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Monday, March 18

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Leatherheads

George Clooney loves period films. He loves the look, the colors (or the black & white, in the case of Good Night, and Good Luck), the language, the different codes of conduct and the music. In his third film as a director, Clooney goes further back than either of his previous efforts (A Dangerous Mind and Good Night), into the 1920s when college football ruled sports, and professional football was played on empty farm fields with virtually no rules or fans to watch. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, an almost over-the-hill player for a Duluth, Minnesota team on the verge of going bust. Most football fans are following the exploits of Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski of "The Office"), a speedy runner with a million-dollar smile and a record as a war hero with a story of true bravery to back it up. Clooney's fellow players look to him to save the franchise, and he comes up with the crazy idea of essentially renting Rutherford and having him play part of the season with the Duluth team in exchange for a great deal of money for The Bullet and his shady agent CC (Jonathan Pryce).

While this wheeling and dealing is going on, the only reporter for the Chicago Tribune (!), Lexie Littleton (the razor-tongued Renée Zellweger), is investigating a rumor that Rutherford's war record may have been fudged a bit, and a story about an entire group of German soldiers surrendering to him may be slightly inaccurate. Posing as a sports reporter who might also be falling for the golden boy, Lexie is determined to get to the bottom of her story. Meanwhile Dodge might also be falling for the lovely and witty reporter, which almost guarantees fisticuffs between the two men are on the bill.

Portions of Leatherheads are more interesting and/or entertaining than others. The film works best when Clooney and company tell the story of the changing game of football, about what happened when money started pouring into the professional side of the sport and rules played a much bigger factor. As one commentator in the film notes, things got boring once rules entered the game. The chronicle of the rise and attempted taking down of a sports hero echoes a lot of what's been happening in sports these days, and there's some strange comfort in knowing this is an age-old tradition. I also liked the scenes that conveyed a sense of time and place—the old steam trains on which the team traveled; the speakeasies they frequented; and the looks of the crusty sports writers the minute a woman steps into their hallowed booth.

Leatherheads fails when it tries to hard to be funny. In the scene where Clooney and Zellweger first square off, the dialog (from writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly) is sharp and funny. Later in the film, as the pair escape from a drinking establishment during a police raid, the film resorts to slapstick humor that is so out of place in this movie it took me completely out of the moment. I know what Clooney was going for—a sort of tribute to comedies of the era—but the effort falls flat on its face, more than once. There's a prolonged Chicago bar fight late in the film that also goes limp as soon as the first punch in thrown. Clooney is a strong enough director to know this sort of thing isn't going to work, and for his efforts he comes across like an amateur. I know a lot of people on this planet don't like Zellweger, and I'm not exactly sure why. She's fantastic here as a woman who is only in her element when she's deeply out of her element. Clooney probably overestimates the interest audiences will have in the film's love triangle storyline, but Zellweger's fine performance keeps things hopping.

Still, I liked more of Leatherheads than I disliked, and therefore I'm giving it a mild recommendation. I loved the look of the film, the attention to time-appropriate detail, and the way Clooney as an actor didn't fall back on his good looks and natural charm as often as he could have. Dodge is a worn-out player, and the years show on Clooney's face. I've grown to truly look forward to every project this guy is attached to, and I love that his next scheduled film as a director is a piece written by the Coen brothers. I can almost forgive the missteps he's made with Leatherheads knowing that better things are to come.

The Ruins

I have a low tolerance for bad horror, maybe the lowest of anybody I know. And while I acknowledge that some films are so bad, they're good, it's rare that I think that about shitty horror films. Bad is not only bad, it's aggravating and maddening. So when a horror film like last year's Turistas opens with a bunch of way-too-good-looking college kids vacationing on a beach in Latin America, screaming "Whooooo!!!" every 30 seconds because somehow it is supposed to convey that they're having a good time, my brain begins to tune out and suddenly twirling my watch around my wrist is more interesting that watching a bunch of kids get knocked off one by one. Imagine my feelings when the new film The Ruins opens with exactly such a scenario: college kids on a beach in Mexico, drunk and half-naked (I don't mind the half-naked part that much). Damn! I forgot to wear my watch!

But then something happened with The Ruins. I began to realize that I recognized some of these actors; and in most cases, these were actors I liked. Jena Malone (Into the Wild, Saved) plays Amy, whose boyfriend Jeff (Jonathan Tucker from In the Valley of Elah) is planning to leave for med school when they return from this vacation. The other couple on this trip are Eric (Shawn Ashmore — Iceman from the X-Men movies) and often-unclothed Stacy (Laura Ramsey from The Covenant and Venom). But familiar actors wasn't going to be enough to turn the tide for me. Nope, what did that was the film's low-key approach to building suspense and the way it almost drove me insane trying to figure out exactly what was going to happen next to these poor kids.

The Ruins (based on the wildly popular book by Scott B. Smith, who also wrote the screenplay) takes these youngsters (along with a couple other new friends they meet on the beach) into the jungles of Mexico to what they believe is an ancient Mayan temple. The locals watch them carefully, and the minute the students step foot on the temple grounds, the locals forbid them to leave. One tries to leave, and they shoot him with an arrow through the heart. The kids climb to the top of the temple where they find the remains of a camp site those before them set up to explore the site. But where are they now, and why is the sound of a cell phone coming from down in the temple? I'm sure many of you know what the true danger in The Ruins is, but I'm not going to be the one who spoils it for you if you don't. It took me by surprise, and proceeded to scare the wee wee out of me for 90 minutes.

First-time feature director Carter Smith does not spare us the blood and guts, but he doesn't go overboard with it either, especially when the young med student is forced to perform emergency surgery a couple of times during the group's brief stay on the temple. The film also puts the exact right amount of weight on every decision they make. Should they stay put and wait for rescue (logic and circumstances dictate that eventually someone will come look for them), or should they try to outrun the waiting natives at the base of the temple who will kill them as soon as they try to leave? Either decision seems like a bad one. The Ruins will make you scream, squirm, cringe, bite your nails and perhaps even dry heave or throw up in your mouth. The one thing it will not do is bore you. It parcels out just enough information in each scene to make you salivate in anticipation of the next morsel. Then, of course, when you discover the truth and the extent of the trouble, you'll wish you hadn't.

The acting is stronger than I'm used to seeing in most horror films. Even Ramsey gets a few choice scenes, and in the end is the actor who is forced to endure the most suffering. Tucker also is extremely good as the natural leader who may be the only one with a clear enough head to understand the extent of the group's peril. One of my favorites is Joe Anderson (Control, Across the Universe) as Mathias, a tag-along member of the group who gets his ass whooped almost as soon as they arrive atop the temple. Despite being set almost entirely out in the open, The Ruins feels remarkably claustrophobic, so much so that it feels hard to breathe at times. My only complaint is that the ending of the film seems abrupt (and apparently is slightly altered from the book's conclusion), leaving a few unanswered questions that I suppose might have been left so deliberately to keep the film open for a sequel, but I still feel a cleaner ending was possible. That's a minor complaint. The Ruins is great freak-out-worthy material that will have you questioning every little bump under your skin and itch you can't quite reach. Oh, I need to see this again very soon.

Shine a Light

You can make as many jokes as you'd like about their age, their history, their substance abuse and their wrinkles, but after seeing The Rolling Stones IMAX concert documentary Shine a Light, you cannot make fun of the way they put on a show. Sure, when they stand next to each other to take their final bow, they resemble Mt. Rushmore carved in leather. Who cares? The fogies prowl and shimmy across the stage with more energy and personality than any other musicians of any age. And while you might think that the only thing seeing the band members' faces projected on an IMAX screen could accomplish is magnifying their deep and long wrinkles, what you really notice is how happy they are to be alive and entertaining the audience (which included the Clintons) at New York's fairly intimate Beacon Theatre. Having Martin Scorsese (director of the finest concert film of all time, The Last Waltz) behind the camera and a series of fine guest appearances from the likes of Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera is just icing.

Scorsese does pull a few tried and true tricks out of his directing bag. Much as he did with his classic film about The Band's final show, he allows the camera to linger when other directors might be tempted to edit more furiously. He also isn't afraid to let his cameras wander the stage even when the temptation is to spend 90 percent of the time on Mick Jagger's live-wire performance. Scorsese captures priceless private moments, especially knowing glances between guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood. They'll catch each other's eye, smile, sometimes crack up; sometimes they bump into each other with brotherly affection. And when the pair go it alone with Richards on vocals for "You Got the Silver," they are almost giddy. Watching Richards can be a full-time job. He's like an oversized tarantula with black eyes and eight arms, each playing an undeniable riff. And when he smiles, he becomes 30 years younger. At one point early in the show, we even catch drummer Charlie Watts sigh with quiet exhaustion after a particularly satisfying romp through "Shattered."

But let's face it: people come to a Stones show to see if Jagger has lost his natural energy and athleticism. Not only hasn't he, but even his voice seems relatively unaffected by the decades. Jack White (from The White Stripes) is so clearly impressed with Jagger's singing that he lowers his usually high voice to sound like him as the two perform "Loving Cup." While Aguilera's voice is flawless and she and Mick bump and grind through "Live With Me," the band clearly has the most in common and the most respect for Buddy Guy's remarkably strong and borderline evil version of the blues standard "Champagne and Reefer."

After opening the show with a few expected classics ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "She Was Hot," "Some Girls"), it was nice to see the band try a few less road-tested number, including the lovely stripped-down version of "As Tears Go By," as well as "Faraway Eyes" and the Temptations cover "Just My Imagination." Scorsese also inserts some archival interview footage of the band (although Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman do not show up for any extent throughout the film), and while the material isn't really necessary or relevant, it does provide a few laughs, especially when a staggeringly young Jagger tells one reporter two years into the Stones' career that he believes the band has one more year's worth of life as a band. The version of "Sympathy for the Devil" in Shine a Light is definitive. During the song, Jagger twists and contorts himself like a man possessed (appropriately enough). He dances so fast, in fact, he becomes an ageless blur on the massive screen. He doesn't just sing, he turns his performances into an acting exercise, part go-go dance, part catwalk strut. He finds ways of connecting with each audience member with a point or a knowing glare or a pelvic thrust, and his timing is never off. Shine a Light is glorious song after glorious song performed by the greatest rock band the world has ever seen on the only size screen that deserves their brute force. Casual fans and die-hards alike are going to eat this baby up.

Planet B-Boy

I've seen far too many films in the last couple of years that deal with street dancing, break dancing, crunking, whatever you want to call it. The best of these films are the ones that don't force a story and artificial drama around the rehearsals and performances. Documentaries like Rize are actually pretty great and feature real-life drama that puts the fictitious stuff to shame. Planet B-Boy might be the best of the docs I've seen on this subject. Director Benson Lee had film crews follow B-boy teams of breakdancers from all over the world — Japan, South Korea, France and, of course, the United States — to track their road to the "Battle of the Year" world championship competition with teams from 18 countries battling it out and being judged on choreography and ability to go face to face with another team and freestyle dance in each other's faces (much the same way freestyle rap competitions are organized).

Held in Munich every year, the event features some of the most incredible, acrobatic, innovative, hilarious and gravity-defying moves you'll ever see. And you can't help but get absorbed by the reactions from the crowds and the excitement the team members feel as they hit the stage. We get to know many individual team members as they battle poverty, unsupportive family members, racism and cultural norms to live out their dreams. After a while, the dancers' vague dreams about "making it" begin to all sound the same, and the lesser teams certainly seem a bit naïve when it comes to their chances of getting sponsorships or paid gigs performing (that honor usually only goes to the winner of the Battle of the Year). Still, the energy, thumping beats, spectacular moves and creativity are undeniable. I think you have to have some interest in this form of art to really get into this film, but the direction by Benson Lee is strong enough that Planet B-Boy serves as an excellent introduction to this style of dance, which clearly is only growing in popularity around the world. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Grand

Movies about cardplaying aren't that interesting unless the characters playing cards are interesting. Audiences know that each hand in a movie card game is rigged for maximum dramatic effect. The irony is, no amount of clever rigging can make a movie card game dramatic. If you want proof my theory is correct, go see last weekend's 21. That being said, there are great feature films about gamblers or featuring cards being played. Paul Newman playing cards against Robert Shaw in an early scene in The Sting is legendary, but it ain't the cards they're throwing down that make it so. It's two great actors playing two wonderful parts.

All of this serves as prologue to The Grand, a so-so mockumentary (very much in the style of Christopher Guest comedies Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman) about a group of players convening in Las Vegas for a winner-take-all $10 million pot. The actors in the very strong cast do what they can and improvise their little hearts out, but it still makes for a fairly weak effort. Woody Harrelson plays the owner of a casino about to be purchased and demolished by a greedy developer (Guest staple Michael McKean), and he also acts as the narrator of this story of the tournament's six finalists, who include himself, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Cheryl Hines, David Cross and Chris Parnell. Director Werner Herzog is on hand in a hilarious turn as "The German," who believes in killing one animal per day to feel powerful. He's a stitch, and I have no idea what he's doing in this movie. Actually, that's not entirely true. The Grand was directed by screenwriter Zak Penn (Behind Enemy Lines, X-Men II and III, Suspect Zero and the upcoming The Incredible Hulk), whose one other venture as a director was the cleverly put-together faux doc Incident at Loch Ness, which starred Herzog as himself.

The film's supporting cast is also pretty spectacular, with the likes of Ray Romano, Barry Corbin, Hank Azaria, Mike Epps, Jason Alexander, Judy Greer and, in one of the better performances of the film, Gabe Kaplan. Go figure. The film keeps you engaged enough just for its star-gazing opportunities, but there isn't much character development or drama in any of the games. While I was never quite sure who was going to win the big game, I felt fairly confident Harrelson's casino would remain standing. Despite all of the improv geniuses on hand, I didn't find myself laughing all that much. It seems to me in a comedy about poker, you need to have at least laughs or dramatic card playing to hold your interest. This one had neither. The film opens today at Pipers Alley.

United Artists 90th Anniversary Film Festival

This spring the Music Box Theatre will be hosting the United Artists 90th Anniversary Film Festival here in Chicago. The venue will show several of UA's classics from April 4-10, and continues with a mini, four-film James Bond festival May 11-14 (Dr. No, Goldfinger (new print!), From Russia With Love and Thunderball). These events lead up to the release of many of these classic titles on DVD next year to coincide with the 90th Anniversary. This will make up the largest catalog event in video history. Most of these films simply must be seen on the big screen to appreciate them. If you miss an opportunity to see Raging Bull; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; West Side Story; or Some Like It Hot on a big screen with an audience, you're a fool and you hate movies.

Here's the schedule. Go to the Music Box website for showtimes:

April 4
Raging Bull (New Print!)
Bananas

April 5
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

April 6
West Side Story

April 7
Kiss Me Deadly
Some Like It Hot (new print!)

April 8
The Killing
The Manchurian Candidate

April 9
Night of the Hunter

April 10
Midnight Cowboy
Network

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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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