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Tuesday, November 28

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V for Vendetta
I first saw this adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta in December at the tail end of a 24-hour film marathon. My eyes were sagging; my brain was at times on overdrive, at times begging me to let it shut down; and my ass was numb. The audience was among the first in history to see the movie, and I genuinely was excited to see the first non-Matrix-related screenplay from Andy and Larry Wachowski. (Although the brothers don't direct this film, James McTeigue, the Matrix trilogy's first assistant director, confidently takes the reigns on his first feature film as director.) Despite all my eagerness to watch V for Vendetta unfold in all its anarchic wonder, complete with dazzling fight sequences, bold political positions and staggeringly fine art direction and production design, the film left me equal parts impressed and empty.

V for Vendetta is crammed full of reference points, everything from Hitler to Big Brother to Pink Floyd's The Wall to modern-day terrorist-target London. Sometimes these overlapping philosophies and symbols of injustice and antagonism mesh well into an amalgam of intrigue; sometimes they collide into a confusing heap. The fact is, the film (and all of its ideas) works as often as it fails. Thankfully, V for Vendetta has a great cast to support and make clearer its sometimes-garbled ideas.

The world is near-future London, a place ruled with a crushing hand by Adam Sutler (John Hurt), whose administration crushes any sign of dissention. The people's hero is a flamboyant "terrorist" named "V" (Hugo Weaving, whose face is never actually seen during the film), who wears the mask of Guy Fawkes (the man who attempted to blow up the British Parliament in the 1600s) and possesses extraordinary fighting skills. He mounts a one-man freedom fighting campaign, targeting important government buildings to destroy and officials to take out. Natalie Portman is Evey, a seemingly random woman V singles out to assist him in his plots against the powers that be. But Evey's past makes her almost pre-destined to take part in V's elaborate schemes. Stephen Rea plays a detective who feels it is his duty to unravel the connection between Evey and V, but he also feels the government's activities are out of control and secretly wishes V every success.

Early reports (by some of my Ain't It Cool comrades especially) that V for Vendetta will cause riots of resistance in the streets of the world are highly exaggerated. The film simply isn't that insightful or successful as an instrument of protest. Ultimately, the movie may be best remembered as the jumping off point for a series of hot hairstyles for Natalie Portman, whose head is shaved by the secret police as part of her brutal torture to get her to reveal V's location.

V for Vendetta is a visually masterful film, an excellent platform to show us how committed to her craft Portman truly is, and an impressive debut for director McTeigue. But beyond that, as a film filled with ideas and theories about the nasty parts of society, it falls short. This is still a recommendation, but only a moderate one. As a footnote, I should add that I revisited the film this week on an IMAX screen. I must confess, although I am generally unimpressed by films shot for IMAX projection, I do love watching feature films on those gigantic screens. The combination of a properly lit projector and a powerhouse sound system cannot be beat, and it made V for Vendetta a more positive experience. Plus, I was wide awake this time around.

Ask the Dust
Alright, we get it. Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek are two of the best-looking human beings on the planet. And for those still harboring any doubts, just buy a ticket to Ask the Dust to watch them perform a nude ocean-side romp. It's one of the few scenes that actually works in this major disappointment from Chinatown writer Robert Towne, who directs and adapts John Fante's Depression-era novel about an Italian-American writer named Arturo (Farrell) who moves to California hoping to find the perfect blonde and an inspiration for his writing, but ends up with a feisty, gold-digging Mexican waitress (Hayek) named Camilla. Yeah…did I mention the nudity?

The biggest problem with Ask the Dust is that the actors are both too old for these roles. Farrell's narration is that of a 20-something writer whose life is just beginning and whose ideals are still pure in their own seedy way. And two things bothered me about Camilla: she's so beautiful that there's no way some rich American would not have snatched her up already, no matter how racist Americans were at the time; and she's such a pain in the ass, no one would want her. I realize these are wholly contradictory things to say, and there lies my frustration with the film. So much of it doesn't make sense, and the plot (what there is of it) is the least confusing thing about this work.

Farrell and Hayek spend half the film dancing around each other, attempting to convince themselves, each other and us that there is no way they'll end up together. Yeah, right. And their banter, despite being scripted by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, isn't all that witty. What actually kept me interested in the proceedings were Hayek's undeniable sex appeal and a handful of colorful supporting players, including Idina Menzel as a whacked-out woman obsessed with Arturo, and Donald Sutherland, a drunk who lives in the same flea-trap hotel as Arturo and offers sage words of wisdom to the struggling scribe.

But these side players and stories aren't enough to cure what ails Ask the Dust. The film acts like it has great mysteries to uncover, but in the end, it's a grating love story with overwritten dialogue and miscast beautiful leads. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
The backstory to this Asia Argento-directed film is probably more interesting than the finished product, and the finished product is damn compelling. The story of young author JT Leroy is one for the ages. In 2000, he published a semi-autobiographical novel called Sarah and literary critics raved. A year later, his second novel, The Heart Is Deceitful Above all Things, saw equally critical acclaim. The books were depictions of a terrible upbringing and the all-too-evil things that people do to each other. Celebrities not only read Leroy's works, but they claimed friendships with the elusive writer. He was spotted at various functions, interviews and press events. Eventually, actress Argento (Land of the Dead) acquired the rights to adapt and direct The Heart Is Deceitful.

Just last month, The New York Times revealed Leroy was a completely fictitious identity. In fact, he was a she, a woman named Laura Albert, and Albert's sister-in-law was playing Leroy in public. None of this makes this film (or the novels) any less believable. In fact, I found it nearly impossible to take my eyes off the screen.

Perhaps more than any other film I've seen on the subject of the children of prostitutes and drug addicts, The Heart Is Deceitful assembles a devastating character study of Jeremiah (played young by Firewall's Jimmy Bennett and slightly older by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse), whose whore-junkie mother, Sarah (Argento in a fiercely evil performance), has no interest in shielding her child from the horrors of her life. She wants to immerse him in her filth. After forcibly removing Jeremiah from a seemingly wonderful foster home, Sarah forces hardship after hardship on her child. A succession of boyfriends (including one played by an unrecognizable, makeup-free Marilyn Manson) and homes leaves the boy feeling lost and lonely. For a brief time, Jeremiah is sent to live with his ultra-Christian grandparents (Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti), who have several young men and women under their fundamentalist care.

Although we rarely stop to think about the children of these kinds of parents, it stands to reason that not every substance-abusing mother or father is trying to shield their self-destructive lifestyle from their kids, and The Heart Is Deceitful probably is not an extreme example of people like this. But I've never seen anything quite this eye-opening. The movie occasionally falls into indie-film formula with off-beat casting (including appearances by Ben Foster, Kip Pardue, Jeremy Sisto, Michael Pitt, John Robinson and an uncredited Winona Ryder), but Argento's handling of the 24-hour chaos that is Jeremiah's life is nothing short of perfect. The original score by Billy Corgan simply drives the hardcore point home.

Although the mystery of whether Leroy's writings are born in truth or not may never be known, I maintain that, if the work stands on its own and has a profound impact on reader/viewers, what difference does it make? Argento's approach to drug addiction and sexual destruction is different, but no less disturbing than Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, and that is company worth keeping. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Films set during the Holocaust often focus on one portion of a character's journey during that time. Often we see the events leading up to and including a person's time in a concentration camp, and each story of this time and experience is different and equally painful to watch, so much so that, as shameful as it seems, most moviegoers stopped going to such films after Schindler's List and The Pianist. The finest Holocaust film since those two has made its way to the United States, and it presents a side to these events I'd never considered. Fateless faithfully tracks the experiences of a teenage Jewish boy before, during and after the Nazi occupation of Hungary at the end of World War II.

Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertesz (who also wrote the screenplay), Fateless honestly deals with a nation whose Jews were not all taken before the war's end. As a result, those who returned to Hungary from the liberated camps of Germany and Poland were told by fellow Jews to forget the ordeal, leave it behind, put it out of their minds. Veteran cinematographer Lajos Koltai (Malena, Max, Mephisto, Sunshine, Being Julia) makes his directing debut here with a tale of Budapest-native Gyuri Koves (played by newcomer Marcell Nagy), living the life of a normal teen. His imprisonment strikes him as odd, since Gyuri is not particularly devout, but he soon learns this means nothing to the Germans. He is shipped to a series of camps, and put through unimaginable horrors, including being placed on a death cart bound for a mass grave.

But the most powerful scenes in Fateless happen upon Gyuri's return home, rail thin and still wearing his striped camp clothes. His family is gone and family friends are willing to look after him for a time, but none can identity with what he's gone through. The look of Fateless is what strikes you immediately. The faded, rusty hues add such a sense of time and timelessness to the events. This is Koltai at his finest. On top of these morbid events is a simple, resonating score from the maestro, Ennio Morricone. And look for a surprising cameo by a certain future James Bond as an American soldier who helps liberate Gyuri's camp. It's a nice touch in a film filled with perfect scenes and flawless performances.

Fateless is getting an extremely limited, city-by-city release nationwide, and that's a shame in many ways (I suppose we should be grateful it's playing anywhere, but I'm greedy). This is a work of art, covering a topic about which there will never be too many films. Find this movie if it comes anywhere near your town. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

Duck Season
In the closing credits of the deceptively simply Mexican slice-of-life piece Duck Season, the filmmakers thank American independent godfather Jim Jarmusch and long-dead iconic Japanese writer-director Yasujiro Ozu. If you are familiar with the undeniable styles of these two filmmakers then the sweet, meditative tone of Duck Season makes sense.

Set in a slightly run-down apartment complex (it actually may be a housing project) in Mexico, the film doesn't have a plot, but it does examine a day in the life of two 14-year-old boys, Moko (Diego Cataño) and Flama (Daniel Miranda), whose mother lives in the apartment. The pair want nothing more than to eat junk food and play video games while the mother of one of the boys is out. During the course of the day, the power goes off and on (making the video game playing very difficult), so they search for distractions in other ways. A 16-year-old female neighbor named Rita (Danny Perea) stops by to bake a cake because her oven is broken. And a pizza delivery man in his late-20s, Ulises (Enrique Arreola), comes to deliver a pizza the boys have no intention of paying for. Most of the film consists of these four players interacting, talking and slowly revealing things about themselves that show the darker corners of their empty, somewhat hopeless lives.

The most pained confessions come from Flama, whose parents are in the midst of an ugly divorce. Their constant arguments about the division of every single thing in their apartment have already left deep scars on the boy's heart, and he reacts during the day with a powerful fit of rage. Meanwhile, Moko and Rita find the beginnings of a budding romance. Ulises is the would-be philosopher of the group and acts as the film's comic relief.

Like Jarmusch's early work, director/co-writer Fernando Eimbcke has constructed a lovely black-and-white tribute to minimalism. The individual conversations don't really add up to much, but the cumulative effect of these interactions amount to a great deal, as the awkward and exciting elements of pre-adulthood begin to show through. The nod to Ozu also rings true here. His minimalist style often disguises the fact that deeper issues were simmering just under the surface. His films were as much about culture as they were universal truths, but the influence is clear in Duck Season. Some may find the lack of story or of any real drama tedious and frustrating, and that's understandable. But Duck Season is a noble work that provides a solid counter-position to a lot of the action and comedy films we've been seeing out of Mexico lately. It's a serene and quietly emotional piece that really impressed me.

She's the Man
My questions are simple: who the hell is Amanda Bynes, and why is she taking up my valuable time? I suppose the kiddies know her best from her voice work on "Rugrats" or the film Robots, which is appropriate since her acting method resembles that of a cartoon. Her gestures and expressions are exaggerated. She rolls her eyes with such ferocity that you almost think they're going to pop out of her skull. The way she expresses inner torment is about a subtle as a bear with a bullhorn. The first time I laid eyes on her was a couple years back in a terrible film called What a Girl Wants, in which I realized two things: Amanda Bynes is mildly appealing, and she can't act to save her or anybody else's life.

In the romantic teen comedy She's the Man, maybe the funniest joke in the film is that it claims to be based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Well, if a running gag about Bynes dressing like a boy, pretending to be her twin brother, qualifies as Shakespeare then I'll eat my size 13s. Oh, I almost forgot, most of the characters take their names (Bynes plays Viola, her brother's name is Sebastian, and Viola's love interest is Duke Orsino; give me a break) from the play. So that's something, I guess. Viola is something of a tomboy and loves playing soccer. But when the girls' soccer program is cut from her school, she decides to attend her brother's prep school as Sebastian while he's secretly off in London. Since nobody at the prep school knows what Sebastian looks like, it's a foolproof plan, right? Got it? Hello?

All sorts of shenanigans ensue. How can she shower in front of the rest of the men's soccer team? How can she have a secret crush on her roommate without looking gay? How can she express her true girly feeling about anything without her voice getting higher? These are important life questions, people. Viola's divorced parents are useless; school administrators are even worse (especially David Cross as the school principal; I'm pretty sure that, between this film and his voice work in Curious George, David Cross has completely sold his soul to the Hollywood devil).

To be fair, She's the Man is not a film without charm or genuine laughs. Sometimes the situations in which Viola finds herself are so ridiculously stupid, you can't help but laugh. I'm going to talk out of school for a second, but most of the critics in the screening I attended were laughing out loud at various points during this movie. I doubt any of them will recommend She's the Man, but the laughs are there. But between the spaced-apart giggles are enormous chunks of tedium, and first-time feature director Andy Fickman has no idea how to fill in those excruciating gaps. She's the Man is an awful film about 80 percent of the time, but it may be one of those rare gems that some consider so bad it's good, or at least worth watching drunk with friends and making fun of the entire mess. In an ideal world, Shakespeare would rise from his grave a zombie and eat everyone connected with the making of this film. Now that would be some movie!

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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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