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Tuesday, July 16

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Airbags

I know as a person who goes to a lot of films in a given year, I should probably voice my thoughts, logic and choices on the upcoming Academy Awards. But I've got a lot riding on those damn Oscars, in a couple of different pools, so I'm not giving any tips. Go see the films and decide on your own, you selfish, greedy bastards. Stay away from my sacred picks, or I'll shoot you on a hunting trip in the woods! Ahem. If you're all caught up on your pre-Oscar viewing, here are a few more selections opening this weekend.

Dave Chapelle's Block Party
For the millions of you out there who can't get enough Dave Chappelle, especially lately when he's been a bit scarce on television, Block Party may not be quite what you're looking for. Make no mistake, Block Party is about as good a concert film as has ever existed and a magnificent example of what Chappelle is good at doing. But this is not the Dave Chappelle who performs biting characters who throw a spotlight on racial issues, while making us laugh our hair out. Chappelle has many opportunities to be funny in Block Party, but this film is about a lot more than comedy. And my warning to anyone thinking this is some sort of stand-up film featuring Chappelle, you're in for a rude awakening. This is a movie about top-of-the-line hip-hop music, with artists hand picked by Chappelle. And if you don't like this music, stay the hell away from this film. I happen to own albums by every act on the Block Party bill (which includes Kanye West, Common, Mos Def, John Legend, Jill Scott, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu and the reunited Fugees). If these names don't mean anything or don't appeal to you, you may not appreciate the film. Let me put it to you another way: if you didn't watch every episode of "Chappelle's Show" to the end (which normally featured a different hip-hop artist every week), you may feel slightly out of place in this film.

Back in mid-2004, Chappelle hatched an idea to throw a secret block party in Brooklyn. He wouldn't announce where the event was or who the performers were until the day of the event. He leaked the location of a place where buses would be awaiting to take hopeful attendees to the secrete location. In the days leading up to the event, Chappelle took director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to the small town in Ohio where Dave lives and randomly handed out "golden tickets" for the event (including a bus ride to and from New York and one night in a hotel) to ordinary people he came into contact that day. It just so happened that among those Dave ran into that day was the Central State University Marching Band, which eventually got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play alongside Kanye West in a stirring version of "Jesus Walks." This film shows something about Chappelle that is unfortunately lost in all the recent talk about him abandoning his TV show and a huge payday (the events in this film take place before he ran off to Africa): he's a tremendously generous guy who loves nothing more than hanging with ordinary folks, black or white. He's also wildly gifted at narrating his own life as he wanders from place to place in Ohio, or backstage at the block party or mingling with musicians during rehearsals for the show. He simply turns to the camera, comments on the proceedings, and never fails to crack you up.

While Gondry never really gets a chance to wow us with his gifts as a visual stunner, that is not required of Block Party. Instead, his talents as a documentarian are revealed. He doesn't just point the camera at whomever is talking the loudest; he allows his camera to drift to watch the faces of those not even aware they're being observed, with sometimes surprising results. My favorite sequences take place during the rehearsals, especially when Mos Def (a talented actor and frequent performer on Chappelle's Comedy Central show) takes to the drums and plays straight man to a string of Dave's priceless "Your Mama" jokes while tapping out a steady jazz beat.

Don't get me wrong about the comedy aspects of Block Party. Chappelle's hosting duties afforded him several chances during the concert to offer up between-band banter, riffing with the crowd, and engaging in some barely rehearsed gags with Mos Def and other musicians. Rather than dissuade you from going to Block Party if you don't like hip hop, let me instead offer this film up as a prime example of the best the genre has to offer. And certainly don't miss this rare chance to see another side of Dave Chappelle. His man-of-the-people routine never feels forced or disingenuous, and clearly the man is in his element when he's making people smile, either with jokes or with acts of kindness. With some of the best music out there and loads of laughs, Block Party is entertainment in its purest form.


16 Blocks
And here's Mos Def again, showing us the other side of his career, as a rising star in the acting world. Unlike many other rappers turned actors, Mos Def has always sought out a surprising arrays of roles, most of which are not in action films. I first took note of him as Billy Bob Thornton's neighbor in Monster's Ball, and he continued to impress me with roles in The Italian Job, The Woodsman, HBO's Something the Lord Made and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And while Bruce Willis's name is first in the credits of 16 Blocks, it's Mos Def's gutsy performance you're likely to remember best after seeing it, and see it you should.

Willis plays New York detective Jack Mosley, a guy with a drinking problem, a bum leg and an attitude that barely gets him through the day. He's the guy the real cops leave behind at a crime scene until the crime scene investigators get there because he's useless on the job, as he simply counts the days until retirement. As one day's shift ends, he is tapped by his commanding officer to transport a seemingly ordinary criminal named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from the police station holding cell to a nearby courthouse 16 blocks away, where a grand jury is awaiting his testimony. On the drive to the courthouse, Jack stops at a liquor store for a refill when an attempt is made on Eddie's life. Jack barely saves Eddie's life, and suddenly the pair find themselves at the center of a citywide manhunt organized by Jack's former partner and ridiculously crooked cop Frank Nugent (David Morse). It turns out the testimony Eddie is about to give could put a lot of bad cops in jail. By twisting the facts a little, Nugent is able to convince what seems like the entire New York police force to gun for Jack and Eddie.

Director Richard Donner (who gave us all four Lethal Weapon films) has structured a fairly unique work in 16 Blocks. It has elements of such sort-of-real-time thrillers like Phone Booth, but 16 Blocks is better thought out. The script works the redemption angle for Mosley pretty hard. For no particular reason other than he's apparently sick of his life as a doormat, Jack decides this is one assignment he will not screw up. And Willis (who's hit and miss when it comes to picking projects lately) does a solid job playing the over-the-hill Jack. The look of misery and exhaustion never really leaves his eyes during the film, which only takes place over the course of a few hours. As good as Willis is here, it's Mos Def that will probably make or break your appreciation of 16 Blocks. He makes a bold choice to play Eddie with a high-pitched, often annoying voice that is far from Def's real voice. Eddie is a skittish petty crook who wants to be a baker. He also tends to jabber a lot, which could drill under the skin of many a moviegoer. I think Eddie is a terrific character, and Mos Def pulls it off while managing to make him the emotional center of the film. He's the guy your eyes go to even when Willis is supposed to be the center of attention. Even David Morse, who plays a bit over the top here, eventually won me over as the gum-chewing nasty man who takes lying to a new level.

16 Blocks won't go down in film history as one of Willis's better action films, but it may be one of his most memorable performances. Instead, the film acts as a solid example of Mos Def's rising star continuing to ascend. The film also reaffirms my faith in Donner, who twists the black-white buddy film into something more substantial here. Yes, the plot of 16 Blocks gets a bit out of hand and ridiculous by the end, but don't all of these films. You almost have to discount the endings of films like this, and instead judge them on everything leading up to the climax. Still, the movie is one of those rare action films that does bother to dive a bit deeper into its characters, which is always a good thing. And 16 Blocks is a very good thing.


Deep Sea 3D
There may be more IMAX films concerning underwater happenings than any other subject matter. James Cameron has forgone his feature-film career since Titanic to give us two films about what lies under the sea, and director Howard Hall offers up his third such movie (after Into the Deep and Island of the Sharks) with Deep Sea 3D, a stunning look at creatures and ecological patterns and balances from waters all over the world. There is absolutely no denying that the images in Deep Sea are about an awe-inspiring as you're likely to get in 45 minutes, especially when you add the 3D element. There is a truly terrifying sequence in which a group of squid attacks everything in site, including the camera, and I wish they had turned the 3D off at that point because I was practically wetting myself from fear.

The film focuses primarily on the balance of predator and prey, so there's a lot of undersea stalking and eating of creepy lifeforms. I especially liked the crunching sound effects of a squid eating a crab. Each new image hypnotizes you with its beauty, and the inviting, interacting narration by Finding Neverland co-stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet is a nice touch. I've seen easily a half-dozen films like Deep Sea, but they all manage to stay fresh and fascinating, and this movie is no exception. The camera work here is flawless, the action captured is without equal, and the 3D renders the entire experience almost too real. Forget Roving Mars, these earthbound wonders are far more interesting.


Aquamarine
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the tweener fiasco Aquamarine, the story of a hot mermaid (the title character, played by Sara Paxton) who is washed ashore in a coastal Florida town and befriends two of the most ridiculous and grossly boring girls this side of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Emma Roberts and pop singer Joanna "JoJo" Levesque). I haven't checked with the folks over at the Guinness Book of World Records yet, but I'm pretty sure the script for Aquamarine features the word "amazing" more than any other movie in cinema history. It also incorporates repeated uses of the words "insane," "crazy," "off the hook" and 10,000 references to how cute or not cute various "boys" are. In addition, there are about a half-dozen music montages with interchangeable pop tunes by artists most people over the age of 14 haven't heard of, and each of these editing masterpieces is cut suspiciously like a music video minus the lip synching. I'm sure there's a sliver-thin demographic that will burn up the plastic on their training wheels to get to Aquamarine, but for us normal humans, the film is a among the deepest levels of hell. Enjoy.

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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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