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Sunday, May 26

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The Notorious Bettie Page
Much like its real-life subject, The Notorious Bettie Page only wants us to remember the legendary '50s pin-up girl in her prime: the innocent smile that lights up every photo, the severe bangs of jet-black hair, the alabaster skin and dangerous curves that seemed to make every stitch of clothing defy gravity. The film ignores as many pieces of Page's very filmable biography as it includes. Her supposed time spent in a mental hospital after her pin-up years is not here; in fact, any trace of her life past her 30s is non-existent. And I believe that's exactly how Ms. Page wants it.

Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and co-writer Guinevere Turner (the two co-wrote the adaptation of American Psycho with Harron directing) scratches the surface of most of the major events in Page's early years, but still manages to pull together a compelling and surprisingly moving work about a humble and sweet woman constantly struggling to balance her two greatest passions: her Christian faith and her need to please everyone, including millions of American men who wanted to see her in various stages of undress.

No one on the planet could play Bettie like Gretchen Mol, whose days of virtual anonymity in small roles in even smaller films should be over right about now. I'll even go so far as to say that Mol is more beautiful and appealing than the real Bettie Page. She plays Bettie as the quintessential charming, polite, Southern girl from Nashville. Unfortunately, Bettie's early years included an abusive family, possessive husband and gang sexual assault. Bettie moved to New York to act (her scenes in acting class with a teacher played by Austin Pendleton are painful), but her good looks and nice figure got her more modeling jobs than stage work.

Bettie's progression from swimsuits and lingerie photos to nudity and bondage movies is shrewd and seductive. The always-great Lili Taylor plays Paula Klaw, who, with husband Irving (Chris Bauer), booked most of Bettie most famous work and oversaw some of her more bizarre fetish clients. The couple's relationship with Bettie is almost parental, and since the actress in Bettie always sees these twisted photo shoots as just dress up and play acting, she easily talks her way out of feeling guilty or dirty. Her process of justification is fascinating. When one photographer asks her to go from topless to fully nude for the first time, she shrugs and decides there's no real difference.

Unfortunately, Page's powers of reasoning weren't equaled by our lawmakers, as her bondage photos ended up being the centerpiece of a Senate subcommittee investigation into (of all things) the causes of juvenile delinquency, led by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn). Most of the film is told in flashback as Page sits in the hallway outside the hearing room waiting to be called in a below-the-knee skirt and white gloves. Harron wisely chooses to make her film black and white, with a few glimpses of color when Bettie vacations in Florida and poses for legendary pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). The look, music and atmosphere The Notorious Bettie Page captures is both the ultra-hip and slightly seedy side of Bettie and her associates. But it's the film's final and simplest act that gets to the heart of the woman as Bettie begins to feel the strong pull of religion and finds it impossible to be both Madonna and whore (in her mind and the mind of the church).

The fact that the film leaves you wanting to know more is not a sign that it's incomplete but that it's so well made. Bettie's life is such a curiosity that a second movie could be made that picks up right where this one leaves off. I'd be just as interested to know about a woman who no longer takes her clothes off as I was to learn about one who did. Despite the legion of colorful characters, Gretchen Mol walks away with this film on her brassiere-strapped shoulders and wins our hearts in the process. If The Notorious Bettie Page had been released late last year, Mol would have been a lock for an Oscar nomination. Go to the film for the T&A, but stay for the gripping study of a divided woman who managed both sinner and saint quite nicely.


Kinky Boots
In just four short years, I have seen Chiwetel Ejiofor do some fine work in a half-dozen really good/great films, including Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually, Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, Serenity and most recently as Denzel Washington's partner in Spike Lee's Inside Man. (He's also got Children of Men coming out in September, co-starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore; the guy keeps good company.) He's a good-looking, well-built black man with a British accent. What else could be sexier? How about we put him in a dress? Ejiofor gives a rousing performance as transvestite/drag queen nightclub performer Lola (previously known as Simon) in the moderately entertaining Kinky Boots.

The billed "star" of the film is Joel Edgerton (the young Uncle Owen in the most recent Star Wars episodes), but the guy plays the character of shoe-factory owner (inheriting the family business after his father's death) Charlie Price, who will be forced to close the business if he can't find a way to make a lot of money fast. Ah, yes, the modern British comedy still has a little life in it thanks to the age-old tradition of putting a dude in a frock. With Lola's as his inspiration and designer, Charlie decides to make thigh-high boots for men who dress as women, boots that will hold the weight of a man in high, narrow heels.

Ejiofor certainly has plenty of opportunities to be ultra-flamboyant, but it's the moment when he dials it back and remembers his painful childhood that is the most remarkable. Nearly every scene without him is a dud, especially since the Charlie character is so limp. Even his semi-adulterous flirtation with employee Melanie (Linda Bassett) is boring. I did like the all-too-brief appearance by Shaun of the Dead star Nick Frost as the homophobic factory worker Don, who, shockingly enough, sheds a lifetime of prejudice in just a few weeks. It's that kind of movie.

The film's climactic scenes at a Milan shoe fashion show takes a very silly film and turns it stupid, but don't most of these types of comedies? Maybe if you know it's coming, it doesn't hurt as much. The sins of Kinky Boots are highly visible but mostly forgivable thanks to Ejiofor's spot-on performance as the only three-dimensional character in the movie. For those of you who long for gay-themed movies as fabulous as they used to make 'em, Kinky Boots is the one you've been waiting for. The film is opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Take My Eyes
Not that filmgoers need another example, but it takes a film like Spain's Take My Eyes to really show how watered-down many Hollywood "issue" movies are. The issue here is spousal abuse, and while Hollywood would attempt to shove down our throats the laughable Enough (starring Jennifer Lopez), in which the victim gets trained like Rambo to fight back against her abuser, the rest of the world is producing quality works like Take My Eyes from actress-turned-director Iciar Bollain. Take My Eyes is perhaps the most believable, harrowing account of a family fractured by the uncontrollable rage of a husband, who is not painted as a stock villain, but as a troubled man with a hair-trigger temper.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Take My Eyes is the way we do root for Antonio (Luis Tosar) to work out his issues and mend things with his family. This is not an easy task, especially after the film's opening when we meet his wife, Pilar (Laia Marull), as she is fleeing her home with as many personal possessions as she can fit into a couple suitcases and her young son, Juan. Antonio clearly prefers verbal bouts with Pilar, although that doesn't stop him from terrorizing her with physical threats and abuse on occasion. He is filled with unfounded jealousy and the belief that Pilar is on the verge of leaving him at all times. Pilar goes to live with her sister and her fiancée and sets out to establish her own life, including getting her own place and a job at the local art museum. Antonio stalks her not so discreetly and eventually gets a chance to talk to her. Not surprisingly, his endless apologies don't do much good, and he eventually falls back into his old ways of simply yelling at her.

Take My Eyes distinguishes itself by fleshing out the abusive Antonio, who recognizes his faults and makes a real effort to reform by going to anger management classes and seeing a therapist. A sizeable chunk of time is spent watching Antonio discussing the source of his emotions, insecurity and rage, and the therapist carefully breaks down each feeling and offers ways to deal with them. I don't remember ever seeing a film that took the time to show us this side of this usually very one-sided equation. Meanwhile, Pilar is getting stronger and more independent, and is given an opportunity at the museum to learn more about the exhibits and became a full-fledged tour guide.

I'm not ruining any surprises when I tell you the couple does get back together (that happens about halfway through the film) in the movie's most passionate scene. (The film's title comes from a type of mating ritual the couple goes through when having sex, during which they turn over each part of their body to the other person; sounds weird, I know, but it's extremely hot.) I was fascinated to watch how the two dance around each other at first. She is understandably nervous but still very much in love with the man. He is terrified that his months of analysis and training to control his temper will suddenly disappear. Oddly enough, the much wiser couple seems to be functional, much to the chagrin of her family (although her mother seems to come from the old school that believes you never break up a marriage even if a little smack every so often is part of the package).

The film's final act (which I won't ruin) is what takes it from being a good movie to a masterpiece. By this point, you are as invested in this couple as you might be in your own relationship. You have perhaps given more time and thought into their troubles and reconciliation than you might your own. Take Your Eyes delivers such an emotional blow in its final scenes that you forget to breathe, and the after effects of experiencing the film are lasting. Director and co-writer (along with Alicia Luna) Bollain has helmed about a half-dozen films since 1992, and I'd be very curious to see if they are all as astute and powerful as this one.

The film features flawless performances by the entire cast, especially Marull, who spends most of the movie on an emotional high wire between desperately fragile and a flawed approximation of strong. It's the film's most difficult role because she makes as many good decisions as grossly unwise, and we see Pilar deliberately put herself in situations with Antonio that we believe will get her hurt again. This heart-felt tug-of-war is a common theme in abusive relationships and of this magnificent film. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


When Do We Eat?
Oh, man, is this one weak. What terrors hath My Big Fat Greek Wedding brought upon us? The age of the ethnic family comedy is fizzling out, and what remains is unsightly afterbirth like When Do We Eat?, which drops us into the middle of a Jewish family's Passover seder done up extra-kosher because one of the sons has gone ultra-orthodox. His mother (Leslie Ann Warren) is determined to make this the best Passover ever to make up for a self-imploding one three years earlier, the last time the entire family attempted to have seder together.

The caricature of a father (Michael Lerner) runs a successful business making Christmas ornaments (grown folks call his irony), much to the embarrassment of his fleet of dysfunctional children. In addition to the rabbi-in-training, one daughter is a sex surrogate, one is a lesbian (who brings her girlfriend to the dinner), one son is a druggie/slacker (at one point during the film, he drops a hit of Ecstasy in his father's medicine), and one son may be autistic. And there's a half-sister, the product of the father's first marriage, and a sexy female cousin who can't stop hitting on the orthodox son. And just because we need someone with a funny accent, there's an Israeli workman who sets up the tent in the backyard for the seder.

Shockingly enough, none of this movie is funny, but When Do We Eat? isn't just about the laughs, oh no. It actually attempts to be poignant about Jewish tradition and history. But the lame stabs at humor here completely undercut any right this film has to try and be serious. The gravely voiced Jack Klugman (still recovering from his throat cancer surgery, I guess) plays Lerner's Holocaust survivor father, who refuses to let go of the past. Every time he opens his mouth about how Nazis are right around the corner waiting to rise up and start all over again (the man still carries around a packed suitcase, ready to go into hiding at a moment's notice), I wanted to run to the projection room and rip the film right off the reels. And don't even get me started on Lerner tripping out and visualizing all sorts of wacky things at his table…like Moses! Grrrrr. At its worst this watered-down attempt to be respectful and celebratory ends up being a mockery of everything beautiful and poetic about the Jewish religion; at best, it's just an outright shitty movie. I don't care that a group of like-minded Jewish men and women made this film, because it comes across as flippant and ridiculous by anyone's definition. Still want to see it? The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place theatres in Highland Park.

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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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