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Wednesday, October 18

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A Mighty Heart

It's only June, and we've already got the year's first true Oscar contender, which I guess is my roundabout what of declaring A Mighty Heart one of the best films I've seen all year. I'll begin this discussion with a confession: shortly after the shocking video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's death was put out on the Internet in early 2002, I sought it out and watched it. In this day and age, I guess that confession isn't particularly scandalous, and I'm sure many of you did the same. Execution videos are all over the Internet, and (be honest) most of you probably took a peek at Saddam Hussein's hanging video, both versions. But the Daniel Pearl footage, at the time, was an event most American's had never seen anything like. And if you did view it and you're like me, you'll probably never want to see anything like it again. For months, maybe even years, after seeing it, my mind replayed the thing behind my eyes. As a result of this, I wanted to know as much about how Pearl found himself in that situation.

A Mighty Heart is a startlingly powerful telling of the events leading up to, during, and shortly after his kidnapping and awful murder, as seen through the eyes of his six-months pregnant wife Mariane (played by Angelina Jolie, in a career-defining portrayal) and the swarm of investigators, government officials, friends and coworkers who gathered in her rented home in Pakistan in the hopes of finding Daniel (Dan Futterman) before his fate was sealed. Much as director Paul Greengrass did with his United 93, Michael Winterbottom (The Claim, Road to Guantanamo) does a remarkable job shaping his story and building an insurmountable level of tension with a story we know does not end well. Wisely, Winterbottom doesn't show Daniel in any situation that can't be absolutely confirmed by witness accounts. In other words, there is no speculation in the screenplay about what happened to him during his time with his kidnappers (other than the handful of photos and videos that were released during his captivity). Guessing isn't part of the film's story, and us not knowing exactly what's happening to Danny all the more awful.

By A Mighty Heart is more about the controlled chaos that surrounded Mariane, whose strength, control, and clear thinking is almost inhuman. But my guess is that Mariane Pearl, who was also a journalist, knew how to handle herself in a crisis. I've seen hours of footage of Mariane, so I know exactly what she looks and sounds like, and the way Jolie inhabits this passionate, lovely woman is extraordinary. It's more than just her hair, accent, and slightly darker skin tone, Jolie becomes Mariane as a pillar of strength and stability that crumbles only slightly in front of others, and only slightly more when she's alone.

As a straight procedural thriller, A Mighty Heart works equally well, with U.S. and Pakistani officials desperately using every possible source to locate Daniel. There's a recurring image in this film of a massive and messy flow chart that tracks Pearl's whereabouts and connections leading up to his disappearance. He was investigating shoe-bomber Richard Reid's connections to terrorist groups in the area when he was snatched, and during the course of the film, the chart that connects the two men grows and expands to ridiculous extremes. Not only is the handling of the investigation quite authentic, but the frustration with bad information and dead-end leads is also perfectly captured.

A Mighty Heart may not made you cry (in many ways, Mariane's reserve rubs off on the audience), but it will move you and inject itself into your heart and mind in ways that, for me, have replaced those awful images of Daniel Pearl's execution. Seeing the couple at their wedding and just being so clearly in love is something else the film graces us with, not so much to soften the blow but to remind us that this is a film about a wife losing her husband and a baby boy who never got to know his father. Winterbottom does what he has always done so beautifully in films like Guantanamo and In This World, which is to take a situation that has impacted so many (more than 200 journalists have been killed since Pearl) and boil it down to one devastating story. I'll say it again: this is one of the year's best films.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with director Michael Winterbottom.

1408

I remember my first exposure to the Stephen King short story "1408," on which the new John Cusack film is based. Most fairly faithful fans of King's fiction first read it as part of his Everything's Eventual collection of short stories, but I remember so clearly reading the first chapter in his non-fiction instructional manual On Writing, in which he gave readers (students?) the unedited version of that first chapter and then showed how he went back and edited his own work. As a writer, the book was indispensable, but that small sample of unreleased material was my personal Holy Grail for many years. Then came the King book-on-tape Blood and Smoke, four stories never put in one of his books to that point (most, if not all, ended up in Everything's Eventual). With King reading this story on the tape, I nearly shit myself listening to this tale of a man in an evil hotel room.

On the surface, the story of 1408 doesn't lend itself to being made into a feature film. Nearly all of the major "action" takes place in the mind of writer Mike Enslin, played by Cusack in a return to greatness. With the exception of The Ice Harvest, I haven't been too impressed with much of what this gifted actor has given us in recent years, but I think 2007 is looking to be one of his finest, especially if what I'm hearing about Grace Is Gone is true. Cusack's gift for maximum sarcasm and skepticism is exactly what Enslin needs as a once serious writer who has cheapened his talents by writing about supposedly haunted houses and hotels. For his latest work, an investigation of 10 well-known spook-occupied hotels (he tends to debunk every claim of supernatural activity in these establishments), Mike wants his final chapter to be on the Dolphin Hotel New York, which has seen dozens of deaths in Room 1408 since its opening in the 1930s. In fact, no resident of that room has lasted more than an hour.

Upon walking into the hallowed halls of the esteemed hotel, Enslin is met by hotel manager Gerald Olin (a nicely subdued Samuel L. Jackson), who plies the writer with expensive spirits and offers of access to information about all of the previous deaths if Mike will simply not stay in the room. Mike is convinced this is all part of the "sell," just a way to make nervous and easily spooked in the room. Olin does his best to explain the nature of the evil in the room, but Enslin simply isn't buying it.

It's within the confines of Room 1408 that we, too, begin to understand how things work. There are no ghosts or spirits in the room already, only the ones that you bring in with you. We soon see in a series of flashbacks ripped from Mike's mind by the room that he and his wife (Mary McCormack) once had a daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) who died young, and whose passing caused Mike to leave his wife in New York and move to California, far away from his pain. 1408 is not a film with cheap scares or cats jumping out of closest punctuated by loud music (unless you count The Carpenters tune that is the recurring theme song of the film). This is a movie that earns the fear that it generates, and plunges deep into the darkest corners of Mike's soul to find out what scares him the most and what events in his life he would least like to relive. Don't go looking for any kind of explanation why Room 1408 is the way it is. Perhaps it's just a place where a person's ghosts are amplified and guilt is exploited to the point where many past residents ended their own lives as a means of escape.

I hope I'm wrong, but 1408 is almost too smart for mainstream audiences. Most of the crowd with whom I saw this film was restless early, and the film is barely 90 minutes long. This is a tense and thrilling art film disguised as a scare movie. It's a psychological profile of a tortured artist dealing unsuccessfully with grief. Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) has crafted a near-perfect character study and Cusack makes it look easy. He's not afraid to look tired and older than we've seen him look before. This is not the typical man-ish boy that he's played in the past (and even recently). He's a grown man with a grown man's troubles. That doesn't mean he doesn't have fun with the role, especially early on when we see him visit one of many haunted hotels. But when it's time to rip out his heart with a chainsaw and crowbar, he doesn't flinch. 1408 is a smart, stylish, and gripping drama encased in horror show wrapping that works on both levels. The movie dares to have an artistry about it, while not forgetting to be entertaining and poignant.

You Kill Me

Director John Dahl has been something of a personal hero of mine since his first three films hit me with a one-two-three punch combination back in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction are just three of the greatest crime dramas of their time. They are dark, sleazy, weird and, above all else, kind of funny. His greatest success came with the gambling crime drama Rounders, which featured early and solid performances from Matt Damon and Edward Norton, followed by the pseudo-stalker movie Joy Ride. His latest film, You Kill Me, is quite simply his best work. He takes his usual brand of pitch black storytelling, injects a great deal of dark humor, and the result is one of the greatest character studies ever done about a criminal, in this case, a hitman named Frank Falenczyk from Buffalo.

Frank (played with ballsy bitterness by Ben Kingsley) is an alcoholic, whose bosses indulge him because his condition has never interfered with his work — until it does. Frank lets a rival mob boss (Dennis Farina) escape a hit because he passes out waiting for him at a train station. Frank's boss (Philip Baker Hall) clearly loves Frank dearly, so rather than kill him, he ships his off to San Francisco to dry out. Frank, a man who clearly loves Buffalo for the weather, is against the idea, but goes anyway. After being set up with a place and a job (as a funeral home makeup assistant!) by a local arranger (Bill Pullman), Frank goes to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He finds it ridiculous, but he does meet a new friend and gains a sponsor, a gay man played by Luke Wilson, in what might be his most non-Luke Wilson-ish role. And slowly but surely, Frank's life gets better, one step at a time.

Perhaps unwisely at this stage in his life, Frank meets a prospective love interest in Tea Leoni's Lauren, who steps into his world as she sets up the funeral of her stepfather. Lauren is a woman with no boundaries or filters, and her honestly inspires Frank to be as open and honest with her and his AA comrades as possible, including coming clean about his hitman occupation. I'll be the first to admit, I've never really liked Leoni as an actress (with the exception of her hilarious role in Flirting With Disaster, a film similar in tone to this one), but she's impressive as hell in You Kill Me. Her delivery sometimes seems flat and without energy, but when you combine her performance with the words she's saying, it all feels right; the delivery is exactly right. Her emotionless exterior is hiding and protecting a troubled soul. And while we feel fairly certain these two would make a perfect dysfunctional couple, their being together is not a forgone conclusion.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the two mob figures is becoming a problem, and Frank is called back to finish his unfinished job, leaving his life in San Francisco in limbo, and his future in the land of the living a big question mark as well. I think the film could have ended just as well without the return to Buffalo, but this plot turn in no way damages my love of You Kill Me. What Kingsley accomplishes here is glorious and in the same league as his scary work in Sexy Beast. The subtle changes in his character as he begins to accept his condition and what it's going to take to pull him out of his private hell are something only a perfectionist like Kingsley could pull off. Frank latches onto a routine that keep him from drinking, and when he dares to stray from it, things go either very bad or very well. Either way, it scares the crap out of him, and John is smart enough to never let us predict exactly what direction Frank's life is headed next. This is an intelligent comedy that taps into some of the human condition's darkest corners and manages to be charming and thought provoking. Better than that, it never stops surprising you. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Read my exclusive interview with You Kill Me director John Dahl on Ain't It Cool News.

Evan Almighty

There's nothing patently offensive about this, the most expensive comedy ever made. Quite the contrary. This is a PG-rated film that screened to church groups even before it was shown to most of the nation's critics. True story. And the money is definitely on the screen. The hundreds of paired animals who get on Evan Baxter's (Steve Carell, reprising his role as the news anchor from Bruce Almighty) ark are an impressive visual achievement, as is the massive flood that occurs in the film's final act. But it's a shame that this high-priced work couldn't have worked on a few more laughs and not played it so damn safe.

After putting forth the two most impressive (and decided R-rated) film roles of his career in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine, Carell has apparently decided to play it safe for a while, starting with Evan Almighty, in which Baxter leaves his new job in favor of becoming a local politician. Unlike the original Jim Carrey work, this film does not give Evan the opportunity to become God (embodied by Morgan Freeman once again) for a time. Instead God wants Evan to build a massive ark in his Washington, D.C. suburb for a flood that is coming. This doesn't bode well for the career of the junior Congressman, who has barely had time to unpack his boxes. But that doesn't stop the obviously corrupt Rep. Long (John Goodman) from setting his sights on Baxter for help on a new real estate development bill that would allow building to be done in certain areas of public parks. If you smell and environmental message approaching, you have a worthy olfactory system. In fact, just about every aspect of Evan Almighty is highly predictable, and that's one of many huge problems the film possesses.

Long couldn't be more obviously evil if you plastered a twirly mustache on his upper lip. People you'd expect to be intelligent play it so dumb for the sake of the plot. For example, Evan's wife (Lauren Graham) barely bats an eye when her husband's grows a beard in a matter of hours (to look the Noah part, I guess). The Congressman's staff (which includes Wanda Sykes, John Michael Higgins, and the reliable Jonah Hill, who does manage to get a few funny lines in) react to Baxter having an army of animals following him for about five seconds, and then just accept it because... well, actually I'm not sure why. Screenwriter Steve Oedekerk and director Tom Shadyac (both of whom return from the first film) seem content to let what little plausibility this film might have go right out the window for the sake of a good bird poop joke and a few expensive visual effects.

There aren't any terrible performances here, and the film's intentions, however obviously, are good, but you'd figure a little more graceful an execution might have been higher on the filmmakers' list of priorities. At the center of it all, Carell manages to pull a few jokes out of his tattered robe that probably weren't on the page, so Evan Almighty at least has a few laughs, even if they do feel forced sometimes. It would not have taken a miracle to make this movie work, just a little actual effort and maybe a lot less concern for offending those who take this God stuff so seriously. This feels like a classic example of a film produced by committee, and that's a sin.

Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman

I'm not sure how many of you are aware of this, but certain digital cable providers around the nation offer a little something called IFC First Take, and it's a handy little tool to keep those of you who maybe don't live near a thriving art film movie house to see some really cool movies the same day they came out (in limited runs) in certain major markets. Pierrepoint first hit the festival circuit about two years ago, and considering what a fascinating true story it weaves, I'm surprised it hasn't been released sooner. But a quality film is a quality film, whenever the powers that be deem it a good time to put it out.

Pierrepoint profiles a quiet, unassuming man British man named Albert Pierrepoint (played with understated brilliance by Timothy Spall), who from 1933 to 1955 killed 608 people... and got away with it... because he was sanctioned by the British government to do so. His anonymity was guaranteed, and the job was only a part-time gig, so he held down an additional career as a grocery store clerk for many years. Albert was, in many ways, destined for the job of prison executioner since his father had the same job many years earlier. In fact, dear old dad held the record time for preparing the prisoner and carrying out the hanging, a record Albert was destined to beat. For many years, he and his wife (Juliet Stevenson) led a quiet, unassuming, comfortable life, and Albert never spoke to her or anyone about his job.

Then came World War II and afterwards the war crimes trials of many Nazi in the British courts. Not only were Pierrepoint's abilities tested (he was responsible for executing dozens of war criminals, often carrying out the hangings two at a time and upwards of 15 per day for weeks), but also his long-protected secret identity was no longer secret thanks to a prying British press. For a long time, Albert was looked upon as a community and national hero. He even gained enough notoriety to open his own successful pub. But when public opinion turned in the 1950s, and capital punishment became wildly unpopular, Pierrepoint became a hated figure.

Anyone who has ever seen the Mike Newell's disturbing 1985 docudrama Dance With a Stranger might be familiar with Pierrepoint's final execution job, the hanging of Ruth Ellis (played in that film by Miranda Richardson), who was the last woman in Britain to be executed. Those events are dealt with in The Last Hangman as well, but from Pierrepoint's slowly crumbling perspective, and it's one of the film's most harrowing sequences. Timothy Spall remains one of our finest character actors, who never has trouble adjusting to leading man when a director allows him to step up. (If you ever get a chance, check out Danny Boyle's Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise starring Spall; it's a real blast.)

Pierrepoint director Adrian Shergold makes the bold move of painting a professional executioner as a misunderstood and kindly man, who actually makes a case with each new trainee put under his command to treat those sentenced to death with dignity before and after hanging. He also doesn't anyone suffering at the end of his rope, and he knows exactly how long to make it so that the neck snaps between the second and third vertebrae, causing instant death. The Last Hangman is a fascinating character study brought to life by a quiet and pinpoint performance by Spall. Whether you watch this one on cable or in theaters (the film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema), seek this movie out. It's gripping storytelling.

Eagle Vs. Shark

There are several candidates for most divisive film in the last five years, but I would have to nominate Napoleon Dynamite, a film I was lucky enough to discover about two months before it was released, before I'd read a single word about it, in fact. I walked in unsuspecting and came out thoroughly entertained. I'm sure many of you will dismiss or accept my opinion on Eagle Vs. Shark based on my extreme like of Dynamite, which is fine I guess, but not especially open minded. New Zealand's Eagle Vs. Shark will be compared to that film countless times by critics, and the comparison seems both unavoidable and understandable, if not entirely fair. For one thing, this is a far more adult work, even if the characters seem hopelessly awkward. I absolutely fell in love with the sweet Lily (Loren Horsley), as fast-food worker who daydreams about the "handsome" Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, one half of HBO's new series "Flight of the Conchords").

Lily is an absolute misfit. Her voice is deep and whispery, her posture is poor, and her shyness overwhelms everything else about her. But her heart is so big and so pure, I just wanted to give her a big hug for trying so hard. She ends up taking a party invitation meant for another girl Jarrod has a crush on, and shows up at the costume party dressed as her favorite animal: the shark. Videogame shop clerk Jerrod is impressed by her choice (he was selected an eagle costume), and her skills at videogames. The two sleep together after the party, and Lily is officially in love.

Soon, the slightly dismissive Jarrod invites her to his parents home where he reveals his oldest secret: he has been spent 10 years training to kill a high school bully who still lives near his parents' home. In fact, he dumps Lily while at their home so he can concentrate on his training. But as we get to know the players in Jarrod's family, we find out about some fairly sad and upsetting events in their past that explain all too much about the interpersonal relationships at work here.

At its core, the film wants to make us laugh at all its strange behavior, and you probably will. But dig a little deeper, and you'll discover something bordering on a vision from writer-director Taika Waititi. Eagle Vs. Shark is filled with clumsy and uncomfortable moments that will make you squirm as often as they make you smile (sustained belly laughs aren't really the objective here). I love that sort of story; not everybody does. And even when the plot wasn't working as well for me, Horsley's energy and passion pulled me through. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ten Canoes

This utterly unexpected tribute to the Aboriginal art of verbal storytelling is a feast for the eyes and the soul, as director Rolf de Heer weaves two tales. As ten men make a long journey through Australia's Northern Territory to gather food and other supplies, one of the older men decides to tell one of the younger ones the 1,000-year-old tale of Minygululu, who desires his much older brother's wife. The twists and turns both tales take are so interesting and captivating, there is simply no possible way you can not get sucked in. This is not some simple, safe and sanitized story. There is sex, violence, dark magic and death to keep things going. Ten Canoes possesses a note-perfect sense of adventure, mystery and cultural universality. Not wanting to give away any of either stories rich details, I'll leave you by reminding you that if you've ever complained about the absolute cliché-drenched nature of Hollywood film, look no further than Ten Canoes for an escape. This is a different style of movie making than you're used to, but it is absolutely worth the journey. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Full Grown Men

The Gene Siskel Film Center embarks on many fine causes and project each year, too many to name here. And its biennial celebration of Independent Film Comedy (capped by the giving of the Christopher Wetzel Award) is one of those excellent endeavors... it's just not one of may personal favorites. Not because I don't support indie comedies or anything like that, but because so often you get works like Full Grown Men, a boring, irritating tale of a 35-year-old man who gives up his wife and child so he can pursue his lifelong obsession with action figures and going to theme parks. Who wouldn't want to spend 80 minutes with this guy?

Matt McGrath plays Alby, a clueless douchebag who wants to take a road trip with his old high school buddy Elias (Judah Friendlander, whose character I was far more interested in getting to know) to "Diggityland." On their journey (shock of shocks), they discover that Elias always saw himself as Alby's practical joke victim rather than friend, and the pair separate before getting to the theme park. Alby runs into a host of colorful, but not particularly funny, characters played by the likes of Alan Cumming, Joie Lee, Amy Sedaris and Deborah Harry. Still not excited yet? Don't worry, I've seen the film and there's nothing to get excited about.

Director/co-writer David Munro has gone to great lengths to bore and bug me, and I appreciate the effort, really. I consider myself a patient person, and I know how hard Munro must have worked and slaved to get under my skin and into my brain, so I might wish upon myself instant and painless death. Mission accomplished, sir. If you like your cinematic torture in the form of a lame indie comedy, you can check out Full Grown Men at the Siskel Film Center on Friday, June 22 at 8:15pm, or Monday, June 25 at 6pm. Enjoy yourself.

I Will Avenge You, Iago!

Although not officially part of the Siskel Film Center's celebration of independent film comedy, this work from 2005 would fit right in, and it's certainly a slightly better offering than Full Grown Men. Set in the often-intersecting worlds (according to this film, anyway) of stage acting and opera, I Will Avenge You, Iago! would like us to believe that the world of acting and directing great works of the stage is all about madcap behavior and farce. And while several great plays (and a few films, as well) have made this prospect quite attractive, this film falls short of the mark in making me interested in its players.

Jack (Larry Pine) plays a well-known opera singer married to a much younger Shakespearean actress (Michi Barall), who is the object of desire for a stage director (Giancarlo Esposito). Can you feel the zaniness building? There's also a dangerous stalker making his way through the opera house dressing rooms and a con artist/thief in her underwear. Wacky, wacky stuff. I'm sure director Zhenya Kiperman has intimate knowledge of people and events fairly similar to ones shown here, but that doesn't make them any funnier. Everybody's energy level is at an 11, when perhaps dialing things back a bit might have been the way to go. I was particularly taken with Barall's actress, who seems to be the only character who knows the definition of moderation. For those of you who love to watch self-obsessed people in love with the sound of their own voices, faces and talent, Iago! is playing at the Siskel Film Center on Saturday, June 23 at 6pm, and Wednesday, June 27 at 7:45pm.

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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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