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Sunday, May 26

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Airbags

Two quick notes before I move into what is a pretty busy week filled with tasty offerings. First, three of the seven films I review in this week's column deal with unexpected pregnancies in vastly different ways. Weird coincidence, that's the only reason I mention it. Second, I finally did see the Irish musical wonderment known as Once. It's playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and you should go see it immediately. It's one of my favorite films of the year so far. Moving on...

Knocked Up

If you pay attention to movies at all or, in particular, the works of writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, then odds are that you've been reading about Knocked Up for months. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you'd seen the film already since there were about 20 screenings of it in Chicago alone. Hell, I saw a rough cut of it last December in Austin and another one about a month ago, and I loved it more the second time. For those of you claiming that The 40-Year-Old Virgin (made by and starring pretty much everyone in Knocked Up) is one of your favorite movies in years, prepare to see an even longer, even funnier work by the current kings of comedy: Apatow and writer-star Seth Rogen. (And while you're at it, get ready for the August release of Super Bad, co-written and starring Rogen, and produced by Apatow; I'm hearing the film is just as good.)

Thematically at least, Knocked Up picks up where Virgin left off. With the earlier work, simply getting into a relationship was the tricky part. Rogen's perpetual slacker Ben Stone doesn't have trouble meeting women necessarily. In fact, he has a pretty great night out at a club with his roomies/business partners when he meets Katherine Heigl's Alison, who is out celebrating her recent job promotion at the E! cable channel with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). She and Ben get very drunk, laugh, dance, and land up back at her place (she lives with Debbie's family, which includes one of the greatest actors on the face of the earth, Paul Rudd, as husband Pete). They have unprotected sex and Alison becomes the film's titular character.

Knocked Up never misses an opportunity to make us laugh at some very real situations. In many cases, it puts a much needed fresh spin on some disgustingly dated movie clich├ęs about couples having babies. (Note to all filmmakers: a woman crying out for drugs during a birthing scene stopped being funny 30 years ago, and will probably never be funnier than it is in this film, so don't even shoot that scene any more.) Still, it was the somewhat familiar material that I found the most charming. Ben and Alison shopping for baby clothes and accessories is one of my favorite scenes. And as much as the pure comedic elements score on nearly every level, Knocked Up dares to have a heart as big as the film is long (about two hours, 15 minutes by my count). This is not a couple destined to be together. When Ben announces to Alison just before sex "You're prettier than I am," he's not kidding. He's broke as he and his friends attempt to launch a website devoted to cinematic nudity, while she is a highly successful woman who has just made the leap from producer to on-air correspondent for E!, which makes for some great celebrity cameos, by the way. But the very thought of a couple trying to make their tentative bond work is commendable and heart-warming. Seth Rogen becomes crushworthy thanks to his performance here.

What's almost more extraordinary is the way the relationship between Pete and Debbie is handled. They got married because of their own unexpected pregnancy, and they, at times, seem to despise each other. Usually it's funny; other times, it hurts to watch. Pete and Ben bond, and needless to say, the scenes are priceless. Come on, these are the "You know how I know your gay?" guys; of course, they're going to be funny together. There's a dinner sequence, in which the two couples go out to get to know Ben a little better, and it's golden. Time travel and gay behavior from this point forward will be inseparable in my mind. And the boys' getaway trip to Vegas (mushrooms and Cirque de Soleil; that's all I'm saying) is phenomenal. Still, it's capped with a sequence in which Pete pours his heart out to Ben about not feeling worthy of love. It's a scene only a quality actor could pull off and not have it seem forced and sappy.

Knocked Up is peppered with one of the finest supporting casts in any film right now. "Freak and Geeks" fans will recognize a few of Ben's roommates. Virgin scene stealer Jonah Hill (who is the star of Super Bad) just gets better each time I see him on screen. Harold Ramis pops up as Ben's dad to offer up some crappy advice. In a pair of hysterical scenes, Alan Tudyk and "SNL's" Kristen Wiig play E! executives Jack and Jill (no joke), who surprise Alison at every turn. And the fun goes on and on. I don't make declarations like this often, but if you don't have the time of your life watching this movie, there's something horribly wrong with you. Other than Super Bad, I can't even imagine another comedy being a satisfying as Knocked Up. I want this team to make a new movie every month to feed my hunger for this type of material.

My love for this film knows no bounds. I implore you to drop what you're doing. Forget all the overpopulated, special effect-driven junk out there, and devote your time and money to a movie with a pulse, driven by an unstoppable heart. Knocked Up is one of the best of the summer and the year.

Mr. Brooks

OK, hang in with me here for just a second. I know a lot of you can probably find multiple reasons (or maybe just one big one) not to go see a movie that stars Kevin Costner as a serial killer and Dane Cook as a guy who blackmail's Costner into letting him tag along for his next kill. Dread does not even begin to describe my gut instinct going into this film. But as long as you go into the film realizing it's a comedy, I think you'll have fun with it. No, I don't mean this is one of the "so-bad-it's-good" pieces of crap. It's actually a well-made work. It also never misses an opportunity to be hilarious while almost never cracking a smile. The saving grace of the film is one Mr. William Hurt, who plays Marshall, a sort of alter ego of Costner's Brooks character. He always hangs back over the shoulder of our anti-hero coaxing him to kill again, and the man is a scream. He taunts and teases Brooks whenever he thinks he's being wimpy or careless with the meticulous planning of his kills. And let me say it again, the guy will have you in stitches, as will the outrageous plot, the obsessional nature of nearly every character, and even the relationship Brooks has with his wife and college-age daughter. Oh, how we laughed.

I may sound like I'm making fun of Mr. Brooks, the latest in a while from director, co-screenwriter Bruce A. Evans (who directed the forgettable 1992 Christian Slater vehicle Kuffs and co-wrote/adapted more memorable fare such as Stand By Me, Starman and Cutthroat Island), but in fact, I actually enjoyed the hell out of this piece. And while Hurt may have been the only one who truly understood just how funny this material was during shooting, that doesn't mean it's not a blast to watch. Costner's Brooks is a successful businessman, with a loving family Marg Helgenberger as his wife and Danielle Panabaker (currently playing James Woods' daughter on "Shark") as daughter Jane. But one night after winning a some sort of self-congratulatory award from the business community, he is visited by Marshall, whom he hasn't been plagued by in about a year, after he swore off a killing spree that was deemed the work of the "Thumbprint Killer" by the police. Brooks specializes in random crimes against people he has no connection with and stalking them for weeks before carrying out the home invasion/murder.

On his return engagement, he kills a couple in the throws of a zesty sexual session and who like to leave the blinds open while they're doing it. Brooks notices this too late and quickly shuts them before posing the bodies as he's prone to do. The next day, a man who calls himself Mr. Smith (Cook) presents himself to Brooks in his office as a amateur photographer and full-time peeping Tom who happened to snap a few shot of Brooks closing the blinds. Rather than ask for money, he asks to be taken along for the next kill, perhaps even to carry out the deed himself when the time comes. With the guidance of Marshall, Brooks agrees to the scheme, and the fun begins. Meanwhile, emotionally troubled Police Detective Atwood (Demi Moore) picks up the trail of the Thumbprint Killer, wondering if perhaps the broken blinds are a clue that the killer shut them in a hurry and someone in the apartment building across the street may have spotted him. Atwood is going through a terrible divorce, and her superiors are questioning her commitment to the case at hand.

Nearly every character in Mr. Brooks is hiding something about their past or present life. Some of these secrets are predictable, while others are so outrageous as to be — you guessed it — funny as hell. Still, the way Brooks handles the situation with Smith is pretty damn clever as the two drive around town seeking out anonymous victims as Smith grills Brooks about his previous kills to mentally prepare himself for the task at hand. Brooks is also forced to deal with a situation at home involving his daughter, who has dropped out of school because of an unplanned pregnancy. Suddenly the prospect of getting caught and not being around to take care of his daughter and grandchild makes the situation with Smith all the more troubling.

The film seems to be on the brink of spinning out of control nearly all the time, but it turns out director Evans is able to control this chaos just enough to let veterans Costner and Hurt do their thing. Does Costner make a credible serial killer? Not really, but that's sort of the point. Brooks knows his decidedly average persona almost ensures that he'd never be considered a suspect in any murder. In a movie that seems to thrive on humor, Cook is the least funny one in the room (the same could probably be said for his sold-out concerts too, but that's just my opinion). Smith is a hyper little rodent of a man who doesn't think before he acts and never considers three moves ahead in his game with Brooks. Even going in with the thought that Mr. Brooks is a comedy may not be enough to convince you that the film is worth seeing or that it's any good, and that's fine. This isn't crucial viewing by any stretch. But there's nothing quite like it in theaters now, and I think at worst, you'll see it as an ambitious experiment gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, I thought it was a stoke of unintentional genius. The traditional serial killer movie is dead, I believe, which is why we're getting unconventional takes on the subject like Zodiac and this film. Looking at the topic in new and creative ways might be the only way to keep serial killers alive, and that's a good thing.

Gracie

This is one of those rare movies that actually benefits from being a little uncertain what type of film it is. It's being promoted as a sports drama. A 15-year-old girl (played by the exceptional Carly Schroeder of Mean Creek) wants to honor the memory of her recently dead brother by taking his place on the boys soccer team. This may not seem like a big deal, but Gracie is set in the 1970s, when females in general, and female athletes in particular, were marginalized beyond belief. As an unconventional sports film, Gracie works fine. But where it shines is as a coming-of-age story about a girl who hurts so much from this loss that she rebels against her father (Dermot Mulroney) and gets involved in some pretty reckless behavior that goes way beyond staying out past curfew.

What makes Gracie all the more interesting is that many of the events depicted are actually based on real events that happened to the family of actress Elizabeth Shue and her brother Andrew, both of whom appear in the film in smaller parts. The film's director, Davis Guggenheim (who won an Oscar earlier this year for directing An Inconvenient Truth), happens to be married to Shue, so the project is something of a family affair. But it also speaks to the expectations of a generation of young women who were never expected to do anything past high school besides get married and be housewives like their mothers before them. Shue plays the family's subdued matriarch.

As depressing as it might sound, Gracie works best when it focus on the insurmountable grief that the family shares and almost never gets through. Young Carly Schroeder buries her pain deep inside, letting it out on occasionally in explosive bursts of anger and troubled behavior. Her performance as Gracie is measured and expertly executed, and I expect to see a lot of great things from her in the future. Mulroney adds his usual dose of earthy charm to the production (in much the same way he does in Georgia Rule) as a father who hasn't got a clue how to raise a daughter (that's his wife's job, right?) or how to function without his sports hero son.

The reason you can tell Gracie isn't an average sports film is by the way it handles to story's final game. I won't say how it ends, but it doesn't feel necessary to have the team win or to have Gracie score a winning goal or something obvious like that. This movie plays fair with its audience and doesn't handle its moving story with ham hands and ladles full of sentimentality. In the end Gracie's mission to play on the team snaps her family out of their emotional coma, but that's not the end of the story. Again, the film doesn't dish out what is expected or anticipated. This is a gentle film about difficult times, featuring one of the finest performances in years by a young actor in a truly challenging role. I liked this one a lot.

Stephanie Daley

In this gripping indie drama, a 16-year-old is hospitalized during a class ski trip after giving birth in a ski lodge restroom to what she claims was a dead premature baby. She also alleges that she had no idea she was pregnant until the event. Accused of murder, young Stephanie ("Joan of Arcadia's" Amber Tamblyn) is forced into several sessions with forensic psychologist Lydie (Tilda Swinton), whose task it is to discover is Stephanie is telling the truth. Lydie herself is pregnant and got that way with her husband (Timothy Hutton) just months after having a stillborn birth. She's in a constant state of mild anxiety over the state of her pregnancy and her crumbling marriage, and in becomes clear after several sessions with Stephanie that she views the solving of this tangled case as the means to solving several crucial issues in her own life.

Writer-director Hilary Brougher (who won the Best Screenplay award at last year's Sundance Film Festival) perfectly weaves these two tales of confused and often scared people into a touching story about honesty and small-town mentality. Every performance is beautifully understated and filled with tension. I've always liked Tamblyn, but she really outdoes herself here as the good-hearted, confused Stephanie, who falls in like with an older man and gets pregnant at the same time she loses her virginity. It's about as pathetic a moment as you'd imagine. On the other hand, the supposedly more together Lydie suspects her husband of cheating and clearly does not seem as excited or happy about this child as she did the first time she was pregnant. Everyone has theories about why this is, but I don't think anyone (including Lydie) quite understands the depths of her stress and fear. But at the heart of Stephanie Daley is a quiet yet mysterious tale that doesn't give easy answers to its difficult questions, but still manages to be completely satisfying in its road to discovery. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

As a rule, most documentaries spend a lot of time being informative, enlightening, while occasionally scaring the crap out of you with statistics and footage that makes you fear for our future and sometimes our present existence. But it's a rare treat when a doc actually makes you laugh even as it's telling you a fairly heartbreaking tale of the once-prestigious community that is now a living shithole known as the Salton Sea. OK, shithole might be a strong word. How about this? Ecological disaster area. Once known as the Riviera of California, filled with rich tourists and high property values, the Salton Sea is now a dump of a community populated with the finest collection of freak and geeks the world has ever seen.

Created thanks to an accident in rerouting the Colorado River in 1905, the land-locked sea became a place where celebrities and other elite gathered to vacation in the 1950s. After a series of floods after hurricanes and massive fish deaths filled the beaches, the location fell out of favor. Filmmaker John Waters adds just the right touch of sarcasm and irony as he narrates this bizarre history lesson from co-directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. While I don't think the film is attempting to be an advertisement for people to come live by this toxic sea, it does clearly have a great deal of affection for the residents of this struggling community. And the collection of local characters seems as endless as their optimism that the sea and town will bounce back at some point.

One of the strangest times in the areas history occurred fairly recently when then Congressman Sonny Bono led a one-man crusade in Congress to save the lake. The measure looked well on its way to passing when Bono died in a skiing mishap. Despite his widow's attempts to keep the bill alive (which she did) and the creation of an organization to look into saving the sea, nothing ever came of the effort in the end.

At times truly sad, other times disgusting, most times hilarious and even uplifting, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea introduced me to a place and a people I never would have met otherwise, from an insane and drunk Hungarian revolutionary to elderly nudists to a religious man who literally seems to be building a mountain of junk to heaven. The film never stops being fascinating and entertaining. It opens today at Facets Multimedia and begins playing on the Sundance Channel June 26. Filmmaker Chris Metzler will be at Facets in person for a Q&A after all of the screenings on Friday, June 1 and Saturday, June 2. Go to http://www.facets.org for showtimes. You should never pass up an opportunity to see a great documentary, and this film is living proof of that. And to prove to you how much I loved this movie, if you have friends in Tucson, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Atlanta, New Orleans or Vancouver, let them know to keep an eye out for the film in the near (post-Chicago run) future.

Severance

I saw this British/German co-production at last year's Chicago International Film Festival, and I was immensely disappointed. Billed as some sort of Shawn of the Dead-style comic take on conventional slasher movies, Severance brings together a bunch of Americans and Brits to the Hungarian countryside for company team-building retreat. It just so happens that the company they work for manufacturers weapons of mass destruction (mostly for U.S. of A.). Making a wrong-turn in the mountains, the group ends up at a slightly run-down set of ill-stocked cottages stalked by a maniac wielding all manner of hatchet, knife, ax and anything else that stabs or cuts. He's crafty that way.

The problems with Severance are twofold: it's not as scary as it needs to be or funny as it thinks it is. Simple as that. Director/co-writer Christopher Smith (who made 2004's Creep, which I actually liked) assumes a certain level of cleverness on his part for even attempting to blend comedy and horror, but the proceedings just aren't that clever or interesting. Maybe I've seen too many horror films in my lifetime to find anything particularly original about the concepts or killings here, but I don't think that's it. The movie just isn't particularly good. In the spirit of full disclosure, many of my critical colleagues did like the film to a point (we're talking three-star reviews at best) and endorse the film without embarrassment. We all have our crosses to bear, I suppose. I have higher standards when it comes to horror, so simply being able to say the film "wasn't so bad" doesn't quite cut it for me. If you still want to waste your money on Severance, it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

War and Peace

Too often this astonishingly impressive 1967 Russian epic is only discussed in terms of statistics: the five-years-in-the-making film employed about 120,000 extras; in adjusted dollars the film would cost half-a-billion dollars to make (some say closer to $1 billion); it won nearly every Best Foreign Language Film award available at the time (including the Oscar); and its full-length running time is in the neighborhood of seven hours. When it was released in the United States originally, War and Peace (obviously based on the Tolstoy novel) was severely truncated, but now for the first time in North America, this restored 30mm print of the longest available cut will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in four parts. The film is available on DVD, but trust me when I say the transfer on that is an embarrassment. Set aside the time, and see it in all its splendor on the big screen.

Director Sergei Bondarchuk does a beautiful job striking a balance between the sweeping story of the early-19th Century war between Russia and Napoleon's undefeatable army and the more intimate tale of a woman (the stunning Lyudmila Savelyeva) and the two men that love her (Vyacheslav Tikonov as war hero Prince Andrei and director Bondarchuk as the sheepish aristocrat Pierre). All four parts of this dynamic work feature jaw-droppingly unfathomable scenes, such as several massive battle scenes, one elegant ballroom dance sequence, and the tragic evacuation and burning of Moscow recreation that puts Gone with the Wind's burning of Atlanta to shame. The acting is top notch and the screenplay (with healthy doses of state-approved elevating of the working class) is kept simple and easy to navigate despite the immense cast.

There's really not much more to say about War and Peace. You are either driven to see it because it's simply one of the most massive and most elegant movies ever made, or you're not. There is simply nothing like it, and that should put a fire under your ass to reserve your tickets immediately. For showtimes, check the Gene Siskel Center's web site.

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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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