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Monday, July 22

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Zathura
Ten years after one of the earliest examples of CGI effects overwhelmed what could have been a perfectly wonderful story in Jumanji, another book by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote The Polar Express) has been brought to life with far more entertaining results. Zathura is a superior film thanks mostly to the capable directing of Jon Favreau, who showed us with Elf that you can make a great kids movie without forgetting about the adults who more often than not are forced to sit through these films. There's a joke early on in Zathura that references last year's very adult cautionary tale Thirteen; I don't think there are too many kiddies who are going to catch that reference.

Zathura is a simple story of two young brothers. When the film opens, the older, Walter (Josh Hutcherson), and younger, Danny (Jonah Bobo), are not getting along very well with each other, their teenage sister (Kristen Stewart, who played Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room), or their divorced dad (Tim Robbins). Danny is still too young to be any good at sports, and this frustrates his older brother, who really doesn't have anyone in the house to hang with. When a work emergency occurs, dad is forced to leave the boys under the care of their sister (who sleeps through most of this film), and this forces the boys to find something to do in their father's recently purchased and slightly shabby new home. They stumble upon the board game "Zathura," a space adventure that looks like it was made in the 1950s and spits out instruction cards as the boys' two spaceships go around the game board. The twist is that everything that is printed on the cards actually happens to the two boys: meteor showers, robot attacks, alien invasions and a rescue or two from a strange yet familiar astronaut (Dax Shepard). And as soon as the game starts the house is transported from earth to the middle of outer space.

The special effects in Zathura are fabulously fun and creative. The only way for the boys to escape this extraterrestrial adventure is to finish the game…and not die (easier said than done). Favreau doesn't oversimplify his characters or dumb down the material for his audience. There are real issues that creep out between the explosions here. The parents' divorce, the fact that the kids really don't get along (there are some genuine moments of spite here), and themes of responsibility toward younger siblings are all handled with a degree of maturity not usually found in most "family" films.

Above all else, Zathura is a blast. Favreau keeps his game moving and his action exciting, maybe even a little to exciting and scary for little kids. The level of destruction brought upon their poor house is impressive, but if you remember Jumanji, you know that the game always has a way of setting things right if played to the end. The sci-fi elements are interesting because Favreau and Co. have designed the invaders, robots and other technology to resemble science fiction as it was imagined at the time the game was new. The robot is oversized, with a voice (provided by Frank Oz) that sounds, well, robotic. The aliens are hideous lizard creatures that ooze from seemingly everywhere and whose ships look like comic-book-style rocket ships. It's an amusing choice on the filmmaker's part and it works. Zathura is one of the year's best kid-friendly offerings that grown folk will enjoy the hell out of as well.


Pride & Prejudice
When the subject of this latest big-screen version of Jane Austen's acclaimed novel has come up between me and anyone I thought might be interested in checking it out, the same question is always tossed my way: "Didn't they just make that movie?" The answer is no, not exactly. The story hasn't actually been on the big screen in about 65 years, believe it or not. Earlier this year, the excellent (and loosely adapted) Bollywood update Bride & Prejudice was released in America and did moderately strong business. But I'm guessing when people pose that question, they are referring to the 1995 BBC miniseries (which aired in America on the A&E cable channel) starring Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. That version has come to be considered by many the definitive version, and it is spectacular, there's no denying that. My philosophy on filmed versions of classic literature is one I also apply to people putting on different versions of Shakespeare's plays: as long as the various versions are good, who cares how many times you see the same story? Fortunately for everyone, the 2005 version is every bit as good as the miniseries and well worth checking out.

Director Joe Wright has crafted a lovely, spirited and humorous version of Pride & Prejudice, giving each of the five Bennet sisters and their parents distinct personalities and suitable character development. Keira Knightley is Elizabeth, the emotional center of the family and the story. She is closest to her older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), while the other three—the bratty Lydia (Jena Malone), the silly Mary (Talulah Riley) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan)—flitter around, getting into trouble, and sometimes embarrassing the family. The representation of the parents is probably the best I've seen. Donald Sutherland is the put-upon but supportive father, while Brenda Blethyn is the whirlwind Mrs. Bennett, whose sole purpose in life is to get her daughters married. She gives my favorite performance in the film.

Wright does a terrific job showing the Bennets in all their middle-class splendor, which clashes nicely with the introduction of the filthy rich Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and his snooty best friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). Macfadyen is no Colin Firth, if only because Firth's Darcy was such a bastard. Macfadyen's performance is great, but we always get a sense that deep down, he's a nice guy. On the flip side, Knightley's Lizzie is far more jovial than Ehle, and I think that's more appropriate. She smiles and laughs a great deal here, but we soon realize that she's often hiding pain behind her seemingly good nature. Knightley hasn't had many opportunities in film to play such an upbeat character, and that's too bad because she has a beautiful smile. She does this little thing with her tongue when she laughs that…oh, um, never mind.

Without sifting through the plot and subplots, and looking at what the filmmakers have left in and taken out of Austen's source material, I'll simply say that this latest version of Pride & Prejudice is breathtakingly shot, perfectly acted, and utterly enchanting. Loving this version doesn't mean you're cheating on the '95 series. It's a different kind of love.


Get Rich or Die Tryin'
All right all you pimps and ho's, the time has come to throw down the fictionalized life story of top rap dog 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). While Get Rich or Die Tryin' doesn't quite reach the level and emotional honestly of Eminem's 8 Mile, it still manages to do an admirable job of telling a ghetto-to-ghetto-fabulous story with the help of some outstanding supporting performances and the great, 56-year-old Irish director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father). In many ways, Sheridan isn't straying that far from films he's made before about underprivileged people fighting their way to prominence, and the move to the streets of Queens suits him.

50 plays Marcus, whose drug-dealing mother is murdered when he is just a boy, and he vows to avenge her death. While he tries desperately to stay out of the drug-dealing game, Marcus finds that drugs are the only way to make any money in his neighborhood. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (a recent addition to the "Lost" cast) plays Majestic, one of the top dogs in the drug trade and Marcus' boss. Bill Duke plays drug kingpin Levar, whose motivation for protecting and supporting Marcus remain a secret. As he gets older, Marcus finds he has a talent for rapping and attempts to leave the drug life behind and become a hip-hop artist. He is reunited with a childhood sweetheart (Joy Bryant), giving him the proper motivation to move out of his dangerous lifestyle.

The jury is still out on whether 50 Cent is a good actor. I'd say he's about halfway to being compelling; right now he borders on stone-faced. I'm more impressed with how willing he is, especially with the tough-guy persona that's such an important part of his image, to appear sensitive and weak when it's necessary. He even sheds a few tears in one scene. The film spends a great deal of time watching Marcus recover after being shot nine times (as 50 Cent was), and his rehab process is slow, painful and somewhat humiliating. Another sequence involving the attempted murder of Marcus in a prison shower is also shockingly realistic. It's in this scene that Marcus meets his future manager (and fellow inmate) Bama (actor of the year Terrence Howard). Howard only appears in the second half of the film, but his presence elevates Get Rich considerably. Bama's moral code is simple. He protects those he loves, and kills anyone that threatens them. It's a live-wire role that does nothing but adds credibility to the film and another great performance for Howard.

Despite the many killings and drug dealings, Get Rich or Die Tryin' doesn't seem to be promoting the lifestyle. Marcus' somewhat bland narration tells us that dealing drugs doesn't really pay that well (about minimum wage, when you do the math), but it's better than being broke. I'm not sure the film tackles any new ground (not the way Howard's superior Hustle & Flow showed the pimp-to-rapper transition), but that doesn't stop it from being a decent work. The one thing Get Rich could use some more of is actual music. One of the best things about 8 Mile was the abundance of tunes, and while we get a lot of background music and rapping from other artists, 50's music is strangely buried. Still, what's here is solid stuff, bordering on cliché at times, but still watchable.


Bee Season
You won't hear me say this often, but boy, did I hate this fucking movie. This is one of those pompous, self-righteous films that wants so badly to be thought of as spiritual and moving, but instead comes across as ridiculous. I didn't even care that the film isn't actually about a little girl (Flora Cross) who is the frontrunner in the National Spelling Bee, although that is one of the 27 or so elements in this jumbled mess. Rather than rely on her clearly impressive intelligence, her whack-job father (Richard Gere; it figures Hollywood's spirituality poster boy wound up in this) wants her to learn Jewish mysticism and the spiritual nature of letters. The visualization process that goes on in the girl's head when she's trying to spell a word is just plain stupid. Toss in a crazy mother (Juliette Binoche), and an older, largely ignored brother (Max Minghella), who falls for a hot Krishna (Kate Bosworth), and you've got a big, ugly mess.

I think Bee Season mark a personal best for me for the greatest number of eye rolls in one film. Bee Season fails on every conceivable level to be a competent family drama, examination of mental illness, religious exercise or a film with a degree of entertainment value. If you don't believe me, it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
Unless you really dig stand-up, it's kind of tough to find material to give you an idea of what sort of performer Sarah Silverman is. To call her a comedian would be selling her short. While her material is among the funniest I've ever seen, she doesn't simply tell jokes; she tells stories that lull you into a false sense of sweetness, and then smack you over the head with some of the darkest and most inappropriate humor you're likely to face in your life. She's also a total babe, which makes her all the more irresistible. Although you may have spotted her during her brief television stints on "Saturday Night Live" or "Greg the Bunny," or small rolls in School of Rock and There's Something About Mary, my first hint at the greatness this woman could achieve in comedy was at the various televised Friar's Club roasts, in which her routines always stand out.

A slightly broader audience got their first taste of Silverman earlier this year, giving her rendition of the legendary joke in The Aristocrats, in which she turns the family in the joke into her own family auditioning for "The Joe Franklin Show." Her slow and painful "remembrance" of being molested by Franklin is a scream. That moment in the film only hints at Silverman's talent. Jesus Is Magic is about as good as it gets, and, in my book, is an even funnier and more shocking work than The Aristocrats. Nothing is sacred in the filmed stand-up portion of the movie: September 11 (she suggests that American Airlines should have turned a minus into a plus by changing their slogan to "First into the Towers"); AIDS ("When God gives you AIDS, make LemonAIDS"); the Holocaust; race; sexuality; starving African children; and strippers as role models for little girls. Much like the audience watching her in the film, the audience of critics I saw the film with reacted with pockets of laughter. Some things were funny to some; some things resulted in mostly dead silence (it ain't that dark in any screening room). The material is edgy, filthy, uncomfortable, brutal and funny as shit.

Not as funny, but still amusing, are the musical numbers (with Sarah's band, the Silver Men) and phony backstage bits with some of her comedy friends like Bob Odenkirk and her sister Laura. The lyrics to her songs are sharp, but the music-video-style presentations fall flat, which is surprising since director Liam Lynch (currently working on the Tenacious D feature film) has a worthy history of making great shorts. These interludes serve as mere distractions from Silverman's on-stage work. She doesn't deliver jokes like a comic. She's an actress on stage, telling confessional-like stories about her friends, family, and boyfriend (talk show host Jimmy Kimmel). Then, just when you start to think she's being genuine: WHAM! She hits you with something so wrong and foul about her dead grandmother that you want to wretch…in a good way. Jesus Is Magic is an eye-opening experience, best to be viewed by open-minded (waaaay open) folks with a tolerance for the taboo and a strong stomach. I love you Sarah Silverman; come run away with me. My wife would understand. The film opens this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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