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Monday, May 20

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Hey, everyone. For those of you looking for a few last-minute scary movie selections to occupy your time this weekend, the Chicago Film Critics Association polled its members and had us rank our top 25 scariest films of all time. I'll be happy to pass along the final list from the membership when it becomes available, but in the meantime, here's the list I submitted. Enjoy, and have a great Halloween.

1. The Haunting (1963)
2. The Vanishing (1988)
3. The Exorcist
4. Alien
5. The Evil Dead
6. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
7. Jaws
8. The Thing
9. Salem's Lot
10. Dracula (1979)
11. House on Haunted Hill (1958)
12. Wait Until Dark
13. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
14. Nosferatu (1922)
15. The Tenant
16. The Fog (1980)
17. The Eye
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street
19. Halloween
20. Tremors
21. Ringu
22. Rosemary's Baby
23. Peeping Tom
24. Miracle Mile
25. The Last Broadcast

Hope you enjoyed that, and now on to this week's offerings. Not that I held out much hope for its quality, but this week's release of Saw III was not screened in advance for critics. This is actually a little surprising, since the first two Saw movies were previewed. We all know this series is trash, but at least it's attempting to be somewhat inventive with its wild killing scenarios and contraptions. I do look forward to these films every year on a certain, low-expectations level. I'm still going to check it out, because I never miss a horror film on the big screen, so take from that what you will.


Catch a Fire

Due to its seemingly dated subject matter (the brutality of police during 1980s, apartheid-era South Africa), my biggest fear is that audiences won't see Catch a Fire because they'll think they've seen it done several times before on the big screen, most prominently in 1987's Cry Freedom with a young Denzel Washington as Steven Biko. But Catch a Fire has something of a hidden and far more modern agenda than simply retelling the true story of Patrick Chamusso (the exceptional Derek Luke), who was falsely rounded up by police after an attack at the nuclear power plant facility where he worked. Chamusso was tortured by government-sanctioned law enforcement, headed by Tom Robbins' steely cool Nic Vos, but eventually set free. The police even tortured Chamusso's wife (newcomer Bonnie Henna) just to get him to talk.

Where Catch a Fire draws its modern parallel is what happens to Chamusso after his release. His rage and anger at what was done to him and his family drives him to join a rebel organization bent on plotting and carrying out attacks against the South African establishment that is holding his people down. Are they terrorists or are they freedom fighters? This is the question posed and pushed to the forefront of the film, a question that has loud echoes in today's battles against terror.

The film makes the clear point that Chamusso was absolutely the wrong man to mess with in that day and age in South Africa. He had made as much of a good life as a black man in South Africa could at the time. He held a management position at the power plant, and was making probably more than anyone else in the township where he lived. He was the last person the police should have suspected. But the film never makes the mistake of painting Chamusso as a perfect man. He is actively cheating on his wife (a fact that effectively landed him in jail in the first place since he was unwilling to account for missing hours in his timeline when the explosion at the plant happened), which comes back to haunt him when he does plot a more substantial bombing of the nuclear facility.

Director Phillip Noyce has carved out a nice career for himself putting the microscope on the world's gross acts of injustice in such moving works as Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American (of course, he's also celebrated covert American military action is such films as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), and Catch a Fire may be his finest effort.

What is so unusual and riveting about this particular story is the relationship between Chamusso and Vos. It's almost as if Vos is fully aware that he is caught in a brutality machine, but he doesn't have the strength to end his participation in it. In many ways, he clearly sees the end of the current way of life but decides to let it catch up with him rather than take steps to end the practices of torture himself. There's a scene in which Vos brings Chamusso to his home for dinner (while he's still under arrest), and you can't help but get a glimpse at how life should be between the two men and the two races.

Luke and Robbins don't have that many scenes together, but when they share the screen, the tension level is palpable. They represent so much to each other and to us that you feel as if the entire future of the civilized world rests on their encounters. I'm not ruining anything by telling you that Chamusso was eventually caught and sent to the same island prison where Nelson Mandela spent so many years. And we do get an almost unnecessary sequence in which Chamusso spots an aged Vos and has to make the decision whether to enact his revenge or not. Stick around until the end of the film for documentary footage of the real Chamusso, updating us on his current efforts in South Africa. Catch a Fire is one of the finest examples of a film telling two stories on two levels. The juxtaposing of Chamusso and Vos' lives provides the surface-level tale, which is fascinating on its own. But when you include the subtext about how fighting terrorists can result in creating more terrorists, you can't help but take pause in today's global situation and sadly see how little the world has changed.


Running with Scissors

As in life, sometimes you have to look other than where people tell you to look to find the most interesting things. Based on the wildly successful memoir by Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors is one of those true stories that feels so wildly exaggerated that you feel almost obliged to doubt the other-worldliness of what you are being told. It's clear from the first frame of the film that Augusten never had a chance at being normal. His multi-polar mother (played by guaranteed future Oscar nominee Annette Bening) is always on fire. She's a frustrated writer/poet who wants more than anything to be famous without really honing her talents. His father (rarely shown in the movie, but still beautifully played by Alec Baldwin, who seems acutely aware that the story he's a part of is insanity personified) drank too much, probably to cope with his wife's mental illness.

Joseph Cross (most recently seen in Flags of Our Fathers) plays the teenaged Augusten, who seems almost serene amid the chaos of his family life and life he finds among the Finch family. Dr. Finch (the gifted Brian Cox, playing a type of mad professor) is the lunatic running the asylum. He begins as Augusten's mother's therapist, but when the two of them deem her unfit to raise Augusten, he ends up staying with Finch's family and is eventually adopted by the good doctor. Evan Rachel Wood plays the hyper-sexualized younger daughter, who is countered by the prissy older daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow, who is probably miscast here). Also floating through the family's life is another adopted (and much older) son, Neil Bookman, played by an almost unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes. When the 30-something Neil and the 14-year-old Augusten begin a gay love affair, some audience members may cringe at this apparent celebration of the whole man-boy love thing.

There is not a stable person in this entire film, but since the film is effectively a recounting of his personal tale, Augusten does play the not-particularly-interesting role as the slightly saner sun around which all of these crazy planets revolve. I think my biggest problem with Running with Scissors is that it never lets up. Since Augusten's mother is crazy from the starting gate, we never really feel the sense of tragedy since her decline is hardly noticed. Bening's performance is that of a powerhouse, and she doesn't make enough movies in a year to waste time not giving it her all here. But in the end, she just plays varying degrees of wacky, and after a while it wears you down. Perhaps that's the point. The Finch family as a more manageable kind of crazy, but that doesn't make them any more interesting.

The one element of that family that moved me a great deal is the decidedly understated performance of Jill Clayburgh as Agnes Finch, who spends most of the film looking like a sad, wet dog but becomes one of the few reliable people in Augusten's life. It's the kind of performance you could easily not notice, but writer-director Ryan Murphy (creator of the television series "Nip/Tuck") doesn't let her disappear before making a welcome quiet impact on Augusten and the audience. The portrayal is so good, it made me miss Clayburgh as an actor. I hope this performance results in her getting more work.

Running with Scissors contains a large handful of spirited characters, and those more kind than me will call the film and its characters "eccentric." But that's not accurate. Most of them probably have deep psychological troubles, and while the film doesn't make fun of that, it doesn't exactly deal with it either. The movie's biggest problem is that there's no real drama. We know Augusten's mother is insane, so we never really see the slow build that in another movie might result to violent outbursts or self-destructive behavior (her dabbling into lesbianism isn't even that shocking or interesting). Even if this film is 100 percent accurate, that doesn't necessarily make it interesting. I could harp on some of the film's silly music cues, or nitpick over some of the weak performances, but the bottom line is the film never engaged me, as if it was insisting that I keep my distance and not get to close to any of these people. Mission accomplished.


Death of a President

You have to give credit to Newmarket Films for redefining "striking while the iron is hot." Just a few short weeks since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Newmarket has rushed this much talked about work into theatres, including the Music Box Theatre, where it has been wedged into its schedule and pushed back the release date of the much-anticipated 49 Up by a week. A lot of times, even the most talked about films at film festivals are delayed by several months before they drop into theatres, but Newmarket wisely understood that this film is being talked about right now.

In case you've been living under a rock, Death of a President is the cleverly constructed, although ultimately disappointing, fictional documentary account of the assassination of our current president on a visit to, of all places, Chicago. Using mostly real footage of George W. Bush during previous trips to Chicago, the filmmakers have built a believable scenario that results in the death of the president. The film might resonate stronger for those living in Chicago, because no city wants to be the one where a president is assassinated.

The film, set a year in the future, sets the tone of the times: the Iraq War is still going on and the anti-war movement has reached peak levels of frustration and anger. The timeline shows Bush coming from the airport and being met by protestors (much of the protest footage I recognized from recent WTO and anti-war protests in Chicago that had nothing to do with Bush visiting), some of who charge his limo as it's driving through downtown. Obviously director Gabriel Range also relied on some staged events and CGI manipulation to create his impressive set up, but the flow is largely seamless and the result (to a point) does put you on edge. Actors are cast to play members of the Secret Service, FBI, local news media and anyone who regularly attends local Chicago theatre productions will probably play the recognition game during the course of the movie.

The film loses much of its steam once Bush has been killed (as strange as that sounds). The resulting investigation into his unseen killer is a little too obvious and message-heavy. A Middle Eastern man is arrested and tried largely because he fits the profile of a terrorist, but it becomes clear that the authorities stopped looking once they had their primary suspect. Anyone who watches any of the dozens of police investigation television shows knows where that set up leads. Conspiracy theories swirl around about whom the real killer is, which means less real footage and more staged interviews with people we know are actors is used in the film's third act, and the movie quickly loses steam (although Bush's eulogy given by…gulp…President Dick Cheney is priceless).

The very existence of a work like Death of a President (a British production, by the way) is somewhat astonishing, and while it never appears to come from a place of protest or wishful thinking, it does speak volumes as to how much the tide has turned on this leader. Would such a film ever have been made about a standing leader in any other part of the world? I never would have believed in the existence of this film before I heard it about it for the first time about two months ago. The intrigue about the film is probably far more interesting than the final product, and while you may walk away from this work thinking that even you (with access to raw news footage) could have made this movie, the fact remains that you didn't. And while the means of pulling this film together may not have required much effort or technology, it took these particular filmmakers to pull it off. It was a gutsy move that has apparently paid off with loads of coverage and a guaranteed audience. If it's so easy to make a movie like this, why isn't everyone doing it? I'm not whole-heartedly recommending the movie as a finished product, but I admire the effort.


The Bridge

In one of this year's Chicago Film Festival's most quietly shocking films, we discover that 24 people committed suicide in 2004 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In fact this breath-taking structure is the site of more suicides since its construction than anywhere else in the world. This number doesn't include the number of people who walked onto that bridge fully intending on jumping and either changed their minds or nearly did but were talked down by police or fellow pedestrians. What none of these people (now living or dead) realized is that nearly every suicide on the bridge in 2004 was filmed by a two-camera crew led by first-time filmmaker Eric Steel. But rather than cull together an exploitative "Faces of Death"-style work, Steel attempts to understand the individuals who were drawn to this location as people rather than just another statistic. The end result is the hypnotic and stunningly impressive film, The Bridge.

Steel's cameras train themselves on people who seem to be staring out into the abyss from the bridge's edge just a little too long. And the first time you see someone step out over the barrier and onto the platform below, your heart begins to pound hard and loud. And then they jump to guaranteed death (one man, who is interviewed in this film, survived his 2004 fall but suffered incredible internal injuries as his bones were driven into his organs). In case you were wondering, yes, we are shown many suicides in The Bridge, but they are done either from a great distance (where you can only see the resulting splash) or the camera cuts away after the initial leap and fall. Whether you consider that "tastefully" done or not is up for debate.

But Steel's fascinating approach to his work centers on the interviews with the family and friends of the dead. Some of these suicides came as total surprises, while some seemed like they were years in the making. And in neither case do you find yourself blaming these people for not doing or seeing more. These people were going to kill themselves one way or another. What's fascinating, however, is how many of the suicide victims were not from the Bay Area; they traveled to the bridge from great distances just to die spectacularly. Steel mixes the footage of jumpers and potential jumpers with beautifully photographed shots of the bridge, the thick fog that visits it often, and the spectacular view from all angles on it. It almost feels like Steel is making a case for why so many would want this to be the last place on earth that they see.

If The Bridge teaches us anything it's that many of these suicides have absolutely nothing in common. Some are mentally ill, some have a lifetime of bad choices and luck, some have a single incident that drives them over the edge, some were weak and some were strong, some had no friends and some had dozens. But I'm fairly certain Steel isn't looking for shared experiences among these people. It's more important to him that you know their names. In the end The Bridge may stir up more questions about suicide and the human condition than it answers, but that's actually the reason it works.

The film will undoubtedly spark conversations on countless subjects. Is it right for a filmmaker to stand witness without acting to save these people? Is he exploiting these deaths? If a person has already decided to kill themselves, why do they feel the need to go someplace like the Golden Gate Bridge to do so? Perhaps they wanted one thing in their life to be memorable. We'll never know. But The Bridge might be one of the most beautiful and poetic films about suicide I've ever seen. It certainly doesn't glorify the practice, but it doesn't judge those who choose it as a way out either. It may make you angry or sad or horrified, but there's no possible way you can watch it and not have a reaction. The Bridge is absolutely unforgettable.


Zerophilia

I'm still scratching my head over this poorly thought out and miserably realized offering about a group of college kids who hang out and talk about sex with the intellectual depth of a group of preschoolers. But at the heart of this film rests a handful of characters that can switch genders more or less at will (by achieving orgasm either alone or with a partner). But if you happen to have sex with another Zerophiliac (the term invented for someone who can make this remarkable transformation), you may be able to permanently decide what sex you'd like to stay forever.

This ordeal can obviously be quite traumatic to someone who is still a teenager (which most of these characters are supposed to be, despite the fact that we often see them drinking in a bar), and we discover that some suffering from this disorder aren't really suffering all that much and choose to allow themselves to flip flop between the sexes. A case could be make that the lead character, Luke, is a metaphor for young people who are struggling with their sexuality, in particular bisexuals. But Zerophilia is so weighted down with artificial angst, fleeting attractions and some of the least sexy sex scenes ever put on film that it's impossible to look at the movie as anything more than a weak-ass gimmick.

I'm all for young people deciding how they want to lead their lives and feeling comfortable with the decision, but nothing in Zerophilia makes that struggle in any way interesting. Then again, I never liked high school biology. 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 steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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