As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Thursday, October 19

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Good day, all.

Well, the only films I won't be reviewing this week are the two that I missed screenings of due to my travel schedule. Both happen to be opening at the Music Box Theatre, and both are reported to be quite good. Actually, I've seen the 1964 masterpiece Becket, but it's been a number of years, and this is a brand spanking new 35mm print of this 12-time Academy Award nominee, so I'm going to refresh my memory. If you've ever wanted to see two of the world's greatest actors/friends/carousers (Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton), look no further. The other film is Bamako, apparently a major slap in the face for the world financial system as it relates to the destruction of Africa. Cheery, but I'm hearing many good things about it. And now, on to the film's I've seen, including seven capsule reviews (located at the end of this column) of movies playing as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival. There is a lot worth checking out during this month-long preview of the greatest films from across the Atlantic.

300

Two films I've been desperate to tell you about since last year are finally being released this week. The first I saw in December at Butt Numb-a-Thon 8 in Austin. Director Zack Snyder (who made the well-done Dawn of the Dead remake) was on hand after the screening and told us the film still needed some minor tweaking (mostly color correction and other things most civilians wouldn't even see as unfinished). When I saw 300 more recently, I didn't notice any real difference, but it was a good opportunity for me to judge whether the stunning visuals I remembered so clearly were simply hiding a run-of-the-mill sword-and-sandals tale, or if there was really some substance to this graphic and sensual tale of a small group of Spartan warriors fighting off the Persian masses who attempted to enslave the world one nation at a time. Glory be, this movie kicked even more shapes and sizes of ass on my second go-round, setting the bar ridiculously high for genre films in 2007.

First off, there's a great deal of yelling in 300. In fact, more than 50 percent of the dialogue is uttered at a raised volume (you probably gleaned that from the trailers). I thought this would bother me more than it did, but it actually heightened my overall interest in the goings on. Based on the Frank (Sin City) Miller graphic novel (which I'm totally unfamiliar with), the film tells the bloody and savage tale of 300 men against more than 100,000 at the battle of Thermopylae. Why did Sparta only send 300 men? Actually, Sparta didn't. The corrupt Spartan government (exemplified by Dominic West) refused to send an army to challenge the Persian hordes. So King Leonidas (Gerard Butler of Phantom of the Opera and Tomb Raider 2 fame) defied the city elders and soothsayers by hand picking 300 "bodyguards" to accompany him on a long walk. Clever fellow, that Leonidas. What follows is almost solid sweaty, gory, clever and, above all, brutal battles.

By using some choice digital effects, director Snyder is not content to allow his sword and spear battles to look like those before. In almost every instance, you see swords go into bare chests. These guys aren't using bulky clothes and tricky camera angles to simulate weapon penetration. This is meant to look about as real as anything I've seen on screen, which is ironic since so little else about the film is meant to look like it even takes place in this world. Much like the textures and colors from a graphic novel, the skies and landscapes of 300 appear more like idealized planetscapes of some far off world. Many of the battle sequences are done in slow motion, so you don't miss a single lost limb or drop of blood. Even skin tones seem art directed by a painter. The visual backgrounds don't take away from the story. If anything, they add an archetypal feel to everything in this movie. It takes your breath away and absolutely demands that you see the film more than once, just to admire the craftsmanship.

For all its savagery, 300 also has its moments of sensuality. Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo, is a stone-cold honey played by Lena Headey (known more for her work in lighter fare on film; she's also set to play the title role on "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" TV series). While Leonidas is gone, Gorgo must do what she can to protect Sparta from its own politicians. Heady's performance is fierce and sexy, and I would very much like her to tie me down and punish me for whatever. One of the stranger characters is the towering Persian king himself, Xerxes (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, who occasionally shows up on "Lost" as Paulo), who believes he is a god and wears as much jewelry as any god I've ever seen. It's a bizarre but unforgettable performance.

It's safe to say that 300 is unlike anything you've ever seen before, with portions based soundly in reality and other sections seemingly ripped right out of some great lost fantasy novel. It exists in its own universe and will leave you utterly in awe of the story it tells. Snyder's command of the visuals (with more than a little help from Miller's source material, undoubtedly) shows a confidence I would not have expected and leaves me hopeful that he is the right man for the job to bring Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novel to the screen. This film is opening on IMAX screens this week as well; I'm drooling just thinking about it.

The Host

During last year's Chicago Film Festival in October, there were two showings of a movie that may single-handedly usher in a new kind of scary movie on our shores (assuming anybody goes to see it). At its core, South Korea's The Host is a monster movie, but the secret of why it succeeds only partially has to do with its hideously realized creature. In truth, The Host is a heartfelt and funny family drama disguised as a monster movie epic, and it is these distinctly human qualities that make the icky stuff so cool. Not to underplay the fantastic scares this film delivers, but it wouldn't mean as much to us if we didn't care so much about the people this mutant creature was terrorizing.

Director and co-writer Joon-ho Bong (who also directed the powerful serial killer procedural Memories of Murder) shows us he's not just comfortable in any genre; he's downright formidable. The film opens in classic monster movie fashion with an evil autopsy doctor ordering his underling to pour gallons of toxic formaldehyde down the drain and into the water supply somewhere near Seoul, South Korea. The hilarious twist here is that the doctor is American, and the setting for this event is a U.S. military base in South Korea. You can always count on the Americans to screw things up. But by making this distinction, Bong is leaving many elements of his film open to interpretation. The chemicals in the water result in the creation of a giant monster that looks like a mutated fish or lizard or something that can breathe underwater and on land. And while the director never explicitly says so, this monster could represent all sorts of things, the same way Godzilla was delivered unto the world as a warning about the harmful effects of atomic weapons. Is The Host's creature meant to represent America or the Iraq War or capitalism or tourists or corporate greed? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, but it's still fun to think about and it adds some socio-political weight to the film.

The real stars of the film are the three generations of the Park family, a fractured group living in Seoul who band together when the creature takes the youngest member of the family and stores her away for future eating. The first clue that The Host is unlike so many other monster movies is that the creature appears right at the beginning of the film, in broad daylight. Bong is not interested in hiding his creation, or parceling stolen looks until a big reveal near the end. Nope, he wants us to become overly familiar with his freakish being, every slimy scale, fin, tail and other unidentifiable appendages. If anything, we see less and less of the monster as the film goes on and as the family's story to find the little girl takes over. The suspense comes more from anticipating the creature's return. But when it attacks, it is quick and ferocious. Although the monster does eat humans, The Host is largely a bloodless affair, with a few choice exceptions.

Even when the monster is on screen, it's not always in the foreground. Often, large groups of people are running from it, and while the fleeing masses are in the foreground, you catch glimpses of the beast as it closes in on them from behind. The effect is awesome and terrifying. As easy as it would be to draw parallels between The Host and Japanese horror flicks like Godzilla, the comparisons don't quite hold up. First of all, there's no Raymond Burr. But more importantly, the emphasis on the dysfunctional family attempting to mend its differences and become closer makes this film more akin to Jaws or Signs or Poltergeist. And I don't draw these comparisons lightly; I firmly believe that The Host stands right there with some of the great monster offerings in recent years, and, yes, I cringe at the thought of a possible remake from Universal. But if any studio has a strong history with monster movies, it's that one. Let's hope they don't forget what makes this movie stand out from the pack. Don't clutter the remake with attractive teens or hunky heroes. The original has neither. A big part of what makes The Host so perfect is the anti-hero nature of all of the leads. This is one of those films you'll probably have to seek out, folks, but it will be well worth your effort. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Starter for 10

While I'd anticipated this fairly lightweight British comedy to be an oh, so pithy and clever tale of a young man's intellectual and romantic awakening at university, much to my pleasant surprise I got an only slight pithy and usually charming celebration of knowledge in the early 1980s. Setting a film in the UK in the early '80s can only mean one thing: a kick-ass Brit pop soudtrack courtesy of The Cure, Tears for Fears (first album only), The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs and even Wham!, and those are just the ones I can remember. Even if you find Starter for 10 too trite for its own good, you're still going to want to buy the soundtrack.

In some ways, the movie is the one John Hughes would have made if he'd grown up in Britain. The emotions are pretty surface oriented, the outcome predictable, the "ugly" duckling isn't so ugly, and did I mention the kick-ass soundtrack? The plot centers on Brian (James McAvoy), a young man obsessed with filling his head with the type of learning that will earn him a spot on University Challenge (if you've ever seen the UK comedy series "The Young Ones," you should know what this show is). He heads off from his working-class town to university, and gets a spot on the team right around the time he falls head over heels for the prettiest girl at school (the WASP-y Alice Eve). He also meets a politically active Jewish girl named Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and the two become fast friends. The fact that she's an exotic-looking, intellectually stimulating woman never even enters his pea brain, but I've seen enough John Hughes movies to know the thought of those two together has entered mine.

I could detail the emotional rollercoaster Brian puts himself through during the course of his first year of school, but what's important is that he learns not only to collect facts, but also to respect and analyze them as an adult. Shockingly enough, he also learns to lose his fascination for bright, shiny things as far as the women in his life go, and the film winds down to its inevitable but still sweet conclusion. McAvoy the actor is beginning to grow on me. He's been doing solid support work in films like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (he was Mr. Tumnus) and most recently opposite Forest Whitaker in Last King of Scotland, but this is his first real lead, and he grew on me like a happy fungus. Throw in a couple actors from last year's The History Boys, and you've got yourself a fairly commendable work. This isn't my strongest possible recommendation, but if you've got a couple of hours to kill and find yourself near Pipers Alley sometime in the next couple of weeks, you could do worse.

Gray Matters

I don't know the name Susan Kramer — the writer-director of the new PG-13-rated metropolitan, coming-out-of-the-closet comedy Gray Matters — but I know one thing about her: she loves New York. And she hasn't come up with a single original written or visual way of conveying her love. Someone in this movie actually utters the line "I love this city" as if no one in the history of the world or movies has thought or uttered that sentiment before. The fact that the character proclaims the line from the roof of the New Yorker building, well, that just about makes you wanna throw up, doesn't it?

I lived in New York for a couple years; I acknowledge the greatness of its citizens, its entertainment value and its potential for love affairs. But the New York I knew was not a personal playground for pseudo-intellectuals who do nothing but stay up all night, quoting obvious movie dialogue, and coming home to apartments as large as Grand Central Station. Perhaps the biggest insult to the Big Apple comes in the form of a woman named Gray (Heather Graham), who is just now, sometime in her early 30s, not only coming out of the closet as a lesbian, but also realizing she's gay at all. This awareness comes just as her brother/roommate Sam (Tom Cavanagh) meets a spectacularly perfect Charlie (Bridget Moynahan) on his first day out trying to meet a woman. After pulling an all-nighter date, he returns to the apartment he shares with Gray and announces he's getting married that weekend in Las Vegas. The night before the wedding, Gray and Charlie stay up very late drinking (a very awkward moment at a nightclub performance by Gloria Gaynor is the highlight of the evening) and end up making out for about five seconds. This singular event leads Gray to the uneasy realization that she might be a little bit gay, and maybe slightly in love with Charlie, who was too drunk to even remember the kiss.

Gray Matters is something of a slap in the face to all films about people "coming out," by treating Gray's predicament like it's something "wild" and "kooky" and "out there." They live in New York City; nobody cares that you're gay in NYC. Hello! Meanwhile, we get Graham running around like a third-rate Woody Allen neurotic and acting like she's the first attractive woman in her early 30s to have gay thoughts. The presence of Alan Cummings as a straight cab driver who has a little crush on Gray and ends up being her best friend after one drive around town together doesn't add an ounce of artistic or gay credibility to the proceedings. But the worst thing about Gray Matters is that it simply isn't funny or clever about any of its observations on gay or straight life. In case you non-New Yorkers aren't smart enough to figure it out, this movie blows.

European Union Film Festival

Flies on the Wall

In this interesting experiment from Denmark, director Ake Sandgren (the Dogme film Truly Human) attempts to apply a political thriller feel to what is essentially a story about a local political scandal. When the Liberal Party hires a documentary filmmaker (Trine Dyrholm) to profile the party and its most dynamic candidate (Lars Brygmann), they tell her she'll have total access to all aspects of the party's inner workings. She translates this to mean she can plant hidden cameras everywhere and even sometimes wear spy cameras on her person to capture private conversations. She inadvertently uncovers a massive corruption and money diversion scandal that could bring down the candidate and the party. Of course, her life becomes endangered when it's discovered she knows too much. A few things about Flies on the Wall don't quite hold water. First, why would such a corrupt government allow total access to anything they do? Maybe they think since she's working for them, they can kill whatever final film she edits together, but that isn't ever mentioned. Second, the filmmaker starts sleeping with her subject. I never bought this for a second. Third, much of the film is shown through the eye of the filmmaker's many cameras; it's as if we're watching her final film as she's compiling it. However, whenever a scene is required that her cameras could not have captured, director Sandgren simply cuts away to his own third-party vantage point. It's a slightly jolting experience that would have been more exciting if he were forced to stick with just her vantage point. Still, the film has plenty of suspense to keep us charged, and the performances are solid, even if the film doesn't quite add up. It plays on Friday, March 9 at 6:15pm, and Tuesday, March 13 at 7:45pm.

Manual of Love

Four stories of couples representing the four stages of love, from goofy young love to painful breakup, make up this award-winning offering from Italy. Each emotionally charged tale is worth watching, but some (especially the stalker-ish nature of the first story) are a little too out of touch with reality. Still, that shortcoming is more than made up for by the second story, an all-too-real account of troubled marriage (played by ex-spouses Margherita Buy and Sergio Rubini). I was also moved by the tale of a sorrowful doctor (Carlo Verdone) trying to pull his life together after his wife abandons him. The stories are slightly interconnected, but not in a overly trite manner. One story flows nicely into the next, and the performances are uniformly solid, even if the lessons learned are familiar. Director Giovanni Veronesi has crafted a warm and affectionate work that doesn't seek to shake the foundations of relationship films, but he still manages to find some fresh insight on the subject. The film plays Saturday, March 10 at 2:45pm.

Me and My Sister

If you put Isabelle Huppert in a movie, I'm there. And if you make her a cold-hearted, abrasive bitch, well, I don't have any choice but to fall in love with her. In this tasty bit from France, Huppert plays the city mouse Martine, who plays host to her country mouse sister Louise (the charming Catherine Frot), a beautician coming to Paris to meet with a publisher that might be interested in a book she's written. Martine finds Louise's cheeriness and upbeat personality an annoyance and an embarrassment, especially when mixing with her upper-crust friends. But the fact is, most people find Louise sweet and not nearly as unsophisticated as Martine believes she is. What Martine is really troubled by is how Louise's cheer seems to underscore the fact that Martine hates her life and her marriage to a womanizing husband (Francois Berleand). Huppert is at her seething best here. There's a scene during a dinner party in which she gets drunk and spouts off all sorts of terrible things about Louise in front of all the guests. It's a painful event to witness, and director Alexandra Leclere punctuates the event with the perfect amount of awkwardness. Far from the comic tripe that Hollywood would turn this subject matter into, Me and My Sister is among the darkest of dark comedies that still manages to pack in a fair amount of love for and between its characters. The film plays Sunday, March 11, at 3pm, and Thursday, March 15 at 6pm.

Dead Long Enough

From Ireland comes one of the weaker entries at this year's festival, Dead Long Enough, which tells the story of two brothers: Harry, a celebrity played by The Queen's Michael Sheen, and Ben, a lawyer in a bad relationship made all the worse by his perpetual broken heart over his hometown sweetie (Angeline Ball) that he hasn't seen in 16 years. Although I'd read somewhere that Sheen's character is a rock star, I think he's the host of a popular television show about digging up ancient remains that shares the same title as this film. He's sort of the leather-clad, longhaired archaeological version of the Crocodile Hunter. Anyway, Harry decides the pair are going to fly back to their hometown as part of Ben's bachelor party, but his real intention is to make Ben forget this woman once and for all. It turns out the woman in question, Sinead, had a baby shortly after the brothers left town, but who's the father? Hmmm. There are more candidates than you might think. The last 30 minutes of Dead Long Enough feature a messy series of events that neatly tie up age-old conflicts and unresolved feelings as only a 90-minute movie can. The best thing about the film is the rousing soundtrack, which features a mix of traditional and rock music from Irish musicians. I suppose Sheen's presence (I'm fairly certain he shot this movie before The Queen) adds a bit of professionalism to the piece, but the whole production is childish and off-putting. The film plays Saturday, March 10 at 4:45pm, and Wednesday, March 14 at 8pm.

Into Great Silence

A lot of times when critics use words like "contemplative" or "meditative" to describe a particularly long or slow-moving film, what they really mean is "the movie was boring, but I still liked it." In the case of this nearly three-hour documentary from German director Philip Groning, I confess I found this look inside the usually secluded life of the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps absolutely serene and lovely, but at times it borders on contemplative and meditative. Much like the typically lengthy documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, Into Great Silence is more than a filmmaker pointing his camera at a subject. Using only the natural sound and light around him, Groning (with no additional crew) completely immerses himself in this largely silent and still world, in which the monks work and pray and hope that sometime before they die, God will reveal himself to them. We observe even the smallest aspects of their routines and rituals, including meal preparation, inducting new members into their order, laundry and, of course, praying. I'm sure during the course of watching this work, even the most dedicated audience member will be fighting off sleep at times (do not attempt to operate heavy equipment while watching this film), but the end result is a work of rare and compelling beauty. The film will screen Saturday, March 10 at 3pm, and opens at the Music Box Theatre later this spring.

The Iceberg

In one of the oddest and most weirdly entertaining films in a while, this feature from Belgium opens with Fiona (Dominique Abel), a restaurant manager, accidentally getting locked in the establishment's walk-in freezer. After nearly dying in the grip of the sub-zero temperatures, she narrowly escapes. The experience imprints her brain with an obsession with cold, and she leaves her life and family behind to seek passage to an iceberg in the small sailboat of a deaf-mute fisherman. If the story wasn't kooky enough, this nearly wordless spectacle is absolutely hilarious as this group of actors (three of whom are also listed as the directors, which leads me to believe this may be some sort of comedy troop) perform some classic slapstick on their way to the Arctic wonderland. There is something both sweet and dark about the whole affair, but that only heightens the comedy of this tasty film I think would play very well to audiences in this country. The film plays on Saturday, March 10 at 6:15pm.

Red Road

One of the downright creepiest offerings this year is writer-director Andrea Arnold's Red Road, a film that begins with the story of a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a closed-circuit television monitor, watching over dozens of small monitors that reveal some of the nastier parts of a Glasgow neighborhood. If she sees something bad happen or about to happen, she calls the cops and her job is done. At first I thought this film might turn into a Rear Window rip-off, but thankfully that's not what happens. The woman spots a familiar face (Miami Vice's Tony Curran) on the bank of monitors, and you can almost see her blood turn cold. She takes it upon herself to track the guy down and infiltrate his life and circle of friends. It's clear he doesn't recognize her, so we're not sure at first what their connection is. Eventually she seduces him in an intensely graphic scene that is both weirdly erotic and utterly tense and mystifying. The film's final act is something of a let down, but revealing the true nature of this relationship would have to be since the reality could never be as interesting as what our mind has speculated up to this point. Director Arnold (she made the Oscar-winning short film WASP a couple years back) has a gift for taking these seemingly unremarkable people and giving them emotionally devastating lives. Dickie's performance is sad and moving, and she has a face I won't soon forget. Red Road is part of an interesting experiment conceived by Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, who are credited with conceiving these characters. Three directors will write and shoot three films set in Scotland with the same cast playing essentially the same character but in completely different stories. I don't think the other two films have been made yet, but I'd be curious to see how this exercise plays out. The film is playing Friday, March 9 at 6pm, and Saturday, March 10 at 8pm.

GB store
 

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.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15