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Monday, October 16

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Airbags

In case you were wondering whether the studios would be a little cooler about showing critics the stuff they don't have the greatest confidence in, you can stop wondering. This week, we were denied access to a little hunk of shit called Primeval, and I fully anticipate that we will be shut out of next week's horror remake The Hitcher and the January 26 comedy Epic Movie. If I'm wrong, I'll admit it; but I won't be. But fear not, there are one or two films floating around right now that are well worth your time.


Letters from Iwo Jima

Originally intended for release in the first quarter of 2007, this companion piece to director Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers was bumped up for a late 2006 release in some cities to qualify the film for awards consideration and perhaps boost the profile of the nearly forgotten Flags in the process. But a funny thing happened at critics' screenings all over the country. People quickly realized that Eastwood's Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima is a far more compelling film than its counterpart as it examines the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought there. I'm sure the distributor was convinced that audiences wouldn't necessarily flock to see a film in which it was predetermined that every single character would be dead by the end, or one that made the enemy look sympathetic. That's a tough sell, but it's so easy to see that Letters is one of the year's best offerings (it landed in my top 5 for 2006, by the way).

The film opens in the present day as a box of several hundred letters is excavated from beneath the ground on Iwo Jima. The letters are filled with messages to long-dead loved ones from the Japanese soldiers who died during that campaign. Letters by no means presents itself as pro- or anti-Japanese. But the stories in these letters (many of which are shown as flashbacks by Eastwood) present snapshots into the lives of these men, most of whom were too young to even start families or live fully realized lives. One of the more interesting stories is that of Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a world-renowned equestrian who won the Olympics just before the war. Some have more mysterious pasts, such as Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former MP who, for unknown reasons, was forced back into service after a shameful incident on the job.

The leader of the Japanese forces at Iwo Jima was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai. His performance isn't just a personal best for the actor — it is one of the greatest in the history of war movies. The character spent a great deal of time in America before the war, and flashbacks reveal that his presence at parties and receptions was received with a great deal of fascination even as tensions between the two nations were growing. His time in America is believed to have given him some inside knowledge of how the U.S. military would attack this key island, but when he first sees the size the armada coming across the Pacific, he knows all is hopeless. But he wasn't going out without a fight, and the digging of the tunnels in the mountain that sat on the island was his idea and prolonged the fighting some 40 days.

Still, the Japanese troops were hopelessly outnumbered, starving and desperate. In a sequence that will stay with me until I die, one small group of Japanese soldiers decides it would be better to commit suicide than retreat or be captured. In Flags of Our Fathers, we see the remnants of this decision as the U.S. troops move into the tunnels and hear the faint explosions of Japanese soliders killing themselves with hand grenades. It was a grizzly experience seeing that in that movie, but here it's far worse as Eastwood opts to show us the entire process, one man at a time. They pull the pin, tap the grenade to their helmet, and hold it to their chest, one at a time. Torsos are ripped open; even the lower halves of their heads are torn off. And this happens at about the halfway point in the film, not at the end as I'd assumed.

These scenes are going to be talked about a great deal in the next month or so; that can't be helped. But they don't really represent what is so astonishing about Letters. This is a small, intimate work punctuated by moments of god-awful battle and destruction. It feels like about 75 percent of the movie takes place in the caves, only adding to the claustrophobia and tension between the men and their officers. The screenplay by Iris Tamashita (from a story by herself and Flags writer Paul Haggis) is staggeringly good and serves as a perfect counterpoint to Flags. Yes, they were the enemy, but in many ways they were also destined to lose and die in the process. Thankfully, Eastwood doesn't resort to cheap tactics like using overlapping actors and scenes between the two films. These films exist as a sad reminder that war isn't just hell, but it's a taker of real human lives and not simply the lives of faceless, nameless opponents. Letters from Iwo Jima does enhance and make me appreciate Flags more than I did when I first saw it, but I think most would agree that Letters is the superior film, not just when compared to Eastwood's other epic, but when compared to nearly all of the films that were released in 2006. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Alpha Dog

I'm sure writer-director Nick Cassavetes (director of The Notebook and John Q, and son of the godfather of independent film, John Cassavetes) thought his long-delayed latest work would open the eyes of parents across the country to what their kids might be up to when they're busy working or having dinner parties. In the world featured in Alpha Dog, the kids (at least the well-to-do white ones in this film) are running small-time drug-dealing operations, getting wasted, fighting and having sex, but managing all the while to stay out of trouble with their parents and the law. On one particular day in the late 1990s, a group of kids decide to kidnap a somewhat willing younger boy and hold him for ransom until his older brother pays them money owed for a drug deal gone bad. The fact that I practically was begging for the kidnappers to kill the kid as a means to ending this meandering movie probably isn't what Cassavetes was intending me to feel.

Populated with an impressive lineup of up-and-coming young actors, Alpha Dog had the potential to be a high-energy, testosterone-fueled, based-on-real-events suburban horror story. What we get instead is a rambling collection of 20-somethings screaming at each other and averaging about one four-letter word for every three words of dialogue. It's clear that Cassavetes let his actors have a lot of freedom and room to improvise, which is always a risky venture. What results in this film are long passages of drunken, stoned-out kids calling each other "bitch" and "faggot," which I'm sure has a degree of authenticity, but it doesn't make for very compelling filmmaking. The presence of more experienced actors such as Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone in the film as parents does little to save the free-for-all proceedings.

But the biggest problem with Alpha Dog isn't the acting or direction. No, the problem is I've seen this type of story done before and done better. Check out last year's exceptional Brick from newcomer Rian Johnson, which takes the troubled teen storyline and applies a film noir framework to it. More specifically, take a look at Larry Clark's 2001 cautionary tale Bully (it's been on cable a lot recently), also a movie that features a kid-on-kid murder theme. There are even elements of Catherine Hardwick's terrifying Thirteen here, but the women in Alpha Dog are treated more like playthings or pets.

The performances here are hit and miss. For every thoughtful, scheming role like Emile Hirsch's drug kingpin Johnny Trulove, we get the waaaaay over-the-top tweaked-out Ben Foster, as the older brother of the kidnapped boy (Anton Yelchin, who is also quite good). But the real reason this film is getting any attention (let's be honest) is the presence of Justin Timberlake as Trulove's right-hand man, Frankie. This is the second film I've seen in the last month featuring Timberlake, and it kills me to report that the guy's a promising actor (it kills me because it's one more damn thing the guy does well). Frankie is hardly a supporting character either. Since Johnny puts him in charge of babysitting the young captive (who seems to dig hanging out with the cool kids for once), he's in much of the film. But fine acting cannot save Alpha Dog from making a mess on the cinematic carpet. The film is far too long, primarily because Cassavetes thinks letting his actors roam and speak freely is some sort of maverick style that simply does not suit the material. This isn't a terrible film, but it is mildly tough to sit through without getting a painful headache.


Arthur and the Invisibles

Although he has written and produced dozens of films in the last few years, it's tough to believe that France's Luc Besson hasn't directed a film since 1999's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. However, in just the first quarter of this year, Besson will be releasing two films in the United States, and if we are to believe what he says, they will be his last as a director. Due in March, Angel-A seems as if it will be more like Besson's traditional sexy, slick, high energy works (like La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element). But today we get a very different kind of Besson film: his first truly family-friendly work, one that mixes live action and digital animation in a wholly glorious and thrilling way.

Based on the wildly popular children's book Arthur and the Minimoys, Besson's film features Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Arthur, who has been left at his grandparents' home because his parents are in the "big city" working very hard to make much needed money. Arthur's grandfather is long missing, as he was prone to disappear on long adventures all over the world for months or years at a time. His patient wife, Arthur's grandmother (Mia Farrow), has been trying to make ends meet around the homestead, but some greedy real estate developers are on the verge of seizing the property unless a major mortgage payment is made. Arthur's grandfather has left clues all over the house for the boy to find and transport him to a new and microscopic world right under their home. By doing this, Arthur hopes to find a long-rumored stash of rubies his father hid there years earlier.

Once Arthur gets small, things really start to pick up. He meets the elf-like creatures that live under the earth and joins forces with them to fight a bunch of tiny bad guys and retrieve the treasure. Robert De Niro voices the king of the Minimoys, and his warrior princess daughter (Madonna) and useless son (Jimmy Fallon) join Arthur on his quest. Also adding their vocal talents to the mix are Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, Emilio Estevez, Jason Bateman, Anthony Anderson, the Corddroy brothers (Rob and Nathan) and Snoop Dogg. Perhaps the best guest vocalist on hand is David Bowie as the villainous wizard Maltazard.

Sure, the Minimoys bear an uncanny resemblance to those wild-haired trolls you used to stick on the ends of your pencils, but that makes them lovable. Hey, at least this isn't another animated feature in which we're at the mercy of some talking animal or another for the umpteenth time. There's a level of creativity and adventure here that reminded me of the works of Miyazaki (in feeling only, not look). Would I have liked it as much were it by anyone other than Besson? Certainly, especially after sitting through such dreck as Happily N'Ever After last week. Fortunately, Besson peppers throughout the film, a few choice adult moments that will probably fly right over kids' heads (hopefully). Arthur and the Invisibles is technically a 2006 release (to qualify for Oscar consideration), and it fits in nicely with some of the quality stuff we got last year, like Over the Hedge, Flushed Away and Monster House. There's no pandering here, just solid good times and adventure.


Le Petit Lieutenant

Part crime investigation drama, part deeply felt study of human behavior, the latest work from French writer-director Xavier Beauvois (To Mathieu) is a sincere and honest look at police detectives in Paris, both seasoned veterans with troubled pasts and academy-fresh rookies with ideals and morals we know will be chipped slowly away. Unlike so many police dramas featured in American films or television, solving the crime in Le Petit Lieutenant isn't really how we learn what these men and women are made of. Through a series of private (and often drunken) conversations, these cops bond and test each other to find trigger points, weaknesses and the stuff they will count on in a crisis. The film is loaded with fascinating character studies, and the political and emotional conflicts this group routinely goes through reflect what makes the "Prime Suspect" series so great. And with French superstar Nathalie Baye on hand as the chief inspector of this crime unit, the comparisons with that great British drama don't stop with their similar themes.

The true focal point of the film is Antoine (rising French actor Jalil Lespert), who is not only excited about graduating but also thrilled to have gotten his preferred assignment with the Paris crime unit. Baye's Inspector Caroline Vaudieu and Antoine begin their new assignments on the same day. Vaudieu has a history in the police force of having a drinking problem brought on by the death of her son years earlier. She remarks that the "young lieutenant" Antoine is about the age her son would be were he alive, and the connection immediately becomes apparent.

Soon after their arrival, a murder takes place involving a homeless man believed to have been pushed into a canal by two Russians. Much of the background of the movie is the search for the Russians, who also rough up an elderly Englishman who speaks their language and makes for an excellent witness. But in the foreground is a haunting series of small moments showing each of the characters on and off the job. While the investigation is mildly interesting, it is these more intimate moments that make Le Petit Lieutenant so worthwhile. Despite her good looks being very much intact, Baye convincingly conveys a sad and lonely persona as she spends much of her off-duty time attending AA meetings and eating at home alone. Antoine lives alone in Paris as well, due to his wife's school-teaching job in a distant province. He only sees her on weekends, and they tend to fight when they're together due to her refusal to move and get a teaching job in the city.

Director Beauvois shows remarkable skill for capturing the realistic back-and-forth between the cops. They are playful and deadly serious all at once. For many of these men, the job is the only place they can relax and feel a connection to people with whom they have something in common. A great tragedy strikes that throws this loving family into turmoil, and the film takes a dark turn. Le Petit Lieutenant presents both the delicate and abrasive sides of its characters, and does so with astonishing and understated skill. The atmosphere is somber and reflective, but it's never depressing or dull. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre and is well worth a viewing.


Stomp the Yard

There was one question that kept running through my brain the entire two-hour running time of Stomp the Yard, which tackles the hard-hitting subject of "stepping" (an aggressive and competitive form of syncopated marching) at the college level. As the members of rival African-American fraternities at the fictional Truth University in Atlanta got in each other's faces, threatened violence, and called each other the worst kind of names, I couldn't help but ask: All of this is basically about dancing, right? I know, I know, I'm the whitest white dude who ever white-ed, but I just could not see what all the fuss was about. And apparently the college kids in this movie don't do anything except either performing stepping or watching stepping. There are almost no signs of studying or going to class anywhere in this movie. How is this dealt with in the movie? One line of dialogue from an upperclassman who is training the would-be steppers late into the night: If practice interferes with your class schedule, let me know. Problem solved.

The film centers on DJ (Columbus Short), a displaced L.A. kid who moves to Atlanta to attend college after his brother is killed in a gang brawl. The cause of the murderous fight, you ask? If you guessed street dancing, you get a cookie. DJ thinks stepping is too girlie for his massive skills, but when he spots a young hottie (played by the always stunning Meagan Good) on campus and realizes that a great stepper gets all the ladies, he reconsiders. When he shows off his street dancing abilities at a local club, all the black fraternities begin aggressively recruiting him. Although there is clearly a great deal of high-level athleticism and coordination at work here (the routines at the stepping finals are truly awe inspiring, albeit overly staged), I just could not get past the fact that an entire movie exists about nothing but stepping. The filmmakers (led by director Sylvain White) toss in an obligatory love story between Short and Good, and there's even a small black history lesson thrown in to somehow equate the great accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks with those of the steppers. But really all the film cares about is dance.

I suppose we're supposed to believe that the discipline required to be a master-stepper will carry over into the fraternity brothers' lives and make them better people. But all we're shown here are men trying to punch each other, rat on each other and treat women like property. I'm not exactly sure where the maturity comes in. A couple years ago, there was a documentary called Rize, about the men and women who engage in competitive street dancing (much like the routines we see at the beginning of Stomp the Yard). I learned more about dancing and the maturity that comes from perfecting an art form from that film than I did from this lesson-filled, soulless drivel. From what I could tell, stepping is supposed to be about creativity and passion. I found neither in this movie.


Things To Do

Toward the end of last year, a wonderful little film called Old Joy opened to much critical acclaim (although I never reviewed it because I missed the Chicago screening), and it even landed on some critics' Best of 2006 lists. While it didn't crack my top 30, it did come awfully close. Old Joy was an utterly unique movie-going experience about two old friends who were close in college and in their early 20s, but had drifted apart over the years and rediscovered each other in their early 30s. The film had a lot of fantastic observations on friendships, on how some people change and some never do, and about how youthful ideals are kept or lost. The film had a lot of humor in it, but this meditative piece had a message that kept your mind spinning for many days after seeing it. It opened at the Music Box, and I hope some of you got a chance to see it.

In a lot of ways, Things To Do is a more humorous version of Old Joy, and that's a good thing. In Things To Do, 25-year-old Adam (Mike Stasko, also credited as co-writer and co-editor with director Theodore Bezaire) leaves his big city office job after an unnamed incident and returns home to move in with his parents and re-evaluate his life. Adam settles into a routine of basically doing nothing during his summer home, but he eventually crosses paths with his old friend Mac (the fiercely odd Daniel Wilson), who seems to be an instigator of all things mischievous and random. The two eventually come up with a "to do" list of bizarre tasks largely made up of stuff they wanted to do as kids, but didn't have the motivation or resources. Some of the things on the list are more like daredevil antics (skydiving, for example), but others are more inspired, like making a horror movie, which they apparently do in about 15 minutes. Racing a soapbox derby car against some neighbor kids also figures into their antics. However, a plan to take revenge on the school bully goes horribly wrong when the pair discover him…well, changed from when they knew him as kids.

Over the course of his time at home, Adam runs into an old crush named Julie (Amy Ballantyne), which inspires Adam and Mac to throw a "prom" for their high school friends, most of whom apparently never left the town. Flashbacks to Adam's time at his office job begin to give us clues as to what exactly prompted his quasi-breakdown, and while they seem slightly out of place in this film, they do provide some much needed weight to his character. His sometimes near-catatonic state gets old after a while, and explaining how his mind became fried in the city is crucial. But an interesting thing happens along the way with Things To Do: director Bezaire loosens up. I have no way of knowing whether the film was shot chronologically, but it feels like it was. The camera gets looser, the film becomes less about odd behavior and more about substance and character growth. It's glorious to see a small indie film like this avoiding the one-note curse of some many other young filmmakers and showing this level of maturity even in a film about rediscovering childish behaviors.

And while I would never try to convince you that Things To Do is any kind of great soul-searching exercise, it is a surprisingly humorous and worthy effort by anyone's standards. Above all else, the film is very easy to fall in love with, or at least in strong like. It opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


Wrestling with Angels

If all playwright Tony Kushner had ever done in his life was write Angels In America (the Tony-winning play and the Emmy-winning television adaptation), that would have been enough. But of course, for a man of his convictions and passion, one remarkable work would not do. The documentary on Kushner, Wrestling with Angels, from director/writer/producer Freida Lee Mock follows the writer around the country from 2001 until the evening of the 2004 presidential election (shockingly enough, the man was not a Bush supporter), a period when both his Jewish heritage and his life as a gay man seemed under attack from all sides.

While Mock's access into Kushner's world seems limitless, and watching him stump for all the causes that mean so much to him (anti-war, AIDS, civil liberties, anti-Semitism, gay rights) is very interesting, I found myself more intrigued by his personal and working life. Kushner visits the home in Louisiana where he grew up and ties those times to the works that he is writing even today. The play that was new at the time of this film was his musical Caroline or Change, a look at race relations that has direct ties to his childhood, and which we see from the rehearsal process through its tentative Broadway debut. His relationship with his father is probably at the heart of this film. Neither of his parents was thrilled at his coming out when he was younger, and much of Kushner's hard work and tenacity seems to come from wanting to prove to his father that being gay was not a setback to a happy life. His father's speech at Kushner's wedding to his longtime companion probably will have you in tears.

Mock doesn't only focus on the current projects Kushner is working to complete. She also allows him to walk us through the life circumstances that led to the writing and staging of Angels In America, the definitive theatre piece that meshes politics and the AIDS crisis. It's a work of rage, pain, suffering and hope. Kushner may not have been the first person to draw the parallel between victims of AIDS and those who died in the Holocaust, but he certainly did popularize the notion. Seeing brief glimpses of footage of the original Broadway production is enough to send chills through your body, but watching Kushner react and discuss the adaptation of the play into a film is moving beyond words.

But in more recent years, Kushner has embraced his position as a popular artist to be an outspoken activist. There's a clip in Wrestling with Angels in which he speaks before a group at JP Morgan Chase about gay rights (presumably he's there to make a case for same-sex financial sharing benefits), and it's hilarious. I don't mean to make the film sound like one dour lesson after another; it's actually a film filled with a great deal of humor. There's a clip of a commencement address he made recently that is also quite funny and memorable. The guys knows how to work a room and write for an audience, not by pandering to them, but by making them just a little uncomfortable and then rewarding them for putting up with his politicizing.

One of the most biting examples of his work is shown in the film as well, a bit of one of his newest works called Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, inspired from a line in Brothers Karamazov and by Laura Bush's statement that the book is her favorite. Marcia Gay Harden is shown reading from the work at an anti-war event, in which she plays Mrs. Bush reading the book to a group of children who have died in the Iraq War. Not surprisingly, the scene is played for laughs.

For those of you who are fans of Kushner's screenplay (co-written by Eric Roth) for Steven Spielberg's Munich (including myself, since I named it the best film of 2005), the film is not mentioned once in Wrestling with Angels. However, put in the context of the rest of Kushner's beliefs, the moral struggles contained in that film make so much more sense. If you are curious about Kushner's history with that project, I strongly recommend picking up the Munich DVD and sifting through the many documentaries, which feature him prominently.

I suppose I entered into Wrestling with Angels with an idea that I was going to gain some insight into a writer's mind, which is absolutely the case. But the film adds dimensions to Kushner I'd never imagined existed. In many ways, he's the standard by which many activists and artists hold themselves against. When he dedicates himself to a project (as we see him do countless times in the movie), he is relentless in his commitment. One never senses that he saves his best work for certain types of works. Instead, we establish that the man devotes his soul to everything to which he lends his name. The film, like the man, is an inspiration about living a life in which your art and life are one and the same. The film is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 12 at 6:00 pm, and Tuesday, January 16 at 8:00 pm.


My Life As a Terrorist

It's tough feeling any level of sympathy for a terrorist who was tricked into an action that resulted in the death of three people, but director Alexander Oey does an admirable job in this documentary about '70s German revolutionary Hans-Joachim Klein, who took part in the 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. The takeover of the building saw the kidnapping of 70 OPEC officials and Klein himself getting seriously wounded. The action was the brainchild of Carlos "The Jackel," and eventually the terrorists escaped to Algiers by plane with hostages. It was shortly after this incident that Klein attempted to break with the cell he belonged to, primarily because he was sickened by the murder of innocents in Vienna.

My Life As a Terrorist is not so much an attempt for Klein to clear his name in any way. He readily admits to several violent acts in the name of his vaguely defined cause. Through a serious of extensive interviews with Oey, Klein lays out in great detail his history in the field of terrorism and how he discovered years later that the Vienna attack was, in fact, funded by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in an attempt to artificially inflate oil prices. Although Klein spent more than 20 years living in seclusion in Normandy, he lived in constant fear of discovery by either the authorities or the very group he had left because his extensive knowledge of their organization made him a threat. Eventually he turned himself in and wrote a book detailing his terrorist past.

The film occasionally gets bogged down in details about Klein's history, throwing names, dates and causes at us that amount to so much alphabet soup. But at its core, My Life As a Terrorist is a remarkable opportunity to examine the mindset of a man driven into a life of ideals-inspired destruction, and consequently what moves such a man to break with the very organization he helped build. Klein's disturbingly casual discussion of some of his exploits may be unsettling to some, but it's clear that the man is blaming no one but himself for his actions. Perhaps the most troubling section of the film involves Klein watching news footage of the Vienna attack and give what amount to a live commentary track about what is being seen and done behind the walls. When gunshots are heard inside the OPEC building, he recalls who was shot and why. Anyone who loved the movie Munich might be particularly curious to see things from the other side of that equation.

The film plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 13 at 5:45 pm, and Wednesday, January 17 at 6:00 pm.

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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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