dir. Brett Morgen
Director Brett Morgen hasn't made a fuzzy nostalgia trip for people who protested the Chicago Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968—he's made a rousing primer for people who might want to protest a convention (or two) in the summer of 2008.
Quick history: In 1968, a few mobs—including the Yippies and SDS—descended on Chicago to disrupt the convention. The SDS went to protest the war. The Yippies went to stage, in Abbie Hoffman's words, a "fuck-in."
Riots happened, almost 700 people were arrested, and eight of them (Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, et al.) stood trial for conspiracy. The defendants parlayed the trial into a pulpit and comedy club—defendants blew kisses at the jury, showed up in judicial robes, and offered to score LSD for Judge Julius Hoffman, who was 73 years old at the time: literally a child of the 19th century. All were acquitted of conspiracy, but all—including the two defense lawyers, rounding out the Chicago 10—went to jail for other charges. Seale was sentenced to a record four years for contempt of court.
Chicago 10 is an invitation to join the party—fighting the pigs is exhilarating and fun!—slipped between live footage and an animated re-creation of the trial. The documentary segments are lessons in logistics, media management, and how to give rousing, fuck-the-man speeches, Jerry Rubin–style. The 3-D animation looks like an iteration of Grand Theft Auto. And the hippie-free soundtrack (Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath) completes Morgen's manifesto: Fuck Country Joe & the Fish. Rockers, rappers, and metal heads can protest, too. BRENDAN KILEY
dir. Michael Haneke
In an interview included on the recently released DVD of the original Funny Games, from 1997, Austrian director Michael Haneke asserts that any viewer who chooses to sit through his entire movie is sick in the head. This coy gamesmanship is irritating enough, but now Haneke has tracked his mentally ill demographic to where they live. Apparently, an insufficient number of violence-obsessed Americans bought tickets to his subtitled mindfuck, so now he has remade the film in English, nearly shot by shot, with a half-naked Naomi Watts as bait. Is it condescending in here, or is it just me?
Funny Games opens with a clever scene following a close-knit, ultrabourgeois family on the road to their lakeside vacation home. The husband (mousy Ulrich Mühe, RIP, in the old one, ineffectual Tim Roth in the new one) and the wife (pinched but lovely Susanne Lothar in the old one, plainly beautiful Watts in the new one) play a decadent game identifying opera arias while their skinny, bug-eyed child (Stefan Clapczynski and Devon Gearhart, interchangeable) sits obediently in the back. Abruptly, the classical soundtrack switches to a blistering grindcore freak-out by John Zorn. But the family in the picture stays serene, unhearing. These listless wankers have no clue what's in store.
The real games begin when a pudgy interloper (Brady Corbet this time) in white gloves comes to the house and asks the wife to borrow some eggs. Then he drops them. Slowly, his passive-aggressive behavior escalates. He is joined by a somewhat more self-possessed companion (Michael Pitt, whose fleshy, sneering lips have never been put to better use), also dressed in white. They provoke the husband into an act of cowardly aggression, and then use this as a pretext to brutalize and torture the family into pathetic, cowering submission. Pieces of brains adhere to walls. Nightmarish visions are held for unbearable lengths of time.
Occasionally, the lead punk addresses the camera directly, ostensibly so you feel horrified for enjoying the violence. But that's absurd—it's impossible to identify with these strange creatures in white. Their cruelty is both unmotivated (and therefore unsympathetic) and unsurprising (so hardly thrilling). I suppose the satisfaction is supposed to come from seeing some annoying rich people get completely fucked over by their own obsession with well-fenced property and rolling lawns to buffer the neighbors. If that's your idea of a good time, rent Panic Room or something. Funny Games is nothing more than its director's idea of a cute tool to measure your mental health. ANNIE WAGNER
Never Back Down
dir. Jeff Wadlow
What do we learn from Never Back Down? We learn this: Love in its most purest condition—love as love, love as nothing but love, a love supreme—can only be extracted from the experience of two people who are brought together by a cosmic concatenation, love at first sight. Love at second sight is diluted; love at third sight is doomed. Pure/potent/perfect love can only come from that sudden flame of awareness, that lock of the eyes, loss of breath, beating of the heart, heating of the blood—that vertiginous moment when the world around the strangers vanishes and that which remains is the nascent/natural/naked beam of their connection.
In Never Back Down, Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) moves with his poor family (a brother and mother—his father is dead) to a new city, Orlando; enters a new high school; and meets new people. On his first encounter with Baja Miller (Amber Heard)—the hottest honey of the school, and the girlfriend of the hottest hunk of the school, Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet)—a connection is made: There is love between the two. Sunshine blooms between the hottest honey in the school and the new kid on the block. This is the event. This is the moment of truth.
It is now up to Baja to either betray this truth/event or be faithful to it. Her once complete and closed life has been opened by a new possibility: She must either stand where she is (with her hunk and his circle of muscle-building friends) or make a leap of faith. The entire movie is about this decision and nothing else. Will beautiful Baja betray or be faithful to the truth-event—love at first sight? And if she is faithful, does this make her a better person? At the end, the movie's message is simple and clear: Love at first sight is not only the most purest form of love but also the kind of love that a weak person rejects and a strong person embraces. Never back down. CHARLES MUDEDE
dir. Stephen Chow
Chow's last film, Kung Fu Hustle, took a kung-fu movie and mashed it with a Chuck Jones cartoon, creating one of the more bizarre mainstream movies in recent memory. CJ7 is Chow's take on E.T., and it's also deeply weird, but for entirely different reasons. Chow stars as Ti, a construction worker who barely provides for his son, Dicky (charismatically played, without any gender-bending winks, by young actress Xu Jiao). Ti finds a green globe in a junkyard and gives it to Dicky to play with, and, in true boy-and-his-monster movie fashion, the globe transforms into a space pet.
Dicky gives it the robotic-sounding name CJ7, but the computer-generated beast is one of the cutest movie creatures since Gremlins' mogwai. With its fuzzy brown head and balloon-animal green body, you can imagine young children would hug the little monster to itty-bitty pieces. And so Chow, sadistically, spends a good portion of the movie torturing CJ7: It gets twisted, beaten, nearly drowned, and attacked with various construction implements. It always bounces back—Chow makes live-action cartoons, after all—but the thing's tormented squeals drastically change the timbre of the movie.
In addition to the Li'l Abu Gwaib sequences, there are a few cartoonish kung-fu battles tossed into the film as a bone for Chow's fan base. The father-son relationship is clearly supposed to be the movie's core. American children, though, may not be ready for this kind of relationship: Ti spanks Dicky and locks him in a closet when he refuses to behave. With all the pain and death sprinkled through CJ7, it's unclear who the target audience is supposed to be, but there are plenty of uncomfortable laughs for adults who are in the mood for a Mac and Me Go to Hostel kind of movie. PAUL CONSTANT
Horton Hears a Who!
dir. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Horton is an elephant, but not one from the zoo. He lives in a jungle ruled by a purple kangaroo. He finds a small speck; it's tiny and wee. From it he hears voices, but there's nothing to see. It's just a noise that Horton's found, but there's more than meets the eye, so he carries his speck around, down low and up high.
For days, the speck is silent, and Horton fears that he's crazy. So he talks to it again, because maybe, just maybe... he yells louder and louder, as loud as he can! The Whos all yell back; they bang pots and pans! He can hear them; they're there! A whole city of people! There's a school and a store and a church with a steeple. Horton's small speck, the one with no life, he's discovered is home to Who husbands and wives!
Of course he looks insane, carting about this small speck, but most are not bothered; there's no harm in a fleck. Still, snooty kangaroo thinks Horton is nuts—she wants him out of her jungle, no ifs, ands, or buts!
She can't hear the Whos calling; to her, nothing's there. But Horton knows better, so he treats it with care. Kangaroo is annoyed, and sends a vulture out after it. but Horton fights the bird off; he won't stand for that shit! Horton's no quitter; he's no Mr. Bungle! He gathers all the animals from all over the jungle. "Listen" he cries, "there are Whos to be heard! They're there, you can't see them, but this is their world!"
The speck makes no sound; Horton's getting flustered. but the Whos make more noise, more noise than they've ever mustered. "We're here! We're here!" they cry to the sky, but will the animals hear them in time?
The movie is funny, of course; it's for tots. But even if you're old, you'll laugh lots and lots. It's got Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, and my favorite, Steve Carell. Plus animation from Pixar? All this is just swell.
The message is to love everyone "no matter how small." Pro-lifers shouldn't take these words as a call. Protest somewhere else—it's a kids' movie, twerps! This isn't an opportunity for you to do "God's work." MEGAN SELING
Tall as Trees
dir. Gil Ponce
Vanity presses are common in the book industry, where, thanks to newfangled printing technologies, it costs almost nothing to publish someone's pet project. It's far rarer to see a movie, much less a 35 mm feature film, that's entirely self-financed by a first-time director. But former Boeing engineer Gil Ponce really, really wanted to make a movie—so much so that he cashed out his savings and sold his house to finance it.
Ponce's Tall as Trees, which opens at the Metro this week, tells the simple story of a kid named Jude (Carlo Lacana) whose mother (Chin-Chin Gutierrez) is a rural Filipina and whose father (Brent David Fraser) is a white American who makes jets for Boeing. In a herky-jerky prologue, Jude's father returns to Seattle, promising to send for his wife and son. But just as Jude and his mother are making their way to the Manila airport, passports in hand, a typhoon strikes, sweeping Mom away in a flash flood and stranding Jude on the tough, urchin-infected streets.
The story is pure, unembarrassed melodrama, and the filmmaking is far from elegant. But once you're reconciled to the almost Bollywood tone of the film, the adventures of Jude and his molded-plastic guardian angel are absorbing. And ridiculous: Just try not to snort Coke out your nose when Jude's little band of orphans learns that you can earn more money vanquishing bad guys than begging. ANNIE WAGNER