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Sunday, April 21

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I could probably write an entire week's column just on this movie, but instead of providing you with all the details of the glorious twists, turns, adjustments, inventions and general creative goop that make up this decades-in-the-making adaptation of Douglas Adams' radio play/book/television series, I'll just insist that you see it. The first thing you must understand about the universe behind Hitchhiker's Guide is that Adams viewed these stories and characters as works in progress. He added and subtracted characters, plot elements, etc. The most obvious evidence of this in the feature film is the creation by Adams (the script for the film was more or less finished before Adams died in 2001) of religious leader Humma Kavula, played with slithery excellence by John Malkovich. But I'm jumping ahead and providing more detail than is necessary.

What works here? I'd have to say pretty much everything. You may not have envisioned some of these characters quite the way they are cast for the film, but I don't think you'll have time disabling your inner casting director. Martin Freeman (from the original "The Office" series) is the hapless, unsuspecting Arthur Dent, who is informed by his best mate, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), that the earth is about to be destroyed and that Ford is actually an alien being who hitches rides with passing space crafts. For those concerned with casting the sometime-rapper, Mos Def is the real deal. If you've caught him in films like Monster's Ball, The Woodsman or HBO's Something the Lord Made, you know the guy is a seriously talented actor. In Hitchhiker's Guide, he reveals his untapped comedic resources and the results are wonderful.

The other surprise hit here is Sam Rockwell as President of the Universe Zaphod Beeblebrox. Rockwell is a highly reliable force in films (see his most recent works Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Matchstick Men for proof), but with this role, he's elevated himself into the stratosphere. Mashing the hair of Fabio with the voice and confidence of Bill Clinton, Rockwell's take on Zaphod is fearless and hysterical. I found myself giggling pretty much all the time through Hitchhiker's Guide, but it was Rockwell that made me laugh out loud. Another one of my favorites, Zooey Deschanel (Elf), portrays Trillian, a woman Arthur meets and begins to fall for on earth, only to find out she too is a galaxy traveler. She counters Rockwell's insanity with a laid-back, charming performance that is difficult to resist. You'll leave this movie with a little place in your heart for her.

Voices are key to any version of Hitchhiker's Guide work, and this film has some of the best unseen talent available. Stephen Fry as our helpful narrator and voice of the titular Guide uses his trademark sly delivery to make the inconceivable seem quite everyday and understandable. Helen Mirren plays the all-knowing master computer Deep Thought. And Alan Rickman brings the house down as the voice of the perpetually depressed robot Marvin. I thought I'd get tired of his delivery after a while, but it never happened. Bill Nighy (the person, not just the voice) is also on hand as Slartibartfast, the man who guides Arthur through the place in the universe where planets are manufactured. The look on Arthur's face when he sees the planet showroom almost made me weep.

Hitchhiker's Guide is a film and a story for those tired of cookie-cutter science fiction characters and situations. You will never look at things like towels, mice or handkerchiefs again in quite the same manner. From the opening musical number performed by dolphins to the improbability button to a gun that makes you feel what the shooter is feeling, this is a tale filled with imaginative and intellectually stimulating creations. On a more base level, the non-CGI Vogons (courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Shop) are so lifelike you can almost smell their foul breath. The less organic effects are also top-notch. First-time feature director Garth Jennings (a music video vet) has turned a remarkably dense work into a thing of beauty and fun. At its heart, Hitchhiker's Guide is satire, and on that level, it's flawless.

When I mentioned a few weeks ago to people that I was going to see the latest film from writer-director Todd Solondz, the response was universally, "Todd who?" Sometimes you forget that the public at large probably didn't make it to Solondz's controversial, difficult-to-swallow works like Happiness and Storytelling. When I try to explain who Solondz is, I inevitably end up saying, "He's the guy who directed Welcome to the Dollhouse." That usually triggers the spark that leads to recognition. It's not unheard of that a director is so readily identified by one film, but being identified with one's first film is perhaps more rare.

So imagine my shock when, in the opening shots of his latest film, Palindromes (opening today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre), Solondz presents us with the funeral of Dollhouse's central misfit Dawn Wiener, who we are told committed suicide because she couldn't handle the anguish after being date raped. Solondz literally brutalizes and buries his past, and he does so in his most poetic and searing work to date. His familiar themes of alienated souls and the hidden ugliness behind the suburban facade are firmly in place. But the center point of Palindromes is clearly religion and the misguided faith that often fuels religious fervor. If this film manages to become even a little bit popular, the pundits will stomp on it mightily.

At Dawn's funeral, we meet her cousin, 13-year-old Aviva Victor, who makes it clear early on that she wants to be a mother as soon as possible. Palindromes is a segmented film, divided into chapters featuring the names of the new characters in Aviva's life. Although it's not as critical to the plot as one might think, Aviva is played by different actors in each chapter. The actors include two women, four older girls, one young girl and one 12-year-old boy, of varying ages, sizes and races. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to Solondz's choice of actors, but I'm guessing that's not the case. My gut feeling was that the age of actress playing Aviva was tied to how old she was feeling at that moment of her life. Even if that guess is true, it doesn't account for the race or weight variances. I think ultimately that if you just watch the film and don't try second-guessing its motives, you'll enjoy it a lot more.

In an effort to have a baby, Aviva sleeps with the young son of a close friend of her parents (Richard Masur and Ellen Barkin, in absolutely one of her best performances ever as an overprotective mother). He knocks her up, and Aviva's mother insists that she get an abortion. In classic Solondz fashion, he rarely misses a chance to make us squirm in our seats. The image of the young girl having sex is repeated throughout the film. When Aviva and her mother go to the abortion clinic, there are protesters holding some incredibly graphic posters featuring dead babies. Unlike some of the scenes in, say, Storytelling, these sequences aren't played for shock value (okay, maybe a little). Rather, Solondz prefers that we meditate on these images for a spell. He is great at throwing a spotlight on characters we almost never see portrayed on the screen. Would Kevin Bacon have dared to play a child molester in The Woodsman if it hadn't been for Dylan Baker's brave performance in Solondz's Happiness? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly, Baker wasn't the first actor to play a pedophile on screen, but he's the first one I can remember actually being drawn as a fully realized person.

During Aviva's abortion, something goes wrong and it turns out she will never be able to have kids as a result. Her parents decide not to tell her this bit of news, and soon after Aviva's anger toward her folks results in her running away from home. On the road, she sleeps with men to get pregnant again, obviously with no results. She eventually stumbles upon the home of Mama and Bo Sunshine (Debra Monk and Walter Bobbie), who run a home for what I can only describe as misfit children, with physical, mental or psychological handicaps. This chapter of the film is by far the longest and most compelling, and it speaks most directly to the religious aspects of the screenplay. The Sunshine home seems like a joyous, Christian-based place to be. The kids get along and have even formed a singing group that performs at church functions and other gatherings that need a little Sunshine. But brewing beneath the house (literally) is something sinister, and for the first time in the film, Aviva feels genuine fear and questions her decision to get pregnant. Solondz does a superior job building a slow, simmering suspense as Aviva's life gets more and more frightening.

Palindromes, like most of Solondz's films, sticks in your craw when you first see it, but eventually that feeling moves into your head. He has this uncanny ability to produce works that refuse to leave your brain for days. There are parts of his other films I can recall with shocking clarity, and the same holds true for this one. The man knows just the right (or wrong) buttons to push. More importantly, he knows how to make you think, even if the things he wants you thinking about are almost too painful to contemplate.

House of D
I always feel bad beating up on films that mean well, but they're just so pathetic and helpless that you have to look at it as tough love, or perhaps a mercy killing. Welcome to writer-director-star David Duchovny's agonizingly spineless and wimpy House of D, about sensitive American artist Tom Warshaw living in Paris, with a wife (Magali Amadei) who looks like a hot model and a 13-year-old son. Rough life, dude. Still, Tom determines his life will not be meaningful unless he unloads the details of his shitty childhood on his wife, son and, unfortunately, us. What Duchovny does not seem to understand is that his movie is so bad that watching it might actually mess up the childhoods of many young people who go see it. Damn you, David Duchovny, for being so thoughtless.

Most of the film is told in flashback with the talented Anton Yelchin portraying Tom at 13 growing up in New York. In a bit of casting that might send Dr. Freud to a shrink, Téa Leoni plays Tom's pill-popping mother, who is still grieving over the death of her husband from cancer. The only person young Tommy can truly call a friend is the "retarded" Pappass (Robin Williams), the assistant janitor at the boy's Catholic school. Where do I begin with the problems of casting Williams in a role like this? I accept that Williams can be a fine dramatic actor, and I can accept him playing a retarded character. (He did a credible job doing so in Patch Adams, right?) But the way Pappass is written is like so many other mentally challenged characters in films. He's what I call "conveniently" retarded. In other words, when the plot requires the character to be childlike and clueless, the IQ points drop; when it needs him to be smarter and competent, he gets smarter. There's even a scene where Pappass imitates a "normal" person. Give me a break.

Aside from his mother's instability, the big drama in Tommy's life is his sudden interest in girls. For advice on this matter, Tommy consults with Lady Bernadette (Erykah Badu), who just happens to live on the fifth floor of a women's house of detention (thus the film's title). Tommy never actually sees Bernadette, but the two carry on long conversations with him yelling up to her, and her observing him with a mirror. Yes, these scenes are as ridiculous as you'd expect. Far more interesting is the too-close-for-comfort relationship between Tommy and his mother. But the film's refusal to examine that element of the story highlights what's wrong with House of D. The movie's conclusion involving the grown Tom revisiting his old haunts in New York is so terribly anticlimactic that you might actually slip into a coma.

I don't think it's any coincidence that there's been so much in the press lately from Duchovny about him and his X-Files co-workers making a second film in that series. Perhaps he realizes he needs to do everything in his power to make people forget he ever made House of D, a film that actually manages to be worse than pointless.

The Other Side of the Street
I haven't figured out why, but films about old people in love and having sex seem to stir up people's business more than any other type of romance movies. Recent works like Roger Michell's The Mother and Paul Cox's Innocence dared to display rather graphic takes on geriatric genital mingling and set critics' tongues a-wagging. I have to confess, I'm drawn to these films too, but not because I have some sort of fixation on rest home romances. I enjoy them because in most cases, the actors in them are seasoned veterans of the stage and/or screen whom we just don't get to see often enough. Such is the case with Brazil's The Other Side of the Street (now playing at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park).

The talented Fernanda Montenegro (the Oscar-nominated actress from Central Station) plays Regina, a lonely older woman who has dedicated her largely empty life to patrolling the streets of Copacabana (said to be a popular area for the elderly to live) and snitching on any evil-doers to the police. One evening she spies on an apartment building across the street from hers and witnesses what she believes is the murder of an older woman by the woman's husband, Camargo (Raul Cortez).

Although the former judge Camargo is not charged with any crime, Regina follows Camargo around the city hoping to find clues to and motive for his crime. Camargo spots her near him on more than one occasion, but rather than suspect she is spying on him, he believes the fates keep throwing them together, and he asks her on a date. Her fear of death is overwhelmed by her insatiable curiosity, and she agrees to see him. After spending time together, it becomes clear that Regina is deeply attracted to Camargo, but whenever he tries to put the moves on her, she panics. The film's ultimate question is: will this long-in-the-tooth lust win out over Regina's paranoia about her would-be lover?

Seasoned screenwriter (of Central Station among others) Marcos Bernstein makes his directing debut and wisely chooses not to focus too much on the age of the lead characters. These are active, passionate individuals whose need for an outlet and for a way to feel useful leads them to go somewhat overboard with their actions. Montenegro is so good here as a woman who is both confident and mildly pathetic in the same breath. She's also still beautiful and funny, and it's completely plausible that any man--young or old--would notice her in a crowd and be instantly charmed. Bernstein also seizes the opportunity to subtly comment on the growing problem of random violence on the streets of many Brazilian cities. A moment of peace and serenity is occasionally shattered with gunfire or a mugging. The urban chaos clashes with the beautiful locations, and the result is eye-opening. The Other Side of the Street often crosses the line between sweet and cynical, but the film never feels fractured. This is one worth seeking out.

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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 .

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