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Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

Hey everyone. There are a few films opening today that I didn't get to see for a variety of reasons. I just plain wasn't able to make the screenings of the indie comedy What Love Is (starring Cuba Gooding Jr., which may be a good reason to miss it) and the Cubs-oriented docu-comedy Chasing October, opening today at the Music Box Theatre. But as I had expected, critics were not given a shot at seeing The Hills Have Eyes II, which is a little strange since the studio did show us the first one.

Also opening this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema is the freakishly bizarre and always entertaining Color Me Kubrick, starring Chicago's own John Malkovich. I reviewed the film two weeks ago as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, which is entering its final week. My final bit of coverage of the EU Festival is at the end of this column.

Reign Over Me

I'm always been ambivalent about the works of writer-director-actor Mike Binder. While I was a big fan of his last theatrical release, 2005's The Upside of Anger, the film he made after that, Man About Town starring Ben Affleck, went straight to DVD. One of his early works was the terrible Damon Wayons superhero comedy Blankman, and if you ever saw it, you probably still have the scars. But with his latest, Reign Over Me, Binder shows a maturity and sophistication that has been largely untapped with his projects so far, with the exception of Anger. As with that well-done film, his new one deals with a family broken by unexpected loss. And who better to convey a man's shattered soul and mind after a terrible tragedy destroys his life than Adam Sandler?

It's a serious question, because after seeing Reign Over Me, I can't think of anybody who could have pulled this off better than the man who wrote "The Hanukkah Song" and "Red -Hooded Sweatshirt." What Sandler achieves with his portrayal of Charlie Fineman, a New York City dentist whose wife and young daughters were on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, calls on the actor to be childlike, aggressive, violent, distraught, suicidal, patient and impatient, sometimes in the space of just a few minutes. It is by far the finest acting Sandler has ever put forth, and it marks a turning point in his abilities that was only hinted at in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, two films I hold dear to my heart.

Also on hand giving it everything he has is Sandler's co-star Don Cheadle, who plays Charlie's dental school roommate Alan Johnson, who, until 9/11, led an almost parallel great life to his friend's. Alan has leads a successful dental practice, makes a lot of money, has a lovely wife (a nice, dialed-down performance by Jada Pinkett Smith) and great kids. He even has female patients hitting on him, one of which (played by Saffron Burrows) offers to give him oral favors just for being a nice guy.

And while Charlie's story is the focal point of the plot, it is Alan who serves as the moral center of the film. When the two run into each other on the street after many years of not seeing each other, it sets off a chain reaction of events that change both of their lives and reveals some deeply buried truths about both men. Charlie has lost his mind. He has totally driven every memory of his family life from his mind, and if you ask him about it, he flips out, breaks things, and becomes paranoid that you are trying to analyze him or have him committed. He has abandoned his dental practice, received a great deal of money from insurance, and spends most of his time at home playing video games, eating, and attempting to complete the years-in-the-making renovation of his kitchen (a project his late wife had mentioned the last time they spoke). When he does go out, he tools around the city on his motorized scooter with headphones on listening to mostly anthemic '70s rock tunes.

As Alan spends more time with his old friend in an effort to help the man come back to the real world, he grows envious of Charlie's freedom and fearful of his explosive tendencies, both of which cause tension in his household as Alan begins to realize that his life is so sternly managed and routine driven that he has no time for spontaneous fun. Cheadle's is the more stealthy and subtle performance, and one gets a special thrill watching these two actors navigate around and through each other. As if we need more reasons to love Liv Tyler, she is on hand to play a psychiatrist friend of Alan's whom he enlists to help with Charlie's slow and difficult return to normal and functional. When Charlie's in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon) attempt to have him committed after years of attempting to connect with him, the real world comes crashing down on Charlie and Alan's heads.

Reign Over Me doesn't have villains, but that doesn't keep it from having high drama. Having Sandler on board does offer the film a few much-needed moments of levity, but this is no cutesy mental illness flick with watered-down versions of true emotional damage and easy solutions. The movie is as much Alan's struggle as Charlie's. And as hard as it is to believe that you could ever feel sorry for a successful dentist, Cheadle makes Alan's efforts to reconnect with what made him enjoy life when he was younger.

One facet of the film that many people will probably discuss is the outstanding soundtrack. In addition to The Who song "Love, Reign O'er Me" that gives the film its title (there's also a beautiful closing credit version by Pearl Jam), the movie has what I believe is the greatest use of Bruce Springsteen music in film history. There's an unforgettable sequence that serves as the emotional epicenter of the film in which Charlie's iPod headphones are around his neck. You can heard Springsteen's "Drive All Night" bleeding through the headphones and into the scene, serving as the in-the-moment music for this devastating exchange between the two old friends. I'll admit, I got a little choked up.

Reign Over Me has its flaws. It feel long at times and has about three endings too many, the last of which feel slightly tacked on to make us a little more certain that Charlie is in a good place as we prepare to leave him. But in a film filled with such heart-wrenching emotional wreckage, a neat and tidy ending isn't such a terrible thing. It seems every year around this time, something like this completely satisfying movie slips out in the month of March and really takes me by surprise with its honesty and commitment to entertaining grown-up folks. This one is going to hit you hard and take you by surprise; my favorite combination.

Shooter

For all its twisty-turning plot diversions, double crosses and conspiracy theorizing, the latest film from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) is surprisingly simple and straightforward. In his first post-Oscar nomination role, Mark Wahlberg plays former Marine Corps sniper Bob Lee Swagger (I think the name says it all) who narrowly survived a mission in Ethiopia in which his spotter was killed. Years later, Swagger is living a solitary and secluded life in the mountains when his country (in the form of a colonel played by Danny Glover) comes calling for him to assist in stopping an assassin from killing the president. Swagger's expertise as a sniper makes him ideal to spot where and when in the city of Philadelphia a long-range killer might take his shot. When an African leader standing directly behind the president is killed instead, Swagger realizes that he has been set up as a patsy for the shooting, since he fits the profile of the angry serviceman pissed off at his country.

After being hit by two bullets, Swagger narrowly escapes every branch of law enforcement, and he sets out to find out who has set him up and get his payback. There are some clever bits of tactical warfare in Shooter, but the film itself is a mixed bag. It was amusing that Wahlberg's character is so clearly cast in the mold of a conservative military type, but his conspiracy theories and clear sense of right and wrong make him decidedly anti-Iraq War and anti-Bush (who is not supposed to be the current president in this film). There were several moments in the film where I could clearly see a way Swagger could get out of his "wrong man" predicament, but the script ignores them in favor of keeping the film alive and the body count high. Fuqua also spends entirely too much time in a secondary story about Swagger's dead partner's widow (Kate Mara of We Are Marshall), who he goes to for help and healing. My favorite supporting role is that of a rookie FBI agent (Michael Pena, recently scene in World Trade Center) who is the only person who believes Swagger is innocent.

Shooter is loaded with a whole lot of explosions and nifty, long-range killings that will have audiences cheering for our well-trained underdog. And it's actually a nice change to see Wahlberg play a character who is sometimes unsure how to balance his mission and his sworn duty. His soft-spoken (bordering on mumbling sometimes) demeanor and quiet strength are in sharp contrast to the cocky character he played in The Departed, and I'm always in favor of an actor showing us his range. My biggest complaint about the film is that the bad guys (who also include a Montana senator played by Ned Beatty) are so overtly evil, it's almost laughable. There is scene in which the baddest of the bad guys (who arranged the shooting) are sitting around smoking big cigars, drinking bourbon, and cackling like jackals. Laying it a bit thick, aren't you, Antoine?

Perhaps the bigger problem with the film is that I never believed that a supposed conspiracy theorist like Swagger would have gotten caught up in this game. And if you don't buy into his intelligence on such a basic level, the rest of the film is tough to buy into. Despite this hefty flaw, Shooter has its moments. I particularly liked the final showdown atop the snowcapped Montana mountains. What's going on in the scene may be laughable at times, but it sure does look pretty. This one may qualify as a guilty pleasure.

To read my exclusive interview with director Antoine Fuqua, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Pride

I'm sure I'm not the first person to conjure this thought, but sometimes the best intentions can still result in the lamest movies. Case in point: the latest from the great actor Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), in which he plays Jim Ellis, the real-life man who in 1973 started an African-American swim team in the ghettos of Philadelphia. Ellis's story is actually quite inspirational. A well-educated man who moves to a strange city looking for a teaching job, he is turned down by all of the predominantly white schools (including one run by the overtly racist Tom Arnold, in a role so overplayed as to be unintentionally funny). Just to keep money coming in, Ellis takes a city job and is put in charge of doing the clean up work at an abandoned rec center, which is about to be shut down permanently. When Ellis discovers the center has a pool, he fixes it up and invites some of the local kids from the neighborhood to come use it. It just so happens that Ellis once swam competitively in the '60s, which was not always an easy thing since many of his competitors refused to get in the same pool as him.

Pride's attempts at comic relief come in the form of the rec center's surly maintenance man, played by Bernie Mac. Ellis looks at his pool as an opportunity to introduce some much-needed discipline into the local kids' lives, and so he forms a swim team that he trains well enough to compete against local (white) high schools, including the one run by Arnold. Also on hand in the film is the lovely Kimberly Elise as a city administrator in charge of shutting down the rec center. It is Ellis' job to convince her to keep it open by showing her the positive effect the swim team is having on the boys, the community, and the city. It is, apparently, also his job to flirt with her a great deal.

Not surprisingly, Howard puts forth a knockout performance in a film that is undeserving of his talents. Pride never misses an opportunity to squeeze every iota of "inspiration" from its meager script, and no cliché of the genre is left unused. In fact, Howard is so good that he highlights just how bad the rest of the movie really is. The actors playing the kids don't really distinguish themselves and come across as remarkably bland and interchangeable. I certainly love a good film in which the villain is Whitey, but I have a real problem with Tom Arnold in the role of The Man. Every aspect of this film is predictable, just as every victory and defeat can be seen coming an Olympic-size swimming pool away. First-time director Sunu Gonera has no real flair for visuals and lets most of his actors overplay their roles to point of making the audience exhausted watching them try so hard to breathe life into this worn-out premise. I've always been told the world is not black and white, but Pride would have you believe something quite different. And in that spirit, I will forget for a moment that there are shades of gray between good movies and bad movies, and simply declare this one a bad movie.

TMNT

My only exposure to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the three films that came out in the early 1990s, and for the most part, I remember being entertained by at least the first one enough to go see the sequels. But the films never inspired me to check out the comic book source material or watch the television incarnation of the band of martial arts-trained, talking creatures, each bearing the name of a master painter. I went into TMNT genuinely excited to see it. The idea of doing a fully computer-animated version of the group opens up a world of possibilities that the live-action films did not. So imagine my disappointment to get more of the same — the same jokes, the same type of story, the same conflicts and issues the boys face with maturity and their skills as ninjas. And rather than focus on a potentially awesome story about an army of monsters set loose on an unsuspecting world, the film spends more time with the inner conflicts in the group. All of this combined to leave me saying "Is that it?" by the conclusion.

Without going into too much detail about the plot (I honestly don't think it's worth it), the film opens with the team not together any longer. The group's sensei, an oversize rodent named Master Splinter (the late Mako), attempts to pull the boys — Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael — back together after a mega-rich industrialist (voiced by Patrick Stewart) attempts to gather up the aforementioned army of creatures. My favorite part of the film is the Foot Clan, led by Karai (Zhang Ziyi), a stealthy ninja group whose mission and allegiance is not always clear. Other voice are provided by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans as the Turtles' human companions April and Casey. And I'm pretty sure I heard Kevin Smith tooling around as a minor character but really adding nothing to the proceedings.

First-time feature director Kevin Monroe (who also wrote the film) comes from the video game world, and it shows. The visuals here are pretty great sometimes, but the bland story and standard-issue rock music soundtrack left me severely underwhelmed. That being said, the film's conclusion sets up what I think would be a much better sequel featuring the return of the group's primary nemesis, who would undoubtedly put a serious hurt on the Turtles. TMNT is an OK reboot of the franchise, but there is room to grow and improve.

The Last Mimzy

For all the complaining I've done in the past about family/children's films that pander and dumb their subjects down so they have the widest appeal and anyone with a pulse can understand, I was impressed to a degree that the sci-fi, new-agey work The Last Mimzy at least treated its subject matter with a degree of seriously and maturity. There are many reasons to dislike the film, but dumbing its material down is not one of them, and it may be for this reason that kids take to this work, based on the short story by Lewis Padgett.

The film is a curiosity at best. The eclectic cast that includes such familiar faces as Timothy Hutton, Rain Wilson, Joely Richardson, and Michael Clarke Duncan is clearly trying very hard to sell this concept. Newcomer child actors Rhiannon Leigh Wryn and Chris O'Neil are also quite competent, but it isn't the acting that sinks this ship. It's the too-precious nature of the material that chapped my ass. While vacationing at the family beach house, the two children (playing brother and sister Noah and Emma) discover a collection of objects that include rocks, shells, and other delicate objects that clearly are not of this world. Young Emma also finds a raggedy stuffed rabbit that talks to her and only her about the power these objects possess, and before long the kids are making stuff float, glow, materialize, you name it. After a blackout that knocks out power across the entire Pacific Northwest, the government traces the source the incident to the kids' house, where they and their parents (Hutton and Richardson) are taken in by Homeland Security.

We know (or at least strongly suspect) from the outset of the film that the objects are not truly harmful to the kids or anyone else. Since it's a family-oriented offering, we feel pretty safe in the assumption that the rabbit (named Mimzy) is not a doomsday machine of any kind, so we can't even hope that this is some sort of end-of-the-world trip. No, what we get instead is new-age hippie crap about the future of the world, inventions that will make the earth a better place to live, and a story about a family that is somewhat fractured but is working on coming together and appreciating just how special everyone is. So the why is The Last Mimzy getting so much advanced publicity and attention? Look to the parentage of the film. New Line Cinema's founder, co-chairman, and co-CEO Bob Shaye is the film's director, and he has convinced himself is this film worth making and promoting the bejesus out of.

I'm certainly not above enjoying the well-made family film, but The Last Mimzy is like a sci-fi film for people who have never seen one before, by people who have seen too many, and I found the entire experience overwhelmingly boring.

Maxed Out

The first great horror film of 2007 does not feature a raving lunatic with a knife or buckets of blood, but it does deliver a devastating sense of dread and an impressive death toll. What is the masterpiece of terror? It's a documentary about the American way of debt called Maxed Out, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema with all of its monsters ready to scare the shit out of you.

The monsters in question are the much-maligned credit card companies who will send applications for cards to the people least likely to pay them off in a timely fashion. If you make a habit of paying off your credit cards in full every month, these monsters don't care about you. College kids, the handicapped, the poverty stricken, these are their victims. And the result is sometimes suicide, homelessness, or a lifetime of harassment by debt collectors. Maxed Out seeks out to tell the story of both individuals ruined by debt and our country as a out-of-control debtor nation.

These banking institutions who issue credit cards are barely held accountable for their tactics in recruiting cardholders who are clearly high-risk candidates. Most legislative attempts to limit the companies' access to the young and the poor have been met with an army of lobbyists and easily bought politicians (including our president) fighting against such regulation. So college kids accrue so much debt so young that they see a lifetime of suffering ahead of them resort to suicide, and middle-aged women hide their massive debt from their families and go missing suddenly, only to have their cars (with their bodies inside) pulled from the nearby river.

Maxed Out may change the way your view your own spending or your attitudes about those who spend beyond their means. Unfortunately, it probably won't change the way you view our government or corporate America. But whatever you opinion of on these subjects by the end of the film, it's impossible to come out the other side unmoved. This is an expertly researched and finely constructed essay on the United States that every American carrying a balance needs to see. The film peppers its serious message with dark humor and cleverly used stand-up footage of Louis C.K.'s classic routine about his bank calling him to tell him he had insufficient funds. It's a great bit, and it underscores the film's resounding themes all too well. Take a deep breath, take stock of your financial situation, and take the plunge into this one, folks. It's worth it.

European Union Film Festival

The Secret Life of Words

Although technically from Spain, this stunning English-language work from director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) is an emotional perfect storm of a woman with a crippling past and a man with a serious medical condition who come together under bizarre circumstances to heal each other. If you've never had the wind knocked out of you by a film, try this one out for size. Sarah Polley returns under Coixet's direction (as she did in My Life) as a partially deaf assembly line worker who often turns off her hearing aid so she can shut herself off from the world. Her boss forces her to take some time off, and while on a fairly mundane vacation, she overhears a man seeking a nurse for an oil rig worker hurt in a fire. Apparently a former nurse, Polley accept the job and is flown to the rig to help the slightly burned man (Tim Robbins). What follows is one of the most curious and fascinating give and takes I've ever seen committed to film. The way Robbins draws out tiny bits of information from his caregiver, who is in no way eager to give even the smallest bit of information. At its core, The Secret Life of Words is a love story, but this couple has to earn the right to love each other before the filmmaker decides whether to let them come together. In a role written for her by Coixet, Polley has never, ever been better, and there won't be a man or woman alive who won't fall in love with her sheltered character. The power behind her eyes and in her movements will make you forget to breathe. And Robbins gives us one of the great roles of his long career as well. I should also mention a brief but moving appearance by Julie Christie as a mysterious woman who Polley calls occasionally but says nothing. When all is revealed about her past, it will probably cause you physical anguish. This is my favorite film of the festival, period, and lucky for you it's playing three times: Friday, March 23 at 7:45pm; Sunday, March 25 at 5:15pm; and Wednesday, March 28 at 6pm.

Exterminating Angels

It seems like once or twice a year, a film comes around that promises (and often delivers) lots of real-life sex, but in a slightly more sophisticated and mature presentation than your average XXX feature. French director Jean-Claude Brisseau took an incident in his career (when several actresses successfully sued him for sexual harassment after auditioning for him in connection with his 2002 feature Secret Things) as the basis for Exterminating Angels. Frederic van den Driessche acts as Brisseau's stand in as a director casting the leads in what will be a sexually explicit, in-depth analysis of female sexuality. Therefore, the director must see how his actress work and have sex together, which they do with him in the room. Although he never takes part in any of the sex (he's a happily married man, after all), the intimate feelings set loose in these sessions unleash a furor of emotional instability in all of his actresses, culminating in a similar lawsuit against the director. Exterminating Angels is less a profile of the feminine mystique and more an examination of a handful of crazy bitches, at least in the director's eyes. It's ultimately a cynical and vengeful piece that is often quite sensual but more often a nasty piece of cinematic payback to women Brisseau probably trusted at one point and now feels betrayed by. It makes for interesting filmmaking, but that doesn't make it art. The film plays Saturday, March 24 at 8pm.

The Tiger and the Snow

I've been hearing rumblings about this film for more than a year now, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity of seeing this, although I felt fairly certain that I would abhor Roberto Benigni's take on the war in Iraq. Much as he did with his Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful, which injected some much-needed and long overdue humor into the Holocaust, The Tiger and the Snow takes a love story and drops it into the middle of Baghdad in the early days of American invasion. Benigni plays a poetry professor who is lovesick for an old flame (Benigni's real-life wife and frequent co-star Nicoletta Braschi), who just happens to be working for and traveling with an old friend of Benigni, an Arab poet played by Jean Reno. When Reno and Braschi travel to Baghdad and she is injured, Benigni sneaks into Iraq with a Red Cross team and finds his mortally wounded love while the war outside rages on. True to form, Benigni (who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay) taps into his usually spastic persona as he finds the humor in minefields, trigger-happy American G.I.s and suicide bombers. He takes advantage of the fact that his dark features could be mistaken for Middle Eastern, and tears through war-torn Baghdad with the soul purpose of saving the life of a woman who claims not to care for him any longer. For no particular reason, the masterful Tom Waits (Benigni's Down By Law screen partner) appears as a wedding singer in a bizarre dream sequence. The cameo doesn't help, not even close. The film isn't offensive in the way it makes light of the war; it's just ill-informed, hopelessly sentimental, and, above all, boring. It screens Sunday, March 25 at 3pm, and Wednesday, March 28 at 8:15pm.

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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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