As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Friday, July 19

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Hey, everyone. Just wanted to alert you to three reviews you won't be seeing here this week because, much like New Line did with Snakes on a Plane, studios are hiding certain films from critics. But this week, the selections that are kept from my prying eyes are not the usually teen comedy or horror film junk I'm used to not seeing early. No, this week two films I was genuinely looking forward to are being withheld: the Nicolas Cage-led remake The Wicker Man and director Mike (Office Space; "Beavis and Butt-head"; "King of the Hill") Judge's new comedy Idiocracy, which for a brief time actually looked like it may never be released and now is coming out in only about seven markets. I'm actually baffled by the decision to hold these films, especially Wicker Man, which actually features a couple extremely talented stars and a fine director in Neil LaBute. Can they really be so awful?

Oh, the third film is called Crank, with Jason Statham and Amy Smart, which I know virtually nothing about, but I like Statham, and so I'll go see it. Since you more than likely won't be seeing reviews on these films from me (at least not on this site), you'll have to rely on delayed reviews online or in your local paper. With these three withholdings, more than 20 films have been kept from critics' eyes so far this year. Despite New Line's claims that Snakes on a Mutherfuckin' Plane was being held so the fans could see it first (and the fans responded with far-below-expected box office numbers), I think it's still safe to pre-suppose that if you don't see a review of a film early or on the day of release (or unless I give you a very good reason why I haven't reviewed it), the movie sucks donkey dick. Meanwhile, there are quite a few far worthier offerings to tell you about this week...

Conversations with Other Women

Is revisiting a love affair with a past emotional connection ever a good idea? This and many other sticky relationship questions are posed in first-time feature director Hans Canosa's Conversations with Other Women, from a screenplay by Gabrielle Zevin. Despite two exceptional performances by Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter, most people who write about this film are going to focus on its gutsy use of split-screen throughout the entire length of the film, often times with Eckhart on one side of the screen and Carter in the other, even when they are sitting talking to each other.

You might think that the technique would act to separate the characters and emotionally disconnect us from them, but Canosa's technique is more sophisticated than that. It's just as often that the conversing couple shares a single side of the screen, while we see a flashback or some other related image in the second frame. If Carter is discussing her husband (Philip Littell), we might get a flash at what's he's doing at that moment. If Eckhart brings up his new girlfriend (Cerina Vincent), we'll get a look at her. What's more interesting about the gimmick, however, is that we always see the faces of the actors, even when they are not the ones talking. It's almost like theatre, in that the actors are always performing, whereas in a normal movie, editing or an over-the-shoulder shot would take us away from their face.

So what is this ridiculously handsome couple talking about? Themselves, naturally. They meet at a wedding reception (it turns out the wedding is of Eckhart's character's sister). Carter was a last-minute fill-in bridesmaid and clearly there was some hesitation about having her be a part of this wedding due to a connection to one of the other guests. I'm not ruining anything by telling you that she and Eckhart used to be involved many years earlier. Flashbacks to them as younger people (played by younger actors) establish this early on and as the film goes on.

Much of the time, they are simply catching up and engaging in light flirtation. But the subtext is clear: they are feeling each other out, seeing if perhaps a one-time fling is worth the risk. She is once divorced and now remarried with kids; he too is divorced once and has since gone through a series of younger girlfriends. They were probably both content with their relationships, but the prospect of a rekindling (even a very temporary one) is incredibly strong.

Conversations is a dance, a sexy, funny, unnerving and refreshing dance that sees the couple (neither character actually has a name) swooping in and out of each other's personal space and private thoughts. But whether or not the two end up in bed together isn't the ultimate endgame of this film. For as much sexual tension as there is during the seduction process, there is an equal amount of angst and bitterness about what it was that pulled them apart in the first place. Not since Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset films have I been this gripped by what is essentially two people talking, but in this film the sexual subtext seems more palpable.

Conversations with Other Women is a small film that a lot of people won't see, but I'd argue that the work will strike many a familiar chord among the millions of us who have ever had thought about what life would be like if an old flame came back into our lives. Are such scenarios safe or even possible? It doesn't matter. Even having the thoughts says something about you, and when all is revealed and played out in Conversations, I think you'll be impressed with both the acting and the skill of director Canosa. This is an impressive debut from him, as well as some of the best and most naturalistic work I've seen from either of the leads in a long time. This is a quietly devastating bit of brilliance that gives us a lot to think about regarding the power and strength of our hearts and our libidos.

To read my interview with Conversations star Aaron Eckhart, go here.

Crossover

The latest "urban feel-good movie based on some sort of sporting event" (oh yes, I think we'd have to call it a genre at this point) is called Crossover. The sport featured here is street basketball, and the film about it is two tons of bullshit, bad acting and even worse writing. Going in, I had a feeling the film would be pretty bad, but nothing quite prepared me for this level of god-awful. I actually considered not even bothering with a review, but I realized it would give me an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite rising stars working in film right now, Anthony Mackie.

If you don't know Mackie's name, you'd probably recognize his face. And I think even the splendid Mackie knew how stanky Crossover was when he was making it. (When Wayne Brady is playing your film's villain and it's not supposed to be a joke, something ain't right). I first took notice of Mackie in two 2004 films: Spike Lee's She Hate Me (he was the lead) and Brother to Brother, a film in which Mackie played a gay man during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a brave role for any black actor to play, and let's just say he played it rather... convincingly. Lee used Mackie again in the "Sucker Free City" pilot, and Clint Eastwood cast him in a memorable supporting role in Million Dollar Baby. Early this year he co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson in Freedomland.

Besides Crossover, I've seen Mackie in two other films in the last two weeks, in the unforgettable Half Nelson and as the main villain in the long-delayed Orlando Bloom film Haven. You can expect to see him at least one more time this year in the new McG-directed sports drama We Are Marshall. The guy is going to be a major player someday soon; he's most of the way there already. And the only reason you should even be thinking about seeing Crossover is as an exercise in watching a great actor fight the good fight against one of the shittiest scripts in history. There are lines in this film that are so bad that the audience I saw it with simply has no choice but to bust out laughing, and I was actually surprised that the actors on screen weren't doing the same.

The story is irrelevant and constantly in flux. I realize that every actor has made his or her share of embarrassing works, and Crossover will probably go down in Anthony Mackie's filmography as his first fiercely miserable effort — maybe not his last, but possibly his worst. And hopefully the next time I talk about Mackie, it will be under much more pleasant circumstances. If fact, I guarantee it.

Lassie

Sometimes a film can be exceptional for what it doesn't do as well as for what it does. In the case of this current British production of Lassie — a film clearly aimed at families — the film absolutely refuses to pander to children and makes every effort to be an interesting work for adults. It doesn't dumb itself or its characters down; it doesn't spare the rod in terms of the dangers that Lassie faces in her long journey from the northern tip of Scotland to a poverty-stricken Yorkshire mining community. My constant thought while watching Lassie was "When is this film going to turn to shite? When do the animals start talking? When does this movie turn into Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties?" None of these things ever happens, and as a result, Lassie is not just the best family film of the year, it's one of the greatest family offerings I've ever seen.

I'm sure I've seen Lassie films in my lifetime (I'm fairly certain I saw the first film, Lassie Come Home, years ago), but the experience clearly never stuck with me. I know I've never seen the television show, so I walking into Lassie blissfully unprepared with the dog's legend or any preconceived notions about the film, which is set just as the UK is about to enter World War II. Writer-director Charles Sturridge wisely designs this film is its own self-contained Lassie tale, set in the depressed community of Greenhall Bridge, where the mine has just closed leaving most of the men in the town out of work and desperate for money. Lassie is owned and deeply loved by Joe (Jonathan Mason in his first film role — the cutest child actor on the planet). As much as his parents (Samantha Morton and John Lynch) swear they will never sell Lassie for much-needed money, an offer from a rich duke (the waxen but still fantastic Peter O'Toole) is too good to pass up.

The Duke buys Lassie for his sweet granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers), who is only a year or two older than Joe and sees right away that Lassie is miserable away from Joe and his family. The dog escapes their care a couple of times and runs back to Joe, which leads to the first of many tear-filled moments when Joe must return Lassie to the Duke and order her to stay on the estate because he and his parents don't love or want her anymore. It makes me misty eyed just remembering of the scene. The kid is crying; Lassie looks like she's crying; and if any of you cold-hearted bastards can resist this moment (or the movie for that matter), your soul is dead.

Cilla and Lassie form a bond because both miss their significant others. In the case of Cilla, she's misses her mother (Jemma Redgrave), who arrives on the scene just long enough to ship Cilla, Lassie and the Duke off to Scotland to escape the oncoming war. But the clouds of war do not escape Joe and his family as Joe's father is shipped off for training, leaving Joe with yet another missing loved one. Once in Scotland, Lassie is abused by the Duke's kennel keeper (Steve Pemberton of "The League of Gentlemen" and Match Point), but the Duke quickly disposes of his services after Lassie runs away once again. The Duke and Cilla search the breathtaking Scottish countryside looking for Lassie to no avail. The rest of the film follows the fiercely loyal and elegant-looking Lassie, who hopes to reunite with Joe back home.

Lassie experiences many wonderful adventures along the way, as well as a few perils, and she meets some colorful (but far from silly) characters along the way. I particularly loved her adventures at Loch Ness, where she is spotted by two Nessie hunters (Edward Fox and John Standing) in a rowboat. They are so occupied trying to guess whether this mysterious dog will attempt to swim across the lake that they miss a certain slightly larger creature surfacing behind them. OK, maybe the film has one silly moment. Another bizarre encounter is with a traveling puppeteer named Rowlie (Peter Dinklage), whom Lassie joins for a brief time in his travels. This pairing marks the only time in the film in which Lassie actually saves anybody from harm, while taking a few lumps of her own.

In Glasgow, Lassie is captured by two dogcatchers, whose treatment of the clearly harmless animal does not go unnoticed by a passerby (the lovely Kelly MacDonald). MacDonald, in turn, does not go unnoticed by a clearly smitten Jamie Lee.

Lassie's long and sometimes brutal journey takes its toll on the dog, and although director Sturridge would never be so cruel to deny us the film's inevitable ending, he did surprise me by making the film cross into some fairly dark areas before giving us the ending Lassie not only wants but has dearly earned. But the reunion of Lassie and Joe is not necessarily the ending of the film, and Sturridge finds a way to make everyone who has grown to care about Lassie happy.

I'm not exactly sure what it is about the beautiful Collie that has captured the hearts of so many generations of readers, filmgoers and television watchers, but I'm beginning to understand after watching this remarkable work. Lassie is a film for the ages and one for all ages. I know you probably think you wouldn't get caught dead paying to see a Lassie film, but I promise you, this one is worth it. Consider it the "Masterpiece Theatre" version of Lassie.

The Quiet

I'm never going to completely hate a film that features a sexually active Elisha Cuthbert, frequently wearing (and then removing) a cheerleader outfit. But if I were ever able to dislike such a movie, The Quiet is that movie. I'm sure director Jamie Babbit (a television vet who also directed the somewhat amusing But I'm a Cheerleader) had high ambitions when he made this tale of suburban dirty little secrets, angst, and cruelty. Maybe American Beauty was a model for him, but The Quiet is a joke of a film that piles on every lewd and nasty issue into one family model, and not a single second of it feels genuine or relevant.

The film begins when the recently orphaned Dot (the stunning Camilla Belle, she of the bee-stung lips) comes to live with her adoptive godparents (Martin Donovan and Edie Falco). Their real daughter, Nina (Cuthbert), is an extremely popular high school girl who wants no part of Dot or the embarrassment of having a deaf sister. But slowly, all three family members begin to confide their most awful secrets to Dot, thinking she either can't hear them or would never repeat them (she also seems to be mute). Among these family issues are Falco's substance abuse and the more troubling incestuous affair between Nina and her father, a relationship that seems very much mutual (he digs the cheerleader outfit as much as I do, by the way).

Even some of Nina's friends start to trust Dot with their innermost thoughts, a development that drives Nina crazy. Chief among the high school crowd is Connor, played by X-Men's Iceman Shawn Ashmore, who starts to fall for Dot and reveals maybe a little too much about his sexual proclivities. So, let me ask you wise and intelligent people out there a question: what do you think Dot's big secret is? What oh-so-cleverly-held bit of information do we find out about Dot that threatens to blow the roof off the lives of every person in her adopted family's circle? Do I even have to ask? The Quiet is a stupid movie, a fact made all the more frustrating by the presence of some exceptional cast members, like Falco and Donovan. The film manufactures drama where there isn't any, and wants us to pretend like everybody's secrets are so elusive and deep when, in fact, they are laughably obvious and shallow. The entire film is about as subtle as rockslide.

I most resent The Quiet because it made me so frustrated and angry at its trivial nature that my deep and meaningful love for Elisha Cuthbert was tempered by her simply appearing in this film. How could you betray me, Elisha? How? About the only place the film doesn't let you down is with her wardrobe choices. Everything else about The Quiet is worse than pointless.

Surviving Eden

Here's another stupid-ass movie, but this one is a comedy and doesn't feature incest. Sorry. I was prepared to begin this review with an proclamation that only Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show) should be allowed to use the mockumentary style of filmmaking from now on. However, I just recently saw a British comedy called Confetti (which I'll review in a couple weeks) that makes no bones about copping Guest's technique, but does so lovingly and with sidesplitting results. So, my revised request is that only Guest and some British filmmakers should make mockumentaries from this day forward, because when less talented, less funny and less capable people make them, you get Surviving Eden, a pot shot (and not exactly a timely one at that) at reality television.

More specifically, director Greg Pritikin (who made the curious but highly watchable offering Dummy in 2002) takes a look at reality show stars and how they let fame go to their head without really having earned the right to be famous or respected. Pritikin (who shares a writing credit with Joanne Storkan) sees these reality stars as the human equivalent of novelty records, who are wildly popular for a couple of months and then people simply move on. On this point, he is correct (with the exception of Kelly Clarkson, I suppose).

Michael Panes plays Dennis Flotchky, a pathetic and overweight (because fat equal loser, right?) man who auditions and wins a spot on a "Survivor"-like show called "Surviving Eden." Other contestants include Cheri Oteri's Maria and Savannah Haske as the hot nun, Sister Agnes, who seems to have a great deal of affection for Dennis even before he ends up winning the contest and $1 million. But Maria has different plans for Dennis, and claims that off-camera during the shoot he knocked her up. The two become inseparable, and, not surprisingly, Dennis goes through a major personality change once he becomes rich and famous. His most obvious transformation is that he loses all of his loser weight. Beyond that, he also abandons his stoner best friend Sterno (Peter Dinklage, having a busy week between this and Lassie).

As if to drive home the Christopher Guest thievery, Jane Lynch co-stars as one of "Surviving Eden's" producers (along with Sam Robards). Lynch is a solid talent, as can be clearly seen in the Guest films as well as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Talladega Nights, so what the hell is she doing in this film? She's so much better at the comedy improv thing than anybody else in the movie that she should have her name above the title and her photo front and center on the poster. Surviving Eden squanders the talent it somehow convinced to be in this crummy piece of shit (such as Lynch, Dinklage, and Haske), while unnecessarily throwing the spotlight on Panes and Oteri, who simply aren't that funny in this film.

What Pritikin and company fail to understand is that Guest's films are funny because there is more than a little truth to the characters. The wacky bunch in Surviving Eden seem like caricatures, like retarded exaggerations. These people are clearly acting like fools, thinking it will make us laugh. They are grossly mistaken. I honestly don't remember even slightly chuckling a single time during this film. Coma patients are funnier than Surviving Eden.

Viva Pedro

In anticipation of his latest film, Volver, coming out later this fall, eight of Pedro Almodovar's greatest works (collectively known as "Viva Pedro") is landing at the Music Box Theatre beginning today with the one-week run of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the film that not only made him famous in the United States, but also marked a clear starting point in his dedication to colorful characters and sets, controlled chaos, and honoring strong women.

Although I'm a bit disappointed those who put this retrospective together (it runs through September) seem to emphasize Almodovar's more recent work (All About My Mother, Talk To Her, Live Flesh, The Flower of My Secret, and 2004's Bad Education), the collection does bring to light some of his great pre-Nervous Breakdown works, including Law of Desire, and my personal favorite, Matador. I'm surprised Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! didn't make the cut. And his great older comedies Bad Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? are certainly worthy of fresh exposure for modern audiences. Still, Almodovar's work is required viewing as far as I'm concerned, and these eight extremely entertaining and emotionally rich films are without a doubt the right choices, especially to those unfamiliar with his vast body of work. Check www.musicboxtheatre.com for showtimes and other details about Viva Pedro.

GB store
 

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 .

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15