As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Airbags

Well, since there isn't much happening in the world of film this week, allow me to offer you a few…Okay, fine. Allow me to reintroduce myself: I'm the only film critic on the planet who hasn't seen the new Star Wars film yet. Because of my travel schedule and my not being invited to the official press screening (as is often the case with us lowly online critics), I missed both Chicago-area early screenings. I'll have the review next week, I promise. In the meantime, there are some excellent alternatives to the Lucas-verse just begging you to give them a shot.

Unleashed
Despite his massive worldwide popularity, martial arts legend Jet Li hasn't really proved his chops as an actor until recently. Don't get me wrong: no other Chinese actor does the stone-faced stoic as well as he does, but such roles don't usually require a whole lot of dialogue or emotion. In addition, his English-language outings (Romeo Must Die, The One, Cradle 2 the Grave) haven't exactly matched his Chinese films in terms of quality. With 2002's Hero, Jet Li finally got a chance to display his full range of talents; and with Unleashed, Jet Li the actor may finally have come into his own. Easily more than half of this film does not feature Li's highly physical brand of martial arts fighting. Instead, we get Jet Li: Master Thespian.

Jet Li plays Danny, a man raised in London since childhood to be a dog to his master, a British gangster played with perfect ferocity by Bob Hoskins. Danny wears an industrial-strength collar, which, when worn, keeps him docile and obedient. When the collar is removed, Danny becomes a killing machine, which Hoskins uses to keep those who owe him money in line. When he's not being used as an enforcer, Danny lives under the floor and gets fed table scraps. Li's skills as an action star are unmatched, and when you pair him with action choreographer Woo-ping Yuen (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill), you get something resembling visual poetry.

Danny is separated from his master during a gun battle and lands in the care of a blind piano tuner named Sam (Morgan Freeman) and his ditzy adopted daughter, Victoria (Kerry Condon). For the first time since he was very young, Danny is being treated as a human being, and the love and affection take him a while to get used to (about as long as it takes him to learn to eat with utensils). It's in these quiet, relatively sweet sequences that Li the actor comes to the surface. And although you know his past will catch up to Danny eventually, you almost hope it won't because the character is genuinely interesting. It's also during these serene moments when Danny starts to remember things from his early childhood, including images of his mother, whom he had been told abandoned him as a baby.

Working from a script by Luc Besson, first-time director Louis Leterrier balances the past and the present, the action and the family drama nicely. Those who want to see Jet Li kick major ass might not think so, but those (like me) who don't mind a little character development thrown into their kung fu will be pleased. I hope Jet Li continues to take risks like this in the future. I doubt the guy will ever win any Oscars, but his portrayal of the sometimes nervous and twitchy, sometimes brutal Danny is one worth seeing.

Layer Cake
I'm a big fan of British gangster films. I'm sure it has something to do with the accents, but more than that, there's a brutality to them that I find both appalling and appealing. Probably the best ever made is The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins. Before he became pansified by Madonna, Guy Ritchie was well on his way to becoming the heir apparent to the throne of British gangster movies with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. The very American Matthew Vaughn produced those two films and now takes his first crack behind the lens with Layer Cake, the best Guy Ritchie film that Ritchie never got around to making. (Not to count him out entirely after Swept Away, but Ritchie's new film, Revolver, due later this year, is a return to his criminal roots. Whether it's a return to form remains to be seen.) If Vaughn's name sounds familiar to film geeks, it's because he's just been signed to direct X-Men 3, based largely on his accomplishments on Layer Cake.

The man who might be Bond, Daniel Craig, plays the Drug Dealer with No Name, who caters only to upper-crust clients and works for a man named Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). The fairly complex plot begins when our antihero is called upon by Jimmy to find his missing daughter. What follows is a tour of both London's underworld and its upper crust. Unlike many other British film gangsters, Craig's character operates largely in finer circles while still managing to do business and keep a low profile. As the search goes on, another gang headed by The Duke (Jamie Foreman) steals a massive quantity of Ecstasy from a Serbian dealer in Amsterdam, and Craig finds himself being forced to dispose of the pills.

Vaughn does a stellar job of spinning these dangerous events through each other. The tension level rises slowly and soon Craig's life rests at the center of 18 kinds of danger. The director isn't as concerned with wild and wacky camera tricks (like Ritchie) or with tossing in fistfuls of eccentric characters to make us laugh. The story and moderately amusing characters in Layer Cake keep us entertained plenty without the fireworks. There is something dignified and classy about the proceedings. And at the center of it is the remarkable Craig, who I've been enjoying thoroughly since he terrified me as Paul Newman's psychotic son in Road to Perdition, and has continued to impress me more recently in films like The Mother, Sylvia, and my favorite, Enduring Love. Also on hand here are the wonderful Colm Meany, Jason Flemyng, Michael Gambon and Sienna Miller. Aside from being wildly entertaining, Layer Cake marks a bold and exciting debut from Vaughn, who better not screw up my X-Men.

Mad Hot Ballroom
Documentaries about elementary or junior high school kids in competition have been very popular over the years. Small Wonders, about children learning advanced violin from a dedicated teacher, was made into the feature film Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. And there's the king of all movies of this sub-sub-genre: Spellbound, about champion spelling bee students, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 and introduced us to some of the most fascinating characters (young or old) I saw that entire year. Allow me now to tell you a little about Mad Hot Ballroom from director Marilyn Agrelo, a film that begs (and answers) the question, why the hell are little kids learning the tango? And why do I find it so damn entertaining?

Mad Hot Ballroom profiles three New York City public schools, all of which include ballroom dancing as an actual class (as opposed to some sort of after-school activity) for 11-year-olds. The teachers who run these classes put the kids through a very physical training of the merengue, the rumba, the foxtrot, some swing dancing and the aforementioned tango. No sign of the lambada, thank God. It is the Forbidden Dance, after all. The teachers select a small number of students (one couple per dance style) to compete in a citywide competition against about 60 other schools. As expected, some of the kids (most of whom are of the inner-city variety) couldn't care less about the dance experience, while others want to be on the team so badly they cry at every mistake they make while practicing.

As with Spellbound, certain kids in Mad Hot Ballroom come to the foreground as full-blown "stars," each with his or her own background and upbringing for us to examine. Sometimes these kids are absolutely hilarious; other times, they break your heart so many different ways as the everyday pressures in their lives come to a head with this contest. It's sometimes a bit startling to hear the children talk about dancing one minute and the dangers of selling drugs the next. Perhaps the most surprising highlight for me was the tenacity of the teachers. They absolutely will not take any crap from these kids. Punishment for acting up is severe and swift, sometimes costing a child a spot on the team. And since the teachers spend far more time with these kids in a given day than the kids' own parents, the teachers' emotional attachment to these children is strong.

At its core, Mad Hot Ballroom is about entertaining the hell out of us. From showing us the nervousness of two youngsters forced to look at each other eye-to-eye during a dance routine, to actually touching a member of the opposite sex for such extended periods of time, the film illustrates how these kids are molded into young ladies and gentlemen in an effort to excel at dancing. And the teachers are happy to tell us all about the transformations. Kids who were in trouble every week stay out of trouble throughout the course of the year they are learning dance, and beyond. Once structure and responsibility are introduced into their lives, the results are remarkable. By the time the film reaches the climactic finals, you will be undeniably hooked. Mad Hot Ballroom will be 2005's first hit documentary. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre.

Brothers
Perhaps the most incestuous (and I mean that in the best possible definition of the word) of all the world's film industries is that of Denmark. It seems like every Danish film I've seen in the last 10 years has pulled varying combinations of actors, writers and directors from the same pool. It certainly makes it easy for me to keep track of all the players in Danish film. I think my favorite Danish actor is Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who has impressed me with his range in such films as Lars von Trier's The Idiots, as well as Truly Human, Reconstruction and Open Hearts. In last year's The Green Butchers, Kaas played the dual role of a butcher and his brain-damaged brother. His latest film, Brothers, also deals with family, but at its core, this is an anti-war movie.

Kaas plays Jannik, who is released from prison and taken in by his brother, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen of The Celebration), and Michael's wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen, from Gladiator, a native starring in her first Danish film). Michael is in the Danish army and is called to fight in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan. In the time before Michael's deployment, Jannik starts up with the same reckless lifestyle that earlier got him thrown in jail by staying out late drinking and hanging out with skanky women. As he's leaving for Afghanistan, Michael makes Jannik promise to take care of his wife and children while he's gone, but we don't hold much hope that Jannik will follow through. Shortly after arriving in the war-torn desert, Michael's helicopter is shot down and he is presumed dead.

Michael's family, which includes a bitter, drunken father and a blissfully ignorant mother, is devastated by his death, but somehow Jannick taps into a place of maturity and steps up to help Michael's wife and children however he can. Michael, of course, is still alive and has been captured by Afghani troops. His life is still very much in danger, and he is forced to do things to stay alive that haunt him immeasurably. Back in Denmark, Sarah and Jannick glow close and there's a hint of intensity between them that could turn into something romantic, but for the time they agree not to let it.

Anyone who has seen Coming Home knows what happens next…sort of. The real power of Brothers comes in its third act, when Michael's guilt and paranoia result in him turning against those who loved him and held his memory closest when they thought he'd died. Michael's homecoming is not the film's conclusion; in many ways, it's only the beginning of the best drama this film has to offer. Thomsen's portrayal of a solider with post-traumatic stress disorder is among the best I've ever seen, but equally impressive is the way Nielsen's character attempts to handle him, counter him with kindness. It's a losing approach to his problems, but she knows no other way to deal with his rage and jealousy.

Brothers is an emotional powder keg of a film that taps into the intensely personal as beautifully as it does global matters. Director Susanne Bier (Open Hearts) and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (Mifune, Open Hearts, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, The Green Butchers) have crafted something difficult and special, something well worth seeking out. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theatre.

GB store
 

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 .

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15