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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. Now that you've all seen Borat (right?), what do you spend your hard-earned dollars on next? As you can see, there are a lot of pre-Thanksgiving offerings this week (with about a half-dozen more coming out on Wednesday). So, in the interest of your eyesight and my wrists and fingers, I will attempt to keep each of the following reviews to one or two paragraphs each. Please do not mistake the length of the review as an indicator of how much I liked or disliked the film. In fact, I'll make an extra-special effort to let you know which movies are worth checking out in theatres and which you can rent from your local truck stop in three months. But looking at the list now, I can tell you to carve out a nice chunk of your vacation for the local multiplex and/or art house. Go crazy. Oh, and for those of you keeping score: this week's release Let's Go To Prison did not screen for critics in advance, which is a shame because I think it looks funny.


Casino Royale

I may break my self-imposed two-paragraph rule with my first review, but only because the latest James Bond movie is good enough to break all sorts of rules for. The first thing you realize about the approach the filmmakers have made tackling this latest incarnation of James Bond is that, with Daniel Craig on board, they've hired the greatest actor who has ever played the character. Hold your catcalls, please. All I'm saying is that Craig is an immensely gifted actor who is never forced to bury Bond's inner feelings of rage or uncertainty. If anything, his Bond is the most emotionally complex take on the character I can remember. He also avoids the usual trappings of this character: he's not winking at the camera or always looking for the next clever quip. I'm not saying there isn't a tiny bit of that in the film, but the focus is squarely on creating the most well-rounded James Bond the world has ever seen. Oh, and he kicks all kinds of natural ass with some of the greatest stunts and chases ever put on film. In case you couldn't tell, I loved this version of James Bond, and I loved Casino Royale to the point where it puts most other Bond films to shame.

You may argue that by removing the very elements I mentioned, the filmmakers (led by GoldenEye director Martin Campbell) have stripped away what makes Bond so much fun, and you wouldn't be entirely incorrect. But if you think this version of Bond isn't fun, you need to double up on your therapy sessions. The film opens with a cool-as-ice black-and-white segment in which we witness the birth of 007, as Bond kills a traitor who has been selling British secrets. In case you didn't know, Casino Royale takes us back to Bond's first case as a double-0 agent (apparently you need two kills to qualify for your license to kill; seems a bit backward, but I'll take it).

What you may not realize at first is that the case Bond is working on is not all that high stakes, end-of-the-world stuff. His target is a relatively unimportant man who raises money for terrorist organizations by playing high-stakes poker with a client's money and walking away with millions more than he started with. The nasty man in question is named Le Chiffre, played with greasy intensity and with a great Hitler haircut by Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen (if you've seen three Danish films in the last year, he was probably in two of them). This case is, in effect, Bond's starter mission, and although he gets to kick plenty of butt on his way to La Chiffre, it is Bond's talent as a poker player that will ultimately defeat him. Doesn't sound very exciting? Trust me, it is, and the reason why is Daniel Craig owns this character. And anyone who is still crying about Craig's blonde hair needs to get a life (besides, it's more of a lightish brown).

Bond has not yet become the flawless, smooth-as-silk super spy we've all grown up with at this point in his career. Quite the contrary. This Bond makes mistakes, gets badly bashed up more than once, falls for tricks that no self-respecting veteran spy would fall for, and lacks a certain confidence that this is the job he wants for life. The character of M (Judi Dench, the sole holdover actor from previous films) is a blessedly more fleshed out character here than in most other Bond offerings. She doesn't just dish out assignments; she advises Bond, scolds him when necessary, and provides insight when his head is cluttered with things other than business. In other words, we learn why Bond always seemed to be M's favorite agent. We also learn that M is an initial, not just a secret code rank. In fact, Casino Royale does a great job of filling in a few little tidbits of information along the way. We find out where Bond got his first Aston Martin and under what circumstances he ordered his famed martini recipe. When a bartender asks him, "Would you like that shaken or stirred?" and Bond snaps, "Do I look like I care?" you can't help but laugh. Okay, maybe there is a slight amount of winking going on here.

Let me just mention three other performances. Eva Green is both sexy and prickly as Vesper Lynd, the woman in charge of overseeing Bond's expenses during the card game. She ultimately decides how high stakes Her Majesty's government is willing to get, keeping in mind that if Bond loses, the British government will be directly and knowingly financing terrorism. Her role is significant because, technically, she's the first Bond girl, and it is through their relationship that Bond realizes how close he should allow himself to get to the beautiful women that will pass through his life. I don't want to say too much more than that. The rock solid Giancarlo Giannini plays Mathis, the local field agent who arranges for Bond to enter into the high stakes poker game in Montenegro. But the most surprising appearance of all was Jeffrey Wright as the latest incarnation of Bond's CIA counterpart Felix Leiter. I know it's rare that the same actor plays Leiter from film to film, but I hope Wright returns for future Bond movies and is given a lot more to do.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Casino Royale is its ending. The conflict with La Chiffre is essentially done before the two-hour mark (following one of the most painful, ball-crushing torture sequences I've ever seen). But there's still about a half-hour to go in this film, and it's in this sequence that we see just how painful birth — even the birth of a super spy — can be. And it's with these final scenes that the cold steel wall completely encompasses Bond's heart forever. Casino Royale is more than just another chapter in this decades-old franchise; it truly is a much-needed and completely successful overhaul.


For Your Consideration

I'm still a little shocked at die-hard Christopher Guest fans who claim they didn't like his last offering, A Mighty Wind. More specifically, they didn't think it was as funny as his scary-funny Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show. The fact is A Mighty Wind wasn't always trying to be funny. It actually wanted to impress you as much with its musical moments as with its comedy. The first notable difference between writer-director-star Guest's For Your Consideration is his dropping of the long-played-out mockumentary format, which in no way takes away from just how hilarious and sharp this movie is. The focus here is on a small-time independent film production of a clearly awful, sappy, heavily Jewish-themed film starring a collection of washed-up actors played to perfection by Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey.

O'Hara is the standout as an actress who finds out there is internet buzz about her performance getting nominated for an Academy Award. That rumor, along with added buzz about some of her costars, essentially wrecks the production but raises awareness in Hollywood about this nothing movie. The masterful Ricky Gervais plays the studio exec who realizes people might actually go see this movie and moves in to "tweak" the script to make it more accessible (to non-Jews, naturally). Eugene Levy as Shearer's absentee agent is a scream, but it's Jane Lynch and Fred Willard who steal every scene they're in as the shallow and sometimes cruel hosts of an "Access Hollywood"-type news magazine that covers the production. As screenwriters, Guest and Levy are clearly writing what they know, and their observations about the fickleness of Hollywood are spot on. The almost entirely improvised dialogue — carried out to perfection by Guest's usual lineup, including Jennifer Collidge, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins — is as sharp and stinging as ever. The where-are-they-now ending that Guest always includes in his films is here as well, but the brief glimpses into the actors' current situations may not seem as funny as we're used to. In some cases, they are downright pathetic and sad. Still, the movie is terrific entertainment and should be particularly fulfilling to those that follow Christopher Guest's productions. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Fast Food Nation

Richard Linklater spent the better part of two years waiting for his previous offering this year, A Scanner Darkly, to go through the animation process. So rather than twiddle his thumbs and pick lint out of his belly button, he made another movie, this one a narrative film drawn from facts included in Eric Schlosser's wildly famous exposé Fast Food Nation. The film represents a huge step toward a more mature and sophisticated style of storytelling for Linklater, who has made more than a few humorous movies in his time (School of Rock, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Bad News Bears remake). Using a narrative style more like Traffic and John Sayles' City of Hope, Linklater gives us the top-to-bottom look at the process of getting beef (and apparently trace amounts of dookie) into our fast food — from the research and development types at the corporate level who come up with new products to the illegal immigrant workers who work on the killing floors of the slaughterhouses in meat-packing plants in places like Colorado.

Linklater mixes a more established list of players (such as Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Kris Kristofferson) with up-and-coming younger actors like Paul Dano, Ashley Johnson, Oscar nominee (for Maria Full of Grace) Catalina Sandino Moreno and a surprisingly strong Wilmer Valderrama. The plot drags in a few places, but the overall pacing is solid and the performances make up for the occasional slowness. Meat eaters and vegetarians alike should be sufficiently sickened by some of what Linklater and Schlosser (co-screenwriters here) have decided to show us, culminating in a stomach-turning look at a slaughterhouse. The stories of Fast Food Nation are many and far-reaching, but Linklater never sacrifices his characters' souls. In all of his films, he always delivers satisfying character studies, and this one is no exception. But more importantly, he's giving us characters whose stories are never told on screen because of who they are and certainly not for lack interesting life stories or human drama. There are many stories sure to be told in the coming years of illegal immigrants; Fast Food Nation delivers one of most compelling such tales I've ever seen. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Richard Linklater, visit Ain't It Cool News.


Shut Up & Sing

Sure to be on the minds of critics and Academy voters for Best Documentary of the year, this agonizing tale of the Dixie Chicks adventures since singer Natalie Maines made an ill-timed joke at President Bush's expense in a foreign country (for some reason, this was a big deal to some people; I guess if she'd said it in Houston, all would have been forgiven) might be the finest film about free speech ever made. It also may turn quite a few non-fans into curious listeners. The irony was clear even at the time: the United States had just invaded Iraq in the alleged hope of installing a democratic, freedom-loving regime, when Maines' free-speech rights were being trampled on right here at home. The film jumps back and forth between the U.S. tour that followed her comments (every show saw legions of protestors outside and a few inside the concert hall) and the recording of their most recent album with producer Rick Rubin.

Like most non-country fans, my interest in the Chicks began with this controversy, so I was surprised how much this movie affected me and elicited a genuinely emotional response from my hard heart. In the end, the type of music they play doesn't matter, which makes the fact that they went out of their way to record a non-country album as a way of effectively ignoring country radio, all the more sweet. The movie doesn't shy away from the Chicks' starkly vulnerable response to the events at hand, nor does it spare us a few choice four-letter words (the film is Rated R, strictly for language). Two years ago, I begged you to go see a film called Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, another film about the crisis of a band I didn't know anything about. Shut Up & Sing is an even better film because, in so many ways, the Dixie Chicks' struggle exemplifies the great divide in this country in the last few years. Two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.; American Dream) and co-director Cecilia Peck (daughter of Gregory) have crafted an extraordinary and timely work that deserves to be seen not only by fans of the band but also by every single person who has gone out of their way to never hear any of their music (that would include me). The film isn't just great; it's important.

Read my interview with co-directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck on Ain't It Cool News.


Fur

Sometimes a story that is inherently interesting can also be dreadfully boring and misguided, even when it sticks close to the facts. Fur is a highly fictionalized account of the early stages of photographer Diane Arbus' career, when she went from being her husband's long-suffering assistant to an artist and chronicler of those who rarely got photographed professionally. The immediate reaction of anyone seeing Fur is: Why? But the question isn't, why make this imaginative chronicling of her life rather than a truer account? No, the query is, why not make it more interesting? The fault lies in director Steven Shainberg (Secretary), whom I don't fault for being experimental. But I do criticize him for doing so to no end.

Nicole Kidman gives as strong a performance as is possible under these circumstances, but the material is just too weak to let her really shine. Not faring much better is Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Lionel, an upstairs neighbor to the Arbus family and a man who just happens to be covered completely in fur. His presence in the building upends the Arbus family dynamic and makes Diane curious about the parade of circus freak friends Lionel regularly has in his home. Diane's husband (Ty Burrell) grows a beard to compensate for his wife's obsession with the hairy Lionel, but he's no match. I stopped caring about these characters and, more importantly, Arbus' life about halfway through Fur, which is a shame because the one thing this film did convince me of was that a better version of Arbus' life story needs to be told.


Happy Feet

I'll tell you why you care about singing and dancing penguins: because attached to the beginning of this film is the first trailer for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that's why. If that means nothing to you, then there isn't much more to offer older audiences about the distinctly kid-friendly animated feature Happy Feet. Apparently Emperor Penguins find their mates by singing their "heart songs" to the group, and if two penguins like each other's songs, they mate. Penguins Norma Jean (a Marilyn Monroe-like creature voiced by Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (who sounds a lot like Hugh Jackman doing an Elvis impersonation) like each other's songs a whole lot (his is "Heartbreak Hotel;" her's is Prince's "Kiss"), and they give birth to Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who can't carry a tune if it was covered in tasty fish, but loves to cut a rug to the Top 40 radio station in his head. Savion Glover provides the choreography for Mumbles' tap dancing.

The film starts off slow, but some well-placed Mexican stereotype voices provided Robin Williams (as Ramon) and a few other actors get things moving along with the film's funniest moments. Mumbles is essentially cast out from the Emperor tribe and hooks up with these amigos, who seem much more open to watching him dance and learning his steps. Brittany Murphy plays Gloria, the only Emperor penguin who seems to accept Mumbles for who he is. Happy Feet was directed by George Miller (of Mad Max fame, but he also gave us the exceptional Babe movies), so I was expecting something a little less lightweight. A third-act storyline involving Mumbles getting captured and put in a zoo, which leads to the entire human race deciding against fishing in the Antarctic and depleting the fish supply, seems like a desperate attempt to be a little more socially relevant. Mainly it just feels forced. Happy Feet is harmless, and I'm not going to pretend like I didn't laugh a handful of times while watching it, but with such superior fare like Flushed Away out right now, the choice seems obvious. I realize that kids today are probably more fixated on penguins than rats, and Happy Feet certainly has its share of cute and cuddly cold-weather foul. Plus there's a brand new Prince song during the closing credits, so that kept me energized.


F*ck

It's probably a coincidence that this masterful examination of the history of this lovely, multi-faceted little word is coming out the same day as Shut Up & Sing. Both works deal with issues of censorship and free speech. But whereas the Dixie Chicks film is also about politics, conservative scare tactics and the like, F*ck is about a word that has long been a hot-button issue with broadcasters, comedians, musicians and just about anybody else who communicates. Once you get over the initial shock of hearing "fuck" tossed around a couple hundred times, the film proves to be a well-researched examination of the history of the word (which does not stand for anything, as many — including me — had always believed it did). Linguists, historians, celebrities, writers, scholars and even porn stars weigh in on the many sexual and non-sexual incarnations and uses of the word.

The centerpiece of the film is, as it should be, George Carlin's legendary "7 Dirty Words" routine, which is held up as a significant milestone in the history of all bad words. I wish the movie had spent a bit more time discussing the persecution of Lenny Bruce for obscenity, but there are other, better films on that subject. Still, F*ck is wildly entertaining as it tracks the many milestones of its subject, from its first use in a Hollywood film (M.A.S.H.) to U2's Bono uttering it while accepting an award to Howard Stern's troubles with the FCC to NWA's rap hit "F*** the Police." The film is divided into chapters covering politics, music, movies, television and the influence of bad language on children, with each chapter heading containing short, hilarious cartoons by Bill Plympton. F*ck illustrates the hypocrisy of a nation that still treats this oft-used word like a four-letter criminal act but allows a certain vice president to use the word on the Senate floor without penalty. Go fuck yourself, indeed, sir. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Requiem

Nothing supernatural is more terrifying than a good old case of extreme, self-destructive mental illness, and few films have done as good a job demonizing mental illness than Germany's Requiem. I may sound glib, but the fact is that, for most individuals, knowing someone with severe mental illness is scarier than hell. The largely true story (the same one that the Americanized The Exorcism of Emily Rose was based on) centers on a young woman growing up in a small German town in the 1970s. Her family is very religious and nervous about Michaela (the remarkable Sandra Huller) going off to college, not only because of the evil influences of alcohol and boys but also because Michaela has a long history of what are believed to be epileptic episodes. But her attacks take on a far more sinister, violent tone and are often accompanied by her speaking in tongues and contorting her face into the ugliest of creatures. Michaela eventually becomes convinced that her problem isn't medical or mental, but spiritual. She believes she is possessed, and she convinces a priest of the same thing.

Director Hans-Christian Schmid's naturalistic (bordering on Dogme-like) film never really entertains the idea that Michaela is possessed. There is no head spinning, levitation, puke or anything we're used to seeing in classic films about demon occupation. Still, the film is usually so quiet that on the few occasions when Michaela does explode in a psychotic fit, the result is pure terror in the audience's collective hearts and minds. Her parents' small-minded attitudes about mental illness don't help matters, but it's clear they would rather think of their daughter as crazy than possessed. Requiem is played as a predestined tragedy. Although the film doesn't follow Michaela's story all the way to her death by dehydration and exhaustion (as Emily Rose did), we don't need to see that to know how horrible these events are. This is a film of personal devastation, self-imposed spiritual betrayal and heavy loss. In its own dignified way, Requiem puts most other films about supposed possession and confirmed mental illness to shame by showing the human cost rather than offering up showy performances and cheap scares. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


What Is It?

One of my favorite interviews I've ever done for Ain't It Cool News was the one I did last week with Crispin Glover. Not because it was kooky and weird, as I'm sure many of you might expect a 45-minute conversation with Glover might be, but because he is truly a delight to talk to. He was in town last week in advance of an upcoming two-night appearance he'll be making here in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, where he will be presenting an entire evening inside his mind.

More specifically, he'll be hosting Friday and Saturday night screenings of his directing effort What Is It?, as well as presenting a host of other events, including his Big Slide Show, a fantastic slide show/dramatic reading from several of his books (he previewed this, along with the film, for critics last week, and it's wonderful); an extensive Q&A after the film; and he'll introduce a hand-picked screening of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small (I think this is still part of the festivities; check with the theatre to be sure).

So what is What Is It? Just about the most mind-fuckingly, indescribable film I have ever seen. It's both grotesque and elegant, a statement about the evil that men do and about the fragility of the human mind (personified by a cast almost entirely made up of actors with Downs Syndrome). It's about pent up sexuality and the wholesale slaughter of snails. But above all things, it's about finding the things that make nearly all of us decidedly uncomfortable. This is as much of a review as you're going to get out of me on this film, because simply describing and analyzing it will never do it justice. Unless you've had your mind bent almost to breaking by its eerie, sometimes stomach-churning visuals, or had your ears jolted by its expertly pieced together sound garden, What Is It?…well, you just won't have the same experience. You need to see this to even begin to understand, and even then…

Glover has had a spotty but largely successful run in and out of the Hollywood system, a streak that shows no signs of slowing down. And he's not shy about discussing his mixed feelings about some of the films he's made in the past, so the Q&As should be great. I promised Crispin I'd plug his informative web site, where you should go to find out if and when What Is It? will be coming to the town near you (if you don't live in Chicago).

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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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