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Tuesday, December 12

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Beowulf

Of all of the anticipated end-of-year offerings that have the potential to truly knock your socks off in terms of both quality and box-office receipts, few films have more question marks surrounding it then Beowulf. Everyone I've talked to knows they should be excited about it, but the cold dead eyes that featured so prominently in director Robert Zemeckis' last film, The Polar Express, still bore holes into the souls of many who saw it. The idea of Zemeckis doing another total CGI film meant to look as realistic as any animated film has in history may not sit well with some. At the very least, I can promise you that the eyes in Beowulf look pretty good. And the film as a whole isn't too shabby either.

Let me establish right now that I found this film solidly entertaining, crossing over into outright breathtaking many, many times. I was lucky enough to see Beowulf in IMAX 3-D, and if you see it any way else, you're really missing out. But even ignoring the film's vast technological advances, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery have crafted a wonderful reduction of the weighty and complicated source material. The true test as to whether you'll enjoy this film or not may rest solely on your ability to watch the movie as a movie and not as a collection of motion-captured effects, photorealistic characters and some of the greatest 3-D you'll ever see. The filmmakers don't make this an easy task. There's a lot to distract you from the power of the story, so much so that you'll probably feel the need to see the film at least twice: once to gaze in wonder at the visuals and once to pay attention to the plot.

Not that the plot is that tricky to follow. King Hrothgar (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) is seeing his kingdom ravaged by a monster called Grendel (Crispin Glover in a truly terrifying vocal performance). Grendel is a half-demon/half-human creature that is one of the most hideous things I've ever seen on film. Hrothgar puts out the call to neighboring lands that he is in need of a hero to come save his lands. Along comes Beowulf (Ray Winstone after a serious digital workout) and his men (including Brendan Gleeson's Wiglaf). After falling in love with the Queen (Robin Wright Penn) and a war of words with Hrothgar's advisor, Unferth (John Malkovich), Beowulf defeats Grendel in a bizarre nude wrestling match that rivals Viggo's meat-and-potatoes knife fight in Eastern Promises. Beowulf soon discovers that the kingdom's real threat is Grendel's seductive water-demon mother (Angelina Jolie), who attempts to bed our hero in the hopes of spawning another demon child. This film is only PG-13, but there is more naked ass and hardcore (albeit animated) blood and guts than I've seen in just about any movie all year outside of Hostel, Part 2.

The greatest thing about Beowulf is that Zemeckis never stops attempting to dazzle and impress us. There are dragons, sea monsters, bodies being ripped limb from limb and a semi-nude Angelina Jolie. It doesn't seem right to ask for anything more. And there's a moving energy about the film that just swept me right up with it. That being said, once Grendel leaves the story, I felt the movie lost a little something. Sure, the battle between Beowulf and the dragon is remarkable, but Grendel was/is the classic misunderstood monster, who really just wants to be left alone with his adoring mommy. On a purely technical level, there was something a little off with the way the female characters looked in this film, perhaps with the exception of Jolie's character, who looks exactly like her. The other women appear too soft and perfect in the face, almost expressionless. It's a small quibble, since non-demon women don't play a huge role in this story, but it is a distraction. And John Malkovich's performance proves that, yes, even 100 percent digitally created characters can overact like a pro.

Still, the lifelike movements of the characters, the freakishly realistic facial features, the way the hair and clothing flowed, all work to make the spectacle of Beowulf something quite special. The stronger and more substantial screenplay makes a world of difference in dealing with this technology. The emphasis here is on story, and although it's a tale as old as the ages, Gaiman and Avery breathe some spectacular life into it. Those of you reserving the right to withhold your enthusiasm for this project may now exhale.


Southland Tales

I'm finding it curious in the reviews I've read so far for Richard Kelly's long-delayed but well-worth-the-wait second feature that so many people feel the need to take a defensive tone when discussing the film. It's as if they know in their hearts the film will be attacked or at least not be understood or embraced by the average moviegoer. This is probably true. For all the enigmatic charm of Kelly's first work, Donnie Darko, Southland Tales is even more dense and worthy of analysis. The film's more perplexing elements are not just found in the screenplay, but also in places like casting, sound design, tone and special effects. Some of Kelly's more baffling decisions make up part of the reason I admire the film so much, but, I'll admit, sometimes I was confused and occasionally frustrated. These moments don't last long, and by having so many different storylines going at once, Kelly doesn't give us much time to dwell on the weaker threads of Southland Tales. What he has accomplished with this work is one of the most complete and dizzying visions of the near future ever realized. And maybe part of the reason I was sometimes puzzled by what I was watching was that Kelly's vision of the future moves at a head-spinning pace and is populated by men and women who act and react as fast as they can think.

To attempt to boil down the plots of Southland Tales would be pointless. A huge part of the fun is the discovery. What I will tell you (and if you want more detail, I'm sure there are a half-dozen other reviews online just dying to spill all of the film's secrets) is that the setting is Los Angeles in 2008. The world is just a little too late getting on its environmental kick; the economy is a mess; and the threat level pretty much stays in the red (usually for good reason). But much like today, the public is distracted by non-events: a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is poised to be the biggest reality star on television; a Schwarzenegger-like action star (Dwayne Johnson) has gone missing and suffers from amnesia; and a vast conspiracy against the tyrannical government is about to come to a head thanks to a mad scientist (Wallace Shawn) and a fractured police officer (Seann William Scott). Kelly has populated his film with familiar faces in nearly every role. A gaggle of comedic actors (such as Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz) are cast in fairly serious roles. And, if you turn your head a little to the right or left, you might see Bai Ling (quite good here, as one of Shawn's minions) or Mandy Moore or Miranda Richardson or John Laroquette. You get my drift.

Rather than attempt to dissect every piece of Kelly's expansive universe as you're watching Southland Tales for the first time, it's probably best to sit back and take it all in and pick it apart later with others. I would never be so bold as to suggest that you see this film more than once, but the film almost doesn't give you a choice. There's a lot to absorb here. Despite the fact that the film is dealing with the potential for an apocalypse, Kelly doesn't inject his film with gloom and doom. There's a tremendous amount of energy and humor in this movie. Johnson (better known as The Rock) is by far my favorite performer in the film. He's never been tested as an actor the way he is here. He infuses his Boxer Santaros character with a desperate and vulnerable edge. Suffering from a bit of brain damage, Santaros is loaded with odd ticks and behaviors that make you take pity on the man. Gellar is good here, but I never truly got the porn star vibe from her. What she does succeed in conveying is that ugly glow of opportunism and publicity-seeking banality that most porn stars (or Paris Hilton) seem to revel in. Scott…well the one-time Stifler is in unchartered waters here. He scared me a little, and his character's secrets are the most devastating. Oh, he's good.

But I think my all-around favorite performer has to be (wait for it) Justin Timberlake (who also serves as the film's narrator) as a disfigured ex-military man who figures into Scott's storyline. He has a little musical number that must be seen by all. The film does have its weak moments, too. Kelly's stunt casting with his smaller roles is distracting and sometimes derails any potential dramatic momentum. Granted, it's easier to keep track of who's doing what to whom when most of the speaking roles are occupied by familiar faces, but trying to figure out if that was indeed Eli Roth sitting dead on the crapper or whether that really is Kevin Smith buried under all that old-man makeup can get old when I'm trying to focus on plot.

The thing I admire about Kelly's works the most is that he steadfastly refuses to exist in a conventional place in the film world. Taking on this epic story (which lasts about two-and-a-half hours) in only his second film is either impressive or foolish or both. Every ounce of his ambition is on the screen, even when hints of self-indulgence creep in. Southland Tales is oftentimes a messy affair, but there's a sincere part of me that wishes more filmmakers were capable or brave enough to make, or even attempt to make, a film this messy. The greatest compliment I think I could give Kelly at this point is to say I eagerly await a chance to see it again, and I can't wait to see what he dreams up next and where his next film, The Box, takes us.


Love in a Time of Cholera

Spanning portions of two centuries, this wildly popular story from the novel by Gabriel García Márquez tells the rather odd story of a young Colombian telegraph operator named Florentino Ariza (played primarily for the 50-year span of the film by Javier Bardem), who sets eyes on the beautiful young Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who was so great in the very scary Don't Tell), the daughter of a high-strung businessman (John Leguizamo). The two fall in love through a series of beautifully crafted letters, but when the father finds out, he whisks Fermina away. This time apart does not dissuade Florentino, who vows to keep his love alive for as long as it takes.

The film follows the lives of both characters, who cross paths infrequently throughout the decades. She seemingly falls out of love with our hero and in love with a handsome doctor (Benjamin Bratt), while he goes to work for his uncle (Hector Elizondo) at his shipping company. And while Florentino stays true to Fermina in his heart, he also beds nearly every woman he meets, keeping meticulous notes on each one and their particular bedroom antics.

I never read the novel this film is based on, but I can tell from watching the film that something crucial isn't making the transition the way it should. As compelling as Bardem always is, Florentino is written as a bit of a one-note simpleton. He cannot help but be in love and talk about love and think about love and write about love. As a side business, he works in the marketplace writing love letters for peasants who cannot write their own. He rarely speaks about a whisper, and he wears a devilish smile that starts out being kind of amusing but gets old very fast. The film is peppered with a couple nice cameos from the likes of Liev Schreiber as Florentino's first boss, Catalina Sandino Moreno as Fermina's promiscuous cousin, Laura Harring as one of Florentino's lovers and the remarkable Fernanda Montenegro as his mother.

British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco and the Harry Potter entry Goblet of Fire) certainly can't be accused of not knowing his material, and his affection for the novel is without question, but that doesn't stop the film from being wildly uneven, going from wild melodrama to sex romp to deeply felt romance in the matter of a few scenes. I loved the performances by the two leads, but some of the supporting work leaves much to be desired, especially Luguizamo's ridiculously over-the-top work. Whether it comes across this way in the source material or not, the story feels like another romanticized look at a stalker. That being said, the film's final act which shows us the Fermina and Florentino as beyond elderly is kind of nice and hopeful. But getting to that point is an often tedious journey marred by a whimpering, self-pitying hero and a heroine that may not be worth all those tears and the years of waiting.


Redacted

I wish I could remember which comedian it was who first made the joke about how there was at in all likelihood at least one person who died in the World Trade Center attacks who beat his wife or kids. The point was that the hero-ification of the people that died on that horrible day had maybe gotten out of hand. I'm not saying I agree with that philosophy, but I'm guessing that same stand-up comic thinks the same thing about the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brian De Palma's often shocking Redacted is going to infuriate many U.S. citizens, especially ones with family members serving in the armed forces.

De Palma's story of a small group of U.S. soldiers that participate in the rape of a young Iraqi girl and the killing of her and her family is deliberately inflammatory, bordering on exploitative. But I don't consider this a bad thing. In the last few months especially I've easily seen a dozen or so feature and documentary films that have been almost sterile in their depiction of the war and our troops. Everyone is so afraid of offending or appearing to insult the wrong group that the films seem to skirt some of the uglier aspects of the war. That doesn't mean the films are no good, but it's always left me with the sense that something is missing. These are the sort of missing pieces I'm guessing were also absent in films about the Vietnam War that came out during that conflict, but were later exposed in a handful of films that came out in the 1980s.

De Palma's statement with Redacted appears to ask, "Why wait?" He wants the atrocities of this war to be exposed now. Since films about torture/interrogation have already been done, De Palma structures this fictional account of events that are based on a real event in a highly unusual and effective format. All of the footage in Redacted is meant to look as if it were taken from pre-existing footage (one soldier's home movies/video diaries; closed circuit surveillance footage; news reports; a French documentary; videos to loved ones back home), all of which are fake but seem very real. The cumulative effect of this format is like watching compiled evidence against these men for their crimes. In essence, De Palma has remade his underrated 1989 work Casualties of War about a young girl's rape in Vietnam. But this latest work feels more immediate and raw. De Palma exposes how the military drills a killer mentality into these young men and sets them loose in a land where they were probably not be held accountable for their actions. But he's also making statements here about the media and the military superstructure that would rather bury this sort of event than deal with the public relations consequences of a hearing and disciplinary actions.

The truth is even if I thought some of the performances were way over the top to the point of being too ferocious at times, it's exciting to see a master like De Palma so pissed off about something and then make a movie about it. There's a spirit of aggression and passion in Redacted that you simply never see in feature filmmaking by such a well-known director. Not even Oliver Stone has put out a film this angry in years. De Palma has spent much of his career exploring themes regarding what is real and what is manufactured image, but never has he taken these ideas and applied them in such a fiery format. All of that being said, my guess is that very few people will go see Redacted. If the world even gets a whiff that this film might be anti-troops (it is not), they'll avoid it like the plague (Bill O'Reilly has already said De Palma should be arrested for treason for this film). That's a shame, because Redacted is exactly the kind of kick in the ass some people need to be driven to outrage. If Robert Redford made Lions for Lambs to get people talking, then Brian De Palma made his work to get people marching in the streets. This is a film that will probably disappear without much impact today, but will be looked at years from now as a solitary voice of cinematic dissent against this current war. De Palma's wearing his balls on his sleeve with this one, folks, and they are indeed mighty and pendulous. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Mr. Magorium's Magic Emporium

There isn't a single moment of this film that I didn't hate. No matter how many cheery smiles or magical moments or colorful toys or spirited tots or wacky parents or adults who see that's okay to be a kid inside writer-director Zach Helm (writer of Stranger Than Fiction) throws my way, Mr. Magorium's Magic Emporium is my newly defined definition of hell.

The first and foremost reason I despised this movie is that Dustin Hoffman's lispy title character isn't even a tiny bit funny or amusing. In fact, his "look at me—I'm craaaazy" performance will actually suck the comedy out of movies in nearby theaters. As adorable as I find Natalie Portman, she limits herself to two expressions here: smiling and looking sad. And poor Jason Bateman. In recent years, the man has reinvented himself as a substantial comic presence. So who the hell thought it was a good idea to cast him as the straight man to Hoffman's lunatic doofus? There's a child actor in this film that apparently is allowed by his mother to work in the toy store. Oh, he has a hat collection, too. I guess that's supposed to indicate he's eccentric. I was so unmoved by his performance I'm not even going to look up his name.

What is all the more puzzling about the film is that as pea-brained as its plot is, we're never quite sure what we're supposed to be worried about: the store being closed down because it's accounting records are a mess or the self-proclaimed last day on Earth for Mr. Magorium, who wants to leave the store to Portman. I know, I know, picking on this G-rated film clearly aimed at little kids is unfair. Boo hoo, fuck you. A shit movie is a shit movie. At least last week's Fred Claus had a couple laughs and a little backbone, even if it did still suck. Mr. Magorium doesn't even have that. It has the emotional depth and entertainment value of the worst kind of Saturday morning cartoon, and parents risk permanently pushing their children into a life of mediocrity for even mentioning the film's title in their homes. This film makes me wish the writers' strike had started sooner.


O Jerusalem

When a film's press notes tell you that it tells its story from “alternating viewpoints,” you can usually chalk that up as a big red flag that the filmmakers are going to go out of their way not to offend anyone. This strategy often results in a watered-down telling of what could have been a compelling and provocative story. What O Jerusalem delivers, instead, is two extremely volatile and passionate angles on a subject that has been the cause of much debate, conflict and death for nearly 60 years. Although still not a particularly well-made film, it tells its story from unfamiliar vantage points that made it a flawed curiosity at its best moments.

Rather than telling the story of the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 from a larger historical perspective, the filmmakers make it a personal story. Living in post-WWII America, two young friends — one Jewish, one Arab — have friendly debates about the location of the Jewish state, but when it appears a war is inevitable in Jerusalem, both men fly to their respective people to become soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict. There's a middle section of this film that is absolutely gripping, when we see how both sides fortify and plan their plans of action. We get incredible behind-the-scenes reenactments of moments and decision featuring Golda Mier (Tovah Feldshuh) and Ben Gurion (Ian Holm). I have no idea how accurate these moments are, but they hold a dramatic weight that is undeniable. However, once the film's final battle sequence cuts loose, the credibility of the material suffers greatly, especially when the old friends meet on the battlefield in an unlikely turn of events.

The true events behind O Jerusalem are well chronicled in documentaries, and I admire the film for attempting to go beyond just reciting and retelling history and putting faces to the events and conflicts, but the film betrays and undercuts itself by resorting to melodrama at several crucial moments. There are a couple of inspired performances here, but the relationship soap opera drivel kills all enthusiasm I had for this film as a historical drama.


The Girl Next Door

A warning to all those preparing to line up and see this film: this The Girl Next Door does not feature Elisha Cuthbert in the story of a former porn star who moves in next door to a high school kid. More specifically, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a brutal and extremely powerful effort that walks that razor-fine line between cautionary tale and exploitation masterpiece. The reason I choose to see it as a haunting profile of brutality is the staggeringly fine performance by Blanche Baker as Aunt Ruth, a monster who doesn't need oversize weapons or a mask to be scary. She wields a cigarette and a small army of devoted and easily influenced children to make her horrific.

The film will launch what is hoped to be a series of impressive late-night programs at the legendary Wilmette Theatre, just outside the Chicago city limits (I believe this movie is showing in the 9 o'clock hour, which for Wilmette is late). And what a kick-off offering! For a while now, I've been aware of Jack Ketchum's terrifying novel about Megan (Blythe Auffarth), a teenager who is held captive, tortured and otherwise abused by her aunt and cousins over the course of several days back in the late 1950s. Based on true events, the story actually tells the tale of 12-year-old David Moran (Daniel Manche), the family's next door neighbor and the only one brave enough to try and save Megan, or at least ease her suffering. What begins as gentle teasing turns into outright verbal insults, beating and eventually escalates into humiliation, torture and sexual abuse.

You may find it difficult to believe, but director Gregory M. Wilson tells this story with a great deal of restraint and compassion. He allows the events to play out in a manner that avoids most of the salacious details in favor of examining his characters (both good and bad). His examination of Aunt Ruth is fascinating, as he shows us how she uses her warped sense of morality to slowly ramp up the abuse inflicted on Megan and her handicapped younger sister, Susan. Taken out of context, these scenes may seem to give us torture for torture's sake. But Wilson never forgets that part of the reason these crimes went on for so long without being noticed or reported was the times. People in the 1950s couldn't even fathom these sorts of things happening in their quiet suburban community.

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door miraculously received an R rating because the ratings board somehow bought the cautionary tale aspect of the story. I'm not saying that Wilson and his crew pulled a fast one on the MPAA, but I've seen far less awful things on film that had to be trimmed to get a releasable rating. The board even declared that the movie “could help make a positive change for our culture.” I guess that's true. The film is unflinching in what it shows, but it also reveals that even those boys who did not partake in the abuse, watched out of fear or shock or both. It would seem that Wilson decided that if he was going to tell this story, he wasn't going to blink or let us look away. There isn't much to hold onto here that allows you to look favorably on the ways of humanity, but The Girl Next Door isn't going for uplifting. I firmly believe the mission here is to reveal the ugly side of human behavior in the hopes that someone who suspects such events are going on today might act sooner. Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but maybe I need a pinch of hope after viewing this dark and disturbing work.


Oswald's Ghost

Taking an interested point of view on the over-analyzed (on film and in countless books) John F. Kennedy assassination, director Robert Stone's documentary chooses to investigate the events from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald's strange and mysterious life. As is almost required in this sort of film, Stone also does an exceptional job putting Kennedy's untimely death in its proper historical perspective and allows a host of historians, journalists, experts on the many conspiracy theories and others to explore the impact his murder had on American society from that date forward.

The detailed research and use of rare archival footage is the real reason to check out this film, which makes a point not to draw any conclusions concerning the lone-gunman theory versus the countless alternative views of the assassination. One of the most interesting interview subjects in the film is the recently departed Norman Mailer, who clearly wanted to believe as a younger man that a conspiracy existed but never found a plausible one that answered all of his questions. He investigated Oswald on his own and clearly believed that the man wasn't nearly as simple or incapable of carrying out such as plot as many believed. Interviews with Dan Rather (who was one of the first journalists to see the Zapruder film the first time it was screened), Tom Hayden, Gary Hart and host of authors and investigators each have their own idea about what did and did not happen in November 1963 in Dallas.

Surprisingly enough, although most of those in the film dismiss District Attorney Jim Garrison as a nut job, many of the conspiracy theorists agree that Oliver Stone's JFK did a great job as a clearinghouse for all the ideas of what might have led to this killing (assuming it was something other than Oswald acting alone). Oswald's Ghost does a fairly thorough job of walking us through the events, the conclusions and the painful process of uncovering the truth about Kennedy's death. The subsequent deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy added fuel to the subscribers of conspiracy, and I'm probably more baffled by all the facts than ever before. But that's sort of the point. The mystery is so buried in accusations, politics and paranoia that we'll probably never know the whole truth. But docs like this one sure make all this confusion more interesting. The film opens for a week-long engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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