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Monday, March 18

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Airbags

Hey, everyone.

In my continuing effort to give you as complete a picture of the Chicago film scene as possible, I'm working with the Gene Siskel Film Center to preview many of their series, extended runs and film festivals. In February, they have three month-long programs that caught my eye: the Film Center's annual Hong Kong! festival, a retrospective of acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog and the films of artist Matthew Barney.

Both the Herzog and Barney series include the some of the latest works from these respected artists as well as documentaries from other filmmakers about these men. My offerings this week include the Barney documentary No Restraint and the opening night (February 2) film in the Hong Kong festival, 49 Days. I'll continue to review some of the selections from the Hong Kong series throughout the month, and give you previews of one of Herzog's latest, The Wild Blue Yonder, and a documentary from a young filmmaker attempting to meet the famed director called Walking to Werner. (The Herzog series kicks off this weekend with his lovely and icky remake of Nosferatu.) The Barney series includes his fascinating entire Cremaster cycle (1 through 5, which can be watched in any order), which played at the Landmark Century Center Cinema a couple years ago, as well as his most recent feature, Drawing Restraint 9, starring and featuring the music of Barney's companion, Bjork.

The Gene Siskel Film Center is one of Chicago's greatest film resources, and the fact that we don't have any other places like it in this massive metropolitan area is shameful. And the month of February is jammed with worthy programming that should keep this venue's seats packed every night, thanks to dear people like you. It's a slow week for new films, so feel free to take advantage of what the Film Center has to offer. Oh, by the way, the studios did not preview a little stinker of a film called The Messengers about a family plagued by ghosts of some sort in their new home. I'm sure it will do quite well.

The Italian

Although it didn't make the final cut of the five nominees in the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film category, The Italian (which premiered last October in Chicago during the Film Festival) was Russia's official entry and deservedly so. The film details the rather shocking and deplorable orphan problem in the nation, and sets up a dilemma for a six-year-old boy named Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), who must choose between living with a well-to-do Italian family, who very much want to adopt him, and escaping from the orphanage where he's lived his entire life to go search for his birth mother, whose identity and address he has recently discovered.

In a strange way, it's kind of admirable that Russia would select this film to represent its nation. The Italian does not portray any part of the country as being a particularly desirable place to live or even visit. "Here's our shitty country" seems to be the central message here, from the orphanage, which seemingly is run by some of the older children residing there rather than the administrators, to the cities, in which every person young Vanya comes into contact with either tries to hurt or rob him.

The movie acts as a sort of misguided tour of Russia when Vanya opts to find his mother, which was probably fairly surprising to Russian audiences since it's clear that all the other orphans seem desperate to be adopted. Hot on his heels to deliver Vanya to the Italian family (and collect a hefty finders fee) is the woman who runs the adoption service. Vanya's journey marks a long and painful experience for the boy, and please be advised that your heart will break several dozen times during the course of The Italian, and not just for Vanya's pain, but for the state of Russia and its children.

Considering that writer-director Andrei Kravchuk's only other film was a 2000 romance called The Christmas Miracle, The Italian is a remarkable and welcome change of pace. Steeped in the film tradition of the Italian neo-realists (many of which showcased the suffering of children in post-WWII Italy), this work uses the travels of Vanya as a means to explore deeper and far darker issues facing the former Soviet Republic. And it's impossible to shake the anxiety that what awaits Vanya when (and if) he finds his mother may not be what he expects and needs so badly. When someone so desperate pins all his hopes on one far-fetched quest, what are the odds everything will turn out alright? The Italian is both a revelatory experience and an absolutely powerful work. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Because I Said So

Sometimes I can simply tell you a film is bad and leave it at that. But every so often, I am driven to take more drastic measures. If you are even considering seeing this film, I will be forced to come to your home or workplace and slap some sense into you. This manly beating will hurt, and I apologize in advance, but the crossed wires in your brain allowing you to even contemplate the worth of Because I Said So need to be uncrossed with a serious bitch slap. But rest assured, no amount of pain that I can inflict with my hands can hurt half as much as sitting through this miserable film and enduring the screeching circus that is Diane Keaton's latest attempt at comedy genocide.

Here's the most frustrating part of Because I Said So: there are things in it that should have worked, including the lovely and charming Mandy Moore (playing Keaton's daughter Milly) wearing nothing but plunging necklines, Piper Perabo (as sister Mae) in a thong and Lauren Graham (as oldest sister Maggie) being sassy and sexy. But all of this is completely undercut by Keaton's grandma-on-crack performance as a caterer who attempts to find her youngest (Moore) a stable man by placing a personal ad on her behalf and interviewing the candidates before selecting the right guy (who turns out to be an architect played by Tom Everett Scott). All of this goes on without Milly's knowledge, and it just so happens that after years of bad luck with the fellas, she finds her own nice guy, a musician played by Gabriel Macht.

What transforms what would have been an annoying and predictable comedy under into a complete horror show is Keaton's leech-like characterization of Daphne, a woman who is far too involved in her kids' lives. She's so involved that she has no problem talking and asking about sex with them ("I want details!") to a degree that I was getting totally skeeved out. And, by the way, I'm officially done with finding Diane Keaton funny. Her routine is 40 years old, and I got tired of it 15 years ago. Her hands fly around her head like she standing in a swarm of wasps. Her perpetual bangs cover her forehead wrinkles, while an array of turtlenecks, scarves and clunky necklaces cover her neck waddle. We know you're old, Diane, and we don't hold it against you. No amount of soft focus is going to make us think you're 40 again. Embrace your AARP status, baby. Her character's daughters constantly call her out of control, and that's exactly what I think of Keaton.

But the worst thing about Because I Said So is the writing. How many times can the word "amazing" appear in one screenplay? Find out by seeing this uninspired junk. And director Michael Lehmann (40 Days and 40 Nights) doesn't exactly elevate the script an iota. Because I Said So is pure agony, and if you go see it, I better not find out. But, if you wake up one morning with a black eye or bloody nose, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Backstage

Imagine the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard, but take away the bodyguard and have the stalker move in with the singer. Now you have an idea of how the new French drama Backstage begins. From director and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot (who is also a fairly well-known actress in her homeland), this sometimes chilling but always odd offering attempts to wonder what would happen if an obsessive young fan of a hugely successful singer became one of the singer's closest confidantes. The film is not always convincing in its story, but that never stops it from being thought-provoking.

The lovely and terrifying Islid le Besco (Sade; A tout de suite) plays the teenage Lucie, who wins a contest to have singing sensation Lauren (Roman Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner, who does her own singing) visit her at her home. The singer clearly doesn't want to be a part of this publicity-generating scheme but is gracious enough during the visit. Lucie is so overwhelmed that she locks herself in her room (which is filled with posters of Lauren) and never actually speaks to the singer. Shortly before she leaves the home, Lauren makes the mistake of saying through the locked door that she hopes she's able to meet Lucie again. This single statement sparks the girl to follow Lauren to her Paris hotel to meet her, which she eventually does. Despite her near hysterical state, Lucie manages to hold it together enough to spend time with Lucie, who reveals herself to be the type of spoiled celebrity we all know and love.

The second half of Backstage is a curious mix of behind-the-scenes dramas a celebrity faces (crazed fans plant themselves below Lauren's hotel room window; a flurry of assistants to cater to every whim and second-guess every decision; security staff that overstep their enforcement techniques, except when they don't enforce them enough) and a character study of a deeply disturbed young girl. The celebrity stuff we've seen before, but watching Lucie is well worth sitting through the rest of the plot. Lauren cannot find her inspiration because her true love wants nothing to do with her, so Lucie concocts a scheme to make Lauren happy, despite it wrecking her own life in the process. The way Lucie finds herself entrenched in Lauren's world simply by being a part of it and not contradicting her speaks volumes about the way celebrities lead their lives and count their friends.

Naturally, part of the lesson Lucie learns from her time with Lauren is "be careful what you wish for," but the film doesn't make things that simple. Once she sees how blindly devoted Lucie is to her, Lauren encourages feelings of passion and unreality in the unstable girl. I'm not sure calling these feelings "sexual" quite covers it, although it is not out of the question. Backstage is, at times, uneven and silly, but Islid le Besco's fearless performance elevates the material to a place few standard-issue celebrity stalker films have in the past. The movie begs the question, what's worse: being left out or being pulled in? The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Matthew Barney: No Restraint

I'd always been told that long-celebrated artist Matthew Barney was elusive and unapproachable, but there's no evidence of him being anything other than forthcoming and honest in this documentary from director Alison Chernick about his contrasting lifestyle and work (also often a study in contrast). Chronicling Barney's filming of his most adventurous work Drawing Restraint 9 aboard a Japanese whaling ship, No Restraint examines Barney's career and personality.

A film simply about the making of DR9 would have been sufficient, since it embodies what Barney's work is about: the process of creating art rather than simply the finished product. But watching him work behind the camera, with fellow crew members, and with his collaborator and baby's mama, Bjork, reveals a great humor and practical approach to his filmmaking and his art. Director Chernick talks to Barney's father about Matthew's years as a high school football hero, and if you ever watch any of his other Drawing Restraint films, you'll see the athleticism at work and his determination to be the best and most successful in his field. I can see why he sometimes stands at odds with the art community (his detractors are absent from this film), but I have always found the guy fascinating since I saw his five-part Cremaster cycle.

While I don't typically endorse seeing a documentary about anyone whose work you aren't somewhat familiar with, No Restraint serves as a solid introduction to Barney's mindset and beliefs on art and creation. If you find the doc appealing, you'll probably like his films as well. Barney doesn't try to dazzle you with his pieces or overthink what his art represents. I appreciated his plain-spoken explanations and analysis. And, boy, does this guy love petroleum jelly. You have to admire him for that. For better or worse, Barney's art and films are accessible without being pedestrian. His films are always a visual feast while being slightly elusive in their meaning. Not surprisingly, I found the same true for the man.

Beginning today, No Restraint (as well as the Cremaster cycle and Drawing Restraint 9) plays all week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Check the website for specific showtimes.

49 Days

Although most of the films in this year's Hong Kong! festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center are focusing on the works of the prolific director Johnnie To (including a sneak preview of his latest work, Exile, later in the month), the festival opens with 49 Days from first-time filmmaker Lam Kin-lung.

Steeped in the Hong Kong film tradition of period ghost stories, the film centers on a herbal medicine man (Stephen Fung) who leaves his family for three years to open up his own shop in a far-away village. On the eve of his long-delayed return home, he is framed for setting fire to his new shop and killing seven employees. For reasons that are never quite clear, just as he's about to be beheaded for his supposed crimes, he is set free to go home and see his family. He is accompanied by his female lawyer (Gillian Chung), who has bent a few rules to see that her client is set free. But upon returning home, everything has changed. His wife is in a near-catatonic state, apparently from grief at his being gone for so long, and his young daughter is bitter and rebellious for the same reason.

The film's title refers to the number of days a dead person must wait for their spirit to be reincarnated, which should give you some clue that not everybody in this story stays living (or dead) for the duration of the plot. The plot isn't particularly scary or thrilling. In fact, sometimes it's downright ridiculous as the man who did set the fire attempt to take control of the herbalist's estate so he can sell it to pay back massive debts he owes to loan sharks. The rules about being dead and where spirits go once their 49 days are up seem like they are made up as the plot needs new rules. The special effects aren't exactly special, but I will give Fung and Chung credit for putting forth especially lively performances. Still, this is not exactly the ideal way for the Film Center to launch what has traditionally been a great festival. But, fear not, the Johnnie To movies are exceptional, and I'll have more to say about them in the coming weeks. 49 Days plays Friday, February 2, at 8:15pm and Sunday, February 4, at 3pm.

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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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