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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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Sunday, July 21

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Sex and the City

"Hello, my name is Steve."

The Group: "Hi, Steve."

"I'm here today to say that I am, in fact, one of the straight men in the world who has seen every episode of 'Sex and the City' on HBO, and for the most part always enjoyed the experience."

The Group: "Amen." "We hear you." "Keep going." "Be strong."

"I started watching the show for the same reason I watch any new show: curiosity. I have always had a thing for Sarah Jessica Parker, ever since her time on 'Square Pegs.' But I grew to truly appreciate the show for what I thought was solid insight into the minds and hearts of women my age. I felt like I was peeking into a world and overhearing conversations not meant for male ears. It felt slightly dirty (the language alone was worth of price of admission), but more than that, I felt like I was learning something. In addition, I loved getting a peek into the latest trends (real or imagined by the show's creators) in New York clubs and restaurants. I spent a couple years living in NYC in my youth, and I still miss it. I go back as often as I can, and watching 'Sex and the City' made it possible for me to do that a few weeks out of the year."

The Group: "Watch it now, you're slipping back." "Remember the steps."

"No, there's no danger of me slipping, because there's nowhere for me to slip. I watched each episode once and I haven't seen another since, not in reruns or on DVD. I wanted to go into the film remembering the series fondly, but not remembering it too well."

I think I can stop the confessional format.

As obvious as it seems, I always liked the character of Carrie Bradshaw (Parker), the best of the four ladies because she was a struggling writer who came to New York looking for love. But it was more than identifying with her that made me like her. She was the only one of the bunch who didn't seem to have some truly deplorable character flaw(s) that made you hate her at times. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) was too temperamental; Charlotte (Kristen Davis) was too prudish; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) was so into herself that she never made time to let real emotions enter her life. But it was these same infuriating qualities that made them all-too believable at times. But the show was never better than when Carrie and her filthy rich soulmate, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), were together, verbally sparring and clearly feeling each other out before taking the plunge, which is exactly what they do in early scenes in Sex in the City, the movie. They buy a place together and plan to get married. The first half of the movie is good, since it focuses on Carrie and Big (called by his real name, John, about half the time), but there comes a point where Big leaves the picture for a while, and then the movie weirdly becomes about Carrie and her new personal assistant, Louise, played by Dreamgirls' Jennifer Hudson. I'm not convinced Hudson is as solid and actress as she is a singer, but the reason Louise isn't in the least bit interesting is that she's given terrible dialogue and almost zero story arc (courtesy of writer-director-show creator Michael Patrick King).

The other stories are less interesting (especially Charlotte's, who apparently has no problem in her life to speak of, and seems to be living the perfect life with her husband and adopted baby girl), although the friction between Miranda and husband Steve (David Eigenberg) at least feels like it's trying. Samantha's troubled life in Los Angeles is almost laughable, and the film desperately drags when Cattrall is on screen. There are a couple of moments of high, relationship-based drama that seem so out of place in this movie (as they would felt on the TV show) that you almost feel embarrassed for the filmmakers for trying to force these serious scenes into what is otherwise a lighthearted effort. I applaud King for not abandoning the show's foul-mouthed way and extraordinary use of nudity (male and female), but even that is not enough to liven the film up from its often-dreary plots.

But of course, Sex and the City isn't all about Oscar bait (ahem). It's about clothes, shoes, labels and the biggest and greatest closets you've ever seen. Women in the audience audibly gasped when a designer label showed up on screen. And if you're the kind of person who gets woozy at the sight of a Louis Vuitton handbag, then you've probably pre-ordered your tickets to see this movie already. But I don't fault the film for being materialistic; it's always been that way. No, I fault the film for not teaching me anything new about the minds of successful women or relationships or human behavior or sexuality. With a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, you figure you might stumble onto some random useful knowledge. The movie plays more like a second-rate soap opera with people breaking up and getting back together, people getting pregnant and getting dumped. And all of this is happening while each and every character looks fabulous doing it. I was kind of hoping this film would move me more than it did so I could recommend it wholeheartedly. Instead, the film parades familiar faces before our eyes to invigorate our sense of nostalgia, but fails to earn our respect by not giving us something new and great.

The Fall

There will probably be many great films in 2008; we've already seen a couple of them. But I doubt one will come close to sending me into a deep splendor the way Tarsem's The Fall does. It's a film I first saw more than a month ago, and I still reflect upon both its purely visual aspects and its great understand of what storytelling is. In his previous film, The Cell, Tarsem managed to visualize insanity. Here, he somehow manages to capture and combine the realism of a man's desire to end his own life and the fantastical world that his words fuel inside the mind of a six-year-old girl. The Fall never stops at finding new ways to remove the breath from your body as it pulls you deeper into its world and its way of thinking.

When I sat down to really consider this movie, of course, it's easy to discuss the great performance by "Pushing Daisies" star Lee Pace (who was a virtual unknown when he made this movie about five years ago) as 20s-era Hollywood stuntman Roy Walker and first-timer Catinca Untaru as Alexandia, both of whom land in the same hospital. It's obvious that you would also talk about Tarsem's stunning visual landscapes; the man has been doing these sorts of things for decades, and he's the best. But The Fall almost demands that you have a strong emotional reaction to it as well. You won't talk about whether you like or don't like the work; you will either love or loathe it. I'm guessing you'll feel the former.

Stuntman Roy has had an accident during a film he's been shooting and has become partially paralyzed as a result. But it's his actress girlfriend breaking up with him that is truly what's ailing him. Alexandria has broken her arm, and her being a child, she is bored in the hospital and goes exploring. She discovers Roy, and the two form a friendship sealed by a running story that he tells her over several days. She returns to him day after day to hear the next chapter in his made-up story; he hopes to gain her trust so she will steal drugs for him to aide in his suicide. The Fall could have easily been the story of these two and still been a fantastic piece of filmmaking. But Tarsem is a master visual artist, and he brings Roy's elaborate adventure story to life, but since we're seeing this story through Alexandria's imagination, we're getting a skewed version of the tale. You don't notice it at first, but once you do, you'll gasp at the small alterations this child's perspective adds to the proceedings.

The Fall is not exactly a children's movie, but it is one that reintroduces us to what it's like to be and think like a child. At Alexandria's age, most of us were painfully shy; but when we made a friend, that person was someone very special to us. We didn't quite understand the differences between adults and children (other than that adults were much taller). And when someone told us a story, we often would draw from the faces around us for the faces of the characters in the story (just ask Dorothy about that). Tarsem has an inherent understanding of these childish qualities and uses them to make his fantasy story seem strangely familiar while being utterly original. More incredibly, there are no special effects here (other than makeup), no CGI; what you see on the screen is real, even the stuff that seems completely unreal.

A few weeks back on Ain't It Cool News, Moriarty wrote a beautiful piece on Catinca Untaru's devastating work in this film. In no way does anything she's doing on the screen feel like acting. Her whispered conversations with Pace make us feel like we're eavesdropping in on highly private moments. I can't remember the last time a film made me think I was violating someone's private space while I was just trying to listen to dialogue, but that's what this resembles. And I've barely scratched the surface on some of Tarsem's other miracles with The Fall, including the delicate costumes, a nurse character (Justine Waddell) who also appears in the fantasy world as a sort of queen and the music from Krishna Levy. It all comes together in a beautiful motif that I will likely never forget and will revisit often. But these are just words, and The Fall is so much more than words. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

As a special treat for Chicago-area moviegoers, on Sunday, June 1 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema's 7:30pm showing of The Fall, director Tarsem will do a post-screening Q&A, which I'll moderate. Trust me when I say that the only thing more fascinating than seeing this movie is being able to talk to Tarsem about it after you've seen it.

Read my interview with The Fall star Lee Pace, and my two-part interview with The Fall director Tarsem (part one and part two), on Ain't It Cool News.

Mister Lonely

Writer-director Harmony Korine has been an endless source of curiosity for me. With his screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids, he revealed a world and lifestyle that shocked even the most unshockable. As a director of films like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy he filmed the lives of people whose lives simply don't get filmed, the marginalized and forgotten.

His latest work, Mister Lonely, still focuses on such individuals but in a far more understated and, dare I say, accessible manner. Korine isn't necessarily getting soft or playing it safe at the ripe old age of 35. Instead, he's telling his story in a way that fits the more subtle planes his characters exist in. In Mister Lonely, Korine's most emotionally gripping story, he introduces us to a Mexican man (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Terminal) living in Paris impersonating Michael Jackson. He doesn't exactly look like Jackson, but the hair and clothes and thin frame are close enough.

He seems to be making something of a living when he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (a busty Samantha Morton) at a gig they both have at a retirement home. She suggests that he move to a weirdly perfect commune of fellow look-alikes living in the Scottish Highlands. Once "Michael" arrives at the commune, the film takes on a tone that might seem familiar to those familiar with Korine's work. Filled with impersonators of such figures as Abe Lincoln (the angriest Lincoln ever), Sammy Davis Jr., Madonna, the Pope (James Fox), Queen Elizabeth II (Anita Pallenberg, yes, that Anita Pallenberg) and the Three Stooges, among others, things at the homestead seem relatively calm at first. But a sense of claustrophobia and chaos soon take over, especially as the troop prepares for a performance for the locals. "Marilyn's" husband, a Chaplin look-alike (Denis Lavant), is terribly jealous of his wife's closeness to this newcomer.

Connected only by its proximity to the other story, Korine also includes a separate story about a priest (Werner Herzog) and a group of nuns living in a Latin American jungle making miracles happen that involve throwing nuns out of airplanes. Korine builds this quiet, almost serene, piece into a whirlwind of chaos and heightened emotions and ultimately tragedy.

Luna's performance is utterly captivating and perfect. He's a simple man who needs very little from life, but when he gets a small fraction of love from someone, it completely changes who he is. It's devastating. You could make an argument that by setting his film in a place where everyone is famous, Korine is somehow commenting on today's society where everyone is a potential reality TV star. Even if that is part of his intention, that does not detract from the beauty or subtlety of his film. Mister Lonely is beyond strange on the surface, but surprisingly universal in its appeal and strength.

To read my interview with Mister Lonely writer-director Harmony Korine, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Korine will also be at select screenings of Mister Lonely at the Music Box on Friday, May 30 (the 7pm and 9:45pm shows), and Saturday, May 31 (the 2pm show), for post-screening Q&As, all of which will be moderated by yours truly.

The Strangers

If you believe Hollywood these days (and why the hell wouldn't you?), then America's number one fear is not terrorists or space monsters or the living dead or any number of natural disasters. Nope, Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe's top fear is a random act of violence perpetrated against them either while they're on a road trip/vacation or in their own home. This isn't exactly news. Films like The Hills Have Eyes and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre cover the worst of what can happen while you're exploring this great land of ours. While more recent films like High Tension and Funny Games have explored more homegrown fear mongering. Last year, a truly terrifying (and largely bloodless) French film called Them was released in this country, and it scared the wee-wee out of me. Later this summer, a movie called Baghead analyzes these kinds of horror films in a fairly unique manner. The new film The Strangers (said to be based on a true story) is cut from the same cloth as these works: a couple ends up in a isolated cabin in the woods, are practically scared to death by noises and lights and attempt to fight back and/or escape. A movie about the prospect of home invasion is hardly a new concept, but there is something darker, colder and more sinister about this new crop. These killers aren't evil monsters; they are just normal people, bored and looking for something to do. They are Class A assholes, to whom motivation means nothing. Their motivation is that they feel like it, and what could be scarier than that?

The Strangers follows James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) who have just had a terrible evening at a wedding reception and seem on the verge of breaking up. They just begin to discuss their problems when a knock comes at the door. They answer it, and a young woman whose face is obscured by the dark asks "Is Tamara there?" They tell her she has the wrong house and send her on her way. Speedman leaves to buy cigarettes, and then the knocking starts again; other sounds also come from inside and outside the house and by the time he returns, Kristen is a nervous wreck. Soon we begin to see figures and masked faces. Since I didn't know exactly how this story would play out, it did cross my mind that these three offenders were simply trying to scare the crap out of this helpless couple, but we don't get off that easily. Speedman and Tyler are both good-looking, but more importantly, they're both decent actors who never let us doubt for a second that these two are scared and confused as to why they were picked and how this evening will play out for them. First-time feature director Bryan Bertino impressed the hell out of me with the tools he uses to build tension. Sure, sometimes the evildoers seem to know a little too well what the couple's next move is going to be, but most of the time, the story seems far too plausible and the scares are well earned.

I'm not sure The Strangers qualifies as a cautionary tale, since neither of these victims could be accused of doing anything that could be called "risky behavior." If anything, the film's message could be that it doesn't matter how safely you lead your life, or how much money you have or don't have or how many resources you have at your disposal because your life is just as easy to fuck with as anybody else's. The world isn't necessarily a dangerous place; but it is a place where the worst kind of behavior is random. The Strangers has its flaws, but they are small. And my only real rule when it comes to scary movies is that they must scare me. This one did, and it did it without tricks. I respect that, and recommend this very strong little thriller.

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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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