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Monday, November 18

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Smart People

Clearly hoping to siphon off some of Ellen Page's newfound Juno fame, first-time director Noam Murro's long-on-the-shelf dark comedy is actually a smart and sharp examination of a deeply wounded family left adrift after the death of its matriarch. Literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold (a scruffily bearded Dennis Quaid) is the classic self-obsessed teacher who is constantly frustrated with life because no other human being sees his genius as clearly as he does. His miserable parenting skills (made all the more awful by the death of his much-beloved wife years earlier) have resulted in a son (Ashton Holmes of The History of Violence), who won't even talk to him or treat him with any respect, and a driven-to-perfection, young-Republican daughter (Page), who strives for perfect SAT scores at the expense of any meaningful friendships. When Lawrence passes out, his doctor (and former student, played by Sarah Jessica Parker) refuses to let him drive his car until he returns months later for follow-up tests. Coincidentally, Lawrence's half-brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) shows up looking for free lodging and a little extra cash. It just so happens that Lawrence now needs a driver, and Chuck is up for the job.

Once the premise is established, Smart People effectively eliminates plot in favor of character study, and the remainder of the film is a series of encounters (nicely penned by writer Mark Jude Poirier) between characters, all of which add up to a subtle shift in the family's dynamics and attitudes about what constitutes importance in today's world. Haden Church is especially good as the monk-like, borderline homeless brother/uncle who dispenses terrible advice to his kin that somehow makes things better. Without really wanting or trying to, Chuck finds the keys to loosen up his brother and niece from their tight-assed bonds. Meanwhile, the very down-to-earth doctor and Lawrence begin dating, but when the professor begins to experience some level of success with his newly completed book, a fun vacation to New York City with his new lover turns into a work-intensive bore. Perhaps the most difficult relationship to watch transform is that between Lawrence and his kids, both of whom resent him in completely different ways. I don't think anyone is going to burst out crying while watching the family's tribulations, but that doesn't mean they aren't moving. This top-notch group of talented actors takes what could have been a standard quirky drama and turns it into something more, something much better. Parker isn't so lucky, mainly because her character isn't given nearly as much to do, and I think there's a presumption that she's the normal one of the bunch and she doesn't need changing; I respectfully disagree. Still Smart People made me laugh and cringe with recognition, and that's pretty great.

To read my exclusive interview with Smart People star Thomas Haden Church, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Street Kings

It's too bad that the FX television drama "The Shield" is ending its mind-blowing run after its upcoming (already shot) season ends this fall because writer-director David Ayer seems perfectly suited to have scripted or helmed an episode or two of that show. With scripts like Training Day, Dark Blue and his directorial debut, Harsh Times (the grossly underrated Christian Bale-Freddie Rodriguez work from 2005), Ayer has proven that he has a talent for presenting compromised cops, some of whom still have a shot at redemption. Now, Ayer didn't write his latest work as a director, Street Kings—the screenplay is credited to crime novelist James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia; L.A. Confidential), Kurt Wimmer (The Recruit; The Thomas Crown Affair remake) and newcomer Jamie Moss—but that doesn't stop the movie from being a fairly solid, if slightly crowded, affair that starts at full speed and rarely lets off the gas.

At the center of the complex work is Keanu Reeves as Tom Ludlow, a member of a team of renegade officers not unlike those on "The Shield" (other members include Jay Mohr and John Corbett). Since the team gets results, the department tends to look the other way, especially since the group's captain (Forest Whitaker, totally fun to watch here as he chews up scenery like it was make of gummy) has a great deal of pull with the bosses. After Ludlow uses highly unorthodox methods to single handedly wipe out a group of child flesh traders, he comes under the microscope of internal affairs (represented by a stellar Hugh Laurie) and his former partner (Terry Crews), who has a reputation for turning in dirty cops. Reeves isn't bad here, but after seeing Christian Bale play a similar role in Harsh Times, my mind kept wanting to insert him into the part.

In what is absolutely an overly complicated plot involving dirty cops, an officer's brutal murder, more dirty cops and Ludlow possibly taking the fall for something he didn't do, the film tracks Ludlow as he is forced to go against his own learned behavior and uncover the mystery of who might be setting him up for a fall. As someone who has seen enough films to know to suspect the least likely person, I knew almost from the first frame of this movie who Ludlow's enemies were, but that only partly took away from my enjoyment of Street Kings. Ludlow forms an uneasy alliance with the detective (Chris Evans) investigating the crime he's suspected of committing. Despite his attachment to the Fantastic Four movies, Evans continues to impress me as an actor in a mixed bag of films like last year's Sunshine, Fierce People and London. The films aren't always particularly strong (such as The Nanny Diaries), but he's always been good in them. I was also impressed with rap artist Common, who has a small but terrifying role here. After excelling in strong supporting roles in movies like Smokin' Aces and American Gangster (and apparently in a fairly large role in the upcoming Wanted), this guy has proven himself a solid acting talent with actual range. As far as I'm concerned, he's just about due a meaty starring role.

As you may have noticed from all the name-dropping up above, this film is loaded with name actors (I didn't even mention Cedric the Entertainer or Naomie Harris or The Game or a cameo by former L.A. chief of police Daryl Gates), and the film does feel a little busy more often than not. But most everyone pulls their weight and gives performances that lift this flawed work above the level of most films about dirty cops and the lives they lead and often need to get out of. Reeves is a stable center around which insanity revolves and threatens to envelop him. I love that he plays a hero, whose behavior and attitudes are deplorable 99 percent of the time. The script tries to soften his dark edges by saddling him with an unnecessary dead-wife backstory, but it isn't necessary or effective. While far from a raging success, Street Kings has enough going for it to recommend it if you're feeling an aggressive need to vent your frustrations at the world in a movie theater. The acting and flawed but often-compelling script ultimately carry the day.

Chaos Theory

I can never explain exactly why, but I am entertained by Ryan Reynolds. I guess I should stop trying to understand the reasons and just go with it. His last film Definitely, Maybe was a surprisingly strong romantic dramedy that almost everyone I know who saw it liked. The simple fact is the guy has made me laugh a lot over the years even in the truly shit he's been in, which probably explains why I didn't think his latest, Chaos Theory, was all that strong, but I thought he was pretty good in it. Is this what a man-crush feels like?

This disjointed little movie follows the romantic misadventures of Frank Allen (Reynolds), a personal efficiency expert and celebrated author who believes that scheduling every minute of your day is the only way to lead a productive life. He even schedules his downtime. Somehow this hopeless stiff manages to find a lovely wife (Emily Mortimer), spawn a cute daughter (Matreya Fedor), and lead a fairly successful life running seminars based on his theories on time and scheduling. One night while he's out of town teaching, he has a moment of unscheduled weakness and almost has an affair. Attempting to flee from one woman, he nearly runs into (literally) another in her car. Turns out woman number two is pregnant and on her way to the hospital to deliver, and Frank being a good guy decides to make sure she gets there safe and sound. This series of events somehow leads Frank's wife to believe her husband is leading a double life and has two families. To prove her wrong, Frank gets a paternity test and discovers that he has been sterile since birth, which means his daughter isn't his. I guess the betrayal shoe is on the other foot.

Often bordering on the absurd, Chaos Theory seems like it was made up as it went along. Characters and conflicts drop in and out seemingly with no rhyme or reason. For example, Frank's best friend (Stuart Townsend) only seems to show up when he's needed to keep the plot going. Sometimes Frank seems to want to lead the life of a free spirit and jettison his faithful index cards; other times he seems to rely on them, even when he's supposedly acting on a whim. Reynolds has a few great moments, but the film changes tone so schizophrenically from comedy to family drama and back again that it made my head hurt. Even the themes of leading a regimented life versus being a free spirit aren't really brought to any kind of resolution. Many times in Chaos Theory, Reynolds writes down three ideas on separate note cards, shuffles them and selects one as his next course of action. I feel like that's how this screenplay was written. It's not a wholly unpleasant experience, but it is sloppy and makes it tough to really dive into this film. Reynolds is fun, as always, but the rest of the story kind of falls dead around him. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Priceless

I'd forgotten how stunning Audrey Tatou (Amélie; The Da Vinci Code) truly is. I don't just mean pretty; I mean drop-dead, knock me over with a feather beautiful. And she looks great in just about every outfit, which seems to be director Pierre Salvadori's theme in Priceless, in which Tatou plays Irene, a money-hungry party girl who targets older rich men and gets as many gifts as she can from them before she moves on to someone with even more money. While shacked up with one of her sugar daddies at a fancy Riviera hotel, she meets hotel worker Jean (Gad Elmaleh) whom she mistakes for a younger model of her favorite ride. He pretends to be a young tycoon, but when his scam is revealed quite publicly, he finds himself out of a job and without the woman with whom he is falling in love.

Playing off his good looks and natural charm, Jean also becomes something of a male escort for an older woman. Taking tips from Irene about how to stretch out the affair as long as possible to accumulate more expensive gifts, Jean takes to the lifestyle and even begins to outperform Irene. Sneaking around behind their respective partners' backs, the young couple begin to fall for each other, even though doing so almost guarantees a life without any prospects or much cash. There aren't too many surprises in Priceless, but the laughs come fast and furious. Director Pierre Salvadori (Après vous…) keeps things light, but still manages to have a few things to say about the shallow behavior of the leads. But more importantly, he puts Tatou in a new dress or undergarment in every scene, and that's enough to peak my interest even when the film feels conventional. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Blindsight

When you hear a brief synopsis of the new documentary Blindsight—about a group of mostly blind mountain climbers (consisting of experienced sighted and blind climbers and six blind Tibetan teens) going up the north face of Mt. Everest—you'll probably think you can anticipate the tone and spirit of the film without thinking too hard. And you'd be wrong. As much as the movie is one of the most inspirational and humbling cinematic experiences I've ever encountered, there is a depth and honesty to the characterizations of its players that I simply hadn't expected. Rather than whitewash the climb and its hardships, director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground) gives us a warts-and-all account of one of the most brutal displays of endurance ever captured on film. Turns out that the being blind stuff isn't as tough on these kids as things like altitude sickness, exhaustion, and having their muscles turn to jelly. I will never complain about my life again…okay, that's a lie, but I will think twice about it the next time I do.

The blind children have the added disadvantage of the culture in which they live. In Tibet, blindness is associated with being possessed by demons, and these sweet kids endure daily torment from both children and adults. In many cases, even their own parents are ashamed. When a blind teacher named Sabriye (I believe she's German) opens a school for the blind, these kids have a fighting chance of getting ahead in life. She is inspired by the tale of the blind American climber Erik Weihenmayer, who she contacts to lead the three-week expedition with the children up Everest. What is truly fascinating is how the further up the mountain the team gets, the more the personality conflicts increase. Sabriye is fearful of the kids' safety and rightfully so, and clearly will have no hesitation about turning the group around if she deems it necessary. Erik is more determined to make it to the top at any cost. His thinking is that as long as no one is hurt and all are medically fit, the journey should continue. The team divides into factions, and backstabbing and plotting occur. It's like an episode of "Survivor" but without $1 million at the end.

Director Walker does a fantastic job profiling each of the six children, all of whom have tragedy and triumph in their lives. You can't help but admire their drive before and after the climb. Postscripts about each child's life after the climb are astounding. But as a result of the adults' constant bickering, the film is loaded with unexpected tension (beyond the question of whether or not the kids will make it to the summit, some 23,000 feet up). What I thought would be an obvious and predictable movie that relied on tugging of heartstrings more than great storytelling is so much more. Blindsight is a tough experience filled with characters that go from being heroes to villains and back. The climb touched and changed the lives of all involved, not just the children; it certain made me see the world a little differently. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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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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