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Tuesday, December 12

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Column Fri Jan 13 2012

Contraband, The Iron Lady, Carnage, Beauty and the Beast 3D, Newlyweds & Charlotte Rampling: The Look

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Contraband

In his first film since The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg returns to the action genre with Contraband, in which he plays Chris Farraday, a one-time smuggler living in New Orleans with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids who is now attempting to play it straight as the head of his own security company. When his dumb-ass brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones, who played Banshee in X-Men: First Class) decides to try a bit of smuggling himself on the high seas, he is forced to dump his cargo when customs officials raid his boat. He doesn't get caught, but he is suddenly several hundred thousand dollars in debt to drug dealer Tim (Giovanni Ribisi, again trying on a new squeaky voice and accent). Andy turns to Chris for help, forcing Chris to return to the life he swore he'd leave behind.

With the help of his best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster), Chris selects a group of men to play crew on a cargo ship bound for Panama where he will pick up a massive shipment of counterfeit money (for some reason, Chris refuses to smuggle drugs, despite the much higher profit margin), right under the nose of the suspicious ship's captain, played by J.K. Simmons, who knew Chris's father as a low-down smuggler himself years ago. While Chris is making his treacherous journey, Tim is back in New Orleans making not-so-veiled threats against Kate and the kids, who are under the protection of Sebastian.

Actually a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Contraband gets more batshit crazy the deeper into the story things get, but that's not necessary a strike against it. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) keeps things moving right along, without missing an opportunity to throw in a new maniac or three into the mix. I especially liked the Panamanian crime boss (and old friend of Chris) played by Diego Luna as a man who is willing to risk his entire organization to knock over an armored car containing not money, but a rare painting. It's a sidetrip that eats up a lot of time, but it also provides the film with some of its more entertaining and brutal action sequences.

The film is a classic case of an actor playing a fairly ordinary man (Wahlberg) at the center of a group of far more colorful characters. But Wahlberg happens to be very good at this kind of role. Yes, there are a few too many instances when Chris is able to anticipate exactly what his opposition's next move or thought is going to be, but most of the time the story falls into the realm of being fairly believable in the framework of a hyper-realized action movie. I especially liked seeing Foster dial it down a few notches as Sebastian, a recovering alcoholic and fellow former smuggler, attempting to feed Chris information remotely while protecting his friend's kids. Beckinsale is given the thankless role of playing the doting wife, whose only job seems to be to round up the kids and call her husband at inopportune times to tell him she loves him. Aww, they're a cute couple; we wouldn't want anything bad to happen to her.

But for the most part, I was on board with Contraband, a better than standard issue, rough around the edges actioner that has some fun, smart twists and turns to perk up other moments that are a bit more predictable. I haven't been this impressed with Wahlberg as an action star (which means I'm excluding The Other Guys, Date Night and The Lovely Bones) since 2006's The Departed. He pulls off being a thinking man of action convincingly, and that combined with some modestly interesting gun fights, car chases, and hand-to-hand combat make for some solid January excitement.

The Iron Lady

I think it's fair to say that we as a people (I don't know if this is a uniquely American phenomenon or not, but I don't think so) tend to take for granted people that do their job well all the time. We just assume they will always be the best at what their particular craft or skill, and we belittle or undervalue them if they slip even a little, even though they are doing their work infinitely better than we ever could. Let's look at one Meryl Streep, who simply does not possess the ability to do anything but great work, even in the most trite, least interesting of her works. Speaking of which, Streep has re-teamed with her Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd to make a far more substantial but still inconsistent work, The Iron Lady, a look at the events that shaped the groundbreaking career of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Great Britain and the first woman ever elected as head of a Western government.

The Iron Lady covers 40 exceedingly interesting years in Thatcher's life, including and perhaps most disturbingly, the more recent years where dementia began setting in — sadly a place she still inhabits today. We see Thatcher as a young girl being taught the value of hard work and fending for yourself rather than relying on others to lend a hand, a philosophy she carried with her into her policies that made her no friends among the middle and lower classes in Britain. The film also does an admirable job of track the journey Thatcher took, while simply refusing to let the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated profession limit her in any way.

If anything, the film seems to handle her more controversial policies with soft, white gloves, not wanting to dirty the reputation of a sick old lady. If anything, Lloyd and Streep seem to really play it safe when we see Thatcher in her post-prime minister days, puttering around her home talking to her long-dead husband (Jim Broadbent). The film doesn't feel quite like a glossed-over bit of history, but it tries so hard to be even-handed that it largely ignores the great deal of hatred that was aimed at her for her entire term.

All of that being said, at the heart of The Iron Lady is an extraordinary performance by Streep. This is no caricature of Thatcher; if this were meant to be a satirical take on Thatcher's life, I doubt Streep would have wanted anything to do with it. Streep plays her subject like there is something of value in her character and not like the villain she was often portrayed as, and that's exactly how she should play it. There isn't an actor worth their salt who doesn't say that a villain doesn't think they're a villain, so they should be played as such. Still, I would have liked to have heard Thatcher answer some of her well-informed critics, such as, I don't know, the entire nation of Ireland or all poor people or the citizens of the Falkland Islands. There are quite a few from which to choose.

There are moments in The Iron Lady where it is possible to simply kick back and watch a great actor do her craft like no other — the voice, the body language, the facial expressions, and that glint in her eye whenever she is defying expectations or overcoming adversity. I don't know enough about British history to know if, as the film claims, many of her most brutal economic policies actually did pay off in the long run, but that seems like too important a point to simple skim over the way this film does. Much like the woman herself, the flaws in The Iron Lady are great and numerous, but there's no denying there's something there at times, especially in scene between the elderly Thatcher and her grown daughter who comes to check on her regularly. Now there's a movie I'd like to see: My Mom the Prime Minister.

Carnage

We all love self-righteous white people, don't we? I especially love the ones with too much money in their bank accounts, too much time on their hands, but not enough time for their kids. Of course that never stops them from telling others exactly how their kids are defective and in need of repair. Welcome to the world of Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage from writer Yasmina Reza (who also wrote the film's screenplay), an 80-minute, one-room, real-time story of two married couples meeting in of the couple's apartments to knock out what is to be done about their respective pesky kids who got into a fight that injured one of the boy's eyes.

For the most part, this is an exercise in watch steam build up into not one but several bursts of heat and rage. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play liberals Penelope and Michael, who own the apartment and whose son was the victim, while Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are the richer of the two pairs, whose son is proclaimed a maniac by his father. As a lawyer, Alan is glued to his phone during the course of the story, in the middle of crisis with a client, while his wife is a bundle of nerves who even projectile vomits during one scene. Penelope and Michael seem a little more in sync at the beginning, but before long their marital difficulties spill into the evening's events. The couples fight over everything, including child rearing, politics, money, values and the ultimate blame for the kids' fight. They keep getting stuck on reparations, assigning blame, and the appropriate punishment for fighting.

For about the first half of Carnage, I was right there with it, loving the verbal four-way fencing match carefully orchestrated and choreographed by director Roman Polanski. But there came a point where Nancy and Alan attempt to leave for maybe the third time, where my mind went numb and my ears turned every voice into white noise. After doublechecking with my doctor that I didn't have rabies, I realized that the film had simply worn me down. The women come off as only slightly less grating than the men. I was especially mesmerized by Kate Winslet's work here as someone who clearly wants to be a peacemaker, but can't control herself when she feels slighted or marginalized. I've never seen Foster quite as... fussy and domesticated as she is here, but in the end I felt for her the most. She wants something resembling justice for her son, which seems unreasonable but I'm guessing most parents feel this way.

Probably most miscast is Reilly as a male pig trapped in the bottom of a sweet-natured liberal. Waltz's character seems to take great pride in peeling back the layers of Michael's persona until he's revealed as the true bastard that he is. Overall, the acting and the writing in Carnage is too good to outright dismiss, but even with such a brief running time, it wore me out in ways I don't think it's designed to. I think we're supposed to be shocked, but other than the vomit scene, I really wasn't. Perhaps what killed my interest by the end of the story was that I didn't care how or if things wrapped up. But I will never get tired of watching three of my favorite Oscar-winning and one Oscar-nominated actor in a film by an Oscar-winning director. If you're into viewing a pure acting exercise, Carnage will probably make you very happy; it made me about half happy, or slap happy — somewhere in there. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Beauty and the Beast 3D

Oh, I am most certainly enjoying these Disney animation reissues so much. The 3D doesn't bother me that much; it certainly doesn't impede the blissful experience of seeing these landmark films again gorgeously restored on the big screen again. In fact, I think the 3D on 1991's Beauty and the Beast is better than the work done on last year's The Lion King reissue, perhaps because a few of sequences include digital animation (courtesy of Pixar) and that material looks much better converted into 3D. Add to that the fact that Disney has had years to perfect this conversion, since Beauty and the Beast was supposed to be released a couple of years ago, but pulled when the Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2 3D reissues (in advance of Toy Story 3's release) didn't do well at the box office. But thankfully, The Lion King changed all that by unexpectedly making a ton of money, and so Disney dusted off Beauty and the Beast, probably my favorite of the studio's animated fare of that era. (Get ready for Finding Nemo's 3D reissue in the back half of 2012 and The Little Mermaid next year; wheeeee!!!).

The thing that struck me watching Beauty and the Beast again is how grown up it is compared to, for example, The Little Mermaid. There are bloody battles, stabbings, an adult love story, and a couple of wolf attacks that preface and rival similar scenes in the upcoming film The Grey. Nearly all of the lead characters are adults, including our leads Belle (voiced by Broadway star Paige O'Hara) and the cursed prince turned monster (Robby Benson), who must find a woman to love and who loves him back to break the curse. I fell in love all over again with the Beast's castle of furniture servants, including David Ogden Stiers' Cogsworth, Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Potts, and my favorite, the candlestick Lumiere, voiced as a suave Frenchman by the late Jerry Orbach (the tale is set in France, but I always wondered why he was the only character with an actual French accent).

But the one enchanting element of the film I never forgot were the songs. My God, the songs in Beauty and the Beast are flawless, from Angela Lansbury's rendition of the title track (the Celine Dion & Peebo Bryson version can kiss my ass), Orbach leading the charge through "Be Our Guest," and the funny, furniture chorus, falling-in-love song "Something There." I still miss lyricist Howard Ashman, who died the same year the film came out, because of his work in this movie with Alan Menken, credited with the original music.

The only story element that ever bugged me about Beauty and the Beast was the character of Gaston (Richard White), who tries to force Belle to marry him by sending an insane asylum doctor to commit her father against his will. I think the character is a blast, and his theme song is a riot, but the story doesn't need him as a villain. Time and the Beast's temper are the true villains of this work. Still, the final showdown between Gaston and Beast is epic and so much more violent and dark than I'd remembered.

As many times as you may have seen Beauty and the Beast, the singular experience of seeing it on a big screen cannot be matched, and I can't applaud Disney enough for allowed kids (and one or two adults) the opportunity to do just that. I can take or leave the 3D, which is almost unnoticeable for much of the film, although I did like the way the snow felt like it was right in my face. Imagine the snowflakes-before-your-eyes 3D effect of Hugo turned into blizzard-like conditions. But if your kids (or you) have never seen Beauty and the Beast at all, you wouldn't be doing your job as a parent unless you took them to see this glorious reissue. Keep these restored reissues coming, studio types. You don't have to change a thing, just clean them up and let us hand you our money to see them. I'm in.

Newlyweds

For reasons I can't exactly explain, I'm always rooting for writer-director-actor Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, She's the One) every time he puts out a new film that typically takes a crack and peeling back the layers of the relationships between men and men, women and women, and of course, men and women. His latest New York story, Newlyweds, is one of his best in recent memory because it tackles the subject of marriage with a surprising and refreshing maturity and insightfulness that Burns has only hinted at previously. In the past, a lot of Burns' relationship films seem to be a balancing act between humor and drama, but Newlyweds, while still funny at times, is clearly aiming to be more authentic in its exploration of the central couple Buzzy (Burns) and wife Katie (Caitlin FitzGerald), both of whom have been married before and are attempting to take what they learned the first time around and construct a relationship that will keep their bond fresh and fun.

Initially the plan is to spend as little time together as possible by structuring their work schedules so that they're almost never home at the same time, therefore making the time they do spend together special. Katie's bitter sister and her frustrated husband, who have been married for nearly 20 years, seem to be the template for how spending too much time together can destroy what used to be a loving marriage, so Buzzy and Katie are swinging in the other direction. But then Buzzy's half-sister Linda (Kerry Bishé) arrives at their doorstep more or less unannounced from Los Angeles and turns their world upside down with her emotionally unstable behavior that results in her hooking up with random men, including Katie's ex-husband.

Burns relies a great deal of each of his characters talking directly to the camera in a sort of confessional style, and it's a hit-or-miss device that seems to take the place of conversation between the characters to the point where they seem to be telling the unseen "person behind the camera" more than they're telling each other. It's not that the characters aren't capable of communicating; they just don't do so with each other. But I'll admit, I wasn't as annoyed by the breaking-the-fourth-wall practice mostly because the strength of the actors. Overall, Newlyweds is an enjoyable, often perceptive indie film that succeeds at its modest goal of peering behind the curtain of modern marriage and finding what makes it work or fail.

Newlyweds opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Writer-director-star Edward Burns will do post-screening Q&As after the following shows: Friday, Jan. 13 at 6pm (moderated by me) & 8:15pm, and Saturday, Jan. 14 at 5:15pm & 8pm (moderated by Adam Kempenaar, co-host of the podcast Filmspotting, on which I occasionally guest host, including this week's show — an abbreviated version of which airs Sat., Jan. 14 at 11am on WBEZ.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look

I'm not sure I want all of my celebrity biopics done in the same fashion as director Angelina Maccarone's The Look examines the career of Charlotte Rampling, but for some reason this impressionistic take on the standard actor documentary works for its subject. Rampling is a deep thinker, and I think her film choices (for the most part) prove that. So rather than simply interview the actress, Maccarone puts her in settings with some of her closest friends and family (including author-director Paul Auster, photographer Peter Lindbergh and artist Juergen Teller) and simply have them talk on various subjects, such as age, exposure, beauty, resonance, taboo, desire, demons, death and love.

The director uses clips from some of Rampling's better-know and most controversial movies to illustrate the points being discussed, and the result feels like an endless, late-night conversation over bottles of wine with a fascinating and talents woman. And what clips! The Damned, The Night Porter, Stardust Memories, Swimming Pool, Georgy Girl, Heading South, The Verdict, Under the Sand and Max Mon Amour are all represented here.

Rampling's intelligence seeps into every frame of The Look, but I never got the sense that she was unaware that the camera was always on her even when she was supposed to be relaxed and kicking back with her grown children or opening up what sound like private conversations to the director. But it's still wonderful to hear her discuss what it is exactly that made her considered a great beauty when she was younger or how nothing in her sexual life was considered taboo, unlike many of her films. She has a clear sense of her place in the film world, and is very honest about where her career went (and didn't) as she got older. Disappointingly, there's no mention of Zardoz or Orca anywhere in this movie — perhaps on the director's cut DVD.

I'm not sure if casual fans of Rampling will find this profile quite as gripping as die-hard admirers, but there is something about her philosophies on life, love and death that are worth hearing, even if you've never seen a single one of her films. Film lovers are going to devour this, however, and that's what matters; there's quite a lot to love of this. The Look screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Jan. 14 at 3pm; Jan. 16 at 8:15pm; Jan. 17 at 7:45pm; and Jan. 19 at 6pm.

 
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