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Wednesday, July 17

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The latest outstanding effort from German director Tom Tykver (who also serves as the films co-writer and co-composer) is unlike any other film you have ever seen about a serial killer, and it landed fairly high on my best of 2006 list last week. Jean-Baptiste Genouille (played with an uneasy twitchy nervousness by Ben Whishaw) does not kill for the thrill or because some dark, traumatic event occurred in his past. If he didn't have to kill, he wouldn't. But killing beautiful women in 18th century France seems to be the only way he can find to distill and extract their scent, their essence in liquid form. And it is this distinction — along with Tykver's always-present visual flare — that gives Perfume an atmosphere that is both sensual and menacing. It is also one of the few films about mass murderers in which we (perhaps secretly) look forward to each largely bloodless death, if only to see what Jean-Baptiste intends to do with his collection of feminine odors. Sounds delightful, doesn't it?

Tykver is probably best known for his energetic masterpiece Run Lola Run, but Perfume calls to mind the atmosphere he generated with the film he made prior to that landmark piece of German cinema, a lesser known work called Winter Sleepers, which also dealt with death and the mystery surrounding tragic events. There is little in common between the two films in terms of plot, but the undercurrent of tension and foreboding is remarkably similar. Based on the popular novel by Patrick Suskind, Perfume begins with an astonishing sequence that shows us the birth of Jean-Baptiste on the dirty streets of Paris. Even as an infant, Jean-Baptiste showed a remarkable desire to collect and distinguish scents, and, as a result, he lived a life of great solitude and loneliness. To make things worse, he apparently has no scent of his own.

As he gets older Jean-Baptiste is exposed to more upscale women and their alluring scents, including one he follows through darkened streets. He accidentally startles her, and to keep her from screaming he strangles her, thus losing a vital part of her essence. Soon after he gets a job with an eccentric perfume maker (played with mad-scientist giddiness by Dustin Hoffman), who teachers Jean-Baptiste the fine art of fragrance making. The younger man's keen ability to distinguish scents makes him the ideal pupil, and he is able to concoct new types of perfume in exchange for lessons on the use of a distillery.

After leaving his tutor's care, Jean-Baptiste goes to a remote town in the French countryside that is devoted to making wonderful scents, and he begins perfecting his craft of capturing the essence of woman. Consequently, beautiful women throughout the French countryside begin to fear for their lives. Alan Rickman plays one of the town's leaders (and father to one of the region's most beautiful young women) and sets out to discover and capture whoever is doing this killing.

But if you think the arrest of Jean-Baptiste is where this story ends, think again. I don't know how it was conveyed in the novel, but the final 20 to 30 minutes of Perfume is filled with some of the most bizarrely sensual material I've ever seen on film. Jean-Baptiste possesses small vials of liquid representing each of his victims. Just before his capture, he mixes his master concoction using drops of each scent. The movie's final act probably shouldn't be taken literally, but at the same time, doing so opens up a wide world of possibilities. Does scent control our lives so completely? Does it drive our wants and desires? Does it fuel our passions? I'm not sure Perfume answers any of these questions, but it certainly brings them to the forefront of our minds for a few pulse-quickening moments. With Perfume, Tykver has not so much reinvented the serial killer genre as deconstructed it in a way that only a true student and lover of horror films could. He has analyzed what came before and gone out of his way not to mimic anyone else's work. Tykver has created a masterstroke of atmosphere and surreal behaviors. Although Perfume is technically a 2006 release, let it be the first great film you see in 2007. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. And for those of you panicking about subtitles, this French-set film from a German director is, in fact, all in English.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with director Tom Tykver.


Miss Potter

My ignorance about the life and work of Beatrix Potter knows no bounds. Like many, my only real exposure to her is through the delicately illustrated and sweetly written Tale of Peter Rabbit. But as we learn from this simply told account of a particularly tumultuous time in Potter's life in early 20th century England, her private life was a mixture of innocence and passion just beginning to rise to the surface of her being. This is not to imply that Miss Potter is anything but a child-friendly, PG-rated affair, but the film does tell the story of her first book being published and her first love at the ripe old age of 39.

Renee Zellweger pulls off Potter's chirpy ways as a woman who does not consider the animals in her books mere characters; they are her dear friends whom she gives birth to with watercolors and begins chatting with immediately. She spent much of her 30s going from publisher to publisher seeking to get her children's stories printed, but it wasn't until the esteemed house of Frederick Warne & Co. that she found a willing sponsor. The two brothers who ran the publishing company saw the project as a way to get their younger brother Norman (played in esteemed buttoned-down fashion by Ewan McGregor) out of their hair. If his work with Miss Potter failed, nobody would care. Instead, Norman turns Peter Rabbit and many successive books into huge successes, and Beatrix becomes an extremely wealthy woman, despite the fact that she still lived with her parents, as was the custom for an unmarried woman at the time.

One reason people should be more excited about Miss Potter is that it marks the first directing effort in more than 10 years by Chris Noonan, who stole our collective hearts with Babe in 1995. There are no talking animals in Miss Potter, but he does offer nice touches, such as the characters in Potter's books becoming slightly animated when she speaks to them. It's done subtly, and the animals don't come leaping off the page to save the day or anything so vulgar. They rest on their page and turn to face her or give her an inquisitive look. These moments don't exactly add to the plot, but they do offer us insight into Potter's imaginative mind.

Potter and the younger Warne eventually fall in love, and he proposes to her, much to the dismay of her parents who view him as a tradesman and not in keeping with the slightly higher society her family runs with (although I'm fairly certain that thanks to Beatrix's success, Warne probably has more money in his accounts than the Potters do). The couple decide to become engaged secretly, and her parents agree that the marriage can go on if they spend a summer apart. If their love stays strong and desire to marry goes unchanged during that period, the engagement will be announced publicly. But completely unforeseen and tragic circumstances dismantle the couple's plans and force Beatrix to make the hard decision to move out of her parents' home forever. It is in this section of the film that Beatrix's friendship with the sole Warne sister (played beautifully by Emily Watson) solidifies, as the two women who loved Norman the most cling to each other for support and comfort.

Rather than leave things on a down note, Noonan and company show us the remarkable transformation that occurs in Beatrix. She purchases a massive plot of land in the country for her new home and finally becomes a truly rare independent woman for the time. When various local farmers on surrounding properties find their land up for auction, Potter simply buys up the estates rather than see them go to greedy land developers. Her work for land conservation became a second career in her life after she gave up writing in 1913. In Zellweger, Beatrix is allowed to be playful, innocent and headstrong all in one package. And while neither the performance nor the film reaches the emotional depths of many films out right now, that doesn't mean that it doesn't serve up its own heart-tugging moments. Miss Potter is certainly safe enough for kids to attend, but I'm not sure if they are quite the audience for this movie. I do think that adults who have not become too cynical to appreciate pure and simple creativity will enjoy Noonan's work immensely. The film and Zellweger are captivating.


Freedom Writers

If a film is done well, it rarely bothers me that it may follow a well-worn formula and adhere to the trappings of a given genre. Based on a true story to some degree, Freedom Writers is about an idealistic rookie teacher whose first job after getting her teaching certificate is in a dangerous, gang-run urban high school filled with tough black, Latino and Asian students, plus every other racial group you can imagine (including one wimpy white kid). But armed with determination and a string of pearls, fearless teacher Erin Gruwell (the film is based on a book written by her and some of her students) paved the way for what appears to be a successful learning program for kids who had been written off by the system.

Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud), Freedom Writers will live or die in your mind based on whether Hilary Swank sells you on Gruwell's tenacity. It is a bit odd that a woman who earned two well-deserved Best Actress Oscars by the age 30 isn't given the credit she is due as a performer. It's because of Swank that Freedom Writers is even watchable, let alone credible. Swank has nothing to prove at this point; I'm not saying she's not going to make junk in her career (her long-delayed film The Reaping may be proof of that), but if any future films are bad, it won't be because of her abilities. Freedom Writers is not a great movie, and ultimately I'm not recommending it, but its shortcomings have nothing to do with Swank, who gives everything in her power to convey Gruwell's unusual gifts with these kids.

If anything, LaGravenese's script is what's lacking here. Most of the supporting players (including the kids) are cardboard cutout cliché puppets, who bring to the plot exactly what you think they will. Gruwell's husband (played by "Grey's Anatomy" star Patrick Dempsey) tries to be supportive, but her job takes up even her free time, and the poor man needs his lovin'. So he splits. Erin's tough-as-nails father (Scott Glenn) has always thought that teaching in such a shitty school was a bad idea, but of course he comes through for her when she needs him most. The most disappointing performance belongs to Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) whose sole purpose for being in this film is to put obstacles in Erin's path to teaching her kids. She's a yippy little two-dimensional, power-trip bitch whose very existence in this film annoyed me. The story of these kids and their teacher would have been enough to keep the film mildly interesting, but cluttering up the proceedings with long scenes of bureaucratic red tape nonsense not only takes us out of the classroom, but it also offers no surprises in the way these situations are resolved. The film runs slightly more than two hours; we didn't need space-filler scenes like these to keep the drama going.

There are some nice individual scenes in Freedom Writers, in particular when Gruwell has the kids read The Diary of Anne Frank and then write to Miep Gies, one of the Dutch citizens who hid the Frank family and preserved Anne's diary. Inspired by the kids' letter, Gies (played by Pat Carroll) comes to the school to speak to the students. The event made the national news. But the filmmakers aren't satisfied with small victories like this one, which would have made a nice point to end the film at about the 90-minute mark, especially since by this point all of the warring students have more or less made peace. No, apparently the movie won't be done until everybody's problems are solved and their legacies are boldly trumpeted. Swank is so strong here that I found myself frustrated that the rest of the film wasn't matching her standards. Freedom Writers is definite proof that good intentions and a PG-13 rating are not enough to guarantee quality.


Happily N'Ever After

I know I may be jumping the gun here, seeing as though we're only a handful of days into 2007, but I think I'm safe in declaring Happily N'Ever After the worst film of 2007. I know what you're thinking: What did you expect, chucklehead? The answer is, I expected the same thing I expect from all movies (even animated works clearly geared toward the younger set): that the filmmakers try to do something different and creative. This film does neither. It blatantly steals the idea of deconstructing classic fairy tales from last year's underrated Hoodwinked, while committing wholesale larceny against the Shrek movies by creating an entire universe (called Fairy Tale Land) populated by familiar characters such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood. Many of the inhabitants of Fairy Tale Land seem to be aware of how their stories are told over and over again throughout the ages, and this leaves some of them a little downtrodden.

But none of these crimes against cinematic integrity are the real reason Happily N'Ever After is such crap. No, that reason took me a while to put my finger on, and then it hit me. There's a character in the film named Rick, who is Prince Charming's man servant/dishwasher. Rick also serves as our smarmy narrator, who can't figure out why the lovely Cinderella (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) would fall for a man like the idiot Prince (Patrick Warburton) instead of the clearly more awesome him. It took me a few minutes to figure out why the very voice of Rick was making my skin crawl and my balls shrivel, but then it hit me like a wrecking ball to the scrotum: the voice of Rick was being supplied by none other than my arch-enemy, Freddie Prinze Jr. It's been a long time, douche bag, and in a way you're lucky this entire film sucked ass because that keeps me from having to single you out as the reason for it failing so miserably on every level. But I've got my eye on you, Junior, and I'm not letting go just yet.

Even before Junior's voice comes into the picture, the film's first of many problems is evident. The animation is cheap looking and stale. It's as if what we're seeing is a work in progress or a demo reel for another, better film, except it isn't. This is it. Second, Happily N'Ever After's musical selections (it's not a musical, but there are some not-so-catchy pop tunes to fill the dead space) all sound like temp songs that will eventually be redone by real singers and musicians. Guess again. But the biggest flaw is the plot. According to the script, a wizard (voiced by George Carlin) and his two assistants (Andy Dick and Wallace Shawn) keep constant watch over all of the Land's tales in progress. They can watch Sleeping Beauty sleep, or Rapunzel throw down her hair, or Cinderella get abused by her wicked stepmother (an unimpressive Sigourney Weaver). Their job is to keep the scales of good and evil balanced so the fairy tales continue as they have forever. (They never quite explain the implications of this time-space continuum on the characters, since the indication is that these stories simply repeat themselves for eternity, with the characters being aware that their lives are looping.)

When the stepmother finds out about the scales of good and evil, she breaks into the tower where the wizard lives (and is currently on a golfing vacation in Scotland) and tips the scales toward evil, sending all of our favorite fables into the hands of blood-thirsty wolves and trolls. While the kingdom expects the Prince to save the day, it's Rick who takes matters into his hands to rescue Cinderella and the land. By the end, I was perfectly willing to accept, even applaud, the deaths of every character in this movie.

Happily N'Ever After isn't even trying to be entertaining or funny. Every single joke is as tired and predictable as the stories that inspired this movie. The characters look and act lame and two-dimensional. And the entire soiled experience of watching this mess really made me miserable, especially coming off 2006, which I saw as a strong year overall for animated films. It's like getting ice water poured over you after a nice hot bath. Calgon, take me away! Seriously, folks, this movie is as bad to watch as three Freddie Prinze, Jr. films in a row. Ouch! You have been warned, and the standard for shitty film in 2007 has been firmly established.

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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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