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Sunday, July 14

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I will not be reviewing Snakes on a Plane this week, because critics were not allowed to see the movie in advance of its opening day. Its studio New Line said that they wanted to give first crack at seeing the film to the very fans who've made it such a marketing success since the film's title came to light last year. For me, I've got to be honest and admit I don't much care. Sure, not being able to see any Samuel L. Jackson movie early is a disappointment; there are those critics who are turning downright vengeful on this movie's ass, and I can't say I blame them. The reason the online attention this film received months in advance of its opening seems so unprecedented is because the mainstream told us it was. In fact, this is hardly the first case online writers have boosted (or destroyed) a film's pre-release anticipation; it's just the most extreme case we've probably ever seen. It's a classic case of "Without us [the online writers], there would be no them [Snakes on a Plane phenomenon]."

I've never had more than moderate expectations of the film from the beginning, but from what little I've read about test screenings, it sounded pretty darn entertaining. Nevertheless, I will not be reviewing Snakes on a Plane this week or next week or ever, primarily because I don't do pick-up reviews from the previous week, but also because New Line has actually made going to this movie less fun, not by keeping me from seeing it early, but by concocting some silly story about the fans mattering more. There's only one reason a studio hides this high profile a film, and it has nothing to do with fans. Of course, Sam Jackson being quoted last week as saying about critics, "Those motherfuckers don't need to see it early," kind of puts a damper on my potentially good time. Why couldn't he have said the same thing about The Man? So I'll be there at a Thursday night, 10pm screening with many of you, enjoying or not enjoying Snakes on a Plane without thinking about how I'm going to critique it later on. Here are some other films to consider while the rest of the world is presumably on a plane filled of snakes.

The Illusionist

There is something sort of cheeky and wonderful about watching American actors who, in this case, are the best of what their generations have to offer, strut around in period clothes flinging around funny, vaguely European accents, and doing so while clearly chewing up every square inch of available scenery. I'll admit, watching Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti decked out in long coats and other fineries was a scream, and I kept waiting for Jon Lovitz to emerge from the side of the screen and proclaim: "ACTING!!! Brilliant! Thank you!" And don't even get me started on seeing Jessica Biel in a tightly corseted frock. Mama! But will all of these frills be enough to keep you enticed in a tale about a magician who becomes embroiled in a dangerous romance that turns into a disturbing murder investigation? Mostly.

Set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna, The Illusionist is the winding tale of Eisenheim (Norton), a conjurer who spends most of his time wowing the crowds with his tricks (some of which are clearly CGI, which is not in any way magical, but many seem to be genuine feats performed by Norton). But Eisenheim has an ulterior motive for being in Vienna: when he was a much younger man, he fell in love with a girl who showed him great kindness despite the fact that she was of a much higher social standing than he was. The girl grew up to be Sophie von Teschen (Biel), who is engaged to the clearly evil Crown Prince Leopold (I say "clearly evil" because he is played by Rufus Sewell, who has played variations on this character about a dozen times in the last year). When Sophie assists Eisenheim in a trick, she recognizes him, and their lives instantly start down a very dangerous path that leads to great tragedy.

Giamatti, who serves as our narrator and entry point into the wonder that surrounds Eisenheim's performances, has probably the best role in the film as Chief Inspector Uhl, who walks a very narrow line between doing his job of keeping the peace and appeasing the Prince, who clearly had a hand in getting him his job. His is a curious and playful man, who is always prodding Eisenheim for his secrets, both in the realm of magic and in his intentions with Sophie. Seeing Giamatti playing a man of authority took a bit of getting used to, since he so rarely commands authority in other recent roles. I'm not even sure it's a truly great performance, but I was never bored or disinterested in his presence.

The Illusionist manages to braid stories of Eisenheim and Sophie's secret affair with local politics, magic, murder and even a creepy ghost story, but not all of these elements blend as well as they should. Director Neil Burger (who also adapted Steven Millhauser's short story, "Eisenheim The Illusionist") does a splendid job capturing time, place and atmosphere, but his trickery and misdirections with the plot aren't always nearly as mysterious or shocking as he thinks they are. Eisenheim goes from being a magician to a medium later in the film, and I don't think many audience members are going to think his séances are the genuine item. I remain a huge fan of Burger's first film Interview with the Assassin, an all-too-believable take on JFK's murder, but he may have buried himself too deep in his many plot lines to make any one of them completely compelling or engaging.

There's no denying the visual beauty of The Illusionist or the captivating acting; even the largely untested Biel does good work here. But in the end, there is something somewhat cold and disengaging about the film, and it never allows us deep enough into the hearts and minds of its players, with the exception of Giamatti, who seems to have taken it upon himself to draw a rich and explosive character when those around him are sometimes choking on their own haughty ways and good manners. While I certainly wouldn't dismiss the film's many merits, I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the film either. There's quite a lot to like here, but the entire experience may leave you cold and wanting.


If this film had been Rated R (or "Unrated," as it inevitably will be when it comes out on DVD), it might have been the funniest movie of the year. As it stands, it's still pretty damn hilarious. The story is simple: a small group of smart high school kids who all happen to have not gotten into any colleges form a fake college (seemingly affiliated with a real, prestigious learning establishment) to fool their parents into thinking they aren't complete losers. The kids pool some money together, rent an abandoned insane asylum, do a little redecorating of certain rooms, and a bogus school is set for inspection by the kids' parents. The problem is that the fake website set up by one of the kids actually has a form to fill out to apply to the school that immediately generates an acceptance letter. With a week, hundreds of kids who couldn't get into any other schools show up with tuition money in hand and a readiness to try something different.

The founding students are led by Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long, who shows an as-yet-untapped comic timing that was only hinted at in straight man roles in Dodgeball, Waiting..., and Herbie Fully Loaded). Rather than simply shutting the school down and being exposed as a fraud by everyone, Bartleby decided to hire a fake dean (the wonderfully acerbic Lewis Black) and put together a curriculum unlike any other: one designed and maintained by the students. The strange thing is, this collection of reject students actually takes their classes seriously and uses them to expand their minds and learn something. The school is threatened by the real sister school's dean, Anthony Heald (essentially playing the same role he did for a few seasons on "Boston Public"), who wants to take back the property to expand his own school and expose the college as a fraud.

What happens from about that point in the plot on is fairly predictable as the kids must plead their case to keep the school open to an education board, but the story still finds a way to take a formula as old as the hills (or at least as old as Animal House) and make it ridiculously funny. Long's performance is terrific as the quick-thinking, smooth-talking Bartleby, but he shares the spotlight with two giggle-out-loud performances by Adam Herschman (in his first film role as the do-anything, try-anything Glen) and a more familiar face, Jonah Hill (the kid trying to buy the disco boots from Catherine Keener in The 40 Year Old Virgin). Every line out of this kid's mouth is gold, and his character Sherman goes through a very different adventure than the rest, since he actually was accepted at the sister school but still wants to help his friends.

The not-so-secret ingredient to Accepted being so good is director Steve Pink (best known as the co-writer of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity). This guy seems to have a gift for knowing what makes adults laugh (although he did not have a hand in writing this film). Trust me when I say that no one was dreading seeing this film more than I, which made my enjoyment of Accepted all the more pleasantly surprising. I'm not trying to paint this film as the second coming of teen comedies, but this is a dopey little movie that, against all odds, just happened to have me in giggly stitches most of its running time, and that has got to count for something.

The Great New Wonderful

This uneven but still effective ensemble piece puts forth the reasonable theory that in the year after September 11, New Yorkers lived in a state of constant anxiety and uncertainty, not just about their safety but about their lives. Any critic that calls this film a New York-style Crash is being regrettably lazy and just plain wrong. First off, these five stories of ordinary New Yorkers never intersect. Second, the film is completely void of any sentimentality, which isn't to say it is without emotion; it has loads of emotion, much of it misdirected and unexpected.

I'm fairly certain that playwright (and sometime actor) Sam Catlin doesn't want you to like all of his characters. He reminds us that before and after September 11, New York had its fair share of unpleasant people, and maybe one or two assholes. If memory serves, the attacks on New York are never specifically mentioned in The Great New Wonderful. In fact, we don't even get a sense that the World Trade Center disaster had any direct impact on any of the characters. The only clue we get that this film is connected to those events is an opening title card that the date is September 11, 2002. But context is everything.

In the first — and probably funniest — story, the absolutely wonderful Jim Gaffigan endures a barrage of probing questions by an aggressive psychologist (Tony Shalhoub), who is attempting to unleash what he believes is suppressed rage inside Gaffigan a year after he has seen some sort of killing in his office. Gaffigan appears to be perfectly healthy and well tempered, even seeming a little embarrassed at being in front of the shrink at all, but eventually something rises to the surface (whether it is extracted or sparked by the psychologist's persistent questions is unclear; either way it's funny).

Avi and Satish (Naseerudin Shah and Sharat Saxena) are professional bodyguards and fellow immigrants, who live in a country that has been very good to them. Although it is never expressly mentioned, we guess that their Middle Eastern accents and looks have not been their best friends in the past year, and these long-time pals quarrel about their changing fundamental beliefs in being proud Americans. Their interactions are probably my favorite because they never quite do or say what you'd expect as they provide security to a largely unseen political leader.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (in her second appearance in a 9/11-related film this season) plays Emme, the owner of an up-and-coming pastry business called The Great New Wonderful, catering to the city's upper crust. Her only competition is the long-established queen of the cake business, Safarah (Edie Falco), whom Emme is determined to unseat with a major birthday cake pitch to a society princess. Emme is one of those characters we are not supposed to like, but whose life and outlook has changed in the last year. She is ruthless and often unpleasant to those who care the most for her. It's a bold performance for Gyllenhaal, and maybe the film's best acting and most tragic profile.

The story that may make viewers the uneasiest is the seemingly harmless tale of Allison and David (the never-sexier Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy), whose 10-year-old son is a nightmare that they seem unwilling to do anything about. The extremely affectionate couple sees their marriage at risk thanks to the self-centered, monstrous actions of their son. The problem really lies in the fact that they are afraid to discipline him, but when his school principal (Stephen Colbert, playing it straight for the most part) lets slip his normally placid and easy-going demeanor to tell them the truth about their son, it's a real eye opener (and provides Colbert with the film's best line concerning the nature of the son's heart). The resolution of this storyline is going to bother a whole lot of people, and I'm pretty sure that's the intention. It's not violent or evil, and yet a part of what the parents do feels wrong (a part feels right, too, which is why it's so troublesome).

Finally, in the film's most conventional but still pleasant plot, Olympia Dukakis plays an elderly woman caught up and fed up with the routine that has become her life (which includes feeding her ungrateful and untalkative husband). She runs into a man from her childhood, who seems more alive than she's felt in years, and it sparks a passion in her that she is totally unprepared for, and it frightens and excites her. And believe me, Olympia Dukakis in an excited state was almost too much for me.

I've kept this last bit of information for the end (like I said, context is everything). The film is directed by Danny Leiner, best known for his work on Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and needless to say there isn't a trace of those films in The Great New Wonderful. That may also explain why this film is getting such a spotty release across the country (in Chicago it's opening this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a one-week run). I found myself doing a lot of cringing during this movie, most times for the right reasons, but occasionally because some aspect of one story or another just wasn't working.

The film is at its strongest when a character's repressed pain and suffering bubble to the surface. Often, the characters catch themselves when they are behaving badly (at least compared to how they were more than a year ago). Sometimes, they adjust their behavior; sometimes the harder edge remains firmly in place. Unlike Crash, The Great New Wonderful doesn't concern itself with the redemptive power of the human spirit. It acknowledges the soul's countless flaws and embraces them, whether we, the audience, choose to or not. The impact of this work will vary greatly from person to person, but overall, it's a bold work filled with exceptional performances and some brave storytelling.

Heading South

If nothing else, director Laurent Cantet's Heading South is a learning experience. For example, I learned that in the late 1970s (and probably even earlier than that), middle-aged women from all over the world would flock to Haiti to be served, fawned over, and soundly sexed up by the much younger local menfolk, most of whom were living in poverty and relied on money and gifts from these women to survive. Even the women make the point that in their home countries, such a relationship (with a younger black man) would have been out of the question, but in Haiti, it's the status quo.

Leading the current crop of women is French queen bee Ellen (Charlotte Rampling, who can also be seen ripping up the screen in Lemming), who has taken under her wing and into her bed the teenaged Legba (Menothy Cesar) as her constant companion. Even the other Haitian men acknowledge that Legba has something special about him that draws all of the white ladies to him. Maybe it's his smile or his physique or his ability to appear to be in a constant state of adoration toward these women. Into this setting comes an American woman named Brenda (Karen Young, who can soon be seen in Factotum but is probably bests known for playing the FBI agent on "The Sopranos"), who several years earlier had slept with the very underage Legba on her first trip to Haiti (resulting in her first orgasm), and has returned hoping to rekindle their romance. When she spots him with Ellen, her jealousy springs up almost immediately.

But the scene in Haiti has changed since Brenda was there before, both inside and outside the resort area. The overwhelming poverty is leading to pockets of unrest in the cities, and some of that resentment stems from so many Haitians breaking their backs working for people like Ellen and Brenda. A heartbreaking opening sequence in which a woman approaches Brenda's driver as he waits for her at the airport is one of the best in the film. She literally is trying to give her beautiful child away to this well-off man before the girl is forced into prostitution. The driver must simply say he cannot.

Heading South is filled with sun-drenched male and female bodies, an all-encompassing sexual charge, and a platoon of desperate women, most of whom are under the belief that these young men will fall in love with them and be faithful. Legba bounces between Ellen and Brenda's beds, depending on his mood. Ellen pretends not to care, that she's above petty jealousies; Brenda is not as good at hiding her feelings. Strangely enough, their mutual affection for Legba draws them closer together as friends.

Director Cantet (who made the exceptional films Time Out and Human Resources) offers a nice balance between the laid-back resort setting and the tense and ugly city life in Haiti. And Rampling continues to astonish me in film after film. She is the greatest of risk takers, and no subject or action is out of her range of capabilities. Ellen can be vicious, and Rampling loves every minute of it. Also very good in the film is Louise Porter (The Barbarian Invasions) as the Brit Sue, who attempts to act a peacemaker between Ellen and Brenda whenever things get heated. Heading South is a bittersweet look at the end of an era in sexual history, but it also serves as an intriguing look at the politics of resort communities that effectively exploit impoverished lands. The setting could not be more beautiful, and the actresses could not be more natural and lovely. I'd give any one of them a roll for old times sake. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Trust the Man

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a busy lady. In just the last month or so, she's popped up in four films (including two this week — see The Great New Wonderful above — as well as Monster House and World Trade Center), with Sherrybaby and Stranger Than Fiction still due before year's end. 2006 is the year she came into her own as an actress in both big and small films, and she deserves it sure as hell. But her ensemble dark comedy Trust the Man, about two New York couples struggling not to self-implode under the weight of their own egos, is not one of her better offerings this year.

Gyllenhaal's Elaine is paired with the eternal slacker Tobey (an almost unrecognizable Billy Crudup). He refuses to commit to even any talk of marriage despite their many years of living together, and eventually she leaves him. Much of the film follows his ridiculous attempts to win her back, and the fact that, as I'm writing this, I can't remember if they end up together or not speaks volumes to the gripping nature of this film. Tobey's older sister Rebecca (Julianne Moore) is married to househusband Tom (David Duchovny). She is a successful stage and film actress, who seems as bored by her home life and kids as she is enthusiastic about her career. Strangely enough, it's Tom who strays in the fidelity department. (Let me add here that whoever thought it was a good idea to reunite the "comedy team" of Moore and Duchovny of Evolution fame needs to be shot.)

Trust the Man has a fistfuls of silly fights and dialogue that I'm sure was meant to be snappy and enlightened about the constant struggle to keep relationships balanced and exciting, but it all seems so petty. All of these characters have good lives with nice places to live, so their incessant whining seems as about as important as a scuff mark on a new pair of shoes. Crudup fairs best in terms of the performances. His character is so clueless and self-centered (and he acknowledges this) that at least he's interesting and entertaining to a degree.

Writer-director Bart Freundlich (Moore's real-life husband and collaborator on The Myth of Fingerprints and World Traveler) has produced his first stinker in my estimation. The man is talented and insightful most of the time, but this work comes across as vapid and insignificant, despite the talented cast. There are some nice cameos by the likes of Eva Mendes, James LeGros, Ellen Barkin and Garry Shandling as a marriage counselor, but it all seems like window dressing taped to a brick wall. With the lineup in front of and behind the camera, I'd expected something much better. What we're left with is recycled romantic comedy drivel mixed with pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Not an appealing combination.

Boynton Beach Club

Formerly known as The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club, if that tidbit gets your heart racing any faster. No? Well keep reading. Every so often, I get an inkling about a film that, on the surface, looks so awful, it might actually do me physical damage. Some inner voice tells me: don't be too quick to judge. Fortunately I listen to that voice most of the time. About all I knew about Boynton Beach Club from director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) was that it had a bunch of old actors in it. Immediately, visions of silly comedies like Grumpy Old Men dance across my brain. But Boynton has a bit more going for it than Depends jokes and gags about false teeth; actually, it has neither of those, and that should tell you something.

This film is one of the more honest comedies about growing old and living without a loved one that I can remember in quite a while. While it certainly doesn't miss an opportunity to get in a laugh where it can, it also doesn't pander to the older audiences that are obviously going to flock to see it. I can't seem to find a rating for this film, and my guess is that it's going out unrated. There is just enough bad language and nudity (that's right, folks, old person nudity) that the film would have crossed over into R-rated territory, so the distributors were probably smart to realize that an unrated film wouldn't scare off its target audience. And as often as the film sinks into sentimentality, it also goes out of its way to avoid it at times.

The film is set largely in a community of old folks in Boynton Beach, Florida. As the film opens, a power-walking old man is struck and killed by a car (driven by Renee Taylor). His widow (Brenda Vaccaro) is at a loss, since her husband took care of everything around the house. She feels lost, alone, and helpless. I don't have much history seeing Vaccaro's work (beyond Midnight Cowboy, Airport '77 and Supergirl) but she is fantastic in this movie as a new widow who soon realizes she hardly has a friend in the world; she doesn't even have a valid driver's license. She joins the aforementioned bereavement club, filled with active seniors who are looking for everything from new friends to potential dates.

Among the fellow membership are such acting legends as Len Cariou as a three-month widower Jack; Joseph Bologna as Harry; the still-appealing Sally Kellerman as Sandy, who is actively pursuing Jack; and the frighteningly skinny Dyan Cannon as the bubbly Lois (Cannon's overly inflated lips and face work actually made me say "Oh my God!" out loud when I first saw her). My particular favorite couple is Cariou and Kellerman, whose storyline openly deals with the emotions and difficulties of beginning a new love affair after decades with the same person. Jack's feelings are so real and so raw, they broke my heart. And his first time in bed with Kellerman (remember that nudity I promised you?) manages to be sweet and funny without making fun of the situation.

Not quite as intriguing is the relationship between Lois and Donald (Michael Nouri), which comes across as much more conventional and simply too "young" for this film (despite the presence of the nearly 70-year-old Cannon). When the film sticks to accurately portraying what life is like for the over-60 crowd, I was paying attention. When it sunk into clichéd romantic-comedy nonsense, I tuned out. The bottom line is, I'm recommending about 50 percent of this movie, which probably means it's a safe film to take Grandma to, as long as she's not offended by the sight of dildos or Len Cariou in his boxers or frank discussions about looking at your vagina. Enjoy your date!

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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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