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Monday, October 16

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Airbags

I'm doing a lot of traveling this month, which means I'm missing a few screenings of films I've been itching to see all summer, which completely sucks but can't be avoided. The first of these missed films is the musical Hairspray, based on the Broadway play, which in turn was based on John Waters' sublime tribute to dance party television shows, the early days of the civil rights movement, and the "big is beautiful" concept. I won't lie, the thought of John Travolta taking over the reigns from the late drag empress Divine (and Harvey Fierstein on the stage) fills me with glee.

My guess is that because of my travels, I will also miss the press screenings of The Simpsons Movie and the cooking-themed romantic comedy No Reservations. Alas. I hope you will all survive. Still, there are plenty of great films from which to choose this weekend.

I am a guest host on the latest episode of the popular local podcast Filmspotting. Adam Kempenaar and I discuss Rescue Dawn, which I reviewed last week, and Sunshine, which I review below. You can download the episode here.

Sunshine

My favorite science-fiction works have always been those that don't make sense entirely. Films or writings in which a certain ambiguity exists about the meaning of events that transpire in the story. And while I insist that the work still hold together, I resist any attempt to hold my hand and walk me through the material like a child. I like to use the old noggin every so often; it keeps me awake. Give me a story to interpret, discuss, dissect or just plain old baffle me. This is why the original Solaris is one of my all-time favorite films. I appreciated Steven Soderbergh's remake, but the things I didn't like about it all had to do with his attempts at making the film more accessible and sensical. That just isn't necessarily. Solaris succeeds because of its near impenetrability.

Danny Boyle's Sunshine, for the most part, makes complete sense; don't assume that my intro to this review is implying anything else. In fact, it's a masterful work filled with stunning visuals and a casual tone to the science-fiction aspects of the story that made what I was seeing seem flawlessly authentic. We as viewers sometimes forget that this awesome technology and these unthinkable events would not seem all that extraordinary to thee people in the story. To them, it's commonplace, and Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) remembers this.

The premise of Sunshine is that it's 2057 and the sun is dying. Earth's scientists have devised a way to send a nuclear device of unimaginable explosive power into the sun to essentially reignite it. Why it has to be a manned mission, I can't quite remember, but by making it so, the human drama of these events all the more elevated and terrifying. Perhaps the scarier prospect for the current crew is that they are actually the second mission (labeled Icarus II) to attempt this seemingly impossible task. Icarus I entered an area close enough to the sun to lose radio contact and was never heard from again. And by all calculations about the sun's demise and the available resources on earth to make this bomb, the current Icarus mission will also be the last. The mission is designed so that the scientists on board will survive, but they also understand that their lives are 100 percent expendable; everything is secondary to the mission and the survival of Earth.

One aspect of the film that truly impressed me was the make up of the eight-person crew: there are no military types or traditional astronauts on board. They are almost entirely scientists, engineers and physicists. And while they are a very good-looking bunch, this is a crew full of nerds. Boyle also spends a great deal of time just establishing the day-to-day routine of the team, which would drive even the most strong-minded individual insane after so many years in isolation and such a heavy task ahead of them, one with a billion opportunities for mishap. When the crew receives a signal from the Icarus I's distress beacon (which has been missing, at this point, for seven years), the call is made to rendezvous with it and possibly salvage its bomb in case a second attempt to reignite the sun is required. This turns out to be a really shitty call.

Compounded with the fragile mindset of a couple crew members, one devastating event after another befalls the team, and while they are always able to fix it enough to continue the mission, a shortage of oxygen and an endless series of catastrophic mechanical problems make the fate of those aboard Icarus II look more and more dire. At this point, I should mention the absolutely astonishing visual effects work by the UK group Moving Pictures Company. There aren't any blasters or aliens in Sunshine, but that doesn't mean the visual effect team doesn't have plenty of chances to really blow our minds with detailed vision of the Icarus crafts, the close-up views of the sun's surface, and some wicked death scenes (I'm guessing most of you aren't surprised that one or two people die in this movie).

The cast, too, is across-the-board strong. Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later) and Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Red Eye) are the obvious "heroes" of this film, but there are equally strong performances from Chris Evans (actually showing he's a decent actor and not just the one-note Human Torch), Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong and the perfect-as-always Michelle Yeoh, who does not once use any martial arts. There's an intensity and sharpness to these characters that I'm not used to seeing in movies lately. They certainly debate when a character seems fated to die ("Should we do this, if it means the life of...?"), but the discussion doesn't last long and the outcome usually hinges on the importance of the mission. Any crew member who allows their emotions to influence their decision-making process is clearly looked upon as weak. The other groovy aspect to the film is that very few characters who die do so from the heat of the sun. It is possible to die from excessive cold that close to the sun, I've learned, which makes sense because of the volumes of coolant these ships must carry.

My guess is that Sunshine's third act is what will make or break your enjoyment of Danny Boyle's vision (as written by his frequent collaborator, writer Alex Garland). Like many Boyle works, the final section of the movie makes a sharp 90-degree turn in a direction I truly did not see coming and makes the film a bit more conventional, but in wonderfully unconventional ways. For most the film, the only "villains" are time and technology, but this changes in the last third. I'm not saying the shift is for the better or worse, but it's noticeable and startling. The most surprising aspect to Sunshine is that Boyle never lets us assume that any cast member will live to see the end of the mission or the movie. And the exposition seems less concerned with the fate of earth than you'd expect. The knowledge that their actions will decide the fate of the planet clearly hangs over every aspect of the film, but it's not something that's discussed endlessly, and why would it be? They all know what's at stake.

Sunshine is an exceptional film from a director who seems intent on surprising us with each new work. Following his young-adult-friendly Millions with 28 Days Later and then this seems hard to comprehend, but Boyle has always been a textured director who has convinced me that he'll always hold a few choice surprises back from us with each project just to marvel us with whatever he has next. Sunshine is sci-fi in its pure, undiluted form, and in recent years, it's one of the best of its genre that I've seen.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

There are only two reasons this film would get made. One is because Adam Sandler is so in love with the gay community that he just couldn't help himself; the other is because he and costar Kevin James truly believe this story of two straight Brooklyn firefighters who pretend to be gay and get married will somehow heal the divide between gays and the homophobic world at large. Let me be the first of many to say that neither of these reasons is noble or even likely. Instead, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is a pedestrian attempt to address gay issues without really addressing them. Chuck and Larry aren't gay. James' Larry character just needs to be married so he can save his pension plan from vanishing after the death of his wife two years earlier. After saving Chuck's life (gee, thanks Kevin), Larry gets a chance to get payback by coming up with this needlessly elaborate scheme of going to Canada and getting married so they can return to New York and file as domestic partners. During the course of this two-hour debacle, Sandler, director Dennis Dugan (The Benchwarmers), and company parade a series of stereotypes (gay and others) and famous gay actors before the camera to what ends, I'm still not sure.

The film goes out of its way to make sure we understand fully that Chuck and Larry are men's men. Larry was married and has two kids before his wife's passing. Chuck is the womanizer's womanizer. His firehouse chief (played admirably by Dan Ackroyd) puts it best when he says, "If my pencil sharpener wore a skirt, I'd have to hide it from you." He's not just sleeping with a different woman every night; he's sleeping with a half dozen at once. And there's no chance he's overcompensating. They play basketball with the other firefighters. Nothing gay about that, no sir. Larry is having a hard time getting over the loss of his wife, so both men are plagued with different types of commitment issues. They believe the faux gay arrangement will be kept a secret, but shockingly enough when the nature of their union comes under investigation, the world finds out they're gay.

The movie's premise isn't what's at fault here. One of the smartest gay films designed for straight audiences, Frank Oz's In & Out, dealt with some of these same issues, but it did so with intelligence and maturity. Chuck and Larry has the emotional weight of a carrot stick and about as much depth, despite its endless parade of message scenes and even a scene in which Sandler movingly declares that saying the word "faggot" is not cool. Tito, hand me a tissue.

But really the only reason anyone cares about Chuck and Larry (and the only reason I was able to stay awake for it) is the presence of Jessica Biel and her heavenly perfect ass. I know you've seen the clips of her dripping wet in her underwear, but that scene is much, much longer in the film, and I'll be damned if that woman doesn't make the most of every second of her otherwise worthless time on screen. The polar opposite is true of Rob Schneider's extended cameo, a throwback to the racist portrayals of Japanese men that hasn't hit the mark quite like this since Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's. Oh boy. What the film lacks in homophobic jokes, it more than makes up for in bashing the Japanese. Nicely played, gents. Way to trade one sensitivity for another, you fucking morons. And don't even get me started on Ving Rhames character as an angry new firefighter in the station who turns out to be gayer than Liberace on Christopher Street for a Halloween parade.

Utterly placating cameos by the likes of Richard Chamberlain and Lance Bass don't really do much to save this floundering mix of childish humor and sensitivity training. I liked Sandler more when he was taking some level of risk, as he did with Reign Over Me earlier this year. That was not a perfect film, but he was at least simulating an actor who gave a shit about his craft. The man starring in Chuck and Larry isn't even attempting to impress anybody, and he doesn't, trust me. This is a spineless, gutless and brainless film that dares to come at its audience with a message about tolerance, but delivers us such lame comedy that it ends up reinforcing our prejudices... against former "Saturday Night Live" cast members. Just because you wrap a turd in pink ribbon, doesn't make it gay; and it certainly doesn't make it good.

Goya's Ghost

Director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flint) is one of the few gods still making movies today. His films are not always easy to embrace, but I can't think of a time when he has shown signs of letting his vision waver or his enthusiasm falter. Goya's Ghost is a mesmerizing film that had me experience every emotion available to me: outrage, compassion, revulsion, pity and, finally, an overwhelming confirmation that throughout history justice is rarely served in full. As the title suggests, the film involved the celebrated 18th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya (played as something of a duplicitous business man by Stellan Skarsgard. Goya worked for royalty and religious leaders, but he also did a series of etchings that painted the church in an unfavorable light. (Remember that Goya worked in during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.)

But the character of Goya is more of an observer of events than an full-fledged participant. He is our eyes and ears, and his life in these changing revolutionary times never really seems in danger. Playing both sides of the fence had its advantages. One of his major subjects in the church was Brother Lorenzo (the soft-spoken but utterly creepy Javier Bardem), who worked closely within the Inquisition's inner sanctum without actually taking part in any of their more wicked pursuits. While posing for Goya, he notices the face of a young woman in one of the other paintings in the room. He recognizes her as a frequent model for Goya, and it's clear that his holy loins are rumbling for her. The woman in question is the teenage Ines (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a local businessman who is brutally tortured and sent to prison for being Jewish (Ines is not Jewish, but when a casual comment about not liking pork is overheard in a tavern, the wheels of the Inquisition begin turning against her).

Since Ines' family is also a major commission of Goya's, he begs Lorenzo to intercede on behalf of the family to get her out of jail. Lorenzo is unsuccessful in his attempts, but he does visit Ines in jail more than once to "pray with her," a process which leads to his taking advantage of her vulnerable state.

Fifteen years pass, the church's brutal behavior has taken its toll on the populace. Napoleon takes advantage of what he perceives as a turning of the tide and invades Spain, killing and arresting those in power (including Ines' family) and freeing those held in prisons as a result of the Inquisition. The sight of Portman's character after 15 years in a nasty jail is one I will never forget. I didn't think it was possible for me to be repulsed by the lovely Natalie, but Forman manages the impossible. She looks 70 years old, when in fact Ines is supposed to be in her 30s. Her jaw seems out of line, her hair and skin have faded to colorless. But the true testament to Portman's talents as an actress, she maintains a look in her eye--half mad, half dead--that is impossible to shake. She's also almost completely insane as she's cut loose into the world with no family or friends. Somehow she lands on Goya's doorstep, where she mentions she had a daughter in prison which was taken from her immediately.

Not knowing the connection between Ines and the priest, Goya seeks help from Lorenzo in finding the child, and the two men race to find out her whereabouts. I don't want to reveal too much more beyond this point in the plot, since so much more happens and Goya's Ghost does manage to have more than a few surprises before its bittersweet conclusion. Portman and Bardem are glorious in their roles. I've long been a Bardem admirer, and he's managed to make so many great films without really being recognized as one of the most dependable and strong actors working today. The good news is, we'll be seeing him more this year in much higher-profile works than this, which is in no way me telling you to ignore his work here. Quite the contrary, this is one of his most unusual roles. Lorenzo seems like an otherwise admirable man until he starts molesting Ines in prison, an event that seems to take him almost by surprise.

I wish I knew how much of what happens in Goya's Ghost is based on fact, but even if the film is total fiction, I'd recommend it without reservation. If I had to fault the film for anything, it's that I didn't learn all that much about Goya himself, besides the fact that he lost his hearing at some point in his life. But Goya as the not-so-casual observer and occasional participant is exactly what is needed in a story that is really about this unique and moving story of the priest and the young woman. It's not a movie that is always pleasant to experience (if you did find it all agreeable, I'd think there was something wrong with you), but it is one that is easy to appreciate and respect the craftsmanship of one of the world's great living filmmakers.

Cashback

Three or four years ago, I was asked to be on the Short Films Jury for the Chicago International Film Festival, an honor which required me to spend many, many hours watching dozens of shorts in a room at the festival's offices with my co-jurors. It might have been the toughest job I've ever had, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat (actually I did; they asked me back the following year). During that year's judging, one live-action short stood out in my mind as the clear winner, and it ended up taking the top Short Film prize that year, as it had and went on to do at many other festivals around the world. The film was Cashback, written and directed by Sean Ellis, who has since been given the much-deserved opportunity to turn his little masterpiece about an insomnia-stricken university student working the overnight shift in a supermarket into this equally funny and insightful UK comedy.

Art student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) has just lost his girlfriend and finds it impossible to sleep as he mourns this tragic loss. He meets a group of fellow misfits that he calls coworkers, and spends a lot of his time finding ways to make the time go faster. His primary diversion is making time stop so he can look at the world through his artist's eyes and turn customers into living models, which sometimes includes stripping them down. The original Cashback short is actually included in the film, so no worries about missing it. In some passive ways, Cashback has plot similarities to the god-awful Dane Cook movie Employee of the Month, which featured coworkers vying for the affections of a woman that works at the store. In this case, her name is Sharon (Emilia Fox), and her quiet beauty makes Ben believe that maybe he could one day fall asleep again.

The supporting cast of geeks and pranksters keep the film from getting too bogged down in Ben's depressed and/or artsy state. Performers like Shaun Evans, Stuart Goodwin, Michael Dixon and Michael Lambourne keep the proceedings moving and damn funny. But even Ben's maudlin narration is amusing most of the time. Sean Ellis ultimately wants to make us laugh, without making his characters look pathetic or dumb. But he also challenges us to think about why a failed relationship has such a devastating impact on us and the lengths we go to pull our heads out of the mud of depression. Cashback is a quality first-time piece from a filmmaker I will genuinely be rooting for in the years to come. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Lights in the Dusk

For reasons that are never quite explained, a Helsinki security guard named Koistinen (Janne Hyytuainen) is despised by his co-workers. Perhaps before we meet him, he did something to alienate the other men, but more likely is that he's just naturally hard to be friends with. He may, in fact, be the loneliest man on the planet. As he explored other miseries in his previous films (unemployment in Drifting Clouds and homelessness in The Man Without A Past), Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki profiles a man with no life, romantic prospects or love in his life. The film is not played for laughs, but that does not stop it from being a fascinating examination of now only how the smallest amount of hope in the life of a man like this can change his outlook on life, but how that knowledge can be used against him.

While eating alone in an empty cafe, a beautiful woman approaches him and asks to eat with him. The two seem to hit it off, but her aggressive behavior is suspect as the two go on their first date. We soon find out that a mob boss is using the woman to gain security codes to certain businesses' alarm systems that Koistinen patrols on the job. When the businesses (which include a jewelry store) are burgled with his security codes, Koistinen is suspected of the robberies, but cannot be held by police for lack of evidence. He knows exactly who is to blame for the crimes, but never gives her name for reasons that are never spelled out but seem fairly clear. For a brief moment, this femme fatale gave him hope for a better life and then crushed him beyond words. He'd rather be in jail for years than face the world with this heartbreak on his soul. Even when the woman comes to meet him one last time to apologize (but really to plant evidence in his apartment), he allows it to happen and doesn't make the slightest effort to convince the police that anyone else is guilty.

Even when we catch up with him years later, after time in jail, and he stumbles upon the woman and the mob boss, he allows himself to be brutalized by the pair. The film does offer the slightest glimmer of hope that he may not live out his years alone. But not being able to predict or completely understand Koistinen's actions or motives is part of the fun of Lights in the Dusk, a quiet and meditative look at people we probably pass on the street every day, the most unremarkable individuals who still possess small-scale dreams and hopes for their lives. It's a sad but not depressing work (good films are never depressing; you should know that) that finds the core of human loneliness and doesn't try to explain where it comes from, but instead attempts to illustrate how different people cope or don't copy with their unique brand of being alone. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Punk's Not Dead

Produced in the same DIY style that was heartily embraced by punk bands of old, director-producer Susan Dynner (a photographer of punk bands in the early 1980s) has pulled together some fabulous testimonies, supremely cool archival footage, and recent examples of punk's influence on today's rock music scene. Thought somewhat scattered in its approach, Punk's Not Dead still manages to hit most of the highlights of the movement's heyday, including discussions with musicians about the intricate network of magazines, clothing stores, record labels, and places to crash in every major city.

Concert footage and home movies of such bands as Black Flag, Buzzcocks, TSOL, The Used, Social Distortion, Minor Threat, The Damned and The Exploited is intermingled with more recent acts like Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, The Ataris, Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and My Chemical Romance. This may seem like sacrilege to some, but the filmmakers aren't trying to equate the music as much as they're attempting to show punk's influence in popular music. The movies spends a lot of time at a recent Vans Warped Tour show to demonstrate how even corporate American has co-opted punk fashion and attitude in its commercials and merchandising campaigns. While the musicians tell their stories from the perspective of the trenches, music historians and writers to a great job putting these down-and-dirty times into a historical perspective (apparently the presidency of Ronald Reagan may have had something to do with the birth of punk; go figure).

Punk's Not Dead leaves out a few key elements of the punk scene, but most of the major bases are covered and it's just fun to see all of these bands in their prime. In many instances, these bands are still playing in some incarnation or another to packed houses. The recent documentary American Hardcore covered much of this material last year, but insisted that hardcore punk essentially died after just a few years of troubled living. This film does a great job proving quite the opposite, that punk never really went away; it just got popular, which may be the most punk thing the music could have done. The film plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, July 21 at 6:15pm; Monday, July 23 at 8:30pm; Tuesday, July 24 at 8:15pm; and Wednesday, July 25 at 8:30pm.

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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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