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Monday, May 20

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

If you're keeping score: no, they did not screen either The Eye with Jessica Alba or Strange Wilderness with Steve Zahn. But I'm guessing that neither is any worse than the first film I'll be writing about this week. Brace yourself.


Over Her Dead Body

I've certainly endured my fair share of bad movies over the years. Hell, I've stomached an overflowing handful of crap cinema in the first 31 days of January 2008. But it's that rare, plugged up shitter of a movie that actually makes me wish I were in another line of work. Now before you email me saying, "I could tell from the commercials that the new Eva Longaria Parker film was going to be a turd monster. Why are you acting surprised?" I'm not acting surprised. If a comedy can't find seven or eight funny scenes in its 95-minute length to construct a decent trailer, trouble is just a $10 ticket price away, my friends. Remember how I began my review of Cloverfield? I said, "You really have no idea what you're in for." That's exactly how I feel about Over Her Dead Body, only the other way. Some who see this film may feel that life is no longer worth living if copies of this movie are allowed to stay alive and reproduce like a poop virus. Some may swear off movies forever. This movie has that power. Only the strongest among us should even walk past a theatre playing this film that somehow manages to make even Paul Rudd look like a bad actor. Shame on you writer-director Jeff Lowell; have you no decency?

Here's the premise: Longaria Parker plays Kate, who we barely get to know before she dies on her wedding day. She goes to a big, empty white room, is visited by an angel, and is dumped back on Earth to fulfill an unknown (even to her) mission before she can move on. I don't think there's a person in the audience who didn't know that her mission was to help her grieving boyfriend Henry (Rudd) move on and find new love. But dumb-ass Kate thinks she should protect Henry from all other women. One woman in particular, an ethical psychic/part-time caterer named Ashley (Lake Bell), seems to be top on Kate's list of women Henry might be happy with, so she sets her sights on allowing Ashley to see her and scaring and otherwise dissuading the relationship.

The biggest problem I had with Over Her Dead Body is that Longaria Parker is the wrong color. No, I'm not saying that I have a problem with a Latina marrying a white guy. What I'm saying is that Eva has applied so much spray-on tanning product that she has become a shade of orange that doesn't exist in nature. There are also huge chunks of the film where she isn't even on screen, so the idea that this is somehow her first starring role is almost a joke (maybe the only funny one within a mile of this movie). But more importantly, when she is on screen, she's a miserable shrew of a woman who we never even get the chance to like for two minutes.

And poor Paul Rudd, one of the most likable actors working today and one of the funniest. He gives the best that he's got here and gets off a few one liners that made me smile, but he walks through this movie with a look on his face that screams, "What the fuck am I doing here?" He is put through the ringer on this movie and it may take him seven or eight years of therapy to really work out his pain. Strangely enough, I managed to make something of a rediscovery watching Over Her Dead Body. I remember liking Lake Bell from the early seasons of "Boston Legal," and seeing her in this movie made me remember how much I enjoy watching her. Sure, she's attractive, but she also has an easy-going, casual delivery that seems very natural. If anything she's too understated for this alarmingly broad material, but she comes across as very sincere playing this character. I look forward to seeing her in something that might actually use her talents for good rather than evil.

Over Her Dead Body plays out about as predictably as a child's color-by-number paint set, and I spent the entire film going back and forth between bored and angry. If that sounds appealing to you, go to hell, and enjoy this film on the flight down there. If a comedy plays to an audience and nobody laughs, does the film truly really exist? I say, no.


Nanking

I know far too many people who won't got to a particular movie — be it feature or documentary — because they don't relish the idea of paying money to have a film bum them out. I don't say this much, but fuck anyone with that attitude. Nobody likes to be bummed out, but good movies should bum you out, especially if the subjects are difficult to deal with and sometimes soul crushingly tragic. With more recent genocidal events in the Eastern Europe and Africa thankfully making headlines more and more often these days, the subject of the first modern instance of rape, torture, mutilation and wholesale execution as official military or government policy has come to light. The late Iris Chang addressed the Nanking situation in her book The Rape of Nanking, a feature film on the subject is in some stage of production, and now filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have added sometimes-shocking visuals to the story of the Japanese army's terror campaign through several cities in China, including Nanking. Since many Westerners lived and worked in the city, they took it upon themselves to save and protect as many innocent Chinese citizens as they could, and the resulting film is one of the best documentaries I've seen in the last year (technically this film was released in 2007, and it looks to be on track for an Oscar nomination.).

Since the film relies heavily on letters and diary entries of these Westerners to tell its story, it would seem natural that the filmmakers would use actors to read these documents. But the directors use the curious, but far more engaging approach of having the actors (including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff, Chris Mulkey and Jurgen Prochnow) onscreen in costume looking at the camera as they recite. Its cumulative effect is much like a table read, but somehow being able to look these people in the eyes makes the whole experience seem all the more real and horrific. Combined with some truly painful and sickening photographs (why do these people love to document their atrocities?), these voices from the past give Nanking a weight that no feature film is capable of (we'll find out soon enough, since a feature film based on Chang's book is in the making).

One of the more interesting facts that comes out of this film is that the Westerners in Nanking might have easily been enemies under different circumstances. There were missionaries, teachers, and most fascinatingly, a Nazi businessman, who may have had more to do with saving lives than any outsider in the conflict. Perhaps most shocking are interviews with some surviving Japanese soldiers (quite elderly when the interviews were conducted), who practically joke about beheadings, mass executions and rape. You would expect them to hide behind the "following orders" defense or deny they took part in some of the horrific behavior, and while they fall short of seeming proud of their behavior, they don't exact hang their heads in shame either.

Nanking is powerful, moving, and yes, often quite depressing, account of the world at its worst, which is the exact reason you should take time out from seeing Mad Money or 27 Dresses and take an active role in making certain occurrences like this stop happening today. Don't be afraid to learn, but more than that, don't be afraid to let a film touch you emotionally. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street

I don't have many regrets about the things I've done or haven't done in my more than 20 years living in Chicago, but the one thing I wish I had done was visit the Maxwell Street Market before it was essentially forcibly shut down and demolished in 1994, thanks to the urban renewal schemes of the city and the land-grabbing greed of the University of Illinois–Chicago. Narrated lovingly by Joe Mantegna and magnificently researched and directed by Phil Ranstrom, Cheat You Fair is a fitting and perfect tribute to the history, culture, spirit and lasting legacy of Maxwell Street.

Sure there were great deals to be had at every vendor's booth at this open-air bazaar, which operated every Sunday, but people from all over the world came to hear live urban electrified blues in the birthplace of the music. It was here that Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Junior Wells and others got their start playing on the streets. But people also came for the food (Maxwell Street was the birthplace of Vienna Beef and polish sausages); the interaction with people of every ethnic and religious background; cheap socks (a dozen pair for $5); and the constant haggling. Hell, even Al Capone bought all his hats at a Maxwell Street landmark called the Mad Hatter. The film acts as a terrific history lesson of the city and the neighborhood, where survivors congregated after the Great Chicago Fire, immigrants landed and southern blacks took up residence when infestation killed cotton production. But Cheat You Fair also works as a commanding piece of investigative journalism that uncovers the money and influence trail that took this historic street fair and turned it into a souless, gentrified, white-washing area for student housing and chain restaurants.

There was clearly some sort of glorious energy to the place, and Ranstrom and company capture that magic in their movie, which goes after both generations of mayor Daleys and a largely faceless UIC, which comes across as an extremely racist and anti-ethnic neighborhood. The film's premiere will happen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8pm with director Ranstrom on hand for a post-screening Q&A. For lovers of Chicago history, this film is a must-see. I hope Cheat You Fair gets a shot at an extended run sometime in the near future or perhaps a showing or two on PBS. This is a glorious way to get to know your city a little better; take advantage.


Kung Fu Fighter

For many years, the Gene Siskel Film Center has kept Chicago up to date on the latest and greatest coming out of Hong Kong with its month-long Hong Kong! series. I saw my first films starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li during these celebrations of some of the most spirited and passionate film I'd ever seen. Perhaps because of the changeover or the decline of the Hong Kong film industry (with a few exceptions), the Siskel Center has scaled back its offerings to four films (I'll see and review all four in the coming month), including Kung Fu Fighter, a loving tribute to martial arts films of old. In an interesting twist, the film combines old-school peasant-driven fight sequences with 1930s-era Chinese gangster films.

Former stuntman and stunt coordinator Yip Wing-kin directs this story of a peasant boy who escapes his village when it's destroyed and his mother murdered. He makes his way to the far more modern Shanghai to search for his long-lost father. Music star Vanness Vu stars as Manik, the peasant who has mysterious super human powers and fighting skills that are unmatched and clearly unexplained by even the young man. Yip never misses an opportunity for a stellar fight sequence or a glossy club scene featuring loose women and silky smooth tunes of the era. Sometimes funny, sometimes deadly serious, the film takes Manik into a family-run restaurant, operated by a clan that fights together to defend underdogs like the lost lad. The humor in Kung Fu Fighter is a bid broad and the drama is somewhat predictable (comparisons to Kung Fu Hustle are grossly exaggerated), but that doesn't stop the film from being fun, escapist fare. The fight set pieces are the film's saving grace, and there were enough of them to keep me happy and allow me to forget the movie's shortcomings. The Film Center has played better kung fu movies before, but this one isn't bad. It screens on Friday, Feb. 1 at 7:45pm; and again on Sunday, Feb. 3 at 5pm.

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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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