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Column Fri Oct 22 2010

Hereafter, Tamara Drewe, Paranormal Activity 2 & The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Hereafter

Despite what the somewhat sappy trailers for Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort might lead you to believe, this is not a film about what happens after you die, nor is it about what you may or may not see when you die for a time and are brought back to life (in a non-zombie manner). In fact, Hereafter spends all of about 10 minutes dealing directly with these subjects at all, and that's a choice made by Eastwood and the great screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon) that makes the film something very special indeed. Rather than deal with his subject as something precious and new-agey, Eastwood makes Hereafter a work about three very isolated people who are not only seeking answers but also looking for connection with others that understand their specific plight.

Eastwood and his team have literally constructed three separate films that have virtually nothing to do with each other or even any inter-connective tissue until the final few minutes. The first is about George, a factory worker who has given up his original job as a psychic with the ability to communicate with the dead. Clearly, although that calling was also his main source of income, he felt that being around that much sadness and death was too much for his soul to handle. So when his slightly exploitative brother (Jay Mohr) brings a client by for a reading, George is a little miffed. Still, he nails the reading. George wants to lead a normal life, which includes taking a cooking class in the hopes of meeting a nice girl, which is exactly what happens when he's partnered with Bryce Dallas Howard's Melanie -- a cute, flirty woman who makes no secret that she's interested. But when the conversation steers around to George's former job, and Melanie asks for a reading, things take a bad turn, and all the reasons George gave up being a psychic come flooding back.

Another story involves twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), living in London with their junkie mother, who is so moved by her boys' devotion to her and keeping the family together that she sends one of them to the pharmacy to get her drugs to help her get off whatever addictive substance she's on. Circumstances take a horrible turn, and Marcus is taken out of his home to live with a foster family, but he spends the entire time running away from home, seeking for guidance and answers from the person closest to him. When a strange set of circumstances prevents him from boarding a subway that ends up getting bombed, Marcus knows someone up there is looking out for him.

The third story (and my favorite) concerns famous French television journalist Marie (Cecile de France), who nearly dies during an incredibly recreated tsunami. She has unexplainable visions during her time of clinical death, and is profoundly changed by these visions, even thought she's not 100 percent sure she even understands what she saw. The experience rattles her enough that she takes time off, and ends up writing a book about not just what she saw, but about the way people who go through near-death experiences and have similar visions are ostracized in society and by their friends and family. I think Marie's experience moved me the most because she clearly has more to lose than the other two characters, and it's certainly easier to identify and empathize with her situation.

Either by choice or by twist of fate, all three characters find themselves achingly alone. And while it's not difficult to predict the circumstances that will eventually bring them together (sort of), the film isn't exactly building to that moment. Eastwood seems far more interested in getting inside the heads of his characters to understand what fuels their specific pain and what drives them to pull some sort of meaning out of their unique circumstances. Hereafter has an extremely European feel to it, and, despite the very flashy floodwaters of the opening sequence, manages to keep most of the action on a deliberately smaller scale.

We see moments of profound heartbreak in each characters' lives, stemming from very different events, but none of those moments are any less painful. When Melanie leaves George's apartment while he's in the middle of making her what is clearly going to be a great home-cooked meal, the look on Matt Damon's face is unforgettable. It could become the new universal face of rejection. When Marie realizes that her lover/boss is telling her that her job is no longer hers to have back after she took time out to write, she instantly knows that both the career and the affair is likely done. And the heartache merry-go-round keeps spinning.

By keeping each story low key and believable, Eastwood allows Hereafter to maintain a certain credibility as well. Nothing about any of these stories seems outrageous or overblown. There's a gentle quality that keeps everything grounded, but there is also a sense that each character has a lot (perhaps even their own life and death) riding on the choices made in these few days we are seeing them. Eastwood doesn't care if you walk in or leave Hereafter thinking anything different about the spirit world. And while he has certainly tackled the subject of death in previous films, I do find it interesting that the 80-year-old director seems at least a tiny bit interested in what might lie on the other side. Again, that's not really what this movie is about, but it's there and some consideration is given to the subject, certainly. I found myself fully engaged by these characters, the likes of which I never see represented in films, and I give all credit to writer Morgan and Eastwood for bringing together such a great bunch of characters and actors to the parts. At many points, I was quietly blown away from Hereafter, one of Eastwood's recent bests.

To read my exclusive interview with Hereafter star Cecile de France, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Tamara Drewe

Director Stephen Frears was my entry point into modern British cinema in the 1980s. I went on to discover Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Mike Newell, Ken Forsyth, Neil Jordan and the works of Merchant-Ivory soon thereafter, but with works like Frears' The Hit, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Prick Up Your Ears and My Beautiful Laundrette, I was hooked on his unique brand of middle-class story telling. Since then, Frears erupted into something quite extraordinary (although not always successful) with Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Snappers, The Van, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs. Henderson Presents and his Oscar-nominated The Queen. His latest work, Tamara Drewe places Frears squarely in his comfort zone, telling the story of mostly middle-class British (there may be an American thrown in for good measure) types going through personal upheaval with largely comedic results.

The story (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (which, in turn, was inspired by Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd") concerns a writers' commune in the British countryside run by successful author Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his wife Beth (the fantastic Tamsin Greig), who has been instrumental to Nicholas in the success of his books and the direction of his career. Unfortunately, Nicholas is a raging womanizer, and frequently cheats on Beth, who finds it in her heart to forgive him every time. When a former resident of an adjoining property to the commune returns to fix up the house for possible sale, her presence in the community serves as the catalyst for mayhem.

The person in question is Tamara Drewe (played by the breathtaking Gemma Arterton, most recently seen by Americans in Clash of the Titans and as the only woman in Prince of Persia), a journalist whose family still owns the land and who most people remember as once possessing a giant nose (since redone). In addition to attracting the attention of a couple of the natives, including Nicholas and the Hardiments' handyman Andy (Luke Evans), Tamara also begins a heated affair with rock star Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper from An Education and Mamma Mia!).

Although darker in tone, Tamara Drewe is most certainly a sex comedy, although it does dabble in some more disturbing corners. In particular, there are two teen girls, Jody and Casey (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), who do what all teenagers do--make up nicknames and stories about strangers in town, including Tamara, whom they refer to as "Plastic" because of her nose job. But Tamara's greatest crime in Jody's eyes is dating her idol, Ben, whose photos cover her walls. She manages to break into Tamara's house and cause chaos with an email and other hijinks. Jody's path is an interesting one, and it's clear that she is a girl whose very life depends on her getting out of this small town as soon as she's able. Her character went from being my least favorite in the film to one of the most well-drawn personalities on the screen. Her eventual first meeting with Ben does not go as she would have liked.

Tamara Drewe covers a lot of ground both in the bedroom and out. I've actually grown to enjoy watching Arterton over the last couple of years, and this role seems to suit her perfectly. Not only is she attractive, but she's got the necessary sass to pull this role off. Far from demure, her depiction of Tamara is still quite feminine and sexy. But she also does a great job as being at the center of this film, while far more eccentric characters circle around her. It's not always easy to anchor a film, but Arterton pulls it off. The movie is by no means earth shattering, but it's one of the more pleasant and amusing experiences I've had in a darkened theater lately, and I think you'll enjoy it as well.

To read my exclusive interview with Tamara Drewe director Stephen Frears, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Paranormal Activity 2

The plan was to come home from the Wednesday midnight screening of the sequel to the most profitable film of all time, go to bed, get up slightly early Thursday morning, and write the review. Yet here I am at 2am, just back from Paranormal Activity 2, wired beyond words and, yes, more than a little freaked out. I'm going to attempt to write a spoiler-free review, but this is the kind of film where some people's definition of "Spoiler" might vary drastically. So if you don't want to know any major plot points, you may want to hold off reading this review. Warning given.

I saw the first Paranormal Activity on the first day of my first Fantastic Fest last year, with one of those great Austin crowds you always pray you'll see a good scary movie with that makes it real easy to love just about any movie. I didn't doubt that I was pulled in and scared nearly to death by the first film, but I was fully primed to get scared. With PA2, I was the only critic in a theater full of citizens, all of whom loved the first film as well. But Chicago crowds can be rough on horror films. For example, they might nervously laugh when they should be quiet. But I'm here to report that the crowd I saw this movie with was unbelievably quiet at all the right spots...except when they were gasping or screaming or saying things like "No, no, no, no..." Oh, wait, that last one was me. I think it's fair to say that director Tod Williams (taking over for the first film's Oren Peli) has studied Paranormal Activity, figured out what worked and what didn't as much, and added a few wonderful twists with the help of screenwriter and TV veteran Michael R. Perry.

As the film begins, we see a new family's home movies. A pretty mom, dad, teenage daughter, and an infant named Hunter. We soon find out that mom is actually stepmom, although everyone seems to get along great and is appropriately doting on baby Hunter. Forgive me for not knowing any of the actors' names. The only thing the studio has confirmed so far is that Katie Featherston from the first Paranormal Activity reprises her role in this film, which is true. Soon after we've established the home layout and family relationships of this new family, Katie shows up, and we immediately remember how, um, unwell she looked the last time we saw her. Turns out she's the sister of the woman of the house, who I think got a mention in the first film as being someone who was mutually tortured by unseen entities along with Katie when they were children. Has she arrived in her demonic state to cause more havoc? It doesn't seem so, but when the couple asks where her beloved Micah is, she brushes off the question with something along the order of "He didn't feel like being social today." Uh oh.

But then, guess what? The next time we see Katie in the home movies, Micah (Micah Sloat) is with her, and a title card tells us that the scene we're watching is 60 days before Micah is killed. For the first time, we realize that Paranormal Activity 2 is a prequel, and that at this point in time (still 2006, the same year that Katie and Micah were terrorized), none of the things we saw in Paranormal Activity have happened. After the new couples' home is vandalized (although weirdly nothing was stolen), they have video cameras installed around the house (if you've seen the trailer, you know the angles--pool, kitchen, dining room, entranceway, baby's room), and once again we have multiple static views to get used to while director Williams systematically ignites our nightmares with sound effects, doors opening and closing, a nervous and highly sensitive dog, and general mayhem created around a baby boy named Hunter.

The first few encounters with this unseen force are remarkably similar to events that occurred in the first PA, but there's something a bit more menacing going on in PA2, a lot of which has to do with the victims being a family unit and not just a couple of borderline obnoxious people that don't know when to stop. Admit it, more than a few of you were happy to see Micah die in the original film. But the family unit in the new film is functional, happy, and, above all, likable. I absolutely recognized the lead actress from some TV shows, and it's killing me that I can't remember from what. I'm sure many of you will clue me in and make me feel very dumb for not coming up with her name. But there's something about putting a baby in danger that really upped the ante for me with PA2. If it's even possible, I felt more of a sense of dread, and anytime the baby starts crying and someone runs from downstairs to check on him, I tensed up at the thought of what they might find waiting in or absent from that crib.

While the mom clearly remembers a time in her life when being scared was a daily occurrence (yes, the two sisters convene to discuss the weird events, with Katie offering up ironic "just ignore it" advice), it's her stepdaughter that does some investigative work and provides us with enough clues to figure out what's probably happening to this family and why. Dear old dad is a non-believer, so much so that he fires the housekeeper when he catches her burning incense to drive out "evil spirits" while holding the baby.

But PA2 works best in those overnight security camera moments, just like the original--Night #1, Night #12, Night #15. As soon as the world is seen from those familiar angles, my heart started racing and my eyes started scanning the scream for anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes, it's something simple like a falling frying pan or a moving door or a shadow cast from an unseen source. Other times, it's far worse. In most ways, Paranormal Activity 2 exceeds the scares of the first film, and does so without resorting to easy special effects or growing the plot outside of the home. There were a few times when I questioned why a family member might pull out a video camera at a particular moment in the story, but every time I screamed, I kind of forgot to consider the question. The caliber of the acting is better in the new movie, and that means a great deal toward selling the fear.

Not to ruin anything, but at one point in the story, the action shifts to a post-Paranormal Activity timeframe, and that is something you do not want to miss if you loved the first movie. And the way the two sets of events are linked is kind of great, as is the way that little details from Katie and Micah's story are birthed in this story (remember that burned photo of Katie as a little girl found in the attic in the first movie?). So there you have it. I was a big fan of Paranormal Activity and I'm even more impressed with the new movie that borrows its style and pacing but ramps up the tension and scares considerably. See Paranormal Activity 2 with someone you love who doesn't mind having their arms bruised and torn up. And a big thanks to the beyond-respectful crowd in Chicago I shared this experience with. You guys were fucking awesome, and your screams were priceless.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

One of the most bizarre, yet thoroughly satisfying, music biography films I've seen in a long time, this documentary from director Vikram Jayanti (I Am A Sex Addict) works because it places in our heads the idea that the same mad genius who brought Phil Spector fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s might have had an influence on what happened to him on a fateful evening in 2003 when he apparently murdered actress Lana Clarkson in his palatial home. What's kind of brilliant about this documentary is that Jayanti, intentionally or not, doesn't link Spector's behaviors from these two periods in his life, he simply juxtaposes his best-known songs (played in their entirety to great effect) with clips of the original murder trial, which resulted in a mistrial (the subsequent jury found him guilty).

Director Jayanti clearly got ahold of Spector between trials for what appears to be a marathon interview(s), talking mostly about his subject's production career--from the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Righteous Brothers to Tina Turner, the Beatles, and John Lennon. While still touting his own influence on the music world in the grandest terms (most of his self aggrandizement is well earned), Spector is beyond candid, even-tempered, and as articulate as I've ever seen him-- not at all resembling the gun-toting maniac of legend. He talks very little of the trial or Ms. Clarkson, but he's clearly feeling confident about the mistrial and is in a chatty mood about everything from Paul McCartney's hatred of him to why "River Deep, Mountain High" was a chart failure to why Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson is more highly regarded than he. Everything seems very much like a competition for legacy for Spector, as if there's a finite amount to go around.

Some of the most fascinating material has to do with how he carefully crafted his "wall-of-sound" technique is such a way that once certain tracks were recorded, there was no going back. This kind of all-or-nothing approach seems common to Spector's music and life. During the musical passages, there is text on the screen from a music historian that explains the importance or impact of each tune. I'm not sure that material really adds anything to the film, but some of the trivia is pretty interesting. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector opens with the Crystals' notorious--and eventually banned from radio--rendition of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)" (which was produced by Spector), played over images of the beginning of Spector's trial. Director Jayanti knows exactly what he's doing here, and I think it's kind of genius. He repeats these direct/indirect links between Spector's productions and his life, and for most of the film, the technique works. As a work about a maker of music, the film is top notch; as a bit of pop psychology, it's not bad either. I learned a lot and had fun picking through Spector's work and brain.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

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

Read this column »

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