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Thursday, May 23

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Hey, everyone.

The one missing movie from this week's column is a film I really want to see because I'm hearing powerful things about it. Opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema is Beyond the Gates, starring John Hurt, showing the Rwandan genocide from a vastly different perspective than Hotel Rwanda. I just wasn't able to make any of the screenings prior to this week, but I will catch it this weekend, and my guess is that you should, too.

Also opening this weekend at the Music Box Theatre is Into Great Silence, which I reviewed as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival.

The Lookout

Sometimes when I'm planning my week of screening, I'll just scribble down the name of a film in my calendar and deliberately not do any advanced research on it before I go to the screening. Most times, this simply isn't possible. For example, it's kind of tough to plan when you're going to see Blades of Glory and not know what it's about going in. But with smaller films, it's quite possible that I will not even have seen a trailer for it. Sometimes I just like the elements of surprise and discovery. The Lookout is a movie worth discovering.

Strangely enough, two recent examples of times I walked into screenings blind to their content were the films Brick and Mysterious Skin, both of which starred Lookout's lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who clearly has a gift for finding these great scripts and repeatedly proving that he's one of the great young actors working today. The film is an extraordinary and deceptively simple crime drama that puts you into the head of its perpetually frustrated and troubled young lead, who wants so desperately to be successful at anything that he turns to the seductive power of easy money. Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a high school jock with a beautiful girlfriend and lots of admirers who is in a terrible car accident that kills two people and leaves him brain damaged. It's tough to explain exactly how his newfound handicap manifests itself, but Chris has memory issues and trouble organizing simple things. If you try and compare this film to Memento, I'll scratch your eyes out. Trust me, the two films couldn't be any less similar.

We see Chris go through a typical day, which includes mental rehabilitation classes, meetings with his counselor (Carla Gugino), working as a janitor at a local bank and meals and conversation with his blind mentor roommate, nicely played by Jeff Daniels. But the overriding emotion that rules Chris's life is, as I mentioned, frustration. He misses his old life so much that it makes him angry sometimes, and he feels sorry for himself most of the time. This sets the stage for him to meet Gary (Matthew Goode), who claims to have known Chris's sister in high school. The two strike up a friendship in a bar, and it doesn't take long for Chris to become a part of Gary's circle of friends, which includes the lovely Luvlee Lemons (shockingly enough, a former stripper played by Isla Fisher). Gary's motives become all too clear soon enough as he persuades Chris to help the gang rob the bank where Chris works. Goode shows a side of his skills as an actor that I didn't even think existed. His snake-like charm is sometimes terrifying, but often he's just smooth as silk as he tempts Chris like the devil, making life with money look so much better than the life Chris has now.

Writer-director Scott Frank (a seasoned screenwriter who has written or adapted screenplays for Out of Sight, The Interpreter, Get Shorty, Dead Again and Minority Report) shows us once again with his debut as a director that he knows how to weave an intriguing tale filled with characters you don't often see in films and make them compelling and complex. The bank robbery itself is almost the least important element of this film. Instead, Frank uses it as an excuse to assemble a fascinating collection of character studies. The great fun of the film is figuring out who really is the smartest one in the scenario. Gordon-Levitt has never been better, and he's been pretty damn great in just about everything I've seen him in lately. He's an actor that always chooses the quiet, intense burn over screaming and showboating (see Alpha Dog for about 50 examples of that).

Watching Chris navigate the world is to place yourself in his shoes and experience so much disappointment and fear, which is not to say the film is without humor and hope. There's plenty of that to go around as well. The Lookout perhaps ties itself up a little too cleanly in its final scenes, but there's a cautious optimism there that seems well earned and wholly appropriate. In addition to the terrific original screenplay, Frank delivers a film with an often-chilling atmosphere and absolutely solid performances. I've seen one or two better films this year, perhaps, but this is the first real self-discovery I've made in 2007, and I urge you to discover The Lookout for yourself. You may have to seek it out, but this one is well worth the effort.

Blades of Glory

The formula has already become pretty standard: Will Ferrell picks a profession and finds a way to both honor and dishonor it. Then he backs up the Brinks truck and shovels in the cash. He did it with Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and he's done it again with Blades of Glory, with slightly lesser but still usually funny results. (It looks like Ferrell may be doing it again next year with his take on basketball, Semi-Pro.) The profession this time around is men's figure skating, and as you can probably tell from all the commercials you've seen for this film in recent, Ferrell in a bedazzled body suit can be a scream.

Ferrell plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a sex-addicted pro skater who wows the crowds with his overly macho routines that include fire balls coming from his hands and overt flirtations with the ladies in the crowd. His main competitor is the slightly femme Jimmy MacElroy (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder, in what is clearly his best role since that film), a sensitive man who dresses in baby blue and emits doves from his costume during his routines. His adoptive billionaire father (William Fichtner in a rare comic turn) has been training him since he was a youngster and losing has never been an option. After an altercation between the men during a medal ceremony, in which they tied for the gold, the pair are banned from men's skating for life.

Several years later, someone tells the two men (who have taken on menial jobs to make ends meet) that, although they have been banned from men's single skating, they are still eligible to compete as part of a pair. In order to make it to the big competition, they must sign up in just days, leaving them no time to find female partners to train with. MacElroy's ex-coach (Craig T. Nelson) comes up with the bright idea of pairing the men together, since nowhere in "the rules" does it say it can't be done. This puts them in direct competition with the reigning pairs champions, the brother and sister team of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (real-life married couple Will Arnett and Amy Poehler), who have been known to cheat to win with the help of their less-than-willing sister Katie (Jenna Fischer of "The Office").

Most of the film consists of silly vignettes showing the two men getting over their differences and trying very hard not to look too gay while performing their routines. Good luck! Ferrell and Heder have a good comic chemistry together, and neither one seems to be carrying the other. They are both all-too willing to totally humiliate themselves for a laugh and that certainly helps in some of the film's weaker spots. First-time feature directing team Josh Gordon and Will Speck (the two come out of the commercial world) fill their film with faces familiar to those who have ever held a mild interest in winter sports and to those familiar with Ferrell's stable of co-stars in recent years. The film is far from a classic, and I'm guessing even the outtakes are weaker than Ferrell's usual best for deleted scenes, but Blades of Glory still has a big handful of explosive laughs and a whole lot of reasons to smile. Sometimes the film tries too hard and things just get plain stupid, but overall, it's tough not to stumble out of this one without your sides hurting just a little.

Meet the Robinsons

Pretty much from the first day I saw a poster or the trailer for this Disney animated work, I've been dreading it. Whoever cut the trailer for Meet the Robinsons should be banned from the hallowed halls of Trailer University for compiling one of the weakest advertisements for a film ever. With the exception of the sequence involving the T-Rex complaining about its big head and little arms, the trailer doesn't contain a single funny moment or in any way convey just how clever and hilarious this movie actually is. I walked in to my screening of the film dreading, DREADING what I was about to see. By the way, if you get the chance to see the film in Digital 3-D, do so, even if you have to travel hundreds of miles. The 3-D in this film is as good as what we saw in Monster House last year. Once the film gets moving, you are in for one fantastic adventure, sci-fi, family film filled with irreverent characters, creative visuals and a host of great voice actors, most of whom are actually voice actors (and not just celebrities adding their name to an animated movie to boost the marquee value).

Young Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen) is an orphan and budding young inventor, whose latest contraption is sure to win the top prize at the science fair: his Memory Scanner, a machine he hopes will help him remember who his mother is (she left him in a basket at the front door of an orphanage just after he was born). During the fair, another young man named Arthur (Wesley Singerman) shows up looking for an evil villain known only as Bowler Hat Guy (director Stephen Anderson). The hat's name is Doris, in case you were wondering. Anyway, BHG steals the Memory Scanner, hoping to pass the invention off as his own to a big corporation. And Arthur and Lewis fly off in a time machine in the hopes of setting the world and time-space continuum right.

Meet the Robinsons really takes off when we get to the near future and meet Arthur's insane family and a supporting cast of bizarre and more bizarre creatures. My personal favorite is the Sinatra-like band leader/mob boss Frankie the Frog, who leads a Rat Pack collection of frogs that are sharp dressers and talking like they just stepped out of "The Sopranos." The family (which includes grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles of Arthur's) are all creative types, whose minds are warped and sense of reality skewed. There are almost too many family members to keep track of, and that's kind of the point. Around every corner is some new visual stunner that amazes us as much as it does Lewis. The family patriarch is the unseen Mr. Robinson (whom we're told looks like Tom Selleck), whose company invented and built many devices that have become commonplace in the world of the future. He also invented two time machines, one of which was stolen by BHG and one taken by Arthur and subsequently crash landed on the family estate.

The family scrambles to head off any damage to the past and future BHG might cause, while BHG (whose motives are unclear for most of the film, but once made clear are quite interesting) wants nothing more than to destroy the family by changing the one thing in their past that brought them together. There's something kind of special about Meet the Robinsons, a kind of magical twisted energy that goes beyond simply inserting modern references that will be out of date by the time this film comes out on DVD. But more importantly, this is a film that encourages people to use their brains. First-time feature director Anderson (who was an animator and artistic supervisor on other films) should be very proud of himself for not pandering to the kids but also not forgetting that they will be his primary audience. I guess what I'm saying is that parents should expect to be as entertained as the kiddies are — perhaps even more so. And considering how miserable Happily N'Ever After was, I'll take that with a smile on my face. The first great animated feature of the year is right here, folks.

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

File this one under "Truth Is Not Only Stranger, But Far More Scary Than Fiction." In September 2003, Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas and three of his brothers were rounded up in the middle of the night and taken to an unknown location for weeks of intense interrogation. Abbas' alleged crime (according to American intelligence gatherers) was plotting the assassination of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. How the intelligence community came to this conclusion and kept Abbas in jail for about nine months is the focus of The Prisoner, an inconceivable documentary that seems almost too absurd to be true (and I'm sure similar stories will surface as the war goes on). Like any good journalist could do, Abbas keeps a secret record of everything that happens during his captivity, including his eventual transfer to Abu Ghraib Prison after it is determined that his usefulness as an intelligence source is negligible.

Using footage that was shot for last year's Gunner Palace (The Prisoner is co-directed and co-produced by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein), film of Abbas' arrest is actually featured in this movie. Along with this embedded footage, the movie features home movies of Abbas and his extended family, an interview with the one solider that tried to make his life in prison a little better (Abbas calls him "The Good Soldier") and stylish comic book drawing showing Abbas' experience as a captive. The Prisoner strings together one unbelievable moment after another, from the strange line of questioning Abbas was put through to the small victories he claims by helping fellow inmates. Not that we need another reason to question what this war is really about, but the film stays away from such questions in favor of deeper questions about freedom, human rights, criminal behavior, interrogation, family and liberation. The Prisoner is a striking and shocking document of events that could be occurring right now with another innocent man or woman in Iraq. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Page Turner

Sometimes, a person can get revenge years later and in a manner that doesn't require bloodshed or weapons or even saying a word. The French offering The Page Turner is a quiet, burning story about a young piano protégé named Melanie, who auditions to get into an elite music conservatory but stumbles during her well-rehearsed performance when Ariane, the head of the jury (a famous pianist played by Catherine Frot), allows someone to barge into the audition for her autograph. The girl is distracted, does not get into the school and never plays the piano again.

Ten years later, an older and beautiful Melanie (L'Enfant's Deborah Francois) gets a job at a law firm that just happens to include on its staff the husband (Pascal Gregory) of the famous pianist. An opportunity to make extra money helping the well-to-do couple at their home comes up, and Melanie jumps at the chance to get close to the family and the object of her resentment. Melanie's efficiency and hard work makes her an invaluable asset to the household, and soon she is looking after the couple's son, himself a strong piano player. When Ariane loses her sheet music page turner (a person who literally sits next to her during a concert and turns the sheet music), Melanie's musical background makes her ideal to fill the position, and the two women become close, with Ariane becoming more and more reliant on the new woman of the house (her husband is gone 90 percent of the time). But at a crucial performance, Melanie finds a quiet but devastating way to enact her revenge.

What is strange and almost sensual about The Page Turner is that we never know whether Melanie will change her mind. Her cool demeanor makes it difficult to read her guarded emotions, but part of her plan is clearly to get the neglected and passionate Ariane to fall in love with her, which is exactly what happens, only adding to the devastation. Frot is a national treasure in France thanks to her fine work in films like Un Air de Famille, Chaos, Dinner Game and the recent Me and My Sister, and it's a nice change to watch her be manipulated so subtly by someone who seems so helpless and non-threatening. The film has long stretches with very little dialogue, giving us a chance to really appreciate Melanie's skillful approach to her deception. At any point before her betrayal, she could change her mind, and no one would be the wiser. Delicate in its simplicity and sensual in its tone, the film draws us in and tears our allegiances. We want Melanie to get her revenge, but we know how hurtful the deception will be to Ariane. We grow to like both women, so either way, the revenge will hurt us as well. The Page Turner is a small gem of a work with two stunning performances at its core. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

This bold and stirring documentary about the writings that come from those who have endured warfare, focusing particularly on those who have come back from the Iraq War, is absolutely critical viewing for those more interested in knowing what these men and women are going through. The birthplace of this film stems from a National Endowment for the Arts project that collected writings of U.S. soldiers, whether they be poems, truth-based fiction, journal entries, humorous anecdotes, letters, even comic book drawings and text. Eleven of these are read by actors (including Robert Duvall, Beau Bridges, Aaron Eckhart, Justin Kirk, John Krasinski, Josh Lucas and Blair Underwood) and illustrated using the drawings, combat footage, animation, photomontages or newly shot works to bring the pieces to life.

Moving interviews with some of the soldier writers, as well as more well-known veterans who wrote about their experiences in previous wars (from World War II to Vietnam), also are included and offer the perspective that these people didn't simply write because they could; they did so because they needed to get these thoughts and feelings out, even if nobody ever read them. Operation Homecoming is a raw and deeply emotional film, to be sure, but it offers one of the most revealing and varied looks at the Iraq War, from the perspective of a foot soldier to a Medevac doctor to a Marine escort that travels with the fallen soldiers' remains to make sure their final journey home is made with dignity and respect. Some of the writings are angry, others are resoundingly patriotic, but they are all heartfelt and painfully honest. The film opens today for a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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