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Friday, December 13

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The Golden Compass

About this time last year, I received a very nice booklet from New Line previewing The Golden Compass. It had big, gorgeous photos of the principle cast members and little write-ups about each character. I know people that worship these books with a Potter-like passion, but the fact is that I never got very excited about this film. Something about it looked sterile or derivative or generally uninteresting to me, but at the time, the film wasn't due for a year, so I assumed the enthusiasm of those around me would eventually rub off. That never happened. About the only thing I could drum up excitement about was the post-Casino Royale re-teaming of Daniel Craig and Eva Green (turns out in the first film, they don't even have a scene together). I'm always curious about what Nicole Kidman is up to, but I don't think things have reached true excitement level for her work in many years. Director Chris Weitz made a great little film a few years back called About a Boy, but other than showing a gift for getting great performances out of young actors, nothing about that film forecast how well he might do in a big-budget, special-effects-driven work. Cautious optimism was the best I could muster as I attended the screening of this film.

Turns out my instincts on this film were right on the money. For all of the twisting plotlines, CGI animals, eccentric characters and big names The Golden Compass throws at us, the film is a decidedly mediocre fantasy film. There were ideas going on here that I really liked, but the way this movie seems to rush through the details turned me off to any sense of magic and wonder I wanted to feel. Young newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra is quite good, but even her ability to decipher and use the titular compass to help her get out of tight situations seemed like cheating. We never see her figure out how to use the object, and once she does, she uses it over and over again to save herself, rather than, you know, using her cunning or intellect.

The film's plot seems borrowed from other, far better fantasy works (the voice work of Ian McKellen as the ice/polar bear Iorek doesn't help discourage such thinking). The other way the film feels like a cheat is that Craig, Green and Kidman aren't in the film very much. Granted, there are hints that their roles will be expanded in the coming two parts of this trilogy, but plastering their faces and names over every trailer, billboard and print ad for this movie gives us certain expectations.

But unmet expectations aren't what bothered me most about The Golden Compass. No, the real trouble is that there is zero character development, and I never really cared who lived or died during the course of this film. There were a couple exceptions. Sam Elliott is wonderful as the seemingly misplaced cowboy Lee Scoresby, who puts Lyra in touch with Iorek, an outcast bear that longs to battle the king of the snow bears, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane), once more. Their beautifully staged fight scene is the best this film has to offer, if only for its shocking payoff. And I liked the idea that all humans in this alternative but similar universe to our own have their souls manifesting themselves as animal companions.

I figured the true test of this film's worth would be whether it inspired me to read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It did not. This tale of missing children and talking animals and the mysterious Dust and warped ways of thinking about science and religion might be wondrous on the printed page, but as a film it's largely a failure. The bad guys are a little too obviously bad, while the good guys are simply boring and hopelessly white-bread. The main reason I'm even a little curious about the next two films (assuming they make them) is that I think they'll be better works assuming the stories are more compelling and dig a little deeper into these characters. The last 10 minutes of The Golden Compass consists of the audience being told what still needs to be done in the next two films. Take my word that there is nothing more thrilling the being read aloud the outline of two book sequels. In a season that has given and will continue to give us so many great films, there had to be a misfire in the batch somewhere, I guess. Welcome to it.


Atonement

This holiday season's period film Oscar bait is Atonement, based on Ian McEwan's novel, and it's unlike any spanning-the-ages type of film I've seen in a very long time. Often showing the same scene from different perspectives, and often utterly shifting the meaning of the selected events in the process, the film begins its tale in 1935 Britain. The 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has a schoolgirl crush on the older Robbie (James McAvoy), who is the well-educated son of Briony's family's housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn). It's clear early on that Briony's obsession with Robbie is unhealthy, as is evidenced when she tosses herself into deep water right in front of him after he promises to rescue her if she ever was in danger of drowning. From a distance, Briony witnesses what she believes to be a passionate exchange between Robbie and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), when in fact the moment is more of an argument. But it's enough to upset the young, would-be writer and send her down a path toward ruining what she perceives to be a love affair between the two grown-ups.

After intercepting a rather explicit letter Robbie accidentally sends to Cecilia (who have since acknowledged their passion for each other), Briony accuses Robbie of a truly awful crime, claiming herself as the incident's only witness. Robbie is taken away by the police. Jumping ahead to the ending months of World War II, we find Robbie was given the option of prison or the military. He and a couple fellow soldiers find themselves behind enemy lines in the north of France, and they sneak their way to the sea in hopes of somehow making it back to Britain. In the film's single most impressive moment, the three men stumble upon the aftermath of the Invasion of Normandy. If Atonement is remembered for anything, it will be for a minutes-long tracking shot following Robbie's team through the death and destruction on that beach; it's an awe-inspiring sequence that I almost want to watch over and over just to notice as much of what's going on in the background as I can.

Meanwhile, a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai), who apparently is ever-so-sorry for her actions as a youth, is a war-time nurse, who is attempting to undo the damage she has done. Her sister won't meet or even speak with her, and a great deal of the film shows her often gruesome work as a combat medical professional, as she writes an account of the events in which everyone's lives were changed. The last moments of the film, featuring an elderly Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) doing an interview about her book detailing these events, may be too far fetched for some viewers to handle. Director Joe Wright (who helmed Knightley's Pride and Prejudice) and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) have perhaps overplayed their hand with the film's message about Briony's final act of contrition for the misdeeds she did these doomed lovers. Frankly, the ending (whether this is how the novel ends, I don't know) feels like a bit of a cop out and an example of too little, far too late.

Still, everything leading up to the final disappointing 10 minutes is spectacular. Knightley is simply simmering, and this may be the first time I "get" what all the fuss is about McAvoy, an actor who has failed to really impress me to this point, even with his work in The Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane. He absolutely carries his own in both the love story and the war scenes, and with one performance I finally buy him as both a romantic lead and a shell-shocked, wartime hero. Atonement is a flawed work, but still well worth seeing. The film's R rating is something of a joke, since the rating is given primarily for the letter Robbie writes Cecelia and a little clothed humping. The film is an impressive and beautifully shot movie that is better, perhaps, than the material warrants thanks to some winning performances.


Romance and Cigarettes

Whatever inspired writer-director (and occasional actor) John Turturro not to give up on getting his third feature into theaters, instead of putting it out on DVD or making a deal to premiere it on cable, needs to be bottled and marketed to every filmmaker working today. I'm certainly not saying that every crappy movie that heads straight to DVD deserves a theatrical release, but if a film like Romance and Cigarettes isn't watched on a big screen with an enthusiastic audience, I don't really see the point. Turturro has created a joyous musical celebration of working-class spirit and dreams set to a soundtrack that is both deep and sometimes heartbreaking. These are not original songs or even songs all chosen from the same era (compositions range from Irving Berlin to Nick Cave), but they are all tunes that the aching, lustful, passionate characters bring to life in this thrilling work.

James Gandolfini is Nick Murder, married to Susan Sarandon's Kitty, and he is having a torrid affair with underwear saleswoman Tula (Kate Winslet, about as sexy as I've ever seen her with her clothes on). Right off the bat, Turturro begins messing with our heads by casting Aida Turturro, Mary Louise Parker and Mandy Moore as Nick's daughters, immediately casting suspicion that this song-and-dance world is somehow askew. I'm not necessarily saying that the film exists in the Nick's mind, but a case could be made to those ends. And while there's no getting around the fact that Romance and Cigarettes plays like a musical, it's unlike any you've ever seen. The actors don't sing the songs or lip sync the original tunes; in most cases, they sing along with the song, so you hear both sets of vocals, like they're listening to the music on a radio just off screen. I know it sounds bizarre, but it works to perfection.

What may be even more delightful than the impressive leading cast is the dreamy supporting players. Any film with Christopher Walken (as an Elvis wannabe!), Steven Buscemi, Eddie Izzard and Bobby Cannavale pretty much has me in its hip pocket. I want to call particular attention to a couple of choice scenes between Buscemi and Gandolfini, both of whom play construction workers on the Williamsburg Bridge. Buscemi cuts loose with a stream of sexually explicit dialog that is some of the funniest stuff I've seen all year. In fact, much of this film consists of characters speaking in frank tongues, and it charges the film with sexuality without featuring any nudity (which doesn't mean Winslet doesn't get close). There's a scene where Winslet is, um, riding Gandolfini and saying things that would make a porn star blush.

A final-act plot shift dealing with the "cigarettes" portion of Romance and Cigarettes may seem like an abrupt tonal shift to some, but it simply adds another layer of emotion in a film brimming with rage, tears, desire and tenderness. Turturro has shown us this blue-collar world before, in his directing debut Mac, but with this work, he reveals that these people have rich and lustful fantasies just like the rest of us. Something about knowing that makes me very happy. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre, and John Turturro will be making a special appearance on Saturday, December 8 at the 7:00 and 9:30 performances. Don't miss this opportunity to see this remarkable film.


Grace Is Gone

You'd have to be a soulless bastard from the 13th level of hell not to be moved even a little bit by writer-director James C. Strouse's quiet and unassuming work Grace Is Gone, even if you're able to resist the sweet faces of the two young girls whose awkward father (John Cusack, in his most effective role since Being John Malkovich) decides the three of them need to go on an extended road trip to a Disneyland-like amusement park. While this may not seem all that strange, Stanley Philips (Cuscak) makes the decision immediately upon finding out that his wife has died fighting in Iraq, and he literally has no idea how to live his life without her. Stanley decides not to tell his 12- and 8-year-old girls (Shelan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk) what has happened to their mother, because he simply doesn't have the capacity to handle the overwhelming sorrow. Through thick specs, about 30 extra pounds and a terrible haircut, Cusack has never given such a genuinely angst-ridden performance.

Stanley's backstory and beliefs are picked up in bits and pieces throughout the film. During a surprise visit to his brother's (Alessandro Nivola) home, the two get into a heated political discussion where it becomes clear that Stanley wanted very much to fight as well, but his poor eyesight prevented it. His liberal brother enters into a familiar rant against the causes of the war and the current administration, and Stanley withdraws into his own private rage. But as the film goes on, Stanley finds it more and more difficult to stay committed to his beliefs if it means that his wife died for a lie.

Whatever you do, don't think Grace Is Gone is about politics. This is a story about an individual man, a father, who only saw himself as whole because his wife loved him. And he has no idea how to raise two girls on his own. He is terrified, alone, his core beliefs are in flux, and somehow Cusack conveys all of these things on Stanley's sullen, sunken face. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter is on the verge of rebelling against her strange and distant father. She wanders off, talks to strange boys they run across on their journey, and is generally disagreeable because she knows something is wrong and desperately wants her father to talk to her.

Grace Is Gone has its problems. I won't lie and say the film is unsentimental; it has its fair share of weepy moments that aren't as powerful as they think they are. But Cusack's power here is undeniable, and it is the strength of his work that carries the rest of the film. This is a deeply moving film no matter what side of the fence you are on about the current war, and Grace Is Gone is a beautiful movie about coping with loss and newfound responsibility.


Revolver

I'm sure many will disagree with me, but Guy Ritchie's first two features are magnificent. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch may not have reinvented the British crime drama, but they gave the genre a much-needed kick in the bollocks. We'll not mention Swept Away, but his latest entry sees Ritchie back in familiar territory: sharp suits, flash cars, threats of violence and Jason Statham. And for at least the first half of Revolver (kept from prying American eyes for more than two years, and now unceremoniously dumped into theaters just before the year ends), you'll find it very easy to settle back and take in the stunning camera work and sharp script that Ritchie has fashioned.

A groovy cast with such people as Andre Benjamin, Vincent Pastore and honey-entrepreneur Ray Liotta in full crazy-man mode all slash through this story of Jake Green (Statham), who has just been released from prison after seven years. The underworld is abuzz at the news, especially when Jake begins winning all kinds of money gambling. Turns out he learned a fool-proof formula for winning from two prisoners he met (but never saw) in solitary confinement. Jake's personal mission is to take revenge on Liotta's Macha character by getting all his money. After humiliating Macha at the tables, Jake becomes a target, but Macha has his own problems when he loses drugs belonging to his silent and unseen business partner, Sam Gold. This all probably sounds kind of confusing, and the truth is, Revolver's plot doesn't really matter. What does matter and what will determine whether you decide to trust Ritchie ever again with your hard-earned dollars is the film's second half, which completely changes gears and goes from a somewhat-familiar crime drama to being a shot-out-a-canon psychological mindfuck.

I'm still not sure what I think of Ritchie's approach to this material. In theory and, to a degree, in practice, it worked. Thankfully, Statham is a solid enough actor to pull this off; some might have botched what is required of his character. But Ritchie might be asking too much of us once the nuttiness begins. It is best that I don't say too much more about this section of the film. Go in unsuspecting and just let the chaos unfold. But some of you might feel like Ritchie has sucker punched your mother when the film is through, and depending on how you feel about your mother, you may not be happy with this turn of events. Whatever my final analysis of Revolver is (today, I'm liking it; tomorrow, I may not), I am genuinely excited Ritchie is back on track as a director, and I'm excited to see his next film, RocknRolla, with Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Jeremy Piven, Mark Strong and Thandie Newton. But Revolver needs to be looked at as something of an ambitious, although not entirely successful, experiment.


Protagonist

When I sat down to watch this curious documentary, something occurred to me early on in my viewing: I had no idea what this film was about. The film was just a name on a release schedule, and somehow I managed not to read or learn anything about it before I began watching it. That may not sound that strange to you, but it's downright unheard of for me. What I watched were four different men each telling us about their lives as children. One learned as a boy that the best way not to be picked on for being small and geeky was to learn martial arts; one was an abused child; one was raised from good German stock; and one knew early on that he was attracted to men. What could these four men possibly have in common? As their stories unfold, something becomes clear: despite their varied backgrounds, they all turned to lives of extremism. And suddenly these victims of society each had a turning-point moment in their lives that led them down these paths. The martial arts kid starts picking fights everywhere he goes, the abused child becomes a bank robber, the gay kid becomes one of America's foremost "ex-gay" evangelists, and the German lad becomes an international terrorist who worked alongside Carlos "The Jackal" Ramirez.

Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu has fashioned each of these extraordinary stories like a Greek drama (done in Greek with subtitles); she even uses elaborate puppets to illustrate how each of the these tales follows a very clear path. And just as suddenly as their turn to the dark side happens, the realization that they need to better their existence occurs. There's a certain kind of magical genius at work in Protagonist, one that documentarians like Errol Morris have attempted in the past with such films as Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. But Yu makes the parallels between these four lives fairly explicit, and takes a bit of the guess work out of it (thankfully). I was particularly impressed with two of the subjects: the one-time evangelist (the old footage of him on television preaching is as priceless as his extreme mullet), and the terrorist, whose exploits were well-documented in the turbulent '70s and '80s. This is the kind of documentary I love stumbling upon, one that surprises me and tries something different and smart to tell its stories and make its points. Protagonist is a uniquely bold film from Yu that makes you think and unveils four terrific tales of misadventure and attempted redemption. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Strength and Honor

Here's the other film this week (along with Revolver) that seems to be getting dumped into theaters before the year ends (I smell a tax deduction for someone based on how much these films lose at the box office). Strength and Honor might be the most bizarre film of the bunch this week. Set in Ireland in the world of bare-knuckle boxing, the film concerns an aging ex-boxer (Michael Madsen with a passable Irish accent) who gave up the profession after killing an opponent in the ring. Years later, after his wife dies, he finds out that his young son is extremely sick and in desperate need of an operation in America. He decides to enter a bare-knuckle fight contest set the world of the Travelers (kind of like Irish gypsies) and ends up exchanging blows with the reigning fight champion and generally nasty guy played by Vinnie Jones.

The film plays something like a low-rent, Irish version of Rocky, but with Richard Chamberlain in the Burgess Meredith role. Also on hand is Patrick (Patriot Games) Bergin as the leader of the group of Travelers. But the film can't decide whether it wants to be a heartwarming tale of a caring father trying to save his son, a seriously brutal fight movie or a life lesson about not judging those who may one day save your ass. I don't mind when a film tries to be more than one thing, but these three options don't mesh well together. First-time writer-director Mark Mahon is most successful when the fists are flying, but those scenes work primarily because Jones is such a mean bastard (not unlike his role in The Condemned). There's a small part of me that was rooting for this film to be something more than a weak redemption story, and I'm always happy when a Michael Madsen film actually finds its way into theaters. But Strength and Honor is nothing to celebrate.


The Untouchable (L'Intouchable)

If you have paid any kind of attention in the last 10 years or so to French cinema, then you've probably seen a few films starring the unconventionally beauty Islid Le Besco. In films such as Sade, Girls Can't Swim, À tout de suite and the recent Backstage, Le Besco has put forth a combination of unsuspecting sexuality and odd but strangely appealing looks. She can be made to look quite beautiful, but she is often called upon to cry and destroy her looks for the sake of her art. She also seems to have made a hobby out of getting naked in front of the camera. But in her latest film, The Untouchable, her mission is to create a complex and curious character in Jeanne, a Parisian actress who finds out from her drunken mother that she is the result of a brief affair her mother had with Hindu man in India.

The revelation makes Jeanne decide to hop a plane the India and perhaps find her father. But her real mission is to learn about the people and culture that make up half of her ancestry. And much in the same way The Darjeeling Limited's plot was partially an excuse to discover the beautiful Indian countryside, The Untouchable digs even deeper into the complex caste system, the sacred death ceremonies that take place on the Ganges (which includes a few sequences involving the burning of dead bodies), and the seductive quality of this exotic and sacred place. Director Benoit Jacquot (who previously directed Le Besco in Sade and À tout de suite) clearly just took his actress to India and set her loose. (Nude full-body oil rubdown, anyone? Yes, please!)

The result is something so wonderfully captivating that after a while neither Jeanne nor the audience cares if she meets her long-lost father. The journey becomes much more important than the destination, and that works just fine. This film doesn't focus as much on the more colorful aspect on Indian culture. It remembers that this is a place where poverty and second-class citizenship live side by side with wealth and influence. Above all, India is a melting pot of religions and spiritual leaders that exist in a harmony that doesn't seem to work in other parts of the world. There's a lot to learn from The Untouchable, but that doesn't stop it from being a tremendously entertaining film as well. The film is opening today for a week-long run 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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