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Wednesday, December 13

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Lord of War
Writer-director Andrew Niccol has made a career of crafting films that ask us to look at the world with skewed glasses. With his first effort, Gattaca, he looked at the lengths one man would go for genetic perfection. With his script for The Truman Show, he reduced a man's entire life into one giant soundstage. Although the end results were not always satisfying, Niccol's second film as a director, S1m0ne, wondered how much the world cares that our idols are, literally, big phonies. His last story idea, The Terminal (directed by Steven Spielberg), was not all that different than The Truman Show in that a man's entire world was confined to a limited space and he was being watched almost constantly. The biggest difference, of course, was that Tom Hanks knew where he was and who was watching. The greatest revelation about Niccol's latest writing-directing effort, Lord of War, is that rather than his main character living in some sort of a fantasy world or microcosm of our own society, he is living at the dead center of the real world, an all-too-real place that sometimes resembles hell, especially if you make your living as an arms dealer.

In his first film since the abysmal National Treasure, Nicolas Cage gives us one of the finest roles he's ever undertaken. Yuri Orlov, the son of Russian immigrant parents, came to America when he was just a boy and took up residence with his family in the Little Odessa neighborhood of Brooklyn. Growing up, Yuri wanted two things: money and local beauty queen Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). Yuri was keenly aware that he needed one to get the other. Early in life, Yuri recognizes a potential means to that end: The Russian gangs in his neighborhood are grossly under-supplied when it comes to weapons, so he decides to tap into the high-demand market of guns, Uzis in particular. Through a narration that guides us through Yuri's adventures as an arms trader, he compares the first time he sells an Uzi to his first sexual encounter — nobody knows what they're doing, but it's still highly satisfying.

While attending a gun show with his brother/partner Vitali (played by Jared Leto), Yuri meets the king of arms dealers, Simeon Weisz (the wise and slippery Ian Holm), who treats Yuri like the amateur that he is. The two men meet several times in the course of the story, but under vastly different circumstances — that first encounter inspires Yuri to think big, and within a few years he's moving product in every war-torn corner of the globe. He does everything in his power not to take sides in any of the conflicts he's selling into, and he makes a point to never stick around to see how the weapons are used (usually against someone weak and helpless). Yuri becomes an expert in his trade, as well as in detaching his emotions from the business. He makes a point of saying that he never sold weapons to Osama bin Laden during the war between Afghanistan and Russia, but quickly adds that it wasn't on principal; it was because the guy's checks tended to bounce. After a particularly nasty exchange with some drug lords in Colombia, Vitali embarks on a major coke binge that lands him in rehab and out of the guns business.

The big break in Yuri's gun-running life (and the profession of arms trading) is the end of the Cold War. A combination of a pissed-off, unpaid Soviet military and stockpiles of unused guns, tanks, helicopters, grenades — pretty much every mass destructor on the planet — is just sitting in warehouses waiting to get snatched up. And it just so happens that Yuri's uncle runs one of the compounds housing these armaments. As a result of this raid of Russian weapons, the AK-47 becomes the all-too-available gun of choice for terrorists worldwide.

The way Niccol guides us through Yuri's world almost makes your mind explode. According to Niccol (who did a Q&A after the screening I attended), the character of Yuri is actually based on five different arms dealers and that every situation (the film takes us from the early 1980s to almost the present) is based on real events. How Yuri manipulates people and especially international arms embargo laws is terrifying. For most of the film Interpol agents, headed by Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), are right behind Yuri. But even when they catch him, they never have enough to hold him for long. Yuri's greatest gift may be his ability to anticipate those out to nab him, whether it's the law, a competitor or even a client.

This might be an appropriate time to mention that Lord of War plays like a very dark comedy. I found myself laughing far more than I thought I would, sometimes just at the sheer genius of Yuri's schemes and sometimes at the punch-in-the-gut revelations about the warring world that Niccol unveils. When one particularly cruel African military dictator (played with playful viciousness by Eamonn Walker) laughs about how he has been accused by the U.S. government of rigging elections in his country and then holds up a newspaper headline concerning the botched Florida election results of 2000, you can't help but chuckle. Or when Yuri gets a phone call from the Middle East saying that his services will no longer be required due to an outbreak of peace. "Peace treaty? But the guns are already on the way!" he says, shocked.

The stronger and more dangerous Yuri's business gets, the more likely he is to get caught, and the more he seems to push his family away. Yes, he does get the girl of his dreams, and they have a beautiful son. Vitali continues his in-and-out tours of rehab clinics and skanky women. I'm happy to report that the scenes involving his family are just as compelling as the scenes with guns. And while Leto and Moynahan both do commendable jobs in Lord of War, they aren't in the film much. Nicolas Cage has never been better; no one could possibly be as good as he is in this film, despite the fact that he plays his part fairly low-key.

Lord of War is an unparalleled look at the the world at war over the last 20-some years, seen through the eyes of a man who allows all sides of a conflict to kill each other a little longer. It's a condemnation of world governments that, in most cases, tolerate men like Yuri because occasionally politicians need to use his services to supply clandestinely those they cannot supply publicly. But the film also, to a degree, celebrates Yuri as a thinker and schemer. Even in handcuffs or with a bullet wound in the gut, Yuri is the one in control in the most chaotic of times. Niccol admires Yuri as much as he despises him. There's a telling sequence in which a pair of hyenas approach Yuri in the African desert as if preparing to attack. They look at him, sniff around a bit, and walk away. When the lowest of God's creatures won't come near you, your life is truly shit.

As much as it pains me to say it, Lord of War might be too real for the mainstream. I can't imagine that audiences will want to face this reality. Words like "arms dealers" get tossed around in action movies quite a bit, but Yuri shows us a life that has never been exposed to the elements like this before. Niccol doesn't lay blame on any political party, nations or leader; he points the finger at each and every one of them. What might end up being the most incredible thing about Lord of War is that Niccol got it made with no distributor lined up or studio backing. Lions Gate, which signed on after the film was completed, has a history of taking chances like this one (probably because it's a Canadian company) and should be applauded for putting out such a risky work. Niccol lays before us one of the most complicated scams going on in the world and makes it clear (or at least clearer) who the players are and how they get away with such travesties. Fahrenheit 9-11 may have had me contemplating a move to Canada; Lord of War made me call my real estate agent about properties on Mars. This is as powerful a film as you're likely to see this year.

Just Like Heaven
As strange as it may seem, more people I talk to lately have an interest in seeing this film than any other in current release. And I'll admit walking into this one, I was excited to see it. Reese Witherspoon is on something of a roll with her comedies (Election, Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde) and the anticipation I feel to see her play June Carter in Walk the Line knows no limits. Mark Ruffalo is one of my current favorites as well, and has been since he stepped onto the scene in You Can Count on Me in 2000. He's even done well with his own romantic comedy ventures and practically saved 13 Going on 30 from being god-awful. So pairing these two highly likeable performers seems like a sure thing, especially under the direction of Mark Waters (Mean Girls). Brace yourself, Skippy, because I'm here to tell you that Just Like Heaven is one of the worst films I've seen all year.

If Just Like Heaven hadn't wanted so badly to be a comedy, it might have worked. Part of the reason Ghost (the film Just Like Heaven will most often be compared) worked so well with audiences is that it wasn't trying to be funny, even with Whoopi Goldberg on hand. It wanted to move us by showing us genuine love, pain and emotion. Instead of drawing rich characters and putting them in extraordinary circumstances, Heaven wants us to laugh for most of the film and then suddenly feel an emotional connection with its characters when it hasn't earned that right.

Witherspoon plays Elizabeth Martinson, a San Francisco doctor who has devoted her life to caring for others at the expense of her personal life. Driving to meet a blind date (her first date in months) in the rain, talking on the cell phone, fiddling with the radio, Elizabeth gets into a horrible car accident. Skip ahead a few months. David Abbott (Ruffalo) is moving into Elizabeth's old apartment two years after the death of his significant other. Soon after he gets settled and drinks a lot of beer (a nightly ritual, apparently) Elizabeth's "spirit" appears, unaware of the circumstances of her life, including the accident, the fact that she was a doctor or even her own name. All of these seemingly unnecessary plot devices led me to a conclusion early on regarding Elizabeth's fate after the accident, but I won't spell this out for you in case you still care. So what we have (for those keeping score) is a spirit-woman in search of her life and a man trying to get his started again. Alright, Einstein, now figure out where this is headed.

David seeks help exorcising his new place of this annoying, controlling spirit (she won't even let him drown his sorrows in peace) that only he can see and talk to. Jon Heder, in his first post-Napoleon Dynamite role, plays a bookstore clerk, who is also tapped into the spirit world. But his appearance in this film reeks of script doctoring, and the character has clearly been added to the plot at the last minute so they could cast this hot property and boost the film's demographic appeal. Heder rattles off a few Napoleonesque quips but adds nothing to the film at all. Donal Logue fares slightly better as David's best friend, who at first attempts to convince David that he's crazy but later starts to buy into the spirit story. I'm making it sound way more interesting than it is, trust me.

Corn and cheese are the specials on Just Like Heaven's menu. Before you even walk into the theater, you know David and Elizabeth will end up together, so why couldn't the filmmakers at least make their journey interesting and unexpected? Elizabeth makes a comment that she always wanted to plant a garden on the roof of her building; David, it turns out, is a landscape architect. Hmmm, I wonder how much two and two equal? By the end, our old friend the race against the clock shows up to threaten the possibility of Elizabeth and David being happy together. Seems unlikely, since Lizzy passes through everything she touches (except, strangely enough, the ground she walks on and casts shadows upon — but I'm introducing logic into this, and that's a mistake). Ah, but love and a desperate screenwriter can always find a way to bring the spirit world and the living together. Just Like Heaven is a lot like hell.

The Thing About My Folks
If you pay attention at all to the "screening circuit" nationwide, you may have noticed that this little film has been making the rounds across the country and that stars Peter Falk and Paul Reiser (who also wrote the movie) made a number of appearances at some of the earliest screenings, including the one I went to. My expectations for The Thing About My Folks were about as high as they'd be for a Lifetime Original Movie, and I can at least report that it's slightly better than that. But this film wasn't really made for me, as was evidenced by the decidedly older crowd in attendance at my screening (and I'm guessing most other screenings). I'd equate the appeal — and, I'm guessing, eventual success — of Folks to the grandma factor, much as I did with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This is a movie you can safely take your parents and grandparents to, and it's clear that this is the target demographic for Folks.

Ben Kleinman (Reiser) is leading a perfectly above-average New York City life with his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and kids when his father Sam (Falk) shows up at his door from the suburbs to announce that his wife (Olympia Dukakis, only seen in the last minutes of the film) has left him after decades of marriage. The announcement sends the entire family (which includes Ben's three sisters) into a frenzy of information gathering and speculation. A note left behind by the missing woman leaves few clues as to her whereabouts but her general unhappiness with the marriage seems clear enough. It falls to Ben to house and take care of his father until things are figured out (the belief here is that Sam can't take care of himself, a theory that is never actually proven), and this includes taking him to upstate New York where Ben is going to look at a ranch house. Thanks to Sam, the house deal falls apart, and on the ride home Ben gets into a little accident that naturally leads to a multi-day road trip/bonding experience between the father and son. Oy!

What follows is painfully predictable family relations dramedy. Ben cuts loose on his father's terrible parenting skills and the way he took his mother for granted every day of their marriage. Sam defends himself by calling Ben ungrateful and makes a case that all his time in the office was to keep food on the table, a roof over their head, blah, blah, blah. Every attempt at humor sounds like a punchline; every attempt at family drama feels like an episode of "Eight Is Enough." The Thing About My Folks is grating from minute one, and I'm absolutely not recommending it to anyone who cares for quality cinema.

However, based on the Q&A I witnessed with the film's stars, there is clearly an audience for the film. More to the point, there are a large number of grown adults who seem to see much of their own family in this film. I'll give Reiser credit for one thing (well, two: he played a great corporate weasel in Aliens), he has a gift for finding the commonalities in people. Mock "Mad About You" all you want, but when that show first went on the air, a whole lot of people I knew in young marriages or serious relationships saw themselves in Paul and Jamie Buchman. His books relating stories about being a new husband and new father were best sellers. He seems to have the ability to relate and convey commonalities, and I'm guessing you'll find some aspect of your own family in Folks. The film is ridiculously sentimental, trite and obvious, and I'm guessing that there are millions of people out there who will love this film. Just not me.

Garçon Stupide
A young gay man named Loic (Pierre Chatagny) lives in Switzerland, works a boring job in a candy factory and finds comfort and a sense of confidence by engaging in a series of casual sex encounters and relating these experiences to his female roommate, Marie (Natacha Koutchournov). At its core, Garçon Stupide is about Loic finally meeting someone who inspires him to connect on an emotional (rather than sexual) level. The film's digital video presentation adds a sense of immediacy to the proceedings, especially when Loic meets Lionel (Lionel Baier), an older man who seems to want to simply hold adult conversations with the younger man, something Loic is not particularly capable of because of his limited vocabulary and his desire to remain detached from his partners. The camera actually takes on the point of view of Lionel when the two are together, and we never actually see his face.

The sex scenes are pretty explicit, and the acting (by a cast of unknowns) keeps things fresh, but Loic isn't a very interesting character. We understand that he's gotten through life pretending to be smart and floating from job to job, person to person and interest to interest (he decides he wants to become a photographer because someone says the pictures he took with his cell phone are nicely framed). His unexpected jealousy when Marie finds a new boyfriend also reveals Loic to be something of a child, and he counters her behavior by having some of the wildest and least safe sex he can. Still, when Loic and Lionel meet, there's an escalating level of caring between them that is moving. Garçon Stupide is a slight, fleeting work that offers some insight into the mind of youth right at the precise moment when tragedy forces them to grow up. Birth is always painful. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Elevator to the Gallows
Despite not being particularly well known today, the pivotal 1958 French film noir Elevator to the Gallows is important for many reasons. It was the first feature by the legendary Louis Malle, and it was an important early screen role for its female lead, Jeanne Moreau, looking her most beautiful. Music lovers are probably most familiar with the movie because it boasts a haunting original score by Miles Davis. But above all else, the film is a masterpiece of bad behavior and shady police work wrapped in a warped love story (two, actually).

Relationships are never explained here; we are left to fill in the details as the events progress. Julien (Maurice Ronet) goes to great lengths to leave his executive office through the window, up one floor using a rope, and into the private office of his boss Simon Carala (Jean Wall). Giving no reason, he kills the man and stages it to look like a suicide, then returns to his office to leave the building with his co-workers and unknowing alibis. He hops in his sports car, looks up, and notices that he's accidentally left the rope dangling from the balcony of the top floor. Leaving his car running, he runs back into the building and hops into the elevator (careful to hide from the security guard), where he gets stuck when the guard turns off the power for the weekend. Despite being stuck in the elevator overnight, what happens in the next 12 hours of Julien's life is devastating.

His car is stolen by the criminal boyfriend of the flower girl who works in Julien's building, and the pair gets hold of Julien's trench coat and gun. The dead man's wife, Florence (Moreau), is waiting at a café for Julien (revealed to be her lover), and when she sees the car drive by with another woman in it, she suspects that Julien has chickened out of the murder plan and left her for someone else. Events unravel in every possible way that makes Julien look guilty of crimes both real and of the heart, all the while the poor guy is trying every possible way to escape. When he finally emerges from the elevator (of course, there's no one around to see him come out), he is accused of wrongdoings perpetrated by the young couple, who have decided to commit suicide rather than get caught. (They have no idea that the police think Julien is the criminal.)

The structure and execution of Elevator to the Gallows is flawless. Everything that can go wrong does, in ways that are entirely too believable. The moody acting, so typical of French films of the time, is entirely appropriate, and anyone expecting things to be set straight by the film's end has seen too many Hollywood productions. In this film, everyone is guilty of something. No true fan of the cinema would let an opportunity to see this film pass them by. Although I'm guessing that this lovely print is circulating in advance of a DVD release, this is one you should see in the company of an audience. Elevator to the Gallows is that rare film that deserves the label "masterpiece." Those of us in Chicago are fortunate: you don't have to wait or seek out the film, since it opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Cote D'Azur
Although the structure may resemble a soap opera, the French work Cote D'Azur is many things: a romantic comedy, a family drama, a coming-of-age film and even a musical (for one brief, glorious moment). Oh yeah, it's a soap opera too, make no mistake. A seemingly happy and attractive family are on summer vacation on the Riviera. Marc (Gilbert Melki, from the Trilogy films) and his lovely wife Beatrix (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, recently seen in 5x2) have two teenage children: the little-seen Laura, who runs off with her biker boyfriend early in the film, and Charly, who has brought his gay best friend, Martin. At first it appears that the greatest source of tension in the family comes from Marc and Beatrix wondering if Charly is gay, but the clearly sexually charged atmosphere of the seaside reveals all sorts of family intrigue.

Beatrix's long-time lover, Mathieu, shows up in the town unexpectedly and demands that she leave her husband. Martin attempts to distance himself from Charly, whom he loves, by cruising a local park where gay men frequent. For some reason, this upsets Charly a great deal, even though he's fairly certain he's not gay. The final piece that sends everyone into a frenzy is when an old lover of Marc's who lives in the town enters the equation. Cote D'Azur is funny, tense, sexy, chaotic, and has one of the most hopeful endings of any French film I've ever seen. The movie has no great message or deep meaning (or even a great plot), but it is a blast to watch this family get put through the emotional paces. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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 .

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