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Friday, December 15

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The only type of music documentary I love more than one about a subject a know is one where I know nothing about the musician or group. The music and musicians I love, I love with unbridled passion. So for a film to introduce me to a performer whose name I've never even heard before (or at least had limited exposure to) and succeed in convincing me this is someone worth feeling something about is a beautiful thing. The most recent example of this sort of film in my life was the documentary Gigantic about They Might Be Giants, whose music I'd certainly heard prior to the film, but I never really was under the impression they were anything more than a novelty act. I've run into a few people who had the same reaction to the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

My one and only exposure to the works of cult legend Daniel Johnston was a Pearl Jam bootleg I own, on which the band performs a song called "Walking the Cow." I didn't know until watching the disturbing and poetic The Devil and Daniel Johnston that Johnston wrote the song, but I'd always found it a wonderful combination of nursery rhyme and melancholy masterpiece. The film chronicles the well-documented life of Johnston from his days as a creative youth whose desire to make music became a lifelong obsession (one of many, it turns out) and whose upbringing and mental instability turned his music and his life into the stuff of legend. I particularly liked the material from Daniel's childhood and high school years, when he set up a makeshift studio in his home and recorded hours of both piano-based tunes and audio diaries about his home life, including recordings of his religious-zealot mother accusing him of being filled with the devil.

Daniel's status as a cult hero was sealed when he moved to Austin, Texas, learned to play the guitar (barely), and ended up being a centerpiece on MTV's "The Cutting Edge" show, which made its first trip to the South by Southwest Music Festival soon after Daniel's relocation. Daniel was by no means a well-known player in Austin at the time, but he had such charisma and an odd playing style (and a burning desire to be on MTV) that the show's producers were drawn to him. The film is filled with awe-inspiring moments like that, and they're usually followed by Daniel having a meltdown and blowing an opportunity at a much wider audience. Johnston's mental illness and dangerous, self-destructive behavior is as well-documented as his brushes with fame, perhaps more so since Daniel rarely turned his tape recorder off. The parallels between Johnston and more-established artists like Brian Wilson are obvious (the biggest difference being that Johnston lost his mind before becoming famous).

Daniel's insanity not only came out in his music but in his drawings and paintings, which seems to focus on eyeballs, Satan, all manner of alien creatures and, of course, self-portraits. His belief that Satan was after him at all times lies at the center of his illness, and it's shocking how this belief stood in the way of his career. He regularly reports having nervous breakdowns while recording certain records, but the music is still remarkable, having gone on to be recorded or performed by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck, Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth; Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt on the MTV Video Music Awards featuring the cover art from Daniel's first album, and Nirvana fans went ballistic trying to find out more about this mystery singer.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig (who made an excellent 1993 documentary about the band Half Japanese) has total access to Daniel's astonishing life, including interviews with the older, heavier, still-medicated man, who lives with his parents and still makes music. The Devil and Daniel Johnston not only convinces you Johnston's music is worth listening to, but also that the man is worth getting to know and his life worth recognizing and cheering on. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


On A Clear Day
There are so many poignant and wonderful films coming out of the UK these days that it's a little sad that the only ones that seem to have made a dent in the U.S. box office in the past 10 years have been single-minded, feel-good movies involving, among other things, men dropping their drawers. The first film that ushered in this trend was Waking Ned Devine from Ireland, but there have been plenty in its wake (including the upcoming Kinky Boots). I'm not saying these films aren't varying degrees of good; many of them are genuine crowd pleasers. But the scenario is usually the same: a town or business is in crisis and the residents must band together and do something goofy to save it. Having said that, On A Clear Day, the new film from first-time feature director Gaby Dellal, has the elements of these type of films but manages to avoid most of the clichés they readily embrace. Thank you, Ms. Dellal.

One of the most gifted actors working today, Peter Mullan, stars as Frank, a man who has spent most of his adult life working as a Glasgow shipbuilder. As the film opens, his latest marine achievement is set to sea, and Frank is laid off unceremoniously along with several of his colleagues. He is suddenly a man without a purpose and has a difficult time adjusting to life without a schedule. Attempts at finding a new job are fruitless and extremely humiliating, and the strain it puts on the relationship with his wife, Joan (Brenda Blethyn), is almost unbearable. Desperate for a sense of meaning in his life, the 55-year-old Frank is inspired by an off-hand comment from his friend Danny (Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd), and he decides to swim the English Channel.

What separates On A Clear Day from so many other UK films hitting these shores of late is its much darker and serious tone. Flashbacks reveal Frank had two children at one point, one of which drowned in the waters close to where Frank worked building ships. The surviving son (Jamie Sives), now fully grown with a family of his own, has always lived in the shadow of his dead brother, and he resents it to the point where the two men barely speak to each other. Frank hides his Channel plans from wife Joan because he's afraid she'll try and talk him out of it, but we soon find Joan has a few secrets of her own. The film also reveals some of the city's racism against a Chinese fish-and-chips shop owner (Benedict Wong), who ends up becoming the key member of Frank's support team for the swim.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the movie is that we never get a sense that Frank's swim—should it be successful—will solve all the problems in his world. He's not getting any much-needed money for his troubles, he and his son still have a lifetime of bitterness to contend with, and Frank still won't have a job. For Frank, the swim is more about regaining control of his life and making decisions for himself rather than being tossed about by a greedy corporation with no regard for his years of blood, sweat and tears. But writer-director Dellal does leave us hopeful that Frank's life is better off than when we first meet him, and that's about as much as we can hope for. On A Clear Day is elegantly shot and executed, and has some poignant ideas about family and regaining one's sense of self. It also sports one of the finest casts of actors I've seen pull off a film like this. It's a remarkable little work with lofty ambitions it has no trouble reaching. The film opens today at Pipers Alley.


L'Enfant
Sometimes the micro tells you more than the macro. Case in point is this sliver-of-life feature that won the Palme D'or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival about a young couple in Belgium adjusting (or mis-adjusting) to life with a newborn. Petty criminal Bruno (Jeremie Renier) lives a destitute life with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (newcomer Deborah Francois). We first meet Sonia as she is combing the streets looking for Bruno after she discovers he has sublet their apartment for cash and is living the life of a homeless man. She finally finds him and introduces Bruno to his new son, Jimmy, but we sense almost immediately that the 20-year-old Bruno is no good when Sonia complains about him not coming to visit her in the hospital.

Although Bruno seems to take a liking to the child immediately, we soon discover his mind only thinks in terms of making money to survive for another day. And the first time he is put in charge of the child, Bruno sells Jimmy to a shady black market connection. If you've ever had a desire to know what it's like to have your heart plummet in your chest while watching a film, L'Enfant is that film. The film's co-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have built their careers and reputations making superior films that track the seemingly hopeless lives of today's European youth, in such films as La Promesse, Rosetta and The Son. This new film is just as intimate and devastating. When Bruno reveals what he's done to Sonia, he seems to think when she sees all the cash he's gotten for their baby, her pain will be lessened. "We can have another baby," he tells her. The saddest part of the film is that Bruno is far from an evil guy; he's just dumb in thinking Sonia never really wanted the baby in the first place.

She finally convinces Bruno to get their child back, a task easily done but not without a hefty price, which sparks a mini-crime spree for Bruno and a young gang member Bruno enlists from time to time. There's a small but noticeable transformation in Bruno during the duration of the film, which takes place within the course of only a day or two. But it is his transformation that is the emotional heart of L'Enfant. True to form of most films written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, the characters' lives aren't given much hope in the long run. Their films are about personal redemption not situational resolution. Sonia all but disappears from the plot once Bruno has recovered their child, but there is still much more film to go as Bruno attempts to escape the police for the initial kidnapping and gather the money required by the black marketeers to make up for their lost revenue. In fact, Bruno's situation is never more desperate than it is when the film ends. L'Enfant is quietly powerful and brutally honest in its portrayal of its subjects and their daily lives of desperation. It's far from uplifting as a story, but the fact the filmmakers are able to produce works this good sends my spirit soaring. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


The Beauty Academy of Kabul
I found myself struggling to find reasons why I shouldn't dismiss this documentary as shallow and inconsequential. Why is the opening of the first beauty school in post-Taliban Afghanistan worthy of its own feature-length film? When so many of the Afghan women attending this school have far more worthy responsibilities than worrying about hair and makeup, why do they bother with a group of materialistic American women trying to train them in the ways of beauty? It's a complicated issue, I'll admit, but The Beauty Academy of Kabul does a credible job of explaining the important symbolic and emotional leap of such a school opening in a place where anything remotely feminine was regarded not only as sinful, but criminal.

Thanks to generous money and product donations from many beauty-industry giants, the academy teaches all the finer points of cutting, coloring, perming and styling hair, with additional courses on makeup and other spa practices. Is this an exercise in Westernizing these women, who under the Taliban weren't even allowed to show a bit of wrist or ankle (let alone any part of their face)? You bet. But the film doesn't avoid discussions of how American practices and mindsets about beauty are regarded in Middle Eastern nations. Even more significant than the American women who travel from all over the United States to ply their trade is the presence of three Afghan women who left the country for America more than 20 years earlier when the Taliban took over and have not been back since. This journey is less about beauty to these three, and more about healing and rediscovering their roots. The film's great tear-jerking moments come when these women introduce themselves to the class and tell their stories.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul is at times surreal, funny, fascinating, frustrating and strangely moving. Above all else, it is never dull, especially when one particularly obnoxious American instructor (I believe she was from Indiana) decides to hop in a car and drive through the center of Kabul. What's the big deal, you might ask. Women don't drive in Afghanistan, and her "I don't care what people do or think here" attitude is one for the history books. Still, the idea that many of these graduates will go on to make much more money than their husbands in a given year certainly sets up a turning of the tide in Afghanistan that makes you think about the nation's future on a larger scale, which I suppose is the point. This is a one-of-a-kind documentary with more going on than you might at first realize. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


The Wild
The biggest thing the new Disney computer animated feature has going against it is that it feels too much like other recent animated works. That doesn't take away from the fact that The Wild is a spirited, amusing tale of Central Park Zoo animals who must travel to Africa to rescue the son of the zoo's main lion attraction. This plot summary alone clearly borrows from Madagascar and Finding Nemo, but the story varies enough to recommend this better-than-Madagascar-but-not-as-good-as-Nemo adventure.

First-time feature director Steve Williams has been a visual effects supervisor and CG-animation supervisor on such films as Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Mask and Spawn, and he seems to have a grip on what makes a more kids-oriented type of film tick. My favorite character in The Wild is a wanna-be bad-ass British koala bear named Nigel, voiced by Eddie Izzard. It sounds as if Izzard was allowed to do what he does best, which is free-style riff on whatever his character is talking about. Expect to find wise-cracking plush versions of Nigel in toy stores around the universe very soon and probably on my shelf as well.

While Nigel will clearly be the crowd favorite (especially among adults), there are plenty of other moderately amusing animals hanging around. Keifer Sutherland plays the lead lion Samson whose cute, roar-impaired cub accidentally gets shipped to Africa. When Samson utters the line, "This has officially become a rescue mission," you can't help but conjure up images of Jack Bauer spouting that line. It's a great moment. Also on hand are Richard Kind as Larry the dopey snake, Janeane Garofalo as a giraffe named Bridget, and James Belushi as Benny the squirrel, who is madly in love with Bridget. William Shatner chimes in during the scenes in Africa as some type of water buffalo creature, who decides his species has been at the wrong end of the food chain for too long.

While hardly a philosophical venture, The Wild certainly has more substance than Madagascar. There's an energy and sense of adventure that makes it one of the best non-Pixar animated features Disney has put out in quite a while. This is a step in the right direction if, indeed, the studio is truly finished with traditional animated works. I can't lie: I found myself laughing at most of the jokes in this film, and I'm not going to apologize for it. The animation is pretty spectacular, opting for more realistic renditions of these animals than the modern-art take of Madagascar. At times the action in The Wild seems almost out of control, but how often do you feel that during animated films, which usually seem so stiff and calculated (with the action and the jokes). Make no mistake, the target audience for The Wild is still kids, but every parent going to this film should personally thank Izzard for giving us grown kids something to cherish as well.


Subject 2
It's rare that Chicago gets to premiere a film that might open wide around the country at some future date. At least that's what the makers of the high-def psychological horror film Subject 2 would like to happen. In fact, they are so confident, they've booked a screen at the Landmark Century Center Cinema for a week in the hopes people will come. I'll give writer-director Philip Chidel credit, because his modernized take on the Frankenstein legend set primarily in a cabin in the snowy mountains near Aspen, Colorado, is clearly a work of passion and hard work. The film isn't half bad either.

The elements of Chidel's work with closest connection to Frankenstein are those dealing with bringing the dead back to functional life, and the ethical dilemma this practice would undoubtedly spark. Medical student Adam Schmidt (hunky Christian Oliver, whom the press notes insist on mentioning was picked by YM magazine as one of the "50 Most Beautiful Guys in the Universe"; that alone will pack the theatres full of horror fans) is obsessed with new, unexplored dark corners of scientific research. But with no resources or money, his curiosity never ventures pass passionate online writing on the subject. That is until he receives a mysterious email inviting him to test some of his theories. Schmidt makes his way up to the snowy location where he meets Dr. Franklin Vick (get it?!), another slightly older hunky dude played by Dean Stapleton. Shortly after their initial meeting, Dr. Vick proceeds to kill Adam. End of movie.

Oh…no wait…there is more. Vick injects Adam with a serum, and counts the minutes and hours until he starts showing little signs of life. Much like the novel Frankenstein, Subject 2 is not so much about sewing body parts together and the townspeople rioting with torches. Instead it is about the relationship between the subject and his doctor. Whereas Adam wasn't exactly a willing participant in his own death, he wasn't picked at random either. The doctor knew once he could prove to Adam that his serum worked, he would become a voluntary subject to try different strains of this revolutionary drug. And so, at the end of every day of research, Adam is effectively put down, to be revived again in the morning.

Questions begin to arise. If Adam is Subject 2 in these experiments, what happened to Subject 1? Could this serum effectively render Adam immortal and/or invulnerable once perfected? I'll admit, I began thinking of the ramifications of such a discovery. But the formula is far from perfect. Adam's senses seem heightened in his new undead state, but so do his pain receptors, which results in virtual seizures of agony. Dr. Vick finds fairly radical ways to take away the pain, which begs the thought, is the cure for the side effects worse than being dead? Adam starts to believe it is.

Subject 2 tends to work better as a launch pad for discussion of these issues than as a horror film or even psychological profile of these two troubled men. And the tacked on twist of an ending feels strictly like amateur hour, whereas an earlier, far more serene shot of Adam's final journey seemed far more appropriate a culmination of what the film had stood for up to that point. Subject 2 features two solid performances in Stapleton and Oliver, and I liked the claustrophobic feel of the cabin setting. Chidel's shots of his actors against the stunning mountain settings (the film features quite a few snowshoe treks to keep our undead hero in shape) are also quite nice. I realize the movie is meant to tax one's mental capacity rather than indulge base desires for blood and guts, but the simple fact is very little happens, and, for a film that barely crosses the 90-minute mark, it feels a bit draggy. Subject 2 is a solid rental recommendation, but I don't know if I'd shell out the bucks to see it in a 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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