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Friday, July 19

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The Hunting Party

Back when Terrence Howard was still and up-and-coming young actor, he was capable of doing something I'll never forget. Even in the smallest supporting parts, his performances would make your eyes drift from the main actor to what he was doing. He wasn't hamming it up or showboating; he was just acting like any good actor would. But something about him made you pay attention to him. The prime example of this phenomenon was a little film called The Best Man, in which Howard played one of several groomsmen for a friend getting married. The film was OK, but if you go back and read the original reviews for it, you'll see a chorus of critics effectively asking the same thing: who is this Terrence Howard, and how can we see more of him? Cut to today. He has two movies in theaters right now (this and The Brave One), and although technically he's billed as second lead in both, he's the one you pay attention to. He's the one whose character goes through the changes, who compromises his beliefs, who puts himself in harm's way for the sake of a friend. The two films could not be more different, but Howard manages two very different, equally strong performances in both.

Writer-director Richard Shepard (fresh off the tremendous film The Matador) has made another superb work with The Hunting Party, a story of two television journalists (a reporter and a cameraman) who decide that unbiased reporting isn't enough. For years, the two men (Howard as cameraman Duck and Richard Gere as correspondent Simon Hunt) has traveled the world planting themselves in the hottest hot zones in the middle of war-torn nations such as Iraq, El Salvador, Somalia and Bosnia, the country that eventually broke them and broke them up after Simon went on a live on-air rant that cost him his job. We see snippets of the two dodging bullets and flying debris, filming the worst kind of atrocities, and listening to the lies and excuses from UN peacekeepers about why these crimes were not being stopped.

Simon continued to work as a reporter for hire for third-string TV outlets, but his career essentially went belly up, while Duck became lead cameraman for the network news broadcasts in New York (working with an anchorman played by the wonderfully pompous James Brolin). When Brolin's character decides to do his broadcast from Bosnia on the five-year anniversary of the war's end, Duck runs into Simon, who claims he is tracking down a major story and needs a cameraman since he's broke and can't hire one. Duck agrees to forgo his vacation in the Greek Isles with the beautiful Joy Bryant to work with Simon, and immediately things begin to take a turn for the worse. Young reporter Benjamin (played by Jesse Eisenberg, as the son of one of a network VP) forces the men to take him along on their adventures through the Serbian mountains in the hopes of scoring an interview with "The Fox," Bosnia's most wanted and protected war criminal. Simon convinces his team that a source has told him exactly where The Fox is hiding, and the worst driving vacation in history begins.

As he did earlier this year in the highly underrated The Hoax, Richard Gere gives a powerhouse performance as this fractured, once-great reporter who let a personal loss ruin his career. How dare he. And once he lets it slip that maybe an interview isn't his true purpose in finding The Fox, the tension truly escalates. Eisenberg (of The Squid and the Whale) holds his own in the presence of these two great actors as the Harvard grad who thinks his Ivy League education somehow makes him qualified to handle this extremely dangerous mission. But leave it to Terrence Howard to act as our narrator and guide through this insanity (based on an Esquire article by Scott Anderson). He seems to have the most to lose if he goes on this ill-conceived hunt, in which they are mistaken for CIA assassins by nearly everyone they come into contact with. They use this to their advantage at times, including a note-perfect scene in which they meet with an informer (Diane Kruger), who claims she knows the exact location of the The Fox but threatens to withhold the information unless she is paid.

The Hunting Party is part dark comedy, part thriller, part war movie, part espionage drama, and all the parts work. It reminded me quite a bit of the recent Nicolas Cage film Lord of War, a film about an arms dealer. But Shepard's film is more focused on this one time and place and less about war correspondents, which doesn't mean it's lacking in any way. In the film's opening titles, it says only the most outrageous parts of this story are true, and I don't doubt that for a second. You couldn't make some of this shit up, and that's the heart of the film's beauty. The truth is truly in the details, the nuttiest details you can imagine. The Hunting Party marks Shepard's second skewed look at the practice of killing, and to put it simply: I like the way this man thinks. He has a real gift for writing smart characters who are put in the most unbelievable circumstances and making it wildly entertaining and worthy of your time and money. This one is a minor masterpiece that may get lost in a crowded September, so seek this baby out.

Good Luck Chuck

The new Dane Cook-Jessica Alba R-rated romantic comedy will answer an important question in Hollywood this weekend: Can an adult-oriented comedy that does not have the names Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen connected to it in any way still be funny? The answer is categorically: No. From the editor of Showgirls and many a Brett Ratner film, Mark Helfrich, comes his first film as a director. Good Luck Chuck is a film about romance that doesn't know the first thing about the subject, and it also asks the question of all women: If you had to sleep with Dane Cook in order to meet the man of your dreams, would you? Don't answer that question, I don't want to know.

"Chuck" is Charlie Logan, a dentist who, at the age of 10, had a hex put on him by a girl who wanted to make out with him. Her rather complicated curse stipulated that, for the rest of his life, Charlie would have a lot of women fall in love with him but that the first guy that they met after dating him would be the man they would spend the rest of their lives with. His best friend and plastic surgeon (who seems to only do boob jobs), Stu (Dan Fogler, recently seen as the lead in Balls of Fury) encourages Chuck to take advantage of his lucky charm status and use his powers for the good of womankind. Gee thanks. At the wedding of one of his many exes, Charlie meets Cam (Alba), a klutzy penguin enthusiast and aquarium employee, who Charlie thinks might be "the one." As a result, he resists the overwhelming urge to sleep with her for fear that this will lead to her meeting someone else and breaking his alleged heart.

The biggest (but by no means only) difference between the Apatow comedies and Good Luck Chuck are the male and female leads. Charlie is by no means an outsider. He's good looking, successful and charming even without the hex. It's exactly the kind of appeal you'd expect from a guy like Cook. Also, despite her clumsy behavior, Alba is stunning to look at, even if she's not very funny. She has a slight gift for physical humor, but when a film has the R rating to expand its taste boundaries, why resort to PG-rated prat falls? Cook and Fogler certainly use and abuse their R-rated limits, and some of that made me laugh, but so much of this film plays it safe. But the biggest difference between Apatow films and this one are the conversations, between friends and between men and women. In Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, characters talk to each other like real people do, and that's what makes it funny. In Good Luck Chuck, it's all set-up and punchline, and it actually made me angry. It sounds so phony and stiff, even when the jokes are funny.

Good Luck Chuck is an ultimately lame and hopeless attempt to cash in on Hollywood having restored faith in four-letter words, but the humor featured here is strictly aimed at high school perverts and mental midgets. I'm not sold on Cook, Alba, or Fogler (especially Fogler) as actual forces of comedy or acting, and as a result, I felt like I was watching an extended late-night comedy sketch, the kind that doesn't actually make you laugh.

The Jane Austen Book Club

I find it fascinating and a fitting tribute to a great author that two films have come out in 2007 that are not straight adaptations of Jane Austen's works, but rather tributes to her life and writings, and to the staying power of her handful of influential novels. Just a few weeks ago, the intriguing Becoming Jane was released to little fanfare. And now the far less intriguing (but perhaps slightly more relevant) Jane Austen Book Club hits theaters. The film attempts to show us how Austen's themes and theories about love, marriage, betrayal, conversation and letter writing are still just as pertinent to the lives of women (and a few men) today as they were during Austen's time. The film ultimately fails at this and instead seems content to twist its thin plot to fit the stories of Austen's books, but that doesn't stop it from being occasionally inspired.

The idea is that five women who all seems connected through the eldest, Bernadette (Kathy Baker), get together each month for six months to discuss each of Austen's books. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) sees it as a way for a couple of the women to forget their own troubled relationships and escape into Austen's more idealized world. Just to spice things up a bit, she invites a young handsome man named Grigg (Hugh Dancy) to join the group more as a means for another one of the ladies, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), to get over her husband (Jimmy Smits) leaving her for another woman. The other women in the group include Sylvia's lesbian daughter (Maggie Grace), whose only fault appears to be that she falls in love too easily, and high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), whose husband is a bit of a lug. She is also involved in a dangerously flirtatious situation with a student. Grigg is the only one in the group who hasn't ever read these books before, so his comments and perspective at their monthly meetings are very funny sometimes. Each participant is in charge of leading the discussion on a particular book.

With each new discussion group, the current problems of each book club member seem exemplified in the book they are reading. If the story has to do with a troubled mother-daughter relationship, you can bet that one of the women (in this case Prudie) will be locked in a problematic situation with her mother (played by a grossly underused and ultimately wasted Lynn Redgrave). Speaking of Prudie, as much as I like Emily Blunt as an actress, her character is a joke. I didn't believe for a second she'd ever marry the bonehead she's married to or be swept away by her 18-year-old hormonally enlarged boy crush. Brenneman's Sylvia fulfills the jilted lover character, while Bello's Jocelyn is the unattached woman past marrying age, who gets one last chance at love. A lot happens to these women in six months, a little too much to be believable. Thankfully for every over-cooked performance by the likes of Baker, we get toned-down, more believable characterizations from Bello and Blunt.

Dancy has the enviable or unenviable (depending on your perspective) role of the hottie in the middle of all this estrogen. Since Grigg grew up in a houseful of sisters, he's apparently uber-sensitive to the female condition. But he's also a sci-fi geek who rides his bike everywhere and has converted his beater of a car into some sort of biodiesel clunker. Is there anything this stud can't do? And is it any surprise that once of Dancy's next projects is a film about the Bronte sisters? Is there any corset this guy won't try to get under? He's a charming fellow; don't get me wrong. But he might just be a little too perfect for us to believe he's unattached. This is a minor quibble, but it bugged me.

Director and adapter Robin Swicord (who has also adapted such novels as Memoirs of a Geisha and Little Women in her career) has a somewhat solid sense of drawing these parallels between real life and these stories, but her strokes are too broad and obvious. Still, The Jane Austen Book Club has its literary heart in the right place, and I won't flat-out hate any film that wants to get an audience interested in reading great literature. So in that spirit, I'd recommend skipping this film and going right to the source material. My guess is you'll come out on the other side a better person for it.

December Boys

There's a lot that can be said about this tale of four orphaned Australian boys growing up in the 1960s, but let's be honest: this film is only getting attention (and a release date, for that matter) is because December Boys marks Daniel Ratcliffe's first non-Harry Potter film appearance since the series began. Ratcliffe isn't really the star of this film, but he is a part of a fairly somber ensemble cast that conveys a certain sense of wonderment as the orphans get the rare opportunity to spend a Christmas holiday away from the Catholic-run orphanage, vacationing in a sleepy seaside community.

This is a film that never explicitly requires us to feel pity on these four young boys (with Ratcliffe playing the oldest, and therefore least adoptable, of the group), but that doesn't mean that the film doesn't take every opportunity to yank at the old heartstrings ever so slightly. Much of the film is exceedingly pleasant and easy to slip into comfortably, as we get to know the kids, their host family (an older childless couple who run their home like a ship), and the neighbors, including the attractive young couple that many of the boys see as possible adoptive parents. The film's only real drama comes from the four boys trying to outdo each other as they kiss up to the young couple and win support for a cause they have essentially made up in their own minds. Probably the movie's most difficult scenes are those in which the boys let slip to us just how much they want to be a part of a real family. Ratcliffe's character, Maps, pretends he's just counting the minutes until he is released from the orphanage, but we know his dreams are the same as the younger boys.

Of course Maps has a whole other set of events in his life to keep him distracted, namely a flirtatious young vixen who seems to want to show him what being a man is all about. That's right, folks, Harry Potter loses his onscreen virginity right here! But even that milestone is fraught with pain and heartache. December Boys (as the group of boys is named, since they all have their birthdays in said month) is a harmless, though not particularly challenging, work that does an competent job generating some emotional response on ideas about friendship, loyalty, family, honesty and young love. The coda to the film is a bit ludicrous and unnecessary (and I'm pretty sure the ages of the boys don't exactly work out as a brief flash-forward shows them as decrepit old men).

If anything the movie's low-key approach to this material might be too snooze-inducing for some tastes. Ratcliffe spends most of the film either being tongue tied or moody, so we don't really get a sense of his non-Potter acting skills. The film also piles on a few too many mystical elements, including a magic fish(!) and a sexy French woman (OK, she's not technically mystical, but her presence in this town seems about as likely as a magic fish). Director Rod Hardy (who has done mostly TV directing in his 30-plus-year career, including several episodes of the new "Battlestar Galactica") working from a novel by Michael Noonan does a great job familiarizing his audience with the serene landscape of this part of Australia and keeping his young actors from becoming smarmy little bastards. I admired his ability to make us care about these characters by treating them like people and not simply generic renditions of "kids." I'm not sure another filmmaker could have done anything more or better with December Boys. The material is a bit thin from the get-go, so what we're left with feels familiar and mildly uninspired.

Fierce People

This two-years-on-the-shelf feature from director Griffin Dunne offers several similarities to sections of another miserable film from earlier this year, Evening. In both works, a decidedly non-rich young person lands up spending a great deal of time (in the case of Fierce People, an entire summer) among the ultra rich, who in turn immediately embrace this newcomer more as a mascot or a plaything than as a genuine friend. But who cares, as long as you get to have sex with someone who has more money than God and feel privileged for just a little while?

Anton Yelchin (of the Showtime series "Huff" and Alpha Dog) and Diane Lane plays son-mother team Finn and Liz barely scraping by in 1978. Liz has a bit of a cocaine problem, but Finn doesn't mind. In fact, he thinks his mom is more fun to hand around when she's high. Finn doesn't know his father, but he knows who he is: a famed anthropologist who has sent him a copy of his documentary about his time living with the nastiest group of jungle dwellers in the world. Finn's dad invites him on his next expedition, but on the eve of his trip, Finn is busted for possession after scoring drugs for his mom. After to a quick self-induced detox and a call to an unknown benefactor by mom, Finn is bailed out, and the two head off to the home of Mr. Osbourne (Donald Sutherland), who has been trying for months to hire Liz as his personal masseuse (although most assume there is something more going on between them). The rest of Fierce People consists of Liz and Finn navigating and learning this very different brand of "tribe."

The film doesn't take long to lose its focus, assuming it ever had one. The best scenes are between Yelchin and Sutherland, as Osbourne hires Finn to help him organize decades-old family photos and in turn learn a little bit about the impressive Osbourne family history. I also liked Chris Evans and Kristen Stewart as Osbourne's seemingly kind grandkids, who embrace Finn as a comrade. But there are a bevy of other hangers-on, who seems all to keen on reminding the mother and son that they are essentially servants in the eyes of most.

Part coming-of-age story, part culture clash examination, Fierce People has a few very strong performances that at least make sitting through the film a tolerable experience. But this is yet another story (based on the book/screenplay by author Dirk Wittenborn) that asks me to feel sorry for rich people, and that just isn't going to happen to me or most other potential audience members. Finn's anthropological narration doesn't make the film any more interesting or clever. In fact, it's a little smarmy, and feels totally inappropriate when murder and man-rape are introduced into the already fully loaded plot. The fact that Griffin Dunne has directed another film since Fierce People should probably tell you something about this movie's delayed opening. If it doesn't, let me make it clear for you. This is a cluttered movie with a couple of decent performances whose power is undercut by an unsympathetic narrative presumption. Clear enough for you, sunshine?

Dedication

This is a film that tries very, very hard to be edgy and angry, while also asking us to accept it as a tainted love story complete with an actress who has fast become a staple in the romantic comedy genre in the last couple of years. Dedication, the directing debut from indie acting mainstay Justin Theroux, wants it both ways, in other words, and far be it from me to say they can't strike that challenging balance. But it's a tough sell to have a film that seems as determined to push you away with its repulsive, mentally unfit children's book writer (Billy Crudup) as it seems to want to pull you in and make you cuddle with it. The film is only partially successful and not quite enough so to allow me to recommend it to everyone. But if you're a fan of films that dare to be different even if the end result is wildly off-putting at times, this one might be for you.

Crudup plays Henry Roth, a writer who has worked for many years with his illustrator partner Rudy Holt (Tom Wilkinson, an actor who can truly do no wrong) on a series of profitable books for kiddies. After a quick trip to an adult movie theater, the pair decides to concoct a new story about an anti-social beaver (let's see if you can make the connection). It goes without saying the Rudy is not only Henry's partner, but also his best (and possibly only) friend. After the first book hits the best sellers list, the publisher (represented by Bob Balaban) demands a sequel immediately. But in the midst of another tight deadline, Rudy dies, which in no way gets Henry off the hook to produce the next book, forcing him to hire another illustrator named Lucy (Mandy Moore, who does a remarkably fine job managing Henry's various decidedly unfunny, sometimes troubling neuroses (he likes to put heavy objects on his chest sometimes to stabilize his mind).

The two form an uneasy and highly abrasive relationship, which has very little to do with working and a whole lot to do with setting the stage for work. In the process, they fall for each other. Needless to say, there is nothing conventional about Dedication, but unconventional isn't always necessarily interesting. Crudup rides the annoying train right into the middle of your tolerance threshold, which I'm assuming is 100 percent deliberate, but after a while you just want him to stop. Henry is clearly capable of being charming when he needs to be, but a little goes a long way with this guy. Sporting a cute-girl version of a goth look, Moore fares a bit better, hardly ever flashing her million-dollar smile for the camera. There's also a curious, but ultimately strong supporting cast, including Martin Freeman as Lucy's ex-boyfriend who left her years earlier and is now attempting to re-enter her life; Bobby Carnavale; Amy Sedaris; Christine Taylor; and Dianne Wiest as Lucy's mother and landlord looking to evict her. Some of the casting feels like Theroux recruiting his friends to work for free on his movie, but most of it works.

Dedication's third act is more than likely the place that will make or break your opinion of the entire film. If you can overcome your immense dislike of Henry, the rest of the film is pretty easy to enjoy. But the end of the plot attempts to be a little too much like a traditional romance, and this film always fails when it attempts to be accessible or "normal." Still, it's a quick 90 minutes of a kind of storytelling that I'm not used to seeing. Theroux and first-time writer David Bromberg are almost daring you to like these people, and some of you may not be up to the challenge. If you're the kind of person who likes a dare, this one might be an easier fit for you.

Freshman Orientation

If you've made it this far down the column, you've probably deduced that this is a lame week for new releases, filled with emotionally charged dramas that evoked neither an emotion nor a charge in me. And then we get amateur-hour garbage like Freshman Orientation that has the nerve to think it has something new to say about both the "college experience" and being young and gay. Clay (Sam Huntington, who played Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) is a freshman horndog who wants to get all up in Amanda's (Kaitlin Doubleday of The T.V. Set) business. But she's rushing an uber-popular sorority and has no time for non-fraternity guys like Clay. When Amanda is given the assignment of seduced then dumping a gay guy as part of her rush activities, she picks Clay, whom she apparently assumes is gay. Clay goes along with it because it gives him the opportunity to hang out with her (and even see her in her underwear in true Chuck and Larry style). To better play the role of a homosexual, Clay dives into a crash course in being A Gay, which has about as much basis in reality as... well, nothing really.

Freshman Orientation has no respect for, or clue about, gay culture and should be the subject of protests and outrage the gay world over. Just as significantly, first-time feature filmmaker Ryan Shiraki has no clue how real people act. Everything that happens in this film happens at full volume with characters waving their hands in the air and tripping over things like morons. His portrayal of on-campus gay activist groups is borderline offensive, and his handling of Clay getting nearly raped by a gay man (and the way one gay character knowingly transforms the incident into a hate crime) is even worse. Did I mention that this is supposed to be a comedy? A look at hazing in the Greek system has been done to death; horny freshmen chasing hot girls could be its own film genre; and I can't remember the last time I saw a gay-themed comedy that made me laugh. In other words, there is zero to recommend about Freshman Orientation besides a perfect opportunity to show young filmmakers how not to approach any of this material. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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