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Monday, October 16

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Death Race

I'll admit, there's a small part of me that was really looking forward to this retread of the classic Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000. I dig Jason Statham for the simple fact that he might be our last true action hero under 50 who can actually act. I'm always curious what Ian McShane is up to, even thought most of his film work of late is junk. And the idea of Joan Allen as a foul-mouthed, evil prison warden reignites a lifetime's worth of dominatrix fantasies. Then there are the negatives. I've never thought much of Tyrese Gibson as an actor with the exception of one movie—Baby Boy. Newcomer Natalie Martinez is hotter than hell, until she opens her mouth to speak. And then there's writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, maker of such cinematic afterbirths as Mortal Combat, Event Horizon, Soldier and Alien vs. Predator. I'll admit to having some fun with Resident Evil, but his best movie remains his first, 1994's Shopping, with a very young Jude Law in his first starring role. Perhaps the worst sin this film commits is that there are no civilians to run down for extra points. Damn you, Anderson!

Death Race is set in the near future in an America whose economy has collapsed, the jobless rate is astronomical and crime is at an all-time high, complete with a prison system bursting at the seams. I'm not really clear how the Death Race is meant to quell the nation's ills (perhaps keeping citizens glued to their computers to watch this race keeps them from committing crimes), but the warden (Allen) of the Terminal Island Correctional Facility has devised a car race around her prison where all the drivers are inmates and death is a more likely outcome for most competitors than finishing. The tricked out cars are loaded with guns, armor, smoke, oil slicks, tire spikes, flamethrowers, napalm and the occasional RPG.

Statham plays Jensen Ames, a steel worker and former racecar driver who is framed for his wife's murder and just happens to land in Allen's prison. What are the odds? Allen needs him not to drive as himself but as a recently killed superstar driver named Frankenstein (David Carradine played this role in the original film), whose face has been so horribly disfigured during his races that he wears a metal mask. If you win five races, you get released. Frankenstein has four wins, and the warden has promised Ames his freedom if he wins one more. Ames is given a navigator (Martinez) from the nearby women's prison, and the games begin. Naturally, the warden fucks with the drivers a bit during the race to maximize the drama and drive up the PPV ratings. Gibson takes over the Sylvester Stallone role as rival driver Machine Gun Joe, who keeps a scorecard of on-track kills on his face in the form of self-inflicted scars, so we know he's tough.

When all is said and done, most of what the characters do and say in Death Race defies logic, sense, intelligence, strategy or any sense of believability. In other words, the entire movie feels like bullshit. Sure, some of the racing sequences are exciting and vicious, but we can pretty much guess after the first 20 minutes who's going to live and who dies. Anderson's one strength is coming up with some interesting and graphic kills, and on that front he doesn't let us down. But everywhere else you look, Death Race is one ton of shit hurling at you at 100 mph. My bus ride home after the screening of this movie had more suspense and thrills. Ah, the end of August blockbusters is upon us.

Elegy

When you hear that this week's Ben Kingsley offering is based on the Philip Roth story "The Dying Animal," it's a safe bet that you're not about to experience a story about the happiest times in a person's life. And that's partially true. Elegy isn't so much a conventional narrative as it is an exquisite profile of a relationship built on raw emotion and fraught with all the elements that make new couplings both exciting and volatile. Ben Kingsley (seriously, this guy is in a movie per week) plays charming professor David Kepesh, who enjoys the fact that he still possesses some powers of seduction even at his advanced age. He uses his mind rather than any kind of overt macho appeal to approach women (sometimes students), but he's careful about not letting any of them get too close. Even a woman closer to his age (played by the sexy-as-always Patricia Clarkson) with whom he's had a years-long standing affair doesn't know that much about him, and vice versa.

And then Consuela (Penelope Cruz) walks into his class. On their first meeting, he knows that her devastating beauty is matched by a mind and heart that he is desperate to possess. Their love connection is instant and it changes his entire way of things, as much as his old ways aspire to creep back in. In watching Kingsley and Cruz, we feel we are glimpsing such intimate and private moments that we are tempted to look away because we, as outsiders, are violating their most sacred exchanges. David spends a great deal of time in bed with Consuela simply examining her flawless form. But he is also profoundly impressed with her emotional fortitude and fierce independence in all matters except ones regarding him. Make no mistake, this isn't a simple tale of two lovebirds. Elegy may break the mold on emotionally draining stories, but it does so with a clear understanding of the characters' flaws as well as what makes them so appealing. Kingsley never ceases to floor me with the directions he's willing to take his acting, especially in recent years, while Cruz puts forth arguably her finest English-language work to date (it's a virtual tie between this film and last week's Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Lest you think Elegy is simply about two people madly in love, think again. David spends a great deal of his time with his best friend and celebrated author, George (Dennis Hopper, in a nice normal turn for once). In fact, the scenes with Kingsley and Hopper are among my favorites. They have a great friendship chemistry and their conversations about the nature of fidelity, monogamy and all things related to relationships are funny, insightful and will hopefully inspire discussion among anyone who sees this film. An almost unrecognizable Deborah Harry plays George's long-suffering wife, who is forced to endure his many affairs but loves him almost unconditionally. Some of the film's most uncomfortable sequences come courtesy of David's estranged son, a doctor played by Peter Sarsgaard, who acts as a reminder to David of the biggest mistakes in his past, such as leaving his ex-wife and abandoning his son.

David and Consuela's love is not without hardships, some caused by David simply acting habitually and pushing her away when things appear to be getting too serious (like when she wants him to meet her parents). Other outside forces also work to tear at the core of their feelings for each other. The screenplay from Nicholas Meyer (who also wrote the Roth-adapted The Human Stain) takes a threadbare plot and turns it into the ultimate treatise on desire, affection, vulnerability, transformation and regret. Director Isabel Coixet (who directed one of my favorite films from about two years ago called The Secret Life of Words and the equally fantastic My Life Without Me) has a firm grip on both the male fantasy model of beauty, brains and submission, as well as the understanding that men who hold those fantasies also desire to be kept and cradled. She (along with a lot of help from Cruz) keeps Elegy from becoming a sappy, weak affair. If anything, the film is one of the strongest and most fortified appeals for true love I've ever seen. Combined with the powerful acting, and you've got one of the best films of the year. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Elegy star Dennis Hopper, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Hamlet 2

While there are few bust-out-laughing moments in this Steve Coogan vehicle, I still spent 75 percent of Hamlet 2 giggling my buns off. The film proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coogan will do anything for a laugh, usually with solid, if sometimes childish, results. In addition to Coogan's antics, I think the real weapons in Hamlet 2's arsenal are director/co-writer Andrew Fleming (The Craft; Dick) and co-writer Pam Brady (a writing partner with Trey Parker on the South Park movie and Team America), who have created such a consummate loser in Tucson-based high school drama teacher Dana Marschz that you can't help but relish in his every pain and still root for the guy.

Coogan has had a hit-and-miss career in Hollywood after soaring as a staple on British television and Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. Films such as Around the World in 80 Days and Night at the Museum didn't really play to Coogan's all-or-nothing strengths. But when you see him in the screamingly funny segment of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (opposite Alfred Molina) or Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette or most recently as the film director in Tropic Thunder, you get a clearer sense of what he's capable of. Hamlet 2 puts Coogan firmly in the starring role, and he rises to the occasion in this imperfect but still highly watchable film that goes from good to great thanks to a series of closing-act musical numbers that bring the house down.

Coogan's Marschz is a terrible actor (his finest hour was apparently a herpes medication commercial). His job as a drama teacher to an ever-shrinking class is in jeopardy because each year's main production is a terrible adaptation of a popular movie (Erin Brockovich is the current year's selection). When the ninth-grade drama critic recommends Marschz come up with some original material, the idea intrigues him, especially after the school threatens to pull the plug on the program altogether. Marschz is the hopeless optimist who doesn't see how much his wife (Catherine Keener) despises him or just how desperate his situation truly is. When a group of "troubled teens" are forced into the class, Marschz sees it as a personal challenge to get them interested in theater, and he concocts a sequel to Hamlet, despite the fact that most of the characters in play die by the end. Using time-honored devices such as time travel and the introduction of Jesus as a character in the story, Marschz's wacko original musical begins to gain the acceptance of his entire class, who decide to put on the play independently after the drama program is killed by the school board.

Director Fleming wisely loads his supporting cast with fresh faces and true talent. I especially liked Melonie Diaz as Ivonne, who ends up with a key role in the play. Amy Poehler drops in as an ACLU attorney who threatens anyone who dares to try and shut down the play. Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole are the class veterans, who are both just a little scared when they instantly become minorities in the now mostly Hispanic class. But the greatest role has to go to Elizabeth Shue playing a local nurse in the town, who just happens to actually be Elizabeth Shue, who has decided to forsake the Hollywood lifestyle for a simpler way of life. The fact that she would even be in a movie in which she gives an inspirational talk about acting, followed by a student asking her "Who are you?" says something about her willingness to do what it takes to get the laugh. Her reaction shots while watching the final musical are priceless.

As I said, the musical numbers will sell pretty much anyone on this movie. The songs are catchy, hilarious and borderline offensive. The production values are low, as they should be, but they still convey a sense of creativity that seems believable. And then there's Coogan as a sexually appealing Jesus H. Christ, complete with tight jeans and a wife-beater undershirt. His long locks personify everything I remember despising about high school drama, and his wuss-like violent rages are absolutely spell binding. Even Coogan's American accent absolutely nails a kind of projectile naiveté that some people have. He captures classic dufus without going overboard; a rare feat. What doesn't work as well is the focus on Marschz's home life. As much as I love Keener, those scenes just aren't as funny as the stuff with the class. In the end, she comes off looking like a world-class bitch. I'm also somewhat baffled by the almost wordless appearance of David Arquette, who plays a near-silent boarder in the Marschz home. It's almost funny that he's in the movie with no dialogue—emphasis on the "almost."

But these flaws don't take up too much time in what is otherwise a film guaranteed to set your pants a giggling. It relishes in some of life's most uncomfortable moments, and makes us laugh heartily at the misfortunes of others. I can't think of a better way to spend a summer afternoon or evening. No, it's not as good as Tropic Thunder, and I wouldn't try to convince you that it is. Hamlet 2's goals aren't as lofty as that masterpiece. But it is a movie that wants so very much to make you laugh and succeeds repeatedly.

To read my interview with Hamlet 2 star Steve Coogan, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Rocker

Damn, I really wanted to like this movie more, but in the end, this Rainn Wilson-starring work feels like it's pandering to a younger and far less demanding audience. It's almost not fair to compare this very PG-13-rated story of former '80s rock band drummer Robert "Fish" Fishman to some of the superior R-rated work that's been gracing us this August (a couple of which also came out today), and there are some laughs with The Rocker, without a doubt. But so much of it is obvious and lowbrow, and frankly I expect a little more from Wilson, who has been consistently good as Dwight on "The Office." Here, he thinks simply getting insanely sweaty and walking around in various stages of undress passes for comedy (is it any wonder that The Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo helms this movie?). I guess it does the first six or seven times, but this film wore me down and eventually out.

Some of the best material here comes in the opening few minutes when we see Fish drumming for his original band (featuring some great cameos I won't ruin here) and getting unceremoniously kicked out just as the group signs a major record deal. He's spent 20 years working dull office jobs while the band grew in popularity. Fish seethes about this every day of his life. When Fish asks his sister (Jane Lynch) and brother-in-law (Jeff Garlin) if he can stay with them for a little bit, he comes into contact with his high school-age nephew (21's Josh Gad), who happens to have a band in need of a drummer. The other band members include real-life singer Teddy Geiger and Superbad's Emma Stone, who also appears in this week's The House Bunny. Eventually they convince Uncle Fish to join the band, and he teaches them to go from a cute little pop band to a rockin' force of nature. A record promoter (Jason Sudeikis, maybe the most consistently funny performer in this movie) convinces the group to hit the road (with parents' permission, of course). One of the parents in question is played by Christina Applegate, who Fish takes an instant liking to. While I find Applegate attractive, the filmmakers give her nothing to really do or contribute to this story. As a result, any scenes that include her are rendered instantly boring and useless.

I guess I'm happy to see Wilson stretch himself as an actor somewhat. Fish will never be mistaken for Dwight, and I applaud him for trying something different. But the hard, cold truth is that the film just isn't that funny. That being said, I've seen the film twice (once with all critics and once with a human audience), and the second time, the audience seemed to love it. So if you are looking for a family-friendly crowd pleaser, you could do worse, especially in today's minefield of R-rated comedies. I just wish something more had clicked for me, whether it was the humor or the music or the romance. I was looking for an in, and never really found one that fully satisfied me. If you consider yourself someone with discerning tastes, you may not dig The Rocker. If you're easier to please, you should be golden.

To ready my interview with The Rocker star Rainn Wilson, go to Aint' It Cool News.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss

What I'd feared was going to be yet another typical slacker romance story with loads of banal chatter, zero production value and even less decent acting is actually a breath of fresh air this summer. The dialogue is crisp and funny, the acting is wholly believable and strong and the lovely black-and-white look of In Search of a Midnight Kiss adds a bittersweet quality to the proceedings. Twenty-nine-year-old Wilson (Scoot McNairy) is a writer living with a friend, Jacob, and his girlfriend, Min (Brian McGuire and Kathleen Luong), in a Los Angeles apartment. Wilson came to L.A. when his long-time girlfriend broke up with him and his perpetual sadness has made it tough for him to move on with his work or with women. His roommates push him to place an ad on CraigsList.

The first response is from Vivian (the positively electric Sara Simmonds), a transplanted actress from Texas whose abrupt manner and seeming lack of interest in the whole online dating process seem to spell disaster from the first time they meet. It's New Year's Eve, and since neither feels like spending the evening alone they agree to hang out for the afternoon to see if they click and move on the spend the celebratory evening together. Much of the film reminds me of a daytime version of Before Sunrise. Wilson and Vivian spend the day wandering the city's lesser-known (sometimes for a reason) attractions and talking up an interesting and humorous storm. It doesn't quite reach the level of Woody Allen's Manhattan, but the aspiration is certainly evident. Wilson begins the film as something of a sad sack, but during the course of the conversation, his charm and wit come shining through. In kind, Vivian dials back her obnoxious facade and reveals a sweet, guarded woman who is well worth loving.

Lest you think the film is a simple tale of young love, that's not entirely true. Whether they spend the evening together or have sex is certainly the film's two big question marks, but the film doesn't end once those plot points are reached. I really enjoyed the tour of the most non-touristy locations of Los Angeles, and the black-and-white photography adds a real iconic feel to the whole experience. In Search of a Midnight Kiss is a true little gem that shines brighter and sparkles more than any romantic-comedy I've seen out of Hollywood in years. Writer-director Alex Holdridge (Sexless) has a gift for capturing the type of conversations I hear all the time among 20-somethings, more a collection of jokes and punchy statements than a conventional dialogue. That's his leaping off point, until things get heavier and more intimate between the two leads. For a film with such a simple premise, it finds all sorts of ways to make the lives of these two potential lovers complicated and interesting. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The House Bunny

I don't know how well this Adam Sandler production is going to do at the box office, but I predict a long and fruitful life for the this film on DVD, if for no other reason than I can't really see tens of thousands of men going up to a box office worker and asking for a ticket for a PG-13 rated movie called The House Bunny about a Playboy Playmate who takes a group of misfit sorority girls and makes them hot and popular. Nope, I don't see that at all. We don't even see her naked, for Hef's sake. But here's the thing: The House Bunny is actually a lot of fun in spots thanks entirely to the sexual solar flare known as Anna Faris, who plays the darling Shelley with such wild abandon and absolutely no fear of looking foolish that you can't help be charmed by her. Plus, she looks fucking hot in her little booty shorts.

Shelley has spent the last nine years living at the Playboy Mansion simply because Hugh Hefner (who plays himself) likes having her around. She's never been a centerfold for Playboy, but she suspects that Hef is about to finally ask her to be Miss November right after a big birthday party he throws for her. Instead she gets a letter from Hefner the morning after her party telling her to pack her things and move out. She winds up on a college campus (as so many Playmates are apt to do), where she stumbles upon a run-down sorority house occupied by the last few remaining sisters of Zeta Alpha Zeta, who are on the verge of losing their chapter because they can't get any new pledges to step foot in their door. The house is filled with exactly the kind of young women who would never join a sorority, which is sort of binds them together in the first place. They have body piercings, weird hair, back braces, dumpy clothes and no social skills at all. Oh, and one is pregnant. Enter Shelley, who volunteers to be the sorority house mother (she needs a place to live) and proceeds to give the house and the girls makeovers. Her guidance makes the house the life of the campus and the girls all become varying degrees of hot. But at what price?!

Emma Stone is Natalie, who seems all in favor of this transformation, but can't quite shake her love of all things nerdy. Her housemates include Kat Dennings (who played Catherine Keener's daughter in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Rumer Willis (daughter to Bruce and Demi), "American Idol" winner Katharine MacPhee (playing the aforementioned pregnant sister), Dana Goodman and Kiely Williams. The House Bunny has a sweet if overplayed message about being yourself. Shelley learns that she doesn't have to play dumb and oversexed to make a nice guy interested in her (Colin Hanks, in a disposable role, plays the object of her affections), and the sorority girls learn not to be overly judgmental of pledges the same way rival houses are. They also learn that there is a balance between brains and beauty.

But the undeniable star of this show is Faris, who I've found funny in the four Scary Movie films, The Hot Chick, Lost In Translation and on the most recent season of "Entourage." The moments when Shelley has to drop her bimbo facade due to some injury or great attack on her character are hilarious. "Sweet balls!" is one of my favorite Shelley-isms. This type of movie needs someone like Faris to deliver, and she does so whole hog. She can wear the clothes like a real Playmate, but also pull off the comedy. There are certainly huge portions of The House Bunny that do not work (there are about three different sets of villains here that all overstay their welcome and overplay their parts), but any failures or shortcomings are no fault of Faris'. She's a gift from the lusty comedy gods. I should also mention that it was really bizarre, but not entirely unpleasant, hearing music on the soundtrack to this film of songs that are actually on the charts right now. I'm not sure how they pulled that off, but it made the film feel that much more fresh (of course, by the time the DVD comes out, it will feel plenty dated).

I acknowledge the need every once in a while to enter a movie with your brain turned off. And there are certainly a few choices this week and next (including three films opening on the final Friday of the summer that aren't even screening for critics) that would allow you to switch off the old neural receptors. Even if you refuse to turn the brain off, the film works in a limited sense as a message movie about female empowerment…sort of. But I think The House Bunny is the best of brainless bunch, because it's not actually brainless, and it is actually funny a lot of the time. You may feel a little guilty after seeing it, but it's the good kind of shame.

The Longshots

I understand why one of the originators of hardcore gangster rap, Ice Cube, has chosen to make family films of late; there's more money in it. I get that. Films like Are We There Yet?, Are We Done Yet? and First Sunday don't cost that much to make and therefore don't have to make that much at the box office to be profitable. They also do fairly well on DVD. I understand why Cube does these things as a businessman and movie producer, but I have abhorred the resulting movies with every fiber of my being. The broadest of broad humor, toilet humor and a whole lot of eye rolling has resulted in zero laughs from every audience member with whom I've seen these movies. His latest work as an actor and producer is The Longshots, and while it still panders and travels a very safe and predictable path, it is a step in a better and less-contrived direction.

The Longshots is cast in the same mold of many recent sports dramas from Disney (this is not a Disney film, however): a great injustice and/or prejudice must be overcome in order to play the purest version of whatever the sport is. Often the hurdle is race, sometimes it's age, but in this movie it's gender; and the sport is high school football. And much like the Disney offerings, this movie is loosely based on a true story. When young Jasmine (Keke Palmer from Akeelah and the Bee) shows a talent for tossing the pigskin, her no-good Uncle Curtis (Ice Cube) decides to call in a few favors from her school's football coach (Matt Craven). It seems Curtis was something of a football superstar in high school, so he's got more than a few friends on the coaching staff. Jasmine gets a tryout and makes the team as a back-up quarterback; it doesn't take long to move to starting QB and for the team to start winning in the Pop Warner youth league.

But because the small, working-class town where Jasmine lives has been dying a slow death since the big factory in community shut down, The Longshots isn't just about her and her team's chances of making the playoffs; it's about how the town rallies around their new star quarterback and pulls itself together to look good for the inevitable influx of sports journalists who invade the town of Minden, Illinois. The story gets a bit ridiculous when the team's coach has a mild heart attack and is forced to step down, leaving room for Curtis to take over. It also seems a bit contrived when Jasmine's long-absent father returns to bask in the glow of his daughter's accomplishments.

As you might expect, it all comes down to one big game and one final play, but things don't play out exactly how I thought they would, so I'll give the movie points for at least trying to be original. The Longshots isn't unbearable, and I really enjoyed watching Keke Palmer's performance; I think she's destined to become a strong and highly praised actress one day. I also liked the look of the film. The filmmakers don't shy away from portraying Minden as the dilapidated town that they keep telling us it is. There's a gray, washed-out look to the much of the film that adds a layer of authenticity of the story. Now here are the two biggest surprises about The Longshots: it's directed by Fred Durst, the frontman for the band Limp Bizkit; and the director of photography is Conrad H. Hall (look him up, you'll get why this is something of a shocker to me). Still, they made a great-looking picture, and even if I'd hated everything else about this movie, I couldn't deny the visuals were great.

There are probably 15 reasons you had written off seeing this movie before even reading what the plot was, and that's fair; I'd done the same thing. But every so often I like reality checks like this movie that remind me that I need to make a better effort to walk into each movie with as open a mind as I possibly can. That isn't always possible. Expectations, whether high or low, often influence. But if it's not possible for me for walk into a movie with zero expectations, I hope that I'm always capable of at least being open to the charms and positives of a movie like The Longshots. Now don't get me wrong; I'm not recommending this movie. But if you have a kid who is desperate to see it, or if you are an Ice Cube fanatic, you could do worse. He certainly has.

La France

This bold and weirdly satisfying film from France (go figure) has an unbeatable spirit that transcends its strange execution and delivers a great example of what cinema is capable of in the right hands. Actor turned director Serge Bozon (who also co-wrote the movie) has set his heady drama during the first World War. A young peasant girl named Camille (one of my favorite French actresses, the sharp Sylvie Testud, recently seen in La Vie en Rose) receives a letter from her husband that he will no longer be writing to her and that she should forget him. She knows the young soldier (Guillaume Depardieu, in what is essentially a cameo) is in trouble, and she decides to find him. She cuts her hair short, disguises herself as a man and joins a troupe of deserting soldiers, led by Pascal Greggory. Doesn't sound so strange, right?

But there are the occasional times when the soldiers break out into harmonious song (no dancing; this isn't a musical per se), and there is humor injected in the strangest spots. The cumulative effect takes this story about scared deserters and turns it into an anti-war metaphor that penetrates deeply. Setting nearly every scene in La France at either dawn or dusk adds a level of anti-realism that is hard to deny or forget. Testud has one of the most memorable faces in the movies. She is striking without being overly pretty or done up. Certainly in this film, it would have been totally inappropriate. But she's also without reserve or fear of appearing silly or undignified. The look in her eyes tells us everything we need to know about her character's situation. She is a woman so in love with her husband that she is perfectly ready to die if she finds out he's been killed; there was never a doubt in my mind that this was her thought process, and that makes her unpredictable.

La France is brave moviemaking that is most definitely not for everyone, but the more I think about what Bozon has accomplished here the more impressed I become. Even at its most seemingly lighthearted and silly, the filmmakers balance those moments with ones that are heavy and more emotionally viable. Plus Testud's work is so rarely seen in the United States (I spot her once or twice a year in something that usually opens at the Music Box Theatre) that any opportunity to see her in anything should be taken advantage of no matter the cost. In a lot of ways the story is structured like "The Odyssey," with the group of deserters and Camille going from one provincial setting to another, encountering a new person or challenge at each stop. This is a haunting film with patches of uplifting moments that combine to bring you something well worth checking out during its week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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 steve@steveatthemovies.com.
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