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Sunday, December 15

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Hey, folks. A change of pace this week, since yours truly is about to dive headfirst into the 41st Chicago International Film Festival. I'm planning on seeing about 35 films this over the course of the next two weeks, and I'll attempt to alert you in advance to any entries worth checking out at either the AMC River East or the Landmark Century Center Cinema between now and October 20.

This year's CIFF is especially gratifying for me, because for the second year in a row I was asked to be on the jury for the Short Film Competition. For the past two Sundays, my fellow jurists and I viewed something like 45 shorts over the course of about 13 hours. Since the short film programs tend to get ignored by the masses, let me encourage you to check out at least a couple of the groupings this year. The strongest of the four shorts presentations is the "Animation Nation," by far the strongest offerings overall with the jury. Of almost equal level of greatness is the "Personal Revelations" program (Spike Lee's UNICEF PSA on AIDS Jesus Children of America, Cindy, the Doll is Mine with Asia Argento and The Raftman's Razor are worth the price of admission), with "Homegrown" following close behind. Despite one of my personal favorite shorts (France's Kitchen) being in the "Behind Closed Doors" program, this is probably the one to skip, particularly because of the abysmally bad Enfants Terribles.

CIFF Films I've Seen and Recommend:

The Hidden Blade
From Japan, director Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai) tells the emotionally focused tale of a low-ranking samurai during the twilight years of their importance in Japanese society, as Western weapons (especially rifles and canons) make their way into modern warfare. The story combines honor, love, social criticism and violence to tell the sad and ultimately hopeful tale of one man's journey to find a new place in a changing world. The Hidden Blade is my favorite CIFF film so far.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)
This vital documentary chronicles the life of filmmaker, writer, musician, playwright, activist and all-around badass Melvin Van Peebles. Thinking you know anything about this man from only having seen his landmark film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a mistake. There's a life story here worth telling and watching.

Shopgirl
Set to open later this month (full review to come), Shopgirl is the surprisingly effective love story, based on the novella by co-star and screenwriter Steve Martin. In her best film role to date, Claire Danes stars as the Sacks Fifth Avenue salesgirl who meets two very different, emotionally challenged men (Martin and Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman). Despite what the trailer for this film seems to show, Danes does not date both men at the same time. Schwartzman, playing a broke artist, appears and disappears in the movie's early scenes, but most of the story focuses on the relationship between Danes and the wealthy and much older Martin, who insists that the pair leave their romantic options open despite clearly being in love with her. Shopgirl is deceptively complex, possessing a subtext that is far more interesting than what the characters are going through on the surface. The film is filled with material that will make you both laugh out loud and fight to hold back your emotions. All three characters are worth getting to know, and Shopgirl packs a silent punch to the heart.

Unknown White Male
This bizarre, almost unbelievable, story of Doug Bruce, who was stricken with amnesia at the age of 35 is one of the best documentaries I've seen all year. Bruce's filmmaker friend Rupert Murray has compiled two stories: Doug as he was and Doug as he is. The discussion of memory and amnesia by medical experts is compelling, but it pales in comparison to simply watching Bruce pull his life back together after having lost all knowledge of who he was. After relearning basic skill sets (which seems about as painful as rebirth, which I guess is what it is), he actually gets to a point where he's not sure he even wants to remember his past.

CIFF Films I've Seen and Don't Recommend

Free Zone
The only reason this Israeli movie is getting any attention is because of star Natalie Portman, who plays Rebecca, an American visiting Jerusalem after breaking off her engagement. She hops into a car with driver Hanna (a great performance by Hanna Laszlo), who just happens to be driving into Jordan on business. Featuring long, tedious shots of the two women driving through deserts and occasionally conversing about nothing in particular, the film gets a little more interesting in Jordan, when a third character, Leila, enters the picture. There's nothing wrong with Portman's performance (an opening 10-minute, single-take shot of her crying is nothing less than hypnotic), but the film goes nowhere and effectively wastes an opportunity to tell a compelling story about the region in which it takes place.

Havoc
A close call, but I've seen the troubled, rich-kid thing done better. Legendary documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple tries her hand at feature work, with a script from Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan. The setting is East Los Angeles, where high school kids (played by the likes of Anne Hathaway, Bijou Phillips, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the rich side of town who have fully adapted black culture to a level that makes you think Ali G. Hathaway (in a major image overhaul from The Princess Diaries) and Phillips (whom you can always count on to play a believable slut) decide to step up the danger-play by spending time with a group of Latino drug dealers (led by "Six Feet Under's" Freddy Rodriguez). The biggest flaw with Havoc is its script. We've seen these drugged-out, thugged-out teens before and done better in films like Bully and Kids, and Gaghan script doesn't present the scary and sad facts with any real originality. Kopple has a great eye for the inner city and the acting here is fine. (Hathaway does a particularly good job conveying a young woman not sure exactly how hard and dangerous she wants to be.) Ultimately, Havoc didn't convince me that these were stories worth revisiting.

CIFF Films I Haven't Seen but Am Looking Forward to Seeing

The greatest thing about any reputable film festival is the chance to get a preview of films scheduled to come out later in the year and view movies that may never be released. Here's a mix of both. Check out the festival web site for details on these and other films, show times and locations:

April Snow; Bee Season; Brick; Caché; Cold Showers; Le Courage D'Aimer; Dark Hours; Feast; Gabrielle; Housewarming; Learning to Swallow; Manderlay; The Matador; Mrs. Henderson Presents; Night of the Living Dorks; North Country; October 17, 1961; P; Protocols of Zion; The Squid and the Whale; That Man: Peter Berlin; Transamerica; Two Auroras; and The Weather Man.

For those of you not in Chicago or simply not interested in CIFF (I wish you'd change your mind), this week's new releases include:

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Just go see it, you know you want to and it's great.

In Her Shoes
From director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) This surprisingly deep and powerful family drama of New York sisters (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette) who discover they have a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) living in Florida. The tone of the film should be familiar to any lover of chick flicks, but the acting and more complicated plot make up for the attempts to make you weep openly. MacLaine in particular, who has been stuck playing a variation of her Terms of Endearment character for far too long, is especially good here (and noticeably dialed-back).

Separate Lies
Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, and Rupert Everett star in the most British film I've ever seen. OK, maybe that's not true, but when a man finds out his young wife has been cheating on him with an equally younger man and all he says is, "I see," that's damn British. But being British doesn't keep Separate Lies from being an exceptionally well-done chamber piece set in the country homes of powerful players. The plot, involving the death of the elderly husband of the Manning family (Wilkinson and Watson) housekeeper, is an examination of what makes up one's moral center. The real star here is Wilkinson, probably the finest British actor working today. He's a global acting treasure, and he just as easily inhabits the persona of British aristocracy as he does Midwest priest (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) or woman trapped in a man's body (HBO's Normal) or Chicago-style gangster (Batman Begins) or disturbed man of medicine (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The man is incapable of giving a bad performance, and he makes Separate Lies a must-see.

Two for the Money
Speaking of moral centers (or lack there of), Two for the Money is a fast-paced story about former college football quarterback Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey) who has a gift for offering up near-flawless college football picks. A firm that offers informed picks to gamblers for a fee hires him. The outfit is run by a megalomaniac named Walter Abrams (Al Pacino), who has the ability to shape and manipulate people just because he can. Brandon's picks are so accurate that Walter is able to essentially build an empire around him and bring in big-money clients to the firm with multi-million-dollar wagers. The seduction of Brandon into the lifestyle is not that different than what Pacino did to Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate or what Michael Douglas did to Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. Pacino is as bright and explosive as the sun, but getting burned is always a risk around him.

Jeremy Piven is on hand as Walter's previous protégé, whose picks aren't as hot as they used to be. Rene Russo is a standout here as Walter's wife who worries about his health (he has some unnamed heart condition) and Brandon's soul. Two for the Money moves so fast that you almost don't have time to figure out whether the film is any good. Pacino does not possess subtlety in his performance, but why should he? He's a carnival barker luring unsuspecting gamblers into his web and talking them into bigger and bigger bets. McConaughey's work is certainly low key compared to Pacino (of course, so would be a tornado's work), but I'm not sure we see the internal struggle the way we should. Director D.J. Caruso (Taking Lives) clearly had his hands full with these two alpha males, but he keeps things moving along and kept me free from boredom. Consider this glitzy but shallow.

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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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