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Monday, October 16

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

In the interest of full disclosure, a film called Mad Money comes out today, starring Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes and the always-annoying Diane Keaton. The only reason I don't have a review of it for you is because I kept missing the screenings, and believe me when I say, they screened the hell out of this movie, so it's not like the studio is hiding it from critics or anything sneaky like that. My schedule just didn't allow me to see it early enough to review it for you.

Also, I've included links to two interviews I did in connection with my first review this week, Cloverfield. Both interviews—with the director of the film and the star—were actually conducted before I saw the movie. And while I almost never do interviews with talent unless I've seen their film, I had to make the exception for this film. The geek radar was on full alert for this movie, and I couldn't pass up an opportunity to get some sort of news on this film.

Lastly, although I did the interview too late for me to include the link in this week's column, my interview with Cassandra's Dream director Woody Allen should be up on http://www.aintitcool.com/ sometime today, assuming he doesn't bug out on me at the last minute. I think that's the entire preamble; here are this week's releases.


Cloverfield

You really have no idea what you're in for.

You know who I'm laughing at right now? All the people who are convinced this film is going to fail as a work of extraordinary terror. Forget the title-less trailer, widgets and other scenes you've dabbled in up to this point. When you finally see Cloverfield from beginning to end, you're going to wish you doubled-bagged your diapers. Just to give you a sense of the power of this film, it actually made me do something that I haven't done in a movie theater since I was a preteen. I yelled at the screen. I yelled "Run!" at the people on the fucking movie screen because if I didn't my head and/or heart would have exploded. It's a scene set in a subway tunnel. You'll know it when you get there.

I'm not going to bother explaining the set up of Cloverfield. You probably know it. All you need to know going in is that nothing is more terrifying than not understanding what or why something bad is happening to you. There's a moment right after the first rumbling of New York City, where the lead character Rob's best friend Hud (the camera man) is running down a stairwell along with a bunch of scared people and you hear a woman say, "Do you think it's another terrorist attack?" The line is almost lost in the noise and confusion, but it would have to be foremost in the minds of anyone in this specific situation. An explosion in the night sky, a beloved New York landmark beheaded, buildings tumble, and a cloud of white smoke and debris comes racing down the street as people run and duck into buildings. At that moment, I wondered if this movie would have been as effective without 9/11. Probably not, at least not the opening half hour or so.

Rob and his pals race all over the city, often in the wrong direction, since Rob (Michael Stahl-David) seems determined to find and rescue a woman who is not his girlfriend but he clearly loves. The opening 15-20 minutes are all party prep and actual party for Rob, who is on the eve of leaving for a fantastic job in Japan. But it's clear just from a few fleeting shots of him with Beth (Odette Yustman) that he's leaving his heart behind. Character development is kept brief but surprisingly still gets the general feel for these young, good-looking folks who have some degree of bravery between them.

But who cares about characters? You want monsters. Do you get to see the Cloverfield monster in this supposedly "found" footage that has a nice Department of Defense stamp on the front end of it? You bet. But you know what? I liked the film better when you were only getting glimpses of the enormous creature. What's cool about the monster reveal is that this is nuttiest beast every created for film. And as you see pieces of it in the beginning of the film, your brain is working overtime to assemble something that your databank simply has no reference point for. Was that a tail or a tentacle? Is that a mouth or an elbow? You just can't tell. Much like the creature in The Host, the Cloverfield monster is a bizarre and exquisite mash-up of parts, appendages, orifices and weird little things flaking off its body. Only this monster is even more impossible to conceive, even when you see it all in one shot. What you're looking at quite simply registers in your brain as an abomination.

So does the shaky, hand-held camera work make you a woozy? It might. And if you know that about yourself, you probably will hate this movie. Get over it. Director Matt Reeves has a fantastic sense of what a person with video camera would do in these unchartered circumstances; and sometimes a person will put down the camera or turn it upside down, or run as fast as he can not caring whether the shot is steady. The visual style here is frenzied, chaotic and utterly authentic, but somehow it still gives us all the information we need (although maybe not everything we want) to get to the next scene. Cloverfield is also a deeply emotional experience. People in Rob's life die, sometimes horribly, and there's almost no time to process these losses and still concentrate on survival. This is filmmaking at its most primal, but there's a level of sophistication at work here that I admired tremendously.

But forgetting all the deep analysis and self-reflection, Cloverfield, at its core, is a lightning-strike awesome monster movie. It comes and goes before you even hear the thunder, but once you hear it, you know you're doomed. You really have no idea what you're in for.

To read my interview with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35095.

To read my interview with Cloverfield star Michael Stahl-David, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35105.


Cassandra's Dream

If you didn't look closely, Woody Allen's latest twisted morality tale may bear a striking resemblance to another UK-set Allen drama of late that also featured a handful of good-looking, younger actors and a murder committed more out of desperation than anger or cruelty. Truth be told, it's almost impossible to watch Cassandra's Dream without recalling Allen's magnificent Match Point. Sure, the social strata that brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) occupy isn't quite as upper crust as the characters in Match Point, but that almost makes their predicament all the more tense and perilous. Their place in society isn't quite as impenetrable, and if the clues in the murder they commit begin to point to them, they aren't elite enough to be above suspicion. I can enjoy portions of even the least accomplished Allen comedy (especially if he stars in it), but it's his recent dramas that have reinvigorated my interest in and anticipation for each new film.

Ian and Terry are cut from different cloth, but they are still close, and the bond between them seems unbreakable. Even though they can't afford it, they buy a fixer-upper of a boat near the beginning of the film and take her out on the sea for one last moment of serenity before all hell breaks loose in their lives. Ian helps manage their family restaurant, which does alright financially but is never going to make him rich. He has higher ambitions about opening up a chain of hotels in America with a business partner, but for that he needs money. When he meets a stunning young actress (Hayley Awell), his cashflow needs increase all the more. Terry leads a simpler life as an auto mechanic, but a chronic gambling problem puts him in a dangerous amount of debt to the wrong kind of people.

Enter into the picture ridiculously rich Uncle Howard (the glorious Tom Wilkinson), who has always been more than generous with the family. Then again, the family has never been quite this needy. Both nephews spell out their needs (Ian wants enough to invest in the model plan, while Terry's money would go toward clearing his debts), and Howard seems sympathetic, but he wants something in return. A former friend and business associate is about to make life very difficult for Howard, and he needs the man taken out. And it's at this point in the story that Allen's skill as a writer and filmmaker can be most appreciated. The way he handles this particular sequence is kind of great. Standing under a tree with low-hanging branches, the camera circles the conversation on the other side of the branches. At times, you can only see one character or partial glimpses of the actors. The brothers are completely appalled by the proposition, but their loyalty to their uncle keeps them from getting angry. The normally calm and kind Howard begins to lose his composure when they refuse the exchange, and there are very few actors other than Wilkinson who could have handled this material with such perfection.

The boys' money problems don't disappear, and naturally the time comes where they reconsider the offer. Watching McGregor and Farrell plot and carry out the deed is intense, as you can actually see them plant the seeds of their own potential destruction as both moral human beings and loving brothers. We've seen McGregor play this type of cunning character, but that takes nothing away from his performance here. But it's Farrell who really surprised me with what might be the best performance of his career. Terry is a simple man with a simple set of principles, and his guilt is easily manipulated. Ian does it, Uncle Howard does it, but eventually his own overwhelming shame at the crime he's committed overwhelms him. He doesn't talk about God at all in the story, but he acts like a man afraid he's going to hell, and Farrell captures that with such believability that I literally forgot every other role I've seen him in.

Without giving too much away about the way the story plays out, I will say that some may see Cassandra's Dream as the counterpoint to Match Point (some might even say it acts as an apologist reaction to that film), but it's not that simple. Allen uses the murder as a way to throw a stick of dynamite into the tight-knit family unit that Ian and Terry have. Throughout literature and cinema, stories of the bond between brothers have often been told, but Allen doesn't seem that impressed or convinced of the structural soundness of that connection. He seems to say, look how easily money, women and a killing tear these two men apart. I'm guessing that anyone who simply dismisses Allen at this point in his career hasn't seen that many of his recent films, or they're just lazy thinkers. I'll be the first to admit that 2006's Scoop wasn't one of his better comedies, but go back two years before that to the hilarious Melinda and Melinda, and you'll remember what fun it is to laugh at New Yorkers (and if you think Josh Brolin's comeback began in 2007, you probably didn't see Melinda and Melinda). Anyone who puts out a new movie every nine to 12 months is bound to have a few clinkers, but that won't stop me from waiting with baited breath for Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is scheduled to come out later this year and stars Javier Bardem, Scarlet Johansson and Penelope Cruz in a love triangle story set in Spain. I haven't got a clue whether it's going to be any good, but I'm going to have the greatest time finding out.


Persepolis

My Number 22 movie of 2007 was this was this absolutely lovely work based on Marjane Satrapi's (who also serves as the film's co-director along with Vincent Paronnaud) simply drawn but utterly unique, two-part graphic novel of the same name. Told mostly in elegantly realized, clean, usually black-and-white line drawings, this animated feature tells the story of Marjane's childhood growing up in turbulent and changing times in Iran, as the Shah was on the way out and Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise. A natural rebel, Marjane discovers Western culture—particularly hard and punk rock music—at an early age, and it makes her parents fearful for her safety in the newly oppressive Iranian society. After the war with Iraq begins in earnest and Marjane's uncle is executed, her parents feel compelled to send her to Austria for schooling, where she is, at first, looked upon with suspicion.

What I found most fascinating is the complex and layered way Satrapi deals with the prejudice she experienced in Europe, which eventually dissipated as she made more friends (even a boyfriend!). The idea that this teenage girl had to go through this critical developmental period without parental guidance and in a foreign land so different from her home is almost unfathomable. And as much as she became accustomed to her new surroundings, her homesickness was devastating and inevitable, as was her eventual journey home to a vastly changed place. This French production uses some great local talent, including Chiara Mastroianni as the voice of Marjane and Catherine Deneuve as Marjane's mother (Deneuve is Mastroianni's real-life mother); the film is actually France's official selection for the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film prize.

There is something inherently delicate and moving about Persepolis, both as a work of visual art and as a heartbreaking piece of storytelling. It becomes clear early upon her return to Iran that Marjane's anti-establishment tendencies and her overwhelming need to point out inequalities and wrongdoings in Iranian society will not go unnoticed or unpunished. She gets married, and as much as she'd clearly like to play the good wife, her sense of justice and spirit of defiance will always prevail. She's exactly the kid of woman her nation needs, which means she's exactly the kind that cannot be allowed to stay in the country. Her decision to leave Iran and move to France is so painful and is portrayed so masterfully in this film, I almost let go with the waterworks. Not that this film is nothing but one heavy moment after another; it is certainly told with an immense amount of humor mixed with many poignant and sorrowful moments. Persepolis is one of the most visually engaging and flawlessly scripted works I saw last year. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and I implore you to give this utterly original work a shot. There's no way you'll be disappointed.


27 Dresses

The pitch for 27 Dresses probably sounded funnier and more entertaining than the finished film; I can almost guarantee it. There's no getting around the fact that Katherine Heigl is a great beauty, and the filmmakers behind both this film and Knocked Up were smart enough to realize that, while she's no great comic actor, her reactions to funny things somehow make them funnier. So the tough sell here is that someone as stunning as Heigl would have a difficult time meeting a good man, even in the viper pit of dating known as New York City. The mere fact that she's been a bridesmaid for 27 weddings would at least make a nice conversation starter at a party. So long-time choreographer and director Anne Fletcher has her work cut out for her in the "suspending disbelief" realm.

From an original script from The Devil Wears Prada adaptor Aline Brosh McKenna, the film tells the sad story of Jane (Heigl), who is nothing but a giver. She took care of her baby sister Tess (who has grown up to be the hot Malin Akerman) when their mom died, she takes care of all of her engaged friends, and she takes care of her boss (Edward Burns), who she also has a huge crush on. Her best friend and co-worker Casey (Judy Greer) tries to convince her that pining for the boss is a fruitless endeavor, especially when party girl Tess arrives to stay with Jane for a time, hooks up with Burns and almost immediately gets engaged to the guy. Jane eases her pain by reading the romantic accounts of other people's weddings in a newspaper column written by Kevin (James Marsden). The two meet at one of her many weddings and clash immediately, although she doesn't realize who he is. He, on the other hand, is sweet on her as any right-thinking man would be.

27 Dresses falls victim to plot devices that pretty much every other romantic comedy that comes out of Hollywood uses. People in this film are expected to act like uncommunicative idiots in order for the plot to work. If Jane said two words to Tess about her crush on the boss, the story would be over. And then there's this whole "mix up" about Jane and Kevin, who thinks an article about her being in 27 wedding parties would be far more interesting than writing another boring story about an overpriced wedding. He takes photos of her in all of her previous bridesmaid dresses, but she never for a moment thinks that he just might be taking the photos for, hmmm, an article maybe. Dummy! This is also the kind of film that mistakes a big romantic declaration carried out in front of a large group of people for comedy gold. Let me assure you, it is not.

The film also misses some prime opportunities. Judy Greer is a gifted comic actor, and seeing her play second fiddle like this kills me. She has 20 times the personality of Heigl or Akerman, but only a fraction of the screen time. And what about Marsden? He makes out better than just about anyone else in this movie. The guy has proven that he is such a gifted entertainer in films like Enchanted and Hairspray. Strangely enough, I'm not 100 percent convinced he can pull off a more serious dramatic role. His performances in the X-Men movies and Superman Returns don't really give us much to work with, and he has such an expressive face that I almost doubt he could be understated. I eagerly await the moment I'm proven wrong. My point is that Greer and Marsden run circles around Heigl and Burns, and watching 27 Dresses made me mad when one of the two wasn't on screen.

Even when the film's big lesson about taking care of yourself is delivered (with the subtlety of a blimp or sky writer), it's in such a mean and awkward context, you just want the movie's inevitable conclusion to happen and the proceedings to be done with. 27 Dresses feels like a romantic comedy by committee, a patchwork of ideas from better films that never misses an opportunity for a music montage or case of mistaken identity to propel its limp and lifeless tale of bridal dreams and woes. With a couple of noted exceptional performers, I kind of couldn't stand this movie.


Honeydripper

This latest work from writer-director John Sayles is probably his least story driven and his most authentic. Set in the highly divided rural towns of Alabama circa 1950, Honeydripper is about a struggling music lounge run by one-time piano player "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) and his faithful sidekick Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) who owes money to every liquor and food supplier they have, as well as the landlord. It doesn't help that a swankier joint has opened just up the road, but Purvis has booked a fairly famous player named Guitar Sam to play his blues establishment in the hopes of selling the place out. When Sam doesn't show on account of him being ill (and since nobody actually knows what Sam looks like) Purvis hires a recent arrival to the area, a young guitar player named Sonny (newcomer Gary Clark, Jr.) to pose as Sam. Sonny came to Alabama to learn about music but ended up picking cotton.

Although the focus of Honeydripper is the blues, Sayles doesn't miss the opportunity to throw the spotlight on the segregated South. While the local sheriff (Stacy Keach) is clearly is racist, that doesn't stop him from dropping by the Honeydripper Lounge to enjoy the local cuisine and occasionally cut deals with blacks to make their lives a little easier. Mary Steenburgen is on hand as a woman who has a black cleaning lady with whom she tries (somewhat fruitlessly) to bond. More importantly, the film is loaded with great acting and music talent such as Lisa Gay Hamilton, Sean Patrick Thomas, Keb' Mo', Albert Hall, Dr. Mable John and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Above all, the music is smokin' and Sayles treats us to a lot of it. Sonny surprises everybody by introducing the folks of Alabama to a slightly new kind of blues called rock n' roll.

Sayles has clearly does his usual thorough job of researching the region and his subject's surroundings, and it's that attention to detail that makes all of his films so enjoyable and easy to slip into. Unlike some of his more story-heavy works (Lone Star; Men with Guns; Limbo; City of Hope), Honeydripper is more about slice-of-life emersion, feeling the heat of the region, the back-breaking work in the cotton fields and the sweat of folks grinding it out on the dance floors of little blues clubs. Despite some of the film's heavier themes, Sayles has created a foot-stomping, rousing good time of a film that shows how the best of times can arise from the most oppressive circumstances. There are better films about racial inequality, but few of them have a soundtrack as soulful and performances so filled with life and spirit. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my interview with Honeydripper director John Sayles and partner Maggie Renzi, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35292.


American Zombie

Filmmaker Grace Lee has always had a more light-hearted and amusing approach to her documentary subjects, including one film (The Grace Lee Project) about the countless number of Asian women in America who have her name. But American Zombie is her first attempt at a feature film, in the form of a fake documentary about a world in which zombies (often referred to as "revenants") are a part of every day life. Before you go slinging around the term "mockumentary," be aware that Lee's film is not attempting to be funny. It takes a (usually) serious approach to zombie lifestyles and the way their species has become ingrained in our society. Lee and fellow director John Solomon play themselves in front of the camera as pair of filmmakers jointly making a documentary about zombies' place in our world. Lee approaches the movie as the story of societal outcasts, while Solomon is digging for dirt and trying to figure out if they really do eat human flesh or deliberately try to convert humans into the living dead.

In Lee's world of zombie-dom, zombies fall into three categories: your stereotypical crazed, blood-thirsty variety, which have effectively been eradicated from the earth; a more mindless, passive type that are often used (some would say exploited) as slave labor in sweat shops; and the functional zombie, who in nearly every way possible, look, talk and act just like us, except that they are very pale and often have some type of terrible wound or scarring from whatever incident killed them in the first place. They eat regular food (there are even vegan zombies), have sex (although they cannot reproduce), and enjoy all the modern distractions of our world. Although the reasons for the rise of zombies on the planet are not given, the means by which zombies are created are. Only a small percentage of deaths result in turning into a zombie, and then, only a truly violent death will do the trick. There is an enzyme in the saliva that can infect other people, but such cases are rare. The filmmakers profile a small handful of fully functional zombies, some of whom are in denial about their condition. Others have embraced their marginalized status and founded equal rights organizations for their kind. Others lead simple, quiet lives. None seem dangerous.

But once a year, somewhere out in the desert, thousands of zombies get together to celebrate their lot in life at a part music fair, part Burning Man, part hippie gathering that excludes all humans. Lee and her crew are somehow granted limited access to the event, and things turn weird and scary. American Zombie takes what could easily have been a one-note premise and expands it into an interesting look at a fictional community that is looked upon with disgust, mistrust and outright fear. Much like mutants in the world of the X-Men, zombies in Lee's movie are stand-ins for immigrants, followers of non-Christian religions, homosexuals or Canadians. Thankfully, her message isn't seeping out of every pore of this film. Instead, she couches her observations is this clever and tightly woven tale of a filmmaker a little too deep into the lives of her subjects. The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 18 at 8pm, and Monday, January 21 at 6pm.


Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037

Films about a personal journey are nothing new in the documentary format, but rarely do we get the chance to follow the birth of an inanimate object (some would argue with that classification) that has brought so much joy to so many. As you may have guessed from the title of this doc, Ben Niles' inspired work tracks the year-long construction (birth?) of a single Steinway & Sons piano in the company's facility in Queens, from its origins as a tree in Alaska to the 100 percent hand-crafted instrument of perfection and standard by which all other pianos are measured.

Obviously, the building of the piano is an excuse to meet the wonderful craftsmen and women who shape, style and tune these works of art. From all corners of the globe, these people came to work for Steinway and became experts in their craft by learning from the person in the job before them. There is no school for piano erection, and even the tuners refuse to use electronic devices to help them in their jobs. Everything is done by hand and ear.

Niles also talks to many noted piano players from the jazz and classical worlds to wax poetic on not just the Steinway concert grands that they so often play live, but the beauty of learning and playing the instrument. Hank Jones, Harry Connick Jr., Lang Lang, Pierre Laurent Aimard and Helene Grimaud, who ends up purchasing L1037, are all seen "auditioning" pianos in the company's showroom. It's fun watching each musician take stock in the way each instrument holds a note or offers the exact weighty tone. Note By Note almost can't help be a fascinating and a worthy tribute to people who work with their hands and a company that shuns mass production in favor of quality. At times it feels like what we're seeing is taking place on another planet or at least another part of the world, where efficiency doesn't trump all else. The film opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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