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Saturday, October 19

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The Mist

As closely affiliated as writer-director Frank Darabont's career is with the works of Stephen King (he adapted and directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), people forget that Darabont has never worked on a King-related film based on the types of stories for which the master of horror is actually known. In other words, The Mist is Darabont's very first attempt at horror in its purest form, where scaring the wee-wee out of you is among its prime objectives. He gives us hideous, oversized insect-like monsters that hide in a thick-as-soup mist that moves in over a small Maine town at an alarming speed. I guarantee you'll jump out of your seat a half-dozen times at least. And there's a fair amount of wonderfully realized gory moments that will make old-school make-up effect lovers grin from ear to ear. But these are the sorts of things you'd expect from any creature feature of quality.

What Darabont does is something different, and it's what will always separate his films from other directors who dare to venture into the world of the supernatural, otherworldly, creep shows. Darabont gives a shit about the characters in his films. They aren't pieces of two-dimensional meat to be ripped apart for the glorification of the monsters. And he remembers that if we as an audience care about the characters, the threat upon or taking of their lives is made all the more terrifying. These are living, breathing people in danger. They aren't college students or campers more worried about how their hair and clothes look than the maniac coming at them with a machete. The people trapped in the grocery store setting are us, typical —, maybe with a few less minorities than the rest of the nation, but this is New England. Some of these people rise to the occasion and attempt to be heroes, while others cower and hide behind religion as the reason for all their troubles. In fact, the storyline about the religious war that erupts in the store is clearly meant to represent a microcosm of America right now, and how we react when fear (real or imagined) in injected into our lives.

When I was in my first year of journalism school, I had a writing professor use King's original novella "The Mist" as an excellent example of descriptive language. The way he details the brand-name products that sit on the shelves or scattered across the store's floor was a writing style this professor wanted us to emulate. And Darabont's execution of this film notices all of these things as well. He isn't interested in examining the reasons the mist has come. There are serious indicators that things may have started as a result of a military experiment gone wrong at a nearby base, but the past isn't nearly as important as the future. First, the goal is stay safe; then it becomes escape. Darabont's pacing is key to building this suspense. He's not interested in rushing through this tale, and the slowly growing mob mentality inside the store wouldn't be possible if the director didn't take his time telling this story. Thomas Jane is perfect as the reluctant hero, whose true objective is to protect his son. I also liked Toby Jones as one of the store employees, who resembles a more traditional hero in every way but looks. In many ways, he's the film's secret weapon.

I'm guessing those with more religious leanings are going to roll their eyes at Marcia Gay Harden's Mrs. Carmody, a zealot who is generally unpleasant even before the mist rolls in and just gets worse and bolder as the film goes on. She claims to be the voice of God, which would be a hell of a lot easier to dismiss if her predictions would stop coming true. But she's also petty in her rages against others who dismiss her claims, and her eventual turn to blood lust comes across as a bit over the top when you see it on the screen. This is no fault of Harden's. She plays the character to perfection, and there's a look in her eyes that is so convincing that even I might have had a hard time resisting her pull if I were in that situation.

There's a sequence involving a small group of people daring to travel outside the grocery store to the pharmacy next door to get medical supplies that is so chilling and nerve wracking that I found myself grinding my teeth without even realizing it for several minutes. I almost gave myself a migraine, dammit. And the scene is probably the scariest I've seen all year. For King purists, the biggest change from the source material is Darabont's more definitive ending, and holy shit on a Ritz cracker, you will not be able to shake this ending. For those who find Darabont overly sentimental (thanks in large part to his directing work on The Majestic), you won't have that issue with The Mist. Good luck shaking it when the film is over. This is the best kind of scare film: one that not only remembers that some of the greatest horror movies of all time have an underlying message about the times, but also doesn't forget to throw all sorts of disgusting monsters in your face and frighten you relentlessly. The Mist reminds me why I love King's writing so much and why Darabont's filmmaking will also be something to look forward to.

To read my interview with The Mist director Frank Darabont visit Ain't It Cool News.

I'm Not There

I'm not the biggest Bob Dylan fan in my family; that would be my brother, who somehow manages to find a new piece of information about Dylan (past or present) to share with me at least once a week. That being said, I'm a huge admirer of not only Dylan's musical output, but also the way he's lived his life and managed (or mis-managed) his career, constantly doing, in some cases, the exact opposite of what was expected of him. He seemed to hope that his fans would follow him, but in the end, I don't think it mattered to him one way or the other. The simple fact is that no matter how much Dylan knowledge you have going into Todd Haynes' masterpiece I'm Not There, I promise that you have never seen a musical biography (or any biography) quite like this one.

You don't need an encyclopedic understanding of Dylan to appreciate this film, but if you happen to have one, you'll love it even more. Haynes' approach makes Dylan's life make more sense and possibly even helps decipher some of the man's stranger directional shifts. For once, the born-again Christian era in Dylan's path seems less like a lark and more like necessity. If you've heard anything about this film before today, you probably know that six different actors play the many faces and phases of Bob Dylan. In one of Haynes' inspired choices, none of these six versions of Dylan are called "Bob Dylan." This opens the gates for Haynes to get creative with the biographical details, while still sticking close to the facts.

The actor getting the most attention for playing Dylan in this film is Cate Blanchett, and if you see her career-defining performance, you'll understand why. She's simply becomes the man in black-and-white footage covering the era popularized by the documentary Don't Look Back. This was a time when Dylan put himself before the world press and was the definition of confrontational. Blanchett also gets to play the legendary moment when Dylan played electric with The Band in front of a hostile crowd in London. Haynes painstakingly re-creates this moment in music history, and we feel the audience's resentment in our bones. Personally, I was particularly moved by Christian Bale's portrait of two phases of Dylan: the young troubadour first coming to New York and the born-again man who attended small church services and performed to small groups of the faithful. It's a moving moment when he plays before these people as a humble man delivering a simple message in song of survival and overcoming obstacles.

Heath Ledger plays Dylan as if his career choice changed from musician to actor. This Dylan is the consummate Hollywood asshole, who meets a remarkable woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and breaks her heart. Richard Gere plays the toughest Dylan to pin down. Taking on the persona of an over-the-hill Billy the Kid hiding from Pat Garrett, Gere's version of Dylan seems to represent the recluse, the man in self-imposed exile. Some might consider him the Dylan of today. Some of what Haynes gives us is fact, and some draws from the mythology that has formed around the Dylan legend over the decades. His meeting with Woody Guthrie, pissing off Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival by going electric, his first meeting with the Beatles and with Andy Warhol's factory crew (especially with an Edie Sedgwick-like party girl played by Michelle Williams). And trust me when I say, you haven't met Allen Ginsberg until you've seen him played by David Cross.

Haynes also borrows his visual cues from the films of the various eras he's portraying. Some of this footage is made to look like a documentary about Dylan, some borrows from D.A. Pennebaker's footage in Don't Look Back, some looks like a classic '70s Western, and it all looks fantastic. I haven't met a Todd Haynes film I didn't like, from his unauthorized biography of Karen Carpenter told with Barbie dolls (Superstar) to Safe with Julianne Moore (who appears briefly in I'm Not There) to Velvet Goldmine to his devastating last film, Far From Heaven. Haynes has a gift for peeling back the fiction to show you the truth, but he also loves adding layers to the legend in an effort to provide insight and clarity. I haven't even mentioned the remarkable music choices he draws from, not the usual collection of familiar Dylan tunes, but an array of largely lesser-known works that enhance the stories being told.

I'm Not There is clearly a labor of love, but it is also an essential example of how to tell an artist's story without limiting yourself to one aspect of his or her career. To use recent examples, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles both had many phases and musical directions in their long careers. So why didn't their biopics show us that? Probably because the filmmakers thought the task too daunting. Haynes shows that it's possible by simply getting creative and possibly a little obsessive about your subject matter. I've said it a couple times recently, and I'm sure I'll say it again before the year is out, but this is one of my favorite films of the year. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with I'm Not There director Todd Haynes visit Ain't It Cool News.

Margot at the Wedding

You either dig writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) or you don't. I guess I was unaware of this dividing line in the critical universe, but I've recently discovered that it does exist. And it goes beyond liking or disliking the cruel nature of some of his characters. Let's face it, it's tough to believe anyone would "like" the parental figures in Squid no matter how much you admired the brutal honesty of the screenplay. But some people even go so far to attack Baumbach's visual style. I've seen it described as "muddy." Maybe there was something on the lens at that particular screening. And while I can't recall any camera tricks or spectacular visual flare that Baumbach has enriched his films with, I never really missed those touches since including them would have made no sense in the stories he was trying to tell.

What I do remember about his films is terrific acting, fiery dialog that makes nearly every scene an exercise in tension, frustration and angst. I remember when I reviewed Squid, I made it very clear that the nature of the story may make watching the film a really uncomfortable experience for some, and the same holds true for his latest work, Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach again tackles the subject of marriages (both ones about to be sealed and those coming apart at the seams), family and the nature of being a misunderstood artist. I can hear the collective cries of self-indulgence now, but Baumbach learned a thing or two about transitioning from relative obscurity to fame thanks to his last film, and he has a few things to say about that through the character of Margot (Nicole Kidman), a writer who is often accused of being autobiographical (she denies it).

Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are in Long Island (although I'm not sure the location is ever specifically named) to attend the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the unemployed artist Malcolm (Jack Black in a surprisingly strong dramatic turn, which is not to say the man doesn't make us laugh at times). What's odd is that Margot has left behind her husband and other son back in New York City, which immediately indicates something is amiss. But to Pauline, it also means that once again Margot is going to turn all the attention to herself. Margot is a difficult lady to like, and that's alright with Baumbach. Not only is she a spotlight hog, but she actively plants seeds of doubt and dissent in the minds of everyone she comes into contact with. She thinks Malcolm isn't good enough to Pauline, and she quietly lets slip to Malcolm that Pauline slept with a lot of men when she was younger. Secrets have no meaning in this family. Although the patriarch of the family is dead, there's a third sister and a mother (neither are ever seen) whose names are invoked often to put down people in their honor.

Margot is having an affair and has possibly left her husband for good. When he arrives on the scene (in a nice albeit brief turn from John Turturro), the tension is thick and miserable. All this being said, the film is also very funny at times, and not just because of Jack Black being on the case. Usually the laughs come thanks to Margot's appalling behavior. There's also a great sadness that runs through Margot at the Wedding that manifests itself through the children in the film. As in Squid, the children are treated as pawns, victims and obstacles. Is there any hope they can come out the other side unscathed? It doesn't seem so. Claude is a sweet kid, and we almost wonder if he'd be better off anywhere but with her. Baumbach isn't really interested in answering these questions, and that is sometimes frustrating. But overall the film maintains a subversive tone that I found unique and fascinating. It's like you're peering into the window of a very fucked up family, and feel a little bit better about your own hardships. It's entirely possible that Margot is just going to piss you off, but that may not be the worse thing. Baumbach may prefer getting a negative reaction out of an audience than getting no reaction at all. Enter at your own risk, but don't be surprised if you enjoy yourself more than you may be willing to admit. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with Margot at the Wedding director Noah Baumbach visit Ain't It Cool News.

Enchanted

I had a sneaking suspicion I'd dig Enchanted just from the trailer. I thought that if the filmmakers handled it right, the film could be a clever, funny look at how the idealistic world of fairy tales clashes with today's high divorce rate, rampant cynicism, feminism and plastic surgery used to achieve ideal beauty. The good news is that the film gets most of it right thanks to a little spitfire of an acting goddess named Amy Adams as a would-be princess named Giselle.

Giselle is every beautiful Disney heroine rolled into one. Her story incorporates bits from Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and a whole lot of Cinderella. She can talk to her woodland animal friends, an evil queen is out to kill her, and her prince (the appropriately full-of-himself James Marsden) is on the way to save and marry her. But the biggest thing that makes Giselle fit right in with her beloved Disney peers is that she's animated, at least at first. After being rescued by Prince Edward from a horrible troll, Giselle prepares for her wedding day, when an old hag (Susan Sarandon's evil Queen Narissa, who just happens to be Edward's stepmother) pushes her into a magic well. Giselle pops out into a place where "no one lives happily ever after," according to Narissa: New York City, right in the middle of Times Square. Talk about Disney-fication. She's also gone from being animated to very much human, still in her puffy wedding dress.

Confused and scared, Giselle is befriended by handsome divorce attorney Robert (Patrick Dempsy and his daughter Morgan, who knows almost immediately that there is a real life princess in their midst). Robert just thinks she's weird but sweet and full of romance and hope. What follows is what you'd expect. Giselle shows Robert how to let love into his heart, while he teaches her how to survive in the cold, cruel world. The problem with their romance is that he's got a lovely girlfriend (Idina Menzel) and Prince Edward follows Giselle down the well to save her. Significant others are such a drag.

Adams (so good in Junebug, Talladega Nights and a couple of great appearances on "The Office") so completely sells her character, it's kind of unfair to the other actors. She doesn't hesitate to break into song (a couple of fairly catchy ones from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz populate this movie) or call New York's own special brand of woodland creatures to help in her time of need. Almost as good, and maybe a bit funnier, is Marsden, who marches through the Big Apple like he owns the place, drawing his sword on anyone or anything that looks like a threat. Between winning turns in Enchanted and Hairspray, Marsden has really shown me he's a formidable comic and musical force. Timothy Spall is on hand as the queen's suitor and reluctant partner in crime. I'll admit, it's a bit weird that Menzel is in a movie featuring musical numbers in which she doesn't get to sing. But I find her wildly beautiful, so who cares?

Director Kevin Lima hasn't exactly dazzled me with his previous film work — 102 Dalmatians and the animated Tarzan — but he's taken the tired conventions of some of the less inspired animated works throughout history and turned them into something fresh and entertaining. Screenwriter Bill Kelly (Blast from the Past and Premonition) has studied these films and dissected them in a fascinating way. You may think I'm overstating things a bit, and I'll admit the final confrontation between the Queen and the good people of New York is totally unnecessary and bloated, but most of Enchanted is right on the money. Certainly the swooning, oooing and aahhhing chorus of 13-year-old girls in my audience thought this was a real winner. And for a brief time, my inner 13-year-old girl thought so, too.


Hitman

Based on the hugely successful video game (which are always a great source for movie material, right?), Hitman is a shoot-'em-up/blow-'em-up film of the mightiest magnitude set in a kill-first, ask-questions-later world where every woman is dressed in nothing or next to nothing and every man carries a bigger gun than the last. Lots of over-compensating going on here, folks. Timothy Olyphant of "Deadwood" stars as Agent 47, bred from birth to kill without mercy or emotion. But for some reason, when we meet him during the assassination of the Russian president (played by Danish superstar Ulrich Thomsen), he is suddenly beginning to doubt his line of work. The triggering event in this sudden burst of guilt is a Russian whore (isn't it always?) whom Thomsen used and abused on a regular basis before his apparent death. Only thing is, the man didn't stay dead, and Agent 47 sets out to uncover how the man escaped the bullet that apparently hit him dead in the nasal passages.

The lovely Olga Kurylendo (who recently had a small role in Paris, je t'aime) is the Russian whore who struggles throughout the film to both stay alive and keep her clothes on. In addition to Olyphant, who offers up a sometimes laughable dead-pan delivery, a host of other actors known for television work populate Hitman, including Dougray Scott (of "Desperate Housewives" fame), Robert Knepper ("Prison Break's" T-Bag) and Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond on "Lost"). Everyone does the best they can with this limited material, and some of the elaborate gun battles are extremely well done by French director Xavier Gens. But I know that there's supposed to be a great deal of religious iconography and allusions to this story, and either the filmmakers or distributors kind of pussy out with the sinner/saint aspects of Agent 47's character.

There are a couple of tasty fight scenes here as well. I particularly liked the sword fight sequence set on and under the platform of a train station, in which a small army of other agents like 47 band together to take out the now-rogue killer. But the story gets so bogged down in its own self-importance that I lost interest about half way through. Despite the video game origins of this film, there are a handful of better-than-expected performances in Hitman, particularly by Scott and Knepper, who puts on a convincing Russian accent. But the truth is I didn't care whether Agent 47 lived or died; and I don't care if he comes back for another film, which may be the greater crime, since he clearly could. Hitman is a slick, rousing and exceedingly violent work (all good things) that loses its steam thanks to a meandering, overly complicated screenplay. But if bombs, bullets and boobs are on your agenda for the holidays, you could do worse.


August Rush

Every fiber of my being is telling me not to write this review, but I must warn you all against seeing this god-awful live-action fairy tale that was bad enough to begin with, but then adds Robin Williams as a Fagin-like character who teaches street kids in New York City how to make a buck or two. The film wants so desperately for you to like its sappy, heart-warming tale of a young boy, who is also a musical protégé, and the well-meaning social worker, who never stops looking for the seemingly healthy white kid, that it will bury you in saccharin until it gets trapped in your throat and you choke and die.

A beautiful young cellist (Keri Russell, crashing down hard after her triumphant work in Waitress) meets a singer/songwriter on the verge of stardom (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She gets knocked up and her overprotective father (William Sadler, in case you don't get enough of him in The Mist) let's her believe her baby died in a car accident she's in. The boy grows up an orphan, but he possesses an extraordinary ability to hear music in everything. There are some atrocious scenes where the boy (played by Freddie Highmore) conducts the sounds around him as the wind blows and things rustle and clank together and he makes beautiful music. During this part of the film, I tore loose with a ripper of a fart, and it actually made the music (and the film) much more lovely.

Highmore runs away and lands in NYC, where he meets Wizard (Williams, looking a hell of a lot like Bono in a cowboy hat and extreme sideburns), who names the boy August Rush and forces him to play guitar in the park for money. Because the script demands it, a social worker (Terrence Howard) finds out about the missing boy and sets out looking for him. In a wild coincidence, both of August's parents find out they have a child who lived and go looking for him. Meyers considers reforming his band; Russell thinks about taking up the cello again, and suddenly kittens and angels come falling from the fucking sky. OK, that last part didn't happen, but if it had, it wouldn't have seemed weird or out of place.

I suppose if I'd let myself simply view August Rush as a fable or loose interpretation of Oliver Twist, I may have enjoyed it a bit more, but I don't think so. The things that are supposed to dazzle me about this production seem overplayed and undercooked. More importantly, this movie is about people who play music, and I didn't find the music in any way interesting or original. What disappointed me most about August Rush is that it was directed by Kristen Sheridan, whose previous film, the demented Disco Pigs, marked the first time I ever saw Cillian Murphy on screen. This new film is so bland and absent the sense of wonder required in such a story that I was left utterly uninspired. Highmore walking wide-eyed through this film does not cover it or inspire any sense of splendor. This move is a colossal failure that will likely bore you or at least want to cover your ears and take a nap. Zzzzzzzzzzz.


Lynch

There are rumors that David Lynch had a hand in directing this documentary about him. I seriously doubt that's true, but at the same time I never got the sense that the people who made Lynch (direction is attributed to "blackANDwhite") were strangers invading Lynch's life at a time when he was making his most recent feature, Inland Empire. Whoever made this little slice of heaven doesn't bother to explore much of what Lynch created before the two-year journey spent with him to make this film. The filmmakers want to capture the David Lynch of today: the artist, movie maker, photographer, carpenter, taskmaster and perfectionist. What the film also reveals about this one-time boy from Montana is that he is a gifted orator. This dude spins a yarn like no one else, and every story has a lesson or a punchline or both, and when the filmmakers simply plant their DV camera and let him talk, I leaned forward to listen.

Of course it's exciting to watch a master at work. We see him recording messages for his website, preparing to make his movie, photographing rundown factories (a particular passion), building props and such in his woodworking room and talking to actors about their characters and next scenes. It's fascinating to watch the level of detail he gives each performer, even non-actors, about motivation and inner turmoil. You hear about directors who concentrate more on visuals than actors, but Lynch manages to control both with razor-like precision.

The one thing the filmmakers don't do is portray Lynch as weird or eccentric. The more we get to know him, the more we realize he's just a perfectionist and gifted visual creator. They don't shy away from showing Lynch as a bit of an asshole to his support staff, but most of them react as if this is par for the course during the making of a movie. "What a heavy load Einstein must have had. Fucking morons everywhere!" Lynch bellows at one point before busting out in laughter. Nothing sums up his attitude any better. There's another sequence with Lynch on the phone with a potential creative partner, but it seems Lynch is frustrated with his lack of commitment to whatever project they're working on together. It almost sounds like he's breaking up the arrangement. It's a perfect fly-on-the-wall moment that is unbelievably uncomfortable to observe. People unfamiliar with Lynch's vast creative outlets probably aren't going to get as much out of this film, but for those of you with a mild case of Lynch obsession (which I have myself), you'll love this brief glimpse into his inner world, which isn't nearly as dark or mysterious as you might think. In fact, it kind of looks like fun. Above all else, Lynch and Lynch are fun. It opens today for a week-long 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 steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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