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Thursday, December 14

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Idlewild

I have a great deal of affection for the music of Outkast. The way they have expanded the world of hip-hop music in the years they've been producing songs has been thrilling to watch. So I was genuinely excited at the prospect of Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin) and Big Boi (Antwan A. Patton) starring in a period musical featuring music that combined juke joint-style jazz, blues and swing with their own flavorful stylings. Granted, I was more excited about Idlewild a year ago, when it was originally supposed to come out.

In an interview I did last October with Terrence Howard, who co-stars as Idlewild's villainous Trumpy, he got the most excited talking about this film and the vision of its writer-director Bryan Barger (who directed Outkast's videos for "Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move"). The prospects sounding promising, and my anticipation levels were high. Which is why it pains me to report that Idlewild is a clusterfuck of the highest order.

Two things I almost never complain about any movie are length and the fact that a film can't decide what it wants to be. I actually tend to enjoy films that mix and mingle styles, genres, etc. I guess the more accurate way to criticize Idlewild is to say it doesn't know what it wants to do well. As a musical, it's a colossal failure for the simple fact that there isn't enough music. When the film gives itself over to song and dance, it soars, and you won't hear me complain at all about Barger's visual style. I was giddy like a schoolgirl about the tone and colors of the movie (Barger nailed that aspect of the film on the head). But the film is cluttered and brought to repeated screeching halts by overlong and meaningless showboating, stale comic performances, and sideplots that either don't make sense or contribute nothing to the main stories of the film.

Benjamin and Patton play friends since childhood Percival and Rooster. Percival is a shy kid who lives and works with his mortician father (Ben Vereen). Rooster is a charismatic troublemaker, song-and-dance man, and protégé of local crime boss and club owner Spats (Ving Rhames). Shortly after Spats announces his intention to leave the business behind him, he is killed by Trumpy (Howard). I was never quite sure how Trumpy and Spats were connected. Spats calls him "son" a couple times, but I was never sure if that was meant to be taken literally. Either way, Trumpy kills Spats, and Rooster witnesses the murder unbeknownst to Trumpy.

Percival plays piano in the house band at the club (called The Church), but gets violently ill whenever he is called upon to perform in the spotlight. When the beautiful and famous Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) arrives for an extended run at the club, she immediately sees that Percival has a gift for music and songwriting, and eventually she hires him as her bandleader and singing partner. With Rooster now running The Church and Trumpy getting a piece of the profits, things are tense for everybody.

One of the many problems with Idlewild is the plot. If Trumpy is getting a cut of the club's profits, why would he jack up the price of bootlegged liquor that he supplies? Wouldn't that cut into his profits? And Trumpy's love of killing people who could potentially earn him a lot of scratch doesn't really make sense either. If he seemed like a smarter gangster, I might have been more scared of him. As he's written, he's just a thug with no sense. And as much as I worship Howard as an actor, even he can't save this film a little dignity, especially with the weak material he's given to work with. And the same can be said for just about every actor and singer in this movie, including Faizon Love, Cicely Tyson, Macy Gray and Patti LaBelle.

Idlewild (the name comes from the Michigan community that served as a black resort for much of the first half of the 20th century, although the film takes place in the South) throws everything at us to entertain us and fails nearly every time. There are overacted comic bits, love scenes, topless dancing girls, family drama, religious overtones (thanks to a ridiculous sequence with Tyson that serves no other purpose than to put a small bible in Rooster's coat pocket), childhood trauma, gangsters, car chases, you name it and it probably has a home in this movie. If the film had something resembling pacing I might have liked it a bit more, but every non-musical sequence drags on interminably. And there was no damned reason for this film to run longer than two hours (which it does).

The biggest disappointment for me was that Howard doesn't get to perform. Where is "Trumpy's Theme" on the soundtrack? We know the guy dabbles in singing, playing and rapping (Hustle & Flow, anyone?), so where's his moment to dance and belt out a tune? The film has one or two nice touches (Rooster's talking flask comes to mind, as does Percival's singing to a corpse), but overall Idlewild is an unmitigated disaster. But I'm still going to buy the soundtrack this week.

Invincible

Disney continues its growing and largely successful string of true-life, inspirational sports films (Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Miracle, Glory Road) with this remarkable story of a life-long Philadelphia Eagles fan who, in his mid-30s, was a given a chance to try out for the team and serve as an inspiration for an entire city. Right off the bat, two things struck me about this film: First, it's great to see Mark Wahlberg back in flared collars and tight pants; the physical resemblance between his Vince Papale and Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler is undeniable, and the rockin' '70s soundtrack kind of drives the point home. Second, the story is remarkably similar to that of Wahlberg's underrated 2001 offering Rock Star, in which a fan of a heavy metal group gets a shot at taking over for the band's lead singer. Wahlberg has a facial expression in his acting arsenal that's a combination of pure terror and raw excitement, and he uses it again here with wonderful results.

Invincible wisely does not spend all of its time focusing on the game of football. We know only as much as is necessary to paint the picture of a team desperate for a win and a city that, at the time, was legendary for having some of the toughest and most unforgiving fans in sports. When new coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, in a horrible wig) joined the squad in 1976, he decided to open up team tryouts to anyone who wanted to show they had the stuff to play professional football. He sees this effort as part P.R. booster and part desperation. At the end of the tryout day, Papale is the only one of hundreds who gets the shot to practice with the team, which immediately makes him the target of much resentment amongst the players, who see his presence as a threat. But Philadelphia sports fans see him as a their representative, and this sparks a renewed interest in and excitement about the team.

We learn a great deal about Papale's life as a part-time substitute teacher, part-time bartender; his failed marriage; and his nights playing hardcore, violent football with his buddies in an abandoned lot in South Philadelphia. His friends are fiercely loyal even when his confidence is low after his wife leaves him because she thinks he's a loser. Papale uses her rejection as a blasting cap toward trying out for the team, as something to work against. It isn't long before he gets involved with a newcomer to his world, a fellow bartender and recent transplant from New York played by Elizabeth Banks (sporting a lovely Farrah Fawcett hairstyle).

Wahlberg and Kinnear are terrific in Invincible, despite having very few scenes together. We do get a few, not particularly enlightening, moments of Vermeil at home with his wife, fretting about his new job and being accepted by his players and the city of Philadelphia. I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the supporting players here, particularly the actors playing Papale's friends. You'll recognize a lot of these faces from some of your favorite HBO dramas: Michael Rispoli ("The Sopranos") and Kirk Acevedo ("Oz") are two of Papale's more supportive bar buddies. Also, Kevin Conway (also from "Oz") has a nice turn as Papale's cautious but loving father.

The re-creations of Papale's first couple of professional games are really breathtaking. You can't help but get a chill watching the Eagles' first game in 1976 against the Cowboys in Dallas. The attention to period detail is exceptional. But more than anything, I applaud the filmmakers' choice of when to end the film (unlike some of the other Disney sports movies, which often drag on too long). Rather than take us through Papale's entire first season, it selects what is perhaps a more significant moment in his career on which to end.

Established cinematographer and first-time feature director Ericson Core does a solid job here. He takes what could have been an overly sentimental story of a man seeing his dreams come true and turns it into a story about an ordinary guy thrust into a situation he never actually did dream about, and turning his life around as a result. Papale is never portrayed as heroic; he's just a hard worker and a decent man. Invincible (a horrible title for this film, by the way) is straightforward filmmaking with no manufactured drama and very few visual frills to distract us from the already remarkable story. I'm not much for sports films as a rule, but I have liked these works from Disney, if for no other reason than they seem to attract top talent to these honest, largely unaltered stories of somewhat unremarkable people who rise up to do remarkable things. Sure, these efforts are meant to be inspirational, but more than that, they just make for great movie drama, and Invincible is no exception.

Beerfest

Last week, I made the claim that if Accepted has been R rated, it would have been the funniest movie of the year so far. So what is the funniest movie of the year? A week ago, I would have said Clerks II. But that was my thinking before I saw a little bit of debauchery called as Beerfest.

You either dig the five-man Broken Lizard comedy crew (Super Troopers, Club Dread and, peripherally, The Dukes of Hazard) or you despise them. I think at this point, there is no middle ground. But if you are in that tiny group that is either undecided or has never tried them out for size, Beerfest may be your best opportunity to fall in love. As is traditional with any Broken Lizard effort, the jokes never stop coming; many of them fall flat, but the ones that hit go soaring out of the park in a combination of the hilarious and spectacularly grotesque.

The story of Beerfest couldn't matter less. All you need to know is that a group of one-time college friends is reunited to form a team of professional beer drinkers whose goal is to travel to Germany for the Fight Club-like, ultimate Oktoberfest beer-drinking competition against the evil and hugely stereotyped German team. The details of the story — which include a stolen formula for the "perfect beer," a great-grandmother (the delightful Cloris Leachman) who may or may not have been a raging whore in her youth, and a dead grandfather who may have been a thief — only cloud your mind as you attempt to absorb the hundreds of jokes being hurled at you like so much projectile vomit.

Not that acting figures in too much to a Broken Lizard production, but Beerfest actually does feature some of the best performances from the team. I was particularly impressed with director Jay Chandrasekhar's portrayal of Barry, who is constantly struggling to hide his seedy post-college life as a male prostitute. Our introduction to his character is one of my favorites from the film, as he lists his prices for various sex acts.

What separates Beerfest from many other R-rated gross-out comedies of late is that it has no agenda or message. The amount of alcohol consumed in this film would kill a whale several times over, but there is never even a hint of a moral that binge drinking is a bad thing. The consequences are never discussed, and why the hell should they be? This is a film about how much fun drinking can be, and I can definitely envision a time in the not-to-distant future when fraternity houses around the nation will have synchronized viewings of this film.

Despite the broad humor, Beerfest also has half a brain to go along with its half a functioning liver. There are references and non-sequitors that I think only those with slightly higher IQs might appreciate. There are few people on the planet trying harder to make us laugh than the boys of Broken Lizard, and Beerfest will have you passing out in the aisles from lack of oxygen as you laugh uncontrollably. You don't have to be drunk to enjoy the movie, but how bad could it hurt? At the very least, you'll walk out of the film with a massive craving for a cold one. Thank God I live so close to Milwaukee!

Factotum

Put simply, you have never seen Matt Dillon act this powerfully in his entire career. Somehow managing to outdo his superior performance in You, Me & Dupree earlier this summer (ahem!), Dillon portrays L.A. degenerate Henry Chinaski, long established as the alter-ego of author Charles Bukowski in his 1975 second novel Factotum (defined in the film as someone with man jobs).

Henry is a bum in every sense of the word. He drinks too much, which leads to him never being able to hold down a job for very long, which means he never has much money, which means he is sometimes homeless, which means the women in his life don't have the highest standards when it comes to men. You see the pattern. The women that do spin into his orbit are often as messed up as he is, including the sweet, loving Jan (Lili Taylor), who often takes out her frustrations with Henry by throwing herself at other men. Even when Henry does get a job that brings in a little money, which allows him to live in a decent place and afford nice clothes, she resents him for being away from home too much. The guy can't win, which is the point. Other hapless females that cross Henry's path include Marissa Tomei, Karen Young and Adrienne Shelly, all of whom are varying degrees of freakish.

In case you couldn't tell, Factotum is not a very pleasant film, which doesn't mean it's not a very good film. What we get is a series of hard-fought vignettes that add up to a life of misery and artistic frustration. I've seen enough footage in my life of Bukowski to know that Dillon's channeling of the man is dead on. He also frequently recites what I assume are passages from the book or other writings by Bukowski to great effectiveness. Nothing much happens in the film other than a series of life's disappointments. Chinaski is a writer and never stops creating works and submitting them to various magazines, one of which actually does decide to publish his work, providing one of the films' few bright spots.

Factotum is a grimy, ugly film that goes a long way toward de-glamorizing the artist-as-drunk mythology, while still managing to make Chinaski/Bukowski look pretty cool as a man with no connections, responsibilities, or attachments, but a whole lot of talent and even enough charm to never have to spend the night alone if he chooses not to. You might feel like you need to take a shower after you see it, but this is solid work by Norwegian director Bent Hamer (if you haven't seen his wonderfully droll 2003 work Kitchen Stories, you should seek it out) and the best Dillon has ever given us as an actor. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Fallen Idol

A year before director Carol Reed and author/screenwriter Graham Greene collaborated on the iconic The Third Man, they made an equally compelling but far less known (and rarely screened) film, The Fallen Idol, released in 1948. Now restored and reissued by Rialto Pictures, this beautifully constructed tale deals with a young boy forced, at a far too early age, to see the flaws in a man he looks up to. In the process, his belief that one should always tell the truth is twisted and ultimately shattered by adults who are supposedly looking out for his best interests.

The setting is the London embassy of an unnamed nation (its residents all speak French, if that tells you anything). The ambassador has gone to visit his sick wife in his homeland, leaving his young son Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) in the capable hands of the embassy staff, including the butler Baines (the exquisite Ralph Richardson) and his shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel). The entire film is told through the eyes and often from the perspective of Phillipe, and it's rare that a scene goes by that he is not in. Often we see events unfold from the top of the embassy's long, winding staircase or from a distance as Phillipe sneaks around, hiding from the adults.

Being the sneaky little bastard that he is, Phillipe secretly follows Baines out of the mansion and to a nearby cafe where Baines meets another embassy employee, Julie (Michele Morgan), with whom he's been having a secret affair. Phillipe is too young to understand the nature of their relationship, but not too young to understand that it must be kept a secret from Mrs. Baines, something he has no qualms about doing since the kid can't stand the mean old lady.

But as Baines and Phillipe begin to stockpile lies and half truths, things get more complicated, and when Mrs. Baines meets with an unfortunate accident, not only is Baines' affair threatened to be exposed but he might actually be accused of murder because Phillipe isn't sure whether to stick with the lies or tell the truth. Reed and Greene brilliantly weave this story of love, revenge, and the chipping away of childhood innocence. Richardson's performance here is marvelous and one of the best examples of making the most of understated mannerisms and tones. But as his cover stories begin to show their holes, his veneer begins to crack.

If your only exposure to the work of Carol Reed is The Third Man and you hold that film in the high regard it so richly deserves, you owe it to yourself to examine this equally fascinating work. The sexual undertones, the bitter relationship between the Baineses, the absent parents, the lies all combine to bring us a gripping morality play that examines the loss of youthful trust, sensitivity, and openness. Without a single shocking moment or raised voice, The Fallen Idol manages to break our hearts and damn us to a life of adult complications. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

House of Sand

This Brazilian saga from director Andrucha Waddington is both overwhelmingly bizarre and masterfully epic in its scope. The film centers on an elderly husband dragging his young pregnant wife, Aurea (Fernanda Torres), and her aging mother (the legendary Fernanda Montenegro) through the vast and empty desserts of North Brazil. He believes the land will eventually become valuable and prosperous, so much so that he's willing to stake the lives of his entire family on it. They aren't there long before the husband dies, and the women are somewhat relieved at this development, despite being trapped in this barren place. Through hard work and a whole lot of walking around through the constantly changing terrain, the women establish themselves as part of the landscape among those who live in this isolated place. But they never lose sight of the fact that they want to leave this place as soon as possible.

The child is born, and thus begins a 59-year journey in the lives of Aurea and her family. What Waddington keenly does is reuse his actresses as the characters age. When Aurea becomes older, Montenegro plays her (since her original character is now long dead). As the newborn daughter grows older, Torres assumes the role. House of Sand is also a very sensual work, as the daughter grows up to be something of a sexual vessel to most of the men in the surrounding areas, much to the irritation of the other women.

The flow and pacing of the film feel very natural, and I found myself always excited and astonished to see where the film took me. The rolling sandy dunes offer a beautiful backdrop for the goings on, and these women are some of the most gorgeous I've ever laid eyes on.

The film is, at times, elicits feelings of warmth, danger, tension, passion and deep-seeded hatred, sometimes within a single scene. It's like a wild animal let loose in an unfamiliar setting, and we watch it as it tries to decide whether to settle down and make a home or cut loose and butcher everything in sight. House of Sand is so different and exhilarating that to experience it is to become somewhat more enlightened about the endless possibilities of film and the world's landscape. It is a work that you cannot categorize, one that works on its own terms in its own universe. Miss it at your peril. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

How to Eat Fried Worms

Being completely unfamiliar with Thomas Rockwell's wildly popular children's book (that I hear more than a few adults have enjoyed as well), I didn't exactly know what to expect from the film version of How to Eat Fried Worms. What I'm pleasantly surprised to report is how much of a kick I got out of this harmless, funny, sometimes disgusting work that I'm pretty sure is about how to overcome a nervous stomach by eating the world's most hideously prepared delicacies.

Despite the film's many amusing moments, there were plenty of dead spots. Basically, any time the kids weren't preparing or eating worms, I was checking my watch. Luke Benward plays Billy, a kid whose parents have just moved to a new town. Thomas Cavanagh of TV's "Ed" plays the way-too-nice and understanding dad; the slightly more authoritarian mom is adequately played by Northwestern University alum (Go Cats!) Kimberly Williams-Paisley (I thought she'd been banished to television).

Billy has a tough time making new friends. A situation aggravated by a bully named Joe (Adam Hicks) and his buddies, who torment Billy by, among other things, putting worms in his lunch Thermos. Did I mention that Billy has a notoriously weak stomach? Trying to put on a brave face, Billy not only doesn't puke at the sight of the worms, he jokingly claims that he can eat 10 worms at in a day, no problem. And so the famous bet is set in motion. If Billy can eat 10 worms in a day, Joe says he'll walk the school's halls with worms in his pants. If Billy doesn't eat them or pukes, he takes the wormy walk.

One of the film's more interesting surprises is the casting of Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Billy's classmate and only friend, the very tall Erika. Remember Eisenberg from those famous Pepsi commercials, or all those "Tonight Show" appearances, or the movies Paulie or Bicentennial Man? Look up her photo; you'll recognize her. Well, she's growing up nicely, and she happens to play one of the film's more interesting (although not very exciting) characters. She sits back and watches Billy and the bullies go from house to house cooking up each of the 10 worms for Billy to eat. I'm surprised some of these recipes didn't kill the kid, but he does a great job dry heaving in several key scenes.

Director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) seems to revel in the grotesque nature of the source material, and that's a great thing. Plus, you have to give the guy a little credit for casting Clint Howard in the role of the one of the boys' nasty uncle who runs a greasy spoon in town. How to Eat Fried Worms is a fun bit of gross-out fluff that has some nice touches, particularly in the casting of some of the supporting kids roles. There is a real collection of weird children in this film, beginning with the extraordinary young actor who plays Billy's younger show-off brother. He's a scream.

I was lucky enough to see the film with a group of well-behaved and totally spellbound preteens, most of whom were overly familiar with the source material. They were squealing with delight throughout the film. Their reaction speaks volumes to me and should to you too if you're considering bringing the kiddies to this one. You'll laugh, you'll rejoice, you'll feel an uncomfortable tickle in the back of your throat, and perhaps a rumbling in your tummy. Most of all, you'll smile all the way through it.

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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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