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Column Fri Oct 07 2011

Chicago International Film Festival previews, The Ides of March, Real Steel, Puncture, The Way, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil & The Human Centipede 2

47th Chicago International Film Festival

The time is upon those of us in Chicago once again, when cinephiles are forced out of their dark hovels to wander into equally dark theaters to check out the latest films from around the world. This year's CIFF offerings feature one of the greatest varieties of titles and types of films I can recall in recent years, and most of what I've seen so far is good stuff. Please allow me to point you in the direction of a few titles that might be worth sampling in its first week. All films take place at the AMC River East 21; check the CIFF website for exact times.

By this point, you've already missed CIFF's Opening Night film, the locally produced The Last Rites of Joe May, a slight indie production from Steppenwolf Films, featuring a solid, low-key performance by Dennis Farina. I believe the movie opens in November locally, so I'll give you my full review then. The festival's Centerpiece selection is the lovely, funny and charming My Week with Marilyn, based on the book by the man who served as Lawrence Olivier's assistant during the production of Olivier's movie with Monroe, The Princess and the Showgirl. Michelle Williams plays Monroe as a woman lacking any kind of confidence in her acting, while Kenneth Branagh does an uncanny Olivier. Oscar nominations will be forthcoming on this one for sure.

Other notable films that I've either seen or have heard might be worth your time and money include: The Bully Project, a timely documentary about high school bully and its consequences; Coriolanus, directed and starring Ralph Fiennes in a modern-day take on one of Shakespeare's lesser-known dramas. Vanessa Redgrave is especially excellent as his mother, but the rest of the production so overblown as to be headache inducing; David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, about the relationshp between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), both of whom fall under the spell of a particularly disturbed woman (Keira Knightley); The Holding, a Scottish horror movie that is basically a loose remake of The Stepfather; Juan of the Dead, the notoriously great Cuban zombie movie — that's all I need to know.

Also coming up: the harrowing, beautifully acting Land of Oblivion, about the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; Le Havre, the touching new film from director Aki Kaurismaki about an elderly man helping a young African refugee to reunite with his mother; Like Crazy, from new director Drake Doremus, about a young couple (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) attempting to maintain a land-distance relationship — one of the most emotionally pure films you will see all year; Martha Marcy May Marlene, one of the year's best films about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes a cult to live with her estranged sister; director Lars von Trier's Melancholia, about nothing less than the end of the world, and how family drama might even trump the apocalypse; the celebrated and brutal Mexican action film Miss Bala, about a would-be beauty queen who falls in with violent gang members.

From China, director Chen Kaige's sprawling Sacrifice; Salaam Dunk, a great doc about an all-female basketball team in Iraq; actor-turned director Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, starring the great Peter Mullen; director Lynne Ramsey's explosive We Need To Talk about Kevin, starring John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton as the parents of a troubled son; and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired The Whisperer in Darkness, a black-and-white sci-fi/horror work made to look like a '30s-style b-movie — one of my personal favorites from the fest.

But the best thing to do is just show up at River East and pick a film at random off the schedule; there truly nothing better than discovering a movie you've never heard of. More next week.

The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling has never had a better year, at least not in terms of showing audiences his versatility in three completely different roles, from the cocksure playboy in Crazy Sexy Love to the strong, silent, insane stuntman in Drive to the opportunistic campaign strategist in director George Clooney's adaptation of Beau Willimon play The Ides of March. In one scene after another, Gosling matches wits and talent opposite such greats as Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, and the kid holds his own and then some. But Gosling allows us to see how his character's ambition and cleverness can be overshadowed by greed, and others may use that weakness to manipulate him.

The story of The Ides of March is as old as politics. A governor (Clooney) is running for president and Gosling's Stephen Myers discovers the one thing that could send his campaign right into the ground, and he deals with it, while taking meetings with the opposition, thinking he can squelch any possible damage. He also gets into an ill-advised relationship with a local campaign worker (Evan Rachel Wood), and that leads to more trouble. The governor's ideals may cost him the election, but Myers believes in his guy enough not to quit the campaign even when things look grim. The plot's twists and turns probably won't surprise you that much, but The Ides of March isn't about plot, not especially. It's about kicking back and watching some of the planet's greatest thespians dig into this material and rip it (and each other) to shreds.

Each and every actor has at least one great moment, and most have more. Hoffman is on fire here as the governor's campaign manager, while Wright plays dumb as a senator with whom a deal must be struck to win the governor the election. Tomei is pretty great as a New York newspaper reporter who knows how to make campaign workers spill before they even realize they're doing it. But my favorite scene involves Gosling and Clooney in an empty, dark hotel kitchen where they have their ultimate confrontation. The balance of power shifts about a dozen times during that scene, and it's awesome to behold. Even if you don't find you like The Ides of March, it's difficult to believe that you won't walk away from watching the film screaming to the rafters, "Acting!"

Clooney certainly has nothing to prove as an actor (wait until you see him in The Descendants in about a month) or even as a director (Goodnight, and Good Luck), but there is something a bit curious about him telling the story of the Ohio Democratic primary, which features a plot point involving Republican voters electing the lesser Democratic candidate so he would run against whoever their horse was in the presidential race. But The Ides of March isn't about politics, believe it or not. It's about selling your soul for the right price, having your ideals ripped away from you, and abandoning you principles for the right price and in the interest of the greater good.

The Ides of March doesn't qualify as a great movie, but that doesn't stop it from being impressive at many points along its relatively short running time. The screenplay from Clooney, Grant Heslov and playwright Willimon is tightly constructed and briskly paced, despite the fact that the Clooney character is never seen in the stage version. This isn't a movie that's trying to wow you with its clever insight into politics or big thinkers; it's a morality play in which truth and morals are the casualties. Clooney isn't playing party politics; politics is simply the stage, and all the world its hapless victims. This is the best film opening this weekend.

Real Steel

The pervading thought that would not leave my head as I watched Real Steel is, "Man, this is fun." Other than the robot angle, the script is taken from about a dozen different sports movies. The acting doesn't add much to the mix, but it doesn't hurt the film either. The length of director Shawn (Date Night; Night at the Museum) Levy's latest film is probably about 20 minutes too long. But dammit, if I were a 14-year-old or younger, I would go absolutely bat-shit crazy for this tale of a father and son who piece together a fighting robot to compete in the world championship of robot battles.

The set-up seems routine and unnecessary, but what we get is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer, who had turned to a life in the near future where robots do in-the-ring fighting instead of humans. There don't seem to be any rules to robot boxing other than the robots have to be about the same size (roughly 8-10 feet). When Charlie's latest competitor is destroyed, he goes on the run after nearly getting killed because of some gambling debts. He's tracked down by a lawyer for his recently dead ex-wife, who informs him that he must now take care of their young son Max (Dakota Goyo). The boy wants nothing to do with Charlie, who abandoned the family when he was a baby, but the pair seem to bond when it comes to robot fighting.

Charlie manages to scrounge together some money to buy a new robot, a former sparring machine, that he transforms into a scrappy little fighter that actually starts winning bouts. When I say that the robot effects are unbelievable, believe it. The human-robot interaction here is unlike anything I've seen before, and I'm including the Transformers movies, which were the benchmark in my estimation. Thankfully, the robots in Real Steel don't talk. What they can do is mimic behavior, so Charlie teaches the robot some of his old boxing moves, all the while the father and son start bonding, as you'd expect in a film that leaves no cliche unturned.

Subplots involving Charlie essentially selling Max to his wife's sister and dealing with a generic mean dude coming to beat the crap out of Charlie after a welched bet, both could have been left out of the film. The robot opponents provide enough of a villainous presence that human baddies seem unnecessary.

And I'll be damned if those robot fights are really great, both from a visual and sound design perspective. Jackman certainly has the energy and physicality to play a larger-than-life character like Charlie, but with a screenplay like this, it's hard for him not to get trapped by clunky dialogue that gives him only one direction in which to travel. But I'll say it again, Real Steel is a lot of fun if you don't concern yourself too much with originality.

This is the classic underdog story crossed with a father-and-son reunion flick featuring all of the things that made those formulas work so well in so many ways. It should come as no surprise that among the movie's executive producers are Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, two guys who perfected certain movie formulas and make billions doing so. I think the biggest surprise about Real Steel for me was that it's based in part on the short story "Steel" by the great Richard Matheson. The matter-of-fact acceptance of robots as part of our sports culture seems to have his stamp on it.

If you aren't too much of a snobby film aficionado to still have genuine fun in the movies, I think you'll find Real Steel to be pleasantly entertaining, if not especially challenging to the brain. I don't ever endorse shutting off your brain for the sake of big, dumb fun, but letting it relax a little can be an enjoyable experience.

Puncture

I have to admit, when I started watching this movie I had no idea what it was about. All I knew was that Puncture had been on the shelf for a while, and thanks to star Chris Evans rising star in Captain America and the upcoming Avengers film, it's getting a deserved limited release. This is the real-life story of Chris Weiss, a drug addict and quite capable personal injury attorney who has the case of a lifetime dumped in his lap when a nurse comes to him several years after she was stuck with a needle while attempting to restrain and subdue a twitching junkie. She ended up getting HIV as a result, but she wasn't suing hospital for damages; she wanted to force the hospital to use a newly designed safety needle that can only be used once, after which the needle retracts into the syringe, never to be used again.

Weiss seems to like the case for two reasons: free needles for his own habit, and a class action suit against the needle manufacturer who had exclusive arrangements with medical supply companies and health care facilities even if their needles weren't the safest available. It's Weiss' firm's ticket to the big time, even if they don't have the workforce, time or money to handle the enormity of the case. Still Weiss and his partner (Mark Kassen, the film's co-director with brother Adam) gather enough steam and publicity that the needle company is forced to take drastic measures to discredit Weiss, causing their other clients to bail.

What is exposed during the course of the movie is that 800,000 hospital workers are stuck by used needles every year; that plastic needles cannot be re-sterilized, unlike glass ones; and that hospitals using the safety needles had no reported accidental stickings. But most importantly, Weiss discovers thanks to a whistleblower (played nicely by Michael Biehn) that reusing plastic needles is the primary reason AIDS spread so rapidly throughout Africa.

Evans is fantastic in this role; Weiss is not the most likable guy, but his dedication, even at the expense of his own health and the well-being of those around him, is undeniable. I love the scenes of him in some crappy motel with a hooker doing lines of coke or shooting up heroin or smoking crack while still going over case files. He is the model of a functioning junkie, and Evans' performance is impossible not get sucked in by. The film has a few too many moments where you can feel the screenwriters condensing the action with about as much grace as an episode of "Law & Order," but more often than not the compelling nature of the true story trumps any lapses in plot chronology.

I was also especially impressed with the array of supporting players doing great work here, including Vinessa Shaw as the nurse, Marshall Bell as the beleaguered safety needle inventor, Brett Cullen as the attorney for the big needle company being sued, and Kate Burton as a U.S. senator who seems to have Evans' back in the push for needle legislation. It's a patchwork film for sure, made up of individual great moments that add up to an uneven but largely successful docudrama that might have been better suited for HBO or Showtime, but I'm glad I got to see Evans stretch his wings as an actor before dialing it back for mass consumption next summer. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Way

I love road movies, but I don't remember the last time I saw one that involved simply walking as a means of bettering the soul and lifting oneself spiritually. The Emilio Estevez-written and -directed The Way is a very interesting story told in a not-so-interesting way. Tom (Martin Sheen) is a smalltown dentist whose son (Estevez) goes to St. Jean de Port in France to walk the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage through Spain. But early in his journey he dies accidentally, and his father is forced to fly to France to collect his remains. Tom is so distraught at his loss that he decides to have his son cremated, strap on his son's backpack and walk the Camino, scattering his ashes along the route.

The Way is about a man who has spent most of his later years alone, somewhat estranged from his son. Along his journey, he discovers that as much as sometimes we would like to be alone, it's impossible for humans to live fulfilling lives in solitude. This is rather overtly demonstrated as Tom picks up a small group of new friends along the way, and it becomes clear very soon that Estevez has fashioned a Wizard of Oz-like team to make this journey to the Emerald City at the end of the Way of St. James. These fellow travelers lacking in some essential element for coping and living include James Nesbitt as a travel writer, Yorick van Wageningen as a Dutchman who claims he's making the trip to lose weight so his wife will want to sleep with him again, and Deborah Kara Unger as a Canadian with man issues that seem to go hand in hand with trust issues.

While they are certainly a lively bunch, much of what they talk about over sometimes drunken meals or while they are walking at the point of exhaustion feels overly scripted and not especially organic. Even run-ins they have with the law or times where they may be in danger turn into generic life lessons right out of a new age handbook. The film's driving forces and the two reasons I didn't lose complete interest were Sheen, who gives a great performance as the grieving, driven father; and the scenery along the Camino, which is stunning beyond words. The Way has a few laughs, but mostly it feels like characters walking and talking and solving their problems by the end of the journey, which I know would happen to all of us if we just took time for the pilgrimage. The Way isn't a terrible film at all; it just isn't especially challenging or thought provoking either, which is a shame because I'm guessing the story of the making of the film is the best part of this movie.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Way writer-director Emilio Estevez and star Martin Sheen.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil

I first saw Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil about a year and a half ago at the SXSW Film Festival, where it rightfully won the Midnight Audience Award, and now this really fun and bloody little film is finally seeing the light of day for a limited big-screen run at the Music Box Theatre. Tucker and Dale (Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) are just a couple of harmless hillbillies on vacation together in a rundown cabin in the woods. They want to fish, drink, and just generally take things easy. Maybe paint each other's toenails. But when a group of college kids show up to raise hell, they assume these two disheveled gents are blood-thirsty killers right out of every slasher movie set in the backwoods. When one of the female students (Katrina Bowden) is accidentally knocked out cold, Tucker and Dale save her and nurse her back to health, an act of kindness believed to be a kidnapping by the girl's friends.

As the students attempt to save their friend, they keep winding up dying through a series of stupid accidents that Tucker and Dale have nothing to do with. But to the other kids, it seems like the hillbillies are picking them off one at a time, something drunken college kids apparently don't like. Yes, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a very stupid movie, but it's also an exceedingly funny work that knows enough about evil, inbred hillbillies to play with the sub-genre and turn it into a surprisingly smart spoof.

Tudyk and Labine are two gifted comic actors that manage both the broad strokes and crafty details rather nicely. First-time director Eli Craig has come out of the gate strong, and I'm really excited to see what he's got next. (I'm hearing a possible sequel placing our heroes in a college setting, probably being mistaken for campus killers) I love that Craig pulls no punches in terms of the gore on display here, but somehow, viewing it through tears of laughter, it doesn't seem so bad. This is a bloody good movie, and I'm glad people who still value seeing things on the big screen get a chance to check it out in certain cities. Find it!

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)

Somewhere in this grungy, black-and-white mess is a movie... I'm pretty sure. Taking a very different approach than the slightly comical, always entertaining The Human Centipede, this second entry seems to feed off the excrement of the original film by featuring a character named Martin (the aptly grotesque newcomer Laurence R. Harvey) who is so obsessed with the first installment, he attempts to recreate a human centipede using 12 people attached in an unspeakable way. At least the man has ambition.

I'll give Danish writer-director Tom Six credit for not repeating himself, despite what the plot description might imply. Nothing about Centipede 2 looks or feels like the original, which is good and bad. I miss the enthusiasm and maniacal behavior of the first film's Dr. Heiter, who I still maintain is one of the greatest screen villains in the last 10 years. Comparatively speaking, Martin is a short, round man-child who never utters a word (which is not to say he doesn't emit certain disturbing sounds from time to time). Martin's perversions are also given some degree of motivation (his mother is verbally abusive, his father molested him as a baby, blah blah blah), and I'm pretty certain Six believes we should feel sorry for the guy on some level. But when the dude is masturbating with sandpaper, my empathy generator shuts down.

I'm no stranger to extreme cinema, in fact, I'd go so far as to say I'm a fan. And the way I tend to get involved in these (or any) films is by putting myself in the mindset of, in this case, the villain to see if I can understand where his particular proclivity stems from. But Martin is a tough nut to crack. He just kind of acts on impulse — motivated by his love of the film, sure — but rarely does Six dig beneath his fleshy, bug-eyed surface to give us a little character development. In most horror films, I don't mind not knowing motivation, and that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about letting Martin become a fully realized creature of instinct rather than just a guy with a crowbar who mechanically knocks out his victims and sews them together mouth-to-ass.

In The Human Centipede, Dr. Heiter was an expert in separating Siamese twins who wanted to see what it would be like to connect subjects for once. That's all I need. Martin just loves a movie. Hell, maybe it's because I love movies that I can't relate to him. The Human Centipede 2 subscribes to the theory that a movie can cause or inspire people do bad things, and I just don't buy it. That's not to say that some of the outrageous and horrific acts committed by Martin aren't interesting at times; call me old-fashioned, but I like my sociopathic maniacs with a bit more personality. That being said, Harvey does the best he can with what he's given. There's no doubt in my mind his face will haunt your dreams, even if his actions seem somewhat derivative. The Human Centipede 2 is a noble attempt at the perverse, but something about it falls short. Where's the joy, Tom Six? Where's the joy? The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre for Friday and Saturday midnight screenings for the next two weeks.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Human Centipede 2 writer-director Tom Six and star Laurence R. Harvey. And for those of you who have actually made it this far in the review and live in Chicago, I'm hosting the premiere screening of The Human Centipede 2 tonight (Friday) at midnight. We'll have prizes, giveaways for the first 100 at the door, extreme horror trivia, and maybe even me in a costume.

 
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