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Thursday, December 14

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Hello, everyone.

Shockingly enough, everything that opens this weekend screened for critics, including a couple I wish hadn't. More importantly, one of my personal favorites of Chicago's many film festivals arrives in March. The European Union Film Festival offers us the best of what the EU has to offer, much of which will open later this year (in some cases, much later) and some of which will never open here, whether it deserves to or not. This event is a wonderful place for discovery and taking chances. Pick a favorite country, or pick a country whose film pool you've never sampled (I hear Luxembourg is churning out some real talent!), and just go. It's rare that I've seen a real dud at this festival, and this year has some choice movies to select from. I'll be able to preview a few every week, but I'm limited to what the Siskel Film Center has available for preview, so I'll be spending a whole lot of time going to this festival during what poses as my spare time.

Check www.siskelfilmcenter.com for all the titles and showtimes, and scroll down to the bottom of today's column for previews of three films playing this week as part of the EU Film Festival.

Black Snake Moan

With his previous film Hustle & Flow, writer-director Craig Brewer was not attempting to make a film about a pimp trying to make it as a hip-hop artist. He was making a film about the essence of great hip-hop music. Almost without exception, great hip-hop songs come from someone who has lived the experiences laid out in the music. As top-notch as your production may be, ultimately rap music lives or dies by the authenticity of its lyrics. With his latest, and far superior and more provocative film, Black Snake Moan, Brewer gives us not just a story about a long-retired blues man, but also a tale about what makes a middle-aged black man, deliberately named Lazarus, find what it is in himself that made him love and embrace the blues so dearly many years earlier. I'm sure he never guessed that a half-naked, skinny, nymphomaniac white girl would be his salvation.

Samuel L. Jackson (in his finest performance in more than a decade) is Lazarus, a one-time Tennessee blues man whose wife has just left him for his younger brother. He's angry and shattered by the development. The badly beaten, unconscious Rae (Christina Ricci) is left for dead near his driveway. He attempts to nurse the girl back to health, and while in town collecting medicine and other supplies, he finds out a thing or two about Rae's wicked ways. Her boyfriend (played beautifully by Justin Timberlake) has made many promises about their future, but only after he ships off to bootcamp (and presumably Iraq several months later). In the wake of his leaving, Rae goes on a sexual and alcoholic bender. She also has epileptic-like seizures that can only be ceased with sex.

Lazarus takes on the girl's soul as a project, and he is determined to cure her of her wicked ways by keeping her under his care, reading her Bible verses, and simply showing her the kindness of a stranger who is not trying to have sex with her. To make sure she stays put until the job is done, he chains her to his radiator. My guess is that, if you knew anything about this film before today, this chaining business was a part of what you knew, maybe the only part. Craig Brewer is no dummy; he knows he's being provocative with this set up. And make no mistake, the chaining all happens fairly early in the story, but Ricci isn't in chains long. But in the time she is held captive, she does everything in her power to escape. I know a lot of actresses get labeled "brave" for taking their clothes off in films, but Ricci is downright fearless with her body and the label might stick with this performance.

But after the dust and boobies settle, it becomes clearer what Black Snake Moan is really about, which is, of course, Lazarus' personal redemption and his rediscovery of the things in his life that once made him a better man and a terrifying musician. Brewer drenches his subjects in blues folklore and culture, and you leave this film feeling both educated and invigorated. Black Snake Moan is a deeply spiritual piece, and as strange as it might sound, I could see some churchgoers finding many positive lessons about salvation in several scenes in this work. The course this film takes and the way it leads the audience is unexpected and wonderful, and bless Craig Brewer for carving out this music-fueled niche for himself in the film universe and teaching us not just about playing music but about what inspires those who create it. The year is young, I know, but this is my favorite movie of 2007 so far.

Zodiac

The idea of director David Fincher re-entering the world of serial killers is exciting, and an easy concept to market. "From the director of Seven…" is the phrase that much of the publicity for Zodiac is built around. And while it's a very logical way to get butts in seats, it's about as misleading a campaign strategy as you're likely to face when it comes to film marketing. And I'll be the first to admit, Fincher tackling the complicated and troubling California case of the Zodiac killer is something worth getting excited and eager about, but those of you expecting wildly imaginative murder set pieces, haunting lighting design and a satisfying Hollywood ending are going to come out of this film more than a little annoyed. Instead, Fincher (with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, adapting the source material by Robert Graysmith) has made what might be the greatest procedural crime drama in modern film history.

There have been many great police dramas since, but I have to go back to Kurosawa's iconic High and Low to think of a detective piece that affected me quite the way Zodiac did. I love the film as much for what it doesn't do as I do for it's great accomplishments. Fincher has spent his entire career establishing himself as a filmmaker with a highly stylized visual style and great sense of pacing. But with Zodiac he's unlearned almost every trace of his cinematic legacy. His films have always done a great job of creating strong characters, but he's never dug into the minds of his characters like he does here. And not just one or two, but dozens.

Everyone who got close to this case suffered greatly, including Graysmith (played here with a beautiful fragility by Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who got sucked into the Zodiac case through his friendship with crime reporter Paul Avery (both men received direct or indirect threats from the Zodiac killer at various times over the many years this case stayed active). Just when you think Robert Downey Jr. (who plays the razor sharp and witty Avery) has nothing more to show us, he pulls a performance like this one out just to show us he's still king. The two men weren't exactly friends, but Avery used Graysmith's love of puzzles and solving code to his advantage. But as the film goes on, Avery (like so many others) becomes so obsessed with the case that the rest of his life falls to the wayside and eventually implodes. We believe Graysmith's gentler nature will keep him pure as he decides to research the case for a book, but his fall is almost more tragic as he and his wife (played by Chloe Sevigny) and kids drift apart.

But the newspaper connection to the Zodiac killer (who sent many letters to the San Francisco media) is only half of what this film covers. The police investigation, led by inspectors David Toschi (the always reliable Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (a really nice turn from Anthony Edwards), is certainly more dry than the Graysmith/Avery storyline, but it's no less compelling. Imagine if finding this sly murdering bastard was your full-time job. This film follows the police down seemingly every dead end. More than once, you can almost smell that a suspect is guilty, but some small piece of evidence doesn't quite add up. In our age where crime databases, evidence and fingerprint records are a keyboard stroke away, watching these investigators circa the 1970s attempt to share cases of information across multiple jurisdictions is unbearable. Fincher captures this frustration to perfection, as small but important bits of evidence get lost or go unshared in the chaos.

And while we do see a some of the Zodiac killer's handiwork throughout the film, this is not a movie about a serial murderer's grisly ways. Zodiac is a film about those who seek the truth. This isn't even a film about getting justice or revenge (the victim's families are given virtually no screen time). Instead, Fincher has crafted a film about obsession and the search, about the tiniest bit of information meaning so much to so many even though it leads them nowhere. And while the film ultimately does point the finger pretty clearly at a particular person as the most likely killer, it is the not knowing that motivates everyone in this story. I could spend an entire paragraph of this review discussing how almost every role in Zodiac is played by a familiar face, but that isn't really the point. This movie boils police work and investigative journalism down to their essential (and, yes, sometimes deadly dull) cores. The whole piece feels authentic, right down to the salt shakers on Graysmith's kitchen table, but this is much more than a history lesson. This is a slice-of-life profile of a terrified California, and it's several insightful character studies rolled into a near-perfect film. Fincher's visual stamp isn't entirely absent from the proceedings, but he makes the complicated and chaotic story the heart of this, his best, film.

Wild Hogs

Keeping with the animal theme of the week's releases (along with Black Snake Moan), allow me to draw your short attention span to a miserable and overlong piece called Wild Hogs. Last year, when I interviewed William H. Macy, he had just finished shooting this movie and was practically doing back flips about how much fun he had making it. In a way I can see how filming a movie about four middle-age guys hopping on their Harleys and rolling down the highway together might be fun for those in the movie. As for the rest of us, hold your nose and shield your eyes from this catastrophic misstep for all four leads.

John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and Macy play the four boneheads in need of a break from their families and other life responsibilities. In different hands this could have been an entertaining bit of escapism. But in the hands of director Walt (Van Wilder) Becker, there is simply nothing to laugh at or enjoy. My guess is that everyone involved in putting this film together simply said, "Let's just throw these four on bikes and watch the comedy fly." Let's look at that cast for a second: the first three names haven't had a critically acclaimed work between them in a very long time. Then there's Macy, whose films often don't make money, but no one argues that the guy is one of the great actors working today. We forgive him for this, because he deserves a sizeable paycheck every now and again.

What passes for comedy in Wild Hogs is a never-ending string of gay jokes, lots of middle-age man-ass, a cartoonish biker gang led by Ray Liotta (the only cast member responsible for me laughing…once) and a last-minute cameo by an aged actor, whose appearance here might have had more impact if he hadn't just appeared in the other motorcycle-centric film out right now. I know it was only about a month ago that I threatened you with physical violence if you went to see the truly awful Diane Keaton monstrosity Because I Said So, but I'll give you a pass on that one if you promise not to see Wild Hogs, a film guaranteed to land on most Worst of 2007 lists, starting with mine.

Full of It

This truly bizarre film appears to have been made by individuals who simultaneously seem to have never seen a movie in their lives and yet are utterly well versed in every teen comedy ever made. The pacing, humor and acting would imply a total unfamiliarity with all celluloid products, while the embracing of every teen-movie cliché known in the seven galaxies leads me to believe no coming-of-age film made since 1950 has escaped the eyes of the filmmakers. But the true crime of Full of It is that its a PG-13 piece of crap that would have at least had a shot at being promisingly offensive if it had been allowed to embrace the dirty, dirty R rating it clearly wishes it had.

Director Christian Charles is capable of making a decent movie, as evidenced by his neat documentary Comedian starring Jerry Seinfeld. If you saw Jerry present the Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this year, he mentioned this film as being one that nobody saw, which is largely true. Well, I saw it and dug it. But Charles doesn't seem to have a clue what his latest work is about.

The small-for-his age, 17-year-old Sam Leonard ("Punk'd" co-star Ryan Pinkston) is nerdy, but not like most movie nerds. He's just awkward, but that doesn't stop him from wanting and trying to be one of the cool kids. Pinkston's performance is at least sympathetic in the beginning; the kid comes across as sincere and sweet. But after his first day at his new school, on the advice of his guidance counselor (Craig Kilborn, even more unfunny that usual), he begins to lie about every aspect of his life to gain popularity. For no particular reason, when Sam wakes up the next morning, all of the things he lied about have become true, from why he didn't do his homework to what his parents do for a living to his gifts as a basketball player to which hot girls have crushes on him to how big his wiener is. The potential for raunch is there.

His life is going pretty great for a while, until the consequences of some of his lies begin to come true, including the alienation of the one person (Kate Mara, who was so good in We Are Marshall) who liked him before he drove a Porsche and had the hottest teacher in school (Teri Polo) lusting after him. There is absolutely nothing about the plot or outcome of Full of It that isn't telegraphed from about 37 miles away, but that isn't why it sucks. The entire film feels like it was written and edited by monkeys with a "How To Write a Screenplay" book in one hand, the raw footage from this film in the other and a pair of dull scissors in their left foot. Events are pieced together almost randomly, and characters' moods change from one scene to the next (and not just because one day the lies are lies and the next day they're truth). The end result is an unpleasant and headache-inducing product that should enjoy a blessedly short run in theaters and clutter up bargain DVD bins in about three months, tops. Avoid this one, folks.

The Situation

Marking the first time a U.S. feature has been set entirely in Iraq and deals with the occupation honestly, The Situation is a bold and dramatic (if not always successful) piece that attempts to tell the human stories behind the spoon-fed military and media reports we often get here. Rather than simply tell the story of Iraqis, director Philip Haas mixes things up a bit. He introduces us to an American journalist named Anna (Connie Nielsen); her American military intelligence gatherer boyfriend, Dan (Damian Lewis); and her frequent photographer, a Western-educated Iraqi named Zaid (Mido Hamada). Together and separately, these three weave through modern Iraqi society and come into contact with well-respected people who are not afraid to talk to Americans, as well as many who are terrified to be seen in Anna's company. An incident in which several American soldiers throw two young Iraqi men over a bridge into the water below (one dies because he can't swim) sets off a horrific series of retaliations and pushes tensions well into the red.

What The Situation reveals to us is just how chaotic and disorganized things are in Iraq, not just in terms of intelligence and who is trustworthy, but even among Iraqis. People who are one day deemed faithful to the cause of getting Americans out of the country are declared enemies the next and assassinated. Westerners and those who work with them are kidnapped without any real ransom in mind. Even if the military knows where the captives are, they can't always act on that information right away. And the insanity goes on and on.

Some of the revelations aren't that shocking if you've seen even one of the dozens of documentaries shot in Iraq in the last four years. But the film's biggest weakness is the inclusion of a love triangle among the three leads. It isn't necessary, and it does not help us learn more about these characters and their motivations. All three are dedicated professionals, trying fruitlessly to better an increasingly awful situation, all for different reasons. Having both men lusting after Anna doesn't add anything except minutes to the running time. Still, this isn't enough to soften the sometimes brutal and dangerous blows The Situation delivers with precision. This is a unique and eye-opening experience. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

An Unreasonable Man

I'm not sure why it came as such as a shock to me, but this documentary about the life and accomplishments of Ralph Nader is an absolutely fascinating piece of filmmaking. And if you're one of the many who has sworn off even uttering the name Ralph Nader after he may or may not have spoiled a Democratic victory for president two elections in a row, this film was made just for you.

Before the 2000 election Nader was primarily known as the forerunner in a never-ending crusade against corporations that thought they could get away with whatever they wanted. He was an idealistic crusader who would never let big companies or government hurt the American people without consequences. He made his name in 1966 fighting the deathtrap nature of General Motors cars. The resulting smear campaign and clandestine investigation into his personal life by GM is the stuff of legend and opened the eyes of the American people to the devious nature of corporations. Nader and his collection of hundreds of lawyers, college students and consumer advocates led the charge on issues and regulations we all assume have been in place forever, such as seat belts, nuclear power plant safety or product labels on food. If it weren't for Nader, you wouldn't get a free plane ticket if you got bumped from a flight.

There is a wealth of wonderful interview footage of Nader and his co-conspirators, many of whom have turned on him since his activities connected with his run for president. But it remains clear that Nader has no time or energy to grieve for broken friendships, even those that have lasted decades. Even his closest associates agree the man probably hasn't had a serious female companion in his life. The man is all business. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the portion of the film that deals with his two presidential runs comes from his one-time supporters, all of whom seem to agree on the issues he stands for, but still want him to step down and throw his support behind the Democratic candidate. An equal amount of compelling evidence is presented proving and disproving Nader's role as an election spoiler, and at this point I don't know what to believe.

One of the ways I judge documentaries about individuals or groups is by asking myself whether I have any desire to spend time talking to the subjects after the film ends. I would kill to get in a room with Nader and speak with (and be spoken to by) this intelligent and wacky man whose views are so focused that he may not always see the more immediate problems right in front of him. No matter what you think of the man (or maybe it's best to walk into this film without a definite opinion of him), there's no denying how important he has been to the American political landscape and how well this film captures his many faces. An Unreasonable Man opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

As a special bonus, if you'd still like to yell at Mr. Nader after you see the film, there will be a live video conference Q&A with Nader following the 7pm performance of the film on Saturday, March 3. In addition, co-director Steven Skrovan will appear in person on Saturday to introduce the film and take questions from audience after the day's screenings.

Comedy of Power

Any longtime lover of French film knows that one can almost always count on quality and overall creep vibe from the works of director Claude Chabrol, who is still putting out films every 18 months or so that are as chilling, suspenseful and gripping as he's ever made. For his latest work, he re-teams with one of his favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert, for the seventh time in 30 years for Comedy of Power, which covers slightly less suspenseful but no less intriguing territory. Huppert plays a Paris judge involved in a high-profile case concerning a government-sanctioned company. She takes it upon herself to lead the investigation, which ends up reaching the upper echelons of the French government.

The information she collects makes her one of the country's most powerful people, but it also makes her a target. Rather than turn over the information to the proper authorities, the judge allows herself to get slightly tipsy with power, which leads to some reckless behavior and backstabbing most foul. I don't want to give too much away concerning this twisting and turning tale of corruption and scandal, but Comedy of Power is a rare look into the complex world of French and Parisian politics and justice. Those of you who like your political scandal films a little more cut and dry may find your eyes glazing over at times during this talk-heavy work, but I was mesmerized by the whole experience. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Tears of the Black Tiger

This parody/tribute to the first Golden Age of Thai cinema (during the 1960s) is endlessly entertaining and a wonderful examination of a long-gone, charming style of filmmaking that was blatantly influenced by U.S. and other Asian cinema. While not always trying to be funny, Tears of the Black Tiger kind of can't help it. When you see the obvious and sometimes deliberately sloppy use of back-screen projection, quick zoom-ins and melodramatic acting, you will laugh. The Romeo and Juliet-style story involving a peasant boy falling for a rich girl is almost beside the point. After being torn apart, the pair meets again 10 years later, and they fall in love. But the young man's father is murdered, and the woman is forced into an engagement to a slick police captain. Dum becomes the notorious bandit known as the "Black Tiger" to find the outlaws that killed his father and get his beloved back to him. The story is simple and never steers us too far away from the action and very red blood. Although I can't claim to have ever seen one of the classic Thai films this film is mimicking, one gets a very clear sense of exactly what writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng is aiming for. The plot is told in bold strokes, to be sure, but in such a clever and entertaining way that it never feels like the material has been dumbed down. If anything, the filmmaker wants to give the audience a little bit of everything this awesome, ancient genre once offered. You have never and will never see another film like Tears of the Black Tiger, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. If your greatest complaint about movies today is that you've seen it all before, you need to check this one out.

The European Union Film Festival

Glastonbury

I am nothing if not a sucker for a great concert documentary, especially those about music festivals. If you haven't seen the lengthy and totally satisfying documentaries of the first Woodstock festival or Monterrey Pop or the Newport jazz or folks festivals, they are not only some of the best records of long-dead or disbanded acts at their musical peak, but also impressive time capsules of the time and people who lived and smelled during the 1960s (when most of the festivals were born). What director Julien Temple (who made the exemplary Sex Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury a few years ago) has done is something quite unique: he presents an entire history of the annual, three-day rock event held in Glastonbury near Stonehenge, which began in 1970. Mixing archival footage from the festival's first couple of years (some shot by director Nicolas Roeg), a few shows in the '80s and '90s and even more in recent years, Temple assembles a nice mix of musical highlights of everyone from the Velvet Underground and David Bowie to Coldplay and Bjork. More importantly, the filmmakers give maybe the best sense of what it must be like to attend an event of this magnitude. No muddy, grotesque corner of this immense mess escapes Temple's eye, and Glastonbury works almost better as a sociological exercise on human behavior (especially the practice of public nudity, which is revisited several times in the film's nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time). The film opens on March 9 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and previews during the EU Film Festival on Saturday, March 3 at 7:30pm.

The Method

In this slick corporate thriller from Spanish director Marcelo Pineyro, a group of seven male and female job candidates are pitted against each other in a series of unorthodox tests meant to test their psychological mettle and leave standing only the most cunning and sneaky. The film starts subtly as all of the competitors meet and seem friendly enough with each other in an otherwise empty boardroom. They are told one among them is a mole, but there's no way to know whether this is true. They are asked to pick a leader, which seems easy enough, but when various facts about each are revealed throughout the course of the day, even the most competent among them appears devious. Outside, the streets are on fire courtesy of raging anti-globalization riots (the film has much to say on the subject of how corporations are run). But as the film goes on and the herd is thinned, the believability of what goes on between the candidates becomes less believable and less interesting. The closer the film stuck to reality, the more I liked it. Still, there are a handful of truly fine performances from Spanish actors I was largely unfamiliar with. The Method makes a commendable attempt at criticizing at how easily a corporation can eat away at the integrity of even the most morally sound person, but in the end, the film becomes about as bloated and ridiculous as most role-playing games. The film is playing on Saturday, March 3 at 5:15pm, and Wednesday, March 7 at 6pm.

Color Me Kubrick

Less a film aimed at lovers of Stanley Kubrick's work, and more a testament to the power of celebrity (even false celebrity), Color Me Kubrick tells the mostly true story of Alan Conway, the gay British con artist who, in the 1990s, trolled the upper and lower levels of gay London pretending to be the reclusive and rarely seen director. John Malkovich is on fire as Conway, putting on a different American or British accent for each one of his victims, whom he's always hitting up for money, drinks or sex with the promise of being cast in his next film. Since nobody knows what Kubrick really looks like at the time, and many in the gay community seem so eager to be friends with such a noted celebrity, the farce goes on for some time. Director Brian Cook and screenwriter Anthony Frewin (both associates of Kubrick's for many years) stuff this work with outrageous behavior, an impossible wardrobe, familiar music cues and inspired cameos from the likes of Richard E. Grant and Ken Russell. But it's Malkovich that rules this roost as the absolutely fearless Conway, who never misses an opportunity to use his assumed name even when it becomes clear that he knows very little about Kubrick's films beyond the more well-known titles. For those who remember Malkovich when he used to take bold chances, Color Me Kubrick is a raucous reminder of his enormous talent. The film opens March 23 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and will be screened as part of the EU Film Festival on Sunday, March 4 at 3pm, and Thursday, March 8 at 8:15pm.

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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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