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Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

Hey everyone. Big, busy week this week, including the first film released in 2007 that I really, really care about. Try and guess which one I'm talking about (hint, it's at the top of the this week's reviews). Lots of solid picks this week, a couple duds, and a couple prime selections from the Gene Siskel Film Center's Asian-American Showcase program running in April. It's spring, folks. The movie are getting better, and most importantly: I got a save-the-date screening notice for Spider-Man 3 last week, so the big, dumb (and not so dumb) Hollywood mega-hits are right around the corner. Did the hairs on the back of your neck just stand up?

Grindhouse

If you care even an iota about the two films that make up the experience known as Grindhouse, then you know you're in for a long day or night at the movies and one that both delivers on every expectation you might have, plus never misses an opportunity to throw in a few surprises along the way. Writers-directors-conceivers Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) have pulled together the complete Grindhouse experience in their three-hour-plus package. You get trailers (albeit for fake exploitation films, directed by the likes of Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and one by Rodriguez), ancient warnings about the explicit nature of the material, vintage-looking opening credits and music, missing reels (both films feature "missing" footage that might have been really helpful in getting from point A to point B in the story, but that's the fun), and damaged film stock.

But there are other, more subtle elements at work here. The fact that many of the same actors appear in both films or in the trailers (sometimes playing the same characters), an acknowledgment that some great character actors used to be in a lot of these ultra-low-budget, limited-run gems. And both offerings have much more dialog than I thought they might, again in an effort to remind us that the non-existent money available for elaborate special effects throughout the film made these filmmakers of the '60s and '70s fill their movie with loads of exposition and saved the money shots for the last 20 minutes.

Rodriguez's sci-fi/horror offering Planet Terror is the roller coaster ride loaded with squishy zombie-like creatures, bullets and limbs flying in every direction, and explosions coming out of your ass (not literally, but if that did happen here, it wouldn't have surprised me). In two star-making turns, Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez star as a couple who find themselves mixed up in a military-spawned plague that it taking over their down and infecting all residents into flesh-eating zombie-like creatures. The lasting image from this film is go-go dancer McGowan losing her leg and Rodriguez equipping her with a machine gun in its place.

A secondary plot involves married doctors (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton). She is planning on leaving her abusive husband with her young son and setting up a new life with her lesbian lover. But when the zombie infestation overruns the hospital where the couple work, plans change. Planet Terror is loaded with a great supporting cast, including an uncredited Bruce Willis, Naveen Andrews ("Lost"), Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn (Terminator), horror makeup legend Tom Savini, Michael Parks, and even a decent, sexy turn by Black Eyed Pea Stacy Ferguson. And while both films want to call to mind the films of old, they are both clearly set in the present, with characters calling each other on cell phones or text messaging.

Copious amounts of blood and guts flesh out the film nicely, allowing Rodriguez to dazzle us with great effects work, stunts, and even a sweet love story and tale of sacrifice. The film's coda is laughable but totally appropriate, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

While Rodriguez's film is about good messy fun, Tarantino's Death Proof is an entirely different monster altogether. This is a film about sheer, blinding aggression. It is speed and rage and revenge in their purest form. It's also two stories in one. The first is about a group of Austin, Texas girls (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito) who drive around town looking for hot guys to hang with and possibly have sex. They spend a lot of time talking about nonsense and wearing very little clothes. They come across a guy who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), or more precisely, he tracks them to a local Chili Bar. Also featured in this film is McGowan again, this time in a platinum blonde wig, as a slightly drunk woman who needs a ride home. Stuntman Mike just happens to have a bitchin' car, fortified to withstand just about any accident, as any stunt car would be. But Mike's car is also an instrument of death, with which he gets into horrible accidents that he can walk away from but his passenger cannot. The first half of the film is mostly talk, either between the girls or between Mike and various women. The conversations are light, funny, peppered with not-so-veiled sex talk, and pure Tarantino.

Then the film cuts to a new set of women, all working on a movie shooting in town. The girls include two stuntwomen (Tracie Thoms and Uma Thurman's Kill Bill stunt double Zoe Bell), an actress in the film (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and crewmember Rosario Dawson. Bell (playing herself here) wants very much to drive a specific Detroit muscle car on what is said to be her first trip to America, but once she finds out that a local man is selling one (she just wants to test drive it, not buy), he and Thoms decide to have a little fun. While on their test drive, Bell climbs onto the hood of the vehicle, which is going at top speed. This section of the film goes on for so long that you begin to wonder how it ties into the beginning of the film, and then along comes Stuntman Mike. What ensues is one of the greatest car chases I have ever seen, not just because of the inherent danger in driving this fast, but because during the entire chase, Bell is clinging to the hood.

And as satisfying as the chase is, what happens after the initial chase is even more spectacular. In terms of sheer blood spilt, Planet Terror wins hands down, but Death Proof builds up and fleshes out its characters to the point where we actually care about them. I have adored the hell out of Zoe Bell since I saw a documentary a couple years back called Double Dare, part of which profiled her move from doubling "Xena's" Lucy Lawless on that show to coming to the U.S. for the first time and getting the Kill Bill work almost immediately. Her performance here is very natural and sweet, even when her mouth is spewing all manner of four-letter words. And, yes, it makes a huge difference knowing that it's actually her on the hood of that car. There's no possible way to fake it. The car chase makes you forget to breathe, and it's the main reason I'll go see this movie again when it opens.

I hope these two gifted and immensely fun filmmakers attempt something like this again in their careers. These aren't parodies or copies, per se; they are more updated tributes to a style of filmmaking that has largely disappeared. So often, the posters or trailers for films like these were so much better than the actual films, and make no mistake, most grindhouse films are junk. But Planet Terror and Death Proof take this potential for greatness and make it happen. It's an endurance test at times, but one that is well worth the aching bladder.

The Hoax

In this completely fascinating true story, Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, a writer who in the early 1970s forged a totally false autobiography that he claimed was written by none other than Howard Hughes, the man the word reclusive might have been invented to describe. Irving said that the text was based on transcribed interviews he conducted (and also falsified) with Hughes in a series of one-on-one meetings the two men had. After countless experts on Hughes verified Irving's interviews and connection to Hughes, the book went on to be published by McGraw-Hill and caused them a great deal of embarrassment when the hoax was revealed through the smallest of screw ups by Irving and his associates in on the scam.

Gere hasn't been this good in years, as he invokes a man who is spinning such elaborate and detailed falsehoods that I think even he believed his book was genuine. In order for him to pulls this off, he had to. His genius in concocting the scheme was that even if Hughes and his team of lawyers denied the book's authenticity, Irving and his publisher could just say, "Isn't that just like Howard to cooperate and then deny his cooperation?" It seemed like a foolproof plan. Irving's co-writer and chief researcher Dick Susskind (the wonderful Alfred Molina) is a nervous twit who powers of improvisation and believable lying are non-existent. Irving's loving but distrustful wife (Marcia Gay Harden) is more worried about him cheating again than getting caught at this forgery (and rightfully so, when his on-again, off-again mistress is played by Julie Delpy).

McGraw-Hill types are partially to blame, since it's clear they were so desperate for this autobiography to be authentic, they didn't take the necessary precautions to make sure it was. Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci represent Irving's two main contacts at the firm, while Zeljko Ivanek plays an emissary from Time-Life, whose Life magazine planned to run excerpts from the book before its publication. Irving played these professionals like a maestro and spun incredible tales of his meetings with Hughes in exotic locations around the world. As much as they suspected something wasn't quite right, the stories were so expertly weaved that they were hypnotized, just as I was by director Lasse Hallstrom's superb filmmaking. The pace of The Hoax never lets up, and it barely gives you a chance to really take a breath and analyze everything you've just seen, probably much like the events in the film. If someone had just stepped back for a minute and really thought about what was happening and how little proof Irving had of his claims, the book never would have made it to press.

Irving always held out hope that Hughes might simply come to his senses and let Irving do a proper interview since it was pretty clear it was getting published one way or another, but instead Hughes and his team use the book's questionable existence to their own advantage. Depending on which political enemies they wanted to put the fear of god into, they sometimes allowed the authenticity of the book to seem more plausible. It's a matter of public record that the book was part of the reason for the Watergate break-ins, but Hughes turned a negative into a devious positive in more ways than one.

I don't think I'm overstating The Hoax's impact by calling it a work of brilliance. Probably because it starts so strong and never lets up, I kept expecting it to falter, but it never did. Some of the inferences toward the end of the story that Hughes may have had Irving kidnapped, and how these events may or may not have been all in Irving's paranoia-riddled mind seem a bit unnecessary, but they are no less interesting. The entire work is exciting and wildly intriguing. Thank goodness the media today doesn't allow itself to be so blatantly manipulated as it was in the '70s. Just go see The Hoax, and relish in its greatness.

First Snow

From first-time writer-director Mark Fergus (best known as one of the co-writers of Children of Men and the upcoming Iron Man feature film) has created something that, on the surface, may seem like a simple story about a man so used to being in control of every situation in his life, that the very thought of having his fate predetermined and completely out of his control drives him slowly crazy. But what the film is really about is how the tiniest suggestion can shatter your preconceived notions of how the world runs itself and send you into a deep, dark corner of your brain that most people choose not to go. Maybe First Snow is about both of these themes, either way the lead character is massively fucked.

And who better to take us down this path of despair than Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential and last year's astonishing The Proposition), playing a successful, smooth-talking salesman named Jimmy Starks, who breaks down in the middle of nowhere and comes across a roadside fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) at the service station where his car is getting fixed. He predicts of few minor events in Jimmy's life, but gets squeamish upon deeper examination. Jimmy thinks the guy is playing him, but as some of the small predictions start to come true, Jimmy get nervous about what the mysterious soothsayer saw that freaked him out so much. Jimmy's business is going pretty good, but he's about to branch out into a new venture involving the sale of vintage juke boxes and the prospects are promising. His partner (William Fichtner, recently seen in Blades of Glory) is a little worried about Jimmy, who seems distracted and anxious. Jimmy's girlfriend (Piper Perabo) is on the verge of leaving him when we first meet her, and things don't improve much between them.

Jimmy revisits the fortune teller to get a few more details, which he gets but they don't really help the situation, and he starts to wonder where exactly this great danger forthcoming in his life will come from. He finds out an old childhood friend (Shea Whigham), who went to jail for a crime they both committed, has just gotten out of jail, and Jimmy believes he will seek revenge for the misdeed. Much like the recent release Premonition, First Snow calls into question whether someone can change their fate if they have some inkling when a terrible event is going to happen. The big difference between the films is that First Snow isn't a stupid piece of shit. Jimmy's ultimate destiny isn't really the most important thing in the movie. It's watching him maneuver through his life and his troubled mind searching for answers and remembering where in his life he made the biggest mistakes. Not surprisingly, Pearce is scarily convincing here and does what he does best by embracing the material and taking something that could have been average in the hands of another actor and finding its soul. Director Fergus has a great eye for detail and chilling landscapes, and the supporting cast is top notch. First Snow is a small but powerful work that is content with and successful in finding its power in quiet moments.

Go to Ain't It Cool to read my interviews with the film's co-stars Piper Perabo and William Fichtner.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

You either care tremendously that director Ken Loach has a new film coming out or you don't. That's pretty much the way the world is made up. If you are one of those who don't have an opinion on the matter, Loach's latest won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, so maybe that will put some wind in your sails. Loach has never been one to hide his leftist political leanings or two make it a mystery what side of a social injustice he falls on, but his latest, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is quite simply a masterpiece, and that's all that really matters.

Since the setting is 1920s Ireland, yes, the film does contain something of a history lesson as it examines the circumstances that led to the rise of the Irish Republican Army into a true political (and military) force. The brutality of the British government, the fight for complete and total separation from the all British occupation, and the manner in which the British sought to divide and conquer the Irish by allowing them to police themselves is carefully and passionately documented by Loach and his talented cast. Rising young star Cillian Murphy (Red Eye, Batman Begins, 28 Days Later and the upcoming Sunshine) does a superb job as young Damien, preparing to head to London to study medicine until a good friend of his is beaten to death by the brutal "Black and Tan" squads of British "peace keepers." But as the months and years go on, and the country appears on the brink of a qualified peace, Damien's brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) differ on the nature of such a treaty with the British. This sets into motions a series of heart-breaking events that pits the brothers and their ideals against each other, a scenario I'm guessing was repeated countless times in Ireland in this era.

Loach's films rarely end well, and considering the subject matter, you can safely guess that a lot of terrible and senseless killing takes place in the film. But he deftly weaves through this complicated set of circumstances and some fairly thick accents to bring a moving and mesmerizing work that is impossible to shake. The Wind That Shakes the Barley opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Reaping

I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed so heartily at film as I did during the apocalyptic horror tale The Reaping, the long-delayed effort starring Hilary Swank as a signs-of-God mythbuster whose sole purpose is running around the world disproving bleeding statues or Jesus faces in potato chips. Actually, I'm sure there's a great movie to be made about such a character, but I doubt that that movie will feature Swank is tight tank tops and low-slung skirts and cargo pants that accentuate her nice tush. The Reaping is bust-out-laughing funny as plague after plague wreck havoc on a small Louisiana town, and Swank's character keeps dismissing it as being easily explained.

It took me about five seconds to figure out exactly what the film's big secrets were, and another four seconds to name which seemingly nice character was going to turn on our heroine. The suspected source of the town's troubles is a little girl (AnnaSophia Robb of Bridge to Terabithia), who supposedly is a tool of Satan, but that doesn't stop Swank from wanting to protect her. Her character's backstory involves the laughable coincidence of Swank being a former missionary whose husband and similarly aged little girl were murdered while she was doing work in Africa, and knowing all of these things about her just made the film that much more predictable.

Is it fun watching God go to town on these hillbillies? You bet. Is the "plague of locusts" sequence the best in the movie? Pretty much. Does Hillary Swank look hot no matter how many crappy movies she makes between Oscar wins? Without a doubt. I have to say, if you want to see crappy movie done to perfection, you don't want to miss The Reaping. It's a hoot for all the wrong reasons.

Are We Done Yet?

Who's responsible for this? Step forward, and take your beating like a man (even if you're a woman). All rules of polite society are suspended if you had anything to do with getting this film made and/or released. The Geneva Convention goes right out the window, and the pain you will endure will be severe and endless. If there was a way to torture someone after death, I'd do that to you too, you bastard. I'm assuming the decision to sequel-ize the dreadful Ice Cube-goes-soft family comedy Are We There Yet? was made by one person, because I refuse to let myself believe that more than one person on the planet thought this was a good idea. If, in fact, a small group of citizens agreed this film might somehow better the world, then you might as well kiss the ice caps goodbye because truly no one out there cares about humanity any longer.

I know the first film made a decent amount of money at the box office, but was anyone who saw that movie crying out for more from their once-favorite hardcore gangsta rapper turned ball-less freak? This sequel stinks so bad, vultures won't come near it. Hyenas turn their nose up this dreck. Director Steve Carr (Dr. Doolittle 2; Daddy Day Care; Next Friday) seems to have taken the time to invent new ways of boring his audience, and the filmmakers actually dare to label this film as something of a remake of Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House. Insult, please shake hands with Injury. This movie is a combination of cheap site gags, bad jokes, laughing kids (somebody has to laugh at this, I guess) and a grumpy Ice Cube, who matches wits with a perpetually cheerful contractor (John C. McGinley) as Cube's new home in the country falls down around his ears. I don't know, the Cube I used to admire would have whipped out his Gat and busted a cap in McGinley's skinny white ass in the first 30 seconds. I'd do it myself just because McGinley was so bad in Wild Hogz, but who wasn't? Where have all my gangstas gone? Ice T is playing a SVU cop; Cube is doing kiddie movies, Snoop Dogg is doing cartoon voice in Arthur and the Invisibles. What's next, Chuck D on "Desperate Housewives"? Ugh, I'm getting angry just thinking about this movie. I’m done. If you decide to see this film, you can either stop by my place before or after the movie to receive your smack-down.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams

From first time writer-director Jasmila Zbanic this difficult-to-watch drama is set in a section of Sarajevo that became a brutal internment camp during the war. On the surface, the story seems to be about a mother and 12-year-old daughter who simply don't get along. Borderline poverty and other stressful living conditions don't make the situation any easier. But as the young Sara (Luna Mijovic) prepares to go on a school trip that requires proof of her father's identity, her mother Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) begins to panic.

Sara grew up believing her father was a war hero who died in battle, but when Esma fails to produce the necessary paperwork to prove this (allowing her daughter to go on the field trip for free), the truth about her parentage threatens to rip this already fragile family apart. Anyone even the least bit familiar with the atrocities associated with this particular war will probably figure out the mystery of Sara's father long before it's revealed in the plot, but that doesn't stop these scenes from absolutely ripping your heart to shreds. Friendship and guidance come to the pair from unexpected places, and director Zbanic magnifies the universal themes of the daily battles between mother and daughter to the point where you almost can't look at the screen. There is much to admire and love about Grbavica, and its timeless message about the never-ending impact of war. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Cats of Mirikitani

If it's possible to make a film about WWII-era Japanese internment camps warm and fuzzy, then this film pulls it off with outstanding results. Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, seemingly one of the nicest people on the planet, befriends a homeless 80-year-old SoHo street artist named Jimmy Mirikitani in 2001. Mirikitani, who claims he was once a "grand master artist," specializes in surreal and colorful drawings of cats, but as she gets to know his history, she's discovers a series of moving pieces documenting his time as a youth being help prisoner by the "stupid" U.S. government in a California camp (he was a U.S.-born citizen). When the World Trade Center collapses, Hattendorf seeks out the old man and gives him a place to live away from the toxic cloud that enveloped lower Manhattan. But rather than just allow this sweet old guy to just live with her, she dives into his past and attempts to not only learn more about his past, but also to set him up in a place of his own where he can create the art he is so passionate about.

The timing of this film is incredible, and in more than one instance we see Jimmy watching televised discussion shortly after 9/11 concerning the possibility of rounding up Arab-American and putting them in camps as well. The pained look on his face speaks volumes. But the real discovery here is just how much about Mirikitani's life there is to discover, including the fact that he is still a U.S. citizen despite the fact that he signed away his citizenship while in the camp. He has long-lost family still very much alive and living in the states, and he qualifies for all sorts of benefits and housing that the director arranges for him. The emotional epicenter of The Cats of Mirikitani is a visit the artist takes to his old camp as part of a 40-year anniversary reunion. The experience seems to act as a vent for a much of his pent-up anger about this life-altering time in his life, and he comes out the other side of the visit a new, more peaceful man. For a film that only runs about 75 minutes, The Cats of Mirikitani is as complete a portrait of a man as you're likely to see all year. It opens today at Facets Multimedia.

Boy Culture

It's been a while since a proper gay film has breezed through Chicago, but Boy Culture is a mature and occasionally insightful story of a successful male prostitute who goes by the named X (Derek Magyar) to keep his anonymity. Living in Seattle, X is a gay man who tends to hate the games and predictable behaviors of most gay men, and years in the business has made him somewhat bitter and closed off from serious relationships. He meets a new, much older client named Gregory (Patrick Bauchau), who refuses to have sex with X until the two men really care for each other. So they spend weeks together forming a meaningful friendship.

X also has two equally handsome and gay men roommates (Darryl Stephens and Jonathon Trent), who all flirt with each other with inevitable complications soon to come. There are a few too many moments of the roommates making goo-goo eyes at each other and there are enough lame sex jokes with no real progression in the story, but when the plot does bother to move forward, Boy Culture is an intriguing look at the gay culture that shows its appeal as well as its downside. The story of X is not all glamour and techno music; it's a somewhat dark and mostly well-acted work that elevates the genre at a time when gay cinema has been getting on my nerves 99 percent of the time. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Dark Matter

So what is a film co-starring Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn doing in a relatively small film festival? It's doing very nicely, thank you. More specifically, a lead performance by Liu Ye is doing quite well as a Chinese student who comes to America to study under one of his heroes in the field of astrophysics, a professor and researcher played by Quinn. The naive and shy Liu also falls under the spell of an extremely sweet and slightly rich woman (Streep), who seems mad about Chinese culture, art, clothes, music, etc. When the vastly intelligent, freethinking Liu makes a breakthrough in his research that directly contradicts what his boss's largely accepted theory, the entire team (made up largely of other Chinese imports) turns against him. He presents his defiant work to the board that may or may not grant him permission to continue his research for his thesis (thus allowing him to stay at the university), and the professor's blanket dismissal of his theories causes Liu to doubt himself and eventually crack.

Said to be based on a true story, director Chen Shi-Zheng does a stellar job of building up the film's suspense levels and making Liu's behavior wholly unpredictable and sometimes scary. By burying himself in his work and not making friends, Liu doesn't have the support system to deal with any level of failure or rejection. Dark Matter turns from hopeful and positive to sinister and disturbing so skillfully, you almost miss the transition. The film is playing as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's Asian-American Showcase and is screening on Saturday, April 7 at 8pm, and Wednesday, April 11 at 6pm.

American Pastime

The week's second film dealing with the Japanese internment camps set up in America during WWII, American Pastime focuses on the measures the occupants went to gain some sense of accomplishment and worth in a place that didn't place much put much emphasis on either. Before the war the Nomura family were happy and successful. Brothers Lane and Lyle loved baseball and jazz music, but their peaceful household is torn apart in 1941, and the family is placed in a camp. Lane joins the Army to show his loyalty, while sax player and expert pitcher Lyle meets the daughter of the camp's commanding officer (Gary Cole in a more subtle turn than the material probably dictated) and falls in love. Naturally, the Japanese-American team is pitted against Cole (whose character also happens to be a minor-league player) and the others on his team. The film's third act is predictable and overly sentimental to a double fault, and director Desmond Nakano probably should have dialed back the film's obvious "Message" a bit. Still, the performances here are strong enough to rise above the material's weak spots, and American Pastime soars when it needs to. The film is also playing as part of the Asian-American Showcase on Sunday, April 8 at 3pm.

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