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Column Thu Jun 25 2009

The Room, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Whatever Works, Cheri, Jerichow, Break-Up Date and A Wink and a Smile

Before we dive into this week's offerings, I wanted to tell you about a little movie that you've probably never heard of (or only heard about in whispered tones in dark alleys) that is finally, after six long years of playing almost non-stop in a Los Angeles theater, making its way to a screen in Chicago. The film is called The Room, and that's really all you need to know about it, other than it's playing at midnight shows at the Music Box Theatre June 26 and 27, and July 24 and 25.

I get mad when I see critics attempt to review or even summarize The Room because it's impossible to capture in words just how truly bad this movie from writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau is. I love that Chicago audiences will finally get a chance to watch this movie, one that needs to be seen in the comfort and safety of a crowd. The film is simply too dangerous to watch alone at home. That being said, the only thing greater than The Room as a theatrical event are the extras on the DVD release, which features an interview with Wiseau that is beyond hilarious. Free promo DVDs will be given out to the first 50 people at each Music Box performance.

Wiseau himself has taken to calling the film a dark comedy, which is a load of crap. I firmly believe he thought he was making high drama when he spent what I'm hearing is millions of dollars making this movie. But don't take my word for it. This film has a celebrity endorsement from none other than Paul Rudd, who first brought the film to my attention a couple years ago. More recently, Rudd's I Love You, Man director John Hamburg told me, "I've been in Paul's bedroom. He has a little table next to his side of the bed, and the only thing on that table is a copy of The Room." There you have it. If someone told me today that The Room was an elaborate hoax, made deliberately bad to make people laugh, I'd almost believe it, but not quite. There are things in this film that you just couldn't make this bad on purpose. See it and then see it again. You've been warned and encouraged; the rest is up to you. All else opening this week pales in comparison, but here it is anyway.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I got home after watching the new Transformers film a little dazed, with a mild headache, ears ringing, slight vertigo, and a low-level depression knowing that a generation of moviegoers (perhaps even two generations) would watch Michael Bay's latest offering and consider it... impressive, groundbreaking? Who knows? But the film's complete and utter dismissal of anything resembling a cohesive story or even two-dimensional character building is what disturbed me most. And while I could be like many, and simply sit here and type a succession of expletive-punctuated statements about Bay's abilities as a filmmaker or the utter contempt he has for his audience's ability to appreciate a well-conceived plot, that's not what I'm going to do here. I'm simply going to walk through what I liked and what I did not, and hope that I don't let my emotions and my throbbing headache get the best of me.

I did something last weekend that I rarely do before going into a sequel — I went back and watched the original. I did this because I literally could not remember a single thing about the first Transformers movie. I also went back to reread my review of the film, and I was surprised by how accepting I was of large portions of what I saw two years ago. But I realized while watching Revenge of the Fallen that many of the elements I appreciated about the first film still hold true. The one thing I will always give Bay credit for is showing us something we have never seen before, and this film has about 5,000 such moments. Seriously, if I'd had the ability to turn off the audio on this film, I might have done just that, because the special effects are often pretty mind-blowing. From the tiniest insect-size robot to the enormous, pyramid-destroying Decepticon made up of about a dozen different construction vehicles, Bay literally hurls new robot after new robot at us to the point where we barely get a glance at the Transformer characters from the previous film.

Bay stages battle sequences the way a three-year-old plays with Legos. He dumps everything out at once in one loud crash, and just starts snapping pieces together and tossing them into each other. I'll admit, there is something mildly awe-inspiring about watching that much money get hurled around the screen. And much like a child at play, things get loud, there's a lot of screaming, and shit gets destroyed. I could go through all of the terrible plot decisions, confusing story elements that never really get cleared up, but there just isn't the time and I don't have the inclination. OK, maybe one thing — if the Decepticons can make themselves look human (as one robot who visits Sam at college does), why don't they all just do that? Wouldn't that make their job of infiltrating and destroying humans so much easier? Here's another question, Do any of the woman in Michael Bay's universe own skirts that go below the upper thigh other than Sam Witwicky's mom (which still doesn't stop her from being the butt of some pretty overt sexual humor)?

As much fun as it is driving a semi through the plot holes of a Michael Bay movie, that's not really reviewing the film. But it is part of the movie-going experience of seeing Revenge of the Fallen. So much of the film and the decisions the characters make seem counterintuitive. For example, why would there be dumb robots? For all of the discussion and sensitivity displayed about the home-bots, Mudflap and Skids (both voiced by a white voice actor named Tom Kenny, best known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants), nothing will quite prepare you for just how patently offensive these characters are. And I understand that all the Autobots pick up human characteristics and voices from watching our media, but what the hell were these bug-eyed, gold-toothed, illiterate robots observing, an Al Jolson movie? The filmmakers decided to bring back John Turturro for this second go-round, so we don't really need additional comic relief in a film like this.

What else do you really need to know? Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are back as now-established couple Sam and Mikaela. Sam is off to college, leaving Mikaela to work in her auto-body shop with her dad (now released from prison and largely dialogue free). The Autobots have incorporated themselves nicely with a special branch of the military that seeks out Decepticons and kills them. So all is right in the world until an ancient race of Transformers who visited earth thousands of years ago and were frozen deep in the ice are set free. Then there's some crap about Decepticons who still exist on the rapidly crumbling home planet of the Transformers. Then it turns out that some of the exhibits at the Air and Space Museum in D.C. are actually Transformers, but having just seen the Night at the Museum Sequel (and having grown up in the D.C. area), it's very clearly not the real museum. Then there's the old British Decepticon who it turns out has switched sides; then there's the Decepticon named The Fallen (voiced by Tony Todd) who's even more evil than Megatron (still voiced by Hugo Weaving). Then Sam gets a secret robot language imprinted on his brain. Then they end up destroying pyramids in Egypt. Got all that? Now explain it to me, please.

Look, I don't need a film to make 100 percent sense to me for me to enjoy myself watching it. But when a film like Revenge of the Fallen does everything in its power to create as much noise as it can to push you away from the screen, how am I supposed to get engaged in a film like that? The truth is, I've always appreciated Michael Bay's ability to direct large-scale, complicated action sequences, but this is the film that finally defeated him. The sequences just don't make any goddamned sense a lot of the time. There are too many characters, and, yes, I'll say it, a lot of these robots look alike, so sometimes I can't even tell who I'm supposed to be rooting for. As I mentioned earlier, the special effects in this film are seamless, while being almost impossible to appreciate fully. This was the absolutely most frustrating part of watching this movie. I could tell something cool was going on behind all the dust and spare parts, but I'll be damned if I could pass a test on what I was seeing or hearing.

Look, I'm neither a Michael Bay apologist nor a knee-jerk hater. I admired some of what he accomplished in the first Transformers effort, and was utterly turned off by most of what was going on in Revenge of the Fallen. The entire experience watching this film was like witnessing a filmmaker dare his audience to try to understand or even like his movie. I'm not the sort of person who can turn off my brain entirely or lower my expectation in advance of any movie, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen really made me wish I could have done either. This isn't the worst film I've seen this year, or even this summer, but it's the one that tries the hardest and still manages to fail so completely.

Whatever Works

The story goes that more than 30 years ago, Woody Allen wrote the script that became Whatever Works for Zero Mostel to star in. Motel died in 1977, so Allen put the script aside. When the most recent writers' strike loomed last year, Allen took the script, updated it, and made it his latest film starring the great Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") as one of the least likable men on the planet, Boris Yellnikoff. Everyone is assuming that Boris/Larry is a stand-in for Allen, a mistake a lot of critics and fans have made over the years. But the truth is Allen would never have played a character as cruel toward and judgmental of others; if anything, he would have turned that loathing against himself. But Boris is a certifiable genius, making everyone else he comes into contact with a microbe, a worm, an imbecile, and he has no problem letting them know that he feels this way about them.

Putting aside the brilliance of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which to me was a perfect blend of comedy and drama), Whatever Works is one of Allen's most consistently funny films in years, but it might be difficult for some to recognize that with David's often venomous diatribes against humanity (sometimes aimed at young children or at those in his life who care about him most). When a barely legal young woman from the South named Melodie St. Ann Celestine (The Wrestler's Evan Rachel Wood) enters his life seeking shelter and food after roaming the streets of New York, Boris naturally rejects the very notion of her, but her unbridled optimism and sunny nature gets the best of him. Boris is also intrigued by her unformed and uninformed feelings and philosophies, and he's more than happy to school her on his doom-and-gloom window to the world.

I've always had generally positive feelings about Wood as an actress, but between The Wrestler and Whatever Works, she's transformed into a performer whose work I will actually anticipate from this point forward. When she enters the story, you assume she's going to be a one-note Southern ditz, but there's a wonderful, subtle metamorphosis going on here that is pretty special. Melodie begins to quote Boris to others without truly understanding all of what his theories mean, and when she spouts off about "We're all going to die, so what's the point?", it doesn't ring true.

Patricia Clarkson enters the story as Marietta, Melodie's Bible-thumping mother, who is appalled to find out that her daughter has taken up with this much older man. Once again, Allen surprises us in his script by making Marietta's adventures in the big city perhaps even a bit more interesting than her daughter's. Eventually Melodie's father (Ed Begley Jr.) comes searching for his ladies as well, and eventually Melodie's connection to Boris changes in ways she does not anticipate. I don't want to ruin all of the surprises in Whatever Works (and there are quite a few), but throught it all, Larry David barrels through all of the new-age nonsense and the Up with People attitudes to deliver a character that is quite different than the one he plays on "Curb," while maintaining what it is I've always loved about the guy — he delivers every line like it's the unmistakeable, undeniable truth. Although he doesn't do it often (and that's a good thing), occasionally Boris addresses the audience directly — he even makes mention of the fact that there's an audience in a theater watching him, people who paid good money to hear him tell his life story. The other characters around him see him talking to someone, but they don't see an audience. Boris' reason for this? Because he's the only one who sees the big picture. I guess in that sense, I do see the relationship between Boris and Allen.

Whatever Works is yet another example of Allen coaxing out a romance between an older man and younger girl, a theme that I thought he maybe had gotten all the mileage he could have years ago, but this story feels fresh thanks to its Pygmalion/My Fair Lady twist (despite the fact that Boris says right off the bat that his story is not like those; he's both wrong and right). But the simple truth is, the film made me laugh a great deal, and about as much as it made me think about a variety of subjects, including the impossible art of letting go and how there is almost without a doubt someone for everyone. I've heard Whatever Works described as "classic" Woody Allen, and I respectfully disagree. There's a maturity and intelligence in this movie that I'm not sure Allen could have pulled off when he'd originally intended on making it. If my chronology is correct, this film would have been his follow-up to Annie Hall, and I'm by no means saying that lovely work is lacking either of these qualities. But I firmly believe that Whatever Works could only have been successfully written by a much older man than Allen was in the mid- to late 1970s. I can't remember when something that showcased a character so uncomfortable in the world still felt like comfort food to me. This is great stuff. The film opens Friday at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Cheri

There are few filmmakers I can count on to deliver a film I will inevitably like or love that rival Britain's Stephen Frears. Going back to My Beautiful Laundrette and continuing through such marvels as The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Snapper, Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen, Frears is so consistent and reliable that he was bound to disappoint me to a degree sooner or later. His latest work, Cheri, based on the scandalous books by Colette and adapted by Christopher Hampton (who adapted Atonement and Dangerous Liaisons, which Frears also directed), is something of a misstep if only because the titular male leading character (or at least the actor who portrays him, Rupert Friend) is such an obnoxious, annoying fop that I had an impossible time believing that anyone as refined and lovely as the aging courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) would ever fall for this colossal douche.

Set during the Belle Epoque era in Paris, Cheri is set in a world where courtesans were able to make enough money in their prime from rich clients that they could retire at a respectable age and live the rest of their lives comfortably. Lea is at such an age and time in her life when an old friend and fellow woman of ill repute, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), recruits her to teach her lazy, sometimes cruel son, nicknamed Cheri (Friend), a thing or two about women. Quite unintentionally, Lea and Cheri fall in love and spend several years essentially living together in unwedded bliss. Suddenly Bates' swoops in once again to alert Lea that the relationship must end so that her son may marry a nice girl from a disgustingly rich family. But neither Cheri nor Lea are quite ready to give the relationship up, which leads to countless complications.

As much as I loathed Friend's performance, I was impressed with what Pfeiffer achieves. She manages to be radiant, without being afraid to show us the cracks (both physical and emotional) on her face. She knows that she's getting to the age where Cheri might stop loving her because she's simply too old and society would shun him for remaining with her. While it was hardly unusual at the time for older courtesans to take up with much younger men, Cheri's station in life would be compromised by looking like a fool. Watching her emotional journey in this film is the only reason to pay money to see it. Pfeiffer is still a viable, vivacious, talented actress, and it is my most sincere wish that she find some quality roles to sink her teeth into. This is certainly a step in the right direction, especially since her last couple of efforts went right to video or she's be demoted to supporting roles in such films as Stardust, Hairspray and White Oleander. Those aren't terrible movies, but she deserves so much better. I realize it's a broken record heard often that actresses over 40 have a tough time getting work, and while I don't know if any actress can have the kind of career that, say, Meryl Streep does, I'd hate to see Pfeiffer vanish from the scene. I for one still very much enough looking at her, and her highly sexual and sensual performance in Cheri is exactly the kind of proof I've needed to make my point. She's pretty damn flawless here, and the quality of her work makes it easier to ignore the idiot playing her leading man. The film opens Friday at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Jerichow

This film from Germany features one of those great stories that starts out like a solid slice-of-life tale and turns into a complex and layered works that gets so deep under your skin that it makes you edgy and weirdly uncomfortable at how intimate things get. That's a good thing, by the way. Jerichow, named after the small, impoverished town where it takes place, follows a former solider named Thomas (Speed Racer's Benno Furmann) whose mother has just died. Rather than sell her place, he wants to hold onto it and renovate it himself. But after using what little money his mother left him to pay off his debts, he's left with nothing. After fruitlessly searching for a job through an employment agency, Thomas meets a Turkish man named Ali (Hilmi Sozer), who owns a chain of small snack bars throughout the region. Ali has lost his driver's license, so he hires Thomas to drive him on his daily rounds, visiting each store location to replenish supplies, collect money and receipts, and see who's ripping him off. With Thomas' soldiering skills, Ali has unknowingly hired himself a grateful bodyguard as well, and the two settle into a nice routine and become friends.

Ali's attractive wife Laura (Nina Hoss) is fairly cold toward Thomas at first, but soon he begins to realize that she is a deeply unhappy woman who Ali is suspicious of and cruel toward. During the course of the film, the dynamic among the three changes gradually, almost so slowly you don't notice this, and then without warning, Laura and Thomas are kissing on the beach after Ali has wandered away drunk. This small but significant event sets off a chain reaction of emotions and goings on that generate a genuine sense of suspense and anxiety. When Thomas drops Ali off on what is supposed to be a quick trip to Turkey, we see Ali head into the airport but the double back and catch a cab. Where is he going? Thomas and Laura seize the opportunity to hump like rabbits, and Laura details her life story and how she ended up with Ali and why she can never leave him. Yes, folks, this tricky little film becomes a modern film noir by the end, and I loved it for that.

As careful and the new couple are in their schemes, naturally there is one flaw that gives them away. But nothing quite prepared me for how this sharp and smart film concludes. It's sudden and completely unexpected. Writer-director Christian Petzold (Yella) manages to keep a lid on his plot's twists and turns with much more style and grace than most directors would have. He seems to relish in letting developments slowly trickle to the audience rather than pack the film with one explosive surprise after another. We're never quite sure who we can trust in this film, outside of Thomas, whom we're pretty sure is being taken on a ride by somebody, or perhaps two somebodies. Make an effort to track down and see Jerichow. It's a great burst of strong storytelling from a filmmaker who is coming into his own as a visionary. That's always a good and exciting thing. The movie opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Break-Up, Date

This fun, insightful and endlessly amusing documentary on the world of modern dating manages to gather a fairly eclectic group of Chicago-area singles (most in their 20s and 30s) who share their stories of dating, rejection, and the endless and often painful search for someone to spend all or a significant chunk of your life with. While clearly the age of online dating is upon us, the film isn't entirely about coupling in the electronic age, despite the fact that one published expert on the subject does liken the pick-and-choose nature of dating in the 21st century to buying a pair of shoes. While managing to stay fairly neutral on the subject himself, director Collin Souter does present a group of players who range a great deal in their approach to finding the perfect man or woman. Some are experts at playing the game and following "the rules," while others seem to prefer (or at least they say they do) casual hanging out with someone for months or years on end until a more serious and committed contender makes an appearance.

Break-Up, Date covers familiar ground like speed dating, blind dates, casual sex, and web sites that match you with your "perfect" mate, but Souter also uncovers some less traditional paths such as Dating for Nerds, which actually looks like a great way to meet people whether you want to date them or not, and the hug-fest Cuddle Party, which looks something strikingly similar to my worst nightmare in a pair of flannel pajamas. The film never gets too serious, nor does it explore just how immensely lonely people get when they can't quite seem to conform to society's expectations of pairing up with someone. But this isn't that movie. The film features students, creative types, mothers and sons, strong independent women, professionals, and even WGN Radio's Nick Digilio, who provides what might be my favorite date story involving taking a woman to see David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers as what he refers to (regrettably) as "some asshole test" on his part. Film geeks will understand perfectly; my go to test film for years was Dawn of the Dead.

The film has enough people of depth to make you really learn something from their experience whether you are single or otherwise occupied, but more than anything, Break-Up, Date makes you want to know what has happened to these folks since the cameras stopped rolling. Hell, there's at least one woman in this film that I would have pursued without a second thought were I single today. It's easy enough to get people to talk about themselves — and sure enough, listening to people chronicle their own dating histories made me think about my own way more than I had in years — but it's quite another thing to pull together an interesting film that isn't afraid to laugh at its subjects while still respecting their pain. For reasons I can't quite explain, this film cheered me up and gave me a small amount of hope for our future. Break-Up, Date opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Collin Souter will be present for audience discussion at the 8:15pm show on Saturday.

A Wink and a Smile

This new documentary about the modern burlesque phenomenon isn't attempting to be an all-inclusive history lesson about the practice as much as it is a look at how a group of women in Seattle are using the practice to bring out the confidence, sensuality and creativity in their own personalities. For many of these women, these elements have remained long buried in themselves, and it took a six-week course at the Academy of Burlesque taught by one Miss Indigo Blue (assisted by Shanghai Pearl) to coax the wilder side out.

During the course of the film, we watch the ladies piece together choreography, costumes and make-up choices into a routine and a character that will debut on stage in front of an audience. The prospect of being semi-nude in front of strangers and loved ones is terrifying for each woman, but there's an anticipation in each one that the class and the final event will be the final step toward something their lives have been lacking for far too long. Director Deirdre Timmons goes back and forth between the rehearsals of the amateurs and watching routines from some of Seattle's best-known burlesque performers. And Miss Indigo Blue is a great instructor to both her students and to us about the various types of burlesque performers. It's a fascinating world that is brought into the light, and Timmons and her subjects do an admirable job distinguishing this art form from simply stripping.

I found myself far more interested in watching the women in the class slowly pull together their routines, and their lives in the process. In essence this is a 10-person character study, and each woman has a story to tell. I was particularly curious about the pupils who led fairly mundane lives, and were just looking for a lightning bolt of excitement in their world before they got much older or lost their nerve. The film offers up a few unexpected twists — first and foremost when one student drops out for a pretty disappointing reason — but even without those developments, the film is an excellent profile of world that exits just off the radar.

A Wink and a Smile opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Following the Friday screening, director Deirdre Timmons and Chicago's own burlesque queen Michelle L'amour will preside over the first public performance of Studio L'amour's latest graduating class. Performers making their debut on the Gene Siskel Film Center stage include: Kami Oh!, Ivy Fabulous, Vicky Sin, Elisa Purls, ZsaZsa Galore, Lana Bijou and Lime Rickey. A very special performance by L'amour herself rounds out the program. I honestly don't know how you can afford to miss this.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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