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Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. Since most of this week's movies opened on Wednesday to get a jump on the holiday weekend, these reviews may seem a bit old to some of you. Shockingly enough, all of this week's offerings were screened ahead of time for critics, even the agonizing-to-sit-through Deck the Halls. I missed the screening of the one film that opens today in Chicago — Sweet Land, playing at the Music Box — which I'm hearing is quite good, with comparisons to Terrence Mallick being tossing around by other critics. You have a lot to choose from this weekend, so take a break from your post-Thanksgiving shopping and sit through a movie or six.


The Fountain

I'm most displeased to announce that Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream; Pi) latest, The Fountain, is a beautifully realized but spiritually vacant exercise. At its core, it's a love story that spans the ages through three stories set in different time periods across 1,000 years. In all three stories, Hugh Jackman (as a Spanish conquistador, a modern-day medical researcher and a bald guy floating in a bubble in outer space with a dying tree that makes him immortal) is madly in love with a woman played by Aronofsky's significant other, Rachel Weisz.

You can't help but be impressed with the film's visuals; I've never seen a film that looked quite as stunning as this. The use of color, shape and composition can easily be compared to classic paintings by the masters. But the writing and the theme of a mighty love that transcends time and space just didn't penetrate my heart the way other films on the subject have. As awe-inspiring as the visuals are, they also serve as a substantial distraction to what could and should have been a simpler, more heartfelt endeavor. I wasn't in the least bit confused by the film (although I'm guessing many will be), but The Fountain still left me frustrated, weary and ultimately cold. Yes, I believe Rachel Weisz is the kind of beauty who could inspire love across the ages, but the colossally disappointing Fountain doesn't prove that to me.

Part of the problem is that we hardly get to see the couple be a happy couple. We see Jackman's Tommy agonize over saving wife Isabel from dying of cancer. He and his research team (which includes the always strong Ellen Burstyn) use untested and unconventional means to find a cure, but a few scenes of them actually in love would have been nice.

During some of the scenes set in Spain, Aronofsky bravely redefines what an epic battle really is. Is it about thousands of extras or CGI elements smashing into each other? Or is it about two men going head to head, forgetting that thousands of other such battles are going on around them?

I walked into The Fountain ready to love it. Requiem for a Dream was my favorite film the year it came out, both for its fractured storytelling and its terrifying character studies. I actually love the way Aronofsky jumps from one time period to another here, but he falters in the dialogue and humanness of his creations. Some of the back and forth in the hospital where Tommy works seems like it's lifted right out of "E.R." Aside from Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman might be the finest action star working today, especially since he's also fully capable of pulling off high drama in addition to his physical qualifications. And neither he nor the radiant Weisz is at fault for The Fountain's shortcomings.

While Aronofsky's intentions and emotions are clear and good, his execution is flawed. This is one of those rare films that I wasn't fond of, but I still think people who crave something different should check out and judge for themselves. I may be missing out on something beautiful here. In a way, I almost wish the film had been longer, maybe taken the time to dig a little deeper into the characters' hearts and souls. Maybe by doing that, Aronofsky could have made me care a little bit more. A close call for me, but I can't recommend it.


Volver

There's a great shot near the beginning of the latest swirling masterpiece by Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar. Penelope Cruz's Raimunda is washing a bloody kitchen knife in her sink. The camera is poised directly over the sink looking straight down at the knife. This particular angle also gives us a fantastic view of Cruz's ample cleavage and the crucifix hanging around her neck. No single shot sums up Almodovar's obsessions (sex, death and religion) better than this one, and no single film shows us just how mature and sophisticated his filmmaking has gotten better than Volver.

Raimunda is a frustrated, working class mother of a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo). She is married to a lazy man, who is not the daughter's father and has started making advances toward the girl. Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) visit their mother's grave to keep it neat and tidy, and they do what they can to take care of an aging aunt, who swears that her sister — their mother — drops by often to take care of her.

Raimunda's daughter kills her stepfather with the aforementioned knife as he is attempting to have sex with her, and Raimunda immediately begins covering up the justifiable act by stashing the body in the freezer of a shutdown restaurant owned by a friend. But the ultimate disposal of the body isn't really what this film is about. Volver is a film that celebrates family. In particular, it pays tribute to the special bond that sisters, aunts, mothers and daughters share with each other. We find out that Raimunda's mother gave her to her sister to raise, while she took care of Sole. They all saw each other, but the sense of betrayal never went away. When her mother and father died in a horrible fire, Raimunda was left with a fierce emptiness that she continues to deal with. But something strange happens when her aunt dies early in the film: people start seeing Raimunda's mother (played by Almodovar veteran Carmen Maura) in various places around town.

The townspeople in this particular part of Spain are apparently weirdly superstitious, so they believe the figure is a ghost looking in on her family, a fact that isn't far from the truth. Most of Volver (which translates as the verb "to come back") is about Raimunda's repeated attempts to build a life for herself and her daughter. She takes over the restaurant where the body is stored and reopens it when a visiting film crew needs a place to eat after a day's shoot. Soon the restaurant has a booming clientele, and the money starts rolling in. More family members meet the "ghost," who is now living with Sole and getting to know her granddaughter.

The mystery of the mother's return, the fire that supposedly killed her, the parentage of Raimunda's daughter and other familial doings are all part of the film, but they aren't the most important things. Cruz gives the best performance of her career, and reminds those of us who first spotted her in Spanish films in the early 1990s that she can act circles around just about anyone. Without attempting to be cute or loveable, Cruz's character is sometimes abrasive, cruel and irresponsible, but her much-celebrated cleavage makes it tough to stay mad at her. Almodovar cleverly gets us wrapped up in this wonderful group of women long before we realize that we're in the middle of a dark family mystery. Volver is a deceptively simple yet spiritually complex exercise that may give you an urge to call your mommy when it's over. Cruz and the film are destined for many award nominations in the coming months, and there's a very good reason for that: the film is a uncompromising marvel.


Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

If the band Tenacious D means nothing to you, you will already be at a disadvantage when going into this film. And if you know Tenacious D, well, that might be a problem, too. I've been a fan of The D (an acoustic rock band consisting of Jack Black and Kyle Gass) since I happened upon the three, half-hour HBO shows many years ago. The band existed before those shows, but not to most living outside California. Shortly after those shows aired, Jack Black started to get famous. I first saw the band perform live at a 1999 show in Chicago that Jack squeezed in while he was in town shooting High Fidelity. The whole cast was there, and John Cusack even read the ritual pre-show announcement you'll see in this movie. It was a magical night, and it stunned me that every single person in the sold-out House of Blues event knew every single word to every single song that had been a part of the once-aired HBO shows. They also made a killer album, which is one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard. It was then that the idea of a movie featuring Tenacious D made total sense.

Black's career took off, but it needed to get big enough so he would not only be allowed to make a Tenacious D movie, but that he could make it an R-rated, ball-out tribute to Satan and all his glorious music. The time finally came, the movie was made, and the results…are mixed. Don't get me wrong, the movie was funny as hell&heppip;to me. And if I were an entirely selfish man, I'd say that's all that matters. But the fact that there is going to be an army of people who go into this film on the strength of Black's film career and who know nothing about Tenacious D makes me worried that the story of the formation of this band won't really mean as much to others as it did me. Should it worry me that someone came up to me after my screening and asked, "Why does Jack call himself Jables?" It does give reason for pause.

Still, much of Pick of Destiny will tickle just about everyone regardless of one's knowledge of the band. An opening rock opera that gives us the backstory of the young Black and Gass, who left their homes as children to pursue the Rock, is priceless. Meatloaf and Ronnie James Dio add sparkling cameos to this sequence, and my hopes were soaring.

The film is a road movie. The boys convince themselves that all they need to be a successful rock band is to own the titular pick, which is actually the broken-off tooth of Satan that resides in a rock music history museum. Along the way, Jack and Kyle sing songs about how great they are, meet up with strange and dangerous characters (the movie has no shortage of cameos), break up and reform more committed than ever. But ultimately they must fight Satan himself for control of the pick in a "Devil Went Down to Georgia"-style showdown to see who can out rock the other.

Black and Gass have this routine down. They play off each other so furiously that we're convinced they can read each other's minds. Just throw them in a room together, and funny shit happens. The songs are good, but not as good as the stuff on their first album. Granted, most of the music works toward forwarding the story, and isn't necessarily meant to be stand-alone material, but a couple more ass-kicking numbers would have been nice, especially for those unfamiliar with their skills as songwriters. In the end, Pick of Destiny made me laugh so very, very hard. I liked the backstory; I liked finding out how the band met their number one fan, Lee; and I liked revisiting moments from the cable show, now put in faux historical perspective.

This movie is a love letter to the cult of The D, those who have been trolling the internet for one more bootleg recording of "Rocket Sauce," or attempting to find out what late night talk show they might be performing on. It's been a fun ride, and this film will be responsible for the demise (or at least slowdown) of all activi-D for a time. And that's okay. Leave them wanting more. The film isn't the funniest thing out there; it's not even the funniest thing Black has ever done. Nevertheless, it does rock socks.


Déjà Vu

I don't even know where to begin with this nonsense. Hmmm, maybe I just did. I tend to cut director Tony Scott some slack, even when his movies look like high-speed music videos or slick commercials. The guy practically invented the modern-day testosterone-overload film with Top Gun and has not let up with works such as Crimson Tide, True Romance (my personal favorite), Man on Fire and last year's seriously underrated (by some) Domino. Scott seems to excel when he's working with Denzel Washington (who's in two of four films just mentioned), and Déjà Vu almost hits the mark. What starts out as a fairly straightforward ATF agent vs. domestic terrorist story transforms unexpectedly into one of the most bizarre science fiction stories I can remember. Not that a time travel story is all that unusual, but the hard sell of the technology and theories behind the means of time travel in this film is so ludicrous that I think even the actors in the film had to bite the insides of their mouths to keep from laughing. I know I did.

Not that Scott and company don't throw every trick in the book at us. Filmed in post-Katrina New Orleans, the movie opens with the staggeringly believable bombing of a ferry carrying hundreds of men, women and children (hasn't that city suffered enough?). ATF Agent Doug Carlin (Washington) comes into the chaotic aftermath all smiles, in an attempt not to step on anybody's toes but still assert himself as the best man to solve this crime. The investigation begins routinely enough, and Carlin seems to be making progress, tying the bomber to a local dead woman (Idlewild's Paula Patton). But his progress is slow and he grows frustrated.

But because he seems to be the one making the most progress on the case, Carlin is recruited by a special government group of researchers and scientists (led by Val Kilmer) to be a part of a surveillance group that uses advanced satellite technology to see anywhere (literally anywhere and anything). But it takes so long for the data to be collected and collated that the feed is four days old (and change). Carlin is immediately suspicious, since the satellite technology seems to include audio as well, which is impossible. It's finally (and not particularly surprisingly) revealed that the images are viewed through a wormhole to the past (FYI: I love saying "wormhole").

I was buying the film up to this point, and excited about the prospect of somehow capturing the bomber (revealed early on to be Jim Caviezel). But then the film gets really stupid. Carlin realizes the people in the images of the past sometimes react to things the watchers from the future do, and he makes it his mission to change the past and save the hottie he's sort of fallen for while watching her go through her daily routine (sometimes in her underwear). That's right. Denzel gets to be a time traveler in Déjà Vu, and that's just dopey. There are plot holes in this movie as large as a hole in a New Orleans levy. And all the rules we've learned about time travel are ignored. There is no discussion about the unforeseen dangers of changing the past. Worse than that, changing the past seems to be encouraged. Did none of these geniuses read Ray Bradbury? Or watch Back to the Future? Jesus!

The more I think about what Carlin changed in the past and how it doesn't correspond with what he saw in the future, I just get madder. If Déjà Vu taught me nothing else, it made me remember that Washington can be very good in a bad movie. Not that this is an unwatchable nightmare of an experience to sit through. It looks great; the directing is energetic and well paced; and the acting is top notch. But if you think even a little bit about the outrageous plot, you're going to really dislike it. Consider that your fair warning.


Bobby

With a cast size that rivals either version of Around the World in 80 Days, this testimony to an America long gone is a sincere and well-intentioned effort that doesn't quite accomplish its plainly obvious goals. By showing us the residents and staff of the Ambassador Hotel circa 1968, Bobby hopes to show us the makeup of the United States in terms of its wide and varied ages, races and economic levels. Kitchen workers, management, phone operators, political workers, movie stars, hairdressers and average everyday citizens make up this film. And, with so many characters and storylines floating around, it goes without saying that some of the stories are not as interesting or relevant as others.

You'll spend much of Bobby wondering why we should care about most of the characters, and what their stories have to do with the Kennedy storyline, which culminates with his speech at the Ambassador on the day of the presidential primary, followed shortly by his assassination. By the end of the film, most of the questions of relevance are answered, but not necessarily those concerning why you should care about these people.

My favorite scenes take place in the hotel's kitchen, which is filled with many legal and illegal Mexican workers. Laurence Fishburne plays the wise, Buddha-like head chef who dispenses sage advise along with healthy servings of tasty cobbler. The best storyline, however, is that of a kitchen worker played by Freddy Rodriguez ("Six Feet Under"; Harsh Times), who has tickets to what turns out to be an historic baseball game, but is forced to give them up because he is made to work a double shift. His character has the most moving story arc, and his place in history is sealed forever in Kennedy's final moments. But more than that, his story possesses relevance.

Although Rodriguez's character is based on a real person, his story is not. All of the people and storylines in Bobby are fictional, written by director and co-star Emilio Estevez. I'm not sure if that makes a difference in how entertaining or informative the film is, but it might have been nice to learn something about the real people at the hotel that fateful day. Other members of the ensemble include Harry Belafonte, Joy Bryant, Nick Cannon, Heather Graham, Anthony Hopkins, Joshua Jackson, David Krumholtz, Ashton Kutcher (in the film's worst and most annoying role), Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, an almost unrecognizable Demi Moore, Christian Slater, a scary good Sharon Stone and Elijah Wood.

Each story is meant to represent a different cultural issue of the time, but so many of them fall flat. For every decent plot line (like the young couple — Lohan and Wood — who don't know each other but get married to keep Wood's character from getting drafted and going to Vietnam) there are two pointless stories. The one that stood out as one of the worst was the Helen Hunt-Martin Sheen tale about what Hunt's character will wear to the Kennedy party that night. Talk about high drama. Other than the Kutcher thread (in which he plays a hippie drug dealer), none of the stories are awful, just meaningless. Each has its own degree of charm, but the cumulative effect has about as much emotional impact as white noise. Sure it's great to see Boogie Nights co-stars Macy and Graham working together again, and you may never look at Moore or Stone in quite the same way after this film, but Bobby didn't move me or tap into the kind of universality that I think it was going for. By including the audio of an actual speech by Robert Kennedy in the film's final moments, Estevez also underscores the fact that the rest of the film feels a lot more shallow than it ought to. A near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Freddy Rodriguez, one of the film's stars.


Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

It's funny how certain expressions have so deeply ingrained themselves into our culture that we understand them without knowing their origins. When someone says, "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," we know it's a warning against falling victim to Group Think or behavior someone has convinced you is right when every possible indicator says that it's wrong. But if you're under the age of 30, you may not have any real recollection of that dark day of November 18, 1978, when more than 900 members of Peoples Temple died (whether by suicide or brainwashed-inspired murder continues to be a hotly debated issue) in the isolated jungles of Guyana in South America. All of these people, in what has been classified as the largest mass suicide in history, were under the influence and leadership of Temple leader Jim Jones, and this deeply disturbing documentary provides some of the most startling audio and visual footage of the man and his practices that I've ever seen.

Jonestown traces the almost predestined journey of Jones, who, as a boy, was obsessed with two things: death and religion. According to childhood friends, he would kill animals just so he could hold elaborate funerals for them. But in all fairness, the early years of Jones' career as a religious leader seemed positive and socially responsible. In a time in the United States when racial inequality and integration were not the norm, Jones' newfound church was fully integrated as he spoke of the evils of racism. As a true revolutionary, he instructed his followers to build a truly socialist society, in which the poor and the elderly were provided for and given food, clothing and beautiful dwellings. It's not surprise that the People Temple grew to become a political force in California in the mid-1970s, after leaving the smaller-minded confines of Indiana. And for a while, watching this film makes you completely reassess everything you'd heard about what a strange and sick man Jones was, as Temple members testify about the greatness of what they accomplished.

But filmmaker Stanley Nelson does a terrific job of showing the slow and steady changes in Jones' behavior, and how being praised and worshipped by his followers made him believe he could do anything he wanted to them. It wasn't long before the congregations were praising him, rather than God. Church defectors and family members of those in the organization tell tales of physical and sexual abuse that may turn your stomach. Jones clearly did not practice the life he preached. One woman's account of a sexual encounter with Jones is particularly awful, as she describes him lying on top of her repeating, "This is for you." Other members speak of ritualized beatings as a means of corporal punishment for sins against the church.

But director Nelson doesn't rely on just talking heads. He has assembled an almost overwhelming amount of archival footage of Jones, who turns out to be one of the most well-documented cult leaders in history. (The word "cult" was practically unknown in this country before the Guyana tragedy.) Not only do we get sections of Jones as preacher, healer and center of worship, but audio tapes reveal his increasing sense of paranoia as his power grew, and he transferred this fear of outsiders and inside defectors onto his followers. An extensive exposé on the People Temple was set to run in a California magazine, and it was on the day of its publication that Jones and hundreds of faithful fled to the still-under-construction model society in Guyana.

The film's final harrowing act centers on the visit of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who came to Jonestown on the eve of the mass suicide (and whose visit, along with members of the media, may have inspired Jones to call his followers to die) on a fact-finding mission. The visit seemed to be going well, until some Temple members began slipping notes begging for help to members of the visiting team. Ryan and several others were gunned down as they were getting on their plane to leave Guyana. The most troubling uncovered footage are audio tapes of Jones prompting his followers to take their own lives rather than let the "invaders" that would come as a result of Ryan's death take them. His commanding voice urges them to kill their children first, telling them not to cry because they are going to a different plane of existence. The interviews with those who escaped Jonestown are difficult to watch because all of them lost family members on that day. The emotion and immediacy of that day is still raw.

Jonestown is a solidly researched and exceptionally constructed documentary that goes out of its way to not paint a simple picture of an evil man twisted by religion and power. Jim Jones' downward spiral took years, and many of those who followed him didn't even see the change until it was far too late. The film is not so much a cautionary tale as it is an unpleasant reminder that the late 1960s and early 1970s not only birthed hippies and peace and free love, but it also gave rise to blind faith in leaders who drew people in with promises of positive social change and twisted this good feeling into something ugly and awful. I'm sure there are plenty of people today who would like to think that something like Jonestown could never happen again, but human nature may have something to say about that. The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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