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Friday, July 19

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Airbags

I know it's hard to believe, but for the second week in a row I am forced to resort to the round-up format for this week's releases. This time I blame a bachelor party that went well into Sunday morning and essentially stole my writing time away from me over the weekend. But we have a few choice morsels for you to munch upon. Enjoy...

How To Lose Friends & Alienate People

Simon Pegg gets closer to realizing his goal of making solid comedy films without the assistance of his Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz director and co-writer Edgar Wright. Whereas I felt Run Fatboy Run fell short by a lot is establishing Pegg as a solid comedy figurehead, How To Lose Friends is a far better effort. Based loosely on Toby Young's account of his days at Vanity Fair, the film follows "Sidney Young" (Pegg) as he is hired away from his British tabloid-style magazine by Clayton Harding (the miraculous Jeff Bridges, whose only crime is not being in this movie more), the publisher of a Vanity Fair-type glossy that glorifies celebrities and seems almost to be an active part of their PR team than impartial journalists. Sidney's in-your-face people skills don't seem to mesh with the rest of the staff (which includes Kirsten Dunst as a fellow writer and Danny Houston as the magazine's managing editor, whose sole job seems to be rubbing up against any famous person he can; he's great). But Clayton sees a bit of his old fire in Sidney and gives him the job of shadowing up-and-coming starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, who does a convincing job of playing vapid, beautiful and talentless) and her snaky agent (Gillian Anderson).

Director Robert Weide (a director and executive producer on "Curb Your Enthusiasm") has a good time with the physical comedy and visual gags that Pegg handles so well in his worth with Wright, but I have to admit, I was more interested in the scenes with Pegg interacting with Dunst, Houston, and especially Bridges. The too-few scenes those two have together are by far the film's best. Pegg's likeability makes a lot of bad stuff easy to forget, and I admire the fact that he never seems to be giving anything less than 100 percent even with sub-par material. I think it's safe to say that he and Bridges essentially save this movie from complete disaster, and saved me from drowning in clich├ęs about the celebrity lifestyle and publishing. Fox could easily spend the rest of her life looking pretty and not worry a scrap about acting, but the fact is as hot as she is in this film, her acting nearly sinks the entire ship. What's funny is that she's perfect for this role; what's not funny is that she's perfect for this role. The bottom line is: the film hits just a few more times than it misses, so I'm recommending it with reservations.

To read my exclusive interview with How To Lose Friends & Alienate People star Simon Pegg, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Appaloosa

It's probably impossible to reinvent the Western at this point, but the new Ed Harris-directed work Appaloosa comes pretty close without straying too far from some of the familiar trappings we love so much about the Old West. Set in the New Mexico territory, this film involves the tried and true "town under siege" that is forced to hire a pair of gunslingers/lawmen (played by Harris and the deliciously understated Viggo Mortensen) to clean up their community from the negative influence of an evil rancher (Jeremy Irons). The two men are just brutal and swift enough once hired to bring law and order to the town in a matter of days. I don't mean to imply that the film is all shooting; quite the contrary. The low-key exchanges between Harris and Mortensen are sometimes downright hilarious, as these two old friends exchange dry wit and observation at every turn whether they're kicking back on a porch chatting or fighting crime. Harris gets a seemingly un-gettable chance at happiness when he meets a newcomer to the town, played by Renee Zellweger. They have a lovely courtship and decide to make a life together in Appaloosa. What is so smart and perfect about this film is way it explores the relationship between these three seemingly uncomplicated characters, who are basically living in a three-way marriage. Outside of Brokeback Mountain, I can't remember the last Western I saw that truly plumbed the depths of a relationship between two male characters. There is an emotional complexity to this work that absolutely threw me and made me love this film just a little bit more.

Of course Mortensen isn't the only one in town who notices Harris' love affair with Zellweger heat up, and his enemies take full advantage of his newfound romance. Appaloosa takes a few more twists and turns than I was expecting from a film that seems content to ease us through its story in no particular hurry. Harris seems intent on making this story (from the novel by Robert Parker, adapted by Harris and Robert Knott) as authentic and layered as possible. For example, he understands that pursuing someone in the desert is not a fast endeavor (John Ford knew this too, but not many after him). He also understands that a fearless man who often must kill people to make a living can be terrified and made stupid by a pretty lady, and he gets that two men that have spent nearly every waking minute together over 10 years can still find it tough to talk to each other about matters of the heart. Harris has struck an absolutely flawless balance between tough and sweet in his characters and this film. And while there are still many weeks to go before December 31, Appaloosa is one of my favorites of the year because it's trying so hard not to be conspicuous. I know this seems counterproductive toward getting butts in seats, but the fact is, the film succeeds because it plays everything in such a low-key manner. That's a quality to be admired, especially if the resulting movie is strong without being flashy or loud.

Flash of Genius

Yes, it's way too polished. Yes, it feels like things get wrapped up just a little too perfectly. Yes, the swirling, swooping music tries to hard to guide your emotions. But at the center of this "true story" of a college professor who invented something truly useful and got royally screwed by Big Auto is a devastating and golden performance by Greg Kinnear. The point of the film isn't that Robert Kearns invented the type of windshield wiper that would eventually go in every car in the world; this film isn't about a windshield wiper. OK, well it is in the beginning, but it's kind of fun to watch the guy figure out how to take the car world from wipers that simply go back and forth nonstop to going once, pausing, and going again at whatever speed you choose. It may not seem like a big deal today but in the 1960s, it was revolutionary. And long-time film producer and first-time feature director Marc Abraham does a great job letting us get caught up in the excitement that Kearns and his family (including wife Phyllis, played by Lauren Graham) go though during the experimentation phase of the project. Dermot Mulroney plays Kearns best friend, who just happens to own Ford dealership in Detroit and is willing to take Robert's idea to the big automakers. Ford loves it, eventually gets ahold of his plans, and promptly drops out of the deal. Jump ahead several months, Ford is introducing Robert's windshield wipers on their latest model cars.

The rest of the film is devoted to Robert Kearns' endless, life-draining struggle against Ford that took away what was left of his youth, his spirit and his perfect family. His obsession with this case was not about money; he wanted the credit. He wanted the automakers (after Ford's launch, the others soon followed) to admit that he invented the wiper, and he refused settlement offer after settlement offer. Thankfully, this is not a film about threatening phone calls in the middle of the night or strange men in trench coats following Kearns or his kids. The story doesn't need that type of trumped up drama; what really happened is more than enough to keep you glued to the screen. Kinnear is the magic man here. His performance combines a quiet desperation, a bit of the crazy, and enough good-old American gumption to keep even the hardest heart caring about where his character lands up when all is said and done. In the end Kearns represented himself in this case after a failed attempt at retaining a high-profile lawyer (great supporting work from Alan Alda). Although I predicted the ultimate outcome of the case, the road is hard traveled for everyone involved and few things in Kearns' life come up roses. But the film isn't about a feel-good ending; it's about telling this David and Goliath story (based on a New Yorker article by John Seabrook) passionately, but without resorting to too many tricks. Flash of Genius is solid, if not spectacular, filmmaking anchored by a dazzling work on Kinnear's part. Between this film and his fine work in the very funny Ghost Town, Kinnear seems on very solid footing these days.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

Sometimes it seems the stars of this film Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno) and Kat Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The House Bunny) are in a perpetual contest to see who can mumble the mumbliest. But that won't stop you from kind of falling in deep like for Nick and Norah, a couple of New York high school kids that have so much more freedom at whatever age they're supposed to be than I had in most of my 20s living 2,000 miles away from my parents. Still, I loved these two misfits as they go through this 24-hour period losing old loves and discovering each other. There isn't so much a plot as there is a series of moments punctuated by a great soundtrack (the cynical creature inside me believes the movie is an excuse to sell a couple million copies of the soundtrack). Nick is a musician who has just been dumped by his cheating girlfriend; Norah is the daughter of someone fairly influential (I won't ruin that little surprise, but it seems to afford her the ability to walk into any club or bar in New York). They have intersecting circles of friends, but don't know each other until they end up in the same club and start chatting. Norah wants to hang (and drive around in Nick's Yugo) but must make sure her drunk best friend makes it home safe, so she deposits her with Nick's gay bandmates and their van. Hilarity ensues in both vehicles. Nick makes the best mix CDs; Norah has almost the exact same taste in music. You can almost see the little hearts and birds floating in the space between them. It sounds shallow, but the fact is, when I was in high school, these things truly mattered.

One of my all time favorite songs is Tom Waits' "The Heart of a Saturday Night," and, in a nutshell, that's what this movie is: two kids trying to capture New York as they drive around town looking for clues to a secret show that their mutual favorite band is set to play that night. When you're that young, you sometimes feel you can own the city in a single night. Infinite Playlist gets that. These kids aren't having Juno-style clever conversations; they don't know each other well enough to do that. They are still feeling each other out, and sometimes the temperature of the conversation runs hot and cold. It's not an easy night for either of them. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is far from a perfect film. Sometimes its aimlessness was irritating; sometimes the behavior of everybody's kooky friends was screechy and annoying. But ultimately Cera and Dennings form a nice little heart at the center of it all, and their sweet, isolated romance won the day.

Blindness

Director Fernando Meirelles is the master of the hideous visual; he's also capable of making works of great beauty (City of God, The Constant Gardener). Blindness is both. Handled in much the same way Children of Men contemplated in an very anti-science fiction way the possibility of a world without babies, this film wonders what would happen if the entire world went blind at roughly the same time. And what sort of power would the one person who could see wield. Julianne Moore plays the wife of Mark Ruffalo, an eye doctor who receives one of the first cases of spontaneous blindness. In an effort to prevent chaos, the government quickly quarantines the blind in what appear to be abandoned hospitals where the victims are forced to fend for themselves. No one but Ruffalo knows his wife can see, and it gives her a bit of a guardian angel quality around the ward.

The film (based on the novel by Jose Saramago and adapted by actor Don McKellar) turns into a "Lord of the Flies" experiment where different personalities begin to take over as leaders of the various wards, who each defend what few resources they have, especially food and water. But beyond the power struggles, the film all too realistically wonders what the condition of the wards would be after only a couple of weeks. Waste matter — human and otherwise — is everywhere. No one has to take responsibility because you can't tell who is pulling their weight and who isn't. Some people walk around naked; who would know? But when war breaks out between the wards, survival comes at a horrible price. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but there are moments in Blindness where I think Meirelles goes too far. I'm sure the scenes I'm thinking of are right out of the book and McKellar's screenplay, but it feels unsavory and exploitative, which I supposed is what he was aiming for. That said, the impact this movie had on me is immeasurable. It made me sick to my stomach, just contemplating how quickly society and its rules would disintegrate, and how quickly people would turn on each other. Is the film depressing? You bet. Does that mean it's not worth seeing? Not at all. With so truly deft performances from the likes of Gael Garcia Bernal, Maury Chaykin, Danny Glover, and Alice Braga, Blindness burns itself into your core and makes you just a little bit fearful of the times ahead. Here's an experiment. Substitute the blindness in this film with global economic meltdown, and think about how people would behave under such circumstances. It would be different, but it would it be any better? This is one scary fucking movie.

Religulous

It is possible to a very funny man to also be a colossally pompous ass. Bill Maher proves that on his weekly HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher," and he proves it exponentially in his documentary Religulous, a documentary that examines the many ways in which religion fucks up our lives and the world... at least that is Maher's theory. If that thesis offends you, you might as well stop reading. If you agree with any part of Maher's belief system, you'll have a rollicking good time at this sometimes-dark work from director Larry Charles (Borat). Maher travels the world to many of the planet's holiest of locales to see if he can understand why people lean on faith, what it adds to the greater good of mankind, and why some people (most people) think their religion is the best. Sometimes Maher makes it too easy. Trying to make sense of evangelicals speaking in tongues or begging for money or building audacious mega-churches is about as easy to skewer as a dead cow carcass. And the fact that he spends nearly a full hour on Christian-based faiths is maybe a little cruel. But I'm guessing Maher believes America has as much to answer for in terms of behavior supposedly carried out in the name of religion as any nation.

But as much as Maher is an instigator, he's also got a bit of the preacher in him — a preacher of doubt. That's right, Religulous isn't turning you off religion; it's attempting to convert you to the altar of Bill Maher's Church of the Doubting Atheist, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But anyone who makes it to the end of this film is treated to a montage that is as scary and propagandistic as anything any religious leader has ever produced. Again, I'm not saying Maher is wrong or right (he's expressing his opinion, so he can't be wrong or right), but I think he's essentially just exchanging one set of beliefs for another one that isn't even as funny as the one he'd like you give up. What I really loved about the film is watching Maher draw in his interview subjects or small groups of listeners and then stomp on them with biting commentary or questions that logically force them to take a serious look at their own beliefs and practices. Often, they stumble back into talk of "faith" and "God's will," but Maher never lets them off that easy. Maher takes a little too much pleasure in getting tossed out of such places as the Vatican or pretending to come onto a former gay church leader, but that doesn't make those moments any less priceless. I'm sure Maher would be the first to tell you that his film is not for everyone, but maybe it should be. If people aren't willing to stand up for and question what they believe in — if only for spiritual reinforcement — what good are beliefs in the first place?

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 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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