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Thursday, October 19

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Airbags

Hey everyone. Primarily due to a busy pre-Chicago International Film Festival schedule, I missed a few press screenings of films opening this weekend. My biggest regret is not getting to see director Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? with Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and Bruce Willis, among many others. I have no idea if the movie is any good or not, but with a cast like that, I don't really care. Also opening this week is The Secret Lives of Bees, which I hear is a great book, but the trailers for the film look sappier than honey. But fear not because I've already gotten my invite for next week's High School Musical 3, and you know damn well, I'm not missing that.

And speaking of the CIFF, this year is a doozey. One of the best line-ups in the past 10 years, featuring such fare as the superb Opening Night offering The Brothers Bloom (which you've already missed since opening day was yesterday) from writer-director Rian (Brick) Johnson, starring Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo; the animated horror anthology Fear(s) of the Dark; the skull-rattling The Good, The Bad, The Weird from South Korea; director Mike Leigh's brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky; the deeply moving French offering I've Loved You So Long, starring Kristin Scott Thomas in the best work of her career; Pride and Glory from director Gavin O'Conner, starring Colin Farrell and Edward Norton; Danny (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire; writer-director Charlie Kaufman's (writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich) freakishly good Synecdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton; Kevin Smith's vulgarian gigglefest Zack and Miri Make a Porno; and Darren (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Fountain) Aronofsky's The Wrestler, with an absolutely heart-crushing performance from Mickey Rourke.

I'll have full reviews of all of these films when they open, and all sorts of interviews with directors and actors to accompany the reviews. And these are just the films that are playing in the first week. You should also be aware that all of the films this year are screening within blocks of each other, primarily at the AMC River East 21 and 600 N. Michigan Ave. 9 theaters. A few special presentations are also playing at the Harris Theater at the north end of Millennium Park.

W.

If Oliver Stone hadn't felt the need to push this film into the public eye prior to the November presidential election (a decision I fully support if that's what he wanted to do, but I in no way understand that call) and he'd spent an extra two or three months filming and editing his latest work W., we would have ended up with a much different movie. And I think that movie would have been a better movie than this admirable but still very much surface treatment of our current president. I get it: he's a career fuck-up with daddy issues and a misguided sense of faith. He's not much for that fancy book learnin' but he excels at being a people person. None of these elements is particularly earth-shattering news. I remember shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001, I saw a documentary that followed him on the campaign trail. I was so impressed with him as a networker. I remember a particular sequence of him on a plane with a coach class full of reporters, and how he would typically walk back into coach just to talk to reporters in a laid-back, casual fashion. If he couldn't win them with his politics, he'll win them with his charm. It seemed to be working.

Before I write another word, let me make it clear that I really did enjoy most of W., especially for a handful of truly awe-inspiring performances, which I'll get into shortly. The film jumps back and forth between the events leading up to and including the Iraq War and Bush's adult life, beginning with his intense hazing in the hands of his fraternity brothers. Immediately, we learn how and why Bush seems intent on sticking everyone he knows with a nickname, even foreign leaders. It's a great moment early on. The curious thing about W. is that I don't think Republicans or other Bush supporters will take any great offense at much of what is presented here. Rather than dive head first into an exercise in muckraking, Stone's approach is remarkably and sometimes disappointingly even handed. Early trailers led us to believe this film might approach farce proportions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure there is the occasional zinger or attention drawn to classic Bush-isms, but for the most part this is a straightforward biopic. Stone inserts the recurring image of Bush in an empty baseball park (in which he can still hear the roar of the crowd cheering on his every move... until he can't).

Josh Brolin seems to have been born to play this part. He's so good and so nails this character in voice, gestures, faces and personality that you stop noticing how good he is early on. He just becomes George W. Bush, and he plays him at every age with just the right level of righteous intensity mixed with stubbornness and a dash of playfulness. James Cromwell plays his father, George H.W. Bush as a disapproving father who resents the royal screw-up and obvious alcoholic this son has become. Instead, the elder Bush favors brother Jeb.

As much as I enjoyed some of Stone's Psych 101 profile of Bush: The Early Years, the more modern-day stuff is far more compelling. There is a War Room meeting in the middle of the film where Bush and his key advisors decide whether or not to invade Iraq, and the scene stands as one of the greatest I've seen all year. This scene spotlights a couple of the supporting players better than any other. First and foremost, Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell is mind-blowingly great, as the lone man against going in because the proof of that nation's WMDs just wasn't there. He still went down with the ship when he decided to go before the United Nations and present unsubstantiated evidence. And then there is Richard Dreyfuss' scarily real Dick Chaney, who is accused of spelling out the plan not just to get rid of Sadaam and free those under his tyrannical lead, but also as the mastermind behind plot do a little empire building in the Middle East. He's Iago, whispering words of friendship and guidance into his king's ear but clearly holding him in the lowest regard.

Toby Jones' portrait of Karl Rove is fascinating, and probably deserves its own movie. He clearly has very close friendship with Bush, but the root of their connection is unclear. Rove comes across as the nerd who is just so happy to fall in with a cool crowd that he will do anything the leader of that crowd asks. Bush likes Rove because he takes his thoughts and turns them into words that the media will eat up. There's a sequence set outdoors during Bush's run for Texas governor where they pair are running through anticipated questions from the media. Some of the answers are answers, some are attacks, and some are clearly avoidance techniques. Rounding out some of the film's most interesting performers is Elizabeth Banks' take on Laura Bush, who is transformed from a strong Democratic supporter into the wife of George Bush. It almost feels like there are missing scenes with her. Did he literally charm her away from her convictions, or were they simply never that strong to begin with? I wanted to learn more about the First Lady, and Banks is such a gifted actress (soon to be seen in two very different films in the coming weeks — Zack and Miri Make A Porno and Role Models), it's a shame Stone didn't explore here a bit more.

Although W. doesn't approach the greatness of some of Stone's other films — in particular Nixon, which also presented a disliked president in a fairly sympathetic light — it is a film worth seeing for its attempts (albeit pedestrian at times) to humanize a man who many believe is far too human to begin with. George W.Bush is as easy a target as some of the characters Bill Maher goes after in Religulous, another film I truly liked, but I think Stone could have dug deeper and expanded his scope. I was particularly shocked that there is no scene in this film showing the immediate Bush reaction to the attacks of 9/11. And I can think of a half-dozen other moments that I wish he'd included, any of which would have been more telling about the kind of leader Bush is than yet another scene where he fights with his father. When Stone puts us behind the scenes of some of the most important decisions made in modern history is when he's at his best. The movie opens with the meeting in which the term "Axis of Evil" was coined, and it's quite funny. Even for what it lacks, I'm still glad Stone didn't turn his profile of Bush into a complete lampoon of the man. Brolin's thoughtful performance moves it from simply being a "Saturday Night Live" spoof and into a realm that more closely resembles reality, or at least a version of it. This is a flawed piece that Stone might very well continue working on long after its release date (I'd say the odds are better than 50-50), and I look forward to seeing future versions that will dig a little deeper into this person who is both simple to understand and impossible to know.

Sex Drive

I judge teen sex comedies pretty simply. If I find myself laughing more than 50 percent of the film's running time, I recommend it. If I only laugh 51 percent of the time, the recommendation isn't particularly strong, but it's still a passing grade. If the laughs are accompanied by a solid story with characters fleshed out enough to make me care about them, well then, I'm in heaven. I'm unfamiliar with director and co-writer (along with John Morris) Sean Anders' first film Never Been Thawed, but I've heard it's solid material, and I will seek it out. His latest work, Sex Drive, had me laughing a great deal, howling on several occasions, and in a near-constant state of glorious cringe from all of the indignities that are thrust upon its unsuspecting cast, led by Josh Zuckerman as Ian and Clark Duke as Lance, who steals absolutely every scene he's in, which is nearly all of them.

High school dork Ian is tempted by an online hookup with a woman he knows as Ms. Tasty. He's only seen photos of her and she lives hundreds of miles away. Still, Ian thinks the guarantee she's given him that he'll score if he makes the journey to see her is enough to steal his brother's car (James Marsden as the loudmouth, homophobic, bully brother is a scream), snatch up his buddy Lance, as well as his best friend Felicia (Amanda Crew), to make the drive with him. The film is a classic road movie and delves to the depth of vulgarity that films like American Pie and Harold & Kumar have also traveled. But I happen to love those movies, and how they combine the sick humor with some truly silly shit. The group's Odyssey-like journey takes them to an Amish village, where they meet the world's only sarcastic Amish man, played to perfection by Seth Green; a sleazy roadside carnival; and a trailer park where Lance learns a new sexual practice — the rolling brown-out.

In the end, Sex Drive is cast in the classic "guy needs to lose his virginity ASAP" mold. We know the premise, now it's the filmmakers' job to impress me with the creativity of their comedy, which they absolutely do. The Mexican donut is only a fraction of the humor. Marsden and Green are only a part of it. Clark Duke, in many ways, is the beginning, middle, and end of all that is good about this movie. I liked the sweet crush between Ian and Felicia, but that storyline plays out right on schedule. Lance is a lose cannon whose Hefner-like qualities are apparent only to the hundreds of ladies that's he's seen occupy his bed. He's an inspiration to us all. I'd love to just say Sex Drive is a big, dumb comedy that you can just shut off your brain and enjoy. But the fact is that the movie is secretly smart; the characters aren't exactly deep, but they're well-written enough to make us care about what happens to them; and there's a sweetness to the film that serves as the true heart and soul of the movie. I realize a comedy with few name stars is a tough sell in this day and age, but the fact is that if you plop down your money and get your butt in that seat, you'll love this little comedy morsel. I predict massive DVD popularity, and maybe that's a good thing, but a good time will be had by anyone seeing this with a paying crowd, I promise.

Max Payne

I'm rally mad at this movie, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time picking it apart. I'm not saying this would have made it any better, but we have a movie call Max Payne, featuring potentially some of the rawest violence and most sultry women (including Mila Kunis and soon-to-be James Bond sidekick Olga Kurylenko, and director John Moore (who did the remakes of Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen) delivers a PG-13 crap that culminates with Mark Wahlberg's Payne going from room to room blasting away everything in site, much like, hmm, a video game? OK, so the idea from the film originated from a videogame and I'm sure there's an R-rated cut coming to DVD in a few months, but that doesn't mean it has to feel so two-dimensional.

There's no humor, there's no heart, there's no fun here. Everyone is so glum, drugged out of their mind, or sneeringly evil that there are no surprises and no investment on my part in these characters. Even the lovely Kunis, who is the heart and soul of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, can't save herself in this poorly written douche chill of a movie. No matter how many skimpy leather outfits they strapped her into, I wasn't buying her as a tough lady any more than I was buying Wahlberg as an emotionally damaged cop looking for his wife's killer, or Beau Bridges as the laughably over-played head of security for Payne's dead wife's employer, or Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as Internal Affairs detective Jim Bravura, the only cop keeping an eye out for Payne's best interest. Every performance falls flat, the movie smells of stale bird shit, and the art direction looked so standard-issue dark and gloomy, I wanted to set a fire in the theater just to illuminate the place. Forced atmosphere never works, and this movie failed to generate any heat from my loins. Stay far away from Max Payne.

Moving Midway

One of most unexpectedly wonderful documentaries I've seen all year slips into the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning today. Directed by Godfrey Cheshire (best known as a New York-based film critic), this is the story of Cheshire's extended family, whose roots are deep in a former plantation in North Carolina called Midway, owned by his eldest cousin and square in the middle of a future community development. Rather than be surrounded by a new Target and Home Depot, as well as a housing development and busy highways, the cousin decides to literally pick up the rather large home and move it to a larger, quieter plot of land a few miles away. What I thought was going to be an interesting look at the physical process of moving such a large home by contractors turned into something far more meaningful (and we still get to see the house jacked up and placed on trucks!).

What comes to light in the months before the actual move is that this very white Southern family has an entirely African-American branch to its family tree, which dates back to the original builder of the house who had a liaison with his cook. Although very few of the black descendants knew just how far back their white roots went, Cheshire sheds light not only on his family but the myth that there is even such a thing as a pure white or black Southerner. Apparently, the South is as much a mixing pot as anywhere else in the country, they just don't talk about it much.

Being the consummate film critic, Cheshire brings in the effect of films of the first half of the 1900s which perpetuated the Romantic myth of Southern culture, plantation living and the "happy" slave. Movies like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Jezebel and even Song of the South get an airing out in Moving Midway unlike any they've gotten before. And the defining moment in modern black culture — the first airing of the "Roots" miniseries — set the stage of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to look into where they came from in America and abroad. The film unlocks the power and binding force that is genealogy, while examining the way modern-day Southerners justify or excuse the practice of slavery, the Klan, and the reasons behind such practices as Civil War reenactments (with no black players to be seen). The film shows us the birth of lasting friendships between men and women who would never normally run in the same circles, but blood is thicker than water or color, apparently, and Moving Midway is one of the finest examinations of who and what defines "family" that I have ever seen.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 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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