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Monday, July 22

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Brick
Although it may not have registered with me during last year's Chicago International Film Festival as being my favorite film of the fest, Brick—the feature debut from writer-director Rian Johnson—is, without a doubt, the one that took me the longest to stop thinking about—six months and counting. Brick takes a California high school setting and injects a powerful and satisfying film noir storyline with crisp and utterly unique dialogue. (I've started seeing promotional glossaries for Brick at art cinemas around Chicago. Pick one up; you'll need it.)

In fact, Johnson essentially creates a new language for his rich characters, led by Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who finds the dead body of a girl he liked and sets out to discover the circumstances of her death. Characters manipulate and double-cross each other at every turn, as Brenden uncovers his school's evil and violent underworld, led by a crooked (literally and dis-figuratively) character named The Pin (played by a limping, pasty Lukas Haas). There are femme fatales to send Brendan down the wrong path, vicious heavies to knock him down (and steal his lunch money) when he gets too close to the truth, and nerds who help him unlock the film's many dark secrets. I know this sounds like the making of a comedy, but Brick is far from that, although you may find yourself snickering a bit at the bravado and daring conceit of the entire movie.

Like most film noir, Brick's story is convoluted and confusing, ultimately taking a back seat to its richly realized characters and visual style. And nobody's going to have a problem with that. As he did in last year's Mysterious Skin, Gordon-Levitt commands the screen. He manages to emit a persona that is both detached yet wholly invested in the events surrounding him, engulfing his life. This kid could be a major acting force in the next five years; he's already a young Heath Ledger without the mumble. Director Johnson clearly studied his noir in film school, and let's hope he hasn't totally gotten this obsession out of his system just yet. Like Alan Rudolph before him, Johnson has flawlessly melded the modern with the retro in a way that doesn't feel gimmicky or forced.

Brick is a debut that rivals the promise given us by the first films of, to name a few, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Gordon Green, Todd Solondz or Noah Baumbach (that statement alone ought to get me at least 100 hate emails). I'm not implying any of these writer-directors make the same types of movies, but the enthusiasm for their work garners similar audience reaction. And I cannot wait for Rian Johnson's next film. Brick is whip-smart, sophisticated, brutal and smoldering. If you don't go see it, I have only pity for you. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Take the Lead
As hard as I try not to walk into a screening with high or low expectations, it's unavoidable sometimes. Case in point: I was convinced Take the Lead, another in a long line of good-intentioned films with yet another way to straighten out "bad kids," would be unwatchable. Sometimes, I love when I'm wrong. While far from flawless, Take the Lead manages for most of its running time to hold your interest in ways that don't resemble a car wreck. I sometimes forget how good Antonio Banderas can be (he takes his time reminding us, so it's not entirely my fault), but he saves this film from disaster more than once. The method Mr. Banderas (playing dance instructor and all-around handsome gentleman Pierre Dulaine) introduces into a class of high school rejects to help them straighten out their lives is ballroom dancing. In turn, his United Colors of Benetton students show him a few of their own moves and, in the process, teach him a few things about living life. Hey, I never said the film was perfect.

Take the Lead commits many of the cardinal sins of these sorts of films (Dangerous Minds and Coach Carter being prime examples). The "kids" are all cast too old, their dance skills are far too sophisticated to begin with, they learn routines that would take professionals years to perfect, and, in the end, they all seem a little too willing to fall in line. There's some rebellion in the beginning, but everyone caves to the magic of dance! Did I mention Dulaine (a real person, by the way, who did start up a program like the one in the film) isn't even a schoolteacher? He witnesses an act of vandalism committed by one of the students in the school, tracks down the school's principal (Alfre Woodard, given nothing to do here but be stubborn), and volunteers his time to teach dance. His wife died a few years earlier, and, although women seem to be throwing themselves at him at every turn, he hasn't dated or lived much of a life outside his dance school since.

But, I will admit, the film has something working in its favor. Banderas is a credible dancer, first and foremost, and his Latin charm and impeccable manners seem to accomplish more in every situation than his skills on the dance floor. He doesn't just teach the kids how to tango; he reminds them to say "thank you." More importantly, he wants the young men and women to be able to be physically close to each other with respect in mind. You can't argue with that. By allowing the boys to lead in dance, the girls learn trust their partner won't trample them. It may seem obvious and silly to some, but these kids need these life lessons. Banderas truly shines in a scene in which he confronts concerned parents who would rather see their sons and daughters learn how to get a job than how to two-step. His retort is both respectful of their fears and to the point.

Music-video-veteran Liz Friedlander marks an impressive feature debut with Take the Lead, although the believability of some of the closing-act scenes stretched my limits and tolerance for feel-good movies. Naturally, Mr. Dulaine doesn't just want these kids to dance well; he wants them to compete against seasoned ballroom talent. Fantasyland is just around the corner, folks. In the end, Take the Lead resorts to overly sentimental drivel to drive its messages home, and that's a shame because a more realistic approach to the finale might have made the film less easy to dismiss. Still, there's a lot to like here. The cast of relative newcomers adds an air of freshness to the mix, while Banderas adds a maturity and dignity to the film. Now if only I could hear his voice and not think of either an animated cat in thigh-high boots or a suave bee pushing allergy medicine. Oh well, maybe one day.


Don't Come Knocking
Director Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas was the first of his American-set films that I had ever seen. Made more than 20 years ago, the film was adapted by a still fairly new playwright named Sam Shepard, who was a talented and recognized actor but had many demons about America's New West that he needed to get out of his system. Last year when I met Wim Wenders for the first time here in Chicago at a screening of his film Land of Plenty, he almost seemed more eager to discuss his recently completed film Don't Come Knocking, marking an extraordinary reunion with Shepard as screenwriter. Wenders' eye for spotting the unusual in America and Shepard's ability to spot the true heart of Americans combine to give us a remarkable look at family, the nature of drifting and instable actors. At times uneven, but never to a fault, it's a film filled with humor, poetry, beauty and precise observation.

I don't mean to make Don't Come Knocking sound impenetrably arty; far from it. The film is accessible and eager to please just about any audience. Shepard plays Howard, a past-his-prime actor, remembered mostly for westerns he made 20-30 years ago (imagine if Clint Eastwood never went into directing and never stopped making westerns; that's Howard), now in the middle of shooting yet another one (directed by George Kennedy!) with a leading lady far too young for him. Howard's reputation as a troublemaker on and off the set is something that haunts him to this day, and for good reason. Without warning, Howard decides to walk off the set of the film, purge himself of his possessions, and go visit his mother (the still-elegant Eva Marie Saint), whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in decades. She informs him that a woman in Montana contacted her many years earlier to tell her she had a grandchild. This is news to Howard, but not unpleasantly so.

Howard heads off to Montana, where he made the western that made him a star. When he was there, he met a stunning local woman named Doreen (Jessica Lange), and shortly after their reunion, he meets his son Earl (Gabriel Mann) for the first time. While this is going on, the movie studio's insurance company sends a man named Sutter (Tim Roth) to search for Howard and return him to the set to complete his current film. Sutter's adventures and run-ins with folks from Howard's life could have been the focus of a separate film; Roth is that good. Intense to the point of implosion, impossibly funny and direct, Sutter's scenes are almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film, but nearly steal the show.

During his time in Montana, Howard runs into a series of unusual characters, some of whom have greater connections to him than he realizes at first. The angelic, calming Sarah Polly plays Sky, a young woman who drifts around Howard clearly holding fistfuls of her own secrets. Also on hand is Fairuza Balk as Earl's annoyingly screechy girlfriend, Amber. There are moments in Don't Come Knocking that seem deliberately designed to be just plain odd, but Wenders is far too intelligent a filmmaker to simply rely on quirk. There's some meat on these old bones. In particular, Howard's unpredictable relationship with Doreen, which at first seems destined to rekindle, takes several unexpected emotional turns in the course of Shepard's story. There is so much about this lush, otherworldly film that warmed my heart, although these two men never stray into sentimentality, at least not the traditional kind.

I heard someone in the theatre after my screening say they couldn't remember the last time they "loved" a Wenders film, and maybe that's because his works don't inspire such obvious reactions. But that doesn't take away from the fact that I can't remember the last time I didn't sit enraptured with one of his works. He never forgets to be entertaining even as he's putting forth elements that give us no choice but to think and ponder and admire. Don't Come Knocking is one of the finest works Wenders has put forth in many years, and, boy, is it good to see Shepard and Lange on the screen together again (I believe for the first time since 1984's In Country). They play off each other in this film in ways I never anticipated. This one is worth giving a shot; you will take this film into your heart.


Drawing Restraint 9
Visual artist Matthew Barney is my favorite kind of freak, and not just because he's been the life-partner of Bjork for many years. And the fact that he had the guts to release their wedding video to the public ups my respect for him even more. What? You mean his new film, Drawing Restraint 9, isn't a wedding video? It sure feels like one, especially considering the bride and groom are two of the most daring and creative people in their fields. Barney's skill at melding the ordinary with the absurd and the industrial with the organic has never been more on display than it is in his latest work.

I was one of the few human beings on the planet to sit through all five parts of Barney's Cremaster Cycle a couple years ago, and it wasn't as painful an experience as you might think. Barney is a master of creating a certain level of tension around his filmed work, and there were certain Cremaster segments that resulted in genuine anxiety. Thanks to an otherworldly score by Bjork, Drawing Restraint pulsates with life. Sometimes the music sounds more like pure rhythms than actual notes, and it only adds to the proceedings.

Much of the film takes place aboard a Japanese whaling ship, where laborers pour vats of liquid petroleum jelly into molds, as if creating an icon to an unknown god. Barney is obsessed with The Process of creation, so we are frequently forced to watch the very deliberate and slow labor the workmen carry out aboard the ship. Barney casts Bjork and himself as two strangers who come aboard the ship as guests and end up taking part in an elaborate Japanese wedding ceremony, which begins with an endless tea ceremony and ends with the pair carving each other's flesh from their bodies. It would be easy to judge Drawing Restraint as simply an excuse for Barney and Bjork to dress up in silly costumes and find ways to mesh the beautiful with the grotesque, but there's more going on here than that.

Not all is good with Barney's work, however. It sometimes feels interminably long, and at times you are forced to wonder whether his style of juxtaposing seemingly unrelated events and images is a way to create new meaning or if the artist is simply slamming these elements into each other because he can. As the film wraps up, it would appear Barney and Bjork have carved themselves into whales, the Vaseline sculptures crumble like icebergs, and the ship ends up floating toward Antarctica. I can't define art, but I know it when I see it, and I know when I like it. Barney is beyond an acquired taste, but he's unpredictable and willing to take risks that few other filmmaker ever do. Seeing his films always makes me wonder how he would handle a conventional horror film, but, of course, he never would make one because it would be considered far too ordinary. To quote an old Bjork tune, Drawing Restraint 9 made me violently happy. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

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

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