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Column Fri Oct 28 2011

In Time, The Rum Diary, Puss in Boots, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Anonymous & Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

In Time

In a strange and utterly coincidental way, the new film by writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War, and writer of The Truman Show and The Terminal) is one of the most relevant films in theaters right now — a time when protestors are gathering in the streets of many major cities around the U.S. talking about the nation's wealth being the hands of a very few. In Time is about just that subject, only the currency in Niccol's version of the not-to-distant future is not money but minutes.

The plot centers on a future where all humans stop aging at 25, but once they hit that age, a clock in their forearm is activated that goes for exactly one year. People can use time to buy goods, gamble, bribe; others simply take it from you, especially if you live in a "time zone" that looks a lot like a ghetto. Justin Timberlake plays Will, who is given more than a century's worth of time by a man about to commit suicide, which makes him a target in his neighborhood of both local thugs (called Minute Men, led by Alex Pettyfer) who simply take your time, and Time Keepers (led by a 50-year veteran of the practice played by Cillian Murphy), who are more like police and keep the time poor separate from the time rich.

There are some really interesting ideas at play with In Time, and I love the idea that every single person in this movie is supposed to look 25 years old. When Will greets the hot woman (Olivia Wilde) in his kitchen one morning before going to work, we assume it's his girlfriend or wife, when in fact, it's his mother.

When Will gets his massive amount of time, he decides to travel to one of the nicer time zones, where he meets one of the richest men in the world, Philippe Weis ("Mad Men's" Vincent Kartheiser) and his lovely daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), who is attracted to Will's reckless spirit (apparently the poor are the only ones who run, drive cars or swim, since those things could lead to a fatal accident, which the rich are afraid of). But when the Time Keepers catch up with Will (they think he might have killed the suicide victim for his time), he takes Sylvia hostage to keep himself alive.

In Time is basically a chase film with some clever sci-fi moments thrown in, and I would have been OK with that if the filmmakers had tried just a little bit harder to make the conventional parts of its story more original. I've got nothing bad to say about most of the performance here, and I think Timberlake has gotten to the point as an actor where he has nothing to prove. If anything, I wish his character would have been given a little more depth, because I think Timberlake could have easily handled a more fleshed-out role. I did have issues with Sylvia Weis, more in the writing than in Seyfried's portrayal. She's a bit too easily turned to the side of the Will and his impoverished brethren, and it just makes her seem shallow... more shallow.

But a lot of the adjustments that Niccol has make to the world as a result of the shift from money to time is impressive and smart. I was also really impressed with Murphy's performance as the unflappable Time Keeper, whose slowly revealed backstory is one of the film's most interesting elements. In Time isn't tough to sit through, and at moments it's actually hugely enjoyable and smart. But we've seen Niccol do better in the sci-fi environment, and simply adding in a few more action scenes isn't going to make up for the film's plot shortfalls. In Time commits the ultimate crime by occasionally being dull and getting lost in the budding romance of its leads, when it should be pushing forward and fine tuning and better defining its universe (which looks a lot like today). I'm still mildly recommending it, but it left me wanting more, and not in a good way.

To read my exclusive interview with In Time writer-director Andrew Niccol, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Rum Diary

I'm not sure if one is supposed to take away any deeper life messages from director Bruce Robinson's adaptation of the early Hunter S. Thompson novel The Rum Diary, but if the sole purpose of the work was to entertain and show me something I've never seen done quite this way, then I'm on board. Part stream of consciousness, part newspaper man story, part tale of corruption in Puerto Rico in the final years of the Eisenhower administration, The Rum Diary centers on Paul Kemp (previous Thompson stand-in Johnny Depp) who moves to San Juan from New York to get a fresh start but finds out that things are tough all over.

He gets a job or the local, English-language paper, run by a shifty editor played by the great Richard Jenkins. Not surprising, Kemp is something of a drinker, and although he has sworn off the sauce, the sauce has not sworn off him. It doesn't take long for him to fall in with an unsavory crowd, including a filthy rich land dealer (Aaron Eckhart) and his hyper-sexualized fiancee (Amber Heard).

The land shark wants Kemp to write a few nice stories that will help improve a big deal he's on the verge of closing, but Kemp is being fed not-so-flattering information from a broken-down former newspaper writer, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who plays a wildly convincing drunk. Robinson, who gave us such inebriated delights as Withnail & I, is actually the perfect filmmaker to corral this often-messy, loud and destructive gathering of (mostly) men. With access to a printing press and a subversive streak, Kemp is forced to decide to either play for the bad guys or expose them for the leaches that they are. Of course the third choice is to abandon Puerto Rico immediately, but where's the fun in that?

This the most fun I've had watching Depp in many years. Kemp is the perfect combination of intelligence and stupidity, and the resulting film comes across as a well-crafted dark comedy, peppered with some smart insight into the deep levels of deception in the government, law enforcement, and local media. Depp isn't playing this barely veiled version of Thompson in the same way he did in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and to do so would have been a mistake. Thompson's cynicism wasn't nearly as finely honed when he was a younger man, and his looks were good enough that he didn't have to work quite as hard to bed a few ladies.

Also, I'm becoming increasingly curious about Heard as an actor. Sure, she's sexy and gorgeous, but here she's given some space to show just what a fantastic train wreck her character is psychologically. The same goes for many of the creatures that inhabit The Rum Diary, which is more of a sit-back-and-take-it-in film than one that you actually have to engage your brain to enjoy. Allowing the story to simply unfold its many twisted layers is when the fun emerges. This film is not about how to live in paradise; it's about how to escape it's crushing embrace.

Puss In Boots

All you need to know about this offshoot from the dead-in-the-water Shrek movies is that it's a total blast for kids and the older folks that tend to take kids to these films. Since he was introduced in the second Shrek movie, Puss In Boots has been my favorite character of any of the fairy tale creatures brought to life in that franchise. It always made complete sense that Antonio Banderas voiced Puss because the character is essentially a feline version of Zorro, who Banderas played in two films. From his feathered hat and high boots to his rapier and equally sharp double entendres, Puss is a really amusing character, and I especially love the way that his last line of defense or means of getting his way is to open his eyes wide and strike the cutest kitty face ever.

For this prequel (which is most definitely not an origin story), we meet Puss on what is likely the adventure he had just prior to meeting Shrek, Donkey, etc., and in it, we meet several new characters whose names may or may not be familiar. He meets his female counterpart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), which sounds like a Bond girl's name, but she is a fellow adventurer who joins forces with Puss and his recently reunited best friend Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a thief who was Puss' pal when they were kids until Humpty turned into a criminal when Puss wanted to hit the straight and narrow.

Most residents of the kingdom have heard of the legend of the goose that lays the golden eggs, so when Humpty proposes the three of them steal magic beans from a giant (guarded by the monstrous figures of Jack & Jill, voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), grow the beanstalk, and climb it to find the goose and get as many eggs as possible, director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) does a solid job keeping the simple story moving and the jokes coming at a rapid pace. They don't all connect, but when Banderas or Galifianakis is delivering the line, they usually do.

Plus, it's fun to think of Banderas and Hayek reuniting for that Desperado vibe, which seems completely appropriate for this action-driven story. I found it bizarrely funny how Puss is so overtly seductive to the lady cats he comes across, and while sex was never a major part of the Shrek movies, it's certainly more than hinted at with Puss In Boots. While I don't think I could handle another Shrek movie, I'd love to see one or two more of these films, and the focus on action makes that an easier fit than simply trying to introduce more fairy tale characters into an already crowded franchise. Puss In Boots is a sweet, charming, really funny instance of the spinoff being more interesting than the original... by a lot.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

All too often, I'll watch a movie one day and within 48 hours, the details of the plot or what little character development might be featured has already begun to fade from memory. But with writer-director Sean Durkin's debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, the challenge is to forget so many aspects of this absolutely beautifully shot, thoroughly captivating film that combines mysterious characters, a tension-loaded story, and an atmosphere that blurs the lines between reality, memory and paranoia-fueled dreams. And all of these elements converge in the eyes and expressive face of lead actress Elizabeth Olsen.

When we meet Martha (Olsen), she is escaping from something just as dawn is breaking. When she finally gets to a phone, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up, and we believe all is well. Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) own a beautiful lakefront home, where they are vacationing for a couple of weeks and take Martha in to recover. As the film progresses, we learn that Martha has joined what at first seems to be a friendly commune of men and women, living off the land in the spirit of free love and expression, but as the timeline of the movie bounces fluidly back and forth between the past and present, the true, cultish nature of the group, led by weirdly appealing John Hawkes (last year's Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone), who gives Martha a new name: Marcy May.

The movie slowly reveals both the sinister nature of the cult and the reason behind Martha's estrangement from her sister, and it doesn't take long for Lucy to put begin judging Martha's odd behavior and bizarre opinions on her own self worth. Durkin is especially attentive to the nature of sisterhood, both between Martha and Lucy, and Martha and her fellow female cult members, who are both nurturing and strangely manipulative. Martha keeps her cult activities a secret from her sister, and we never quite know whether she's embarrassed at being taken in so easily by the group, or whether she is keeping the option open of returning.

What Durkin does rather masterfully is move from past to present in a way that makes it clear that we're seeing the world through Martha's eyes. She's the one who is drifting, remembering, and confusing what is happening now and the deeply penetrating impact of her recent past. It's in no way confusing, but it is jarring when Martha jumps into the lake by her sister's place and lands in the water with her fellow cult members two years earlier.

I was also a big fan of the way Durkin's plot seems to be building to something that is both inevitable and mysterious. We don't actually see the cult as a threat to the present, but we grow to fear their actions the closer Martha's memories bring us to just before she fled. The key to this film working is Olsen's magnetic performance. So many layered emotions need to be conveyed through her work, and as each new layer of her past is revealed, it takes up residence within her performance. In one scene she may seem to express fear, but later she seems more knowing and troubling. You could write a book on the nuances of Olsen's performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene and still never quite crack it. And if any of you let the fact that's she's the younger sister of the Olsen twins get in the way of seeing or enjoying this movie, you're an idiot.

I've seen this film twice now, and it absolutely holds up and, in fact, gets better the second time around. There's a depth and confidence to the piece that is infectious. The organic atmosphere (nearly every frame of the film has trees and/or water in it) adds an other-worldly quality to the proceedings, which only helps build the tension levels to an excruciating degree. I can't wait to see what this director and the leading lady have for us next, and I think that's the highest compliment you can pay any artist. And exactly where does the name Marlene fit into the story? Well, I'm going to have to insist you find that out for yourselves immediately. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Martha Marcy May Marlene star Elizabeth Olsen and writer-director Sean Durkin, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Anonymous

I consider myself a great lover of the works of Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean that I don't love the many theories that the man whose name was actually William Shakespeare didn't write a single one of the plays with that name on them. I pay to see three or four productions a year at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, I'll watch any film version of one of his plays (Coriolanus, anyone?), and I read the plays and other writings with a degree of regularity to keep the brain sharp. Some people do crossword puzzles. And whether I personally believe Shakespeare was a fraud or that someone paid him to pretend to have written all of those magnificent comedies and tragedies isn't really the point. If it's an interesting, compelling story told intelligently with a great cast, I'll watch a movie about aliens writing Romeo & Juliet.

As directed by Roland Emmerich (2012, Godzilla, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) Anonymous at times feels overblown, always going at full speed forward rather than taking the time to slow down and let us know the motivations behind this alleged great hoax. That being said, the ideas here are fantastic and the motivations behind which plays were released when are kind of fantastically clever, however unlikely.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that Rhys Ifans plays the Earl of Oxford, the aristocrat who this film believes wrote Shakespeare's work, and kept them a secret for political reasons. His secret and brief love affair with Queen Elizabeth I (played by Vanessa Redgrave as an older woman and her daughter Joely Richardson as a young woman) when they were both much younger people served as something of an inspiration for Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower, as the less advanced in age version). The film gets slightly complicated when it gets into second-tier advisors (especially David Thewlis as the queen's right-hand spiritual leader William Cecil), but essentially Oxford must keep his writings hidden because some of what he penned was a criticism of those surrounding the queen.

Oxford hands off one of his plays to a lesser playwright, who promptly has it swiped away and signed by Mr. Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, playing the Bard as a ego-loaded buffoon), a man who was apparently something of an illiterate. Anonymous has some enjoyable moments, and a couple of terrific performances (side by side with some true hams), and a twisting, turning plot that moves through the corridors of royal power in ways that feel familiar, but in this context, wholly fresh.

Ifans plays the Earl of Oxford with a subtle intensity that is a nice change of pace and persona for him, while Redgrave's Elizabeth is a fragile leader, easily manipulated by the army of advisors around her. Emmerich almost can't help himself in seeking and exploiting as many Big Moments as he can find in the era, but for the most part, he lets the words and curious conspiracy theory do the work for him. I'm not sure if non-Shakespeare lovers will care one way or the other who wrote these works (I'm not even sure I do), but that doesn't mean it isn't often entertaining to speculate. That being said, this film didn't exactly wow me with its knowledge of this collection of writing, and it often pulls the most famous quotes from his plays as examples of his work without digging much below the surface. This rudimentary analysis was a bit annoying. Still, I derived a great deal of pleasure from the playful nature of Anonymous, an easy film to get caught up in and have fun with.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

I have no idea how accurate this telling of the life of famed French singer Serge Gainsbourg (father of actress Charlotte) really is, and frankly I don't care, because the version being told in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is too much fun to change for the sake of pesky facts. In one of the most wholly original biographies I've ever seen (from director and famed comic book artist Joann Sfar), we meet young Serge (born Lucien Ginsburg) growing up in a traditionally Jewish household, being forced to learn piano during a time when Nazis were taking over Paris.

He grew up being a self-hating Jew, a condition given form thanks to a wonderfully creepy, puppet-like performance by a masked Doug Jones as Serge's "ugly mug" (you have to see to appreciate it). As he got older, Serge (played beautifully by Eric Elmosnino) changed his name, became a successful jazz pianist and eventually began to sing in a uniquely French voice that is recognizable no matter what the music behind it might be. He was also a notorious drunk, ladies' man (he romanced the likes of Brigitte Bardot and singer Juliette Greco, among others), and all-around troublemaker. If Sfar's portrayal is accurate, Gainsbourg never got past his feelings of inadequacy that he carried with him from childhood, and it eventually led to his downfall.

But before that, Serge lived a hell of a life in 1960s Paris; and A Heroic Life captures the era, the fashion, the avant-garde music and attitudes of the period so beautifully. And Elmosnino's work here goes so far beyond anything I've seen in a biography that it terrified me slightly. His 90-degree angle descent into self destruction is impossible not to watch and equally difficult to do so. The visual style of the film is frantic, lovely, almost representative of a spinning into oblivion that is so utterly appropriate for the subject that you almost don't notice it. Those looking for historical accuracy, I'm not sure this is the film for you, but I feel so confident that Sfar captured the essence of Gainsbourg that I don't think the truth (or lack thereof) will get in the way of our enjoying this film immeasurably. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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