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Saturday, December 7

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Airbags

Whenever possible, I'll try to highlight films that sneak into Chicago in one or two theatres, rather than those occupying five screens at the same multiplex. I don't always have early access to these movies, but it just so happens that this week I do.

Eros
There is much debate among critics about which is the best of the three short films that comprise Eros, (now playing at the Landmark Century Center Theatre) an examination of eroticism from directors Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Some say Wong's slow burning "The Hand," starring the lovely and talented Gong Li and Chen Chang, works the best. Others believe Soderbergh's more humorous "Equilibrium" is the most entertaining take on the subject. But without fail, pretty much everyone (myself included) agrees Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things" is pure ass.

"The Hand" is my personal favorite. It's Wong's best and most sensuous work since In The Mood for Love, and it manages to be so without any nudity and almost no physical contact between the two leads. Gong Li plays a high-priced prostitute who hires a tailor (Chang) to design and make beautiful dresses in which to receive her customers. She entices him to do his best work for her with a little hand manipulation in the opening sequence of the film, but after that, the only time he touches her is to take measurements. Still, he is absolutely devoted to pleasing her with his skill as a dressmaker, and his loyalty extends to taking care of her when she grows ill and all her customers have moved on to younger, healthier women. Wong creates an atmosphere that drips with tension, and Gong Li is such a beauty that it's easy for anyone to understand this sort of blind adoration of her. Expect to be breathing just a little heavier when this one is over.

"Equilibrium" pairs Robert Downey Jr. as a man plagued by his mildly sexual dream, with Alan Arkin as his psychiatrist, who listens to every detail of Downey's dream while dabbling in a little unprofessional behavior of his own during their sessions. I'm not giving away any more than that. The sequence is funny, a little sad and absolutely captivating. You're never quite sure where this is all leading, and I can't promise you'll be entirely satisfied once you see where it does go. Still, Downey and Arkin work so well together that the sub-par ending is easy to forgive. Most of the film is shot in lovely black-and-white, adding a film noir element to the tale, which may or may not be appropriate. I got a kick out of this one.

I got a kick in the head from Antonioni's non-sensical segment, which blessedly is the shortest of the three. Vacationing at a lakeside resort, a man (Christopher Buchholz) and his wife (Regina Nemni) walk around and fight endlessly. You want to focus on what they're saying, but that's impossible because Nemni is wearing a see-through top that forces you to stare at her breasts. She looks great, don't get me wrong, but it seemed so gratuitous, and I expect more from the Italian maestro Antonioni. Things get completely out of hand when the husband abandons his wife when he spots walking Viagra, Luisa Ranieri. At this point in the story, I stopped trying to figure out the utterly baffling plot of this rambling bit of nonsense and waited for the inevitable sex scene. Even that was ultimately disappointing since it's shot like a bad soft core. If you decide to check out Eros, leaving after the Soderbergh film is not the worst idea.

dot the i
File this film under "Near Miss." The only thing that keeps it from being a total miss is a dead-on performance by Gabriel Garcia Bernal in his first English-language role. In my estimation, Bernal has never given a poor performance, but he has managed to insert himself into some less-than-stellar movies; dot the i (now playing at the Landmark Century Center Theatre) falls into this category. Actually, let me revise that statement: the element that truly sinks dot the i is a tacked-on ending that takes a barely plausible story to begin with and turns it into something absurd. Usually I'm able to partially forgive a film if the ending doesnít quite live up to the rest of the film, but in this case, I can't. The smarmy conclusion is just plain awful. You're almost guaranteed a collective groan from the audience if you bother to see this film. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Set in London, dot the i starts off strong. Beautiful bride-to-be Carmen (Spanish hottie Natalia Verbeke) is out on her bachelorette night with girlfriends at a posh French restaurant. The waiter informs the entire restaurant that it is tradition that the guest of honor picks one stranger at the restaurant to kiss passionately before she gets married. She looks across the room full of mostly ugly men and spots Kit (Garcia Bernal), who is sitting with a couple of filmmaker friends. The two kiss and find it difficult to stop. Latin passions are aroused, fires are stoked, loins are set ablaze, etc. Kit becomes obsessed with Carmen. As any self-respecting, good-looking stalker would do, he tracks her down at her job in a café and begs her to meet with him just once. She agrees. But each time they meet, the heat gets turned up a notch, and Carmenís British fiancé, Barnaby (James D'Arcy, best known for his work in Master and Commander), begins to suspect something is amiss. Verbeke's character is probably the most honestly explored. Carmen is hot-tempered and has lost many a job because of it.

Because Barnaby comes from a rich family and is willing to support his wife-to-be, Carmen doesn't need to work, but she wants to feel like she's contributing and isn't entirely dependent on her man. She's in London because she escaped a dangerous relationship back in Spain. When she begins to suspect someone is following her when she's walking around London streets at night, she suspects the ex-boyfriend has somehow found her. Barnaby seems like a stand-up guy, a little snooty and uptight, but someone certainly worthy of trust and devotion. Carmen is truly torn between men. In fact Barnaby may have the advantage, since Carmen has experienced the ugly side of a relationship based solely on passion. Trust me when I say that me telling you she does end up marrying Barnaby does in no way ruin this film. That event happens about halfway through the film, and it's at about this point where the nonsense begins.

The final act of dot the i features its weakest elements. It's one of those "nothing is quite what it seems" moments that you either buy into or shake your head at in utter frustration. I was leaning toward buying into it because Garcia Bernal made me want to. But the abysmal epilogue pushed me too far. I'll give points to writer-director Matthew Parkhill for attempting something bold, but sometimes going out on a limb means you're going to come crashing down on your nervy head. The lesson Parkhill should learn is to leave well enough alone. Having said that, I'm actually quite eager to see what he's got in store for us next, and dot the i demonstrates that the guy has talent. A worthy effort, but not worthy enough to spend your money on.

Turtles Can Fly
Anyone who saw Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi's magnificent A Time for Drunken Horses probably cherishes the sacred memory like a fine heirloom. As in that film, Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly focuses on a forgotten generation of Kurdish children and their fate at the hands of those around them as well as those from the outside world. The setting is a refugee camp on the Iraq-Turkey border just days before America invades Iraq in 2003.

But rather than showing us suffering child after suffering child, Ghobadi doesn't attempt to yank on our heartstrings. The largely parentless children in this part of the world are forced to be creative to survive. One boy collects radios, trades them in for cheap satellite dishes, and sells his services as a dish installer to nearby villages, which seem to need the dishes to keep track of America's actions against the region. Other children carefully scout open fields where land mines are buried. They dig out the mines and sell them to arms dealers; sometimes these expeditions end horribly. The balance of power among the children is thrown off when a handicapped boy enters the picture and seems able to predict the future, or at least the awful parts of it.

Ghobadi again pulls off something remarkable with Turtles Can Fly. I realize I'm making this movie sound like the ultimate bummer, but in fact the film is filled with humor, alongside an examination of the physical and psychological damage done to people in this area even before the Americans moved in. In a way, the frequent laughter makes the godforsaken elements of the film all the more terrible. The movie doesn't attempt to force a plot onto its characters (I feel confident in saying that nobody in this film is a trained actor). Instead, this is a snapshot of a specific moment in time when everything in the world seemed to be up in the air. Suddenly you feel ridiculous about the times when you complain about your Internet service being slow. Stories about people with real problems tend to make yours feel pretty minor. Turtles Can Fly is as stark and honest a film as you are likely to see this year. It's playing at the Music Box Theatre.

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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.

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