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Saturday, May 25

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Airbags

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this coming Thursday, October 4, was the opening night of the Chicago International Film Festival. The launch-off film is The Kite Runner, the latest film from director Marc Forster, who helmed the previous CIFF opening night offering Stranger Than Fiction, as well as Monster's Ball. I'll have a more extensive festival preview for you next week, and by then I'll have seen most of the high-profile films on tap for this year's event. And for the third, non-consecutive year, yours truly has been selected to be on the Festival jury for the short film competition, so I'll even be able to recommend the best of the four shorts programs this year. This is my busy season, and I'm attempting to brace myself, getting lots of sleep, drinking lots of fluids (but not too many; some of these films are long), and just generally getting the right frame of mind to watch between 35-40 films over the course of two weeks. I'll see you on the other side and a couple times in the midst of the chaos.

The Kingdom

Two weeks ago, the emotionally draining In the Valley of Elah had a limited opening to much critical praise and some small amount of box office. This week, that film's polar opposite — a film that cares more about action, revenge, and stereotyping than any kind of lasting emotional impact the war in the Middle East might have on the soldiers fighting in it or those back home — opens wide with a big, splashy ad campaign and a handful of high-profile actors in key roles. To give credit where credit is due, director Peter Berg's The Kingdom is a well-crafted shoot 'em up/blow 'em up movie with more heart than most action films these days. But one can't help but get the sense that Berg and company have dumbed down some of the most complex political scenarios in world history just to keep audiences' heads from exploding with details.

Making an interesting case that many terrorists are hiding in Saudi Arabia (remember that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi-born), the film opens with an absolutely chilling series of events concerning a suicide bombing at a softball game in an area of Saudi Arabia where many American pipeline workers live. Once all of the rescue workers and investigators arrive on the scene, another bomb goes off, killing everyone. The U.S. government maintains its stance that it will not send any investigators to this friendly nation, but FBI Special Agent Fleury (Jamie Foxx) gets special permission to bring in a team of forensic experts to survey the scene and search for the killers. All of this has to happen in five days. The team includes such unlikely members as Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper, who seems a bit embarrassed to be in this movie. What follows are repeated exercises in good old American aggression. Although they are meant to be nothing more than observers and advisers, they essentially take over after the first day, bullying local law enforcement and walking around a somewhat hostile nation like they're bulletproof. Sometimes their behavior is pretty funny, but most time it's kind of cringe inducing.

It's clear early on that the local royalty may not want to have this crime solved, certainly not by Americans. One of the more fascinating characters in The Kingdom is the team's escort, a Saudi colonel played by Ashraf Barhoum (so good in Paradise Now and The Syrian Bride), who actually seems to be genuinely interested in capturing the terrorist cell that carried out this terrible attack. Jeremy Piven is seen buzzing around in a couple of scene as a State Department representative who foolishly tries to get the team out of the area as soon as possible.

I don't want to give too much away, but it should come as no surprise that the team manages to do in just a couple of days what the entire Saudi police force can't (or won't) do with years of experience and knowledge of the area. Bullets are flying; bodies are dropping; familiar commands like "Move in!" and "Go! Go! Go!" and "Lock and load!" are bellowed with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm. But it became increasingly difficult for me to suspend my disbelief that this team wouldn't have been shut down after day one of behaving like a bunch of spoiled children who have never been told "No" in their entire lives. All the yelling, all the explosions, all the faux solemnity really began to annoy the piss out of me at about the halfway point. There's an interesting story to be told here, for sure, and I think Peter Berg is a solid director in most circumstances, but he and his actors are just trying way too hard to be bad-asses, when even the slightest amount of subtlety might have worked better.

Into the Wild

The latest film directed by Sean Penn (his fourth feature, and his first since 2001's little-seen The Pledge) might be one of the most difficult I'll have to review all year, so let me get a couple of things out of the way right up front. I liked Into the Wild, based on the investigative biography Jon Krakauer, and I am recommending it with a few reservations. It doesn't take us long to figure out that the true-life story of Christopher McCandless (played here by the exceptional Emile Hirsch, who has never been better) is one that Penn has been dying to tell for years. If you've ever read an interview with Penn that has gotten into his habits of inhabiting seedy bars in the middle of nowhere or traveling to parts unknown in the hopes that he'll bring home a good story or two, then you know that Chris was a young man whose life and attitudes about responsibility and self-awareness probably run parallel to Penn's beliefs.

In the early '90s, Chris graduated from Emory University. His parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) have essentially mapped out his future for his post-graduate life. Finding this somehow wrong, Chris (who renames himself Alexander Supertramp) cashes out his saving account of $24,000, gives away his possessions and sets out on a hitchhiking journey across the country, ultimately landing himself in the forests of Alaska. (Into the Wild is told in flashback as Chris reflects on how he got to this point, while he struggles to stay warm and fed.) As most fine road movies go, the bulk of the film has us following Chris on his journey, meeting interesting, mostly kind strangers who find the personable young man quite charming and worthy of mothering and/or friendship.

For those of you who read my review a couple weeks back of Across the Universe, you may remember that I have an aversion to hippies of all shapes, sizes and smells. So it would be safe to assume that Chris's seemingly aimless wanderings would annoy me. The big reason I was intrigued by his story is that he wasn't really pushing an ideal on those with whom he crossed paths. Sure, there is the occasional statement about materialism or the beauty of nature or being "free," but most times, Chris just is happy to meet a new and interesting person. He seems as likely be befriend a pair of middle-aged hippies (Brian Dierker and the lovely Catherine Keener) as he is a fast-talking farmer (Vince Vaughn) or a sexy folk singer (Kristen Stewart). By far the most interesting person Chris connects with (and lives with for a time) is an old Army widower played by Hal Holbrook. If the brief time they spend together on screen is any indication, I could have easily watched an entire movie of just these two sharing and talking. Holbrook could be playing himself here, dishing out sage advice to Hirsch, an actor officially coming into his own with Into the Wild, with direction from Penn, another actor who has clearly become a major influence on an entire generation of actors.

But the perfectly cast characters are only part of what makes the film so compelling. First there is Penn's visual style, which goes beyond simply shooting his actors and then shooting the pristine Alaskan landscape and vibrant wildlife. I'm not the first one to draw this comparison in writing, but Penn's treatment of the environment reminded me a great deal of how Terrence Malick shoots. And much like Malick, there's a slight distancing between Penn and his subject. As much as Penn clearly admires what he did, he doesn't pass judgment on his actions. There are many who believe that Chris was an idiot for doing what he did, and the thought has certainly crossed my mind every other day since I saw this movie. But what is the more courageous deed, taking on more responsibility or leaving everything, every comfort behind to fend for yourself in the world? I still don't know the answer.

The icing on this particular brand of cake, however, was Eddie Vedder's simple and moving collection of songs that act as Into the Wild's score. In many ways, Vedder and Penn seemed destined to work together (I guess technically they have, since Eddie contributed songs to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack), but I can't remember a time in the last 10 years when a film/music collaboration that fit together so effortlessly. I will almost certainly see Into the Wild once more in theater. I think I need to, to see if the things that moved me so severely the first time around still do. I don't think I could ever do the things Chris McCandless did, and I'm OK with that. But that doesn't stop me from admiring his life, and adoring this film about him. Penn relishes in his subject's imperfections, and accordingly, I loved Into the Wild as much for its flaws as I do for what works so beautifully.

Feast of Love

It's funny what gets people emotional. Feast of Love is from director Robert Benton (probably best known for directing Kramer Vs. Kramer), a filmmaker not particularly known for tugging at the heartstrings as much as sketching out very familiar and believable scenarios and bringing them to life on film in ways that almost make us uncomfortable with their purity and stark presentation. He also is a director not afraid to find the humor in sorrow or the pain in an otherwise happy situation. Feast of Love certainly has the elements but in the context of an uncharacteristically sappy melodrama about love, and more to the point, things that conspire against us to take love away.

If I'd started this review telling you that one of the film's stars, Morgan Freeman, narrates the film as well, would that make you understand a little of what I'm talking about? Freeman plays Harry Stevenson, an Oregon professor who has suffered a great tragedy in his life recently. He and his wife (played by the exquisite Jane Alexander) love each other as much as they can to get through this pain, but it isn't easy. Harry spends a lot of time at a local coffee shop owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear in nice-guy overload, but the guy almost can't help being appealing), whose wife (Selma Blair) leaves him for a woman in the movie's opening scenes. But Bradley is a fool for love, and he falls head over heels for a real estate agent named Diana (Radha Mitchell), who has been having a lengthy and unfulfilling affair with a married man (Billy Burke), a practice she continues even after she and Bradley get engaged. The film also details the relationship of a young couple (Toby Hemingway and Alexa Davalos) that both work in the coffee shop.

Feast of Love has a couple things going for it, and a couple very strong things going on that never quite made sense to me. First of all, nearly every female character I've mentioned above is shown naked (not Jane Alexander; for that you have to watch the HBO show "Tell Me You Love Me"), and they are naked for long stretches of time, as if Benton is daring us to be slightly more than titillated by the nudity. But all the women in this film are unbelievably good looking, with and without clothes on, so that doesn't work so well. If Benton's mission was to celebrate the female nude, mission accomplished.

For a film about love, there are sure a lot of heartbroken souls floating around in this movie. This film is a Category 5 weeper. Women in my audience were sobbing as they left the theater, walked to their cars in the parking lot, paid the attendant and drove home. I'm not knocking the film on this point. For any film to generate that severe an emotional response, it has to have some power behind it. The strength of the performances is what carries the day and elevates Feast of Love into something more than pure soap opera or dumb romantic comedy. It was nice to see an emotionally charged movie with a scoop of humor on top that wasn't some crappy Hollywood romance where two people spend 90 minutes pretending they aren't going to end up together. We don't know with whom Bradley will end up in this film, and that's a good thing.

My biggest complaint about Feast of Love revolves around the ending. The fate of one major character and the way things tie up ever so nicely felt false. More than that, it felt unfaithful to the spirit of the rest of the movie, which is largely unpredictable. But this is the type of bad ending that doesn't trash the entire movie, and if you're groovin' to it up to that point, I'm sure you'll survive the film's conclusion. Feast of Love is a nice showcase for some talented actors that probably won't go down as anyone's favorite film of the year (or even the month), but it's a pleasant way to pass the time, and that does count for something sometimes.

The Game Plan

I was never into him as a wrestler, but I dig Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an actor. He's not the greatest actor working today, but he gets better with each role. I can't wait to see what he pulls off in Southland Tales (the long-delayed follow up to writer-director Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko), his first film where he drops "The Rock" named from his credit altogether. Shot after that film, The Game Plan's comedic premise is a tried and true one: Huge, muscle-bound men with little kids equals funny. Think Kindergarten Cop. Think The Pacifier (or don't). Director Andy Fickman (She's the Man) offers nothing original to this film about a professional football quarterback (Johnson), who discovers that he has an eight-year-old daughter when she lands on his doorstep just before the playoffs begin. That's right, folks, The Game Plan combines the clich├ęs of both film genres: sports movies and father-daughter films.

Without going into detail about how the little girl trashes the football player's bachelor pad and wrecks his love life, I will say that as much as The Game Plan is predictable junk from beginning to end, The Rock sells this thing with everything in his arsenal. He even sheds a tear... A TEAR! His performance is never quite enough to salvage this obvious mess, but he does illustrate exactly what I've always liked about The Rock: When he commits to something, even if it's crap, he gives it his all. I'll also add that Roselyn Sanchez (who plays the little girl's ballet teacher) is totally hot in her various ballet workout clothes, and that Kyra Sedgwick (as The Rock's agent) looks as miserable as I've ever seen her look in this movie. I don't mean she looks ugly; she's just clearly not enjoying her work on The Game Plan. It's a lame role for which she probably got paid quite nicely. The movie is lame, The Rock is a professional even in the worst movies, Sanchez is yummy. Yep, that covers it. Enjoy. I'm sure this film will be Number 1 for the weekend.

Trade

I'm all for films being as brutally honest about tough subjects, if that's the direction the filmmakers choose to go in, but this bizarre film based on a New York Times Magazine article by Peter Landesman about sex trafficking young girls from Latin America into the U.S. might be one of the most sleazy "serious" films I've ever seen. From German-born director Marcus Kreuzpaintner, Trade follows the horrific life of a 13-year-old girl (Paulina Gaitan) from Mexico City and taken through a highly efficient underground network into the States to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Her slightly older, criminally minded brother (Cesar Ramos) attempts to track her down, eventually enlisting the help of a Texas police officer (Kevin Kline of all people), whose own family has been fractured by a similar set of circumstances, to help him find the young girl.

Some of the images in Trade will be very tough for me to shake. I saw this film in early August, but I still vividly recall a sequence in which the kidnappers take the little girl into a field of tall grass or corn (OK, maybe my recall isn't 100 percent) and hand her over to her first customer (for oral sex only; they are saving the taking of her virginity for the auction), who walks her into the field populated by several other young boys and girls doing the same thing with older men. It's just about the scummiest thing I've seen in a commercial film, and it feels exceptionally close to exploitation masked as a cautionary tale. And maybe that is what's necessary to drive home the message of Trade, but it made me feel dirty. One of the more interesting characters in the film is a young Polish woman (Alicja Bachleda), who has been tricked into coming to America to become a prostitute. She tries to protect the little girl, but her help only goes so far.

The presence of Kline in this film is somewhat baffling, and the man looks like he's half in a coma for the duration of this film. I understand that he's supposed to be the silent, brooding type, but it feels more like he's thinking "I really wish I hasn't lost that bet to be in this movie." In the film's final sequence, in which Kline poses as a bidder for the young girl, it's difficult to imagine that anybody would fall for his act as a pedophile. There's no denying that Trade is filled with good intentions and believable performances from the young actors, but what the filmmakers forgot was to include a bar of soap with every ticket sold. This is a gross movie that I can't quite bring myself to recommend for hygienic purposes, but in case you're interested, it opens today at the Landmark Century Century Cinema.

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)

A big winner at Sundance this year, this gripping documentary about the criminal culture that has unfortunately become the driving force in Brazil is a real eye-opening feat of storytelling and showing how crime at the top of the nation's political food chain influences and often results in crime in the poorest parts of the major cities. Director Jason Kohn interviews kidnappers, their victims, the police who investigate kidnappings, and members of the political infrastructure of Brazil to weave together a fantastic case study in interconnectivity on a grand scale. One of the unique aspects to Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) is how much of the embezzled government money that is taken every day by politicians is laundered by frog farms, where frogs are raised and prepared for eating as a delicacy in other countries. Kohn keeps coming back to one particular farm where he chronicles over the course of the film to show a little bit more of the process. The symbolism is obvious but still highly effective.

Manda Bala doesn't just make the statement that Brazil has corrupt elements; it makes the solid case that the entire nation has turned corruption into one of its major industries. The kidnappings are a result of an impoverished populace that has no other way to make money. Kohn doesn't ask us to feel sorry for these criminals but to simply understand where they're coming from. Since often the kidnappers often cut off an ear to send to the family of the victim to prove possession, an entire cottage industry has formed in the plastic surgery arena. Kohn interviews a reconstructive surgeon who specializes in taking a bit of cartilage from the ribs and fashioning it to replace the bits of missing ear. And yes, we see the procedure.

Manda Bala has everything from stunning cinematography to captivating interviews to draw in viewers and make you transfixed on Brazil and its seemingly irresolvable issues. The subjects are all fascinating in their own way, and Kohn manages to generate a little tension in his work, which is tough for a film that isn't actually telling a narrative. Still, this is required viewing for lovers of great documentaries, and those who care a little bit about things going on beyond their borders. The film opens today at Pipers Alley.

If I Didn't Care

I've loved films about well-off people committing crimes, thinking they can get away with it. I loved it when Billy Wilder did it in Double Indemnity, and I really never stopped loving it. The indie feature If I Didn't Care (opening today at Facets Multimedia) deals with residents of the Hamptons community, in particular, a real estate failure played by Hal Hartley regular Bill Sage. Like any credible rich dude worth his salt, he conspires to kill his lawyer wife and start up a little thing with his mistress, but his plan goes all wrong and a detective (a leathery Roy Scheider) thinks he's got it all figured out but can't prove it. I don't need to like every character in a film to enjoy myself. I don't even need to like a single character. But I need to like something about a movie to recommend it, and I didn't care about If I Didn't Care.

Shot on location by Benjamin and Orson Cummings, the film makes the Hamptons look utterly unappealing. That's a bit of a problem considering we're supposed to think this is a posh, desirable place to live. Sage's Davis Meyers character is a bit of a desperate, past-his-prime himbo who knows he can bed just about any woman he wants (and he does) in this community, bit I wasn't buying it. A character like Davis needs to show what it is about his personality that people find charming; I didn't see any of that. But the problems with If I Didn't Care run deeper. Characters appear and disappear at the whim of the script, whether it makes any sense in the context of the plot or not. It's an annoying amateur practice that I frankly can't stand or forgive. Probably the best thing about the movie is the ending, in particular, the fate of Davis, which is cleverly realized and wholly appropriate. If I had more enthusiasm for even my dislike of this minor work, I'd probably have more to say, but the whole affair seems tired and listless, and it made me feel the same. I'm going to take a nap.

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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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