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Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

As of this writing, it's looking like the studios are either not screening or screening the day before opening day (which means too late for me to review) the long-delayed Edie Sedgwick biography film Factory Girl. Perhaps more surprising is the withholding of Young Hannibal, the "origin" story of how Hannibal Lecter got his taste for killing and eating human flesh. I've liked (to varying degrees) all of the Lecter films, which in no way means this one is any good. But my guess is that some critics would have reviewed it favorably, if not glowingly. Oh well, there are still plenty of offerings this week, some of them actually worth your cash money. Please keep in mind that most of the films I'm reviewing this week are only playing in one theatre in the Chicago area, so you might have to venture beyond the multiplexes.

Breaking and Entering

The last time Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient; The Talented Mr. Ripley; Cold Mountain) wrote an original screenplay (he adapted all three of the previously mentioned novels) was a little 1991 British film called Truly Madly Deeply, a film that introduced most of the world to an actor named Alan Rickman. But more importantly, the film trumpeted Minghella's gift of writing about affairs of the heart like few other writers had before him, with an honesty and insightfulness that taught me a great deal about love and loss, and how the two can confuse and heal. So after 15 years of adapting fine literature, Minghella has returned to the word processor to pen a screenplay that openly deals with several seemingly unrelated topics (adultery, architecture, immigrants in England, autism and crime) and weaves them into a mature, fascinating film that always kept me curious about where it was taking me.

For those still doubting Jude Law's acting talents, allow me to offer up Breaking and Entering as Exhibit A. In a complete 180 from the smarmy charmer he played in The Holiday, Law plays Will, a founding partner in a landscape architecture firm (his co-partner is played by Martin Freeman). The firm's new location in the still-iffy London neighborhood of King's Cross gets robbed during the night on more than one occasion by a group of Eastern European immigrants (forgive me for not remembering what nation they are supposed to be from; I saw this film quite a while ago), including young Miro (newcomer Rafi Gavron). His mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), is hard-working seamstress who has little idea what her son does during the day. Miro is extremely acrobatic and can run and bounce around rooftops to get from building to building. It's thrilling to watch him work.

After Will and his partner stake out their own business (along with a friendly hooker played charmingly by Vera Farmiga, who just wants to sit in their car to stay out of the cold) to catch the thieves, Will ends up following Miro home. To scope out the boy's living conditions, Will pretends he has work for his mother, and the two strike up a friendship. Will lives with his long-term girlfriend, Liv (Robin Wright Penn), and her borderline autistic daughter, whose care essentially dominates their lives and relationship. The strain of his home life pushes Will to Amira, and the two begin a heated affair.

Breaking and Entering is the type of film in which you know all hell is going to break loose once the truth comes out about all of the relationships. What is so surprising about Minghella's screenplay is the way it refuses to resolve many of these storylines the way they normally would in a typical Hollywood film that deals with adultery. Minghella remembers that a couple's natural inclination is to work out their difficulties and not simply run to opposite corners of their home and sulk until somebody says "I'm sorry." When Amira discovers that Will originally came to her home because he was after her son the criminal, she does something that I never would have anticipated to protect her two-person family.

Ray Winstone is the police inspector investigating the break-ins, and, almost despite himself, he becomes an advocate for the boy not going to jail, much to the dismay and confusion of Will's partner. Much of Breaking and Entering concerns insiders and outsiders, who and what belongs and doesn't belong. We see a video presentation of Will's concerning renovating a particularly in-need section of London, and we realize that this is what the film is all about: the attempt to rip out what is old and useless in the world, and revamping it to help it survive. Minghella's script is deeply piercing. It looks at the elements that make a major world city tick and when it needs to be wound up to function again. There are no easy answers. The futures of the many relationships presented in the film are left largely up in the air, but there is a sliver of hope that runs through the heart of this work. Breaking and Entering is a quietly impressive movie that works as hard on the heart as it does on the brain. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Dead Girl

Certainly the idea of telling multiple, loosely connected stories in an attempt to form one great story is nothing new. If anything, the idea is on the verge of being played out. Movies like Babel prove that the device still has some juice left in it, and ones like The Dead Girl illustrate that some filmmakers know how to handle this method of storytelling with subtlety and grace. Writer-director Karen Moncrieff (who made the troubling and essential Blue Car in 2002) tells five stories all having to do with the discovery of a young woman's body in a field. It may take you some time to figure out what or if the stories have to do with the main theme, but all is made clear eventually and chillingly. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, Moncrieff chooses to focus each of the five tales on damaged women. Some have been damaged by a specific event, while others have been living with pain their entire lives.

In the first tale, Toni Collette plays a sheltered woman who finds the body and becomes something of a local celebrity. Her mother (Piper Laurie, who seems to be re-channeling her mother role in Carrie) belittles her every decision, but a newly met young man (Giovanni Ribisi in full creep mode) captures Colette's attention and gives her the inspiration to separate from her mother, for better or worse. My favorite section of The Dead Girl is the one that has the least to do with the dead girl. Rose Byrne plays a forensics student whose sister disappeared years earlier and whose mother (Mary Steenburgen) has long neglected her in favor of searching for the missing sibling. When the titular character's body lands in the morgue, Byrne hopes beyond hope that it's her sister, so the mother can move on.

The most unsettling vignette is that featuring Mary Beth Hurt as an angry working-class housewife whose husband owns a storage facility. On occasion, the husband will leave the home and business for days at a time, leaving the wife alone to fume and wonder what nonsense he's up to. The wife accidentally stumbles upon something in one of the storage units that gives her the answers she needs, and it's almost more than you can stomach. If you're not seeing the connection between this story and that of the dead girl's, you haven't seen enough serial killer movies.

Before we enter the final chapter, in which we discover exactly who the dead girl (played by Brittany Murphy) was and how she died, we get one more story about the girl's mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who comes to what appears to be California searching for her runaway daughter. What she discovers from the girl's sometime-roommate (Kerry Washington) is far beyond her abilities to cope or comprehend. We don't ever see the moment when the mother finds out her little girl is dead; we don't need to. The dread of not knowing is far worse than the release of finding out the girl's fate.

I shouldn't say much more than I have because there are some small but significant turns in The Dead Girl. Clearly, the film does not suffer from a shortage of talented performers, but it's Moncrieff's decision to tell this story in such an unconventional way that makes it special. In any other film, we would be forced to sit through endless scenes with the serial killing as he makes his preparations and carries out his dastardly deeds. Here, we get his frustrated, middle-aged wife, who has lost all sense of appeal for him and rides him like a tank. Murphy has played the wild child before, but here it's given context and substance. We know she's going to end up dead (Moncrieff spares us the actual killing), but the unrelated events leading up to her death are among the film's most tragic and tense. With these five tales, Moncrieff isn't attempting to piece together a complete picture of one woman. She gives us five satisfying stories of five women, all of whom are in quiet, but obvious crisis. The Dead Girl is a spellbinding work from a gifted writer-director.

Norbit

What would any self-respecting, first-time Oscar nominee do to follow up his role of a lifetime? Well, I couldn't tell you that, but I can tell you what Eddie Murphy's done. He's made another film in a fat suit. More specifically, Murphy has made another broad comedy in which he re-teams with make-up master Rick Baker (The Nutty Professor; Coming To America) to create three characters, one of which wears the most impressive and realistic fat suit I've ever seen. And that particular character also happens to be a woman named Rasputia, a killer whale crossed with a wild mountain lion. But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself.

Norbit isn't exactly a family film (I believe it comes with a PG-13 rating, mostly for language), so this wouldn't necessarily be something little kids would appreciate. The film's problems don't lie in Murphy's performance. He's one of the few actors today who knows how to work with this severe level of makeup and bodysuits. He's pretty great here, especially in his borderline racist portrayal of Mr. Wong, a Chinese man who runs a combination Chinese restaurant and orphanage (I don't want to know what's in those egg rolls). I almost didn't realize that was Murphy behind Mr. Wong, primarily because I just couldn't hear Murphy's voice in the character. Wong takes in young Norbit as an orphan, and some of the early scenes of his child-rearing techniques are very funny and a bit brutal. A hapless nerd with oversized glasses, Norbit meets a young Rasputia, and she latches onto him until they get married some years later.

Rasputia is a bully from a family of bullies. In fact, her three brothers run the local construction company, with a side order of protection money collection on the side. The brothers want very much to purchase Wong's property and turn it into a strip club, putting the current crop of orphans out on the street. When Norbit's childhood sweetheart, Kate (Thandie Newton, most recently seen in The Pursuit of Happyness), returns to town to run the rehabbed orphanage, the brothers cook up a scheme to get her to sign over the deed to the property to them. Norbit immediately falls back in love with Kate, who just happens to be engaged to a conman played by Cuba Gooding Jr., who wants to marry her, then swipe all her money.

The plot of Norbit isn't too tough to follow or predict, but the two screenwriters (and two others credited with the "story") didn't seem to have enough confidence that a simple story about a hen-pecked husband and his terrifying wife (both played by Murphy) was enough to keep audiences entertained. So the story is jam packed with peripheral characters I think are supposed to be funny. Instead the performers each try to out-ham each other with gross overacting and vaguely offensive stereotypes. Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams play two former pimps, who were forced out of the game years earlier and now run a rib joint in town while still dressing like pimps. They aren't funny. The three actors playing Rasputia's brothers (Terry Crews, Clifton Powell and Mighty Rasta) just eat up scenery and flex their ample biceps. They aren't funny either. Neither Newton nor Gooding is really supposed to be humorous, and that's their excuse. So the lion's share of the comedy lands in Murphy's lap, and he does the best he can with this thin material. But it's a bit sad to see someone who was so impressive in Dreamgirls rehash this blatantly.

Director Brian Robbins (who wowed us with Tim Allen's The Shaggy Dog and has signed on for Murphy's next film, Starship Dave) seems to let his supporting cast run amok as arms wave and eyes roll and funny faces are made. At one point, I'm pretty sure there was a decent movie here somewhere. There are some darkly humorous moments scattered throughout the film, but there aren't enough to keep the laughs coming or the entertainment level above a slow simmer.

Screamers

Most documentaries examining world tragedy on the scale of something like the history of genocide in the last century would be safe and content enough to simply gather a group of historians for talking-head interviews, show some stock footage of death camps and atrocities (which there is sickeningly too much of in the world), and criticize world governments for not doing more to stop them while they were in progress (the "world police" designation that the United States often embraces doesn't ever seem to extend to genocide relief). But I have to give points for originality to the new film Screamers for its approach to the subject of genocide by shaping its messages through the music of the rock band System of a Down, whose members are all grandchildren of survivors of the Armenian genocide, considered by most to be the 20th century's first such attempted extermination of an entire people.

I'd certainly heard of System of a Down before this film; they are wildly and globally popular, have sold millions of records and won Grammys, and the lead singer, Serj Tankian, has terrible facial hair. That was the extent of my knowledge of the band before seeing Screamers. And while I still don't think I'd ever buy one of the records, I admire their conviction to this cause and their tenacity when it comes to putting their time and money where their cause leads them. Filmmaker Carla Garapedian (who made the exceptional look at women in Afghanistan Beneath the Veil a few year back) follows the band around on tour and focuses on the songs in their set that address the issue of genocide and related political topics. But I made more of an emotional connection with the footage of band members off stage, in particular the very moving scenes of Tankian visiting his 96-year-old grandfather, one of the only survivors from his village in Turkey.

Screamers does offer up its collection of historians, politicians and intellectuals to offer perspective on why genocides happen and why outside nations take so long to acknowledge their existence in time to stop them. While claims of simply not knowing may be plausible in connection to the Armenian and Jewish genocides, more recent events in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Darfur occurred when technology made it possible follow these slaughters as they were happening (as is evidenced by the abundance of grizzly footage in this film). U.S. presidents in recent history (including Bill Clinton and our current leader) have made declarations of "never again" in reference to genocides, but only after tens of thousands were dead. Perhaps what is more shocking is that the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged the Armenian genocide for strictly political reasons. In fact, there's an entire denial movement in Congress. One of Screamers best moments comes when Tankian approaches then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert about a petition delivered to his office for Congress to formally acknowledge the Armenian genocide. And while Hastert does dutifully listen for all of 20 seconds, you've never seen a fat man dance so gracefully.

Screamers is an impressive and inventive work that finds a way to attach human faces (both living and dead) to its subject matter. The recent murder of Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, one of his country's most high-profile ethnic Armenians and target of much hatred for his insistence that his government acknowledge the genocide, drives home the issues put forth in this film more than anything I can think of. The fact that people would still kill each other over denial versus acknowledgment is tragic, and Screamers sets the stage for further, deeper examination of this worldwide hypocrisy.

Puccini for Beginners

I first saw this film as part of the Reeling gay and lesbian film festival here in Chicago, and I remember being as unimpressed with it then as I remain today. Although the film features an impressive cast in its story of a bisexual woman who is dating two people who used to be a couple and keeping that fact from the two. Aside from the emotional depth of the film being about as shallow as an episode of "Three's Company," I just found the film's heroine to be completely unsympathetic. Her greatest tragedy in life is being so beautiful that everybody wants to date her, and she simply can't decide who to grace with her vapid personality. Suddenly genocide doesn't seem so tragic.

The talented Elizabeth Reaser (most recently seen in last year's worthwhile The Sweet Land) plays Allegra, a New York writer who has just broken up with her long-time girlfriend (Julianne Nicholson) because Allegra is too flighty and fickle to commit. Allegra is so broken up over the dumping that she takes about five seconds to rebound with a college professor named Phillip (Justin Kirk). Not being satisfied with one rebound, Allegra also begins dating Grace (Gretchen Mol). It turns out that Phillip and Grace used to be a very serious couple until recently, a fact that sets up one of the most obvious and predictable moments in film history. But before that inevitable moment, we must endure scene after scene of Allegra juggling her two relationships, thus driving home her issue with commitment with the subtlety of a wrecking ball.

Puccini for Beginners (the title comes from Allegra's love of opera) is, I'm guessing, meant to invoke the screwball comedies of the golden age of Hollywood, but those films actually had writing and laughs and characters worth caring about. I refuse to believe that all gay or bisexual woman think and talk about is sex and relationships. If I'm wrong, I apologize to all of the shallow gay and bisexual women out there. What's worse is that Reaser wears an annoying smirk on her face for the entire film, which leads me to believe that even her character isn't taking her own troubles that seriously; so why should we? A part of me hoped that having Nicholson and Kirk in the same film together might make this be half as interesting as the exceptional Flannel Pajamas from last year, but no such luck. Puccini is air-headed entertainment, devoid of any humor or connection to real life. I don't need every film to be "meaningful," but I would like it to at least have meaning. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Animation Show 3

I love animated shorts programs. The Music Box brings Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation show through town every year, and I never miss it. In 2004 and 2005, I served on a jury for the Chicago International Film Festival's short films program, and my taste for the animated shorts grew exponentially. For the past three years, a new traveling animation show has been making its way across the country, one that focuses less on the outrageous and more on solid filmmaking. Created and programmed by Mike Judge (creator of "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill") and master animator Don Hertzfeldt ("Billy's Balloon" and "Rejected"), The Animation Show 3 is by far the best collection this team has put together.

Reviewing shorts collections is tricky (the Music Box is also running a collection of shorts nominated for this year's Academy Awards later in the month). Part of the problem is that you can't review each individual short, so your boil it down to whether the collection as a whole is worthy or not. This collection absolutely is, if for not other reason than it offers us Hertzfeldt's latest masterpiece "Everything Will Be OK," a bizarre, funny and sometimes freakish tale that doesn't just rely on broad humor to make its impact. Apparently the entire program is introduced by Beavis and Butt-Head, although sadly the screening copy I watched didn't feature this, which I've been told is quite funny.

Other highlights include last year's Oscar-nominated "Nine" from director Shane Acker, a thrilling and dark sci-fi piece that pits an animal-like robot against humanoid beings that appear to be made of canvas. The great opening short "Rabbit" is a twisted tale of two children who discover an idol inside the belly of a rabbit they slaughter. The god-like creature seems vengeful, but if you feed it jelly it makes jewels out of flying insects. "Overtime" is a poetic piece about a group of Kermit-like puppets that "animate" their elderly creator's lifeless body. One of the funniest shorts is "Versus" about two warring samurai armies attempting to capture a small hill between their forces. The Animation Show 3 also features Bill Plympton's latest, "Guide Dog," about a canine desperate to help the blind. Two of my favorite works are "No Room for Gerold," a German short featuring a group of animals sitting around a kitchen table arguing about hygiene and tardiness; and "Game Over," which pays tribute to video games of old using a lot of food. That's all I'll say.

The Animation Show 3 offers a showcase not just for some of the best shorts filmmaking you're likely to see in a given year, but some of the best animated film work being made today. Studio animation divisions should take note. The collection is only playing for two days (Friday and Saturday) at the Music Box Theatre, and I'm told that Hertzfeldt and Plympton will be in attendance, so don't miss this rare opportunity to meet these award-winning animation legends.

Fired!

Not all documentaries have to be about the end of the world or how shitty the government is. Sometimes they can be about something fun, like getting fired from a job. When actress Annabelle Gurwitch was fired by none other than Woody Allen from a play he was directing (if we believe her account of the events, he told her that she was playing her character as if she were retarded), she did what any self-respecting narcissist would do: she turned her tragedy into a series of artistic endeavors (a book, a theatre piece and this movie) that she uses to talk about the greater issues connected with job loss while still leaving plenty of room to inject humor and her own face into the work.

Fired! takes a page from the likes of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore by making the film about Gurwitch and then expanding to the bigger picture. She interviews many of her famous friends about their histories of getting fired. And fortunately for us, her friends are funny. She parades the likes of Andy Dick, David Cross, Illeana Douglas, Jeff Garlin, Judy Gold, Richard Kind, Anne Meara, Bob Odenkirk, Jeffrey Ross, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman and Fred Willard, who all tell true stories of their miseries over losing job after job. And as informative as Gurwitch attempts to be with case studies involving workers at General Motors or interviews with human resource directors, economist/Nixon speechwriter/game show host Ben Stein or former labor secretary Robert Reich, her main interest is entertaining the audience with funny tales of woe.

Some may find Gurwitch's mixture of comic and tragic ill-conceived, but it plays better than you might think. And if there is one thing many Americans can probably bond over, it's the heartbreaking feeling of being axed from a job you probably didn't like that much in the first place. And not surprisingly the pain of being downsized is not that different than being canned for more personal reasons (i.e., because you suck at your job). Fired! may be too light hearted for some in its approach to its subject, especially those with whom this topic hits a little too close to home. But there is no doubt that Gurwitch knows your pain and her empathy resonates through every fiber of her work. The film opens for a week-long engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Isabella

Calling to mind some of the early, intimate works of fellow Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, director Pang Ho-Cheung's Isabella is the story of Shing (Chapman To), a corrupt and womanizing cop in Macau who discovers that an underage girl prostitute named Yan (Isabella Leong) with whom he has just had a one-night stand is actually his daughter. To make matters even creepier, it appears the girl organized their meeting and sexual encounter. Although at first it seems like an attempt at blackmail, the pair decide to get to know each other (minus the sex) and discover the dark corners of each other's pasts. Shing long believed that Yan's mother had an abortion, and had no idea a child even existed. Growing up, Yan continually ran into Shing as he weaved his way in and out of the Macau underworld cutting deals with organized crime bosses and getting deeper into trouble.

Isabella (which is the name of Yan's missing dog) works hard to get us past the icky feeling we get from its early scenes and turns into a deeply emotional work about two people committed to becoming friends and a family. Writer-director Pang has fashioned a film that is both elegant in its atmosphere and decadent in its characterizations. Yan is always wearing revealing outfits; Shing is a violent and nasty man when he has to be, and even when it isn't necessary. Still, the film resonates with heart and conviction, and marks a mature turn in Pang's work. Playing as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's Hong Kong! festival, Isabella plays February 9 at 8:15pm and February 11 at 3:00pm.

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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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