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Tuesday, December 12

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Batman Begins
Where to begin… Best. Batman. Ever! What you need to understand going into Batman Begins is that this film does not exist in the same universe as the previous four films. This is a new Batman franchise that has taken a decidedly darker (in both tone and visual style) approach to Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, and probably approaches the spirit of the recent comic book versions of the Dark Knight more than any of the preceding films.

I have nothing bad to say about Tim Burton's takes on Batman; I have nothing good to say about Joel Schumacher's colorful, splashy films. I liked Michael Keaton as Batman. He captured the fractured psyche of Bruce Wayne rather nicely. Batman should be a person who might go nuts on you at any moment. He doesn't have to be ridiculously handsome because he has money and women will be drawn to him regardless of looks.

As the title might suggest, Batman Begins is the story not of Batman's creation, but of Bruce Wayne's mental downfall, which in turn leads to the persona of Batman. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) does a fantastic job of giving us Batman's backstory, from the violent murder of Bruce's parents before his eyes, to the origin of his fear of bats, to his dropping out of society and falling in with a brotherhood of darkness (led by Ken Watanabe's character, Ra's Al Ghul).

Carrying the guilt of his parents' death with him into adulthood, Wayne (played with exactly the right amount of edge by Christian Bale) travels to the far ends of the earth to live among the world's worst criminals to see how they think and fight, so he can return to his home in Gotham City (which looks a lot like Chicago) and restore justice to the crumbling metropolis. He is discovered in a prison by a member of the brotherhood named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who promises to teach Wayne the ways of the ninja and help him become a mysterious legend in Gotham. His training is insane and grueling, but when Wayne is asked to execute a known criminal, he refuses and breaks with the brotherhood in a fiery battle.

Attempting to pick up the pieces of his life, Wayne re-establishes contact with an old childhood friend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who works in the district attorney's office. Wayne also takes a place at his father's old company, Wayne Enterprises (now led by Rutger Hauer). It just so happens the company owns a rather advanced and largely ignored applied science division, with overseer Morgan Freeman inventing all sorts of great weapons, body armor and an astonishing tank-like car that just needs to be painted black to complete the Batman-style pimped-out ride.

Without getting into too much detail about the plot, the thing I immediately took notice of in Batman Begins was the caliber of actors that Nolan was able to gather. In addition to those mentioned, we have Michael Caine as the butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon (soon to be Commissioner), and Tim Wilkinson as the old-school gangster Falcone. In other films under lesser directors, all of these actors have been known to eat up the scenery and make asses of themselves. In this film, it seems like Nolan told them all to dial it back a few notches. No one here embarrasses themselves, and everyone takes this material seriously. They almost seem unaware that the source material was a comic book, and that's what separates by wide canyons this film from the other Batman movies.

I even thought the plot was great. Psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) has hatched a plan to make everyone in Gotham so insane that they essentially slip into a psychotic coma. His villainous alter ego, The Scarecrow, uses a potion that makes people see the thing they fear the most, and he plans to turn this drug on the citizens. Nice. There are actually three main villains in Batman Begins, and they all play their part in this complex storyline.

It's no secret (at least not to those living in Chicago) that the Windy City doubles for Gotham in this film, and it was exceptionally cool to see how Nolan "modified" the skyline and elevated train system of Chicago to suit his film. I love this town, but I want to live in Gotham City. You never really notice special effects more than when you see them applied to something you're intimately familiar with. I also like how Nolan spends time not just showing us Batman's vast gadgets, but how they are designed and redesigned and how they work. His cape, for example, is more than just nice fabric.

Batman Begins marks the fulfillment of a promise by DC Comics to get the production of films based on its titles back on track. This promise will likely be continued next summer with Bryan Singer's retooling of the Superman legend, and with any luck Aquaman won't be far behind. I'm kidding. Above all else, this film delivers on both a psychological level and to those of us who demand little more than great car chases and massive explosions. This is the first great movie of the summer.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith
I knew last Friday afternoon that this film was going to be a huge hit. And my premonition had nothing to do with the tabloid-friendly love lives of the leading actors or the crisp, exciting direction of Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers). It had nothing to do with the film's plot, slick editing, comic timing, high body count, great car chases or wild gun battles. I walked into the theatre and immediately noticed that the audience was mostly 20-something females. The first time Brad Pitt shows his face on screen, there was a collective "Mmmmm," as in "Mmm mmm good." The first time Brad Pitt shows up on screen shirtless, the collective gasps could be heard in the lobby. Ergo: Shirtless Brad = $$$.

By now, I'm sure you know the basic structure of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Two professional assassins (Pitt and Angelina Jolie) meet, fall in love, get married and continue killing for money without ever realizing what the other does for a living. As odds would have it, the two finally get assigned the same job and their covers are blown. As a result, they are sent on missions by their respective employers to kill each other. Can true love conquer the revelation of such deceptions? What do you think?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a few things going for it, the first of which is not the on-screen relationship between the two leads. I liked watching Pitt (as John Smith) and Jolie (as Jane) go out on a job. There's a sequence in which Pitt pretends to stumble drunk upon a poker game in the back room of a bar to find his mark. It's a longer-than-necessary scene, but it's some of Pitt's funniest work. Jolie's turn as a dominatrix is pretty great, too. Far be it for me to dismiss any scene with Jolie in a garter belt and vinyl undergarments. Maybe the film's greatest asset is Vince Vaughn supporting role as Pitt's co-agent and best friend, Eddie, who still lives with his mother (by choice, he says) and offers John a whole lot of bad advice.

In any other director's hands, Mr. and Mrs. Smith might have been an embarrassment, but Doug Liman is clearly in his element here. Much as he did in The Bourne Identity, Liman gives us a breathtaking car chase, loads of top-notch stunt sequences and guns a-blazin'. I'll admit, after the first hundred or so deaths of faceless, nameless bad guys, the roaring guns began to wear on my nerves, but the love-hate banter between the leads keeps things interesting.

What doesn't work in the film is the at-home dynamic. It's supposed to show us how boring and lifeless the Smiths' married life has become, but you can't block out of your mind who these actors really are. I don't buy Angelina Jolie, domestic goddess, or Brad Pitt, desk jockey. The pair are almost too bland to be believable. Fortunately, Liman doesn't dwell too long on these scenes, and we're pretty much guaranteed action at frequent intervals. I'll admit, I was genuinely dreading this film, and was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was at times. And Brad's pecs aren't bad either.


My Summer of Love
As much as I'm tempted while watching a film to anticipate where it's headed, sometimes this is just impossible to do. When this happens, I have to remind myself that quite often the best films I see in a given year are the ones whose outcomes are totally unforeseeable. Such is the case with My Summer of Love, a deceptively simple tale of two teenage girls living in the Yorkshire countryside who spend a summer as friends.

In many ways, My Summer of Love is a lot like Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, minus the fantasy elements and the violent outcome. Mona (Nathalie Press) is the working-class girl who lives with her overbearing older brother, Phil (Paddy Considine, currently in Cinderella Man), over the family-owned bar. Not long ago, Phil was a brutish, drunken thug, but when we meet him he's changed his ways and found God. He closes the bar, dumps all the booze down the drain and opens the house to his hours-long prayer groups, effectively forcing Mona out of the house unless she conforms to his new, devout way of living. Mona has also recently been dumped by her worthless boyfriend (after one last roll in the hay), so she's fairly sick of both family and men at this point.

Enter the exotic, statuesque Tamsin (Emily Blunt), who lives in a mansion with her always-traveling parents. The two girls spend every moment together for weeks at a time, their feelings for each other get stronger, and eventually the two are planning to leave their respective families altogether and go to points unknown throughout the world.

As their bond grows stronger, both girls confess terrible family secrets. Tamsin discusses the tragic death of her sister; Mona reveals the fate of her parents as well. Not surprisingly, the film takes its most unexpected turns when the real world comes crashing into the girls' lives. Director Paul Pavlikovsky does a terrifically sly job of keeping us in the dark and letting us believe this will be simply a coming-of-age story. Fortunately for us, it's far darker than that. My Summer of Love is a film brimming with secrets, betrayal and the nature of youth. What's so good about the movie is that you don't realize all of these elements are in play until it's too late. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


The Deal
What the hell is The Deal? Seemingly coming out of nowhere in the heart of the summer movie season is this small film about the snakes and mongooses (or is it mongeese?) who populate big business. Not exactly an original idea for a movie, but this is no ordinary big business; this is big business of the near future. Although an exact year isn't given, The Deal takes place on Wall Street in the very near future. America is officially at war with the "Confederation of Arab States," and gas prices have soared to $6 per gallon, thus setting the scene for struggling oil companies to make an illegal buck or two.

One of the biggest players in the oil game is Condor Oil & Gas, headed by CEO Jared Tolson (Robert Loggia), who contracts investment banker Tom Hanson (ass-grabber Christian Slater) to take over as overseer of one of the company's largest mergers. Hanson works for one of the most respected firms on The Street, and although he knows little about the oil and gas business, he agrees to take over the account from a recently dead friend and co-worker, who was killed under mysterious circumstances. By making this move, he invites the wrath of those in his firm who actually know something about oil and gas (especially the snake-like Colm Feore), and garners the respect of others, including a new young hire and recent Harvard grad Abby (Selma Blair). As Tom digs deeper into the fine print of the upcoming deal that would merge Condor with a major oil supplier in the former Soviet Union, he uncovers some shady dealings that could put his firm's reputation and his life in danger if he recommends the merger to Condor's shareholders.

Sounds like a real barnburner, right? Actually, The Deal surprised me with its clear understanding of this process, thanks to a literate and buzz word-laden script by Ruth Epstein. The trumped-up drama involving the Russian Mafia, kidnapping plots, and assassination attempts isnít nearly as interesting as the business of business. Hanson's old-fashioned detective-style search for oil reserves operated by Condor's potential merger partner in the research offices of his firm is far more interesting than a ridiculous romance subplot involving Slater and Angie Harmonís mysterious Anna. I also liked the relationship between Blair and her left-wing Harvard professor (John Heard), who pushes her to dig deeper and find out the truth about her firm's clients.

Screenwriter Epstein and director Harvey Kahn do a credible job creating an accurate portrait of a workplace environment where millions of dollars change hands every day and he who brings in the most fees rules the roost. The film seems a little impressed with itself, and Slater's overacting doesn't help matters. He scurries through this film doing his trademark hands-through-the-hair move, when most of the other actors choose to dial back on the enthusiasm. I'm not sure I can whole-heartedly recommend The Deal, but it wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience. How's that for noncommittal?


King of the Corner
How can you not have some degree of affection for Peter Riegert? Since presenting himself as one of the few voices of reason in Animal House, he's been an easy guy to like in films like Local Hero, Crossing Delancy, and even as a sleazy lawyer in Traffic. With King of the Corner, Riegert finds himself in a new role, that of director and co-writer of his first feature film. And of course, not being completely foolish, Riegert casts himself and uses his natural charm to create the complex character Leo, a sardonic, flawed market researcher whose life is slowly unraveling.

Leo's elderly father (Eli Wallach) is ailing, his daughter (Ashley Johnson) is staying out past curfew and dating a delinquent, and his wife (Isabella Rossellini) is clearly concerned about Leo's state of mind. Outside the world of his family, Leo is training a junior exec (Jake Hoffman) on the finer points of his work, and everyone but Leo sees that the kid is gunning for his job. A chance encounter with a high school crush (Beverly D'Angelo) sends Leo down a path with devastating consequences that lead to troubles at work and home. We're so used to seeing Riegert play characters who live on such an even keel that when Leo stands on the brink of a mental breakdown, you can't help but be impressed with the actor's abilities.

King of the Corner is far from perfect. There are too many coincidences in the timing of events in Leo's life; it seems contrived. And Eric Bogosian's portrayal of a rabbi without a flock seems completely out of step with the rest of the film. I'm not against throwing in humor in the midst of high drama (James L. Brooks has made a career of doing just this), but the humor in the rabbi's scenes isn't worthy of breaking up the decently written events going on around him. The standout performance here is Eli Wallach's, who is also used for comic relief; his scenes are more in sync with the rest of the film. His female companion (the still-lovely Rita Moreno) is also a nice touch. Her character could easily have been written out of the story, but her presence here makes Wallach's abrasive character seem more human.

King of the Corner is about a man who wants to be a good father, husband, son and worker, and soon realizes he's stretched himself so thin that he's failing in all areas of his life. It's a worthy effort from Riegert and co-writer Gerald Shapiro (on whose short stories the screenplay is based) and good enough for me to hope that Riegert tries again. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

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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 .

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