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Column Fri Sep 02 2011

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy; The Debt; Life, Above All; Seven Days In Utopia; 5 Days of War; Higher Ground; Rapt & Chasing Madoff

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy

Oh sure, Mr. Studio Man. Hide things I actually want to see, like Shark Night 3D and Apollo 18, from my prying eyes, but allow to to ingest garbage like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy from first time feature writer-directors Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck. This long-on-the-shelf comedy starring a bunch of TV actors (I guess Jason Sudeikis could be considered a movie actor now, but not when he made this originally) playing vapid characters whose only point of intersect are blow-out parties thrown every few months at the Hamptons summer home of the dad of Eric (Sudeikis, with dad played by Don Johnson). Seriously, these idiots don't talk about anything but the next party, and who they're banging or not banging.

When Dad announces that he's selling the house, Eric and best buddy McCrudden (Tyler Labine) decide that instead of their typical themed parties with hundreds of guests, they would have an intimate gathering of their closest few friends to have an orgy. Some of these friends, whom they've known since high school, are in relationships but most aren't, so eventually the idea gets a little heat behind it, and everyone is game. Big shocker, since, you know, it's right there in the title.

Others in the group include Lake Bell, Michelle Borth, Nick Kroll, Angela Sarafyan, Martin Starr and Lindsay Sloane, and each of these actors basically plays a type rather than anything even close to a mildly developed character. One is bad at picking boyfriends, one has had a crush on Eric since school, one talks like a stud but hasn't had sex in over a year, and the list goes on. And as if giving us eight or so characters not to care about in the main cast, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy plugs the gaps with lame supporting cast members, including Leslie Bibb as the cute real estate agent assigned to sell the summer house and who Eric falls for, or Will Forte as a friend of the group who's angry he didn't get invited, even though he just got married, or Bell's asshole boyfriend (Rhys Coiro). I guess the filmmakers thought if they through enough people into the mix and had them do wacky things, the comedy would just write itself.

Not only is Orgy not funny, it's also not sexy in the slightest, despite every woman in it being varying degrees of attractive and a few actually showing some skin. But nudity doesn't equal sexy. In this film, it usually is met with awkwardness, like you're seeing your sister topless (or so I've heard). The film may not start out with many pairings, but it's pretty clear early on who's going to end up with whom after all the sexy time is over. I think at least a couple of the folks responsible for A Good Old Fashioned Orgy actually thought they were making something edgy and biting, when in fact they made an adult sex comedy with the emotional maturity of Porky's, with none of that film's sleaze or laughs. In case you need it spelled out, this edgiest thing about this movie is the title, and even that seems kind of dated and lame, much like the bulk of this film. Sudeikis has it within his acting ability to create funny characters that we care about, but he's not even trying here. Eric is a brainless hunk of meat, and the rest of the film follows suit. Avoid it.

The Debt

Whether or not the film is good or not, the latest film from director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) feels like a calculated attempt to capture both older and younger audiences by casting two sets of talented actors as the older and younger versions of the same characters. A remake of a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt more recent events take place in 1997, when three former Mossad agents (played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) are reunited. But when the three get together, it stirs up memories of a particularly nasty mission during which they were charged with capturing a Nazi war criminal named Vogel (the especially slimy Jesper Christensen), nicknamed the Surgeon of Treblinka) some 30 years earlier. The outcome of this mission is known only to these three, until something in the present threatens to exposure the true outcome of their plot.

The younger versions of the leads are played by Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life), Marton Csokas (Celeborn in The Lord of the Rings movies), and Sam Worthington (Avatar), and certainly no one in the cast embarrasses themselves, young or old. But the structure of the film seems unnecessarily complicated and dragged out. And, yes, I realize that the story is about a Jewish team sent out to find escaped Nazi war criminals — a serious subject, without a doubt — but everyone in this film walks around looking so glum and solemn that we almost welcome the presence of Vogel into their lives if only because he's lively in his evilness.

I will admit, I love that Chastain is an acting force how, with four or five films coming out in the next year. In fact, The Debt was the first film I saw her in, almost a year ago at the Chicago Film Festival. And much like her work in The Help, her performance is one of the only things about either film that stuck with me. There's a scene in The Debt in which she goes to the former Nazi doctor turned gynecologist (insert joke here) as a patient, and it's as tense and icky a scene as I've seen all year. It's also one of the few moments in the film that I cared about the outcome. Again, the issue isn't the acting, nor do I think it's with the directing. I think it's just that the story didn't grab me the way it should due to some heavy-handed, plodding writing (you maybe surprised to learn that Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn is one of the screenwriters).

The Debt is by no means a terrible film. If anything, it's remarkably average in its efforts to get us caught up in what exactly happened 30 years ago in these agents' lives, and how they let a man they all mutually hate get under their skin and even gain their sympathy. Christensen as Vogel is the devil. He's smarter than any of his captors, and it takes him about two minutes to figure out what buttons to push to get the emotions flowing. It's a fascinating performance that will never be recognized, and that's a shame. Much like the dual-timeline device used in Sarah's Key, I understand (in theory) why the filmmakers thought they needed to make the connections from the present to the past, but in both movies, the message and the strength of the material is diluted in the process. The Debt is a worthy, but failed attempt at gravitas.

Life, Above All

Sometimes a film has to tear you down before it can lift you up. Thus is the case with Life, Above All, the story of a 12-year-old South African girl named Chanda (newcomer Khomotso Manyaka) whose baby sister dies, sparking a rumor that their mother is HIV-positive. The rumor results in the family being ostracized in their well-to-do village outside of Johannesburg, and eventually the mother departs, leaving her remaining children alone in a community that has no interest in looking out for them.

What emerges from this heartbreaking story is one in which a few select people come to the aide of these abandoned kids on the brink of physical and emotional destruction. Eventually Chanda goes to find her mother, but even after that happens, the town turns against them and threatens violence if they don't leave. Director Oliver Schmitz does a remarkable job mapping out the specific issue of the treatment of those of HIV/AIDS in Africa as well as deal with general issues of superstition taking the place of facts and prejudice winning out over compassion.

Based on the book Chanda's Secrets, Life, Above All is a tough movie to watch at times, but Manyaka does an astonishing job displaying the fear, strength, anger and sadness that results from a world that seems designed to bring her down. This is an epic story told on a small scale, and it offers hope for something a little better in this girl's future. The film never adapts the tone of a "message movie," but the messages are still pretty clear. These issues are hardly ones that only occur in Africa, and the lessons Chanda learns are universal. Life, Above All opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with Life, Above All director Oliver Schmitz and star Khomotso Manyaka, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Seven Days In Utopia

I think the weirdest release of the week has got to be Seven Days In Utopia, a G-rated tale about professional golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black) who has a meltdown at the key moment in a championship tournament. Seeking isolation after this very public embarrassment, Luke drives through Texas and has an accident that leaves him stranded in the small town of Utopia, where he just happens to meet former golf pro turned rancher Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall). Crawford has built a golf course on his ranch and offers to take the week that Luke is stuck there helping get his game back through a series of trials that are as much life lessons as they are golf lessons.

It would probably help you enjoy the film if you actually believed that golf holds deep meaning beyond swinging a crooked stick to make a ball go into a tiny hole hundreds of yards away. I am not one of those people, but I can appreciate people that buy into it. The film also employs the hard sell on the idea that small towns can heal all that ails you. Naturally, the town's gang of not-so-eccentric residents all take an interest in the celebrity that is living in their town temporarily. And before too long, Luke is presented with a romantic interest (Deborah Ann Woll), a series of great meals (courtesy of Melissa Leo and Kathy Baker), a rival (Brian Geraghty), and the list goes on.

The whole time I'm watching Seven Days In Utopia, based on the novel by David L. Cook, I couldn't help think that something about the whole scenario seemed otherworldly. First-time director Matthew Dean Russell comes from the world of special effects, so I'm moderately impressed he attempted something so down to earth, but nothing about this film feels authentic thanks to its over-idealization of, well, everything. I was a little excited about seeing Black and Duvall together again so soon after their winning work in Get Low, and, in fact, the film's best scenes are when just the two of them are deep in their teacher-student relationship. But the rest of the film is just plain hokey with a side of corn.

There's something weirdly watchable, almost comforting, about watching these great actors do their stuff in such a laid-back, effortless manner. Unfortunately, the film is loaded with unintentional laughs, and too many homespun tales of Southern living for my tastes. I've got nothing against the South in general or Texas in particular, but when value-loaded messages are mushed together with surface-level Buddhist doctrine and jammed down your throat, I tend to resist. I have no idea if this movie is opening near you, but if it is, you'd be better off leaving it be, y'all.

5 Days of War

Say what you want about the man's more recent films (Driven, Mindhunters, Exorcist: The Beginning, The Covenant, 12 Rounds), but director Renny Harlin knows his way around an action sequence. The man who made Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea has taken his strengths and applied them to a very different kind of film, one that attempts to capture the recent reality in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which recently engaged in a brief but vicious war with Russia. 5 Days of War attempts to document this battle through the eyes of war correspondents, played by the likes of Rupert Friend, Richard Coyle and Val Kilmer.

While it does seem a shame that people making film think the only way Western audiences might be interested in this story is if it's told from the perspective of Americans and Brits covering the war, the story itself is so unusual and compelling that the struggle of the Georgians comes to the forefront. There's also an amusing secondary story about the Georgian president (Andy Garcia) and his U.S.-born advisor (Dean Cain) attempting to negotiate with the Russians and get help from foreign governments. The sting of the U.S. government refusing help after Georgian troops fought on our side during the Iraq War is particularly painful to the president.

What's even more astonishing to consider is that nearly all of the locations Harlin uses are the actual places where these events took place, including the presidential palace. I firmly believe the story of the making of this film might be just as entertaining as the film itself. Sometimes the most harrowing and dramatic moments are nearly lost because of annoying subplots and even a dumb love story involving one of the journalists and a Georgian-born woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui) back in the country for a wedding (in which the groom is killed).

Still, Harlin's gift for well-choreographed action sequences is front and center when it should be. The attacks on unarmed villages and people by the Russians is powerful stuff, and the journalists' attempts to capture the awful mass killings by Russian-hired mercenaries is rough stuff at times. But the overall work is solid, and while 5 Days of War is not a great film, it's a step in the right direction for Harlin to reclaim some of his former glory. I hope he continues down this path without forgetting the explosions that got him here. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with 5 Days of War director Renny Harlin.

Higher Ground

The real question I had about the character of Corinne Walker (the thinly veiled alter ego of Carolyn S. Briggs, whose memoir is the basis for this movie) after I watched Higher Ground was, Is this woman going through a spiritual crisis, or is she just never satisfied with what she has? And that's the key to the success of the film. It forces you to ask such weighty questions about a fully realized character whose deep dissatisfaction with her relationship with God and those around her guides her down a twisting path that often results in her uprooting her entire life.

Vera Farmiga stars as Corinne and makes her directorial debut with Higher Ground, one of the few films in recent memory that takes spirituality seriously without subscribing to a particular doctrine or answering all of the questions it brings up. We meet Corinne as a little girl who lives in a divided home, and while it seems almost predestined that her beliefs would be strong, the warped environment that was her upbringing almost guarantees that she will be a deeply unhappy person. When she gets older, Corinne gets married to her devout husband (Joshua Leonard), and the couple (along with their daughter) find their way to an evangelical Christian community, very much dominated by the men. There's a particularly telling scene in which Corinne gets up to speak at church, and the preacher admonishes her for sounding like she's giving a sermon, regardless of what she's saying.

Corinne is constantly challenging her own beliefs and the beliefs of her community. The arguments she makes are strong, and in the end, all she wants is a clearer way to communicate with God (good luck with that) and a means to live a better, more fulfilling life as a believer. Farmiga's take on the character and the material is smart. She never tells us that living a God-fearing life is the better way; she simply makes it clear that this woman wishes to live that way and allows us to watch her try. Farmiga also gets a stellar cast together that includes John Hawkes, Bill Irwin and Dagmara Dominczyk, and allows each of their characters to resonate with life and motivation. Higher Ground is a difficult movie to explain, but a real easy film to grasp and get behind and appreciate for all of the risks it's taking. It's even easier to like when you see how many of those risks pay off thanks to wonderful performances and steady direction by Farmiga. I realize a movie about a religious woman may not be the way you picture yourself spending your Labor Day weekend, but this is easily the best movie opening this week. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Higher Ground star and director Vera Farmiga, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Rapt

We learn early on in the French thriller Rapt that the lead character, Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal, best known by Americans for his roles in Rush Hour 3, Munich and The Interpreter), a wealthy businessman is married with children, has a secret apartment for rendezvousing with his mistresses, is a degenerate gambler who is millions in debt, and holds little regard for others outside his social strata. Stanislas is kidnapped off the street and held for ransom for 50 million euro. But as written and directed by actor-turned-director Lucas Belvaux, Rapt isn't as much about the physical and emotional well-being of the kidnap victim (the captors cut off one of his fingers to send along with the ransom note), as it is about the bargaining process that his disappearance triggers among his family, his company and the police, all of whom have different opinions about how much this man's life is worth.

Soon after the kidnapping, Stanislas' history of gambling and cheating becomes fodder for the tabloids, which in turn humiliates his wife Francoise (Anne Consigny) and injures the corporate image. Then it turns out the victim's personal fortune isn't as great as many believed because of his gambling debts, and the company seems less inclined to pay much money for his return. This remarkable dance involving corporate greed, a jilted and betrayed wife and kids, the police that want every decision filtered through them, the smart kidnappers, and the victim who doesn't know why no one will pay to set him free. There's even suspicion that the kidnapping was arranged by the victim to acquire money.

I loved this film because I had no idea where it was going, particularly in the final third, which I can't disclose anything about but it's a real nailbiter. The more we learn about Stanislas, the less we tend to like him, but he becomes so pathetic and broken at the hands of his captors that you can't help feel for the guy a little bit. By the end of the film, everybody involved in this kidnapping and recovery is bitter or upset with Stanislas for some secret activities he was involved in before his abduction. I suppose, Rapt could be looked upon as the darkest of dark comedies, but it's more like a sleazy mystery unraveling before our eyes. It's great stuff, and I think you'll have a blast with it. The opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Chasing Madoff

Here's the thing with this documentary about the whistleblower and his team who investigated and attempted to bust Bernie Madoff for nearly 10 years before the Ponzi-scheme perpetrator turned himself in when the financial crisis began and he ran out of money: there's a great story in here that HBO or Showtime or someone of that ilk will tell brilliantly. The challenge will be to find an actor to play lead whistleblower Harry Markopolos — a socially retarded, gun-crazed genius — with enough pathos that we actually don't start rooting for the bad guys to win.

But perhaps that's what makes Chasing Madoff so fascinating. At the heart of this story is a guy with whom we would probably never be friends. It's entirely possible that the fact that his frustration and anger at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ignoring his reams of evidence that Madoff was a fraud had made him the unlikable man we meet in this film. Or it's his years of paranoia that he would be executed for trying to stop tens of thousands of people from losing their retirement funds at the hands of Madoff and his white-collar cronies. But the truth is, I don't always have to like my heroes to appreciate their actions, and this film gets to the heart of this man's journey to uncover the truth and have someone act on it.

Shot much in the style of Errol Morris, with the subjects looking directly at the camera and liberal use of re-enactments and dramatically lit and edited video and photos, Chasing Madoff delivers the goods in explaining exactly how Madoff's Ponzi scheme worked, why it worked so well, and why even after major investigative pieces ran in prominent magazines that called Madoff a fraud, nothing was done at the SEC. The scary truth is that people seemed not to act because if Madoff was a criminal then a lot of very smart people were going to look very stupid.

Using interviews with people who did lose everything to Madoff, the film adds a much-needed emotional component to its story on top of the highly technical, numbers-heavy research material. But it had a tough battle trying to get past Markopolos, who seems to enjoy posing with his various guns more than life itself. I'm still moderately recommending Chasing Madoff, with a request that you remember that all heroes are not created equal. The film opens in Chicago at the AMC River East 21 theaters.

 
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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

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