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Saturday, September 22

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Airbags

Hey, everyone. Well, four days in Austin, Texas, last weekend cut into the time I normally would have devoted to writing this week's reviews. I was attending the eighth annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon, a 24-hour film festival that Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles programs but keeps the lineup a secret. We had seven premieres, including a couple films that open before the end of the year (Dreamgirls and next week's Rocky Balboa), and a bunch of gems opening next year, including Black Snake Moan (the latest from writer-director Craig Brewer, the man behind Hustle & Flow); Knocked Up (set to open in June 2007), the new comedy from the director and most of the stars of The 40-Year-Old Virgin; the new Paul Verhoeven Nazi thriller Black Book (opening at the Music Box Theatre in the first quarter of next year); writer-director Joe (Narc) Carnahan's exciting crime drama Smokin' Aces; and hyper-violent Sparta battle film, 300, based on the graphic novel by Sin City's Frank Miller.

I'm just going to focus on the two major releases this week, but I do want to mention a few other films opening today. First off, critics were only screened the talking-dragon movie Eragon the night before it opened (at least in Chicago), so we have to draw the natural conclusion that the film sucks dragon dick.

Second, there are two new films premiering at the Landmark Century Center Cinema this week: the bizarre, but mostly entertaining Off the Black, starring Nick Nolte as a curmudgeon who blackmails a high school kid who vandalizes his house to pose as his son at the older man's 40th high school reunion. Granted, I spent half the film thinking that "bad touching" was just around the corner, especially when Nolte's character starts feeding the kid beer in an effort to bond with him. Instead, the film's greatest sin is becoming conventional and predictable by its conclusion. Still, Nolte sells the hell out of this secretive and complicated man, and the film ends up being a decent take on compassion and kindness.

The other Landmark opening this week is Coffee Date, which seems to serve no other purpose than to make all former "Party of Five" fans collectively say, "So that's what happened to Wilson Cruz." According to a few of my gay friends, the film fulfills the long-held gay fantasy of turning a straight guy, if only for one night. Cruz's sweet but aggressive seduction techniques are about as subtle as a pink sledgehammer, but the two leads (the object of his affection is played by Jonathan Bray) give charming performances in a film that tries way too hard to be liked by everybody. Another reason to check out the film is as a means to see what has become of Sally Kirkland as Bray's mother. It looks like the Ugly Hindenburg hit her right in the kisser. Ouch! And her performance isn't much better. The film is disposable fluff, but not outright unbearable. This is not a recommendation, in case I'm being too kind.

The final and best of the smaller films opening this week is The Aura, opening today at the Music Box Theatre. Anyone who caught the Argentine film Nine Queens back in 2000 or 2001 (if you didn't, rent it now; it's one of the great con artist movies of all time). Writer-director Fabián Bielinsky's (who died in June of this year) final work is The Aura, and it's another masterfully complex story about a lonely taxidermist (Ricardo Darín, also the star of Nine Queens) who fantasizes about committing the perfect crime but knows full well he doesn't have the guts to carry out any of his ideas. During his first hunting trip he accidentally kills a man who is the organizer of just such a major heist. Since the other conspirators in this plot don't know what the dead man looks like, the taxidermist takes on his identity and attempts to figure out exactly what the plan was in the first place. This is a completely thrilling ride that combines confusion with a sense of discovery and excitement. There are few films this year that impressed me as much as The Aura.

Now, onto the two big Oscar bait films of the week, and who knows? They might even be worthy of the little gold statues.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Perhaps the biggest compliment I could pay the new Will Smith vehicle (and clear Oscar bait) is that it bears little resemblance to any Will Smith movie you've ever seen. Here, Smith is not always looking for the easy catchphrase, punchline or street-smart wisecrack. Oh, no. In The Pursuit of Happyness (the spelling is correct by the way), Smith has locked up his trademark comfort zone acting style and bothered to create an honest-to-God character in real-life inspiration Chris Gardner, who struggled for a year to survive as a homeless father on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1980s.

Gardner turned his story into an inspirational book chronicling his being let go as a teacher, his moderately successful career as a salesman of worthless and expensive medical technology, and his landing an (unpaid) internship at a top-flight stock brokerage firm. While all of this is happening, his wife (played here by Thandie Newton) leaves him and their five-year-old son Christopher (played convincingly by Smith's son Jaden). Although the subject is never explicitly brought up, Gardner represents a part of the African-American experience of having the necessary skills to do the work and make the money, and only needing someone to give him a shot.

What Gardner went through in his life is astonishing, and probably one of many very similar stories. And the way Smith portrays him is as a man who will not let fear or desperation get the better of him. Gardner is smart enough to solve a Rubik's Cube in just a couple of minutes. He can do the work of one of the other interns in half the time because he can't put in the extra hours due to his son. He and his son live in a homeless shelter on good days, and sleep in a train station bathroom on the worst ones. His tenacity is an inspiration, but Smith doesn't play him as a hero and anyone special. He is simply a man who will not let his son down.

The scenes between father and son are heart crushing at times, as the younger Smith acts as naturally and effortlessly as any child actor I've seen all year. There's not much more to say about the film. Watching Gardner's slow and unsure climb up a ladder to either success or crushing failure is tough going, but Italian director Gabriele Muccino (who directed the original version of The Last Kiss) displays a real gift for reeling in Smith's desire to always be so damn entertaining and allows him to remind us the guy can actually act. The Pursuit of Happyness doesn't always successfully avoid the sappy pitfalls, but this is one of least saccharine films about family you'll ever see and results in a solid effort from everyone involved. It was easy to nominate Will Smith for best actor playing Muhammad Ali; the nominee he'll undoubtedly get for this film is better deserved.


Charlotte's Web

This is just one of those stories that gets me right in the tear ducts. In any form (the E.B. White book, the 1973 animated feature or this live-action/CGI-enhanced version), Charlotte's Web is the sweetest, cutest story of self-reliance, big hearts, manners and self-confidence of all time. I have no idea why, but the friendship between a runt pig and a spider makes me emotional. I'm not trying to appear manly by saying this, but I honestly can't remember the last time I cried in a movie theater. But I came awfully close at the end of this faithful telling.

Dakota Fanning is Fern, the little farm girl who saves the life of the runt of a pig litter, whom she names Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay). She cares for the pig, which is living in Fern's uncle's barn with a collection of barn animals, and what a collection of voices the filmmakers have assembled. John Cleese plays Samuel the sheep, who is always urging his fellow sheep to stop being followers. Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire play a couple of cows. The stately Ike the horse appropriately enough features Robert Redford's vocal talents. Cedric the Entertainer and Oprah Winfrey play squabbling geese. No one goes out of the way to be overly jokey, or go beyond the source material. Pleasantry is the order of the day. The one exception is Steve Buscemi's devious take on Templeton the rat, who reluctantly helps Charlotte the spider (majestically voiced by Julia Roberts) in acquiring the means to keep Wilbur from getting slaughtered.

It's all here. The miracle messages in Charlotte's web ("Some Pig" still gets me), the fair, Charlotte's egg sac and all the interaction and life lessons passed on from the spider to the pig. The film manages to be sweet and timeless without resorting to cutesy behavior. Even elements like the two crows (the hilarious Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church), who are scared to go into any cornfield because of a mysterious figure who seems to reside in every such field, is funny without being simple or condescending. And director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) thankfully does make some of the more traditionally scary characters (like Templeton and Charlotte) cute and cuddly. When I first saw Charlotte, I was a bit started how lifelike she was; even her mouth opens and closes sideways.

It's a simple fact that without Wilbur, the Babe movies would never have existed. But there's a delicacy and grace to Charlotte's Web that doesn't exist in most children's stories, and they make the transition to this movie quite nicely. If a film puts that little tickle in the back of my throat, I have to give it credit for getting to me. Charlotte's Web is just such a film. Kids will adore it, but adults will be reminded of a time when such simple stories moved them and shaped their outlook and lives.

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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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