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Friday, July 19

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

I have a few preliminaries this week. First, by the time you read this I'll be a couple days into Comic-Con in San Diego. Just me and 125,000 geeks. Can't wait to smell that combination. As a result, I don't have an X-Files: I Want to Believe review; nor will I have one for next week's third Mummy offering. Your hearts are collectively breaking, I know.

The more interesting prospect for the coming week comes courtesy of Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival, which is sponsoring the FREE U.S. premiere of the 1920s silent film A Throw of Dice, with a new symphonic score by DJ Nitin Sawhney (conducted by Stephen Hussey), taking place Wednesday, July 30 at 9pm, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Do not miss this rare opportunity.

Step Brothers

This is comedy in its absolute most simple form: two grown men acting like children, screaming the worst kind of insults at each other and getting into ridiculous physical battles that look more like playground wrestling than adult fighting. It sounds stupid and base. But when the men in question are Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, arguably two of the funniest guys working today, working under the direction of Adam McKay (Talladega Nights; Anchorman), then you hope for something a little more inspired. Let's throw a couple more seemingly sure-fire names at you. The script for Step Brothers is by Ferrell and McKay (from a story by the pair and Reilly), and one of the credited producers is Judd Apatow. And while he may not be known for his comic stylings, let me throw one more name at you: Richard Jenkins, the star of one of the year's finest films so far, The Visitor, who is on hand as Reilly's dad. And, guess what? All of these worthy names add up to a pretty damn funny film.

Ferrell and Reilly play Brennan and Dale, two guys cruising the 40-year-old milepost and still living with a parent. Brennan lives with his loving, overly protective mother (Mary Steenburgen, still lovely but looking overly tan), while Dale lives with his dad. For whatever reasons, the two men have never really had to take charge of their lives or be responsible for their actions. Ferrell and Reilly are both playing spoiled, bratty teenagers in the bodies of two guys fast approaching middle age. The two parents meet, fall in love and get married, and suddenly these two men-children are forced not only to live in the same house, but share a room. Creative usage of every four-letter word in the book are on display in Step Brothers, and these two actors have an absolute gift for inventing the most descriptive and demeaning insults imaginable. It's a joy to listen to them invent and improvise. But it doesn't take the pair long to realize how much they have in common, and soon they become fast friends and partners in crime.

Mom and dad give the boys ultimatums about getting jobs and finding their own place to live, but nothing seems to work. Eventually, in a misguided attempt to create their own business, they destroy Jenkins' plan to retire early and spend a great deal of time with his new wife sailing around the world, and dad decides it's time for him to break up the not-so-happy family. The boys do what they can to keep mom and dad together. Hilarity and a bit of growing up ensue. There isn't much more to Step Brothers than that, but I can't stress enough how much fun it is watching these craftsman do what they do best. More than that, they remember what it was like to be that volatile combination of anxiety, hormones, and aggression that make up the teen years. That being said, the verbal gags work far better than the physical comedy, and most of the material about Brennan's younger but far more successful brother isn't nearly as interesting as when it's just Ferrell and Reilly going off.

I'm not sure what else you really need to know. Step Brothers will, without a doubt, produce large, gasping, violent laughs throughout your body. The combination of a wicked script and two totally game lead performers works on paper and in the real world. The real surprise of the film is Jenkins' comic timing and ability to dish it out as well as take it from his ungrateful son. Jenkins has been something of a gift from the acting gods this year, and my heart quickens when I remember that the next time we'll see him is in September for Burn After Reading, the new Coen Brothers comedy. I can't get enough of this terrific long-time character actor finally getting his due. Step Brothers is just two funny friends being as god-damned hilarious as they know how to be, and most of the time the results are dead on. Going into the final month of this summer thinking all I had to look forward to for laughs were Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, this little film was a tasty surprise.

Brideshead Revisited

Or, perhaps more accurately, Brideshead Revisited revisited. Taking any written work and reducing it to its most cinematic elements is an iffy prospect on a good day, so when you take what is easily one of the greatest modern novels in the English language and pare it down to about two hours (especially when you consider that the original miniseries clocked in at about 12 hours), the risks of getting things all wrong increases exponentially. Director Julian Jarrold, along with the perilous editing pens of screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, take on Evelyn Waugh's story of a young man out of his class and out of his depth as he becomes closer and closer to a family that he observes and then is pulled into.

Matthew Goode (Match Point; The Lookout), quickly becoming one of my favorite actors of his generation, plays Charles Ryder, an ambitious, intelligent young man who heads off to Oxford. He falls into a friendship with Sebastian (Ben Whishaw from Perfume and I'm Not There), a clearly gay and eccentric boy who comes from a world of wealth that Charles could not even dream of. Although it's clear that Sebastian is falling in love with Charles, Charles keeps an emotional distance from the often-drunk Sebastian while attempting to maintain a close friendship. Sebastian brings Charles to his family estate, Brideshead, where they run into Sebastian's beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra's Dream) and his mother, the stoic force of nature Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). And although we can't always tell if Charles is being dragged in or is a willing victim, his role as impartial observer of the family changes as he falls deeply in love with Julia and sets off a chain of events over the course of many years that shatters this already dysfunctional clan.

This version of Brideshead Revisited takes many liberties with the original novel, as you would expect, including the point at which we first meet Julia. Much of the film is told in flashback from a point where Charles and Julia are reunited after many years of not seeing each other. Purists of the source material may take offense at the changes, but I marveled at the creative ways the screenplay moved us through the story without feeling like anything is rushed or forced. The primary reason for the easy enjoyment of this truncated tale is that there isn't a bad performance in the bunch. Goode is quite good playing the hapless, wide-eyed young man who is easily swept away by the lifestyle of Sebastian's family, but as we get closer to the end of the story, we begin to realize that his ambition and intention may be more at play than we originally believed. Whishaw's Sebastian is glorious. He's the unstable molecule in the family, and watching his life careen out of control after Charles takes a liking to Julia is difficult to watch. But all of these great performances seem unfairly slightly when Thompson is on screen; it's almost unfair (to the other actors, not us) how good she is with her almost-royal mane of hair and her measured performance. The softer she speaks, the more you are forced to listen and fear her. Michael Gambon (best known as Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) is also on hand for brief periods as Lord Marchmain, the absent father, who luxuriates in Venice with his mistress (Gretta Scacchi) and has clearly never given his children any guidance on how to lead a responsible life.

Director Jarrold (Kinky Boots; Becoming Jane) balances his tales admirably and simply lets his truncated version of this story unfold with a natural ease. But he also never forgets that this is an oppressive and heartbreaking story of great magnitude. The palatial Brideshead estate may represent freedom to Charles, but it's a prison for the family that dwells within its walls. This is one of those great British stories where deep emotions are rarely voiced, and when they are, it is often seen as a sign of weakness. This is one of the greatest "peek behind the aristocratic curtain" works of all time, and the film represents that aspect of the story beautifully. If you've never read Brideshead Revisited, my you won't feel like anything is missing from the adaptation. If you have, you always have the miniseries to settle your soul if this abbreviated version is just too radical for you delicate sensibilities. But my guess is that anyone who likes to see the rich suffer will relish in this entrancing work. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Brideshead Revisited star Matthew Goode, go to Ain't It Cool News.

CSNY: Deja Vu

More than anything else, this documentary chronicling the legendary group's Freedom of Speech Tour just prior to the last mid-term elections proved to me that old rock fans are the dumbest bunch of motherfuckers on the planet who apparently don't ever pick up a newspaper or find out what their favorite touring acts are up to these day in terms of their current music. Here's a little clue for everyone: Crosby, Still, Nash and Young are a product of the anti-Vietnam War movement. They Are a Protest Band, and always have been. So when they decide to reunite in 2006 for something called the Freedom of Speech Tour, what the hell did you think they would be singing about? Baseball scores? NASCAR? The fact that a single person was offended or even surprised that the band would unleash a song (from Young's "Living With War" album, which had been out for months by the time this tour got started) that opens with "Let's impeach the president" is mind-blowing. In Atlanta, there was almost a full-blown revolution in the audience, but for all the wrong reasons.

You may get the same sense of shock and awe watching the reactions in each city as you did if you saw Shut Up and Sing, the far-superior doc about the Dixie Chicks. What's fascinating about Deja Vu is that even those who disagree with Young's politics give him a pass because he's always been that way (as opposed to the Chicks, who went from old-fashioned American girls to full-on rabble rousers in a single incident). The film spends too much time trying to convince us that CSNY is still a relevant force in the antiwar movement. If that were true, they probably wouldn't have to keep remind us of it. I'm not saying they shouldn't be a force, but in most cities they were preaching to the choir without inspiring the choir to do something. Young is a national treasure (I know he's Canadian, but I don't care), and when he makes an album of such moving and angry music, I take notice. I loved that the band went on the road before the new material was fully rehearsed, and Young (who directed the film) isn't afraid to show the group stumble over the wordy lyrics in the first couple of shows.

We get a smattering of hits and archival footage of the band in their hippie prime. Young gives us mini-profiles of each band member, so we get a chance to see Stephen Stills make campaign appearances for several local representatives running for Congress. We see Graham Nash do whatever he does. David Crosby fathers some more lesbian babies. And Neil Young records one of the more acid-tongued works of his career. (One of those statements is not entirely true.) All in their 60s today, CSNY still has a vitality when they're performing that is admirable and inspirational, and Deja Vu wisely focuses on the concert experience, no matter how potentially incendiary the live show might become. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

When Roman Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director for his 2002 film The Pianist and was not there to receive it, a thought occurred to me: I wasn't 100 percent sure what the circumstances were behind his 1974 conviction for statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. Would he be able to re-enter the United States, which once lauded and embraced him prior to the incident that led to his fleeing the country in 1978? He had the hearts of the nation in his hands after the brutal 1969 murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of several members of the Manson family. But even then, eager, sleazy tabloid journalists tried to paint Polanski and his wife as victims of the very Satan-worshipping cult types whom he glorified in Rosemary's Baby. The documentary Wanted and Desired is a thorough, balanced look at Polanski pre-Hollywood era, when he was one of the most celebrated European directors around. His charm and wit made him a much sought-after personality at parties of rock stars, actors and other creative types throughout Europe.

But when Polanski made his way to Hollywood, his life and films changed. He was thrown into the Babylon lifestyle headfirst, but he also continued to make remarkable films, such as Chinatown. With so many of the major players in Polanski's life and trial still alive (and talking), we're given unprecedented access into every detail of the case. The victim has quite a bit to say today, as does Polanski's attorney and the district attorney. The portrait of the spotlight-seeking judge in the case is shocking, and the case itself set the tone for every celebrity trial that came after it. The film brings into question not just the details of the crime and trial, but also the possible reasons things progressed the way they did. Were Polanski's actions a cultural misunderstanding? Was the victim drugged? Was she the sexual aggressor? Did Polanski's grief send him down the path that led to this incident? Or was he a man who targeted younger and younger girls because he was famous and could get away with it? More than one of these questions could be answered, "Yes."

Wanted and Desired might, at times, sicken you. The fact that celebrities' fame and wealth often makes them largely immune from any serious prosecution is a time-honored tradition that juries keep falling for and that always infuriates me. But there is no disputing the fact that Polanski is a talented director whose work both before and after this case is well worth viewing. Should that matter? Should his being a convicting child rapist influence whether we enjoy his films? It's difficult to say "No" to such a question, yet we do so every day with other scandalous celebs. This documentary, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre, puts a microscope on both this case and the world fascination with those who are more famous than us. And in a just world, the things this film reveals about us should make us all a bit embarrassed.

Chris & Don: A Love Story

The Chris in Chris & Don: A Love Story is Christopher Isherwood, the British writer whose Berlin Stories was the basis for Cabaret. The well-respected writer was one of the few celebrities in Southern California to live an openly gay lifestyle at a time, especially in Hollywood, when such things were unheard of. Still, being openly gay meant he was often the focal point for other gay notables (such as Tennessee Williams, Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden). But it was in 1950s Malibu where Isherwood met Don Bachardy, a young man 30 years his junior. The two fell instantly in love. With Chris long dead, this documentary chronicles their relationship and the times through the remembrances of Don, who eventually became a celebrated portrait artist who sketched and painted many of Hollywood's royalty during the course of their 30-year relationship.

Don has a bit of flare to his storytelling that makes listening to him as our narrator a real treat. Lest we think that we're only getting one side of the story, we also hear extended passages from Chris's diaries that both verify what Don is telling us and further expand on the depth of their love for one another. Other than self-made dramas in their relationship, Chris and Don isn't about gay love in a judgmental world. They always seemed to know exactly where to live and vacation where they would be surrounded by accepting people, so there isn't that type of tension in their story. Having Don guide us through his story allows us to see how he was largely dismissed by Chris's intellectual friends as a pretty boy toy. His introduction to painting was largely the result of his trying to be taken seriously as a person.

Some of the most revealing portions of the film come forth when we hear the letters between the two, which were often accompanied by rough drawings of an old horse (Chris's nickname) and a cat (Don). The most chilling portion of the film comes as Chris is dying, while Don continues to sketch him, even long after he passes away. Watching Don dig through those intimate portraits is almost unbearable yet hauntingly beautiful. Chris & Don: A Love Story probably won't rock your world as either a documentary or a love story, and I don't think that's the intention. This is a gentle and quiet work that would seem to pay the ultimate tribute to a couple who never hid their feelings for each other from the world but never felt the need to throw it in anybody's face either. The film is simply made and their story is simply told. It's a lovely work about a couple that would have been lovely to get to know. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Jihad for Love

And the gaiety continues. Opening today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center is director Parvez Sharma's revealing look at the attitudes and treatment of gays in Muslim culture, which not only considers homosexual practice a sin (as in Christian faiths), but sees it as a crime punishable by death by stoning. Sharma's film profiles several gay men and a couple of women (apparently it's not as much of a crime for women to be gay since their types of lovemaking don't involve penetration; go figure) who have experienced such overwhelming degrees of persecution and discrimination that it may shock you. But that is almost expected in this culture. What is more disheartening are the meetings the men have with clerics, who seem quite friendly until the big questions about gay practices arise. There is no budging with these guys.

A Jihad for Love covers men from all varieties of Muslim life, including one Iranian man who was persecuted for going to a gay wedding and was caught on tape. Others profiled include a South African imam and a Parisian lesbian couple. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is saved for the end, when we look at India, which seems to have a more relaxed attitude toward the gay lifestyle since one of its most revered religious leaders was said to have had a gay relationship with a younger man. Much of the film depicts gay men being forced to leave their homelands, since it is abundantly clear that any kind of change from within the culture won't happen in their lifetime. It's a heartbreaking phenomenon that is easy to document but impossible to know how to alter, and this film captures that in all its unfortunate reality.

The film's director, Parvez Sharma, will appear for audience discussion on Friday at 8pm, on Saturday at 8:15pm and on Sunday at 5pm. Producer Sandi Dubowski will appear at 5pm Sunday and at 8pm Monday. Check http://www.siskelfilmcenter.com/ for all showtime details and to order advance tickets.

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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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