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Thursday, December 7

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Broken Flowers
When exactly did Bill Murray become a muse? I don't actually need an answer to that question, but I will continue to ponder the idea that the hang-dog prince is somehow inspiring some of today's finest filmmakers to write roles specifically for him, and that the resulting films are damn near perfect. Sofia Coppola crafted my favorite film of 2003, Lost in Translation, for Murray (and she won an Oscar for her screenplay, no less). Now, mad genius Jim Jarmusch has written and directed Broken Flowers, his most accessible (don't be scared of that word, Jarmusch fanatics), humorous and flawless film to date.

Again adapting a largely expressionless face, yet still conveying a great deal of emotion, Murray plays confirmed bachelor Don Johnston (not Don Johnson, as he is forced to correct people throughout the film), who is watching his latest much younger girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walk out on him for being emotionally distant. He clearly is crushed that she's leaving, but he can't seem to muster the enthusiasm to ask her not to go. After she leaves, Don (if the name didn't clue you in, the character is clearly a variation of the Don Juan persona) finds a mysterious, unsigned letter in his mail. The sender claims to be an old girlfriend from about 20 years earlier who gave birth to Don's son. The son is said to be searching for his real father, and the letter is something of a "heads up, your son might arrive on your doorstep any minute" notice.

Don enlists the assistance of his next-door neighbor, a devout family man and native Ethiopian named Winston (the remarkable Jeffrey Wright), to figure out what to do about this earth-shattering news. Winston suggests Don take a cross-country road trip to visit the small group of women (five in total, but one turns out to be dead), whom he had relationships with at about the time the son would have been conceived. Winston tells Don to look for clues, signs that one of the women might be the letter writer. So Don reluctantly goes on his journey to look for clues, and so do we.

But we're watching Don watch the people with whom he comes into contact: NASCAR driver widow Laura (Sharon Stone) and her teasing daughter appropriately named Lolita (Alexis Dziena, whose appearance here will make her an instant star); married and regimented real estate agent Dora (Frances Conroy); animal communicator and author Carmen (Jessica Lange) and her assistant (Chloe Sevigny); and angry trailer trash Penny (Tilda Swinton). They all have clues in their lives, in their words and in their reactions to seeing Don after 20 years, and with each visit Don becomes more melancholy about the life he has lived.

Much like Lost in Translation, Murray manages to make us laugh while allowing us to pity him and these women. These four reunions don't just trigger reactions in Don; the memories of these women have come flooding back to them unexpectedly and even the shortest meeting may begin pleasantly enough but might not remain that way for long. Don isn't just seeing how these women turned out; he's getting a glimpse of how his life might have turned out, and it terrifies him. More importantly, I guarantee there will come a point in the film where two revelations will hit you: you won't care if Don finds out which woman sent the letter, and you won't care if he ever meets his son or if the son even exists. Like all great odysseys, this film is about the journey and the changes that happen inside the character as a result. Thankfully Jarmusch and Murray don't rush to get to the end of this chapter of Don's life. This is the sort of tale that needs to unfold in its own time. Murray's performance feels effortless, and I can't think of a time before when an actor conveyed so much with only a sideways glance or a shift of the eyebrow. And Murray is only one of many great players in Broken Flowers. I particularly liked Lange as the New Age cat and dog whisperer. Without making her look foolish, Lange plays it straight and just lets the ridiculousness of her profession speak for itself.

Along with Me and You and Everyone We Know, Broken Flowers marks another strong showing for the quirk factor in movies today. Somehow these little films with characters not usually considered ideal for lead role status seem to be getting it right. Having two good-looking people get together at the end of a film about relationships clearly need not be the norm, and blessed art certain filmmakers for figuring that out. Broken Flowers is great because it finds the soul of a man by forcing him to come face to face with his long-cherished past. How well would we stand up given such task?

The Dukes of Hazzard
Shockingly enough, this movie isn't entirely terrible. It's not like the source material (the original brainless television show) gave the film version a lot to live up to. Only a few things were required: great car chases and jumps, tight pants (on the men and women), Southern accents, crooked redneck cops and politicians to act as villains, and a deputy whose name sounds like a combination of the words penis and anus. All of that is here, plus some genuinely funny moments, due in large part to the comic stylings of a supporting cast that includes the members of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe (who brought us the gigglefest Super Troopers a couple years back).

The plot of Dukes of Hazzard is not important. I'm not even sure I remember it, and I just saw the movie 12 hours ago. There's something in there about the Duke cousins Luke (played by Johnny Knoxville) and Bo (Seann William Scott) trying to stop the evil Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds, terribly miscast here). Knoxville and Scott are a good pairing, with Scott in particular getting a chance to let his freak flag soar. These aren't the smooth-talking Southern kids from the TV show, but this version is much funnier. The trouble with Reynolds is that he's the wrong shape. Bog Hogg (as the name commands) must be short, fat and greasy. Reynolds, on the other hand, resembles a tobacco leaf with his leathery skin and lanky form. I'll even go out on a limb and say that Jessica Simpson is a perfectly fine choice for the pointless and pretty Daisy Duke. She has a funny and ironic line in the film where she acknowledges her role in the family as the one who is on call to shake her ass to get her cousins out of trouble. "That's why we love you, honey," says Uncle Jesse (the perfectly cast Willie Nelson). M.C. Gainey as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane is actually much scarier than his TV counterpart, but I liked him.

The story—involving Boss Hogg's plans to strip mine the country—is clearly set in the present day, and some of the boys' eccentricities don't quite fly when they stray outside Hazzard County, Georgia. For example, their car's roof-top Confederate flag elicits some nasty looks and comments from passersby on a road trip to Atlanta. And their tight jeans elicit responses from both sexes as they walk through a college campus. What's somewhat refreshing about Dukes of Hazzard is its non-reliance on all things high-tech. When the General Lee takes a jump off a pile of dirt, it's not CGI. When Bo drives the car around a tight turn and it takes the turn at a 45-degree angle, it's for real. When Luke shoots a flaming arrow into a mound of C-4 explosives, it blows up real good. And when Daisy shows up in a police station wearing a bikini, she looked real from where I was sitting.

Dukes of Hazzard has enough laughs, action and T&A to keep males of any age awake for 106 minutes. That has to count for something.

Despite his countless poetic and visually stunning works, my favorite film by Ingmar Bergman was his stark, unflinching, made-for-television masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage. I first saw it in college, and its mind-blowing lessons about the bitterness and distrust that can creep into any marriage probably single-handedly kept me unmarried until my mid-30s.

More than a year ago (and more than 30 years after Scenes was first shown in America) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I was lucky enough to see the first screening outside of Europe of what Bergman has said will be his last work ever, Saraband. Even more amazing to me is that it's a follow-up to Scenes, reuniting stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in their roles as Marianne and Johan. Constructed again in segments (10 scenes plus a prologue and epilogue), Saraband's four characters meet in various pairs, with each scene featuring only two actors. The two new characters are Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), Johan's son from his first marriage, and Henrik's daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Karin's mother died two years earlier from a long illness, and the shockwaves of her death still resonate in the family.

Marianne and Johan have not seen each other in more than 30 years, and one day Marianne decides she wants to visit him. Three of the ten scenes feature these two, and they are splendid together, like On Golden Pond, but without the extreme sap. Despite their stormy history, they still care for each other and value each other's opinion. Marianne ends up staying with Johan for a few weeks and gets pulled into the drama between Johan and Henrik (they can't stand each other), Henrik and Karin (their loving relationship might be a little too loving), and Johan and Karin (a strained but ultimately strong bond). Johan wants Karin to pursue her dream of becoming a great cellist.

Bergman has lost none of his gifts as a writer. With just a few chosen words, he conveys years of pain and suffering in these characters. And did I mention that Liv Ullmann still looks like a million bucks? This is as perfect an example of Bergman's abilities as a writer and director as anything he's ever done. I'm heartbroken that he'll probably never make another film, but I feel a tremendous sense of pride on his behalf that he never wavered as an uncompromising filmmaker. Long live the Swedish king in all his misery! The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Edukators
Mixing angry youth, politics, class war and sex, the German-language film The Edukators is a dynamic and philosophical look at what it means to be a revolutionary in a time when it's a struggle to find something to rebel against. Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jan (Daniel Bruhl from Goodbye, Lenin! and Ladies in Lavender) are idealistic 20-somethings who break into the homes of the privileged, and rather than steal or destroy, they rearrange furniture and expensive goods. They leave semi-threatening notes that declare that the days of the rich are numbered, but their antics are harmless.

When Peter's girlfriend, Jule (Julia Jentsch from Downfall), moves in with the boys after being evicted and Peter leaves for a brief holiday, Jan and Jule end up becoming friends and impulsively break into the home of a businessman who is partly responsible for Jule being completely broke and many thousands of dollars in debt. The man (Burghart Klaussner) returns home during the break-in, thus forcing the pair to enter into a series of very bad decisions about how to handle the situation. They contact Peter and drag the businessman to a cabin in the mountains, holding him as prisoner until they figure out what to do next.

The Edukators is an intelligent film about three people whose loyalties and beliefs are in constant flux. As with many revolutionaries, these three are not immune from the overwhelming power of emotions and passions. It doesn't take much for the good of the group and their cause to fall by the wayside. I grew particularly fond of the businessman character, who, upon being kidnapped, seems somewhat relieved that all of the responsibilities of his hectic life have been lifted temporarily. None of the characters exit the film unscathed, which is not to say that some haven't seen their lives improved as a result of this experience. With only his second feature, writer-director Hans Weingartner has created a thought-provoking series of events that tear down idealism while instilling maturity in its characters. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Year of the Yao
If it's possible to produce an unsentimental love letter, this would be it. This wonderful film profiles one of the sports world's more fascinating characters: Yao Ming, the 7-ft. 6-in. Chinese basketball player, who has spent the better part of his time since 2002 playing center for the Houston Rockets.

The Year of the Yao begins with the NBA draft in which Yao was the first-round pick by Houston, but it's the filmmakers' focus on Yao's life before even coming to America that is its strongest feature. Yao had been a certified superstar in China since his early teens, so representing his nation in the United States literally put the weight of 1.2 billion people on his shoulders. More than most other NBA players, the pressure and scrutiny placed on him and the attention paid to him was greater than most could imagine. It didn't help that he knew almost no English when he arrived in the United States and that his translator, Colin Pine, had never professionally translated for anyone before meeting Yao at the airport.

Despite all of the outstanding footage of Yao on the court, it's the relationship between Yao and Pine that operates as the heart of this film. Yao is a painfully shy man who even had trouble in his own country dealing with the attention and media coverage he received. So when the Western press gets hold of him, forget about it. Yao almost totally shuts down from fear. Pine, not exactly the most expressive guy either, is unexpectedly saddled with the extra responsibility of pulling Yao out of his shell. Some of my favorite scenes are of Pine and Yao shopping for music and video games at Best Buy, with Pine attempting to explain the missions of all the games.

The chronicling of Yao's first season is a thing of wonder (the film was financed in large part by the NBA, so getting clearances for the game footage wasn't a problem). The struggle Yao has simply learning the physicality of American basketball in his early games is apparent. He also has trouble understanding the Rockets' playbook and communicating with his teammates (although this he picks up faster than anything else). It isn't long before Yao is playing in top form and eventually coming face to face with his most obvious rival, Shaquille O'Neal, whom we see in news footage unleashing a string of nasty racist remarks against Yao after being asked about him just before their first on-court meeting.

Some might complain that the film lacks any insight into the mind of Yao, but I disagree. At worst, the insight is harder to spot than it might be for any other NBA player, but Yao certainly isn't any other player. There's a story in his silence, and the directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern do a fine job giving us the modern Chinese history that is such a huge part of Yao's maturity. They also do great work capturing the small moments in Yao's life where he begins to open up and even make fun of himself a little in commercials and print ads for Visa Check Card and Macintosh. I think there was a deliberate attempt to edit and pace the film differently than the standard sports profiles you might see on ESPN.

Yao doesn't seem like a complicated man. I doubt he's particularly profound even to those to whom he's closest. Instead, he is a textbook example of an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances thanks to his special talents as a basketball player. He was clearly unprepared for the level of responsibility he reached, or to be the most popular man in his own country since Chairman Mao, but he's dealing with it with the help of some very close, reliable people. The Year of the Yao is a film well worth seeing. The film opens Monday 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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