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Sunday, December 8

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Airbags

By the time you read this I'll already be in Austin beginning my all too brief stay for the SXSW Film Festival. Last week, my wife and I finally moved back into our condo six months (almost to the day) after we were blown out of it by a tornado-like microburst. Today, most of the boxes are unpacked and a busy month of traveling begins. As a result, the reviews might be a short (I'm sure some of you are applauding wildly) or not available because I'll be missing the press screenings (those of you who aren't applauding are probably crying because I won't have an opening-day review of Horton Hears a Who next week). So here's the short but sweet version of this week's offerings.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

My favorite film opening this week (one that has quite a few decent flicks to choose from) is the story of the titular failed British governess (played with full quirky glory by Frances McDormand) who can't get a job in proper society and through a bit a trickery ends up being the social secretary to rising young redheaded bombshell actress Delysia Lafosse (Enchanted's Amy Adams) in London, circa 1939. War is about to take over the lives of the country, but that doesn't stop high society from acting just as decadent as they please. The dowdy Miss Pettigrew must keep all her young charge's boyfriends (including a dirt-poor piano player played by "Pushing Daisies'" Lee Pace, a club owner played by Mark Strong and a young playboy played by Tom Payne) from bumping into each other, while giving Delysia life lessons on following her heart and not relying on rich men to make her happy and stable. McDormand is absolutely perfect as the overwhelmed, out-of-her-element Pettigrew, but it's Adams who steals every scene, primarily because she's partially undressed most of the time. Adams has never been sexier, clearly drawing influence from Marilyn Monroe, but creating a wholly unique persona that every straight (and a few not-so-straight) man in the audience will fall in love with.

The entire film takes place in about a 24-hour period, and things never stop moving. Additional supporting players Shirley Henderson and the always-reliable Ciaran Hinds as a disintegrating couple just add to the wonder that is Miss Pettigrew. The film is loaded with great period music, expertly choreographed physical humor, rapid-fire dialogue and costumes so sparkly that you might have spots before your eyes after watching the film. Director Bharat Nalluri (whose last work was the exceptional HBO film Tsunami: The Aftermath) has put together a masterful combination of giddy antics and emotionally solid themes about being yourself and loving someone who brings out your greatest passion. The film is colorful, joyous, and, above all, funny. This movie has made me laugh the hardest so far in 2008, and I'm going to have to insist you check it out. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

10,000 B.C.

We don't need a big number like 10,000 to explain the potential impact of this film about a primitive white tribal leader (Steven Straight of The Covenant) who unites and leads the other tribes of Africa in an attempt to free slaves taken by the more advanced Egyptians to build their pyramids. Let me pick a number like 50; I might even go as high as 60. My numbers represent the number of years 10,000 B.C. could potentially set back cinematic race relations in this country with its tale of a white savior of the black people. To add insult to the mountains of injury this film inflicted upon me, another facet of the plot involves a prophecy featuring a blue-eyed child (who grows up to be the comically hot Camilla Belle, who is about as convincing as a prehistoric woman as Linda Harrison or Estella Warren in either version of Planet of the Apes.

But even forgetting the racial implications of this bloated, self-important joke of a film, its most glaring crime is that it's horribly boring. Weighted down with a useless narration by Omar Sharif (!), the movies tries to convince us that it's about something deep and spiritual with its lengthy discussions of the gods and spirits and demons and warriors. Bring on the saber tooth tigers, and shut the fuck up! I hate to sound like a Neanderthal moviegoer, but if you're going to load up your action film with so much talk, have it mean something and spend a little time on making the dialogue interesting.

Director Roland Emmerich (Stargate; Independence Day; the U.S. version of Godzilla; The Day After Tomorrow) manages to put together a few nice special effects sequences involving wooly mammoths, the aforementioned tigers and these strange predators that look like a cross between velociraptors and ostriches. The best scenes are the two involving mammoth stampedes, but even those seem strikingly similar to what Peter Jackson did in both Return of the King and King Kong. The scale of the film once we get to Egypt (I assume it's Egypt; the film doesn't make that clear) is impressive. The images of the pyramids and other monuments under construction are pretty cool, but the sense of awe wears off quickly once people start to talk again. But like most Emmerich films, the characters are more like sketches of human beings, the story is laughable and the emotions ring false at every turn. But he goes a step further into banality by setting his film (which he co-wrote) in the cradle of civilization and trivializing humankind's very existence. This film isn't just dull; it's insulting. I don't expect historical accuracy or good science from a Roland Emmerich movie, but at least he's managed to entertain me on a so-bad-it's-good level. But 10,000 B.C. doesn't even manage that.

The Bank Job

I'm a Jason Statham apologist, even though I don't think I should have to be. There's something about the little guy with the bald head and muscular build that I just find commanding on screen. He can hold together a B-movie action film like nobody's business and deliver one liners with as much authority as Arnold or Bruce or Sly (maybe even better than Sly). He doesn't get too many opportunities to flex his acting muscle, which is why I was especially excited to see him in Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job, a top-notch, '70s-era heist film that bothers to develop an army of characters to such a degree that I actually cared about them. Go figure. Based on the infamous Lloyds Bank robbery of 1971, which, in addition to cash and jewels, netted its perpetrators some pretty scandalous photos of high-ranking government officials and even a member of the royal family. In addition to showing us the haphazard way the job was carried out by a group of smalltime crooks, the film extends its story to show us the levels of power that were involved in solving the crime and catching (in some cases killing) those that pulled it off.

Statham plays the leader of the criminal gang, who is tipped off by a former flame (Saffron Burrows) to a bank vault whose alarm is turned off temporarily. Leading a colorful team of specialists, Statham is fascinating to watch as he navigates between his team members in the first half of the film and later as a master negotiator who is trying to keep his part of the loot, while keeping the British secret police from killing him and his gang. Director Donaldson (Thirteen Days; The Recruit; Species; and a person favorite, No Way Out) is absolutely in his element in a complex, layered story such as this. He takes us through the twists and turns and dirty deals and nasty events, giving us a crackling great story with personality to spare. He even borrows heavily from the style of such films made in the 1970s, to add an extra level of winking authenticity to the proceedings. The Bank Job is a smart film about not-so-smart people doing incredibly dumb things with unfathomable results. Oh, you'll get a kick out of this one, I promise. Piece of advice if you do see it: I wouldn't recommend going to the bathroom during this movie, or you'll miss about six plot turns.

The Band's Visit

In a classic example of an odd story told so beautifully that it rises to the level of magical, The Band's Visit (which for a time was Israel's Best Foreign Language Oscar contender until the academy decided it had too much English in it) is a warm-hearted, slice-of-life piece about an Egyptian police orchestra that lands in Israel to play at the opening ceremony of a Arab Cultural Center. When the straight-laced band members end up on the wrong bus and travel to a remote part of the country, they must rely on the kindness of strangers for a night before they get on the right bus for the ceremony the next day. Not much happens in the film but I don't mean to imply that the film isn't wildly entertaining. The rural Israelis give the band members food and lodging for the night, and what results is a series of conversations, moving moments, amusing episodes and even small-scale romance that pass the time and bring a bit of much-needed understanding to this small corner of the world. There are no bad guys in the film, but that doesn't stop the story from having occasional moments of unease and tension. But the clear point of the film is to build bridges between people not destroy them. Staying away from most obvious avenues of sentimentality, The Band's Visit is more about getting to know the unfamiliar to alleviate fear and actual form the basis for friendships. The film's small and quiet nature is used to perfection, and the performances (especially those of Sasson Gabei as the band's leader and the lovely Ronit Elkabetz as the Israeli woman who encourages the town to take these men into their homes) are suitably understated. In the end, neither people nor places have changed drastically, but it's fun to watch them get just a little better. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

Girls Rock!

What I thought was going to be a whimsical, all-female version of Rock School turned out to be one of the most harrowing portraits of the pressures on and struggles of girls and young women that I've ever seen. While the boys and girls in Rock School were all musicians before taking classes on how to play like rock gods, many of the girls at this Girls Rock! summer camp in Oregon have never picked up an instrument before arriving. The goal of the weeklong outing is to form a band with four or five other girls, learn the basics of one's chosen instrument, write a song together, rehearse and play at the camp's final-day concert. On the surface, part of what the camp promotes is women in rock, of which there are few. But just below the surface, this is an exercise in communication, confidence-building, self-image (especially body image) and just being around strong female role models in the instructors (called band managers). And while there are some girls in the camp who are genuinely amusing to watch, many of them have fairly tragic backgrounds (at least the ones on which filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King focus) and personality disorders. What's fun, however, is watching them emerge from debilitating shyness and confrontational behavior to something far more functional and less self-loathing. For some, it's a slow and painful process, but learning about the societal and peer pressures placed on these girls from an absurdly young age was a real eye-opener for a 40-year-old dude like me. The film kind of sneaks up on you that way, and provides an unexpected squeeze on the old heart muscle. And, of course, the final concert is so much more than a collection of songs; it's an explosive, sometimes angry, outpouring of self discovery and self worth. And it will pretty much push you over the edge of whatever emotional barriers you think you have to protect yourself from weeping openly. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL

I'm not sure I should say this, but my absolute favorite film festival in Chicago is this one. The Gene Siskel Film Center's EU Film Fest is pretty much the best of the best of what European filmmakers have to offer. It's almost impossible to find a bad film in the bunch, and if you catch even a fraction of what is offered during the month of March, you'll be ahead of the game on what gets released in the U.S. from Europe over the next year or so. Sixty-one features will be screening (the biggest ever in the Film Center's 11-year history with this festival), representing 26 nations from Austria to the United Kingdom. I'm desperately trying to keep up with some of the highlights and will preview a few of the coming week's offerings. Check www.siskelfilmcenter.com for updates, showtimes and to pre-order tickets (which I highly recommend you do).

Battle for Haditha

Director Nick Broomfield is best know for his controversial and borderline shady documentaries (Biggie and Tupac; Kurt & Courtney; Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam), but he's also capable of great filmmaking, such as his two-part series on serial killer Aileen Wuornos. His latest work proves that Broomfield is able to make a feature film just as inflammatory as his non-fiction efforts. Taking his cue from the real-life 2005 Iraqi civilian massacre by U.S. Marines, Broomfield sets out to tell what he believes to be an accurate account of the incident from three sides of the story—the Marines, the victims and the insurgents, who planted an IED in the road that killed Americans and then ran through nearby houses to escape. Angry and scared, the Marines grabbed men, women and children in the homes and wiped them out. Broomfield acknowledges the confusion and complexity surrounding the event and isn't interested in assigning blame (he doesn't have to in order to make his point). He's there to tell this story in which the only innocents are those who are dead. The director goes a step deeper into realism by casting real combat vets and Iraqi refugees in all the roles (the film was shot in Jordan). For the first 15 minutes or so, I thought this was a documentary because it's shot like an embedded journalist made it. The backstory on all of those involved is just as fascinating as the tale's bloody climax. This is a tough film to watch, especially since you hate to see soldiers cast in this light, but Broomfield is surprisingly even-handed in his approach. I dare you not to be moved or outraged by this film. It screens Saturday, March 8 at 7pm, and Monday, March 10 at 6pm.

Boarding Gate

French director Olivier Assayas has made some of my favorite films in the last few years, including his masterpiece Clean, as well as Demon Lover and Irma Vep. But his latest to hit these shores, Boarding Gate, is just flat-out insanity with uber-skank Asia Argento at the center of the action. I can't exactly tell you what the story of Boarding Gate is, but it involves international business-related intrigue and murder. As if things weren't kooky enough, Michael Madsen is on hand as Argento's one-time sex partner who employed her as a sort of corporate hooker/spy. What really matters is the explosive energy that fires up whenever these two get in a room together. She can't seem to keep her clothes on; he can't stop treating her like the dirty little skank that she is. Argento spends 75 percent of this movie in and out of her underwear, which is nothing to cry about, and by the time the film's setting moves to Hong Kong in the second half, I stopped caring what the plot involved and just turned myself over to the screaming and shooting and sex talk. This isn't Assayas' best work, but, in a way, he's outdone himself with exquisite cinematography and pure sensuality. I didn't find the industrial intrigue all that intriguing, but it's enough of a shell to keep the rest of the film's elements together in interesting ways. The film plays Saturday, March 8 at 9pm, and Wednesday, March 12 at 8pm.

Priceless

I'd forgotten how stunning Audrey Tatou (Amélie; The Da Vinci Code) truly is. I don't just mean pretty; I mean drop-dead, knock me over with a feather beautiful. And she looks great in just about every outfit, which seems to be director Pierre Salvadori's theme in Priceless, in which Tatou plays Irene, a money-hungry party girl who targets older rich men and gets as many gifts as she can from them before she moves on to someone with even more money. While shacked up with one of her sugar daddies at a fancy Riviera hotel, she meets hotel worker Jean (Gad Elmaleh) whom she mistakes for a younger model of her favorite ride. He pretends to be a young tycoon, but when his scam is revealed quite publicly, he finds himself out of a job and without the woman with whom he is falling in love. Playing off his good looks and natural charm, Jean also becomes something of a male escort for an older woman. Taking tips from Irene about how to stretch out the affair as long as possible to accumulate more expensive gifts, Jean takes to the lifestyle and even begins to outperform Irene. Sneaking around behind their respective partners' backs, the young couple begin to fall for each other, even though doing so almost guarantees a life without any prospects or much cash. There aren't too many surprises in Priceless, but the laughs come fast and furious. Director Pierre Salvadori (Après vous...) keeps things light, but still manages to have a few things to say about the shallow behavior of the leads. But more importantly, he puts Tatou in a new dress or undergarment in every scene, and that's enough to peak my interest even when the film feels conventional. The film screens Sunday, March 9 at 3pm.

Import Export

From the bowels of Austria comes this extraordinary and shocking work from director Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days; Jesus, You Know; Animal Love) about the ugly human trade that is imported and exported from Austria to other parts of Eastern Europe. His stark and haunting films have no boundaries or safe word. He shows us characters that give up their dreary and often-dangerous lives in one place only to relocate somewhere that doesn't seem much better. Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a Ukrainian nurse who decides against a life of selling her body to move to Austria and be a cleaning woman in a dank and dreary elderly care facility. Her humiliation never ends as her petty bosses berate her for taking time to talk to patients. Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is a deep-in-debt, out-of-work actor who leaves Vienna with his scumbag stepfather to work unloading trucks throughout Eastern Europe. Seidl has always excelled at making films about the kind of people that films simply are not made about in polite society. These are the marginalized and un-beautiful. Sometimes, he gets non-actors to play versions of themselves. I'm fairly certain the elderly patients in that facility where Olga works are the real deal. The very fact that we're watching these people is enough to make it interesting. And while I wouldn't exactly call it "entertaining," it is compelling stuff from a filmmaker who never shies away from the truth and the honest nature of human behavior in all its ugly packages. The movie plays Saturday, March 8 at 2:30pm, and Tuesday, March 11 at 6pm.

The Wedding Director

From the richly talented Italian director Marco Bellocchio (My Mother's Smile) comes this chaotic and darkly funny story of a film director (Mostly Martha's Sergio Castellitto) whose struggling career has forced him to turn to directing avant-garde wedding videos for wealthy clients. While he's booking wedding gigs, he's also auditioning women for characters in what he hopes will be his next film, and coming on to them in weird and inappropriate ways. The director is a fidgety, socially retarded man who still garners a great deal of respect among his clients and other wedding videographers. The Wedding Director has a frenzied pace to it that, in any five minutes, could involve the director fending off sexual harassment suits, meeting with another director who is pretending to be dead so his latest film will win an award and trying not to be killed at the hands of his latest subject, a Sicilian princess with whom he falls in love. The film is filled with insider movie jokes, self-loathing and even some romance to spice things up. Castellitto is phenomenal as a man who is already quite famous and influential in his own mind; now if only the rest of the world would realize it. The beautiful settings (beaches, ornate churches, country manors) only add to the list of things to love about this movie, which screens Saturday, March 8 at 5pm, and Monday, March 10 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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