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Thursday, May 23

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Airbags

On rare occasions, my work for Ain't It Cool News requires a road trip, as it did last week when I was called to Bermuda to cover that nation's International Film Festival. I'll highlight a couple of the films that played there when their Chicago release dates draw a little closer. The point of mentioning the trip is to explain why I'm so behind in reviewing more recent releases. I realize I'm allowed to write as many or as few reviews in a given week as I want, but I also want to be as useful to the readership as I can. For those unfamiliar with my work, I see more than 400 films in theatres per year (new films as well as the occasional reissue or classic film), and I see damn near everything that comes out in a given week. I don't review everything, but since I get immense joy out of reviewing awful films, you'll find I tackle those as often as I can. Enough gabbing. Here's a quick rundown of recent releases.

Oldboy
Probably the best film I've seen three years in a row. It's almost hard to believe I first saw this South Korean masterpiece in December 2003, long before its world premiere at Cannes in 2004. I watched it again late last year on an Asian DVD to prepare a review for the Spring 2005 issue of FLM Magazine (currently being given away free at a Landmark Theatre near you). This is a dense, multi-layered, sock-in-the-kisser experience from director Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Joint Security Area). At its core, the film is about a man trying to justify 15 lost years of his life. All he cares about is finding out who in the world hates him enough to kidnap him away from his wife and young daughter and lock him away for so long. Little else matters. The momentum in the film is irresistible and relentless, even when it flashes back to the lead character's past. You assume that when the kidnapper's identity and motivation are revealed that the film will be over. Not so fast, skippy. By the time all the pieces are slammed into place, you're almost ready to throw up from the amount of tension. This is a good thing, by the way. Yes, there is action and violence, but that isn't at the heart of Oldboy. Park's mission is to shake your soul.

The Upside of Anger
As if we need another reminder of how talented Joan Allen is, she ups and gives us her single best performance since her Oscar-nominated role in The Contender. In this film, Allen plays mean, insensitive mother Terry Wolfmeyer, whose husband has suddenly disappeared from her life, leaving her to look after four daughters (played by Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt). Rather than keeping a stiff upper lip and rising above it all, Terry enters a deep, alcohol-fueled depression. She lashes out at her children, who in turn respond by rebelling against her shaky parental control. Throw into this incendiary mix the missing husband's best friend Denny (Kevin Costner), an ex-baseball player who now hosts a lame sports radio chat show where he'll talk about anything but baseball. He's a boozehound too, and he and Terry become drinking buddies and eventually bedmates. Upside of Anger is a sharply written and superbly acted piece that allows its characters to do the most human thing they can: malfunction. Naturally, the daughters seem the most stable, while the grown folk act like children with no self-control. Writer-director Mike Binder (who co-stars as Denny's producer) has taken a series of small stories that could have easily felt like a messy train wreck and fashioned them into something meaningful and often hilarious. The things that crawl out of Terry's unfiltered mouth are enough to make you turn away from the screen with embarrassment, but nothing about her or the other characters feels forced or inauthentic. And nobody does "washed-up jock" better than Costner, so what's not to recommend?

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Certainly, one way to get the elusive Daniel Day-Lewis to act in one of your films is to marry him. Another is to cast him in a role that seems ideally suited to his talent of losing himself in a thoughtful character who will challenge himself and an audience equally. Writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of the late Arthur) has done both with her uneven, but still coherent tale of middle-aged Scottish ex-hippie Jack (Day-Lewis) and his daughter Rose (the almost too beautiful to gaze upon Camilla Belle), who live on an island off the Atlantic coast (I'm guessing somewhere near New England). The pair are clearly very close as Miller shows us in the dreamy introductory 20 minutes of extreme close-ups and seemingly senseless dialogue. I think the idea here was that the father and daughter have an almost secret shorthand with each other, but I found it a dangerous way to open a film.

Things stabilize somewhat with the introduction of Jack's secret lover Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald). Jack has invited the three to live with him and Rose (much to Rose's dismay) as a sort of experiment. Jack's idealism about society and a resistance to urban sprawl clashes beautifully with Kathleen's more earth-bound system of beliefs. The film spirals in many different directions. Some of them are remarkably interesting and elegantly shot; some are self-indulgent and flat-out boring. Day-Lewis makes Jack a lanky live wire. He holds a lot in, but when he explodes or melts down, you alternate between fearing and pitying him. Keener can do no wrong in my book, and her decidedly white trash take on Kathleen adds life and much-needed humor to the proceedings. Several years ago Miller made a much better female-centric film called Personal Velocity, and Jack and Rose pales in comparison, while still managing to hold your interest most of the time. If you have no patience for directors with "personal visions" that border on conceit, you may want to stay away from this one.

The Ring Two
On paper, it looked promising. The director of the original Japanese Ringu and Ringu 2 was returning to the franchise to direct the American sequel to the immensely successful The Ring. Hideo Nakata has a real gift for drawing you into quiet, seemingly harmless places and scaring the teeth out of your head. And while The Ring Two is by no means a bad movie, it certainly isn't a worthy successor to the wonderfully effective original from director Gore Verbinski (who went on to direct Pirates of the Caribbean and the upcoming Nicolas Cage vehicle The Weather Man). Part of the problem with Ring Two is that our returning hero, Rachel Killer (Naomi Watts), and her son Max (Simon Baker) don't know exactly what they're fighting against. In The Ring, there were the deadly videotapes. To save her son, Rachel had to unlock the secret of the tape. In the sequel, Rachel destroys the last of the tapes, thus angering the ghost of the little girl who usually waits seven days to waste you. The waterlogged girl takes out her revenge on Rachel by "possessing" Max and making him do some very bad things. Gone is the race-against-the-clock element; gone is the mystery about how the girl would get to her victims (for example, crawling out of the television) after their week had expired.

The Ring Two is a beautifully shot film with the same gray atmospheric quality of the first film. There are some outright nerve-damaging sequences, including one involving a herd of elk that's even better than the horse on the ferry sequence from The Ring. There is also a better supporting cast in place here, with the likes of Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins and even Sissy Spacek on hand. The Ring Two suffers from a less defined and thrilling structure. We're never really clear how bad off Rachel's son is or what it will take to relieve him of the offending spirit, and that erodes the all-important tension that was such a crucial element of the first film. Having said that, I still jumped in my seat three or four times, and the creep factor is still much higher than most of the horror junk that's been smeared on movie screens of late. (Anyone who thought the remake of The Grudge was any good can bite my ass.)

Melinda and Melinda
Woody Allen's movies are like Prince's albums: even his worst one is better than 75 percent of everything else that's out there. As with Prince, when Allen makes a really fine film, we're all the better for it. I'll admit, Allen's been less reliable in recent years. But for every disappointing work (Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Hollywood Ending), we get above-average fare like Sweet and Lowdown, Small Time Crooks and Anything Else. His latest, Melinda and Melinda, is his best work since Everyone Says I love You. The film begins with two writers debating whether life is inherently tragic or comic. The two decide to take the scenario of a mysterious woman named Melinda (the remarkable Radha Mitchell) crashing a dinner party and play it out as two different stories. The comedic version stars Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet; the tragic version of Melinda's tale features the likes of Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller. You can't really fault Allen for taking the gimmicky route, since he's done it countless times before with outstanding results. The heart and soul of this film belongs to Ferrell, who essentially takes the role that Allen would have played himself 20 years ago.

Both versions of Melinda's story are well written, but the funnier story will likely be your favorite. It doesn't hurt that Ferrell is paired with his Anchorman co-star (and star of the U.S. version of NBC's "The Office"), Steve Carell. Even when not in wacky mode, the two work well together. Also a standout in Melinda and Melinda is Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually) as a piano player who seduces dramatic Melinda and then her best friend, sending Melinda into an emotional tailspin. Mitchell might be the new queen of angst in my book. She's equally manic-depressive in both stories, but her characters are remarkably distinct in every other way. To sum things up, when's that next Prince album coming out?

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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.

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