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Saturday, October 19

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War of the Worlds
If you are contemplating not seeing this movie because star Tom Cruise has been acting like such a dick lately (newsflash: anyone paying attention knows he's always been this way!), learn to separate the man from the movie. If you don't, you'll miss out on one of the summer's most compelling and terrifying experiences. War of the Worlds is far from flawless, but what's here is pretty damn spectacular.

Like author Stephen King, director Steven Spielberg is sometimes dismissed as a quality filmmaker because he makes so much money. The fact is that these men are some of the finest storytellers of their generation. And much like King, Spielberg has almost always had troubles with his endings, often resorting to hokey sentimentality as a means of winning the day. You might even accuse War of the Worlds of being a prime example of this, but since the ending of this film is taken from the original H.G. Wells story, you can't blame Spielberg for that.

War of the Worlds is a family drama encased in an alien invasion plot. Like many of Spielberg's films, we're dealing with a fractured family. Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced dock worker with two kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), with whom he doesn't spend much time—and it shows. When we first meet Ray, he's late showing up to his own house where his kids and ex-wife (Miranda Otto) are waiting for him. Ray has no food in the house and no idea how to entertain his children. He's a classic deadbeat dad. Spielberg and Cruise aren't trying to paint fully realized characters; Ray is more of a "type." But that's all we need to get us started, because the aliens arrive soon and strike fast.

You'd be hard pressed to find fault with the first half of War of the Worlds. Spielberg wisely makes the decision to film most of the movie at the eye level of his characters. The only time we get a good sense of how massive the alien invasion has gotten is when characters reach higher ground and can survey the land. What we see most of the time is ground-level action. We get fragments of the enormous tripod alien machines that are crushing everything in sight and vaporizing fleeing humans in their tracks. The images are terrifyingly familiar: clouds of white dust, people covered in ash running away from crumbling buildings, and later, people searching bulletin boards filled with the faces of the missing. It's not exactly subtle, but it's devastatingly effective.

Whether you love or simply tolerate this film may depend on your reaction to a character introduced into Ray's life a little after the halfway point of the film. Tim Robbins plays Ogilvy, a slightly mad hermit of a man, who invites Ray and his family to hide with him in his home. Parts of this lengthy sequence are scary as hell (like when a metallic alien tentacle snakes its way through the basement looking for humans), but it becomes clear before this section of the film is over that Robbins' character has been introduced into the plot for one purpose (that I won't reveal). I liked having such a gifted actor essentially playing a human turning point; some may not.

Despite being set in the present day, War of the Worlds feels like an old-fashioned film when the aliens are skipping about exterminating the human race. There's one sequence where the biggest threat to Ray and his family is an unruly mob that wants his functioning car, and such scenes are just as scary as any killer alien and a lot easier to believe. If you get a kick out of spending an entire two-hour movie clenching your butt cheeks because the tension is too much to handle, War of the Worlds is absolutely your kind of flick. It's the kind of film you can enjoy twice: once while you're watching it, and once while you're picking at the gaping plot holes for hours afterwards.


March of the Penguins
Penguins are cute. There's just no getting around it. They walk funny, they have an odd shape, and they spend their entire lives being absolutely no threat to anyone. The things are friggin' adorable. To drive home this obvious fact, we have March of the Penguins that shows us 80 minutes of penguins not only being cute but also graceful, caring, nurturing, brave and downright sexy. As directed by Luc Jacquet, this stunning documentary traces the annual, months-long journey of South Pole penguins, who waddle (and occasionally belly slide) 75 miles to their breeding grounds, go through some of the most bizarre mating rituals imaginable, and enter a life-or-death struggle to stay alive and keep their new chicks alive.

To get into the particulars of the penguins' behavior would spoil the experience of seeing this beautiful film. Enduring near-starvation, death by predator and weather conditions you would assume no breathing creature could handle, these penguins live lives on the edge—on a daily basis. Thanks to a pleasant narration from Morgan Freeman, March of the Penguins moves from humor to tragedy to adventure with gentle ease. (An interesting side note: in the original French-language version, director Jacquet had actors providing voices for the key penguins in the film. Rather than providing narration—as Freeman does—the actors spoke the penguins' "thoughts." I can't in a million years imagine I would have enjoyed that.)

Never has life and death seemed so important, and every time a penguin chick dies or a grown penguin fails to return from one of several journeys to gather food for the young, your heart breaks a little. And you thought you had a tough daily routine. By the way, if you thought adult penguins were cute, wait until you see what baby penguins look like. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre, Loews Cineplex Esquire Theatre and the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.


Undead
It's been about 19 months since I saw this zombie film from New Zealand, but I checked my notes and they seem to confirm what I still remember about it. Undead is a bit under-whelming, despite its staying faithful to the George Romero rules of zombie-dom. They say timing is everything, and coming this soon after Romero's far superior Land of the Dead, Undead seems like sloppy seconds. In all fairness, I'm not sure I would have been that enthused about it in any context. By combining zombies with a heavy extraterrestrial element, Undead may be a bit too genre-crowded for its own good. It doesn't hold a candle to Peter Jackson's Brain Dead (the film it most closely resembles) or even Jackson's Bad Taste. Still, if you can never get too much blood and gore in your life, Undead will whet your appetite without really filling you up. It opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


5x2 (Cinc Fois Deux)
Back when I first started writing for this wonderful site, I did a roundup of some of the highlights of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, probably my favorite of all the annual fests that the Film Center offers. Anyway, my favorite of the six films I saw at the E.U. Fest was 5x2. Here is what I wrote about it:

France's Francois Ozon's latest work is a deceptively simple yet frightfully poignant love story told in reverse order. Much like Betrayal, 5x2 reveals the lifespan of a couple's love affair—from their first real meeting and realizing there might be a spark, to their post-divorce quickie turned pseudo-rape in a hotel room—but in five sequences shown in reverse chronological order. The film opens with the couple sitting before a magistrate reading the seemingly amicable terms of their divorce. It's painful and embarrassing to watch, and clearly the couple (Gilles played by Stephane Freiss and Marion played by Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi) is suffering just being there.

Ozon never tells us exactly how far back each new scene goes, but we get clues from the fullness of husband Gilles' beard and the age (or existence) of the couple's child. But time isn't really the issue. What counts are clues—clues to the cracks in the couple's relationship. We never really learn what exact troubles led to their divorce, but we spot hints at what they might have been. Gilles relays a story about his only infidelity at a party that seems to take place shortly before the pair separate. We feel sorry for Marion and dismiss Gilles as a cad until the segment of the film that chronicles their wedding day. Marion was very naughty.

And in much the same way Irreversible's sweet final scene reveals the true devastation of the rest of the film, seeing the couple in 5x2 initially getting to know each other in the last segment forces you to wonder how things could have gone so wrong. At this point in Ozon's career, you don't even wonder if his films (which include 8 Women, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand and Sitcom) will be good; you just wait and see how good. 5x2 is among his finest. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.


Pure
It's not often that I get the opportunity to review a film playing at Facets (hands-down, the best video store in Chicago and, perhaps, the world), but it just so happens that I've seen the movie that's beginning today, Pure, which was originally released in the UK in 2002. I actually saw this film on cable about six months ago. Before viewing it, I did a little research to see why it never played in American theatres. It starred two talented actresses (Molly Parker and Kiera Knightley). Say what you want to about Kiera Knightley, but the woman can act. She may be beautiful and a little thin, but she's gifted, as evidenced in her supporting role here (the film was released in the UK the same year as her American breakthrough Bend It Like Beckham). The other reason I was excited to see Pure was that I'm a huge fan of director Gillies MacKinnon (Regeneration, Hideous Kinky).

I soon discovered why the film never got an earlier release: the subject matter is way too heavy for mainstream audiences. It's even a bit severe for friends of art-house cinema. The film's real center and heart belongs to newcomer Harry Eden, who plays 10-year-old Paul, son of Mel (Parker). Mel is a good-looking, loving mother who lives in East London and has a nasty heroin addiction. Paul attempts to help her out as best as a rapidly maturing 10-year-old can. He seeks the help of a sympathetic, pregnant waitress (Knightley), who has a little problem with the junk herself.

Pure is a painful but enriching experience with some of the best acting you're likely to see in this or any other year. Most of the film is told from Paul's vantage point, and the desperation, anger, love and loneliness he feels is clearly etched on his young face. Each of the actors gets his or her moment to really show us what they're made of, and director MacKinnon does not flinch from portraying the honest and ugly experience of heroin addiction, withdrawal and relapse. This portrait of the brave and enduring young boy hurts to watch at times, especially when it hits you (as it often does) that this kid is only 10 years old. And those are the times when you find yourself on the verge of tears. Pure will leave its mark on your soul.

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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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