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Thursday, December 14

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Airbags

As I mentioned last week, I've been on vacation for much of the last seven days, so I missed a few screenings. It's important for you to know this because I don't want you thinking those pesky studios are hiding films from me again. So here's what I missed: The Black Dahlia (this one hurts the most to miss, because it looks like a return to form for director Brian DePalma); Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (the latest from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, taking a brief break from his martial arts films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers to return to his more intimate works, a la Raise the Red Lantern — but don't worry, by the end of the year his Curse of the Golden Flower action film is coming out); the Iraq war documentary The Ground Truth; Maggie Gyllenhaal's junkie drama Sherrybaby; and the animated baseball comedy Everyone's Hero.

That being said, the four films I did manage to get to before I flew off to lovely South Carolina were all varying degrees of highly watchable, and some are quite exceptional. Enjoy...

The Last Kiss

For whatever reason, a lot of women seem acutely aware of this film, and inevitably many of them have asked me if it's anything like star Zach Braff's previous work, Garden State. My response is, "It's better if you go in thinking it is." If pressed to give up more information, I say, "It's like Garden State but with two hot chicks going after Zach." This is a total misrepresentation of the film and its weighty themes, but I think it's better to go into The Last Kiss a bit unaware of just how heavy it gets. So if you don't want to know, stop reading.

Remade from a recent Italian film of the same name and adapted by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), The Last Kiss begins as an ensemble piece about a handful of long-time friends turning 30, all in various stages of their respective relationships. One (the consummate gloomy gus Casey Affleck) is married with a child and hopelessly miserable; one is single with a very active sex life; and our hero, Michael (Braff), is engaged to the beautiful and wise Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), who is several months pregnant with their unplanned happy accident. To their friends (and us), Michael and Jenna appear to be the happiest couple with the best chance at making a long and wonderful future together. They already own a home, and their wedding plans are going full swing. But at the wedding of a mutual friend (an event that opens the film), Michael engages in a light flirtation with a college girl named Kim (Rachel Bilson from "The O.C.").

The flirtation turns into a not-so-chance second meeting and eventually a date. What I'll always remember The Last Kiss for years from now is Braff's performance. He is not entering into any of these encounters with Kim lightly. He knows if he is caught or lets things go too far, his perfect life is in mortal danger because this is the ultimate betrayal. The agonizing he goes through is all on his face and in his actions, and it struck me as all-too convincing. So why would such a seemingly intelligent man make such foolish moves? Surprisingly enough, the film does not paint Michael as someone who is always looking to see if the grass in greener over another hill. He's a man very much afraid that he can clearly see how the rest of his life will turn out. With a baby on the way, his path seems laid out before him, and it terrifies him.

If you have dared to read this far into the review, it's probably best not to ruin things for you on how the Michael-Jenna-Kim scenario plays out, but I think it's handled honestly and realistically under the direction of Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon). Despite The Last Kiss featuring one of the finest fart jokes in cinema history, it turns on you by becoming an exceedingly uncomfortable (but not unpleasant) film to watch. Everyone's emotions are spread out before you on the screen, and it is not always a pretty sight. Never is that more the case then in the subplot (one of many in this film) featuring Jenna's parents, played to perfection by Blythe Danner and Tim Wilkinson. They begin the film as the world's most bitter and unhappy couple, and it's remarkable how they both make much-needed adjustments to set an example for their daughter in her time of crisis. An uneasy conversation between Wilkinson and Braff about the nature of marriage is perhaps the film's most poignant moment.

The Last Kiss is going to make you squirm a little, especially if you've ever screwed up royally in a relationship at some point in your life. But the film does test the age-old belief that everyone should be allowed one major forgivable screw-up in a relationship. My belief is that everyone who sees this movie will like or dislike the film and various characters based on how much they recognize their own lives in these characters. If you've ever cheated or been cheated on, your reaction could be greatly colored by those experiences. Granted, the same could be said for just about any movie, but for some reason, it feels more closely linked with this work. For example, the Casey Affleck character leaves his wife and child briefly to live with a friend because he doesn't want his newborn son's first memories to be of mommy and daddy fighting. Although it's a minor storyline in the context of this movie, his actions and the outcome of that plotline totally threw me. You may hate the guy for walking out, or you may respect his intentions.

Consider The Last Kiss a horror film about turning 30 (as most of the male characters are doing here). As much as it's a work about relationships, forgiveness and the nature of love, the film's lasting impact resides in its ability to capture the sheer terror of getting that first glimpse into your future. There are characters here that have absolutely no clue where their lives are heading and that scares them just as much as those who can see their lives stretched out before them quite clearly. While it sprinkles heavy doses of humor throughout, this is a film steeped in emotion, tension and truckloads of fear. And with its fairly ambiguous ending, this is the true definition of a date movie: one that will give you and your significant other plenty to talk and speculate about long after the closing credits. As far as romantic dramas go, this is the best of the year and one of the best I've seen in years.

Half Nelson

Well folks, we're nine-and-a-half months into the year, and it seems that overall the larger, big-budget films have been letting a lot of people down. The strongest proof of this trend can be found by examining reviews of some of the smaller films released of late, including Little Miss Sunshine, whose box office numbers have been going up from week to week since its release a few weeks ago. And while I'm certainly not the type to equate box office numbers with quality, Sunshine's perseverance does show that eventually audiences will find the best movies available to them. But that film is a safe film to love, which in no way takes away from its undeniable charm and other sublime qualities.

Half Nelson is a harder film to embrace, only because a few hurdles have to be overcome before such strong feelings toward this movie are let in. I don't mean "hurdles" in terms of problems with the film; no, I mean in terms of the instinctual hurdles most audience members will have. We aren't used to piling on praise to works like Half Nelson, a film about the awkward yet soulful bond between a junkie junior high school teacher and one of his young female students. Let me just get this out of the way right now: there is nothing sexual between these two characters. Once you eliminate that possibility in your head, it may be much easier to acknowledge that Half Nelson is a work of perfection. Expect to see it on many critics' end-of-year "best of" lists, and expect to see its star, Ryan Gosling, get his first Oscar nomination.

Half Nelson goes against the grain at every turn. Despite the lead character being a crack addict, there is no big, dramatic withdrawal sequence. In fact, nothing in the film plays out exactly how you think it will or should or does in every other movie. Half Nelson is perfect as much for what it doesn't do as for the unexpected nature of its thread-bare plot and deeply drawn character studies.

Gosling (best known for his lead role in The Notebook, but check out The Believer, in which he plays a Jewish skinhead, to see just how gifted this guy is) plays Dan Dunne, a dynamic — almost radical — history teacher in a run-down, barely functional Brooklyn school. Despite pressure from his superiors to teach from the designated curriculum, he has his own methods and way of engaging his students about the reasons for and means of change throughout time.

First-time feature writer-director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote the script with his writing partner Anna Boden) spends a lot of time in the classroom with Dan, and his lessons are fascinating and probably a little too advanced for kids this age. But he's not afraid to challenge them, instead of merely reciting and regurgitating places, dates and events. His theory about changes in historical direction being caused by two opposing forces is true, but it ignores the smaller, more gradual types of change. And as the film progresses, we begin to realize that, if Dan is to change, his transformation will be slow and deliberate. His only opposing force is his own suffering.

Dan is filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation, much of which is self-imposed. To fill his time, he also teaches the school's under-performing girls' basketball team, who counts among its members a girl named Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps). She makes the mistake of stumbling into the locker room long after the game is over to discover Dan in a stall just seconds after getting high. Drey sees the pipe, she sees his eyes and his state, and she understands.

Drey's life is drug free, but no less troubled. With no father in the picture and her older brother in jail, Drey is forced to more or less look out for herself. Her mother is forced to work double shifts as an EMT, and the two almost never see each other. The only person that seems to pay Drey any attention is the local drug dealer named Frank (the talented Anthony Mackie), whom her brother worked for and went to jail protecting. Frank's intentions seem decent, but that doesn't stop him from putting Drey in situations delivering drugs or being around piles of the stuff as its being packaged. Her outlook doesn't look much better than her teacher's.

Dan clearly wants to get clean, but an ill-timed visit from an ex-girlfriend and former drug buddy (Tina Homes) stirs up his demons of being heartbroken and alone. In a way, the friendship between Dan and Drey fills a void in both their lives. He is clearly a father figure to her. He often drives her home from school and even confronts Frank in one scene asking him to stay away from her. Frank knows exactly what Dan is up to with his habit, and their exchange plays out in an extraordinary way. Dan knows that Frank spells bad news for this promising young girl, but he's not convinced that her hanging out with him is any better.

Half Nelson makes no promises about the future of any of its characters. There are no explosive encounters that promise to change the direction of anyone's life. In fact, the film is a series of smaller moments designed to provide deeper insight into these desolate and disillusioned people. Perhaps the most disturbing sequence is when Dan goes home to his parents house for dinner, and we get a glimpse into the birthplace of his addictive personality (no one in the family is without a drink in their hand for more than a second) and his sense of self-worth (his father regularly mocks Dan's career choice with reckless abandon).

The performances in this film are beyond impressive. There is not a weak link in the fiber. In particular, Shareeka Epps does a splendid job of playing Drey as an understated, quiet, yet forceful individual. And her scenes with Gosling are so strong and deeply felt. They are tenuous and soul building all at once. The two aren't healing each other exactly, but they are part of each other's healing process. And as the film ends, there are no conclusions or morals. But hope is in the air, and under these circumstances, in these times, that's more than most of us can hope for. It means everything to Dan and Drey because it's all they have.

Gridiron Gang

As much as I'd like to spend paragraph after paragraph harping on the good intentions of this film and hard lessons learned by the juvenile offenders in its story, the most important realization that arises from Gridiron Gang is that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is a major force on the screen even when he's not wielding a weapon, flexing his muscles or kicking someone's across seven state lines. The man can not only hold is own onscreen as an action star, but he has what is needed to deliver what turns out to be his best onscreen role without ever raising his fists to anyone. And this is important news, because Hollywood is seriously lacking under-40 action stars that can also act.

Johnson plays real-life detention camp probation officer Sean Porter, who, several years back, came to the painful yet inevitable conclusion that "juvenile rehabilitation" was a joke. According to the press notes, 75 percent of these inmates return to prison or die on the streets shortly after their release. Porter decides that forming a football team and eventually pitting his boys against real high school football teams will teach the inmates discipline, strategy, and how to work and compete with others without killing them. Porter and his fellow officer Malcolm Moore (played solidly by rapper Xzibit) overcome the expected hurdles from the higher ups in the prison system, but eventually the team lands where they want to be. Gang rivalries, the parents of the kids on opposing squads, and a major tragedy in Porter's life all threaten is derail the team, but we know where this train is going and that with a man like The Rock as conductor, odds are it ain't stopping until it reaches its predetermined destination.

I'm not knocking Gridiron Gang for its authenticity. Go rent the documentary of the same name to see just how much of what happens in this film actually did occur; the faithfulness to actual events may shock you. And the messages about commitment, the prison system, and how a single man can make such a huge difference are worthy of being conveyed and are done so with all due reverence. But the movie feels so terribly by-the-numbers, and the young actors seem unfairly interchangeable that I sometimes had a tough time keeping track of which ones had done what crime to get into jail in the first place, and what awful event in their past (according to screenwriter Jeff Maguire and director Phil Joanou) made them make the wrong choices in life to become a bad kid.

Despite the plot's emphasis on struggle and hard work, it sure did feel like a whole lot was going right for these criminals in a single season. Still, I can't knock the young actors for their performances. Most of them do an exceptional job in the film. But the emphasis and credit for any right turns Gridiron Gang makes belong to The Rock. He first showed us he could do more than action with his supporting role in the otherwise disappointing Be Cool, but this film is all his. Playing Porter is a safe part, I'll give you that (a role model playing a role model), but he pulls it off with an elevated sense of conviction and a performance that is controlled yet forceful.

To drive home its message (and to dispel any doubt about some of the events and dialogue the movie offers up, a few select scenes the original documentary are played during the closing credits. Suddenly the hokey and overly scripted seems 100 percent authentic, and it's in these moments that your mind may even be swayed as to the quality of the work. For me, the damage of taking a great story and making it mediocre had already been done. And compared to the far better football-themed film out right now — InvincibleGridiron Gang didn't move me as much. This is milestone film to be sure, but only as a turning point in The Rock's career... or should I call him Mr. Johnson.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

You've heard of films that are supposedly critic proof? (Snakes on a Plane was supposed to be one of those films. Ooops.) My theory about this fantastic, informative and wildly amusing documentary is that every critic in America (including this one) will recommend you go see it. The reason being that we, maybe more than most, are acutely aware and angered when we are seeing a film that we know has been chopped to shit, when a work does not fully represent the true vision of the (usually young and/or independent) filmmaker. This Film Is Not Yet Rated attempts to demystify the previously super-secret ways and means of the MPAA ratings board, but it also unveils the reasons the big studios aren't up in arms about the clearly unfair process that seems to give most acts of violence a pass, while placing heavy restrictive emphasis on sex and gay themes.

Filmmaker Kirby Dick is quite simply one of my favorites and was one of the finest documentary filmmakers working even before making this film. If you haven't seen his works Sick and the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, warm up the Netflix cue. But his current work is something special and something, quite frankly, that should have been tackled years ago. And while it is entertaining to have Dick go through some of history's better-known acts of cinematic censorship, what is far more interesting is watching him and his team of quirky private investigators attempt to gather the names and faces of those "average" men and women who judge what we watch in movie theaters.

Intercut between these sometimes hilarious cloak-and-dagger operations (yes, digging through the garbage of one MPAA member is featured to great reward) are interviews with directors who walk us through their MPAA horror stories. Darren Aronofsky talks about the trouble with his film Requiem for a Dream; Wayne Dramer and actress Maria Bello spent a lot of time talking about how much of her pubic hair was allowed on camera in the film The Cooler; Canadian Atom Egoyan seems miffed about the way his Where the Truth Lies was treated.

Kimberly Perice theorizes that her low-impact sex scenes in Boys Don't Cry were given an NC-17 initially because they were between two women; Mary Harron was shocked to discover that it was not the overwhelming amount of violence in her film American Psycho that bothered the MPAA but the three-way sex scene (again with two women). Funny but no less significant tales of woe are offered up by John Waters and Kevin Smith. But my personal favorite story comes from "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, who says that when editing his film Team America, he and director Trey Parker deliberately included sequences they never intended on using in the final film (mostly in a sex scene involving two puppets), knowing full well they would get the NC-17 rating. He claims that if the MPAA feels like they are responsible for getting things cut, they are often more lenient on a film's second submission.

Perhaps more telling is the revelation that any scene featuring female pleasure for more than just a second or two is usually slapped with an NC-17 rating. I found this particularly bizarre since most of the ratings board members are women. What does that tell you about their sex lives?

So why aren't the studios making a fuss? Dick theorizes that since the MPAA is financed by money from the studios, the board of ratings finds it in its best interest to let the studios' violence bonanzas get by with a passing grade. By holding the independents to a more strict set of rules, the MPAA has set up a system whereby it is more difficult for smaller films to make money without making massive changes. Another bonus the studios get from the MPAA are suggested cuts. According to MPAA rules, they are not supposed to tell filmmakers or studios what specific scenes gave them trouble, but this is clearly not that case for all films, in particular the works from the studios. No indie filmmaker interviewed here has a story about getting notes from an MPAA member, but a few people (including Stone, about the South Park movie) say that they were told specific scenes that needed to be trimmed and by how many seconds.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated ends in the only way it can: with a nerve-racking look at Dick submitting the very film we're watching (minus the ending, obviously) to the ratings board. No one was more on edge in the days leading up to the call from the MPAA (which is heard in the film) with its decision than Dick. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the board members' names and faces began appearing on the screen in that screening room. The resulting rating should not be surprising, and Dick arranges for an appeals hearing, which leads to the only direct confrontation he has with the MPAA process (off camera, and not with the original raters of the film).

So why should anyone besides filmmakers care about this process? Aside from the obvious issues of censorship, the process has resulted in Hollywood churning out the same type of films over and over again: brainless, violent and, more often than not, PG-13. The thought makes me shudder. Look, nobody enjoys a good bloodbath more than I do, but not at the expense of a film like Boys Don't Cry or Clerks (which got an NC-17 for nothing more than its language). Look at what those bastards did to Kubrick's last work Eyes Wide Shut. Digitally produced bodies placed in front of sex scenes? Give me a break. I'm not buying the story that Kubrick approved that before he died. If given the choice that your film wouldn't be released in the U.S. without digital manipulation, you'd probably cave too.

The most disturbing aspect to Dick's documentary is explaining why the rating process and its members are all kept secret. Shouldn't filmmakers know who is judging the process? Shouldn't the rules and standards be made more clear? Why is sex in films treated so harshly in the United States and violence given a pass, while in all other countries in the world, the opposite is held true? Above all, what makes these men and women qualified to do their job? The answer will shock you, and the lack of professionalism in this process is unbelievable. This Film Is Not Yet Rated is an eye-opening piece of investigative filmmaking that never forgets to be damned entertaining.

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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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