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Saturday, May 25

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The 40-Year-Old Virgin
For the first time since There's Something About Mary..., a film exists that embraces both the finer points of R-rated adult-speak and a real sweetness that makes it ideal for everyone from frat boys to married couples. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is also significant because it announces the true arrival of gifted comic actor Steve Carell as a leading man, and romantic leading man at that.

Carell has impressed me since his days on "The Daily Show," and continued to provide giggles in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman (whose director, Judd Apatow, directs and co-wrote Virgin with Carell), but he's never really shown a range like he does here. Carell plays electronics store employee and action figure collector Andy Stitzer. Andy's the type of guy who posts his daily schedule on his refrigerator even though it never changes. He's not a flat-out nerd, as you might expect, but his hobbies and lifestyle don't exactly promote a healthy self-image. His interactions with women aren't embarrassing, but for 20-some years they've just never led to sex. If anything, his respect for women is so great that he wouldn't ever want to subject the opposite sex to his inadequacies. He's effectively stopped trying at this point. When his co-workers (Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, and Carell's Anchorman co-star Paul Rudd) find out that Andy is still a virgin, they see it as a challenge and an excuse to drag him to clubs and speed-dating parties and watch him flail about while trying to use their pointers to get lucky.

Although none of their advice is worth the oxygen spent giving it, having his secret out in the open seems to lift a weight from Andy and he loosens up enough to start meeting women on his own. He take a liking to a young, energetic book store clerk (Elizabeth Banks), but he seems most attracted to divorcee Trish (the flawless Catherine Keener), who has three kids and one grandchild (Andy refers to her as a "hot grandma" more than once). She is unaware of his status as a virgin, and when Andy suggests they take it slow, she has no idea how slow he means.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin is jam packed with hilarity. In fact, every time Carell attempted to match the callous wit and language of his coworkers, I was in hysterics. Bad language sounds so wrong coming out of his mouth. A sequence in which Carell takes Trish's teen daughter to a Planned Parenthood-like office to learn about sex and birth control was my favorite. And I'm sure the scene in which Andy gets his chest hairs waxed at a spa in front of his friends will go down in comedy history, especially since Carell really did have the procedure done on camera. Blood literally starts pooling on his chest. It's a scream.

At its elusive core, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is tackling the age-old differences between men and women, and how they communicate amongst themselves and with each other, usually poorly. Carell and Keener should make a dozen more films together; their chemistry is that impressive. And the film's sweetness is undeniable. You will love all of these characters to varying degrees. Welcome to the best romantic comedy of the year so far.

Red Eye
Veering only slightly from his fading status as a king of horror films (let's be honest, Cursed was pure shit any way you edit it), director Wes Craven has crafted a top-notch, lean thriller spent almost entirely in the cramped confines of an airplane. And thankfully, Craven does not threaten us (or his characters) with the possibility of the plane crashing. He's noble if nothing else.

The story begins innocently enough. Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams, on a winning streak with Mean Girls The Notebook, and Wedding Crashers as her last three films) is a high-ranking employee at a five-star hotel who is on her way back from her grandmother's funeral. Even at a distance, she can solve hotel problems and still manage to call her father (Brian Cox). While waiting for a red-eye flight home, she meets the handsome, charming Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, also on a roll after 28 Days Later and Batman Begins). The two flirt a bit at the airport bar, and shockingly enough, end up sitting together on the same plane. What are the odds? Pretty slim, actually, especially when Murphy reveals his true intentions once the plane is on the air.

Without giving too much away (the film is barely 80 minutes long, so revealing even a little would be too much), Lisa must use her skills as a problem solver to avoid having her father harmed, participating in the murder of a dignitary staying at her hotel, and getting killed herself. In quite a few films, Murphy has proven himself a significant acting force, easily going from harmless to sinister in his work. Red Eye is McAdams' first chance to really show us what she can pull off in a thriller, and she's quite a natural at playing someone who refuses to be a complacent accomplice.

The script (from first-time feature writer Carl Ellsworth) does a good job anticipating how each character will react to the other, and it always seems two steps ahead of the audience's thought process as well. I found myself dreaming up ways Lisa could save herself or get word to some authority figure, and she tried many of those ways, only to be shut down. The story's only flaw might be that the target for assassination is a government official who might be a stand-in for Donald Rumsfeld; there may be those in the audience who don't care if he is killed. Wisely, the writer throws in the man's wife and kids to make us care again. Still...

Above all other things, Red Eye keeps your heart racing as the ever-present race against the clock ticks away. The plot gets a bit more ridiculous toward the end, but the strong performances and the exceptional editing save things from getting out of hand. Red Eye is an effective little ride, for sure.

Asylum
Aptly enough, this film is tearing my mind apart. The forces at work in the period melodrama Asylum are proof positive that people do the stupidest things for all the wrong reasons. There's almost nothing about the performances in Asylum worth criticizing; the acting is superb. It's tough to go wrong with a cast led by Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, and relative newcomer Marton Csokas (Celeborn from The Lord of the Rings films and currently in The Great Raid) The actors' ability to sell this highly internalized, emotionally complex work is admirable to be sure. But sometimes the emotions in Asylum don't ring true, and there's the rub.

Although the time period is a bit difficult to figure out (I'd guess 1950s or early 1960s Britain), the film could have been set anywhere. An up-and-coming doctor (Bonneville) gets a plum assignment at a prestigious mental hospital. He drags along with him his bored wife Stella (Richardson) and their young son. In an effort to fill her seemingly infinite amount of free time, Stella begins gardening, as a recovering hospital patient Edgar (Csokas) works nearby, fixing a dilapidated greenhouse. Here is where the stupidity and predictability kick in. Stella finds out that many years earlier, Edgar, a one-time sculptor, butchered his wife in an insane fit of jealousy. Her natural course is to begin a passionate love affair with the psychopath.

I suppose at some point the filmmakers want us to see Stella as a victim of her passion, but in this day and age when a character runs away from her husband and son, as Stella does, you have a difficult time staying on her side. Whether it's intentional or not, what's remarkable about Asylum is how director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) forces us to alter our feelings about almost all the characters during the course of the film. Stella's husband is passionless and grumpy, and we're not meant to like him in early scenes. But as the film progresses, we start to feel genuine pity for the man. At first we are secretly rooting for Stella and Edgar to find real love, but by the end we hope they burn for their actions.

Stella is still drawn to Edgar even after he beats her severely and the police come to cart him back off to the loony bin. The bottom line is that her actions make no sense, and Mackenzie doesn't attempt to get us inside her head to explain her behavior. I know we're supposed to believe her heart won't allow her to resist Edgar, but after a certain point, it doesn't make sense. I'm not the kind of person who needs character motivation mapped out for me, but Asylum almost demands an explanation. Having said that, I still enjoyed watching this group of actors really weave their web. Ian McKellen's portrayal as Edgar's doctor at the institute is wickedly well done. His motivations are definitely suspect, as well they should be. Asylum is a flawed but highly watchable film, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ma Mère
Although scheduled at last year's Chicago International Film Festival, the print of this French film never actually arrived; I happened to have seen a screener of it at the time. Ma Mère is a sexual free-for-all from director and screenwriter Christophe Honoré that reveals the disturbed and perverse workings of a mother-son relationship gone horribly astray. The powerhouse Isabelle Huppert plays Helene, mother to Pierre (Louis Garrel). The two are vacationing in the Canary Islands when they find out Helene's unfaithful husband has died in a car crash. Helene uses this somewhat joyous event as a springboard into night after night of debauchery, and she drags her son into it with her.

In the midst of this depraved activity, Helene disappears for a while, leaving her son in the hands of two female party girls (Emma de Caunes and Joana Preiss). He falls hard for the elusive Preiss, and it doesn't take long before we figure out that these women have been left to break in this sexually repressed boy. It's as if Helene wants her son to replace her dead husband, complete with his low opinion of women. The part of the film that may freak out a lot of people comes at the end when Helene helps complete her son's sexual journey. Yipes! Did I mention this film was NC-17? I probably should. Ma Mère is a devastating film that toys with your emotions in order to seduce you into its world. Huppert's black widow performance is as scintillating as it is dangerous, much like the film. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Tropical Malady
Winner of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival Jury prize, Tropical Malady from Thailand is one of those rare films that is utterly baffling at times but still quite beautiful and moving. The film starts out, simply enough, as a love story. A soldier and a country boy begin to fall in love. Their time together is chronicled in the film's first hour, and although this certainly qualifies as a gay relationship, there's nothing in the least bit explicit about their scenes together. They walk, talk and lie around observing the beautiful countryside... until the younger man disappears. At this point, the film transforms into a mythological tale of the solider combing the jungles of Thailand looking for his lover, who may have been turned into a mythic wild animal. You've got to admit, that's a new one.

On a strictly visual level, Tropical Malady is a wonder. And if you're willing and able to put all sense of reality aside and just go where the film takes you, you may end up experiencing something quite special. It seems that Thai New Wave pioneer Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours) does not want his audience to feel comfortable with conventions and sets out to shake up traditional methods of filmed storytelling. Mission accomplished, brother. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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