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Friday, July 21

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Airbags

Hey everyone. I must begin with an apology. Last week I reviewed Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla, which actually doesn't open until this weekend in Chicago. I jumped the gun on that one, and thankfully the film had a limited opening in early October in a couple of cities, otherwise, I'd be in big trouble.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

In so many ways, Kevin Smith's latest sex-drenched love story is the best thing he has ever done. I've always held that Chasing Amy was his best crack at combining four-letter words with a believable love story, but Zack and Miri surpasses all previous View Askew-niverse offerings thanks primarily to its cast, made up largely of newcomers to the Smith stable. But Smith also seems more loose and happy to be working outside of the confines of the Jay and Silent Bob collection of regulars. OK, fine, Jason Mewes (Jay) is in this film, but he's used in a much different way here. Jeff Anderson (one of Smith's Clerks twosome) is also here, still dishing out sarcasm like so much tasty macaroni and cheese, but the meanness of his old character Randal is gone. More importantly, Smith has cast Seth Rogen, an actor who wanted to be in a Kevin Smith movie when he grew up, and his commitment to this material is stellar and fearless. Also on hand is the very busy Elizabeth Banks (W., Role Models, and Rogen's co-star and bathtub lover in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), who is not only the loveliest borderline homeless woman ever, but she has a comedic chemistry with Rogen that makes her the absolute strongest female character Smith has ever written.

Zack and Miri is a film of the times. The two best friends for as long as they can remember live together as roommates, have never slept together, and are perpetually broke. In the current economic times, I think a lot more folks going to see this movie are going to be able to identity with Zack and Miri's predicament (if not their solution to it). After having most of their utilities cut off and with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads, they decide to make an amateur porn after a YouTube-like video of them in their underwear makes them internet stars. They enter into the production as professionally as they know how. They hire a producer (Craig Robinson of "The Office," who plays Rogen coworker at a coffee house and just happens to have a little bit of money to invest), a cinematographer (the one guy they know who knows how to actually operate a video camera), and cast would-be porn stars (some played by real porn stars, like Katie Morgan and legend Traci Lords). At first they decide making a spoof of a real movie is the best call, so they write a script for a film called "Star Whores," but eventually the story becomes simplified and is set and filmed in the coffee house after hours.

The elephant on the set, as it were, is the tension that builds as a scripted sex scene between Zack and Miri fast approaches, and while they promise that doing the scene won't change their relationship, the fact that they're even talking about it proves that it will change everything. And about the sex scene, it might be the fucking funniest fucking scene ever fucking committed to fucking film. Feelings are altered and neither one is prepared for it or knows how to react to it, leading to some ugly words and hurt feelings. I've heard different people have wildly varied reactions to these sequences, with men and women saying they don't like the way Zack behaves post-coitus and/or the way Miri acts. I think that says something about Smith's writing, which paints a very believable conflict of feelings between the two friends. And while I wouldn't call Smith's script "sophisticated," I would say that it's his most mature, even amid all of the boobies and vulgarities.

Even amidst all of the heavy emotional content, Smith keeps us laughing steadily. An opening sequence at Zack and Miri's 10-year high school reunion, featuring Justin Long and Brandon (Superman Returns) Routh, belongs in the lexicon of Smith exchanges. Craig Robinson has been a great supporting actor for a number of years now in Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, and it's great to see him hold is own in one of the larger roles in this film. There's a sequence near the end of the film where we see him at home with his wife (Tisha Campbell) that is so wickedly funny, you'll have trouble breathing. I was especially impressed with Katie Morgan's work (dressed and undressed). She has an energy and unexpected comic timing that would make it fairly easy for casting directors to consider her for future, clothed work.

It seems a bit played out to talk about how Smith seems to borrowing from the Apatow way of doing and casting films, since Apatow probably borrowed a thing or three from Smith's brand of humor and way of generating material. If anything, Zack and Miri is a tribute to how much these actors appreciate the ground that Smith broke as a writer and maker of low-budget comedies, and I hope Smith continues making films this complete and deep feeling. In truth, only Kevin Smith could have made the most romantic film of his career and still fill it with some of the foulest and most over-sexed language and situations in movie history. It's actually the perfect blend of every tool that Smith has in his arsenal, used to tell a sweet love story set in the world of amateur porn. I think I'm in heaven.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Zack and Miri Make a Porno writer-director Kevin Smith and stars Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks and Craig Robinson. Regarding the interview links: please note the dates these interviews were posted. I spoke with the first three folks at Comic-Con in San Diego back in July, and I'd only seen about 10 minutes of the movie at that point, so I was unable to really ask specific questions about it. I spoke to Chicago native Craig Robinson earlier this week, after I'd seen the film, so we're able to go into a bit more detail about it.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

I learned more about the modern Republican way of campaigning and button pushing from this humble documentary than I did watching W. Boogie Man is the lively documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Lee Atwater, the architect of political dirty tricks, a style he used to maximum effectiveness during the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and more so with George H.W. Bush. Atwater worked side by side with our current president (and mentoring Karl Rove), managing Bush Sr.'s run against Michael Dukakis (who is interviewed extensively for this movie), a race Bush seemed destined to lose as a result of his possible ties to the Iran-Contra scandal. It was Atwater who first told the media about Willie Horton, and oversaw the creation of the "revolving-door of justice" attack ads that brought Dukakis down. The process is as fascinating to review as it was terrifying to watch when it was happening, and my only question to the world at large is, Why has no one made a movie about this man before now?

As first-time feature director Stefan Forbes points out through his countless interviews with friends and rivals of Atwater's, as well as members of the media he so brilliantly manipulated, Atwater was certainly not the first man to paint an opponent in a bad light, but he did so using some of the most underhanded ways imaginable. Although Atwater was clearly not a racist (his love of listening to and playing blues guitar is well documented, as are his friendships with blues musicians), he know how to use race to drum up fear in certain Southern states. His skills as an image-maker were as impressive as his means of breaking down an enemy's image. He painted H.W. Bush as a Texas good ol' boy, putting him a cowboy boots and jeans, when in fact Bush lived most of the time in Maine.

Boogie Man does as righteous a job psychoanalyzing Atwater and his motivations for earning his living this way as it does detailing his playbook of negative campaigning that is still being used today. Atwater's fall from a type of brain cancer was fast and brutal, and some might say appropriate. The what-if scenario that the film brings up is how swift and nasty Atwater would have gotten if he'd lived to run Bush Sr.'s second-term campaign against Bill Clinton. How different would the world have been today? Boogie Man is absolutely one of the most compelling documentaries of the year, and critical viewing in the days before the presidential election. Learn the tricks so you don't fall for them. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Boogie Man director Stefan Forbes, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Ballast

When a film opens up with one suicide and one attempted suicide, it's a safe bet that said film is going to be a tad on the bleak side. But nothing quite prepared me for the soulful power of Ballast, the feature debut from writer-director Lance Hammer, whose film is not about suicide but about the impact these actions have on those left behind. Set in the murky, gray winter of a Mississippi Delta township, the film focuses on three black characters, all of who are linked to the dead man. One is his brother Lawrence, who is our suicide attempt, so overwhelmed by his brother's death and his failed attempt at joining him that he is practically struck dumb and inactive by the situation. The brothers owned a mini-mart/gas station that has remained closed for many weeks after the brother's death. We also meet 12-year-old James, a good kid whose path appears clear to us as he begins to hang out with drug dealers, dabbles in crack himself, and seems impressed by guns. When he finds out about his father's death, he visits his uncle, steals his gun, and forces the uncle to walk him through the house to see his father's possessions.

The third player in this film is James' mother Marlee, a struggling woman who is informed by a lawyer that half of the house where he husband lived and the store are hers. Her immediate reaction is to sell everything and take the cash, but when dangerous situations rise up where she and James live, she decides to take up residence with Lawrence living in a side house on the property. She and Lawrence never got along, although it seems neither knows exactly why. As much as this film is filled with misery and hard times, it is wonderful to watch the ways Hammer slowly allows his characters to fill in the large gaps in their hearts and souls, and heal each other in the process. The process is slow and painful (which does not mean the movie is), and blessedly goes against every convention Hollywood has taught us about grief and forgiveness. This is not something that a single kind word or deed is going to heal, not even close.

Even the look of the film is rough around the edges. Hammer moves his hand-held camera through the action as if he's a fourth character in this story. Although the movie covers some of the emotional and economic ground as David Gordon Green's George Washington, the visual style of the two films could not be more different. Ballast simply might be too heavy and raw for some, and I understand that. But if you're in the mood to or habit of discovering great new filmmakers, Lance Hammer is one I'm going to be keeping an eye on in the years to come. I hope he maintains the same emotional punch that he holds so dear in Ballast, because films this strong are few and far between. We've had a couple this year that came close, such as Frozen River and Snow Angels (notice how all of these heavy films take place in winter?), but in terms of naked cinematic fortitude, Ballast is on most solid ground. The movie opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Ballast director Lance Hammer will be at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, October 31, and Sunday, November 2, for post-screening Q&As after most showings of the film. Check the website for showtimes.

I've Loved You For So Long

A little bit more misery for you on this fine weekend, but this film is cut from a distinctly different cloth. Writer and first-time director Philippe Claudel has crafted one of the most delicate and fragile works of 2008, a movie that is the cinematic equivalent of walking on egg shells as British sisters Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas) navigate through spoken and unspoken territory in hopes of striking a balance in which both can live comfortably. Living in Paris, Lea is married with two lovely adopted Vietnamese children. Once a doctor, Juliette has just been let go from an extended stay in prison for murder; she went into prison when Lea was still a teenager. Since Lea's home is the only place she can stay presently, Juliette moves in with the family but makes no secret of her lack of interest in being there or interacting with the family. Lea's husband Luc is hesitant and sometimes openly hostile about having the quiet and anti-social Juliette living there. Also living in the house is Luc's mute father, Papy Paul, who is perhaps the only person Juliette enjoys spending time with since there's no risk of him asking questions about her crime and punishment.

Juliette's crime is revealed fairly early on in the film, but I won't give it away here. Her reasons for committing the crime are far more interesting to the plot and quietly devastating. But the truth is, the film isn't really about the murder. It's about these two sophisticated, lovely women rediscovering a long-lost connection they once had in their youth. And that is a story worth watching. It's also about the slow process of people coming to terms with Juliette's crime and her return to society, finding a job, getting her own place, and confiding in her moody parole officer. It's tough watching Juliette get treated so badly by prospective employers when they find out why she was in jail, but it's just as tough watching Luc hesitate allowing Juliette to baby-sit while he and Lea go out for a night on their own. Scott Thomas has quite simply never been better, and I'm enjoying the fact that half the movies she makes these days are French productions (such as the recent Tell No One and The Valet).

We anticipate the film's big emotional moment when Juliette tells Lea the exact reasons for her crime, and I'll admit, I didn't quite see her explanation coming. But the truth is, I've Loved You For So Long isn't about big moments; it's about a series of smaller steps between the sisters that make it so satisfying. The film is sometimes very tough to watch, as if we're eavesdropping on some very private conversations that no outsider should be allowed to hear. Assuming this film gets any kind of traction, Scott Thomas seems like an easy lock for many a nomination come awards season, but the fact that it's opening in Chicago at Pipers Alley doesn't give me much hope. I pray I'm wrong, because it would be a true shame if she is overlooked. This is the kind of film that makes you want to patch up any troubled spots you might have with certain family members, but it never goes for the obvious emotional triggers. You will probably cry while watching this film, but the movie has earned your tears. This is one you shouldn't miss.

Fear(s) of the Dark

One of the most unique offerings at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, this animated horror anthology showcasing the talents of various artists, most notably Charles Burns, as well as Blutch, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire, all of whom put their particular visual spin on suspense and horror stories. The connective tissue holding the stories together is a freaky tale of a death-like man who holds four hungry dogs on leashes. One of the more inventive stories borrows from Japanese art and culture, as a young girl has increasingly more realistic anxiety nightmares. My absolute favorite is the final episode in which a man goes into a dark house. The use of simple black-and-white, light and shadow, sounds, and fantastic vocal work goes to create one of the scariest things I've seen in any fright film this year. Although the stories are all done in black-and-white and were all clearly created for this project, they aren't directly linked. A nice narrative reading from a female voice sets the right tone for the collective works as she talks about fear, anxiety and the stuff that makes us uneasy. I don't want to go into detail about any of the works because so much of the joy of this collection is discovering the artistry and the storytelling, but for horror and animation enthusiasts alike, Fear(s) of the Dark is a keeper. Not all of the stories work, but most of them do, and that's why I'm recommending this effort, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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