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Monday, October 16

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Airbags

This is a good week for sequels. We've got two of them this week, and both are infinitely better than anything we've seen so far this summer.

Ocean's Thirteen

I'm not exactly sure why, but one or two people on the planet we're real big fans of Ocean's Twelve. I happened to think it was a scream, and even upon a repeat viewing recently I was captivated by the free-for-all attitude of the piece. It was always my feeling that the whole point behind the Ocean's series is that director Steven Soderbergh and his marvelous collection of mega stars and lesser-known actors was this playful, unconventional approach to storytelling. The scripts were always loose, while the stories were complex (or at least pretended to be complex), but the real point of the plot was to give the actors a place to show us that they could be goof balls and look great doing it. I love that throughout these films, we catch the ends of conversations or just the punchline of a joke, leaving us to wonder what the hell these guys were talking about that led them to that particular line of dialog. Forcing your imagination to run wild like that over things that have nothing to do with the main storyline is just one of the reasons I've enjoyed this series so much. Oh, and I should probably mention at this point that Ocean's Thirteen is far and away the best of the bunch.

Just to give a quick overview of the proceeding (the fun of this film is in the details, and I'm not spoiling those), the gang is re-assembled in Las Vegas once again, this time to avenge a swindle perpetrated against one of their own (Elliott Gould's Reuben) by the city's most powerful and feared hotel giant Willie Bank (young newcomer Al Pacino, sporting a hair color that scares me in its Trump-like manner). He's about to open the most ornate and exclusive hotel on the strip (The Bank, which is beautifully CG'd right into the heart of Vegas). The gang is warned that revenge scams are dangerous, but they are determined not so much to rob Bank of his wealth for their own gains, but simply ruin him as a businessman by rigging nearly every gambling game in his casino at the Grand Opening so that the house never wins. So, where are Tess Ocean (played by Julia Roberts in the first two films) and Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta Jones)? In one line of dialog, we are told that this is not their fight. Nothing else needs to be said on the matter, and their presence is not missed.

I find it ironic that my biggest complaint about other three-quels this summer has been the overcrowding of their stories. But for some reason the fairly crowded Ocean's Thirteen doesn't feel too bloated. The characters are stepping over each other, and each crewmember's storyline is largely kept separate from the others as they work on their part of the scam against bank. By removing two key players from the last film (Roberts and Jones) and replacing them with Pacino and his right-hand bombshell Ellen Barkin, the cast size really hasn't grown at all. And there are a few unexpected players in this film, some of whom appeared in previous films and whose presence hasn't exactly been advertised. Do yourself a favor and don't go to IMDB to ruin the fun.

One of the more impressive plot points is bringing Andy Garcia's Terry Benedict back into the fold as a part of the scam against Bank (the gang needs his financial backing). It's not surprising that he'd want to bury a competitor, but don't think for a second he's not looking for a way to get back at Ocean even while he's assisting them.

I've gone this far without mentioning George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon or any of the other regulars, all of whom absolutely rock here. For some reason, it's always Damon's characterization of the insecure Linus that I find most fascinating. He's so desperate to prove himself and rise from the shadow of his legendary, previously unseen father (who is finally revealed here) that he provides a nice counterbalance to the cocky nature of the some of his comrades. In other words, he's the most human. But putting Clooney and Pitt in a room together always makes me laugh. You probably have seen the scene in the trailer where Rusty (Pitt) catches Danny (Clooney) in his hotel room watching "Oprah." But that's just the beginning of a scene that gets funnier by the second. And in the film's final moment, which takes place at an airport, these two men deliver one line of dialog apiece aimed at each other that will make your ears do a double-take.

I have to give director Soderbergh credit for getting a fairly subdued performance out of Al Pacino, whose volume rarely gets above normal conversational levels. The only thing scarier that a dangerous man screaming is one who isn't, and that's how Pacino plays Bank. Of course the film gets silly and outrageous, but that's part of its charm. It makes the ridiculous seem plausible and even preferable. I know that Soderbergh and Co. have said they made this film to make up for any shortcomings the last one may have had, and that they wanted to go out on a high note. If that's the case, mission accomplished. But this is one of the few franchises I would love to see continue. Every element of this movie works in perfect unison with every other. It's like watching a well choreographed dance routine or having perfect, well-timed sex. The film is as carefree as it is ambitious, and its nearly two-hour running time flies by in an instant. When it's over, you'll find yourself desperate for more. All sequels should try this hard to be great.

Hostel: Part II

Clearly envisioning this sequel as the second half of an ongoing story rather than an entirely separate event, writer-director Eli Roth wisely takes into account that his audience will not necessarily be shocked and horrified by the same things we were in the original Hostel.

Beginning with a sequence that could have easily been the final scene in the first film, Hostel: Part II wraps up a few loose ends left hanging in Hostel. Moving on to the new story, since we already know all the secrets of how the Bloodhound organization's "Factory" lures young travelers to the Slovakian Hostel, from which they are transported to the abandoned building turned torture assembly line (or perhaps dis-assembly line), Roth doesn't spend as much time building suspense around those elements of the story. Instead of three men, Hostel II gives us the more traditional three American women bouncing from place to place in Europe (when we meet them, they're in Italy). Bijou Phillips, Heather Matarazzo and Lauren German are our heroines/victims as we watch them party Slovakian style at harvest festival and relaxing in the local hot springs.

Perhaps more interesting (at least in the film's early scenes) is the exploration of a bidding war that occurs for the lives of the three girls. Anonymous rich sociopaths around the world are text-messaged details on all three and the winners fly to Slovakia to begin preparations for some fairly elaborate and unpleasant hours of blood and death. With the exception of Rick Hoffman's chilling monologue in Hostel, Roth kept the identities of the torturers from us. In Part II, we are introduced to Stuart and Todd (former "Desperate Housewives" cast members Roger Bart and Richard Burgi), two businessmen whose lives are revealed to us to some degree and whose path to the Factory is carefully tracked. This film is as much their story as it is the girls', and because these guys are so fascinating (and the actors so engaging), the film is actually better than the first.

At least one of the men is seriously considering backing out, and this leads to some details about how the Factory is organized and how security has clearly been stepped up since the first film. But no amount of well-done character development is going to mean much without a few solid kills, and Hostel: Part II has a few of those to go around. You've probably already seen the image of Matarazzo hanging upside down. Yes, she is naked, and yes her moment at the Factory is excruciating and just plain bizarre, as much for the look on her face and her screaming as for the blood that trickles from her inverted body.

Stuart and Todd each get one of the two remaining woman, and each manages to carry out his expensive deed with as much grace as a 500-lb. elephant dancing "Swan Lake." Without giving away too much, Roth manages some of the finest screen kills I've seen in a very long time, including one that is truly vomit-worthy (and I mean that in the best possible way). Phillips and Matarazzo pretty much give us more of what we've seen them do in other films. Phillips is great as the oversexed party girl, while Matarazzo is essentially Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn Weiner in college. Still, both manage to show us more of their talents as actresses than we've seen before, and not just by screaming like banshees at the right time. Heather is so naïve and good that of course she has to die, while Bijou's reckless ways land her in the same place for utterly different reasons. But it's relative unknown Lauren German (who had a brief but memorable scene in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) who really shocked me. Her character makes a gradual but complete 180-degree turn during the course of the story, as she adjusts and adapts to her circumstances. She begins the film as a normal girl, and slowly become a shrewd and devious operator by the film's startling conclusion.

If you were somehow morally opposed to Hostel, chances are Hostel: Part II isn't going to convert you to an Eli Roth fan. But if you bother to look deeper into either film, there's a twisted morality and philosophy at work here. With Part II in particular, Roth has dared to make a work that borders on the feminist, without letting go of the adolescent inside with his raging libido and lust for blood. I remember those innocent times well. And as much as I'm looking forward to seeing how Roth tackles his Stephen King adaptation CELL, I'm eagerly anticipating what his next original work will be. He's not only sure-fired behind the camera, but I like the scripts he's dreaming up and the commentary he's making about the sometimes twisted nature of human desire and the need for more, more, more. There are some brains behind this blood.

To read my exclusive interview with writer-director Eli Roth, visit Ain't It Cool News.

Crazy Love

History is filled with fatal attraction relationships, but few are as wacky and almost impossible to believe as the tale of Burt and Linda Pugach as told in the lunatic documentary Crazy Love. As the 1950s were winding down, Burt, a married New York attorney, spots young gorgeous Linda on a street corner and falls in love. He wines and dines her, takes her to his nightclub, introduces her to the stars that frequent his and other establishments, and promises her that his divorce is forthcoming. We find out quickly that Burt is a born liar, perhaps even a sociopath. Since Burt and Linda are interviewed separately about the events from this time in their lives, we assume this relationship never went anywhere (well, except for the fact that they have the same last name), and assuming that logic plays a part in these proceedings is our first mistake.

When Linda finally breaks things off with Burt, he terrorizes her with phone calls and threatening letters, in the hopes, he says, of making her so scared that she'll run back to him for comfort. But Burt's obsession takes its ugliest turn when he hires two black men to throw lye in her face, permanently blinding her. It doesn't take long for Burt to land in the slammer for many years. The case was one of the world's most publicized scandals of its or any other time. But a crazy thing happened while Burt was in jail. The two started corresponding again, and soon after his release (in the '70s I believe), Burt and Linda rekindled their relationship and finally got married. They did the early talk show circuit with a host of interviewers almost pulling their hair out trying to figure out why Linda would marry the man who injured her so grievously.

Directed by Dan Klores, Crazy Love is terrific documentary filmmaking on par with the layered, reveal-one-wild-event-after-another approach of works like Capturing the Friedmans, but the personalities here are even bigger and more absurd, if that's possible. Listening to what this couple and their equally eccentric friends have to say about these events, you'd think all Burt did was tie Linda's shoelaces together, but love is strange and unpredictable, and passion makes people crazy. I guess that's what Crazy Love is all about. This movie will make you nuts, and you'll love every second of it. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Angel-A

For more than 20 years, I'm more or less enjoyed every film that director Luc Besson has unleashed upon the world. His kinetic visual style and love of insanely beautiful actresses have combined to make for some truly memorable works, including Subway, La Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element and The Messenger (his last live-action work, released in 1999). Besson announced a couple years ago that Angel-A would be his last films as a director and that he would devote the rest of his career doing what he has been doing quite successfully for years: writing and producing films, many by younger, up-and-coming French directors. But rather than finish out his directing career (I'm about 50 percent convinced that he has, by the way) with a spectacular, multi-million-dollar blow-out of an epic, Besson has chosen to keep things small and intimate with this beautiful black-and-white love story between a petty criminal and statuesque woman, who is clearly more than she is she is letting on. The title might spoil the film's worst kept secret, but I won't.

Short-in-stature Andre (Moroccan actor Jamal Debbouze, recently seen in last year's Oscar-nominated Days of Glory) finds himself deep in debt to a dangerous Paris thug, so he decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge into the Seine. But just as he's about the launch himself, he spots the stunning Angela (Danish beauty Rie Rasmussen, who made a memorable debut in Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale) jumping in just ahead of him. After he jumps in to rescue, the two talk and for a tentative friendship based on getting him out of his debt. Angela says she will do anything Andre asks her as repayment for saving her life, but it becomes clear fairly soon that her being on that bridge may have been more than coincidence.

In American terms, Angela becomes something of a "life coach" to Andre, who lacks anything resembling self-confidence. The interplay between the two is sweet, charming, and often quite amusing. And watching them plow through Andre's life troubles and solving each issue with a combination of diplomacy and brute force is funny and exiting, Angel-A doesn't really amount to much. Granted, its goals are modest, and I admire Besson's choice to make his last film this odd love story that seems destined to end badly. But I wish there was a something with a little more substance here, not in terms of special effects or other elements that would inflate the budget, but just something with more emotional meat on its bones. I wanted to become invested in these two characters, but despite this essentially being a two-person movie, the character development is surprisingly lacking.

The lovely black-and-white look of Angel-A goes a long way to establish a serene, other-worldly quality to this story, and I think that's appropriate. It's meant to have a sense of morbidity and dark playfulness running through its French cream-filled center. And the acting here is quite good. Debbouze, in particular, does a fine job as a sort of wounded pit bull, who acts tough despite not really able to back up his bark with any teeth. I liked Angel-A, but I had a real desire to love it, and that didn't quite happen. The film opens today at AMC's Pipers Alley.

Surf's Up

Thinking this was going to be yet another lame attempt to cash in the current popularity of penguins, I'll admit to walking into the latest CG animated feature Surf's Up with seriously low expectations. Imagine my glee when I not only saw how appealing the film was for grown folk but also how much the kids in my audience seemed to be digging the whole affair. Shot in a reality-show format, Surf's Up introduces us the heretofore unknown world of surfing penguins, including a rising young star named Cody Maverick, voiced by a similarly rising dude named Shia LaBeouf (has anyone had a better year?).

The small-for-his-age Cody is selected as part of a contest to surf the big waves at a competition that serves as a memorial for a 10-years-dead surf guru called Z, who just so happens to be Cody's hero and inspiration. The contest is run by shifty surf promoter Reggie (James Woods in full motor-mouth mode) and his flittering assistant Mikey (Mario Cantone). While learning that he doesn't have nearly the skills to take on some of the more experienced surfers, Cody seeks guidance and friends from a host of fellow birds, including Chicken Joe (John Heder) and fellow penguins Lani (Zooey Deschanel; even her voice is adorable) and the hermit-like Geek (Jeff Bridges).

There is something about the vocal acting in this film that separates from a lot of other recent animated fare. The conversations seem more casual and off-the-cuff. Not every line of dialog is a set up for a joke or a punchline. Sometimes the characters even talk under their breath. And the slightly shaky, hand-held-camera style of the movie is actually sort of cool. What's maybe the most awe-inspiring thing about Surf's Up are the backgrounds and water effects. I don't know how they did it, but the animators have made flawless-looking and sometimes violent animated water. Plant life and sand also look unbelievably realistic. I tend to watch for these sort of things, because more often than not, animators don't get these things exactly right. Here, they are perfect and gorgeous.

Directors Ash Brannon (co-director of Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (director of Tarzan) combine to give us something really special and positive without being disgustingly sappy. My only regret about this film is the use of penguins. There's absolutely no reason these characters couldn't have been another cute animal, maybe one that isn't so utterly overused lately. I guess there's something inherently funny about a surfing penguin, but I don't remember laughing once at the site of a penguin on a surfboard. There are plenty of other very funny things on hand to keep me amused; that was not one of them.

You know what? The more I think about Surf's Up, the more I dig it. It's no great achievement in animation (aside from the previously mentioned water, sand and plants), but the story is simple and decidedly free of overblown drama, and the characters are all very easy to care about. With this one, you just need to sit back, turn the brain off, and let this 80-minute nugget of goodness wash over you like the perfect wave.

Paprika

And then we have the week's other animated film, a far more adult and challenging bit of Japanese anime that attempts to unlock the world of dreams with the help of a psychotherapist and some good old-fashioned detective work. To attempt to explain the plot of Paprika would be an exercise in futility, but to tell you how mind-blowing and inventive the animation is, well that's easy. From what I could gather the plot involves terrorists who somehow hijack a prototype device that can allow a therapist to actually enter a patient's dreams to better analyze their fears and anxieties in the hope of some relief. The lovely Dr. Atsuko Chiba uses this experimental procedure on her patients, with the assistance of her young alter-ego, Paprika.

It's the visions we see in these dream worlds that are so impressive. The animation is at times grotesque and terrifying, other times harmless and comforting. Director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers) seems to specialize in this combination of the dreamy and nightmarish in his films, and it's always so damn awesome to watch. I couldn't tell you exactly how Dr. Chiba and her motley crew of scientists and investigators track down the missing technology or the evasive ghosts in the machine, but when the real world and the dream world threaten to collide and become one, all hell begins to break loose to the point where you don't even know where to look on the screen. The impressively chaotic adventure is unlike anything you've ever seen, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Show Business: The Road To Broadway

In the short time I lived in New York City, my one monthly extravagance was that I made my way to the TKTS kiosk in Times Square and bought a ticket to one Broadway show. In the short couple of years I was there, I saw some great stuff, and when I moved back to Chicago, I missed that jolt of excitement, of not knowing what would be on the board of half-price tickets. When I read about shows like the long-running Avenue Q or the more recent entry Frost/Nixon, I get a little twinge of regret that I'm not able to see them with the original Broadway cast. Granted, Chicago has become something of a proving ground for some of the most successful Broadway shows in recent years (The Producers, Spam-a-Lot), often testing out their wares before they hit the Great White Way, so my limited exposure to live theatre in the last 15 years hasn't been without its many highlights. Show Business is a fantastic documentary that digs deep into an examination of not only what goes into getting a Broadway musical to the stage, but what factors (timing, reviews, weather, dumb luck) go into making something a genuine hit.

Filmmaker Dori Perinstein tracks — practically from the first day of rehearsal to the Tony Awards — four high-profile productions from the 2003/2004 season: Wicked, Avenue Q, Tony Kushner's Caroline, Or Change and the trouble-ridden Boy George/Rosie O'Donnell production Taboo. We meet the composers, lyricists, book writers, directors and cast of all four productions, and watch as they bit by bit structure and rework each and every aspect of the show. It's a grueling and often painful process that doesn't end once a show's opening night arrives. Between these scenes, we are privy to gossipy lunches held between groups of New York theatre critics speculating on everything from which show will be good to what will get Tony nominations. These hen parties are often bitchy and always hilarious.

Director Perinstein (herself a three-time Tony-winning Broadway producer) has a thrilling sense of exactly where to be at exactly the right moment. I think fans of Wicked, in particular, are going to be ecstatic to watch how the show comes together. But what's almost more interesting is to see how certain critics and other industry people thought that the story didn't have an audience. People were genuinely shocked at the number of children this story appealed to. Show stars Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth were put through the paces once the show took off, appearing on every talk show and in every parade New York had to offer. What was also refreshing to hear about the state of theatre today is that Broadway does have a place for shows that aren't destined for big box office. Everyone interviewed knew that Caroline, Or Change would probably not make a lot of money, but that it was important to have such works of substance to balance out the pop culture favorites.

Show Business is a documentary whose appeal extends beyond fans of theatre (I do not count myself in those ranks, by the way; I hit about five shows per year on average, three of which are Shakespeare plays). The film serves as a great introduction to the exhausting process that goes into producing, promoting and sustaining any work on stage. And for anyone who gets that same twinge that I do whenever you hear about some great new Broadway production hitting New York and wish you could take it in, this film was made for you. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Hollywood Dreams

For more than 15 years (since his 1990 work Eating), I've been making certain that I never miss a film by writer-director Henry Jaglom. It's not because of any fierce loyalty or great love of his work that I see his films (which include Babyfever, Venice/Venice, Last Summer in the Hamptons, Festival in Cannes and 2005's Going Shopping), although I do find a few of them pretty entertaining. He gathers his actors, often pulling from the same stable of performers film after film, gives them a loose story to follow, and sets them on their improvisational way. Sometimes, the results are quite interesting. Often you can see the actors struggling for what to say next, which usually means they simply repeat what the person before them has just said. "So, I hear you vacationed in the Arctic Circle this summer. How was that?" "How was traveling in the Arctic Circle last summer? Ummmmm..." You get the idea. Improv comedy or drama is risky on film, but Jaglom knows some decent actors, so it's not a complete disaster most of the time.

In Hollywood Dreams, Jaglom introduces us to the flighty actress Maggie Chizek (Tanna Frederick, who apparently is also starring in Jaglom's next film), a beautiful but grating free spirit who comes to LA to be a star. She literally stumbles upon a gay Hollywood producer, who is amused enough by her to take her under his wing, introduce him to a few famous and influential friends. She meets up with a rising young actor (played by Justin Kirk), who is straight but pretending to be gay because he thinks it will help his career. And the laughs just keep on coming. Ahem.

I've seen a few of Jaglom's films miss the mark over the years, but never has one so colossally tanked like this one. The fault for this massive misstep is clearly Frederick's bizarre and annoying performance. It's not just that she's bad; she actually makes everyone around her bad as well. She poisons the film, spewing her ink-like venom into the water supply of everyone on screen. The film's saving grace of Hollywood Dreams is Kirk (best known from his role in Showtime's "Weeds" and last year's exceptional Flannel Pajamas), who breathes some humanity into his characterization of a morally challenged actor who desperately wants to be heartthrob to women as well as men. I'll still keep watching Jaglom's movies, like the dutiful curiosity seeker that I am, but I won't soon forget how awful this movie was. It 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 steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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