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Tuesday, May 21

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The Hills Have Eyes

Occasionally, horror films act as cautionary tales even when they are really just excuses to pile on as much death and destruction as possible. At the beginning of this year, Eli Roth's Hostel was a torture- and gore-fest that actually made a point about grown men behaving like hedonistic assholes. Many other classic exploitation works warn of the dangers of going in the woods alone or hitchhiking or any number of irresponsible behaviors. In 1977's The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven attempted show us the downside of driving through the desert, one populated by the mutant human offspring of men and women used as test subjects for atomic weapons in the 1940s and '50s. Now, French director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) gives a faithful but perhaps even more graphic and brutal version of Craven's screenplay, in which an extended family traveling across the New Mexican desert is tortured, raped, murdered, kidnapped and just generally given the ingredients to a very bad vacation.

The remake of The Hills Have Eyes begins with a montage mixing images of atomic testing and what appear to be actual photos of deformed fetuses and infants. If I've lost you already, just skip to the next review. Aja is many things, but tame he ain't. During the course of the film, heads explode, limbs are severed, and bodies are punctured and generally brutalized. If memory serves, there may be a drop or two of blood in the mix as well. There's a scene in which a very large handgun is pointed at an infant that offended some in my audience enough to cause them to leave. I won't lie to you: it's a tough film to sit through.

As a lifelong fan of gore films, I have a strong stomach for this sort of stuff, and even I was taxed by The Hills Have Eyes. It wasn't so much the violence that bothered me but the callous approach to the subject matter. There's no denying Aja's talent as a filmmaker, but something just didn't click for me with this one. Part of the fault lies in the acting. Ted Levine and Kathleen Quinlan play Ma and Pa Carter, a cardboard cutout couple with three mostly grown children (including "Lost's" Emilie de Ravin) and the eldest daughter's husband (Aaron Stanford) and child. Although the unlikely heroes show their stuff early enough, I just wasn't impressed with any of the performances.

The villains are certainly more colorful, with names like Goggle, Jupiter, Pluto, and Big Brain. But their behavior doesn't make sense. Sometimes they want to kill, sometimes torture, sometimes cannibalize their victims. I hate to say it, but their lives would be so much easier if they just killed everybody. Instead we get elaborate set pieces set in an abandoned coal-mining town that drag on and result in the deaths of many baddies. I do need to mention the fantastic makeup work in this film (by the same team that did Hostel, actually); these mutants are grotesque, for sure. But something is missing from this version of The Hills Have Eyes. Perhaps it's a soul, or at least a character we can enter the story through. These aren't the most likeable people (I'm talking about the family members), so why should we care if they get picked off? There's a lot here to like, but the film comes up short as great horror.

Unknown White Male

This bizarre — dare I say almost unbelievable — story of Doug Bruce, a British expatriate living in New York City who was stricken with amnesia at the age of 35, is one of the best documentaries I saw in 2005 (it played as part of the Chicago International Film Festival in October), and blessedly it is finally being released amidst a smattering of controversy. Bruce's filmmaker friend Rupert Murray has compiled two stories: Doug as he was and Doug as he is. The discussion of memory and amnesia by medical experts is compelling, but it pales in comparison to simply watching Bruce pull his life back together after having lost all knowledge of who he was. After relearning basic skill sets (a process that seems about as painful as birth, which I guess is what it is), he actually gets to a point where he's not sure he even wants to remember his past.

The controversy surrounding the film is two-fold: some believe Bruce is simply faking it. But since he's a fairly successful guy who doesn't appear to have any real reason to fake amnesia, I don't buy that. The second, more intriguing theory is that the entire film is a hoax. Critics claim that there is simply too much available footage of Bruce before his memory disappears, most of which is supplied by director Murray, who filmed Bruce in the UK and on various vacations throughout their friendship. It never crossed my mind once that any part of this film was false, but if it is a complete sham, then Unknown White Male might be the greatest con job in film history.

I'll be happy to admit I'm wrong if the day should ever come when the makers of this movie come clean, but I'm convinced the goings on here are on the level. The terrified look in Bruce's eyes in the first few days after he is discovered on the subway in just a t-shirt, shorts, and a coat on a very cold New York morning is just too real. As for the abundance of footage, it seemed about on par from where I was sitting. Bruce was a rich kid with rich friends who had expensive toys, including camcorders. Fact or fiction, it doesn't ultimately matter. Unknown White Male has a profound effect on the viewer, and makes it absolutely impossible for you not to wonder what's going on inside this man's head. Whether it's the sadness of losing all memory of his late mother or eating certain foods for the first time (when actually you've eaten them hundreds of times before) or discovering a great "new" band called The Rolling Stones, the ordeal that Doug Bruce goes through is one worth exploring and experiencing. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Shaggy Dog

I'm sure we've all had these feelings. Every so often after seeing a particularly bad film, one's thoughts eventually roll around to, "I wish I had that 90 minutes of my life back." And every so often, I despise a film with such ferocity that I firmly believe that the filmmakers, actors, studio and theatre owners owe me reparations. I'm talking about getting money back, time back (double the time back, if possible), something to make up for the pain and suffering of sitting through the cinematic equivalent of anal leakage. The Shaggy Dog is just such a film. There is no possible way that any human over the age of seven could enjoy this film.

And what hurts most of all is a seemingly slam-dunk cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Danny Glover and Philip Baker Hall. I'm not saying these three haven't been in their share of duds (we shall not discuss Tim Allen's non-Galaxy Quest filmography), but Downey has been on a bit of a roll lately, and to see him humiliate himself as the over-the-top villain in this lame remake of a classic (but still very lame) Disney work is too much to handle. What's so painfully obvious about The Shaggy Dog is that no one in it looks happy to be there.

Allen plays Dave Douglas, a workaholic attorney, husband, and father who is bitten by a genetically altered sheep dog. Eventually this turns him into a sheep dog as well. Thankfully, we are spared the American Werewolf in London-style transformation sequence, but that doesn't make Allen's dog-like behavior prior to the actual transformation any less agonizing (for me, not him). He chases cats, scratches behind his ears, smells everything, and basically does every humiliating thing a grown man can do. At this point, we're all used to Tim Allen making an ass of himself on screen, but did he have to drag so many fine actors down with him. I don't include in that list Kristin Davis, playing Dave's hapless wife who wears the same "Oh, Dave" expression on her face throughout the movie.

My heart breaks — nay, it bleeds — for Downey. Seeing him demean his entire career by being in this film almost makes we wish he'd overdosed years ago. I know that a lot of great actors stoop to do kids movies every so often, but this is not that movie, Mr. Downey. Oh, the humanity. The Shaggy Dog damaged my soul.

Winter Passing

In many ways, writer-director Anthony Rapp's feature debut is a modestly jarring film. It employs a washed-out, naturalistic look in portraying both its characters and its suburban Detroit locations (with a little bit of New York thrown in for good measure). It is a quiet and gentle piece that offers little in the way of plot, but makes up for that shortcoming with a bevy of interesting characters with painful pasts and questionable futures. Winter Passing is as noble and likeable a film as its title might indicate. The film is about time moving on for some, while remaining all too still for others.

Zooey Deschanel almost moved me to tears with her portrayal of Reese Holden, a struggling New York actress and the daughter of two once-successful authors. Reese seems to scrape by as a performer, but she caps many nights off with heavy drinking and meaningless sex. Her self-abuse quotient is high, to say the least. When a publishing representative (Amy Madigan) approaches Reese to return to the home she ran away from at 18 to dig up for publishing a series of more than 100 correspondences between her parents, she sees it as a chance to make money and get a little payback for her neglectful, selfish folks.

Upon arriving in Michigan, Reese finds a bizarre life waiting for her in the home where she grew up. A shy but strong handyman/guitar player named Corbit (a tamed Will Ferrell) acts as a bodyguard of sorts for Reese's alcoholic, barely functional father Don (Ed Harris). A young British former student of Don's named Shelly (Amelia Warner) is more the health care provider, maid and cook. These three misfits form a perfect circle of existence that makes sense to them, but confuses and infuriates Reese, who never misses a chance to lash out at the players and their absurd situation. Harris as Don is extraordinary and almost unrecognizable, with his long, stringy gray hair and mangy beard. His drinking, combined with the recent suicide death of his wife, has left him emotionally paralyzed.

Winter Passing is an exercise in moving bodies, in personalities clashing and then adjusting to the situation. Rather than take over and disrupt the delicate balance at the Holden household, Reese is politely absorbed into the fabric. Deschanel and Ferrell (co-stars in Elf) share a handful of really lovely moments together, but don't go into this film thinking Ferrell is there to entertain you with funny faces and voices. Most of his dialogue is delivered in timid whispers, and the performance is one of his best. Reese's gravity and her struggle to accept that nothing she can do can change the way her parents treated her is the emotional centerpiece of the film, and it's a statement that you rarely see in today's films. Rather than Don attempting to make good for what he's done, he simply asks Reese to try and move on and be friends with the man he is today.

The past wounds of these characters are not healed in the course of Winter Passing; nothing is quite that simple. But Rapp does find small and meaningful ways to give us some hope that the small universe these characters spin around in is headed in the right direction. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give this movie and its writer-director is that I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

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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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