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Tuesday, December 12

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Airbags

Good day, everyone. First up, a little horror offering called Dead Silence was kept from critics this week. Take that for what it's worth, but I was actually looking forward to seeing it since it comes from most of the major behind-the-scenes players who made the first Saw film. Second, if you'd like to see a free screening of the film Hot Fuzz (from the director and stars of Shaun of the Dead), click here for details.

That's all for the preliminaries. There's a lot going on this week, including Installment Three of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival coverage at the end of the column. Enjoy.

The Namesake

In recent years, films about non-white, non-American families have typically featured watered-down relationships that emphasize the generational gaps between young and old, those wanting to hold onto traditional ways and those wanted to break free and fit in with the modern (usually American) world. My Big Fat Greek Wedding took a comic approach to this conflict; Bend It Like Beckham took the subject more seriously; director Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding dealt honestly with younger generations' feelings of guilt at disappointing their elders while still remaining deeply committed to escaping the cultural fray that has held them prisoner throughout their youth. Using as her source material the bestseller by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair once again travels through these waters with The Namesake, a two-tiered look at the generation gap in an Indian family living in America.

While the ads for The Namesake would lead you to believe this is the story of Gogol (in a nice dramatic turn by Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame) growing up in a culture clash world, with his traditional Indian parents household in the middle of New York City. In reality, the film is about Gogol's parents, whose lives we see from their arranged marriage in India until they grow old in America. This is their journey, and, unlike Gogol's, it's one we rarely see on film. While they would like their children to grow up respecting their cultural heritage, they are smart enough to realize that pushing the kids to be "more Indian" will not get the job done. The lovely Bollywood superstar Tabu plays the mother Ashima, while Irrfan Khan (who Nair discovered in her early film Salaam Bombay!) plays Ashoke, the father. These two exceptional actors have the toughest jobs in the film. Aside from aging many decades during the course of the plot, they must convey a mixture of fear, guilt, pride, confusion, and a sense of being overwhelming by the changing world around them. Their story and their faces tell this story more than anything else about the film.

Gogol's frustration is immense, and his desire to not be looked at as Indian in high school and college rules his life. Penn does a respectable job here as a young man being torn apart during his search for identity. It's going to be interesting from this point on to see what Penn does with his career, and seeing him successfully tackle such weighty material makes me hope that his days of Van Wilder and Epic Movie junk are behind him (although I am looking forward to the Harold & Kumar sequel).

The second half of The Namesake is devoted more to Gogol's journey. He begins a love affair with rich white American girl (Jacinda Barrett) and wants desperately to be accepted by her family, who are good to him, but never let an opportunity go by to remind him or anybody else that he's not exactly like them. But his relationships with Indian women (including the one he ends up marrying) don't work out much better. Gogol is in a perpetual process of trying on new cultural shoes to see which fit him best, and his struggle is understandable and sometimes painful.

As she consistently does in all her films (including Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra), director Nair has constructed an inviting story that opens our eyes to experiences that are happening all around us that we probably don't ever see or notice. She doesn't shy away from the realities and hardships of her subjects, but she never misses a chance to show us the beauty and grace in everyday events and ordinary people. The Namesake has no villains to dislike, and never blames anyone for the troubles this family goes through. Pretty much everyone in the movie is highly likable, and everything about the film is poignant and moving. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Read my exclusive interview with The Namesake director Mira Nair over at Ain't It Cool.

I Think I Love Me Wife

Someone call off the comedy hounds from Chris Rock's film career, at least for now. One of the great stand-up comics in history has finally made an R-rated comedy (not directed by Kevin Smith) that is worth his talents and our time. Loosely based on, of all things, French director Eric Rohmer's 1972 morality play Chloe in the Afternoon (the final part in Rohmer's six-film, self-described Moral Tales), I Think I Love Me Wife concerns successful investment banker Richard Cooper (Rock), who has a beautiful wife, Brenda (Gina Torres from Serenity) and two perfect children. He's also stupendously bored with his routine-driven, largely sexless life. Rock skillfully narrates Richard's pain and suffering as a man who knows he's got it good, but can't stop looking and fantasizing about every beautiful woman that crosses his path.

One day at the office, in walks Nikki (Kerry Washington of Last King of Scotland), the former girlfriend of one of Richard's college buddies. And while there's a great deal of flirting going on between the two, the end up managing to be just friends, taking long lunches, going out for drinks after work. But Nikki's presence in his life stirs up a hornet's nest of pent-up frustration. She reminds him how much fun he used to have when he was younger and single. Often, she's the little devil on his shoulder tempting him to a new club or urging him to blow off work, which results in problems on every front of his life. And as funny as Richard's observations on married life in are, co-writers Rock and his fellow comic and constant writing partner Louis C.K. bring together some astute and sometimes painful observations about temptation, male/female relationships and the workings of the male mind.

With the exception of his role in the Neil LaBute film Nurse Betty, Rock has never struck me as much of an actor, but here he is called upon to wear many hats. He's as believable as a dedicated father playing with his two young children as he is a sex-deprived married man seriously considering cheating on his wife. I also liked the way the women in Richard's life are portrayed. Brenda isn't a demanding harpy; she's a lovely woman who feels overworked and underappreciated. Even the temptress Nikki has some curious traits to her, and we are never meant to view her as evil or villainous. She's a 32-year-old woman working the club scene looking for a man like she did when she was 22, and the game has taken it's toll on her outlook on life.

I Think I Love My Wife succeeds because it treats its character like human beings and not simply the means to a punchline or stupid sight gag. This is not to say that the film avoids the occasional dip into lowbrow humor, but most of the story seems well realized and authentic. If I had one complaint, it could be that Steve Buscemi (as Richard's co-worker and emotional confidant) is completely underutilized here. Most of the time he's simply peering out of his office and into Richard's whenever Nikki shows up to visit. I felt in a film filled with such interesting characters, fleshing out the one played by the master Buscemi might not have been the worst idea. This is a minor glitch is what is a beautifully executed comic episode on the shiny things and lifestyles that seduce us. It's also extremely R-rated for language, with plenty of F-bombs and a healthy smattering of N-words for everybody to enjoy. I pray Chris Rock has spent a lot of time watching French films lately.

Premonition

Sandra Bullock is an odd bird. Just when you think she may be taking her acting seriously with impressive turns in films like Crash and Infamous, she makes her second film in a row that involves unexplained disruptions in the time-space continuum. What the fuck? And while I actually liked last year's The Lake House to some degree, simply because I thought the romance worked well enough to overshadow the whole letters-traveling-through-time nonsense. But her latest work, Premonition, uses the disruption of chronology to such an absurd degree that I literally felt like I was sitting through a screen-writing class full of fifth graders. There were at least seven times during the course of my watching this movie where I wanted to scream out, "Give me a break."

Let me attempt at explaining how this film works. A woman (Bullock) wakes up the morning her husband (Fantastic Four's Julian McMahon) is expected to return from an overnight business trip. She gets a visit from the local police, who tell her her husband was killed in a car crash the day before. She's stunned, mortified, not too happy, you get the idea. She wakes up the next morning, and guess what? Dead husband is eating breakfast in the kitchen, not so dead. She soon discovers that it's actually several days earlier than it was the day before. She assumes that the death scenario was an elaborate dream, until she wakes up the next day back in a world where her husband is dead, one of her young daughters is seriously injured, and her mother is staying in her house. In fact, her husband's funeral is that day. I say again, what the fuck?

I assume the fun of a film like Premonition is watching the heroine piece together the events leading up to her husband's death, and then seeing whether she does anything to try and stop it. Bullock discovers her husband may have been cheating on her, and this makes her wonder if she even should try and stop the accident. The frustrating thing about the film is that each time Bullock wakes up, we don't know where she'll be in time. It's not as simple as her going back and forth. Sometimes she goes back twice, or forward to a point where she is taken away to a mental hospital by a psychiatrist played by Peter Stormare. I was ticked off by this time-jumping device because it was confusing, but because I felt like I was getting jerked around by the filmmakers. Every character is only there to give Bullock enough information to put a little more of her puzzle together, so don't fool yourself into thinking character development plays any part in this film.

What's more troublesome is that Bullock doesn't actually do some really obvious things to stop her husband's accident or even just to change events she knows are going to happen. In one early scene, she looks through a phone book for a doctor's name. The page in the phone book is gone. She spots the missing page in a nearby trashcan. Later in the film, we see the events that led to her ripping out and throwing away that page. So why not change things? Why not leave the page in the phone book? Why not replace the page in the book, just to see if changing the future is possible? This is a small example, but Bullock is a walking self-fulfilling prophecy, so why put her (and us) through the paces of this story? German director Mennan Yapo certainly doesn't fail for trying, and Bullock does an adequate job acting crazy, but the whole mess feels like an exercise or workshop on just how wacky a script can get if you just wish it so. In the end, I didn't care whether the husband lived or died, and I was perfectly happy with Bullock in the loony bin. Blah!

Mafioso

This recently rediscovered 1962 lost minor masterpiece from director Alberto Lattuada is both sinister in its early portrait of old school organized crime and an absolute scream as a character-driven human comedy about a kind man who is pulled back into a lifestyle he idealized as a child. Alberto Sordi plays Antonio, a Fiat factory manager in Northern Italy who takes his wife and two small children to his hometown in Sicily to finally be reunited with his family and old friends. I'm not sure if Sordi's exuberance is being played for laughs, but somehow I don't think so. And it makes you realize that all of the wild gesturing and exaggerated speech patterns that have become almost stereotypical of Italian characters in film actually did come from somewhere.

Among the old friends Antonio visits is the neighborhood crime boss Don Vincenzo, who enlists Antonio for a "small job" that is disguised as a two-day hunting trip, so his family won't know what he's really up to. Of course, Antonio being so agreeable to whatever Vincenzo asks him to do, he doesn't actually understand what he's said yes to. Let's just say that his skills as a noted marksman will be put to the test.

Mafioso puts to the test and better demonstrates exactly what the purpose of these criminal groups were at the time in Italy, and how their purpose was altered and bastardized by Italian-Americans in later years (and Hollywood after that). The film is wildly entertaining and a real eye-opener for fans of old Italian cinema. The story never stops moving, and every performance is marvelous. I particularly liked Antonio's wife (played by Brazilian actress Norma Bengell), who doesn't understand these generations-old relationships and troubles in the rundown village. The film succeeds as both high art and lowbrow comedy, and is a wholly satisfying experience. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

European Union Film Festival

Adam's Apples

On the festival circuit for more than a year, this offering from Denmark is absolutely one of my favorites of the festival. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (writer of The King Is Alive, Open Hearts, Mifune and the recent Oscar-nominated After the Wedding, which is the EU Festival's Closing Night film) tells a uniquely amusing story of forgiveness under almost any circumstances. Recent Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen plays a small-town minister who takes on former convicts to work and live in his church. A new dweller named Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) comes the church, and he immediately begins trouble amid those living there. Adam, a skinhead and habitual instigator, starts fights with everyone, including the nerdy cleric, who takes his beatings and reacts as if they never happened. He was punched because God decided he needed to get punched, is his way of thinking. But as the film goes on, we learn things about the holy man's past that not only explain his behavior, but also make us concerned for his well-being and state of mind. Mikkelsen and Thomsen are extraordinary together as the yin and yang of human behavior. The story may be simple, but I never quite new where it was going to take me, and it was utterly fascinating to see what would happen next. Jensen has a gift for writing stories about unlike people put into situation where they are forced to live together. He examines the way people re-adjust their actions and reactions, and often shows us it's easier to get along with strangers than we would imagine. The film plays Saturday, March 17 at 3:30pm, and Tuesday, March 20 at 8:15pm.

Don't Tell

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars, this Italian work from director Cristina Comencini tells the tale of the crippling effects a woman's past has on her otherwise promising future. Giovanna Mezzogiorno (from the original Italian version of The Last Kiss) plays Sabina, a woman very happy in her marriage and her life until she begins have terrifying nightmares (or perhaps remembrances) of herself as a child. These visions are ill timed, since she has also recently discovered she's pregnant, and uses the baby as an excuse to stop being intimate with her husband. The truth is something about her nightmares is resulting in her not wanting to be touched by anyone. She seeks out her brother, a teacher in America, for clues as to something in their shared past that could account for her disturbances. I don't think anyone who's ever seen a film about child abuse is going to be particularly shocked by what Sabina uncovers and eventually remembers about her childhood, but that doesn't make the film any less unsettling. Even a subplot involving two of Sabina's closest friends (a middle-aged woman whose husband has just left her, and a blind lesbian) is interesting and ties in nicely to the main story. Overall, Don't Tell is a smart and respectful movie that gets to the core of what torments a person and what makes them whole again. The film plays Sunday, March 18 at 5:00pm, and Wednesday, March 21 at 6pm.

Klimt

Boy, did I dislike the pretentious, nonsensical drivel from the so-called legendary director Raul Ruiz (Time Regained, Genealogies of a Crime) about the life of artist Gustav Klimt (John Malkovich) circa turn-of-the-last-century Vienna. The screenplay seems to pride itself on incomprehensible ramblings that are meant to pass for high-concept versions of intellectual speak. Despite an impressive cast that features Saffron Burrows, Veronica Ferres, Stephen Dillaine and Nikolai Kinski (son and virtual lookalike of Klaus), the film never gets its footing in either the real world or something more surreal that might at least be excused as Ruiz attempting to show us the world through Klimt's warped mind and over-stimulated body. The cut shown at the festival will be Ruiz's international release cut, we're told, but I can't imagine that being enough to salvage this spastic bit of storytelling. The film screens on Sunday, March 18 at 3pm, and Thursday, March 22 at 6pm.

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

The title of this film is something of a misnomer, but it's catchy and it's something that will (and should) draw the crowds in to see this remarkably entertaining, insightful and often hilarious documentary about the hidden and not-so hidden sexual meanings in some of our favorite films. Although renowned structuralist Slavoj Zizek probably spends a little too much time focusing on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch (three perverts, to be sure), I loved watching him pick apart everything from the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin to The Matrix and Revenge of the Sith.

What makes his on-screen analysis all the more amusing is his (and director Sophie Fiennes, sister to Joseph and Ralph) choice to place himself in some of the actual locations where the scenes were shot — the hotel balcony from The Conversation, alongside the Golden Gate Bridge at the exact spot where Jimmy Stewart sees Kim Novak jump in Vertigo and, of course, throughout the Psycho house. Zizek doesn't look particularly comfortable in front of the camera, but at the same time, it's clear there's nowhere else he'd rather be. He has a heavy Eastern European accent and a slight lisp that makes his delivery priceless. But more than anything this three-part, two-and-a-half hour crash course in the under-language of the 43 films he spotlights is informative and will make you look at these (and probably most) films a little more closely from now on. It's an phenomenal achievement. The film plays on Saturday, March 17 at 7:30pm, and Wednesday, March 21 at 6:30pm.

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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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