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Monday, May 20

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Airbags

This week's non-offering (meaning the studio wouldn't scream it early for us critics) is a low-grade little horror offering called The Covenant, a film whose only interesting feature is that it was directed by one-time decent filmmaker Renny Harlin (Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea). Next week, I'm coming back from a weeklong vacation in South Carolina, so there may actually be a few films I don't get to review. I already know I'm missing The Black Dahlia, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby, and the Iraq War documentary The Ground Truth. I'll be sure to distinguish between the films being hidden from me, and the ones I just plain missed. This week's offerings are quite good (with a few exceptions). Read on.

Hollywoodland

It is fact that shortly after the 1959 suicide of actor George Reeves, there was a short-lived conspiracy theory that he may not have actually offed himself. The murder angle was proposed but never substantiated, and in all likelihood, his death was exactly what it seemed: the self-destruction of a handsome, somewhat talented man who never quite got the breaks in Hollywood to make him a bigger star.

As you may know, Reeves achieved his greatest fame playing the title character in the 1950s television series "The Adventures of Superman." But he also enjoyed middling success with smaller roles in Gone with the Wind, Rancho Notorious, The Blue Gardenia and From Here to Eternity. According to Hollywoodland, Reeves (played nicely by Ben Affleck) led a life of frustration and countless auditions. Not that he was a starving actor by any stretch. Reeves was something of a kept man thanks to his long-term love affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins, playing as much of a thug as he ever has). The Mannixs had a very open marriage, but that doesn't stop private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) from suspecting foul play in Reeves' death.

Simo is hired by Reeves' mother, who firmly believes that her son would never have committed suicide. Simo knows this is simply a mother being a mother, but that doesn't stop him from taking her money and at least putting of the pretense of an investigation. Simo may not be the world's great detective, but he is very effective at stirring up shit via the bloodthirsty boys of the media. Part of the reason the film is so evocative is that we're never really convinced Simo believes any of the alternative death theories that he comes up with, even as he's confronting the very men and women he claims may have had a hand in Reeves' death.

Hollywoodland's greatest achievement is not throwing light on one of great Hollywood's great mysteries. But it does offer a view of two men whose lives were similar in many ways, since both were wholly unsatisfied with their lot in life. We see Simo make repeated unannounced (sometimes drunken) visits to his ex-wife (Molly Parker) and son, both of whom he misses terribly. His "home office" is a seedy hotel room, and he apparently was a cop of some sort before losing his job in some scandal years earlier. He doesn't have a lot in his life to be happy about.

Although George Reeves never had to work once he hooked up with Mrs. Mannix, he was a good Southern gentleman with a strong work ethic and never really took to being a rich woman's boy toy (although he was hardly a youngster). Both Affleck and Brody give nicely done slow-burn performances here, with Brody given the occasional explosive moment and Affleck some well-placed comic turns. He and first-time feature director Allen Coulter (who has made a name for himself in recent years directing HBO series like "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "Rome" and even "Sex in the City") see the humor in a slightly overweight, smoking Affleck in a Superman suit getting ready to be a part of a wild-west stunt show.

Hollywoodland fills its frame with some nice supporting work from Hoskins, Joe Spano (as MGM head of publicity, who fixes and hides every scandal and takes a great interest in Simo's investigation), and Robin Tunney (recently killed off from "Prison Break") as Reeves' girlfriend after he ends things with Mrs. Mannix.

The film is sometimes frustrating, modestly paced, and may not offer the most exciting conclusions to its investigation, but the capturing of the tail end of the Hollywood's golden age and its strong performances make it worth seeing. Don't go in thinking the movie is a film noir or some great crime drama; that's how they trick you into getting your butts in the theater. No, the things Hollywoodland has going for it are two solid character studies of men whose lives never crossed but whose lifestyles led them to remarkably similar places in their unsatisfying worlds. The film is something of a downer, but I'd rather be slightly depressed at the end of a good movie than depressed because a film is so bad.

The Protector

I was in New York City recently, a place I lived many years ago yet never took the opportunity to see a film in a Times Square movie theatre. Of course, back when I lived there in the early 1990s, they were playing a slightly different kind of movie in Times Square, but today it's packed with multiplexes. I went to a 10-something show of Pulse with an extremely lively audience. One of the trailers before the feature was for The Protector. As soon as star Tony Jaa's face and martial arts abilities were up on that screen, every audience member starting exclaiming, "That's Ong Bak!" Far be it from me to correct the unruly crowd, but I was excited that people seemed to actually recognize Jaa and they had seen Ong Bak, the martial arts masterpiece from Thailand that hit American shores last year.

Like many martial arts fans and supporters of Ong Bak, I had seen Jaa's follow up — and I think far superior film — Tom Yum Goong (renamed The Protector for Western audiences). And much like with Ong Bak's international release, this film had been slightly tightened in the editing room and given a bumpin' score from Wu Tang's The RZA (Kill Bill, Vol 1; Ghost Dog; Blade: Trinity). In any language, The Protector is a fantastic action masterpiece, with absolutely jaw-dropping, bone-crunching (literally) Muay Thai fight sequences, a better story than Ong Bak (both films were written and directed by Prachya Pinkaew), and more ferocious acting from Jaa. But of equal importance is that the filmmakers manage to deliver on all these points without sacrificing the sense of Thai culture and its place in the global village.

In the spirit of complete honesty, I have yet to see the reworked version of this film, but I swear I will, so my review is based solely on seeing an undubbed, unsubtitled copy of Tom Yum Goong. Since much of the action takes place in Sydney, Australia, most of the film is in English. I don't know exactly what story elements have been trimmed, but I can't imagine the released version is much different. Jaa plays Kham, a simple peasant man whose world is shattered when his family's pet elephants are stolen. The animals (one baby, one adult) were meant as gifts to the King of Thailand. Instead they are illegally shipped to Australia for mysterious purposes. Kham travels to Sydney in search of his elephants. With the help of a disgraced Thai-born police detective (Ong Bak's Phetthai Wongkhamlao), he searches through Sydney's underworld.

A lot of emphasis is going to be placed on one particular fight sequence, although every single one of them is outstanding. There's a four-minute, one-take sequence in which Jaa ascends four stories of a hotel with the camera just behind him. He takes on dozens of villains in his climb, and the amount of prep time and rehearsal seems almost impossible to conceive. But my personal favorite fight scene in close to the end, in which Jaa fights past another huge gang of comers. At this point in the story, he's far more pissed off, so he breaks the bones of every single opponent with a resounding series of loud cracks.

Jaa's athletic abilities have never been called into question, but in The Protector, he actually gets to show us that his acting has improved since Ong Bak. He suffers great personal loss more than once in the course of the story, and the overwhelming emotional cost is not lost on his character. Kham is not a hard-ass. Much like Jaa, he is a caring person whose spiritual beliefs and dedication to his nation take precedent over fighting and material possessions. Since elephants hold an important place in Thai culture, the loss of these creatures is not about property but about national pride and friendship. The Protector is an ambitious endeavor that will leave you aching at the sight of so much physical abuse. And while the outcome of Jaa's character is never really in doubt, the film does have a darker, less certain conclusion than you might presuppose. This is one of those films you have no choice but to add to the hall of fame of martial arts films along side Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, Jackie Chan's Drunken Master 2, or Jet Li's Once Upon a time in China series. You must see this, even if action films aren't typically your thing. I can easily imagine those completely unfamiliar with the genre being impressed with this work. Prepare to be shocked, amazed and above all impressed with The Protector.

Time to Leave

Here's a sweeping generalization for you: I love French film. Pretty much across the board, old and new, I can't get enough of it. Maybe it's the beautiful women that tend to populate these works, maybe it's the way most of the films go out of their way to be the antithesis of the way American films are structured, written and acted. Or maybe it's because many of the writer-directors who make films in France seem freer to take chances and make bold statements about the human condition. Or maybe it's just the beautiful women. Probably my favorite French director working today is Francois Ozon (Sitcom, Under the Sand, 8 Women, 5x2), whose latest Time to Leave twists the concept of the final days of a dying man into a sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet exercise in forgiveness.

Melvil Poupand (Time Regained, Le Divorce) plays Romain, a successful fashion photographer and bitchy gay man, who has been estranged from nearly all of his family for years, and this doesn't seem to bother him at all. He has a great job and a hot boyfriend (whom he breaks up with violently early in the film), and that's all he cares about. After passing out during a shoot, he learns that he only has a few months to live (his exact ailment is never mentioned, nor does it matter), and as you'd expect, he takes time to re-examine his life and relationships. He's not convinced he wants to share this information with everyone in his family but he does see the need to at least mend his fences. Sometimes this works, as he discovers when he spends some time with his lovely grandmother (Jeanne Moreau). Sometimes these reconciliations are a disaster. A visit home to see his parents and sister is the latter. An attempt at reconciliation with his boyfriend doesn't work out either.

Strangely enough, Romain finds a great deal of comfort talking to a complete stranger, a waitress (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who starred in 5x2 and had a nice supporting role in Munich). This meeting leads to a strange request from the waitress and her husband, but it's a strangely satisfying endeavor for Romain. Time to Leave is filled with such moments, ones that are both endearing and painful. Romain spends a lot of time suffering alone, with bouts of bad sleep, vomiting, and sometimes literally banging his head against the wall. His attempt at mending things with those he has let down or hurt are noble, but we can tell sometimes he's doing this because he thinks he should and not because his heart is in it. We see in flashbacks to his childhood how close he was to his parents and sister, but this makes their current state all the more upsetting.

Time to Leave never stopped surprising me with its depth and plot. There are some aspects to the story I never could have anticipated and a few moments I thought I saw coming and was dead wrong. This work is probably as sentimental as Ozon has ever been or ever will be, which is not to say he's trying to make you cry. Romain never really stops being an asshole, and in the end, he's simply looking for someone who knows everything about him (except that he's sick) and loves him anyway. Time to Leave is a strangely moving piece that gives me one more reason to keep on loving French cinema. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Queens(Reinas)

Queens is the greatest Pedro Almodovar film that he didn't actually make. Featuring many Almodovar regulars in a plot that seems tailor-made for the Spanish master, Queens is the fictional account of Spain's first gay wedding, a symbolic event that has been turned into a mass wedding ceremony with 20 couples. Despite what you might think, the "queens" in the film are not the men getting married but their mothers, all of whom have varying opinions on the event and on their sons' homosexual lifestyle. But in the end, when unforeseen circumstances threaten to kill the event, they are called upon to do what any good mothers would do: make their sons happy and proud.

Like many ensemble pieces, there are some storylines that work better than others. For years, I held a deep crush on Almodovar seven-time regular Carmen Maura. I don't see her in as many films these days, but she shines as the gays-only hotel owner who is hosting the mass wedding. On the day of the wedding her cooking staff and other hotel workers (led by the chef and Maura's lover) decide to go on strike, threatening the event. Her persona is that of a hard-nosed businesswoman who has had to sacrifice her home life for the success of her hotel chain, but Maura adds such a necessary sense of humanity to the character that you can't help but root for her.

All About My Mother star Marisa Paredes plays Reyes, a rich single woman whose son is marrying their gardener's son. She fears that the issue here is money, but when she gets involved with the gardener, she discovers that he's equally troubled by the union because he'd rather his gay son didn't marry a rich, pampered mama's boy. Hers is probably the most believable and sweetest of the plotlines, and Paredes continues to be such a radiant beauty that you can't help but fall for her character.

But for every story that works, there are some that don't. The mother who can't stop sleeping with men who are wrong for her (including her son's fiancé) never really amounts to anything, while the tale of an Argentinean mother who arrives in Spain with the intention of living with her son and his unsuspecting fiancé is simply a dud. Still, there's enough spirit and humor that hits the mark to recommend this colorful, well-intentioned work from director Manuel Gomez Pereira (Mouth to Mouth). Queens plays fast and furious with its chronology, often replaying the same moment in time seen from different perspectives. I'm not sure this device was entirely necessary, but it does spice things up a bit. It's tough to dislike a film that celebrates the great middle-aged talent still very much a part of the acting pool in Spain. They don't sacrifice an iota of glamour or talent in this work, and any opportunity to see these seasoned vets strut their collective stuff is well worth it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

13 (Tzameti)

Normally when I speak of films as being raw or brutal, I'm talking about some horror film featuring loads of torture and gore. But 13 (Tzameti) is an entirely different, although no less gut-punching, monster. The winner at the 2005 Venice Film Festival for Best First Feature and the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival, 13 (Tzameti) tells the story of a poverty-stricken young immigrant named Sebastian (Georges Babluani), living in Europe and never quite having enough money to take care of his family. While doing roof repairs on a neighbor's home, he overhears a discussion about a package that the receiver says will make him a rich man. Sebastian swipes the package, which contains information that leads him to a series of meetings and eventually being taken to a secret location. The police are on his tail because they have a sense that something horribly and grossly illegal awaits Sebastian at the end of this journey. They are correct.

Assuming the identity of the package's original addressee, Sebastian is horrified to discover where this road to riches takes him: a gambling ring in which the gamblers bet on contestants engaged in what can only be described as Extreme Russian Roulette. Sebastian is given a number (13) and made to stand in a circle with other men, each holding a gun and a bullet. With each round of play, the number of bullets increases, the bets get higher, and your chances of surviving the round decrease. So why do these men play the game? Because they need money so desperately, they are willing to die to get the big payoff that goes to the winner. As a player, you have two things to hope for: that the guy behind you doesn't have a bullet in his chamber; or if he does, that the guy behind him gets his shot off fast enough that the guy behind you doesn't get the chance to shoot. Needless to say, every second of this film is a nail-biter.

This black-and-white insanity trip comes courtesy of director Gela Babluani, who has an absolute gift for building tension that never lets up. The man is ruthless and he sets the bar high for his relentless trip through one man's Eastern European hell. By the time you get near the end of the competition, the players are mentally destroyed. Can you imagine during the course of just a couple of hours thinking three or four times that you were going to die? Maybe a bullet in the brain is just what these guys need. This powerful piece of mindfuckery is a lot to handle in the film's 90-minute length, but I swear you will not come out the other end the same person. And don't think for a second that the end of the contest is the end of the film. Director Babluani has a few sucker punches waiting for you before the final credits roll. Here's one piece of advice for you: Don't forget to breathe while watching 13 (Tzameti) — it will keep you from fainting. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Gabrielle

Not exactly a new film, but new to Chicago is this dark French offering, based on the short story "The Return" by Joseph Conrad, about a married couple whose relationship is on the edge of destruction. As directed by Patrice Chereau (Queen Margot, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Intimacy), Gabrielle is a cold affair starring the Ice Queen herself, Isabelle Huppert, and Pascal Greggory as Gabrielle and Jean Hervey, a turn-of-the-century aristocratic French couple. Mr. Hervey arrives home from a business trip to discover a letter from his wife awaiting him. She has left him for an unknown man, and suddenly this confident lord of the manor is left shattered and vulnerable.

Crashing through the rooms of his mansion, Hervey hears a sound downstairs: his wife is returning with hopes of retrieving the letter before it is found by her husband, her plans changed. What a difference a few minutes make. What happens instead is a nasty war of the roses, in which the couple dissect their seemingly comfortable and content marriage until there is little left to hang a life upon. Many aspects of this film remind me of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. At times their conversation is calm and seemingly collected; at other times, violence seems inevitable. The couple engages in a calculated dance throughout the house, separating into their respective corners occupied by various servants, and then returning in a common area to strike up a new battle. When Gabrielle unleashes her largest weapon — the identity of the mystery lover — the battle seems done.

The scene shifts to a party, and you know that the only thing worse than fighting with your unfaithful spouse is doing so in front of guests. The scene gets worse and horribly embarrassing, with the evening culminating in an ugly and unthinkable act that seals the fate of this couple. Gabrielle is a series of emotional charges set to go off at exactly the moments you think the couple might be able to patch their wounded prides. But director Chereau never lets the wounds heal until finally, love does not die, it is murdered without mercy. This is not an easy film to sit through, but the lead performances stand as some of the finest I've seen in a film in quite some time. They may leave you distant and chilly, but these are characters conditioned to hide and disguise their emotions. When they crack and let go of their feelings, you often wish they'd been a bit stronger to spare everyone their humiliation. If your relationship is on shaky ground, do not consider this a possible date movie. Just a suggestion. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Broken Bridges

The hick-centric CMT cable channel has produced a movie it thinks is good enough to play in theatres, and it stars King of the Rednecks Toby Keith as Bo Price, a once-popular country singer who has stumbled on hard times of his own making. These are the kind of troubles that one senses could be solved if only a defining life-changing event occurs that makes him remember what's important and gives him something to live for. Did I mention that he has a 16-year-old daughter he's never met? Hmmm, I wonder...

I've always wondered why films about country singers need for them to appear harder and tougher than they really are. And why is it so important that they get in touch with their roots to find that spark that made them great in the first place? Keith's brother, along with many other young men from his hometown, is killed in a military training accident, forcing him to come home and face people he hasn't seen since he was in high school. Chief among them is high school girlfriend Angela (Kelly Preston), who he abandoned in a fit of youthful cowardice when he found out she was pregnant, leaving her to the disappointed devices of her father (Burt Reynolds, sporting a killer jet-black hairpiece). Angela's brother was also killed in the accident, and she's even less excited about coming home. She's a somewhat successful television journalist, whose rebellious daughter is about as bratty and unforgiving as the cliché lets her be.

Anyone with a fifth-grade education or someone who has seen at least three movies in their lifetime could probably figure out or even write the rest of this film. Bo and Angela are reunited, they squabble, they bicker, but eventually they remember what they saw in each other as kids and they make up. It just so happens the daughter is a musician and songwriter, who has at least one shitty rock song she wants to share with her father, so he can slow it down and turn it into a shitty country song. Children and parents all feel better about each other and the world. It's a beautiful fucking thing.

I'll give Broken Bridges credit where it's due. It doesn't play off Keith's rah-rah American, these-colors-don't-run image. In one scene, some townspeople attempt to console him about his dead brother by saying, "He died a hero." To which he snaps back, "He died in a training accident." If anything, the guy seems a little subdued. Preston is about as good as she usually is in anything clothed. Willie Nelson makes a cameo as himself here and manages to show most of the cast that he's a better actor than any of them by pretending to look interested in what's being said or done in this movie. There isn't too much that happens in this film that you're going to get invested in or won't be able to predict long before it occurs, and I consider this one that you owe me. I take these shots so you won't have to. Unless the music of Toby Keith means something to you (and I know it does to some), you've got no business seeing this film. And even if his music does hold a special place in your heart, you'll probably still be disappointed.

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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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