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Wednesday, October 18

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Airbags

Alright, folks. I said I'd admit if I was wrong about what the studios would hide from us and what they would dare to show critics in advance. I was invited to a screening of The Hitcher on Thursday night (the day before its opening day), which doesn't give me enough time to review it for you, but it does force me to say that, yes, technically they showed it to me before it opened. The studios are trying the same Thursday night shit next week with a werewolf flick called Blood and Chocolate, but since I'll be flying back from Las Vegas that night, I can't attend. My prediction about Epic Movie not being shown at all stands, however. This week is relatively quiet but has some strong offerings for you…

Venus

Once in a great while, a film character arrives that could only be played by one specific actor. The part typically plays off the actor's reputation (either personally or professionally), their previous works or their iconic status. Think John Wayne in The Shootist, Marlon Brando in The Freshman, Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, or John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Add to the list (and perhaps put at the top of said list) Venus, starring the 74-year-old, heavily wrinkled yet still razor sharp Peter O'Toole, who turns in the performance of his long and checkered lifetime. With the help of a respectful yet honest screenplay by author Hanif Kureishi and solid direction from Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill; The Mother, which Kureishi wrote), Venus is the greatest tribute any filmmakers could pay a great actor who deserves nightly tributes complete with an open bar and beautiful women outnumbering the men 2-to-1.

The film centers on a small group of old friends who happen to be actors, some of whom still manage to find some film and television work. O'Toole plays Maurice, who was at one point in his life quite handsome and equally famous, a world-renowned carouser and womanizer whose wildest days are long behind him. The part is so clearly a version of O'Toole that it sometimes makes you slightly uncomfortable watching the actor remember better days as he lays on a hospital gurney playing yet another dying old man for an "E.R."-like television drama. But he's happy just to be working and interacting with younger people.

His two best friends are Ian and Donald (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths), two fellow actors who are clearly envious of Maurice's workload and talent. When these three thespians get together at a pub, a frothy mixture of love and venom is tossed around, providing some of the film's best scenes. Ian has a barely legal grandniece Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whitaker) who is coming to stay with him after her parents essentially give up on her, but Ian grows impatient with her ungrateful, self-destructive ways after only a few days. Maurice can't help noticing the leggy, spirited girl and volunteers to be her one-man refinement school. Before you start thinking Venus is yet another May-December romance (more like February-December in this case) tale, trust me, it's more complicated than that. Maurice absolutely begins looking at the girl as a desirable object, and while she appreciates his life lessons and occasional spending money, it's clear love is not on the agenda. What develops inside Maurice is a longing and a frustration knowing that if he were in his prime, he could seduce this pretty young thing, probably even sober.

As if to remind himself of his glory days, he maintains a friendship with his ex-wife (probably one of many) Valerie (the transcendent Vanessa Redgrave), who was treated very badly by Maurice's wandering eye but still clearly adores him. Just seeing these two seasoned stage and screen vets together for their couple of brief scenes is worth the price of admission. But it's the relationship between Maurice and Jessie that provides the fireworks. She uses him to get material possessions, and he uses her to feel young again. But eventually (and in the least sentimental way possible) the film turns their interactions into lessons on self-worth. Jessie is a bit of a tramp/party girl, probably not that different from the women Maurice ravished in his younger days. He can't berate her for her behavior, so instead he attempts to teach her to respect herself and be a bit more selective and careful in her decisions regarding men. It's a remarkably mature and moving approach to this material, and I've never seen a film that deals with these issues in quite this way.

But, let's face it, you'll go to see Venus because Peter O'Toole is one of the last film gods left on this planet. The film is so powerfully worthy of his talents that it single-handedly pays tribute to his legacy, not by telling us how great he is, but by simply reminding us how powerful an actor the man can be. With a simple look or gesture, O'Toole can make us laugh, cry, remember and care. Venus is technically a 2006 release, which is why we've already started seeing O'Toole's name pop up as a contender in some awards shows. But this is by no means the "old guy" nomination. He's outstanding here and deserves every accolade he's receiving for the work. We're lucky to have him and even luckier to have this movie to showcase him.

God Grew Tired of Us

In the category of harrowing, raw documentaries that plunge into the darkest parts of human behavior to find the few glimmers of light in an otherwise bleak world, God Grew Tired of Us would top the bill. Centering on a group of young men from the Sudan who have been wandering the African countryside looking for something resembling a home, the film follows them as they prepare to fly to America as part of a program that finds them homes, jobs and above all safety in a nation that seems slightly less hateful toward them. And while it would seem to most of us that leaving the almost guaranteed death sentence of the African wilderness for the grocery stores and strip malls of America would be ideal, these "lost boys" of the Sudan find a different set of obstacles confronting them upon their arrival on these shores.

Co-directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker and narrated by Nicole Kidman (and just to throw in a few more notable names, Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener and Dermot Mulroney are all producers of the film), God Grew Tired of Us shows these men struggling to survive in small camps in Africa. Those who are left behind may not be alive in a year's time, but the men are used to such a cost since most of their families were slaughtered attempting to leave the Sudan. The level of loss and grief these people feel is unimaginable, which makes their spirit and conviction all the more impressive and inspirational.

Their journey to America is sometimes humorous, sometimes scary as they encounter what for us is the everyday (airline food, escalators, electric lights), but when they begin to settle down in various cities across the country, the reality of their new situations becomes clear. They must work multiple jobs to have money to live with and send home to those few remaining relatives in Africa. They keep painfully long hours, working mostly minimum-wage jobs to live in small apartment, often three or four to a unit. In other words, they have joined the ranks of the impoverished. However, having a safe home base does afford them the ability to search for missing relatives. One of the men is John Gau, a towering man who seems better off than most and does manage to locate his family from the Sudan, most of whom survived the massacres. He becomes an advocate for the Lost Boys and is a critical organizer for such men all over the country who plead with the U.S. government to do something about the wholesale killing of his people.

In many ways Gau is our entry point into this story, and when he is able to bring his mother to America, it's a reunion that will rank among the greatest ever captured on film. God Grew Tired of Us is not an easy film to watch, especially when we begin to realize that the government will not only do nothing to help the situation in Africa but also will do little to improve the Lost Boys existence in America. They even have to pay the government back for their plane tickets. Directors Quinn and Walker do an outstanding job demonstrating how struggles rarely just go away; they just change venues. The film will not warm your heart without a price, and for those cowards among you who insist upon only happy endings in the movies you pay for, not every Sudanese Lost Boy finds happiness here in America. For some, the pressures of modern living and guilt for those left behind is simply too much to endure. And don't think for a second that all Americans are happy about these men moving into their communities. God Grew Tired of Us will open your eyes to many of the world's injustices and tear at the fabric of your soul. But above all else, the film and its subjects reveal to you the endurance of the human spirit. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Opal Dream

This Australian family film from British director Peter Cattaneo (The Fully Monty) is about as charming as they come without heaping on loads of sentimentality to appeal to kids. I'll confess I didn't know this was movie aimed at younger audiences until well into the film since the film's setting (an opal mining community in the Australian Outback) doesn't exactly scream "bring the kiddies." But the story (adapted from the Ben Rice novel Pobby and Dingan) deals with children as actual human beings and not simply in cartoonish, immature ways.

The focus of the film is the young brother and sister team of Ashmol (Christian Byers) and Kellyanne Williamson (Sapphire Boyce). Kellyanne has two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan, who go everywhere with her. As frustrated as her parents (played by Vince Colosimo and Jacqueline McKenzie) are with this phase in Kellyanne's life, they learn quickly that they, too, must pretend the friends are real (by setting places for them at the dinner tables, or making sure they are buckled in during car rides) or face their daughter's moody temperament. When the imaginary pair go missing, Kellyanne's father (at her behest) heads back to his mining claim to look for them. He accidentally strays onto another miner's claim and is accused of being a "ratter" (someone who steals from another man's claim during the night) by the entire community.

So while the father is trying to clear his name, he loses patience with his daughter's insistence that he find her missing friends. Kellyanne eventually gets very sick as a result of her loss, and her brother comes to the rescue to uncover the mystery of what happened to Pobby and Dingan. The film doesn't sugarcoat the behavior of the miners (there are no four-letter words, but they do drink and commit acts of vandalism against the Williamson's home and property. As the family become outcasts in the community, dad is forced to open up a claim far away from where opal deposits are thought to be, and the family's financial struggles become dire, as does the young girl's health.

In many ways, Opal Dream resembles a Depression-era children's story or something akin to lightweight Dickens. The film succeeds because it never looks away from the ugliness of the way the family is treated by the townspeople. And much thanks to Cattaneo for resisting the temptation to somehow visually represent Kellyanne imaginary friends. The movie manages to be both gentle and hard-edged, based in reality but still managing to find room for imagination. The plot surrounding the missing friends and the little girl's illness resolves itself beautifully, and the film is a small and wonderful examination of family, friendship and community. I know it doesn't sound like your typical film to take the kids to, but for slightly older youngsters this would be a welcome change of pace.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

This one may sound familiar to some of you because it originally opened in late November 2006 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Apparently it was so popular, they're bringing it back. Here's my original review.

It's funny how certain expressions have so deeply ingrained themselves into our culture that we understand them without knowing their origins. When someone says, "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," we know it's a warning against falling victim to Group Think or behavior someone has convinced you is right when every possible indicator says that it's wrong. But if you're under the age of 30, you may not have any real recollection of that dark day of November 18, 1978, when more than 900 members of Peoples Temple died (whether by suicide or brainwashed-inspired murder continues to be a hotly debated issue) in the isolated jungles of Guyana in South America. All of these people, in what has been classified as the largest mass suicide in history, were under the influence and leadership of Temple leader Jim Jones, and this deeply disturbing documentary provides some of the most startling audio and visual footage of the man and his practices that I've ever seen.

Jonestown traces the almost predestined journey of Jones, who, as a boy, was obsessed with two things: death and religion. According to childhood friends, he would kill animals just so he could hold elaborate funerals for them. But in all fairness, the early years of Jones' career as a religious leader seemed positive and socially responsible. In a time in the United States when racial inequality and integration were not the norm, Jones' newfound church was fully integrated as he spoke of the evils of racism. As a true revolutionary, he instructed his followers to build a truly socialist society, in which the poor and the elderly were provided for and given food, clothing and beautiful dwellings. It's not surprise that the People Temple grew to become a political force in California in the mid-1970s, after leaving the smaller-minded confines of Indiana. And for a while, watching this film makes you completely reassess everything you'd heard about what a strange and sick man Jones was, as Temple members testify about the greatness of what they accomplished.

But filmmaker Stanley Nelson does a terrific job of showing the slow and steady changes in Jones' behavior, and how being praised and worshipped by his followers made him believe he could do anything he wanted to them. It wasn't long before the congregations were praising him, rather than God. Church defectors and family members of those in the organization tell tales of physical and sexual abuse that may turn your stomach. Jones clearly did not practice the life he preached. One woman's account of a sexual encounter with Jones is particularly awful, as she describes him lying on top of her repeating, "This is for you." Other members speak of ritualized beatings as a means of corporal punishment for sins against the church.

But director Nelson doesn't rely on just talking heads. He has assembled an almost overwhelming amount of archival footage of Jones, who turns out to be one of the most well-documented cult leaders in history. (The word "cult" was practically unknown in this country before the Guyana tragedy.) Not only do we get sections of Jones as preacher, healer and center of worship, but audio tapes reveal his increasing sense of paranoia as his power grew, and he transferred this fear of outsiders and inside defectors onto his followers. An extensive exposé on the People Temple was set to run in a California magazine, and it was on the day of its publication that Jones and hundreds of faithful fled to the still-under-construction model society in Guyana.

The film's final harrowing act centers on the visit of California Congressman Leo Ryan, who came to Jonestown on the eve of the mass suicide (and whose visit, along with members of the media, may have inspired Jones to call his followers to die) on a fact-finding mission. The visit seemed to be going well, until some Temple members began slipping notes begging for help to members of the visiting team. Ryan and several others were gunned down as they were getting on their plane to leave Guyana. The most troubling uncovered footage are audio tapes of Jones prompting his followers to take their own lives rather than let the "invaders" that would come as a result of Ryan's death take them. His commanding voice urges them to kill their children first, telling them not to cry because they are going to a different plane of existence. The interviews with those who escaped Jonestown are difficult to watch because all of them lost family members on that day. The emotion and immediacy of that day is still raw.

Jonestown is a solidly researched and exceptionally constructed documentary that goes out of its way to not paint a simple picture of an evil man twisted by religion and power. Jim Jones' downward spiral took years, and many of those who followed him didn't even see the change until it was far too late. The film is not so much a cautionary tale as it is an unpleasant reminder that the late 1960s and early 1970s not only birthed hippies and peace and free love, but it also gave rise to blind faith in leaders who drew people in with promises of positive social change and twisted this good feeling into something ugly and awful. I'm sure there are plenty of people today who would like to think that something like Jonestown could never happen again, but human nature may have something to say about that. The film re-opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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