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Monday, October 16

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Run Fatboy Run

There's a lot of pressure on director David Schwimmer regarding his first crack at feature film directing. Aside from the normal first-timer anxiety, he has to cope with the fact that a great many fans of his star, Simon Pegg, will be coming to see Run Fatboy Run to see if Pegg can be as funny out of his comfort zone, writing with and acting for Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz) and co-starring with Nick Frost. Certainly Pegg has acted in films by other directors before this one, but none have been quite this high profile. I don't think it's possible for Pegg not to be funny, but based on this film, it's clear that Pegg depends a great deal on his team to make it look just little more natural. It also helps that Pegg is surrounded by a team of other funny folk in his work with Wright.

In the London-set Run Fatboy Run, Pegg plays Dennis, a variation of the slacker, man-child persona that Pegg does so well. But he takes his lack of responsible behavior and immaturity to a new level at the beginning of the film when he leaves his pregnant bride-to-be, Libby (Thandie Newton), at the altar out of sheer fear. Five year later, not surprisingly, Libby and Dennis aren't together any longer, but they jointly take care of their sweet son, Jake. Libby is currently dating an American named Jack (Hank Azaria), the quintessential Mr. Right, who asks Libby to marry him at a massive dinner party. Dennis panics and immediately sets forth to prove to Libby that he can be just as responsible and successful as Jack by entering the London Marathon along with Jack. Considering that Dennis smokes, is out of shape and can barely run to the corner without getting winded, this may be a challenge.

To find the best moments Run Fatboy Run, you have to look past the main storyline. The romantic-comedy aspects of the film are pretty routine, and while I'll never get tired of looking at the lovely Thandie Newton, the screenplay (by Michael Ian Black and tweaked by Pegg) doesn't give her much more to do than be torn between these two men who adore her. The attempts to demonize Jack later in the film feel forced, as if the script wasn't sure who we'd be rooting for as the story wrapped up. What I did like were Pegg's interactions with some of the supporting players, especially Dylan Moran (also in Shaun of the Dead) as Dennis's best friend Gordon. When these two are on screen together, things just get funny. There's a whole subplot involving Gordon's poker games that have a terrific crew of lesser-known but great actors. I also enjoyed watching Dennis interact with his landlord Mr. G (Harish Patel) and his beautiful daughter (India de Beaufort) and their constant threats to toss him out for being late with his rent. Later Mr. G becomes Dennis's trainer, which proves fruitless.

The film's final act focuses on the marathon itself, which, I'll admit, didn't play out like I thought it would, but that doesn't necessarily mean I like the way the sequence unfolds. The bigger problem is that Azaria isn't particularly good in this movie. I'll watch Hank Azaria in pretty much anything, but something about his performance here didn't jell. Maybe it's because he's given so few opportunities to play to his comic strengths; he's essentially just a dartboard at which Pegg tosses his zingers. That said, there are a couple of choice scenes with Azaria, including one showing in the trailers set in a men's locker room. But by the end of the film, I felt like the entire production just runs out of steam and dives head first into an ocean of cliché and sentimental nonsense. For better or worse, Pegg has set the bar higher than this film can reach. And while I'm all in favor of him spreading his wings beyond his films with Wright and Frost, I know he can find better material than Run Fatboy Run, which has a few choice comedy moments but is often disappointing.

To read my interview with Run Fatboy Run director David Schwimmer, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/36120.

21

Who knew math geeks could be so sexy? It's almost impossible to believe that a math professor (Kevin Spacey) could find a handful of really good-looking MIT students who are all geniuses with numbers to run a card-counting blackjack scam in Vegas. It's so impossible, in fact, that I never really bought into it. Loosely based on a true story, 21 centers on one of these students, Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess from Across the Universe and The Other Boelyn Girl), who is not rich enough to afford his continued education at Harvard and is fairly easily seduced by Spacey's Professor Rosa and a fellow student, Jill (Kate Bosworth). My first problem with 21 is that I'm not a fan of Sturgess. I find him a bit soulless as an actor, and I've pretty much loathed every film he's been in. Even the way he wears his hair bugs me. He's like a guy that's been kicked out of a band, any band. I'm sure at some point down the road I'll see him in something and "get" what his appeal is, but that day isn't today. He seems more concerned with how he looks in a suit than his performance.

Having gotten that off my chest, I will say that 21 is skillfully directed and offers a few genuine moments of intrigue and tension. I actually liked watching the team (which also includes Disturbia's Aaron Yoo, Cloverfield's Liza Lapira and EuroTrip's Jacob Pitts) learn their card-counting technique and signals to inform each other when a table was cold or hot. Laurence Fishburne plays Cole Williams, a casino security agent who still relies on watching players to see if they're cheating rather than rely on facial recognition software to identify known con artists. As he closely observes the team and narrows his focus on Ben, the film gains some momentum and excitement. The real disappointment for me here was Spacey, who is operating at full turbo speed the entire time. His performance is so big and broad and loud that I almost begged the projectionist to turn down the volume. Maybe working with his Superman Returns co-star Bosworth made him think he was still playing Lex Luthor. Who knows?

I can't argue that 21 is a slick, quick, beautifully filmed offering. And I'll admit, when I went to Vegas a couple weeks after seeing it, I was curious whether I could pull off something of that magnitude (my game is blackjack as well, which makes the temptation even greater). Would the pressure make me crack? Could I keep the counts straight and accurate? Would I look as sharp as Jim Sturgess in a suit and with a mop-top haircut? I don't think I can quite recommend 21, but there are things here to latch onto and carry you through to the end without being too bored or annoyed. But a couple hours after seeing and writing about it, I've already stopped thinking about it, which is probably the most telling sign of all.

Stop Loss

It's taken writer-director Kimberly Pierce nearly 10 years to make her follow up to the extraordinary Boys Don't Cry, and she, as many have before her in the last couple of years, has chosen the subject of the war in Iraq as her backdrop. She has assembled a fantastic cast of actors to tell her angry story of the government and military's policy to keep soldiers enlisted well beyond the year or so they signed up for. But the film isn't really about the stop-loss loophole; it's about the psychological changes that go on inside a soldier's head when he returns home. It's about relationships torn apart because soldiers aren't eased back into comparatively quiet and uneventful lives after spending months on end thinking they could die at any moment. On that level, the film succeeds thanks to superb performances by the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum as soldiers returning home to Texas who the military are trying to pull back in.

Phillippe's character decides to run away rather than fight again. Abbie Cornish plays the girlfriend of one of his buddies (thankfully Pierce avoids any romantic entanglements) who travels with Phillippe to D.C., where he believes he can get in touch with a Congressman to sort out this problem. Stop Loss also features strong performances from Ciaran Hinds and Linda Emond as Phillippe's parents, and Timothy Olyphant as his commanding officer. But there's something lacking and perhaps a bit predictable about Stop Loss. Maybe part of it is just bad timing. Pierce's film comes after a year of one film about war in the Middle East after another. Each one has presented its story in different and sometimes trivial ways, but the subject of what exists for returning soldiers was covered to perfection in Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, so this film seems to only skim the issue's surface. Some of the battle scenes at the beginning of the movie are pretty intense and certainly help explain the mental state of the soldiers, but it doesn't seem like enough.

Pierce seems to fall back on army speak and tried-and-true war-movie dialog to tell her story, and I know she's a better filmmaker than that. To prove that, Pierce doesn't give us easy solutions to the stop-loss situation, and most of the characters aren't better people or better off at the end of the film; a few are much worse off, in fact. But these nice touches aren't enough to place Stop Loss in the pantheon of great films about war or the cost of it. Phillippe, Tatum and Levitt give fiercely strong and believable performances, and thankfully their acting elevates this wholly average production. But the film is a near miss in my book.

Flawless

I feel a bit guilty for assuming that just because a new movie has Demi Moore in it that it's some degree of crap. The fact is that since her sexy appearance in the other wise vapid and awful Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Moore has actually done some decent work. If there was anything wrong with Mr. Brooks, it wasn't her performance; I actually liked the audacity of the film. And although the ensemble work in Bobby was uneven, she was quite good. So casting her opposite Michael Caine in a film by Michael Radford (Il Postino; Pacino's Merchant of Venice) should have inspired more confidence that Flawless is a pretty great little movie. Unlike The Bank Job, this heist film is not based on a true story, and weirdly enough the far superior Flawless has a little bit in common with January's miserable Mad Money. Both film suppose that a member or members of a cleaning crew would be able to carry out the theft of millions of dollars in cash/merchandise.

Set in London circa 1960, Moore plays Laura Quinn, an American (with a hint of a British accent) who has worked her way up the corporate ladder at the London Diamond Corp. Or, should I say, she's worked her way up as far as she can go in 1960. She's been passed over several times for a promotion to be a director at the company, and it's an indignity that she has buried deep inside. Her hard work and long hours have left her no time for romance or family, and her ideas about how to deal with certain clients are routinely stolen by the higher ups. The always-commanding Joss Ackland plays the head of the company. She is approached one day by Mr. Hobbs (Caine), a member of the night janitorial staff who proposes the theft of the company's vault of a portion (enough to fit in his thermos) of its diamond supply. He needs her help acquiring the ever-changing combination to the vault, and the rest of the plan is devised and carried out by Hobbs. The plan is that no one will ever notice the diamonds are missing. But by the time Hobbs has done the deed (off camera, naturally), all the diamonds are missing—every last one of them. And when a ransom note for $200 million arrives, it becomes clear that this is an inside job and the company goes into lockdown.

It becomes clear that Hobbs is up to something more than simply getting a nice supplemental pension from this heist, and as Moore digs deeper into his past and attempts to uncover how tons of diamonds were taken out of the building, she discovers his true motives. I particularly liked French actor Lambert Wilson (from the second and third Matrix films) as the lead private investigator brought in by the company's underwriter. Even if you aren't guilty, his line of questioning makes you feel like you've done something wrong in your life. He's great. But it's Moore and Caine who really mesh well together. What starts out as two like-minded individuals working toward a common goal becomes two equally smart people in a battle of wits. And for all Laura's cool, stoic behavior in board meetings and client dinners, it's fun to watch her so rattled at the hands of the seemingly gentle old widower.

Flawless is bookended by scenes of Laura (Moore in old lady makeup) presumably in the present day telling her story to a reporter, so the bulk of the film is told in flashback. The film's only major flaw is the very end, when we find out what Laura has been up to since the theft and whether or not she ever got her cut of the loot. With one final preposterous scene, the film is almost tanked. But the simple fact is I liked this movie so much, I was willing to forget—if not forgive—the stupid ending. This is a simply told, tense, beautifully acted piece that brings Moore a big step closer to respectability as an actress. I've always been rooting for her for some bizarre and slightly erotic reason, but now I can actually point to a film and say, "See what she can do?" Sure she had Michael Caine to make her look good, but some of my favorite scenes in this film are just her alone in her office figuring out her next movie. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Teeth

I've been burning to see writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein's feature debut Teeth since it premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. What's funny about the film is that the buzz really hasn't died despite the fact that it's taken more than a year to finally make it to theaters. Part horror movie, part cautionary tale, part myth, part rape-revenge fantasy, part superhero origin, Teeth is a genuinely well-made, tense work that succeeds as both a fairly explicit blood-and-guts film and a real drama.

Young Dawn (newcomer Jess Weixler) has had a bit of an issue ever since she was a little girl playing I'll-show-you-mine/you-show-me-yours with her stepbrother in the pool. As she got older, she remained a fairly shy and reserved young woman who was committed to living a chaste life until marriage and seemed only to attract men who all wanted for force themselves on her. Fortunately for Dawn, her vagina has a built-in defense mechanism based on the mythological vagina dentata—that's right folks, she's got teeth in her kitty that only reveal themselves when Dawn is an unwilling participant in sex. Lichtenstein (son of artist Roy Lichtenstein) has a lot of fun with Teeth, without ever diving too deep into true exploitation.

I was genuinely impressed with Weixler's performance. She's the perfect combination of innocent and slightly mischievous, and by the end of the film Dawn even becomes aware that she can use her "power" for good. It's hardly worth going into the film's plot, since it's nothing more than a series of attempted and often unwanted seductions. There are some truly horrific male manglings in Teeth (shown in graphic detail; although we never actually see Dawn's second set of teeth), which are some of the scariest and squirm-worthy moments I've seen on film in quite some time, and I had a true blast watching this movie. Look at it as the ultimate female empowerment movie: No means no, or I'll bite your peener off with my vajayjay. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre; just go and have fun with it.

To read my interview with Teeth writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, go to: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35329.

CJ7

Hong Kong superstar director and actor Stephen Chow's last two efforts— Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer—have been pretty fantastic comedy-action blowouts. His latest film has more modest goals, primarily to entertain a younger audience than his previously works appealed to. CJ7 is about a homeless man (Chow) and his young son Dicky (Xu Jiao), who pick through mountains of garbage at dumps in the city searching for whatever it is they need—clothes, electronics and other essentials. Chow's character works at a construction site, but it's hardly enough to keep Dicky in private school. Dicky's own challenge is to be surrounded by rich kids all day and still not want for more. When a fellow student brings a robot pet to school, Dicky demands one from his father. While going through the junkyard, Chow finds an unusual object, which he believes is a toy worthy of his son's demands. This neon green orb with elastic qualities turns out to be a cute, cuddly alien creature, which Dicky believes is a toy named CJ7. When he realizes what he is in possession of and the powers this creature has, he has dreams of all the great things he can accomplish with his mind and body with the alien's help. But CJ7 doesn't quite have all the powers Dicky dreams of, and the pet becomes something of a disappointment.

As with other Chow films, CJ7 is loaded with impressive sight gags and a whole lot of broad humor. There are two schoolmates of Dicky's (including one girl) who are portrayed as gargantuan monsters and objects of ridicule. Even at his most base, Chow's never stooped quite as low as to pick on fat kids before, but maybe it's a cultural thing. Hell, I won't lie, even I thought it was funny. But that's a small section of this film, which plays every scene as whacked-out and visually inventive as possible. And for the most part, it succeeds. As I mentioned, this movie isn't trying to be an all-out actioner like Chow's more recent works. He's interested in the relationships between Dicky and his father, between the father and Dicky's beautiful schoolteacher, and among Dicky and his school chums. He explores these interactions with a lot more heart and depth than his other efforts, and it makes the film more accessible and heart warming. If a safe family film from Stephen Chow doesn't interest you, I can understand why. CJ7 is not my favorite film of his, and I won't ever want to own it. But it's a film with a whole lot of laughs, charm, and heart, and if your kids are old and patient enough to read subtitles, they will love this movie. Odds are you will too. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Look

This film had a brief Chicago run at the end of December, and, beginning today, is playing for an additional week at Facets Multimedia. Here's my original review:

The most harrowing moment in writer-director Adam (Detroit Rock City) Rifkin's Look is an opening title card that tells us that in the course of a day most Americans are captured by some sort of surveillance device 170 times, usually without their knowledge. At first, I didn't think I was going to like this film, meant to look like every image was captured by one of these surveillance cameras scattered throughout my world. Showing us everything from two hotties changing clothes in a dressing room to a potential child abductor stalking a mother and daughter through a mall, Look gives us glimpses into the everyday world of its many characters.

Not interested in telling us fully realized stories about these people, Rifkin is more interested in giving us glimpses into our own behavior and having us leave the theater realizing that the odds of a camera capturing us at our most embarrassing or off-guard moment are very high. Still, much of the film seems staged for the largely immobile camera (complete with timecode in most cases). A department store manager has sex in every corner of his store with various female employees (oh, and we catch him snorting coke at one point, because why would a manager know that there were cameras throughout his store?); a crime spree by a couple of killers is captured on various convenience store security cams; or a nerdy office worker is repeatedly being pranked by his co-workers. Many of these sequences feel a little too scripted, but many others manage to generate genuine tension (thanks in large part to a creepy electronic score by BT). More often than not, Look works as a compelling and nerve-racking examination of daily life adventures, some of which are quite ordinary, while others are downright freaky. Whether you like Look or not, it's tough to deny that Rifkin has tapped into something about our culture that few other filmmakers have, and that's a rare occurrence no matter who's watching.

London to Brighton

Continuing my spotty but well-intentioned coverage of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, we have this intense first-time feature director Paul Andrew Williams about a prostitute (Lorraine Stanley) who has unwillingly been charged with taking care of a 12-year-old girl (Georgia Groome), whom her pimp (Johnny Harris) is trying to turn out to clients willing to pay more for an underage girl. When we meet the two girls, they are clearly running away from something awful. They leave the familiar confines of London on a train bound for Brighton, where they hope to hide, but the men they have done wrong are ruthless and unwavering in the desire to find and hurt them. Gritty realism in the order of the day with London to Brighton, and as the chase continues, it is revealed in flashbacks exactly what horror triggered these events. This is a rough film to watch, but the acting and suspense are perfection, with young Groome giving an unforgettable performance as the orphaned girl trying to look tough and experienced in front of her older friends and paying a terrible price. If you've got the stomach for a hard-hearted thriller, this is a great one. The film screens Saturday, March 29 at 7pm, and Tuesday, April 1 at 6pm.

True North

Also part of the EU Festival is this hard-edged but thoroughly satisfying piece about two men on a small Scottish fishing boat who decide to make a little extra money smuggling Chinese immigrants into Scotland. Martin Compton (Sweet Sixteen; Doomsday) and Peter Mullan (Children of Men) play Sean and Riley, two of the four crew members who are tired of losing money whenever they go out searching for catch and decide to help themselves to a little cash on the side without the Skipper's (Gary Lewis, who co-starred with Mullan in My Name Is Joe) knowledge. The 15 or so Chinese are forced to stay in a locked hold with their meals brought in periodically and their waste taken out in buckets. One little Chinese girl (the fantastic Angel Li in her first film role) manages to stow away, secretly hiding and sleeping in closets and stealing bits of food from the cook (Steven Robertson of Rory O'Shea Was Here). What Sean (who happens to be the Skipper's son) and Riley believe will be a quick trip home turns into a long haul when the Skipper decides to change course and search for more fish. The longer journey and rough seas turn what should have been a simple smuggling operation into an absolute nightmare as things go from bad to worse for the unfortunate cargo. Writer-director Steve Hudson surprised and impressed me with the direction his plot took. We're given just enough backstory and insight into each character to make them something more than just stereotypical commercial fishermen and more like real, fleshed-out characters. The performances are across-the-board stellar, especially Compton and the ever-reliable Mullan, who shows he can play more than just rugged types and can act compassionate when needed. The film screens Saturday, March 29 at 3pm, and Wednesday, April 2 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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