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Friday, November 24

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Flags of Our Fathers

Whenever a film is released that seems so obviously aimed at winning awards, my defenses rise up and my cynicism kicks into overdrive. But the fact remains that some event films are good enough to deserve every accolade they will inevitably generate. Clint Eastwood is one of our greatest living filmmakers, and never has he been so clearly angling for awards as he is with Flags of Our Fathers. Does that mean the movie is not good? Absolutely not. The story behind the six men who raised the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in the most famous wartime image in history, is beyond fascinating. Eastwood has gone the extra step to tell this story right by hiring two-time Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash; Million Dollar Baby) to co-write the screenplay (with William Broyles Jr.), and the results are largely phenomenal and endlessly fascinating, especially to those who know nothing about the facts behind this legendary flag event.

The battle scenes—and there are many of them—are some of the bloodiest a studio film has ever released, and I applaud Eastwood and Co. for giving an unflinching look at how dirty, gory and borderline unmentionable this part of WWII really was. But fighting isn't what this movie is about. Flags of Our Fathers is about manufacturing heroes during wartime. There is absolutely no doubt that the men in the flag-raising photo are heroes (three of them died on that same battlefield), but as the truth is revealed to us about the circumstances of that event, one can't help but be reminded of the military repeatedly inventing or exaggerating events during wartime to generate support for causes and wars that may not have been popular at the time. For those who don't know the details, I'll let the movie tell the facts. Part of the entertainment value of the film is learning the truth piece by piece. But the rest of the film follows the three surviving soldiers in the photo as they are sent across the country to drum up support for the war and drive war bond sales.

The events these three men attend are often embarrassing and troubling to them, as they are faced time after time with the image of them with that flag. What troubles them the most is that one of the men who died was misidentified in the original photograph, and the family of the real sixth man don't find out for many years that it was their son in the photo. But more than that, the three men feel more like mascots than soldiers.

An entire film could be made about the life of Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), the Native American Marine who was one of the bravest fighters at Iwo Jima (actually a film was made, called The Outsider, with Tony Curtis). "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" is one of the greatest songs ever written, and was immortalized by the likes of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Few life stories sum up the problems in America better that Hayes', and Beach carries the weight like few actors could. But because the film's source material is a book written by the son of the one of the men in the photo—John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, giving by far the best performance of his career)—much of the film focuses on him. Eastwood's only major misstep with this movie is framing the story as a series of flashbacks as told to Bradley's son as he's collecting details for his book. Watching an actor playing author James Bradley interviewing actors playing people who had information on these events adds nothing to the inherent drama of this story.

The war bonds activities culminates in a humiliating event at Chicago's Soldier's Field, at which the three men must climb a paper maché mountain peak and plant a flag for the benefit of thousands of onlookers. Hayes is drunk off his ass, as he was often at the time; the guilt and horror of his experience was simply too much for him. The third man, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), seems the most eager to please. The film almost implies he's overcompensating since he didn't do much actual fighting at Iwo Jima because he was a message runner.

The thing Eastwood does best with Flags of Our Fathers is turn these iconic figures into real human beings eager to give credit where credit is due, and always ready to point out that the real heroes died on that battlefield. I'll admit, the film didn't stir up any heavy emotions in me, but it works as a storytelling exercise about an event some may not want to know the truth about. What the film did generate within me is an extra level of enthusiasm to see Eastwood's February 2007 follow-up, Letter from Iwo Jima, a look at the battle from the Japanese perspective. The fact that Eastwood is even making the film speaks volumes about just what a ballsy filmmaker the guy is, and it goes right to the heart of the reason why he is such a legend. Flags of Our Fathers is not his best work, but that doesn't stop it from being endlessly fascinating, brilliantly acted and breathtakingly realized.


The Prestige

I know it won't be, but my review for this film should be one sentence long: The Prestige is gonna knock your socks off. I was literally stunned silent after seeing this film, and a big reason why was that I knew virtually nothing about it going in, and I'm going to do my part to make sure you do the same.

It's alright to know a little bit about where The Prestige is coming from. Director Chris Nolan (Batman Begins) has teamed with his brother Jonathan (the pair wrote Memento, and anyone who badmouths that film can kiss my ass) to create a whirlwind tale of two struggling but gifted magicians in turn-of-the-century London who wage war against each other in an attempt to create the most amazing magic trick in history. The two begin as friends, but a tragedy sets the two to war, not only to conjure the greatest magic but also be the best showman in the process. Hugh Jackman and Nolan's Batman, Christian Bale, are the overly dramatic rivals. Michael Caine is on hand as the elder advisor to Jackman, and Scarlett Johannson (is there any film she isn't in these days?) plays Jackman's assistant. Also lurking around the fringes is Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) and David Bowie in a role that has to be seen and heard to be believed.

Did I mention Hugh Jackman's character dies in this movie? AAAHHHHH! Don't panic. You find this out in the film's first five minutes. Most of the story is told in flashback form at the trial of Bale's character, who is accused of killing the other magician.

Whatever you do, do not confuse this film with the unworthy Illusionist (the other recent turn-of-the-century magician movie). And if you did bother with that film, don't let it taint your desire to see this one. This one is all kinds of creepy, melodramatic and just plaint messed up at times. OK, I will give away one plot point. Jackman's struggle during the film is to uncover the secret of Bale's "Transporting Man" trick. He thinks he has it figured out and sets out to create his own version of it. But, his way involves a power and trick that is almost unspeakable, and it turns out it has nothing to do with the way Bale is doing the trick. The consequences and scope of this film boggle the mind.

I wouldn't feel right revealing any more than this. Just go see it. I know some of you trust me, and that's comforting. But now I'm reaching out to the ones who dare to not be swayed by my recommendations. Start swaying, bitches, and go see The Prestige. Yes, it's slightly overacted; yes, it is all over the place in terms of timelines and plot revelations. But that just makes the whole thing that much more like the most dangerous tea cup ride you'll ever take. Christopher Nolan is starting to look like he can do no wrong.


Little Children

The first film from writer-director (and sometimes actor) Todd Field since his astonishing In the Bedroom is not afraid to send mixed messages. In fact, it seems to go out of its way to baffle you, not with a confusing story or wild plot twists, but with its mood and atmosphere. I've decided (and my determination is in no way binding) that Little Children is a comedy, perhaps the darkest comedy of the year. But rarely is a film conceived as a comedy driven by such high levels of tension and moments that make your stomach tighten with anticipation and nervous energy. And much like he did in In the Bedroom, Field is not afraid to open his clearly cluttered closet of insecurities, nerves and paranoia. With this film, he rips apart the fabric of the suburban comfort zone and yanks out the stuff that makes us feel safe and loved.

Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (who co-wrote the screenplay with Field), Little Children examines the adulterous affair between dissatisfied housewife Sarah (Kate Winslet) and drifting househusband Brad (Patrick Wilson). The film's biggest flaw is attempting to cast Winslet as plain and boyish. Not in a million years would I ever find Kate Winslet less than perfect. Brad is married to the more glamorous Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), but Kate is simply the most naturally beautiful woman on the planet. This didn't make me dislike the film in any way; but it did make me laugh. Sarah is feeling decidedly disconnected from her husband (Gregg Edelman), but when she finds him yanking one out to internet porn, she essentially gives up on him, and he's reduced to a non-presence in the film.

We are given access to many of the characters' personal thoughts via an unusual but highly effective device: a narration from Will Lymon of PBS "Frontline" fame. His discussion of Sarah and Brad's actions and feelings adds an emotional detachment to the proceedings, and it adds a level of deliberately artificial drama that makes the film extremely funny at times. When Sarah and Brad first meet at a children's park, it's Lymon's voice that informs us of the early stages of passion that are brewing inside the two. This is a man who narrates documentaries about the crisis in the Middle East and September 11. What the hell? But it works, make no mistake.

Since Sarah doesn't work, and Brad is supposed to be studying to take the bar exam for the third time, it doesn't take long for the passive-aggressive flirtation to turn intimate and torrid. The two (along with one child each) get caught in a rainstorm. They make it back to Sarah's house, her husband is out of town, and the kids are napping. The sex is raw, explicit, and dangerous from the start.

But Little Children isn't just about this affair. Both characters have lives outside the affair, especially the aimless Brad, who gets wrapped up with a former police officer (Noah Emmerich) heading up a community action group bent on keeping a close eye on a registered sex offender who has moved into the neighborhood. The criminal's name is Ronnie, and he's played with a steely quirkiness by former child star Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears; Breaking Away). You may not remember the name, but the face (minus most of his hair) is unmistakable, and his performance in this film is stirring and unforgettable. Ronnie went to jail for exposing himself, and he seems genuinely intent on straightening his life up. He lives with his far too forgiving mother (Phyllis Somerville), and is tormented daily by Emmerich's Larry.

The Ronnie storyline is the film's wild card, and Field is a master at making even the ordinary and everyday seem sinister and threatening. Ronnie shows up at the local public pool with goggles and a snorkel, and does nothing more than swim around underwater. By showing us the kicking legs of children in the pool, Field ups the creep level to the sky. But nothing quite prepared me for the sequence in which Ronnie appeases his mother by placing an ad in the personals and going on a date with a fragile woman played beautifully by Jane Adams. I can't explain why, but some part of your heart will be touched by Ronnie's situation, at least for a few fleeting moments. Still, I'm not saying the guy isn't a freak or a threat.

There are no weak links in Little Children. By just using a few subtle (and not-so-subtle) touches, Field turns out a work that often feels like it's floating in a dreamlike place, only to come smashing down on our heads as a reminder that there are ugly truths in the world. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Connelly some more. I don't think this performance is going to get the attention it deserves. She's stunning to look at and in the best shape of her life (almost too angular for my tastes), but her role as the overprotective mother, Kathy, is really solid. She prods Brad in his sore spots. He feels like she sees him as less of a man because he isn't working, a situation made all the worse by her allowing their son to sleep in their bed at night, thus denying him any sex with his wife. You can almost excuse his straying …almost.

Little Children is certainly considered one of the big awards contenders this year, and I'm not going to say it doesn't deserve such honors. There's a lot to like here, but more importantly, there are elements to this film that will creep into your head and imprint themselves on your brain. Field is so confident as a director, and there isn't an unnecessary scene or shot to be found. Winslet and Wilson are a beautiful couple, and the unenviable job of this film is to remind us that these two being together is supposed to be wrong. Little Children alternates seamlessly from humor to passion to sickening sometimes within the frame of a few minutes. It's a bold and meaningful work that deals with emotion and morality as honestly as most of us do, which sometimes isn't that honestly at all.


Marie Antoinette

Leading up to seeing this vision of quaint loveliness, I'd heard silly stories about writer-director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) putting Converse All-Stars on her period-costumed actors or having the characters utter very modern expressions. Perhaps in some previous incarnation of Marie Antoinette (perhaps the version that was booed by the French at the Cannes Film Festival) these touches were reality. But in the version opening today, the only modern touches were some rather tasty bits of '80s new wave/power pop music choices, some of which the characters seem to manage to ballroom dance to in one party scene. Like no other costume drama I've ever seen, this film's main intention seems to be reminding us that Marie was a teenager, and she suffered from all the same afflictions most teenagers do: short attention spans, the need for excitement and the desire to be loved by everyone.

Never more staggeringly lovely, Kirsten Dunst plays the Austrian princess who is shuffled off to become the queen of France as part of a political agreement between the two nations. She marries the rather unremarkable Louis XVI (Coppola's cousin Jason Schwartzman, who rarely changes expressions but still manages to crack you up in every scene) and prepares to spend the rest of her life living in Versailles trying desperately to understand what is expected of her and wishing to please her husband, who seems to want no part of her in the bedroom. Massive pressure is put on her by Louis' father, Louis XV (the irrepressible Rip Torn, who is always seen in the company of his mistress, played by Asia Argento).

Coppola delicately loosens the grip on the formalities as Marie gets more comfortable in her surroundings and the first seeds of rebellion are planted. She gambles, she takes a lover, and she spends like a fiend. All the while, people of the court watch her, judge her and gossip about her every movement. Coppola does a remarkable job showing us how much the royals were under constant scrutiny. I don't think her goal is to paint a pure and faithful biography. Instead she shows us that, in her own way, Marie Antoinette was a punk-rock girl. Her youthful exuberance was charming to some and infuriating to others (particularly the overly taxed French citizens, who eventually had her beheaded—an event the film does not quite get to). At the center of this blissful work is Dunst at her absolute most sensual and measured, setting a tone not all that different from Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (also starring Dunst).

In some ways, the film feels like kids dressing up and putting on a play. But at its core, Marie Antoinette is a luscious offering that throws accuracy to the wind sometimes, but still manages to capture better than most how it is to have the world dropped at your feet when you are far to young to appreciate or cope with the burden of power.


A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

From writer-director Dito Montiel (based on his autobiography), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is an honest and gripping look at one of the toughest and most dangerous places to live in the mid-1980s: Astoria, Queens. Filled with the colorful language and ferocious energy that can only come from the overflowing testosterone of teenage boys, this is a constantly moving study of young, directionless Dito (Shia LaBeouf) and his destructive and self-destructive friends. But this is also a look at Dito 15 years later (Robert Downey, Jr.) coming back to his old neighborhood when his father (Chaz Palminteri) becomes ill and refuses to go to the hospital.

The trip opens old wounds and sets loose memories both good and bad. He remembers his old sweetheart Laurie (Melonie Diaz as a teen, Rosario Dawson as an adult), and the guys he used to run with, including the explosive Antonio (Channing Tatum, who turns in the film's most frightening and unforgettable performance). What strikes you immediately about Saints is its language and temperament. Characters are always yelling at each other even when they aren't mad; four-letter words are clearly the most popular, even around parents; and anyone who isn't like you is a threat. The film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, both as a love-hate remembrance of the days of angry youth and as a portrait of a man returning to a world that made him the person he is today, for better or worse. There are many questions left unanswered about characters' fates and how Dito puts to bed his past, but that's like life: not everything wraps up nice and clean. A fierce character study, Saints reminds us that sometimes leaving home is the best thing, and homecomings aren't all they're cracked up to be. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Tideland

The best part of director Terry Gilliam's strange and surreal children's tale is a newly filmed opening introduction by Gilliam. But the more I thought about it, the more it made me angry. He's essentially daring us to like or not like Tideland. He says something like "Some of you will not like this movie; some of you will love it," and I agree; there aren't going to be too many people on the fence about Gilliam's take on Alice in Wonderland. But the introduction is essentially him saying: if you're one of the cool kids, you'll like this movie; if you're a square, you'll hate it. So here's the truth: there is much to love about Tideland, but if you tell me you hated it, I won't argue with you.

Jeliza-Rose (a strong performance by Jodelle Ferland) is prone to vivid imagination to the point where it's possible she's mentally ill. Or perhaps her fantasy world is her way of escaping the junkie lifestyle her parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly) subject her to on a daily basis. Her best friends are a collection of doll heads, each with a distinctive personality and voice (provided by Ferland). Mom overdoses early in the film, and Dad and Jeliza-Rose begin what is meant to be a long journey. But at their first stop at an isolated house in the middle of nowhere, her father dies, too (although she thinks he's just sleeping, which leads to the first of many ultra-creepy realities of this film). She plays during the day with her doll heads, and curls up on dad's dead rotting lap at the end of the day to talk.

The film takes flight when she meets a grown-up brother and sister living in a nearby house, and it's probably right around this point in the story where you will either embrace what the film is doing or you'll outright reject it. Gilliam claims he discovered his inner child before making this film, and it shows. The story and dialogue ramble and stagger like the mind of a child, never focusing on one thing for more than a minute or so before flying off in another direction, whichever way the wind is blowing or the brightest light is flashing. I really admired Janet (Tumbleweeds; Songcatcher) McTeer's performance as the sister, Dell, who looks like a witch but really isn't that scary once you get to know her. The retarded brother, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), is closer in mental age to Jeliza-Rose, and the pair have all sorts of imaginary adventures amidst the junk that surrounds his house.

There is nothing resembling a cohesive story in Tideland, and if that bothers you, so be it. But the film fascinated me, sometimes because what was going on onscreen was undeniably interesting. But sometimes I was just amazed how Gilliam's mind works (and that of co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni, both of whom adapted this from the novel by Mitch Cullin). He's a filmmaker whose worst movies are far more interesting that 90 percent of what makes it in theatres on any given week. Here, he puts his mind and eyes into the body of a child. The camera is almost always low to the ground and in motion. He remembers what it's like to find wonder and adventure no matter how bland your surrounding might be. Everything is a toy, whether it's a decapitated Barbie doll or your father's decomposing corpse. I think it's safe to say that Tideland is not a children's movie; but it is a imaginative look at the mind of a child who has been through hell even though she doesn't realize it. If you're feeling experimental yourself, give this one a shot. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Shortbus

Directing his first film since the wonderfully freaky Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell dazzles us with Shortbus, an examination of today's sexually active New Yorkers. Although done with a light-hearted touch, the film does feature some heavy moments thanks to strong performances from a group of first-time actors and a touching soundtrack.

This swirling feature moves between several characters, each with their own sexual preferences and hang-ups. I'm not sure if Mitchell's message (assuming there is one) is 100 percent clear, but there is a free spirit to this movie that reminds us that even in the world of AIDS, people should not forget to be daring and experimental. There are elements of performance art, cabaret, S&M and politics, all leading to the den of sins known as Shortbus, where anything goes. Most of the cast engage in full-on sex throughout the film. Not simulated sex, but actual X-rated sex. Shortbus has a reckless spirit that is both refreshing and scary, and the final 20 minutes or so turn into an orgiastic musical number that is equal parts somber and celebratory. This is the kind of film that seems light and fluffy on the surface, but manages to stir up some deep emotions and display impressive heart. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


American Hardcore

Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area in early 1980s, I always thought Bad Brains was a local band that some of my friends went to see on occasion (I saw them once as well). Little did I know that the Brains were arguably the most admired and trend-setting hardcore punk band in the United States, and this wonderfully thorough documentary gives Bad Brains and dozens of other hardcore bands their rightful place in music history.

Based on the book by Steven Blush, American Hardcore covers the years 1980-1986 (the exact years I was in middle school and high school, I should add), when the hardcore punk scene blew up in big cities all over the country and teenagers were able to voice their growing frustrations about the Reagan administration, the recession and a wave of faux conservatism that was threatening to take over the land. Taking an almost anthropological look at the scene, director Paul Rachman paints a well-documented canvas of the messages of the musicians, the DIY approach to record distribution and the way the scene exploded without help from record companies, radio or promotion of any kind. If bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, SS Decontrol, Negative FX, D.O.A., Millions of Dead Cops, Circle Jerks, Minutemen or Adolescents mean anything to you, this film is essential viewing. If you ever for a minute believed that Green Day, the Beastie Boys, Nirvana or the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out of nowhere, think again.

The filmmakers are remarkably honest about the scene, especially when slam-dancing, crowd-surfing and stage diving became the norm at shows. Some of the kids were releasing aggression; others just liked beating the shit out of people. There's also a stunning amount of great (and not so great) footage of these bands in their prime that is worth the price of admission. As a documentary about a time and micro-movement in music history, American Hardcore is such a learning experience. But the lasting effects these bands had and continue to have (Black Flag's Henry Rollins is still kicking) has never been better explained and illustrated than it is in this film, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. In the end, the music and players burned out as quickly as they caught fire. But like any good fire, the toxic fumes got stuck in America's lungs and gave a distorted voice to a new generation of bands.


Man Push Cart

Perhaps with the exception of The Prestige, this little gem (opening at the Music Box Theatre today) is my favorite movie opening this week in Chicago. Covering nearly every emotion in the book but doing so with grace and little fanfare, Man Push Cart tells the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani man living in New York and operating a push cart in Midtown Manhattan to supply coffee and pastries to walking commuters. All he wants is enough money to purchase his cart outright and eventually get himself a bigger place to live, so he can reunite with his young son, who doesn't even recognize him anymore.

His life takes a series of small but unexpected turns during our time with him, and these events change the course of his normally uneventful life. He meets a sweet, pretty Spanish woman (Leticia Dolera), who runs a nearby newsstand. And he begins doing after-hours odd jobs for a rich Pakistani man (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who recognizes Ahmad as being a one-time famous rock star in their homeland. Life seems to be looking up for this man, who has had little to look forward to beyond pushing his cart back and forth in the dark hours of the early morning and in the twilight.

In fact, the image of Ahmad functions as a way of grounding us in his reality. No matter how positive the outlook for his life is, he still must get up and push his cart from its storage facility to his assigned corner. Do we ever give these people a second thought to wonder about the hardships and joys of their lives? At least one man does: writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose quiet observations and beautiful camerawork make Man Push Cart one of the most emotionally pure films of the year. Ahmad is a man with great sadness and regret in his life, and, for the first time since leaving Pakistan, his life has potential beyond his cart. At times heartbreaking, other times hopeful, Man Push Cart makes no promises about Ahmad's fate, but you may ask yourself when the film is over: is it better to never have hope, or to have a glimpse of it once only to have it taken away? The decision seems almost too much to comprehend, but this deeply moving film is well worth seeing.


Flicka

The closing-credits selection of photos of young girls and women with their beloved horses probably says better than I could why this film didn't really do it for me. I'm not exactly the demographic, people. Having said that, Flicka's beautiful scenery, countless slow-motion shots of these majestic animals and the very presence of Maria Bello at least kept me interested in the goings on, even if ultimately I wasn't particularly bowled over by this tale of a troubled 16-year-old girl (Alison Lohman) and her desire to tame and train a wild mustang that wanders onto her family's property.

Bello is given the thankless role of the mom, who is always stepping in to break up fights between her daughter and husband (country music star Tim McGraw). I have to say this about McGraw, who has impressed me before with his performance as the asshole father in Friday Night Lights: if you are tempted to cry during any part of this movie, it's during a scene driven entirely by McGraw's simple, heart-felt performance. Lohman and Bello are established (to varying degrees) actors who have little to prove with this movie, but McGraw genuinely surprised me with his solid work here.

I also liked seeing Dallas Roberts here. The guy is something of a rising star, who made a splash in the Colin Farrell drama A Home at the End of the World (the feature debut from Flicka director Michael Mayer). He has a great laid-back presence that is really easy to like. Something about him puts you at ease and allows you to trust him. He'll make a great villain someday.

Flicka is well-made, uncomplicated family fare that would be perfect for preteen/early teenage girls. The lessons about responsibility, bucking authority and the slow death of the American West are well intentioned if clumsily delivered. I wouldn't exactly call this a ringing endorsement, but if you feel compelled to see this movie, it shouldn't be too painful for you. (Put that on the poster!)

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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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