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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. Yesterday was the first night of the two-week period I look forward to the most in this city: the Chicago International Film Festival (http://www.chicagofilmfestival.org), the longest-running film festival in North America. That doesn't make it the most relevant or the most prominent festival (it's not), but it's still worthy of any film lover's attention. I can't remember the last time CIFF had so many great high-profile films in its lineup, and hopefully by the end of its run, I'll be able to report that it also had a great assortment of lesser-known gems. I have screened a handful of the fest's big-ticket offerings, so allow me to preview them with the promise of slightly longer reviews to come when they are officially released.

The opening night offering was Stranger Than Fiction from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland). Forgetting that the concept of the film (an IRS agent hears a female narrator detail his every move, and he attempts to find out who she is) seems like a rejected rough draft of a Charlie Kaufman script (written by first-timer Zach Helm), the film just did not hold my interest. And it's shocking that, in a film starring Will Ferrell (in his stone-faced serious mode) and Emma Thompson, the most exciting and interesting part of the work is a lively performance by Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor Ferrell turns to for assistance when he discovers the writer intends to kill him off soon. On paper the film sounds like a winner, but Forster manages to drain all the energy from the production. Ferrell walks around like a zombie; Emma Thompson as the writer plays her role as a caricature of a wacky novelist; and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the object of Ferrell's affection and audits might have been better if she didn't disappear for huge chunks of the film. I'm guessing the reason Stranger Than Fiction is opening the festival is because much of the film was shot here (although the setting is never expressly identified as Chicago), but I have to chalk this one up as a disappointment.

You can stop speculating about at least one category of next year's Oscars. Put your money down now: Helen Mirren will walk away with the Best Actress statue for The Queen. I can't remember a more fearsome and fearless performance by an actress in years as Mirren plays the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, during the period between the death and funeral of Princess Diana. In the capable hands of director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity; Dangerous Liaisons, and who is expected to be in town for the screening), this film covers one of the most important periods in recent British history, when the royal family's lack of public response or reaction to Diana's death changed the way the public viewed the monarchy. Equally Oscar-worthy is Michael Sheen as newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, whose respect for the monarchy is clear, but which doesn't stop him from making several stern "recommendations" to Queen Elizabeth to address her still-loyal subjects, despite the fact that Diana was no longer technically royalty. The Queen surprised me at every turn in terms of who among the royals is sympathetic and whose behavior is still unforgivable (let's just say Prince Phillip, played by James Cromwell, doesn't come off very well). At times critical, other times a glowing tribute to the monarchy, The Queen is an astonishing and timely drama about an event that still stings many around the world.

Babel is the latest portrait of despair from Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (also expected to be present at the screening), who uses three loosely connected storylines (as he did in Amores Perros and 21 Grams) set in Japan, Morocco and the United States/Mexico to convey tales of isolation, pain and ultimately a fleeting sense of hope. The film will be easily identified by most because the storyline features Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Americans traveling in Morocco. While the pair is riding a bus through the lifeless mountains, a bullet comes ripping through the window and into her neck. In the middle of nowhere, Pitt is forced to battle the American political bureaucracy to get help for his dying wife. It's his finest on-screen performance at a time in his career when we could use a fresh reminder of his talents. The most disturbing story is set in Japan, about a teenaged deaf girl whose mother committed suicide and whose father (the great Koji Yakusho) is rarely around to comfort her. She acts out sexually in a desperate attempt to lose her virginity, which leads to some awkward and sad encounters with strange men. At its core, Babel is about the relationship and gulf that can develop between parent and child, but it is also about the figurative and literal inability we have to communicate with others (in all the stories, two people not being able to speak the same language is a key element). This film is just about perfect, but it's a heavy load to carry for its nearly two-and-a-half hours, and you could leave the theatre feeling a little less sure about the world. Still, experiencing Babel is a lasting and powerful thing.

From writer-director Dito Montiel (who also wrote the original book and will be in Chicago for the screening), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is an honest and gripping look at one of the toughest and most dangerous places to be in the mid-1980s: Astoria, Queens. Filled with the colorful language and ferocious energy that can only come from the overflowing testosterone of teenage boys, this is a constantly moving study of young, directionless Dito (Shia LaBeouf) and his destructive and self-destructive friends. But this is also a look at Dito 15 years later (Robert Downey, Jr.) coming back to his old neighborhood when his father (Chaz Palminteri) becomes ill and refuses to go to the hospital. The trip opens old wounds and sets loose memories both good and bad. He remembers his old sweetheart Laurie (Melonie Diaz as a teen, Rosario Dawson as an adult), and the guys he used to run with, including the explosive Antonio (Channing Tatum, who turns in the film's most frightening and unforgettable performance). What strikes you immediately about Saints is its language and temperament. Characters are always yelling at each other even when they aren't mad; four-letter words are clearly the most popular, even around parents; and anyone who isn't like you is a threat. The film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, both as a love-hate remembrance of the days of angry youth and as a portrait of a man returning to a world that made him the man he is today, for better or worse. There are many questions left unanswered about characters' fates and how Dito puts to bed his past, but that's like life: not everything wraps up nice and clean.

I also really liked the writing-directing debut from actress Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy; The Break-Up), whose beyond-low-key Come Early Morning is an honest and authentic look at a small-town woman (Ashley Judd, reminding us what a tremendous actress she can be) whose troubled upbringing results in her essentially becoming the town's drunken slut. But the film's real focus is her struggle to shed her hard-learned ways when she meets a man (Jeffrey Donovan) who actually wants to kiss her when she's sober and have her stick around when the sun comes up. After a string of mostly ludicrous crime-thrillers, Judd returns to the type of role I knew she was capable of since she first caught my eye in Ruby in Paradise. But more impressive is Adams' sure-handed direction. The film doesn't have much of a plot, but this isn't really a problem. As a look at small-town life, it's a winner. Laura Prepon gives a sweet and moving performance as Judd's roommate who still believes in true love. Without resorting to a series of explosive dramatic encounters, Come Early Morning instead relies on small, deeply felt scenes that add up to something quietly meaningful.

Directing his first film since the wonderful Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell dazzles us with Shortbus, an examination of today's sexually active New Yorkers. Although done with a light-hearted touch, the film does feature some heavy moments thanks to some strong performances and a touching soundtrack. This swirling feature moves between several characters with their own brand of sexual preference and hang-ups. I'm not sure if Mitchell's message (assuming there is one) is 100 percent clear, but there is a free spirit that reminds us that even in the world of AIDS, people should not forget to be daring and experimental. There are elements of performance art, cabaret, S&M and politics, all leading to the den of sins known as Shortbus, where anything goes. The entire cast is made up of first-time actors, most of whom engage in full-on sex throughout the film. Not simulated sex, but actual X-rated sex. Shortbus has a reckless spirit that is both refreshing and scary, and the final 20 minutes or so turn into an orgiastic musical number that is equal parts somber and celebratory. This is the kind of film that seems light and fluffy while you're watching it, but upon reflection, it has a deeper and more impressive heart than one might expect.

I have a couple dozen titles on my "to see" list at this year's festival, so stay tuned for more recommendations. Here are a few titles opening this week, and as usual the studios hid a couple new releases from the prying eyes of critics, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and Employee of the Month.


The Departed

You may have noticed, but I don't tend to work blue in my writing. There are family members who read my reviews, and they don't much care for the four-letter words. That doesn't mean I don't throw in the occasional curse word every so often, but if you look at my body of work, I usually only get dirty when I hate a movie so much, it makes me mad enough to do so. This is not the case with the latest Martin Scorsese masterwork The Departed. Oh no. Holy motherfucking shit, this movie rocks 18 different sizes and shapes of balls. Balls were rocked so hard, in fact, I think certain areas of the taint may have been injured. I walked out of this movie stumbling from exhaustion and with an awesome sense of uncertainty. How was I going to do this film justice in a review? Maybe I just did.

To say that Scorsese has returned to form is an insult to the man's between-gangster-films accomplishments. Returning to the world of organized crime is nothing new; he's reinvented the crime drama several times over with films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and even Gangs of NewYork. But The Departed is more of a culmination (although by no means a finale) of the career of the greatest American director still alive and working today. People have been cautiously optimistic at Scorsese's return to the world of gangsters, and I'm here to tell you that you can officially lose any doubt. In a year when so many highly anticipated films have been either complete letdowns or not as good as they should be, The Departed is a film that is damn near flawless and exceeds expectations. If you read my preview of the Chicago International Film Festival, you'll see that a couple more damn near perfect films are on the horizon (Oscar baiting season has officially begun, after all), but this film is an earthquake in your soul.

It helps that Scorsese has assembled the greatest cast of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a low-level Massachusetts State cop with no family and little to lose, who becomes an undercover agent in Boston's Irish mob, led by one of the most evil creatures ever to occupy a movie screen, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Only his superiors, played by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg (one of the few Boston-area natives in the main cast), know Costigan's identity. The other major player in the film's massive cat-and-mouse game is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, also a Boston son), who works as part of the Special Investigation Unit in the department, whose job is to take down Costello with help from the inside man. The only problem is Sullivan was practically raised by Costello and works as a high-ranking mole inside the department. Neither Costigan nor Sullivan know who the other person is, but they become aware of the other's existence eventually. The name of the game for everyone in this film is self-preservation, no matter what the cost.

It's an elaborate and sometimes overwhelming plot, but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) devote a lot of time and effort keeping everything clear and sensible. They also keep things bloody, tense and moving at lightning speed. Some of you may know The Departed's screenplay is based on the Hong Kong epic Infernal Affairs, which spawned two sequels and a sizeable following on this side of the Pacific. And the material is so strong and so clearly inspired by American crime dramas that it was only natural for someone to remake it. But for Scorsese to be so successful with such a winding and crazed plot…well, I don't know why I'm so surprised he pulled it off.

The crimes Costello and his crew are pulling off (involving everything from drug deal to selling hi-tech equipment to the Chinese government) hardly matter to the success of the film. DiCaprio and Damon are tougher and more intense than I've ever seen them before, and while Costigan acts on instinct and emotion, Sullivan is more calculating and clever. He sees every angle and every possible way he could get caught before he makes a move. Damon allows us to see the wheels turning in Sullivan's eyes, and it makes us fear him more because he's so cunning.

Rounding out the stellar cast are Kevin Corrigan, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga (Running Scared) as a psychiatrist who gets involved, unknowingly, with both men (perhaps the film's hardest-to-believe plotline). Some of these great actors are in fairly small roles, but nobody gets left behind, and everyone chews up scenery like it's made of candy.

As the two leads get deeper into their roles and their secrets are on the brink of getting blown, they get more and more desperate, careless and paranoid. Everything is so good about this film that it would be a shame to single out a particular performance come awards season (although Nicholson would be the obvious front-runner). This has to be the film that earns Scorsese his Oscar. This is arguably his finest work since Goodfellas, and I can't imagine any other movie in the roster of 2006 releases bouncing me off the walls like The Departed. Time to revise those "best of" lists again; I'm sure it won't be the last time in the next three months.


The Last King of Scotland

Ah, to be young and reckless with a medical degree in the early 1970s. What do you do first? Well, if you're idealistic and have an overwhelming need to help people, you fly to Uganda shortly after a coup led by a military dictator named Idi Amin has overthrown the government. Through the eyes of a composite Scottish character named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), The Last King of Scotland (a nickname Amin gave himself due to his inexplicable love of that country — but not Britain) shows us how Amin charmed his nation and the world before turning into one of the most paranoid, terrifying and blood-thirsty leaders the world has ever seen.

Dr. Garrigan goes to Uganda to work in a mission hospital alongside another doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (Gillian Anderson, looking as radiant as I've ever seen her), but after Garrigan and the doctor's wife nearly have an affair, he thinks it best that he find work elsewhere in the country. A chance meeting with Amin (played to Oscar-worthy perfection by Forest Whitaker) leads the pair to become friendly, and eventually Amin offers him a job as his family's personal physician, who would also be in charge of helping revamp the Ugandan hospital system. But it isn't long before Amin begins asking for Garrigan's advice on non-medical issues, including matters of state, foreign affairs and traitors within Amin's regime.

The job and the leader charm and overwhelm Garrigan, and he begins to think he's making a difference and getting paid well to do so. Parties, women and frequent audiences with Amin and his many wives are regular temptations that swell Garrigan's head and sense of self-importance. But Amin also sees Garrigan for what he is: a white man in an African nation and a potential defector. As Amin's behavior become more erratic and rumors begin to spread of mass killings and even Amin eating the flesh of his enemies, the tension in the nation and between the two men grows exponentially. Garrigan carrying on an affair with one of Amin's wives (Kerry Washington) doesn't improve matters.

When it stays focused on the complicated relationship between Amin and Garrigan, The Last King of Scotland is a terrific film. Unfortunately, the film strays far too often into subplots about Garrigan's sex life and the possibility of him becoming a spy (and possibly an assassin) for the British government (represented by a slimy creature played by Simon McBurney). I find it hard to believe that long-time documentary filmmaker and first-time feature director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void; One Day in September) doesn't realize his audience would want more of Whitaker as Amin. You can't take your eyes off him, and you watch his every move and facial expression to see the signs of the madman lurking just under the surface. I have nothing against James McAvoy, but his character isn't that interesting, especially next to Amin.

Even though The Last King of Scotland is ultimately an average film, Whitaker's performance elevates it to something unexpected and gloriously disturbing. Make no mistake, there are as many creepy and downright gory moments in this movie as there are bizarre and sometimes hilarious. Whitaker holds this film together and makes it worth checking out.


Al Franken: God Spoke

Although many see Al Franken as the man at the front lines of anti-right-wing policies and those who instigate them, really he is a bully for liberals and a guy who will not let people get away with spouting shit that just isn't true. He take episodes of Rush Limbaugh's radio show or Bill O'Reilly's television show or a book by Ann Coulter or a policy by the Bush administration, and he picks apart each and every statistic and statement they claim are fact. Of course for every Al Franken in the world, there are 50 on the other side ready to pounce on him, calling him every name under the sun and with far more anger. The one thing they don't seem to do is discredit his research.

From co-directors Chris Hegedus (Startup.com; The War Room) and Nick Doob, God Spoke is a small sliver of the fascinating life of Al Franken, in what might be the most important time in his life as a public figure and political activist. Beginning with the book tour to support Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them, we follow Franken as he debates (sometimes face to face, sometimes via various media outlets) with the likes of O'Reilly and Coulter; fights a Fox News lawsuit over the book's subtitle (A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), which sparked phenomenal sales; and prepares for the launch of the syndicated radio network Air America just prior to the 2004 presidential election.

There's no getting around that it's fun to watch Franken do his thing, whether he's stumping for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone or going toe to toe with conservative mouth pieces like Sean Hannity or Michael Medved. We get snippets of some of his work on "Saturday Night Live" and other comedy outlets, but most of the time the film focuses on his more recent activities, such as providing spirited coverage of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. My favorite moment is when he meets Henry Kissinger at a high-profile Republican reception during the convention and does his spot-on impersonation of Kissinger right to his face. Franken's behavior throughout the party is a scream, especially when he hides in the coat closet to call into Air America to give them the play-by-play of the event.

You either find Franken hilarious and insightful, or he's the yappy little dog at your heals. God Spoke is far from flawless. If you like the guy, you should have no trouble embracing this imperfect but still deeply funny profile of this tenacious funny man, who never resists the temptation to tell an asshole he/she is a lying asshole. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Darshan: The Embrace

If the name Mata Amritanandamayi Devi doesn't mean anything to you, then this film may not mean much either. But over the years I'd read stories about the woman called Amma by her followers, who has hugged tens of million of people in her life as an Indian guru and spiritual leader. Taking a break from more action-oriented films (Dobermann; Blueberry), director Jan Kounen follows Amma throughout India spreading love, joy and an irresistible smile to all who see her. Darshan is not a biographical look at Amma's life, but rather an elegantly filmed love letter to a woman who has literally touched the lives of so many suffering people.

Her impact goes beyond simply giving hugs, as we see her disciples setting up to feed the thousands that come to see her at any given appearance. But what is most moving about the film is the handful of slow-motion scenes showing Amma embracing person after person, her hands never stopping as she cradles each head to her chest, accepts their gifts of fruit and dispenses candy to the children. It's a fluid process, perfected after decades of similar events. Still, the film shines brightest when we are simply listening to Amma talk. Her ideas about spirituality and inner harmony are simple and to the point, and, frankly, her radiant face makes it fun to listen to her speak. Darshan could have been shorter or less glorifying, but it doesn't feel over long or repetitive. Combining long tracking shots of some of the most beautiful places in India and uplifting spiritual words from Amma, Darshan is a cleansing gust of wind through the soul. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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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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