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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Think of this weekend as the calm before the Spider-Man 3 storm. By the time you read this, I'll have seen the third installment of the wildly popular Marvel Comics series, and that's about all I'm allowed to say about that. Since the release of Spider-Man 3 unofficially marks the beginning of the summer movie season, the studios are cutting bait as it were by dumping a few of their less-than-desirable titles in theaters this weekend to make way for the big guns.

Three larger films opening today were not screened for critics, including Next, the third Nicolas Cage movie in a row (after Wicker Man and Ghost Rider) not to be screened early enough for most critics to get their reviews out on the film's opening day. Also looking pretty shitty are the unscreened Jamie Kennedy "comedy" Kickin' It Old Skool and the strange-looking teen drama-thriller The Invisible, which appears to be the most interesting of the bunch. Still, a few smaller offerings did manage to sneak into theaters this week, and couple of them are actually worth seeking out.

The Condemned

The world's action heroes are a dying breed. The Bruce Willis-Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger crew are too old or too entrenched in politics to be convincing (despite the fact that Willis' latest Die Hard entry is about to be released, and Stallone is currently filming a new Rambo movie). For a time it looked like wrestling phenom The Rock was poised to become the world's next great action star, but with films like Gridiron Gang and the upcoming Southland Tales, even he seems more determined to succumb to the draw of "serious" acting. Some big actors today (Pitt, Damon, Clooney, Dicaprio, Wahlberg, Cruise) certainly seem willing to pick up a big gun every so often, but none of them are fully committed to the genre like their predecessors were in the 1980s and '90s. Another wrestling superstar seems willing to take the reigns as an action king, and with his first feature role in The Condemned, Steve Austin (formerly of the "Stone Cold" variety), might very well make that happen.

The Condemned is a mean movie. It's about as down and dirty as it gets these days, and it's something of a throwback to a type of film I haven't seen in at least 10 years. This is the kind of film in which rape or the threat of rape (I counted two barely veiled sequences here in which the event isn't exactly dwelled upon, but it's not off-screen either) passes for entertainment, and sheer brutality is the name of the game. I may be coming across as putting this film down for choosing this path, but really, I'm just letting you know what you'd be dealing with if you think you might like to see this film. The Condemned is not a particularly original work; it borrows heavily from betters working ranging from The Most Dangerous Game to Battle Royale. Here, a group of death row prisoners from all over the world are assembled at a secret island location by a media giant to fight each other to the death. The all wear explosives strapped to their ankles, and if there is more than one of them still alive at the end of a certain time period, they all die. The anklewear seems a bit too easy to set off by other means, which leads to some spectacular moments of bodies exploding, with body parts flying all over the place.

Austin plays one of the contestants in this game, in which the winner is set free, but it is made clear that he may be falsely imprisoned. I guess this makes him a good guy, but that doesn't make him the least dangerous. Since most of the other prisoners (including a couple of women) are played by largely unknown actors, it's no surprise that the final showdown is between Austin and the film's only other name player, Vinnie Jones as the film's resident psychopath. Next to the exciting and terrifying Jones, Austin seems grossly understated as an actor, but not completely ineffectual. He's given relatively little dialogue, which is probably a good thing, and his delivery of some of the film's attempted catch phrases is promising.

The Condemned lingers on most of its death sequences, which as a practice I don't usually mind, but it lacks a certain artistry to its brutality. With a higher body count than most horror films of late, you'd think director and co-writer Scott Wiper might try a little harder to dazzle us with originality and make a more memorable entry in the killing-as-sport genre. I liked the idea that the island was covered with cameras so that almost every event is captured for a web-based audience to see. I also liked the performance by Hostel's Rick Hoffman as the lead tech guy on the project, who might be the only person in the movie that acts like a fully formed human being. His morals regarding this project are constantly in flux. But this being a WWE production (complete with a Vince McMahon executive producer credit), I'm guessing the people this film is being targeted toward aren't going to be nearly as morally challenged by what's happening on screen. The verdict is still out on whether Steven Austin can become our next big action hero, but for all the faults in The Condemned, his enthusiasm for this material is not one of them.

The TV Set

The frequently shallow world of television is rarely captured on film in a believable or credible way. I'm not talking about the network news world, which actually has been profiled quite nicely in a few movies. I'm talking about the arena that pits network execs against the artists who make and star in prime time shows. Drawing from his failed attempts to turn his 1998 cult hit Zero Effect into a network series, writer-director Jake Kasdan has created one of the finest insider looks at the chipping away of the soul that comes when a writer gets the opportunity to get a pilot made. It would have been very easy for Kasdan and his talented group of actors to go overboard with this material, but his commitment to keeping these events as genuine and sometimes dark as possible make it a great work.

A bearded David Duchovny plays Mike Klein, who has written what appears to be a winning pilot script based on his life dealing with the suicide death of his brother. On paper, "The Wexler Chronicles" is a drama with a few laughs and a lot of heart. The network president of PDN (a fictional fifth national network) is Lenny (played with a winning thoughtlessness by Sigourney Weaver), an exec without a creative bone in her body and who runs all of her pilots and programming decisions past her 14-year-old daughter. The network has recently brought in Richard (Ioan Gruffudd) from the BBC to add a little class to the new fall lineup. He loves Mike's script and defends it to a point from any attempts at changing crucial plot elements by the network. But Mike doesn't pay Richard's salary, and he is under enormous pressure to craft shows that will fortify the network.

Almost from day one, Mike's decisions about any creative element to the show are challenged, beginning with casting and culminating in an on-set decision to eliminate the suicide angle to the lead character's story altogether. Those that are supposed to be on his side don't even back him, especially his manager Alice (the lovely Judy Greer), who seems more interested in appeasing the network than fighting for her client. Meanwhile, the show is having the added trouble of having its leading actor (Fran Kranz) fall for the lead actress (Lindsay Sloane), who rejects him, thus causing tension on the set. Mike's health begins to suffer, as does his relationship with his very pregnant wife (Justine Bateman). Both are torn between their desperate need for a steady income and Mike's artistic integrity.

I'd love to believe that The TV Set is a wild exaggeration, but I suspect it's not. And I understand that Kasdan's portrayal of the film's writer character as the only pure and good thing in the production is a little biased. But that doesn't stop the film from being poignant, hilarious, and biting. Kasdan has turned his hatred of the networks into a work of art, and transformed his criticism of the current system into a beautifully bitter manifesto. Perhaps the most surprising turn comes from Gruffudd (Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic), who is the one character whose life is the most transformed by these events and whose dignity suffers the greatest fatalities. I have no idea whether "Zero Effect" the TV show would have been any good, but if Kasdan suffered even a fraction of the indignities on display here, he's lucky to walk away with his sanity. In the long run, I'm glad the show never made it on air, if only because the experienced inspired him to write this near-perfect film.

Diggers

I was interested in this film initially for one simple reason: I'm a Paul Rudd completist. The man is just so damn likable in everything he does, how could you not dig him? And for every outstanding comedic performance in studio films like Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the upcoming Knocked Up, he also gives his time to smaller, sometimes more serious works like The Shape of Things, The OH in Ohio and the upcoming The Ten. Diggers falls squarely in the latter category, and it proves that Rudd can make even the most subtle work more interesting without hamming it up or seeming out of step with his fellow actors. In Diggers, Rudd plays a third-generation clam digger living in Long Island just before the presidential election of 1976. Rudd's Hunt character is a talented photographer at heart, but he can't even allow himself to dream of leaving for New York City for fear of failure and humiliation. The conflict has left him angry and lazy about meeting his father every morning to head out to sea to dig. The local diggers' situation is made worse by the encroachment of an oil company that has restricted the waterways and turned their way of life into a losing proposition. When Hunt's father dies, the responsibility of taking up the family business forces him to consider his life and future in the town.

I'm making this film sound much heavier than it really is. Diggers includes many laughs thanks to an impressive and gifted supporting cast that includes writer Ken Marino, Ron Eldard and Josh Hamilton as Hunt's closest friends. Marino (who co-starred with Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer and co-wrote The Ten) was my favorite friend character as a short-fused digger whose insults and crudities come fast and furious, and who impregnates his sweet but suffering wife (Sarah Paulson) with an alarming regularity. Eldard's character, Jack, is secretly sleeping with Hunt's older, recently divorced sister (Maura Tierney), a woman who has only recently discovered that it's OK to enjoy her freedom. But its Hunt's strange flirtation turned love affair with a young Manhattan woman (Lauren Ambrose) vacationing in town that provides the film with some much-needed passion and intrigue. She encourages Hunt's artistic endeavors, partly as a means for him to get out of town and partly because she thinks he has talent. He falls for her because she's the only one who has ever told him these things.

Although Diggers isn't really a plot-driven vehicle for these sincere slice-of-life tales, that doesn't stop it from being heartfelt and honest. Director Katherine Kieckmann doesn't overwhelm the production with '70s iconography, fashion or feathered hair. Her more immediate concern is getting these relationships and the sense of impending change that was in the air shortly before Jimmy Carter was elected president. Rudd and his co-stars captured my interest and made me care about what happened to each of the characters. Steering clear of sentimentality, the film instead wins us over with its dignity, humor and rough-edged grace. Diggers opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Valet

A rich French industrialist (the legendary Daniel Auteuil) is caught by the paparazzi coming out of a hotel with his model mistress (Alice Taglioni), a fact that he knows in advance is not going to sit well with his already spiteful wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). By a stroke of luck and coincidence, an unknowing passerby is positioned in the photos standing right next to the model, a person who provides the billionaire with the perfect opportunity not to lose his shirt in a vicious divorce. He claims that the model is, in fact, with the other man in the photo, a restaurant valet named Francois (Gad Elmaleh). This is the premise of the fast-paced farce from one of the finest comedic minds making French comedies today, Francis Veber (The Closet, The Dinner Game).

The billionaire pays the model (who was breaking things off with him when the photos were snapped) million of dollars to move in with the valet (who also gets a nice chunk of change for the deed), so that his wife's private investigators and the tabloids will get thrown off the scent. For such a light-hearted piece, The Valet doesn't miss an opportunity to surprise us. Rather than have the model and Francois predictably fall for each other, they actually spend a great deal of time talking to each other about their lives and becoming good friends. Francois is in love with a woman, and the model helps him seem more appealing as a lover, which sounds great until the model's model friends suddenly start showing up to hit on Francois as well. Actually, that doesn't sound bad either. Needless to say, the rich man's wife isn't buying it and actually has fun with the situation by making her husband believe that Francois has stolen the model away from him, sending him into a rage. There are no earth-shattering moments in The Valet, just consistent laughs and loads of entertainment. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Something to Cheer About

With an appropriate running time of about an hour, this well-told but slightly flat documentary tells the story of the 1955 Crispus Attucks High School Tigers basketball team of Indianapolis who overcame crushing racism and limited resources to become the first all-black team ever to win a U.S. state championship thanks to the creative playing style introduced to the team by its coach, Ray Crowe. The coach not only taught basketball but lessons on how to lead and live life. He may have been one of the first coaches in history to demand his players succeed in school as well as on the court, and he took these kids to the front lines of breaking down segregation in Indiana and finding white fans as well as black throughout the state and the nation. Writer-director Betsy Blankenbaker interviews nearly all of the players on that team, as well as Coach Crowe shortly before his death. Their honestly about the pain they suffered and racism they endured is important and crucial to the film.

I would have liked to learn a little more about the individual team members' lives. What sorts of obstacles at home did them have to overcome? The team as a whole is portrayed as a group of angels, but I'm guessing that a few of them got into trouble at some point during the year. If this is true, it might have shown us a little bit about the coach's tactics as a disciplinarian, making him a little more three-dimensional. Something to Cheer About isn't a great sports documentary, but it does tell a great and significant story well worth hearing. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Disappearances

Although there's no denying the stunningly photographed majestic scenery on display in this latest work from writer-director Jay Craven, I'll admit, I didn't quite get everything that was happening in this story of aging Prohibition-era outlaws hoping to make one last run across the Canadian border where a supposed easy score of Canadian whiskey is waiting to be taken. Kris Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill, now a farmer whose land is about to be taken and who is in desperate need of money. He takes his teenage son with him, as well as a couple trusted companions, and hey head for the northern border.

The film combines a stark and striking realism about the dangers of such bootleg missions with a mystic quality, delivered in large part to the presence of Genevieve Bujold's soothsayer-like character, who appears out of nowhere sometimes to drop wisdom bombs on various characters. The supporting cast here is strong and largely propel Disappearances past its more confusing elements into something rich and compelling. Gary Farmer, Charlie McDermott, William Sanderson and Luis Guzman all make memorable appearances here, but it's Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau as the man pursuing our the bootleggers that is the most memorable and terrifying. It's clear that the film is really the story of McDermott (as Kristofferson's son) and his passage into manhood, but that message is clouded by characters suddenly vanishing from the screen (thus the film's title, I guess). The seemingly unnecessary magic-related elements of the film left me cold, puzzled, and moderately bored. The movie is far from a disaster, but I'm not sure I can recommend what's here. Still, if I've piqued your curiosity, the film is playing for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

2007 Academy Award-nominated Documentary Shorts

I love short films, and I love documentaries even more, so imagine my sheer joy when the Gene Siskel Film Center announced that it would be playing the four Oscar-nominated films in the Best Doc Short Subject category as a single program this week. These films make up a must-see evening of critical viewing for all dedicated film lovers, beginning with the winning film The Blood of Yingzhou District, an absolutely traumatic profile of an area in China filled with the orphaned children of parents who died of AIDS. The parents died when untested blood was re-injected into their bodies after giving blood to help them recover faster after donating. Many of the orphans also are HIV positive and are all but cast out from society, forced to live unspeakable lives until they, too, die. Director Ruby Yang shows the early stages of a program that brings these orphans together to care for them, as well as teach other villagers not to fear these innocent children. One look at these desolate faces will completely stab your heart and make you angry all at once. This is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen.

The program continues with Recycled Life, an almost as harrowing tale of families who life and work in and around massive garbage dumps in Guatemala City. These people make their living selling recyclable materials collected in the dumps, but after a few too many case of piles of trash falling on people, garbage trucks striking people and massive fires, the government cracks down and kicks the families out of the dumps leaving them without a steady means of income. One group has sponsored school for the children of the dumps and job training for the adults, but many would rather simply return to the trash piles and lead solitary lives.

After the first two life-changing films, the other two nominees seem a little superficial. Rehearsing the Dream shows us a weeklong workshop for artistically inclined high school students (studying everything from acting to painting to music) where they perfect their craft and better their chances of getting into top-ranking arts programs in college. This film is filled with excitable kids who makes fast friends and consider the time in this program the greatest week of their lives, and it reminded me of every drama kid I hated in high school and why I hated them. The more intimate Two Hands tells the tale of Leon Fleisher, a virtuoso piano player who essentially lost control of one hand in the prime of his career due to what he thought was some sort of physical disorder. When he realizes the problem may have been neurological, he contemplates getting his hopes up for the first time in years and taking up the piano again by returning to the concert circuit. I found this more personal tale far more fulfilling than the short about the kids, if only because Fleisher didn't cry like a baby every five minutes. Supporting these shorts program is important in making certain we get a chance to see them at all in Chicago, and in May, the Film Center will also have programs devoted to the Animated and Live Action shorts nominees, many of which I've seen and loved immensely. The docs program screens at the Siskel Film Center on Friday, April 27 at 8:15pm; Sunday, April 29 at 3pm and Wednesday, May 2 at 6pm.

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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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