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Tuesday, May 21

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Airbags

Hey everyone. Just a few quick words about why there was no column last week and a couple of films that are missing from this week's column. The plain and simple reason I had no column last week is that the week's biggest release (Nicholas Cage's Bangkok Dangerous) wasn't screened. The one fairly important release that was screened (the funny I Served the King of England, which opened at the Music Box Theatre), I couldn't make the screening for, so that's my bad.

As for this week, things are a bit more dubious. The likely box office champ this weekend, Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys, didn't screen. That's par for the course for Mr. Perry's films, which is a shame because I actually think his work gets better with each new film, and I would have given his last offering (Meet the Browns) a fairly positive review. But the bigger shock this week is that online critics were pretty much shut out (at least in Chicago) of any screenings of The Women, as if online critics are more likely to despise this presumed junk than print or broadcast reviewers. OK, maybe that's true, but that doesn't mean that it's not an outright pussy move on behalf of the usually-reliable Picturehouse, which I believe is officially out of business as a distributor after this film. I'm sure the call about who gets to see the film in advance and who doesn't wasn't entirely Picturehouse's call, but still...

Anyway, plenty of interesting offerings this week. But more importantly, I'm off to London on Tuesday to interview Daniel Craig and see tons of footage from the new Bond movie. Toodles!

Burn After Reading

My inclination — hell, every critic's inclination — is to overanalyze every Coen Brothers film, to look at each film in the context of all their other works and judge each new offering against Fargo or The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and, now, No Country for Old Men. But the truth is that we don't do that for every filmmaker, only the ones we love (and a few that we deeply loathe). So here's the thing about their latest, Burn After Reading, is that you don't have to do that. In fact, odds are you'll like the film a whole lot better if you don't. After the nearly suffocating seriousness of No Country, it would appear that the Brothers Coen simply wanted to blow off a little nervous laughter. To those ends, they've constructed a very silly, very funny, very short piece of complicated comedy in which the story isn't really important and precedent is given to anything that makes most of the film's characters look dopey and makes the audience laugh.

There's no need to dig too deep into the plot here. Half the fun of watching this movie is seeing how convoluted and twisted the Coens can make the story, which involves a found disc that may or may not contain classified information; a short-tempered CIA analyst (John Malkovich) with a drinking problem and a wife (Tilda Swinton) who can't stand him and is having an affair with a federal marshal (George Clooney), who is addicted to online dating; a pair of inept fitness center employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who find the aforementioned disc and attempt to blackmail the analyst into giving them money for it); the gym manager (Richard Jenkins), who has a fierce crush on McDormand; and how all of these lives intersect and literally smash into each other in completely unexpected ways.

The one very clear thing that Burn After Reading has in common with many Coen Brothers' films dating back to their debut work, Blood Simple, is that the audience is really the only participant in this process who knows and understands everything that is going on in the story. Coming in a close second (during a pair of side-splitting scenes) are J.K. Simmons and David Rasche as two higher-ranking CIA officials who go through the events of most of the movie and decide... well, they decide to wait to decide. Every word, every look, every exasperated gasp in these two scenes is hilarious. And that's in a film that made me laugh a great deal.

Brad Pitt is just trying so hard to be dense, that you don't doubt him for a second. He knows just enough spy and intelligence lingo to dig himself deeper into trouble. McDormand stuns me at every turn. She's playing a middle-aged woman who truly believes she only has a couple good years left in her current body and she needs several elective, cosmetic surgeries to really turn her life around. Then she meets Clooney's marauding womanizer (married, of course, to a saint of a woman who writes a series of popular children's books). For those hoping for some sort of Ocean's 14 reunion film, guess again. These two have one scene together, and they don't exactly talk as it plays out. The Coens never let the dust settle; things are always happening and people never stop to take a breath, let alone consider the events that have just happened or the potential consequences of what they're about to do. I can't forget the ice queen herself, Tilda Swinton, who doesn't so much take part in a relationship (either with her husband or her boyfriend) as she commandeers it. Swinton is a master at her craft, and I love her enough to marry her despite all of the whips and chains that would likely come with the package.

As funny as Burn After Reading can get, it's also a fairly disposable work from the Coens. It's a confection, a highly satisfying snack that keeps you until your next substantial meal. It will not go down in the pantheon of great works from these two great filmmakers, but it won't be easily discarded either. Don't read too much into it as you watch, but don't talk through it. There's something behind those blank, vacant eyes; not much, but something. I got a kick out of watching this movie, and I'm willing to bet you will as well.

Righteous Kill

If you grew up in the '70s or '80s or maybe even the early '90s, and were a massive movie fan, the dream was to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a movie together — the Godfather early model and the Godfather late model. Seeing them sit face to face in Heat was a great start, but it didn't really drive away the urge to see these guys really chew up the scenery together. Thirteen years after Heat, the two are thrust together in a very different kind of film, a lesser film, but by no means a terrible one. As directed by Jon Avnet, the man who proved that Pacino could humiliate himself just a little more than we once thought in 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill has an absolutely stellar cast working from a solidly average script by Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man) and still finding ways to breathe a little life into it.

De Niro and Pacino play detectives who are on the trail of a serial killer who seems to be targeting criminals who somehow beat the system by getting off on a technicality or otherwise slip through the cracks in the law. Most of the victims are men who the world would definitely be better off without, and it just so happens that they were all involved in cases investigated by these two officers. It's easy to deduce from the film that the victims know their attacker, and that the attacker knows his victims' movements and patterns quite well. The killer also leaves a customized poem for each dead man. It doesn't take long for those investigating to determine that there's a good chance the murderer is a cop.

Without giving too much away, I figured out the film's big "twist" about halfway through without really understanding why this was the twist. It's impossible to know the why because we simply aren't given enough information. But here are some things to think about. Beginning early on the movie and revisited as the plot unfolds, we see highlights of what appears to be a videotaped confession by one of the main characters, so already I'm suspicious. Second, we actually see a couple of the murders take place, but we don't see the face of the killer. Now ask yourself, if we supposedly know the killer's identity from the videotape, why aren't they showing us the killer's face during the commission of the crimes? Movies do this all the time, but it's done so often in Righteous Kill that it's distracting.

The supporting cast here is terrific, from John Leguizamo and current New Kid Donnie Wahlberg as younger detectives co-investigating the serial killer murders with their elder brethren; Brian Dennehy as the police captain (one of the more cliché parts in the film); Carla Gugino as De Niro's forensic expert girlfriend, who likes it rough in bed; and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as a club owner/drug dealer. I was especially impressed with Gugino turn as the brains and body of this movie. She plays the only one character outside of Pacino and De Niro who seems somewhat fleshed out (so to speak), and I'm not sure that's because of the script. She just knows how to play the smart and sexually forward professional extremely well.

In the end, Righteous Kill feels incredibly overblown and puffed up well beyond its modest seams. Both leads are given ample opportunities to show us prime examples of the kind of perfectly drawn performances that have made them legends; they're also given way too much leeway by Avnet to go well past the point of believability or subtlety; believe it or not, there was a time when both of these actors knew how to be subtle, and there are times in this movie where they remind us of that. But more often than not, this film is about fully loaded emotions, screaming, near violence, and overacting (and that's just the scenes between the cop characters). It's kind of scary to think that 50 Cent turns in the film's most subtle performance. Still, keeping all of that firmly in the front of my mind, I still like seeing these great method men do their thing. As I and millions of others have always known, they play well together. Hell, there's hardly a scene in this movie that they aren't both in. If the film works at all, it works despite a whole lot of mistakes and missteps on the part of the screenwriter and the director. The actors save the day, and isn't that a fact that lets us all sleep easier at night?

The Pool

Famed documentarian Chris Smith (American Movie, Home Movie; The Yes Men) has returned to narrative features after more than 10 years with the modest yet deeply stirring effort The Pool. Like many great films, The Pool works on several levels. On the surface, it's a simple story of a "room boy" (basically a maid) named Venkatesh (played by first-time young actor Venkatesh Chavan), who works in a luxury hotel in Panjim, Goa, India. He is perpetually bored with his job and takes every opportunity to find distraction. He and his younger best friend (Jhangir Badshah) have no parents to speak of and they rely on each other to make money for day-to-day survival. They sell plastic bags (which are apparently a commodity in India), but when the government bans this trade, the boys are concerned about their income.

Out of boredom more than anything else, Venkatesh begins spying on a rich father (Indian film legend Nan Patekar) and his daughter (Ayesha Mohan) who live on a sizable estate. He climbs a tree to peer over their stone wall and sees that they have a massive pool that to him represents everything in life he does not have. Eventually, Venkatesh approaches the father about possibly working for him as the older man is rehabbing the gardens on the property. And the two form a master/servant-type friendship as the elder teaches the younger the finer points of gardening. But this plot thread is really just the means to get into some more harrowing territory, as Smith examines the clearly fractured relationship between the father and daughter. There's also a possible innocent love connection between the daughter and Venkatesh, and the distances Venkatesh's new job places on his friendship with Jhangir.

Smith hasn't completely abandoned his documentary roots, as he clearly wants to make The Pool as authentic as possible. He's also very much peripherally commenting on the continuously growing chasm between rich and poor in India. This isn't a new direction for filmmakers in general, especially when it comes to films about India, but Smith makes some keen observations about class without hammering his message into your head. He isn't about showing the lowest levels of poverty India has to offer, and that's because he doesn't have to. Seeing these two boys eek out a life tells the story. There are a couple of scenes in which the two trade stories about foreigners propositioning them or times when they were beat up by roving criminals. These narratives make the point with just a few choices words and with absolutely no speechifying.

Smith's mission seems to be maximum impact with as few words as possible. The film takes an unexpected turn when the father makes an offer to Venkatesh that would in all likelihood guarantee the boy's future and better his life immensely, and the decision Venkatesh makes is remarkable. The Pool is at all times compelling, beautiful, soulful, tragic, and uplifting on the smallest of scales. Things are still kind of slow right now at the multiplex (it is September), but they won't stay that way for long. So this is a perfect opportunity to sneak this lovely little film into your schedule. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Girl Cut in Two

I first saw this wicked love triangle tale from 78-year-old French master Claude Chabrol back in March during the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Film Festival. Perhaps not as inherently clever as some of his more recent offerings, A Girl Cut in Two still has Chabrol's patented electric current running through its sensuous center. The devastating Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool, 8 Women and the upcoming Claude Miller feature A Secret) plays Gabrielle, a spirited and slightly air-headed television weathergirl who falls for the older Charles (Francois Berleand), a famous writer. (Side Note: For those of you who see a lot of French films, have you ever noticed how many of them are about or feature celebrated writers — real ones or those who are made up? It's one of the many differences between American movies and those made in France, where apparently those who create the written word are worshipped. Go figure. OK, I'm done.)

Gabrielle would probably be quite happy in her disconnected relationship with Charles, a notorious lady's man who keeps all of his lovers at a distance and has a fear of commitment that would make George Clooney blush. Did I mention that Charles is married as well? But then she meets Paul (Benoit Magimel, best known as the student in The Piano Teacher), a spoiled and possessive young man from a rich family. He's clearly used to getting what he wants (including people), and his obsession with Gabrielle borders on creepy and menacing.

A Girl Cut in Two starts out as something of a dark comedy as Gabrielle and her men fall in and out of favor with each other. But an unexpected connection between the two men and other societal forces at work in the plot lead to a violent collision of emotion, lust, jealousy and rage that is exact territory where Chabrol thrives. Chabrol's films are also amazingly easy to watch, even as we see the perfect storm of passion and blood coming right for us. And this film is no different. The man has not lost his edge even a fraction, and it's sad that so few filmmakers from any nation are taking the time to structure and create works this devoutly complex and entertaining. You should never miss an opportunity to see one of his great films. A Girl Cut in Two opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Sukiyaki Western Django

To say that Japan's famed director Takashi Miike is an acquired taste would actually require you to redefine your definition of taste. For many in the U.S. (including myself), Miike's work first to us via the at times touching, at times psychotic Audition. Much like crack, after one hit of Miike's work I was constantly chasing more and more from his demented and creative brain. The City of Lost Souls, Ichi the Killer, Fudoh: The Next Generation, Full Metal Yakuza, the Dead or Alive trilogy, Visitor Q, Gozu, One Missed Call, The Great Yokai War and his "Masters of Horror" entry "Impulse" (which was so categorically messed up that Showtime wouldn't air it). Hell, the first film screening I ever hosted was for Miike's hilariously demented musical The Happiness of the Katakuris. These are all must-rent titles for you if you want to see a kind of cinema you've likely never seen before. The man is also a machine. He cranks out four or five projects a year. Some go to television; some go right to video; and a few of his films actually make their way to our shores, including his "latest" (he's actually made five films since this one was originally released in Japan about a year and a half ago), Sukiyaki Western Django. I'm in no way saying that all of Miike's films are masterpieces, but his percentages are good.

As he occasionally does, Miike takes an established genre (in this case Spaghetti Westerns) and turns them on their head. The first things you'll notice is that the movie is in English, a first for Miike. The second thing you'll notice is that the all-Japanese cast probably has no idea what they're actually saying as they struggle through phonetically pronounced dialogue. It's both funny and frustrating, but when you watch a lot of Miike's that's not that unusual. Actually, I lied. This movie has one non-Japanese actor who sometimes attempts to sound Japanese, but he is in fact one Quentin Tarantino. His presence in this film (albeit brief) is distracting, and his acting is terrible. But his purpose it to tell the story of two clans — the white clan and the red clan — who battle in the isolated mountain town of Yuka sometime in the 1100s. Now if you do the math and know a little history, you'll probably figure out that some of the weapons at play in this film couldn't possibly be available to the townspeople or the clans at this time. Rule Number One of any Miike film is to toss out all concepts of time and technology. If he needs a crank-driven machine gun in the 1100s, one will be made available. More importantly, the iconic Western setting never existed in Japan in any time period. Don't let these things distract you.

When a classic lone gunman enters the town apparently available for rent to the highest clan bidding for him, your mind will automatically assume that this is Miike's take on A Fistful of Dollars. And that would have been cool. But much like Eastwood's Man With No Name persona, this gunslinger has a buried past and ulterior motives. To get any deeper into the story would be to spoil all of the surprises, but I will tell you that the film is ridiculously violent, sadistic, sexist and, at times, nonsensical. And these are its strong points. Sukiyaki Western Django is absolutely not for everyone, but I do believe it's a film that will satisfy longtime Miike fans and possibly win him a few new ones with its fluid and stylized camerawork, incredible landscapes, and insane acting. This one is strictly for the risk-taker in all of us. Expect to be baffled, repulsed and thoroughly entertained. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 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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