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Column Fri Oct 14 2011

47th Chicago International Film Festival, The Thing, Footloose, The Big Year, Trespass, Fireflies in the Garden, The Black Power Mixtape & Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure

47th Chicago International Film Festival

The best film you will likely see at this years Chicago Film Festival is the final one, the closing night presentation: The Artist, a beautiful black-and-white, largely silent (as in dialogue-free) offering from France starring one of that nation's biggest stars, Jean Dujardin (the lead in the wildly successful OSS 117 franchise, which, like The Artist, are directed by Michel Hazanavicius). What's especially fun about this movie is that it's actually about the last hurrah of silent films in America (the film features a handful of American actors) and concerns a world-famous actor who meets a pretty extra on one of his film sets, and as his star descends, hers begins to rise. This is a movie about loving movies -- it celebrates the art form in ways I've never seen, and it's easily one of the best things you'll see all year.

Other films I can recommend from CIFF's second week include Andrew Bird: Fever Year, a great doc that follows a year in the life of the accomplished musician. While a great deal of the film is concert material, there is some fantastic footage of him composing and writing, which captures the creative process in ways rarely seen on film. Carol Channing: Larger Than Life examines the career of the award-winning actress and comic genius; Cold Sweat is a freaky film that combines the danger of nitroglycerin with zombies; Crazy Horse is the latest from master documentarian Frederick Wiseman, profiling a nude Parisian nightclub; Into the Abyss, directed by Werner Herzog captures the final days of a death row inmate; and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the bittersweet comedy from the Duplass Brothers, starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms.

I was also a big fan of the SXSW Film Festival winner Natural Selection, about a repressed housewife trying to fulfill her dying husband's last wish to be united with a son he's never met. Wim Wenders' Pina is a performance documentary in stunning 3D that looks at the work of famed choreographer Pina Bausch. I was hypnotized by the quietly perverted Sleeping Beauty from director Julia Leigh, about a sexually liberated college student who allows herself to be drugged and stripped so that men she never sees can touch and look at her. It's not nearly as sleazy as it sounds. I was also impressed by the sports doc Undefeated, about a Memphis high school football team's run for its first playoff win in its 110-year history. And for whatever reason, CIFF has programmed Paul W.S. Anderson's 3D take on Three Musketeers. While I'm certainly curious about the film, I can't imagine festival audience flocking to this one.

As always, check showtimes and see what has already sold out (a lot has, actually) at CIFF's website, chicagofilmfestival.com

The Thing

So remember the beginning of John Carpenter's The Thing, when the guy in the helicopter is shooting a seemingly helpless dog running through the Antarctic tundra. Did you ever wonder about the circumstances that led to that moment? OK, maybe I did a little, but did you ever feel the need to see an entire movie about it? Well somebody must have because now we have another film called The Thing that has all the beats of Carpenter's masterful sci-fi/horror work, a few direct lifts, and about as much humanity as a block of ice.

I'll admit, the film starts out strong as a group of Norwegians in a remote outpost in Antarctica discover a craft deep under the ice, along with a "specimen." Noted scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson (the great Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) is called in to examine the discovery and he, in turn, recruits a noted paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Scott Pilgrim's Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to join him. It doesn't take them long to realize that what they have unearthed is not of this world, and then the only question is how famous will this discovery make them.

But Halvorson's eagerness to retrieve a tissue sample from the specimen on ice leads to a series of events that... well, presumably you've seen Carpenter's film, so you know what this lifeform can do. But unlike Carpenter's version, this alien does all of its shapeshifting and other grotesque behaviors via CGI, which appears too clean and quick. I loved the laborious process of watching the duplicated human characters revert to alien form in the 1982 version, but in first-time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s version of events, the changes and attacks happen at lightning speed, not giving us time to appreciate the artistry of the alien form. I realize it has become old hat to criticize CG effects, and what is rendered here isn't terrible, it just lacks any dimension or character.

And then there's the presence of Joel Edgerton as an American helicopter pilot Braxton Carter, who is grossly underused in The Thing, to the point where he literally disappears from the film for a big chunk of the plot. I get that this film is largely an ensemble piece, with Winstead coming the closest to being the film's lead character, but Edgerton is a magnetic performer who doesn't get to really step forward until the film's final third. I was surprised to see Eric Christian Olsen, who has done mostly comedic roles to this point, put in a solid performance as Halvorson's assistant, Adam.

But beyond the CG and remake-esque feel of The Thing, there's something missing from this otherwise good-looking film. There's no heart, there are no moments when the action breaks and we actually get to spend just a minute or two getting to know enough about these largely unknown faces that we actually care when they're absorbed by the alien. I was actually rooting for this film to get it right, and it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that it could have. The director has a good eye for shooting in both blinding white conditions and extreme darkness, and he does an admirable job building a certain level of tension, but that's largely due to him simply following Carpenter's lead. I'm sure the man is a great fan of the '82 remake of Howard Hawks' classic The Thing from Another World, but this film is a sad tribute to what made the version great.

And then there's the literally tacked-on ending (interspersed during the end credits) that links this movie with Carpenter's opening sequence. It's laughable and so ill-placed that some audience members may have left the theater before it even gets rolling. It feels like a lame afterthought in a movie that offers little in the way of information or scares. The terrifying wonder of the previous version of The Thing looms heavy over this film without actually infecting it. It's like drawing from memory--it kind of looks and feels the same without capturing the essence, and that's a shame.

Footloose

Remakes are a tricky thing. No shit. We complain when, for example, a classic horror film is updated and tricked out with unnecessary backstory. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt's quote about the Star Wars prequels, just because I like something doesn't mean I want to know how it was made. At the same time, if a filmmaker is too faithful to the original, the gripes then become something along the lines of "Why did they bother remaking that?" The third camp ("All. Remakes. Suck") is at least easier to define. And I'm guessing that filmmaker Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow; Black Snake Moan) isn't a big fan of remakes either. But here's the thing: once you see his take on Footloose, the 1984 film that made Kevin Bacon a star, you'll instantly realize that he re-did this tale of a small town that has banned dancing because he's its biggest fan.

The updates in Brewer's Footloose are minor and ultimately they don't made a difference in whether or not I liked this undeniable crowd-pleaser that relies as much on fan memories of the original film as it does on simply getting audiences tapping their toes, sometimes to the same songs that populated the monster soundtrack nearly 30 years ago.

The most startling addition to Brewer's Footloose is the opening dance to the original Kenny Loggins' theme song. And while we hear all about the post-dance horrible accident that killed several high school students in the original film, in this new version, the accident is (tastefully) shown, and for some reason it makes a big difference. The tragedy is more immediate, and the town's reaction (led by Rev. Moore, played nicely by Dennis Quaid) doesn't seem quite as unwarranted. This is a town that wants to protect its children, and it will do anything to make that happen. It doesn't take a political science degree to see that Brewer is commenting on America and its perceived tendency in the last 10 years to overreact to potential danger. And he pulls off this message without having to change much at all with the plot.

Actual professional dancer Kenny Wormald plays Boston transplant Ren McCormack, who comes to town after his mother dies of cancer to stay with his aunt and uncle. He's a bit shocked at the not dancing/no loud music laws, but his rebel stance attracts the attention of the reverend's daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough of "Dancing with the Stars" fame, who actually does a solid job acting as well). And if you know the original film, you know how things fall into place. Ren and Ariel flirt, her scumbag boyfriend (Patrick Flueger) gets jealous, the kids protest the no dancing rules so they can have a end-of-year dance, and Ren makes an impassioned, bible-quoting speech before the town elders to bring back the dance.

The legendary "angry dance" is still present, but it's slightly altered so that Ren is actually crashing into the machines and random debris that is cluttering the empty warehouse. And the sequence in which Ren teaches his new best buddy Willard (Miles Teller) to dance is practically a shot-for-shot redo. As the ultimate Footloose fan, Brewer is keenly aware of what works from the original film and what needs a boost, and the darker edge he brought to his previous two works serve him well at bringing some poignant drama to the proceedings. I was particularly weirded out by a sequence in which Ariel's boyfriend pressures her to have sex, and then she gives in so he won't break up with her. Sadly, this is probably a more realistic take on such situations in today's world.

But I keep coming back to one crucial point about Footloose: it's wildly entertaining for the plain and simple reason that Brewer loves the material. Wormald isn't the greatest actor the world has ever seen, but his big speech near the end of the film is delivered with just the right amount of fire. And his dancing is undeniably impressive. I liked the friendship that develops between Ren and Willard; I bought that these two guys would look out for each other, and Teller is especially strong here.

Here's my one and only challenge to you: Watch before you react. See the film before you dismiss it. You don't have to like it, but you at least have to give it a fair shake before you bad mouth it. I know too many people who walked into the new Footloose skeptics and came out fans of the work. I think you will too. It's time to remember what being pleasantly surprised feels like. And then it'll be time to dance.

To read my exclusive interview with Footloose director/co-writer Craig Brewer and stars Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Big Year

Perhaps the biggest shocker of the week is a PG-rated film about three bird watchers trying to break the record for seeing the most number of bird species in a single calendar year -- it is actually quite watchable and not, as you might expect, a broad, goofy comedy mocking professional birders. Part of the reason you might presume The Big Year is such a movie is because of the cast, which includes Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson as the three men in question. And when you move down the cast list to the supporting players, you see such names as Joel McHale, Kevin Pollak, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Rashida Jones, and the voice of John Cleese. Director David Frankel helmed such films as The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me -- both of which were much better than similar films in their genres because they weren't about going after the big, obvious jokes.

Although it certainly has comedic moments and a few laughs, the based-on-a-true-story The Big Year plays it straight for the most part, focusing on the task at hand by chronicling the lives of three men obsessed with a single task. Wilson plays Kenny Bostick, the man who currently holds the record for the number of species seen. He's been through a couple of marriages, and when he gets wind that others may be after his record, he risks his latest marriage to make sure that doesn't happen. Black plays Brad Harris, an IT guy who is going for his first Big Year, but barely has the money to do it. His parents (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy) help out, reluctantly at first. Martin portrays Stu Preissler, a millionaire CEO who wants to retire to go after his first Big Year, but has a hard time doing so because his underlings keep pulling him back in to help close faltering deals.

I don't think any of these guys is a real person or even based on real people, but it doesn't matter because the characters are interesting enough to keep you wondering who, if any, will break the record. The screenplay by Howard Franklin (based on the book by Mark Obmascik) does an admirable job immersing us in the lifestyle of these dedicated few people who jet-set around the world looking for unique climates or the edges of storm fronts, any place where groups of birds might congregate at various point during the year.

Yes, many of the supporting characters (including those played by Tim Blake Nelson, Anjelica Houston, Rosamund Pike, Steven Weber, JoBeth Williams, and Corbin Bernsen) are wildly underwritten and one dimensional, and I often found myself far less interested in these men when they weren't actually seeking out birds or trying to trick each other into going in the wrong direction to find particularly rare species. But I still got into The Big Year to a degree, enough to mildly recommend it. Anytime the film attempts to make us laugh, I pushed back because it was unnecessary and not funny. But that didn't happen too often and the filmmakers were wise enough to just let the story unfold with a minimal amount of sidetracking. The result is I sat through most of this movie with a smile on my face, and that's a rare bird indeed.

Trespass

I'm not going to plow through the hit-and-miss career of Joel Schumacher, but sometimes I look at his body of work and wonder what the hell is he doing. On the whole, I tend to enjoy his films when he keeps things simple--Phone Booth, Cellular, Flawless, Falling Down--and I guess his latest film, Trespass, would qualify as small in scale, since almost the entire film takes place inside a single lavish home, owned by diamond trader Nicolas Cage (who starred in Schumacher's 8MM) and his wife, Nicole Kidman. But this movie doesn't even make it to the halfway point before the plot goes tragically off the rails and into the land of the absurd. That being said, the ever-game Cage does not disappoint. In fact, he seems to embrace the lunacy in ways only he can (see The Wicker Man for a recent example of what I'm talking about).

The story of Trespass is an one of an overly complicated home invasion by four criminals who seem to know what Cage does for a living and that he keeps large amounts of cash and diamonds in the house. It seems like just about everyone in this movie is hiding secrets, and the film is equally interested in getting the winding plot to make sure every one of them is revealed as it is finding out how the robbery pans out. With the balance of power constantly shifting as captives escape (the couple has a teenage daughter who loves to disobey them) or otherwise gain the upper hand with some new piece of information, Trespass begins to collapse under the weight of its own plot thanks to a ludicrous script from Karl Gajdusek.

But the fatal flaw with this movie is that we know that, for most of the movie, Cage can't die because he's the only person with the combination to the safe where the criminals believe the diamonds and money are hidden. So pointing a gun at him seems like an empty threat. We also know that if these thugs hurt his wife or kid, he'll shut down and not give them anything. Once we realize this, the movie loses nearly all of its tension. It doesn't help that one of the kidnappers has a connection to Kidman's character that is so silly and adds nothing to this already out-there plot.

Without giving away too many of the film's cadre of secrets, I will conclude by simply saying that if I didn't know better, I would assume Trespass is a joke played on the audience. At the very least, it's a comedy; it has to be because nothing else makes sense. And if it's not meant to make us laugh, then it's just a cluttered, sad little movie featuring not-so-scary criminals and unsympathetic victims. I think there's a reason I had barely heard of this film until about two weeks before I saw it. I give Millennium Entertainment credit for at least screening this mess, but beyond that, my positive comments will be limited to saying that I laughed a lot during this big joke.

Fireflies in the Garden

White people, I swear. I seriously thought indie filmmakers like writer-director Dennis Lee gave up years ago making movies trying to make us feel sorry for privileged families whose greatest issue seem to be that the parents and kids don't get along. Oh, wait. They did stop making these movies, which explains why the long-on-the-shelf Fireflies in the Garden (copyright 2007) feels so dated and undeserving of any attention. What's weird about the long release delay on this family drama is that it features a fantastic cast that includes Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Ioan Gruffudd, and Hayden Panettiere.

Naturally, the patriarch of this Midwestern clan (Dafoe) is an English professor who cheats on his wife (Roberts) and finds fault in everything his son does, especially when it comes to writing. The film bounces back and forth between present and past. Now a published writer (irony alert), the grown son (Reynolds) returns home only to have his mother die in a car crash, so he ends up staying much longer than he'd intended. He has a new manuscript with him, which is apparently all about his upbringing at the brutal hands of dear old dad, whom Reynolds plans on giving a copy to before he leaves, which everyone seems to think will kill the old man.

Despite Reynolds getting off a few mean-spirited and totally justified verbal jabs at Dafoe, there isn't much to recommend here. It's interesting that this film and Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan's many years delayed film starring Anna Paquin) are being released just a couple weeks apart, because both are looks at well-off white people, who practically invent problems just to appear deep. Margaret does it in a far more interesting and meaningful ways, but that doesn't take away from the fact that both films feature entire casts of unlikable people. The difference being that Fireflies thinks its characters are sympathetic. Guess again, cowboy. I understand that a film left on the shelf is a shameful thing in most cases, but I could have easily gone my whole life not having seen this one. If you're a glutton for punishment, Fireflies in the Garden opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Black Power Mixtape

In this fascinating and cleverly pieced together documentary that combines footage found in the basement of Swedish TV for 30 years, shot between 1967 and 1975 (the final year of the Vietnam War), The Black Power Mixtape is a chronicle of the most interesting events and people of the black power movement as it seeks to braid music, interviews, and more traditional news footage into a time capsule of the period. Since the crew was Swedish and not part of what the subjects deemed the racist American press, they were given unprecedented access. As a result, the film has some incredible interviews with everyday people going through tough times, as well as a host of famous faces like Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, and many more.

Director Goran Hugo Olsson has taken this archival footage and mixed it with modern-day interviews with some of its subjects, as well as contemporary voices of the black community, including Erykah Badu, Danny Glover (who serves as a producer on the film), Talib Kweli,and Questlove to comment on the footage and occasionally marvel at its very existence. There are some phenomenal moments captured in this footage, including some more casual moments with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmichael (shown interviewing his mother). I especially enjoyed the Farrakhan interview (one of his first), in which he pretty much recites Nation of Islam doctrine but seems to take particular glee in bad-mouthing the "filthy swine" that we should not eat.

The Black Power Mixtape is by no means telling a definitive or complete story as many key figures in this movement do not appear. But as a document that adds dimension and depth to this movement, it is undeniably essential viewing. I was especially moved by interviews of people living in Harlem and other centers of black culture at the time, some of whom are recovering addicts or folks otherwise living though hard times. But their spirit pushes through their conditions and genuinely infuse this film with humanity and heart. Find this if you can. It opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure

Much like last year's spectacularly funny and moving Winnebago Man, this film captures a viral phenomenon in the years before YouTube and mp3s made access to funny videos and audio clips so easy. Shut Up Little Man! is about Mitchell D and Eddie, two post-college roommates who had just moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s and got stuck living next door to Peter and Raymond, two drunk and angry older men who spent nearly every waking minutes screaming insane shit at each other. Rather than repeatedly complain or call the cops, the roommates decided to record these verbal battles using a boom mike pointed toward the other apartment's open window. The resulting cassette tapes were cataloged, copied and traded all over the world and became what had to be one of the first-ever viral creations in history.

Since that time, animations have been made from the recordings, a play was written featuring dialogue much like that in the tapes, comic book adaptations are everywhere, and the number of fans today is legion. Director Matthew Bate walks us through the history of the tapes that includes copyright debates, three separate film productions based on Peter and Raymond, and an eventual attempt to contact the only living person on the tapes, a third party named Tony who occasionally lived with the two men and joined them in their drinking.

But unlike Winnebago Man, this film doesn't examine the bigger-picture viral movement of tape traders and some other examples of audio adventures spreading like wildfire in the pre-audio file age (although there is some attention paid to the similarity between the Peter and Raymond tapes and Christian Bale's rant on the Terminator: Salvation set). If there is one thing missing from the film, it's this contextual component. The film gets oddly gloomy as greed and ownership rights become a factor, and what was once simply a whole lot of fun becomes a business. But the core of the film is examining the dynamic between the two bickering men -- one openly gay and the other a self-professed homophobe -- which is examined in great detail by the recorders and fans of the material. The detective work on display is marvelous, and the resulting film is both hysterical and ultimately moving. Shut Up Little Man! opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Multimedia.

 
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