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Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

I haven't had to write a preamble for a while, but leave it to the good folks at Fox to show their lack of confidence for one of their tent pole summer offerings. As much as I loathed the original Fantastic Four film, I was genuinely looking forward to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer for the simple reason that the Silver Surfer storyline is one of the greatest comic book tales ever told. The trailers and commercials I've seen for this film seem to indicate that director Tim Story was handling the legendary Surfer with the correct amount of reverence. I also really like that Pan's Labyrinth star Doug Jones (who played both Pan the Faun and the Pale Man in that film) had been cast as the Surfer. In the past six months, I'd separately interviewed Jones and Ioan Gruffudd about other films, but I made sure to spend a great deal of our conversations digging as much as I could about this second attempt to get the Fantastic Four story right. It seemed like they were doing just that.

But now Fox has decided that showing critics the film early is a risk they are not willing to take. By the time you read this I will have seen it, because they did screen it Thursday night. But I have a self-imposed rule about not reviewing films that aren't screened or screened past my deadline. By doing this, I realize that I may be falling right into the studios' plan, but I'd rather give them no publicity than the chance that I might say something nice about their multi-million-dollar work.

There's another movie opening today that I missed the screening for, and I don't want you to think I'm not reviewing it because it stinks. The film is called The Golden Door, and indications are that it's a worthy offering. It's playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. And I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that for whatever bizarre and unexplained reason, the Landmark is also playing a restored 35mm print of the 1986 release Labyrinth, starring a very young Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie as the Goblin King. I always remember digging this Jim Henson-directed, George Lucas-produced fantasy flick, and I absolutely plan on checking out this unexplained but welcome reissue (written by Monty Python's Terry Jones, since I'm in a name-dropping mood).

La Vie En Rose

Now this is how you make a biography film. A dizzying, time-jumping, fierce experience, La Vie En Rose traces the cradle-to-grave life of singer and consummate Parisian Edith Piaf, played with a ferocity and shocking bravery by Marion Cotillard. Piaf's battles for love and against all manner of chemical dependency and excessive living made her story as iconic as her American contemporaries Judy Garland and Billy Holiday. In a way, her life story seemed destined to be the stuff of legend. From being raised in a brothel when she was a young girl to singing on street corners for change to literally being plucked from obscurity by a club owner (Gerard Depardieu) and positioned as the voice of France in concert halls around the world.

Although I was fairly familiar with Piaf's music, I knew little of her life story. But hearing these pained and devastating songs in the context of her life story gives them relevance and weight. The film in no way glamorizes Piaf's difficult (sometimes by her own design) life. Instead what it proves is that without these hardships, her voice and music would never have been as honest or moving to many.

Equal parts great beauty and diminutive hunched-over troll, Piaf seemed only able to taper her drinking when she was in love. And when the great love of her life (boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, played by Jean-Pierre Martins) dies in a plane crash, her heart effectively implodes with grief. A brutal car crash essentially sealed her fate and condemned her to a life of morphine addiction. To think that some of these events take place when she was in her mid-40s, while appearing to be someone in her 60s, is heartbreaking. Cotillard's performance is staggering. The timing of this film's release almost guarantees that Cotillard (last seen as Russell Crowe's stubborn love interest in the otherwise unremarkable A Good Year) won't be considered come awards season, and that's criminal. To believably play this character from her teenage years to the last days of her life by doing little more than adjusting her posture and changing her wig and makeup is astonishing. It's almost exhausting, in the best possible sense.

Above all else, La Vie En Rose provides a faithful backdrop for Piaf's moving music. Her life as chaos, filled with fair-weather friends, real friends who enabled her destructive lifestyle, famous admirers (like Marlene Deitrich and Jean Cocteau) who encouraged her, and millions of fans who applauded her every move, including passing out more than once during concerts. There are several very good performances here, but Cotillard essentially makes them all forgettable by being so powerful. I especially liked Sylvie Testud's work as Piaf's best friend Momone, who is the only character to even come close to Piaf's frazzled energy.

If Edith Piaf holds no special place in your heart, you'll probably make the awful mistake of thinking you won't care about this film. Please allow me to assure you that your thinking is wholly incorrect. As aggressively directed and co-written by Olivier Dahan (2002's La Vie Promise), La Vie En Rose straddles you and makes you care about this difficult-to-embrace figure whose voice continues to stir troubled souls worldwide. The structure of the film jumps from various points throughout Piaf's life, but it maintains a very easy-to-follow flow that feels more like the fevered remembrances just before death than any biopic I've ever seen. This is not only one of the year's best movies, it's one of the all-time great biography films ever made.

Day Watch

I received a note from a publicist recently concerning this film, the sequel to the wildly successful (at least in Russia) vampire actioner Night Watch. The note insisted that critics should attend the screenings of this film set up in recent weeks before reviewing the films, rather than rely on the long-released import DVD of Day Watch to base our reviews on. The fact is, I liked Night Watch so much there was absolutely no way I was waiting months to see the follow-up, especially when I knew where to get it locally. So just as fair warning, I'm reviewing the version of this film that was released in Russia and broke every box-office record in history in that country. From what I've heard, the changes to this two-hour-plus romp are minimal, the subtitles are probably a little better, but any one with half a brain would know better than to change too much of this awesome, epic feast. Still directed by the visionary Timur Bekmambetov (who was in Chicago recently filming parts of the new James McAvoy/Angelina Jolie film Wanted), Day Watch picks up where the previous film left off, still chronicling the crumbling peace that exists between the Light and Dark forces. A soldier for the Light, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) is attempting to rescue his son (Dima Martynov), who has given his great power to the Dark. His just-out-of-reach love interest Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina) is the great hope for the Light.

The ages-long truce between the two sides is threatened when Anton is accused of murdering a Dark soldier, and he must set out to prove he was set up before war breaks out. While all of this is happening, an ancient and powerful piece of chalk (the Chalk of Fate, which sounds really funny, I know) has surfaced and become the object of desire for both sides. As compelling and loopy as the story in these films sometimes gets, you come to see Bekmambetov's work for the visuals — and I don't just mean the special effects, which are mind-blowing, by the way. And if you're an old Cold Warrior at heart and have always longed to see what the total destruction of Moscow would look like, buy your ticket now.

Day Watch also has more humor than its predecessor. I particularly liked the sequence in which Anton switches bodies with a female agent to stay under the radar while he attempts to clear his name. The performances of the two actors are particularly inspired, and while they aren't specifically going for laughs, it's still a laugh-out-load event.

There is supposed to be a third part to this franchise, but I'm hearing some bizarre stuff about it. I've heard it's a retelling of the first two films, but shown through the eyes of another character. I also hear it will be shot in English. Ouch. As off-putting as these ideas might sound, I'll be there to see what Bekmambetov has up his wizard's sleave. There are so many original ideas and creative visuals in Day Watch, I don't know which to praise higher. Something about these films strikes me as so necessary in the supernatural film area. They do so much more to my brain than, say, the Underworld movies. The characters aren't always trying to out-cool each other, and as a result there's a welcome focus on plot that is often sadly missing from so many action films. I couldn't be happier that these films are getting a mainstream release. They put a lot of what gets released by American studios to shame, while costing a hell of a lot less.

Helvetica

More than simply a documentary about the history of the world's most popular font and its many uses over the course of its 50-year history, Helvetica is a fascinating exploration of design trends that the font inspired with both its success as an all-purpose font and its eventual overuse. And trust me when I say, the only thing funnier than listening to graphic designers gush lovingly about fonts is hearing the bitch about them as if the fonts are to blame for being popular. And the only thing I enjoy more than a doc about a subject I'm somewhat familiar with, is watching one on a topic I know next to nothing about.

Created in a simple design studio in Switzerland, the Helvetica font quickly became the go-to typeface for corporations looking to move into the more modern world of streamlined advertising and logo design. It was the font of professionals, but it quickly became the people's font when desktop publishing became the way of design and Apple Computer included it as part of its standard font package with all home computers. Many more modern-thinking design firms adopted an anything-but-Helvetica policy as way of getting away from corporate identities and looks for their work.

The film goes into a great deal of detail examining Helvetica's many nuances and its appeal as possibly the world's most perfect font. But it's equally intriguing to watch today's young designers incorporate it into designs that are clearly meant to be edgy and rebellious. Graphic artists from around the world (whose names mean nothing to me, but whose font creations and work I'm very familiar with) speak at length about how the font changed the face of advertising and logo design forever.

Helvetica is an informative, humorous, and entertaining work that opened my eyes to pieces of the world I never really noticed before. Suddenly every e-mail, movie poster, book cover, and sign looks a little different to me. Who knew that the Crate & Barrel/American Airlines/New York City Subway font was so important? Now, I do. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center (http://www.siskelfilmcenter.com), with director Gary Hustwit on hand for both Friday performances to answer all your questions.

Nancy Drew

Really, there are only two reasons to see this updated tale of the teen sleuth Nancy Drew. One is that you have a lifelong obsession with the original mystery books starring young Nancy, who ran around solving all manner of non-threatening mysteries. The other is to see actress Emma Roberts, who is clearly poised to become a huge star whether she deserves to or not. I'm not passing judgment on young Ms. Roberts acting. This is her first starring role in a film after a couple years in the Nickelodeon show "Unfabulous," and she tends to emit a certain glow about her on screen. It doesn't hurt that she's the niece of Julia Roberts (with whom she shares the same beaming smile) and daughter of Eric Roberts. And as weak as the Nancy Drew script might be, Roberts gives a winning performance that is sure to lead to bigger and better things.

How about that story? The most unexpected aspect to Nancy Drew is how often the young girl's life is in danger. At the beginning of the film, she solves yet another crime that the police don't quite get to before she does, and the cops don't seem that bothered by the fact that a 16-year-old is doing their job for them. Her father (Tate Donovan) is required to relocate to Los Angeles temporarily for work and makes Nancy promise to put an end to her sleuthing if she wants to go with him. Naturally, Nancy finds them a house to stay that comes complete with hidden passageways and a mystery concerning a long-dead actress, a mystery that has never been solved. So while dad is at work, the ever-resourceful Nancy sets out to find the truth.

Seeing Nancy run around Southern California in her penny loafers and plaid skirts is silly fun, and if the story had been set during Nancy's summer vacation, I might have stayed with the film a bit longer. But forcing Nancy to attend high school with watered-down Mean Girls is a distraction. For that matter, setting the film in California seems like a move better suited for a sequel. The whole charm of Nancy Drew is that she's a small-town girl solving small-town crimes. But jamming her into the fast-paced setting cuts away at the character's charm and appeal.

That being said, the Hollywood Babylon-style mystery is suitably sleazy, maybe a bit too much. Rachael Leigh Cook co-stars as Jane, a key piece to the mystery of an actress (Laura Elena Harring) who disappeared many years earlier, only to reappear and die mysteriously. Yes, there is a strange caretaker, a crooked politician, a possibly haunted house, and a dopey sidekick for Nancy to bounce ideas off of. But none of these elements really add up to anything resembling a worthy movie. When I got bored with Nancy Drew, my thoughts tended to pay attention to Roberts' performance in the hopes of spotting any of her aunt's talent or her father's freakishness. I'll continue to monitor the situation closely (especially once she turns 18) and report back to you my findings. In the mean time, Nancy Drew has a certain amount of charm but nothing beyond that to recommend. The film's funniest moment comes with the out-of-left-field cameo by a certain Die Hard actor (playing himself). This is what the film must resort to to get my full attention, and such stunts do a nice job of summing up the problems I had with this movie.

Steel City

Strong dramas don't always have to be so damn dramatic. They don't have to feature scene after scene of screaming and arm waving and fighting and crying. Too much of that has a tendency to become exhausting and ultimately boring. The indie offering Steel City is as solid a family drama as anything I've seen in quite a while. With a simple yet powerful and well-drafted script, this small-scale work packs a weighty punch. The film doesn't have much of a narrative, but the host of richly drawn characters takes the place of plot in a way that you don't miss it.

It's the story of a fractured family. Two brothers (Thomas Guiry and Clayne Crawford) don't really like each other, primarily because they never learned to. An alcoholic father (John Heard) in prison for killing a woman in a car accident tries his best to consult with his younger son PJ (Guiry), a restaurant dishwasher with no real sense of where his life is going. He's secretly dating a waitress at the restaurant (played by the lovely America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" fame), but isn't sure if it's going anywhere or even if he wants it to. The brothers' mom (Laurie Metcalf) has remarried a police officer, and seems uninterested in remembering anything from her first marriage (which often includes her kids). The film is filled with tense and quiet confrontations, punctuated by a small number of outbursts that are all the more nerve-wracking because the film is built on such a noiseless foundation.

Every performance here is note perfect. Heard is one of our most underrated actors, and it's his own damn fault for being so good in everything he does. We take it for granted that he'll impress us. Ferrera (who I believe shot this film before "Betty" got off the ground) is impressively understated as Amy, truly the only good thing in PJ's life. The older brother, Ben, is a factory worker whose marriage is a wreck (thanks in large part to his drinking and cheating ways) and has no qualms about taking out his frustrations on those around him who are trying to help. Steel City is a working-class, slice-of-life film that finds its strength and meaning in the smaller things in life. Not being able to afford a new belt for your broken-down truck can be a great source of struggle to some people, especially when that truck breaks down. A few hundred dollars can change a person's life more than self-awareness or a great love. A proud man doesn't have a leg to stand on when he's got nothing in his life to be proud of. These core beliefs rest at the heart of this fine film. It allows us to know the characters without learning everything about them and provides us with satisfying conclusions to these stories without telling us the whole story. Steel City shows us the best of what independent films have to offer.

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez

The Siskel Film Center is all about documentaries this week. In addition to lighter fare like Helvetica, the venue is spotlighting two quiet docs on more serious matters, both loosely connected to America's presence in the Middle East. This first film is probably the one that will strike Americans the most, the life story of the first soldier to die when the Iraq War began in 2003. It just so happens that José Antonio Gutierrez was a Guatemalan illegal immigrant who traveled the dangerous railways and roads of Mexico to cross into America. He joined the U.S. Marines because he was guaranteed citizenship once his time in Iraq was completed (which he did receive, posthumously).

Using bits and pieces of Gutierrez's life as a street kid in Guatemala, interviews with those who knew him as an orphan child and testimony of those who knew him as a smart and strong-willed young man, German director and narrator Heidi Specogna relates the very human story of an entire generation of immigrants and soldiers. My only question after the film is: Why was this story never told in this much depth when Gutierrez was first killed? The military made up a ridiculous propagandized tale of José's life before joining the Marines and how it was his lifelong dream to become a Marine, but this simply wasn't true. His true story is fascinating, and, in fact, his family is negotiating to have it turned into a feature film, but I'm not sure mainstream America (in all its anti-immigration fervor) is quite prepared to care that much for such as story. The fact that an illegal immigrant was the first do die in Iraq might make people's heads explode. The Short Life is not a particularly savvy or well-made piece, but it doesn't have to be. Director Specogna is smart enough to allow the story to tell itself, letting the drama and outrage well up in its simplicity. Let's see if this bit of American history makes it into textbooks. The film will screen Saturday, June 16 at 4:45pm; Monday, June 18 at 8pm; and Thursday, June 21 at 6pm.

The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center, documentary filmmaker Phil Grabsky's latest work, In Search of Mozart, played to sold-out houses for a week. Not only was the Film Center inspired to bring back that film, but two other recent Grabsky offerings as well, including this one about the refugees who live in the ruins of what was once Afghanistan's only true tourist attraction.

About six months before 9/11, the Taliban blew up two 1,600-year-old Buddha statues (the world's tallest stone statues) in the Bamiyan Valley of central Afghanistan, effectively decimating the last of the country's cultural and religious history. Many families in the region were forced to take up residence in the caves around the statues' debris. Not long after these events, director Grabsky traveled to the region and met an 8-year-old boy named Mir, whose poverty-stricken family is among the refugees living in these caves. Spending a year in the valley, Grabsky tracks the day-to-day existence of Mir and his people as they struggle to survive and overcome.

American helicopters fly over with alarming regularity. Representatives from the newly established government visit, make speeches and promises, then leave. Jobs are scarce, illness is common (one person we see at the medical clinic is diagnosed with typhoid), and prospects for improvements are bleak. Although the early stages of a new housing development are evident, little work is done on the project during the year the film takes place. More tragic is that young Mir frequently gets into trouble for fighting. He has seen far too much death and destruction for someone his age, and while he wears a big smile almost every time we see him, there's an anger and aggression to him that pained me to watch. But in a country that has been at war for more than 25 years, how much hope can Mir hope to have.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (originally released in 2004) captures the soul of tragedy in the eyes of this spectacular boy, whose future is either far too certain or completely up in the air. This is one of the experiences in the movies where you leave the theater stunning into silence but still ready to talk about everything you've seen. See this film with someone you like conversing with. The film screens Sunday, June 17 at 3pm; Tuesday, June 19, at 6pm; and Thursday, June 21 at 7:45pm.

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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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