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Sunday, July 21

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Shrek the Third

I will begin my brief review of the third Shrek installment by throwing some statistics at you and dropping a few famous names. It took four people to write Shrek the Third (not including the guy credited with the "story" and someone else credited with "additional screenplay material.") It took two people to direct the movie. Those are my stats. Here comes the name-dropping. Those who return: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, and Larry King as Doris. Those who are new: Eric Idle, Justin Timberlake, John Krasinski, Ian McShane, Cheri Oteri, Regis Philbin, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Amy Sedaris and Seth Rogen(!). In case you didn't notice, there are quite a few very funny and talented people on this list. And each and every one of them spent a great deal of time and received a great deal of money to bore the fuck out of me for 80-plus minutes.

Shrek the Third is not a complete and utter disaster; on occasion, it has its moments. Banderas' take on Puss in Boots is still the funniest thing in any of these films. And when Puss and Donkey (Murphy) switch bodies for a time, Banderas even makes Donkey funny for once. There's a sequence in which the gingerbread man's life flashes before his eyes, and it's hysterical. And Eric Idle's spastic take on Merlin the magician is so odd that you won't be able to laugh. But much like Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third suffers from overcrowding. Thankfully, there is only one running storyline here (unlike S-M3), but it feels like the writers were forced to bring back every face and voice that has ever appeared in the previous films, and then add 97 more characters to keep things fresh. Instead, the result is cinematic claustrophobia.

I like the idea of bringing in some of the characters from the King Arthur legend into the Shrek world, but Justin Timberlake (who I've liked a great deal as an actor in the last six months) is utterly wasted as the young, unpolished "Artie," and he offers no real comic flare to the film. The same can be said for just about every new character added to this new series (with the exception of Idle). Granted, it's kind of amusing to see Princess Fiona having a baby shower attended by the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. There's a cattiness to the event that made it feel more like a sorority bitch-fest than a party comprised of fairy tale leading ladies.

Still, the worst crime committed by the makers of Shrek the Third is that it doesn't feel like they care about these characters anymore. There's a laziness about the plot and the performances that is undeniable. Even the pop culture references and song cues seem tired, obvious, and played out. If this series were a TV show and featured a pregnant Fiona storyline and a doubling of the cast size, it would be accused of jumping the shark, and that's precisely what watching this film feels like. I'm not even saying that the Shrek series is beyond saving. I'm still moderately interested the Shrek Christmas television special planned for this December and Shrek the Fourth (or whatever it will be called) in 2010, but these projects have got to have better scripts that breathe a little life and depth into these characters. This one feels like a placeholder.

Fay Grim

For those who have lovingly followed the career and films of Hal Hartley, 1998's Henry Fool, about a garbage man named Simon (James Urbaniak) who befriends a cavalier writer named Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), probably occupies a special place in your heart. As Simon's star and fame as a writer/poet begin to rise, Henry sees his life deteriorate into a world of booze. The men have a falling out, but when Henry's secret criminal history catches up with him, Simon is called upon to help him escape the country. Simon's sister, Fay (Parker Posey), and her son Ned (Liam Aiken) were also players in Simon's story, and now they are brought to the forefront of Hartley's Henry Fool sequel, Fay Grim, a loopy, globe-trotting play on spy stories featuring Fay at the center of a complicated (almost indecipherable) story uncovering the mystery of whether the elusive Mr. Fool is alive or dead.

Posey earned her reputation as one of the reigning queens of indie films playing characters like Fay, and it's somehow heartwarming and comforting to find her back embracing the Quirk. Posey's characterizations always manage to combine the standoffish with the completely embraceable; she may have even scared me a little. But 10 years ago, I would have given anything to meet and fall in love with a woman just like her. Fay Grim allows Posey to showcase her gifts to a degree that some of her recent work hasn't. And while the film will be heralded as a return to form for Hartley, I'll remember it as a triumphant reminder of how great an actress Posey can be.

Attempting to tell you even a portion of this film's plot would be meaningless. All four of the major characters return to the story. Simon begins the movie at the end of his prison sentence for helping Henry escape. Although many believe Henry died shortly after he left the country, evidence has no surfaced that he faked his death. And the more that people dig into Henry's past, the more it becomes clear that he was an international intelligence agent who worked for many nations or perhaps none. Fay is prompted by various spy agencies of several countries to collect and turn over Henry's multi-part journals, which may give clues to his whereabouts. She heads to Paris to collect some of his belongings, and her world travels and investigation into Henry's life begin. Along the way, she encounters a CIA agent played by Jeff Goldblum as well as other shadowy figures nicely played by the likes of Saffron Burrows and Elina Lowenshohn. Henry's "Confessions" journals trade hands countless times, because they are said to contain coded secrets that everybody wants, but no one can agree exactly what they reveal.

The idea that this secret information could topple governments is clearly Hartley responding to the way the world has reacted (or maybe overreacted) to terror threats, but something about his writing and style has a very retro feel, maybe something out of a John la Carre novel about Cold War spies. And it's this throwback quality to Fay Grim that kept me hooked even as the plot's many twists and turns did their best to baffle me. I don't think it's absolutely necessary that you see Henry Fool before diving into this work. But if you haven't seen it, consider the release of Fay Grim the perfect excuse to dig up a copy and discover it. Hartley has lost none of the wonderfully unusual touches that make his movies smart and worthy of analyzing and repeat viewings. Watching Fay Grim doesn't feel like work, but it's definitely not something you can watch casually. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and comes out on DVD on May 22. Wherever/however you watch it, prepare to enjoy this wildly engaging film.

Brand Upon the Brain!

Before I get into the substance of Guy Maddin's latest masterpiece, allow me to fill you in on some exciting things happening with this weekend's showings of Brand Upon the Brain!, playing for a week at the Music Box Theatre. Technically, Maddin's (The Saddest Music in the World; Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) new offering is a silent film. If you see it during the week, you'll hear it with a recorded music score and a taped narration by Isabella Rossellini. That's how I saw it, and it's fantastic. However, if you see it at certain showtimes on May 18-20 (check the Music Box website for specifics), you'll have a live narration by the lovely and talented Crispin Glover and live orchestral accompaniment and sound effects. I've heard a "castrato" also will be part of the live experience. But these are just the icing on Maddin's provocative interpretation of events from his childhood, which are at times terrifying, outrageously amusing, erotic, and deeply touching.

Sharing remembrances from his life beginning at age 12, this version of Maddin lived his early years isolated in an island-based orphanage run by his mother and father. In Maddin's mind, his mother is represented by a woman manning a large telescope and spotlight, tracking his every movement around the island and calling him home with a shrill cry. His father is a scientist, who rarely leaves his lab. When mom and dad discover strange scarring around the heads of the orphans, they call in celebrity sleuths Wendy and Chance Hale. Guy has had a crush on Wendy as long as he can remember. As the investigation proceeds, the seeming calm of the orphanage begins to unravel into Gothic mayhem.

For anyone who has ever seen one of Maddin's films, you have some idea of what you're in for with Brand, which is to say, you have no idea what to expect. His films are black-and-white visions, using camera and editing tricks that make the footage look ancient and grainy, like something discovered from another time, perhaps another dimension. Some of his older works were simply beyond my comprehension, but more recently, they seem slightly more accessible without the feeling that he's dumbing down his vision. Maybe I'm just used to his style now, but I also feel there's a newfound maturity and self-realization that makes his often sad and lonely films more universal. Surely Maddin isn't the only person who knows what it's like to have an overbearing mother and a largely absent father. And young crushes are what makes the world go 'round.

Brand Upon the Brain! also shows Madden as an adult revisiting his childhood haunts, putting a fresh coat of paint over everything that represents his past and influences his every movement as an adult. The painting represents both a whitewashing of the past and some sort of self-enforced penance for an unnamed sin. Or perhaps it's his way of burying a host of terrible memories. Brand may not make total sense, but as with most of Maddin's work, it's the thought that counts. Still, any film that makes you think about it long after the lights come up has to count for something. This is one of my favorite films of the year, and it marks an excellent chance for you to experience one of the most profoundly visionary filmmakers working today at his peak. I have no clue what nuances Glover's narration will bring to this already satisfying work, but I can image it will be a tremendous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this film in such a unique presentation.


Nearly everything about this true-life, seemingly inspirational tale of a battered Indian woman living in the UK who finally snaps and sets fire to her husband as he sleeps is weird. The weirdness begins with the film's director, Jag Mundhra, who made a career for himself in the 1990s making soft-core movies starring the likes of Tanya Roberts and Andrew Stevens, with titles such as Sexual Malice, Wild Cactus, The Other Woman, Tropical Heat, L.A. Goddess, Irresistible Impulse, Improper Conduct and, believe me, the list goes on. Ah, the early days of Skin-emax. Provoked is a serious work about the first instance in the British judicial system in which Battered Woman Syndrome was used as part of the appeals process to help free a woman from a life sentence for murder, one that she committed after 10 years of abuse. But Mundhra's heavy handedness and use of two-ton mallets to drive home the film's message completely undercut any power this story might have had.

India's most famous and beautiful actress Aishwarya Rai stars as Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who gets married to the seemingly warm and caring Deepak ("Lost's" Naveen Andrews). But soon after they marry, his jealous streak, womanizing, and drinking start to take a toll on the marriage. Make no mistake: this guy is pure evil (almost cartoonishly so). He pushes his pregnant wife down the stairs. He even rapes her on occasion. And being the dutiful Indian wife, she lies to protect him and save herself from embarrassment and shame. The bed-burning sequence is actually quite startling, as is her arrest and incarceration process. She cares only about the welfare of her two young children and nothing about protecting herself from prosecution. She won't even testify to the circumstances that Provoked her behavior for fear of humiliation. This results in a life sentence in one of the most spa-like women's prisons I've ever seen on film.

A team of legal aide activists takes on her case and seeks a retrial based on several factors, although they get little help from Kiranjit's trial lawyer (Rebecca Pidgeon). Kiranjit actually adjusts nicely to life in prison because, for her, it represents a kind of freedom from abuse and the hard life she's had until now. Her cellmate Ronnie (Miranda Richardson) teaches her the ropes, and disappointingly we never get to see Rai in any of our favorite women-in-prison scenarios. Sorry, guys. Robbie Coltraine pops in as Ronnie's brother-in-law, who just happens to be a major law figure in London. Kiranjit's cause gains a lot of steam as the retrial hearing draws near, and I don't think the results of that hearing will come as a shock to anyone.

Provoked actually starts out rather well, right up until the verdict in the original trial, when the film stops being just about Kiranjit's plight and more about the overall cause. The activists come across as peppy cheerleaders, giving each other high-fives and calling each other "brilliant" every time they come up with a new legal strategy. The women who befriend Kiranjit in prison are all guilty of their crimes, but, according to this movie, they all committed their felonious acts for the right reason. Coincidentally, Ronnie sought revenge on her abusive husband as well. The film gets progressively more obvious and message-heavy as it goes on, culminating in an embarrassing looking-directly-at-the-camera declaration from Kiranjit about this cause. What was left of the film's dramatic worth drains out at that exact moment, making Provoked an ineffectual mess. I'm certainly not belittling the struggle of battered women; this movie has done quite enough of that. If anything, I think the film sets back women's issues about 20 years by trivializing them and couching them in a feel-good blanket that demeans the issues at stake here. I'm not even sure this movie would go over well on the Lifetime channel. Rai is a fine actress who can make big, rolling tears flow from her eyes with surprising ease (she spends about 75 percent of her screentime crying), but that doesn't save the film from its bull-fisted message handling or its trivialization of its characters or subject matter. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

First on the Moon

I have been remiss in not mentioning a fascinating month-long series taking place at the Gene Siskel Film Center right now. "From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey through Russian Fantastik Cinema" traces the history of Russian science fiction, much of which had to conform to strict state-dictated guidelines that glorified communism and the Russian way of life. Check out the Film Center's website for details. The magnificently clever 2005 fictional documentary First on the Moon (from director Alexei Fedorchenko) traces a fictional history of Russia's space program, which, according to this telling, began before World War II. Although not exactly a "mockumentary" (since the story is not told for laughs), the film mixes real archival Russian newsreel footage and perfectly faked "hidden spy camera" clips to reveal a hidden Soviet history that seems all-too believable.

According to this version of history, cosmonaut Ivan Kharlamov got to the moon in 1938 but his craft crash-landed in the Chilean jungles, where he is believed to have died on impact or re-entry. But research has shown that he may, in fact, have made it back to Russian soil and that footage from his voyage in space survived. The most fascinating part of this forged tale is the footage of the cosmonauts training, including a circus little person (to fit in the tiny craft) and a woman. Their every move was filmed, even when they weren't aware of it, thanks to hidden cameras in their quarters and other means of surveillance. One of the film's greatest achievements is capturing the nation's obsession for recording every moment of this program and everyday life for its own glorification or to catch those less than loyal to the party. What happens to the other cosmonauts when the initial mission apparently fails is heartbreaking, but right in line with what you'd expect from a country so driven by its own world image. This wholly original film screens on Friday, May 18 at 6pm and Wednesday, May 23 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

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