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Wednesday, July 17

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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

When I was compiling my list of the 50 best films of 2007 (for the purposes of the current awards season, this film was released last year), this film narrowly missed my Top 10 and fell in at number 11. People have asked me my feelings about the Oscar nominations this year, and they aren't too bad. Cate Blanchett robbed Angelina Jolie of her rightful nod for A Mighty Heart. In no place on Earth does Elizabeth: The Golden Age deserve recognition of anything. But aside from that, I can live with the nominations as they are, with the exception of nearly the entire Best Foreign Film category. In the spirit of full disclosure, I've now only seen two of the five nominees—Mongol, which absolutely deserves a nomination; and The Counterfeiters, which is a fine film indeed. But The Counterfeiters does not in any way deserve a nomination in this category over France's Persepolis (which, granted, received a nomination in the Animated Feature category), Spain's The Orphanage, Canada's Days of Darkness, Hong Kong's Exiled, Italy's The Unknown or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the highly touted and deeply disturbing work from Romania. It used to be the Documentary category that was fucked up; now, apparently, it's the foreign films that are taking a hit. But I digress.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a stark and upsetting film that you should rush to see as soon as it opens in your neck of the woods (assuming it ever does). It follows two female college students through 24 of the scariest hours of their lives. The film is set in '80s-era Romania, during what would turn out to be the end of communist rule and the Ceausescu dictatorship. Everyone is a little scared of authority, to say the least, and it is clear from the start that these two women are involved in something illegal. One of them, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), is pregnant and is attempting to get an illegal abortion. The wheels are already in motion. Her friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), is borrowing money from friends, the hotel is booked where the procedure will take place, and the "specialist" has been called in. 4 Months has no political agenda (regarding abortion, at least; its viewpoint on communism is quite clear). If anything, it wants to show us that in a world where the best-laid plans can get botched, these two women's half-baked plans are a disaster waiting to happen. Schedules are not kept; Gabita is a thoughtless, selfish friend, whose behavior puts both of them at risk. The title of the film is an indicator of just how reckless this girl is, having let her pregnancy go far longer than she admits to. It doesn't help that the citizens of this Iron Curtain nation seems less than willing or eager to help their fellow comrades unless there is money in it for them.

The film kicks into full ick factor with the introduction of the truly awful abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), one of the greatest forces of evil in the 2007 films. He hides behind his paranoia to squeeze more money out of these two women, and when they can't pay, he decides to take it out in trade. His methodical methods when carrying out the procedure might make you sick. The tension level during the course of 4 Months is kept extremely high. Will they get caught? Will the procedure kill Gabita? Will Gabita find new ways of doing the wrong thing? The film is shot documentary-style by acclaimed cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and has an immediate and almost real-time feel to it. The real standout here is Marinca, who sacrifices much for the sake of her ungrateful friend. During this ordeal, she is forced to leave the hotel where her friend is recovering to attend a party at her boyfriend's parents' home. He has no idea what's going on, and her behavior at the party couldn't be less friendly.

This is an unsettling and sometimes downright unpleasant film to watch, but the cumulative effect of 4 Months' troubling two-hour running time is undeniable. This is a film that clings to the inside of your brain and won't let go. It shows you a time and place not so long gone. Is it a warning about the potential return of black-market abortions? Or is it just a pledge that people like Bebe should never be allowed to ply their horribly unsafe trade again in this world? Either way, the film's impact is solid and unforgettable. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


In Bruges

In a strange way, I wish In Bruges was coming out at a different time of year. The film's award-worthy script (from first-time feature director and acclaimed British playwright Martin McDonagh) is too smart and insightful for February. Then again, it will stand out like a beacon of light. Ignore the trailers that paint this film as a comic romp. While the film will most certainly make you laugh a lot, there is so much more going on in this story of two Irish hitmen hiding out in the Belgian city of Bruges after a job goes horribly wrong. One of the men is veteran killer Ken (Brendan Gleeson, star of McDonagh's fantastic Oscar-winning short Six Shooter); the other, Ray (Colin Farrell), is on his first gig as a hitman. He seems just rough enough around the edges for the job, but as we see in a series of flashbacks (more like Ray's nightmares), the hit went wrong because of his carelessness.

Bruges is a strange and wonderful city that is part medieval kingdom, part slightly dull destination that tourists tend to come to and spend only one or two days checking out the museums, canals and fabulous architecture. Ken finds the place kind of magical; Ray is bored out of his mind, until he finds out there's a movie being shot in town that features a dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice). Now he's entertained. While Farrell is playing a guilt-ridden character much like the one he plays in Woody Allen's latest Cassandra's Dream, this is the better part. Farrell seems to know this character better; he's hysterical at times, short tempered and riddled with a severe case of Catholic guilt. Ken tries to comfort the poor fellow, but it turns out it's a woman (French actress Clemence Poesy) who gives Ray a reason to get excited about life again. Ray is a often-vulgar and bigoted man, who has almost no filter between his brain and his mouth. He beats up a man in a restaurant (believing him to be an asshole American) while yelling, "That's for John Lennon." It's a funny, seemingly throwaway scene that has serious consequences later in the film.

The reason the men are in Bruges specifically is their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, who we don't see until about an hour into the film; we hear his voice on the phone a few times before that). Harry is a brutal and nasty man who has loved Bruges since taking a trip there as a child, and wanted to give Ray one last fun experience before his mistake on the job is dealt with. The wildly clever screenplay rarely takes us outside the town and adds a slightly claustrophobic feel to the proceedings. The interplay between the two leads in phenomenal, but when Harry shows up, he and Ray have a couple exceptional scenes as well. Their long history as coworkers is explored and exploited by Ray to keep things from getting bloody. The dizzying conclusion of In Bruges is nothing short of genius as McDonagh brings all of his characters together in a chaotic, potentially bloody affair.

In Bruges takes characters that might be unlikable villains in other stories and makes them people we care about and cheer on. McDonagh has always mixed comedy and introspection, sometimes shocking drama in his plays, and his move into celluloid is extraordinary. While never feeling at all like a filmed play, In Bruges takes a simple, uncomplicated approach to its story. It's also a visually lovely piece that takes full advantage of the city's many historical buildings and art galleries filled with some of the most evil visions of hell and purgatory I've ever seen. Yay, Hieronymus Bosch! I'm calling my travel agent right away to make the journey, and you should, too. This is a wonderful film that deserves a bigger audience than it will probably get. It's an intelligent work, with fully realized characters and great actors up to the task. You may never see Farrell any better, Gleason more highly profiled or Fiennes more sociopathic.

To read my interview with In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh, visit: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35511.


Taxi to the Dark Side

Opening up with modest fanfare is this recent Oscar nominee for Best Documentary that acts as a well-suited companion piece to No End In Sight (the likely winner, in my estimation). I learned something from this film that I will never forget: when you hit a person, the muscles under the skin where you've hit them liquefy or partially liquefy; and if you hit a person enough time in enough places on their body, you can literally turn their entire musculature to jelly. In 2002, this is exactly how a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar died in an American prison camp after being ruthlessly beaten by soldiers. Dilawar was accused (without any proof) of being the triggerman in a rocket attack against U.S. forces. He died less than a week after being arrested. Whether by mistake or to send a message, the doctor who performed the autopsy on the driver stated the cause of death was homicide. This seemingly minor acknowledgement is the jumping off point for a graphic and unflinching look at the current administration's loosely defined policy on torture both in camps in the Middle East and in Guantanamo Bay.

Director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the recent Sundance premiere Gonzo, about Hunter S. Thompson) isn't afraid to show us exactly what he's talking about. He doesn't give us a chance to deny this horrendous behavior in our own minds. All of those blurred Abu Ghraib photos are here without the blurring. Gibney also has collected an impressive number of interviews with senators, soldiers and former interrogators, all of whom treat the interview experience as some sort of confessional. His collection of news footage of Chaney, Rumsfeld and the president, all dodging or lying about the question of torture as part of America's wartime policy is sickening. But it's the interviews with Dilawar's family and the soldiers ultimately put on trial for his death that stick with me to this day (I first saw this film in October as part of the Chicago Film Festival).

Gibney is a gifted filmmaker who makes a point to stick to the facts of not only the homicide story, but also about torture as a means of gaining intelligence (apparently it's about the least-effective way to get information from a prisoner). It is clear that the men who killed Dilawar knew he was innocent, which might be the greatest sin of all; they only seemed to be interested in beating him until he told them what they wanted to hear. If you're looking for someone new to blame for this shady policy, you could do worse than John Yoo, a one-time member of the Office of Legal Counsel, who argued the point that if the government decides a means of interrogation is to be used, it isn't torture. That's convenient. Much like No End In Sight, Taxi to the Dark Side is going to piss you off. You may not feel that your fragile state can handle one more film that gives you a reason to hate the government (it remains to be seen whether the upcoming change in administration will better the situation), but these two films act as a heartbreaking one-two punch that in the end will hopefully make you more aware and responsible citizens, and isn't that what it's really all about? The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show

Less a straight stand-up concert film and more a documentary about the often-grueling stand-up circuit, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show follows the adventures Vaughn experienced while taking a group of four rising comics and a handful of his actor buddies on a road trip through the heartland—30 shows in 30 days. Said to be in the spirit of the Old West variety shows of days gone by, the tour offered up a unique experience for the travelers in each city, and the resulting film is a truly fascinating and gut-busting good time.

The heart of the film is the short sets by each of the four comics. There isn't a weak performer in the bunch. Wisely, director Ari Sandel (West Bank Story) doles out the stand-up in small but satisfying bites. Probably the best known of the bunch, the Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed tells true stories of racial profiling, his troubles in airports and of his good luck with women on the road who all want to date him because it would really piss off their parents. John Caparulo has the most natural approach, even seeming to crack himself up when he's particularly funny, which is quite often. New Jersey's Bret Ernst has a great gift for noticing behavior. His routine on how men and women act when going to a club in a group will have you weeping with laughter. My personal favorite is the least experienced of the bunch, Sebastian Maniscalco, whose main source of income was from waiting tables when Vaughn selected him. He uses the stage, no matter the size, to full advantage. Always dressed in black with perfectly coifed hair, Maniscalco prowls around the stage with a passion for his work you rarely see. I particularly loved his priceless description of his pre-show cleansing ritual.

But the onstage stand-up is only a part of this film. Sandel wants to show us how punishing and unforgiving road life can be. The team crowds onto a bus, which, by the end of the tour, looks like a frat house on Sunday morning. We follow the group as they in the local attractions in each city. A stop to visit Buck Owens in Bakersfield, California, is particularly thrilling, especially when Dwight Yoakam drops by on stage to sing with Vaughn. Oh, yes. There are guest stars who join Vaughn between the comics to do rehearsed and improvised routines. John Favreau, Justin Long and Vaughn's best friend Peter Billingsley (one of the film's producers) all show up onstage at various points to engage in some light banter with the host. The sequences with Billingsley are particularly ridiculous as Vaughn presents Christmas Story clips along with sequences from an after-school special that the two men did as youngsters about steroid abuse. The two then proceed to re-enact the special's classic confrontation scene live. Justin Long's dead-on impersonation of Vaughn in Swingers is also a keeper.

Much like the live show, the film Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is about keeping the audience laughing. In fact, the laughs per minute on this movie might by higher than anything I've seen in quite a while. On the few occasions when the film gets serious—for example, when the troupe visits a campground where displaced victims of Hurricane Rita are living—it slows things down. But I didn't really mind that much since my facial muscles welcomed the relief. The film also profiles each comic by giving us a little history on each one's career, showing them with their parents and other family members, and getting comments from everyone in the group on each other's strengths and type of humor. The funny thing is, if you'd told me that these mini-profiles were part of this film before I saw it, I would have groaned in disapproval. But it made me more interested in where their humor was coming from, especially in the case of Ahmed Ahmed, who has transformed some truly ugly behavior against him into prime material. If you've always wanted a little insight into the down-and-dirty side of the entertainment lifestyle, or if you just want to laugh your balls off, the Wild West Comedy Show should help you fulfill both needs.


Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins

There's a great deal of talent on display in writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's latest comedy, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins (which follows the filmmaker's largely successful works The Best Man, Undercover Brother and Roll Bounce) about talkshow host Jenkins (Martin Lawrence), who takes his reality show star fiancée Bianca (Joy Bryant) from Los Angeles to his family's home in the South. Needless to say, the city mice and the country mice don't always mesh. Notable African-American actors such as James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Nicole Ari Parker and Michael Clarke Duncan are thrown together with comics Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps and Mo'Nique, and the results are fairly predictable. Everyone is vying for screen time and the best one-liners, when a more subtle and thoughtful approach might have resulted in a better movie.

Bryant's character is so utterly insensitive and evil (especially in her dealings with Roscoe's young son) that it impacts our opinion of Roscoe. It's hard to sympathize with a guy who would ever get involved with a woman like Bianca. I know that's the point, but it put me off this film early on. What's worse is that Lawrence is often forced into the role of straight man while other comic actors dish out the jokes all around him. I have always thought Lawrence was a truly funny man who belonged on the big screen, but he refuses to make anything as daring as his stand-up act used to be. When Wild Hogs is the edgiest work you can muster, there's something wrong with your career.

There's not much more to say about Roscoe Jenkins specifically. The plot is rice-paper thin; character development is non-existent; and the PG-13 jokes are dead in the water, although Mo'Nique always manages to crack me up. But perhaps more significantly, black films need to movie beyond stories centering on large, extended families, with each family member delivering a kernel of homespun wisdom to the audience. There have got to be better, different stories to tell (Malcolm Lee's last film, Roll Bounce, proved that, even if audiences didn't respond), and I can't wait to see who finally breaks the well-used mold. There have been worse cinematic experiences since the beginning of the 2008, but I don't think the worst of the bunch tried as little as Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins to be original.


Fool's Gold

I guess enough people were loopy enough to find How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days watchable enough to want…no, demand a reteaming of stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey in this seriously lackluster story of two treasure-hunting lovers (recently divorced from each other) who are traipsing around the Caribbean looking for a shipwreck that both have been looking for since they met. But I'm not here to tell you how intensely boring and shockingly unfunny Fool's Gold is; you can probably guess that for yourself. I'm here to talk about accents. More specifically, I'd like someone to explain why four major characters (that I counted) needed to have the accents they had, or any accent. First there's Donald Sutherland, playing a billionaire with a vaguely British and utterly phony accent. Then you have Ray Winstone, a Brit, doing a terrible Southern accent. Then you get Scot Ewen Bremner doing some sort of Ukrainian thing. And finally there's Malcolm-Jamal Warner doing a generic Caribbean accent. Why? I'll ask that again: Why? Why all the accents? Why is having a Ukrainian treasure hunter funnier than a Scottish one? And how is it possible that McConaughey's lazy Texas drawl is the least annoying accent in this film?

Director Andy Tennant (Hitch; Sweet Home Alabama) has essentially lost control of his rather large cast and this unwieldy script. There are too many cardboard-cutout supporting characters distracting us from what little entertainment value the main story thread offers (it ain't much, folks). As a result, whatever natural charm and likeability McConaughey and Hudson might have to carry the film is buried under an overly complicated backstory on the treasure being sought, and on cartoonish secondary players and storylines. In many ways Fool's Gold is worse than something like Meet the Spartans or this week's Hottie and the Nottie because it's striving for greatness as it falls miserably short. There's some potential there, but it's squandered on easy gags, way too much broad physical comedy and more plot than this dopey comedy can handle.


Hottie and the Nottie

In order for you to even begin to accept—let alone enjoy—the comedy Hottie and the Nottie, you have to be willing to accept one very basic premise: that Paris Hilton is the living, breathing example of ideal beauty. With her wonky eye, piles of extended hair and monotone delivery, Hilton is meant to be our object of worship in the same fashion the film's lead character, Nate (Joel David Moore), worships her. Nate apparently met Cristabel (Hilton) when they were in the first grade, was separated from her shortly thereafter, and has stayed infatuated ever since. Cristabel's lifelong best friend is a hideously ugly girl named June (played as an adult by Christine Lakin). When Nate tracks down his childhood crush years later, it turns out she's still friends with June and has pledged that until June has a man of her own, she won't date. Nate's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to find a man who would not just date June, but enter into a long-term relationship with the beast.

If I sound like I'm being harsh and focusing too much on June's looks, you clearly haven't seen this movie. June is made up to be hideously ugly, with her rotting teeth, blotchy, scab-ridden skin, patchy baldness, hair on every other part of her body and a generally abrasive personality to go along with all of these lovely attributes. But as much as the film thinks it's about helping out the ugly girl, it's really just an exercise in mean behavior and idealization of Paris Hilton. If we all can't strive to be as pretty as her, what reason is there to go on living? It should come as no surprise (nothing in this film should) that June goes through a gradual ugly-duckling-to-swan makeover that makes her attractive by conventional standards and finally makes her worthy to lose her virginity. The film's PG-13 jokes and mentality make it mean-spirited enough to be deplorable without having the teeth to back up its cruelty with truly appalling humor. But what's worse is that the film spends an extraordinary amount of time showing us how much every man in the world falls over themselves for Hilton. Why wouldn't she take this role? Fifty percent of the film is people telling her how beautiful she is, and I never got thirsty enough to drink that Kool-Aid. Hottie and the Nottie is a brainless, laugh-free experience with a pinch of evil and a pinch of general unpleasantness. Enjoy!


Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

Certainly plenty has been written about the life and works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but I'd never heard of his long-time partner in life and in art, Sam Wagstaff, the filthy rich visionary art dealer and curator who championed the works of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tony Smith and Agnes Martin. Director James Crump beautifully documents the strange and fruitful relationship between the two men (as well as then-budding young singer-songwriter Patti Smith), which was equal parts kept man/sugar daddy, artist/patron and exhibitionist/willing viewer.

Wagstaff is the primary focus of the film, which tracks his life as a child of privilege to naval officer to ad exec to fine arts student to collector. His extraordinary collection of seemingly random found photo collections became the stuff of legend. Sam and Robert were one of the first out-of-the-closet power couples of the art world who rarely flinched from an opportunity to explore their exotic and erotic boundaries. But Wagstaff had other faces as well. He was a businessman, a corporate type, a fundraiser and someone who had to pretend to be straight-laced in certain circles (emphasis on "straight"). I love listening to Patti Smith talk. She has great stories about every aspect of her life and career, but it's clear from listening to her talk for this film that her fondness for these two men is overflowing. Black White + Gray is a touching slice of art history, and while Wagstaff was hardly obscure to those who followed the scene at the time, the film guarantees that his name and influential contribution to the art world will not be forgotten. The film plays for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


Eye in the Sky

One of the highlights from last year's Chicago Film Festival, this surveillance-themed thriller from Hong Kong follows an undercover police unit attempting to stop a ring of smash-and-grab jewel thieves. Director Yau Nai-hoi has spent much of his career as a screenwriter for top action director Johnnie To (a producer on this film) on such works as Election, and much of the cast (including Tony Leung Ka-fai and Simon Yam) are To regulars. Despite its characters being by-the-book professionals, Yau finds ways to dig into their quirky personalities, particularly in the relationship between lead detective Yam and the newest member of his unit, Piggy (Kate Tsui). Eye in the Sky maintains the slick, fast-paced delivery that we've come to expect from Yau's scripts, but there's a welcome level of character development that is sadly lacking in many of police dramas coming out of Hong Kong. This is a nicely realized effort that delves into the somewhat solitary lives of people that somehow have the patience to sit for hours, often alone, watching other people. It's a different kind of police procedural and probably the best of the bunch in this year's Hong Kong! series at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film screens on Friday, February 8 at 6:15pm, and Sunday, February 10 at 5:15pm.

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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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