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Wednesday, October 18

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Cronicas
It's really easy to be a fan of John Leguizamo. His energy and comic timing are as reliable as those of any actor working today, but he doesn't always select roles that allow him to really show off his goods as a serious actor. Strangely enough, the first few times I ever saw him on screen, he was tackling some fairly heavy material, in films like Casualties of War, Poison and Carlito's Way (in two of those films, he worked alongside the king of serious actors, Sean Penn). Leguizamo is not above picking a part for cash (Super Mario Bros., anyone?), but more often than not the guy takes worthy chances (To Wong Foo, Romeo + Juliet, Spawn, Moulin Rouge, King of the Jungle). His latest U.S. releases (Assault on Precinct 13 and Land of the Dead) have allowed him to flex his action muscles a bit, but nothing can quite prepare you for the deeply disturbing Latin production Cronicas, an all-too-rare opportunity to see Leguizamo in a lead role, doing by far the best work of his career.

Leguizamo plays Miami-based tabloid television reporter Manolo Bonilla, who has a knack for turning in gripping reports from all over Latin America to the home office in the U.S. But the story that fascinates him to the point of obsession is that of a serial killer in Ecuador, whom Manolo has dubbed "The Monster of Babahoyo." While Manolo and his cameraman Ivan (José Maria Yazpik) and his producer Marisa (Leonor Watling, best known for playing the comatose women in Almodovar's Talk To Her) are in Babahoyo, Ecuador following clues, a traveling salesman (Damián Alcázar) accidentally runs over a small child in the street and the crowd of witnesses turns into a mob intent on brutally killing him. Manolo saves the man's life, although he is arrested for the killing. As thanks for saving his life, the salesman tells Manolo he has information about "The Monster" and will share it with him if he interviews him about his unjustified arrest.

What follows is a slow chipping away at Manolo's journalistic integrity. He investigates a few of the clues the salesman gives him and finds them to be reliable, but he decides to keep all of his evidence from the local authorities investigating, even though the police make it clear that doing so will land him in jail. Manolo's secret agenda is to produce a piece so compelling that it will land him a coveted anchor slot. But as Manolo digs deeper, he soon realizes that it may, in fact, be the salesman who is manipulating the situation. Cronicas asks some serious questions about the influence and power of the media, and how sometimes the reporter makes himself the story at the expense of the truth.

John Leguizamo is on fire here. The man crackles with power as he sure-handedly moves from situation to situation as if he's indestructible (which, as he finds out, he isn't). Leguizamo has never been more clearly at the top of his game, while writer-director Sebastian Cordero (this is his second film) has constructed a collection of solid performances and dizzying consequences, particularly from Leguizamo and Alcázar. This is a film about one bad choice after another, where both the good and bad pay the price. Cronicas opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Cave
A famous filmmaker (I can't remember which one) once advised a peer, "Don't borrow, steal," in reference to taking elements of your favorite films and placing them in your own. If this is indeed sound counsel, then first-time feature director Bruce Hunt is a master thief and The Cave is his booty. Hunt (a second- and third-unit director on all three Matrix films) has stolen visual elements and plot points from Alien (the Ground Zero of all recent monster movies), Jaws, Cliffhanger, Anaconda and 50 other offspring of those films to create the purest specimen of cookie-cutter horror filmmaking in recent memory. Good lord, people. Can't anyone create a monster that doesn't look like a rejected alien suit from H.R. Giger's basement workshop?

Cole Hauser (the poor man's Josh Lucas, who in turn is the poor man's Thomas Jane) leads a team of cave divers into a unexplored (or so they think) cave in the Carpathian Mountains in search of what some believe is hidden treasure. The team ignores the extensive and detailed mosaics and cave paintings at the entrance that appear to spell out the fact that there are demon-like creatures prowling the dark tunnels below. They dismiss them as quaint folklore drawings. Idiots! Once the decision to go below is made, the audience can pretty much close its collective eyes and wait for the swelling music, screeching monsters, and screaming victims. Yawn.

The visual effects look cheap, the editing and cinematography are too quick and fuzzy to really get a sense of what's going on during the attacks (I guarantee the inevitable "Unrated Edition" DVD will shed no light in this department), and not a single character is developed past the point of simply knowing what their specialty as a climber, diver or scientist is. True, when you cast the likes of Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey or Piper Perabo, acting isn't a top priority of your film, but at least give us someone to like enough that we hope they don't die. When one of the leads is infected by a parasite that is apparently the source of The Cave-dwelling monsters, no one in the cast seemed to even care and neither did I. And the filmmakers never make it clear whether the monsters are swiping victims to eat or to simply infect them and make more monsters or both.

In the end, I didn't give a shit, and I'm guessing that right now you're asking yourself, "Does The Cave really deserve this level of dissection?" Of course not. The film blows, you know that going in, but sometimes it's fun to just rant. Let's just pretend The Cave never happened.

9 Songs
One of my favorite directors to keep track of is the UK's Michael Winterbottom, who was "Filmmaker in Focus" when I made my jaunt to Bermuda earlier this year for that country's International Film Festival (BIFF). The only disappointment of my entire time in Bermuda is that I couldn't quite work out an interview with Winterbottom, but I did get to spend about 30 minutes chatting with the prolific filmmaker informally at a lunch gathering. Works like Wonderland, Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, Go Now, I Want You and Code 46 are in my pantheon of cool movies, and since the guy works like a maniac and manages to put out about a film a year; he's already got his next film (The Adaptation-like A Cock and Bull Story) in the can and premiering at festival's this fall. He's a real spirited, fun guy to talk to about music and his own films. Maybe one day in the future I'll be able to really sit down with the guy and pick his brain about his uncanny ability to never repeat himself. It's almost difficult to believe that the same guy made such films as The Claim, In This World and 24 Hour Party People, all in the last five years.

Winterbottom's latest release, 9 Songs (without a doubt the most talked about film at BIFF), is a must-see, despite (or because of) its extremely graphic sex scenes. Half love story/porn film, half concert film, 9 Songs reminded me a little too much of my high school and college years. My recollections of that time have little to do with scholarly pursuits. My most vivid memories of that era revolve around the concerts that I went to and the woman I romanced (or attempted to). With no backstory and limited character development, Winterbottom gives us a passionate love affair that is destined to burn out as quickly as it catches fire.

Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley) are an attractive young couple who go to concerts by such bands as Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Elbow, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Von Bondies, Primal Scream and Super Furry Animals, all of which are featured live (there are nine altogether, thus the movie's title). In addition to this killer soundtrack, Winterbottom shows us the couple in bed... a lot. As the 65-minute film goes on, the level of explicitness increases. At first the couple's most intimate anatomical areas are hidden in shadow. But as their relationship begins to fall apart, their sex life (and sex scenes) becomes more intense. We're talking very visible oral sex, full penetration, money shots, the whole deal.

Granted, this level of graphic sexual content has been coming to art houses near us with more frequency lately, but 9 Songs isn't just a sex film. The drama here comes when the couple realizes that outside of the bedroom and the concert hall, they don't have much in common. There's no denying that there's a degree of love here, but more than that, there's a fierce, destructive passion. Winterbottom has dealt with the dangerous side of love before in I Want You, but 9 Songs is more raw (thanks in part to his hand-held DV filmmaking). This is a sexy, scary, realistic film that may not be for everybody, but it's impossible not to have a reaction to it. My reaction was based on my familiarity with the subject matter; yours may be closer to revulsion. A third option might be just close your eyes during the naughty bits and just enjoy the concert footage. Whatever your preference, you will be unable to deny 9 Songs. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

� Tout de Suite
Set in 1970s Paris and based on the memoirs of a then-19-year-old Elisabeth Fanger, � Tout de Suite recounts the reckless and passionate life of Lili (Isild Le Besco, one of France's finest young actresses, first seen by American audiences fending off the Marquis de Sade in 2000's Sade). Bored with her upper-class life and university classes, and knowing full well her parents never keep track of her whereabouts, Lili frequently spends her evenings at clubs with friends, brings strange men home, and sleeps through classes in the morning. One night at a club, she meets Bada (Ouassini Embarek), a handsome Moroccan man, and the two spend an awful lot of time in bed.

Not long after their affair begins, Lili deduces that Bada was involved in a bank robbery in which one man was killed. Shortly after this revelation, Bada calls her, and he and his partner Alain (Nicolas Duvauchelle) arrive at her doorstep and hide out in her room. Soon joined by Alain's girlfriend (Laurence Cordier), the four embark on a journey across Europe, hoping to stay ahead of the police and keep tension down enough so they don't end up killing each other. During one particularly perilous escape, Lili is left behind in Morocco, and the film takes her on an unexpected journey of her own. � Tout de Suite has the feel of a classic road movie, only Lili has no idea where her road is taking her.

Director Benoit Jacquot (who has featured Le Besco in his last three films, including Sade) has a tremendous flare for capturing the random quality and unstable emotions of youth. Lili isn't a particularly likeable young woman, but we don't ever want harm to come to her. (We all know how much more tragic it is when bad things happen to pretty people.) And when her well-being is threatened (always by men, of course), her fear is genuine. The plot takes a series of unexpected turns, and we are as anxious about where they will take Lili as she is. The lack of any morally sound characters may place a wedge between the film and its audience, but I found it honest and refreshing. Most people live in the grey areas of life, where good and bad aren't a regular part of their daily events. Lili is absolutely a tragic character who is as flawed as they come, but that doesn't make her unsympathetic or the film unlikable. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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