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Friday, July 19

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. I know how much this news will devastate you, but because of my overly crowded schedule this week, I was unable to attend an early screening of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, so there will be no review of it this week. Hold back your tears. I did, however, manage to squeeze in these seven offerings. Enjoy.

Nacho Libre

We have a problem. We're well into the summer movie season, with at least one major release hitting theatres every week (this week, it's more like three semi-majors). My point is, nothing is shaping up to be as good as I want it to be, and it's not because my expectations are astronomically high. On paper, this was supposed to be the summer that blew all others away. But nothing that has been released by a major studio so far has really lit a fire under my ass to the point where I want to rally my troops and proclaim, "Go forth, one and all, and spend your hard-earned dollars on this one. See it twice or three times." While I certainly had good things to say about the latest installments of the Mission: Impossible and X-Men franchises, they haven't leveled me. The latest and perhaps most frustrating and disappointing is Nacho Libre. My heart is officially resting comfortably in a local hospital after being trampled on by star Jack Black and director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite).

I didn't need Nacho Libre to be the most outrageous and hysterical film of the year. I suspected that, despite what the studio promotions department would have you believe, director Hess would never make a film that was a simple comedy. I saw his last film many weeks before it opened and immediately wrote about it; I think I may have been a founding member of the "Napoleon Dynamite is the greatest thing since sliced bread" club. Debate it all you want, but for the better part of 2004, that film ruled the minds of many a film geek. Nacho Libre offers the same gentle soul of Napoleon, but now it feels like the mold has been reused. Setting this film in Mexico, making Jack Black a monk with a passion for Mexican wrestling, casting himself as the greatest luchadore in the nation, does not make the films all that different. Both are PG rated and have a child-like innocence to them that is both endearing and frustrating.

As much as I like Napoleon Dynamite, I think Jack Black is something just shy of a god (small 'G'). But there's too much of familiar Jack Black routine here: the weird scrunched-up devil face, the contorted eyebrow dance, and the scat singing that makes his Tenacious D performances so perfect are totally out of place here. Yes, Black gets a chance to sing a couple songs in Nacho Libre, and it completely took me out of the film.

Nacho the monk works at a dingy orphanage, where he cooks and serves warmed-over gruel to the poor, dirty orphans. He warns them that watching wrestling is against god. "Thou shalt not wrestle thy neighbor" he reminds them, while secretly plotting his entry into the arena, where the masked wrestlers are some of Mexico's biggest stars. He recruits as his tag-team partner the spindly street urchin Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), whose deadpan delivery and blank expression (occasionally punctuated by the toothiest grin since Jaws) is the most like the characters in Napoleon Dynamite. That's probably why I liked what he does in this film more than anything else about it. The pair don't fare so well in the ring, but they show promise and their popularity among wrestling fans begins to grow.

Nacho has a not-so-secret crush on the newest employee at his monastery, the drop-dead gorgeous nun played by celebrated Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera. Their harmless flirtation borders on charming, but I just couldn't get interested in those scenes because Hess seems determined to race us through them just as they were getting in the way of the comedy. It's tough to believe that Mike White (whose winning script for School of Rock managed to make a kids movie equally interesting for adults) had a hand in this work, which relies way too much on poop and fart jokes, and never misses a chance to highlight Black's bulging belly or ass straining the molecular fabric of his wrestling tights. There are momentary flashes of very funny stuff, but I think I laughed out loud on average about once every 15-20 minutes — not good considering the film barely cracks 90 minutes. I'll give Hess and White credit: I don't think they're going for big laughs all that often, but what we're left with isn't particularly interesting.

At its core, Nacho Libre is about chasing a dream, even if it means leaving behind the life you've been living since you were a child and perhaps even losing the one person who loves you for who you are. Right now, the dream I'm chasing is a truly great summer release, because Nacho Libre was a massive let-down for me. By the time you read this, I'll have seen Superman Returns and A Scanner Darkly, probably the two films I've most been looking forward to this summer. I'm not allowed to talk about those two movies just yet, but if you talk to me over the weekend and I'm in a foul mood, consider that my early review.

The Lake House

If you don't quibble with the premise and don't think too hard about the timelines involved, you'll probably really like The Lake House, the first American feature from Argentina-born veteran director Alejandro Agresti. Reinstating their undeniable chemistry from Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock pair up again in a decidedly different breed of romance film. How is it different? First and foremost, the couple are almost never in the same scene together.

I should probably take a second and acknowledge that there are probably more than a few of you out there that rolled your eyes and dismissed this film the first time you saw the trailer. Trust me, I was right there with you. There may have been no one looking forward to see The Lake House less than me. Which is why there may have been no one more shocked and how much I fell for it. The idea of two people, living in the same ornate lake house near Chicago two years (her in 2006; him in 2004) apart communicating through a series of letters is utterly preposterous, I agree. Even the characters acknowledge the ridiculous quality of their story. But there's a gentle, easy-going vibe that permeates this movie and got under my skin, making it a lot easier to go with it. I can't remember ever finding Reeves quite this accessible and likeable, and I think that's what knocked me off my axis initially.

What I found most unique and inspired about the film's approach to love is that since the two lovers are never "in love" in the same time period, they (and we) have the opportunity to take stake in their own lives. The purity of their feelings makes them take deep, honest looks into the way they live and make significant changes. Reeves has a tumultuous relationship with his architect father (the always fantastic Christopher Plummer), who designed the titular structure more as an extension of his greatness than as a place where a warm and loving family could exist. Their scenes are tense and awkward, but they give Reeves a chance to finally show he can be an emotional being on screen and not just an action star. Bullock, on the other hand, continues an interesting succession of non-cutesy roles (as she did in last year's Crash), and gives us a character steeped in depression and almost never flashes that familiar winning smile. She has buried herself at her hospital job, pretending not to care that the only man she can find to love her will forever be two years in her past.

By setting the two characters' timelines only two years apart, it brings up the question: why hasn't Reeves tracked down Bullock in his timeline or waited two years to catch up to the version of her that would actually know who he was? Well, who said he doesn't do these things? I loved the way Reeves plants things two years earlier for Bullock to find in her world. What's more fascinating is the way he manipulates situations to put himself in her world two years before she moved to the lake house, when she was in an unfulfilling relationship with a nice enough guy (Dylan Walsh). But what man stands a chance against Keanu Reeves writing your lady love letters? She has no idea who he is when they meet, but that doesn't stop him from awkwardly beginning the seduction process, if only to plant the memory of what he looks like in her 2006 brain.

The Lake House has a tone, a look and a smooth-as-brandy approach that is near impossible to resist. And in a strange way, it almost makes you consider: If only it were that easy to meet the perfect person. Sure, the time-space continuum is completely mucked with here. Sure, at various times the couple changes something in the past that would send ripples of Bradburian changes throughout the future-world. Who cares? Don't you know the power of love trumps all science-fiction considerations? I wouldn't classify the film as a tear-jerker or a chick flick (I may be voted down on this second choice), but part of what I enjoyed so much about the movie is its inability to be pigeonholed. Its hardly high art, but it's not far from it either. Plus, it has some of most beautiful shots of Chicago captured on film. It makes me want to live there... oh wait! The Lake House is the year's first worthy love story.

The King

There are few relatively new actors working today whose films I look forward to more than Gael Garcia Bernal. The Mexican-born actor hasn't made a bad movie since he first crossed my field of vision in Amores Perros, followed quickly by the astonishingly fresh and sexual work Y Tu Mama Tambien. Bernal was unjustly overlooked at Oscar time in 2004 for his passionate portrayal of the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and his devastating work with Pedro Almodovar in Bad Education. This year alone, he is featured in three much talked about films, including Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (due later this summer) and Babel (co-starring with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), which was recently praised to death at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Bernal is not just a busy actor; he's smart at picking out-of-the-ordinary scripts and is not afraid of a challenge.

Strangely enough, The King might be his most mainstream film this year. In it, he plays Elvis Sandow, who returns from a long stint in the U.S. Navy to his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Upon arriving, he seeks out local Baptist pastor David Sandow (William Hurt), a man who knew his now-long-dead mother years earlier and, it turns out, is his father. When Elvis first approaches Sandow, he does so just to meet the man, but Sandow considers him a threat and a reminder of a past before he found God. Elvis seems content to live his life from that day forward without his father, but after meeting Sandow's 16-year-old daughter Malerie (Pell James), the role in this family's life changes in his mind. The pair meet secretly and eventually become lovers, she being unaware of their blood ties; Elvis being all-too aware of them. Their relationship serves as the basis for a series of events that are at various times loving, horrifying, and earth shattering.

What impressed me most about The King is its ability to keep me guessing and on the edge almost from the first scene. We know nothing about Elvis and have no idea what he's capable of. Bernal plays him as a sensitive and polite young man, but when we glimpse him in his lonely motel room acting out scenarios that would make Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver proud, we begin to wonder what's going on in his mind. Both Bernal and Hurt are extremely good in these roles. Hurt has a tendency sometimes to overplay (sometimes such portrayals result in Oscar nominations), but here he is subdued and refined, even playing a Baptist preacher.

The incest aspects to this film are going to turn a lot of people away, and that's a shame because the movie has so much going for it. I particularly liked the nearly unrecognizable Laura Harring as Sandow's forlorn and quiet wife, whose fragile façade completely shatters when their son (Paul Dano) disappears after a fight with his father. Director James Marsh (whose Wisconsin Death Trip is a highly worthy rental) does an admirable job building the movie's suspense level gradually and patiently. You almost don't realize how tense you are until all hell breaks loose. The King is a small film that, in all likelihood, will act only as a footnote in Bernal's sure-to-be lengthy filmography. But it is, without a doubt, a testament to just how good and actor he is right now. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Wah-Wah

Marking his first attempt as writer-director, actor Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I, Coppola's Dracula, Gosford Park) pieces together elements from his own life with the final years of the British Empire in Swaziland, Southeast Africa circa the late 1960s. The family of young Ralph Compton is a disaster. His mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), is having an affair with the best friend of her drunk of a husband, Harry (Gabriel Byrne), and decides when Ralph is only 11 that she is leaving the family and returning to London with her lover. The divorce is particularly difficult on Harry since it comes at a times when he job as Minister of Education in Swaziland (where Grant was born and raised) is coming to an end with the inevitable independence movement in full swing.

Ralph is sent to boarding school and returns three years later (now played by Nicholas Hoult) to find his father remarried to an American and former stewardess (as they were called back then) named Ruby (Emily Watson). Ruby sticks out among the posh Brits, who reject and ridicule her every chance they get. Although prepared to dislike his stepmother, Ralph eventually is drawn to her spirit and refusal to be shaken by the local snobs. Ultimately the two commiserate over Harry's drinking problem and they form something of a united front against all adversaries, including Lauren's unexpected and unwanted return.

Wah-Wah doesn't feature a plot, so to speak, but more a series of events and remembrances that culminate is the townspeople putting on a production of "Camelot" for the visiting Princess Margaret, who is overseeing the independence ceremony. Director Grant offers his deft touch at mixing nostalgia with chaos. The film is charged with pure emotion and a faded national pride. There are very few scenes that don't feature characters screaming at each other, and often these are people that love each other deeply. Ralph (clearly a stand-in for Grant) spots an opportunity to escape this version of familial hell and takes it, and there may be times during the course of watching Wah-Wah that you feel the same way. The film is filled with great performances, especially from Byrne and Watson, but the anger, passion and spite that whirl around the screen may be overwhelming and off-putting to some, especially those who spot a bit of their own family in the Comptons. Still, the movie is an exceptional feature debut from Grant, and well worth checking out.

The Heart of the Game

This winning documentary about a Seattle high school girls' basketball team is the best cinematic evidence I can think of that there are no boring stories, only boring storytellers. Why should we care about a team and a coach that takes five years to make it state basketball finals? Why should I invest my time and money on the story of the team's star player whose life choices may make it impossible for her to ever play basketball professionally? You care because filmmaker Ward Serrill makes you care.

Serrill introduces us to college tax law professor Bill Resler, who decided seven years ago that he had what it took to coach girls' basketball. His methods and strategies seemed sound at the time, and Roosevelt High School gave him his shot. What follows is one of the most detailed and intensely moving movies about sports and about struggling high school students ever made. In just his first couple of season, Resler takes the unknown Roosevelt Roughriders to a level that earns them a state ranking and a shot at the state championship. When Resler first spots junior high player Darnellia Russell, he begins an intense recruiting effort that not only makes her the team's star player but puts her in the stressful position of being the only African-American in the high school.

Darnellia's struggles to make grades, to stabilize her home life and personal life are the heart and soul of this film. There are times when you (unfairly) want to yell at her to grow up; other times you want to hug her for overcoming so many obstacles in life and on the court. A big teddy bear of a man, Resler is also easy to like. Each year he picks a different ferocious animal for the team to aspire to be (wolf, lion, piranha, etc.), and the team dedicates itself to "killing" each opponent as their chosen animal would. It's both touching and hilarious to see posters of flesh-eating creatures all over the team's locker room, but it gets the job done.

The film's final third focuses almost exclusively on Darnellia's struggles. She is recruited by every major college in the country with a winning girls' basketball program, a prospect that would make her the first person in her family to go to college. But when she drops out of high school and attempts to rejoin in her senior year, he eligibility for basketball is put at risk and results in a drawn-out legal battle with the state's ruling body on high school sports. The Heart of the Game fills the screen with the blood, sweat and tears of these wonderful players and their inspirational leader. And when the Roughriders do make it to the finals, the outcome of that game is monumental but far from pre-determined. Every frame of this film offers up new surprises, revelations, hard-fought victories and ill-timed defeats. It's easy to forget sometimes that these players are only high school girls, with all of the limits and micro-traumas that that time in your life carries with it. These are children played at an adult level and sometimes dealing with emotions and situations most adults will never see. The team and the film are inspirational and well worth supporting. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

I Am A Sex Addict

Is it possible to be absolutely annoyed by someone and still find yourself hopelessly fascinated by their sexual life story? Director and story re-teller Caveh Zahedi is banking on it with his film I Am A Sex Addict, about as self-absorbed a retracing of a person's history as you're likely to see. Using very little archival footage of his life, a few still photos, some humorous animation and editing tricks, Zahedi recreates and recounts his obsession with prostitutes, which began while in his twenties during his first marriage.

While hardly painting himself as the hapless victim or even as a nice guy, the unassuming Zahedi (according to his telling of it) was able to attract beautiful and willing girlfriends/wives while still never losing his fascination with paid sex workers. I found Zahedi's decision to be completely honest and candid refreshing at first, but the guy's whiny tone and dead-pan narration eventually grated on me. Even his hooker fetish is weird: for the longest time he never actually had sex with them. He got a cheap thrill just propositioning them and finding out how far they would go. It became clear to me after about an hour that the only thing that separated Zahedi from your average, everyday, harmless deviant was his camera. In the end, I Am A Sex Addict is a test of your patience and eardrums. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties

The best thing I can say about the sequel to the miserably lame 2004 Garfield is that it's not as miserable or lame thanks to a surprisingly capable upper tier of British actors providing both acting and voice work to this wholly unfunny but still more tolerable work. By setting the film in England and giving Garfield a number of other animal characters to interact with, this film at least makes something resembling an effort, even if that effort is to be more like the Babe movies.

Without going into all the unnecessary details, Garfield (still inexplicably voiced by Bill Murray), his owner Jon (Breckin Meyer), and Jon's girlfriend (Jennifer Love Hewitt) all find themselves across the pond (what six-month quarantine laws?), where there just happens to exist an overly pampered cat named Prince (voiced by Tim Curry) who looks exactly like Garfield. When Prince's owner dies, she leaves her vast estate to the cat, much to the chagrin of her human relatives, namely Dargis (Billy Connolly, the only thing — living or animate — in this movie that even came close to making me laugh). Through a series of contrivances, Garfield and Prince switch places, and for a brief time, Garfield gets treated like the pampered pet he's always wanted to be.

What shocked me most about this laugh-repellant exercise is the talent it attracted. In addition to Connolly, Lucy Davis (from the UK version of "The Office") and Roger Rees appear as themselves, while the likes of Bob Hoskins, Richard E. Grant, Jane Horrocks, Rhys Ifans, Vinnie Jones, Jane Leeves and even Sharon Osbourne voice various animals on the estate. The only whiff of entertainment I got off Garfield 2 was from trying to identify the various British great who stooped to a new low. My heart leapt when I recognized Vinnie Jones as a vicious attack dog sent to kill Garfield; I prayed he would bark out "I'm Juggernaut, bitch" just before locking his jaws on Garfield's fat neck. Alas.

Director Tim Hill (Muppets from Space) has done a noble effort elevating this — gulp — franchise from the sewers built in the first film, but he still hasn't gotten this series out from under the manhole. Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties is still free of any laughs beyond the occasional fart joke, so I'm sure million of children will embrace it. Although with such superior films like Over the Hedge and Cars still in theaters and doing quite well, I can't imagine any kids clamoring to see this sub-par turd.

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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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