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Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Moving beyond its humble "stoner comedy" beginnings, this Harold & Kumar adventure enters the realm of political satire. Make no mistake; there is still plenty of doobage being smoked here. There's also a bottomless pool party (toplessness is frowned upon), more inbred/backwoods humor, prison rape shenanigans and Neil Patrick Harris looking to take as many drugs and "fuck as many bitches" (his words) as possible. There's a sequence in a brothel in which NPH simply outdoes himself on the crudity scale. The fact that he's come out of the closet between the last film and this one only makes his scenes that much more absurd.

Filmmakers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have not only ramped up the bawdy humor, but they've moved the story into territory beyond simply a search of the perfect food. The boys (John Cho and Kal Penn) are arrested after their smokeless bong (for airplane use) is mistaken for a bomb on a flight to Amsterdam, and they are shipped off to Guantanamo Bay by an overly eager Homeland Security agent (Rod Corddry). After their escape, the film becomes a great chase film, but it never misses an opportunity to confront issues like racial profiling, presumed guilt and human rights issues, thankfully never in a preachy manner. The film's mission is to make you laugh your nuts off. I'm not going to ruin any of the great jokes and surprises the film has to offer. There are a handful of gags that reference the first film, but this film is a stand-alone piece of immeasurable genius.

The film's last 20 minutes—which take place at a certain Crawford, Texas, ranch—are so extraordinarily brilliant that you almost forget to laugh because you don't want to miss any of the dialogue. Maybe the film's message makes more sense than one might think: if the world's leaders just got high every once and a while, the world might be a better place. I first saw H&K2 at SXSW, and there are jokes and situations in the film that still make me chuckle upon reflection. Last week's Forgetting Sarah Marshall is by far the better movie, but judging purely on laughs per minutes, 2008 belongs to Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

The Life Before Her Eyes

This might be one of the most frustrating films I've seen in recent months, but I'm still ultimately recommending it despite its shortcomings and largely flawed attempts at emotional surrealism. The director of The Life Before Her Eyes is Vadim Perelman, who tried something similar, and more successfully, in his last film, House of Sand and Fog. The set up of the latest work is astounding and terrifying: two best friends, Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri), are more or less polar opposites in their high school experiences, but they still manage to stay close by never judging each other's lifestyle choices. Diana sleeps around, often with older men, and is a bit of a wild child; Maureen is a virginal, church-going girl who is concerned with her friend's behavior. While doing their makeup and talking in the girls' room at school, they hear screaming and machine-gun fire. They know that kids and teachers are dying and they're probably next. Then the young gunman steps into the bathroom and forces the two to make an unimaginable choice.

Skip ahead 15 years. Diana (now played by Uma Thurman) is married with a little girl of her own. She still has nightmares and flashbacks to that fateful day, and the anxiety she feels about letting her own child go to school is a daily occurrence. Diana is now an art history professor who is haunted by visions of people she knows are dead from the shooting. As the film goes on (and a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy approaches), Diana has a tougher and tougher time distinguishing reality from her dark and awful fantasy world. The film cuts back and forth between the events leading up to the shooting and the days leading up to the anniversary and a detailed look at every devastating second in that bathroom.

I'll confess that as much as I love Thurman is such free-for-alls as Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, I've always liked her better when she's in full dramatic mode. Films like Hysterical Blindness or Gattaca or Tape bring out the best in her acting potential. Her bundle-of-nerves Diana is one of her finest works as an actor, and it's because of her that I'm recommending the film at all. Wood is also strong here, but we've seen her play the troubled teen before in Thirteen. This role is like a watered-down version of that one. The final scenes of the movie are probably going to infuriate 75 percent of audience members who see it, even those who have liked it up until that point. Since we're talking percentages, I'm 95 percent sure I didn't even understand the ending of the film, and 100 percent sure I'm not supposed to. What's maddening about the final minutes is that it's confusing in a needless way. The Life Before Her Eyes could have had a satisfying conclusion without feeling compromised in the slightest. Instead, Perelman seeks to mystify us with the way his mind works (I guess I shouldn't leave out screenwriter Emil Stern, working from Laura Kasischke's novel, as a co-conspirator). Assuming that the film shares a similar structure to that of the novel (and trying hard not to ruin any surprises either one offers), I suppose one way of looking at the work is as an elaborate ghost story or a look ahead to a life that never was. The hell if I know, and, frankly, the hell if I was made to care much. Thurman is worth the price of admission, but The Life Before Her Eyes is a bit of a mess. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Deception

Something is going on here. When did thrillers stop being so thrilling? In this flaccid story, a nerdy New York accountant, Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor, who just screams "dork"), with zero personal life makes friends with a strapping lawyer (Hugh Jackman) while McGregor is auditing the books at Jackman's law firm. Almost from the first second the two meet, we know something isn't quite on the up and up with Jackman's character, beginning with his name, Wyatt Bose. Still, that doesn't mean that Jonathan can't have a little fun with Wyatt's help.

When the two men "accidentally" switch phones just before Wyatt takes an extended business trip to London, Jonathan takes a call from a woman who inquires, "Are you free tonight?" Rather than try to explain that he is not who she thinks he is, Jon goes to meet her at a swanky hotel, and the two have mind-numbing sex. It becomes clear that the mystery lady (a nice cameo by Natasha Henstridge) had no idea who she was meeting when she made the call, and upon further examination of Wyatt's phone, Jonathan finds a long list of numbers with no names. He calls one; a woman answers; and he (being a fast thinker on his feet) says, "Are you free tonight?" The next thing he knows, he's in another hotel room, this time with Charlotte Rampling, who still looks great for 62. At this point, Jonathan realizes this is some kind of anonymous sex club made up of only extremely rich and exceedingly busy members who want sex without attachments. Jonathan loses his fool mind for a couple of days. On one of these dates, he meets a young woman he gets to know as Sunbeam (Michelle Williams, absolutely oozing sexuality). She's someone whom he's seen before, in his pre-sex list days, and it was one of those love-at-first-sight things. Rather than stick to the rules of The List (no names, no conversations), he tries to get to know her, and she seems charmed.

If there had been an iota of mystery in Deception, I might have liked it a whole lot more. But first-time feature director Marcel Langenegger absolutely pummels us with clues that neither Jackman nor Williams are being honest with Jonathan. Jackman plays it way too slick; and Williams comes off as some sort of Madonna-whore. Once everyone's true intentions are laid out, the film gets more and more ridiculous by the minute. There's no mystery, no subtlety, no tension and no goddamn sense. Time lines get hopelessly confusing and implausible; there's even jet setting to Spain for a sequence that is laughable. These are all good actors, but the material in no way demands the best they have to offer. In one three-minute scene, Charlotte Rampling provides more intrigue and better acting than any of the other players here. The others simply aren't that into it, and neither was I. There were easily a dozen spots in this unnecessarily convoluted plot where I could thing of 27 better ways Jonathan could have handled various situations. His logic, his way of thinking and carrying himself make NO DAMN SENSE. Why can't things in this world make sense? Why do people in movies (all genres) act like such dopes? These are age-old questions, ones that do not get answered in Deception, your home for dumb character behavior.

Chapter 27

It seems entirely appropriate that this film and The Life Before Her Eyes are opening on the same day here in Chicago (and both at the Landmark Century Center Cinema). Both are films about people who are losing their minds and both contain senseless death. In Chapter 27, a fictional but mostly believable examination of the mental deterioration of Mark David Chapman in the days leading up to his shooting of John Lennon in 1980 in New York City. What the film accomplishes is painting what feels like an authentic portrait of this pathetic, pudgy and in no way extraordinary man. In his career, Jared Leto has never even hinted that he is capable of a performance this layered and complete. His creepy narration shares Chapman's thought process with us as we observe his grasp on reality slip away. His admiration for Lennon, his music and his work as an advocate for peace are strangely clear. So why did he feel like he had to kill him? Was it for his own self-glorification, so that his name would always be linked to this legend? I'm sure that was a big part of it. What did Chapman see in the notorious J.D. Salinger book The Catcher in the Rye that he related to so readily (the film's title refers to Chapman seeing himself as the writer of the 26-chapter novel's 27th chapter).

People can say all they want about actors who gain or lose weight for a part, and how that isn't really the same as acting. But much as Robert De Niro did when he played the overweight Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, the weight Leto puts on for Chapter 27 forces him to carry himself differently. His body language is altered; he seems less confident, even as he's making friends with a friendly Lennon groupie (Lindsey Lohan) who also hangs outside The Dakota apartment building hoping for a glimpse of their idol. Writer-director J.P. Schaefer isn't as interested in Chapman's legacy, or whether his terrible acting drove the final nail in the coffin of all that the '60s represented. No, he's looking to unlock a little bit of what drives a person to kill someone famous. I don't even think the filmmaker is attempting to draw a comparison between the modern-day paparazzi (an early example of which is played by Judah Friedlander) and stalkers through the ages. The film is less ambitious than that. The movie is not without its problems. The supporting characters offer us nothing to enlighten Chapman's motivations. There's nothing inherently wrong with Lohan's performance, but her character doesn't add a thing to this thin story. And a side story about Chapman with a hooker or two adds to the seediness of his character, for certain, but it doesn't really make us understand him any better.

The press notes for Chapter 27 tell us that Schaefer based a lot of his screenplay on a series of interviews Chapman (who resides in Attica still) gave to journalist Jack Jones, in which the killer discussed in great detail the days leading up to the shooting. So, I'm glad to know that the filmmaker wasn't working on pure speculation. But the reason the movie works is Leto's monumental work as the compulsive liar and paranoid man who believed his fame was worth the price of another man's life. You many not love Chapter 27, but it's unlikely you'll ever forget it.

Woman on the Beach

The week's biggest surprise comes courtesy of South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man) and his sly, subversive and extremely entertaining character study of a filmmaker named Joon-rae with a case of writer's block. The writer decides to impose on his assistant and his girlfriend at the last minute and force them to drive him from Seoul to the seaside, where he thinks he can get some writing done. It becomes clear on the drive that the girlfriend, Moon-sook, is attracted to Joon-rae, and this makes for an awkward day at the beach. The plot only takes place over a couple of days in this serene community, but a great deal happens in the romantic and creative life of this director, as women come and go, tempers flare and recede, and, yes, a script eventually does get written, not despite the chaos, but because of it. Just as Moon-sook leaves the vacation setting, frustrated with Joon-rae's behavior, another woman (who reminds the filmmaker of Moon-sook) arrives to tempt him.

Woman on the Beach is made up of simple scenes with static camera movement and a narrative structure that is essentially split into two botched love affairs. But the film is also exceedingly charming and flows as effortlessly from one scene into another as the gentle waves coming up on the beach of the town that acts as the lovely setting of the movie. Characters float in and out of Joon-rae's life causing a great deal of stress for him, but somehow managing to provide him with enough inspiration to finish his work and entertain me to no end. Hong is one of the most fully formed of the Korean New Wave filmmakers, and it makes me happy that he's produced a movie that is exceedingly accessible without pandering to the mainstream. Still, fans of true-to-life romance stories will have a lot to admire about Hong's latest work, which opens today for a 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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