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Friday, December 15

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Hello, folks. I feel bad because I haven't really reviewed any truly awful films since I've started writing for Gapers Block (a trend that continues this week). Just so you don't think I like everything or am only going to review films I enjoy, I want to reassure you that with the summer movie season just weeks away, I know in my heart of hearts I will rip the guts out of many films in the coming weeks and months. By the way, it took me a while to realize I'm hearing about reader feedback second-hand. So, if you want to praise or attack me directly, drop me a line at steve[at]steveatthemovies.com.

Alright, on to the reviews…

Kung-Fu Hustle
By all accounts, actor-writer-director Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer) is the biggest star in the world, and Kung-Fu Hustle (now playing at the Landmark Century Center Theatre and other theatres) shows us why. While Soccer was more of a traditional comedy, Hustle shows us Chow's range. I actually saw this film last December at the end of a 24-hour film festival, so my mind and memory of the movie's plot are a little warped. What I recall is a wild and inventive story of rival gangs in a completely fictional 1940s China. Rather than attempting to hide his movie trickery, Chow embraces it. Inventive CG effects and an abundance of wire-fu action are used excessively, but Chow wants his films to look like cartoons come-to-life. Characters are drawn about as broad as they can be. And Chow doesn't hesitate to throw everything and the kitchen sink at us. He thinks a dance number featuring axe-wielding gangsters needs to be inserted in an action-comedy? Bam! There it is. Kung-Fu Hustle is great fun if you simply let the film unravel over you like a blanket of cotton candy and try not to worry about the brain cells it is killing. It's pretty much impossible not to enjoy some aspect of Chow's continually amazing vision.

The Amityville Horror
The recent rash of '70s and '80s horror film remakes may seem a bit a bit extreme and unnecessary, but don't judge a remake by its poster. Dawn of the Dead certainly didn't need to be redone, but last year's remake wasn't bad. I happen to think the idea of a zombie fetus still inside its mother is pretty groovy. Before that, we had a redo of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which seemed more about a good-looking girl in a tight wife-beater t-shirt and less about sheer brutality (as the original did), but it still had its genuinely white-knuckle moments. And this trend ain't over, folks. Prepare yourselves for new millennium versions of The Evil Dead, Phantasm, The Hitcher and House of Wax, which technically doesn't fit in this category, I know, but I'm dreading it nonetheless. (For the record, we aren't talking about the other current phenomenon of remakes: Japanese ghost stories that were originally made about five minutes before the American remakes.)

This preamble brings us to The Amityville Horror from relative-newcomer director Andrew Douglas, based on the novel by Jay Anson, supposedly based on a true story. The 1979 original was a terrific haunted house story crossed with a tale of possession. The evil was largely unseen, but it manifested itself by changing the personality of the house's owner, George Lutz, here played by a bearded Ryan Reynolds, who does a good job of continuing to shed his Van Wilder image. His new bride (still hurting from the death of her first husband) is Kathy (Melissa George), who brings three children to the marriage. They get the deal of a lifetime on an expansive home because years earlier a man killed his entire family in it. Over the course of 28 days, George sees and hears things he believes are revealing that his new family (including the dog) are all demons that need to be exterminated before they harm him.

I had always interpreted The Amityville Horror as something of a metaphor about the "evil stepfather," who slowly ingratiates himself into a family until actually becoming a member through marriage. Then the guy turns into a bastard. And on that level, the film still works. Of all the recent horror film remakes, this one is by far the most faithful and the one most likely to force pee from your bladder. It's scary as hell. This version also does a fairly credible job of fleshing out the story behind the house's evil, without going crazy with backstory. Remember that hole in the basement wall that the family dog keeps going after? We finally get to see what's hiding back there, and it provides a gruesome and terrifying vision of hell on earth.

There are flaws, beginning with the paring down of the Father Callaway role. In the original, Rod Steiger is a force to be reckoned with. In his place is one of my favorite actors, Philip Baker Hall, but he's basically just brought in for the room of flies scene and hurried off like he has a busy schedule and can't be bothered to help this family. The other problem with the film is the ending, which turns into more of a rescue mission than an escape from the house. I don't want to ruin the finale, but it's the only time I felt the hands of producer Michael Bay (director of Pearl Harbor and Armageddon) manipulating things. It's a minor problem, but one worth noting.

It takes a lot to scare me in a movie theatre, and let's face the facts: the new horror films coming out of Hollywood (like the recent abortion Cursed) aren't doing the job. All that is required of these movies is to creep me out and make me jump three feet off my seat. If a film can do that, I don't care if it's a remake or sequel. Bring on the remake of Sleepaway Camp and be done with it!

The Interpreter
Every so often, actors who get paid seven- or eight-figure salaries remind us what they did to earn such spoils. Although it was never really in question that Sean Penn works for his cash, some often wondered whether Nicole Kidman's acting talents were as impressive as her status as a celebrity. I'd argue that she's spent the better part of the last year building her reputation as an actress at the expense of her high-profile lifestyle with films like The Human Stain, Dogville and the highly underrated Birth (I choose to ignore her remake of The Stepford Wives). None of these works were big at the box office, and none were intended to be. While I doubt Kidman will ever shun big-budget Hollywood projects altogether (look for Bewitched this summer!), seeing her in any work is usually a sign of some level of quality and reliability. The Interpreter proves my theory.

Before seeing The Interpreter, you must erase from your mind the big bus explosion the studio is force feeding us in every trailer and television commercial. Master director Sydney Pollack (in Three Days of the Condor and The Firm mode) has crafted an intelligent and thoughtful piece about how the U.S. Secret Service and other security-minded government agencies would handle a credible threat of terrorism on American soil. Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a woman raised in the war-torn fictional African nation of Motobo and now works for the United Nations as an interpreter. One night while she's alone in her booth overlooking the General Assembly hall, she overhears two men whispering in her native tongue about a plot to assassinate the current leader of Motobo.

Sean Penn is Agent Tobin Keller, the Secret Service agent heading an investigation of this alleged plot, which he believes may be a creation of Broome's. The deeper the investigators look into Broome's life, the more reasons are found to explain why she might be making up the conversation she overheard, or that she might be far more political than she admits. While you might assume that Kidman and Penn have a romantic interlude simply by nature of the fact that they are paired in this film, you'd be wrong. Pollack keeps things on the up and up. Penn's character is a by-the-book agent, despite the fact that his wife has died just two weeks earlier. He tells his boss (played by Pollack) that he feels better when he's working, and we believe him. One of the highlights of The Interpreter is the casting of the always-reliable Catherine Keener as Keller's partner. With simply a look or a single line of dialogue, she transforms scenes in this film, usually by lightening the mood with a great one-liner.

Yes, there is a big bus explosion. But far more interesting are the events leading up to that explosion, landing many of the film's major players on the bus for reasons that seem completely credible and in line with the detail-oriented screenplay. Director Pollack also reminds us what a fantastic character developer he is. Both of his leads are working out their own demons as the case progresses, culminating in a thrilling and emotional final act as the controversial African leader speaks before the U.N. General Assembly. Some may find The Interpreter too slow, but I'd argue that quickening the pace might have sacrificed our empathy for these characters. And the complexity of the story is worth taking your time to explore. Short cuts would have damaged this film. In a way, The Interpreter feels like Pollack has all but ignored the way Hollywood thrillers are made today and simply said, "I'm doing this the way I always have." If he'd made his movie in the 1970s, I think very little would be different. You have to admire the man for knowing what's best, sticking to his guns and delivering a work of this caliber.

Look at Me
The latest intelligent French comedy from writing-acting team Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui (who also takes a turn directing here) is a stinging examination (more like an indictment) of how truly awful celebrities can be, both to those that admire them and members of their own family. Bacri and Jaoui have given us such remarkable works as The Taste of Others and Family Resemblances in recent years; Look at Me (which won the best screenplay award at last year's Cannes Film Festival) is their most savage and unforgiving work.

Bacri plays a much-beloved author named Etienne Cassard, who's on his second, much younger wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and is trying to relate to his overweight, suffering daughter, Lolita (Marilou Berry), from his first marriage. An up-and-coming opera singer, Lolita obsesses over her weight and distrusts most of the men she meets because she assumes they only want to know her because her father is a celebrity. In most cases, she is correct. Then she meets Sebastien (Keine Bouhiza), who seems to genuinely care for her even as Etienne practically forces the young man to work with him. This bit of "kindness" on her father's part drives a wedge between the young couple. Lolita seems hell-bent on pleasing her father and finding ways to earn his love and approval, but when they are together he's a complete bastard to her about her weight, her opera studies and her choice in men.

It turns out Lolita's opera teacher, Sylvia (director Jaoui), is married to Pierre, a fledging writer (Laurent Grevill). When he and Etienne meet, Etienne wants to take Pierre on as a client in his new publishing company, which introduces a whole new level of conflict into the overlapping storylines. Look at Me is a true ensemble piece with absolutely no weak links. The film's comments on fame, art, ego, family and intellectualism are totally accurate and wickedly funny. By the time the plot takes us to Lolita's operatic debut, tensions are high among all the characters, and what her father does during this scene is simply cruel and unforgivable. Look at Me is splendidly acted by a team that, in many cases, has worked with Jaoui and Bacri before, and the chemistry among the players makes all the difference. I saw this film a few days after seeing Joan Allen tear up the screen in The Upside of Anger, a movie that covers a lot of the same territory as Look at Me. I enjoyed Anger quite a bit, but the French film puts it to shame and highlights the fact that American films—even independent productions—rarely tackle such raw-nerve subjects like this with any kind of authenticity. You can hate the French sometimes, but you've got to respect their movies. The film is now playing at the Music Box 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.

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