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Thursday, May 23

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Get Smart

It's sort of amusing that many of the films I had the highest expectations for this summer have let me down, and then a movie like Get Smart comes around, for which I had fairly low expectations thanks to some abysmal trailers, and it ends up being pretty damn good. There aren't as many laughs in Get Smart as I would have liked, but the ones that are there hit almost every time thanks to perfect casting and confident direction by Peter Segal (Tommy Boy; Anger Management; 50 First Dates; The Longest Yard).

The solid humor in this offering covers up the fact that Get Smart has very little in common with the much-loved Mel Brooks/Buck Henry-created television series starring Don Adams as the bumbling Maxwell Smart. Steve Carell's version of Agent 86 isn't in any way inept. If anything, he's so good at his job as an analyst for the covert agency CONTROL that his boss (Alan Arkin as The Chief) doesn't want to promote him to full field agent. But when a list of all CONTROL field agents is leaked to the group's rival organization KAOS (led by Terrence Stamp's Siegfried), Max is promoted and paired with the lovely Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway filling the high heels of Barbara Feldon), who resents being teamed with the rookie. It doesn't take long for her to see Max's skills as an agent, and shortly thereafter, the two get a little snugly as they take on KAOS, which is in the process of selling stolen nuclear weapons to the unstable governments of the world.

This is not the Maxwell Smart who talks into his shoe or drives the souped-up little sports car (although Carell does manage to do both in the movie for nostalgia's sake). And this modern Agent 86 does manage to get out a few "Missed it by that much" and "Would you believe…?" lines for old-times sake. But this Get Smart seems equal parts action and comedy. Chases, explosions and other dangerous stunts fill this film. And while there are still a few antics back at CONTROL headquarters (courtesy of fellow agents played by Terry Crews and David Koechner), the film is saved by Carell's chemistry with Hathaway, as well as Arkin's perfect delivery. Dwayne Johnson (it's okay to stop calling him The Rock, I think) is also on hand as Agent 23, the only agent who respects Max's skills as an analyst and defends him repeatedly. Johnson looks good in a suit, and his comedy chops aren't too shabby either. There are some nice cameos that will tickle fans of the original show. Yes, Agent 13 is here, and the show-closing appearance of another special CONTROL agent was enough to make me wish for a sequel. And then there is James Caan as the very stupid President; he's fantastic.

Devotees of the television show may have mixed feeling about the film Get Smart. That show's magic and unique sense of humor just isn't here. On the other hand, this movie gives us something more in step with modern spy movies. When he was filming Get Smart, Carell said the film was like asking, "What if Maxwell Smart was suddenly given Jason Bourne's job?" That about hits it on the head. This is certainly Carell's best purely comedic work since The 40-Year-Old Virgin and makes up for the miserable Evan Almighty. When all is said and done, the movie made me laugh. And while the action sequences aren't exactly groundbreaking, they aren't too shabby either; in some cases they're damn hilarious. I considered myself a big fan of the TV show repeats in my formative years, but I haven't seen an episode in more than 15 years. That being said, I found the film hugely entertaining, charming and more than a little ridiculous (Max ballroom dancing with an overweight woman is glorious). I'm guessing most people are going to go for this the same way I did.

Mongol

As if to prove that its country is more than just Borat, the nation of Kazakhstan gets to kick a little ass in this sweeping, Oscar-nominated epic about Genghis Khan's formative years, from childhood to the early stages of assembling his army of united Mongolians. I saw this film last December at the Butt-Numb-a-Thon in Austin, and it was by far my favorite offering at the event. Russian director Sergei (Prisoner of the Mountains) Bodrov chronicles the great indignities forced upon Temudgin, the young man who would become Khan, as he is made a slave from early childhood, repeatedly separated from those he loves and disgraced by his apparent betters. While other portraits of Khan as an adult have shown him as a war monger, Mongol examines the elements of a man's life that make him a leader to his people. I have no idea how much of this film is historically accurate, but from the research I've done, it appears to be based on several scholarly writings.

It's a beautifully told story, complete with loads of blood and guts and human suffering — a perfect counterweight to standard-issue summer releases. But it's a film that finds the perfect blend of action, violence and thought-provoking drama. And best of all: it's the first part of a trilogy about Khan. I can't wait. I spent many a moment watching Mongol with my eyes as wide as they could go, trying to take it all in and keep all of these intense characters straight in my head. This isn't a film about pageantry; it's about the inner fire that keeps someone alive when their body is telling them to die a miserable death. And you feel every ounce of suffering as if it were your own, so clearly this is a film to take the kids to see. You'll never forget the experience of seeing Mongol.

Surfwise

One of the most captivating profiles of an American family that I've seen since Capturing the Freidmans, Surfwise begins by telling us the story of a man — Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, who grew up handsome, well off and gifted at nearly everything he did. He was an avid surfer, who always felt more at home on a wave than he did being a doctor or a husband in two unsuccessful marriages. Dorian is an old man now with many health issues, who looks even older than he is thanks to leathery tanned skin. But when he was a young man, he was a bronzed Adonis with an arresting personality who yearned for a life without connections and with total freedom. So he married a woman who taught him how to have great sex, had nine children (eight boys and a girl) and lived a nomadic lifestyle that allowed them to live healthy, unattached lives and surf whenever they damn well felt like it.

Director Doug Pray (Hype!; Scratch) does exquisite work here illustrating this family, who became folks heroes to many and attracted a media frenzy wherever they went in their 24-foot camper loaded with surf boards and dreams. As much as the Paskowitz family put on a unified face when the kids were still young, the clan began to fracture the older the kids got and the more famous the family became. Living under Doc's dictatorial rules about eating and surfing, several of the children rebelled when they got old enough to understand that it was okay to rebel against the ultimate anti-establishment guru. Much as Doc predicted, the minute money entered their lives, their world began to crumble and family members stopped talking to each other. Still, nearly every son and daughter went on to be successful, including working as a surfware designer, musician, model and other pursuits. But the kids still resented their father because he never gave them the option of going to school or pursuing other ways of life.

Surfwise features some fantastic archival footage of the Paskowitz family, and I was impressed with how much material there was on Doc prior to him building his legacy. He was the man who single-handedly introduced surfing to the beaches of Israel. But it's the family stuff that really hits you in the heart. They were envied by so many — the first family of surfing, they were called — but are the children better off today as a result of their upbringing? Each one probably has a different answer, but I guarantee each response will be interesting. Surfwise manages to be both a celebration of this lifestyle and a cautionary tale, and it's all worth taking in. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

My first real awareness of Philip Glass wasn't even by hearing his music; it was hearing someone make fun of his music. On one of the first seasons of "South Park" (maybe even THE first season), the kids are forced to put on a non-denominational holiday musical. To emphasize how droll the pageant is, the music and lyrics are said to be by "New York minimalist composer Philip Glass." The kids are all dressed in black leotards, spinning around while the singer sings, "Happy Happy Happy. Everybody Happy." I had no idea what it meant, but I loved it.

Since that episode of "South Park," I've certainly heard my share of Glass music in the scores of such filmmakers as Godfrey Reggio and Errol Morris, and films like The Hours, Hamburger Hill, Candyman, Kundun, Taking Lives, Undertow, The Illusionist, Notes on a Scandal, No Reservations and most recently in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream. If you haven't heard his newly written scores for Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, they're quite nice. And while I'm far from a hardcore Glass fan, I appreciate his talents more than I did when Trey and Matt poked fun at him.

No Reservations director Scott Hicks (who's probably best known for helming Shine) has taken his cameras inside the life of Glass and his work, peeling back the mystery behind his process and showing us that Glass is not at all the serious artist I'd imagined him to be. He's full of life, spiritual passion, an attentive family man and he might be the most extreme workaholic I've ever seen profiled. He is not a composer who treats every note like a precious object and seems exceedingly easy to collaborate with. Watching him work side by side at the editing bay with Woody Allen kind of blew my mind. Even on a more substantial project like his opera premiere for Waiting for the Barbarians, he seems relaxed and open to ideas (to a point). Always with five or six projects going at once, Glass sometimes sacrifices time with his wife and two young sons to fly around the globe finalizing some work or another. With his dark, out-of-control curls and deep set eyes that still seem to pop out a bit, Glass is a favorite subject for portrait photographers and artist, including his old friend Chuck Close who painted his likeness on more than one occasion. But the serious mystique gives way to an easy laugh, open conversation and intelligence beyond my comprehension.

Hicks' profile (perhaps bordering a bit too much on the "tribute" category) is endlessly revealing, especially in off-guard moments from Glass's current wife, who admits their marriage struggles sometimes with his busy schedule. But that only makes him more compelling. I remember seeing a documentary not too long ago about avant-garde stage director, Chuck Wilson, that covered among other things his legendary collaboration with Glass, Einstein on the Beach, which is also covered in great detail here as a pivotal work in Glass's career. It's always fun for me to piece together a person's life in my head via a thorough documentary like this, which takes my fragmented knowledge of Glass and turns it into something comprehensive.

I will probably never own anything by Glass outside of the occasional film score I receive in the mail, but for those of you who rip on his work regularly, this film might be more for you than the die-hard aficionado. I haven't grown to love his work because of this movie, but I have a much greater respect for him as a person and artist. The film opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Duchess of Langeais

The 80-year-old French master Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse; Va Savoir; Up, Down, Fragile) continues to make vital films about the human condition and, naturally, the destructive nature and power of human sexuality (I did say he was French, right?). In many ways his films explore the way we all seem to rush headlong into our own devastation for the sake of love and/or lust, and his latest work, The Duchess of Langeais, could not be explained any better than that. Centering on the married title character Antoinette (played by the exquisite Jeanne Balibar), a devastating socialite in 1820s Restoration-era Paris, the film tracks the always-tumultuous relationship she has with war hero Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard). He instantly falls in love with her, and she delights in stringing him along and spending a great deal of time with him, only to cast him aside when things appear to be going his way. It is truly the most tortuous kind of flirtation and seduction, one that guarantees that he will always love her and be in a constant state of agony because of it.

But there comes a point when the good general can no longer stand to be humiliated in eyes of the Parisians, and he proceeds to turn the table on the Duchess and seeks a particularly (perhaps fitting) revenge on his love. Not surprisingly, it is only after being treated this way that the Duchess begins to realize how much she loves this man. At which point Armand drops off the map, leaving Antoinette alone with her love for him. But don't worry — that isn't even close to how this melodramatic slice of heaven plays out (but it's as far as I'm taking you). For a 19th century period piece, the film feels remarkably modern in its truthful examination of this morsel of emotional misery. Depardieu is an absolute rock, who never lets his emotions show on his face, but that doesn't mean we don't know exactly what he's thinking or how much he's suffering. Balibar is far more expressive, but that only makes it easier for her character to lie and toy. Based on the novel by Balzac, the film is a minefield of romantic devastation, and even if you watch soap operas on a regular basis, you won't be prepared for the places this story goes. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Up the Yangtze

What I had assumed was going to be a standard-issue documentary about the changes in the Chinese landscape and lifestyle for millions as a result of the reconfiguration of the Yangtze River due to the Three Gorges Dam Project is something quite different. The merits of the project are never really the issue here. What is dealt with is how the project has altered the perception of Chinese culture, tourism potential and the lives of those who lived in great poverty even before the project began. Filmmaker Yung Chang follows a few groups of Chinese citizens whose lives have been shifted (sometimes for the better, often for the worse).

Peasant families are driven out of their homes due to rising floodwaters. Many are given new homes to live in, but in areas where they can no longer grow their own food or have access to free water. Now everything must be purchased. One family sends its daughter to work for one of the many cruise lines running "farewell cruises" of tourists going up and down the Yangtze. And through the daughter's eyes, we meet a group of young cruise ship employees, whose only goal is to make money, essentially simplifying their culture and whitewashing the situation with the river peasants for Western tourists. Yung Chang takes the audience to the riverside location where his grandfather grew up and mourns the location's disappearance. Watching Up the Yangtze is a truly moving experience that may cause a tear or two to well up in audience members' eyes. I was particularly moved by the daughter's plight as she suffers the life of a dishwasher on the ship because she's not quite pretty enough to work as a waitress or hostess in the public eye. Her story typifies what I'm guessing many poor river dwellers are going through along the river. Hers is not the first story of eminent domain crushing the soul of the voiceless masses, and I'm sure it won't be the last. This powerful film is well worth seeing. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Sangre de mi Sangre (Blood of My Blood)

This small, sometimes uneven but ultimately devastating work won the Best Film prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Christopher Zalla paints this heartbreaking story of a young Mexican illegal who comes to New York to find a father he has never known, one who doesn't even know he has a son. Trouble begins on the journey into America, when young Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) is befriended by a thief named Juan (Armando Hernandez). Pedro tells his life story to Juan during the journey and wakes up in New York with all of his money and belongings gone. Juan finds the father, Diego (Jesus Ochoa), and passes himself off as the long-lost son using Pedro's life details as evidence. Not completely convinced, Diego refuses to help the boy, but eventually Juan's charm and earnest attitude about family wear down the stubborn old man, who works as a dishwasher in a French restaurant and is believed by his co-workers to be hiding large sums of cash in his tiny apartment.

The film follows the parallel stories of Juan and Pedro. Juan is trying to get invited to stay with Diego so he can search for the alleged money, while Pedro is desperately seeking a job so he can earn money to continue searching for his father in this strange land. Pedro befriends a street hustler, junkie and part-time prostitute, Magda (Paola Mendoza), who charges him for taking him around the city in search of his father. Many of the film's most painful scenes involve her attempts to make money to support her drug habit, and how she even manages to corrupt Pedro in the process. Sangre's flaws are small, and while Zalla probably thought the family drama was the emotional heart of his movie, I preferred watching the all-too-believable, day-to-day struggles of an illegal immigrant. Pedro must work as a day laborer, live on the streets and be treated like dirt. He can never go to the police if he's wronged because then he'll get tossed out of the country. His world is closing in around him, and he seems unable to find the very reason he came here in the first place. The film's climax isn't particularly compelling, but the movie's honesty and sense of realism allow me to recommend it. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Right under the noses of right-thinking Americans like you and me, there has been a phenomenon spreading its creeping roots throughout society. But unless you are the parent of a young girl child, you probably have no clue what this dainty menace is. I'm talking, of course, about this American Girl thing. I've known about it for a while because there's a big-ass American Girl store right on Michigan Avenue that I've seen a million times. But there are also American Girl live-action movies, based on the adventures of different American Girl characters, all written by one Valerie Tripp. The first three such films (based on characters named Samantha, Felicity and Molly) premiered on television, and each was set in a different time in American history (the end of the Revolutionary War, 1904 and WWII). I'll admit I've never seen one of these treasures, but from the looks of them, they seem to have the same idea as "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" — drop the hero in the middle of a significant point in history and hopefully younger viewers will take an interest in learning more about the time and place the film is set. A noble gesture, you have to admit. Now, there's an American Girl feature film with an impressive cast (previous American Girl films have featured the likes of Mia Farrow, Anna Sophia Robb and Marcia Gay Harden) and a message about how rough life was in the Great Depression.

That's right, we are given a film filmed with "hobos," kids wearing potato sacks for clothes and the tears of many a mother forced to take menial jobs to help make ends meet while dear old dad has left the family to look for work. This is just the story every little girl is dying to see this summer. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin plays Kit Kittredge, who lives in Cincinnati with her mother (Julia Ormond, a great actress I've missed seeing in movies) and father (Chris O'Donnell, an actor I have not missed seeing lately). They live in a nice house in a nice part of town that is just starting to see the ill effects of the stock market collapse. Much to my dismay, there is no discussion of the market and why it crashed or about the high suicide rate at the time (stop hiding the truth, American Girl people!). When Mr. Kittredge leaves for Chicago to find work, mom is forced to take in boarders and harvest and sell eggs. The boarders are a colorful bunch, including Joan Cusack as Miss Bond, a mobile librarian; Jane Krakowski as a dancer and Stanley Tucci as a traveling magician. Glenne Headly also is on hand as a friend of the Kittredges who hides the fact that she and her son have lost their home; eventually they move in as well.

Kit's ambition in life is to be a reporter for the local paper, whose editor (played by Wallace Shawn) gives her a shot at contributing. Kit and her friends also spend a great deal of time hanging out with the local hobos, including an older boy named Will (Max Thieriot of Nancy Drew "fame") who takes Kit to the local hobo camp where she learns that not all hobos are criminals the way the police and media claim. When a string of home invasions and burglaries are suspected of being the work of a hobo, Kit and Co. set out to prove the initial reports wrong.

So why am I spending so much time talking about An American Girl? I'm forced to admire the guts it takes to make a movie on this subject, or one that says we have no reason to be afraid of homeless people. Director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park; several episodes of HBO's X-rated "Tell Me You Love Me" series) adds a feather-light touch to this material, which is the right way to go considering the intended audience for this movie. But it seems completely ill-conceived for the actual subject matter. This movie is about the fucking Depression, and this girl is worried about what she's going to wear to school. When the mystery of the thief deepens, the subtlety in the acting goes right out the window. Silly chases and Joan Cusack screaming and waving her arms around aren't exactly the height of comedy. Then we have the issues of child abandonment. It seems every father in the city has left their family and may never return, including Kit's dad, who stops writing the family after just a few weeks. This is sob-inducing stuff that doesn't really feel appropriate in something so lightweight.

To say that I am not the intended audience for this movie is perhaps the greatest understatement I've ever made, but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of being moved by quality work aimed at little girls. Or maybe it does, because I found Kit Kittredge: An American Girl appealing at times despite its trivialization of some very serious subjects. This may be over-thinking things a bit, but with the way the current economy is today, little girls without homes may not seem like fiction to some. I doubt many of you were considering going to this one, but if you were, consider this your ample warning.

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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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