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Friday, December 15

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Column Fri May 15 2009

Angels & Demons, Management, Every Little Step and Lost in the Fog

Angels & Demons

People sure did spend a lot of time picking apart every small detail, plot hole, inconsistency or just dopey maneuver in Star Trek last week; let's see if these same people bother to do the same with the second big-screen adaptation of author Dan Brown's Robert Langdon stories, Angels & Demons. My guess is nobody will for two reasons, and one of them isn't "because the film's plot is flawless." The first reason is that nobody cares as much about Langdon's exploits as they do about the folks of the Trek universe. Second, Angels & Demons isn't nearly as ambitious or adventurous as Trek or 75 percent of the other films I see in a given summer. It's not the kind of film people bother analyzing ad nauseum, which I guess brings me back to reason one. There wasn't a moment in this film's entire 2-hour 20-minute length that I didn't know what most of the bigger-picture secrets were in this story. I knew who were going to be revealed as the real hidden bad guys and what kind of treachery they were up do. Not that the movie doesn't have its share of lofty intentions and a great cast to give those intentions weight and significance; it does. But at some point early in the film, I stopped caring what happened to most of the characters or even whether Vatican City was lost to the world with the help of a bomb created out of antimatter. I guess it's the lapsed Catholic in me.

Let's get into some of the performance first, because at this point you either know the basic plot or you don't because — all together now — you don't care. Robert Langdon is the least interesting character from an actor that has spent his entire career creating memorable and interesting characters, even when the elements that made them so weren't in the script. Langdon uses history to solve ancient puzzles. I'm sure in print, reading the innermost thought processes of Langdon is fascinating, but this massive amount of brain activity does not translate well to a visual medium. Tom Hanks spends a lot of time vocalizing his thoughts as he combs through the Vatican archives (long kept away from his prying eyes because of what happened in The Da Vinci Code). But here's the thing, Langdon is following a trail that has been in existence for hundreds of years. If the ancient order of the Illuminati changed even one small detail of this path (which they easily could have), Langdon's smarts would be of no use. This deduction led me to believe that the powers-that-be wanted Langdon to find the bomb in a very specific manner, which would lead into a series of predictable events, blah, blah, blah. This is how I figure shit out; it's not that tough.

I was happy to see director Ron Howard cast a great group of non-Americans in the key roles, including Danish superstar Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the Illuminati terrorist who kidnaps the four cardinals in line for the Papacy and plants the bomb guaranteed to decimate Vatican City and a great deal of Rome. Also on hand are the always-hammy and reliable Stellan Skarsgard as the head of the Swiss Guard that protects the Pope, Armin Mueller-Stahl as the cardinal in charge of running the process to select a new pope after the most recent one has died, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (from Munich) as one of the scientists who created the antimatter device, and Ewen McGregor as the young priest who was the late Pope's personal assistant and also seems to be the man in the Vatican with the greatest knowledge of Illuminati lore. McGregor is actually pretty great in this role, especially in an impassioned monologue where he pleads with the cardinals to abandon finding a new Pope temporarily so they can evacuate the Vatican for safety. But if it seems slightly strange that someone of McGregor's caliber would get caught playing second fiddle to Hanks or play such a bland, nice-guy character, well, you'd be on the right path.

One thing I did like about the film is that it all takes place in less than a day, and most of the film takes place in a five-hour window, so the sense of immediacy and urgency is sustained and impressive. I half expected to see a loudly ticking digital clock in the middle of the screen every so often, but alas it was not to be. I know that Howard and crew weren't allowed to film in or around the Vatican, but it sure feels like they were. The crowd sequences are among the most impressive; I'm still trying to figure out how and where they managed to create such massive crowds through which the characters run. But the film's biggest drawback is something I alluded to earlier: I just didn't care what happened to any of these people, especially not the four kidnapped cardinals that are getting killed every hour leading up to the big bomb detonating.

Not wanting to give away anything three or four of you might still find suspenseful, I won't go into any detail about the huuuuge problems and lapses in judgment and sense that Angels & Demons makes (beginning and ending with the fact that if Langdon was never a factor in these events, the outcome would have been exactly the same). That said, I was far from loathing this effort, simply because things never stopped moving long enough for me to notice the time passing or to really contemplate just how natural-born dumb this movie was at times. There are times when I laughed out loud at some of the filmmakers were trying to pull — a sequence involving a helicopters comes to mind — and I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to. Still, the film's consistent and repeated moments of audacity kept me just amused enough by the proceedings to never look at my watch and still get caught up in some of the better chases scenes... plus I just wanted to see if they really blew up the Vatican.

Angels & Demons is a top-to-bottom mess, but it's the kind of mess I know how to deal with and still walk out feeling like my time wasn't completely wasted. This is not a recommendation, but it's far from a outright condemnation. I think we know each other well enough for both of us to know whether you are, for some reason, predisposed to like films like this. I am not, but I can appreciate some of its finer points without really enjoying the experience as a whole. May is filled with great releases still to come; hold out for some of those instead.

Management

In my humble estimation the great romantic comedies are not built upon grand gestures or declarations of love in large public places surrounded by hundreds of bystanders. No, the greatest films about romance are built around the relationship between two people in very humble circumstances. In films with that idea at their core, we get to see the would-be couple maneuver around each other as they get to know one another. Neither is suave or confident in the beginning (or maybe ever) in those early moments; they simply feel each other out to see if there's something there. And it's in those wildly uncomfortable times before the romance actually kicks in that we see beneath the surface and hopefully build real characters that we can care about. And sometimes we simply need a beautiful woman to invite a man to touch her fully clothed butt to learn all we need to know about two people. Either way works for me.

In is directing debut, screenwriter and playwright Stephen Belber does nice, subtle work introducing us to two very different people who need the same thing — a change in their life, or at least the knowledge that there's a world outside their very limited frame of reference that is better than the one they are living in today. Mike (Steven Zahn, dialing back the goofy to give a really sweet performance) works at a roadside motel run by his parents (Margo Martindale as his ailing mother, and Fred Ward as his hyper-critical dad). One day, a businesswoman named Sue (Jennifer Aniston in one of her best big-screen portrayals) comes to stay at the motel, and Mike immediately fixates on her. It becomes clear that Mike is not trying to bed Sue; he just wants some kind of connection with her, perhaps even to be looked at as an object of desire even without the payoff of sex. Intrigued by (although perhaps not attracted to) Mike, the two engage in the aforementioned butt-centric touching, a scene that will be remembered long after the rest of the film is forgotten.

But the remarkably innocent exchange unlocks dreams and longings in Mike that he clearly didn't know were inside him, and he uses the idea of Sue as the key to unlock something resembling potential. In turn, Mike's wild abandon (which may be interpreted by some as slightly stalker-ish behavior, but Zahn never lets things feel that way) makes Sue take stock in her own life choices and forces her to remember a time when she wanted to work to help people and not get sucked into the corporate life she's currently living. Before you start thinking you've got this film figured out, everything I've just described to you takes place in about the first half of the film, and suffice it to say, the pair doesn't simply decide to go live their dreams together... not even close.

Belber's deceptively simple script works on several layers, and I loved that Mike tries out many different lives before he figures out which one works for him. Meanwhile, the thought of living a life of charity scares Sue so much that she moves across the country to be with her old boyfriend (Woody Harrelson), a yogurt kingpin and ex-punk musician, who promises to let her run his charitable division after she agrees to marry him. Some of my favorite scenes in Management involve Mike's none-too-brief stay at a Buddhist monastery where he teaches the monks volleyball, and they teach him about spiritual enlightenment. This sequence could have easily been played for laughs, but Zahn and Belber treat the situation just seriously enough to make these moments in Mike's life something of substance.

For the most part, Aniston plays Sue as a buttoned-down straight man to Zahn's slightly quirky take on Mike. Seeing her in this film and He's Just Not That Into You made me remember that the woman can actually act outside of a TV or more traditional romantic-comedy setting. I liked watching Sue's transformation and all of the confusion, doubt, and fear that leads to it. Aniston plays Sue with a soft touch, and makes her seem like a lot more than just a rich woman with phony problems. If I was to mention the films biggest flaw it might be that it doesn't seamlessly transition from the comedy to the more serious moments. In fact, the transitions are a bit jarring and off-putting at times, but not enough to turn me off to this otherwise really impressive work. Management stands apart thanks to a handful of touching and spirited performances, not just from the leads, but the supporting cast. I was extremely touched by Martindale's work as a mom instills wisdom and confidence in her son as she lay dying. The purest comic relief comes from James Liao, who plays a Mike's coworker at a Chinese restaurant. The film will make you smile, feel, maybe even cry, but more importantly, I think Management will make you take stock in the things that were once important in your life and remember the people that made you feel like you could achieve all of your crazy schemes. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Every Little Step


This film is one of the best behind-the-scenes looks at the staging of a Broadway show or any entertainment event that I've ever seen. Not that many such films exist, especially since actors' unions don't like to let cameras film rehearsals and the like without their members getting paid. But the access that co-directors Adam del Deo and James Stern are granted at this revival of A Chorus Line is unprecedented, as we literally see hundreds of hopeful singers and dancers come in and go out praying that they are among of the small number chosen. The bonus of this documentary is that it explores the origin of this particular musical, and allows us to listen to original director and choreographer Michael Bennett's taped interviews with actor/dancer friends of his that he conducted to try and piece together stories for a piece he was working on that celebrated to process of auditioning. Some of the conversation on these reel-to-reel tapes were lifted directly and used as monologues in the show.

It was also truly fun to listen to composer Marvin Hamlisch talk about working on the songs line by line. I know so little about all of the elements that go into any theatre production, so I'm sure that seasoned professionals won't have quite as much to learn from Every Little Step. But I was fascinated with every frame and every aspect to this process. The film is filled with genuine tension as the showrunners narrow their choices down, usually two performers who are given one last chance to give their best work and even take direction from the director to test their abilities to listen to and follow instructions. It isn't difficult to see why this show is so revered by theatre actors from all over. From songs about accentuating one woman's essential features to one of the most moving coming-out-of-the-closet monologues I've ever heard, there's so much in the show to be impressed with and so much in this film to act as a true eye-opening experience. If you sometimes wished you lived in New York just to be surrounded by so much top-notch theatre, it would be worth your while to travel great distances to see Every Little Step. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Lost in the Fog


A story with so many unexpected twists and turns, triumphs and downfalls, you almost can't believe it's all 100 percent true. Director John Corey's beautiful documentary tells the story of 88-year-old Harry Aleo and his prize-winning horse Lost in the Fog, and it's as compelling and gripping a story as you're likely to see this year. Aleo is not the easiest man to love — a staunch Republican, with no love for liberal thinking, living in Northern California. His record as an owner of race horses wasn't particularly impressive, until 1995, when he got a good deal on colt that happened into the hottest thing to hit horse racing in decades. Lost in the Fog won race after race, and Aleo, trainer Greg Gilchrist, and their jockey were getting offers to sell the horse or put him out to stud. But Aleo had triple-crown dreams in his eyes, and went forward with his plans to race Lost in the Fog in every major race he could qualify for.

The film does a splendid job capturing the precarious balance between the factions that go into racing a successful horse. The highs are high, but when things go south, the blame game begins. The film covers these elements without letting things get too tabloid-ish. The racing sequences are a blast, and Aleo is an unforgettable character that goes to church on Sunday but swears up a blue streak when his emotions get the best of him. But then the old theory that "What can go wrong, will go wrong" kicks in, and Aleo and his team are mobilized to help the animal and control the flow of information. Lost in the Fog is equal parts tragedy and inspiration, and I'll admit that I never thought I'd get this involved in the tale of a horse and its owner. But Corey pulls this film together with such precision and doesn't drag anything out any longer than absolutely necessary that I couldn't help but get pulled into this journey and care about these folks on what will likely be their last big adventure together. The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 17 at 3pm, and Tuesday, May 19 at 8pm, with director Corey on hand for post-screening Q&As after both showings.

 
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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