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Wednesday, October 18

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Hey everyone.

Just a few notes before I depart for the snowy nether-regions of Colorado for the holidays. I'll have one more regular column of reviews (Dec. 28) to wrap up 2007, followed by my Best of 2007 list (Jan. 4), which is getting longer by the day. I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of this week's offerings in the top 30 or so. Because there are just so many damn films opening today, I'm forced to resort to another one of my patented round-ups. But don't let the length of a particular review fool you into thinking some of these films aren't worth pages of discussion, especially the first five or so. There's some great stuff here. Read on…

Charlie Wilson's War

There are about 100 reasons you should see this movie. It's darkly funny and richly written, all thanks to a lighting-crack script by Aaron Sorkin (creator of "The West Wing" and writer of The American President), sharp direction by Mike Nichols (Closer; Angels In America; The Graduate; Primary Colors), and a handful of some of the best acting you're going to see this year. It's almost cliché at this point to talk about yet another winning Tom Hanks performance, but his portrayal of Congressman Charlie Wilson, the otherwise unremarkable politician who somehow found himself as the driving force behind America's covert funding and supplying of weapons to the people of Afghanistan in their war against Russia, is truly special. The only thing better than Hanks is Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, whose frustrating and overlong career as a spy put him in the unique position to guide Wilson's hand and actually do some good for the helpless people of this third-world nation. Hoffman has given us three great performances in 2007 (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages—see below), but this is his finest. The film is filled with one remarkable scene after another, and not a second of this tightly spun tale (the film barely clocks in at 90 minutes) is wasted. In addition to being an extremely eye-opening work (based on the book by George Crile), the film serves as a reminder of a time when America actually did seem to care about helping a victimized nation. Of course, the narrative's chilling coda reminds us that defeating the Russians was only the beginning of our dealings with Afghanistan, and with a not-so-subtle audio cue, Sorkin reminds us the price we paid for leaving the Afghan's high and dry and fully armed after this war.

Charlie Wilson's War also features a nice turn by Julia Roberts as a very rich Texas woman who pulls a lot of strings in Congress and around the world to see that her humanitarian cause to help the Afghans is carried off without a hitch. The film makes it clear that Wilson lead the charge for funding this covert war but was, in many respects, as much a puppet of the moneymen (and women) as anyone in public office. Sorkin and Nichols manage to tell their tale without too much flag waving, and make it clear as day that Wilson is about as flawed a man as they come. He drinks too much, has a staff of nothing but buxom beauties (lovingly referred to as "Jail Bait" by Wilson), and consorts with all manner of stripper, playmate, drug dealer and sleazy Hollywood type he could find in a Vegas hot tub. But it's the sinners who often make the most interesting saints, and Hanks heaps loads of charm on this intelligent degenerate. The film's best scenes are between Hanks and Hoffman, who go toe to toe (sometimes arm in arm) to raise money and arrange for weapons transfers through the politically appropriate pipelines. It's a fascinating journey that these two men take in a relatively short time, and it makes you wonder at what point things got so twisted as far as covert operations go. Not exactly a family-friendly film, Charlie Wilson's War is the one absolutely must-see film this weekend.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of the Fleet Street

Like Charlie Wilson's War, I actually managed to see this film twice before writing about it, so my thoughts on it are that much clearer. I do like the story of Sweeney Todd a great deal; it's probably my favorite musical of all time from my favorite theatrical lyricist of all time, Stephen Sondheim. One of the reason I've always loved this music is that it doesn't beat you over the head attempting to be catchy and it couldn't give a shit if you leave the theater humming a tune or two. Sondheim's words were written to tell a story set to music, to develop his characters' innermost thoughts with a full orchestra. The blood and gore were simply a bonus. We are meant to identify with and, in many ways, empathize with Todd (Johnny Depp, who's too young for this role, but I didn't really care). We want him to avoid capture and succeed in his ultimate quest to kill a judge (Alan Rickman) who had the young barber forcibly separated from his wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and baby daughter and thrown in an Australian prison so the judge could seduce the innocent woman. Todd returns to London to open a new barbering business above a meat pie shop run by one Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). The two strike up an unlikely partnership, whereby Todd slaughters his customers and dumps their remains into the basement where Mrs. Lovett uses the fresh meat for her pies. Their business is a thriving success, and the metaphor for the way the rich devour the poor in London is quite well handled.

Attributing no fault to the plot (a script by John Logan is nicely worked), the film left me just a little on the cold side. Perhaps the overly dark and grimy visuals from director Tim Burton were just a little too much. A color-rich fantasy sequence in which Mrs. Lovett sees Todd and herself vacationing in various sunny spots is my favorite moment in the film. Also, Depp spends a lot of time staring out windows or across empty rooms thinking about, well, I'm not sure. Revenge, I suppose, but contemplative thinking is a tough thing to make exciting or interesting on screen. Depp pulls it off, but I wanted to hear more about what was going on in this man's twisted head. I was also joyous any time Burton injected humor into the proceedings. Sacha Baron Cohen's rival Italian barber Pirelli is a scream, and his bogus Italian accent is about as ridiculous and funny as his French accent in Talladega Nights. Rounding out the renegades from the Harry Potter franchise (Bonham Carter and Rickman included) is Timothy Spall as the judge's nasty right-hand, Beadle Bamford. Although no one in the cast has a particularly strong voice, the younger cast (especially Edward Sanders as Lovett's protective assistant Toby) more than makes up for what the older cast might lack in vocal range.

I think my second viewing of Sweeney Todd actually made me enjoy it more. I started to notice exactly what Depp was adding to the work and how truly repugnant Rickman made the judge. Check out the way he pronounces and repeats the word "gander" to an unsuspecting sailor who spots the judge's young and beautiful ward in her bedroom window. There is so much to like here that I'd almost recommend you ignore any faint criticism I might have for the film's look and tone. For much of the film, I wanted to shake somebody involved with the production and say, "Lighten up!" But I guess that would be defeating the purpose. Still, this is one of the many Sondheim musicals I've seen performed on stage, and I do remember more humor in this piece, even if the laughs were of a nervous variety. Fear not, gore hounds, you will not be disappointed. Arterial spray is the chef's special for this puppy, and Burton makes it look so deeply red. If the blood had been in any way tame, I would not be recommending this movie. As it is, the film is terrific fun, a satisfying thrill fest, a great musical and a nearly great character study. Small hesitations aside, Sweeney Todd is yet another carefully conceived and perfectly executed Burton-Depp collaboration. I can't wait to see what they give us next.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Artist and sometime-director Julian Schnabel has only made three films in the past 11 years (four if you include a Lou Reed concert documentary that premiered at Toronto this year), but each time he sets his mind to directing, it results in something quite exquisite. With Basquiat (starring a then-largely unknown Jeffrey Wright) and Before Night Falls (which gave Javier Bardem his first Oscar nomination), Schnabel profiled tortured (literally and figuratively) artists, but his latest work may be his finest effort to date. Told almost entirely from the point of view of its subject, the French-language The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the real-life story of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by French powerhouse Mathieu Amalric, who many Americans know as Munich's Louis), who at 43 had a massive stroke that left him completely paralyzed except for his left eye.

With most of the film seen through Bauby's one functioning eye, we watch as hospital staff, friends and family pass in and out of his life offering both hope and dismissive visits. With the help of a couple of beautiful and saintly nurses, Bauby learns to communicate by having these women read him the alphabet repeatedly until he blinks at the appropriate letter. He wrote an entire autobiography (published two days before his death) in this fashion. We do see more conventionally shot flashback sequences of a pre-stroke Bauby with his wife and father (Max von Sydow), but these scenes seem more like dreams or memory flashes. We also hear Bauby's thoughts throughout the film as he passes through feelings of utter despair, rage and even occasionally lusty thoughts about his nurses. I promise you, you have never experienced a film like Diving Bell. Far from any other film about a disability or disease, it quite literally puts you in this man's head for two hours. At first it's utterly disorienting, almost maddening, but eventually, as we get used to his routine and limitations, the film becomes a display of just how strong human will and spirit can become under adverse circumstances without turning the melodramatic dial up to 11. The Diving Bell is nothing short of awe-inspiring and deeply moving, and we learn that those who may never overcome their limitations can still thrive and learn the value of passion and life. It is simply impossible not to get sucked into this triumphant and sublime work.


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Although not as emotionally engaging as producer Judd Apatow's other recent work (The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Knocked Up; Super Bad), Walk Hard (co-written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan) delivers just as many laughs as those other great films, as well as a fearless performance by John C. Reilly as the fictional country-rock-folk legend Dewey Cox. What you have to realize about Walk Hard is that it's not parodying such fine recent music biopics as Walk the Line, Ray or even the current Dylan exploration I'm Not There (although it certainly plays with conventions set forth in all of those). Instead, this film is aping poorly made music biographies about musicians, like the ones you might see about the Beach Boys or Def Leppard or the Jackson family on VH1. When Dewey goes through a particularly bad phase in his life with drugs and sexual deviance, he calls out to no one particular, "This is my dark period!" Every significant life change in Dewey's life is underscored, highlighted and encircled with neon lights. Any time a real-life musician (like Elvis Presley, played hilariously by Jack White of The White Stripes, or the Beatles, played by four very funny guys you might recognize) crosses paths with Dewey, the moment is recreated as the most unbelievably phony exchange, and the results are always devastatingly funny.

Drawing especially from the Johnny Cash film Walk the Line, Walk Hard naturally includes a childhood tragedy that sends Dewey down his path to music, a first wife (Kristen Wiig), countless children and a more glamorous second wife ("The Office's" Jenna Fischer), who becomes Dewey's sometime singing partner. There are more cameos in this film than I could keep track of, but the film's true strengths are its perfectly observed mockery of crap movies about performers and the endless supply of giggles. It certainly adds credibility to the proceedings that Cox's music is actually worthy of toe tapping and singing along, and Reilly's voice is pleasing to the ear. I wouldn't call the movie sophisticated, but it's far from dumb fun either, which does not mean that Apatow and Kasdan are above resorting to some pretty crude humor at times (that's a good thing) in this R-rated exercise. Above all, the film has an energy and charm that make it winner. And make sure to stick around through the entire credits to hear even more Cox music and get a rare glimpse at the "real" Dewey Cox.


The Savages

I will give credit where credit is due. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins, who hasn't made a movie since The Slums of Beverly Hills, took what could have been a run-of-the-mill (but still very good) family drama and turned it into a declaration about responsibility, maturity and how two grown siblings don't seem to possess either. The film is often as funny as it is uncomfortable to watch as we see Jon and Wendy Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) go through the motions of pretending to care about their aged (and estranged) father's (Philip Bosco) failing health. Jon and Wendy don't exactly get along with each other either and have led very separate lives since getting out from under their father's control many years earlier. Jon is an uninspired college professor writing research books nobody will read; Wendy is a writer, desperate to have one of her plays produced. She goes so far as to lie to Jon about her accomplishments, and when she's caught in her lie, she responds by acting like a child, which is one of the many aspects of this terrific film that makes total sense.

Of course we know that the siblings will eventually find a middle ground on which to exist peacefully, but it's not as stable and friendly as you might expect. Watching them essentially faking their way through caring for their father and finding him a somewhat livable assisted-living facility in which to live is brutal but I'm guessing fairly accurate. Hoffman and Linney are quite simply two of the greatest actors alive, and they breathe humor and compassion into their situation even when it appears they're being cruel to either their father or each other. Far from a feel-good film, The Savages is concerned with realism and fully formed characters, and I liked that it acknowledged the fact that most adult children of elderly parents find the responsibility of caring for a parent both difficult and inconvenient. It's a cold and ugly truth, but it is the truth. In the end, Jon and Wendy support each other the way they never have before and that uneasy but necessary transition is both sweet and sad. I realize the film sounds like a bit of a downer, and it can be, but Hoffman and Linney make the experience of watching The Savages something joyous and exhilarating. Sometimes, good acting can elevate even a film that is excellent to begin with.

To read my interview with The Savages star Laura Linney, go to http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35111.


Youth Without Youth

Where to begin? I hate to jump on the bandwagon on anything, but I've heard/read at least three other film critics compare this latest Francis Ford Coppola film to Richard Kelly's Southland Tales. If you dare to see both, you almost can't help but see the similarities in their ambition, if not their plots. I'd add to that list Anthony Hopkins' self-directed Slipstream. All of these works are full-on displays of what a director is capable of when he is left alone to pursue his own creative avenues. And in all three cases, the results are messy, passionate, often confusing, engaging, amusing and filled with the kind of energy and bravado usually reserved for college students making an experimental visual art piece. The difference being that Coppola has made this sort of film before (to a degree) in such love letters as Tucker and One from the Heart (hell, you could almost consider throwing Apocalypse Now into that mix). Coppola's Youth Without Youth is about Dominic, an elderly linguistics professor (Tim Roth) who, through a freak act of nature, is made young again and perhaps immortal. His collected knowledge and agelessness throws him into various worlds throughout recent history, including WWII, during which Nazi scientists pursue him. Acting icon Bruno Ganz plays a professor who attempts to hide Dominic from the Nazis, putting his own life in danger.

The intrigue surrounding Dominic's attempts to hide his identity and age is one of the film's strongest elements. My favorite section of the movie involves Dominic reunited with an old love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), or at least a woman who closely resembles her. It turns out that Laura has some type of entity inside of her that allows her to regress in time and speak long-dead languages that only Dominic can understand. He realizes that if he allows her to continue regressing, he could feasibly discover the origin of language, but her nightly trances are taking their toll on Laura's health and aging her prematurely. Youth Without Youth's third act is a little less compelling in my mind, but the closing moments of the film are heartbreaking beyond words and really lovely. Tim Roth plays Dominic as part bewildered victim, part genius who deserves eternal youth. It's a fantastic role, and Coppola has him dial back some of his more obnoxious eccentricities. Rather than rely on his bag of well-worn tricks to create yet another sweeping epic (which he easily could have done with this material), Coppola has changed things up and given us a film that is both fresh and inventive. It also borders on impenetrable at times, and those of you with less of a tolerance for such experiments might want to stand clear of this work. But Youth Without Youth could mark a curious new direction for Coppola, and I for one am excited to watch where he goes from here.


Man in the Chair

In this well-intentioned, but ultimately weak effort from writer-director Michael Schroeder, a high school kid (Michael Angarano) recruits a group of aging Hollywood crew types from the Motion Picture Residence for the Elderly (a retirement community for those who used to work in the film business) to help him make his student film for a competition. Christopher Plummer stars as the drunken Flash, perhaps the only living crew member of Citizen Kane and dozens of other classics, who forms a lasting friendship with the boy and rallies the troops behind the film project. While it's always great to see such legends as M. Emmet Walsh and others in anything these days, the film jams its message about caring for the elderly and especially those who helped create hundreds of memorable films down our collective throats. I'm all for preserving such a great legacy, but it's a shame that Man in the Chair doesn't hold itself to the same high standards of the films its characters supposedly worked on. This is a thoughtful and original idea for a film that self-destructs by including a villain in the form of a fellow student filmmaker whose father is a big-shot Hollywood type and offers his son the resources of his studio to help him make his film, giving him an unfair advantage in the competition. Why not just hang a banner across the top of the screen saying "Studios Are Bad"? The film doesn't have much room for subtlety. Plummer's performance is probably the best thing about the movie, and the distributor is pushing him hard for Oscar consideration, but it ain't gonna happen simply because the rest of the film is so trite and obvious. If you're still curious, the film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


P.S. I Love You

I'll admit I have a soft spot for the words of Richard LaGravenese, who occasionally steps behind the camera to direct as well, as he has done for two 2007 releases: Freedom Writers, which came out the first weekend in January, and this week's P.S. I Love You, both of which star Hilary Swank. LaGravenese has a strange way of taking stories that sound preposterous when you hear them but somehow work to one degree or another on film, such as his writing work on The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer and his best original screenplay Living Out Loud, which marked his debut as a director. You can debate the merits of any of the films I've just listed, but they all kind of worked for me. P.S. I Love You wins the award for the worst trailer of the year; I was truly dreading this movie. But once again LaGravenese makes an outright nonsense premise work…most of the time…thanks to a cast that clearly believes in this material. This time around, Swank plays New York real estate agent Holly Kennedy, who is married to an Irish man named Gerry (played by 300's Gerard Butler, overflowing with manly man charm). Early in the film, Gerry dies of a brain tumor, but before he croaked, he managed to secretly leave behind a series of letters and other arrangements for Holly to find. At first we're not 100 percent sure what the point of these letters and plans are, but after a while it becomes clear that Gerry is mapping the route for his wife to come out of her deeply set depression after his death.

Fans of Butler shouldn't fear. Just because he dies doesn't mean he doesn't appear throughout the film, either in flashbacks of the young couple first meeting and falling in love or as a sort of apparition for Holly to talk to and remember him fondly. Some of Gerry's pre-arranged efforts seem a tad far-fetched, including a trip to Ireland for Holly and her two best friends (Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow) to take in the hopes of maybe finding a nice new man for Holly. A dialed-back Kathy Bates is really strong here as Holly's mother, who never really liked Gerry and thinks these letters are some kind of cruel exercise to make it impossible for her daughter to get over her loss. My favorite character is Daniel (Harry Connick Jr.), the bartender at Holly's mom's Irish bar. You may think you have Daniel's role in things figured out early on as he and Holly become friendly, but don't be so sure. Connick's forthright delivery is wonderful, as Daniel blurts out exactly what he's thinking, even if it comes out sounding like an insult. After seeing Connick play variations of a much smoother ladies' man, it was fun to see him play a character so utterly awkward, with barely an ounce of charm in him. As much as I found P.S. I Love You contrived at times, I must give some mention to the packed house (of mostly women) with whom I saw this film. Every time Holly got a new letter…each one sweeter than the last…tears starting flowing like Niagara Falls. So if you're prone to crying, you better pack a box of that tissue with aloe; you're going to be rubbing your nose and eyes quite a lot. That said, I actually liked most of this film. It's far too long, and there are a few moments where I couldn't help but roll my eyes in the dark at how stupid the plot was getting, but Swank, Butler, Connick and everybody else really sell this thing and elevate the material far higher than your average tearjerker. If the phrase "chick flick" hadn't been invented already, it might have been for this film. You may not love this one, but I think some part of you might let it in your heart just a little.


Look

The most harrowing moment in writer-director Adam (Detroit Rock City) Rifkin's Look is an opening title card that tells us that in the course of a day most Americans are captured by some sort of surveillance device 170 times, usually without their knowledge. At first, I didn't think I was going to like this film, meant to look like every image was captured by one of these surveillance cameras scattered throughout my world. Showing us everything from two hotties changing clothes in a dressing room to a potential child abductor stalking a mother and daughter through a mall, Look gives us glimpses into the everyday world of its many characters. Not interested in telling us fully realized stories about these people, Rifkin is more interested in giving us glimpses into our own behavior and having us leave the theater realizing that the odds of a camera capturing us at our most embarrassing or off-guard moment are very high. Still, much of the film seems staged for the largely immobile camera (complete with timecode in most cases). A department store manager has sex in every corner of his store with various female employees (oh, and we catch him snorting coke at one point, because why would a manager know that there were cameras throughout his store?); a crime spree by a couple of killers is captured on various convenience store security cams; or a nerdy office worker is repeatedly being pranked by his co-workers. Many of these feel sequences feel a little too scripted, but many others manage to generate genuine tension (thanks in large part to a creepy electronic score by BT). More often than not, Look works as a compelling and nerve-racking examination of daily life adventures, some of which are quite ordinary, while others are downright freaky. Whether you like it or not, it's tough to deny that Rifkin has tapped into something about our culture that few other filmmakers have, and that's a rare occurrence no matter who's watching.

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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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