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TODAY

Thursday, October 19

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Airbags

Well, if you thought things have been crazy at the box office in the last couple of weeks, wait until the third installment of the ridiculously popular Pirates of the Caribbean comes out this week. But I'm not here to talk about this film just yet; I want to mention two other prospects for the weekend that I haven't actually seen. Every critic I know and who's opinion I respect swears up and down that another film — Once, opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema — is truly excellent, and it's first on my list of things to catch. I missed both early screenings because of travel, but I'm hearing this is the one to see. Plus, it's about half the length of Pirates.

The other weekend event I want to mention is the sing-along Grease playing at Music Box Theatre. I don't think any extra embellishment is required from me. You know this film; you know it's great fun. And after I saw this film at the Brew and View a couple years back, I promise you seeing this film in a large group eager to sing along will be a blast. That being said, here's the rest of what's opening today.

One more note in my preamble: I'm pretty sure the Ashley Judd psychological thriller Bug was screened early for some critics but not for those of us on the interweb. I can't tell you how excited I was about seeing this new film directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), and, in fact, I was invited to a late Thursday afternoon screening of the film, which I will attend. But I'm not reviewing it because that showing is past my deadline. The film has played at a couple of festivals to mostly positive reviews, so I'm not sure why the distributor is hiding Bug from online eyes, but there you have it. There's still plenty to choose from this holiday weekend.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

For the third time in recent weeks, my complaint about a major Hollywood release remains the same: overpopulation. Following on the heels of Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third, the newest Pirates of the Caribbean entry seems determined to cram as many characters and/or storylines in its confines as its nearly three-hour running time will contain. That being said, I enjoyed At World's End a great deal more than the previously mentioned offerings. The characters are a bit more interesting (if not much more fleshed out), the various plots are better executed, and in terms of pure visual spectacle, this film blows all others (warning: pun approaching) out of the water.

Since most of At World's End was shot at the same time as Dead Man's Chest, it's not as impressive that the filmmakers find ways are getting nearly every single cast member from the previous film back on screen. That being said, some of the on-screen re-appearances seem a bit pointless and obligatory. I don't want to ruin any possible suspense about who's still standing at the end of the film, but I felt as if I spent too much of the film just noticing who had returned and who was new. The much-publicized addition of Chow Yun-Fat to the lineup as the much-scarred Chinese pirate Sao Feng is going to baffle as many people as it impresses. That's all I'm going to say. And as for the worst keep secret of the film — the cameo by Keith Richards — let's just say that the guy has been entertaining folks for decades, so there no reason to think he'll disappoint you. His very presence drops the room temperature 20 degrees, he's so cool.

Make no mistake, my body and soul belongs to anything in the Pirates movies having to do with Davy Jones (played to perfection by Bill Nighy) and the crew of the Flying Dutchman. The saving grace of the previous film was the fact that you could shut your brain off from the confusing plot and simply give yourself over the awe-inspiring looks of the undersea horror show of the ship and crew. Thankfully, Jones and company are all over At World's End (we even get a brief glimpse of what Jones looks like without the squid head), and it never gets old. Less impressive is the meeting of the pirate brethren, which includes a couple of women as well. Sure, we get to see all the world's pirate leaders gathered for this once-in-a-lifetime event, but nothing really comes of it and none of these new pirates does much more than makes scary faces and overact in each other's general direction. It's like a scene out of a Monty Python film. When the film's impressive final battle sequence takes place, it seems that all the other pirate leaders simply sit around on their vessels watching The Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman go at it while spinning around in a massive whirlpool. It looks great, but when director Gore Verbinski shows us the other pirates watching and cheering on, it's a bit anticlimactic.

I'm gone thus far without mentioning any of the main characters. To be honest, I never really cared that much who Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) ended up with. I'd always assumed that if she even bothered to pick between the clean-cut Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), she'd lean toward Turner simply because a pirate with a steady girlfriend or wife kind of defeats the purpose of being a pirate. Imagine my surprise when I actually got mildly invested in how her man-plight plays out. Geoffrey Rush's Capt. Barbossa has always been one of the favorite mainstays of this franchise. I think he's funnier than Depp without relying nearly as much on a campy performance, and he really comes into his own here. That being said, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have done something completely insane with Sparrow's character: they've made him just a bit more insane. As the film opens, we see Sparrow in a kind of odd version of purgatory, imagining himself captaining the Black Pearl with a crew made up entirely of variations of himself. It's a hilarious bit, and Jack seeing incarnations of himself is a recurring device throughout At World's End. There's a variation of the devil on one shoulder, angel on the other. There's even a Flying Dutchman crew member-version of Sparrow that is able to remove and play with his own brain. Tasty!

Returning plot elements involving the devious East India Trading Company or the lovely and increasingly spooky Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) didn't really grab hold of me or play out in anything resembling an interesting manner. But let's face it, you don't go to a Pirates of the Caribbean film for the plot or character development. Still, after about the 15th double-cross, I simply tuned out of the story and waited for the next special effects set piece, of which there are many. And it is absolutely possible to enjoy At World's End simply on that level. For those who demand something with a bit more depth, don't hold your breath. In all likelihood, this film is going to shatter all box office records (even recent ones set by Spider-Man 3), and I'm OK with that. Despite its admittedly nonsensical story, I was a fan of the previous Pirates film, and this latest entry is right on par with that oneā€¦just longer and with three times as many characters. My advice: Don't drink too much soda before this one begins.

Paris, je t'aime

It almost seems like it's too good to be true: a collection of some truly wonderful directors, writers and actors collaborating on a series of 18 short films celebrating the City of Lights. Each film is named and set after a particular section or monument in Paris, and you genuinely cannot help but just sit back and enjoy the at-times humorous, tragic, tense and ultimately uplifting collection of affectionate stories. Not all of the shorts attempt to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. Some are simply brief slices of life to show the universality of particular, seemingly unimportant, moments in our lives. Other vignettes are more complete, sometimes covering months in less than five minutes. The great news about Paris, je t'aime is that there are no duds here. Yes, some of these tales are better than others, but all are rich in their visuals and performances. And while the filmmakers don't attempt to interconnect any of the stories (thank heavens!), these films are made better and more appropriate by being collected like this. Each story enriches the others.

I suppose this would be the appropriate time to go through the inevitable list. A sampling of the directors includes the UK's Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Brazil's Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), Christopher Doyle (long-time cinematographer for directors such as Wong Kar-Wai), Isabel Coixet (My Life, Without Me), Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clean), Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud and writer of The Fisher King and Erin Brockovich), Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), Gerard Depardieu and Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways).

The equally impressive partial list of actors includes Steve Buscemi, Catalina Sandino Moreno, director Barbet Schroeder, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell, Natalie Portman, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara and Margo Martindale.

Inevitably a discussion of Paris, je t'aime will turn into a person talking about which shorts were their favorites or which were the most memorable, but the absolute truth is that all of these stories are worth remembering and reflecting upon. More complete stories such as Tykwer's examination of a relationship between a struggling actress (Portman) and her blind boyfriend (Melchior Beslon), which covers the entirely of their coupling, are just as good as Cuaron's amusing one-take tracking shot conversation between Nolte and Sagnier, in which she talks about her struggle to meet with him more often because of another guy in her life.

I was particularly moved by the segments featuring older actors. Seeing Gazzara and Rowlands (who wrote the story) together again will give a charge to any John Cassavetes lovers. They play a couple on the verge of signing their divorce papers, and while the surface conversation seems cordial, the subtext is cruel and hurtful. Maybe my favorite work is Payne's following of Martindale, the splendid character actress currently seen as the neighbor lady on "The Riches" and who turned in memorable performances in Million Dollar Baby (as Hilary Swank's appalling mother) and The Hours. The plays an American postal worker who studied French for two years to prepare for her dream vacation in Paris. Her French isn't very good (she narrates the film in the language) and she moves through the city with guidebook in hand, making no mistake she's a tourist. And as she goes from place to place alone, she reflects on her lonely existence, culminating in a heartbreaking scene on a park bench. The moment and the short is equal parts devastating and life affirming.

I can't ignore the Coens' hilarious tale of another hapless tourist (Buscemi), complete with guidebook ,who makes the near-fatal mistake of looking a Frenchman in the eye. Yikes! The LaGravenese piece featuring Hopkins and Ardant as a couple that meets in a strip club is also quite amusing, and featuring one of the film's few plot twists.

I found myself particularly drawn to some of the quieter, less flashy works, including the one directed by Chadha concerning a group young Frenchmen yelling out overtly sexual pick-up lines at passing women. When a Muslim girl goes by and trips, they are especially evil. But one of the young men goes to help her, and instantly falls in love. He follows her to her mosque and meets her father in an exchange that does not go where I thought it would. It's a sweet, hopeful, unsentimental story that could easily be translated into a feature film (as could many of these shorts), but works perfectly as an archetype for the quiet power of love. And as well as any of these stories, it perfectly represents what is so great about short films, about boiling down a plot to its essential points and emotions. There simply isn't enough support in this country for the art for short filmmaking (animated, documentary or narrative), but I see it slowly becoming more popular (all three groups of short film nominees played as packaged programs here in Chicago in the last couple of months), and that's encouraging. Paris, je t'aime is a great primer for those of you who have never taken — or have never had the opportunity to take — the short-film plunge. For those of you that love storytelling on a miniaturized scale, prepare to be impressed beyond words. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Chalk

Maybe you have to be a teacher to get why Chalk is so funny, but I actually know a teacher pretty well, and I don't think she'd find it even a little bit amusing. Clearly playing off the way "The Office" is shot (complete with teachers occasionally shooting quick, panicked glances at the camera), Chalk portrays a school year in the life at Harrison High through the eyes of a handful of educators, all of who have varying levels of enthusiasm for their job. There's the nervous rookie, Mr. Lowrey, who attempts to school his students on history, but they smell his fear and pounce at every opportunity. At the other extreme we have Mr. Stroope, whose sole purpose in this school year is to win "Teacher of the Year" award. He wants so badly for his students and other teachers to like him that he forgoes actual teaching for more of a rap session-style of communicating. The few times I almost laughed during this film came thanks to his antics.

Probably the most believable characters in the film (there aren't many) are the women. And while the perils of the cute Coach Webb (who makes it clear she's not gay, for God's sake) are worth a smile or two, I thought the most interesting storyline belonged to Mrs. Reddell, a former teacher who was moved to an administrative position this year and is now slowly losing all of her teacher friends and working unbearable hours, putting a strain on her family life. At least her troubles seem plausible, even if they don't add much humor to the proceedings.

Probably the best scene in the film is the morale-boosting, student-run spelling bee, in which the teachers are made to spell various slang words. Asking for a word's origin or to have it used in a sentence has never been funnier. Director Mike Akel has his heart in the right place, but as he points out in an opening title card, "50% of teachers quit within the first three years." That's not really the stuff for a great comedy. Perhaps in more capable hands, it could be, but this isn't the film that makes us laugh at the overwhelming difficulties teachers face on a daily basis. I admire the film's efforts not to make the students the focus of the film or butt of the jokes (an entire film genre exists to do that), but Chalk doesn't have the laughs to make it a successful comedy or the depth to make it a viable statement on public education. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Poison Friends

A multiple award winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the French offering Poison Friends brought back to mind certain people I knew in college that just bugged the shit out of me. I'm fairly certain the film is meant to be appreciated on a much high level than I viewed it, and make no mistake, I truly loved this movie. But when a film triggers such vivid memories of a time, place or person, you have to give it points for capturing something so completely.

The film takes place in the world of the arts. A group of Paris university graduate students meet and form friendships based on their love of literature and their unofficial leader (more like a ringleader) is Andre (Thibault Vincon), who seems to have read, absorbed and analyzed every book on the planet worth reading (by his standards, at least). He deftly pushes his friends into exploring their passions as artists, even if it means pushing them away from writing and into other fields like acting. As annoying and sometimes undermining as Andre can be, he does have a gift for spotting a person's strengths and weaknesses, which he either exploits or builds upon, depending on his mood. One of his friends is the son of a famous author, who believes his work isn't particularly good until his mother submits one of his early manuscripts to her publisher.

Andre abruptly leaves Paris, saying he's going for a year to study in America, when in fact, he's going to teach at an army base outside the city. We slowly discover that much of Andre's life is built upon multiple lies. Over the coming years, as his friends find out the truth, they begin uncover just what a judgmental, destructive cretin Andre was, but it's tough to deny that his impact on their lives was instrumental to their success. Writer-director Emmanuel Bourdieu creates an all-too authentic university environment, in which even the closest of friends and lovers assist each other in their own downfall, sometimes for no other reason than boredom. But Bourdieu also doesn't deny that sometimes-great achievements spring forth from interpersonal pain and conflict. Poison Friends appeals to those who have a more intellectual approach to watching films, while still hitting up with good old-fashioned soap opera-style drama. Consider this "Beverly Hills 90210" with brains. The film's weeklong run begins today 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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