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Monday, May 20

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Airbags

I'm done with all the long-term traveling for the time being, but I'm still suffering from the residual missed screenings. I was unable to catch either of the critics' screenings of the Jennifer Lopez-Marc Anthony biopic El Cantante. It's been open since Wednesday, so you've probably read your fair share of print reviews on this sure-fire masterpiece, but I don't miss a J-Lo movie, so I'll still be checking it out at some point. Meanwhile...

The Bourne Ultimatum

Disappointed with what this year's summer crop of franchise players has had to offer? You disappointment stops right here, with a film that features no noticeable special effects; the best collection of actors the season has to offer; and the most intelligent, angst-ridden hero this side of... well, the last movie featuring the continuing adventures of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, at his steely-eyed, razor-sharp finest).

Here's the thing: I'm about as big a fan of Damon's acting talents as anyone you'll meet. I like him even in his worst films; I don't think the capable of giving a bad performance, even in films that are stinkers. When I first heard that he'd signed on to star in the adaptation of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity back in 2002, I'll admit was a little disappointed. I knew this could place Damon in franchise territory for the first time in his career, which typically translates to making concessions as an artist and not really being giving a chance to stretch the old acting muscle. I'll always admit when I'm wrong. Rather than simply lie back and play Jason Bourne as a confused kid looking for his proverbial daddy, Damon owns this character and charges him with a set of skills that surprise even him when he's forced into action. He's sometimes as startled by his abilities as we are.

Bourne's main objective is regaining his memory and remembering his entire life. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason's last unretrieved memory involves how he become the killing machine he clearly was trained to be, and he sets out to discover his origins. Meanwhile, a team of CIA agents are using every resource at their disposal to stop Bourne from following the trail to his beginnings, and as always, they seem willing — even eager — to kill him.

The thing that always got me excited about the Bourne movies was the ridiculously high-profile cast the films always pulled in, a testament to the quality of the smart writing (by lead adapter Tony Gilroy and his partners) and thrilling direction from Doug Liman (on the first film) and Paul Greengrass (the second and third). And how about those supporting actors: Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, Clive Owen, Julia Stiles, Franka Potente, Karl Urban and Michelle Monaghan. Add to this impressive list the likes of Paddy Considine, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, David Strathairn, Daniel Bruhl and Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez in his first American role as another assassin charged with offing Bourne.

But all these fine actors would be left in the wind if Damon didn't pull off his constantly shifting role as Bourne, whose personality changes ever so slightly with each new piece of information he obtains or remembers. It doesn't help that none of the memories coming back are pleasant. In fact, the more he learns about his past as a government assassin, the more he beings to realize that he may have chosen the lifestyle rather than having had it thrust upon him. What I also liked about the plot is that as more higher-ups in the CIA find out the truth about who Bourne really is and what he was trained to be, the more they start to sympathize with his plight and assist him in minor ways.

For those of you a bit less interested in the human drama at work in The Bourne Ultimatum, don't worry. The action scenes here kick your ass so hard, your grandma's uterus will rumble from the impact. Jason Bourne has always excelled at close-quarters fighting, often with no obvious weaponry at hand (magazine, anyone?). But director Greengrass has outdone himself here with fight scenes shot in such tight spaces, I don't know how he even fit a camera in the room. And keeping with the literary theme of Bourne's weapons, he does give a guy a severe beating with a book. Damon's eyes are always darting around a room or whatever his surrounding are, analyzing each setting and looking for both escape routes and things with which to pummel an opponent.

In addition to the fighting, there are a couple of brilliant motorized chase scenes as well, one involving cars and another using scooters and motorcycles going up and down every surface with an angle. I don't use the phrase "pulse-pounding" ever, but The Bourne Ultimatum literally had my heart racing with excitement (or possibly from the jumbo container of nachos I was eating). It's rare that I get this excited about action films, but this movie is so much more than that; it's the perfect combination of brains and brawn. And if you like your summer fare loud, in your face and teeming with big name actors, well you can stop looking right here.

Hot Rod

This perfect combination of stupid and hilarious features "Saturday Night Live" wunderkind Andy Samberg as Rod Kimble, a would-be stuntman who has grown up trying to live up to his long-dead father's legend as a master daredevil and test rider for Evel Knievel. Almost as important is his desire to gain the respect of his stepfather ("Deadwood's" Ian McShane), who rides him pretty hard and even pummels the poor kid to make him tougher. Rod's mom (Sissy Spacek... let me rephrase that: Academy Award-winner Sissy Spacek) allows the roughhousing begrudgingly, but can't hide her pain when she must reveal to Rod that his stepdad is dying and needs an unaffordable transplant. Rod and his crew of outcasts set out to plan and execute a stunt to raise the money.

Samberg is best known on "SNL" for his digital shorts (including a handful of legendary music videos parodies with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman), and Hot Rod features his "SNL" writing partners Jorma Taccone, who plays Rod's supportive stepbrother Kevin, and Akiva Schaffer, who directs the film. (The three created some fantastic shorts as The Lonely Island prior to their being hired on "SNL.") The film also features "SNL" regular Bill Hader as Dave the mechanic, and Danny McBride as Rico the guy who builds Rod's ramps. Kevin assumes the job of recording the team's efforts. Just to make the film all the more outrageous, Isla Fisher (The Wedding Crashers) shows up as Rod's old neighbor Denise, who becomes something of a team mascot and potential love interest for Rod.

What I loved about Hot Rod is the innocence and naivety of its characters. These guys aren't trying to be funny, but that doesn't stop their everyday behavior from being absolutely giggle inducing. This isn't to say that every joke hits; quite the contrary. The film has a small handful of colossal misfires that will more than likely leave the theater filled with cricket sounds. But even its failures fail spectacularly. This crew (working from a clearly reworked script by Pam Brody, one of the creators of the series "The Loop") never stops throwing situation after situation at us, all designed to make us laugh. One of my personal favorites is a ridiculous dancing-angry Footloose parody, and there's a sequence involving the phrase "cool beans" that will either drive you insane, or send you into convulsions, or both.

The next person who compares Hot Rod to Napoleon Dynamite deserves a severe beating. Here's a news flash for shortsighted, lazy critics: not every film about social misfits is like Napoleon Dynamite. Move on! Samberg has a highly likable nature and a pliable face complete with a enormous smile that is just dying for some Joker makeup. It's tough to walk out of Hot Rod and not at least appreciate the guy's appeal, even if you can't stand the movie. But he also knows his limitations, and any time he is required to emote, he's smart enough to know that his acting chops still need some work. I'm more than a little curious to see if Samberg and his team can pull something off that has a hint of sophistication, but for now, Hot Rod is perfect juvenile entertainment that had me giggling like a Japanese school girl throughout.

Read my exclusive interview with Andy Samberg on Ain't It Cool News.

The Ten

Although various combinations of the former cast of "The State" have been working together in the years since that show left the MTV airwaves about 12 years ago, in just the last year that seems to be happening more and more often, and I couldn't be more pleased. I believe all or nearly all of the cast appeared in Reno 911: Miami earlier this year, and now every last one of them shows up again in The Ten, a film that proves once and for all that The Ten Commandments can be damn funny and is absolutely filled with more homo-erotic subtext than you probably realized.

The Ten essentially pulls together all of the adult actors from Wet Hot American Summer (including non-"State" players Paul Rudd and Janeane Garofalo) as well as an impressive ensemble cast, including Adam Brody, Winona Ryder, Ron Silver, Liev Schreiber, Oliver Platt, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Moll, Jessica Alba, Justin Theroux, Rob Corddry and Bobby Cannavale. Rudd acts as our narrator, who stands before oversize commandment tablets to introduce 10 short, interconnecting tales illustrating (often in quite rude ways) each of the sinful rules of the road of life. Mol goes to Mexico and has a passionate love affair with Jesus H. Christ; a doctor (played by the film's co-writer Ken Marino) leaves a pair of scissors in a patient during an operation as a goof; Ryder falls in love with a ventriloquist's dummy, steals it, and makes passionate love (this would be your "price of admission" moment); a group of men hang out naked every Sunday to get out of going to church; the aforementioned doctor goes to prison and falls in love (in one of the films most touching segments, complete with ass rape!); there's even an animated sequence about a lyin' Rhino (voiced by Jon Benjamin).

Although The Ten would never be mistaken for a "religious" film, Marino and co-writer David Wain (who also directed) do tackle just about every sacred cow under the sun. Some of the sequences (such as the one involving Rudd's dissolving marriage in the wake of an affair) are more based in reality than others (such as a silly tale involving two neighbors trying to outdo each other's purchasing power by buying up all the CAT scan machines they can find), but they are all varying degrees of wildly funny and totally taboo. I was actually kind of moved by a couple of the stories, in particular one about a pair of black teen twins who finally get to meet their real father. And while it's hard to single out individual standout performances, Ryder's fearless take on a woman obsessed with a piece of wood is scarily convincing. She might give the performance of her career here. And her sex scene is smokin' hot.

The Ten is not for the weak of heart or for those who like their bible verses a little more on this side of Narnia. According to the press notes, the idea for this film was somewhat inspired by Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue project, and you know what? I have no trouble believing that. The writing here is as smart as it is shocking, and the film knows no bounds in its attempts to make you laugh, even as you squirm in your seat. (Did I mention the male ass rape?) Essentially the film is what it creates: a profile — or 10 hysterical profiles — of bad behavior, and it would be pure sacrilege to miss this one. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Becoming Jane

A costume drama based on the real life of Jane Austen probably sounds as exciting to most of you as... well, a movie based on one of Austen's books (such as Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Emma and her most famous Pride and Prejudice). But don't judge Becoming Jane too harshly before you've heard the fact. The fact that very little is known about Austen's life leaves writers Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood some latitude to construct a fascinating story about a woman who was largely considered romantic poison by society due to her chosen profession and success.

Much of Becoming Jane takes place prior to Austen's rise to fame, so what we are privy to is her one and only attempt (according to this version of the story) at romance. The always-stunning Anne Hathaway plays Austen, and if the film has any flaws, they aren't due to this American playing the late-18th-century British icon. There's an inherent, underlying sadness to Hathaway's portrayal of Austen, as if she knew that if she was successful in her chosen profession, she would more than likely live a life of solitude. Which is why this story of her intersection with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a progressive young Irishman, is so critical to the Austen mystique. Her parents (Julie Walters and James Cromwell) are not particularly rich, so they are counting on a man of some means to marry Jane. Lefroy is not such a man. Instead, they have their hearts set on a the stuffy Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox, son of actor James Fox), a nice enough gentleman who lives under the thumb of his rich aunt, Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith, in full feisty mode). Does any of this sound familiar to those lovers of Pride and Prejudice?

You may think this approach to Austen's life follows a similar path that Shakespeare in Love did, weaving various famous works by the Bard into a story about his life. That's the closest reference point, but the results are quite different. Some of you may think you're too cool and hip to be moved by a period film about the pre-fame life led by Austen, and that's a shame because this breathtaking work delves into a life that was, at times, as scandalous and passionate as the worlds and characters Austen created. Hathaway's portrayal of Austen isn't as a bold woman who believes she's breaking with tradition, but she comes close. Like her characters, she wants love to be the key element of any marriage, but unlike her creations, a happy ending is not always guaranteed.

Lefroy is far more flawed and less rich than the men in Austen's novels, and his conviction to Jane leaves something to be desired at critical moments in their relationship. Becoming Jane shows us the truth (or a version of it) behind a woman who created lasting works of romance, while unable to do so in her own life. It's a lovely and bittersweet tale about achieving some of your dreams at the cost of putting others aside. In fact, it is the sometimes-heartbreaking events set forth in this story that convinced Austen that all of her stories should have happy endings. Director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots and the upcoming Brideshead Revisited feature) does an impressive job at balancing the whimsy and melancholy into a film that captures the joy of Austen's work, as well as the plight of successful women in this time period. It's a mix that works better than you'd imagine, and even if the story doesn't interest you, there's always the radiant Hathaway to gaze upon. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Arctic Tale

Although not officially billed as such, this pseudo-sequel to March of the Penguins moves beyond the world of the lovable, bankable foul and onto the equally cute lives of baby polar bears and walruses (or is it "walri?"). As hinted at in the penguins' story, many Arctic creatures' lives are being severely upended and threatened by the melting of the polar icecaps and ice shelves. So as a purely ecological warning, the film works, sometimes a little too well (parents be warned: cute baby animals die of starvation in Arctic Tale).

But that doesn't stop directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson from doing their best to trivialize the stories of polar bear cub Nanu and walrus pup Seela with the help of some way-too-casual narration by noted naturalist and ecologist Queen Latifah. Apparently believing that Morgan Freeman's wonderful narration in Penguins had something to do with his being black and nothing to do with his gift as a classically trained actor, the makers of Arctic Tale somehow decided Queen Latifah was the way to go. As a result, the text of the film includes such witticisms as "That's how they roll." I believe "You go, girl" also makes an appearance. And the hits never stop coming. Now I just saw Hairspray the other day, and I thought Queen Latifah was one of the strongest elements in a film filled with great performances. But her gifts as a voice-over talent are sadly stretched too far here, so much so that the film's credibility goes right out the window.

As a nature film and a natural drama, Arctic Tale has a lot going for it. In many ways, the perils of these creatures' day-to-day, year-to-year lives seem more immediate in this film, and rightfully so. The film follows Nanu and Seela through many years of their early lives, including times when their lives intersect, and this approach serves to heighten the film's drama. I also liked the brief side stories involving some of the other animals that these two cross paths with, such as foxes, seals and a variety of incredibly exotic birds. The film balances its scenes of danger, whimsy and even a bit of romance nicely, but all of this expert filmmaking is torpedoed by Latifah's amateurish narration. I hate to harp on something that seems so minor in the big picture of the message being delivered here, but if you want to sell your story, you have to get a worthy storyteller, and she ain't it. My advice is to buy the DVD, turn on the Spanish or French or Hindi narration, and listen to it that way with English subtitles. I wish I could have seen this remarkable documentary achievement under any other circumstances. 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 steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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