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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

The Science of Sleep

Stephane Miroux is a grown man who acts like a child most of the time. His emotional attachments are decidedly black and white: you either love him unconditionally or he'll pout for days feeling rejected and alone. He is prone to flights of fancy and manic-depressive episodes. He is drawn to things that sparkle and people who seem to share his sense of whimsy. He cries easily, and, much like a baby, the proper combination of sights and sounds turns the tears off with shocking ease.

But most importantly, Stephane is the creation of one of the greatest visual artists of our time, director Michel Gondry, who made my favorite film of 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman wrote that extraordinary work, but The Science of Sleep is entirely Gondry's baby. And while there is no denying that Gondry's visual accents are some of the finest you'll ever see, his story and motives are confusing and frivolous, making The Science of Sleep both annoying and glorious, usually at the same time.

The magnificent Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a designer and artist who moves from his homeland of Mexico (where his father has just died) to his mother's apartment in her native Paris. Stephane is meant to seem playful and full of imagination, when in fact, the man is mentally ill. He finds it impossible most of the time to distinguish the real world from his dream world, which makes for some awesome visuals from Gondry. But the more we get to know Stephane, the more we find him grating and unworthy of love and much in need of therapy. Bernal throws everything he has into the portrayal to no avail. The character is written as a stream-of-consciousness being with no filters and far too much time on his hands to nap and have bizarre dreams.

The running gag in the film is that Stephane is hosting a TV show from inside his head. He can control his eyelids and movements as he seeks to entertain an unseen audience. When he meets his mother's new tenant, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and begins to fall madly in love with her, his dreams of having a creative and fulfilling life are replaced with dreams of romantic entanglement with Stephanie. Gainsbourg is not a classic movie star beauty, but her natural loveliness and inherent intelligence make her irresistible and utterly desirable. Stephane may not deserve a woman like her, but that doesn't mean we don't.

The Science of Sleep is a collection of ideas and performances that has its entertaining, funny and moving moments, but they are pulled together with a reckless abandon that may make the film highly watchable under the influence of several types of drugs but made my head spin. The group at Stephane's work serves as a perverted chorus egging him on or attempting to dissuade him from acting absurd (too little, too late). His mother is an awful creature who babies Stephane and makes it all too clear where his dementia and need for love originates.

The film works when it deals with raw and pained emotions, but its dissection of the dream state is exhausting and incomplete. There are few films this year that I wanted to love more than The Science of Sleep, and almost none have let me down the way Gondry's work has. Now, allow me to curl up in bed and cry myself to sleep. There is a reason I never let people tell me their dreams: because they are never as interesting to someone else as they are to the person who had them.


The Guardian

I've always had a soft spot for Kevin Costner. The guy has made some poor decisions in his career to be sure, but overall the casting of Costner in any film usually is a sign that that film is going to be highly watchable. And, for the first two hours of The Guardian, Costner and the rest of the cast are pretty good. I say "the first two hours" because The Guardian is much longer than that. And with each passing minute after the two-hour mark (probably more like the 1-hour 50-minute mark) in this tale of elite Coast Guard rescue swimmers, the movie becomes exponentially unbearable to watch as ending upon ending piles up until you begin to believe The Guardian will never end.

The story is ridiculously simple, and every subplot, character backstory and additional ending that gets tacked on takes away from what is an interesting tale of veteran swimmer Ben Randall (Costner) and his trainee Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher…hold your laughter, please). Randall is a legend, both as a trainee with several records under his belt and as a rescue swimmer. But his dedication to the job has taken its toll on his personal life, as we see in the beginning when his wife (Sela Ward) leaves him after countless years of playing second fiddle to Randall's time and attention. The combination of this separation and a rescue gone bad forces Randall's superiors to take him off the job and into the role as an instructor.

Since Randall is a hard-ass and resistant to training a bunch of newbies (including Fischer), we are forced to endure the obligatory scenes of the trainees earning his respect and loyalty, including one in which Fischer systematically breaks all of Randall's training records. Most of the film's training sequences (which comprise the bulk to this film) are pretty entertaining. In particular, I like the scene in which Randall teaches the trainees about the effects of hypothermia by simply throwing them in a pool filled with ice water. Apparently, simply teaching them the textbook definition won't do.

There are few actors working today that play the crusty old professional who may be past his prime but is still kicking like a mule better than Costner. Usually such a character as played by Costner is a former sports figure. But here the stakes of the game Randall plays are much higher, and he wears the weight of his life-or-death job on his strong, wrinkled face. Kutcher's Fischer is a little tougher to handle. It's nothing new for Kutcher to be playing a cocky character, and it's still hard for me to take the guy seriously since he's made such a reputation for himself as a goofball in both TV and film. There's one very emotional scene in which we learn his motivations for wanting to be in the Coast Guard, and, although I think we're supposed to be moved by Fischer's story, my inclination was to laugh.

I'm not ruining any plot point by revealing that Fischer graduates from the Coast Guard academy, and that would have made a fitting and nicely timed end for this story. He learns humility, maturity and how to control the competitive impulses that could result in tragedy on the job, while Randall shows himself to be a strong and unorthodox teacher. But the film has so much more in store for us that it might make you crazy. And what director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive; Collateral Damage) and his team do from this point on is systematically ruin any goodwill you may have toward The Guardian, with something like three or four additional rescue attempts that do nothing other than fuel the egos of the actors (we can't let the film end without showing Kutcher in a real-world rescue operation, God forbid). And the way Randall's storyline plays out is such a discredit to his character as to almost make you angry. In about a half hour's time, I grew from recommending The Guardian to despising it.

The film has just enough going for it up until the graduation scene. There's a solid cast of supporting players (including Clancy Brown, John Heard and Neal McDonough) to push the sometimes-stagnant Costner along at the right moments. Kutcher eventually does win you over as he learns to temper his youthful exuberance and rely on his training as a rescue swimmer. The Guardian isn't a masterpiece by any definition, but it hooked me in. But piling on end after end, rescue after rescue, does such a dishonor to this work that it made me depressed. My recommendation is to walk out as soon as the graduation scene is over. The rest of your day will be much more satisfying if you do.


Schools for Scoundrels

Although not as outright hilarious as the R-rated Old School or as silly as Starsky & Hutch (the previous two films by School for Scoundrels director and co-writer Todd Phillips), this film has its moments thanks in large part to an unflappable performance by Billy Bob Thornton as the elusive and clearly gifted Dr. P, a man who trains a group of losers how to be real men and get ahead in the world. This isn't just a movie about losers trying to learn to pick up women (although some of the students are there for that). No, these men want to learn to stick up for themselves in a conflict, get ahead at work, be better in competitive situation, and, of course, be appealing to the ladies.

Our entry point into the class is traffic cop Roger (Napoleon Dyanmite's Jon Heder), who is horribly uncomfortable around women he likes, in particular his neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). Even attempts to talk to her result in hyperventilating and fainting spells, a fact made all the more uncomfortable by Amanda's hyper-critical roommate, Becky (the goddess Sarah Silverman), who never misses an opportunity to skewer Roger's inadequacies. Roger is such a loser that even the kid he is paired with as part of the Big Brother program doesn't want to be seen with him. A friend (David Cross) recommends the secret confidence-boosting class led by Dr. P, and Roger's esteem building quickly takes shape.

Director Phillips has wisely packed his classroom with some of the best young improv comics working right now. Their names (John Glaser, Horatio Sanz, Matt Walsh, Aziz Ansari, Andrew Daly, Paul Scheer, Todd Louiso and many others) may not be familiar to you, but their faces might, and they are the secret weapon in this movie. Other staples of quality include Michael Clarke Duncan as Dr. P's assistant and Luis Guzman as Roger's boss. One name that does not really add much to the proceedings is Ben Stiller, who plays a former student of Dr. P's who was utterly destroyed after the good doctor built up his confidence only to tear it down by stealing his girlfriend. Stiller is trying really hard to be funny here, but he just isn't. But one lame supporting performance can't kill School for Scoundrels.

In what is clearly his best role since playing Napoleon Dynamite, Heder does a credible job simply playing a nice normal guy, bordering on a romantic lead. He's still the nerd's nerd, but he doesn't embarrass himself like he did in Just Like Heaven or The Benchwarmers. Barrett is okay here, but she isn't given much to do other than be sweet and pretty. When Dr. P decides that Roger is getting a little too confident, he tests him by (you guessed it) trying to seduce Becky with charm and information given to him by Roger in confidence. After seeing Barrett's far more worthy performance in The Last Kiss recently, it is tough to see her sublimate herself for the sake of this male-driven comedy, especially when Sarah Silverman refuses to do so. Although this is a PG-13 film, Silverman still manages to kill with a series of purely evil putdowns aimed at Roger. The person who finds a leading role for her in a halfway decent film will have my respect for life.

The final act of School for Scoundrels centers on the classmates trying to take down Dr. P before he manages to completely steal Amanda away from Roger. Dr. P sets Roger up to look like an obsessed stalker, with himself as the great protector. The entire film leads to a ridiculous encounter at an airport that doesn't really work, but, by that point, hopefully, the film will have won you over. School for Scoundrels is not going to go down as the best work by any of those involved, nor will it be remembered as one of the funniest films of the year, but if you demand a plot from your escapist comedies (unlike, say, Jackass 2, which may be the funniest movie I've seen all year pre-Borat), this film will keep you happy. I'm not sure why, but I'm always surprised and thrilled every time Billy Bob Thornton makes me laugh. I never think of him as a comic genius, but with films like Bad Santa, The Ice Harvest and even The Bad News Bears, maybe I should. School for Scoundrels isn't quite in the same league with those films, but it's close.

To read my interview with School for Scoundrels director Todd Phillips, visit Ain't It Cool News.

Jesus Camp

The most terrifying horror movie I've seen in many years is not a film with other-worldly monsters or teens getting hacked to death or special effects or the walking undead. Oh, no. The movie that has terrified the breath out of me is a little documentary called Jesus Camp, an unexpected sucker-punch to the heart and soul of everything you believe about faith, children and those in whom we put our faith to teach our children.

I expect I'll get a lot of talkback and e-mails about this film, and I'm not going to hide from it. You cannot keep emotions out of discussion of a film like this; it's just not humanly possible. I pride myself on not being a "faith hater," as some refer to those who will bash something with religious under- or overtones. There are simply too many people I know and who are close to me who take these things very seriously, and I would not disrespect their beliefs. But the practices Jesus Camp reveals are deplorable and unforgivable. I won't even knock the intentions of Evangelical ministries in general or Pastor Becky Fischer in particular. But her methods of training and fortifying young children (mostly preteens) in the ways and teachings of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and George W. Bush is tantamount to child abuse and brainwashing. And you get to watch it unfold right before your horrified eyes.

Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who made the excellent The Boys of Baraka last year) were granted unlimited access to the practices of Pastor Becky both in her day-to-day work in the Midwest and as head of the (I'm not making this up) "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Her clearly stated objective is to take back America for Christ by creating Christian soldiers in God's Army out of young children. Her argument is that "our enemies'" children are being taught at a young age to shoot guns, build bombs and commit acts of terror in the name of Allah. According to her, we as Americans need to combat this however we can by bringing God back to America and its government (the founding fathers be damned, I guess).

The camp features confessions, speaking in tongues and writhing on the floor, as well as day-long lessons on abortion and how to combat the doctors that perform them, creationism and missionary work. And that's just the beginning. Nearly every lesson/performance ends with dozens of kids crying their eyes out, simply feeling the spirit of God in them. I'm not talking a tear or two here and there; I'm talking about outright bawling. But the lessons don't stop at the camp. Jesus Camp also shows some of the kids' lives before going to camp.

According to the film, 75 percent of home-schooled kids are Evangelical Christians, and it shouldn't surprise you that they are all being taught to dismiss evolution. What you may not be aware of is that they are also being taught that global warming doesn't exist because scientists can't prove it (these would be the same scientists who believe in evolution, I assume). If you think some of these teachings are politically motivated, you'd be one sharp tack. Perhaps the most soul-crushing moment in Jesus Camp occurs at the camp when the organizers bring out a life-size cardboard cutout of the George W. Bush. The kids don't just look at it; they are told to worship it; they cower next to it and lay hands on it. It is at this moment that you realize many of these people don't look at Bush as simply a political leader; he is their absolute religious leader, ordained from above to lead Americans into the Promised Land.

The sole voice of dissention in the film belongs to Christian talk show host Mike Papantonio, who is deeply disturbed by the way the country is going toward a more faith-based government. His exhaustive interview with Pastor Becky must be heard to be believed. The other central figure in the film is a boy named Levi, who wears his hair in a rattail style and happens to deliver a mean sermon when asked. He's a good kid whose beliefs are strong and uncompromised, and his mind and thoughts are still being formed, and he is being force fed doctrine day and night without any chance of making up his own mind about his path in life. It will break your heart to watch him.

What struck me as odd about Jesus Camp was the use of ultra-spooky music coupled with insert shots of tilted scarecrows poised ominously in the barren fields of North Dakota. Clearly the filmmakers are attempting (none to subtly) to demonize some of what we're seeing, as if we need the extra encouragement to think that. So much of what is being taught in the camp and being preached by Pastor Becky and those like her boils down to "Us vs. Them," whether the "Them" are Muslims or just those who don't buy what they're selling. In attempting to sell their brand of love and joy, they encourage hatred, prejudice, paranoia and outright fear.

Filmmakers Ewing and Grady have a ball of fire in their hands, or maybe it's a ticking time bomb (choose your metaphor). Either way, this is dangerous filmmaking, and we need to see more of it. A double feature of this film and the 2005 documentary With God on Our Side should put the fear of God in you, folks. If they don't, nothing will. Jesus save us. Amen.


Open Season

There are two utterly shocking things about the Sony Pictures Animation's first full-length film Open Season: 1) It features a soundtrack filled with original songs by Paul Westerberg of The Replacements fame; and 2) it took not one, not two, but three people (including Lion King director Roger Allers) to direct this stale, uninspired story of a pampered pet grizzly bear named Boog (voiced by Martin Lawrence) forced to leave his cozy confines and make it on his own in the wild.

The only member of the vocal cast (which includes Gary Sinise as a hunter, Debra Messing as Boog's owner, Billy Connolly as the leader of an army of tree-dwelling squirrels and Jon Favreau as a beaver) who seems in any way inspired by the story is Ashton Kutcher as the mule deer Elliot, who first gets Boog in trouble with his owner and then helps him survive in the forest. With the fast-approaching Open Season just days away, Boog seems relatively safe above a waterfall where most hunters never go. But after a tragic beaver dam accident (four words I will never write again), all of the animals end up down in the valley, completely accessible to all manner of humans trying to shoot them.

Aside from the flat look of the animation (I admit, I did not see the 3-D IMAX version of this film), Open Season is horribly safe, but it's not without its touches. We get to see Elliot defecate on screen. Yum. We get to see Boog vomit after eating nearly everything in a convenience store. And if you have any affection for rabbits, stay away from this movie. They are abused without mercy. That was actually my favorite part of the film. If any of these three elements sound good to you, enjoy yourself at see this flaccid production. My predominant thought throughout the film was, "Poor Paul Westerberg." I needed something to distract me.


The Godfather of Green Bay

After opening in about 15 theatres in Wisconsin a couple months back, this film has actually earned enough buzz to open a little wider today. It stars a lesser-known comic veteran named Pete Schwaba, who also just happened to write and direct the thing. I've never heard or seen Schwaba's act, but The Godfather of Green Bay is a wholly likable and moderately entertaining film that succeeds most when it isn't trying so hard to be funny.

Schwaba plays Chicago-born stand-up comic Joe Keegan, who has been struggling for years on the comedy circuit to get seen for a possible sitcom deal or at least an appearance on "The Tonight Show." His friend Kenny (Lance Barber) offers him up a rare piece of insight: the talent scout for "The Tonight Show" takes an annual trip to Wisconsin, just outside of Green Bay, to do some hunting, and he always spends time at a way-out-of-the-way comedy club, guaranteeing Joe a captive audience. The pair drive to Wisconsin and immediately bump into Joe's former Chicago high school teacher Molly (Lauren Holly). Since the two are practically the same age, we don't need a soothsayer to guess that a love connection is in the works. But that subplot is a distraction from the film's funniest moments.

Once the comedians make it to the club, the movie feels a lot less contrived and scarily authentic in its portrayal of the townies. First there's the titular character, who also goes by the name of Big Jake (a beautifully mulleted Tony Goldwyn), a former high school football star (think Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite) who is now the biggest drug dealer in Green Bay. He also is performing his version of a courtship in Molly's direction, which includes about a half-dozen performances of the Macarena during the course of the film. (I shit you not; twice would have been enough, Mr. Writer-Director.) As good as Goldwyn is, my personal favorite appearance is Thomas Lennon's Dug ("spelled D-U-G, because you gotta have a hook"), the comedy club emcee whose string of Packers and gay jokes is about as deep as you'd expect him to get. But when Joe gives him the sincere advice to speak his mind and do comedy that nobody else is doing, his entire personality on stage changes, resulting in the best bits the movie has to offer.

In fact, Lennon's performance elevates this film to such a degree that it's the reason I'm writing this review at all. I've been a fan of the Chicago-born comic actor since his days on MTV's "The State," and his subsequent appearances in Comedy Central's "Reno 911" and in smaller film parts have always kept me in stitches. But this is a classic performance hidden away in a film many of you may never even have the chance to see. As I'm sure some of you do, I keep a list of films that don't make it to theatres in Chicago. I know eventually they will make their way onto DVD and cable, so I just play the waiting game. Put The Godfather of Green Bay on your to-see list for Lennon's performance; it's worth it.

There are some fun cameos from the likes of American Movie's Mark Borchardt and some mental defect nicknamed Rat Boy, whose graceful dance stylings are featured prominently. Naturally, Joe's citified humor goes right over the heads of the locals, and his struggle becomes finding the right comic note for this crowd before the talent scout shows up. Aside from Lennon's work, the best moments in the film happen in the background. Conversations about drinking, getting into trouble, hunting, football and how everyone from Chicago is gay (It's true! It's true!) are 100 percent authentic. I was just in Wisconsin last week, and I tend to get up there for various reasons five or six times a year, and this is what I hear in the local bars, restaurants and more bars. In most cases, Schwaba does a fair job of finding the humor in these people and their conversations without making fun of them, even when those freakin' cheeseheads deserve it. The accents are exactly right, the attitudes are finely tuned, and I can't help but think/hope that the extras were paid in beer. The Godfather of Green Bay is a hoot, and I'm guessing that the closer you live or have lived to the places where this film is set, the more you'll enjoy it.


The Dogwalker

There are few films this year with less chance of attracting big audiences than The Dogwalker, and that's kind of a shame. This movie is about as pure an indie experience as you're likely to get in 2006, for better or worse. The quality of the acting varies from actor to actor. The minimalist look of the film has flashes of real vision every so often. And the story is about as simple as they come. But thanks to the two anchor performances by actresses you have never heard of before (one of which you will never hear from again), The Dogwalker is a hypnotic little wonder that has taken more than five years since its first screening to finally make it out for you to see.

As the film opens, Ellie Moore (Diane Gaidry) is fleeing what we gather is the latest in a long line of abusive boyfriends. Her face is bruised, and her scared and tired eyes make her look much older than she is. She ends up in Los Angeles without money or anywhere to stay. Nearly turning to prostitution, Ellie is befriended (if you can call it that) by the miserable but amusing older Betsy (the late Pamela Gordon, who died in 2003), a professional dogwalker whose ailing health requires that she hire an assistant.

Once the two women meet, they struggle to maneuver around each other's flaws and dark pasts, and they eventually become something resembling friends. Betsy delivers acerbic words of wisdom that sometimes hurt Ellie's pride, such as, "You can't take care of dogs if you can't take care of yourself." Despite her past with bad boys, Ellie hasn't quite learned her lesson about the type of man that seems to turn her on. Meanwhile, some of the other dogwalkers she runs into at a centralized dog park start giving her the gossip on Betsy's history, which includes the vicious (and ultimately true) rumor that she killed her husband.

The relationship between the two women is constantly changing, and sometimes it's tough to tell which one needs to be taken care of and which is the more stable and grounded. There's a terrific scene where the two are eating a meal and comparing "war wounds" from ex-boyfriends and one late husband. Gaidry isn't a particularly inspired actress, but her sad eyes and slightly timeworn face project a lifetime of pain and suffering. Her character's self-image isn't particularly high; for example, she names her dog Loser. Gordon's portrait is part extreme frailty, part tenacious bitch. It had to be a tough role to play, and it's even tougher to watch, especially when we begin to realize Betsy is dying.

The race to make Ellie a wiser, more self-sufficient person literally consumes Betsy's life, and although we're not entirely convinced Ellie will not encounter a few more stumbling blocks in her life, at least we feel confident when The Dogwalker ends that she is stronger and tired of the type of men who have occupied her life up to now. The film is unexpectedly moving, despite being a bit too slow for its own good. Still, its quiet impact is undeniable and a nice reminder of the power indie films can still deliver. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, where director Jacques Thelemaque will host Q&A's on Friday and Saturday following the film's 7:20 shows.

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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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