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Sunday, July 21

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Hey everyone. Before I launch into my film festival preview, I should mention one major release this week that I was unable to catch a press screening of. Ang Lee's follow up to Brokeback Mountain is a period film set in Japanese-occupied China circa World War II called Lust, Caution, and it's already making waves since it's being released with an NC-17 rating thanks to some fairly explicit sex scenes. The film stars Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung and Joan Chen, so I'm already interested. I don't know whether the film is any good or not, but I wouldn't miss it on the strength of Lee's track record, which also includes The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Chicago International Film Festival Preview

Some truly outstanding films open up in Chicago this week, but more importantly the 43rd Chicago International Film Festival began yesterday, with the official lineup beginning today. Last night, the opening night screening was the haunting The Kite Runner, the latest from director Marc Forster, who is always looking for new ways to surprise his audiences with films like Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction and Monster's Ball. Forster will never be accused of repeating himself (did I mention he's directing the next Bond movie?), and his adaptation of the wildly popular novel by Khaled Hosseini is essential viewing. Telling the story of Amir from his youth in Afghanistan to his new life in America (after fleeing his homeland when the Russians moved in) to his return to his homeland during the height of Taliban rule to help an old friend, Forster does a remarkable job drawing us in to some of Amir's most private and painful memories. As a child and a man, Amir is far from flawless. In fact, he betrays his best friend Hassan at a pivotal time in their life. In many ways, The Kite Runner reminded me of The Namesake, but Forster's work deals with far more weighty issues and life-or-death turmoil. Some people may have scratched their heads when this film was named opening night film, but once you've seen it, all will seem right.

Other big-ticket items playing during the festival's first week include: Lars and the Real Girl, starring the always great Ryan Gosling as an man nearly catatonic with shyness who purchases a Real Doll (a creepily lifelike sex doll) and has a very sweet, non-sexual relationship with her (she's religious, he says, so she stays in the guest bedroom of his brother and sister-in-law). I got a little worried in the first few minutes of this movie that it would a one-trick pony kind of gimmick, but Gosling absolutely makes us care about Lars and his girlfriend Bianca. To help Lars cope with what much surely be mental illness (or just a wild imagination), the townsfolk treat Bianca like a member of the community and form relationships with her independent of Lars. Director Craig Gillespie (the same man who brought us Mr. Woodcock a couple of weeks ago, but don't hold that against him) strikes a perfectly balanced tone with this work to bring us a moving work that will make you laugh, feel uneasy at times, and ultimately care about everyone in the film. There are no villains here, and even those who don't like Bianca's presence in the town grow to accept her. I know it sounds wacky on paper, but Lars and the Real Girl is a film that manages to be sweet and innocent without sapping things up and ruining its delicate nature.

One of my favorite films of the festival and possibly the year is Gone Baby Gone, the feature film directing debut from Ben Affleck, with an absolutely riveting performance by his brother Casey. If you go out this weekend and see The Assassination of Jesse James (see my review below), then you'll at least be somewhat prepared to witness how great an actor Casey Affleck has become. As much as I liked him in that film, he's better here. What you may not be prepared for is how sure-handed a filmmaker Ben Affleck is. In fact, if Ben Affleck never acted again, I'd be fine with that. That's not an insult to his talents as an actor; rather, it's a testament to his strength as a director as evidenced with Gone Baby Gone. Affleck's sense of place (his old stomping grounds in Boston) and people (the surly and tough-as-nails people that apparently make up the entire population of that city) is astonishing here. He takes what could have been a run-of-the-mill tale about the search for a missing child and turns it into a fascinating character study of an entire city and its citizens. The dialog flashes with danger and energy, while the performances from both well-knowns like Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Casey Affleck, as well as many unknown actors, crackle with authority. From its morally ambiguous themes to its shadowy visuals, Gone Baby Gone is as compelling a piece of filmmaking as you're likely to see this year. I'll have much more to say on this one when it opens later this year.

Things We Lost in the Fire concerns itself with a young widow (Halle Berry, who basically never stops crying) who takes comfort in the presence of her last husband's (David Duchovny) junkie best friend (Benicio Del Toro). The film rides the fine line between a solid drama about loss and grief, and weepy melodrama. Thankfully Del Toro in on hand to plant this movie firmly in reality and give us a work that is grounded in honest emotions and depth. We go into the film believing it will be the story of Halle Barry, grieving over the loss of her murdered husband. But Things We Lost turns things around and makes the more interesting tale that of Del Toro's recovering junkie. Both characters were clearly stabilized in different ways by the victim, but it's Del Toro's struggle that makes us care about anything that happens in this film, no matter how many beautiful widows and cute kids the filmmakers throw at us. It saddens me further to criticize the film because it's from Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who made After the Wedding, one of my favorite films of the year. She has a true gift for portraying human suffering of many kinds, but Berry's performance undercuts the central themes of the movie by playing her character so predictably. It's a tough call, and if you find yourself unable to stay away from Del Toro because the guy is so damn good, I won't steer you clear. But Things We Lost doesn't know when to dial it back to make itself more believable and honest.

Two of my favorite documentaries at this years' festival are Chicago 10 — concerning the events in and around the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the trial of those men accused of starting a riot during the event — and America the Beautiful, director Darryl Roberts sometimes disturbing look at this country's obsession with beauty and feminine perfection. If you want to read my full-length review of the latter, go to Ain't It Cool. Chicago 10 is a surprisingly entertaining work from director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who uses animation to show us inside the courtroom proceedings and beautifully restored archival news and documentary footage to show us everything else. Obviously, living in Chicago, you hear a lot about these events, which happened just a few months after I was born. But I've never seen them mapped out so clearly and effectively. Seeing such known figures as Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale brought to life was exciting, thanks to some celebrity voices provided by the likes of Nick Nolte, Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Jeffrey Wright. I don't believe the film opens until early next year (perhaps to coincide with 40-year anniversary of the events), so check it out during the festival and embrace your history.

Other films to look out for in the next two weeks (many of which I'll have reviews for in the coming days) include the closing night film The Savages (with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman); the Australian thriller Noise; Anton Corbijn's Joy Division feature Control; Juliet Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon; John Cusack in Grace is Gone; John Sayles' latest Honeydripper; the Anthony Hopkins-directed Slipstream; director Denys (The Barbarian Invasions) Arcand's The Age of Ignorance; Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows Your Dead; Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, starring Asia Argento; Alison Eastwood's Rails and Ties; and Stuart Gordon's Stuck.

And finally, of the four shorts programs this year, I'd ask you to pay special attention to "Shorts 2: Animation Nations" and "Shorts 4: Love and Loss," which features the Gold Hugo winner Hesitation and the Silver Hugo winner Partus, as well as my favorite doc short The Ladies. I'm partial to the shorts program, since I was one of three jury members who watched every single one of them for nine hours on a Saturday not too long ago. Head out and support this film festival (the oldest in North America). There's a lot here to like and love this year, even if the titles aren't as familiar to you. The entire point of any film festival aren't the gala events and celebrity guests; the point is to discover films and directors you've never heard of before, and there are many opportunities to do that this year. CIFF screenings will be taking place primarily at the AMC River East 21 and the Landmark Century Center Cinema, with a few special presentations at the Music Box Theatre. Go to the festival web site and start making your schedule.

Michael Clayton

Now here's an interesting situation: the powerful new drama Michael Clayton was originally scheduled to open in Chicago next Friday, a week into the Chicago Film Festival, but was scheduled to play as part of the Festival on Monday, October 10 (it still is as far as I know) with first-time director Tony Gilroy in attendance. But for whatever reason, the distributor decided to give the film a limited early release in Chicago (only at River East for the first week) today, sort of undercutting the need for the Festival screening other than as a place to see Gilroy, which, having seen his exceptional film, isn't the worst thing I can think of (I am interviewing him while he's in town).

But enough about semantics. Plain and simple, George Clooney has never been better. The soul of his character, a law firm "fixer" — a lawyer who is called onto a difficult case and does everything inside and outside the law to shut down a seemingly unwinnable lawsuit against a client of the corporate law firm — is tarnished and tattered. Typically he is only ever called in for the firm's biggest cases, usually by its leader Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, in another searing performance). But that Michael Clayton is not on display in this film; we only hear about him from others and typically in the past tense. Clayton today is worn out and broken down, probably on the verge of calling his career finished until he gets a call that a good friend has lost his mind.

Arthur Edens (the genius Tom Wilkinson) openly and on camera during a deposition torpedoes the firm's biggest client, U/North, in probably the biggest case the firm has ever had. He raves like a lunatic and even strips off his closes, seemingly out of guilt for the damage that has been done to one young woman he has fixated on, whose family is part of a massive class action suit against U/North. Clayton, who we find out early has issues with gambling on top of everything else, is asked to step in and see just how bad Edens has damaged the client. As good as these two actors are, my favorite character in Michael Clayton is U/North's in-house council Karen Crowder, played as a freaky, self-loathing, out-of-her-element pawn by the always-riveting Tilda Swinton. It's clear that writer-director Tony Gilroy, making his debut behind the camera here, loves to watch Swinton as she poses in front of mirrors, checking out the underarm sweat stains on her blouse. She is not some polished ice queen to us; she's is all-too human, and we know she will make mistakes that will hurt many people.

Gilroy is a long-time Hollywood screenwriter, who has had a hand in scripting all the Jason Bourne films, as well as works such as Dolores Claibourne, Proof of Life, Armageddon and The Devil's Advocate. So it's shocking to me how confident and subtle the man is behind the camera. Sure, part of that is his remarkable cast, but there are many choices Gilroy makes that are all him. There's a shot at the end of the film that is just Clooney sitting in the back of car, and Gilroy holds the camera on him as the final credits roll. Clooney doesn't speak or do anything extraordinary, but we are riveted to his face, knowing the decompression that is going on in his mind.

I don't want to go into too much more detail about this film. There aren't any earth-shattering twists with the plot, just solid story construction, a riveting series of events, and some of the best acting I've seen all year. In the last five years, with the exception of the Danny Ocean films, George Clooney has focused less on movie star roles and more on inhabiting some of the greatest characters he's ever played. His work as Michael Clayton is by far the best acting Clooney has ever done. There's a confrontation he has with Swinton toward the end of the film that will knock you on your ass. He lets her know she made a bad call regarding him, and he's so proud of himself for besting her that he can't help but gloat. The honesty in the scene is unheard of, especially when he finally just spits out "You are fucked" right in her face. In a perfect world, that would be his Oscar clip.

Michael Clayton is a complex and dense work that holds you in its grip while you navigate its treacherous waters. There are things that happen in this film that I'm still rolling around in my head even though I saw the film a month and a half ago. Clooney, Wilkinson and especially Swinton give career-best performances, but the real hero of the day is Tony Gilroy, who needs to get behind the camera again very soon and show us this wasn't a fluke. Or maybe he should never make another movie again, and always leave us wanting more. Either way, Michael Clayton is falls into the must-see category, and if you get a chance to see it during the festival with Gilroy on hand, take advantage.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The only thing longer than this title is the movie itself, which clocks in at a solid two hours and 40 minutes, but most of that passes by unnoticed and without too much pain. With a well-dusted and rock-solid cast, this impressionistic look at the final months in the life of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt, playing the criminal/folk hero as a paranoid, often-cruel and wise creature) before he was shot in the back by one of his own gang, a man named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel, this version of the Jesse James story casts Ford as his greatest fan, a teenage kid who read all the pulp adventure stories about the James Gang and wanted to be just like Jesse, America's first real celebrity.

The idea of being in the gang wasn't that far-fetched, since Ford's older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) was already a member. But the younger Ford was squirrelly and easily hurt when his hero poked fun at him. This is Affleck's breakthrough year, no questions asked. He's gone from being a strong supporting player in such films as Ocean's 11 (and its sequels) to lead actor in a single year. Wait a few weeks and check him out in Gone Baby Gone, directed by his brother Ben. He's even better in that film, but in Jesse James he's no less hypnotic. The kid is a nervous bag of lightning that can barely keep from bursting out of its own skin. But once he makes the decision to betray his hero, he changes. I'm not saying the transformation is one that makes him more confident, but it's clear that Ford must kill James in his head as his lifelong hero before he can put a bullet in the back of his head.

But I'm not talking about the most interesting aspect of Jesse James, which is the exquisite nature of the filmmaking. From the sweeping yet sad landscapes as filmed by master cinematographer Roger Deakins to the eerie score by Nick Cave to the relaxed direction by New Zealand's Andrew Dominik (whose only other film was the Eric Bana breakthrough Chopper) to the effective book-on-tape-style narration by Hugh Ross, this movie has the feel, look and leisurely pacing of a work made in the last golden age of filmmaking in the 1970s. Terrence Malick's name has already been evoked by other critics, but that doesn't quite fit in my book. There's almost too much going on here for Jesse James to qualify as Malick-esque, but strictly in terms of the look of the film, the comparison is justified. The infrequent punctuations of extreme violence are shocking to be sure, and they come in places you'd least expect them. But what's more shocking are people's reactions to the violence once the shooting is stopped. With one notable exception, there is no mourning among these people. Emotional pain isn't part of their makeup.

Once James is dead, the film goes on to show us what happened to Ford and his brother, and those sequences are just as exciting as his limited time with the gang. The film is filled with surprisingly solid actors is very small parts. Mary-Louise Parker (in an almost-wordless role as James' wife), Sam Shepherd (as Jessie's brother Frank), Zooey Deschanel (who doesn't arrive until the film's final 15 minutes), Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider come and go at the whim of the story. Some character arcs are seen to some kind of conclusion; others vanish without explanation, much like life. The Assassination of Jesse James doesn't feel exactly like life, but it captures the essence of a time and place that is probably best left long behind us but still worth reflecting upon in fantastic films like this one. Great as a narrative, a work of suspense and as an artistic vision, the only thing this film doesn't feel like is a Western, and that's no failing of the filmmakers. Jesse James transcends the Western genre from the first frame, and I'm grateful for that. There's a lot more going on here, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

The Darjeeling Limited

I do like Wes Anderson; I really do. But I was not one of his loyal subjects that followed him upon the waters of The Life Aquatic, and I suspected that film marks a turning point in Anderson's popularity. People still wanted to know what he was up to, but the world was no longer aflutter at the sound of his name. But then he made that wonderful American Express commercial. You think I'm kidding, but I think that's one of the greatest commercials in recent years, and it would good to see that maybe Anderson wasn't taking himself as seriously as his admirers were. There's a bit of self-mockery at hand in that lovely short work, and that self-effacement continues ever so slightly in his latest, the wonderfully light and fluid The Darjeeling Limited, a film in which Anderson reminds us that he started out as an entertaining director with a few serious thoughts that crept into the work without him smashing them into our collective faces.

Lest I forget this housekeeping notice: go now to iTunes and watch the prologue short Hotel Chevalier. You don't need to see it to understand what goes on in Darjeeling, but there are some great plot points made all the more funny and interesting by having seen it first. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen just before the feature, and I consider it wonderful bittersweet moment in time made all the more perfect by Natalie Portman's partial nudity. Bliss, thy name is Portman.

Anyway, Darjeeling follows a few days in the lives of three brother who haven't seen each other in a while. Owen Wilson plays Francis, who has organized an elaborate tour of India via luxury train, with siblings Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) by his side. They drink, take drugs and engage in all manner of wacky behavior on this trip before they get kicked off. I couldn't tell you a single thing they talk about, but that isn't really the point. They are attempting to bond by the most artificial means imaginable, and it's hilarious. They each have secrets that aren't worth keeping, but for some reason, one reveals a secret to another to the exclusion of the third, but then the third finds out, feelings are hurt, mending occurs and shockingly enough bonding does happen. But Francis' motives aren't entirely pure. He isn't actually touring India with his brothers; he's leading them somewhere they probably don't want to go. You've probably seen images of Wilson's bandaged face in photos from this film, and that has something to do with his mindset and commitment to this project.

The film loses a bit of its focus when the brothers get kicked off the train and begin wandering the desert with what seems like a dozen suitcases with their dead father's initials on them. Anderson's visual style is largely intact here, but the mere fact that he's chosen to film is such a colorful and exotic locale speaks volumes to his willingness to shake things up a bit. All three actors do great work here, but it's Wilson who holds your attention. When he's not on camera, you miss him. And he's never better than when he's working with his constant partner Anderson. Other Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Anjelica Houston pop up in interesting and very funny ways here, but it's newcomers like Amara Karan and Irfan Khan (so good in both A Mighty Heart and The Namesake) who fascinate us with their presence. There's a part of me that hopes Anderson never stops making films exactly like he does. There's a comfortable essence to what he does, and it feels like seeing an old friend every couple of years. But The Darjeeling Limited isn't like other films by this somewhat enigmatic filmmaker. It's full of mystery and splendor and a few raw emotions that set this one apart from the rest. It's not in any way an overhaul of his style, but it is unique. This film is the cinematic equivalent to baby steps toward something greater…I hope.

The Heartbreak Kid

I'm just going to say what everyone is thinking: Whatever it was that the Farrelly Brothers and Ben Stiller had when they made There's Something About Mary, it's gone…long gone. I mean dead-and-buried-and-not-coming-back gone. You can try to make a case for Shallow Hal or Stuck on You or even Fever Pitch, but nothing the Farrellys have done since Mary has even come close to matching the laughs-per-minute of that film. I don't require that Bobby and Peter do a retread of their first pairing with Stiller, but making an audience laugh seems like something they might be interested in. So here they are again with Stiller, hoping to drum up a little of the old jizz-on-the-ear magic. Instead they've loosely remade a Neil Simon movie from 1972 and spewed forth a final product that rivals Good Luck Chuck as worst relationship comedy of the year. Just because The Heartbreak Kid has a better team making this movie (although even that statement should be called into question at this point) doesn't mean I laughed any more. In fact, I'm pretty sure I laughed more at Chuck if for no other reason than the people who made that movie seemed like they were trying.

If I'm not mistaken, The Heartbreak Kid is Stiller's first R-rated comedy since Mary, which gave me hope going in. But despite the presence of many a four-letter word, nudity and some truly unsavory jokes about pubes, this film feels like it's playing things safe. For one, Stiller is essentially playing the same guy he's played for years in PG-13 films: the twitchy, neurotic, stammering, borderline angry dude he's played since Mary. Second, the casting of Malin Akerman (who recently underwhelmed me in The Brothers Solomon) as Lila is bizarre because she looks and sounds so much like Cameron Diaz, minus the personality (plus the nudity; I must mention that). She does a sufficient job as the woman who steals Stiller's Eddie character's heart enough to have him propose to her after only knowing her a few weeks. But once they get married and go to Cabo on their honeymoon, she flips on the crazy and annoying switches, and Eddie realizes he's made a horrible mistake. The unfortunate situation is made all the worse when Eddie meets Miranda (the lovely Michelle Monaghan, so good in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, North Country and the upcoming Gone Baby Gone), who's in Mexico for a family reunion. The pair instantly hit it off, and Eddie has the unenviable task of trying to find a way to break things off with his wife, who is trapped in their hotel room with a painful sunburn.

The Heartbreak Kid has a few laughs in it for sure; I distinctly remember laughing out loud once or twice. But most of the time, I found myself waiting for the next sight gag or pratfall or stereotype to land on the screen with a thud. If this helps you understand what I'm talking about, Carlos Mencia is on hand at the Cabo resort as "Uncle Tito," who sports a Speedy Gonzalez accent, a walrus mustache and an arsenal of bad jokes. Not faring much better is Jerry Stiller as Eddie's dad. An old guy belting out vulgarities hasn't gotten old in the Farrelly household. The only supporting character that made me laugh was Rob Corddry's Mac, Eddie's best friend. I can't tell you exactly why he's funny, but he seems to have more energy and personality than anyone else on hand. The film is just one situation after another where Eddie digs himself deeper into trouble rather than just dropping a few choice words in his wife's or new girlfriend's ear and saving everyone a lot of pain. But then we wouldn't have this shitty movie to talk about.

This is the last time I get excited about a Farrelly Brothers film; and this confirms my notion that Ben Stiller may appeal to the kiddies, but he's stopped caring about the grown folk that made him as popular as he is. I don't care how much money A Night at the Museum made — the film was lame. And watching a grown man flounder in his own secretion as he does in The Heartbreak Kid is just sad and pathetic. This film isn't just your average, everyday crappy comedy; it made me angry as I watched Stiller and the Farrellys paint by the numbers. This movie is shameful.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

So Jeff Garlin, star of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" decided to make a movie…in Chicago…casting a bunch of his Chicago buddies…in which he plays an actor who works with an improv group…and lives with his mom…and sees himself as the modern-day Marty (as in the Paddy Chayefsky character). I guess what I'm saying is that Garlin isn't exactly stretching himself here, which is okay since the guy has a natural charm and makes me laugh pretty much on sight.

Garlin plays James, a long-suffering actor who just wants someone to love, someone to go on a picnic with to Millennium Park and eat cheese with. But he's a man of simple means and little skills in the art of seduction, which doesn't stop him from getting two very different lovely women interested in him: Sarah Silverman, a fickle crazy person who works in an ice cream parlor, and Bonnie Hunt, a school teacher who seems a bit more James' speed. The film doesn't really have much of a story; it's mostly just a series of usually humorous exchanges between Garlin and his Chicago friends and/or comedy buddies he was able to coax into coming to the Windy City for a couple days to shoot some scenes. In nearly every scene there's a place (James works at Second City) or a person (radio talk show host Steve Dahl shows up in a funny scene) that will be familiar to many Chicagoans. Appearances by the likes of Amy Sedaris, Dan Castellaneta, Roger Bart, Paul Mazursky, David Pasquesi, Gina Gershon, Richard Kind, Joey Slotnick and others make the film a pleasant enough experience. But in the end, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is a simple story about fat, funny guy looking for love.

To put things in perspective, James parks his car in a great space practically next to Wrigley Field. Problem is, he doesn't live anywhere near Wrigley Field, but he's happy because it's a great space. If you know that feeling, you'll probably settle in rather nicely in this film. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you should probably take your business elsewhere. Garlin's charisma is infectious, and a slightly toned-down Silverman certainly adds some fire to the proceedings. That being said, it's nice to see her play sweet even if she does do a 180 by the end of her storyline. There's a kicker at the film's end about a Marty remake that's actually really funny, but beyond that, expect a few chuckles and a whole lot of smiling as you enjoy Garlin's work.

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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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