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Monday, July 22

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Thank You for Smoking
Satire is a tricky thing, and it often goes horribly wrong in the hands of even the most experienced comic talents. That makes it all the more shocking that writer-director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) absolutely nails this adaptation of the much-loved novel by Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking. Reitman's scorpion-sting look at lobbyist groups who defend such known public health hazards as tobacco, guns and booze as sharp and devastating as it gets. Not since Wag the Dog has a film offered up such a powerful indictment of the powers that be while still managing to make us laugh uncontrollably.

In a role he was destined to play ever since the world first spotted him in Neil LeBute's In the Company of Men nearly 10 years ago, Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist who can spin any situation in his favor. In an opening scene set during the filming of a talk show geared against smoking, Naylor not only makes the case that it would not be in Big Tobacco's best interest to kill its customers, but he also manages to get a fellow cancer-ridden guest to back his position.

Naylor's two closest friends are Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), his respective counterparts in the alcohol and firearms arenas. They refer to themselves as the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad, and their one-a-week power meals are flat out some of the best-written stuff I've ever seen in a comedy. And the hits just keep on rolling.

We follow Naylor through every possible crisis an industry like tobacco can have. He must fend off such foes as: Congress (in the form of Sen. Finistirre, played by William H. Macy), which wants even stronger labels (in this case, a skull and crossbones sticker) on packs of cigarettes; the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who now has lung cancer and is threatening to become a spokesperson against smoking; and prying journalists like Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), who want to portray Naylor as a money-hungry death monger. All the while, Naylor must keep his bosses—including an aging tobacco kingpin played by Robert Duvall—happy with his work by finding ways to promote smoking. His meeting with a Hollywood insider played by Rob Lowe is so outrageous (he wants to feature cigarettes in a new outer space, sci-fi adventure film) it almost seems true. But Naylor's toughest audience is his impressionable son (Cameron Bright), who seems equal parts curious and disgusted with his father's behavior.

Eckhart glides through this film like he was on ice, rarely stopping to take a breath and always seven steps ahead of any foe. There even comes a time when his own downfall seems all but certain, and he still manages to save his ass. There are many fine performances in Thank You for Smoking, but the film belongs to Eckhart. This is one of those films you almost wish would have had its release date pushed back so the Academy might remember Eckhart's performance come awards season. He's that good, and so is this film, which skewers both sides of the battle. With Sen. Finistirre coming from Vermont and heart disease being the number one killer of men in America, you can bet Vermont cheese is not spared from Naylor's precision attacks. This is a film in which you grow to like characters who, in real life, you assume you would utterly despise. That's the nature of the beast, and it's why this film is so perfect. All of you "Daily Show"-watching hipsters, this is the film for you. I'd almost forgotten what it looked like, but this is comedy with brains.


Stoned
I'm sure there have been good biography films about musicians made without any cooperation from the subject or his/her family, but I can't think of one. And with such high-profile films as Ray and Walk the Line turning out so well, my brain strains even harder to recall a watchable look at a musician's life and times (actually I was really moved by Gus Van Sant's Last Days, so there is one out there). Producer-turned-director Stephen Woolley's look at the final months in the life of original Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones is about as good a film as could be produced with no assistance from the Stones or Jones' family, but that's not necessarily saying much.

Aside from early Stones music, my knowledge of Brian Jones consists of nil. I know he was found dead in his swimming pool shortly after the band kicked him out. He took a lot of drugs, had a steady stream of beautiful women in and out of his mansion, and was believed to have died accidentally after falling in the pool drunk or stoned. A recent death-bed confessional by a contractor doing improvement on Jones' home, whom Jones had taken into his inner circle of hangers-on in his final weeks of life, shed some new light on the drowning, and his story is the basis for Stoned. Leo Gregory plays Jones as a sad, pathetic flake with hardly a spark of creativity or pleasantness left in him. And while he perfectly captures the sexuality and sexual ambiguity of Jones at the time (he loved to dress up), I didn't feel like I learned about any of Brian's more positive aspects.

The more interesting character is the contractor, Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), a married, working-class bloke who is seduced by Brian's excessive lifestyle. At first, he simply shares a drink or a meal with Jones, but soon drugs and women come into the picture, or at least Frank wishes they would. Considine is a solid actor, seen most recently in such films as In America and Cinderella Man, and he conveys Frank's torment beautifully. The look in his eyes as he contemplates another lifeless evening in front of the television with his wife speaks volumes.

There are brief glimpses of some of the more fascinating aspects of Jones' life. Interactions with members of the Rolling Stones (played by actors who look somewhat like Mick and Keith) and a heated and enthusiastic love affair with model/actress Anita Pallenberg (who went on to have affairs with both Keith and Mick) are chronicled dutifully and soullessly. Still, the core relationship between Jones and Thorogood is intriguing, even more so if it's a true account. But Stoned rings false even if its theories about Jones' final days are accurate. Perhaps the film's bigger crime is its lack of depth. We have to see what made a character great before we can fully appreciate his downfall and feel saddened by it. Stoned is not the film it could have been. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Evil (Ondskan)
In one of the opening scenes in this 2004 Oscar-nominated Swedish film, a 16-year-old Erik (newcomer Andreas Wilson) gets into trouble at school and is told by an administrator that he is "pure evil." Immediately, in our minds, we assume he will be the character to watch out for. He'll be the troublemaker, the one whose sadistic and violent acts will make us cringe. Labeling is such a terrible and misleading thing. In fact, when Erik is sent to a private boarding school, he comes face to face with a legion of upper classmen who don't just tease and berate newcomers—they abuse and torture them into submission. The definition of "evil" is adjusted and reassigned more than once in this disturbing film.

Set in the 1950s, Evil represents a microcosm of society, with a Lord of the Flies type of approach. Adults are almost never seen at the school, and parents are largely absent. The exceptions to this are Erik's mother and stepfather, the latter a miserable nasty bastard in his own right, who regularly beats Erik for the smallest infraction. As a result, the boy carries around a boatload of resentment and rage. But once at boarding school, he makes a real effort to succeed, both academically and behaviorally. But circumstances (namely the leadership structure of the school's students) make that impossible, and we soon discover Erik is about the least evil person in the movie. The humiliation these boys inflict upon each other is graphic and awful, and it seems too outrageous to have been true. But since the story is adapted from Jan Guillou's popular autobiographical novel, we guess that much of this really did happen to him.

Director Mikael Hafstrom has already made a couple of films since Evil, including the moderately entertaining Derailed (which came out on DVD this week), and is about to direct John Cusack in 1408, based on the Stephen King short story. Clearly this guy has a gift for making films about some of the darkest elements of human existence, and Evil is a solid jumping off point to discovering his talent. Evil is a gripping and difficult story to see unfold, but it also works as a brutal social commentary about how far people will go when there's no one around to tell them to stop and far too many people cheering on their bad behavior. In a time when the topic of excessive torture is in the forefront of many people's minds, Evil stands as a testament to those who fight against (and often lose) battles against such oppressors. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Summer Storm
I'm still trying to figure out why Brokeback Mountain upset so many people. I'm talking about people (mostly men) who saw the film and were somehow made uneasy by the "graphic" sex scenes. First off, there's really just one scene we're talking about. Second, the scene could not have been less graphic. Third, anyone who thought that sequence was graphic needs to get out more and check out films like Germany's Summer Storm, opening today at the Music Box Theatre. It's not a particularly great film, and it gets less and less interesting as it goes on. But if you want a far more detailed account of a young man's first dalliances into gaiety, this might be a good place to start.

Summer Storm centers on young best friends Tobi (Robert Stadlober) and Achim (Kostja Ullmann), the stars of their crew team, who are perpetually horny for girls while maintaining that the addition of females to their lives will in no way degrade their friendship. Their crew team heads off to spend part of the summer at a camp with other crew types to train and compete. It's already clear that Tobi harbors feelings for Achim, who spends an increasing amount of time with his new girlfriend. The prettiest of the girls' crew team is Anke, who falls hard for Tobi, a frustrating path to be sure. An all-gay team shows up at the camp, and a few of its members aggressively set their sights on "converting" a few of the straight young men, including Tobi, who doesn't need much help.

Summer Storm comes across as a fairly charming and sweet story about friendship and the challenge of admitting who you really are. Tobi's realization about his homosexuality after one of the gay crew members seduces him is a difficult one, and the decision of whether or not to come out to his friends, particularly Achim, is agonizing. Director/co-writer Marco Kreuzpaintner (who is currently making his first U.S. film with Kevin Kline) does a nice job capturing a time in a teenager's life when decisions need to be made that will affect the rest of his life. Even for straight kids, this period is rough, and Tobi's world is a swirling mix of confusion and emotion.

The film breaks down in its final act as a giant storm rages into the camp, and the teams are forced to take up residence in a normally closed nearby lodge. Things wrap up a little too neatly for everyone in these final scenes. Also, I was disappointed with the film's subplot about an extremely homophobic fellow team member of Tobi, who is targeted by a boy from the gay crew. Aside from the fact that the storyline goes nowhere, the whole affair seems far too sleazy for a film this light. Still, Summer Storm works more often than it doesn't as a gay coming-of-age work, and offers a bit of insight into what a tumultuous time this can be for youngsters. I've seen these types of stories before, but rarely handled with such sensitivity.

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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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