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Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

I'm still playing my miserable game of catch-up after SXSW and a week in Vegas, so I'm desperately behind on keeping you up to date on the fantastic offerings that the Gene Siskel Film Center has during its month-long European Union Film Festival. In the mean time, new releases are taking up most of my time, although strangely enough the studios did not screen either the new remake of a Japanese horror film Shutter, or Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns in time for review deadlines. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few choice selections this weekend.

Snow Angels

I don't think writer-director David Gordon Green (George Washington; All the Pretty Girls; Undertow) has made a bad movie yet, and his latest, Snow Angels, is easily his finest. Three stories about three couples in the same small town alternate between tales of young love, lost love, tragedy and a kind of redemption. Green moves us through these stories effortlessly and with a graceful hand. As much heartache and pain as the film features, Green also find time to be funny and charming. Sam Rockwell plays an ex-con separated from his slightly scared but mostly annoying wife (Kate Beckinsale). Rockwell stalks her, claims to have found Jesus and threatens violence against her new boyfriend (Nicky Katt). My favorite story belongs to a young high school couple (Michael Angarano and Juno's Olivia Thirlby), who do a lovely awkward dance around each other on their road to falling in love. The young man's constantly squabbling parents would be the third couple.

The film begins with the high school marching band practicing, which is interrupted by a pair of gunshots, and Snow Angels spends the rest of the time working its way up to that moment in time when all things change. The specific events of the movie aren't really the point (which is why I'm deliberately not going into any details about plot); Snow Angels is about how it makes you feel. You will fall for a couple of these characters, while growing to despise others. It's a desperate and steady process, leading up to a moment when everything in the town changes. Saying much more than that would be criminal. Just go see this film and allow it to stroll through its desolate locales while you watch these glorious moments unfold. Everything about this movie works, although it never forces the issue or bashes you over the head with messages or emotions. Green keeps things simple, clean and focused. And the few times he strays from that approach, you get nervous; that's his very clear intention. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Drillbit Taylor

For you loyal followers of the productions of Judd Apatow (in the last year, we've had Knocked Up, Superbad and Walk Hard), your probably have your mind made up to see this PG-13-rated comedy about a homeless man (Owen Wilson) hired by three high school freshmen to protect them from sadistic bullies. And while I thought the PG-13 aspect to Drillbit Taylor would be what killed it for me, that wasn't the case. The problem was Wilson. More specifically, the problem is that Wilson's laid-back, soft-spoken approach to comedy, which I nearly always love, doesn't fit with the more in-your-face, brash approach of Apatow-produced films.

The script from Seth Rogen and Kristofer Brown is pretty solid, working as something of a prologue to Superbad, complete with three kids that easily could be younger versions of the kids in that film. The kids' roles are broadly drawn, but each one has enough of a distinct personality to deliver even the weakest jokes with conviction. When the film focuses on the kids struggle with the bully (Alex Frost), the film works. When Drillbit enters the picture, things grind to a halt, especially when he makes his way into the boys' school impersonating a substitute teacher and gets involved in a love affair with another teacher (Leslie Mann). I never really cared about the Drillbit character or his homeless friends or his love life or his Zen advice to the kids about handling their daily beat-downs. Even the always-reliable Danny McBride as one of Drillbit's homeless buddies is left swinging in the breeze with nothing funny to do.

That being said, I'm still recommending the film for the sole reason that I think the filmmakers also realized in the editing phase that Wilson wasn't working with this material, and most of the story's emphasis is wisely placed on the kids—Nate Hartley in a Michael Cera-like role; Troy Gentile filling in for Jonah Hill; and David Dorfman as the McLovin stand-in. Even as they fear for their lives, the boys never lose sight of the cute girls and traditional high school misdeeds. Drillbit Taylor is a square peg in a round hole, but as we all have learned, with enough lube (in this case, a great young cast), you can get any peg into any hole. Ahem. If you're starved for a decent comedy this weekend, you could do worse.

Chop Shop

As he did with his exceptional slice-of-life debut Man Push Cart, director Ramin Bahrani has taken a deceptively simple story about a person that films simply aren't made about and turned it into a moving portrait of America's forgotten soul. While his last film focused on an immigrant man who worked a food cart in Manhattan, Bahrani has chosen a 12-year-old Latino boy in Queens as his latest subject. Even at this young age, the boy is a wheeler and dealer on the chop shop circuit near Shea Stadium. He guides cars to his boss' auto body shop for quickie repairs (using parts from stolen and dismantled cars), sleeps in a makeshift office above the workshop and saves money to buy a van equipped to sell food. He is incredibly protective of his older sister who is absent for long stretches; and while it appears he's being overly cautious when it comes to her, he has reason to be concerned. Using what I'm guessing is a cast of non-actors, the Iranian-born Bahrani beautifully captures this pocket of living like no one else has. The young boy gets so fixated on purchasing his van that he loses his common sense about what terrible shape the vehicle is in and manages to alienate himself from his few close friends. Watching this essentially homeless kid working among some pretty shady characters is sometimes scary and often quite sad. I don't recall any mention by him or his sister of their parents, which makes the situation all the worse. Chop Shop feels like we're watching a series of private moments we are not meant to see and would never seek out. But it is beyond fulfilling in its portrayal of these marginalized people and their desolate lives. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation

Set in 1970 Sao Paulo, Brazil, this tremendous film about a 12-year-old boy (I'm seeing a trend here) forced to live alone in the city's Jewish neighborhood for a year does everything in its power to stay away from sentimental trappings associated with movies about children and offers up a staggeringly strong work. The year is important because the background of this film is Brazil's third trip to the World Cup (behind the legendary player Pelé). Little Mauro (Michel Joelsas) is a huge soccer fan, but when his politically militant parents pack him up and leave him at the doorstep of his Jewish grandfather to protect him while they go into hiding, his world is changed forever. It turns out that between the time his parents made their arrangements with granddad and the time they dropped Mauro off, the grandfather died. Some kindly neighbors look out for the boy, but that never really stops him from feeling utterly isolated and alone.

The bulk of the film watches as Mauro assembles a makeshift temporary family while staying at his grandfather's apartment. He develops his first crush on a lovely young woman who works at the nearby bar (and has a strappingly handsome motorcyclist for a boyfriend), and while the rest of the nation watches the World Cup game on TV, Mauro sits at his window looking for his parents, who promised to return for him on the day of the big game. The film does delve a bit into the Jewish community as well, which provides a unique perspective on how religions function in Brazil. One interesting character is that of a rabbi, who also happens to be an enthusiastic supporter of the local soccer team. If it's possible for a film to be sweet without losing itself in the saccharine, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation accomplishes that beautifully. This is a concise work about loneliness, coming of age and overcoming political and personal oppression. Prepare to be truly surprised and pleased with the results.

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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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