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Sunday, May 26

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Airbags

Thanks to a certain three-day music festival taking up my entire weekend last Friday-Sunday, the time I would usually spend on writing my column was severely depleted. As a result, I'm going to attempt the ever-popular two-paragraph review format this week in the hopes of salvaging some of my weeknights. If I stray to three paragraphs, it's only because I love a movie so much, I can't help myself.

One last note: last week I reviewed a very funny comedy called The Ten starring, among dozens of other people, Paul Rudd. Apparently all the kids love them some Paul Rudd, so I'm including a link to my interview with Mr. Rudd. He's a really funny and nice man, and I think the interview reflects that. Enjoy.

Stardust

Being completely unaware of Neil Gaiman's source novel, I went into Stardust a little skeptical that any filmmaker (even the great Matthew Vaughn, director of Layer Cake) could fill my curmudgeonly soul with wonder and amazement in this fantasy world of witches, talking stars, princes, unicorn, flying pirates and magic. Maybe I'm not all that old, because Stardust is a charmer even as it constantly reminds you that this film is coming from a slightly darker and more subversive place than the film it is destined to be compared to, The Princess Bride. And while these comparisons aren't exactly fair, Stardust is the closest to that landmark work I've seen since. Stardust doesn't shy away from death (however comical in nature) or the threat of death. Charlie Cox does an admirable job establishing himself as Tristan, the reluctant hero, while Clare Danes (who has never looked more lovely) plays a fallen star that must somehow return to the heavens after being knocked down by a dying king (Peter O'Toole). The king's sons (including Rupert Everett, Jason Flemyng and my favorite actor in the whole production, Mark Strong) are all trying to kill each other to win the crown, while three witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) seek the star to cut out her heart and grant them eternal life.

Without giving too much away, the only problem I had with Stardust was the Robert De Niro pirate captain character. I wasn't offended by his portrayal of the rugged man with a secret; I just didn't think it was a very inspired performance. On the other hand, Ricky Gervais makes an appearance here as a slick tradesman, and he made me laugh every time he was on screen. The film takes a while to show us where its various stories are going, which is surprising since the entire first act seems very rushed. But once we start to see how the storylines will come together, the movie gets progressively better, funnier and more thrilling. This will be one of the few times I ever use this word, but I found Stardust utterly enchanting. It has a great story that I believe older kids and adults will get more out of than younger children, and that's quite alright; I felt the exact same way about Ratatouille. Stardust is magnificently original even when it clings to fairy tale traditions, and I hope you're fortunate enough to see it with an audience that allows itself to get into the fun the film is having with the convention.

To read my exclusive interview with Stardust director Matthew Vaughn on Ain't It Cool News.

Rush Hour 3

If you've ever seen one of the other Rush Hour movies, close your eyes for a minute and try to imagine (perhaps "predict" is a better word) what Rush Hour 3 would be like. Would there be lots of Chris Tucker screaming? Would there be boatloads of racial and cultural stereotypes? Would returning director Brett Ratner have the most beautiful women you can imagine in nearly every scene? Would Jackie Chan rely more than ever on stunt doubles to achieve some pretty great fight sequences? Would the villains be dumb and obvious and easy to pick out five minutes into the film? Now, open your eyes, go see Rush Hour 3, and be utterly amazed and how dead on your predictive powers are. You should have a little neon crystal ball outside your newly formed psychic business. It's not that this film is without redeeming qualities; I don't have anything against Ratner the way some people do. I just wish he'd try a little harder to give us something new and, more importantly, something smarter and funnier. Tucker has his moments, don't get me wrong, but when his funniest scenes are saved for the end-credits blooper reel, you can guess there are serious script issues. And Jackie Chan just looks tired, like he's had enough of these films but he knows this is the only film Americans will come see him in now, which is sad.

The story here doesn't really matter, but most of the film is set in Paris, which is only important to set up a pretty great extended fight sequence on the Eiffel Tower. Just the sight of Max Von Sydow in this movie made me cringe, while Roman Polanski's cameo as a vicious French police detective is nothing short of baffling and way short of funny. The film's running gag about an anti-America French cab driver who ends up wanting to be American and "kill people for no reason" is lame. Rush Hour 3 is exactly what you think it will be going in, nothing less and certainly nothing more.

No End In Sight

Don't think that just because it's a new year, that the world has seen an end to documentaries about the Iraq War or the troubled environment. In a couple weeks, a film called The 11th Hour comes out, and it makes An Inconvenient Truth look like "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." And slowly making its way across the United States this month is No End In Sight, an absolutely devastating and damning look at the events leading up to the Iraq War and how the subsequent actions in that region have been a succession of missteps and catastrophic disasters. Forgoing "experts" and members of the media that covered the war, this film gets its largely straight-forward information from the men and women who were actually there when it happened. In some cases, these people were the ones making the decisions (the film is quick to point out which mismanagers of the war refused to be interviewed). Sound recommendations were ignored in favor of policy-driven agendas devised by people who had never served in the military nor had any role in the rebuilding of a nation after essentially being flattened by an aggressor.

More important than simply a means of pointing fingers, No End In Sight tracks the step-by-step events and foolish decision on the part of the U.S. that led to the current insurgency. Only an idiot could not have seen it coming, especially when many of the people in this film wrote reports detailing exactly how it would happen. No End In Sight is some of the finest investigative journalism I've seen on the big screen. And for anyone who thinks this is simply another partisan slamming of the Bush administration, the film does get there eventually but only after spending a great deal of time making its case. There is no name calling, no Michael Moore running up to Donald Rumsfeld for a quickie interview. The film won the Special Documentary Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival for good reason. This is one of those great true stories that will enrage you and make you understand with a great deal more clarity what is going on in our world today. And when The 11th Hour comes out, you'll have even more to wring your hands about.

Moliere

For a film about the early years of the man who essentially invented satire in the 17th century, there aren't a lot of laughs in this piece. The young Parisian Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (who later went on to write as Moliere and is played here by the wicked Romain Duris) guides his still young theatre troupe through France, getting little in the way of audience and much attention from his creditors. He is bailed out of debtors prison by an aristocrat (Fabrice Luchini) who wishes the young playwright and actor to teach him how to seduce a young woman (Ludivine Sagnier) into becoming his mistress (he's married, you see). The gentleman convinces his wife that Moliere is a man of the cloth brought into their home to tutor their young daughter in godly ways.

While the film's story about love in a time of decadence and loose morals is amusing at times, it doesn't really tell us the tale we want to know: how Moliere invented satire. The film has a bookend approach that partially answers that question, but there's no indication whether any of this story is true. And while a story doesn't have to be true to be entertaining, this film might have improved if it were a little more of both. The actors are all quite good, especially Sagnier as the Paris Hilton of her time, who is lusted after by all but only allows the wittiest of speakers into her heart (OK, maybe she's not like Hilton; my mistake). But her appearance in the film is limited and comes too late in the game to save the movie from becoming a pompous mess. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Treatment

This one took me by surprise. I'd expected an average romantic comedy set among the well-educated scholarly types in New York City. What The Treatment is, in fact, is a smart and, yes, often funny look at how people deal with loss. Sometimes they turn to others and establish new and closer relationships, and sometimes they hermit and push those who were once close to them away. It's a quirky but honest look at both of these approaches to grief, and the film is a remarkable at how it balances its humor with its sometimes painful serious side. Chris Eigeman plays Jake, a teacher who was traumatized by the death of his mother years earlier, and is in the grip of one of the meanest therapists I've even seen (played by the hilariously brutal Ian Holm).

Jake meets the recently widowed Allegra (Famke Janssen), and the pair uses their mutual pain as something of a bonding agent. It's not the healthiest relationship ever committed to film, but it is one of the more interesting. I've seen Janssen play this type of easy-going role before, but never quite this convincingly. Even with all her hang-ups and outright troubles, Allegra is extremely easy to like (and, you know, hot). But these are New Yorkers, so naturally problems arise, some of which have nothing to do with how well this nice couple get along. I was primarily impressed with The Treatment because it kept me guessing about where it would take me next. Jake's life does not take the turns I'd anticipated, in and out of the relationship. A forced encounter with his estranged father is a good example of just how unpredictable the film is. Maybe I was more impressed with the acting than the plot, but I'm pretty certain I liked both equally. The film isn't radically different than a lot of romantic comedies about neurotic people, but it's just off center enough to keep you in its grip and make you wonder where these folks will land. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Walking to Werner

This is actually a reprinted review from a few months ago, when this film played as part of a Werner Herzog retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film is opening for a proper run today.

Inspired by the story that director Werner Herzog walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend, young filmmaker Linas Phillips decided that he didn't just want to meet his hero; he wanted to walk the 1,200 miles from his home in Seattle to Herzog's home in Los Angeles. Although Phillips found out early in his journey that Herzog would probably not be in LA when he was expected to get there, the inspirational director encouraged Phillips to continue his trip, because the journey would be make a far better film. Walking to Werner is a trippy, sometimes scary chronicle of Linas' walking tour of the Pacific Coast, often walking just a few feet away from speeding tractor trailers and often encountering characters who served as both inspiration and warnings of things to come.

It doesn't take long to figure out that Phillips is something of a hippie. He seems capable of getting along with just about anyone he encounters (even a drunken cyclist who picks a fight with him), but that doesn't mean that he doesn't lose his mind from time to time dealing with bad directions, fleeting daylight, bad weather, sore feet, faulty camping equipment and police who constantly tell him he can't walk on the highway. He seems comforted by the fellow travelers he comes across on his walk, including a man from Florida who says he started walking 13 years earlier when his wife and daughter were killed in a store hold-up. Although there is a camera crew tracking Linas' trip, most of the camera work is done with a small hand-held unit in his hands. He seems slightly obsessed with the sheer volume of road kill he sees on a daily basis and roadside memorials marking the spots where people were killed in accidents. I suspect the amount of death reminders on this trip took its toll.

Phillips weaves into his work film footage and DVD commentary from the documentary Burden of Dreams, a film that chronicles Herzog making his epic man-on-a-mission masterpiece Fitzcarraldo. Strangely enough, much of what Herzog says about his obsession with making that film about a man getting a steamboat over a mountain in Peru seems keenly appropriate to Phillips' travels. We also get the occasional phone conversation, message or e-mail from Herzog to Phillips urging him to find other reasons to make his walk but never discouraging Phillips from doing it. In the end, the film's success and satisfactory conclusion doesn't hinge on whether these two filmmakers ever meet. Phillips turns Walking to Werner into a glorious celebration of those few of us who are willing to engage in absurd and dangerous behavior, not for the attention it may get us, but because we are driven by our own need to live while we still can. Phillips' journey made him both vulnerable and strong, insane and at peace. The film is the purest example of a feel-good experience that you're ever likely to have. It opens today at Facets Multimedia.

Daddy Day Camp

This is simple. Daddy Day Camp is a pile of shit, and you can tell this right away because Cuba Gooding Jr. is in it. And since his career actually resides in the shitter, it's a safe bet that his films are indeed shit. Have a nice day.

Day Night Day Night

The film that stayed with me the longest and deepest from last year's Chicago International Film Festival was called Day Night Day Night. It's about a woman whose nationality and religious beliefs are kept deliberately vague. All we know about her is that she comes to a hotel room, is grilled and prepped my masked men for hours, and is sent on her mission with a bomb in her backpack. The film has no real story, just a series of events that lead this seemingly unremarkable young woman to becoming a suicide bomber, something of a walking Ground Zero in a major U.S. city. We learn nothing about her path to this point, nothing about her past or her motivation. We only get the hours leading up to this fateful event. Still, the tension this film generates is almost unbearable. This is a movie that exists to put the fear of whatever god you believe in into you, but it does so in the most unconventional ways.

When I first saw this stunning work, I was rendered absolutely speechless for hours. I had questions that needed answers, but I realized that the reason the film works so well is that we have no answers. The film works as a scare film because these questions are never answered. This is not the kind of film that will show up in a multiplex. You're going to have to seek this out to see it in a theater, and in all likelihood you won't even have the chance to see it until it arrives on DVD. But if you have some sort of list you keep of films you'll catch on DVD, put Day Night Day Night on the top of that list. I watched the film again recently, and it still got under my skin. I don't want to say more than I have, because the excitement of watching this movie is the unveiling. It opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Casting About

A few years back, director Barry J. Hershey was casting three female roles in a indie film he was attempting to make (the movie has yet to be shot). He filmed his auditions (184 actresses in five different cities are represented here) and decided that the process of auditioning and the similarities and differences among this massive group of women might make a revealing film. He was 100 percent correct. This microcosm work showing us a process that appears as grueling as it sounds is a fascinating look at how far actors will go for a role. I'm not talking about the seedy side of Hollywood or anything that obvious; I'm talking about how eager these women seem to bare their souls and tap into something inside that is often painful and troubling.

Women of all shapes and sizes try out for the roles of a nude model, a dancer and a nun, and it is genuinely interesting to see what parts each woman is edging toward, what monologue they have prepared with which to audition, the excuses they come up with for being nervous, the way they hold themselves, and the means they use to hide that quiet desperation in their eyes. Hershey has even compiled montages showing us how these women move their hands as they talk. A few somewhat familiar faces pop up here and there during this process, but that isn't really the draw here. Without in anyway exploiting these women, Casting About also shows us just how incredibly tough a process this is for the director. There were at least 10 women I felt gave exceptional readings. How does someone choose? Above all else, the film honors the profession of acting, and how these women each find their own way of embodying femininity in its purest form. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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