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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Speed Racer

I can hear the discussions now: Let's take a half-hour cartoon series (more like 20-plus minutes without commercials) and stretch it into a two-hour, 15-minute feature film with production design so colorful and sweet people will want to reach out at the screen and eat it like candy. What could go wrong? Allow me to begin the list. For many years as a kid, "Speed Racer" was a show I simply never missed. I was too young to see or care how simplistic the storylines were, how crude the art work was, or how truly annoying Spritle and Chim Chim were. Somehow, the makers of that show made me believe in a future that seemed completely and utterly centered on auto racing without rules; and the high velocity, gadgets and over-the-top villains were simply the icing. I was also particularly obsessed with any episode featuring Racer X, the masked driver who was secretly Speed's older brother Rex and kept his identity hidden for reasons that either were never explained or were utterly ridiculous (much like the movie).

I'll admit the trailers for Speed Racer have been making my eyes explode with glee. The prospect of having the The Wachowski Brothers (makers of The Matrix films) helming this movie seemed almost too good to be true. Add to that Christina Ricci as Trixie (a role she was beyond born to play) and Emile Hirsch, fresh off his extraordinary performance in Into the Wild, as Speed, and I think my expectations were cautiously high. But something about the trailers and commercials bothered me: the acting seemed stiff, and worse than that, the dialog was cookie-cutter awful. Still, the visuals were simply too glorious to care about such petty elements as the acting or the script. But when you expand those flaws for more than two hours, they become impossible to ignore. As a result, Speed Racer is tedious beyond words, and when there wasn't racing happening, I was either ready to fall asleep or kill someone, more than likely myself.

There's no denying that seeing all of these beloved characters come to life was thrilling, and it was a thrill that lasted all of about 15 minutes. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mom and Pops Racer are perfection. It feels a little weird seeing a gifted actress like Sarandon in a role that requires her to do little more than be a Stepford wife, but she's still beautiful, so who cares? And Goodman captures Pops' constant state of non-threatening rage beautifully. It's tough picking on the actors in this film when they have such a limp script to work with, but Hirsch is stagnant here for some reason, like he's not quite in on the joke. He pulls off looking intense behind the wheel of the Mach 5, but when he's called upon to emote, something doesn't click. My guess is that he's simply not invested in this character, despite an elaborate backstory forced down our gullet involving the "death" of Rex Racer (I'm sure all the children in the audience are going to love that element of the movie). His line readings felt more like a recital of an unrehearsed monologue. Ricci fares slightly better, but only because she's cute and shows a lot of leg.

How about that plot involving a racing conglomerate attempting to get Speed on its team? Ugh. In my review of last week's Iron Man, my only real complaint about the film was that the "secret" villain was so obvious from the first time he steps on screen that it was laughable. Imagine that times 50 in Speed Racer. Forgetting for the moment that the trailers have all shown us who the film's villain is, Roger Allam as Royalton (head of Royalton Industries) could never be anything but the bad guy, even when he's attempting to charm the Racer family. Give us some drama, people. Some of the wacky evil racers Speed goes up against are pretty funny in a Road Warrior final race kind of way, but we all know happens to the drivers who try to kill Speed. I didn't mind Matthew Fox as Racer X, although his costume looked so much like Cyclops from the X-Men that I had to keep reminding myself that James Marsden wasn't in this movie.

If you're made of stronger stuff than me and can make it through the non-action scenes without contemplating suicide, the pay offs of this marathon endurance test are the races and wildly imaginative cityscapes. These races go across tracks that look like they were designed by a mental patient. The lights, the turns and the jumps are all unbelievable. The only way I'd sit through Speed Racer again is with the sound turned off, watching an IMAX print, just so I could really examine the backgrounds. The artistry on display here is mind-boggling. But even as I sat in amazement watching all the pretty pictures, I began to notice something: the special effects consume the performers and story, rather than enhance it. I adore movies with lots of effects, but even I had to say, "Hold up, buddy" to everything that's going on in Speed Racer. It's not confusing so much as it's overwhelming and exhausting.

I don't make a habit trying to predict what demographics are going to like or hate about a particular movie, nor do I ever attempt to anticipate box office tallies for a given opening weekend. I'm sure Speed Racer will do quite well for a while, but it's not the type of film you'll feel compelled to go back and watch over and over again. It physically hurts me to watch so many people try so hard to entertain me and come up with something so astonishingly mediocre. Here it is, people: the first turd of the summer has been hatched.

Son of Rambow

Allow me to jump on the bandwagon with both feet and pledge my love for Son of Rambow, a film that not only captures the first moment when you realized that you loved movies, but also personifies that instant in your life when you realized it was okay to be creative and different (some of you may not have had that moment yet, but don't give up!) It's also the film that comes closest to reminding me what it must have been like for those kids who did the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark back in the '80s. If a film ever gets made of that story, I'm guessing it will feel a lot like this one.

Newcomer Bill Milner plays Will Proudfoot, a young British lad who has grown up in the 1980s without a father and in a highly restrictive religious household. He's not allowed to watch movies of any sort, which is why when a teacher is about to play a documentary for the class on a certain subject, Will must leave the classroom and sit in the hall. In the hall is where Will meets Lee Carter (Will Poulter, another newcomer), the school troublemaker who never misses the opportunity to swindle and con a classmate. Lee comes from a well-off household, although his parents are rarely home to provide guidance. For a little extra cash, Will totes Lee's brother's giant video camera into the local cinema to bootleg the latest films, including First Blood, which introduced the world to the character of John Rambo. Lee has his heart set on making a short film for a local competition, and he enlists his new friend Will to be in it. While hiding in Lee's basement for an extended time, Will watches the legendary Stallone movie about the man who could take on 200 aggressors with little more than a knife and his training, and his life is never the same.

The two boys set out to make their short film, which Will decides will be a sequel of sorts to First Blood in which he plays the son of John Rambo (the "Rambow" of the title comes from Will missing the opening credits of the film and never seeing how the character's name is spelled). Will goes from shy child whose only creative outlet is drawing funny cartoons on every flat surface he can get his hands on to amateur stuntman and actor for his friend's movie. While the boys attempt to keep their project a secret from Lee's older brother, Will's overbearing mother (comic actress Jessica Stevenson, in a nice dramatic turn as the lonely, slightly desperate widow), and their fellow students, word gets out that the kids are up to something, and soon everybody wants to be a part of the action. A too-cool-for-words French exchange student (Jules Sitruk) wants a co-lead role, while other kids want to be production assistants, 2nd unit directors, special effects guys, you name it. The size and the scope of the production causes a rift between our two heroes (anyone seeing a Hollywood parallel here?) and tests their friendship.

Son of Rambow is the work of producer Nick Goldsmith and writer-director Garth Jennings (collectively known as Hammer & Tongs, makers of recent film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), whose passion for the subject matter and the art of filmmaking is infectious. The film is overflowing with energy and laughs, and I may have to resort to daring you not to be entertained by this rousing little masterpiece. On top of this great story, Hammer & Tongs have created one of the quintessential films about growing up in the UK during the 1980s. The soundtrack alone is nearly worth the price of admission, and the accurate depictions of the clothes and the attitudes is flawless without being an exaggeration. The emotional heart of Son of Rambow is the friendship, and I haven't been this moved by a film about two great childhood buddies since Stand By Me. This is a work that both children and adults can love and embrace equally, and I will consider you not seeing it (assuming it opens somewhere near you) a betrayal to all that is good about movies. The end.

To read my exclusive interview with writer-director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Redbelt

If you asked me what the deeper meaning is of writer-director David Mamet's latest work, I'm not sure I could answer that. This is one of those rare Mamet instances when the story might mean more than the subtext, but if I had to venture a guess, I'd say Redbelt is about Mike Terry (played by the always-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor), a man who is barely scraping by as the head of his own martial arts studio because he refuses to simply teach people to fight. He's has a code that he lives by that doesn't involve teaching violence as a means to get rich; he's a modern samurai. So if Redbelt has a subtext, it's about the dangers of daring to dream big.

One night at a bar, Mike breaks up a fight between well-known actor Chet Frank (played by Tim Allen) and a couple of guys who want to beat up someone famous. Chet is making a war film in town and would like Mike to be a consultant/producer and to make the hand-to-hand fight scenes seem more believable. Mike sees this as a way to finally make money without compromising his principles, but he gets caught up in a battle of sorts between his money-hungry wife (Alice Braga), ultimate fighting promotors (Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna), and a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who wanders into his studio and discharges a gun belonging to Mike's cop buddy (Max Martini of "The Unit"). The plot is classic Mamet with double-crosses, con jobs and his staccato language that sounds exactly like people talk and nothing like the way movie people talk.

What separates Redbelt from other Mamet works are the occasional fight scenes. He doesn't stage his physical confrontations like a typical action movie would. The goal isn't to make Mike look like a glistening bad-ass. Instead, Mamet wants to show Mike's minimalistic tactics of robbing his opponent of his power. This may seem like a subtle difference, but you notice it immediately. Ejiofor isn't making cool-guy faces or screaming when he takes somebody out. His only mission is to disarm and take down as quickly as possible. But beyond the action scenes, Mamet has constructed another great layered plot that left my head spinning and made my admiration grow. I have to applaud Allen for trying something like this. He's played slickster characters before, but nothing quite this shallow and deplorable.

There's a moment in Redbelt when the sense of impending doom on Mike's head is palpable, and you haven't got a clue how he's going to get himself out from under it. Then, bit by bit, he begins to pick up the pieces and defy those who consider him disposable. In my book, Ejiofor can do no wrong, and this film is proof of that. The man has the ability to wear his anxiety and emotional weight on his face (watch Children of Men or Talk to Me for proof), and he does so here as well as I've ever seen him. His performance is devastating, and the movie ain't bad either. I realize a lot of people simply don't like Mamet, and I've given up fighting that battle. But for those of you who wait eagerly for each new play or film, you will relish this one. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Redbelt star Chiwetel Ejiofor, go to Ain't It Cool News.

America the Beautiful

The documentary America the Beautiful is equal parts fascinating, disturbing and absolutely critical viewing for those of you who have ever looked at a woman and said, "Man, is she hot!"

When director Daryl Roberts first contacted me to let me know his film was screening in Chicago, he told me his film was about America's unhealthy obsession with beauty, but that's not entirely true. Roberts' investigation focuses on the world's sometimes terrifying obsession with a certain body image. What I found more fascinating is the director's often unpredictable means of making his point. Early in the film, he introduces us to one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. She's tall and leggy (I'd guess she's near or at six-feet tall), with flawless features, a runway strut that will make your head spin, subtle curves in all the right places, and a devastating smile. It is only after all the straight men and gay women in the audience have fallen in love with supermodel-in-the-making Gerren Taylor that Roberts reveals that she's 12 years old. Creep…Vibe…Setting…In. So…Very…Awkward.

Roberts' approach to his subject is sometimes a bit all over the place, and I'm not sure he offers any concrete suggestions about how to change or eliminate beauty standards. He spends the necessary time discussing Dove's ad campaign featuring "real women" and their real curves, which some viewed as Madison Avenue's acceptance that body types in America are changing. He also has terrific access to modeling agencies and advertising firms who openly and honestly discuss their part in shaping the way women of all ages view themselves and others. I also got a kick out of his interviews with a group of guys (I don't remember if he said who these average Joes were) who discuss their insistence that the women they date be extremely good looking, somewhat subservient and offer no opinions that these guys are expected to respect.

But Roberts always brings us back to Gerren Taylor and her typical stage mom (a former amateur model herself not so long ago). For a brief shining moment, Gerren was the hottest runway model during fashion week in New York, but then the media got a hold of her true age and the story began to change. The filmmaker could have made an entire film just about Gerren and her mother, who may have had something to do with modeling agencies and designers in other cities wanting nothing to do with Gerren. Her education, and, more importantly, her self-worth suffer tremendously, and Roberts captures more than one meltdown, which truly made me fear for this girl's future and psychological well being. When someone as tall and thin as Gerren starts thinking she's fat and ugly, do we need any other proof that the world is a fucked up place when it comes to judging girls? Gerren's story is the emotional center of this film, and its inclusion here is worth the price of admission.

Perhaps America the Beautiful's only flaw is that Roberts cast himself in the role of narrator and occasionally puts himself on camera to prove his point about looks. He may be too nice a guy to get us truly riled up about his subject matter. That being said, one of the film's best segments is when Roberts places a personal ad on a web site that caters to beautiful people, where other people with acceptable profiles on the site judge and vote on newcomers. Roberts is voted off the site, and his reaction is priceless. The film also features a few nice interviews with more than a few famous faces, including some tasty insights from Eve Ensler, a bit of fluff from Paris Hilton and some expectedly Zen words on beauty from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Roberts is relentless in his discussions on eating disorders, "extreme makeovers" and airbrushed photos, but something about his delivery lacks the outrage that seems necessary to make his points stick. This doesn't mean that you'll leave American the Beautiful unaffected. I walked out of my screening more than a little ashamed at comments I've made about the way certain actresses look. Does that mean I won't do so in the future? Probably not. But sometimes, simply reconsidering your actions is all a film like this can expect of its audience. Roberts has made the best film on this subject I've seen to date, and while it's not perfect, it is a work that speaks to the heart of a foolishness that this country needs to stop or change as soon as possible. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Tracey Fragments

In her second release since her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno (following last month's Smart People), Ellen Page once again stars as a troubled teen of a very different nature in The Tracey Fragments, based on a novel by Maureen Medved (who wrote the screenplay), a film that mixes creative storytelling techniques (namely, a type of split screen) with the tale of a young woman filled with inner torment. Void of most of the humor that Page has been showcasing lately, this movie is a far more serious story about Tracey, whose parents are either too pissed off or depressed to care much about her or her little brother. She lives in a fantasy world that serves to bury her deep-rooted pain.

To say that the plot of The Tracey Fragments is not told in a linear fashion is a gross understatement. This puppy bounces all over the place, but still tells a fairly compelling story about the girl's mixed up world, which is made all the more chaotic when her little brother goes missing on her watch. During her search for young Sonny, Tracey runs into some decidedly ugly characters who mean her harm. For all it's fractured plot devices and split-screen execution utilized by director Bruce McDonald (director of many episodes of "Degrassi: The Next Generation"), the film isn't particularly complicated or deep. If anything, the device makes the story more confusing. But Ellen Page is simply captivating and she always has been. It's simply impossible not to look at her, and since she's in practically every frame of this film, that's a good thing. It's always great to see her dive into new and different roles, even if they are contained in unnecessarily melodramatic messes like this one. The simple fact is, I saw this film about two weeks ago, and it floated out of my brain almost as fast as it went in. If you are a die-hard lover of Page's work, you're still going to consider this a pretty minor work. She's strong and often elevates this otherwise dreary, uninspired film.

At the Deathhouse Door

One of the deepest, darkest films I saw at this year's SXSW was this harrowing documentary about the Rev. Carroll Pickett, who served as the chaplain at the Huntsville, Texas, penitentiary where he oversaw nearly 100 executions, and whose job it was (aside from providing comfort to the condemned) to get the prisoners from their cell to the death chamber without incident. You know how people talk about Texas being the execution capitol of the country? This is the facility that makes that true. What people didn't know about Rev. Pickett is that after every execution, he sat down with a tape recorder and detailed the entire process for each prisoner, giving intimate details about last words and the entire process of killing a man. But it was the execution of one particular man, Carlos De Luna, that turned Pickett's life around. The good reverend never believed De Luna was guilty, and now history (and a couple of investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune) has more or less exonerated him. Pickett is now an advocate against the death penalty who will speak to any size group on the matter.

Directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert (the team behind Hoop Dreams) offer us some stirring and haunting words and images to accompany the dual storylines of Pickett's conversion and of De Luna's family struggling to clear the name of their beloved Carlos. I can't imagine the burden such a job puts on a single man, to have those voices echo around your head, and see so many people die right in front of you. How do you tell a man not to be scared of a death rushing up to meet him? Pickett is a fascinating man, and even if you firmly believe in the death penalty, I don't think that will take away from your appreciation of this vitally important film. The film opens for a week-long engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert will be present for an audience discussion on Saturday, May 10 after the 8pm showing.

Beyond Wiseguys: Italian Americans & the Movies

Italians have been portrayed as gangsters on screen since before films could talk. And once the talking came into being, fucking hell. Fueled a great deal by Al Capone, we got films like Little Caesar, Scarface and White Heat. And, the gangster stigma is alive and thriving in The Godfather films, Goodfellas, Miller's Crossing, Casino, The Untouchables, Donnie Brasco, and "The Sopranos." But you also got a handful of filmmakers trying to tell a different kind of Italian-American story, such as Chazz Palmineri's A Bronx Tale, Household Saints and even films like My Cousin Vinny and Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. This hour-long documentary is a surface look at the ways Italians have been portrayed over the years in film and television, but it's also a great excuse to see clips from some incredible films and listen to prominent Italian-American actors and filmmakers to talk about overcoming the stereotypes in their careers.

Director Steven Fischler has gathered an impressive and fun group of people, including "Sopranos" creator David Chase, Susan Sarandon (I never even know she was half Italian), Marisa Tomei, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Ben Gazzara, Spike Lee, Isabella Rossellini and others. I particularly like Tomei's story about critics calling her My Cousin Vinny character "gum-smacking" when she never chews gum in the entire film. She also underlines that some filmmakers throughout history have also painted Italians as unintelligent. Certainly every ethnicity deserves a movie like this, and, in fact, many have been made. I'm sure an extended version of this film demonstrating the depths of these issues is well deserved, and I would have been perfectly happy watching this film for at least another half an hour. Still, what's here is solid stuff, informative and it packs a lot in to a small space.

The film screens only once at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, May 10 at 5:15pm. After the screening, a discussion will be led by Fred Gardaphe, Distinguished Professor of English at Queens College and a leading authority on Italian American Studies.

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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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