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Thursday, December 12

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

Even though it's the holiday season that hasn't stopped the studios from being in a less-than-giving mood. For reasons I'm sure I can't fathom, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem did not screen for critics. What I find curious about this move is that the film actually looks like it has some potential. The trailers I've seen are fun and, when the first few minutes of the movie hit the internet recently, well, what I saw looked pretty cool. Go figure. There are plenty of other top-rate films to check out this long weekend, including a couple of these.


The Orphanage

Words can almost not express how impressed I was with this debut work from director Juan Antonio Bayona and first-time screenwriter Sergio Sanchez. But this undeniably fine pair has made a film that will not only hold up to repeat viewings; it demands that you see it more than once, because each time you watch it (I've now seen in three times), a new layer of the story reveals itself. The emotional depths The Orphanage is willing to go to are shocking for a film that some may see as nothing more than a ghost story, but this may be the most emotionally engaging thriller I've ever seen. And considering that title was once held by Pan's Labyrinth (at least in my mind), it should come as no surprise that that film's director, Guillermo del Toro, acts as a producer on the Spanish-language Orphanage.

Laura (played as an adult by Belén Rueda) grew up in a gothic orphanage, but rather than portray said dwelling as an awful place, it's clear the filmmakers want us to see how Laura truly loved living there as a young girl. The other children there were her only family, and when she gets older and has a husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep), she decides she wants to move back into the orphanage and turn it into a school for mentally handicapped children. Her memories of this slightly creepy place run deep, and soon Simon begins to have imaginary conversations with children who coincidentally have the same names as the small group of children Laura grew up with…and one, Tomas, whom she did not. Since Simon has had imaginary friends before, his parents don't take much note of this development, until these children start instructing Simon to do some bizarre and elaborate things. Things come to a head between Simon and Laura during a party she is throwing as an open house for the families of the children who may be coming to school there. During the party, Simon goes missing, and Laura's guilt is crushing.

Without giving away too much of the wonderful detail of The Orphanage, the story goes is some absolutely extraordinary directions. At one point, Laura is convinced that the ghosts of her childhood friends are still in the orphanage and calls in a team of scientists and a medium (played by the glorious Geraldine Chaplin) in what might be the single scariest sequence of the year. Actually, I lie. The scariest scene in the movie involves Laura re-enacting a game from her childhood. I could watch that scene 100 times, and it will still scare the freckles right off my arm.

And who is the old woman who stalks the orphanage grounds? And what is all that noise in the attic? And where does the mysterious door knob fit, and where does the door that it opens lead us? Ruéda is absolutely perfect in this part. She's stunning to look at, which makes her psychological breakdown all the more painful to witness. There were many times during the film that I thought every seemingly paranormal thing that was happening was all in her head. I'm not 100 percent convinced I'm wrong, and saying that doesn't ruin anything. It's all in her stellar performance.

The film's mix of melodrama and horror works so well that you wonder why more filmmakers aren't brave enough to try it more often. The tension that builds during the course of the movie is enough to make you want to yank your hair out, and I suspect you'll shed a tear or two as all of the story's mysteries are revealed and the lengths that Laura will go to in order to find out what exactly happened to her son are discovered. The Orphanage isn't particularly bloody or disgusting (aside from one fleeting glimpse of a body after a car accident), and it doesn't rely on cheap scares to earn its terrifying moments. This is a film that takes the time to engage us and fully develop its characters. Bayona and Sanchez understand that fundamental storytelling involves us getting to care about these characters so that when something good or bad happens to them, we are moved. Who would have guessed? The Orphanage concludes with an ending that you must keep secret and hold dear. When I realized where the climax was heading, I think I held my breath until it got there. I was quite simply unprepared, and yet Sanchez's screenplay does not rely on twist endings or outrageous devices. He simply follows the story to its inevitable, very natural conclusion. The film opens up new potentials for suspense-driven dramas, and makes for one of the most fulfilling experiences I had in a movie theater in 2007.

To read my interview with The Orphanage director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio Sanchez, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35141.


The Great Debaters

If there was an Oscar given out each year for noble causes, The Great Debaters would run away with it at next year's ceremony. I'm not saying it's not a decent film; it is. But the intention of this film is far more impressive than the finished product if only for one simple reason: the damn thing is just trying way too hard to make its point. I don't think there's a person in this nation or on this planet that will debate the fact that America has problems with race, and those problems were infinitely worse in 1935 Texas, which is where Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington, who also directed the film, his first behind the camera since he 2002 debut Antwone Fisher), a professor at Wiley College took his debate team places no blacks had ever gone: to debate for the national championship against students from Harvard.

There's an inherent drama in this story and in the lives of the kids who went through these events, but nearly every significant moment in this film feels false, even if it is 100 percent true. And worse than that, don't expect to learn anything about debating from The Great Debaters. In college, I used to judge debate, which is about research and formulating arguments and counter-arguments; it is rarely about strumming the judges' heartstrings. But nearly every debate shown in this film between Wiley College and a white school (including Harvard) seems to be won on presentation and not on the merits of any kind of actual debating skills. Granted most people going to see this film will not know this, and will probably enjoy the fine acting by the three young actors who make up the Wiley team, but this aspect really bugged me. If I told you that Oprah Winfrey was one of the film's producers, might that tip you in one direction or another about seeing this film? I thought it might.

The Great Debaters has more than a few great scenes in it, but many of the sequences involving the team coming into contact with racist Southerners feel overly familiar (I should probably thank John Heard, who plays a bigoted local sheriff, but that doesn't exactly feel right) with the exception of one horrifying moment when they drive right into the aftermath of a lynching and burning of a young black man. The impact this singular moment has on the team is irreversible. I was particularly impressed with the performance of Jurnee Smollett as the first female on the Wiley debate team. You may remember Smollett from her first high-profile film, 1997's Eve's Bayou, in which she played Eve. She's grown up not only to become a true beauty, but also an engaging and powerful actor. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Forest Whitaker is in this film as one of the team member's preacher father. He and Denzel only have maybe two scenes together, but they are terrific ones. It's hard to fathom that these two have never been in a film together before, but they make the most of their shared screen time. I think the biggest problem I had with The Great Debaters is that it seems no one was on hand to tell Washington when to dial it back as a director. It feels like everyone is yelling or crying or both. And while I applaud the film's desire to tell this story seemingly lost to the history books, I think this teacher, this school and this team deserve a more fitting and realistic portrayal of the way things happened. I can recommend certain aspects of this movie, but not the film as a whole.


The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

With no Narnia or Harry Potter tales to fulfill our burning need for (sort of) child-friendly entertainment this holiday season, we instead get the slightly safer though still mildly entertaining story of The Water Horse, a clever spin of the story behind the Loch Ness Monster. The story begins in the present day in a bar with Brian Cox telling a pair of young American tourists traveling through Scotland about the story behind the famous photo of Nessie. The tale he spins begins during World War II, when all seafront parts of the UK were fearful of German U-boats sneaking up on their shores. Young Angus (Alex Etel, the younger brother from Millions) finds a mysterious stone among the rocks near his beachfront home, where he lives with his sister and his mother (Emily Watson). His father had died in the war, but he doesn't know that because his mother can't bring herself to tell the kids. In the father's absence, Ben Chaplin's Lewis is brought in as a handyman. When the odd-looking stone turns out to be an oversized egg that hatches a small dinosaur-like creature, Angus does everything in his power to keep the little monster hidden from view while trying to keep the ravenous thing fed.

Eventually Angus finds he must confide in his sister and Lewis, who seems to think the creature (named Crusoe) is a water horse, a fabled creature so rare that only one of them can live on the earth at a time. As soon as one dies, the egg of another hatches (Lewis' explanation of how the water horse species reproduces is a bit awkward). When a group of British military show up at the family's doorstep with the intention of setting up a stronghold to protect the exposed lake from potential invaders, the job of hiding Crusoe (who seems to grow exponentially the more he eats) becomes more difficult. Director Jay Russell (Ladder 49; My Dog Skip) has essentially taken a boy-and-his-dog story (based on the book by Dick King-Smith) and applied it to this creature of fantasy.

I certainly didn't have any problems with the acting in The Water Horse. I particularly liked Etel's performance, although his character is called upon to have a temper tantrum, run away and disappear so often, I got a little tired of it. Watson and Chaplin do the most with their characters, who are clearly meant to be in the early stages of falling in love. The film's bigger problems begin and end with the military aspect. David Morrissey as the captain in charge has a crush on Watson, and it's a plotline that seems to serve no other purpose than to drag the story out longer than it needs to be. I'm not a big fan of Morrissey to begin with (his starring roles in Basic Instinct 2 and The Reaping didn't exactly set my world on fire), but here he's supposed to be on the lookout for Germans, and instead he's courting this Scottish widow. The kids will love that. The special effects from Weta that bring Crusoe to life are not some of their best work, but the way that Angus and the creature interact when Crusoe gets to be too massive for the house and must be moved to the loch are impressive. In the end, The Water Horse didn't charm me or fill me with a sense of wonder the way it was striving a little too hard to do. The quality of the acting made watching this movie a painless experience, but in the end, the film didn't win me over. That being said, kids will probably eat up some of the more slapstick elements of the film, as Crusoe is set loose in the house, knocking over everything he even comes near. He belches a lot, too. I think that sums up my feeling on the film better than anything I could say.


The Whole Shootin' Match

When I was down in Austin recently, I noticed this film was playing at one of the local theaters, but it closed the day I arrived, so there was no chance I could see it. Lucky for me, the Gene Siskel Film Center is ushering in the new year with a week-long run of this legendary, if little-seen, minor masterpiece. Made in 1979 by the notoriously hard-living Eagle Pennell, The Whole Shootin' Match is said to be the movie that inspired Robert Redford to start up the Sundance Film Festival in the hopes that more fiercely independent filmmakers would follow Pennell's lead and make works that fell outside the studio system. Set in Texas, the film isn't so much concerned with story as it is introducing us to characters we have never seen and probably never will see on screen again. These are people whose lives will never amount to anything that history will remember, and we meet them at a time in their existence when they are just beginning to realize that. To add heartbreak to heartache, two of the men in the film have a shot at glory after all when one of them invents a new kind of mop that they take to a big manufacturer for mass production.

Lou Perryman and Sonny Carl Davis are Loyd and Frank, and they are two of the most rambunctious losers you'll ever see on screen. They drink, cuss, womanize and come up with drunken plans to pull themselves out of their downward spiraling lives. You're almost amazed that guys like this are capable of such elaborate dreams, and in the end it's their hopeless optimism that makes us enjoy their company. The Whole Shootin' Match is often funny, strangely charming, and clearly made on a shoestring budget (the grainy black-and-white film stock makes it seem much older a film than it is). It's hard to believe that only a few years after it premiered, the film virtually disappeared off the face of the earth only to be rediscovered recently. Watching this film today actually feels like uncovering a small but important piece of film history whether you know the backstory or not. There's a looseness and freedom represented in The Whole Shootin' Match that simply didn't exist at the time. And the idea that a filmmaker would celebrate characters whose lives are such colossal failures seems almost sacrilegious, but I found the whole experience refreshing, honest and, above all, entertaining.


The Man of My Life

I've talked before about the sorry state of gay film in America, but one only has to look abroad to see much more original and risk-taking films. The French offering The Man of My Life isn't necessarily a "gay" film, but I think stateside directors could learn a thing or two about the loose boundaries that constitute films that prominently feature gay characters. Set in the holiday region of Provence, an attractive married couple named Frederic (Bernard Campan) and Frederique (Lea Drucker) have set out on this vacation to relax, make love and eat fabulous food with their friends in their rented house. Early in their visit, they meet their next-door neighbor, Hugo (Charlie Berling), a charming openly gay man who is as equally happy talking about his sex life as he is discussing his troubled childhood and his fear of committed relationships. All of the members of the household are charmed by Hugo, especially Frederic, and the two settle down one evening for a long chat. The film continues on, but repeatedly flashes back to reveal more of their all-night, soul-baring talk.

The friendship the two men have effects Frederic to such a degree that he finds he is no longer attracted to his stunning wife, a fact that is not lost on her. The film's many stories progress in directions that are difficult to predict, as does the relationship between the two men. Director Zabou Breitman (better known to many as the actress Zabou) has created a work about what constitutes a perfect partner, duty to family, and how fragile the most perfect relationship can be. The film's relaxed locale is perfectly undermined by the crumbling lives within it. Campan is torn between his responsibility to his wife and kids and the sense of feeling perfectly matched with Hugo. This is an odd but strangely moving effort that reveals almost a little too much about the fallibility of human beings, and I couldn't help find myself caught in its grip. The film opens 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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