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Friday, December 15

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North Country
As of today, this is the film to beat come Oscar time. Now I say that having seen very few of the other real contenders, but if the Academy Awards were held today, North Country would sweep up a bunch of statues. I know some of you flinch when the name of Oscar is invoked, but don't be frightened: North Country is worthy of your time and money any time of year. Director Nike Caro (Whale Rider) perfectly captures the time, place, and attitudes of early-1980s Northern Minnesota and takes us on a sometimes-terrifying journey through a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit that changed the workplace forever.

Proving that her uglified turn in Monster wasn't a fluke, Charlize Theron delivers another glorious performance as Josey Aimes, a single mother of two fleeing to her parents' home to escape her abusive boyfriend. As soon as she walks in their door, her father Hank (Richard Jenkins) assumes her man beat her because she cheated. And that pretty much sums up the male outlook on women in this taconite-mining town. Josey's mother (Sissy Spacek) tries to be supportive, but mostly she just wants Josey to move into her own place so peace can be restored in the Aimes house. For a time, Josey moves in with her old friend Glory (Frances McDormand, getting another chance to sling some Minnesota accent) and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean), while she gets a job at the local mine.

Much of North Country is told in flashback during the trial in which Josey Aimes (not the actual name of the real-life woman) sued the mining company for allowing and encouraging sexist behavior. Josey details (and we see) some of the worst indignities and insults you can imagine, and, afraid of stirring things up, the women just endure it. Glory, the sole female in the mine's union leadership, is probably the best at dealing with abuse and does her best to comfort the other women. But the attacks sometimes become physical, particularly against the two prettiest female workers, Josey and Sherry (Michelle Monaghan). Josey attempts to go through the proper management channels to air her grievances, but is brazenly ignored time and time again. Her options exhausted, Josey enlists the help of attorney Bill White (Woody Harrelson), and even he tries to talk her out of it, insisting that a class action would be more winnable even though none of the other women miners back Josey initially.

North Country grabs hold of your gut and doesn't let go, and it's filled with so many fine performances, it almost doesn't seem fair to other movies. One of the most terrifying roles is that of Josey's old high school friend Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner, who played Jeffrey Dahmer a couple years back in a sadly overlooked film called Dahmer), who turns on her once he finds out she's working in the mine with him. His reasons come to light eventually during the courtroom battle, and they reveal just how far back in Josey's life her suffering has gone.

North Country is just one great scene after another. The moment set during a union meeting, in which Josey must address a roomful of people who hate her to death is particularly difficult to watch, but it's the moment in the film that will get Richard Jenkins (the dead father from HBO's "Six Feet Under") an Oscar nomination for sure (and probably make you cry). McDormand is also a lock, especially since her character develops Lou Gehrig's disease halfway through the film, and we know how much the academy likes its diseases. Perhaps the film's only weak spots are the courtroom scenes, which wrap up just a little too neatly and completely ignore actual trial protocol in the name of high drama. It might make you wince, but it won't make you dislike the film. You can be as cynical as you'd like about "message" films, "disease" films, or any movie that seems to dare the academy not to recognize it, but North Country is so good that it rises above it all to deliver a pure and solid, sometimes hurtful, emotional experience.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
You may have read a line or two in various entertainment journals lately about a man named Shane Black, who was the king of Hollywood screenwriter for about five minutes in the late 1980s-early 1990s, thanks to scripts for the original Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Last Action Hero (which had the distinction of being the first Arnold Schwarzenegger movie to tank soundly). For a time, Black was the highest paid screenwriter in the biz, but after his movies started to fail he vanished.

Black has emerged in fine fashion with one of the funniest films of the year, one that takes the very buddy-picture formula that Black invented and turns it on its ass: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a petty criminal who pretends to be an actor to escape the police and ends up getting cast in a film as a detective. He's assigned to learn the ropes of being an investigator from Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a gay detective whose distain for actors in general (and Harry specifically) is quite amusing. The two get caught up in a murder investigation involving the daughter of a powerful Hollywood exec (Corbin Bernsen), and the rapid-fire insults and jokes pretty much never end. Downey's film noir-ish narration is priceless, and Kilmer deliberately avoiding all gay stereotypes is the secret weapon of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The film's discovery element comes in the form of Michelle Monaghan (also very good in North Country) as the sexy Harmony, whom Harry had a crush on in high school and turns out to be a critical element to the plot.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is as loose and wild as the man who created it, and it's a work that could not exist unless Shane Black had led the life he had and written the shallow, high-energy scripts he'd subjected us to over the years. Above all else, the film is a riot and it's impossible to imagine someone not having a blast watching it. I dare you to give this one a chance and not laugh throughout. This one's a winner.

Dreamer
Little girls and racehorses, they go together like bunny rabbits and stock cars. If you think you can handle that amount of sugar and spice — or more importantly, if you have a young daughter who can — then Dreamer is for you. For a film clearly aimed right at the heart of young girls, it's got a fairly credible cast in an "inspired by a true story" tale of a severely injured filly saved from being put down by its trainer (Kurt Russell) and his little girl (Dakota Fanning, in a rare opportunity for her to actually play a normal child).

The Crane family (which also includes mom Elisabeth Shue) buys the busted horse from its evil owner (David Morse) and brings it to their horse-free horse farm. The family finances are in trouble, and Russell hopes to get the horse back on its feet and breed it for cash. With the help of his estranged father, a former champion horse trainer played by Kris Kristofferson, and two Mexican co-trainers (Luis Guzmán and Freddy Rodríguez), the Cranes get to work on healing the horse's leg. But when they discover the horse in infertile, they set their sights on getting her back on the racing circuit. Other than being predictable, there's nothing terribly wrong with Dreamer. The performances are pleasant enough, and Russell and Fanning always add a little zing to anything they're in. There is a very specific audience for Dreamer. Tweener girls will love it; they rest of us will, at best, find it tolerable.

Innocent Voices
Mexican director Luis Mandoki has spent the last few years making films in America that are supposed to be full of emotion and meaning. Mostly, they've been full of ca-ca. I'll give him points for his compelling 2001 feature Angel Eyes, but with works like Born Yesterday and Message in a Bottle under his belt, it's way too easy to dismiss the guy. Innocent Voices changes everything. Set during the mid-1980s in the civil war-torn nation of El Salvador, Mandoki lays out the ugliness of this particular conflict through the eyes of a young boy (Carlos Padilla), his family, and his extended family and friends. The scenes of U.S.-backed soldiers storming into villages and removing children from their schools and homes to forcibly enlist them in the military (at ages as young as 12) is almost too horrible to contemplate.

Many of the children joined the rebel guerrillas to escape military service. The guerrillas were quietly supported by the poverty-stricken villages, but the chance of death for these youngsters was perhaps even greater than joining the army. Innocent Voices manages to find the humor and light-heartedness in its characters at times, but it never lets go of the truly devastating facts that this was a nation collectively fearing for its life. This is as powerful a film as you're likely to see this year. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Loggerheads
Weaving three seemingly unrelated story threads through its frame, Loggerheads manages to address several issues (the antiquated adoption laws of North Carolina, AIDS and the lack of gay tolerance by Christian groups) quite adeptly in its short running time. And the storylines begin to converge, the film takes on a more somber and powerful tone. In one tale, a minister (Chris Sarandon) and his wife (Tess Harper) must cope with their belief system as they contemplate contacting their gay adopted son, who ran away from home after the parents made it clear how they felt about his lifestyle choice. In another story, Bonnie Hunt plays a woman who is in desperate search to find the child she put up for adopting when she was just a teenager, forced to do so by her mother. In the third story, a gay drifter named Mark (Kip Pardue) makes his way to North Carolina to watch over the loggerhead sea turtles as they return to their place of birth to lay eggs. He meets kindly motel owner George (Michael Kelly), and the two hesitantly begin a relationship.

It becomes clear after a while that these three narratives do not take place in exactly the same moment in history (as we're initially led to believe), a fact that is extremely important to the unveiling of the plots. Loggerheads has several messages, but it presents them in a very non-message-film manner. There was a time when this type of film was called "slice of life," and these three slices are all quite tragic on the smallest scale. All of the main characters are leading unfulfilled lives, each carrying a burden that they would like to unload. Some never get the chance to. Written and directed by Tim Kirkman, Loggerheads has a quiet nobility, a strong understated cast, and the means to modestly break you heart. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre.

Emmanuel's Gift
There is absolutely no denying that the life story of Ghana-born Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is extraordinary. Born in a nation that regards any disabled citizen as non-human, Emmanuel (born with a deformed right leg) decided to make his life's mission to change his country attitude about the disabled. Overcoming every obstacle you can imagine, Emmanuel became an international hero, political icon, and spokesperson for the disabled by getting an artificial limb in America and becoming a world class disabled athlete (and Nike commercial star).

Emmanuel's story is one that doesn't need any artificial drama added to it by its directors, Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern. However, the second you hear the voice of narrator Oprah Winfrey, Emmanuel's Gift feels like an extended version of her television show. We are conditioned to hear Oprah's voice and get emotional. You can't escape this fact, people! And having her relate this story to us takes us out of the moment and out of this compelling life story. I'm not knocking her abilities as a storyteller. Quite the opposite, few people have the ability to sway emotion simply with their voice the way Winfrey does. And better yet, the film will get much more attention thanks to her involvement with it. But it feels like blatant manipulation.

I'm still recommending the film, because the story here so unbelievable that it overshadows its presentation (barely). Emmanuel's goodness and importance to the world is undeniable. But given another narrator, Emmanuel's Gift would have been a much better package. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Future of Food
From the production team that made me paranoid last year with The Corporation, comes The Future of Food, the film that will make even vegans freak out. Director Deborah Koons Garcia (widow of the late Jerry) packs this film with scientists and other experts in tackling the issue of genetically engineered and modified food and the multinational agri-corps that have made life rough for family farmers all over the nation and the world. Garcia takes particular aim at Monsanto, which engineered and patented thousands of strains of grain seed and then mounted a campaign to sue any family farmer that had traces of such seed in their crops. So even if a single grain of Monsanto seed blew off a passing truck and into a field, that farmer was liable for major damages. This was Monsanto's ploy to get all farmers to buy seed from them, rather than allowing farmers to harvest and save their own seed.

Much like The Corporation, this film paints a big picture so scary that you never want to leave your house or eat anything ever again. But the booming popularity of farmers' markets is clearly having an impact on these and future practices of modified food. Perhaps the scariest thing I learned from The Future of Food is that the companies that use these products don't even have to label their end products as having been modified. And the FDA's regulation of these companies and their foodstuffs is appallingly non-existent thanks to some clever lobbying efforts. And if seeds can contaminate other seeds (in a form of cross-species mingling), the filmmakers wonder if these genetically tampered-with foods could be of any danger to humans. Somebody save me.

We as moviegoers were bombarded with politicized documentaries last year, many of them quite good. This year, we get penguins and mad hot ballroom-dancing kids to choose from. These were both wonderful films, but it's nice to know that just because it's not an election year, there are still serious issues to contend with. The Future of Food is a scary and masterful work. It opens today at Facets Multimedia.

Doom
Blood, guts, brutality, virus-induced zombies, brains, exploding heads, heavy metal music, big guns, even bigger guns, enormous guns, military speak, "We're going in hot," "Terminate with extreme prejudice," The Rock with Semper Fi tattooed across his 9-foot-wide shoulders, chainsaw, impalement, explosions, video game-style violence, more blood, blood, blood, blood, blood.

Sound like your cup of tea? Then you might actually enjoy Doom. If it had been PG-13, I would have crucified it, but the violence lives up to the video game it's based on. If you don't go for that sort of film, Doom will be torture for you. And that's all I've got to say on the subject.

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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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