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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Wednesday, April 17

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The Weather Man
The final screening of the Chicago International Film Festival offered one of the best closing-night selections in recent memory—thanks to some of the most richly drawn characters in any film I've seen this year (courtesy of an original screenplay by Steve Conrad). The Weather Man offers up a wholly original portrait of the barely functioning family that surrounds Chicago weatherman David Spritz.

A couple months ago, I thought for sure I'd seen the film that might get Nicolas Cage his Oscar nomination this year—Lord of War—but I was wrong; this is the one people will remember and recognize come award season. Cage's portrayal of the barely-holding-it-together Spritz is transcendent. He's a genuinely nice guy who does his job of reading the weather (he's not actually an educated meteorologist) better than most in a city that relies on its forecasters. His relationship with his recently ex-wife (Hope Davis) is strained most of the time, especially since she's started dating a new man (a nice turn by Michael Rispoli of "The Sopranos" fame). But it's clear that David is desperately lonely and contemplates a reconciliation that neither one really believes will work.

Spritz is in the running for a weather gig for a "Good Morning America"-style national morning program (hosted by Bryant Gumbel as himself), a gig that would pay a ton of money, but would separate him from his already estranged kids (Nicholas Hoult and Gemmenne de las Peña) and his successful author father, Robert (Michael Caine), who has recently gotten some very bad news from his doctor. Spritz's life is a wreck, and the one shining light in it (the possible new job) may be impossible to accept if his life doesn't straighten out soon. Cage is in rare form here, in what is easily one of his best roles in a long, long time. His character has so many wonderful idiosyncrasies. He is pelted with food and drink on the sidewalks of Chicago. You can't help but laugh, but it's the saddest thing I've ever seen. As a form of meditation, David takes up archery and gets quite good at it. And he has no rapport with his kids, despite clearly loving them so much. His attempts to be a hip dad are embarrassing.

The tone of The Weather Man is so odd and uncertain that you don't know whether to laugh or cry half the time; and believe me when I say, this is a good thing. Director Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean) strikes a perfect chord, showing us David's place in the world and the city of Chicago. And how about my beautiful city? Verbinski loves this windy place, and his use of locations is exceptional. I remember when the production was in town last winter (one of the warmest on record), and seeing all the fake snow on the sidewalks as Cage shot a scene in which he finally gets revenge on the food throwers of the world.

That being said, some elements of The Weather Man work better than others. A subplot involving Spritz's son and a possible child molester (an almost unrecognizable Gil Bellows) doesn't really amount to anything. But it does give Cage a rare chance to explode and release years of pent-up anger on the guy. The storyline is passable for that scene alone. The scenes between Cage and Caine are exceptional, as if they were destined to be put on film. Caine's character is underplayed and always quietly critical. He's made his mark on the world, and now he expects his son and grandkids to do the same. There's a sequence near the end of the film involving an event at which David gets to pay tribute to Robert (by evoking the lyrics of a Bob Seger song) and is interrupted. It's such a pitiful moment that you almost want to put David out of his misery. He can't win for trying.

The Weather Man is simple perfection. There are few "big" scenes, and those that should be are deliberately subdued. The film has some very funny moments in it, but I don't think I'd call it a comedy. The film also doesn't exist to elicit powerful emotion, but that didn't stop me from being deeply moved by this collection of lovable losers. It's one of those rare, hard-to-categorize works that exists in its own melancholy universe in which people are not asked to do great things, but merely urged not to fail spectacularly. You may never know exactly why you love The Weather Man, but you will know how much.

As I said when I reviewed this film a couple weeks ago as part of CIFF, Shopgirl is a surprisingly effective love story, based on the novella by co-star and screenwriter Steve Martin. In her best film role to date, Claire Danes stars as a Saks Fifth Avenue salesgirl who meets two very different, emotionally challenged men (Martin and Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman).

Despite what the trailer for this film shows, Danes does not date both men at the same time. Schwartzman, playing a broke artist, appears and disappears in the movie's early scenes, but most of the story focuses on the relationship between Danes and the wealthy and much older Martin, who insists that the pair leave their romantic options open despite clearly being in love with her. Shopgirl is deceptively complex, possessing a subtext that is far more interesting than what the characters are going through on the surface. The overall tone of the film is slightly cool and distant, but that makes its searing and emotional scenes all the more significant.

While Danes and Martin are figuring each other and their relationship out, Schwartzman (put in the unenviable position of being the comic focal point of a movie starring Steve Martin) goes on a road trip with a touring rock band. These scenes are some of the film's funniest, and may be the cinema's greatest endorsement of self-help books. Despite Schwartman's antics, the film is decidedly mellow. More importantly, Shopgirl is a film in which two characters falling in love is not the conclusion or the solution to anything. Love actually carries weight in Martin's story; he has a healthy respect for it, and it shows.

The film is filled with material that will make you both laugh out loud and fight to hold back your emotions. All three characters are worth getting to know, and Shopgirl packs a silent punch to the heart.

This film kind of surprised me. I first became aware of Prime earlier this year because I was one of five people on the planet who watched the George Clooney-produced HBO series "Unscripted," a fascinating account of three real-life struggling Hollywood actors. Although the three primaries were actually actors, the storylines they got involved in were fictional. The film was shot like a reality show, and whenever one of the actors actually did get cast in a real television or film role, the cameras followed. Actor Bryan Greenberg was one of the three actors and was cast in the male lead role of Prime, a major coup for both the virtually unknown actor and the show, which suddenly got unplanned cameos from Uma Thurman (as Greenberg's girlfriend) and Meryl Streep (as his mother).

The film Prime is a competent, sometimes silly, usually astute work from writer-director Ben Younger, who impressed many with his feature debut, Boiler Room. Greenberg plays David Bloomberg, a would-be painter who gets involved with a much older (by 15 years) woman named Rafi Gardet (Thurman). Fresh from a painful divorce, Rafi is seeing therapist Lisa Metzger (Streep), who just happens to be David's pushy Jewish mother (using her maiden name). Although this sounds like the set up for a wacky romantic comedy, in which the therapist realizes what's going on but says nothing and continues to hear about her son from the girlfriend. And that does happen, although the results are a bit more serious and traumatic when the truth is revealed. Lisa is against David marrying out of his faith, and the interfaith theme is a compelling component to Prime.

Streep is smart enough not to play the Jewish matriarch role as a stereotype as she poses some very real questions about the future of the relationship to both Rafi and David throughout the film. She genuinely cares for both of them, and tries very hard to avoid hurting either as a therapist or a mother. The revelation about Lisa's role in the couple's lives comes in the middle of the film, so a large portion of this story is in dealing with this discovery.

Prime never quite went where I thought it would, and the performances are equally surprising. Greenberg is clearly the amateur here, but his delivery is fresh and more natural than the seasoned performers. Although the film is filled with humor throughout, the biggest laughs come from David's friend Morris (House of Wax's Jon Abrahams), a man who can never get a woman to go on a second date with him and retaliates by going to their homes and delivering a cream pie to their face. I know it's horribly sexist, but man, is it funny, especially when one of his victims gets her revenge.

In the wrong hands, Prime could have been another Monster-In-Law, but these smart actors and an impressively tempered script from Younger keep reality in check. Younger deals realistically (most of the time) with issues of religion, age, maturity and family, and how all of these elements influence a relationship. There are no villains here, only obstacles that the couple either will or won't overcome. Prime is a pleasant surprise.

What's better than a new film by some of Asia's top filmmakers? How about three short films by three of the best Asian directors working today? Three…Extremes combines three horror/thriller tales into one magnificent bundle, opening today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

All three are good, but "Box" (from Japan's Takashi Miike, best known in America for his grizzly feature Audition) is probably the weakest. A beautiful novelist still feels deep guilt over the childhood death of her twin sister. She receives a strange letter inviting her to meet at the site of the sister's death, and she is forced to relive the event through a series of flashbacks. The episode is undoubtedly creepy, but the climax doesn't quite pay off.

"Cut," from South Korea's Chan-wook Park (Oldboy), is a thinking man's Saw, in which a film director is abducted and wakes up in a specially designed room, where he is bound by an oversized elastic band that gives him just enough slack to make one of two unthinkable decisions that will destroy some aspect of his life forever. "Cut" is the most visually satisfying of the three films, and the art direction of this chamber of horrors is extraordinary.

I don't think there's going to be much argument about the audience favorite of these three shorts. Hong Kong's Fruit Chan gives us "Dumplings," starring Bai Ling as a working-class girl who makes special dumplings for rich clients that allow the eater to retain youth and beauty. Naturally, when the clients find out what the dumplings' secret ingredient is, life becomes a lot more complicated. "Dumplings" was so popular as a short that the director edited a feature-length film out of his footage and released it separately. In the interest of full disclosure, I saw this film in the early part of 2005 as an Asian DVD release. The version opening in U.S. theatres is being distributed by Lions Gate, and there are certain elements of "Dumplings" I'm not sure will make the final cut. To be fair, Lions Gate is pretty permissible when it comes to controversial material in its releases, but let's just say that Three…Extremes probably won't be a hit in the Red States, which is fine because that means more "Dumplings" for me!

Prepare to be shocked, mortified and thoroughly entertained. None of the shorts are particularly graphic or bloody, but the ideas in play are gruesome, even incomprehensible (at least by me). Take the family this Halloween.

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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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