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Wednesday, October 18

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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
It seems that nothing sparks the creative mind of a filmmaker more than being told a book is unfilmmable. Look at what Charlie Kaufman did with The Orchid Thief when he manipulated it into Adaptation (and got an Oscar nomination for the effort). Perhaps one of the most historically difficult novels is Laurence Sterne's 18th century Tristram Shandy, a biography of a fictional character telling his life story with an infinite number of digressions in his story telling. It is the classic example of the type of book people often pick up and then put down after reading only a few pages. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has taken a glorious approach to this story by making a film about the making of a film based on the unfilmmable Tristram Shandy. Got it? Let's continue.

Most of the actors in A Cock and Bull Story play two roles: themselves as actor in the film and the characters in the movie within a movie. The wonderful comic genius Steve Coogan plays Tristram, as well as Tristram's father, Walter, and himself, Steve Coogan…or at least a version of Steve Coogan who is self-centered and desperately concerned that his equally funny costar, Rob Brydon (playing Shandy's brother Toby), is getting more screentime and bigger laughs than he is. In actuality, the movie about Tristram Shandy never progresses past his birth, thanks to countless sidestories, but soon the film pulls back, revealing the crew making the movie. Even Winterbottom gets a stand-in in the form of Jeremy Northam as "Mark" the director. As the film progresses, it gets further away from the actual plot of the book and becomes a full-fledged (albeit fictional) behind-the-scenes comedy.

Changes in the focus of the film, dealing with dozens of extras cast for a battle scene, and squeezing in time to sit with visiting journalists are all deftly dealt with by the masterful Winterbottom. Coogan's wife, Jenny (played by Kelly Macdonald), arrives on set with their newborn baby. The director and writer decide to reintroduce a love interest into their film and must hurriedly find an actress to play the role. It just so happens they decide upon Gillian Anderson, who is available and shows up on set (and in our movie) instantly. This whirlwind of activity could not be more entertaining, and the interplay between Coogan and Brydon is splendid (make sure to stick around during the end credits to watch these two debate the merits of the final film we've just watched).

Winterbottom has packed his chaotic masterpiece with additional familiar faces, including Shirley Henderson, Ian Hart and Stephen Fry, and has made me painfully curious about the actual process of making this film. Are there hours of outtakes that were disposed of as the film was edited together? Was the process of making A Cock and Bull Story this bizarre and hectic? Please, oh please, let the DVD reveal all. This film is smart, deliriously funny and brilliantly pieced together. Anyone who believes the early months of the year are reserved for the dregs of movie releases should take full advantage of this fantastic film.


Freedomland
There are few greater writers of modern crime drama working today than Richard Price. His novels and screenplays (Sea of Love, Ransom, the 2000 remake of Shaft) not only look at the practice of criminal versus law enforcement, they also look at the big picture of how a city works (or doesn't work). Never has this approach in Price's writing been more apparent than in his 1998 novel Freedomland, about a four-year-old white child that goes missing in a housing project in Dempsy, New Jersey. But not even Price adapting his own novel can come close to fixing the problems with Freedomland the movie, an overblown, sloppy, reckless production with a great cast given nothing to do but make sure the back rows of theatres across the nation can hear them. No need for assisted listening devices in this film; every line of overplayed dialogue will be bouncing from the rafters.

Normally when you hear a film stars Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, you pretty much assume all is well. Ah, until you mention the name of director Joe Roth, head of Revolution Studios, who has previously graced us with such cinematic treasures as Revenge of the Nerds II, America's Sweethearts and Christmas with the Kranks. Even Roth should have had enough sense not to let himself direct this film, a potentially blistering statement on the state of modern-day race relations that Spike Lee would have given his left nut to direct 10 years ago. Actually, he did. That film was the shamefully overlooked Clockers, with a screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel. But I digress in better memories and better movies.

Jackson plays Lorenzo Council, a detective who has a great relationship with the residents of this particular housing project. He and his white partner (William Forsythe) are respected without being feared, and they seem to be making a positive difference in the community. Until one night when Moore's Brenda Martin walks into a hospital with bloody hands and a tale of being carjacked in the project by a black man, who drove away not knowing her little boy was inside. Brenda is a former drug addict, and her demeanor and statement about the incident are riddled with vagaries and contradiction. Even her own brother, another detective (played by Ron Eldard), thinks there's about a 50 percent chance Brenda had something to do with her son's disappearance. Almost immediately, the police shut down the housing project. Anyone who is inside can't leave; and those outside can't get back in. Tensions flare instantly.

Price's screenplay is smart enough to put blame on all parties for these tensions. Some residents take advantage of the crowd's anger for their own militant purposes. And the cops just start arresting anyone who gets in their face trying to get home. But director Roth is simply out of his depth, and his handling of these highly charged clashes between pissed-off project residents and the apparently across-the-board racist cops feels manipulative and forced. What's unfortunate about the film's focus is that it spends entirely too much time with Jackson and Moore going back and forth over her recollections of the carjacking. We have suspicions early on that Brenda isn't kosher, and dragging our discovery of the facts out over two hours only makes the film feel painfully long.

The only element of Freedomland that worked for me was the presence of Edie Falco ("The Sopranos") as Karen Collucci, a woman who heads up a group made up of mothers who spend much of their time looking for missing children. Not surprisingly, Falco is also the only actor in the film that never raises her voice. She and Moore have a great scene together outside an abandoned children's mental hospital where dozens of volunteers are combing the surrounding woods looking for her child. Karen starts out telling Brenda about her own experience as the mother of a missing child, and slowly turns the discussion into the gentlest interrogation you're ever likely to see.

Freedomland is a classic example of good intentions gone horribly wrong. And if you would like a prime example of how a terrible director can ruin a solid script and a stellar cast, look no further.


Manderlay
Director-provocateur Lars von Trier doesn't want you to like him. In fact, I'm convinced he'd rather have you hate him, especially if you're an American. Considering he is devoting a trilogy of lengthy films (Dogville was the first, this film, and Wasington, set for release in 2007) to openly criticizing American values and practices, I'd say he's not booking any cruises stateside for quite some time. In fact, Von Trier has (proudly) never been to the United States and says he'll never come. His latest, Manderlay, appears on the surface to be a film that attacks the practice of slavery, but it becomes something even darker than that (if that's possible). Using the same minimal staging practices he did with Dogville (no sets, just chalk lines on a black floor indicating streets, homes, landmarks, etc.; minimal props) and many of the same actors, Von Trier has crafted a work that is at times naïve, poignant, frustrating and manipulative. Thank goodness there is at least one filmmaker out there making films like this, even if they don't always hit the mark.

Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) picks up the Grace role Nicole Kidman had in Dogville. She and her father (Willem Dafoe) are traveling through the south when they stumble upon a plantation (run by Lauren Bacall) where slavery is still very much in effect. Grace informs the slaves that they no longer have to serve for no pay, as she takes on the role of their great emancipator. Von Trier dares to ask the question (whether he's serious or not, is anybody's guess), are African-American's better off as slaves in America? Danny Glover's Wilhelm is the emotional focal point of the former slaves in the film, and it's great to see him back in top form. Because of their isolation from the outside world, these slaves have a tough time understanding their rights as well as their rightful place in society. Grace's attempts at acclimating never quite play out how she thinks they will, especially with the rebellious Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé).

If all of this sounds more like a thesis than a film, you're not far off. Von Trier's American trilogy is filled with as much theory and philosophy as they are plot and characters. In fact, his characters seem more like icons than human beings, and it's on this level that frustration sets in. Still, he has more challenging and thought-provoking ideas running around his pesky little films than just about any other filmmaker working today. Sometimes dead-on, sometimes ignorant, Von Trier is a writer-director that simply should not be ignored. After watching one of his films, my natural inclination is always to confront him, and once I feel that way, I know that Von Trier has gotten under my skin once again. Does he hate women, as he's shown us evidence of in Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves? Probably. Does he despise certain American values? Most definitely. Does that make his works any less worthy of being seen. No. Manderlay is not the best he's given us, but it's still challenging and well worth investigating. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Neil Young: Heart of Gold
The one and only time I have had a conversation with Jonathan Demme, we didn't talk about any of his feature films. Rather than focusing on works like Philadelphia, Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs or Married to the Mob, we talked only about music. In his long career, Demme has directed concert films for Talking Heads (the landmark Stop Making Sense) and Robin Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock), as well as worked on music videos for performers as wide ranging as New Order, The Pretenders and Bruce Springsteen. So it comes as no surprise the his latest work—chronicling Neil Young's two-night stint in Memphis spotlighting his latest work Prairie Wind—is one of most emotionally charged performances I've ever seen captured on film (second only to The Band's final concert in The Last Waltz).

Neil Young: Heart of Gold is a deceptively simple endeavor: Young reassembles the mostly local musicians who played on the album to offer a note-perfect rendition of its songs, as well as tossing in a few gems from past albums (Harvest, Harvest Moon) recorded with these players in this town. Young wrote and recorded most of these tunes in the weeks leading to his life-threatening surgery to remove a brain aneurysm last year. For all he knew, these would be the last songs he'd ever record, and the lyrics and gentle melodies reflect this somber atmosphere. Young's sweet, sandblasted voice has never sounded better or more appropriate, and Demme avoids common trappings of concert films. The camera rarely moves, and there are only a handful of edits. Instead he chooses to linger on Young's weathered face or on one of the many backup musicians on stage at any given time (including Young's wife Pegi and the angelic Emmylou Harris).

Young's minimal between-song banter is priceless, as he tells tales of his recently deceased father, the caretaker who worked the ranch he purchased as a "rich hippy," or small but meaningful events that made up his teenage years. Heart of Gold is about small yet powerful moments: a stolen smile between Neil and Pegi on stage, the other-worldly sound of an almost-hidden gospel choir in some numbers, and a devastating closing-credits featuring Young alone on stage in front of an empty house playing a guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams.

I didn't know much about the content of Heart of Gold when I sat down to watch it. Since the first half is nothing but Prairie Wind material, I briefly believed only songs from that album would be featured in the film, and I knew early on that that would have been fine by me. But then comes "Harvest Moon," "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," to name a few oldies, and the show is elevated all the more. I was nearly moved to tears on more than one occasion. This is not the rock-n-roll Neil of his other concert films Rust Never Sleeps, Year of the Horse or Weld. This is the quiet and contemplative musician, who has always had the ability to reduce complex thoughts and emotions into one or two lines of song and break your heart completely. And Jonathan Demme has once again given us an essential piece of musicianship on film.


Eight Below
With such loathsome films as Into the Blue, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Timeline on his résumé, it's hard to get excited about Paul Walker being in another movie. But with the promising Running Scared opening next week and a starring role in the upcoming Clint Eastwood film, Walker's future is looking a little brighter. I'll confess, I was dreading going to see what appeared to be the family-friendly, feel-good Eight Below, in which Walker stars as Gerry Shepherd, a guide in the Antarctic who takes researchers via an eight-dog sled team to the outer reaches of the frozen wasteland for various scientific endeavors.

We see right from the outset that Shepherd has a close relationship with his animals and would risk a lot to make sure they stay safe. During one of these trips, Shepherd takes his team out with an explorer (Bruce Greenwood) in search of a piece of a meteorite he believes landed in the area. The team's return is delayed thanks to some untimely weather and a few accidents on the return trip and, as a result, Shepherd is forced to leave his dogs behind for what he thinks will be just a few hours while the humans at the Antarctic outpost evacuates. Unfortunately, the weather turns bad and Shepherd is unable to fly back to retrieve his dogs, thus beginning what is essentially two films: one is the less interesting tale of Shepherd attempt for months to find a way back to the outpost to find his dogs; the other is the fascinating real-life story of what these canines endured during their time in this icy hell on earth.

Although Eight Below is rated PG, the hardship these dogs face is fairly brutal, and in the spirit of not giving too much away, this may not be the best film for little kids who were upset by the fate of some of the baby penguins in March of the Penguins. The fact that the filmmakers were even able to recreate some of these moments is remarkable on its own, not that director Frank Marshall doesn't jump at every opportunity to torpedo his own film (a remake of a 1983 Japanese work called Nankyoku Monogatari). An ill-advised romance between Shepherd and a helicopter pilot (Moon Bloodgood) is forced into the goings on. And the never-more-annoying Jason Biggs is on hand to inject what I think is supposed to be comic relief, lest the film get too depressing for the kiddies.

As shocking as it seems, Eight Below is a fairly well put together affair, especially the scenes of the dogs struggling to survive in the harshest environment on the planet. A particularly awe-inspiring sequence I won't soon forget involved a half-eaten killer whale beached on an ice flow that the dogs gnaw on for food. It's both grotesque and fascinating all at once, almost impossible to believe, except that it did happen. The tale of these eight dogs is spectacular enough to sustain your interest during the lesser human stories. I didn't much mind the idea that Shepherd never stopped looking for his dogs; that alone wouldn't have been enough to mess up the film. But there are far too many lame additions to a story that was interesting enough just sticking to the facts. Still, the dogs carry the day and work hard to make Eight Below not quite the endurance test it could have been.


Dirty Work
If you see enough movies in a given year (last year, I saw 439 film just in theatres) you're bound to run into one like Dirty Work, a Chicago production (which I know is supposed to mean something to me, but it doesn't in this case) creeping its way into the Gene Siskel Film Center today through Thursday. I realize I'm at risk of alienating the love and affection of Chicago filmmakers and actors, but Dirty Work is worse than pointless.

Writer-director Bruce Terris' screenplay reminds me of a story written by an 8-year-old who has just discovered the word "fuck" and won't stop using it until its power and impact is lost. And his plot isn't much better as he ham-hands his way through this tale of crooked cops and weird underworld characters. One of my favorite actors from HBO's "The Wire," Lance Reddick is utterly wasted here as Det. Manning, a directionless, miserable man who barely blinks when contemplating whether his actions are right or wrong. Ed Burns veteran Mike McGlone plays Frank Sullivan, a local politician who commits a horrible crime and attempts to cover it up. Fairing best among the actors is Nutsa Kukhianidze (The Good Thief) as Lena, an immigrant hotel housekeeper who is being drawn into the escort business and who witnesses a murder. Sure, it's always great to see such Chicago legends as Austin Pendleton (as the maniac crime boss Julian) or Mike Nussbaum in anything, but Dirty Work is almost unwatchable and uninspired, or perhaps to put it in terms Mr. Terris might understand: this film is fucking shit.

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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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