Little Children

dir. Todd Field

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The children in Little Children are like aliens. They may be in this world, but they are not of it. With their tiny heads and big eyes, they stare and jut their imperceptible hips and fixate passionately on such objects as plush jester's hats and light-addled moths. One of the wonderful things about the film, which is full of more ordinary virtues, is that it recognizes that children create their own worlds, and that in a story about their parents, they're just strange little visitors—adorable, perhaps, but unreachable and opaque.

The kids in question (Sadie Goldstein and Ty Simpkins) belong to Sarah (a rumpled, lovely Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), two stay-at-home parents who chance to meet at a suburban playground. Sarah is sitting apart from the gaggle of mothers, attempting—according to the intrusive narration—to survey them like an anthropologist among the natives. Brad, whom the moms have nicknamed "The Prom King," is pushing his kid on a swing when Sarah approaches. She wants to make the other mothers jealous, she explains, her anthropological poise discarded in favor of this new, more exciting game. She gets his phone number. Then they kiss.

Against the backdrop of their quickly feverish, sun-dappled affair, a pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) moves back into his mother's house in town. Mass hysteria blooms, fed in large part by the poster-and-harassment campaign of a manic friend of Brad's. The sympathetic (if childish) drive for pleasure that leads Brad and Sarah into each other's arms holds no such rewards for Ronnie. To say that he is the first sympathetic pedophile in the movies would be stretching it a little—for one thing, Haley, a former child actor, is now ugly as sin. But Ronnie is pitiable, and his mother still loves him, and those paltry scraps contain all the makings of tragedy. ANNIE WAGNER

Fur

dir. Steven Shainberg

Hollywood can be incredibly doltish when it comes to identifying the catalyst for artistic creation. But I plan to forgive pretty much any explanation involving beautiful muses, near-death experiences, or garden-variety madness after seeing Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Its hypothesis: Diane Arbus, the midcentury American photographer who'd become famous for her cool portraits of misfits, was nothing but a neurotic housewife... until she fell in love with the asthmatic ape-man who lived upstairs!

We're not meant to take this proposition as fact: It's an imaginary portrait, the opening title card reiterates, reaching "beyond reality" to offer the most pigheadedly literal symbolism I think I've ever encountered in a film. Not only does the plot trace a treasure trail Sigmund Freud would be ashamed of (girl's father sells fine furs, girl falls in love with a hairy man, then has an affair with a pathologically hairy man, then becomes an artist), it also grossly diminishes the power of Arbus's images. An Arbus photograph doesn't work because the photographer moons over her freakish subjects. It's unnerving because you just can't tell.

Nicole Kidman, as Diane, tries to stress the discomfort a brilliant woman would feel in the strictures of a 1950s marriage; she succeeds only in portraying the discomfort a glamorous actress would feel when forced into an unflattering housedress. She does, however, snuffle enthusiastically into her husband's hirsute forearm during sex, sending him scuttling fearfully to his side of the bed. Apart from her fixation on furry man-pelts, this Diane is also a voyeur, presaging her future career and, conveniently, explaining how she comes to meet the wholly fictional ape-man upstairs, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr., covered head to toe in variegated brown fur). Oh, and she's an exhibitionist too, because... well, why not? An incongruously tan body double does all the heavy panting.

Fur is ludicrous throughout, but it doesn't get amusing until Lionel announces he's drowning inside (literally—something about his congenital hairiness causes his lungs to disintegrate) and asks Diane to shave him baby smooth. Robert not-so-Downey Jr. emerges (with a five o'clock shadow, which makes no sense) and proceeds to dog paddle out to sea, presumably so he can drown outside, of his own volition. Yuck. ANNIE WAGNER

Fast Food Nation

dir. Richard Linklater

Fast Food Nation, by muckraking journalist Eric Schlosser, was a bestselling exposé packed with horror stories about the (sometimes literal) shit we eat and the way we're taught to crave it. Forceful without being bossy, the book attacked the fast-food revolution from numerous angles—from teen labor at the cash register to the largely immigrant workforce at the slaughterhouses, and from marketing techniques that turn children into expert naggers to outbreaks of food-borne pathogens that disproportionately affect the very young. Even at his most impassioned, Schlosser couldn't refuse the opportunity to point out that there's no real difference between "natural" flavor and its artificial counterpart, despite the label readers who might wish it so.

Fast Food Nation, the movie by Richard Linklater (who cowrote the screenplay with Schlosser), has no room for facts. It's a fictional narrative inspired by the themes of a nonfiction book, and the transition is just as clunky as it sounds. Everyone from the lovely Ashley Johnson (playing a Colorado teen with a crap job at "Mickey's") to Ethan Hawke (as her chill uncle) to Avril Lavigne (as a ditzy environmentalist) has a little speech to deliver, a naive position to espouse, and the result is a cacophony in monotone. There's also a melodrama about Mexican workers, a minor detective story about a Mickey's exec who thinks he can eliminate fecal matter from his burgers (ha!), and a really grisly scene in which a human leg is inadvertently ground into patties.

You're better off reading the book again, or better yet, moving on to the newest entry in the anti-fast food genre: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. You think hamburgers are scary? Wait till you get a good look at a silky ear of corn. ANNIE WAGNER

Eric Schlosser begs Annie Wagner to like his movie in this interview.

Happy Feet

dir. George Miller

Charles Mudede is a penguin hater, which is exactly why he was originally assigned to write this review. Unlike me, he'd tell the truth—he'd see straight past the cutest fucking cartoon birds ever drawn in the history of all drawing, and he'd be able to examine Happy Feet for the movie it really is. But Charles was out of town the weekend the movie screened, so now you're stuck hearing what I think about it—me, Megan Seling, the girl who fucking loves adorable penguins, especially when they're cartoons and especially when they waddle-dance to Prince, Queen, and Grandmaster Flash.

Dear God, it was over before it even began.

So anyway, Happy Feet is about a penguin named Mumble. He's fucking adorable. No thanks to a clumsy dad who dropped him before he hatched from his egg, though, Mumble's a little different from all the other penguins. See, all the other penguins can sing, and they rely on their talent to attract them a mate. But poor little dropped Mumble screeches like nails on a chalkboard as soon as he opens his mouth. It's so not sexy and it's so not going to find him a lady penguin to get down with. But what Mumble can do, is dance. And boy can that motherfucker's feet fly! He's like Fred Astaire on ice! With uh... feathers! And a beak!

The penguin elders don't like it when things are different, though, so they shun Mumble and his happy feet. Parents just don't understand. They also blame him and his constant dancing for the lack of fish. "You're scaring away our food, Mumble!" they cry at him. But it's not Mumble's fault, it's the selfish humans that are doing it! So now Mumble has to go and prove to everyone that blah blah blah. Who cares what happens—have you seen the penguins in this movie!? EEEEEeeeeeeee! They're so cute! MEGAN SELING

For Your Consideration

dir. Christopher Guest

The mockumentary formula that Christopher Guest helped invent is getting very tired. So the shiny new innovation in For Your Consideration is... there's no "umentary"! Now it's all mock.

Catherine O'Hara is Marilyn Hack, an aging actress who's playing the dementia-afflicted lead in Home for Purim. The movie-within-the-movie is a Southern/Jewish melodrama about a daughter (Parker Posey) who comes home for Purim with an apparently Irish-Catholic lesbian lover (Rachael Harris) in tow. Hack's name is floated as a possible Oscar contender on some movie blog; hysteria and radical plastic surgery ensue.

All the usual suspects do their usual shticks, but only Fred Willard (as the host of an Access Hollywood clone) lands on the sweet spot between earnest and deliriously off-kilter. Everybody else looks like they'd rather be somewhere—anywhere—else. ANNIE WAGNER

Legendary Hollywood Couples: Bogart and Bacall

Various directors

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were never, it must be said, the likeliest of couples. He was a craggy, Lucky-Strikes-and-high-ball sort of guy, with facial features that suggested a smidgen of wharf rat. She, on the other hand, was a leggy Amazon type, with a vocal range that could serve as a stress test for a subwoofer. Whatever the apparent mismatch, however, they generated a spark that leaves all those prefab, demographically approved screen pairings far in the rearview.

Grand Illusion's four-week salute to the duo kicks off, rightly enough, with their first pairing, 1944's To Have and Have Not (starts Nov 17). Famously conceived as a counter to Casablanca by director Howard Hawks, this supremely fun film ditches its Hemingway inspiration early on, in favor of a series of seemingly improvised, increasingly delightful set pieces. All this, plus Walter Brennan wandering through the wings, rambling drunkenly about bees.

Their next collaboration, 1946's The Big Sleep (starts Nov 24), is top-tier Hawks, which means that it's just about the most entertaining movie ever generated within the Hollywood system. The twisty gumshoe plot is fun enough in its own right, but what really sticks is the sight of Bogart blowing through a bevy of willing dames until finally meeting his intellectual match in Bacall. The once-censored scene where they use a discussion about horseracing as a means of foreplay is still one of the most goofily sexy things to ever hit the screen.

The quality of the couple's remaining films may have tailed off somewhat in Hawks's absence, but the chemistry stayed the same. Dark Passage (starts Dec 1), from 1947, is a relatively subdued noir entry from director Delmer Daves (a favorite of John Waters), features a nifty use of subjective camera and Bacall at her flintiest. By the following year's Florida gangster saga Key Largo (starts Dec 8), the age difference between the two was becoming ever more apparent. Still, even if Bogie was starting to look a little long (okay, longer) in the tooth, that infernal sizzle remained. Warts and all, no cinematic couple ever seemed so compatible on screen, or so frankly amused to be paid to be doing what they'd most likely be doing at home anyway. ANDREW WRIGHT

Shut Up & Sing

dir. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck

That this movie is being released in the afterglow of the Democrats' reclamation of Congress is both a fitting context for its debut and a jarring reminder of how different the cultural climate was only three years ago. When Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines took the stage of Shepherds Bush Empire in London and told an audibly sympathetic audience that she was ashamed that Dubya was from the band's home state of Texas, even the most pessimistic liberal couldn't have anticipated the fallout. While directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck weren't there from the beginning of the controversy, they thoroughly document the aftermath, weaving their footage with existing film taken by the band's own camera crew.

The most gripping elements of the film are not the obvious dramatic moments—such as Dallas police discussing death threats with the women prior to their return to Texas—but the confused way America's country sweethearts react to the wave of conservative criticism. Initially apologetic and bewildered, the Chicks' journey from meek-voiced penitents to defiant and articulate free-speech advocates is nothing short of inspiring—particularly when they push beyond trumpeting First Amendment rights and begin to explore their own unvarnished political opinions.

For fans, one frustrating omission is any examination of how the Dixie Chicks came to work with revered producer Rick Rubin. The significance (or inconsequence) of his role in shaping this year's comeback record, Taking the Long Way, could have been an intriguing prediction of where these galvanizing experiences might take them next. HANNAH LEVIN

Abel Raises Cain

dir. Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett

Long before Borat hauled his mustachioed mischief across the Western Hemisphere, Alan Abel was giving interviews in the guise of ridiculous characters and whipping the world into an outraged lather. Abel uses the media to lampoon the media—he is, technically speaking, a culture jammer, though he isn't pretentious enough to describe himself that way. In his eyes, he's just an old-fashioned hoaxer who gets a kick out of watching people make much ado about nothing.

In the 1950s, he ran a decency campaign to clothe naked animals. In the 1970s, he claimed to run a school for panhandlers. A 1976 screening of his film The Faking of the President—which used a Nixon look-alike and repurposed sound bites to make fun of our 37th president—was cut short by a riot after just 20 minutes. The audience tore up the ticket booth, destroyed the film, and defaced the marquee. In 2000, he began a campaign to ban all breastfeeding because infants stimulate women's nipples, arouse their mothers, and commit incest. Unlike Borat, Abel didn't use his own cameras to record his career in meaningful pranksterism—with two exceptions—he had to fool print and broadcast journalism to do the documentation for him. The first exception is his own satirical movies (The Faking of the President, Is There Sex After Death?). The second is his brief career as a plant on the talk shows of the '80s—once Sally Jessy Raphael and the gang figured out how much outrage Abel could generate, they winkingly invited his various personas on as guests. (Abel himself will appear at the Northwest Film Forum screenings.)

For all his hoodwinking and hell-raising, the Alan Abel in this documentary seems like a regular guy. Narrated and codirected by his daughter Jenny, Abel Raises Cain is a small, sweet film—a loving portrait of an eccentric father. BRENDAN KILEY