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Column Fri Mar 25 2011

Win Win, I Saw the Devil & The Trip

Hey everyone. I've been doing a ton of traveling both for work and fun in March--four trips this month--and, as a result, I have been missing screenings in Chicago and haven't been able to see some big releases. Actually, I've been lucky so far, in that I've caught most of the major releases, but this week I miss a film I've truly been looking forward to seeing, writer-director Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, opening today. I won't even attempt an educated guess as to what the film is about or whether it's any good, but since I've enjoyed a great deal his remake of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, I'm guessing Sucker Punch will appeal to me on at least a visual level, plus their appears to be a bevy of beautiful women starring in this film, and there's nothing wrong with that. Time will tell when I get back from my travels. Enjoy the few reviews I can send you way...

Win Win

Writer-director (and sometimes actor, but never in his own films) Thomas McCarthy has made two wonderful films (The Station Agent and The Visitor) about loners reconnecting with the world around them by making friends with strangers. But the first thing you notice about the lead character in McCarthy's third film, Win Win, is that Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is that he is by no definition of the word a loner. Mike is a lawyer whose business is struggling, but his family and friend base is strong. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is a rock; his co-worker (Jeffrey Tambor) is a good man; and his buddy and fellow high school wrestling coach Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is perhaps his greatest (and funniest) asset. The team that Mike takes time to coach after work is terrible but an essential part of who he is and was.

When Mike agrees to be the legal guardian of an elderly gentleman named Leo (Burt Young), who is past taking care of himself, it appears that Mike is doing a selfless deed until we find out he gets paid $1,500 per month for his trouble. Rather than allow Leo to live in his modest home, Burt unceremoniously puts him in a retirement community and pockets the cash. It seems like a great way to earn a little money, Leo is being looked after, and no one is getting hurt. Until Leo's grandson Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) shows up on Leo's doorstep looking to live in the house. Mike allows the teenager to live with his family, and it's at this point that we realize Kyle is the loner in McCarthy's newest tale, and he becomes deeply engrained in both Mike's family and the wrestling team.

Much like McCarthy's other films, he doesn't bother loading his stories down with villains (although one could argue that "the system" is the adversary in his works), and it's refreshing to watch a movie where we don't have to wait for some trumped-up, manufactured to come and ruin everything. Some might find the mid-film entrance of Kyle fresh-from-rehab mother (Melanie Lynskey) looking for cash as a villainous role, but even she is written with softer edges and we find it difficult to stay angry at her by the time the film wraps up.

Win Win's real power is in the family relationship, and the way that Kyle is slowly brought into the dynamic of Mike's home. Ryan plays Jackie as a tough woman who lays down the law with Kyle right away, but there is something so compassionate about the character that we all want her to be our mother. And when I say family, I mean extended family. Cannavale is as much a part of the family as Mike and Jackie's kids or Kyle, and he's a riot as the voice inside our head, especially when it comes to the wrestling team.

But the real find here is Shaffer, a first-time actor who has a delivery and rhythm to his speech that is fascinating. He actually talks like a teenager, which is rare in films about kids, who are often written as speaking well beyond their years. But Shaffer is inexperienced enough to not worry about where the camera is and what side is his best. He's so natural that he starts to make those around him look over-prepared. He's also a phenomenal wrestler and gets dozens of chances to prove it. But even as the team advances toward the final, Kyle's story is not as easy to predict as you might think. In fact, very little about Win Win is predictable--another one of McCarthy's many talents as a writer (he and long-time friend Joe Tiboni are credited with the film's story).

The one thing we do know is going to happen is that Mike's deception will be revealed, but even that is handled in unexpected ways. I was pleasantly surprised at the third-act introduction of Margo Martindale as Lynskey's lawyer, who discovers what Mike is up to and uses it as leverage against him. There are some moments of genuine angst in Win Win, but the film's title gives us all the indication we need as to where the characters will land when all is said and done. I'll admit, it was good to see Giamatti play a nice guy. He's spent the last few years making a name for himself playing angry men (see Barney's Version for the latest example of this), and while Mike is a flawed man, he commits his unethical act in name of keeping his family safe.

Win Win will not blow your mind or knock you to the back of the theater, but like all of Tom McCarthy's movies, it is filled with characters whose lives we truly care about. More importantly, I want to know where these characters will be in five years. While the ending of this film is hopeful, it is by no means guaranteed that Mike and his ever-growing clan will see smooth sailing from here on out. There isn't a weak link is this movie, and it's remarkable how easy McCarthy makes it for us to settle in with these folks and become invested in their trials and struggles. That's a rare thing in a world where character development in becoming increasingly less important in feature films. I loved this little gem of a movie.

To read my exclusive interview with Win Win writer-director Tom McCarthy, go to Ain't It Cool News.

I Saw the Devil

I first saw this film last September at Fantastic Fest, and it's a doozy. From South Korea's Kim Ji-woon, I Saw the Devil is about as demented and chilling a twist on the serial killer and the revenge genres as you're likely to see in quite some time. Ji-woon has been one of the leading figures in South Korean films in the last 10 years with such magnificent accomplishments as A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters, and his masterpiece The Good, the Bad, the Weird. And even those of you with a passing interest in films from this part of the world will recognize a few of the cast members, including the two leads, Choi Min-sik from Old Boy and Lee Byung-hun from A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and even as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra.

Lee plays the equivalent of a well-trained Secret Service agent, whose pregnant fiance is killed quite graphically in the film's opening sequence by a particularly disturbed serial killer (Choi) while she's waiting for a tow truck in an especially bad snow storm. Her death scene is not hurried along, nor is it pretty. We see her tied down naked, clearly post-rape, begging for her life before Choi's maniac dispatches with her by relentlessly hacking away at her neck until her head pops off. If you think you can handle that, keep reading. There's nothing glorified about Ji-woon's treatment of the violence in I Saw the Devil, which is not to say that there aren't genuine moments of levity and dark humor that keep the audience from being utterly buried in despair. I still felt I needed the proverbial shower after this one, however.

Lee requests two weeks off from his job, which his superiors know he'll use to track down the killer and presumably slaughter the bastard. His fiance's father (a police chief) and sister beg him not to seek revenge, but the look in his eyes tells us he's beyond convincing. With his particular set of skills, he knows tracking down this killer will not be difficult, but the film's most devilish twist is that once he finds Choi (on the verge of raping and killing his next victim), he isn't immediately interested in simply killing him. Instead, he beats the man to within an inch of his life, smashes one of his hands, and leaves him very much alive with an envelope full of money after force feeding Choi a capsule. Wait, what?

This scene happens very early in the nearly two-and-a-half-hour I Saw the Devil, and it starts to become clear around this time that we're not sure who the titular Devil is in the title. Is it the more overt sociopath Choi or the cold, calculated man with the plan, Lee, whose intentions slowly become clear the next time Choi is poised to strike again. Choi goes to a doctor to deal with his busted hand, and attempts to attack a nurse in the process. Just as he's on the verge of doing some real damage, Lee emerges having tracked him with a GPS device in the capsule and once again beats the living daylights out of Choi, this time completing the act by slicing Choi's hamstring. Clearly, Lee believes the best revenge is a long period of denying Choi his blood lust and, of course, causing his body the maximum amount of damage without actually killing him. Now you see where the humor comes in.

One of my favorite elements of the film is the circle of people that Choi runs into (by design or not) as he's attempting to seek out new victims. A cab driver who is clearly planning on robbing him is dealt with; a friend of Choi's with some unusual appetites and an even more interesting basement. And Choi does have a curiously engaging personality--he just doesn't give a fuck and can in no way be reasoned with, but he does enjoy his work and, as strange as it sounds, his enjoyment is infectious. Naturally, every time Lee arrives on the scene, the audience chuckles because we know Choi's about to get what he deserves.

But Choi is also smart, and in the film's final act, he gets his own kind of revenge on Lee, who begins to realize that dragging this process out has given Choi time to do some investigating of his own into Lee's motives and life. The two lead performers are absolutely outstanding, and this isn't necessarily a contest to see who can out-brood each other. They have distinct and changing personalities that are crucial to the film's success. And as much as I like films like Seven or Silence of the Lambs, I've grown weary of films where serial killers deliberately taunt law enforcement. That almost never happens in real life, and seeing it so often in films has gotten old. But with the essential I Saw the Devil, the law is the one doing the taunting (or more accurately, torturing) of the killer. It's a fantastic role-reversal story that adds a new and much-appreciated dynamic to the cops vs. serial killers tale.

But be warned, the film pulls zero punches with its violence, and, as a result, it's blood-soaked to its filthy core. But I Saw the Devil plays host to ideas and images that have burned themselves into my eyes and brain. These are the building blocks of nightmares, both because of the stylish way the film is shot and the utter distortion of humanity on display. This is one of the few films of true brilliance I've seen in 2010, but agreeing to see may result in eliminating some of the good parts of your soul. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Trip

I haven't written much about the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival this year, and that's largely due to my ridiculous travel schedule. But I did get a chance before the craziness began to catch the festival's Closing Night offering, Michael Winterbottom's marvelous The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The film actually began life as a three-hour British television miniseries (cut down to 107 minutes for the film), with the leads playing version of themselves, picking up the banter-heavy roles they played in Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy several years back.

In The Trip, Coogan is hired by a newspaper to tour the Lake District and review local restaurants. When his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) backs out at the last minute, Coogan invites his old friend Brydon to accompany him, and the movie is essentially a series of extended conversations during which the pair of brilliant comic actors engage in dueling impersonations and one-upping each other's reviews and popularity. Coogan takes on the persona of the more famous but most insecure, while Brydon has an easy-going nature with a laser-sharp way of stinging Coogan's weaknesses. It never gets old.

The aspect of the film that most have (rightfully) focused on are the impersonations, in particular, the dueling Michael Caines that pop up throughout the film. But there are other voices that Brydon, especially, absolutely nails, with Coogan not far behind. But the pair also talk about all manner of pointless topics, all of which they make interesting and engrossing. I loved that Coogan is deeply concerned that his girlfriend is cheating on him during a trip to America, but he never misses an opportunity to bed local beauties at each quaint hotel at which they stop on their journey. Meanwhile Brydon is ever-faithful to his wife (Claire Keelan) at home, the willing victim of his harmlessly perverted calls at night.

The Trip is a hilarious celebration of the dying art of conversation. Winterbottom never ceases to surprise and impress me, to go from last year's disturbing The Killer Inside Me to this film in one year would make most directors' heads snap, but Winterbottom does this all the time in a never-ending mission not to repeat himself. Coogan and Brydon are almost too good in their performances, to the point where I firmly believe that they communicate like this all the time, and the only difference here is that someone filmed them. Sometimes wicked and cruel, but also funny and entertaining, The Trip is a fantastic way to wrap up the best film festival Chicago hosts these days.

The film screens on Thursday, March 31 at 6:30pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Buy your tickets early, because this one will sell out.

 
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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.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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