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Wednesday, July 24

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Serenity
Writer-director-television hero (thanks to his film-turned-series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") Joss Whedon saw his most recent attempt at television programming, the western/sci-fi adventure series "Firefly," bumped off the air after less than a dozen episodes. Somehow, the show maintained a cult following long after its cancellation, and that earned it the right to be adapted into the feature film Serenity. I never watched "Buffy" or "Firefly" in their original runs, but in preparation for this film, I checked out the DVD set for "Firefly" and enjoyed the heck out of it.

Serenity picks up with the Han Solo-esque Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew and passengers a few months after the series ended. The storyline focuses on one of the least interesting characters from the series, the waifish, freaky River (Summer Glau), whose strange behavior and previously unexplained mentally and physically enhanced abilities are at the center of this film. A couple of fun new characters are tossed into the mix (including a beyond-evil operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor from Dirty Pretty Things), and the film is loads of fun, especially for fans of the show.

The question isn't whether non-fans will enjoy Serenity (they will); the question is, will they even care enough to get into the theatres to find out how much they'll enjoy it? Let's hope so. Whedon's dialogue has always been his strong suit, and it is indeed strong here. He seamlessly mixes humor, irony and deep emotion in ways that genuinely surprise you. Serenity is solid science fiction storytelling, and let's hope Whedon and company are able to make a sequel somewhere down the road... or maybe this would work as a TV show. You think?

The Greatest Game Ever Played
Disney sure has a hard-on for great sports stories. OK, that's not entirely fair. A lot of people on this planet apparently pop boners for sports films, no matter how hokey or overly sentimental. Aside from baseball, the sport that seems to result in the largest wood is golf, and history's most legendary game of golf is apparently the 1913 U.S. Open, between a 20-year-old, untested, working class amateur named Francis Ouimet and his hero, the world champion Harry Vardon.

The Greatest Game Ever Played manages to pack almost every minute of this competition into its two-hour frame, and it does so successfully. I got sucked into both the game and into Ouimet's life, as a lowly young man (played with much enthusiasm by Shia LaBeouf) living with his hardened father and adoring mother across the street from a golf course. As a caddie, Francis learns to play, but he's never really been put to the test in a competition until he is selected to represent the local community in the Open.

Director Bill Paxton (yes, that Bill Paxton) and writer Mark Frost (yes, the same guy who co-created "Twin Peaks") have wisely chosen not to turn the game of golf into some sort of next-to-God experience. Instead, they focus on the behind-the-scenes dealings of Ouimet's rise to glory in microscopic detail. It's a fascinating tale and the tournament is beyond exciting, even for golf. As you may suspect, the music swells too often and the case made for Francis speaking for the common people is about as pronounced as it was in Cinderella Man, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining cinema.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Self-sacrificing mothers don't get enough play in films these days, and few mothers did as much for their families as Evelyn Ryan during the 1950s and 1960s in Ohio. What made her special wasn't that she raised a ridiculously large litter of kids or dealt with her oft-drunk husband Kelly. Evelyn's gift was her seemingly endless creativity, which she used to win every radio, television and magazine contest possible to make ends meet. She not only had the uncanny ability to win these contests, but win them at a time when the family needed the particular prize the most. If the toaster burned out, a new one would arrive. If the Ryans were behind in the payments to the milkman, an envelope with $5 or $10 would arrive that day. Although the contest angle is unique, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (based on the memoirs of Evelyn's real-life daughter, Terry) is a sweet tribute to a mother who never asked to be made happy, only to be left alone when she was.

Julianne Moore, no stranger to playing women from this period, positively glows as Evelyn, the perpetually happy wife and mother who rarely lets any sadness show — but we know this probably wasn't the life she had in mind for herself. Woody Harrelson is Kelly, the man who spends nearly all of the family's money on booze and goes on rants that often result in broken appliances that the Ryans can't afford to have busted. Laura Dern is also on hand as a pen pal of Evelyn's who runs a club for other women in the Midwest who enter contents at a pace equal to Evelyn's. Not surprisingly, Evelyn is a hero to these ladies.

Director Jane Anderson does a terrific job not only telling the Ryan's story, but also framing it in her own creative way. Evelyn is so used to thinking in terms of jingles and catch phrases for household products that she starts seeing all parts of her world that way. There is pain and suffering for the Ryan clan, but there's never a doubt that they'll get through, thanks to mom. Prize Winner is lightweight, for sure, but anyone who loves (or even likes) his or her mother will find something to like here.

Oliver Twist
I'm somewhat baffled by folks who are questioning the need for another film version of Charles Dickens' tale of orphans, thieves, and murderers. But that's like asking why we need more than one version of a Shakespeare play. Dickens is certainly one of the easier writers-of-old to adapt (or even modernize). Still, Oliver Twist seems to be a favorite to produce. Between movies on the big and little screen and the television mini-series, there have been more than 20 versions of this wonderful story. Director Roman Polanski has said that this was always one of his favorite stories because he grew up an orphan in Poland. And much like he poured his personal experience into the heart and soul of his last film, The Pianist, so does Polanski paint a grim and realistic portrayal of life on the streets of London for young Oliver.

Wisely, Polanski has stayed away from an all-star cast, instead focusing on a bevy or character actors and young newcomers to fill the starring roles. The one exception is the unrecognizable Ben Kingsley as the leader of the boy thieves, Fagin. The depth that Kingsley adds to Fagin is extraordinary, and he turns a legendary literary villain into something more sympathetic, even going so far as to imply that his mental health is fragile. A scene in the last act of the film between Fagin and Oliver (Barney Clark) is especially touching.

There's really no point in recounting the plot of Oliver Twist, since you probably already know (shame on you if you don't), but all of your favorite characters are here and played as believably as I've ever seen. Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) is especially frightening, and the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) is much younger than I'm used to seeing him played. Be aware that this version of Oliver Twist is PG-13 for a reason: kids are beaten mercilessly, and death (and murder) always hangs over the children's heads. Parts of this movie are genuinely scary, so little kids probably aren't the ideal audience. I have a great deal of affection for Polanski's Oliver Twist, and I applaud anyone willing to tackle such a well-worn classic, especially with such a masterful hand.

Mirrormask
Certainly one of the most original and eye-pleasing experiences I'm likely to have all year is Mirrormask, directed by Dave McKean and written by science fiction legend Neil Gaiman. Aimed more at a slightly younger audience than myself (think Dark Crystal), Mirrormask tells the story of 15-year-old Helena (newcomer Stephanie Leonidas), whose family are circus performers until her mother (Gina McKee) is stricken with cancer and nears death. Worried sick about her mother and the future of the circus, Helena goes to sleep and awakens in the Dark Lands, a largely CGI world in which all manner of creatures exits. The forces of light and dark are at odds in this world, with the darkness rapidly taking over because the Queen of Light (also played by McKee) is ill. Not surprisingly, the queen's nemesis, the Queen of Shadows (McKee again) is after the soul of Helena because her own daughter has disappeared into the real world (in Helena's body) and has no interest in returning to the other world.

You're going to hear the phrase "eye candy" used a lot with regards to Mirrormask, and with good reason. Simply put, you have never seen anything like Dark Lands in your life. Every square inch has something worth analyzing in detail, and some of it is fairly grotesque. My only complaint might be that Helena is a bit too casual about all of the sights and goings-on in this bizarre place, especially when she realizes that this isn't some dream she's having. Gaiman and McKean have created something extraordinary in this world, which is as much a tale about the relationship between parents and children as it is about freaky cat monsters with human faces and a mask made of a mirror. This truly remarkable work is opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Keane
About 10 years ago, I saw a remarkable indie piece called Clean, Shaven that dealt with a mentally ill man attempting to get his daughter back from her adoptive family. It's a sad and pathetic tale that might be one of the greatest portraits of mental illness I've ever seen. The writer-director of that film was Lodge Kerrigan, who has made only one film between Clean, Shaven and his latest, Keane, but clearly the subject of mental illness hasn't lost its fascination for him. Keane also deals with a schizophrenic man named William Keane (Damian Lewis, recently seen in An Unfinished Life) searching for his daughter, who may have been kidnapped from New York's Port Authority bus station a year earlier.

The first 20 minutes or so of Keane are just Lewis wandering the station, sometimes quite coherently asking people if they've seen his daughter; other times he's ranting to himself, convinced that the kidnapper is somehow watching him and laughing at his pain. One day, William meets a woman (Amy Ryan) in the hotel in which he's staying and ends up taking care of her 7-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) for a couple days. The tension begins almost the minute the two are left alone, as we wonder if William will see the girl as a substitute for his own daughter or if he will wander away from her on one of his rants, leaving her as prey for some mystery abductor.

I've been a Damian Lewis fan since seeing him in HBO's "Band of Brothers" miniseries, and he's never been better or more unnerving than he is in Keane. The film's hand-held, in-your-face camera work adds such an immediacy that you feel like a bug on William's sweater. As sympathetic a character as William is, we're also profoundly scared of every action he makes. Keane is about a search for closure in the mind of an insane man, and what form that closure might take is anyone's guess. Keane is as unsettling as it is humane, and it's tough to remember a time I could say that about any film. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Tony Takitani
...is perhaps the single saddest movie every made. OK, maybe not, but it's at least in the top five. An emotionally stunted Japanese man — whose childhood love of art turned into a career in technical drawing, the coldest and most emotionless of all art forms — falls in love with a younger woman. He finds her obsession with designer clothes appealing, primarily because he loves the way she inhabits her outfits. But her obsession takes on the form of a disease, as she spends and spends on clothes she'll never wear. At one point she even returns clothes, but changes her mind as she contemplates how beautiful they are. This decision leads to great tragedy, and this strange and wonderful little tale turns into a story about a type of grieving I'm guessing you've never experienced.

Since the entire film is narrated by an unseen narrator (as well as some of the characters), watching Tony Takitani has a book-on-film feel to it. The language here is elegant and simple, and the story winds in a way that is as natural as it is confounding. When Tony enters the room that has been turned into his wife's closet, he breaks down because the clothes are like lingering shadows of his beloved. The film, from director Jun Ichikawa, is driven by emotions about things in life most people don't get emotional about, and that makes it all the more fascinating. Tony Takitani is a lovely gem of a film and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Talent Given Us
Constantly teetering on the brink between fascinating and annoying-as-shit is The Talent Given Us, a pseudo-documentary following the clearly scripted road-trip adventures of the family of director Andrew Wagner. Wagner is a brave man in casting his parents, Judy and Allen, and sisters, actresses Emily and Maggie, in this story that finds the family on the road from New York to Los Angeles to visit the long-unheard-from Andrew.

Listening to the family trade secrets is like watching vultures pick apart a freshly killed carcass, and the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction is both frustrating and hopelessly entertaining. Did Allen have an affair many years ago? Does Emily submit to humiliating sex acts as a way to give herself over to her lovers?

The experience of watching The Talent Given Us is often creepy, especially when Judy complains about Allen never wanting to have sex with her because of all of his post-stroke medications. Remember how incredibly annoying the Friedmans were in the home movies in Capturing the Friedmans? The family dynamic (and their voices) are interchangeable. I was at times captivated and terrified by the idea that Andrew Wagner could even get his parents to do and say these sort of things. (I wasn't as surprised by the sisters' participation, since they are both clearly actresses.) When Judy orders Allen to "fuck me," I almost lost my lunch. That's his mom, dude! The Talent Given Us is clearly for the more open-minded — who also have a healthy patience streak for self-indulgence. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

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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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