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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, May 18

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Corpse Bride
While I had a few reservations about the Tim Burton film from early this year (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), you will hear no complaints from me about the virtually flawless, always entertaining wonderment known as Corpse Bride. Again employing stop-motion animation (as he did with The Nightmare Before Christmasand James and the Giant Peach), Burton and co-director Mike Johnson (a lead animator on the aforementioned movies) has fashioned a magnificently detailed world that at times resembles a 1940s black-and-white horror film or a slightly more colorful demented musical. Featuring several characters in various stages of decomposition, Corpse Bride is the sort of film that should gross you out (or at least creep you out), but you'll have so much fun watching, you won't notice that you can see a part of the title character's jawbone through her cheek.

Burton's favorite actor, Johnny Depp, is on hand to voice Victor, the skittish son of a fish-monger (Paul Whitehouse) and his wife (Tracey Ullman), who have had the good fortune of marrying off their son to Victoria (Emily Watson), the shy daughter of the prestigious Everglots (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley). During a disastrous wedding rehearsal, Victor goes running into the woods and deposits the wedding ring meant for Victoria on a tree branch that turns out to actually be the bony finger of a dead woman in a wedding dress (Helena Bonham Carter). Victor is immediately swallowed up by the earth and taken to the underworld, where dead people hang out and seem to have a great time.

You may have noticed a trend here already. Corpse Bride has some fabulous vocal talent and each performer adds such an impressive dimension to the film that it's impossible not to be amused. In addition to those I've mentioned, the film offers us Richard E. Grant (as Victoria's less-than-reputable back-up suitor after Victor disappears), Christopher Lee (as the meanest pastor in the history of pastors), Jane Horrocks (as a helpful black widow spider), Deep Roy (as the fully attired skeletal General Bonesapart), and even music composer Danny Elfman, whose tunes here are perhaps the best example of why his songs from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seemed sub-par. And did I mention that one of the main characters is a maggot who lives in the Bride's head and pops out of her eye socket or ear to offer words of wisdom? The guy steals the show.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Corpse Bride is its look: the wildly twisted shadows, the obtuse camera angles, the washed out color and the fluid, wispy quality of the clothes, in particular the Bride's gown, which floats around her body as if on air. I have no idea how the filmmakers achieved this effect. I do know that they used digital still photography (rather than traditional film cameras) for the stop motion; that has something to do with the vast improvement in the look. This is the kind of film you need to see over and over again just to explore the corners of the screen you wouldn't normally look at.

Corpse Bride pretends to be scary, but little kids will probably get a huge kick out of the singing and dancing skeletons. The plot about Victor trying to return to the real world to wed the very sweet Victoria while still doing right by his equally good-natured dead Bride is quite clever. The imagination on display in this film knows no limits. How many ways can I say it, dammit? Corpse Bride is glorious, and you should go see it right away.

A History of Violence
Director David Cronenberg is the thinking man's horror filmmaker. Even in his more "conventional" early work in the 1970s and early 1980s (Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome), there has always been a subtext and overt social commentary to his films. He's tackled literary adaptations (The Dead Zone, Naked Lunch, Crash, and his vastly underappreciated previous film Spider), remakes (The Fly), and even a famous play (M. Butterfly). While I still consider his 1988 tale of twin gynecologists, Dead Ringers, my favorite Cronenberg work, his latest, A History of Violence, is his best. It also happens to be one of the best films of the year.

Some critics may point to Violence as atypical Cronenberg, focusing more on the compelling and shocking story and less on the standard blood and guts. But Cronenberg has always been a great storyteller, and while the twisted character and visuals are mostly absent from Violence, don't be fooled into thinking the film is lightweight. This is by far Cronenberg's most emotionally and psychologically dense work. And there's still plenty of blood to please the long-time fans. But the blood and violence are not used to entertain; they're used to shock, to transform us from casual movie viewers into active participants in this story.

Viggo Mortensen turns in the greatest performance of his career as mild-mannered diner owner Tom Stall, living with his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two kids (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes) in a small Indiana town. One night, as Tom and his employees are closing up the diner, two psychopaths come into the place with the clear intention of robbing and killing everyone inside. Completely out of character, Tom leaps into action and takes out the two men in seconds, becoming a local hero for a few days. Wanting nothing more than to return to life as normal and forget the entire incident, Tom is more than annoyed when scarred Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogaty (a truly nasty Ed Harris) walks into his place and claims that Tom's name is really Joey Cusack, an old acquaintance from Philly. Naturally Tom denies this, but the incident sets off a series of events and confrontations that turn Tom's life upside down and change it irreversibly.

People sometimes forget that before he gained status as a film immortal playing Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen was a character actor. He concentrated on inhabiting roles that he could sink his teeth into, even if that meant almost never being the leading man. Botched attempts such as his first post-Lord of the Rings film, Hidalgo, usually resulted from trying to force him into the Leading Man boots without playing to his strengths. A History of Violence proves that he can hold a film together with the best of them. His quiet intensity plays double duty: in the film's early scenes, it draws us to him; in later scenes, it makes us fear him.

As strange as it sounds, Violence isn't just a film about killing and death. The movie spends a surprising amount of time showing Tom being affectionate with his wife (a really passionate and graphic love scene occurs early in the film) and his kids (he comforts his young daughter after she wakes from a nightmare). But Tom is a layered character, who begins to show signs of weakness (or is it strength?) when verbally disciplining his son after a fight at high school. "We don't solve problems in the family by hitting," Tom declares, only to slap his son for talking back to him seconds later. The message is clear.

A History of Violence plants a few land mines in the plot (from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, adapted by Josh Olson) just to keep us on our toes, but I wouldn't call them "plot twists." You see certain aspects of the story coming, but Cronenberg allows them to unfold in unexpected ways. At its core, the film is about a man desperate to continue living the life he has struggled so hard to establish for himself, and Tom Stall's journey is an explosive one. In many ways, A History of Violence reminds me of some of the gangster films of actor-writer-director Takeshi Kitano, which feature long, almost serene sequences punctuated by bursts of extreme violence. But Cronenberg's use of bloodshed seems even more necessary and purposeful. A History of Violence is a film meant to be considered long after you leave the theatre, and there is no higher recommendation than that.

The problem I'm having in this post-9/11 world with films set largely on airplanes (such as Red Eye and the latest Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan) is that, while the scenarios attempt to be as realistic as possible, they don't take into account what the passengers would do. The passengers in Flightplan are certainly aware of Foster's racing down the aisles of a trans-Atlantic, two-story jumbo jet looking for her missing daughter, yet they seem awfully passive. When she charges the cockpit and pounds on the door, no one but the flight attendants does much of anything. I can't imagine that a couple dozen nervous passengers wouldn't tackle the 90-lb. Foster and tie her to her seat. And while Flightplan does acknowledge that terrorists and highjackers are a very real threat to air travel, there's the tiniest part of my brain that kept nagging, "That's not how people would act."

Having said that, Flightplan is a gas. As in Panic Room, Foster plays a protective mother. Kyle Pratt is an engineer living in Berlin with her husband and daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston), where she designs and builds airline engines. When her husband dies from a fall off the roof of their building (whether it was accidental or suicide, we don't know for sure), Kyle and Julia must fly back with the casket to America in a jet, on whose engines Kyle happened to work. About three hours into the flight, Kyle wakes up from an unexpected nap to find Julia missing and no one on board who even remembers seeing her board the plane. The question becomes, does the crew stop everything to search every square inch of the plane for a child who may not even exist? Has the trauma of losing her husband caused Kyle to invent a child or perhaps leave Berlin without her? Kyle's dual mission becomes to not only find Julia, but also convince someone she's real.

Clearly the reference point for Flightplan is Bunny Lake Is Missing, the 1965 masterpiece by Otto Preminger that asked many of the same questions under entirely different circumstances. Since Foster hasn't starred in a film since Panic Room (if you exclude her cameo in A Very Long Engagement), you tend to assume there's something more going on here, which there is. The cast of characters — including Sean Bean as the plane's captain, Peter Sarsgaard as an air marshal who takes pity on Kyle, Erika Christensen as a sympathetic flight attendant, and Kate Beahan as one who never quite buys Kyle's story — are all just leaves blown around by the tornado-like performance by Foster. She is a one-woman wrecking crew, as she uses her detailed knowledge of the plane's every square inch to tear it apart. Is she a drugged-up, mentally disturbed woman? You bet. Does that mean she's making this up? Not necessarily.

The truth and secrets of Flightplan are ones you could never guess, because some of them are just ridiculously far-fetched. But that doesn't stop them from being entertaining. Relative newcomer German director Robert Schwentke is a master manipulator. The opening sequence in which we go back and forth between Foster seeing her dead husband before his casket is sealed for travel and a flashback showing their last moments together leave us wondering almost from the first frame of the film whether these scenes will hold meaning later on.

The film does a great job of establishing the geography of both the passenger decks and the inner workings of the plane, and, in a film with such tight constraints, that is crucial. There's a specific, wordless sequence in Flightplan where everything is more or less made clear. No matter what the truth, there's going to be some level of disappointment when the truth is revealed. But that's because up until that point, this movie is a constant and perfect guessing game. Are the four Arab men sitting near each other and casting nervous glances the source of all the trouble? There are those on board who certainly think so. But as the evidence against Kyle's sanity piles up, Foster's performance gets all the more frazzled and electric. She's a dynamo, and she transforms what might have been an above-average thriller into a paranoid marvel.

Reel Paradise
After the remarkable success of Hoop Dreams and his follow-up films, Prefontaine and Stevie, documentary filmmaker Steve James again demonstrates that he is one of the crowned princes in his field with Reel Paradise, which follows the final month in a freakishly revealing year-long experiment on the island of Fiji. The film and its subjects are a massive collection of contradictions, and this may be that rare great work in which you can't stand any of the people.

Reel Paradise chronicles the Pierson family, headed by indie film legend John Pierson. The New York-based Pierson gave advice, support and financing to the early works of such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. His book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is something of a staple to indie filmmakers, and his cable show "Split Screen" was one of the first programs produced for the then-fledgling Independent Film Channel. On one of those early shows, John took his family to Fiji, looking for the world's most remote movie theatre, and the trip inspired Pierson to try something a bit more ambitious. He and his family moved to Fiji for a year and ran the run-down but still glorious 180 Meridian Cinema, showing free movies to the locals.

Director James and his team capture the tumultuous final month, in which Pierson, his wife Janet, rebellious teenage daughter Georgia and dutiful younger son Wyatt live a lifetime of grief, emotion and joy. The toughest concept to grasp in watching Pierson's day-to-day life running the theater, dealing with local police and church officials, and interacting with the community, is whether the citizens of Fiji even want him there. Certainly people show up to the movies (most of the time), but the constant break-ins at his home, the casual attitude of his projectionists, and the insane ravings of his landlord seem to suggest that Pierson is a pesky outsider — all the more entertaining for us.

Perhaps the greatest treat for me was watching the indie guru Pierson forced to play the most brainless mainstream comedies and action films, because those are the only ones the locals will turn out for. All of those years pioneering the offbeat have no purpose on the island. Worse still, Pierson insists on introducing each film, and it's painfully clear that even the locals who understand what he's talking about could care less about his informed pre-film comments. And while John attempts not to talk down to the locals, when he's upset about something, the ugly American comes out and lets his true feelings show. Janet Pierson fares much better, as she actually makes an effort to get to know and hang out with locals. Daughter Georgia is perhaps the most infuriating to watch, because her every action seems designed to garner the maximum amount of rage from her fairly liberal-minded parents. And while you never get the sense that the other Pierson family members are acting anything but honestly in front of the cameras, Georgia seems fueled to act out by them.

What I'd assumed would be a film about bringing film to a culture that seems to have thrived without it, turned out to be a character study of the Pierson clan, and the odds of you enjoying their company (with the exception of the very sweet Wyatt) are not good. Reel Paradise puts a smudged microscope over this shaky family dynamic and shows us that not all outsiders do become insiders even if it would benefit their time there. Pierson is something of an enigma, but the parts of him we can figure out are sometimes unforgivable. The film itself is remarkable, and director James again manages to get sometimes uncomfortably close to his subjects. We're not only witnessing their personal habits but also hearing what feel like private thoughts and buried emotions. That is the mark of a great documentarian, and Reel Paradise is another remarkable work from James. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Dear Wendy
I will go to my grave defending the works of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. With troubling works like Dogville and The Idiots, this is sometimes difficult. But the risks that Von Trier has taken over the years with films like Epidemic, "The Kingdom" television series, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark demonstrate that he is a writer-director who gets right in your face like a bully and won't leave you alone until you hear what he has to say. Never has he been more challenging than with his "USA - Land of Opportunity" trilogy, which is hard to believe since only the first part — Dogville — has even been released in this country. (Part two, Manderlay, should be out later this year.) Dear Wendy boasts a screenplay by Von Trier (and is directed by fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg) that fits in quiet nicely with the themes of his current trilogy: the ugly truth about American values.

Dear Wendy is a metaphor for America's obsession with guns. In it, a group of young men and one woman form a club called the Dandies, whose sole purpose seems to be perfecting the use of guns with the intention of carrying them wherever they go but never using them…until of course they find a good reason to do so. The leader of the group is Dick (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell), who finds a small handgun in a pawnshop run by Susan (Alison Pill). Each member of the five-person group of town misfits names their gun. Dick calls his Wendy and actually forms a relationship with his weapon that seems more meaningful than any of the human connections he makes.

Much of Dear Wendy focuses on the setting of rules and the elaborate rituals the group invents to propagate their club. They show each other slides of autopsy photos of those killed by bullets in what they say is an effort to reinforce the "no shooting" policy, but their youthful excitement at the photos and the hours of target practice suggest something else.

When a childhood friend of Dick's, an actual criminal, joins the group, he gives the Dandies a mission which requires them to break their weaponless-in-public behavior, and the film culminates in an unsettling hail of bullets between the Dandies and the local police, led by Sheriff Krugsby (Bill Pullman).

Even the greatest defender of Von Trier's work must acknowledge that Dear Wendy is not his best work, but it is a fascinating window into his worldview. Vinterberg's direction is both stark and lovely (thanks to Von Trier's current favorite cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle). Perhaps the oddest and most appropriate choice in the film is the music. For some reason, the Dandies only listen to songs by The Zombies. I haven't listened to The Zombies in a while, but this overdose works surprisingly well and serves to further drive home Von Trier's message that Americans resemble the walking dead.

Dear Wendy can be a struggle. It sometimes borders on tedious and often crosses the line into being obvious and trite. The performances are hit and miss, but Bell strikes exactly the right note as a young man leading a group of outcasts who have found friendship and connection through the power of weaponry. (I'm guessing the Trench Coat Mafia might be the reference point here.) The film's flaws don't stop it from being memorable and disturbing. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

I'll admit, the idea of a slasher film in which all the victims are strapping gay men probably isn't aimed at my demographic. But I'm a long-time fan of gory slasher films (which Hellbent is), and I've seen a gay film or two in my time that I've thoroughly enjoyed, so me liking this film wasn't completely out of the question. In fact, the idea of a gay slasher movie has some possibilities as both a metaphor for the gay struggle and a nice change from the college kid or teen camper victims of other such films. Unfortunately, Hellbent stinks, and not just from the copious amounts of ass on display here.

Like most such horror films, Hellbent features a somewhat memorable stalker (in this case a greased-up buff dude in a Devil mask) hunting down and violently murdering a small group of not-so-memorable characters. The deaths are fairly gruesome, with most of them involving beheadings with a scythe, so I have to give the film credit for that, but the four main roommate characters are so one-dimensional I was actually eager to see each of them die. And never before in a gay or straight film have I heard so much sex talk with barely a hint of actual sex going on. Even the Devil killer is largely uninspired (beyond his costume), and we're never quite sure if he's supposed to be a straight guy killing gay men or perhaps a self-hating gay man lashing out in disgust at his own thoughts. Even in the most basic slasher film, you need to know what makes the bad guy tick and what sets him off.

Hellbent's biggest crime is not spending enough time on the horror elements. Because the characters are so bland, the film's only potential for salvation is some creative blood and guts. No such luck. Instead, we get extended sequences in gay bars watching shirtless men dance, take drugs and flirt (remember, hardly a hint of actual physical contact). Even a scene involving handcuffs leads to nothing. Soap opera regular Dylan Fergus as the leading man Eddie is perhaps the least interesting character, since all he does is react to his more eccentric roommates and act like he's never hit on men before.

As I said, this movie clearly wasn't made for me, and I will absolutely check with my gay friends to see if I'm just missing something. But I'm usually pretty good about recognizing a decent film when I see one, and Hellbent ain't it.

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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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