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Saturday, July 20

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Airbags

This is a hugely busy week for new releases. So big, in fact, that I couldn't get to everything in a timely fashion. The two big openings that I missed were a small Keira Knightly film called Silk, and the one that broke my heart to miss because we were moving into a our new temporary apartment the day it screened for critics, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. I'm hearing some terrific things about this one, and by the time you read this, I will have seen it, but not in time to review it. Still, as you can see below, there is no shortage of spankin' new movies to choose from.

The Brave One

A pattern has emerged in Jodie Foster's recent role choices, in case you hadn't noticed. Not including her ensemble work in Inside Man, Foster's last three starring roles (Panic Room, Flightplan and now The Brave One) have all involved her being victimized in some way and then physically fighting back. Granted, you could trace her choice in such parts back to The Accused and Silence of the Lambs, but those films don't quite match the formula of the most recent ones. Foster has mastered these parts so perfectly, she even has a "fighting-back" face, something of a cross between pure fear and an ecstatic adrenaline rush. Don't get me wrong, I love her in these three films (Panic Room is a claustrophobic masterpiece), and I get excited whenever Foster decides to make a movie at all, which seems to be less and less these days. Is lesser acting hands, The Brave One might have been an inexcusable mess, but Foster and her equally strong co-stars bring a weight and importance to this work that made me care about these characters even when what they are doing at times seems terribly wrong.

Foster plays Erica, a carefree New York radio host who lives something of an idealized hippie lifestyle with her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews of "Lost") and telling stories on the radio about the city she loves. It's actually kind of nice to see them just be a normal couple, preparing for their wedding, living their lives never really being scared of the sometimes-dangerous city they live in. That all changes one night in Central Park when they are both brutally beaten by a gang of young thugs. Erica survives the attack, although she's hospitalized for weeks; David is not so lucky. Erica struggles to rebuild a life by herself, but she's also clearly suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Every stranger that walks near her or unfamiliar sound sends waves of fear through her. She attempts to go to the police to get updates on the investigation of her boyfriend's death, but she's essentially ignored.

A detective named Mercer (Terrence Howard), who knows her from her radio show, takes pity on her and tries to do a little investigating on his own, and the two form something of an uneasy alliance. But The Brave One isn't about a woman finding new love after a great loss; this is a film about revenge, and no actress on the planet does unfiltered rage better than Foster. Erica buys an illegal gun; she thinks it will make her feel safe and help her deal with living in a city she now fears. She ends up in a convenience store when an armed robbery takes place, and she deals with it. She is accosted by three dangerous men on the subway, and she deals with them, too. She spots an underage prostitute (played by Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet) and deals with the girl's pimp. Clearly she's building up the courage and skill to go after her attackers, the men who murdered her lover. Mercer is, at first, oblivious to the connection between these crimes and his new best friend, but he begins to suspect things enough to give her veiled warnings that he will choose the job over a friendship if he has to.

I've certainly seen Foster play scared and nervous before, but I can't recall a film in which I've seen her so enraged. And it's her all-too-believable anger that sucked me into this film. After stumbling through a couple of none-too-impressive films in the last year or so (Idlewild and Pride come to mind), Terrence Howard finally turns in a performance that fulfills the promise he made with his work in Crash and Hustle & Flow. (Howard is actually having a great month; be sure to read my review of The Hunting Party next week.) Mercer is a thoughtful man who uses his eyes and his brain before he opens his mouth or acts, but his cautionary ways come back to haunt him in the film's final act. I should also mention Nicky Katt (recently seen in Planet Terror), who is one of the film's few sources of comic relief as Mercer's partner, Det. Vitale.

The Brave One certainly does not condone Erica's actions. In fact, I think it's safe to assume filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In the Name of the Father) intended this to be an anti-violence, anti-gun film of the highest order. The Brave One is not without its flawed worldview or even plot holes (the idea that Foster's character would go down an alley with a strange man to buy a gun so soon after her attack seems highly unlikely), but that doesn't take away from the film's ability to lock you in its grip and guide you through this heartbreaking journey. Two weeks ago, a Kevin Bacon film called Death Sentence was released to little fanfare. That movie features a strikingly similar plot about a man who seeks revenge on a gang of punks who murder his oldest son. As you can probably tell just from the title, that film did not handle the material in as nearly as compelling a manner, but that didn't stop it from being a wild ride. The Brave One shuns most opportunities to be exploitative, whereas Death Sentence wallowed in its blood and guts (again, this is not necessarily a bad thing). I suppose this is what sets Foster's film apart. Its intentions are clear without being preachy, and it doesn't shove its message down your gullet. Beyond that, the acting is so strong that the film's flaws vanish easily.

We've entered the early stages of the fall movie season, so expect many releases (including a few that hit theaters this week) to be more hard-hitting, message-oriented works like this. More often than not, it is the films that don't state their case in big capital letters that end up making their points heard. The Brave One steps over the line a couple times, but quality of the filmmaking always outweighs the brashness of its message delivery.

In the Valley of Elah

One man who has never been afraid of delivering tough and overt messages in his films is Paul Haggis. Whether its with his award-winning screenplays for works like Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (he also had a hand in the script of Casino Royale, lest you think the man doesn't know how to entertain an audience), or his Oscar-winning film Crash (which he wrote and directed), Haggis in recent years has been turning out one powerful, necessary work after another. His latest and, in my view, most accomplished work is In the Valley of Elah, a based-on-a-true-story film many will say is about the war in Iraq, when in fact it's about what any war does to those fighting in it. This is a movie about the price of war exacted upon those left behind and those who await the hopefully safe return of a soldier. I've seen this subject analyzed a great deal in feature and documentary films in the last three or four years, but never have I seen it handled with such truthfulness and unflinching accuracy. This is not only Haggis' finest work to date, it's also one of the best films of the year.

And while I'm clearly in the mood for sweeping declarations, let me add one more. This might be Tommy Lee Jones' single greatest performance. Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a long-retired Army MP and man of few words whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is fighting in Iraq. Hank gets a call that Mike has gone AWOL on leave stateside. Hank tells his wife (Susan Sarandon) the news and immediately heads out in search of his son. With little or no help from the military police or the local law enforcement, Hank uses his rusty investigative skills and ends up uncovering far more than he necessarily wanted to about his son's disappearance, which quickly appears to be the result of foul play. His only real assistance comes from Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, again proving her talents as an actress run neck and neck with her beauty). Sanders is the butt of many a joke in her station since most of the men think she slept her way into her detective job. The fact that she's smarter and more motivated than her male counterparts means very little to anyone.

In the Valley of Elah is part intriguing mystery, part absolutely shattering drama, in which there are no real heroes or villains, just victims of circumstance and those trying to cover their asses and the collective U.S. military's ass. Words barely convey how tremendous Jones is here. He is the living embodiment of pent-up anger aimed at every obstacle that is deliberately thrown in his path at getting to the truth. Everyone is lying to him, sometimes for ridiculous reasons. Theron is the only person in his field that is straight with him, and their allegiance is rocky but effective (and blessedly, there isn't a hint of romance between them). The supporting cast is equally impressive, especially Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher and James Franco, all in fairly small but important parts.

Perhaps what is most impressive about In the Valley of Elah is the way it delivers its messages (and there are many). By striking an almost distanced tone, in which characters are as likely to spend five minutes talking about an event that has nothing to do with furthering of the plot, Haggis allows us to realize that even in times of crisis people's overwhelming desire is to return to something normal. I won't say more on the plot's running mystery about Mike's fate, but what would be the climax of most movies (the big confession) is actually done off camera and Jones isn't the one who solves the mystery. So little about the way Elah's plot unfolds is conventional, and we are just as satisfied to simply spend time with these richly drawn characters as we are getting to the bottom of things.

Lest you think Haggis has lost his touch for social commentary, his screenplay has plenty to say about sending young men off to become killing machines and then sending them back home with no period of adjustment or decompression in which they learn to live normal lives again. To Haggis, this is almost as much a tragedy to families sending their children off to war as a son or daughter being killed in action. He certainly makes a case for that line of thinking. Unlike Crash, this latest work sticks to its single storyline and provides a tight — almost choking — stranglehold on its subjects, confining them to just a few locations (hotel rooms, police stations, etc.). At times, Elah might make you want to scream out of frustration for what its characters are going through. Haggis doesn't make this an easy journey for anyone, but when you arrive at the conclusion of this remarkable film, you'll know immediately you've seen something profound and substantial.

In the Shadow of the Moon

How much more do you need to know? This is a exceptional documentary that features with every single surviving Apollo astronaut (with the exception of the ever-reclusive Neil Armstrong) who took a voyage to the moon between 1968 and 1972. Sure it sounds like a commercial for a space program that has seen better days, but there is very little about this film that feels sugar-coated or wrapped in the American flag. These former test pilots and scientists are the only human beings to have seen Earth from another world, and the stories they convey with refreshing honesty and enthusiasm are probably ones they've told hundreds of times, but they still seem so fresh in their minds.

Not only do we get these riveting interviews, but also the filmmakers have restored some of the most unbelievable archival footage of the events, footage that has clearly been restored and alone is worth the price of admission. The film documents every success as well as every failure with a frankness that is almost difficult to believe. The one things that In the Shadow of the Moon is not is a puff piece. It's actually kind of funny to listen to the other Apollo astronauts discuss Armstrong's camera-shy nature; they actually seem a bit shocked at how easily he retreated back in to private life after having done what he did. How could the first man to walk on the moon not want to shout about it every day of his life? The man should be the highest-paid motivational speaker in history. As much as the film is about events, you can't ignore the fine job done at capturing the personalities of these men.

What the film reminds us — whether this is its intention or not — is that there was a time when the United States plowed through all sorts of red tape to get a job done on a timeline set by the President near the beginning of the 1960s. It also shows us a moment in history when our country truly was the envy of the world. When we put a man on the moon, people were impressed by and in awe of us all over the world. The footage of people all over the world (even France!) who seemed utterly mad about America is almost hard to watch in retrospect. The film acts as a time capsule of sorts, a reminder of a very different time. This is a movie that beautifully documents this era in history, but it also adds some perspective on our lives today. These aging men have so much history to tell us about, and believe me, you will want to listen. But they also have a perspective about the current state of the planet and how fragile our world truly looks from a different vantage point. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Across the Universe

How do you fuck up a movie with 30 Beatles songs featured in it? OK, those of you who have seen Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band may already have some idea of the answer to my non-rhetorical question. You fuck it up with terrible covers of these songs (most taken from the band's more drug-fueled hippie era), pointless cameos, and a plot that seems to be a series of nonsensical scenes whose sole purpose is to set up the next song. If you think naming all of a film's major characters after names featured in Beatles songs is clever, maybe you'll like this drivel more than I did. If you think dropping lines from Beatles songs into the dialog is clever, you're an idiot and you'll definitely like Across the Universe, a hugely disappointing film from a director I absolutely love, Julie Taymor (Frida, Titus and the stage production of The Lion King).

My love for Taymor's inventive visual style made me predisposed to like this film, and there are a few trippy sequences scattered throughout Across the Universe that are quite breathtaking. But one of my other biases rose up from the depth during this movie and dropped a poison pill into the proceedings from very early on. I hate hippies. Aside from being dirty, their ideas are vague and don't make for interesting movies most of the time. I'll present as my Exhibit A the film version of Rent, which I couldn't stand, not because the music was bad or because I didn't agree with the bohemian lifestyle the characters were leading. I couldn't stand Rent because the people didn't really stand for anything as much as they stood against something. I'm a firm believer that if you're going to complain about any social injustice, you should at least come armed with one or two solutions to the problem you are so passionate about. OK, fine, I know that a list of solutions to the world's problems probably doesn't lend itself to a great musical, but those are my reasons; bite me if you don't agree.

But I digress. Across the Universe is an unholy piece of crap, almost from the first frame. First off, don't be fooled by the claim that there are 30 Beatles songs in this film. My math may be off, but there are fragments of 15-20 songs contained here, with the remaining few songs performed more or less beginning to end. Here's an example of how brilliantly the songs are used in the film's "story" (courtesy of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who I'm told had a hand in writing The Commitments, a film that had some idea of how to use music): there's a minor character named Prudence; she locks herself in a room and pouts because she's sad that a guy she has a crush on is flirting with another woman; her dozen or so roommates try to coax her our of the room singing a song. Can you guess which song? If you can't, you probably don't care about this movie at all, and I'm shocked you're still reading this. If you can, it doesn't get much better than this.

The two-hour-plus plodding thing that resembles the circa-late-'60s plot revolves around a young Liverpool man named Jude (groan), who decides to leave his job in the shipyards to go to America and become an artist. Oh, and he also wants to find his American father who doesn't even know he exists. I guess his mom was a slut 20-some years ago. Anyway, he arrives at the prestigious university where his father works, meets him, and falls in with crowd of rich pranksters, including one named Maxwell (yes, there is a scene in which Max uses a silver hammer, although not to kill anyone; and the song is never used). Max brings Jude home for some holiday (Thanksgiving, I think), where he meets Max's lovely sister Lucy. At this homecoming, Max announces that he's dropping out of school and moving to Greenwich Village to be a hippie, a dirty, dirty hippie. Jude goes with him.

Once in New York, the pair land up in a commune like apartment run by a very Janis Joplin-like singer named Sadie. If I told you that a guitar player who seems modeled after Jimi Hendrix also in a major player in this film, would you be surprised? Would you care? Hello? Lucy eventually follows her brother to New York, and is swept up in the antiwar movement just as Maxwell is drafted into the military. Lucy and Jude become lovers, and the whole gang of hopelessly good-looking, counterculture misfits have adventures ranging from signing record deals to hopping on wildly painted buses and traveling to the middle of nowhere and tripping out.

I mentioned cameos; where do I begin? U2 singer Bono plays a hippie author named Dr. Robert (looking a lot like Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider), who has written a book (and sings the song) "I Am the Walrus." Eddie Izzard shows up as a Timothy Leary-like guru Mr. Kite, encouraging all the young kids to take drugs. Izzard at least shows some enthusiasm for his one song, and the visuals during a psychedelic freak out sequence are the only thing in Across the Universe that reminded me why I'd loved Julie Taymor so much to this point. Also on hand is Joe Cocker (playing multiple sleazy characters), who does a bizarre rendition of "Come Together," which I guess passes muster if you lower your standards slightly (you really won't have any choice watching this film).

The characters flail and change temperament to suit whatever the next song might be, with no real effort spent on developing fully realized human beings. Sequences showing Maxwell in Vietnam are laughable; the militant antiwar group to which Lucy belongs gets violent; and Jude's artwork is just plain bad. The entire film is bad, and worse, it's ill conceived. Still worse, it feels like it was made by someone who has heard all of these songs exactly one time each. I made the argument to some people after I saw this film that it's really hard to mess up a Beatles song to the point of me not liking it, but Across the Universe proves that it's far too easy. Taymor and company had an interesting idea, and as a fan of any music, why wouldn't you want to use it in your movie? But not like this, not so carelessly. People in the world actually care about these songs, and seeing them flung around like this is akin to watching your kids get smacked around by a stranger, and you can't do anything to stop it. In case you can't tell, let me state this clearly: Across the Universe is a horrifying mess. If you find that you can't help yourself, the film is opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Mr. Woodcock

This months-on-the-shelf, low-grade comedy is proof positive that I can watch, and even moderately enjoy, anything with Billy Bob Thornton in it. Mr. Woodcock has a few laughs in it, courtesy of some well-staged physical comedy and some outrageous, abusive dialog Thornton gets to hurl at a bunch of high school kids. But we've seen him do this before in recent offerings like the Bad News Bears remake and Bad Santa; that doesn't make it any less funny, but it's nothing new. Thornton has adopted a persona for these types of lowbrow humor that I can only describe as anti-charm. We still like the guy, but not because we like him; it's because he has so whole-heartedly embraced all that is mean and nasty in human behavior.

Thornton plays a high school gym teacher who makes it a point to mentally, and sometimes physically, brutalize his kids to make them into real men. He throws balls at them, practices painful wrestling moves, and check to make sure they're wearing cups by knocking them in the crotch with a bat. One of his favorite targets many years ago was John Farley, a slightly overweight kid with no perceivable athletic ability or confidence. Years later, John (played by Seann William Scott) has taken these negative experiences and turned them into a best-selling, self-help book. While on a book tour with his publicist (Amy Poehler), he finds out that his hometown in Nebraska wants to honor him with the key to the city. He finds the gesture impossible to say no to, so he flies home only to find that his sweet mother (Susan Sarandon) is dating Woodcock.

The rest of the film from this point is fairly predictable. John does everything in his power to break up the couple because he knows what a cruel son of a bitch Woodcock is. Woodcock thinks John's book is for whiny losers. And the two spend the rest of the film going at each other while dear ol' mom is more or less oblivious that the two even hate each other. The biggest problem with Mr. Woodcock is that Scott is an average actor at best. When he isn't spewing forth the most appalling things as Stifler in the American Pie films, he's not very funny or interesting. Sarandon's gifts as an actor are wasted on a role that could have been played by anyone, but she has a couple of touching scenes toward the end of the film that in lesser hands probably would have fallen flat. Any success the film has in making us laugh or feel anything rests with Thornton, who probably doesn't consider this his finest work, but he doesn't humiliate himself either. His stern delivery gets kind of one-note after a while, but it's a blessedly short film, so it doesn't hurt too much. Mr. Woodcock is an above-average distraction at best, but with so many better offerings this week, it's probably best you avoid this one.

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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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