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Column Fri Jun 18 2010

Toy Story 3, Jonah Hex, Winter's Bone, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Living In Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders & I Am Comic

Toy Story 3

How is it possible that the folks at Pixar keep managing to surprise me? Did I expect to like Toy Story 3? Well, yeah. What about Pixar or this franchise would lead you to believe anything else? I might have been a little concerned that the original film's director (and the second film's co-director) John Lasseter is only listed as one of three "story" men (the other two being Andrew Stanton and Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich); Michael Arndt, who won the screenwriting Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, is credited with the screenplay.

But after about 10 minutes, I realized that this third installment in the adventures of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, Rex and those weird little green rubber alien dudes was going to be the best one yet. Let's get the hyperbole out of the way right now. This is the best Toy Story movie, period. This is the best 3D experience I've ever had, period. And this is the best film of 2010 so far, arguably. And I pity those of you that don't have the ability to see this in IMAX, because the opening action sequence alone — which appears to take place in a Grand Canyon-like location — is worth the IMAX and 3D upcharges. And wait until you see the landfill dump section of the film. On the IMAX screen, you can almost smell it.

What the Pixar team has done is something I think they've been building to for a while, especially with their most recent efforts Wall-E and Up. It seems very clear they want to be taken seriously as an animation house and not just a place that produces films for children. There's no doubt that the now-15-year-old Toy Story was a big hit with kids, but those kids and young adults are in their 20s and 30s (OK, some of us are older still) today. So, rather than repeat a proven formula (an illness known as sequel-itis), Toy Story 3 is most definitely a film for an older crowd that has or is preparing to put away childish things, or at least pass them along to someone who can still appreciate them. This film deals with mortality, maturity, and never forgetting the friends (real and inanimate) who made us the person we are today. The stories you may have heard about tears, they are not lies. But you will cry not because of anything truly sad that happens on screen; the emotion comes from recognizing your own life in that of the 17-year-old Andy, heading off to college.

More than the other two Toy Story films, this one's most unforgettable moments are not loaded with chases or danger or humor — although all three are in great supply. The scenes you will cherish are more haunting. One is the aforementioned landfill sequence. I won't give anything away, but there's a moment where all the toys are holding hands and not talking. It's as poignant a moment as Pixar has ever created, and combined with the looks on their faces as they hold hands, it's also an emotional high point of any film you'll see this year. The other one is more grounded in reality, and it's toward the end of the film. Andy spends much of the movie packing up his room, deciding what is going to get trashed, what gets stored in the attic, and what goes with him to college. At the end of the film, just before he drives off with his packed-up car, his mother (Laurie Metcalf is perfection) rushes up the stairs clearly in a frenzy trying to make sure her son hasn't forgotten anything. The second she steps in his room, she freezes and says looking at the empty space and says "Oh, Andy... " The flash flood of tears at this exact moment could drown small children. Just thinking of that scene chokes me up.

I know I haven't talked much about the main story, which involves the toys getting shipped off to a daycare facility to get played with by a whole group of children. The prospects excite most of the toys, but not Woody (still Tom Hanks; still great), who is still very much bonded to Andy. A mishap back home makes all the other toys think Andy was going to throw them away, but Woody knows different. Still, he fails to convince them to escape with him. When they meet an entire platoon of new, seemingly friendly toys at the daycare, Andy's toys (minus Woody, but including Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear) decide they have found a new home.

If you ever need proof that the Pixar people have not lost an iota of their creativity, you need look no further than these new toys, including Lotso, the strawberry-smelling stuffed bear (Ned Beatty), a sticky octopus named Stretch (Whoopi Goldberg), a Ken doll (Michael Keaton), and a freakishly rendered baby doll named Big Baby, who has clearly seen action — the teardrop "tattoo" under its left eye tell us as much. Big Baby will haunt you when you sleep and when you're awake. Not that the old standard toys get the short shrift. I particularly liked Mr. Potato Head's surreal, body-less escape attempt from the daycare that is impossible to describe with any accuracy with words. Of the new characters, Ken will become an instant fan favorite. He lives in the dream house, complete with an elevator, disco, and the biggest closet any doll has a right to have. He's way into clothes and accessories, but he also falls madly in love with Barbie (Jodi Benson, the voice of The Little Mermaid's Ariel).

I heard a lot of people coming out of the screening I attended saying (but not complaining) that Toy Story 3 was dark, even for adults. I don't quite agree. The film, its characters and its creators have matured. And the more the Toy Story films resemble reality and address real emotions, the darker they might seem. To me, this isn't a bad sort of darkness at all; it's life. More than the first two films, this one is Woody's journey. In a really strong side story, after Woody leaves the daycare, he ends up at the home of one of the workers at the center who has a little girl named Bonnie. She reminded me a little bit of Boo in Monsters Inc., but much sweeter. Bonnie's toys — including ones voiced by Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Garlin, animator Bud Luckey, and the irrepressible Timothy Dalton — love her with the same intensity that Woody feels for Andy. It's a warm and moving moment that sets Woody down an inevitable path.

Toy Story 3 is exquisite to look upon as well, and the 3D is perfection. Other than a few deliberately gimmicky moments, the filmmakers don't abuse the the 3D. Instead, they use it to create some of the finest depth-of-field moments I've ever seen. Rather than calling attention to the technology, the Pixar people seem to want you to forget they're even using it, which is exactly what happens. But every so often, your eyes wander away from the action to some small detail in the background, and suddenly you realize just how good everything looks. I remember being stunned last year, when the first two Toy Story movies were reissued in 3D, at how beautiful the animation was. In my memory, I remembered at least the first one being somewhat primitive, but I was wrong. But the new film — in both subtle and very obvious ways — puts the others to shame, even beyond the 3D.

The only question racing through my head this week is how soon can I see Toy Story 3 again. This is the gold standard of filmmaking, and if the Academy has a tough time finding 10 films to fill up its Best Picture race, why not slot this one in twice for kicks. It's that good, but please don't take my word for it. And I'm begging you: if there's an IMAX screen playing this movie within 100 miles of you, it's worth the journey and the money. Alright, everybody else: you have your benchmark for the year. This is what you should be aiming for. Start jumping.

And by the way, prepare yourself for yet another dialogue-free and utterly original opening act to Toy Story 3 with the Pixar short Day and Night, which is loaded with creative genius. And the hits keep on coming.

Jonah Hex

Oh man, here's the thing... I just can't even put into words... it's just... have you ever seen a movie where literally every single actor except for the lead has been horribly miscast? Welcome to Jonah Hex. And Josh Brolin is a great actor, but... ah crap... when Megan Fox is only about the fifth-worst thing in your movie, you have real... and then there are these glowing, explosive oranges... and then at the end there's this totally unexplained fight sequence between Brolin's Hex and John Malkovich as the bad guy in the red desert... but then I saw Michael Shannon's name in the credits, but almost nobody saw him in the movie and then when someone told me which character he was, I said, "But that dude only had one line! What the fuck?! Why is his name so high up in the end credits?"

And then Jeffrey Dean Morgan shows up, but I wasn't sure it was him because his name isn't in the credits. Then there's this scene in the Civil War-era White House where I'm pretty sure Aidan Quinn is playing Ulysses S. Grant and Will Arnett was playing some military dude, but it was hard to hear what they were saying because the audience was laughing so hard.

And then Wes Bentley shows up, and I was like, "Holy shit, I haven't seen this guy since American Beauty. Where the hell did they dig him up?" And then I thought, oh, maybe Jonah Hex used his power to bring the dead back to life momentarily to revive Wes Bentley's career. And then I started thinking about how Jonah Hex's power is a lot like that guy Ned on "Pushing Daisies," only Ned didn't have a giant burn scar on half his face. And then I started thinking how strange it was that a studio paid Brolin a decent amount of money only to hide his good-looking face under all that scar makeup.

But then at the beginning of the film there is this cool sort-of animated sequence used to explain Hex's origin, and I started thinking that I wish the whole movie had been made that way because I kind of dug that part. And then Malkovich kills Hex's family as revenge and he says to a tied-up Hex, "I want you to see this," but then he closes the door so Hex can't see his family die, which makes no goddamn sense. And then there's this dude who can spit snake venom and has a messed-up face, and he's fighting in a cage match sort of thing. And then I started thinking about Megan Fox again, whose basically in this movie to keep the whole thing from being a total sausage party, and I actually felt kind of sorry for her because Jennifer's Body should have worked...

And, man, am I excited to see Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's Wall Street sequel and the new Woody Allen movie and the Coen Brothers' True Grit, and I remember thinking "Mr. Sterling" was a decent show, and how when I got to interview him for No Country for Old Men, he snatched my notebook of questions and started laughing because I had an Into the Blue question that I wasn't even going to ask but he insisted on answering. He was a truly cool dude, and you hate to see the nice guys stumble like this, but the law of averages says it's bound to happen, and the guy has had a run over the last five years or so that is second only to Pixar, so one piece of shit isn't going to derail him in the slightest.

And if anything that I'm writing about Jonah Hex seems slightly like incomprehensible rambling, try sitting through the movie. Your standard for incomprehensible will undoubtedly be altered. And if the people who made this movie didn't bother to try and make sense, why the hell should I? To say I hated this movie would imply that anything in my soul was stirred enough to form an emotion. I could feel my brain literally throwing out the memories of the first half of the movie as I sat through the second half. And if you think that the film's abbreviated running time (right around 80 minutes with credits) will dull the pain of watching it, guess again. No film in recent memory feels more like a studio came in, saw what a mess they had at 90 or 100 minutes, and they simply took a chainsaw into the editing room to try to make something out of it before they pushed it out the door like a gay son in a Mormon household. There are so many good movies coming out this weekend (at least in Chicago) that if you actually spend money to see Jonah Hex, you deserve all the pain you will inevitably suffer.

Winter's Bone

In 2004, director Debra Granik gave the world one of the best films of the year, and almost nobody knew it. The movie was Down to the Bone, starring a relative unknown named Vera Farmiga in her first lead role, and it's a performance that still gives me chills to watch. And while many critics praised the film and Farmiga's work, the film got terrible distribution and the general public barely noticed it even existed. But now the world has a chance to make up for this glaring omission by seeing the equally gripping new film by Granik, Winter's Bone, based on the Missouri Ozark woods novel by Daniel Woodrell. Again anchored by one of the best female performances you will see this year — Jennifer Lawrence as 17-year-old Ree Dolly — Winter's Bone also benefits from its setting, which is not just a its own character but an overwhelming, often oppressive force that stands to smother Ree and destroy her world.

It's almost impossible to watch Winter's Bone without feeling like you've been through two or three levels of purgatory. When Ree's father goes missing after being released on bail, the police come to the Dolly home to tell Ree that the property was used as collateral and that unless the father surfaces, Ree, her two younger siblings and her severely mentally impaired mother will be thrown off the land. This community is one that takes care of its own, lives off the land, and doesn't have much use for traditional law enforcement. Ree tells the visiting officer (played by Garrett Dillahunt) that she will find her father, thus beginning a journey through the mountains and her extended family that uncovers just how deep into criminal activity her father and his kin really were.

At its core, Winter's Bone is a mystery, with a teenage girl as the lead investigator. She's perhaps too young to understand the implications of asking the questions she's asking to the people she's asking them to, or perhaps she does understand but is more concerned with her immediate family's well-being to care. One of the first people Ree approaches is her father's brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a drug addict who is far more intelligent than he lets on. He's also the scariest thing in this movie, and it's almost impossible to believe that Hawkes, who typically plays mild-mannered characters, pulls this off as convincingly as he does. Lawrence holds this film together, but Hawkes is the show-stopper. Ree is threatened and worse during the course of her search, and I don't think there's ever any doubt what her father's fate will turn out to be. What's more intriguing is that the mission shifts from finding him to proving he didn't run away (if it can somehow be proven that he's dead, the bail money will be returned). This is a puzzle that is never quite completes, but the picture still is very clear in the end.

With only her second feature (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year), director Granik has again succeeded in diving headfirst into a culture and setting that does everything necessary to set the tone and establish atmosphere. It's an extraordinary work that sometimes feels like a kick to the gut that takes all the wind out of you with note-perfect performances that never lapse into cliche or stereotypes. The people and homes feel authentic, and as a result, the danger faced by Ree feels inescapably real. Complain all you want about how shitty the summer movie selection is this year; I couldn't agree more. But if you think quality is lacking at the multiplex, you need to look elsewhere. Good films are out there, and Winter's Bone is one of the finest, most memorable films you'll see this year. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

I realized as I was watching this fascinating and starkly honest documentary about comic and actress Joan Rivers that Joan has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From guest hosting "The Tonight Show" and red carpet reports on E! to countless appearances on The Howard Stern Radio Show to selling jewelry on QVC to winning "Celebrity Apprentice," Joan Rivers is a force of nature who refuses to fade into obscurity no matter how low she has to grovel to get work, get paid and stay relevant. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt) selected a particularly transitional time in Rivers' life to follow her (she was 76 at the time), when she went from a largely empty appointment book to filling up every single day of every single month with appearances, gigs, interviews and probably a surgery or two.

The directors also piece together an impressive collection of archival material that forms the basis of Rivers' professional backstory. Interestingly enough, there isn't much here about Joan growing up (just a quick photo or story); her life apparently didn't begin until her first "Tonight Show" appearance with Johnny Carson, and that is our first clue that Joan has been and forever will be a working entertainer. But the strange irony of Rivers' life is that as badly as she wanted to be a huge success and have enough money to take care of her family (and assorted other friends she apparently takes care of as well), she went about it in such an edgy way as to almost guarantee that she would always be looked at as a fringe player. In a televised bit from the 1970s about contraception, she mentions a woman she knows getting 17 "appendectomies," making Rivers likely the first woman to ever to clandestinely talk (or, more specifically, joke) about abortion on national television.

A Piece of Work covers highlights of Rivers' career to be sure, but tragedy seems to underscore her personal and professional life far more. Her botched relationship with Johnny Carson, who had her banned from NBC; her husband's suicide; her wrecked finances; and, more recently, a failed attempt at bringing an autobiographical play to Broadway via London. Rivers comes across as a person who is well aware of the doors she opened for other female comics, but she couldn't care less (except when she does). She would much rather be knows as an active, working performer than a legend. She's her own worse critic, but she's also her most ardent and passionate defender.

The film includes several close-ups of Joan's face without makeup, and I won't lie: it's a bizarre thing to behold. But that's the nature of this movie and what makes it work top to bottom. Rivers had no editorial control or final cut approval, and the results are a surgery-scars-and-all portrait of a person who would rather be dead if she couldn't perform. It's a tough frame of mind to understand, but A Piece of Work manages to explain it better than I've ever seen it explained. There's another film screening this weekend — see my review below — and I believe is playing on Showtime soon called I Am Comic that attempts to get to the heart of several dozen comics to answer some of these same mysteries, but watching Joan Rivers tear apart a heckler or stress about a 4pm booking in Brooklyn or meticulously prepare for a tribute to George Carlin explains all you need to know about the life and what drives people into it and rarely lets them go. Oh, and the movie is uproariously funny — I should mention that. You kind of need to see this immediately. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Living In Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

What I thought would be a PR piece for Médecins Sans Frontières (better known as Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) was actually a surprisingly harrowing experience, as much for the stories of the doctors as for the troubled regions and patients they see every day. A great deal of time is spent explaining the rationale behind the way MSF works, which is to ship doctors from both a permanent staff and a small pool of volunteers into the most troubled parts of the world to work for a year or so at a time, and then pull them out before full-fledged burnout occurs. It's not a perfect system — many doctors feel they are just hitting their stride in the communities where they are working when they are taken out — but it seems to be the best way of reminding both the doctors and the troubled nations that MSF is only a temporary fix and that a more permanent, locally based health care initiative needs to be put into place.

We watch as the constant state of being understaffed and without certain basic tools of Western medicine become a mantra of frustration for these medical practitioners, working in often unstable or war-torn areas where their lives are threatened as often as their patients. Director Mark Hopkins focuses on four doctors working in the Congo and Liberia; some are newcomers to the MSF programs while others are long-time vets. But what Hopkins captures is something far more tense and honest than I would have expected. This is a bloody, messy work in the best possible way. The doctors are exhausted, frustrated and often pissed off, and they often take their aggression out on each other or those around them.

One doctor explains her dilemma best when she says that if she were driving down the road and saw a car crash happen in front of her, she would be ethically obligated to stop and help anyone hurt. So what do you do when an entire nation is that car crash? While the doctors certainly get some personal satisfaction from helping those in need, it becomes clear quickly that glory or being a do-gooder has nothing to do with why they are in MSF. Watching Living in Emergency made me respect the work these people do, certainly, but it also made me feel their guilt for leaving when there is still so much more to do. I know that you may not necessarily go to the movies with the goal of feeling guilty, but that shouldn't stop you from seeing this remarkable and eye-opening work.

The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on June 20 at 6pm; June 21 at 8:15pm; and June 23 at 6pm.

I Am Comic

This somewhat uneven documentary about what it takes to make it as a stand-up comedian has some truly insightful moments about the inspiration, motivation, and driving forces behind the angry, self-loathing men and women who choose this lifestyle. For the most part, director and former comic Jordan Brady is dealing with comics who never rose above the level of headliner at a big comedy club in New York or LA, which makes the movie more fascinating by my estimation. Jerry Seinfeld's documentary Comedian more or less covered the level of comics who've had successful TV series or do massive shows at large theaters. I Am Comic has a smaller, sometimes seedier level of success in mind.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film aren't the interviews with 85 comics that include everyone from Phyllis Diller to Andy Kindler to Sarah Silverman to Carrot Top, but instead it is following retired comedian Ritch Shyndner, who left the biz and by being a part of the documentary has gotten back his itch to perform. Shyndner knows hundreds of funny men and women and helps Brady get many of his interviews, but being a follower of comedy myself, I noticed enormous holes in the talent pool. I realize there's no way he could get everyone, but there are massive groups of alt comics who simply aren't here and are barely mentioned. I did find it really strange that joke thief Carlos Mencia is in this movie a lot, and he jokingly fesses up to his crimes.

The filmmaker walks us through every level of stand-up, from the five to 10 minutes an emcee might get to intro other comics, to the one-hour full show, to talk show appearances and Comedy Central or HBO/Showtime specials, to a standing gig in Vegas. It's an interesting education, but it's nothing compared to the case study playing out before the cameras as 13-years-off-the-circuit Shyndner plays some of the shittiest places in America, often to little or no response. Some of the interviewees have been telling these horror stories of the road for so long that the stories themselves sound like packaged bits, while others are much more open and honest about putting the need for laughter and applause before relationships, kids and their own well-being (drugs are a huge part the scene). I Am Comic is eye-opening in places, predictable in others, but it offers more laughs per minute than most comedies I've seen this year and it's never dull. The film is plays as part of the Just for Laughs Festival tonight, June 18 at 8:45pm, with director Jordan Brady present for audience discussion.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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