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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, April 18

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Running Scared
Sometimes you just give points to a film for trying so damn hard. And few films I've seen lately have tried as hard as Running Scared, a movie that throws every excess at you and still keeps coming with a cacophony of loopy visuals, loud noises, gun play, blood splatter, exploding skulls, pimps, sex, dirty cops, drugs, child pornography, strip clubs, torture by hockey puck, explosions and every form of chaos you can imagine. No stone is left unturned; this is everything plus the kitchen sink. The film borrows from several sources, including spaghetti westerns (with a great opening credits sequence), and somehow manages to create its own hyper-realized genre of insane filmmaking. Most of the credit goes right to writer-director Wayne Kramer, who recently gave us the decidedly subdued The Cooler. But here, it feels like the man has discovered speed, and has found a way to inject it directly into his camera lens. Running Scared is custom built for those who find themselves nodding off during standard Hollywood action films.

Completely changing my opinion of him as an actor, Paul Walker (seen last week with snow dogs in the family-friendly Eight Below) stars as Joey, a low-level player in the mob, whose talent is disposing of guns used in high-profile crimes. The movie opens with a blaze of bullets and the deaths of several masked dirty cops, including one played by Chazz Palminteri. Before Joey has a chance to (presumably) dump his crew's guns in a river, one of them is stolen from the hiding place in his home by one of his young son's friends, Oleg (Cameron Bright, the creepy kid from Birth). Oleg uses the weapon to shoot his abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Roden). The coincidences begin to pile up. Not only does the Russian family live next door to Joey, his wife (Teresa Gazelle) and son Nicky (Alex Neuberger), but the Russian also is related to a notorious gangster who is in the midst of brokering a deal with Joey's boss. Failing to kill his father, Oleg flees his home with the gun, and Joey spends the rest of the film chasing the gun so none of the bad guys think he set up the Russian's shooting or let the incriminating weapon out of his possession. The search for Oleg and the gun takes Joey through the lower levels of urban living, and we're all the better for it.

Despite the level of violence and nudity in the film, the plot never seems truly absurd (at least to me) until the point when Joey's wife, Vera, gets a call from a terrified Oleg, who has fallen into the hands of the most bizarre child pornographers you will ever see on film. You don't know whether to laugh or be horrified, but I found it really easy to laugh at these scenes. And by the time the story takes us to a hockey rink bathed in blue light, I'd given myself over to the ridiculousness of the film and stopped caring about petty things like logic…almost. Running Scared's tagged-on ending not only wasn't necessary, I'm 99.9 percent sure it doesn't make any damn sense. But I won't ruin any of the truly special moments of Running Scared. It's more fun just to see for yourself how far into outer space Kramer and his company are willing to go.

And I would be horribly remiss if I didn't give credit to Paul Walker, a man who before this film has never shown me he's actually an actor. I hope Running Scared is a step in a direction rather than a simply a sidestep on a career path filled with sub-par works. He doesn't "uglify" himself for this movie, and he still finds reasons to remove his shirt on a couple of occasions, but boy does he take a beating here, several actually. And the things that come out of his mouth would make a longshoreman blush. He's not just "good for Paul Walker," he genuinely makes this film better. And I will forever treasure the looks on my fellow critics' faces after this film. It was the kind of look that says, "What the hell am I supposed to write about that?" Running Scared is exactly that kind of film for people who see way too many movies in a given year, but I'm guessing those of you that see one film per month will get a charge from it as well. Prepare to be zapped.

Night Watch
According to the world view of the 2004 Russian action-horror film Night Watch, many humans are born with special powers which can turn them into vampires, sorcerers, shape-shifters and any number of other supernatural creatures. At some point in these enhanced humans' lives, they must make the decision to use their powers to serve the darkness or the light. This decision can in no way be influenced by anyone, and to make sure things stay kosher, an elite policing squad known as Night Watch, which has existed for centuries and keeps tabs on the forces of darkness to make certain they don't tamper with those unsure on which side they want to serve for all eternity. (An equivalent team also exists to be vigilant of the creatures that can exist in daylight; they are dealt with in the sequel, Day Watch, which was just released in Russia; Dusk Watch will complete the trilogy in 2007.)

Night Watch follows one such pivotal moment in the life of a key figure in the struggle between day and night, which will, in turn, decide the fate of humanity. Director/co-writer Timu Bekmambetov has done a remarkable job crafting a vision of the world above and below Moscow, the battleground for most of this film. Night Watch (based on the novels of Sergei Lukyanenko) is an okay film, reminiscent of the Underworld series of vampire vs. werewolf movies. The special effects are good, the battle sequences are appropriately aggressive and bloody, and the acting is solid, especially for a genre film. But there's nothing here to really get excited about on an intellectual or aesthetic level, not that there has to be for me to recommend it.

Night Watch has existed to many film geeks on the underground circuit for about a year. In fact, I first saw it on a high-quality bootleg DVD after having heard how great it was for months. I think the film geeks are getting excited about it for the wrong reason, however. Russia is an untapped market for horror and sci-fi, and seasoned film buffs are looking for the next big thing. Hong Kong and Japan are played out (not really, but that's the perception). South Korea is nearing its peak (again, not true; wait until Lady Vengeance hits our shores later this spring for proof). Films from the Middle East aren't making it to the United States like they used to thanks to our government. So now we have a westernized horror film from Russia that doesn't pull any punches, true, but it doesn't really give us anything new either. There are a few nice touches, however, especially the glorious shots of Moscow (both real and digitally enhanced) at night. The film also does a nice job balancing the extremely blood-soaked sequences with the lighter, almost "Buffy"-like humor (the Night Watch is a group of vampire hunters after all). But if this film had come out of Europe or the United States, I don't think people would be taking much notice of it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm ultimately recommending Night Watch, if only because it blesses us with its unique vision and a well-deserved R rating. And I'm most definitely looking forward to seeing the sequels in the coming years. I'm just warning people not to expect the second coming of vampire flicks. Go in with slightly lowered expectations, and you'll be just fine, kiddies. I particularly like the sword fight with what look like florescent light bulbs. Nicely played, comrades.

Before the Fall
We're about to get hit with a second wave of WWII/Holocaust/Nazi movies in the coming weeks, and I can report that so far, the offerings are solid. In a few weeks, we'll see the extraordinary Fateless from Hungary. A couple of weeks ago, the Gene Siskel Film Center presented the chilling documentary The Goebbels Experiment. And soon, the Music Box will feature the Oscar-nominated Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Opening this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema is perhaps the most peripheral of the bunch (at least in terms of the plot's proximity to the wartime events of WWII), Before the Fall.

German youth from rich families or those possessing extraordinary intelligence or leadership were often shipped to a napola, a facility set up to train and mold future Nazi leaders (imagine a military academy, with classes as taxing on the mind as the physical workouts are to the body). Max Riemelt plays Friedrich, a working-class teen who is allowed into the institution because of his exceptional boxing abilities. The elite students relentlessly torment him for his lower-class status, but the fact is he can kick any of their asses, so after a while they learn to leave him alone. His best friend is Albrecht (Tom Schilling), the frail and sensitive son of the napola's governor. The boy is a huge disappointment to his manly-man father, but perhaps Albrecht's biggest crime is his opposition to most Nazi philosophy and practice, including the war itself (he's a pacifist from way back).

But rather than become a film that is simply about boxing or the evil Nazis, Before the Fall transforms into a coming-of-age tale about boys who are both strong and weak. There are members of Friedrich's circle who are suicidal, nationalistic, antagonistic, and sociopathic, kind of like any high school in any country. In fact, the amount of time spent dealing with actual Nazi rhetoric is minimal at best. Director Dennis Gansel (the film is adapted from his play) seems more interested in examining the lives of young men, who are, under the best of circumstances, emotionally charged, and under these confines, are struggling not to humiliate themselves in each other's eyes or the eyes of their soon-to-fall nation. Before the Fall is expertly written, beautifully photographed and perfectly acted by the young cast. The film isn't trying to make a Big Statement about its subject or its players. Instead, it reveals a long-dead footnote in German history that otherwise might never have been at the center of any textbook. This is a small corner in the war's big picture.

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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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