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Monday, October 16

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Happy Friday, everyone.

This is big weekend for films the studios don't want critics to see so we can warn you about how crappy they are. The second-tier Fast and the Furious rip-off Redline hits screens today, as does the Ray Liotta drama Slow Burn and the long-delayed Viking adventure Pathfinder, which some critics were allowed to see, just not online critics because we wield all the power! As for the films opening today that we were allowed to see…well, let's just say it's a slow week with one major exception. One of the best films of the year opens today. See if you can guess which one it is.

Perfect Stranger

There are two kinds of sexy in the world: real-life sexy (like Monica Bellucci in a low-cut dress or Ziyi Zhang kicking ass) and Hollywood sexy, which isn't sexy at all, but don't tell Halle Berry that. While I'm not denying that Ms. Berry looks good in almost every dress and hairstyle, when she's "playing" sexy, she has the sex appeal of a fried egg. Having said that, let's talk about her latest film Perfect Stranger, in which she plays a New York investigative newspaper reporter who specializes in breaking scandals involving important and powerful men. When an old friend of hers is brutally murdered, Berry's Rowena Price begins to suspect that a man her friend met online might be a likely suspect. With the help of her faithful research assistant and resident hacker Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), Rowena confirms that the online lover is mega-powerful ad executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), who has a thing for meeting hussies on the internet and cheating on his wife.

Perfect Stranger almost qualifies as a "so bad it's good" movie, but not quite. But there are plenty of laughs to keep you amused. For example, Miles installs a voice device on Rowena's computer using samples of Hill's voice whenever he sends her instant messages. So when she begins online sex talk with Hill, we hear Willis' voice coming out of the computer. You won't be able to hold back the chuckles. Eventually Rowena gets a temp job at Hill's company so she can track his movement on the job, especially his interactions with the pretty young things he tends to hire and allow to distract him constantly. Naturally, it doesn't take much for him to notice Rowena and begin hitting on her. Hill has no idea the woman in his office and the temptress online are the same, or that either are out to bust him for murder.

Perfect Stranger is silly and convoluted, but even that combination would be forgivable if Berry wasn't over playing her part so unconvincingly. She's just trying too hard to be desirable with Willis, or passionate about capturing this killer with Ribisi. We do catch glimpses of the well-shrouded murderer, which is a good indicator that this person is someone we would recognize, and there aren't that many suspects. I'll admit, I thought I had the killer's identity figured out early on, and I was wrong. But the person's real identity will make you groan in disbelief. Director James Foley has been hit (At Close Range; Glengarry Glen Ross; After Dark, My Sweet) and miss (Who's That Girl?; Fear; The Chamber), and I'm afraid this film falls squarely in the latter category. It just never draws you in enough to buy anything that's happening, and the plot always seems intent on taking the long way around every unnecessary twist and turn. Buried deep inside Perfect Stranger was a good movie, but somewhere along the line, someone took a wrong turn in Stupidville and proceed to drive around in circles for two hours.

Disturbia

The biggest revelation about the new film from the always reliable director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea; Taking Lives; and some killer episodes of "The Shield") is that lead actor Shia LaBeouf (Holes; Bobby; A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) marks his transition from child star to serious lead actor right before our eyes. Yes, he's still playing a high school student in Disturbia, but there's a maturity and darkness to the character of Kale that we haven't seen him accomplish prior to this film. Make no mistake, this film is B-movie material with an elevated budget and higher production values than you're probably used to considering the material. But that doesn't stop it from being a sometimes creepy, highly amusing joyride through suburban paranoia filtered through a John Hughes-ian, coming-of-age lens.

The film has a devastating opening sequence involving Kale and his father (Matt Craven) going on a fishing trip. It's clear they are very close, and that Kale respects and admires what his dad brings to the family dynamic. Kale's mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) is more the disciplinarian, but his dad is Kale's best friend. A tragedy befalls the family, and one year later we see Kale's life taking several turns for the worse, culminating in him punching out a teacher. His punishment is house arrest with an ankle monitor that keeps him from straying too far from the grounds of his house, lest the cops show up in a hurry. Since mom works nights, Kale has a lot of time on his hands so he entertains himself spying on the neighbors, including Mr. Turner, an older man (David Morse) living alone next door who keeps strange hours and may be the same serial killer who had been terrorizing the area lately. He enlists the help of his best friend (Aaron Yoo) and the new, hot neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer from Grudge 2) to help him use all the technology at his disposal to watch Turner's every move. Now all Kale has to do is stop spending all his time hitting on Ashley and focus on the crime fighting at hand.

Disturbia is far from a perfect movie. The Yoo character goes from low-level annoying to "I Want To Kill Him" in about 30 seconds. The budding love story between Kale and Ashley sometimes distracts from the far more interesting surveillance storyline. But LaBeouf and Morse keep things interesting and tense. LaBeouf sometimes made me think he was going to explode out of his skin with fear, and it's rare to see a male actor pull something like that off. Sure this film is a blatant riff on the set up of Rear Window, but it finds clever ways of building on the idea and making it different enough not to bug you too much. The film's climax is a little over the top, but it still manages to stay entertaining and fresh, despite it not delivering any real surprises. Disturbia is an above-average thriller with two great central performances that keep the proceedings afloat when things get less than inspired.

Read my interview with Disturbia star Shia LaBeouf at Ain't It Cool News.

Black Book

Director Paul Verhoeven has never been known for playing it safe. Earlier in his career, the taboos he was shaking up and sometimes shattering were in the areas of sex and violence (The 4th Man, Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Showgirls), but with Black Book he's braving political waters with his story of a Dutch Jewish woman's efforts to survive WWII and spy for the Dutch resistance to discover who in the organization betrayed fellow Jews who were killed attempting to take boats to the liberated south of Holland. Among those killed were her entire family, who were mowed down by German machine gun fire, while she narrowly escaped. To infiltrate the Nazi presence in her country, the raven-haired beauty Rachel (Carice van Houten), dyes her hair blond (all of her hair), changes her name and seduces a high-ranking German official (Sebastian Koch, who played the playwright in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others). Her undercover assignment is known to so few even in the resistance that when it's discovered that she is sleeping with a Nazi, her own people turn against her once the war appears to be near an end.

Black Book dares to be a riveting sensual experience, filled with fairly explicit sex scenes. It becomes clear after a time that Rachel has actually fallen for her German solider a bit, and even after her betrayal is made known to him, he finds it hard to hate her. Verhoeven also packs his film filled with exciting action sequences and scene after scene of heart-pounding spy activity. As much as Black Book is a unique history lesson about the little-discussed Dutch role in the war effort, Verhoeven has been a director for too long to forget how to entertain his audience. I've never seen Van Houten's work before, but her beauty is mesmerizing, and she's a damn fine actress on top of that. Koch plays what might be the most sympathetic Nazi character since the submarine crew in Das Boot, and you don't feel guilty feeling a bit sorry for him. This is an extraordinary effort that I first saw last December at Butt Numb-a-Thon. Unfortunately, it ran at about 3am, and my memory of the film is fuzzy. But going back and seeing it again recently, I remembered how awe-struck I was by Verhoeven's confident vision and abilities as a master storytelling. Chalk this up as one of the year's finest. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters

My exposure to the Cartoon Network animated series is spotty at best. I'm not sure I've ever seen an entire episode from beginning to end, but what I have seen ranges from the obliquely inspired to the utterly lame. Even people I know who are dedicated watchers of the show agree it has its off weeks, and that seems right in step with the feature film debut of Meatwad, Frylock and Master Shake. I approved of the filmmakers' decision to go full-tile R-rated with the movie, which features one of the single greatest openings of any film in history. It's essentially a hardcore spoof of the old school "Let's all go to the lobby" movie trailers. That's all I'm saying. And while the film does have its moments of sheer random funny dialogue and activity, there were long stretches of Aqua Teen Hunger Force where I just didn't laugh; I wasn't even close.

The plot involves the team searching for the missing piece of exercise equipment that somehow holds the key to saving the universe and revealing to the heroes the true nature of their origins. Identifying guest voice work from the likes of Bruce Campbell, Tina Fey, Chris Kattan and Rush drummer Neil Peart (as himself) helped keep me amused when times were tough, but this epic struggle against a couple different forces of evil (including the Plutonians and the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past) left me empty and bored. A subject matter this bizarre should have more laughs, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force just doesn't. Ninety minutes of this in a single dose is asking too much of any audience. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

In Search of Mozart

Despite the title of this eye-opening and extremely thorough examination of the life and works of the legendary 18th-century composer, this documentary is not hosted by Leonard Nimoy, nor does it feature Bigfoot. Instead what we get feels more like a well-researched, music-heavy piece that stands, in many ways, as a direct contradiction to persona of Mozart established in the play and film Amadeus. As if to emphasize this point, the name of Mozart's nemesis in the film, Antonio Salieri, isn't even mentioned in this documentary.

In Search of Mozart takes a very straightforward, PBS approach to its subject, detailing his life from his early years as a child performer and composing protégé to his death at age 35. Interviews with historians, musicians, opera performers and other composers tell a remarkably detailed and exhaustive history of a man who was bad with money, madly in love with his wife and believed from an early age that he was destined for great position and acclaim. But more than anything, director Phil Grabsky systematically breaks down the myth that Mozart was insane and frivolous. His work ethic is unmatched by today's standards, and while he did have a great love of life (when he could afford to), he hardly seemed unstable.

But wisely so, the film focuses on what was most impressive about Mozart: his contribution and innovation to music history. Dozens of music selections from simple piano compositions to groundbreaking operas like The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are featured prominently. It's fascinating to listen to musicians and opera singers and conductors explain what makes Mozart's compositions so unique and moving and occasionally difficult to play. Perhaps more than any other expert, someone who is actually faced with the challenge of performing Mozart's music can best explain and make clear Mozart's genius. With a low-key but gripping narration by Juliet Stevenson and no trite re-enactments, In Search of Mozart breathes life into this often misunderstood and misrepresented artist. The film opens today for a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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