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Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

Hey, GB readers. I need to be careful what I wish for. This is one of those scary weeks when a butt-load of movies are opening, and the studios seem all too willing to share each and every one of their new releases with critics…even friggin' Jackass 2! So if you're into quantity over quality, this is your week. As a result, I'm going to make every effort to keep these reviews short and to the point, cut back on the plot synopses and get right to the meat of the matter. A nice change for you, I'm sure. And remember, there are only two weeks left until the beginning of the Chicago International Film Festival (http://www.chicagofilmfestival.org); buy those passes early. There are some truly remarkable offerings this year, and I've already seen a few of them. Details to come.

All the King's Men

Although it purports to be more faithful to the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Penn Warren novel that the original 1949 Oscar-winning film version, this long-delayed update will not be winning any awards. Based on the political career of Louisiana Senator Huey Long (here renamed Willie Stark), All the King's Men traces the path of a political visionary (spasmodically played by the always highly watchable Sean Penn) running for governor of the state. His main objective is to make it to the top by either destroying or at least circumventing the corrupt machine that has taken over his state's politics. But with resentment building among Louisiana's powerful and influential elite, Stark doesn't have a chance of making many of the changes he has in store for the underprivileged without greasing a few palms and foregoing a few laws.

Penn is remarkable as Stark, whose impassioned stumping to his people (the lower, working classes, whom he called "hicks") resembles a Joe Cocker concert, with arms flailing and hair flying in every direction. But the film gets lost in much less interesting stories involving our narrator and eyes into Stark's world, Jack Burden (a sleepy and underwhelming Jude Law), who goes from impartial observer of Stark's campaign as a journalist to one of Willie's most trusted advisors. Burden's story includes boring flashbacks to his younger years when he was best friends with a well-to-do brother and sister (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo). And the key drawback to this version of All the King's Men is that it chooses to weave complex stories and backstories about characters that just aren't that interesting.

Another, more essential plot involving Stark's attempts to influence a powerful judge (Anthony Hopkins)—who is also a close family friend of Burden's—is much more interesting. Seeing these two Oscar winners go toe to toe is exciting stuff, and it lasts about two minutes. You take what you can get. The stellar supporting cast, which includes Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini and Kathy Baker, all do respectable work here, especially those who get to work next to Penn's electric performance. The rest are sucked into the dull black hole that is Burden's story. Writer-director Steve Zaillian (an Oscar winner for his adaptation of Schindler's List) has far too much material for his own good. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but the film might have benefited from a longer cut, so the stories that seem peripheral and uninteresting might have been given room to breathe and made interesting.

It's impossible for Sean Penn not to be the most phenomenal lightning rod focal point of any film he's in, and this one is no exception. And perhaps his read on this character is most to blame for the way the other performers seem as though they're moving in slow motion. An unexpected aspect to this production of All the King's Men and the long delays in the editing process (the film was supposed to be released last December) is that it was filmed in and around New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, so these are some of the last images of the city before so much of it was damaged or leveled. Still, that is not enough for me to recommend this dry, slow attempt to capture old school political corruption and spotlight a version of one of the most colorful men ever to sink waste deep in its muddy waters. Or did he wade in willingly? It's a fascinating question, but one this film doesn't bother to make any clearer.


Jet Li's Fearless

As strange as it might seem, I like Jet Li the best of all the current martial artists because he's the best actor. He's not a great actor, but there's something about his honest face and explosive action style (a combination of raw power and some of the best wirework on film) that always made me look forward to his movies. Covering much of the same ground as Clint Eastwood did with Unforgiven, Jet Li is putting to rest his martial arts career (although not his action film work) with Fearless, a powerful and astonishing masterpiece that not only delivers scene after scene of some of the best fight scenes ever committed to celluloid, but also offers up a great deal of contemplative thinking about the nature and repercussions of violence, revenge and pride. It is also Jet Li's finest work as an actor and ranks as one of his best period martial arts films.

I'll admit that it made me smile to see him sporting the shaved-back hairline, the long braided hair going down his back and traditional Chinese garb. The film is set in China during turn-of-the-20th-century, a time when Western influences (both good and bad) were beginning to greatly influence and take over traditional Chinese culture. Li plays Huo Yuanjia, the son of a gifted and much-respected martial arts master. As a boy, he puts aside his schoolwork to spy on his father's martial arts classes and to do a little practicing on his own, many years before his father has any intention of allowing him to learn the sacred art form. As a young man, Huo Yuanjia is a boastful martial arts champion after winning match after match against all the men in his village. He is racking up bills at the local restaurant as well, treating his disciples to food and drink that he simply can't afford.

During a vicious battle after a terrible misunderstanding, Huo kills a notorious rival who injured one of his followers. The man's godson in turn murders Huo's mother and young daughter, sending Huo over the deep end and into self-exile to a remote farming village. Although he remains largely quiet after the townsfolk take him in, he is coaxed into coming out of his deep depression by a beautiful blind woman named Moon (Betty Sun). As masterful as the fight sequences are in Fearless, I was equally impressed with Jet Li's performance in the quieter moments. I give much credit to director Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair; Seed of Chucky; Freddy vs. Jason), who isn't always in a huge rush to get from one butt kicking to the next.

And how about those ass whoopings? All praise goes to the legendary martial arts choreographer (and credit assistant director) Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the Kill Bill films; The Matrix trilogy) who keeps his noticeable wirework to a minimum and instead focuses on hard punches, swift and graceful movement and unbelievable athleticism.

When Huo returns to his town, much has changed. The West has taken over to a degree and made the Chinese people feel like second-class citizens in their own nation. The style of dress has already started to change to suits, ties and hats; soldiers appear in the streets; and Western-style boxing/wrestling has entered the fight scene and threatened to eliminate the centuries-old martial arts practices. In an effort to regain Chinese pride, Huo creates the Jin Wu Sports Federation, which is dedicated to maintaining the old ways in this rapidly changing society. The film's final battles between Huo and four competitors representing various foreign fighting styles border on inspirational. Fearless is a fitting and powerful conclusion to the martial arts career of one of its finest practitioners, and although I know Jet Li is hardly done with action films, I am curious to see what he's got up his sleeve in the coming years. Of course, I'm buying his claims of retiring from this genre about as much as I believed Jay-Z would never make an album again, so…


Jackass: Number 2

It's hard to believe the first Jackass movie came out nearly four years ago. I've seen probably close to 2,000 films since I witnessed that inspired bit of buffoonery, and none of them has lessened my appreciation of what a blast it is to watch guys do stupid shit and hurt themselves. The thing that has changed since the release of the first film is that ringleader Johnny Knoxville has become something of a legitimate actor, some would say a leading man, but I've never really found him as funny as I do in the Jackass films. Armed with oversized sunglasses and a shit-eating grin, Knoxville runs the circus not by barking out orders but by taking the lead and setting the example for stunts and pranks. There's very little he would ask someone else to do that he wouldn't do himself. In a way, it's refreshing to see that Hollywood hasn't tamed him.

I looked at my four-year-old review of Jackass, just to see if my thoughts had changed on the franchise. They haven't. Here's what I wrote:

"There's not much to say about the big-screen version of MTV's wildly successful television stunk-prank-gross-out reality show "Jackass." You are either whole-heartedly entertained by this sort of thing, or you aren't. I've never seen an entire episode of the TV show [still true, by the way], but just from the few clips I've seen I knew I wanted to see this film. And I can't remember a time when I laughed this hard or came so close to throwing up in a movie theatre. Every practical joke is funny; every stunt looks painful; every scene of ingesting some unspeakable substance is gag inducing; and there wasn't a second of this film that didn't have me in stitches. There is no story here, nor is there a middle ground. You get scene after scene of stuff you are either going to love or hate, and my guess is you already know into which category you fall. It's pointless to dismiss this film on moral grounds. Just sit down, get comfy, and brace yourself for fits of laughter. Not all the humor is grotesque, by the way. Give it a shot, and don't say you didn't like it just because you had to turn your head away a couple of times. That means it's good."

Yup, that's pretty much exactly how I feel about the second film. The stunts may be a little more elaborate and dangerous. Different members of the gang seem more willing than others to take the pain. There are a few more celebrity guest stars (Luke Wilson, Three Six Mafia, John Waters, Rip Taylor and Broken Lizard's Jay Chandraekhar) alongside some of the regularly appearing guests, such as Spike Jonze (one of the series creators and producers) and Tony Hawk.

I don't want to give away any of the individual bits (the trailer already gives away too much), but you can rest assured that there are ample amounts of excrement, insertion, rocket propelled vehicles, blood and legendary pranks to keep you fully entertained. Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, Wee Man and the rest of the crew should keep making these until they are literally too old to take a shot to the nuts…or until one of them dies. Jackass has gone from dirty little guilty pleasure to the most ridiculously entertaining form of art in history. Bless you, fellas. May your bruises also shine brightly.


Confetti

Welcome to the greatest Christopher Guest film that Guest didn't direct. Confetti takes the soon-to-be-overused form of a mock documentary, but with charming and sometimes hilarious results thanks to a strong cast of largely British comic actors working with a goofy premise that would make Lord Guest quite proud. Confetti is the name of a fashion magazine focusing on glamorous weddings. The editors hold a contest in which couples pitch ideas for the most outrageous fantasy wedding, and the top three finalists all stage their weddings with the magazines money and the assistance of a pair of the gayest wedding planners in the gay Western world.

One couple decides on a tennis-themed event, another wants a "naturalist" (a.k.a. nudist) wedding, and the third couple has chosen Hollywood musicals as their theme. Directed and written (although clearly improv plays a huge part in this work) by Debbie Isitt, Confetti not only bounces from couple to couple as they plan these ridiculously lavish ceremonies over a three-month period, but we get to know the planners and the magazine's staff quite well as they watch their creations spin out of control, threatening not only the contest, but also the stability of these once happy couples.

The nudist storyline is the least interesting, but the constant nudity of the couple will make you laugh. Seeing a naked man on a bike with his goods dangling from the front of the bike seat is funny; you can't deny it. The magazine tries to tell them there can't be any actual nudity during the ceremony because then the photos from the event can't be used in their publication. I think you can guess how that turns out. The fiercely competitive tennis couple are the film's villains, as they bitch and moan at every turn, although their final ceremony is the most inspired.

But clearly the musical couple are meant to be our heroes, and it's no accident that the wonderfully talented Martin Freeman (from the British version of "The Office") and Jessica Stevenson (Shaun of the Dead and the UK series "Spaced") were cast to play them. Her character is beyond tone deaf (When it's pointed out that she and her husband-to-be are singing in different keys, she remarks "Yeah, that's harmonizing."), and he must endure the grating and critical remarks of his future mother- and sister-in-law. Freeman and Stevenson are so likeable that even when the film gets too silly for its own good, you can focus on them as a grounding force.

What may surprise people is that this lightweight material (seemingly tailor-made for those who watch shows like "Bridezilla" on a regular basis) is given the hard R treatment thanks to the aforementioned full frontal male and female nudity and some colorful language, all of which is wholly appropriate and makes the film that much funnier. As many great comedies are, Confetti is tightly edited, but I'm guessing there will be some fabulous outtakes on the DVD. And even with the gay wedding planner characters, the film manages to avoid being all about camp and actually bothers to draw out some humanity in its darker corners, no more so than with the tennis couple. The bride is horribly insecure about her looks and goes through a last-minute plastic surgery that is startling. While we wait impatiently for Guest's For Your Consideration to come out later this year, Confetti is a solid placeholder, paying tribute to the improvisation tradition with some smart and funny performances and a great concept. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Flyboys

This sad, overblown heap of nostalgia is about as inspired as a slice of ham between two pieces of white bread. Set during World War I, the only thing this film has going for it is about four well-executed aerial dogfights that are remarkably easy to follow and look fairly realistic. But four such sequences (there may have been five) spread out over two hours and two minutes is tantamount to torture.

The story of a handful of American men who traveled to France to fly structurally unsound fighter planes against the Germans (this was before the United States entered the war) only a few short years after the airplane was invented is inspirational. Unfortunately, this telling of that story is not. Spider-Man's James Franco leads this stereotyped cross-section of America (including a black pilot, a bible thumper, a fugitive and a former ranch owner). Since this is a film taking place in France, the filmmakers were given no option but to cast Jean Reno as the squadron's commanding officer.

The boys fly around, shoot Germans, and some get shot down. You get the picture. Since Franco is ridiculously handsome, he's given a love interest in the form of an innocent and lovely young French peasant woman to get gaga over, while having very little physical contact. Oo la lame! Sometime actor and television director Tony Bill is sleepwalking through this film. The actors are largely interchangeable. Their backstories (as well as Franco's love story) add absolutely nothing to this film but a longer running time. In fact, any scene that wasn't a dogfight between the tri-winged German planes and the French-American biplanes pissed me off for lack of excitement. Flyboys is a snoozefest, and I'm done talking about it.


Haven

Two seemingly unrelated stories clash violently in Haven, a strong second effort from young new director Frank E. Flowers, which serves as a guide to the class and social cavities that exist in the Cayman Islands. In his best post-Lord of the Rings role, Orlando Bloom plays Shy, a harmless British expatriate and fisherman on the islands who is in love with the daughter (Zoe Saldana) of a prominent area religious leader. Even more dangerous is that her brother is a scary drug dealer played by my favorite new actor Anthony Mackie.

The film's second story centers around Bill Paxton as a corrupt American businessman living in Miami and preparing to flee the United States for the Caymans right as federal law enforcement agents (led by Bobby Cannavale) are preparing to take him down at the behest of Paxton's two-timing banker partner (Stephen Dillane). Paxton manages to grab his teenage daughter (Agnes Bruckner) and a moneybelt full of cash and get down to the Caymans, where their lives intersect with a local wannabe gangsta (Victor Rasuk) who tempts the daughter and puts Paxton in mortal danger when he finds out about his stash of cash.

Certain moments in Haven are replayed from different points of view as the film follows each character's story arc leading to a big party where a shooting occurs, and that aspect of the film is actually quite well handled. The star-crossed lovers storyline between Bloom and Saldana is actually the most engaging, but it's tough to dismiss Bill Paxton in any role at this point, and he plays the panicked, white-collar criminal quite convincingly. The film is skillfully executed and deftly acted (I particularly liked Bloom and Mackie's explosive encounters). The least focused scenes in the movie involve the corporate crime plotline, which isn't so much confusing as it is slow to unravel. Most of the characters' fates are not pleasant or promising, and I appreciated the film's refusal to wrap things up neatly. More than anything, Haven (which has been on the shelf for a couple years) is a good enough film to get me interested and excited about what director Flowers has in store for us next. He has a confident eye behind the camera and the ability to weave complex storylines into one terrific (if flawed) work.


The Puffy Chair

While it doesn't tell us the meaning of life or answer any of the world's toughest questions, The Puffy Chair is an odd and simple indie film that is damn near perfect in its examination of family and the brief, driving obsessions we find ourselves a part of every so often. The obsession for Josh (Mark Duplass, who also wrote the film) is a replica of his father's old purple Lazy Boy. Josh discovers said object on eBay, and arranges to drive hundreds of miles with his girlfriend (Kathryn Aselton) to pick it up and take it to his dad as a surprise birthday present. On the way, the couple meets up with Josh's free-spirit brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who essentially invites himself along for the journey, which turns into more of an odyssey than anyone had intended.

What I enjoyed about The Puffy Chair is both its straightforwardness and its observations on family relations. Shot almost like a documentary (although, blessedly, not a mockumentary), the film makes you feel like you're right there in the sometimes tension-filled van. The relationship between Josh and Emily is essentially dissolving as the trip goes on. She almost forces Josh to invite her initially, thinking the trip will somehow strengthen the bond between them; it does not. And Rhett goes because his tendency is to go whichever way the wind is blowing strongest. Later in the journey, Rhett meets Amber (Julie Fischer) in a town where they stop, and within hours the two announce they are getting married and then do.

The titular chair becomes something of a troublesome object as well, but Josh, determined to have something on this trip go right, finds himself acting in ways he'd never dreamed capable just to make sure his preconceived notion of this surprise for his dad goes off without a hitch. As the title might suggest, the film is far from a deadly serious endeavor. Director (and brother to Mark) Jay Duplass injects a whole lot of humor into this affair, and the result is a charming, infectious little work that is a not as disposable as you might think. The film captures the range of human emotions, and its characters will both grow on you and make you frustrated with their decisions at times, much like your closest friends and family.

To say the film is low budget is an understatement. Its digital video technique makes The Puffy Chair feel like a home movie, which is strangely appropriate for the material. But it all works, even when it doesn't feel like it should. The film never stopped surprising me in small but significant ways, and as it went on my affections for it grew. It made me smile as often as it made me think, and for an amateur production like this, that's saying a lot. The movie (which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) is the truest example of a small gem of a film that deserves your attention.


Feast

Nearly a year ago at last year's Chicago International Film Festival awards ceremony, I was scanning the crowd (as I'm prone to do when I've been standing in the same place for long stretches of time) when my eyes fell upon a familiar-looking lone man slumped over in a corner looking very out of place. It took me a while, but when I realized who it was, I nearly let out a squeal of joy because the man in question had been at the center of one of my personal obsessions for a few weeks in 2005. The somewhat uncomfortable-looking man was John Gulager, the winning director of the most recent Project Greenlight contest. I was already planning to attend the late-night screening of his horror film Feast that same evening (although I had no idea he was in town for the event), so I went over to introduce myself, not as a critic but as a hardcore fan of the documentary series about the contest and the making of his film.

Gulager seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. I've learned over the years that a lot of these directors and actors I meet for one reason or another are fairly familiar with Ain't It Cool News and even my work specifically on occasion. But Gulager just seemed happy that somebody there appreciated his work and struggle. I have a feeling there have been more than a handful of moments in John's life recently when he has felt very much alone. To say that the "Project Greenlight" series was a dying beast in its third and final season (the show moved from HBO to Bravo that year) is a gross understatement. But no one who has followed all three seasons can deny that the third was far and away the finest and most captivating, thanks entirely to the decision to actually focus on a particular genre, in this case horror.

John Gulager seemed like the absolute wrong person to get picked by the team of judges (which included show producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore and horror filmmaker Wes Craven). His train-wreck pitch to the judges about how he would direct the material is the stuff of legend. Yet, the strength of his test film entry was so convincing that the judges selected him to direct Feast's wild script from writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. I won't go into the daily (really hourly) struggles Gulager went through to get this film made, but every single aspect was a crisis and included classic examples of the studio backstabbing and undercutting his authority. Not that Gulager was without fault. His inability to communicate with his cast and crew was the single most frustrating (and thus entertaining) thing about watching "Project Greenlight."

Needless to say, my obsession with seeing Feast was at its peak a year ago, and the fact that I got to spend time with Gulager (and the writers, who were also in town) just added to my excitement and made me fearful that the film (like the previous two "Greenlight" projects) would be a disaster. At the last minute, I was even asked by the Film Festival organizers to introduce the film and filmmakers, which in my mind seemed the ultimate honor. During the course of watching Feast, my mind and heart let out a long, satisfying sigh of relief as Gulager and his team unleashed a mind-blowing explosion of gore, scares and humor. This movie is a blast, although the long-awaited release of the film (playing this Friday and Saturday as midnight movies at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) is something of a disappointment. Considering all of the shitty horror films I've seen this year, Feast deserves a more prominent run than this, although the DVD is supposed to come out in just a couple of weeks.

So what is Feast all about? It's about blood, it's about mayhem, it's about the ick factor. It's about a group of stranded travelers who are stuck in a dive bar in middle of a desert, being attacked by one or more hideous creatures that may be aliens, monsters or people dressed as creatures. Nobody knows. But if they get their hands on you, you are 18 different kinds of toast. It's the kind of film with characters named Hero (Eric Dane) and Heroine, Tuffy and Beer Guy, Grandma and Boss Man. Feast sets up various characters to be the saving grace of this bunch of misfits and then slaughters them instantly. Actors such as Navi Rawat, Krista Allen, Balthazar Getty, Judah Friedlander and Jenny Wade might not mean much to you, but they'll mean a little more after you see this film.

Ultimately, Gulager was selected as the "Project Greenlight" winner because his short film entry showed such a clear visionary at work that the judges were hoping the fact that he couldn't convey his process to them wouldn't matter. Feast proves they made the correct choice, and although I'm disappointed the film isn't getting a bigger release, I'm excited that people are getting the opportunity to see it on the big screen with an audience primed for a wonderful scare film. After two major disappointments in the previous two "Greenlight" offerings, I was fully prepared to dislike Feast. How it pleases me to report that John Gulager and his team have delivered a glorious celebration of gore and terror.

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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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