as Don, husband to Alice (Catherine McCormack). The pair get separated briefly, but rather than run across a room to save his wife, Don runs out of the farmhouse, leaving his lovely wife to a presumably disgusting fate.

Cut to roughly 7 months later, and the infected have essentially starved to death, and all signs of the Rage Virus have disappeared from the UK. Yay! The U.S. military has moved in to assist with the re-population of London. Well, it's not really London, but one small section of London that has been deemed safe. Gee, you'd think people would want to wait until a little more of the country was made 100 percent safe, but I guess people's desire to return to normal outweighs such concerns. It's certainly not out of the realm of believability. Among those returning are Don's children (Emily Beecham as Karen and Mackintosh Muggleton as Andy), who were out of the country on a school trip of some sort during the outbreak. When the kids ask what happened to their mother, Don has a slightly modified version of the story to tell them, but one he believes will ease the kids' pain of losing their mother.

It doesn't take long for the two children (the only two in the country, it would seem) to sneak out of the safe zone to go visit their old home and gather some personal belongings. Once in their old home, they discover their mother, clearly rattled, but very much alive. A military doctor (Rose Byrne) confirms a disturbing fact about Alice: she has the Rage Virus, but something in her blood is keeping it from taking hold. She's a carrier.

We think the worst thing that's going to happen as a result of Alice being alive is that Don's kids will question their father's truth-telling abilities. Alas, when the couple are reunited (after Don sneaks into the hospital) and kiss, well, let's just say Don goes a little loopy.

28 Weeks Later… is a fairly satisfying scare film. Once the second outbreak begins, things go pretty much as expected. The presence of the military makes containment a little more organized but not particularly effective. They use snipers, flame throwers, chemical weapons and firebombing to deal with the situation, but a few of the infected (including Don) still manage to avoid getting wiped out entirely. I liked the inclusion of Jeremy Renner as a sniper named Doyle, who decides to disregard orders and wipe out anything that moves on the ground in order to help the two children survive (since their blood could possibly be useful in eradicating the virus. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) does a respectable job creating a climate of utter chaos and confusion, peppered by moments of real humanity. His characters aren't quite as hardened as the ones in the first film, which is both good and bad, we find out. And I'll admit, I got a bit of a charge seeing Carlyle go nuts and spew his diseased mucus out at people.

I judge these types of films by a simple formula. Did it scare me? Yes. Did it tap into some buried fear in my psyche? Double yes. On a certain plain of reality, did the film seem credible? Mostly. A strong cast and harrowing story makes 28 Weeks Later… nearly as good as the original, and that's a recommendation, in case you can't tell. And it has one of the coolest postscripts I've seen in a while. Damn that Chunnel!

Waitress

In late 1996 (this would predate my time with Ain't It Cool News), I was basking in what may have been my first- or second-ever Chicago International Film Festival. I went to an ill-attended screening of a little indie work called Sudden Manhattan, the feature debut from the film's writer, director and star, Adrienne Shelly. The only reason I went to see this movie was because I had a mad crush on Shelly, who had charmed me with the neurotic, put-upon characters she played in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. She popped up with some amount of frequency in a handful of independent films, but nothing really captured what I loved most about her as those early Hartley works, but that didn't stop me from searching high and low for every film I could get my hands on in which she starred.

When Sudden Manhattan played at the Chicago festival, it screened at a sort of run-down older theater in the city that has since closed its doors. I went to support Shelly's work, but mainly to see her on the big screen again. Little did I know that Adrienne would show up to the screening for a loose and informal Q&A that ended up feeling more like a handful of friends in someone's living room than a structured, impersonal event. The discussion in the theater led to a smaller group of us (about five, including Shelly) heading down the street to a nearby pub and continuing to talk for another hour about Chicago, New York, Hartley and the pains it took her to get her film made. That was my only personal encounter with Shelly; I'm not claiming any friendship with her or deep connection as a result of this conversation. But when I heard that she was murdered last November, well, I didn't take it well. What bothered me most was that nobody I talked to about her death seemed to even know who she was, and that's a terrible shame that I suspect will be rectified by the film she was finishing up when she died, Waitress, a dazzling, deeply felt work that draws its strength from an absolutely transcendent performance by star Keri Russell, and the sure-handed pen and eye of writer-director Shelly.

My exposure to Russell as a leading actress is limited. I never watched "Felicity," and her performances in Mission: Impossible 3 and The Upside of Anger were small enough that I couldn't really judge her talents adequately. Waitress changes all of that and almost drop kicks her into a new world of possibilities as a gifted actress with an undercurrent of humor and maturity that makes her perfect for just about any kind of role, be it dramatic, comedic or anything in between, which is where this film rests. Russell plays Jenna, a waitress at a pie diner in a stiflingly small town who has the uncanny gift of inventing some of the universe's greatest pie recipes on a daily basis. She's married to a real shit named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), whose jealousy and insensitivity knows no limits. Her best friends are her fellow waitresses, played with great enthusiasm by Cheryl Hines as Becky (a slightly dialed-back version of Flo from the TV show "Alice") and Shelly, as the mousy Dawn. The owner of the diner is Joe, played in a wonderfully frank, honest and funny performance by Andy Griffith.

Jenna's inner thoughts (in the form of letters to her unborn baby) serve as our narration through her struggle to escape her marriage, but her plans sound more like pipe dreams since Earl keeps all the money and controls all aspects of their lives. Her dream is to invent a pie that can win her $25,000 at a pie contest, but Earl won't let her even consider the dream, despite the fact that they could clearly use the cash. Her life gets just a little bit worse when she discovers she's pregnant, a fact she never really embraces, as is evidenced by one of her pie creations, the "I Don't Want Earl's Baby" pie (she names her delicacies after the frame of mind she's in when she invents them). Jenna goes to her OB/GYN to confirm the bad news, when she discovers her long-time doctor is gone, replaced by the young, good-looking, quirky Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).

Waitress doesn't have an agenda or message beyond "Do what's best for you," nor does it have a conventional plot. This is a healthy slice-of-life serving filled with delicious amounts of interesting characters, sometimes difficult character choices, and loads of charm and sass. Some may be put off by Jenna's constant anger at very existence of her unborn child, but I just found it funny that Shelly was gutsy enough as a screenwriter to write a character who would normally think of such an event as a blessing and turn it around into something truly unwanted. Jenna keeps the pregnancy from Earl for a while, but when he finds out, he makes her promise him that she won't love the baby more than him. It's a creepy scene, and underscores Earl's insecurities better than simply having him be physically abusive.

A love affair begins between Jenna and her doctor, and even that doesn't play out the way I thought it would. I kept waiting for the big confrontation when Earl finds out his wife is cheating, but Shelly doesn't make things that predictable. In fact, for a film, featuring characters that could easily have been made obvious and canned, Waitress surprised me more than once, sometimes with small decisions or actions, sometimes with its candor, and sometimes with its emotional depth. Don't fall for the cutesy ads you see for this film, because there's a lot going on here besides tasty-looking pies and romantic-comedy clichés.

I whole-heartedly adore this film, but I don't want you to think it's because of Shelly's passing. It's the kind of work that manages to be both a crowd pleaser, while still being a little devious and off-color. What saddens me about the work is that it would have clearly opened up many doors for Shelly as a writer and director. She would have been a likely candidate for the next big wave of romantic comedies, and Hollywood might have appreciated her slightly more cynical view of love, while never missing an opportunity to make us laugh. It's this lost potential that comes with Shelly's death that gets me now that I've seen Waitress. She clearly had great stories to tell and fascinating characters to introduce us to, especially her female characters. Jenna is one of the most fully realized women I've seen in the movies in years. But you shouldn't go for any of these reasons; go because this movie is full of life, conviction, spirit and humor. Shelly made the best movie of her career, and we're all the better for it.

Away From Her

In many ways, it seems wholly appropriate that I'm reviewing this film alongside Adrienne Shelly's Waitress. Both were made by established actresses whose first features as directors are so solid and impressive that it almost makes you fear that we may lose a life in front of the camera for a life and career behind it. In the case of Away From Her, the actress behind the camera is Sarah Polley, and the thing that is most shocking about her first film is that this 28-year-old, relatively newly married woman has perfectly captured the lives of a long-married elderly couple about to enter the final chapter in their lives when one of them begins showing signs of early-stage Alzheimer's disease. Polley establishes a level of knowing and maturity about memory and history that makes it impossible not to marvel at her skills. Some of this may come from the film's source material (the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came over the Mountain"), but there is also a level of contemplation and reflection that even the likes of Ingmar Bergman didn't discover until much later in his career.

The couple in question is played by the beautiful-as-ever Julie Christie and Canadian acting icon Gordon Pinsent as Fiona and Grant, one of those perfect couples who have almost never been apart for more than a day or two. Both are fiercely independent and exceptionally intelligent, but they also are deeply in love and can't stand not being together. But soon Fiona's short-term memory begins to fade, and one day she strays from their country home into the snow and forgets how to get home. Gordon finds her hours later wandering the streets, freezing. Lest you start thinking that this movie is about a woman suffering from Alzheimer's, it's not — not entirely at least. This is more Grant's tale, about how a man so deeply committed to his wife has to learn to let go of her despite the fact that she is still very much alive. After the couple decides that Fiona should move into a high-end, extended-care facility, the work begins. The hospital administrator (Wendy Crewson) says that once Fiona is moved in, Grant cannot come visit her for 30 days, in an effort to get Fiona established in her new surroundings.

When they are reunited, things have already changed. Fiona has latched on to another patient, the almost silent Aubrey (Michael Murphy), as sort of a stand-in caretaker to him. She recognizes Grant, but seems to focus on the more negative events in their past, including some past betrayal from his years as a university professor. Polley doesn't rely on flashbacks in Away From Her. In fact, the brief glimpses we get of Fiona and Grant in younger days are just that: glimpses, flashes of two people in love. Instead, Polley saves her chronological trickery for more modern-day scenes, in which Grant is seen talking to another woman, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), about some incident at the home. We soon realize that she is Aubrey's wife, and that something clearly happened at the facility between Aubrey and Fiona that forced Marian to bring him back home.

But this is no elderly mystery story. It's merely an excuse to have us follow Grant as he visits Fiona on an almost daily basis. Rather then spend time with her, he often sits at the opposite end of the room, watching her from a distance. He also spends a great deal of time talking to one of the nurses on staff played by the astonishingly convincing Kristen Thomson, a Canadian theatre actress whom I've never seen before, but would relish the chance to do so again. She's so authentic in the role that I thought Polley had hired a real nurse with some acting inspirations. She tries to help Grant understand what Fiona is going through, and is sometimes critical of the facility's strict policies. But her story is just as interesting as anyone else's in the film, and I missed her when she wasn't on screen.

Each encounter between Grant and Fiona becomes increasingly uncomfortable and unsettling for us, as well as them. They don't have anything in common any longer, and the one thing they held most dear about their relationship — their ability to communicate — is now disintegrating before their eyes. Christie's work here is extraordinary. If this film had come out late last year, her Oscar nomination would have been a sure thing. Over the course of the film, the far-away, glassy look in her eye becomes more and more pronounced, and it breaks our collective hearts every time we see her. Meanwhile, Grant finds a great deal of common ground with Marian, and the two begin dating unapologetically. It's all part of the moving-on process.

How someone as young as Polley could have made a film about these characters and experiences seems hard to contemplate, but if you know a little something about her history (particularly her mother's death when Polley was 11), it maybe doesn't seem so out of character. In all her roles (from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Here After to My Life Without Me to the Dawn of the Dead remake), Polley always struck me as a young woman with an old soul. She has simply never disappointed me as a performer, and I'm pleased to report that her first feature in no way let me down either. This is a marvelous love story, a tale of mourning the living, and a chronicle of being forced at an older age to face the fact that your vision of yourself as part of an elderly couple growing old together by the fireplace drinking tea isn't going to happen. New chapters of a person's life don't stop being written just because you get gray hair, and Away From Her reminds us of that sometimes terrifying fact with a grace and dignity that is easy to embrace. This is a lovely work from a gifted filmmaker whose range of talents are just now coming to light. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Georgia Rule

Perhaps tired of playing it safe with his Princess Diaries films or a string of powerfully weak comedies, director Garry Marshall has turned his eye toward slightly more serious material with Georgia Rule, a story of three generations of women that can't stand each other, which sometimes makes it tough for us to stand them either. And before you start thinking you know how Marshall would probably tackle a film like this, you may want to reserve your judgment. This is a well-deserved R-rated endeavor (mostly for language and Lindsay Lohan's sexually aggressive Rachel character), and while Marshall finds it tough sometimes not to throw in the occasional one-liner, he tends to play things straight in this hit-and-miss effort.

Playing a character that most audience members will probably think is closest to the real her, Lohan tackles Rachel with a fiery, devious look in her eye, plenty of bronzer on her skin, cleavage so impressive it could probably stop a herd of buffalo in its tracks, and legs that seem to end somewhere around the moon. But her overtly sexual behavior is covering up a severely damaged girl, who had to deal with an alcoholic, verbally abusive mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and a stepfather (Cary Elwes) who may or may not have been having sex with her when she was 12. You see, Rachel also has a history of being a frequent and skilled liar about such subjects as drug and alcohol use, sex and all variety of rebellious behavior. In her summer before going to college, her parents decide to dump Rachel with her grandmother Georgia (Jane Fonda), who lives in Idaho.

Within minutes of entering the town where Georgia lives, she begins flirting (and then some) with the local men, including Harlan (Garrett Hedlund of Four Brothers) and the local veterinarian, Simon, played with down-home charm by Dermot Mulroney. I had assumed that Georgia Rule would be a heart-warming story of a bad girl turned good thanks to the quaint charms of the small town and the series of home-spun life lessons handed down by Grandma. But the script by Mark Andrus (Life as a House and the adaptation of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) has something a little different and more complex in mind. One of the most frustrating aspects of the work is that the characters aren't people; they are more an amalgam of problems and emotion. One could argue that that's exactly what all people are, but the people in Georgia Rule wear their dysfunction like a badge of honor. And at times, they use it as an excuse to overact.

Huffman is the main offender here, with a steady stream of anger and waterworks, which operate separately and in tandem throughout the film. Lohan is surprisingly strong, and I still maintain that if she lives to see 30, she'll be one of the best actresses working. Aside from her undeniable physical attributes, she's extremely convincing as a young woman using sex more as a means of distancing herself from people and reality rather than bringing her closer to them. Her performance is unflinching, bordering on brave. And Fonda, well, she runs rings around her costars. Sure, she's got most of the jokes and moral platitudes, but she also has a sailor's mouth on her when she needs it. You'd think that a film by Garry Marshall set in a small town would features a host of colorful townsfolk to liven things up, and you'd be completely wrong. It's as if Marshall watched his old films and made a point not to repeat himself.

Georgia Rule is uneven at worst, but even its flaws are interesting to watch. And when it works, it can be quite moving, and not in a tear-jerking way but more in a "Wow, I can't believe she/he just said/did that" way. I can't entirely fault a film for trying to do something a little different, even when it doesn't always work. And while things more or less seem to end well for the women, there is certainly no guarantee that things will stay well off forever. Their work looking out for each other and themselves is just beginning. All jokes aside, Lohan should be making these kinds of movies — the ones in which she plays a fully realized adult — a lot more often. And let's hope that Mr. Marshall is showing signs of maturing at age 72. This film represents a step in a much-needed direction for both.

The Ex

Considering how many talented comedic actors are rounded up for this jealousy-based comedy, I was a bit stunning by how much I didn't laugh along with The Ex. Even in his more serious works (like Garden State), Zach Braff is a fun guy to watch. And as are many of the actors in this film, he's giving it his all to make us laugh just a little in this lightweight, sitcom-ish work from director Jesse Peretz (First Love, Last Rites). Braff plays New York chef Tom Reilly, who is fired from his job by his jerky boss (a nice cameo from Paul Rudd) on the same day his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) gives birth to their first child. Tom takes his firing as a sign that it's time to move out of the city and go to Ohio, where Sofia's parents (Mia Farrow and the terrifying-looking Charles Grodin) live and where Tom has a job waiting for him at Grodin's new-agey ad agency.

Tom's supervisor is Chip (scene-stealer Jason Bateman), who coincidentally used to be very close to Sofia back in high school. He's also one of the top guys at the firm and a reputed ladies' man, despite being in a wheelchair since he was a kid. Bateman's ability to deliver a line of encouragement while sounding like he wants to plunge a knife in Tom's back is a true gift. Skip redefines mind games and passive aggression with an impressive flair, and soon his motives (getting Tom fired; seducing Sofia) become crystal clear. A battle of wills and elaborate one-upsmanship commences. Only one can survive.

Although Sofia clearly sees Chip as a great old friend, her lack of any real interest in the guy doesn't make this film any kind of real mystery as to where her affections will lie when the credits begin to roll. Thanks to a handful of supporting roles/cameos by Donal Logue, Amy Adams, Robert John Burke, Josh Charles and cast members of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and "Saturday Night Live," watching The Ex isn't outright painful, but it is often highly predictable and obvious. A note to any comedy writers reading this: the joke about a pregnant woman refusing drugs and then screaming for them during delivery isn't funny anymore. (That being said, the twist on that joke in the upcoming Knocked Up is hilarious.) It's as if the jokes were underlined on screen so we wouldn't miss them. The set ups are right in your face and kind of kill any comedic potential. Still, Bateman's Chip is a sick S.O.B., who deserves his own movie, and the few times I laughed usually involved him. Beyond that, The Ex is like watching a dying fish on the shore: it's funny, but it leaves you empty and hungry.

Exterminating Angels

It seems like once or twice a year, a film comes around that promises (and often delivers) lots of real-life sex, but in a slightly more sophisticated and mature presentation than your average XXX feature. French director Jean-Claude Brisseau took an incident in his life (during which several actresses successfully sued him for sexual harassment after auditioning for him in connection with his 2002 feature Secret Things) as the basis for Exterminating Angels. Frederic van den Driessche acts as Brisseau's stand in as a director casting the leads in what will be a sexually explicit, in-depth analysis of female sexuality.

Therefore, the director must see how his actresses work and have sex together, which they do with him in the room. Although he never takes part in any of the sex (he's a happily married man, after all), the intimate feelings set loose in these sessions unleash a furor of emotional instability in all of his actresses, culminating in a similar lawsuit against the director. At least that's the "He said…" part of Brisseau's story. Exterminating Angels is less a profile of the feminine mystique and more an examination of a handful of crazy bitches, at least in the director's eyes. It's ultimately a cynical and vengeful piece that is often quite sensual but more often a nasty piece of cinematic payback to women Brisseau probably trusted at one point and now feels betrayed by. It makes for curious filmmaking, but that doesn't make interesting it art. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Hip Hop Project

Having a lot in common with the 2005 documentary Rock School, The Hip Hop Project follows the paths of a handful of young people who are looking at a career in the music industry as a means to rise out of personal hardships and tap into their artistic selves. The film takes us through the process of this group of young New York men and women putting together tracks for a compilation album. With sizable donations from the likes of Bruce Willis and inspirational, intimate discussions with people like Russell Simmons, the project gets its own recording studio. With hip hop artist Kazi running the show, he works with the kids on everything from lyrics to tapping into their inner tragedy.

The film, perhaps better than any I've seen dealing with this music, shows a generation concerned with telling their stories and tapping into emotion and tales of redemption. One song in particular, written by one of the girls in the group about her decision years earlier to have an abortion, is particularly chilling and evocative. The timing of this film couldn't be more appropriate, with recent demonstrations concerning hip hop records cleaning up their language and message making headlines. Here we have a group of young artists presenting a positive message (the language can still get kind of blue), who seem determined to take hip hop to a place focusing on the narrative and the introspective rather than the boastful and clownish. Of course, the beautiful thing about this kind of music has always been that there's something for everybody. If you want to dance and not think too much, there's plenty out there for you. If you want social commentary and a list of grievances, bring on Public Enemy.

The Hip Hop Project gets sidetracked a few too many times with Kazi's backstory involving a mother that left him at an early age and with whom he is trying to reconnect. A really uncomfortable reunion sequence not only feels forced and false (I'm sure the presence of cameras at the meeting didn't help), but it also distracts from the far more interesting story of these kids learning and perfecting their craft. But the film and the project have their heart in the right place, and for the most part, the movie gets its messages across and makes this journey extremely interesting and entertaining. A release party concert featuring the kids performing their songs live seems an appropriate way to conclude this chapter in these stories, and it looked like a whole lot a fun. Most of the kids agree that this life path is certainly more fulfilling than what many of these performers would have been doing without this project. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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