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Sunday, December 8

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Semi-Pro

As much as I'd love to run up and down the block singing the praises of Will Ferrell's latest sports-related send-up (after Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory), I'm not quite there. As much as I'd relish the opportunity to tell you that Ferrell once again setting up shop in the 1970s (as he did so beautifully in Anchorman) is a triumphant beyond all measure, I can't. What I can say is that Ferrell is back in the hands of his Old School screenwriter in an R-rated comedy that's a mixed bag that has just enough laughs to keep you smiling but not enough to rank Semi-Pro among your favorite Ferrell comedies.

Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, an American Basketball Association player and owner. A few years before the 1976 timeframe of the film, Jackie had a one-hit wonder, a Barry White-style sex groove called "Love Me Sexy," and the film wisely opens with the song to set its goofy tone. Some of the movie's funniest bits involve the marketing extremes the dying league went through just to get a few hundred fans in the stands. Although the team that Moon plays for—the Flint, Michigan Tropics—was not a real team, the movie does exist in the real world of the ABA, and when the word comes down that the league will be merging with the NBA, taking on four ABA teams under its auspices, Moon proposes that the teams with the four best records make the cut. Considering that the Tropics are far and away the worst team in the league, such a proposal doesn't really seem to work in his favor. Using classic sports movie methods (and montages), Moon whips his players into shape, hires a bad-apple veteran player (Woody Harrelson) to join the ranks, and rejuvenates the Tropics into real contenders.

How could it not be funny to see Ferrell in illegally tight shorts and a massive afro held together with a headband? His neckerchief collection belongs in a museum. And Ferrell truly can't help but be some amount of funny regardless of the script. But with this particular script, the laugh overload just isn't there. Semi-Pro barely grazes the humor level of a Blades of Glory, which I actually liked, and while I would certainly say to all diehard Ferrell fans that you won't have any trouble mustering smiles for this material, it doesn't feel like his strongest stuff with frequent partner in crime Adam McKay. Some of the supporting players here (including Harrelson, Andre Benjamin, Will Arnett, Andy Richter and the bizarre Jackie Earle Haley) are very good. I especially liked seeing Harrelson back on the court (after White Men Can't Jump); his presence here certainly elevates the proceedings and it's good to see him do pure comedy again. But the film misfired just slightly more than it connected for me. It's still better than 75 percent of what I saw all of last year, but that may not saying much. For me, Semi-Pro is a perfect placeholder until Ferrell's next film—Step-Brothers with John C. Reilly, directed by McKay—coming out this summer, but I doubt I'll think much of this one between now and then.

The Other Boleyn Girl

If you believe every damn magazine on the planet that has put these two beauties on their cover, then The Other Boleyn Girl should have been a slam dunk. Two of the most desirable women on the planet (Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman) in a film in which they are at various times the object of desire for the notoriously libidinous King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Throw into the mix a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and direction from Justin Chadwick, who did exceptional work on the "Masterpiece Theatre" production of "Bleak House," and you really have to wonder how they could go wrong. Allow me to explain: they made it boring, they drained it of all its potential sexuality, and they cast David Morrissey (Basic Instinct 2, The Water Horse, The Reaping), who I think now officially qualifies as the cinematic equivalent of the kiss of death. Although to be fair, those films probably would have sucked without him.

I realize not everyone reading this has seen Showtime's exceedingly well-done series "The Tudors," but The Other Boleyn Girl essentially covers the same timeframe as the first two seasons (if the commercials for Season 2 are any indication). And obviously this love triangle has been covered in films and television productions a great deal in the past. So not only does the film seem like retread to me, it skims over major events in the lives of these three characters. Plus, the series doesn't skimp on the sex, violence and other vices the king displayed during his long reign. But forgetting how much story the two versions of this tale tell, Bana simply doesn't convey the quality that Henry clearly had that made women swoon over him (beyond just what they were duty bound to show him). Critics often complain that they don't ever get to see characters at work because that somehow shows these people as more sympathetic or believable. I had the same complaint with Boleyn Girl. Granted, the king dismantling religion in his kingdom simply to acquire a divorce from his wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, might be considered "seeing him at work," but just comes across as a powerful man doing what he needs to do to sleep with a desirable woman.

But the key relationship of the film is meant to be the one between the sisters, who are clearly as close as two families members can be… when they're not trying to steal Henry from the other or turn on each other to gain some advantage in their social standing. They never really struck me as particularly close. Their father and uncle pimp them out to the king with hardly a second thought; even poor Mary's (Johansson) husband allows the king to sweep his wife off her feet so he may rise in the royal ranks. In other words, you may have a tough time finding people in this film to like. And in a movie that asks us to sympathize with some of its characters, particularly Mary who gives birth to the king's bastard child and is left to raise him alone (there is some doubt in history as to whether this child was Henry's, but it's pretty clear in the film that he is).

The biggest crime in The Other Boleyn Girl is that it doesn't teach us anything new about these people, even if such teachings would have been pure speculation. It doesn't offer audiences a fresh interpretation or analysis on the events or of these characters. Worst of all, as I said at the beginning, the thing is just dreadfully dull. Costume dramas are always a risky endeavor, but without an engaging new perspective (on either historical dramas or new versions of classic literary works), they hardly seem worth doing. This film would be Exhibit A in my case against telling this story again any time in the next 50 years.

Chicago 10

When I studied film history in college, my concentration was on the history of documentaries. I never miss a documentary that comes through Chicago, and I go out of my way to track down others that never open here. I contact filmmakers and distributors looking for screeners and commercially released docs. I don't have a particular favorite style or process; I don't prefer narration or no narration, talking heads vs. recreations, filmmakers who keep their distance or ones that inject themselves into the proceedings. I'm not saying I love all docs, certainly not. When one works, it's undeniable. I love learning about small corners of the world and events that I was totally unaware of before learning about them in a documentary. I love discovering bands whose music was a total mystery to me. I relish in meeting colorful characters, being horrified by human injustices, and finding out the story behind the story. But seeing as many docs as I do in a given year sets me up to see a lot of examples of unoriginal presentation, which is why I love, love, love the approach Brett Morgen takes when he tackles a subject. The Kid Stays in the Picture speaks for itself (literally). Morgen doesn't care if Hollywood mogul Robert Evans is always being 100 percent honest; he's more concerned with the myth than the reality. And much the same can be said for his latest effort, Chicago 10.

The story of the defendants and their lawyers who made up the Chicago 10 has been the source of more straight-forward documentaries and recreations in the past (plus, it appears that Steven Spielberg may make the trial the subject of his next feature). The group of militant hippie organizers, who staged marches and demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, was on trial for setting the stage for rioting in the streets. When you read the transcripts, the trials seems like a farce; when you see the way Morgen brings them to life, you realize it was an outright tragedy. Chicago 10 (which opened the 2007 Sundance Film Festival) will probably best be remembered for its innovative use of animation and celebrity voices to bring the trial to life, and that's both a good and bad thing. As memorable as the animation is, the film has several other strengths, including some of the cleanest and most vivid archival footage of the riots and everything leading up to them. Living here for so long, you can't avoid seeing riot footage at some point, whether it's at one of the semi-regular revivals of Medium Cool or in any number of profiles of Abbie Hoffman or Tom Hayden or Bobby Seale. But I've never seen the footage so colorful and scary. Plus, Morgen has created a sound mix that will blow your mind. At any given moments during the riots, you hear voices all around you, sounding like a fight has just broken out in the theater.

Although I hesitate to name names, there are just a few too many cool people providing voices for the film's animated sequences. Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte, Dylan Baker and the late, great Roy Scheider as Judge Julius Hoffman, a man so crazed with hatred for hippies, you couldn't write a character this wild. As he did with Robert Evans, director Morgen isn't interested in strictly telling the story or representing the trial. As much as he loves perpetuating the myth of the late '60s, hippies and the radicalism of the counterculture, he also wants to make it perfectly clear that the folks on trial weren't dummies. They were, in fact, partly to blame for how those events in Grant Park went down, maybe not as much as the original Mayor Daley's shoot-to-kill policy that he issued to the police and National Guard, but there's plenty of guilt to parcel out amongst all participants. Some documentary purists may squirm and whine about the nature of Brett Morgen's style, but it's rare to see a visionary filmmaker attempting something innovative in the documentary arena. This is a great record of history as well as a fantastic visual accomplishment. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Counterfeiters

Opening just in time to relish in its big win earlier this week for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars is the Austrian work The Counterfeiters. Earlier this month for my review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I went on a mini-rant about how the Foreign Language Film category was at best a mess, at worst a joke, since in my humble estimation only one of the five nominees (Mongol) deserved to be in the running. The Counterfeiters is a fantastic and exciting story, wrapped inside average storytelling. And as cliché as it is (although Entertainment Weekly eagerly pointed it out in its list of Oscar predictions), the reason it won its award is because films involving the Holocaust always do, which is a shame for a couple of reasons: some people simply avoid all of those "depressing" Holocaust films, and there are some truly worthy films in many categories far more worthy of winning that get overlooked.

Taking all of that into consideration or not, The Counterfeiters still remains a fairly entertaining work, if only for the novelty of its story of Jewish prisoners who were selected for their skills in various fields that made them ideal for creating massive amount of counterfeit money, particularly British pounds and American dollars. Apparently among the Nazis' many master plans was one to flood Britain and the U.S. with false currency to destroy their respective economies. They were also planning to use the money to fill their war coffers and appear far more economically stable than they were. And if it succeeds in no other way, the film did make me consider what might have happened if their plan had worked. Unfortunately for them, the Nazis were a little late in executing their scheme and by the time it was more or less ready to roll, the end of World War II was in sight. Among those moved from their respective prison camps into a special (and far more livable) secret barracks was a known "professional" counterfeiter named Saloman Sorowitsch, whose criminal past is overlooked for the sake of the top secret mission. Printers, artists and other specialists with paper, ink, presses and banking in general were also brought on board. It's a fascinating collection of people brought together for this task, and part of the reason the plan never got off the ground in time is because the Jews working on the false currency deliberately sabotaged their own test runs to delay the process. It was only upon threat of death that bills started being manufactured that looked authentic.

The film does have its interesting perspectives. Because these prisoners were treated better, others in the camp began to resent their special treatment. Also, although the counterfeiters were given the equivalent of VIP treatment for the duration of the mission, they all understood that once the job was done, it was probably only a matter of time before they were all killed for even being associated with this project. Watching ordinary people adapt (or not adapt) to being a part of such a huge operation is interesting because some handle the pressure better than others. There's absolutely nothing catastrophically wrong with The Counterfeiters, but there's also nothing extraordinary about it. It's good, solid filmmaking telling a story about an aspect of WWII that I was completely unaware of, and that means a lot. But it's hard to shake the knowledge that there were simply better movies that were in contention for the award that this one captured on Sunday. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

War/Dance

The good thing about getting an Oscar nomination is that it almost guarantees that more people will see your film. War/Dance is a film that played in a few select markets (Chicago not being one of them) late last year; critics and Academy members were all sent copies of it; and low and behold the film got a well-deserved nomination is the Best Documentary Feature category. Of the five nominated films, War/Dance was probably the least deserving to win (it's certainly not as good a doc as King of Kong or Terror's Advocate or Darfur Now, none of which were even nominated), but that in no way takes away from its moving tale of a group of school children in war-torn northern Uganda who rehearse and compete in the nation's annual music and dance competition.

Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix introduce us to three of the many talented children, many of whom saw their parents or siblings killed before their very eyes. Dominic's story is particularly engrossing and horrifying because he was a child soldier for a time and forced to kill people he loved to prove his loyalty. For many of the kids, the music and dance competition (against dozens of other top schools from around the country) offers them their only hope of regaining control of their lives again and feeling proud about their accomplishments. The trip to the competition also gives these children some much-need relief from the suffering that they endure daily where they live. It's impossible for me or most of us to understand the grief and loss certain Ugandan people are going through, but War/Dance offers a potent glimpse into a world we will never otherwise see. You simply can't help but be moved by the material and the people in this film. That being said, the film left me with questions about the nature of the conflicts in this part of the world. Also, it seems like the students were afraid of being somehow ostracized by the other schools; I was never quite sure why. But these are small quibbles on my overly analytical part. The film and its story are uplifting even amidst some of the awful trials these kids went through. It opens today at Pipers Alley, and it marks the fifth of the five Best Doc nominations to open in Chicago (following close on the heels of Taxi to the Dark Side opening at the Music Box a couple weeks ago), an all-too-rare feat. My only complaint is that it was released (at least in Chicago) after the Oscars instead of just before when it would have benefited from a bit of the pre-awards buzz. Better late than never, I guess.

Penelope

Whenever a film tries to invoke the spirit and feeling of a modern-day fairy tale or fable, I worry because they almost never get it right. Take last year's August Rush, which went more toward the fable side of the things, and missed the mark by a mile (despite the undeserved Oscar nomination for best song). Sometimes filmmakers come close, like Tim Burton did with Big Fish, which I know a lot of people didn't like. I thought Burton captured the mythology of his characters quite beautifully, but I won't argue with you that the film had problems. This week, we get the long-delayed Penelope, starring Christina Ricci as a young woman who, thanks to a family curse, is born with a pig nose and can only be rid of the cursed thing if she finds true love with someone "like herself," which she takes to mean an aristocrat by birth. Young suitors line up for a chance to woo her, but once they get a look at her deformity (which isn't that bad, and certainly doesn't take away from the fact that Ricci is a hottie by any standard; I've done worse), they run for the hills. Even her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) have a tough time loving her in her current form and do just about everything possible to get her married off.

In hiding all her life, Penelope is itching to get out of her parents' house and interact with the rest of the world. The man who inspires her to do so is the one would-be suitor who doesn't run, Max (Atonement's James McAvoy), who is initially hired by a tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) to get the first ever photos of Penelope but finds himself falling for her unbound personality. Tying a scarf over the bottom half of her face, she sneaks out of her home and attempts to joins the world anonymously.

Penelope soft pedals its message about loving yourself, about the parasitic and fickle nature of the media, and about the dangers of judging others too harshly. Not surprisingly Penelope becomes something of a media darling once her presence outside her home is discovered. She makes friends with the free-spirited Annie (Reese Witherspoon), and both her life and the film get a little bit better when she comes on the scene. Penelope is almost too cutesy for its own good, and while most of the performances are solid, the story (from television writer Leslie Caveny) is asinine. First-time director Mark Palansky tries to add a bit a visual flair to perhaps distract us from the lacking screenplay, but it doesn't really help. The movie is built on the premise that its lead character is hideous, which she just isn't; its portrait of how the media operates is nothing like the real-world; even its refusal to identify where the events are taking place is annoying (the mix of British and American actors deliberately muddles that detail). I wasn't nearly as impressed with this film at it clearly is with itself, and that taints even the good things about this work.

Dragon Tiger Gate

Closing out the Gene Siskel Film Center's limited (only four films this year) but largely well-programmed "Hong Kong!" series is probably the best of the bunch. With such strongly conceived crime drama and character studies being the bulk of what I've been seeing from Hong Kong in recent years, it was thrilling for me to see Dragon Tiger Gate, a solid throwback effort from director Wilson Yip. Starring Donnie Yen, who also choreographed the action scenes and whose status as an international action star never quite translated to success here in the U.S. (the way it did for Jackie Chan and Jet Li), this hugely entertaining film leans heavily on its manga roots for its style and look, right down to the floppy haircuts, physics-defying action sequences and otherworldly sets. Two half-brothers (Yen and co-star Nicholas Tse) are separated at a young age, but find each other later in life on opposing sides of a gang battle. The cause of the war is a golden amulet. Dragon (Yen) is the mysterious enforcer of the bad guys, while Tiger (Tse) is a rising martial arts protégé of the father the two brothers share. I'll admit, I kind of stopping caring about the plot early on. It hardly seems worth recapping it here. All you need to know is that the action scenes are grandiose and explosive, but without being laughable. Beautiful women come and go into the men's lives, but they either die, turn out to be evil or run away. Each villain is more devious and skilled as a fighter than the last, and it should come as no surprise that the brothers reconcile their differences and fight together against a common enemy. Dragon Tiger Gate is short on story but in no way skimps on the sometimes breathtaking fight sequences. It was films like this one that got me interested in the Hong Kong film movement to begin with, and while I'm truly glad it has grown and matured, it's nice to know there are filmmakers out there that remember the good old days of chopsocky. The film screens Friday, Feb. 29 at 7:45pm, and Monday, March 3 at 8pm.

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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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