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Tuesday, December 12

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Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Sometimes, simply telling the story packs a far greater emotional punch than all the swelling violins, weeping mothers and children, and death-bed proclamations ever can. Such is the case with Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, nominated this year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film title states it quite plainly: these are the last weeks in the life of one of Germany's most famous resistance fighters, who, along with her brother, secretly distributed literature at a university in 1943 Munich and soon thereafter paid the ultimate price.

I've heard Sophie Scholl's story before, but only among my German relatives. She is one of the German people's greatest heroes. But much like that of Oskar Schindler, her story is largely unknown outside of Germany, because, until recently, it was difficult for many in the world to imagine celebrating the life of any German alive during World War II. But Scholl's story is fiercely remarkable and well worth knowing by any account of history. Played without flair by Julia Jentsch, Sophie and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) are members of the anti-Nazi resistance organization The White Rose. Their actions seem totally common place today: placing anti-government fliers throughout campus. They are caught and brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, led by chief interrogator Robert Mohr (a cool but seemingly compassionate performance by Gerald Alexander Held). Sophie almost bluffs her way out of trouble until her brother spills the beans, and she's tossed back in jail.

As sad as the film is up to this point, outrage begins to set in at the joint trial of Sophie, Hans and fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter). I've certainly in my movie-going lifetime seen plenty of outrageous courtroom scenes in which the defendants aren't give a chance in hell of escaping conviction, but the trial in Sophie Scholl is by far one of the most infuriating. Most of the dialogue from the interrogation scenes and the courtroom were taken from transcripts of the actual events, which forces me to ask, did these men think history would judge them as anything but devils? The judge in the case rips apart each defendant, especially Sophie, who responds in kind to the lunacy of the trial and the times. The defense attorneys offer no testimony or evidence on their clients' behalf, and the three are sentenced to death with virtually no one to speak on their behalf.

The trial and what follows are nothing short of devastating, and watching this film drains you so completely that your only means of defense is to bawl your eyes out. Director Marc Rothemund unspools his story with dignity and without flourishes, while Julia Jentsch's performance as Sophie is angelically magnificent. Sophie never set out to be a martyr; she was a fighter whose life and death were symbolic of a growing number of silent and terrified resistors who continued her battle. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a worthy tribute and a powerful call to arms against any oppressive government.


Lonesome Jim
Steve Buscemi has always been a reliable and captivating presence as a key supporting (and sometimes lead) actor in such works as Reservoir Dogs, Mystery Train, Living In Oblivion, Con Air and even a couple of Adam Sandler films, most memorably in The Wedding Singer. But it's his work as a sensitive and understated director that has captured my attention in recent years, beginning with his stellar feature debut, Trees Lounge, 10 years ago. His follow-up, the gripping prison drama Animal Factory, went largely (and unfairly) unseen, but it paved the way for Buscemi to direct some of the finest episodes of "Homicide" and HBO's "Oz" and "The Sopranos." His latest, Lonesome Jim, harkens back to the small-scale personal drama of Trees Lounge, but adds a layer of darkness and pain that is as impressive as it is elusive.

The title character is played beautifully by a frail Casey Affleck (he's the Affleck brother who can act). Jim returns to his parents' home in rural Indiana after an unsuccessful attempt at living and "making it" in New York City. He's an unhealthy combination of depressed, lost and listless. The very idea of him moving back into his old bedroom is made all the more taxing by the presence of his overly attentive folks (Mary Kay Place, who plays these types of roles better than anyone, and Seymour Cassel) and Jim's older, even more depressed brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan).

After a strange car accident (that bears the markings of a suicide attempt) lands Tim in the hospital for a time, Jim attempts to help out with the family business and the local community, including becoming the coach of a truly terrible girls basketball team. The one beam of light in Jim's life is Anika (Liv Tyler), a nurse at Tim's hospital who has a son, but their relationship moves in slow motion, possibly headed toward an ugly dead end. Or not. Liv Tyler's role here is not unlike the one she had in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl (which I'm sure you all saw), and she plays these nurturing roles better than just about anyone. Who wouldn't want Sweet Liv nursing them back to good mental health?

Lonesome Jim has some nice bits of humor in it. How could it not with this cast? But the film succeeds thanks to its more emotional moments. Jim's mother ends up in jail because of another family member. May Kay Place has never been as effective as she is her scenes talking to Jim behind the glass in the prison's observation room. Her suffering and pity for her sons is palpable.

Jim's "journey" is largely cerebral, and most of his obstacles are contained squarely in his noggin. These types of struggles sometimes don't translate well to film. But Affleck and Buscemi have absolutely captured the torment and anxiety that accompanies any person who knows they want to do something meaningful with their life but can't quite figure out what. What we learn from the decidedly unsentimental Lonesome Jim is that sometimes the best thing you will ever do in life is love someone the right way, whether it's a family member or Liv Tyler. I won't lie to you, the stark, bleak nature of this film may turn a lot of people off or have them checking their watches every 10 minutes, but I believe most will find Lonesome Jim a film worth investing one's time and heart. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Slither
I know I'm supposed to pine on a daily basis for horror films with brains as well as scares (The Exorcist being the prime example), but in reality my passion is for scary movies with a major laugh component to them. Of course, if a horror movie decides to be part comedy as well, it better be extraordinary gross as well. Otherwise, it's just a succession of stupid jokes. Evil Dead 2, Tremors and some of the Nightmare on Elm Street films almost shake your fillings loose from giggling and screaming. This is my definition of paradise.

This week's horror offering is the best in a while, and it comes from writer-director James Gunn, a former Troma Studios writer who went on to write both Scooby Doo movies (a negative) and the Dawn of the Dead remake (a mild positive). Gunn isn't nearly as funny or clever as he thinks, but he hits the mark with his gore-comedy Slither more often than he misses, giving us a solid (if flawed) balls-out blood and slime fest with a nice fistful of giggles thrown in.

An alien plague lands on earth in the form of a small meteor, which cracks up after being poked with a stick by a small-town big shot named Grant Grant (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's Michael Rooker). He's infected with a strange virus/creature which lodges itself in his brain and results in Grant emitting drippy tentacles from his stomach so he can suck the lifeforce (and eventually the body parts) from other living things. Grant is married to the prettiest girl in the town, Starla (Elizabeth Banks, the cutie-pie bookstore clerk in 40-Year-Old Virgin). Although the infected Grant is killing everything he can get his hands on, he's still protective of his wife and tries to hide his misdeeds from her. Eventually she discovers their basement is filled with dead animal carcasses, which isn't nearly as unsavory as the strange rashes, discolorations and hideous growths on Grant's face. "It's a bee sting," he explains. Yeah, right.

Nathan Fillion stars as town sheriff Bill Pardy, who's had a crush on Starla since high school and is charged with protecting what's left of the town folk, which are slowly becoming a legion of zombie-like infected creatures thanks to hundreds of oversized slugs which crawl through the town, jump down people's throats, and turn them into slow-moving flesh eaters. I don't want to ruin the truly visionary sequence in which the slugs are born; that you have to pay money to see. Genius! Fillion (from the television series "Firefly" and the 2005 film adapted from that show, Serenity) is the real surprise here. His southern drawl delivery is note perfect as he shows us his capabilities as both a leading man/action star and someone who delivers comedic lines with great ease and effectiveness. I also loved Gregg Henry's hammy take as the town's asshole mayor, who couldn't give two shits that everyone is dying and is only out to save his own skin. You can probably guess how he end up.

Director Gunn throws a lot at us in 90 minutes, and a lot of it sticks…literally. There is a dump truck's worth of blood here, maybe more; there is head trauma galore; a guy gets split right down the middle in one of the film's finest moments; and there is more goo and slime than all of the Alien films put together. Slither's weakest moments are when it strays too far into the comedy side of its makeup. There are a few too many "Okay, that was weird" jokes for my taste, and the few characters who survive the initial invasion of sluggy creatures seem a little too laid back about the whole scenario, but overall the film is a gosh-darn fun-as-hell hoot. Last warning: those who don't like gore—no matter how much you might crush on Nathan Fillion—need to stay away from this movie. All the rest of you freaks, enjoy the blood feast of Slither.


Adam & Steve
I'll confess: I always get a bit nervous going into an indie film in which the writer-director casts him/herself in the lead role. In most cases, that person spends much of the film delivering what are supposed to be the film's funniest lines, cast as the hapless good person in the center of chaos and drama. Actor Craig Chester (Grief, Swoon) has placed some of those self-centering elements in his directorial debut, the gay romantic comedy Adam & Steve. But more often than not, he acknowledges it's his personality that is flawed, as he spends much of the film attempting to overcome his hang-ups and make a solid relationship in his life take flight.

For better or worse, the film's best moments are in its opening scenes set in 1987 at the Limelight club in New York City. Adam (Chester) shows up to the club, where a dance troupe is on stage rockin' to Animotion's "Obsession." Yikes! Unfortunately, Adam and his best friend Rhonda (Parker Posey in a fat suit) show up thinking it's Goth night. The fashion mix up doesn't stop Adam from hooking up with one of the dancers, Steve (Malcolm Gets). Without going into the gory details, the two end up at Adam's place, where an unfortunate mixture of cocaine cut with baby laxatives leads to a nasty mess. Steve goes running from the apartment, never to be seen again.

Or so we (and Adam) think. Jumping ahead to the present day, the two meet again without a hint of recognition, and their relationship progresses nicely. Adam still hangs out with a much thinner Rhonda, who has become a stand-up comic who still tells fat jokes about herself, while Steve lives with a raging hetero roommate (Chris Kattan, in an ironic bit of casting). Anyone who has ever watched a sitcom in the last 20 years knows exactly where this story is going, but that doesn't completely negate some of Adam & Steve's genuinely decent moments. The film isn't nearly as insightful or funny as it thinks it is, but it offers just enough of both to keep you amused.

Posey (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) is the standout here, and there is nothing too humiliating as far as she's concerned. Hearing her routine about how fat she is coming from a woman who might tip the scales at 90 lbs made me giggle. On the flip side, Kattan should be doing anything but playing a normal guy. The guy created Mango on "Saturday Night Live" for heaven's sake; he should be playing something more original on screen. As for Chester and Gets, I suppose they're okay. I applaud Chester for creating a film that is honest about the trials of gay living. These folks don't live in a bubble safe from hate crime and prejudice. Still, I found it a bit convenient (albeit refreshing) that both sets of parents embraced their sons' gay lifestyles. What are the odds? Adam & Steve is not breaking any new ground in gay cinema, but it manages to avoid the cliché-driven plots of so many gay films (and straight romantic comedies, for that matter) more than 50 percent of the time, and that makes it worth recommending. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Ice Age: The Meltdown
After seeing the dreadfully boring of Ice Age: The Meltdown, the sequel to the almost as uninspired original, I'm okay with global warming melting the ice caps. If the resulting floods drown every single one of the agonizingly dull creatures in this kiddy flick (and maybe a few of the studio types who gave the green light to it getting made), I'd applaud the factories belching forth oxygen-choking smoke and the gas-guzzling SUVs issuing forth all types of carcinogens into the air. Seriously, I'm alright with that. Anything that puts a wooly mammoth with the voice of Queen Latifah out of its misery, bring it on.

The thing that's most frustrating about both Ice Age films is that they feature three very funny men as the voices of the lead characters. Ray Romano returns as Manny the mammoth; Denis Leary plays Diego the sabertooth tiger; and John Leguizamo voices the hapless sloth Sid. And they're all upstaged by a largely silent squirrel-like creature named Scrat (there's a reason he's feature so heavily in the commercials and teaser trailers). Watching this second entry in the Ice Age series (is there any doubt Number 3 is coming?) is depressing. I dig the animation style used in these films, but all that hard work is wasted when Queen Latifah enters the picture as a mammoth who thinks she's a possum. Um, right. It doesn't get any funnier than this, folks. Toss in Jay Leno as the voice of a turtle-like, armadillo-esque creature named Fast Tony, and you've got, well, crap. Expect a lot of restless youngsters in this one, people.

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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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