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Monday, November 18

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Airbags

American Gangster / Blade Runner: The Final Cut

It's a great thing and lucky coincidence that there are two Ridley Scott films opening this weekend in Chicago. One, made 25 years ago, is Blade Runner: The Final Cut, made in a time in Scott's career where he was still fresh from making commercials and was often accused of putting style over substance in his work. That groundbreaking sci-fi work was not a commercial success when it was first released, but seeing it again recently on the big screen (projected digitally no less, although the print showing at the Music Box Theater beginning today will be a new 35mm print) reminded me how much I miss filmmakers who do put so much thought and attention into the look of their film. There isn't a frame of that film that can't be frozen, framed and put on a wall as a legitimate work of art.

Although Harrison Ford had certainly acted in films prior to Blade Runner, when I look back at his career, this film acts as his first great acting achievement. There's an anger bubbling up underneath Rick Deckard's stoic exterior that makes him perhaps the most dangerous of all the characters, replicant or not. Will he kill Rachel? It seems like a silly question today, but when I first saw the movie, I couldn't get it out of my head. Seeing it again recently, I'm reminded of the poetry of the dialog, especially with lines spoken by Rutger Hauer's Roy. I found him a much more sympathetic character this time around than I ever have before. Scott is never definitive about whether we are supposed to view the replicants as "evil," and in this final cut, I think his opinion on the subject is quite clear. They are cruel because they have been treated like slaves and objects for their entire existence. The implications in today's world, where many people tell us that torturing suspected terrorists is turning them into terrorists, seem clear.

I've always loved Blade Runner, but I can't remember a time when I've loved it quite this much. At various times in my life, I have thought Daryl Hannah or Rutger Hauer or Edward James Olmos give the most bizarre performance of the film, but I now realize the oddball award is thoughtfully earned by Sean Young, who goes from robot-like to weepy deb to lustful sex slave in a matter of just a few scenes. I'm not sure if she knew she was doing it at the time, but she's fantastic here.

As excited as I am to receive the upcoming Blade Runner deluxe box set this December (if only for the three-and-a-half-hour making of documentary Dangerous Days and the original work print that leaked out years ago), this is a film that must be seen in the theater. Even if you've seen it on the big screen before, trust me when I say you haven't seen it like this. Don't fixate on the changes; they are small and hardly noticeable in most cases. Focus on the visuals, the lighting, the flawless score and, above all, focus on the pollution-choked city, the over population, the constant rain, the towers of fire in the sky and the calls of all well-bodied humans to move "off world" because this world won't sustain life for much longer. The film has become more timeless over the years, and that is the mark of any great movie.

The reason I continue to like just about everything Ridley Scott puts out is that the older he's gotten, the more he's focused on more complicated and layered stories (with the exception of last year's A Good Life, which I'm pretty sure he made while he was sleepwalking). American Gangster is two stories that don't truly intersect until the last 20 or so minutes of the movie. One of the tales is fairly straight forward: Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is Harlem's master criminal and drug lord who has come up with a full-proof means to bring hard drugs into the country and do so without a middle man, a means that makes him very rich very fast. He gives back a great deal to the community he's essentially helping to destroy, and he's brought in most of his family from the South to come help him run things. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a detective with aspirations of being a lawyer, who can't be trusted by other cops because he's too honest. In an early scene, he confiscates $1 million from a drug bust and turns it all in as evidence and this is looked upon as a bad thing by the rest of the NYPD. Roberts is put in charge of a major drug task force that only targets suppliers and kingpins and he soon begins to realize that the Italian mob isn't controlling the bulk of the drugs coming into the city. He doesn't even know who Lucas is until well into his investigation, and the idea that a black man is in a position of power over the Mafia is inconceivable to him or anyone else.

As much as I enjoyed watching all the performances in American Gangster, I have to confess I enjoyed Roberts' storyline a little bit more, only because I've seen stories like that of Lucas before on screen. He was a man who rose up from being a driver and came up through the ranks, quietly waiting for his chance to step up and into the king's throne. Roberts was going through a messy child custody battle with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and studying for the bar and facing the sideways glances of his fellow cops. Lucas went around and shot people who disrespected him. Although this is clearly Lucas' story, director Scott wisely gives what probably amounts to equal screen time to Roberts' chaotic life.

The cast for this film is filled with great performances in every size role. Putting in appearances here are Chiwetel Ejifor as Lucas' brother Huey, Ted Levine, John Hawkes, RZA, T.I., Ruby Dee, Roger Bart, Cuba Gooding Jr., Joe Morton, Armand Assante and rapper Common. But I think my favorite supported part in this film goes to the man of the year Josh Brolin as the most corrupt cop in a city full of them. And his is one of the few characters who seems equally threatening to both sides of this movie. He slithers between Lucas and Roberts like a well-oiled lizard, and we somehow know that he will be dealt with in good time.

One would almost guess that Scott studied many of the great crime dramas of the 1970s before launching into American Gangster. This seems like a film Sidney Lumet might have tackled in his heyday, and it's more than just the clothes, cars and music. Scott does a superb job showing us the era. The Vietnam War was still going on (in fact, Lucas' means of getting drugs into the U.S. depended on the war going on as long as possible), and New York City was getting out of control on both sides of the law. Scott brings all of these elements and all of these actors together masterfully. This is a true modern epic, an American story in so many ways that almost has to be told by an outsider who sees the bigger picture and the long-standing ramifications. The closing credits song, Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It," rings loud and clear after a movie that concerns itself with issues of deception, paranoia and double crossing. Oh, this is a fine film.


Bee Movie

Alright, I'm just going to say this out load, and you can all pounce on me like an angry swarm of…well, whatever. I liked Bee Movie even more than Ratatouille, the film I thought was going to be the gold standard for animated films in 2007. I'm in no way knocking the Pixar masterpiece; in truth, that film had a more interesting story and stunning animation. But, dammit, Bee Movie entertained the hell out of me and made me laugh throughout. It just never stops being hilarious. Sure there are 101 dopey bee puns and jokes, but there are also some seriously funny set pieces and visual gags that are as inventive as they are side-splitting.

My guess that if you've heard anything about the plot of Bee Movie, you probably think this is about a bee named Barry (Jerry Seinfeld, who co-wrote the screenplay) who longs for more than a lifetime of repetitive work in his hive community. He meets a human woman named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger, giving as expressive a performance as I've ever seen her give in a film set in the real world), who teaches Barry about the world outside the worker bee environment. When Barry discovers that humans "steal" honey from his people and sell it for consumption without paying the bees for their trouble, he sues the human race and forces food companies (represented by a rotund Southern attorney, voiced by John Goodman) to stop making products out of honey. That's about as much as I knew about this movie going in. But the winding screenplay goes on from there to show us the consequences of a world in which bees don't feel the need to make honey anymore, and Barry is forced to undo much of what he's done.

Casting famous names in animated features can sometimes have disastrous results, but here it works beautifully. Matthew Broderick as Barry's best friend Adam; Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson as Barry's parents; the incomparable Rip Torn as the commander of a pollen-collecting squadron of bees, who are the only ones in the hive who regularly leave it; Chris Rock as a mosquito named Mooseblood; and Patrick Warburton as Vanessa's boyfriend Ken, who gets jealous of the relationship between Barry and his woman. Warburton's performance made me laugh harder than anything about this movie. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Ray Liotta playing himself in the film's most inspired running gag.

Co-directors Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith do a fantastic job of keeping things moving. But more importantly, they (along with Seinfeld and his writers) do a creative job bringing to life the world the bees inhabit, and showing us what the human world would look like to creatures as tiny and isolated as they are. The animation style isn't meant to look realistic, and that's fine by me. There's a surreal quality to everything, especially the hive's honey production line, the looks of which kind of blew my mind. I never grew tired of watching this movie, and I often found myself marveling at the intricately realized backgrounds and other things going on around the main action.

I'll admit, there was a small part of me that wanted to believe there was one realm of entertainment that maybe Jerry Seinfeld wasn't able to conquer, and maybe there is. But he's got the animated movie world sewn up. Bee Movie is solid entertainment that in no way panders to the kiddies, but is still loads of fun for all ages. All the film's over promotion may have already made you predisposed to hate it. You can try and resist, but this is just one of those films that's going to win you over.

To read my interview with Jerry Seinfeld, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34602.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet's latest bit of genius opens with a naked Philip Seymour Hoffman giving it hard from behind to an even more naked (if that's possible) Marisa Tomei. And the film just gets better from there in a series of events that proves to us that there is more than one way to seriously fuck someone. Lumet likes to play in the dark, and things don't get much more pitch black that in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, an evil little movie about two brothers, Andy and Hank (Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who really don't like each other but have a common desperate need for quick, easy, tax-free cash. Clearly the more successful and mature of the two, Andy hatches a plan to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a suburban shopping mall. Hank gets on board until Andy reveals that the store in question is the one owned by their own parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Hank is such a pushover that even that aspect of the crime seems easy to look past after a while.

Needless to say the job goes horribly wrong in beautiful ways I won't allow myself to go into and we spend the rest of the film watching everybody's already miserable lives spin hopelessly out of control. I'm making the film sound much more linear than it actually is. Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson reveal these events piece by piece, beginning with the robbery and then working backwards and forwards from the launch pad. Sometimes we see the same event two or three times but from different points of view and with more resonance each time the moment is relived. Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, Fail-Safe, The Verdict) has always been one of the greatest directors of crime dramas ever, and with Before the Devil, he shows us that the scale of the crime doesn't have much to do with the suspense that can be generated by it. I don't think I've ever seen Ethan Hawke plays such a squirrelly, uncertain character before. Conversely, Hoffman is one cocky SOB here, and it's a huge part of Andy's downfall. As I may have mentioned before, Tomei seems to struggle here…not with her acting, but with keeping her clothes on. She also cheats on her husband with Hank, and her sex appeal has never been more on display and authentic than it is here.

It's been a while since Lumet has seemed this on top of his game, and I say that being a big fan of his last film Find Me Guilty. I'm not sure the story structure needs to be quite so complicated, but it sure does make it more fun and more downright nasty. This is a movie you're going to think and talk about long after you see it, not because it's confusing, but because it's so damn smart and strong. I can't wait to see what Lumet has for us next; I hear he's got an original screenplay in store for us. Oh joy! The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Martian Child

John Cusack has had an interesting year. He began with one of the more impressive Stephen King adaptations in quite a while with 1408, and later this year, you'll see him give one of the most devastating performances of his career in Grace is Gone. His latest opening this week is Martian Child, an odd bird of a film about an odd bird of a child (Bobby Coleman) living with a man (Cusack) who remembers all too clearly what it was like to grow up the weirdo in school. This is a gentle and mostly quiet film (the boy, named Dennis, rarely speaks above a whisper, and most adults who come into contact with him do the same).

Cusack plays David, a successful science-fiction writer and two-year widower, who decides to throw caution to the wind and take a friend's (Sophie Okonedo) offer seriously to adopt an orphaned child. David's sister (Joan Cusack), a mother of two of her own boys, thinks he's nuts. His sister-in-law (Amanda Peet) thinks it's exactly what David needs to pull him back into the world of caring about people again. And in Dennis, David sees a lot of himself…to a point. You see, Dennis thinks he's a creature from Mars sent to Earth for a time to collect specimens, document life on our planet (with a Polaroid camera) and conduct harmless experiments using items stolen from other people. He seems afraid of the sun (he wears SPF 45 sunblock and sunglasses all the time); he wears a homemade weight belt because he is convinced that Earth's gravity is not enough to hold him down; and he sometimes talks in another language. The film does toy with the idea that Dennis is actually telling the truth.

Director Menno Meyjes (who also directed Cusack in 2002's underrated Max) takes material that could have gone very wrong in other hands and transforms it into a sweet testament to the power of being as weird and imaginative as you can if it somehow helps you get through tough times. I'm not sure I agree with that theory, but he makes a convincing argument. Often draped in his ever-present black trenchcoat, Cusack pulls off the father-in-training routine without delving into cutesy or overly sentimental garbage. Not to say that Martian Child doesn't have its share of heartfelt moments, but it earns most of them honestly, without falling back on tired heartstring-tugging tricks. Only in the film's final scenes does the emotion seem somewhat forced and unconvincing. Young Coleman stole my heart early on with his moving portrayal of a fragile and fractured kid, who is coping with life the only way he knows how. He's so utterly convinced he's a Martian that some small part of you hopes it's true. The innocence of Martian Child is its most winning quality, and while there's not much to this work, that didn't stop me from caring about these people and their attempts to strike a happy balance between reality and coping mechanism.


Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains

As much as I've enjoyed Jonathan Demme's feature films over the years, I think the man has a great gift for documentaries and concert films. It goes without saying that the work he's done with Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, Robyn Hitchcock and, most recently, Neil Young are some truly inspired efforts in capturing musicians doing what they do best in new and interesting ways. But if you get a chance, take a look at the documentaries Cousin Bobby, The Agronomist or his latest, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, a revealing look at the former president from his 2006 publicity tour promoting his for his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Demme seems like such a nice man that you almost wonder if he'd be willing to show his subjects in anything less than a perfect light. But Man from Plains is something of a warts-and-all production that shows a former Commander-in-Chief who never stopped being a diplomat, a statesman or a humanitarian after his single term in office.

Demme has a bit about Carter's history as president and as the governor of Georgia, but the film's main focus is the almost immediate attacks, particularly by Jewish groups and pro-Israeli supporters, on Carter for equating the treatment of Palestinians by Israel to that of the one-time, government-sanctioned segregationist policies in South Africa. But debating the merits of his book wasn't what made Carter the angriest; it was the blanket negative attacks on him from people who hadn't even read his book. There's a great collection of moments from various interviews here of Carter simply telling random reporters that they obviously haven't read his book or they wouldn't be asking questions like that. It seems almost incomprehensible that the one American president who actually brokered a peace treaty between Middle East nations Israel and Egypt would suddenly turn into an anti-Semite, but memories among journalists are short. The film also touches on Carter's cornerstone role in Habitat for Humanity and various other goodwill efforts his Carter Center has done to track human rights violations around the world, but this all seems terribly overshadowed because people love a scandal.

Carter does not hold back on his controversial opinions in so many areas, including the war in Iraq and the sad lack of attention concerning any troubles in Africa. But anyone who walks away from this film thinking he has anything against the Jewish people is nuts. The man only seems to hate those who don't bother to do their research before speaking as an expert on a topic. Demme's film does fall short of calling Carter a saint, but if there's one former president who might fit the bill, this is your guy. We get a glimpse of his attempt to lead a normal life with wife Rosalynn, but these are not normal times in his life. You can walk out of the theater believing what you want about Carter, but you will in no way leave it feeling bored. Watching any man under this kind of public scrutiny is painful; watching Jimmy Carter go through it, despite all his homespun charm and media training, is pretty devastating at times.

Demme has a real gift for finding exactly the right moments to typify a person's character. He spends an inordinate amount of time observing Carter at a barbecue, meeting and greeting the locals, but fixating on his meeting with a young girl who clearly charms him enough that he introduces her to Rosalynn. He seems to prefer the company and open-mindedness of college students to elder statesmen and seasoned interviewers. If Mark Twain had become president, he might have been something like Jimmy Carter. His post-White House life almost demands that you re-evaluate his legacy every couple of years or so, and Man from Plains is a good way to remember why he got elected in the first place, and why he has never strayed far from our hearts and minds since. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

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

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