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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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As you're watching two of the most attractive young actors on the planet in various stages of undress having loads of unbridled sex and living what appears to be a fairly happy bohemian existence, it's easy to forget that Candy is meant to be a cautionary tale about the perils of drug addiction. Sure, we see our Australian heroes at both ends of the junkie lifestyle, but so much of what comes before this young couple bottoms out is made to look extremely appealing.

Heath Ledger plays Dan, an addict before he hooks up with Candy (newcomer Abbie Cornish), an aspiring art student with a loving family whose only drug activity prior to meeting Dan was recreational at best. Candy is naive and desperate to get closer to Dan, so she follows his lead and begins shooting heroin. Since neither of them have jobs, they spend most of their waking hours scoring or using drugs. When they aren't doing that, they are out on the streets trying to get money for drugs. Eventually, Candy has to start hooking for cash, with Dan's reluctant approval. The least believable element of Dan and Candy's story is the presence of Casper (Geoffrey Rush), a rich gay man they go to on occasion when things get particularly rough. Casper is never without a new boy toy to show off or a stash of drugs that rivals the gold in Fort Knox. He serves as the couple's father figure in some respects, but he, too, is a junkie so his advice to clean up and fly right often falls on deaf ears.

Dan and Candy's road to ruin is ugly and inevitable, although not entirely predictable. A move to the country in an effort to clean up and keep away from the temptations of the city does not go as planned when Dan gets a job, leaving Candy alone for entire days with nothing to do. I suppose the film carries Candy's name because this is really a film about her downfall, but my heart went out more to Dan, whose efforts to leave the drugs behind seem especially sincere and painful. As Ledger has shown us time and again (most recently in Brokeback Mountain), he's a tremendous actor and so much more than his good looks would indicate; I, for one, am excited to see how he plays The Joker in the next Batman movie. He creates a real character here where there may not have been one on the page (the screenplay was co-written by first-time director Neil Armfield and Luke Davies, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based), and he makes us understand that kicking the drugs is only half his battle.

Cornish is a great beauty and has shown herself to be a solid actress to boot in films like Somersault (like Candy, another low-budget Australian film about a teen runaway that you should absolutely seek out). Probably her best scenes here are ones in which she and Dan are attempting to manipulate her parents into giving them money. Late in the film, there's a sequence at a botched brunch that Candy and Dan attempt to host for Candy's parents that is embarrassing to watch, thanks in large part to Cornish's unstable portrayal. She has a buried rage that bubbles up to the surface of her character and explodes out at the closest target (her parents, Dan) like a geyser on a couple of occasions. These are the movie's most terrifying moments.

The film's bittersweet ending is low key and quietly unexpected, yet totally in tune with the rest of this conflicted film that wants to have its cake and glamorize it too. It condemns the behavior as often as it glorifies it, which isn't necessarily a flaw. People probably wouldn't become drug addicts if there weren't something appealing about the drugs and accompanying lifestyle. Candy is a small yet textured and passionate film that is worth seeing, if only for the two powerhouse performances at its center.

3 Needles

One of the strangest films I took in at this year's Reeling Film Festival was Thom (The Hanging Garden) Fitzgerald's latest, 3 Needles, one of the most unique takes on the AIDS epidemic I've ever seen. What separates Fitzgerald's take on these three stories concerning the various ways people around the world are living and working with the disease is that none of the tales feature gay characters, since the crisis has gone far beyond gay carriers in large portions of the world. The fact is I've never seen a film tackle any health issue quite so boldly and honestly, almost devoid of manufactured emotion. As a result, your heart breaks at the conclusion of each story.

In the first chapter, set in China, Lucy Liu plays a pregnant woman who is part of a black market blood scam that falsifies the results of HIV tests given to potential donors. As a result, she (unknowingly) and her co-conspirators (knowingly) end up infecting entire villages with tainted blood. Liu's performance as a low-level member of this group of con artists is fearless, and the segment makes you consider just how many unchartered rural areas in Asia are going through something like this.

The second — most troubling — chapter involves a Montreal adult film actor (Shawn Ashmore) who hides his HIV status from his fellow performers. But that isn't the focus of the tale. His mother (played by the riveting Stockard Channing) gets it in her head that she too needs to have the virus to be able to identify with her son and provide an inspiration for him to lead a healthy and hopefully long life. She also does not want her son to die before she does. So she sets out to sleep with high-risk men without condoms. I know it sounds weird, and I admit, I was shocked when it became clear what she was up to, but the story works because Channing is such a force. Of the three stories, this one is the most personal and it made me uneasy watching it. But Fitzgerald sells it by simply acknowledging that his job is not to make us at ease with these stories but unsettled. These tales stick with you like a ghost over your shoulder that you can't quite shake.

The third chapter, set in Africa, is probably the least interesting, but it is by no means dull. Chloë Sevigny (speaking of fearless) plays a nun who, along with fellow nuns Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis, goes to Africa to convert the populace, which is dying at an alarming rate from AIDS-related illnesses. Sevigny becomes desperate when she discovers one of the men at a neighboring plantation is having sex with preteen girls to rid himself of the virus, and she makes a deal with the plantation owner, who is clearly interested in her in a non-spiritual sense. The most unsatisfying parts of this story have to do with the other two nuns, who have virtually nothing to do while Sevigny breaks her vows, and the ambiguous ending to this otherwise moving tale.

3 Needles is a film that manages to be informative, elegant, disturbing and unforgettable in a single stroke (or three strokes to be precise). Director Fitzgerald couldn't care less that what he's made is upsetting. He's here to make you think about aspects of this disease that you've never considered, and on that front he utterly succeeds.

The Nativity Story

First off, the title of this film is misleading: there are no "natives" in this movie at all. Second, when you really think about it, the story of Mary and Joseph is kind of boring. Sure, the aftereffects of their tale are kinda, sorta important, but their story is a little dull... no offense to Christians everywhere. In many ways, director Catherine (Thirteen; Lords of Dogtown) Hardwicke's no-nonsense approach to this film is an attempt to add a little human drama and to suppose exactly what life would have been like for a newly married, pregnant teenage girl who was trying to convince her new husband and her family that she was still a virgin.

Rather than downplay the spiritual elements of this story, Hardwicke lets us hear the voices and see the faces of the angel telling Mary (played with a natural weightiness by Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes) what her fate will be. She is aware that God's son is inside her, but there are more pressing concerns in her life, like not getting stoned to death by the citizens of Nazareth or having her newborn son killed at the hands of King Herod (Ciaran Hinds). Joseph is shocked when his wife (whom he is not allowed to have relations with until he has built them a home with his hands) comes back from a long journey pregnant, and with such a story. He rejects her at first but eventually tells everyone the child is his to keep Mary safe.

We see their long and grueling trip to Bethlehem, their struggle to find an inn where Mary can give birth, and the way the shepherds on the hills around the city lay witness to the celestial happenings surrounding Jesus' birth. And we can't forget the three wise men, who are about as close to comic relief as we get in The Nativity Story. Through them, we discover how planets and stars aligned that fateful night to light up the sky and shine down directly into this manger.

The film is, in some ways, amusing in the way it breathes life into a familiar and rather dry tale, not always with great success. The film's greatest crime is just not being all that interesting. The performers are all quite good and convincing, but the stilted dialogue wears thin after a while. The text isn't taken right from the Bible, but screenwriter Mike Rich doesn't make the characters too human, thus bringing down the wrath of religious types the world over. If the objective of making The Nativity Story was to produce a family-friendly Christmastime movie for faith-based people, then mission accomplished. If Hardwicke and company wanted to make a compelling examination of what these events might have been like in the real world, I'm not entirely convinced the job has been done.

Flannel Pajamas

To say that this exceptional work is about a relationship doesn't quite get to the heart of what sets Flannel Pajamas above the dozens of other films that come out every year about couples (married or otherwise). I suppose I should establish early on that this movie is not a comedy, although it's loaded with humor. It's also not a romance, although the film is loaded with romantic feelings and intentions. What this movie has that so few films about the arc that relationships take is realism so real, it may frighten some of you away. When Flannel Pajamas turns dark, its characters get emotionally spiteful and ugly. I'm not talking about physical abuse; I'm talking about the kind of meanness that only two people two truly love each other can unleash.

The story of Stuart (Justin Kirk of "Weeds") and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson, who joined the cast of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" this season) begins promisingly enough, as so many new relationships are prone to be. They fascinate each other with new stories and colorful lives worth exploring, and writer-director Jeff Lipsky does a spot-on job of capturing the hormonally charged dance that two people attracted to each other perform. The film's early moments are filled with prolonged shots of the couple kissing and being extremely physical (with clothes on, at first). When sex is introduced into the equation, we see how the couple get used to seeing each other's bodies and getting comfortable being naked in front of each other. I know this may sound very run of the mill to those of you who have been in serious relationships before, but how often do you really see these intimate moments captured in a film? I honestly can't remember the last time.

Flannel Pajamas never forgets that when you involve yourself with another person, you also enter into not just one but dozens of new relationships, with their family and friends, some of whom probably aren't going to like you. But Lipsky, again, is smart enough to know that in real life, friends and family often keep their mouths shut about such things because they don't want to risk pissing you off if you're happy. But the biggest shock of all is that when two people in this film are arguing, nobody goes running out of the room to sulk in another room. People actually stay to finish what they start. Watch any TV show or sappy romantic comedy: when people argue, someone always walks out in a huff, thus stetting up the inevitable "I'm sorry" scene that simply never happens in real life. You can build a drinking game around such moments.

Stuart and Nicole both go through several life changes during their time together, inside and outside the relationship. Family tragedies, religious differences, career changes, money issues and shifts in their dynamic all come into play. They move in together, eventually get married and begin discussing having children, a subject that causes the first real rift in their close emotional bond. What genuinely shocked me about Flannel Pajamas was how it honestly captured the subtle shifts that couples (especially those who move a little too quickly) go through over time. Yes, the frequency of their love making decreases, but it goes beyond that, to show us that what used to be pleasant accommodating conversations are reduced to snippy negotiation. Suddenly, small changes or suggested changes about any aspect of their world (having a child, getting a dog) are met with hostility rather than understanding.

In 99 percent of films about couples, the audience simply waits for the inevitable conclusion of the pair settling their differences and setting down the path toward happily ever after. Never have I been less certain about where a relationship was headed in a movie than I was watching Flannel Pajamas. And while the film is filled with great sadness at times, it earns an emotional response from audience members by being honest and believable. Kirk and Nicholson seem so comfortable together that if you told me they were a real-life couple, I'd believe you. This is a film filled with smart people doing what any reasonable adults would do under these circumstances. Their love is real, and their heartbreak is all-too recognizable. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

10 Items or Less

In one of the oddest little gems of the year, Morgan Freeman plays an actor who looks an awful lot like Morgan Freeman (A lot of people who recognize him say, "I saw you in that Ashley Judd movie."), visiting a small California town to do research for a role in an independent film in which he would play a grocery store manager. The role, apparently, would end the actor's four-year absence from films (perhaps the only aspect of this character that is not like Freeman), and he is on the fence about taking the part. 10 Items or Less (in no way connected to the new TV show) is about the actor (referred to in the credits as "Him") and his adventures around the town with Scarlet, a clerk at the store played by the lovely Spanish actress Paz Vega (Spanglish).

I've never seen Freeman in a role like this one; he's free floating, loose, smiling all the time, joking, flirtatious and game for anything the day will throw at him. The actor follows abrasive Scarlet around for the day attempting to see what her life is like. At some point in the recent past, she was sleeping with the store manager (Bobby Cannavale), but he's now sleeping with another clerk and Scarlet wants nothing more than to leave the job ASAP. She's got a job interview lined up for that afternoon, and the unnamed actor wants nothing more than to prep her for the event. Freeman's first time inside a Target to buy Scarlet an outfit for the interview is a scream, but after the rather revealing ensemble is secured, he must fortify her mentally since her self-confidence is dismally low.

The pair spend most of their day just talking about their lives, learning about the things they love and hate about the paths their lives have taken. They discover that, although their lives are drastically different, they share ambitions and dreams. There is a strange and slightly sexual chemistry between the two, but the actor brings up his wife and kids so many times that we realize he may be reminding himself they exist to prevent any hanky-panky from happening.

This no-budget effort comes from the least likely of writer-directors in Brad Silberling, who has given us Casper, City of Angels, Moonlight Mile and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. 10 Items or Less isn't as wise as it thinks it is, but it does possess an infectious charm that is undeniable. You want this friendship to continue past the point in the story when Scarlet finally drops the actor off at his home, but there's a certainty that it won't. I have no idea whether we learn anything about the enigmatic Freeman through this work or not, but Silberling has convinced me we have. Vega can't help but be desirable on a certain level, but rather than simply pretend she isn't a temptation for the actor, the filmmaker increases her attractiveness (with a revealing interview outfit) as the film goes on. At its core, 10 Items is about two people discovering who the other really is and feeling comfortable and secure enough in the other's strengths and weaknesses to open up and be more exposed than they would with people they've known for years. There's a belief that it's easier to open up to a total stranger who you'll never see again than it is your loved ones. This film is an example and proof of that theory. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Under any other circumstances, the new violence-porn offering Turistas probably would have been held from the eyes of critics. But since the film marks the premiere launch from the new Fox Atomic arm, it probably wouldn't look like a great start to this sex-and-violence branch of the Fox studio if its first film out of the gate went unreviewed on opening day. Needless to say, Turistas would never have even been made were it not for the surprise success of Eli Roth's far superior Hostel. In fact, the two films are almost the same, with the crucial difference being the South American setting of the new film, which allows for more bikini-clad and topless sunbathing than the colder Eastern European climes of Hostel.

A group of hormonal 20-somethings with perfect bodies and no qualms about exploiting the locals, discover an off-the-map beach in Brazil after their tour bus crashes en route to their Club Med-like destination. For those trivia buffs out there, I've been informed this film is the first American production shot entirely in Brazil. I'm sure the minister of culture in that country is proud. Naturally, the beach community is a front for criminal activity including thievery and the eventual kidnapping of the mostly American group. Without giving away any plot details (HA!), the brainless youth land in a nasty situation that involves organ harvesting and some of the nastiest, sexualized surgical procedures I've ever seen on film (although, strangely enough, it isn't that much worse than what a typical episode of "CSI" might show, minus the boobies).

Director John Stockwell seems to specialize in cramming his films full of rising starlets in films like Blue Crush, Into the Blue and Crazy/Beautiful, and Turistas certainly has its share of stunning young women, including one who looks genuinely uncomfortable wearing clothes. But his handling of the violence is sloppy and uninspired. As shocking as it sounds, there is an art to shooting violence and gore. Simply showing it in all its gruesome detail isn't enough. In a lot of ways, Eli Roth taught us that you can't simply observe the horror, you have to dive headfirst into it and get your hands and minds as bloody as possible. Stockwell doesn't seem comfortable in this environment, and there's nothing wrong with that…unless you plan on spending money to see this movie. There have certainly been worse horror films released this year, but Turistas is an unfortunate sign that a slew of Hostel copycats are on the way.

Zen Noir

In a classic example of indie style over lofty substance, this amalgam of the detective film genre and Buddhist dogma is a mixed bag of intelligent filmmaking and first-time filmmaker conceit. The writer-director in question is Marc Rosenbush, a long-time theater director, who has chosen to set his feature film debut in a single building, much like a theater piece. Still, he has an gift for composition; any frame of this film could be mounted on a wall as art. But the screenplay and acting feels a bit too stagy and self-absorbed, which is not to say that the minimalist plot didn't keep me at least curious.

A nameless detective (Duane Sharp) takes a case involving the death of a Buddhist monk in a temple, and from the beginning it's clear to him (and us) that this case may never be solved using conventional methods or questioning. The detective is still haunted by vision of his recently dead wife, which leaves him vulnerable and doubting his abilities and his sanity. The only real suspects in the case are the other monks in the temple, and the detective sets out to interview each one. Ed (Ezra Buzzington) is hiding something and seems to have a motive since he took over many of the dead monk's temple duties. The Master (played by the legendary Kim Chan) keeps his silence for much of the film, but when he eventually does begin to dish out his Zen teachings, they have a profound impact on the detective. The femme fatale of Zen Noir is a mysterious and beautiful female monk named Jane (newcomer Debra Miller), whose seeming helplessness brings out a nurturing side in the detective.

Zen Noir is not about murder or mystery. It barely qualifies as film noir, despite its overly written narration and the detective's trenchcoat and fedora hat. The film's not-so-hidden agenda is unlocking the detective's deeper motives and mysteries. With the Master's prompting, the detective begins to discover and let go of the deeper corners of his mind and come to some sort of enlightenment about the things in his life that are troubling him, such as the sudden loss of his wife. Considering the film barely cracks the one-hour mark, I'm not sure Rosenbush really gives himself or his actors enough time to get down into the detective's soul. And the director's obsession with images of oranges eventually becomes the sort of stylistic device one either finds annoying or laughable. Still, despite its shortcomings and thanks to winning performances by Chan and Miller, I found Zen Noir highly watchable and often inspired. I have to give the director credit for at least trying to do something different and thought-provoking, and his skills behind the camera make up for gaps in the film's plot. The movie made me laugh and think on more than one occasion and that has to count for something.

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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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