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Thursday, October 19

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Airbags

This is a jam-packed weekend of new releases, including quite a few potential contenders come awards season and a couple I reviewed during the Chicago International Film Festival, which just ended. There are so many films, in fact, that I have decided to utilize my option of one paragraph (sometimes two) per film.

Lars and the Real Girl

Starring the always great Ryan Gosling as an man nearly catatonic with shyness, Lars and the Real Girl sees the titular character purchase a Real Doll (a creepily life-like sex doll) named Bianca and have a very sweet, non-sexual relationship with her (she's religious, he says, so she stays in the guest bedroom of his brother and sister-in-law). I got a little worried in the first few minutes of this movie that it would a one-trick pony kind of gimmick, but Gosling absolutely makes us care about Lars and his girlfriend Bianca. To help Lars cope with what much surely be mental illness (or just a wild imagination), the townsfolk treat Bianca like a member of the community and form relationships with her independent of Lars. Director Craig Gillespie (yes, the same man who brought us Mr. Woodcock a couple of weeks ago, but don't hold that against him) strikes a perfectly balanced tone with this work to bring us a moving work that will make you laugh, feel uneasy at times, and ultimately really care about everyone in the film. I'm not joking even a little bit when I say there's a very good chance you'll cry somewhere along the line.

There are no villains here, and even those who don't like Bianca's presence in the town grow to accept her. I know it sounds wacky on paper, but Lars and the Real Girl is a film that manages to be sweet and innocent without resorting to a sappy meltdown and ruining its delicate nature. Even in the film's predictable third act, Gillespie has done such a remarkable job involving us in his characters' lives (real and inanimate) that we just enjoy their company even if we know where the story is going. Supporting work from Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer, and especially Patricia Clarkson as Lars's therapist create such lovely landscape of characters for this film to play out on that we grow to love this tight-knit bunch. Lars and the Real Girl is so perfectly realized that any minor flaws are easily overlooked and you'll leave the theater just wanting to give everyone responsible for making the movie a big hug.


Gone Baby Gone

One of my favorite films of the year is Gone Baby Gone, the feature film directing debut from Ben Affleck, with an absolutely riveting performance by his brother Casey. If you have already seen The Assassination of Jesse James, then you'll at least be somewhat prepared to witness how great an actor Casey Affleck has become. As much as I liked him in that film, he's better here. What you may not be prepared for is how sure-handed a filmmaker Ben Affleck is. In fact, if Ben Affleck never acted again, I'd be fine with that. That's not an insult to his talents as an actor; rather, it's a testament to his strength as a director as evidenced with Gone Baby Gone. Affleck's sense of place (his old stomping grounds in Boston) and people (the surly and tough-as-nails people that apparently make up the entire population of that city) is astonishing here. He takes what could have been a run-of-the-mill tale about the search for a missing child and turns it into a fascinating character study of an entire city and its citizens. The dialog flashes with danger and energy, while the performances from both well-knowns like Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Casey Affleck, as well as many unknown actors, crackle with authority. I should single out Michelle Monahan as Affleck's business partner/love interest, who also acts from time to time as his much-needed moral conscience. In a film filmed with dozens of tough and sometimes insulting men, she holds her own in a place not designed for the weak. From its morally ambiguous themes to its shadowy visuals, Gone Baby Gone is as compelling a piece of filmmaking as you're likely to see this year.


Things We Lost In the Fire

This film concerns itself with a young widow (Halle Berry, who basically never stops crying) who takes comfort in the presence of her late husband's (David Duchovny) junkie best friend (Benicio del Toro). The film rides the fine line between a solid drama about loss and grief, and weepy melodrama. Thankfully Del Toro in on hand to plant this movie firmly in reality and give us a work that is grounded in honest emotions and depth. We go into the film believing it will be the story of Halle Barry, grieving over the loss of her murdered husband. But Things We Lost turns things around and makes the more interesting tale that of Del Toro's recovering junkie. Both characters were clearly stabilized in different ways by the victim, but it's Del Toro's struggle that makes us care about anything that happens in this film, no matter how many beautiful widows and cute fatherless kids the filmmakers throw at us. It saddens me to criticize the film at all because it's from Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who made After the Wedding, one of my favorite films of the year. She has a true gift for portraying human suffering of many kinds, but Berry's performance undercuts the central themes of the movie by playing her character so predictably. It's a tough call, and if you find yourself unable to stay away from Del Toro because the guy is so damn good in everything he does, I won't steer you clear. But Things We Lost doesn't know when to dial it back to make itself more believable and honest.


30 Days of Night

The idea is so simple, I can't believe nobody thought of it before Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith put out their acclaimed graphic novel. A group of nasty-ass vampires targets a town in the furthest reaches of Alaska, where the sun sets for 30 days solid. Since sunlight can kill vampires and there's no sun for a month, these feral-looking bloodsuckers have free reign over those residents of the town who don't head to the state of Washington for the dark days. Granted, the vampires don't exactly pace themselves and end up killing or turning almost the entire town in the first night. Those that remain attempt to combine their forces, gather whatever supplies they need, find a safe place to hide for 30 days, and keep their fingers crossed. Josh Hartnett plays the town sheriff who does his best to keep things organized and keep people alive, but the vampires (led by an almost unrecognizable Danny Huston) are crafty fuckers who never let things get quiet for too long. Also on hand is Ben Foster (who recently kicked ass as a baddie in 3:10 To Yuma) as a Renfield-like human character who sneaks into town before the vamps to kill the community's power and other means of calling for help and saving themselves. Director David (Hard Candy) Slade keeps the film at a sometimes relentless pace, and the tension level never really lets up. We don't learn much about where the vampires come from or who any of them were before they were turned, but that's okay in this context. Knowing that they are brutal killers is enough for me. They don't so much bite your neck as they rip out your throat and drink the arterial spray the way you would a water fountain. The film's final scenes are a bit ridiculous, even for a vampire movie, but 30 Days of Night kept me completely gripped in its dark and thrilling machinations. It's not the perfect horror film, but at least someone is trying (and often succeeding) to keep us scared and entertained. This is a kick-ass little horror movie.


Sleuth

Thirty-five years ago a young Michael Caine matched wits and acting chops with an aging Lawrence Olivier in a fairly well received but extremely stagy cat-and-mouse game called Sleuth, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer. Caine played Milo Tindle, a young handsome actor who is sleeping with the wife of crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Olivier). The entire film was essentially just these two great actors attempting to outwit each other and trade witticisms like some men use rapiers. Is this new version directed by Kenneth Branagh and adapted by Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, Caine switches to the role of the author going toe to toe with the young, studly (and occasionally feminine) Jude Law, whom Caine enlists in a wild insurance fraud scheme, which turns out to be a massive set-up to ends I won't ruin here. The plot becomes a game of one-upsmanship that gets more and more ludicrous as time goes on. Caine plays things cool most of the time, while Law gets a chance to really go berserk. I thought he pulled it off spectacularly, but some might feel he's a bit too much to be believable. The problem with the film is that it still feels hopelessly like a filmed theater piece, and the more twists the film piles on, the more I lost interest. Considering most of this film is just two men moving around a luxury house talking to each other, Branagh really overdoes it with a series of shots from security cameras and a variety of loopy camera movements. It's too much for such a simply conceived story, and while the acting is top notch, the direction undercuts its greatness. It's a closer call than many critics are giving it credit for, but Sleuth ultimately fails at its own game.


Reservation Road

Something fundamental is missing from the latest work from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George. Reservation Road could have been a deeply dramatic examination of guilt, grief and the small steps we take in regaining mental stability after an earth-shattering loss, but instead this story rounds up every clichéd line of dialog about moving on and seeking justice that has been covered 100 times before in far better films. This is the tale of two families who live near each other in Connecticut. The divorced Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) is driving his son to his ex-wife's (Mira Sorvino) home from a Red Sox game. He's late and speeding on a winding road when he swerves slightly off the road in front of a gas station and strikes and kills a child about his son's age. In a panic, he speeds away from the accident as the dead boy's father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) stands shocked at what he's just seen. Ethan didn't get a close enough look at the vehicle or driver to make a positive ID, so rather than let the police do their job at their own pace, he investigates the incident himself, essentially shutting out his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and young daughter (Elle Fanning).

Reservation Road is riddled with problems, starting with the numerous coincidences we're asked to accept. Granted, they live in a fairly small community, but what are the odds that Ethan would hire a lawyer to help him investigate the incident, and that lawyer would just happen to be Dwight? Or that Ethan's daughter takes piano lessons from Dwight's ex-wife? Or that the dead boy goes to school with Dwight's son? But even if I could suspend belief enough to accept these plot points, the film's far bigger problems concern the trite and obvious writing. I got sick of hearing Ethan declare versions of "My son is dead" to whoever might be in the room with him. He begins an internet chat with another parent of a child killed in a hit-and-run, and that goes nowhere. His attempt at getting his own brand of justice is weak. We know that eventually he'll realize that Dwight committed the crime, but even that moment of realization is handled poorly. And we're apparently supposed to think Dwight is a good guy because he seems to be preparing to turn himself in right after he and his son finish watching the Red Sox win the World Series. Whatta guy! At least he's got his priorities straight. Try as I might, I didn't care one iota for anyone in this movie. There's something fundamentally flawed with Reservation Road, and it never allowed me to care enough to enter this world and feel for these folks. If you can't do that simple thing, then why make this movie?


My Kid Could Paint That

A couple of years ago, you may have heard the tale of young Marla Olmstead, the 4-year-old painting protégé whose work was going for $10,000 to $25,000 a piece, and before she turned 5, she had sold about $300,000 worth of art work that some art critics and collections were likening to many of the greats. The media attention (which included director Amir Bar-Lev spending a great deal of time with the family, gaining their trust along the way) was enormous, and included a "60 Minutes" piece that revealed that Marla's father was a part-time painter and implied that dear old dad might have been coaching her. The controversy sparked what was already a long-time debate in the art world about what constitutes modern art and what didn't. But the fact remains that Marla's art work was pleasing to the eye. The only problem was she could never quite paint a canvas from start to finish in the presence of any non-family members, or even when hidden cameras were present. This called into question exactly what "60 Minutes" had talked about. My Kid Could Paint That is absolutely fascinating film that calls into question all definitions of art while examining the fleeting nature of the media and the embarrassing way those who write splashy headlines rarely do the kind of follow-up that is so very important. What's most interesting is how even the filmmaker begins to doubt Marla's gift, but his closeness to the family prevents him saying so outright. I'm still uncertain how I feel about Marla's abilities and the role her parents may or may not have played in her paintings, but I'm in no way confused with my feelings about this movie. This is a captivating work worthy of repeat viewings and even more in-depth scrutiny. This is one of 2007's best documentaries without a doubt. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Ira & Abby

The neurotic Jewish romance is alive and well and has never been quite as cute as it is in Ira & Abby, the spirited comedy from the pen of Jennifer Westfeldt, who broke ground in the lesbian romantic-comedy arena with Kissing Jessica Stein a few years back. Here, Westfeldt plays Abby who meets Ira (Chris Messina) when he's considering getting a membership at the gym where she works. The two hit it off right away, although one gets a sense as Abby walks him through the gym that she gets along with pretty much everyone who steps within 10 feet of her. They have an instant attraction to one another, have sex, and decide in those first few hours to get married. If I had a nickel… Before long, they are meeting each other's parents. Hers (played by Fred Willard and Frances Conroy), of course, are laid-back artistic types; his (Robert Klein and Judith Light) are rich, uptight and totally against this marriage at first. As the couple gets to know each other post-marriage, they learn a few things that might have been helpful in the prenuptial phase. Ira is still moderately hung up on his last girlfriend, who he could never fully commit to. Oh, and Abby has been married twice before.

Ira & Abby is lightweight stuff that occasionally drifts into more serious matters of the heart and does so with a fair amount of intelligence and affection for its characters. Westfeldt's script and solid direction from Robert Cary combine to make this a better-than-average offering that is certainly miles more thoughtful than most Hollywood romances. Westfeldt's performance is infectious and sexy, while Messina attempts to be a stabilizing force to counter her high-energy ways. The jokes about therapy are tired and clichéd, but some of the observations of modern relationships are sharp and poignant. If you're looking for something slightly less taxing on the brain, or you just need a few laughs, Ira & Abby is a good place to go. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Broken

This jumbled mess of a film features Heather Graham as a struggling musician named Hope who moves from the Midwest to seek a singing career in Los Angeles. Leaving no fish-out-of-water stone unturned, Hope meets a scruffy, good-looking man named Will (Jeremy Sisto), who turns her into a junkie and his constant obsession. Trying to better her life, Hope leaves Will and gets a waitressing job at a rundown diner frequented by all manner of wacky characters (played by the likes of Linda Hamilton, Tess Harper and Jake Busey). Eventually Will shows up, gun in hand, raving like a maniac to reclaim his lady love. I admire Graham's efforts in recent years to try and build her indie cred by taking roles in lower-profile films like Broken. I just wish she'd pick better films to cut her teeth on. I'd be happy to admit she's more than just a pretty face and smokin'-hot body if she'd pick projects that meant something and weren't a collection of tired druggie scenes capped with obsessive boyfriend nonsense. I'll give her points for trying, but I can't get behind any aspect of Broken. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Live-In Maid

Opening today at the Music Box Theatre is this Argentinean offering that absolutely took me by surprise. With no real plot to speak of, Live-In Maid instead focuses entirely on telling the story of two very different older women who spend most of their days in close proximity but know very little about each other. A long-time star in her own country, the wonderful Norma Aleandro plays Beba, a fashionable divorced woman living in a fairly spacious apartment in Buenos Aires who is just beginning to have trouble making ends meet and paying her maid Dora (Norma Argentina), who has been working for her for 30 years, sometimes without pay. When we meet this pair, Dora has made the decision that her not-so-steady income isn't worth having to clean up after Beba and is preparing to move out. This sets off a chain reaction of small but significant events that force these two women to learn more about each other than they've ever known. Live-In Maid is a quiet, unassuming film about where friendship begins. There are so many emotions packed into this 83-minute minor miracle that you can't help but be moved. Beba has a lifetime of regrets to work out, while Dora has a cheating husband and unfinished kitchen floor to deal with. Both women have an unspoken loyalty to each other that isn't fully realized or appreciated until they aren't together any longer. This is a touching and worthy film that is well worth going out of your way to see.

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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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