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Friday, December 13

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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon

Somewhere buried deep beneath the vapid pit that is the third film of The Mummy franchise is a somewhat interesting tale about the evil Emperor Han (Jet Li) who threatens to become immortal and take over the world with his massive army. The beautiful conjurer Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), not trusting the emperor, puts a curse on him that renders him and his army into statue-like creatures who are eventually buried in a tomb for centuries. In fact, whenever Yeoh and Li are on screen together, there's still a touch of the old Hong Kong magic left in them and between them. (The pair last shared the screen in the wildly impressive Tai Chi Master, which was just re-released on DVD.)

But then we have to deal with Brendan Fraser, returning as the wisecracking adventurer Rick O'Connell, and a British accented Maria Bello playing his wife, Evelyn (a part Rachel Weisz played in the first two films). John Hannah's Jonathan eventually appears, and no one will care. As for new characters, we get the grown-up version of Rick and Evenyn's son Alex (Luke Ford), who has secretly dropped out of school to move to China and find the remains of the tomb of the evil emperor and his army. Mom and Dad are recruited out of retirement to take a priceless gem to China as a gift to the government, but shockingly enough the big old rock pulls the older and younger generations into an overly complex series of adventures and bullshit mythology involving a trek into the Himalayas, a few Yeti monsters, the lost city of Shangri-La and a fountain that gives one who submerges himself into it eternal life. I love that Hong Kong legend Anthony Wong has been drafted to play a modern Chinese army general whose secret plan is to free the Emperor and his huge army. But having such a consummate professional in this film seem such as absolute waste of time.

Director Cohn (the craftsman responsible for The Fast and the Furious, XXX and Stealth) has an eye like Michael Bay and sometimes Bay's cinematic heart as well. And this third Mummy outing weirdly resembles the last film in that Jet Li (like The Rock before him) barely appears in the film at all. He's in the very beginning and at the very end, but for the rest of the film he's some weird CGI version of himself that could have very easily been a motion-capture version of just about any actor. It feels like a bit of a rip off. Isabella Long is on hand as Yeoh's daughter, who helps her make certain that the revived Emperor Han does not succeed to achieving full immortality.

Most of the special effects in this film look horribly fake. The Yeti, in particular, are pathetic, while the revived army look slightly better since they are only meant to look like terra cotta figures. I did sort of appreciate the look of the second army that Yeoh brings to life, made up of the dead bodies of the men who helped build the Great Wall and were buried under it when they died or became useless.

My biggest problem with Tomb of the Dragon is the same problem I had with the National Treasure films: the action is so-so and the problem-solving methods employed here are non-existent. Right when a moment where brains could be called into play occurs, one of the characters just happens to have the answer or a new character is introduced who has the answer. There are no brains behind this movie or its plot at all. Also Cohen shoots many of his action sequences, especially hand-to-hand combat, in close-up, thus denying us the pleasure of watching an actual fight sequence. Any scene that contains large doses of fakery, he pulls the camera back as if to admire his own visual effects. But when it's time to watch skilled fighters like Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh, the camera pulls in. Makes no damn sense. I was in a lot of pain watching this movie; it assaulted my cinematic sensibility at every turn and wasted some truly gifted performers, especially Yeoh, who has become as good an actor in recent years as she was a fighter and stunt performer in years past. Not a shocker that the movie's no damn good, but my hopes were elevated due to the Hong Kong elements. I've learned my lesson.

Swing Vote

I'm about 75 percent sure there's a message buried in this latest Kevin Costner vehicle, Swing Vote, and I could even venture a couple of guesses as to what that message is. But I'll be damned if director Joshua Michael Stern (who also co-wrote with Jason Richman) makes it easy to figure out what that message is. This could be the first-ever, two-hour infomercial attempting to convince Americans to vote, and while that's an admirable goal, I think I'd get just as much out of a 30-second Rock the Vote PSA hosted by Diddy. The film's not-so-subtle and yet utterly vague themes are lost amid a sea of plain-old ham-handed filmmaking that is trying to go for a Frank Capra vibe but instead feels like bad melodrama with nearly all the actors overplaying their parts.

Costner plays Bud Johnson, a New Mexico hick, who works in a egg-processing plant, spends most of his nights drinking away the little money he has and largely ignores the care and well-being of his 12-year-old daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll). On election day, Bud promises Molly he'll vote, but after getting laid off from his job, Bud goes on a bender, bumps his head on the way to the polling place and sleeps through the process. Waiting for him at the polling place, Molly takes advantage of a sleeping election official and begins to cast her dad's vote for her, but just as she's about to vote for the president, the power goes out in her electronic voting machine and her vote is never cast. Turns out that this particular election (between candidates played by Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper) is so close that the entire determination of who gets New Mexico's five electoral votes (and thus the entire election) comes down to Bud's vote. The course of American history comes down to an apathetic man who never actually voted in the first place.

I'll give the film some credit: it doesn't rely on actors delivering fake national news reports to track this story. All networks and cable news channels are represented here with their real anchors and political analysts. Even Bill Maher sipped a little bit of the Kool-Aid that this film had an important vision to fulfill. The only actor playing a reporter is Paul Patton as a local New Mexico TV journalist who discovers the identity of the state's single swing voter and becomes friendly with the family.

Both candidates take private meetings with Bud, while the men running their campaigns (Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci) scheme to figure out what it will take to get this one man's vote. The result is some fairly amusing political TV spots that might be the only thing in this movie that made me laugh (Hopper has an anti-abortion commercial that must be seen to be believed). But in the end, it's young Molly who acts as Bud's moral compass as she goes through hundreds of letters from struggling U.S. citizens just like Bud who simply want their individual voices to be heard.

The obvious message here is that every vote counts. I'm not sure Swing Vote makes me believe that now any more than I did after the Florida recount in 2000. The film might also be making the case that even the dumbest voter still has the right and responsibility to do his or her duty. I think even the dumbest voter can figure that out without sitting through this movie. The film takes a weirdly and tonally jarring serious shift in the final 20 minutes or so culminating in a speech by Costner that seems to have been crafted by someone far more intelligent than any character racing around this movie. Like all modern celebrities, Bud falls out of favor with the American people as quickly as he became famous. But by that point in the story, I'd so completely lost interest in this terrible parent and uninspiring American.

An out-of-left-field subplot involving Molly's absent mother goes nowhere and should have been the first thing cut from this film in desperate need of editing. On his worst day, I consider Kevin Costner a great actor; I truly do. But he's not even trying here. Does he think that wearing a baseball cap and letting his hair look messy somehow constitutes solid acting? His character goes from potentially endearing to annoying without too much effort. The film has about as much political kick as Robin Williams' Man of the Year from two years ago, but at least that film had Christopher Walken to keep me amused. In the end, I can't say there's anything humorous or compelling enough about Swing Vote to recommend you go and see it.

American Teen

High-profile documentaries tend to vanish from the radar during the summer, but this year I feel like I've been seeing at least one new one every week. That said, last May I got my first look at a doc that has been wowing audiences young and old since Sundance. And now, just as the new school year is about to begin, my favorite documentary of the summer is finally hitting theaters. Director Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes; The Kid Stays in the Picture) has crafted a look at a year in the life of five high school seniors (I believe the school they attend is in Indiana), each representing a different stratum of the teen experience. The resulting film is one of the most fascinating and honest portraits of life in and out of school with all the requisite pressures, heartbreaks, petty conflicts and rivalries that often define the adults we become.

Although each of the five kids profiled is interesting in their own way, the audience favorite seems to be lovely and spirited Hannah Bailey, clearly destined for things outside of her small Indiana town. Hannah is something of an outcast, who spends much of the first half of the film in a deep depression when her long-time boyfriend unceremoniously dumps her. After getting back into the flow of school after a long absence, Hannah swears off relationships until she meets the unfairly (to me) handsome Mitch, who just happens to be one of Burstein's five subjects. Mitch notices Hannah for the first time performing at a school talent show, and he sweeps her off her feet with an ease that will make every male in the audience envious. Mitch plays basketball with Colin, the team's star player whose Elvis impersonator father says that if Mitch doesn't get a college basketball scholarship (the family can't afford to send him to college), he'll probably end up going into the Army.

The fourth student subject is Megan, a driven, smart and popular girl who comes from money and has a mean streak when she feels someone has crossed her. An incident caught on camera that starts out as a simple toilet papering of a house and turns into vandalism as Megan scrawls "fag" on a window, gives us some insight into her troubled mind. Hannah may have been the girl I would have attempted to date in high school (and maybe even today…ahem), but Megan is the person most worthy of deep psychological examination. Without giving anything away here, director Burstein deliberately withholds some information about her past and upbringing that doesn't excuse her behavior but does go a long way toward explaining it. Most mean girls didn't start out that way.

The true outcast of the group (and the only student who doesn't really float in the circle that the other four do) is Jake, the grippingly introverted "geek" with bad skin, who is one of the funniest of the bunch, but who has very few social skills. He does manage to find a girlfriend at one point during the film, but she's someone new to the school, and once she makes new and less awkward friends, she cuts Jake loose with little fanfare.

Burstein isn't necessarily attempting to capture every cross section of this or any public high school (the fact that there are two jocks in her cast is evidence enough of that), but she still manages to avoid trivializing the emotional ups and downs of teenagers. In our world of surface-level reality shows, it's genuinely refreshing to see a director attempt to capture not only the highs and lows of the high school experience, but also the everyday. Still, would it have killed the director to selected a handsome high school newspaper editor/film critic who longs for the day when he can move to a big city and guide the general public toward the best in cinema, and then marry his high school sweetheart, Hannah? Apparently such creatures only exist in fiction films—horror stories, in particular. The truest test of any film like American Teen is that I didn't want it to stop; I wanted to know where these lives went from here. We do get a short postscript about each subject at the end of the film, and the kids have spent a great deal of the summer touring the country in support of the film, so that fills in many of the gaps. But the truth is, I'd like to know where these five end up in 5 or 10 years, and that's simply because Burstein made me care about each one of these kids, who are both ordinary and extraordinary in so many ways. American Teen will capture a special place in your heart, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Baghead

This quirky, but remarkably effective little comedy-horror-masturbatory effort from the Duplass Brothers (who directed the equally quirky, but very entertaining The Puffy Chair) is better the less you know about it going in. It involves a couple of struggling actors who run into an old friend at a film festival who has managed to get his horribly arty film into said festival and thinks he's hot shit as a result. The two men decide they could probably make a better film and decide to hole up (with a couple of female pals, also actors) in a cabin in the woods for the weekend and bang out a solid script. Writing falls by the wayside the more group drinks, but they still manage to come up with ideas for a movie, including a promising plot about a bunch of people in the woods writing a screenplay who are terrorized by a serial killer who wears a ratty bag on his head. As the film progresses, it seems less and less likely a script is coming out of this experience, especially when people start disappearing and seeing strange figures in the shadowy woods.

Baghead plays with the conventions of horror and does so with a knowing affection for the dreams of out-of-work actors. The film begins as a funny look at pretentious festival crowds and filmmakers, and morphs into something quite different (albeit somewhat expected). I may be wrong on this, but I almost can envision this film getting written in a manner not unlike the one portrayed in the plot. The story unfolds almost reluctantly. We are invested in these characters and their drunken, bed-hopping exploits. Their attempts to create anything of value are futile but absolutely funny, but the Duplass Brothers deliberately jerk us around and rip the story away from these fun-loving folks and launch it in a completely different stratosphere. Difficult to categorize or pigeonhole, Baghead is a genre unto itself and that's a rare and exciting thing. It's a small film, but it's one loaded with ambition and spirit, and that's something we don't get enough of from films of every-sized budget. If you want something strange and different (and enjoyable), give this film a shot. It opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley Theatre and the Cine Arts in Evanston.

Chris & Don: A Love Story

The Chris in Chris & Don: A Love Story is Christopher Isherwood, the British writer whose "Berlin Stories" was the basis for Cabaret. The well-respected writer was one of the few celebrities in Southern California to live an openly gay lifestyle at a time, especially in Hollywood, when such things were unheard of. Still, being openly gay meant that he was often the focal point for other gay notables (such as Tennessee Williams, Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden). But it was in 1950s Malibu where Isherwood met Don Bachardy, a young man 30 years his junior. The two fell instantly in love. With Chris long dead, this documentary chronicles their relationship and the times through the remembrances of Don, who eventually became a celebrated portrait artist who sketched and painted many of Hollywood's royalty during the course of their 30-year relationship.

Don has a bit of flare to his storytelling that makes listening to him as our narrator a real treat. Lest we think that we're only getting one side of the story, we also hear extended passages from Chris's diaries that both verify what Don is telling us and further expand on the depth of their love for one another. Other than self-made dramas in their relationship, Chris & Don isn't about gay love in a judgmental world. They always seemed to know exactly where to live and vacation where accepting people would surround them, so there isn't that type of tension in their story. Having Don guide us through his story allows us to see how Chris's intellectual friends largely dismissed him as a pretty boy toy. His introduction to painting was largely the result of his trying to be taken seriously as a person.

Some of the most revealing portions of the film come forth when we hear the letters between the two, which were often accompanied by rough drawings of an old horse (Chris's nickname) and a cat (Don). The most chilling portion of the film comes as Chris is dying, while Don continues to sketch him, even long after he passes away. Watching Don dig through those intimate portraits is almost unbearable while still hauntingly beautiful. Chris & Don: A Love Story probably won't rock your world as either a documentary or a love story, and I don't think that's the intention. This is a gentle and quiet work that would seem to pay the ultimate tribute to a couple who never hid their feelings for each other from the world but never felt the need to throw it in anybody's face either. The film is simply made and their story is simply told. It's a lovely work about a couple that would have been lovely to get to know. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Take

I'll admit, I'd kind of written off Minnie Driver. Most of her films were going straight to DVD, which I know isn't the death sentence it used to be, but still, that's where they were landing. But then I started watching FX's uneven, but always riveting show "The Riches," in which Driver played a Traveler mother who, along with her husband and kids, pretended to be another, much better off family. Not only did Driver look like a million bucks, but she was the most psychologically interesting character on the show. She was a recovering substance abuser, an ex-con and a woman racked with guilt about much of the wrong she'd done in her life. I'm mildly devastated the show isn't coming back for a third season. So when I got the chance to see the film Take, the first film I've seen with Driver in it since "The Riches" went on the air, my interest level was high.

As Ana, Driver again plays a mentally complicated woman who has had some unspeakable trauma in her life. The film jumps back and forth between Ana on a long car ride with her young son to an unknown destination and the events leading up to said trauma, which somehow involves a low-life named Saul (played by Jeremy Renner from North Country, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 28 Weeks Later). As the film progresses, small details are revealed. We see Saul in jail; we realize that Ana is going to be testifying against him, possibly at his parole hearing; we slowly question why Ana doesn't seem too concerned that her little boy is playing in the backseat of their car without his seatbelt on. The intensity in her eyes throughout this story is terrifying.

Take is so wrapped up in its own psycho-drama and with keeping us in the dark that it sometimes seems a bit too clever and relentless for its own good. But Driver and Remmer kept me curious and engaged throughout. I hope casting types and directors notice that Driver is back in form, perhaps better than she's ever been these days, and Take is proof of this. Director Charles Oliver maintains an anxious tone throughout, as if the entire film is leading to some catastrophic moment that is almost too horrible to contemplate; in many ways, I guess that's true. It didn't take me long to figure out the film's big secrets, but that doesn't stop the events from crushing you little by little as they unfold and eventually explode. I found the film hypnotic in many ways; some of you may find it sleep-inducing, since it moves at a deliberate pace from frame one. Still, at its core, Take delivers on the strength of its lead actors, and sometimes that's all I need. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement 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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