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Wednesday, May 22

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The Break-Up

I'm the absolute wrong guy to be reviewing this film. First off, I hate celebrity gossip rags and television, so the fact that the stars of The Break-Up appear to be dating and perhaps even buying a place in my fair city means nothing to me. Second, the entire film, every last frame, is shot right here in Chicago. There was a time last year where you could not walk down certain downtown streets or neighborhoods without running smack-dab in the middle of a location shoot for this movie. I love that the Chicago is experiencing an upswing in film production, from Fox TV's "Prison Break" to The Ice Harvest, to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, and to this little ditty.

Lastly, I've been a Vince Vaughn fan from day one. I remember about 10 years ago being at a sparsely crowded preview screening of Swingers here, meeting Vaughn and his comedy partner Jon Favreau, and having the time of my life discovering a film that I knew would be a highly quotable cult classic. (Favreau has a few nice scenes in The Break-Up as Vaughn's best friend, and it's funny that, in a way, their roles have reversed since Swingers, with Vince as the guy trying to get in touch with his emotions and Jon as the man's man with sage advice like "You need to get laid.") I say all this to let you know where my biases lie.

The biggest surprise about The Break-Up is what it is not. This is not about a couple that breaks up at the beginning of the film, spends the entire film trying to one-up each other to make the other move out of their jointly owned condo, and end up realizing that there's no way they can live apart. Let me rephrase that: The Break-Up isn't only these things; in some cases, it isn't these things at all. The film manages not to take sides, although this is clearly Vaughn's film, in which he stars as Gary Grobowski, a real Chicago guy. He loves the Cubs, is proud of his Polish heritage, and operates a bus tour operation with his two brothers, played with much enthusiasm by Cole Hauser as Lupus and Vincent D'Onofrio as Dennis (I genuinely was shocked to see D'Onofrio in this film; he's basically playing the Christopher Walken role here as the way-over-the-top, loveable whack-job).

In a charming opening sequence set during a Cubs vs. White Sox game at Wrigley Field, Gary meets Brooke (Jennifer Aniston), who is on a date. The lines Gary pulls out to woo her are not only really funny, but they don't seem out of the realm of possibility in terms of clever pick-up lines. Much of the film has that feel. While it never misses an opportunity to make jokes at everyone's expense, The Break-Up is grounded in a kind of reality, especially in the scenes involving the dissolution of the Gary-Brooke relationship. The first fight we see them have (and clearly not their first fight ever) takes place after a strained dinner where their two families finally meet. Director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, Bring It On) wisely does not appear to take sides in these domestic quarrels, and as a result I'm guessing a lot of couples thinking they're on a date to see a romantic comedy may be shocked and horrified by the number of relatively "dramatic" scenes in this film. In fact, these same couples may find themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to these arguments. Gary wants a little time to chill in front after a long day at work. Brooke wants Gary to stop taking her for granted, which he swears he's not doing but strong evidence speaks to the contrary.

After the couple decides to break up, lines are drawn in the condo. Gary takes over the living room, while Brooke isolates herself in her room planning her next move. The worst mistake both make is listening to their friends. Favreau's Johnny Q (I love it) is about teaching her a lesson. While Brooke's best friend, Addie (Joey Lauren Adams of Chasing Amy fame), wants Gary to know his behavior is unacceptable. The most frustrating aspect of the film is that the couple never actually just sit down to talk, perhaps even apologize, even if they don't mean it, but the sad fact is some couples never bother rebuilding the lines of communication once they're down.

For a short time, the pair actually do try and out-annoy each other into leaving the condo, but once they decide to sell the place and split the money (thanks to some more advice from real estate agent Jason Bateman, Vaughn's co-star in Dodgeball and Starsky & Hutch), the regrets begin to sink in that they let things get this bad so fast. One of the film's best scenes includes Brooke's very emotional reaction to Gary standing her up at what she believed would be a peace-making night out at an Old 97's concert.

In addition to two strong lead performances, The Break-Up is loaded with a great supporting cast, including Ann-Margret as Brooke's mother; John Michael Higgins as her possibly in-the-closet brother; and Justin Long as Brooke's co-worker at an art gallery run by the incendiary Judy Davis. Perhaps the most wonderfully odd bit of casting is the role of Addie's pussy-whipped husband, Andrew, played by the all-grown-up Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story).

The Break-Up doesn't offer a whole lot of insight into why couples fight, how they do or don't solve their differences, or even bigger-picture questions about men and women. But it does balance its comedic and dramatic sides extremely well. Vaughn is all about shooting out the rapid-fire sarcasm and overly confident monologues about honeys and sports and video games and the pitfalls of love, but people forget the guy is a decent actor. Toward the end of the film, he makes a desperate and honest plea to Aniston to take him back, and, shockingly enough, director Reed does not choose to set the event in front of thousands of people at a baseball game. It's a private moment that derives the most emotional response by not being a spectacle.

There are genuine surprises in this film in both the performances and the plot, and going for the easy joke is rarely the filmmakers' ultimate goal. The Break-Up is quite funny in spots, but it's also is unexpectedly moving at times. And my guess is that you will not find yourself laughing at the moments in the film when it dares to go a little deeper. We're not talking Woody Allen- or Ingmar Bergman-like depths here, but don't be shocked when this film's reality makes you think on occasion between big laughs.

Twelve and Holding

For a film about three troubled 12 year olds, this latest film from director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) is one of the most mature films in recent memory about coping with tragedy and attempting to figure out how fast one needs to grow up.

From a script by Anthony Cipriano, Twelve and Holding profiles three kids who are best friends and practically inseparable, bonded by their loneliness and disenfranchisement from their parents. Jacob (Conor Donovan) has a birthmark across most of the left side of his face, and it has resulting in him feeling insecure and unpopular, especially next to his twin brother (also played by Donovan). Leonard is the fat kid in school, who comes from a wildly obese family that is never shown not eating in the film. But when Leonard's gym coach takes an interest in having him play football when he reaches high school, he grows determined to whip himself into shape. The third and most interesting youngster is Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), the only one of the three who comes from a broken home. Her psychiatrist mother (Annabella Sciorra) is too busy to raise her right and too pissed off at her ex-husband to notice her daughter is struggling to find some kindness in her life.

When Jacob's brother is accidentally killed by two neighborhood bullies in a fire, the events sends all three children down very different paths in an attempt to cope with the loss and make a connection with the world that might turn their lives into something positive. These are not your standard-issue "troubled" preteens. The children in Twelve and Holding are intelligent and emotional creatures, but their coping mechanisms are not fully formed, and this leads to situations I never saw coming.

Jacob visits one of the bullies who killed his brother in a juvenile detention center, and makes repeated threats to take his revenge once the kid gets out. But over time, the two boys form an uneasy bond that results in a plan to hit the road to New Mexico to start a new life away from damaged parents and feelings of inadequacy.

Leonard's noble attempts at leading a healthy life with diet and exercise are actually looked upon with much suspicion by his parents. When Leonard's father and sisters go on a vacation leaving him alone with his mother, he makes a misguided effort to help his mother lose weight to save her life.

Malee's tale is perhaps the most disturbing and may ultimately keep people from going to see the film. Receiving no emotional support from her mother, Malee strikes up a friendship with one of her mother's patients, a former firefighter named Gus (Jeremy Renner, the lead sexual harasser in North Country), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and is now working construction to make ends meet. Gus can sense that Malee has a crush on him, but both seem to possess an overwhelming desire to connect with someone, and they continue having lunches together at Gus' construction worksite. Gus is a genuinely sweet and upstanding man, but Malee still manages to read much more into their time together than she should, which leads to an awkward and painful encounter.

Each child in Twelve and Holding has their moment of reckoning, a time when growing up must happen and lives are altered and defined. The three young actors here are the best I've seen since last year's You and Me and Everyone We Know, and in many ways the films are quite similar, although Twelve and Holding has less humor, which is a good thing considering the subjects dealt with here. There is not an ounce of sentimentality in the film or the performances, and this makes the stories resonate more than any "family" film ever could. Unlike other films of late that feature unsupervised kids doing crazy things and growing up too fast, Twelve and Holding's parents are very much a force in these kids' lives, albeit not always a positive one. If the film has any message, it might be that just being present doesn't make one a good parent. The movie is filled with a mixed moral code, and just as one child may be redeemed another makes decisions that could easily send his heart and mind straight to hell. This is a layered, complex work that delivers an emotional head-butt when you least expect it. Twelve and Holding is a tremendous accomplishment by Cuesta and company. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

District B-13

French director Luc Besson (Le Femme Nikita, Leon The Professional, The Fifth Element) has spent much of the last six years writing and producing a substantial number of action films, including The Transporter films, the recent Jet Li movie Unleashed, the three-films-strong (with one more in the works) French Taxi franchise (no, not the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah film), and last year's re-edited Ong Bak. Plus, he has finally returned to directing with the mysterious Angel-A (which apparently has just received a distribution deal for America). Besson's latest effort to reach the states is District B-13 (or Banlieue 13 for French speakers out there), which he co-wrote and produced. Besson's pattern as an action writer and filmmaker is fairly clear: He's interested in dangerous and realistic stunts versus special effects to make the violence more painful to watch. Anyone who has seen Ong Bak (and shame on you if you haven't by now) has a sense of what I'm talking about. There are no wires, no CGI, and a level of and commitment to action the likes of which I haven't seen in many American films of late.

With District B-13, Besson takes a tip from Ong Bak and has hired two stunt men/coordinators as his leads in a story set in Paris, circa 2010. Police have cordoned off the most dangerous ghettos in the city and let lawlessness and gang warfare effectively carry on without check. The thinking is that the gangs will ultimately destroy each other without harm to innocent civilians in the process. Cyril Raffaelli (a stunt worker on the Transporter and Taxi films) stars as special forces police officer Damien, who is an expert in martial arts, particularly in the eye-catching Parkour, a French-born fighting style that emphasizes rapid and economic movements to take down an opponent. When it is discovered that a powerful bomb has found its way into the ghetto district known as B-13 and is being controlled by the nastiest of its gangs, Damien must infiltrate the walled-off area to remedy the situation. In order to move through the district without being detected, Damien is forced to join forces with Leito (relative newcomer David Belle), a native to this ghetto who knows its every alley and hiding place, and whose sister is being held captive by the same gang that holds the bomb.

Long-time cinematographer (The Transporter, Unleashed) and first-time feature director Pierre Morel gives us some of the most devastating hand-to-hand fighting sequences ever shot outside of traditional Asian martial arts films. And Besson (with co-scripter Bibi Naceri) has crafted a plot more complex than it first seems. As Damien and Leito get closer to retrieving the bomb, they begin to realize that maybe its presence in District B-13 was not unplanned. Granted, it doesn't take a genius to figure out some of the films plot twists, but, for a balls-out action film, the story is more elaborate than your run-of-the-mill Van Damme movie. Raffaelli and Belle aren't the world's greatest actors, but this ain't Shakespeare. Their physical abilities are impressive, and the stunts in District B-13 are destined to elicit howls of glee from U.S. audiences who are able to seek it out. Don't let the subtitles frighten you. Trust me, when the action is turned up, there aren't many subtitles to read anyway.

Let's make one thing clear: District B-13 is no Ong Bak; it's not even Escape from New York (which clearly it is borrowing from). But it is a worthy addition to Besson's long line of hardcore actioners. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Typhoon

Released as Taepung in its native South Korea, Typhoon uses the well-tested device of pitting two men against each other who under slightly different circumstances might have been the greatest of friends. Instead they engage in an epic battle that absolutely must result in massive death and pain. It's a formula that has served the likes of John Woo well in some of his early works with Chow Yun-Fat, and more recently served as the basis for the Infernal Affairs series from Hong Kong. But Typhoon has the added layer of having its story also serve as a metaphor for the fractured relations between North and South Korea. And while it doesn't serve that part of its tale as magnificently as Chan-wook Park's 2000 masterpiece Joint Security Area, the point is clear and the pain of a severed nation is heartfelt.

South Korean navy officer Kang Se-Jong (Lee Jung-Jae) is sent on a mission by the government track down Choi Myong Sin (Jang Don Gun), a man reputed to be a vicious terrorist who has stolen a nuclear missile guidance system from a U.S. cargo ship. He has also purchased nuclear waste from Russia, which he plans to inject into two typhoons heading for the Korean Peninsula using the guidance system, killing every citizen of both nations. At least he has goals.

Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that when Sin was a boy growing up in North Korea, he and his family attempted to escape the oppressive regime. But when a South Korea diplomat refuses them asylum at the country's embassy in China, the family is delivered back to South Korea and the parents are killed immediately. Young Sin and his older sister are separated, and Sin has spent much of his life tracking her down. However, it is Kang and his investigators that find her first. She has suffered greatly as a drug-addicted prostitute, and soon she becomes a pawn to entrap Sin, whose imaginative scheming continues even when it appears he's at a disadvantage.

As an action film, Typhoon isn't bad. There's plenty of gunplay and fighting to keep things moving along, despite a largely action-free mid-section. The films works better as political commentary and a not-so-subtle plea for an end to 50 years of cultural and generational separation. Kang clearly has a great deal of sympathy for Sin and his plight, and at one point even allows him to escape when clearly he could shoot him and end the insanity. Ultimately, the film comes down to a well-staged, overly dramatic battle between Kang and Sin set on a ship carrying dozens of weather balloons, each armed with nuclear waste and a guidance system. The movie is not the perfect introduction for Western audiences to the troubles between North and South Korea, but the intentions and emotions behind the plot are clear and powerful. Typhoon opens today at the Esquire Theatre.

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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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