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Monday, October 16

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Airbags

Hey, everyone.

Lots to get to this week. First off, those foolish, foolish studio types wouldn't let most of us see Ghost Rider or Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girl. Critics were allowed to see the former the night before it opened, but that's well beyond even my deadlines, so I'm not going to try and squeeze in extra publicity for a film that its own makers don't have enough confidence in to show me. At least the makers of Norbit had some guts, while those who distributed Hannibal Rising (a bad film, but far better than Norbit) were too scared of the internet critics' response to show it to us. Dummies. Anyway, there is plenty to choose from this week, and one or two of them are actually worth checking out. In fact, there's so much this week, I'm going to have to instigate my infrequently used "one or two paragraphs per review" policy. We'll see if I can stick to it.

Music and Lyrics

Although its intentions and potential are never quite met by the finished product, Music and Lyrics features a stellar performance by Hugh Grant as a member of a one-time mega-famous '80s pop group called Pop, whose music and videos would embarrass the members of Wham! Of the group's two lead singers, one went on to have a successful career as a solo performer and actor, while the other became Grant's Alex Fletcher, who plays state fairs and amusement parks, riding the wave of '80s revival acts. When a current pop princess named Cora (who seems to be a mix between Shakira and Britney) taps Fletcher to write her a song for the pair to duet on for her new album, he panics since he's never written a song by himself. While attempting to compose the tune, Sophie, the woman who waters his plants (played with her usual level of bubbly charm by Drew Barrymore) begins finishing rhymes that he begins, and he recruits her to co-write with him.

You can probably write the rest of the film yourself from this point on. They copulate (in a very PG-13 way), a misunderstanding leads to a quick break up, but love (and a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden) saves the day. You know the formula, and Grant and Barrymore are the king and queen of the romantic comedy genre. Grant absolutely rules this film, and puts in far more effort and energy than the script deserves. But good for him because he saves Music and Lyrics from being mediocre. Barrymore, on the other hand, seems a little more aware of how weak the material is but never really rises beyond the screenplay. It doesn't help that the songs they're writing and singing are not very good and would never be hits in the real world. Writer-director Marc Lawrence (who wrote the two Miss Congeniality films and wrote and directed Two Weeks Notice) also doesn't seem to know much about the music business, which kind of wrecks any semblance of credibility the film's plot might have had. Still, Grant fans (of which I am one) will be wholly satisfied by Grant's performance and hopeless dance moves, and I'm marginally recommending the film solely for that reason.

Breach

Director Billy Ray is acutely interested in those who would betray that which they hold most dear. But he's not so much intent on making up stories about traitors; he likes his stories taken from real life, the kind with big headlines and genuine consequences. His first film as a director was Shattered Glass, the fascinating character study of Stephen Glass, the New Republic writer who made up his exquisite stories. Now we get Breach, a nail-biting tale based on the FBI sting operation that netted the most devious spy this country has ever seen. The information he sold to the Russians set back our intelligence-gathering community to the tune of millions of dollars and resulted in the deaths of several key field agents. Did I mention that the man in question was, himself, an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen? And it took the work of an agent-in-training to bring him down.

The never-wavering Chris Cooper plays Hanssen, a devoutly religious man with a dutiful wife, grown children and a few grandkids as well. He's about as straight-laced as the come and was an expert in Russian intelligence. He was also something of a pervert and a traitor like no other in history. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill, who is pulled from his information gathering surveillance job to play clerk to Hanssen in his new job at the Bureau as the man set to bring the FBI's computer system into the 21st century (the events here are set just as George W. Bush is taking over as Commander in Chief).

Breach traces O'Neill's morale and patriotic struggle to see exactly where the flaws lie in Hanssen, who under any other circumstances would clearly be a role model to O'Neill. Laura Linney has a nice understated performance as O'Neill's point person, whose main function seems to be reminding him that Hanssen is a bad man doing things that have cost people their lives. Also on hand as part of the 50-plus-person detail on this case are Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert, both of whom only have a couple of scenes in Breach, but what great scenes they are. We also get to see inside O'Neill's personal life, as his adoring but taxed wife (Caroline Dhavernas) struggles with his long hours and strange connection to Hanssen.

Director Ray wisely doesn't clutter his fairly authentic-feeling plot with unnecessary car chases or an antagonist who pops up everywhere he isn't supposed to be at exactly the wrong time. Hanssen is still by far the smartest character in this film, but that doesn't mean he is without some major flaws and weaknesses. And Cooper is in top form here, as a man whose paranoia has dulled his once razor sharp instinct. He's a bitter and abrasive man, who is always testing those who care most about him, and it often drives them away. Phillippe has never been better as the young trainee who is just cocky enough in his skills to have confidence but still green enough to bow before stronger personalities than his (which is just about everybody in this movie).

Without ruining anything about this taut, searing work, Breach ends with a chilling moment between the two men that sums up what their relationship has been and what it has become. It's a large hand slapping you right across the face, reminding you that even when the good guys win, there is often a heavy price to pay. Breach is the first great studio film of the year.

The Lives of Others

Believe it or not, one of the biggest complaints I get about the Academy Awards is from people who seem utterly committed to seeing as many of the nominees as possible. Their problem is that they don't get to see the shorts programs, documentaries or foreign-language offerings. If you are one of these people, this week is your lucky week. Not only can you see most of the nominated live-action and animated shorts at the Music Box (see below), but one of the nominated foreign films is opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

From Germany, The Lives of Others is a flawless and devastating political thriller set during the final years of the Cold War in East Berlin. Ulrich Muhe plays an expert interrogator and information gatherer for the East German secret police. His Capt. Wiesler has been so committed to his job and the state's policies that he's never carved out a life for himself. When he is assigned to spy on a famous playwright and his beautiful actress girlfriend, he notices two things: they are not subversive in any way and they are very much in love. But rather than get jealous, he admires the couple and attempts to protect them when subversive elements do finally enter into their lives. He alters his reports and begins to question the very system he has been so devoted to for so long. Wiesler has very little dialog and offers few clues to his emotions with his facial expressions. He's the empty robot the Communist Party has made him. But as his own boss' behavior becomes particularly cruel, Wiesler sets the stage (through those he is spying on) for an act that hurts the party substantially.

The Lives of Others is beautifully suspenseful with a handful of top-notch performances by actors who wear the pain of an oppressive government like a badge of honor. The film's extended epilogue is both bittersweet and completely satisfying. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Dobermann) has a perfect sense of pacing and makes the most of the film's realistic tone. I'll still be rooting for Pan's Labyrinth to win in Oscar for Foreign Language Film, but I won't cry if The Lives of Others gets the honor.

Bridge To Terabithia

I've been told the book this film is based on is extremely popular and won all sorts of awards, and I'm sure there are reasons for that, but this adaptation of Bridge To Terabithia is a limp mess about the limitless realm of the imagination. I mentioned Pan's Labyrinth in my last review, and this film may suffer in many people's mind who see both for being similar and lesser in every possible way. Jess (Josh Hutcherson) is picked on mercilessly by the other kids at school. His family is large and poor, and he sometimes has to wear his sisters' hand-me-downs, which is humiliating. When a new girl named Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) moves in next door, she, too, quickly becomes shunned by most of the people in school because of her inventive mind and outgoing personality. The two invent entire universes and kingdoms while walking through the woods near their homes. They name the kingdom Terabithia and populate it with all manner of dangerous and friendly creatures. And, sitting here now, writing about all this is boring the shit out of me.

The whole affair is just way too precious for my taste. Forget the sub-par effects work from Weta Digital on the woodland creatures; the entire film made me cheer on the bullies every time they pummeled Jess. Plus, there were elements of the plot that just creeped me out. I know we aren't supposed to suspect anything funny is going on when Jess's teacher (Zooey Deschanel) takes him out on a date to the local museum, but in this day and age, you can't help wonder what the hell she is thinking (I, personally, would like a Notes on a Scandal moment with Mr. Deschanel, but that's just me). I know I'm supposed to focus on the fantasy/imagination element of this story, but there are many distractions and not enough solid material to keep your mind off the trouble spots. The film is pedestrian and scattered in its execution, and I found the whole experience highly unpleasant.

Climates

The latest soul-shattering offering from Turkish master director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002's Distant) begins its mournful plot with the unsettling end to a relationship that was, at one point, probably a deeply passionate one. In the final days of their vacation on the Aegean coast, beautiful television producer Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) and several-years-older professor Isa (played by director Ceylan, Ebru's real-life husband) play out what appears to be a civilized breakup but turns into an ugly emotional disaster. The go their separate ways assuming they will never set eyes on each other again. Isa returns to Istanbul, where he immediately jumps back into an almost violent but ultimately empty sexual tryst with an old lover. But long contemplative sequences illustrating his loneliness tell us he has made a terrible mistake ending his relationship with Bahar. After discovering that Bahar has taken a job in eastern Turkey, Isa travels there hoping to restart their love.

Although it's not a long film, Climates does take its time working through its simple story of the agony of ending an affair and the even more brutal experience of attempting to resurrect it from the ashes. Both lead actors convey their suffering with an understated grace. A scene on a bus in which Isa attempts to win Bahar back is so authentic, it's almost too difficult to watch. Combined with director Ceylan's eye for lovely and emotion-appropriate landscapes (the snowy and freezing areas of eastern Turkey seem extremely well suited to the couple's struggle), Climates is a subtle, deliberately paced work that gradually raises the level of inner turmoil as it progresses to its inevitable conclusion. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Oscar Shorts

You usually get one chance a year to see Oscar-nominated short films, and this is your one chance for this year's nominees. They are run and charged as two separate programs at the Music Box Theatre, but these live-action and animated offerings are a rare and highly entertaining treat. And just as a programming note, since the animated offerings are missing one nominee (the Pixar-produced "Lifted"), the compilers of these programs are including other animated shorts that made the finalists' list that was then pared down to the five nominees. Trust me, do not miss this exceptional opportunity.

Of the live-action shorts, my favorite was "One Too Many," a Spanish offering that features a man in a panic after his wife leaves him. He recruits his son to go to the retirement community where his mother-in-law lives and convince her to come live with them and do all the cooking and cleaning. This is a sweet and very funny film that delivers a simple message about family and companionship. Also set in a rest home is "Helmer & Son," a hilarious Danish film about a naked old man who refuses to come out of his closet until his grown children come and see him.

On the animation side of things, the selections are even better. "The Danish Poet," narrated by Liv Ullman, is the true story of how the filmmaker's parents met. You couldn't write a story this inventive or absurd, but somebody did. "Maestro" is the surprisingly strong quickie from Hungary about a bird primping in a dressing room, with a payoff to beat all payoffs. The Ice Age spin-off "No Time for Nuts" was not screened for us, but it features the ever-popular Scrat character from the two films. The clear winner in this category is "The Little Matchgirl," a breathtaking and haunting hand-animated piece from the folks at Disney that belongs in a museum it's so beautiful. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, there is no dialog in this tale of a poor girl who sees visions of better times in the glow of her match flames. It's almost not fair to pit this film against the others, but this seven-minute film will probably have you bawling your eyes out. Make a point to get out and see these rarely screened gems.

Exiled

Continuing this month's Hong Kong! festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center, we have the event's one true premier/sneak preview of director Johnnie To's latest, Exiled, another in a long line of To's works that explores both the dark and humorous elements of the Hong Kong underworld, filled with crime bosses, hitmen and maybe a few bullets thrown in for laughs. A group of hitmen convene at the home of a childhood friend, who owes a Triad boss money. Some are there to kill him; others are there to stop him from being killed. The group decides (which includes the soon-to-be-dead man) to commit one big score that will ensure the target's wife and newborn are left with plenty of money after he is killed. The superstar cast includes Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Francis Ng. Director To fills Exiled with energy, richly drawn characters and more firepower than you can stand. He finds the time to allow these men to reflect on (and often regret) their chosen lives, but never lose sight of the fact that there's a job that needs to be done without the boss finding out that the intended target is still alive. With no shortage of visual flare and brooding, stylish criminal types, Exiled is among To's and the festival's finest and most epic offerings. This advanced screening will play one time only, on Saturday, February 17 at 8:00pm.

Moonlight In Tokyo

When I started to watch this other Hong Kong! festival offering and realized that the main character (played by Leon Lai) was meant to be mentally handicapped, I groaned with anticipated misery. I've seen these types of characters in Hong Kong films before, and they haven't been the most sensitive portrayals I've ever seen. Lai plays Jun, who is deliberately abandoned by his family in the middle of Tokyo. Low-level con artist Hoi (Chapman To, who was featured in last week's Isabella) helps the young man out, hoping he can figure out a way he can use Jun's good looks to earn him some cash and pay back a massive debt. As strange and sickening as it may sound, Hoi gives Jun a studly makeover and pimps him out as a gigolo (with most, but not all, of his clients being rich women). Alan Mak and Felix Chong (two of the three writers of Infernal Affairs) wrote and directed this strange but effective piece. Lai's performance as the mentally retarded man (he seems more like he just got hit in the head a few too many times) is actually quite moving and funny, and not nearly as insulting as you might think. Once you wrap your mind around the potentially sickening plot, you can begin to appreciate the film's strong elements and quietly powerful conclusion. The film plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, February 16 at 8:30pm, and Sunday, February 18 at 3:00pm.

The Wild Blue Yonder

I'm not going to go into a lengthy explanation about the films of Werner Herzog, how great a filmmaker he is, and how completely justified the Gene Siskel Film Center's retrospective of his work is. He has a new film coming out this year called Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale that looks positively awesome, and my guess is that the Film Center either thought they'd get it as part of this program, or they are having the program in anticipation of Rescue Dawn, which looks to be something of a breakthrough for him. Instead, the one new-ish Herzog film showing is the 2005 feature The Wild Blue Yonder, a meandering pseudo-sci-fi effort that is more cut and paste than anything truly provocative or clever. Using stock NASA footage and undersea diving films, narration by actor Brad Dourif and interviews with scientists and mathematicians, Herzog pieces together a story about astronauts who cannot return to a now uninhabitable earth and must find another inhabitable place to go. A probe sent from their craft gathers disturbing data about the earth's history, which includes the revelation that earth has been visited by alien beings (including one played by Dourif) in the past who were also looking for a place to relocate. On paper, this sounds like an interesting idea for science fiction combined with a strong message about protecting the earth from either environmental collapse or global war. But all Herzog gives us is vague theories and canned footage of the space shuttle astronauts and fish. And while these images and his musical selections are quite lovely, they don't make for particularly exciting viewing. The man who has given us such legendary films as Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Kasper Hauser and Grizzly Man is allowed to slip up every so often. I'll give him credit for trying something different, but the end result is a colossal bore. One man's meditation on the world is another man's snoozefest. If you're still interested, the film plays all week.

Walking To Werner

Inspired by the story that director Werner Herzog walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend, young filmmaker Linas Phillips decided that he didn't just want to meet his hero; he wanted to walk the 1,200 miles from his home in Seattle to Herzog's home in Los Angeles. Although Phillips found out early in his journey that Herzog would probably not be in L.A. when he was expected to get there, the inspirational director encouraged Phillips to continue his trip, because the journey would be make a far better film. Walking to Werner is a trippy, sometimes scary chronicle of Linas's walking tour of the Pacific Coast, often walking just a few feet away from speeding tractor trailers and often encountering characters that served as both inspiration and warnings of things to come.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Phillips is something of a hippie. He seems capable of getting along with just about anyone he encounters (even a drunken cyclist who picks a fight with him), but that doesn't mean that he doesn't lose his mind from time to time dealing with bad directions, fleeting daylight, bad weather, sore feet, faulty camping equipment and police who constantly tell him he can't walk on the highway. He seems comforted by the fellow travelers he comes across on his walk, including a man from Florida who says he started walking 13 years earlier when his wife and daughter were killed in a store hold-up. Although there is a camera crew tracking Linas' trip, most of the camera work is done with a small hand-held unit in his hands. He seems slightly obsessed with the sheer volume of road kill he sees on a daily basis and road side memorials marking the spots where people were killed in accidents. I suspect the amount of death reminders on this trip took its toll.

Phillips weaves into his work film footage and DVD commentary from the documentary Burden of Dreams, a film that chronicles Herzog making his epic man-on-a-mission masterpiece Fitzcarraldo. Strangely enough, much of what Herzog says about his obsession with making that film about a man getting a steamboat over a mountain in Peru seems keenly appropriate to Phillips' travels. We also get the occasional phone conversation, message or e-mail from Herzog to Phillips urging him to find other reasons to make his walk but never discouraging Phillips from doing it. In the end, the film's success and satisfactory conclusion doesn't hinge on whether these two filmmakers ever meet. Phillips turns Walking to Werner into a glorious celebration of those few of us who are willing to engage in absurd and dangerous behavior, not for the attention it may get us, but because we are driven by our own need to live while we still can. Phillips' journey made him both vulnerable and strong, insane and at peace. The film is the purest example of a feel-good experience that you're ever likely to have. It plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center one night only, Thursday, February 22 at 8:00pm.

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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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