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Monday, October 21

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Airbags

Poseidon

My guess is that if you decide to partake in this early entry in the summer movie season, you're going to do a lot of eye rolling. Even though you'd be sitting in the dark with no audience, your eyes will have no other choice but to roll around in their sockets in disbelief. A lot of early reviews of Poseidon have picked on various aspects of the production. The pacing is too rapid. The big "rogue" wave that topples the cruise ship comes in at about the 20-minute mark, and the film is only 100 minutes long. But a short running time and fast pace is not necessarily a deal breaker in my book. My problem was context. In a film like United 93, in which recent history is our context (and therefore we don't need a lot of background on the characters), this is not as much of an issue. But with Poseidon, our context is given to us on a need-to-know basis.

Everything we learn about our characters has to do with the plot. There is very little extraneous information, and every single detail given to us about the handful of survivors climbing to the top of the upside-down ship is important. This is not a good thing. It takes moments when characters might be developed (in an effort for us to give a shit about them) and turns them into, well, walking, breathing script points. For example, Kurt Russell rises to the top as the group leader. Why him? As we find out, he used to be the mayor of New York City (making him a natural leader) and a firefighter (making his ideas about rescue the most important). Josh Lucas plays a gambler. Well, that's not very useful; we need someone who has a detailed knowledge of ships. Not a problem, now Lucas' character is also an ex-Navy man. Okay, wait, wait. We also need someone who knows something about structural engineering. How about Richard Dreyfuss! He plays a gay architect, who begins the film ready to commit suicide over a broken love affair, but never really volunteers for any duties that might put his life at risk to save others.

Wait, aren't there any women on the sinking boat? You bet. We have Emmy Rossum, who doesn't really serve any purpose other than to look beautiful and be Russell's daughter. And there's Jacinda Barrett as Lucas' potential love interest. The key to surviving the Poseidon is to be indispensably useful or be related to or in love with someone who is. Anyone who doesn't fit that bill is toast. And if you're an asshole named Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), your odds aren't too good either. It doesn't take long to figure out this formula, and it makes the movie painfully predictable. That doesn't take away from the awe-inspiring wave sequence and the horrific disaster footage that follows, but it doesn't help either. Director Wolfgang Petersen has proven himself a capable action director (In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, Troy), and he has a gift for constructing tales of men attempting to survive at sea (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm), but Poseidon is a major step back for his talents and a classic example of letting the spectacle overtake the importance of the story.

You may wonder why I haven't brought up the original 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure. It's because the two films have so little in common it's hardly worth mentioning. Gene Hackman's role for the original is essentially split in half between Lucas and Russell, and once you've done that, why bother trying to compare? I should also mention that I opted to check out this film on an IMAX screen (just to be different), which did heighten my enjoyment of the film slightly. You just can't beat that crazy sound system and gi-normous screen. Poseidon is not boring, but it makes no effort to be original or cinematically significant. Striving to be a summer popcorn flick doesn't give filmmakers an excuse to be lazy. If you aren't going to try and improve on the original film or advance the disaster genre, why bother making the film at all? These are the thoughts that filled my mind walking out of Poseidon.

Art School Confidential

I've had several members of my family attend art school over the years, which in no way makes me an authority on the inner workings of such an institution. However, I've learned enough from a pair of cousins and a sister-in-law to know that being a success as an artist or an art student sometimes has little to do with talent. It's a combination of skill, contacts, butt kissing and the market. In other words, it all boils down to what is hip and new in the world right now. Director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa) and screenwriter Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) add one more element to what goes into being a recognized artist: notoriety (and not necessarily for something good). Art School Confidential (based on Clowes' short comic published in 1991) is an insightful, funny, angst-ridden look at youthful dreams and the lengths some will go to be the greatest artist in the world. (Also, read my recent interview with Terry Zwigoff.)

The film begins as a simple comedy about a suburban kid named Jerome (Max Minghella, who played George Clooney's son in Syriana), who enters art school with none of the quirks and personality highlights that seem to permeate his fellow students. The first of many eye-opening "secrets" the film reveals is that few of the students admire their teachers, because if the teachers were so talented, why are they teaching rather than making a living at making art? John Malkovich plays the self-obsessed drawing professor, who spends more time on the phone with his agent attempting to arrange gallery shows than actually teaching. He is a failed artist who doesn't realize it yet. Representing the failed artists who embrace their position in the art world is the magnificently creepy Jim Broadbent, who Jerome meets through a classmate (Joel David Moore). Broadbent lives in squalor, is drunk all the time, and not surprisingly, isn't happy with his life.

Jerome takes in the world around him, becoming more and more determined to be famous, and increasingly frustrated that others around him seem better connected and more interesting than him or his work. The main object of his derision is clearly unschooled fellow student Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who draws very simple objects like a tank or a car, yet still garners an unbelievable amount of attention from the faculty for his anti-art take on art. He also seems to be getting attention from the object of Jerome affections, a nude model named Audrey (Sophia Myles), who also happens to be the daughter of a famous artist. She claims to reject the art scene, but tends to embrace the parties and celebrities in it nonetheless.

This fairly light-hearted dark comedy takes an interesting turn as a fabled serial killer in the town steps up his activity, and the film segues into horror/thriller territory at times. Jerome thinks he knows who the killer might be and attempts to turn this knowledge into a scheme to get ahead as an artist. It's a move that shows Jerome to be far more shrewd than we'd given him credit for up to that point. Art School Confidential is filled with clever moments like that, which reveal more information about characters we thought we'd figured out already. The film is rich with wonderful performances. I especially liked an uncredited Steve Buscemi as a café/gallery owner, whose walls apparently are a launch pad for artists who go on to much greater things. I also liked Anjelica Houston as an art history professor filled with great advice for Jerome and Ethan Suplee ("My Name is Earl") as Jerome's hyper film student roommate.

For my money, Terry Zwigoff is batting four-for-four as a filmmaker. His films are about those on the outside, usually proud ofor at least comfortable with their position in the world. But Art School Confidential is about an outsider so desperate to be an insider that he would sacrifice his soul to do so. I have no way of knowing whether the observations about art students and professors are accurate or not, but it sure feels that way. Clowes' view appears to be that art school is not a place for learning art; it's a place for weeding out the weak, judging those around you, and collectively deciding who gets to make art in the real world. It's kind of like a reality show. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times scary, at times painfully observant, Art School Confidential is a stellar example of a film by geeks for geeks about geeks. Geeks rule!

The Lost City

This lovely, sweeping epic about the heyday of Cuban life, culture and political upheaval has a story behind its making that is almost as interesting as the film itself. Actor and now first-time feature director Andy Garcia has been working at getting The Lost City done for about 16 years, when legendary Cuban author and exile Guillermo Cabrera Infante turned over a 350-plus-page script to Garcia, himself a Cuban native who left the island nation with his parents when he was five years old. During the long pre-production of the movie, Garcia taught himself the piano and end up contributing the score to the film as well. His heart, soul and blood runs through the film, and everything about this film screams that it is his artistic labor of love.

The Lost City centers on a Havana club owner named Fico (Garcia), whose El Tropico establishment is a hotbed of dance, music, drinking and all forms of passion. The club and city are doing so well that even the American mob (represented here by Meyer Lansky, played by Dustin Hoffman) wants a piece of the action. But the times are changing and a revolution is brewing. Fico does his best to keep politics out of his club, but when members of his own family begin taking sides, even this becomes impossible. To further complicate things, Fico begins to fall in love with his revolutionary brother's widow, Aurora (Inés Sastre), who is being used by the revolution as the representative face of revolutionary widows all over Cuba.

Events swirl uncontrollably around Fico and his well-to-do family, and it becomes clear that they will become undesirables if Fidel Castro's forces take control of the country. As a result, he must flee the country and leave behind those he loves, including Aurora. He lands in New York City and gets a job far below his status in Cuba, as many exiles did at the time, but his heart and mind never stop thinking about what he left behind. The Lost City is not the story of immigrants; it's the exiles tale. The difference being that exiles always dream of returning to their homeland.

A lot of articles and reviews about The Lost City are going to focus on the very odd performance by Bill Murray as an unnamed writer, who acts as Fico's companion through much of the film. The writer always seems to be looking for the hypocrisy and humor in every situation, even if he offends people, which he usually does. He doesn't appear to be Cuban, and at first I wasn't entirely certain he wasn't supposed to be an imaginary friend to Fico, the devil on his shoulder perhaps. But his status as a writer makes it clear that he is, in fact, the voice of screenwriter Infante. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, The Lost City is too long, and you could easily cut out Murray's wildly original work without affecting the story, but you'd be losing some of the film's best moments.

Garcia's performance may be the one that needs to be reined in a bit. There are a few too many shots of him swaying and looking caught up in the club's music and dancing. I've also seen his performance in another recent film, Modigliani, about the famed and troubled artist. The characters are not dissimilar, but at least Garcia's take on the often-drunk artist makes sense. Still, his scenes in New York more than make up for any shortcomings in his portrayal of Fico in Cuba. The look of loss and longing in his eyes as he degrades himself with menial work, waiting for the day when he can return to Cuba is achingly genuine. And Garcia's work as a director here shows a great deal of confidence and grace. Every shot is striking and lush (much credit to cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh). The Lost City is a work of and about passion. It comes through on every frame of film. Such passion doesn't always translate to a great movie, but in this case, Andy Garcia has done an exceptional job turning his deep love for Cuba and its culture into a work of cinematic elegance. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Somersault

I didn't realize it until recently, but I've missed Australian films. In the 1980s and early '90s, it seemed there were dozens coming out in any given year, and then they just stopped. Or maybe since all of the great Australian actors kept coming to America (Toni Collette, Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger, Thandie Newton, Eric Bana, Judy Davis, Rachel Griffiths, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, to name a few), American distributors don't feel the need to bring over native Australian productions to our theatres. But with the release of the exceptional Look Both Ways recently and the ultra-violent outback-Western The Proposition coming out next week in Chicago, the tide seems to have turned for the better. Somersault is an intimate look at a 16-year-old runaway girl named Heidi (Abbie Cornish), who has zero resources to survive other than her body. Her attempts to maintain her dignity are slowly chipped away, and what she is left with is confusion, self-destruction, emotional immaturity and disappointment.

Cornish's performance is death defying. Her face embodies innocence and naiveté, and her attempts at being sexually aggressive with men (usually because she needs a job or a place to spend the night) come off as play-acting. Heidi has seen grown women do this before and she's mimicking their behavior. She leaves home after hitting on her mother's boyfriend, and makes it to a ski town called Jindabyne, where she finds a combination of young men willing to bed her for the night and kind people who see a girl in distress and offer up kindness with no strings attached. Heidi is so fragile that she falls for Joe (Sam Worthington), the son of a wealthy farmer and the first man Heidi meets in town who doesn't treat her like dirt. But Joe is hardly a saint and his ability to communicate kind feelings to Heidi is severely lacking. The pair don't exactly have an easy time getting their relationship off the ground.

More than a simple coming-of-age film or tale of sexual awakening, Somersault's primary agenda seems to be richly drawn characters and naturalistic performances. Writer-director Cate Shortland has made a powerful feature debut and an honest, unglamorous portrait of the hardships of a girl moving too fast for her own underdeveloped emotions. The end of the film is wholly satisfying without being foolishly sentimental or wrapping things up too neatly. As with life, some loose ends stay loose for years. But it's Abbie Cornish's soul-baring performance that I'll remember longest about Somersault. In checking her upcoming projects, she's already completed a new film with Heath Ledger in Candy, in which the two play heroin addicts in love, and she co-stars with Russell Crowe in the new Ridley Scott film A Good Year. So clearly, people are recognizing her talents. Seeing Somersault will allow you to do the same. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Goal! The Dream Begins

The world outside of the United States (as well as a handful of people in our borders) seem ridiculously upset that soccer (and, yes, I will always call it soccer) has not become the wild sensation that it has everywhere else in the world. To remedy that situation, director Danny Cannon (who has spent his recent years executive producing and sometimes directing episodes of the "C.S.I." franchise) has given us Goal!, a convoluted and wildly outlandish story of a Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles who gets a shot at playing UK soccer. And the worst part, there are two sequels already in the works, the first of which is scheduled to come out in September.

The painfully handsome Mexican-born actor Kuno Becker plays Santiago Munez, whose father wants him to have modest dreams like himself of being a landscaper. But when a British scout (Stephen Dillane) spots him playing recreational soccer, he tells Santiago that if he ever makes it to the UK to look him up. Santiago makes it his life's mission to get enough cash to buy the plane ticket across the pond. The silly part of the script kicks in once Santiago gets to the UK, where he seems to fly through the ranks and almost straight to Newcastle United's reserve team, despite never having played professional soccer in his life. He is given more second chances by the coaching staff than is humanly possible, and he gets to rub elbows with the soccer superstars like Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Newcastle captain Alan Shearer. The only one I recognized was David Beckham, and I'm okay with that.

Santiago's good fortune continues as he quickly finds a girlfriend (the team nurse, played by Anna Friel) and is befriended by the team's million-dollar player (Alessandro Nivola), whose partying schedule is beginning to affect his performance on the field. There's a clumsy subplot involving a death in Santiago's family that we're supposed to believe might stop him from playing, but I never believed for a second he would pass up his first chance to rise from the reserves to the main squad. Give us more credit than that, people. If Bend It Like Beckham taught us anything, it's that there are great stories about soccer out there to be told, but Goal! The Dream Begins is not that film, primarily because the filmmakers don't have enough confidence in their story (and rightfully so) to let it be the focus of the movie. Instead they clutter the film with love stories, family drama and evil players who want to stop Santiago from advancing. It all seemed completely unnecessary. Maybe now that Santiago ends the film an established success, the sequel can focus more on the game than on trumped-up, cliché-ridden distractions.

Keeping Up with the Steins

The latest in the sad chain of ethically driven family-friendly comedies is Keeping Up with the Steins, which opens with a really strong gag (a Titanic-themed Bar Mitzvah) and goes downhill from there. This is the story of young Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara, Juni from the Spy Kids films), who is trying to decide how elaborate he wants his Bar Mitzvah to be, so his parents (Jeremy Piven and Jami Gertz) can upstage the family rival, The Steins, led by father Arnie (Larry Miller). It's already more complicated than it needs to be and that's how I felt sitting through this film.

It didn't come as any surprise to me that the film is directed by Scott Marshall, son of sitcom directing great Gary Marshall (who stars as Piven's estranged hippie father Irwin), since everything about Keeping Up feels like a movie of the week. The humor is broad, the drama is artificial, and the plot goes out of its way to make sure that in the end you like everybody. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have strong family appeal, the film goes waaaaaaaay out of its way to be neutral on all sides. This is a problem since Irvin apparently walked out on his family for no given reason shortly after his son's Bar Mitzvah. This is an acceptable reason to hate somebody in my book, especially when Irvin comes back into the picture wanting everything to be normal (which is a little tough when he's got Daryl Hannah on his arm as his girlfriend). We are also treated to Gary Marshall's enormous, wrinkled ass, which is simply unforgivable regardless of the family dynamic.

Keeping Up with the Steins has moments of humor, but it stinks of a film playing everything safe. Piven has seen a revival in his career of late thanks to his work as the bloodthirsty agent on HBO's "Entourage." He plays an agent in this film as well, but his devilish spark is totally gone. The Fiedlers feel like a fully functional family that wishes it was dysfunctional. And no, a surprise cameo by a music legend in the film's final moments does not even come close to making up for 80 minutes of lameness. Is it wrong that I'm actually beginning to believe that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is as good as it gets? It's starting to look like a masterpiece these days.

Hate Crime

I'm sure it's different for every critic, but for me, the most difficult films to review are films aimed at gay audiences. And it's not because the films aren't necessarily aimed at my demographic (30s, straight, married…did I mention straight?), it's because a lot of them aren't very good, but saying that they're not good makes you feel homophobic. A few weeks ago, I negatively reviewed a film called Adam & Steve, and although I applauded the intention (to make a romantic-comedy featuring two men), the movie just wasn't that funny. A good movie is a good movie, and there are plenty of bad movies out there. Unfortunately, many gay films emphasize the flamboyant gay characters, which we've seen a thousand times before and often done better. I don't think Hate Crime is necessarily geared at strictly gay audiences, but my guess is they are ultimately who are going to turn out to see the film. While the film has many shortcomings, I liked that it chose to focus on two men living in the suburbs, on the verge of a commitment ceremony talking about real issues (other than sex) and contemplating starting a family.

Robbie (Seth Peterson) and Trey (Brian J. Smith) are the perfect suburban couple; their neighbors love them, and they seem mature and stable enough to have conversations about things other than musicals and Judy Garland (I'm making a point here: if my only exposure to gay people was films, I'd have a seriously disjointed view of the culture). A new neighbor named Chris Boyd (Chad Donella) moves in next door, and it doesn't take long to realize he's an gay-hating religious zealot (and the son of a pastor played by Bruce Davison) who takes an instant disliking to Robbie and Trey. A few days later, while walking the dog, Trey is violently beaten in the park. Immediate suspicion falls on Chris, but with no evidence, the crime goes unsolved. In fact, when the case goes from an assault to murder, the homicide cop (Giancarlo Esposito) begins to think Robbie had something to do with the killing since Trey had a large life insurance policy.

Robbie, Trey's mother (Cindy Pickett) and some of the neighbors set out to discover who the real killer is (they do) and get the justice the police clearly aren't willing to deliver. Some of the film's final scenes, in which Robbie and crew carry out an elaborate revenge scheme may hit some audience members the wrong way. Is there justice just as bad as the crime against Trey? One of the shortcomings in first-time writer-director Tommy Stovall's film is that it assumes that the punishment fits the crime. Perhaps it does, but with no voice in the film to question this, the film feels only half complete, which undercuts Hate Crime's solid writing on the subject of police homophobia and the place of homosexuals in the church. I also thought the scenes where both Robbie and Trey's mother share their pain at Trey's death were extremely genuine and well acted.

Hate Crime exists in a world where consequences don't always matter or even exist, which is not the real world. I give Stovall credit for showing a side of gay life rarely shown on screen, and I applaud him for throwing a challenging and scrutinizing eye at justice. This is a complicated and thought-provoking work that is a little sloppy with its morals, but that almost makes it more worth watching and discussing. The acting is hit and miss, and the writing is clearly that of a first-timer, but it's an encouraging bit of work from Stovall. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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 .

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