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Monday, October 21

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Airbags

Before I launch into a look at this week's releases, let me say that I have spent so much time in the last week attending Chicago International Film Festival screenings and watching screeners of Festival movies at home when I'm not at the theater that I've actually left myself no time to get around to reviewing the films. With still one week left to go, let me recommend a few I've caught that you can still check out.

Last week I talked about the mesmerizing The Hidden Blade from Japan and the UK amnesia documentary Unknown White Male. These are both must-sees in my book. Probably the best of those screening this weekend is Brick, from writer-director Rian Johnson, who takes a California high school setting and inject a powerful and satisfying film noir storyline. Johnson practically creates a new language for his rich characters, led by Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who finds the dead body of a girl he liked and sets out to determine the circumstances of her death. Characters manipulate and double-cross at ever turn, as Brenden uncovers an evil and violent underworld that exists at the school, led by a crooked (literally and figuratively) character named The Pin (Lukas Haas). Brick is whip-smart, sophisticated, brutal and smoldering. It's not scheduled for a mainstream release until March of next year, so this is your chance to get the jump one of the best films I've seen this year.

I'm also giving high marks to South Korea's elegant April Snow, an unusual story about a man and woman who arrive at the hospital at the same time after a nasty single-car accident has put their respective spouses into comas. Turns out the coma patients were having an affair, and the spouses must decide how to cope with the emotional devastation of this discovery. This film surprised me at every turn, and if I actually possessed a heart, I might have cried more than once during this lovely work.

Mild recommendations go to the German teen zombie comedy Night of the Living Dorks (nobody does comedy better than the Germans!), which has enough gore and laughs to sustain most horror fans. Another comedy (and occasional musical) worth checking out is Housewarming from France, starring my candidate for the most beautiful woman in the world, Carole Bouquet, in this slight but energetic comedy about a talented lawyer renovating her home. The cast of immigrant workers who destroy and rebuild her flat are the real stars here, and a celebrity cameo at the end of the film was a nice surprise.

I also liked the sexually charged Cold Showers, also from France, about an emotionally immature high school boy who gets involved in a three-way relationship with his girlfriend and a new student on his judo team. The film has some fat that could be trimmed, especially scenes involving his penny-pinching family, but the examination of a kid too young for such an intense relationship is honest and authentic. While we're on the subject of sex, I Am a Sex Addict is a bizarre but captivating autobiography from filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, who addresses the camera and outlines his sexual history, focusing on his infatuation with prostitutes that turns into an addiction. Through a series of reenactments and home movies, the squirrelly looking Zahedi provides clever insight and analysis on his carnal genetic makeup, although the film does crosses into self-indulgence more than a few times. Still, a fascinating experience.

Start with those picks, all of which are screening in the next week, and maybe find a few that look good to you. Or if you choose to blow off the Festival entirely, here's a look at this week's new releases...

Elizabethtown
There are far worse films in theaters right now than Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. If you've spent any amount of time reading reports about re-edits and critical panning of this film, you've wasted a whole lot of your time. Elizabethtown is clearly Crowe's weakest effort, but the man has, in many ways, set the bar for putting love stories on film and backing them with exceptional musical choices. He's done other types of films as well, but this is where he's made his mark on mainstream audiences. The music here is still pretty good, but Elizabethtown's problems are two-fold: plot and casting.

The plot, about colossally unsuccessful athletic shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) traveling to his father's hometown in Kentucky to collect dad's remains and bring them back to the west coast, is a meandering mess. He meets free-spirited flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst) on his way to Kentucky and the two seem inexplicably linked from that point forward. The pair drift in and out of each other's field of vision during the course of the film, as Drew attempts to exist with and relate to his father's side of the family. Crowe wisely does not openly mock Southerners, but that doesn't stop these scenes from being the funniest and best in the film. But Elizabethtown takes far too long to get to the predestined place in Drew and Claire's relationship, and the journey isn't all that interesting

A foolish subplot involving Drew's mother (Susan Sarandon), at first afraid to even make the journey to Kentucky because her husband's family has always resented her for stealing their boy away to the West Coast, is just god-awful. Her "loving" tribute to her husband — a stand-up routine, followed by a tap-dance number (I shit you not) — nearly sinks the ship entirely. And just when you think things can't get any more pointless, Drew embarks on a cross-country trip with his father's ashes, armed with a scrapbook from Claire filled with brochures and photos of places to visit along the way, and a never-ending supply of mix CDs to provide soundtrack to the journey.

The most problematic thing with Elizabethtown's cast is Orlando Bloom. I believe the guy will grow as an actor on day, but he seems emotionally out of his depth here. Dunst fares better, but that doesn't stop her character from acting like a beautiful bee buzzing in your ear that you want to swat away. I'm torn about Sarandon's performance. There is either too much or too little of her here (I'm still undecided), but I do know that what is on the screen isn't the right amount. I will give points to the first 10 or so minutes of the film featuring Alec Baldwin as the head of the shoe company Drew works for. He essentially provides a monologue about catastrophic failure in the corporate world that should be required reading for all students of business.

Elizabethtown represents a sad turn for writer-director Cameron Crowe, whose sources of inspiration show the first signs of being tapped out. I hope I'm wrong.

Domino
This chaotic, over-the-top, kinetic free-for-all gets by on sheer will power as Keira Knightly finally gets her chance to play sexy and psychotic all in one tight little package named Domino Harvey. The real-life model-turned-bounty hunter Harvey died a couple months ago, and this film essentially gives us a highly fictionalized account of the years leading up to the troubles with drugs that ultimately killed her.

Told by Harvey to an FBI agent (Lucy Liu) in an interrogation room, Domino's life is revealed in flashbacks tracing her life as the daughter of famed British actor Lawrence Harvey and a money-grubbing mother (Jacqueline Bisset). After a brief stint in a college sorority and as a supermodel, Harvey trains her ass off with weapons and self-defense, and decides it's time for a bit of fun as a bounty hunter. She hooks up with two manly men bounty hunters (Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez), and the three become the most successful and popular hunters in the nation as agents for bail bondsman Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo).

Domino & Co.'s big assignment is the retrieval of millions of dollars stolen from a mobbed-up casino giant (Dabney Coleman) and the capture of those who stole the money. The schizophrenic script from Donnie Darko writer-director Richard Kelly is just so crazy it might be true, but Domino makes it clear that you better not ask her what's real and what's not. It's none of your fucking business, according to the voiceover. Director Tony Scott, truly a master of stylized filmmaking and rapid-fire editing, has taken a cue from friend Quentin Tarantino by making bold decisions with his supporting cast. When you see the likes of Christopher Walken, Jerry Springer (as himself), singers Tom Waits and Macy Gray, comedian Mo'Nique, and "Beverly Hills 90210" actors Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (also as themselves), you almost have to do a double-take to make sure you're not hallucinating.

Despite all of this craziness, Domino actually holds together quite nicely. Knightly scared me as much as she turned me on, and her performance here is pure atomic energy. Her potential for violence seems to have no bounds (as an opening sequence featuring a severed arm proves), and her beauty will shake you. Domino will twist your mind, make your ears bleed and your eyes twitch. Loads of fun for those who enjoy overindulgence.

The Fog
While John Carpenter still struggles today to get funding for his new films, he seems to be keeping his head above water selling off the rights to his older films. Last year, Assault on Precinct 13 got a solid re-imagining treatment, and now we get the soiled flip side of that coin, with a redo of The Fog. The original 1980 version of The Fog is not a great movie, but having just seen it this past summer (at a drive-in theatre, no less), I was reminded how much I love it. The old-world ghosts coming back to the seaside town of Antonio Bay, Calif., in a thick fog bank to exact revenge on the descendents of a group of men who did them wrong many years earlier. It was the perfect nautical ghost story, and the rat bastards that made this remake should walk the fucking plague-ridden plank.

When I started reading about this remake, I didn't focus much on the casting of Tom Welling ("Smallville") and Maggie Grace ("Lost") in the lead roles as lovers (filling in for Jamie Lee Curtis and tom Atkins in the original) who unexpectedly end up as heroes in saving potential victims from The Fog monsters. I was more curious (and hopeful) about Selma Blair filling in for Andrienne Barbeau as town disc jockey Stevie Wayne. Alas, even the lovely Ms. Blair can't save The Fog from a dreadful script that seems to go out of its way to miss the elements of the original film that made it so strong and creepy. Gone are the extended scenes with the town priest reading the contents of a confessional journal from a town forefather on the fate of the poor souls aboard the Elizabeth Dane 100 years ago. Gone is the time spent with Stevie Wayne in her radio station. Gone is the spectacular ending with the priest clutching the oversized golden crucifix as he confronts the ghosts. But most importantly, gone are The Fog machines. People, CGI fog looks fake and is in no way scary.

Director Rupert Wainwright (the equally sucky Stigmata) seems to have gone out of his way to confuse what was once a simple story and clutter it with backstory after backstory that doesn't add anything to the proceedings. Welling and Grace are two very hot chicks, but their stellar acting skills didn't sweep me off my feet any more than the new story elements. I'm always curious about remakes and would never make a sweeping statement against their existence, but The Fog is a classic example of screwing up a good thing.

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