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Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

The Chicago International Film Festival (www.chicagofilmfestival.org) continues to dominate my life and the lives of every critic in the city, and rightfully so. There are still dozens of worthy selections left in the final week: Babel, which I reviewed last week, is sold out already, but it opens soon, so don't panic. The weekend also brings Shortbus from writer-director John Cameron Mitchell an explicit, humorous and haunting romp that I also reviewed last week. If you want to check out the Fest's greatest potential freak show, you may want to shell out the 25 bucks for the special event, "Liza Minnelli: Her Films, Her Life," on October 17, with Ms. Minnelli in person talking about her music, theatre and movie careers (with many references to "Mama," I'm sure). I can't imagine it not being the most entertaining event at CIFF this year.

If you're into potential cult fare, check out some of the "Late Night Screamings." I strongly recommend the mostly-animated Danish offering, Princess, and the South Korean monster movie The Host, which was a huge box-office success in its homeland. I'll advise you to stay away from the decidedly unscary and limp Severance, about a group of British and American co-workers on a team-building event in the forests of Hungary, where a masked killer picks them off.

I'm most displeased to announce that Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream; Pi) latest, The Fountain, is a beautifully realized but spiritually vacant exercise. At its core, it's a love story that spans the ages through three stories set in different time periods across 1,000 years. In all three stories, Hugh Jackman (as a Spanish conquistador, a modern-day medical researcher and a bald guy floating in a bubble in outer space with a dying tree that makes him immortal) is madly in love with a woman played by Aronofsky's wife, Rachel Weisz. You can't help but be impressed with the film's visuals; I've never seen a film that looked quite like this. But the writing and the theme of a mighty love that transcends time and space just didn't penetrate my heart the way other films on the subject have. As awe-inspiring as the visuals are, they also serve as a substantial distraction to what could and should have been a simpler and more heartfelt endeavor. I wasn't in the least bit confused by the film (although I'm guessing many will be), but The Fountain still left me frustrated and weary. Yes, I believe Rachel Weisz is the kind of beauty who could inspire love across the ages, but the colossally disappointing The Fountain doesn't prove that to me.

Finally, although I haven't seen it yet, it's a safe bet that CIFF's closing-night offering, Venus, starring Peter O'Toole, might be worth your time. From a script by Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), this one looks like the definition of charming and an appropriate way to honor an actor who has given most of us a lifetime of great performances.

As for newer films, there are two you will not be seeing me review this week (for different reasons). Man of the Year had only one screening before it opened, which I could not attend, but it stars Robin Williams, so maybe that should tell you something. Still, this film does mark a reunion with his Good Morning, Vietnam director Barry Levinson. Of course, the pair also made Toys, so there you go. And Levinson's last offering, the monumentally awful Envy, still leaves me feeling dirty. The other film I haven't seen yet is The Grudge 2, which was not screened early enough for anyone to get reviews in. As much as I liked the original Japanese version of The Grudge, the Americanized remake (by the original director, who is also on board for Grudge 2) was an ugly mess. If you're jonesing for a remake of an Asian flick, stick with The Departed.


The Queen

As I mentioned in my Chicago Film Festival preview last week, I feel confident that Helen Mirren will walk away with the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth II in The Queen. I can't remember a more fearsome and fearless performance by an actress in years as Mirren plays the current Queen of England during the period between the death and funeral of Princess Diana. In the capable hands of director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity; Dangerous Liaisons), this film covers one of the most important periods in recent British history, when the royal family's lack of public response or reaction to Diana's death changed the way the public viewed the monarchy.

Equally Oscar-worthy is Michael Sheen as newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, whose respect for the monarchy is evident, but which doesn't stop him from making several stern "recommendations" to Queen Elizabeth about modernizing her approach to the sad events and address the people of England, despite the fact that Diana was no longer technically royalty. The Queen surprised me at every turn in terms of who among the royals is sympathetic and whose behavior is still unforgivable (let's just say Prince Phillip, played by James Cromwell, doesn't come off very well).

I was particularly astonished at how well Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is portrayed here. The moment when he first goes to Paris to identify Diana's body is one of the film's most moving; he seems to be the only one among the royals who mourns her at all. But as the British people begin to turn on the Queen and her lot, Charles attempts to form a silent allegiance with Blair, primarily out of fear that someone might actually want to assassinate him. It's a strange but insightful aspect of the story.

Some of my favorite scenes involved Elizabeth simply being a person and not a statesperson. She sometimes drives herself around the grounds of their various estates, and she reminds us that she was a mechanic in her youth. There are exchanges between her and a great buck that has strayed onto their property that carry a tragic weight during the course of the film. I have no idea whether this actually happened, but director Frears does a great job showing us that this woman was not above being moved by simple things as well as bigger issues.

At times critical, other times a glowing tribute to the monarchy, The Queen is an astonishing and timely drama about an event that still stings many around the world. Perfectly weaving re-created moments with documentary footage and news reports, Frears reminds us that sometimes a powerful history lesson does not require period costumes and powdered wigs. The Queen is easily one of the year's greatest works, featuring what may be the finest performance by any actor of either sex.


Infamous

It's certainly not the first time in recent years that two films have been made about the same subject matter. United 93 and World Trade Center certainly prove that you can produce two movies about the same moment in time with strong results. Of course, a few years back, Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same summer and proved you could make two shitty movies about the same thing, as well. You can even make two killer films based on the same source material, as Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont proved. Usually the first released of the two films gets the most attention and makes the most money, and that's not always the best thing. But I cannot remember a time when two biographical films did such an astute job covering the same time period in a person's life with such remarkable results. Last year, Capote did a sensitive and disquieting job capturing Truman Capote's life while researching and writing In Cold Blood, a book that not only changed his life, but also changed the face of nonfiction writing. The work rightfully received much acclaim and earned its star Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar.

Almost a year to the date, we get Infamous, which addresses the same key figures as Capote in the same years, but does it better. And thank the moviemaking gods, we don't have to pick which one we get to see. If you think you fulfilled your art film quota for the year with Capote, and don't feel like seeing the same story again a year later, please reconsider. Infamous is as different as Capote as it is similar. It places Truman's role in history and society a little more gracefully and accurately, and features a centerpiece performance by relative unknown Toby Jones that may make you forget Hoffman's name for a few short hours.

More a stage star than movie star, Jones (maybe best known as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but also featured in Finding Neverland, Mrs. Henderson Presents and HBO's Elizabeth I) is a mighty force in a small package. This version of the story does a better job of showing us Capote's place in the social circles of New York City prior to reading about the small-town Kansas murders that changed his life. He lunches and dines and drinks with Manhattan's elite wives club (represented here by the likes of Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, Sigourney Weaver and Gwyneth Paltrow as Peggy Lee). He is the king of collecting and distributing society gossip, so when he hears about the gruesome murders, he looks upon the story as a source of fresh entertainment for his friends.

Capote and Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock, who will not make you forget Catherine Keener's rich take on the To Kill a Mockingbird author) travel to Kansas to mix and mingle with the isolated members of the community. They eventually endear themselves with the guarded citizens thanks to Truman's endless stories about his associations with celebrities like Bogart and Brando. These tales particularly impress the local sheriff (Jeff Daniels) and his family. When the killers are caught, Truman is right there at the courthouse steps, and he is given unprecedented access to both men, particularly Perry Smith (here played by soon-to-be James Bond, Daniel Craig). Much will be made about a particular scene in Infamous, in which Capote and Smith kiss in Smith's jail cell. I have no idea whether this actually happened, but the scene adds such a new level of intimacy to their relationship that you start to understand how painful the killer's eventual death was for Truman.

Another improvement upon Capote is a stronger focus on Truman's writing style. He essentially birthed the idea that it was okay for a nonfiction writer to change a quote as long as the sentiment was left intact. In one sequence, we see Truman struggling to decide between five or six versions of essentially the same statement from Perry. He picks the one that drives the narrative drama, and not the one that represents the most accurate wording.

Capote does a better job of showing the complete and utter depression Truman sunk into after Perry was executed, but this takes nothing away from Jones's astonishing performance, which is equally worthy of Oscar consideration. If this film had come out first, I think Jones would have stood an equal chance of winning a statue as Hoffman. Director Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby; Emma) takes a remarkably similar approach to his visual style as Bennett Miller did with Capote, including the barren landscapes of Kansas, the vibrant New York nightclub scene, and the way Capote seemed to clash in some circles as easily as he fit into others.

Infamous is at least as good as Capote; I think better. And if you're still struggling with the idea of seeing two versions of this captivating story, consider this like two equally riveting versions of a Shakespeare play (and no, I'm not comparing either of these films to Shakespeare). I've probably seen 10 stage and screen versions of Hamlet, but it never stops being a great experience each time. A great film is a great film, and a great story is a great story, no matter how many different ways you see or hear it. Give Infamous its well-deserved chance.


My Country My Country

The world is not so suddenly flooded with documentaries about the situation in Iraq. The Ground Truth, which recently played in theatres and is now on DVD, is a heart-breaking look at soldiers recently back from the war. And the upcoming Iraq in Fragments, showing the human toll from the Iraqi perspective, is about to explode on the scene. But My Country My Country shows us Iraq from an angle I never even considered: as a political entity, whose first democratic elections were the focal point of much controversy, excitement, tension and bloodshed.

Working alone for eight months in Iraq, director Laura Poitras (who will be at the Music Box Theatre for a post-show Q&A on October 13 following the 6pm screening) documents the process of arranging the nation's first election from both the point-of-view of the Iraqis and the allied coalition forces. In most places in the world, this wouldn't make for a very interesting film, but as the deadline for the election draws ever closer, the ferocity of the violence becomes almost inconceivable. Much of the time, she trains her camera on Dr. Riyadh, a medical professional and Sunni political candidate, who is not shy about his anti-occupation views.

Equally fascinating are the day-to-day pressures put on the occupying forces, which must ensure that ballots, election judges, makeshift voting booths and accurate means of tallying the votes are in place. But they are supposed to do this without the appearance of the election being a military event (a private security team from Australian assists in this goal); apparently it's important for the world to see this as an Iraqi-run election. Still, election workers are killed with an alarming regularity, and even the families of the candidates are afraid to leave the house come election day, let alone vote.

My Country My County is essential viewing if you wish to understand some of the least talked about aspects of the Iraq War, and while Poitras doesn't uncover any great conspiracies perpetrated by the U.S. government or military, that's not really her purpose. The key emotion felt by nearly everyone in the film is frustration, primarily over what many believe is the push to have this election before the country is stable enough to make it a fair and terror-free event. And it's unlikely you'll leave this film feeling the results weren't predetermined or that any great good was really done. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker

I never saw either of the Agent Cody Banks films—about a teenage secret agent—because I was deeply afraid they'd be exactly like this miserable offering. Based on the first of what I'm sure is a long line of sub-par novels by Anthony Horowitz, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker offers a shockingly great cast doing everything in its collective power to shit all over their individual good names, all for a story about the best-looking 14-year-old intelligence officer ever.

Check out this list of names: Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy, Sophie Okonedo and Andy Serkis. What the hell is there not to like? In any other film, this is a no-brainer great cast. But in this film, it's wasted talent. Alex is played by newcomer Alex Pettyfer, whose hair is immaculate, and whose acting is as stiff as a starched collar. Alex's super spy uncle (McGregor, who is in this film for only the first 10 minutes or so) is killed by evildoers. Alex is recruited by the Special Operations Division of MI6 for a Very Important Mission, the details of which are irrelevant. Mickey Rourke, clearly as hungry for a paycheck as he is for scenery upon which to gnaw, is the story's villain. Also thrown in for no good reason is Alex's uncle's assistant and nanny to Alex, Jack Starbright (Alicia Silverstone, who is literally given nothing to add to the proceedings but the occasional hair flip).

Everything about this inane film grated on my brain. The bad guys are so obviously bad that you don't believe for a second that the police wouldn't have arrested them years ago just for their poor fashion sense. Alex Pettyfer is so good-looking that you want to slap him now for all the hot chicks he's going to get later in life. But more than that, Alex Rider whips out every spy movie cliché under the sun, from the unnecessarily elaborate evil schemes to the spy going to save the girl he loves (well, likes, at least) at the risk of killing millions. Director Geoffrey Sax (who tortured us at the beginning of this year with the equally awful horror flick White Noise) does nothing to reinvent or even slightly improve the spy film genre. And for that reason alone, he should be shamed in public. Operation Windbreaker—I mean Stormbreaker—is everything that's wrong with films aimed at younger kids, but worse than that, it's dull and obvious.

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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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