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Monday, July 22

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Airbags

Hey everyone. A combination of a lengthy trip to London last week and a butt-load of new movies coming out this week has forced me to do something I haven't had to do in many months ‐ the legendary Steve at the Movies round-up. Each movie gets one, maybe two 'graphs and that's it.

Eagle Eye

There is so much going on at once in this movie, and everything that is going on is happening so fast and so loud that you never have a spare second to really think about the unthinkable events unfolding in Eagle Eye, the ultimate paranoid thriller that combines our fear of terrorism with our fear of technology. Or you could look at this film as a story about a boy just trying to please his dad. Take your pick. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerry, a slacker type who works at a copy store and whose twin brother has just died. When he returns from the funeral, his apartment is loaded with weapons and bomb-making materials, and it's raided by the FBI almost immediately. Jerry receives a call from a woman telling him exactly how many seconds he has to escape. This is a voice that Jerry (and you) will grow to both hate and rely on, sometimes in the same breath. The voice guides him through a series of intricate chess moves, with Chicago as the board. He meets another unwitting player named Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), whose young son is being threatened if she doesn't work with Jerry. The strange voice knows things about the pair and can make pretty much anything happen around them to ensure a speedy escape from whatever danger presents itself. It only took me about 10 minutes to figure out what the voice was, although not what its endgame is. What's also interesting is that the reveal as to the nature of the woman on the other end of the phone is made at the film's halfway point. You'll either be amazed or dumbfounded as to how ridiculous a turn this plot point it. I stuck with it with cautious optimism.

To say much more about the plot would be impossible without revealing major spoilers. This is really LaBeouf's first grown-up movie role, and he handles himself pretty solidly, as does Monaghan, who brings a bit of genuine intelligence to this film. Part of the reason I found it somewhat easy to buy into the loopy plot of Eagle Eye was the surprisingly strong supporting cast, including Rosario Dawson, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Embry (!), and Michael Chiklis as the Secretary of Defense. They are the ones who truly sell this movie. Well, them and two hours of car chases, gun fights, running and some kooky sci-fi shit that is just believable enough to fill an empty brain for little while. Whatever you do, don't' think too hard about what's going on. The support structure on this puppy might not quite be up to code. I hate telling people they need to walk into any film slightly brain dead in order to enjoy it fully, but that's kind of what I feel about Eagle Eye. The action sequences are at times both blazing and realistic (especially the car chases/crashes), as well as shot in such tight close ups that I couldn't always tell what was happening to who. If you don't get a headache watching it, you'll probably get one trying to figure everything out. I'm not dismissing every aspect of the movie; it does fulfill its duty as entertainment that might tax your brain just slightly. If those are your minimum requirements, you'll have a great time. If you like a little more meat on your bones, you may be a little hungry coming out of Eagle Eye.

Choke

From what I've been told, Choke is one of the finest of Chuck Palahniuk's novels, and that if you treasure the book, you may find many a flaw in actor-turned-writer/director Clark Gregg's adaptation. I've never read the book, and I found this film fascinating, funny, skeevy, and emotional substantive. The first time I saw the film, I focused on the laughs, and there are many to be had. Sam Rockwell's embodiment of lead character Victor, a sex addict who also works as a Colonial re-enactment specialist, is a thing of marvel and wonder. Victor is an adaptor, someone who can take any opportunity and control it, whether it be seducing a woman or dealing with his mentally deteriorating mother (the exquisite Anjelica Houston). But when Victor finds himself falling for his mother's doctor (Kelly Macdonald), this singular event changes the direction of his life and unexpected ways. I was also fond of Victor's relationship with his best friend (and chronic masturbator) Denny (Brad William Henke), which actually changes a great deal when Denny gets involved with a stripper.

The second time I saw the film, I noticed the darker and more distressing corners of Victor's life and Rockwell's extraordinary performance. Between this film, Snow Angels earlier this year, the upcoming Frost/Nixon, and a handful of great roles last year (including in Joshua and The Assassination of Jesse James...), Rockwell has proven time and time again that he is one of the finest actors of the day. But Victor feels like a part, he has been waiting to perform his entire career. Victor won't let us like him even when every fiber of our being wants us to feel sorry for him. Flashbacks to various childhood scenarios are absolutely tragic, but his unapologetic asshole behavior keeps us exactly where he wants us ‐ at a distance. Choke is a supremely laugh-out-loud funny movie with more going on under the surface and between the lines than most films even dream of coming close to. Its redemptive powers are strong and key to the film's success as pure art. This is a special work.

To read my interview with Choke star Sam Rockwell, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Miracle at St. Anna

Early on in this Spike Lee-directed historical drama about four black soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II, I asked myself this million-dollar question: What the hell is Spike doing here? The film starts out as a compelling enough mystery that begins in the 1980s, when a black postal worker shoots another man, seemingly for no reason other than he stepped up to his window. As a newspaper man (Joseph Gordon Levitt) searches for the reasons why this apparently random act has occurred, the suspect is silent, and the film goes into flashback mode to trace the presence of a statue head in the man's apartment.

What follows is part examination of the all-black 92nd Buffalo Soldiers Division, and that part of the film I found genuinely interesting and thought provoking, as Lee (working from material from screenwriter James McBride, based on his novel) shows us how unwilling white command was to serve with or even believe in the black servicemen. In those sequences, Lee serves the material beautifully. But he crushes his own momentum and the very entertainment value of the film with scene after scene of long drawn-out conversations about nothing, inane discussions about the protective nature of the statue head, which is actually quite valuable and key to the plot (sort of), endless flirtations between the soldiers and the local Italian women, and a couple of the worst performances I've seen in a Spike Lee film (and I've seen them all). I was annoyed more than moved by the inclusion of a small child who serves as a rallying point for the soldiers to defeat the oncoming Germans. Lee clearly has, if not a love, then at least an appreciation for men-on-a-mission war films. His use of overbearing music, excessive camera movement, and bloody battle sequences seem to bear that out. But it's like he's forgotten how to tell a story. Even when he fails, Lee as a filmmaker is always interesting. But Miracle at St. Anna plays like an uncut first draft of a better film waiting to be discovered in the editing room. Worse than simply being bad, Lee's film is dreadfully dull and wandering. And while individual performances are well worth noting (in particular, Derek Luke and Laz Alonso as two of the four soldiers), the film is a mess.

The Duchess

I think Keira Knightley's best work comes across when she plays aristocratic or when she wears period clothes, in films such as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement (she's even good in the otherwise awful Silk). The Duchess might feature the most emotionally rich role of her career, playing the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgina Spencer, of whom Princess Diana was a direct descendent. Much like Diana, Georgina was a much-beloved trendsetter and socialite, and a woman scorned. Her husband, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes in his greatest pure bastard role), was constantly involved with other women; he even had one of Georgina's former best friends (played by Hayley Atwell, recently seen in Brideshead Revisited) move into their home. But when The Duchess attempted to find a little bit a love in the arms of an abolitionist (played by Mamma Mia's Dominic Cooper), the Duke crushes her. This certainly wasn't the birthplace of the double standard, but it sure feels like it. Georgina's repressed pain and suffering occasionally bubble to the surface in a handful of excruciating moments. And when she does explode or otherwise embarrass herself in the public light, the Duke is far more concerned with their image as a happy couple than with his wife's agony. The Duchess also is a portrait of women's changing place in the world, as Georgina was a vocal leader for the more progressive Whig Party. But in the end, all her popularity among the elite and the common folk could not bring her true happiness. Above all other things, the film is a portrait of a woman negotiating and jockeying for her place in the world and in the heart of her husband. Sometimes unbearably sad and other times triumphant, The Duchess is a lush reminder that emotion and feeling are sometimes a punishable offense in certain circles.

The Lucky Ones

Although Neil (The Illusionist) Burger's opus about three wounded Iraq War soldiers returning home (some for 30 days, some for good) is not the last in what is becoming a long line of films directly or peripherally about the current war, it does offer what is probably the lightest touch when it comes to dealing with the isues of those who serve. And maybe that's exactly what is required to get people to actually come see these movies. Although nowhere near as heavy or good as last year's In the Valley of Elah, The Lucky Ones does have an access point that may make its message pill a little easier to swallow ‐ humor. Burger is not afraid to let his characters laugh at themselves, at others, or at the turns their lives have taken since joining the military. The three return home and find themselves forced to drive across country making various stops along the way. There are few things more American than the road movie, and this is a pretty good one, although some of the wild and weird things they encounter on their journey might test the limits of plausibility and necessity (hookers, tornados and a stop at a mega-church, to name a few). But the actors (Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, and a surprisingly heartfelt performance by Rachel McAdams) are what carry the film when the plot gets a little thin or silly. This is one of those rare films that I think most film critics are going to pan, but audiences may get behind if they actually get their butts in the theaters to see it. I did a post-screening Q&A recently with the director recently, and almost nobody left before the Q&A started. That just doesn't happen. They all seemed to genuinely like the film, and it was one of the best Q&As I've ever done. Take that for what it's worth, which in my book is quite a lot. The film's refusal to take any kind of stance on the war is almost frustrating, but that's not really what the film is about; I get that. But it's this very aspect that might make people think it's safe to step inside and check this one out. There's certainly nothing offensive about the film, other than some language, and most of what's here feels fairly balanced and well intentioned. I guess this is me on the fence, folks. I admire what Burger is attempting to do here; I'm just not sure he's done it exactly. The film opens today at AMC Pipers Alley.

To read my interview with The Lucky Ones director Neil Burger, go to Ain't It Cool News. I also interviewed the star of the film, Tim Robbins, and that conversation will be up on AICN very soon.

Battle In Seattle

There's a moment in this retelling of the events of November 1999 in Seattle during the World Trade Organization's attempted ministerial meeting when a pregnant woman (played by Charlize Theron) is clubbed in the stomach by a rampaging police officer. It just so happens that Theron's character is the wife of another officer (played by Woody Harrelson), and the emotional impact is pure misery. It also isn't earned. I'm not saying that some innocent woman who was neither law enforcement nor protestor didn't lose her baby in just such a fashion; I'm just saying that the way the moment is presented in Battle In Seattle, it feels like exploitation and it rings false. If you believe actor-turned-director Stuart Townsend's (Theron's husband) version of these frightening events, then you believe that nearly every hippie protestor — represented here by Andre Benjamin, Jennifer Carpenter, Martin Henderson and Michelle Rodriguez, among others — was in the right and almost every police officer working crowd control used excessive force and went after innocents.

Wisely, Townsend does mash up actual footage of the week's events with his own re-created scenes, but that doesn't add to what little realism the film may have. Instead he buries the protestors' message in love stories, stupid tales of jealousy, and the type of interpersonal drama that belongs on "The Hills" and not in the film tackling this singular parting event to the 20th century. Ray Liotta's portrayal of the "Mayor of Seattle" (whose name I don't think is ever actually given) is laughable, and a worthy subplot set inside the WTO meetings about how smaller nations' concerns (cheap medicine, debt relief) were largely ignored during the meetings in favor of improving trade between large and wealthy nations, isn't resolved. People don't talk about it much, but the protests did leave these small, largely African countries high and dry as conference after conference was canceled. The true problem with Battle In Seattle is its contrived script. How do you ruin a retelling of these insane events? Paint over them with soap opera-like bullshit, that's how. This one is a mess.

Nights in Rodanthe

The sum total of my knowledge of Nicholas Sparks are four movies ‐ Message in a Bottle with Kevin Costner, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember with Mandy Moore, and now Nights in Rodanthe, which re-teams Diane Lane and Richard Gere for the first time since 2002's Unfaithful. What I do know is that Sparks' writings are geared directly at the hopeless romantics. I actually quite liked The Notebook, primarily because of the great and unusual chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, but the other two films were junk. Rodanthe's biggest glaring error is that it overstays its welcome. It's not a long movie at all, but there is a naturally perfect moment where this film could have ended, and instead we get 15 more minutes that don't really add much to how I felt at that earlier moment. Gere plays hard-hearted Dr. Paul Flanner, who is retreating in the off-season to a bed and breakfast run by Lane's Adrienne in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Flanner doesn't seem happy to be there, not that Adrienne notices at first since there are hurricane warnings for the area and she has be batten down the hatches of this unusual lodging right on the beach. Gere has demons involving his family and a patient; Lane has her own, having to do with her still fresh separation from her husband (Christopher Meloni) after he cheated on her and left for a younger woman. (I'd like to shake the hand of the man who could leave Diane Lane, if only so I could get close enough to him to bop him in the head.)

The two are the only two in the house, and naturally (since they've been falling for each other since 1984's The Cotton Club), the high emotions and high storm surge combine for a wild night of monkey sex between these two geezers. The singular night leads to many plans being made and a future together all but assured. All that needs to happen is that Gere needs to go to the jungles of South America to reconcile with his son (James Franco), and she has to face her kids and soon to be ex-husband to let them know that there's no chance the marriage is going to work. Uh huh. Sure thing. Don't see any potential problems with those plans. Nope, not me. Sparks' mission (with a little help from director George C. Wolfe) isn't necessarily to make sure these two end up together by the end of the film. His real intent is to make them better, stronger, more self-reliant people; and on that level I applaud his intent. But you have to wade through a whole lot of nonsense and romantic montages to get there. Nothing about Rodanthe will have you running down the aisles screaming; these two actors are and always have been very watchable. But there's just nothing of substance here to really grab onto. I'm not the target audience for this film; I'm aware of this. But even so, I'm usually susceptible to quality romance when one actually comes along. This is the closest I've seen in a while, but it's still pretty blah.

Derek

I discovered the films of the great British filmmaker Derek Jarman only after he has been diagnosed HIV+. I believe the first film of his was his radical 1991 interpretation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, in which Jarman turned the story of the gay king into a full-on call to arms in the face is AIDS and intolerance. It was impossible for me not to be moved by the work. Jarman died in 1994, leaving a legacy of films and music videos that were always provocative and rebellious, while still maintaining a classic British charm and wit. Caravaggio is a masterpiece, and The Garden and Wittgenstein are very close. The film Derek is a series of remembrances held together by a self-written narrative by actress Tilda Swinton, who Jarman discovered and used in many of his works. Far from a simple biography film, Derek is the search for the essence of Jarman the artist, friend, charmer, activist, and someone whose self-appointed job was to unstuff the stuffy. Director Isaac Julien does as admirable job searching for the spirit of Jarman with film clips, enthusiastic remembrances from friends and extensive interview footage with Jarman, who loved to talk about himself but only as an excuse to talk about more important things like creativity and tolerance. Perhaps most importantly, if you are less familiar with Jarman's work, the film serves as an excellent launching pad into his work and his essence. Derek may not be the best film I've ever seen about a moviemaker, but it's among the most personal and revealing. It opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 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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