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Monday, December 11

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Airbags

Well, it's July, which means it's time for Chicago to become a horror show, literally, as the annual Flashback Weekend horror/sci-fi/fantasy convention rolls into town July 29-31 at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare in Rosemont. Dignitaries appearing this year include the guest of honor, Bruce Campbell, who will be promoting his new book, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, and his new film, The Man with the Screaming Brain. You can also read my recent interview with Campbell at Ain't It Cool News. Actor Ted Raimi will also be at the show, along with the lovely Adrienne Barbeau (as part of a cast reunion for The Fog), Bill Moseley and Sid Haig from the new film The Devil's Rejects, and Camille Keaton, the star of the controversial film I Spit on Your Grave (which Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel effectively got tossed out of theatres in 1978, making it an immediate cult hit). I'm one of the co-hosts of the event, along with Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire and WGN Radio's Nick Digilio. For complete information about the convention, visit the Flashback Weekend website. See you there.


Hustle & Flow
You have never seen a film like Hustle & Flow. There's nothing flashy about it, no special effects to make your eyes pop out of your head, no chases or martial arts to get excited about. The question should be, can you handle a film like Hustle & Flow? I ask this not because the movie has excessive sex or violence that would make you shy away from seeing it. I ask because I'm not sure there are people out there among you who can handle a film as good as Hustle & Flow, a film that fulfilled a life's goal for me: to learn how hard it is being a Memphis pimp with a dream.

As if you need any more convincing, Hustle & Flow, from newbie writer-director Craig Brewer (this is his second feature), won the Audience Choice Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's a bold and remarkable film that features what I'm sure will be one of the year's finest performances from Terrence Howard as the small-time pimp DJay. D doesn't wear brightly colored clothes and drive a flashy car, because he's not a cartoon pimp. His car doesn't even have air conditioning because he's barely making ends meet. He has a small squadron of three women (one of whom is out of the game temporarily due to being with child, father unknown), who all live together in a tiny house in a Memphis ghetto. When DJay runs into an old high school buddy named Key (Anthony Anderson), things start to change in D's life. Key is a recording engineer, who basically just points a microphone and balances the levels for such low-profile gigs as church recording sessions and legal depositions. What Key wants to be is a music producer, and it just so happens that DJay has a few stories to tell in the form of some blazing rap songs.

The pair, along with a skinny white kid named Shelby (DJ Qualls), set up a makeshift, barely functional recording studio in D's already crowded, un-air conditioned house. Watching these three piece together these recordings is a something to behold. The pregnant Shug (Taraji Henson, in a remarkable performance) is capable enough as a singer to belt out some bluesy hooks on the tracks, while DJay's white ho, Nola (Taryn Manning, also surprisingly strong here), runs the fan and serves as inspiration for many of D's fantastic life-as-a-broke-ass-pimp raps. About half of this film's authenticity comes from the power of these songs, which would fit in quite nicely on any hip-hop radio station today. There's an honesty to the lyrics that is refreshing. DJay isn't bragging about his pimpin' exploits; he's griping about barely having enough cash for the rent and gas. More than anything, D wants out of the game, and these demo recordings are clearly his last shot at making that happen.

As good as the tunes are, the movie would ultimately fail were it not for my new favorite actor, Chicago's own Terrence Howard. Between this film, Crash, (he was the director whose wife was molested during a traffic stop), his supporting role in Ray and a nice turn in HBO's Lackawanna Blues, this is clearly a good time to be a fan of Howard's abilities to disappear into a character. And the guy has four more films coming out before the end of the year. In Hustle & Flow, Howard mutates from greasy scum of the earth, turning out young women, to sympathetic artist whose struggle to be heard seems as important to us as it is to him. He's nothing short of remarkable. There are as many "good guy" scenes as "bad guy" scenes for DJay, and it torments you that you can't make up your mind whether he's a hero or villain. A scene in which he finds a way to include the talentless Nola in the recording sessions (by blessing a new microphone with a kiss) is put side by side with one where D has to use her body as payment for the expensive device.

In addition to Howard and Anderson tearing up the screen, Hustle & Flow has a fantastic set of supporting performances from Isaac Hayes as a club owner; Elise Neal as Anderson's nervous wife; and Paula Jai Parker as D's third ho, who gets tossed out of the house on her ass for being sassy and disrespectful in one of the film's scariest scenes. Howard also re-teams with his Crash co-star, rapper Ludacris, playing Skinny Black, a Memphis-born rap star who left the city as soon as he became famous. The sequence in which DJay talks up the visiting Skinny in an attempt to slip him his demo tape is among the film's finest. In the same way I campaigned to get family and friends to go see Boogie Nights many years ago because I knew it was the calling card of a major talent, so I will beg and plead with all souls to check out Hustle & Flow, as powerful a breakthrough film as you're likely to see this year.


The Island
I have no great love for the films of director Michael Bay. All of his works (which include the two Bad Boys films, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor) are glossy, rapidly edited, testosterone-injected movies that sacrifice plausible plots and character development for wild action sequences and über-stylized visuals. Probably his most appealing film is The Rock, because the scope is smaller and most of the actors seem to be aware of the over-inflated nature of the Bay beast and play with it.

The Island is easily Bay's best film, due in large part to his not ignoring what turns out to be a compelling plot. Granted, the story (and Bay's visual style) borrows heavily from such superior sci-fi films as THX-1138, Coma, Logan's Run and Blade Runner, but there are worse sources from which to lift. Ewan McGregor stars as Lincoln Six Echo, a good worker bee living about 15 years in the future. We are told that some massive unnamed contaminant has all but extinguished life on earth, and only a few thousand survivors have taken up residence underground. Every so often another aboveground survivor is "discovered," put in the same white jumpsuit as everyone else, and added to the population. There is, we are told by those in command of this micro-society, an island, a tropical paradise, free from contamination where a few lucky survivors get to go to live out their lives. A weekly lottery determines who is chosen to be transported to the island, and you can tell by the looks on their faces that everyone is desperate to see sunshine.

Lincoln has the same nightmare every night. The nightmare seems like flashes of a life he is totally unfamiliar with, and he attempts to seek professional help from Merrick (Sean Bean), who actually runs the carefully monitored society. Every aspect of the survivors' health and activities is monitored, and Lincoln stands out because he's actually questioning the life being led below and above ground. His best friend is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson). She doesn't tend to ask questions, but the more she talks to Lincoln, the more her curiosity is tapped. Lincoln has also made friends with a tech-support worker named McCord (Steve Buscemi), and it's through this relationship that Lincoln learns about the world before contamination.

SPOILER WARNINGS FROM HERE!! It's not difficult to figure out that there are huge chunks of information that these underground dwellers know nothing about, and I don't think I'm ruining any plot twists by revealing that all of these blissfully ignorant people are being fooled into thinking the world above is deadly. The truth is that anyone who has ever read a Philip K. Dick book can figure out these people are clones of real people on the surface, bred to provide replacement organs, and that anytime someone is sent to "the island," they are in fact going to have their organs harvested. We, the audience, are made aware of this situation quite early in the plot; the clones are not, and eventually Lincoln and Jordan escape the society and make their way toward aboveground civilization.

Thanks to an impressive array of supporting players, including Michael Clarke Duncan as a dweller named Starkweather and Djimon Hounsou as the leader of an especially deadly team of bounty hunters, The Island shifts at the halfway point from a thought-provoking science-fiction outing to a non-stop chase movie. And I'll be the first to admit, the action is damn exciting. Lincoln and Jordan make their way to a Los Angeles of the near future, and the adjustments in technology, the corporate logos on everything (much like Blade Runner), and the slightly modified modes of transport are fun to observe. Probably the best moment in the film occurs when Lincoln meets the sickly would-be benefactor of his organs (the clones are often referred to as insurance policies). It just so happens that Tom Lincoln is Scottish and something of a bastard.

I understand that The Island may lose some people when it becomes more of a typical Michael Bay film, but the truth is that it features a car chase that's as good (if not better) than the famed Matrix Reloaded sequence, and it's cool to see McGregor and Johansson shed their art film images for a fleeting instant and actually make some money so they can make more art films. (Yes, I realize that McGregor can probably retire with his Star Wars money, but you know what I mean.) It's not a crime to enjoy a stupid popcorn movie every once and a while, and The Island isn't stupid. Consider this a gourmet popcorn flick. I think it's safe to watch this one without guilt or disappointment.


Bad News Bears
My favorite Southern actor has teamed with my favorite Southern director, and the results—not surprisingly—hit below the belt in the best possible way. No, the raunchy 1976 hit about a group of young rejects barely pulling together to form the world's most foul-mouthed little league team was not screaming out to be remade. But in the very capable hands of director Richard Linklater (School of Rock), this new version of Bad News Bears is still loads of laughs thanks to some gifted child actors (apparently Linklater has a gift for finding them) and a subtly defiant performance by Billy Bob Thornton, filling in for Walter Matthau in the role of Coach Buttermaker.

In case you're asking yourself, wasn't that the name of Matthau's character in the original? Oh, yes it was. And make no mistake, Linklater has hardly changed a thing in nearly 30 years. As far as I can tell, all of the kids maintain their characters' names, and all of the story's key elements are left intact. So why a remake? A fair question. I think it's because so many kids today have never seen the original, and because it's fun watching Billy Bob Thornton play a dumb drunk again, not unlike his character in Bad Santa. His sly wit and under-the-breath insults have become his trademark, but as he does with most of the roles, Thornton adds a soul to someone who could have easily been played as two-dimensional.

Compare his portrayal of a former (and brief) major league pitcher to Greg Kinnear's ultra-competitive rival coach Bullock. We've seen Kinnear's character in a hundred other films, and while Kinnear is good here, he's outclassed by Thornton. In fact, just about every other adult actor in this film is a distraction from the overwhelming presence of Thornton and these kids. Even recent Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden as one of the player's mothers got on my nerves. In fact, I can't think of a performance all year that annoyed me as much as hers did, which is saying something since she's only in maybe three scenes.

When Bad News Bears sticks to the team, the film is a winner, and Linklater is smart enough to do just that most of the time. Make no mistake, the film may be rated PG-13, but the language is about as bad as it can be in that environment. And most of the potty mouthing is coming from the kids. As a result, the players on the Bears seem real. Remember, these kids have been rejected most of their lives by other kids, their parents and even other outcasts. They have a lot of reasons to be angry, and baseball is their avenue for venting. Who knew that suffering children would be such a rich source of entertainment? Enjoy!


The Devil's Rejects
I've never subscribed to the theory that if you cram a horror film full of recognizable figures from genre movies, you've automatically got a great work on your hands. If I have to sit through another shitty amateur production featuring the original Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, in a cameo, I'm going to take a mallet to someone's head. Guess what, dude? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a landmark film, but Gunnar Hansen is a terrible actor without his human-flesh mask and a Toro in his hands. These are the thoughts that were crowding my head as I entered a theatre to see a very early screening of Rob Zombie's sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses. I really hated House of 1,000 Corpses. The rapid music video-style editing and piercing soundtrack absolutely ruined what could have been a great homage to the '70s horror-torture films that Zombie so clearly loves. My expectations for The Devil's Rejects were extremely low.

Then something remarkable took place: I found myself actually digging this follow-up. Zombie doesn't just have well-placed cameos from once-more-famous actors; he's filled every role with a legendary face (or at least one that makes you think "Wasn't he/she in that one movie?"). Returning are Sid Haig as clown-faced lead psychopath Captain J.T. Spaulding, Bill Moseley (looking more like Charlie Manson than ever) as Otis Driftwood, and Sheri Moon-Zombie as hotter-than-hell "Baby" Firefly. As the film opens, the three (plus Leslie Easterbrook filling in for Karen Black as Mother Firefly) are involved in a firefight with police. Mother is the only one captured, and she is interrogated brutally by Sheriff John Wydell (the incomparable William Forsythe, essentially playing the same cop-preacher character Dennis Hopper played in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).

Most of the film consists of the evil Firefly folks running from the police, pausing only to kidnap, torture, mutilate and murder innocent folks along the way. The Devil's Rejects is unflinching, gory and nerve-shattering. What it is not is loud and furiously edited. All of the things I disliked in 1,000 Corpses are gone, which forces me to declare that Rob Zombie has finally become a pretty terrific filmmaker. His soundtrack is filled mostly with Southern-rock ballads, which often play as some unspeakable act of cruelty is being inflicted on someone. The pacing is slower (not slow, but slower). He actually gives us time to see what's happening. He lingers as his characters plot their next move.

The acting seems better too, which is such a relief. The supporting cast consists of such dignitaries as Steve Railsback, Tyler Mane, Matthew McGrory, Priscilla Barnes, Danny Trejo and Michael Berryman. My favorite supporting player is Ken Foree as Texas pimp Charlie (with Deborah Van Valkenburgh as his whore wife). Foree eats up the scenery, and I loved every second of it.

I particularly liked the final showdown between the Sheriff and the Rejects. It doesn't play out how you think it might, and Zombie (who also wrote the film) actually allows some depth in the unbalanced Sheriff character as he begins to systematically brutalize the family as they so often did to others. He has become what he has beheld. The Devil's Rejects is pure, unapologetic exploitation. Nudity, guns, blood and guts are the order of the day, and that's all right by me.


Murderball
I realize the year is only half over, but I can't imagine enjoying another documentary this year as much as I loved Murderball, an examination of the full-contact sport of quadriplegic rugby. So how is it possible that "quads" (as they call themselves) can play any sport? As the film explains, being a quad means that you have limited motion in your arms. In fact, the level of collective arm mobility a team of players has is a major component of the sport. Murderball is filled with heroes and villains, and more drama and unbelievable plot twists than any fiction film on the subject could ever dream up. This film is a clear Oscar contender and certainly one of the best of the year so far.

The focus of the film from co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro is the U.S. quad rugby team, who play in armor-plated wheel chairs designed to smash into other chairs and hopefully knock an opponent out of play. The team's main adversary is a former U.S. player who now coaches the Canadian quad rugby team. He is a fierce competitor who becomes the villain you love to hate, as his level of intensity leads to major health problems. As much as you despise the guy, he's more fun to have around than not.

Then there's Mark Zupan, the new spokesperson for Reebok. This guy is such a force, not just for the American quad rugby team, but also sports in general. His story before the accident that left him paralyzed is one of a life gone horribly wrong. In a twist of fate, being in his chair seems to have saved his life and given him a degree of integrity he never would have found otherwise.

Another focal point of Murderball is a young motocross racer who was recently in an accident that left him a quad. As expected, the once-physical man feels trapped and helpless in his new life. But during a visit to his rehab clinic, he meets members of the rugby team and watches a video about the sport. For the first time since his accident, he sees an opportunity to express his extreme lifestyle. I don't know how the filmmakers picked this guy or why they thought he'd be the one to react to the sport the way he does. It was probably dumb luck, but it falls into place so perfectly that you can't help but feel excited for the guy.

The film culminates at the 2004 Athens Paralymics (held just after the Olympics in the same city and facilities), when the U.S. and Canadian team go head to head. Unlike many other sports films that focus on well-known sporting contests, I had absolutely no idea how this match-up would end. It's thrilling. But more than simply a profile of the sport, Murderball allows us to explore the lives and homes of its participants. It shows that quads don't spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves; although they may very well go through periods when they do, they come out the other side realizing there are so many things they can still do. A few even say they're capable of more things without the use of their legs.

Many of the players speak with saltier tongues than most sailors, tell dirty jokes, and hit on women relentlessly (making certain to let the ladies know the important parts of their anatomy work just fine, thank you very much). Although I don't know if they intended to do so, Murderball's greatest accomplishment is smashing every stereotype and misconception about the handicapped I've ever had. This group of athletes would rather beat you down than have you feel sorry for them. This is the kind of inspirational work that makes you wonder why no one has made a film about this before, why the Paralymics are not broadcast in the United States (as they are in so many other countries), and how much are tickets to these games? Sign me up for the season. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


Lila Says
This is one of those rare movies that is completely pointless, yet utterly hypnotic, thanks entirely to a stunning and sexy young French actress named Vahina Giocante. She plays Lila, a 16-year-old who moves in with her aunt in a Parisian ghetto with an almost entirely Arabic population. Lila meets 19-year-old Chimo (newcomer Mohammed Khouas), and the pair engages in a frank, sometimes shocking dialogue that centers almost exclusively on sex. What you might not expect is that Lila is nearly always leading the discussion.

At times, we're convinced she's a sexual conquistador; other times we sense she talks the talk but has never actually done any of the things she's bragging about and discussing so casually. Her brazen behavior (the definition of which is more restrictive in this Arab environment) attracts the attention of other, more dangerous men, and soon she is walking the line between being playful and being in danger. There is a constant tension throughout Lila Says—both sexual and mortal—and director Ziad Doueiri uses it to propel his story into situations that range from uncomfortable to downright sickening. I'm at a loss to explain the purpose or theme of Lila Says, but that doesn't take away from its gripping performances and the hazy, mystical effect it has. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre.

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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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