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Monday, May 20

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Airbags

For those of you with lingering curiosities about some of the films not reviewed here over the last couple weeks, allow me to fill you in: the killer-crocodile epic Primeval and the first of this year's many horror remakes, The Hitcher, are both junk. However, I will give points to The Hitcher for Sean Bean's work as the psycho hitchhiker. He brings the material a certain element of credibility, which is all but shattered by, you know, the rest of the movie. This week, you won't be getting reviews from me of the werewolf tale Blood and Chocolate or the parody extravaganza Epic Movie because they weren't screened early. You also won't be reading about the post-Civil War revenge drama Seraphin Falls, but that's my fault since I wasn't able to hit any of the screenings due to back-to-back out-of-town trips. Still, what's coming out this weekend illustrates why January is traditionally such an uneven month for movies. But my educated guess is that, with the Oscar nominations announced earlier this week, your film selections for the weekend are clear.

Smokin' Aces

Writer-director Joe Carnahan makes manly movies for manly men. Although his last film, Narc (featuring a pair of astonishing performances by Ray Liotta and Jason Patric) has a slightly smaller scale and more intimate feel, his latest, Smokin' Aces, is all about shooting and blowing shit up. If you have a special taste for obnoxiously loud action, blood sprays equivalent to the fountains of a Vegas hotel, dialogue in which every utterance sounds like a punchline and performances so ramped up you can see the veins pulsating from every forehead in the room, well, folks, you've got yourself a winner in "Madman" Carnahan's new offering.

To pick apart all of the subplots in Smokin' Aces would be pointless. Not because the story isn't good (it's actually quite good), but because who is trying to kill whom isn't really the point of the film. Basically, everyone is either trying to protect a Vegas performer named Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven in full whack-job slickster mode) or kill him. Most of the characters are doing the latter. Buddy has made pals with some high-ranking mob types but turns state's evidence and goes into protective custody (which apparently includes all the booze and hookers you can handle in a penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe). FBI men Ryan Reynolds and Liotta (under the supervision of boss Andy Garcia) are headed to Tahoe to supply extra protection and get information on a notorious mob boss when word gets out that the mob has hired every hitman (and woman) in the continental United States to assassinate Buddy.

That's the set up. The remaining 90 percent of Smokin' Aces is the highly entertaining convergence of all of these killers and bounty hunters on Buddy's location. Carnahan has crammed several familiar faces, a few new faces and some faces I couldn't even identify into his film, and the results are usually pretty hilarious and exhilarating. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson are among the more recognizable performers, while musicians Common and Alicia Keys do remarkable jobs in their screen debuts. Carnahan plays no favorites about who lives and who dies. In other words, just because some of these actors can command big paychecks in other films doesn't mean they get to live to see the end of this film (or even make it past the one-hour mark).

Carnahan's command of his visual style is impressive and may induce severe migraines if you're not a fan of outrageously loud music and explosions, or of fast-cut editing and cameras that feel like they are mounted on the tail end of a tornado. Unlike his last film, Narc, Carnahan also doesn't feel the need to dig particularly deep into his characters' motivations. There simply isn't time, but that doesn't mean we don't get interesting glimpses into what makes a few of these people tick. I was particularly, ahem, moved by the relationship shared by the two female co-assassins (Keys and Hustle and Flow's Taraji P. Henson). There's something sweet there, and much of it is unspoken but still very clear.

Yes, Carnahan can be described as operating at full speed and over the top, like a man who seems fueled by energy drinks and speed-filled chocolate bars. The testosterone drips from the screen, and I loved every second of it. It's the kind of film that makes you want to stand up and high five the guy next you. These types of films don't always appeal to me, but this one got me charged up. I actually had go punch a complete stranger after seeing this at Butt-Numb-a-Thon in Austin last month just to release some energy. And while many will compare this film to the works of Tarantino, a more accurate comparison can be made with Guy Ritchie's first two films, especially Snatch. Smokin' Aces is as slick, hip and charged up as its title implies, and it injects some much-needed kick into a slew of lame January releases.

Inland Empire

If you've ever wanted to know what it's like to live inside David Lynch's brain for three hours while he's asleep after eating a lot of spicy food and cheese, then Inland Empire is the movie-going experience you've been craving. I am an admirer and sometimes defender of pretty much all things connected to Lynch, but this one got away from me. I'm not someone who needs a film to make sense or follow anything resembling a linear structure, but I do need it to affect me, challenge me and ultimately impress me with the filmmaker's style and intellect. Lynch has never had a problem doing any of these things for me in the past, but Inland Empire is, simply put, a staggering mess. I don't care if he perfectly captured a dream state. There's a reason I don't ever ask someone to tell me their dreams and why I never remember my own: because 99.99 percent of the time, dreams are fucking boring.

Not that Inland Empire doesn't have its moments. The film's star, Laura Dern, does a terrific job of grounding Lynch's other-worldly stories, which seem to be in no way connected other than that he weaves them together through editing. Much as he did in Mulholland Drive, Lynch presents us with the journey of an actress. Playing a woman much like herself, Dern is cast in a film co-starring Justin Theroux and being directed by Jeremy Irons, and as she slips further and further into the character, the line between the film and her real life grows blurry. And, yes, my brain did feel like it had been watching three hours of blurriness after sitting through this.

Dern's ability to observe and react to the absurd is probably the film's greatest achievement. She is us. She rarely understands what's happening to her, and neither do we. In Lynch's well-conceived press notes for Inland Empire (in which Lynch's biography consists entirely of "Eagle Scout Missoula Montana"), the plot synopsis reads, "A woman in trouble." In all honesty, I can't do any better than that. Dern wears a look of pure anxiety and confusion on her face that probably mirrored my own. Also on hand to provide some comic relief is the ever-dependable Harry Dean Stanton as the perpetually broke right-hand man of Irons. Dern's mother, Diane Ladd, also pops in at one point, as does William H. Macy and an almost unrecognizable Julia Ormond, who could be either a friend of Dern's character or a friend of the character she's playing. There are hookers (or actresses playing hookers) on hand, as well as a weird end-credits party scene where Laura Herring and Nastassja Kinski appear for all of three seconds each. It's great that Lynch got his famous friends to show up…I guess.

I've grown up watching the works of David Lynch, so I know to expect the unexpected and to assume the unexpected will be unveiled to me at a pace that goes against the grain of nearly every other film made in a given year. But I always end up finding his movies gripping and emotionally troubling because what's waiting at the end of the journey is substantial. Despite its length, Inland Empire is not substantial. It didn't even rouse any curiosity in me. I feel guilty saying this, but I'll get over it. This movie is Grade-A boring, and nothing troubles me more than a filmmaker like Lynch repeating himself and not getting under my skin the way he always has in the past. There's no denying Lynch's talent, and there are some sequences here that quickened my pulse momentarily, but at three hours, Inland Empire needed more moments like that. I will always be a disciple of Mr. Lynch, but I cannot worship at this particular shrine.

Catch and Release

I'm torn. I laughed and was moved several times during this comedy-drama about a woman putting her life back together after her husband-to-be dies on the eve of their wedding day. Oh, but the cheese factor is rank at times thanks to a seemingly endless supply of revealed secrets, missed opportunities and misunderstandings. Still, I have to put this one under the "recommend" category, but with a few reservations.

Writer-director Susannah Grant (best known as the screenwriter of Erin Brockovich) has compiled a film featuring loss, love, betrayal and revelations, but ultimately Catch and Release is about lasting and powerful friendships. Jennifer Garner puts forth her most winning screen performance as Gray Wheeler, who leans heavily on her friends and those of her recently dead fiancée, including his roommates and best buddies Dennis (Sam Jaeger) and Sam (Kevin Smith, in full charming and sensitive mode). The two men invite Gray to move in with them, and slowly she pieces her life back together.

As she attempts to settle many of her fiancée's affairs, she discovers that he had a a staggering amount of money set aside for some unknown purpose, and that he was seeing another woman on his many business trips. Apparently, Gray didn't know her man as well as she believed. But the biggest surprise of all comes when her dead guy's oldest friend (Timothy Olyphant) shows up and spills that the "other woman" has a kid, probably by the fiancée. When this other woman (a massage therapist played with wonderful quirkiness by Juliette Lewis) shows up in town trying to find out what happened to the regular monthly checks from the massive account, everybody meets everybody else.

The first genuine surprise in Catch and Release is that none of the players react to each other the way I thought they would. The fiancée's mother (Fiona Shaw) insists on a paternity test before turning over all her son's money to this strange woman, who doesn't seem particularly interested in getting the million-or-so dollars; she just wants enough to pay the rent and feed her child. Gray sees this woman as a threat, but quickly realizes this woman never even knew she existed. There are no villains in this film, and that's a welcome twist on a story that could have had one or two unnecessarily mean characters. Eventually, this mismatched group of friends start taking care of each other while they straighten out their lives and figure out how to move on with one crucial part of their lives gone forever.

Lest you think this is just about the two women missing one man, Kevin Smith's Sam emotes the drama and depression like a motherfucker. He cries, hugs his pillow, assumes the fetal position and, well, I don't want to ruin the fun for the rest of you. But let's just say that Jay wasn't Silent Bob's only heterosexual life partner. But at the center of these whirling emotions, and crying through tears, is Garner, who slips nicely into a role that Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan might have been a natural to play 10 years ago. The film isn't brave enough to leave her without a male companion by the end, and that feels like something of a cop out, but Catch and Release doesn't resort to such obvious tactics as often as you might think. I never watched "Alias," so her film 13 Going on 30 was my first exposure to her as an actress. Her inherent sweetness was obvious then, but here it really comes through, and her performance here makes this a better movie — not a great work of art, but still a respectable, charming film.

Abduction

After blowing minds at a handful of film festivals last year, Abduction is finally getting a well-deserved release (albeit limited) in 2007, marking the first truly great documentary of the year. The film details (and more than likely introduces Western audiences to a completely unknown phenomenon) the abduction of a handful of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film focuses on the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl named Megumi, who apparently was kidnapped coming home from school one night, and her devoted parents who never stopped trying to discover the truth about where she was and may still be. First-time feature directors Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim patiently unveil the tale like a crime drama, with each new layer of shocking detail introduced with an undeniable emotional punch. I never would have guessed what happened to Megumi and dozens like her (many of those taken were older).

I don't want to give away why the North Koreans began this campaign, but if you weren't already terrified of Kim Jon-il and his administration, you will be after seeing this film. What's even more infuriating about this story is that the relatives of the abducted were hampered in their search by their own government, which was in delicate trade negotiations with the North Koreans when the truth about the abducted citizens came to light. It seems like a no-brainer. If another country steps on your soil and swipes your people, that's an act of war, right? The Japanese government works differently than America, and when the families of the disappeared directly confront the Japanese Prime Minister, their pain and anger is raw and relentless. It also wouldn't be right of me to reveal whether any of these missing souls are still alive or ever saw Japan again. The reason the film will be so unbelievable to Western audiences is that you more than likely will have no idea where this story will take you. It was executive produced by Jane Campion, and Abduction is masterfully told. If you're wondering how this impacts you at all, the films implies that part of the reason Japan felt its hands were tied on this issue was that negotiations on nuclear weapons between North Korea and the rest of the world were being used by the North Korean government as a bargaining chip in retrieving information about the abducted Japanese. It's an ugly and scary world out there, and the gripping and powerful Abduction proves that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you and in no hurry to give you back. The film opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Do not miss this movie.

Romantico

More character study than narrative, this deeply intimate documentary from American-born director Mark Becker is the story of 60-year-old Mexican musician Carmelo Muniz Sanchez, a troubadour living and working illegally in San Francisco, barely getting by as he sends much of what he earns to his family in Mexico, a family he misses dearly. As Carmelo and his music partner roam the streets playing for dollar bills to young trendoids eating at fashionable restaurants (the duo must bill themselves as a trio because people expect troubadours to play in threes), Carmelo discovers that his mother's health is failing, and he returns to Mexico as a kind of reverse immigrant (he is surprised that no border guards seem to question him about going into Mexico).

Carmelo attempts to find work as a musician in Mexico as a mariachi, but he ends up having to support his family selling frozen treats to children. There's a moment in the film when he realizes there is absolutely no way he can properly support his family making what he makes in Mexico, and he begrudgingly begins to plan a return to the United States. Romantico is a film filled with deeply sad people who find happiness and satisfaction in small pleasures. Carmelo's daughter's 15th birthday (her Quinceañera) is on the horizon, and he wants it to be a special day for her despite the family having no money. Somehow he makes it happen. And while the weight of his ailing mother and struggling family weighs heavy on his head, Carmelo keeps a stoic face, perhaps one he's gained from a lifetime of suffering and disappointment. Still, the love for his family is crystal clear and without question, and when he sees his daughter smile on her birthday, that does a lot to take away the pain of living.

Romantico feels slightly exploitative, but only to the degree you'd expect from a film that clearly wants to make it clear that broken dreams are part of immigrant life. Carmelo seems at his most peaceful and playful when he's playing his music. He's not a great player or singer, but he loves that part of his life immensely. The film doesn't go so far as to toy with the idea that Carmelo has any hope of improving his lot in life, but it does suggest that some days are better than others. Sometimes that's all you have. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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