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Column Fri Oct 12 2012
48th Chicago International Film Festival, Argo, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, Here Comes the Boom, The Other Dream Team & the Music Box of Horrors
48th Chicago International Film Festival
Right off the bat in looking over the schedule for the 48th Chicago International Film Festival, I recognize a serious improvement over last year's fairly strong offerings. The mere inclusion of such films as the wonderfully expansive and moving Cloud Atlas -- co-directed by Chicago's own Lana and Andy Wachowski and Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer -- and Chicago native Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, the closing night movie Flight, and we know good things are on the way.
Strangely enough (although fairly typical for CIFF), one of the festival's more questionable choices is Stand Up Guys, the opening night film. When I say questionable, I don't mean the film is bad; I mean that nobody knows anything — good or bad — about Stand Up Guys, because it was not screened for press. I'll admit, having a Fisher Stevens-directed movie starring the likes of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, and Julianna Marguiles (all of whom were scheduled to attend the film's world premiere at The Harris Theater this week) seems like a good bet, but I wish I could confirm that for you. By the time you read this, I'll already know if this one is worthy or a stinker.
But there are a great number of strong options for you to check out during CIFF, some of which I've seen (I'm on the jury this year for the festival's After Dark Competition, so I've seen all of those works). Here's a rundown of some of the festivals highlights:
Probably my favorite of the After Dark entries is director Brandon Cronenberg's (son of David) Antiviral, a wonderful account of just how far celebrity worship might go in the not-to-distant future. Tense, creepy, and mildly disgusting, this one has it all in my book. Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a couple who are separated in the aftermath of a tsunami in Thailand. From all I've heard, this film is emotionally draining, completely effective, and hopelessly manipulative, but it would have to be, right? I can't wait to see this.
One of the real highlights of this year's bigger-ticket offerings is "Sopranos'" creator David Chase's Not Fade Away, the story of a group of young people starting a band in mid-1960s New Jersey. It's a representation at the scores of garage bands that had talent but never quite made it big time. James Gandolfini stars as one of the kid's parents, Steve Van Zandt serves as music supervisor, which is actually quite significant, and the music (both the classic tunes, covers, and original material) is unbeatable. Although I haven't seen it, I'm looking forward to Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman, starring the likes of Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins, and set in a retirement home for elderly musicians. I was a big fan of the restrained passion and courtly intrigue of A Royal Affair, chronicling the marriage of Denmark's King Christian VII to British-born Queen Caroline, and the German doctor (played by the great Mads Mikkelson) who influenced both of their lives and Denmark's affairs.
One of the most buzzed about films since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival is David. O. Russell's Silver Lining Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of mentally ill people who somehow help make each other better people. Robert De Niro co-stars. Also part of the After Dark series is the remake of the classic exploitation film Maniac, this time given a slightly more polished but no less unnerving take by director Franck Khalfoun and star Elijah Wood. Director Billie August returns with his take on the marriage between one of Denmark's most celebrated painters, Kroyer, and his wife in the film Marie Kroyer, which shows how she balanced his manic-depressive swings while taking care of their children and a introducing a lover into her life.
A film I'll be seeing soon and am very much anticipating is Travis Fine's Any Day Now, set in the 1970s about a gay couple (Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt) who take in a mentally handicapped teenager and a legal system that wants to break the makeshift family apart. The ABCs of Death consists of 26 short films by some of the top horror directors working today from all over the world, each taking a letter of the alphabet and selecting a means of bloody death that begins with that letter. Trust me, it's fun.
Romanian director Cristian Munglu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) brings Beyond the Hills to CIFF, but this time he tackles in both surreal and realistic terms the subject of exorcism gone wrong. I can't even imagine what that film will be like, but I'm dying to find out. And if you think a movie about a penis museum in Iceland isn't your cup of tea, think again. The Final Member is an amusing but no less interesting documentary about a curator's search for the one piece of his museum that is missing. It's wonderful, informative, funny and dramatic. And what would the world be if a new Don Coscarelli film wasn't part of the festival circuit. His new John Dies at the End, starring Paul Giamatti, is weird beyond words, a little lacking in production value, but still hopelessly entertaining.
There are, of course, dozens more films to select from, but these are a few worth noting. Check out details of all of the film offerings — as well as special tribute nights dedicated to the likes of Viola Davis, Joan Allen, Steve James, Philip Kaufman, and Joseph Cedar — at the Chicago International Film Festival's web site. All films screen at the AMC River East theaters, so it's easy to spend an entire day and/or night bouncing from one movie to the next. Now on to this week's releases.
The third film from Ben Affleck as a director (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town) might be one of the only examples in 2012 of a perfect movie. The pacing, the writing and the acting of Argo is all absolutely flawless. The way Affleck (working from a screenplay by Chris Terrio) blends both dramatic and comedic tones is like observing a mixologist make the perfect cocktail, and the result final product taste so good and goes down smooth. I said this about another film recently, but it applies just as much to Argo: the story is so ridiculous that is had to be based on real events because no screenwriter could have pulled this out of their head. So here is this wonderful movie about how the clandestine services used Hollywood to save American lives during the Iranian hostage crisis.
For quite some time, this was a secret part of American history. When the American Embassy was stormed during the early days of the Iranian revolution in November 1979, 52 hostages were taken and held for well over a year. However, what wasn't known at the time or for years later is that six Americans escaped the embassy before it was stormed and made it to the residence of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they waited in hiding until the American government could be contacted and an exit plan could be put together. The extraction plan was placed in the hands of CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), a noted expert in disguise and, more importantly, in blending in. He knew from the beginning that the only way those Americans were getting out was right under the noses of the Iranians who had deposed the Shah and were in charge of security.
The plan involved setting a up a fake Canadian movie production of a science-fiction story called Argo, which would require desert locations in need of scouting. The plan at least was to walk the Americans (posing as Canadians) right out through the airport after they had scouted various locations in and around Tehran. They even involved a real Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and make-up effects expert (John Goodman) to set up a production office in California, pick a script, and plant stories in the trades about the film and its casting. It was, as one person puts it, the best bad idea the government could come up with.
Affleck and his editor, William Goldenberg, do an astonishing job of keeping everything very clear as they guide us through several storylines, featuring well over 100 speaking parts. It helps in keeping characters straight that many key roles are played by familiar faces, including Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Richard Kind, Rory Cochrane, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Philip Baker Hall and Clea DuVall, to name just a few. You may not know all of those names, but their faces are familiar enough that you'll remember them even if you don't see them on screen for an hour.
But the other thing Affleck does is make us remember that Mendez is not some sort of superspy. He's a flawed human being who misses his wife and child immensely, and his absence on these long missions is taking its toll on his personal life. But as important as family is to him, country would seem to come first or at least a very close second. One of the best things about Mendez is watching him think on this feet. When one of the Americans seems too nervous about the plan, Mendez takes a whispered but authoritative tone with the guy, and eventually he comes around.
The plan doesn't go exactly as planned, those in charge in the States have an 11th-hour meltdown when someone considers what the consequences of pulling these people out could have on the hostages if it's ever discovered that the CIA had a hand in them escaping. A fair concern, but the issue is dealt with in a cowardly manner by the Carter administration. The nerve-wracking airport sequence that serves as the bulk of the final act is built from raw blocks of tension that Affleck keeps building and building until it appears the entire operation is a wash. Again, it comes back to storytelling. The filmmakers make these various plots' every turn make sense and converge them into a punishing mixture of planning, luck and bravery.
Argo proves that Affleck is a true talent behind the camera, but his portrayal of Mendez shows that he's also still growing as a performer, giving one of the best performances of his career. His version of Mendez is layered and complicated, while remaining a true professional by relying on training and instinct. As a director, I loved the way he positions the truly terrifying elements of this story taking place in the ambassador's home (the six Americans are frequently referred to as "house guests") with the pure scathing comedy of the Hollywood sequences. Goodman and Arkin are a natural comedy team who discuss the town's cynical and predictable reaction to news that this silly movie is getting made. Naturally, not a single person doubts its legitimacy.
Affleck wants us to understand that spies frequently used the tools of entertainment as a means to get in and out of desperate situations. And as unlikely a series of circumstances as Argo presents, what this movie shows us is pretty much what happened. It's fun sometimes to know what we as a nation can accomplish, but Affleck reminds us that it's also fun to know what we get away with. Argo is clearly one of the great works of the year, and should be at the top of your list of films to see as soon as possible.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Argo director and star Ben Affleck.
When approaching his first feature-length film as writer-director, In Bruges, it appeared that renowned playwright Martin McDonagh took a simple approach, utilizing only a handful of characters in a single location, with one main story running through it. Apparently he got a little confidence with how beautifully that film turned out, because with his second movie, Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh has apparently been shot out of a cannon in this story of Los Angeles dognappers and the endless number of people with whom their lives intersect and the stories they all tell, both real and fictionalized. But what I think the film might actually be about is McDonagh diagraming the process of writing this very screenplay — piece by piece, character by character, bullet by head-piercing bullet.
I suppose the lead character is that of Marty (hmm, that name sounds familiar), played by Colin Farrell, who has always impressed me so much more in comedies than drama or action films. Marty is a screenwriter who's having a tough time getting his latest work under way, despite having a killer title: Seven Psychopaths. He has no ideas for any of these seven characters, whose lives he's pretty sure will be connected somehow. He begins to draw inspiration from stories and situations happening around him. A serial killer known as the Jack of Diamonds, who only seems to kill really bad people (such as hitmen played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg at the top of the film), has made his list as Psychopath No. 1. A story he is told by his dognapping best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) about a Quaker minister's (Harry Dean Stanton) revenge also factors into his writing. Thinking he's helping out his friend's writer's block, Harry puts an ad in the local paper looking for psychopaths with stories to tell, and this results in the rabbit-cradling Zachariah (Tom Waits) showing up on Marty's doorstep.
But Seven Psychopaths is also about two dognappers — Billy and Hans (Christopher Walken, in fine comic form) — who swipe dogs from rich neighborhoods, look for the Missing Dog signs in the area, then show up with the dog and collect the reward. We soon find out that Hans' wife is going through severe cancer treatment, and that's where all of his money goes. Before long, the pair swipe the wrong dog, one belonging to a mobster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who loses his mind and starts tracking them down, hurting or killing anyone in his path. What happens from this point is bloody, often funny, and usually unpredictable, which is why I won't say too much more about the plot.
McDonagh's first right move is his dead-on cast, which also includes Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek and Kevin Corrigan. His other great gift is never being afraid to follow the best story he's got going. There's a recurring tale of a Vietnamese man (another one of Marty's psychopaths, this one fictional) who survived the Vietnam War, but who is seeking revenge against the American soldiers who raped and murdered his family while he was away from his village. In the screenplay, the character evolves (at one point he pretends to be a priest) but never drops from the mind of the writer. Marty knows he's got a great character, but just can't come up with solid story to place him in — the screenwriter's dilemma.
Seven Psychopaths might be a bit too all over the place for fans of traditional, linear narratives, and if that's the only way you can handle your storytelling, that's really too bad because you're missing out on some great films (and books and plays) in the process. There are no weak links in the many stories, but the partnership of Rockwell and Walken stole and broke my heart all at once. They hardly have a father-son dynamic, but there's still something exciting, twisted, and ultimately fun about their rapport.
As much as the film features embarrassment of wonderful bad language, gore, blood and nasty wounds, it's a lot more than that. In about the most roundabout way possible, this is the story of an artist trying to finish his best story to date. And in his role as filmmaker, McDonagh has achieved something similar. He's made it through film number two, and it's so much more ambitious and accomplished than his excellent first film. And in terms of pure entertainment value, it's no contest. If you have the stomach for an insane amount of violence, you're in for a messy treat.
When it comes to horror films, I pretty much have one rule: if the film actually scares me, that's enough for a modest recommendation. If it has strong characters, whose lives I would actually like to not see snuffed out by the end of the film, then it will receive even more praise. Sinister director Scott Derrickson made a particularly frightening little movie a few years back called The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I was a big fan of for the reason I mention above. Then he went on to do the especially appalling remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Not a fan, at all. Now he (and co-writer C. Robert Cargill) have concocted a clever take on the found footage wave that is sweeping horror films today, thanks in large part to the Paranormal Activity movies. Only this time, the movie is the story of the guy who actually finds and watches said footage, and the price he pays for his unbridled curiosity.
Naturally the man in question is a writer who is having trouble getting his next crime novel started. It just so happens that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke; and give me a break with that name) has moved into a house in which murders have occurred (something he knows, but he neglects to tell his family), and he's hoping for a little inspiration and material out of that fact. But a box of film reels in the attic reveals some terrifying and nasty truths about the handful of murders, and just his watching them seems to open up some nasty possibilities in his own reality.
So is the film scary? I certainly thought so. But what's most interesting is that the scares are spread apart more than I would have suspected, and what's put in between is a strong drama that involves Oswalt's family (wife Juliet Rylance, daughter Clare Foley, and son Michael Hall D'Addario, most recently seen in People Like Us) and his stifled creative process. If you haven't figured it out already, Sinister is simply owned by Hawke's solid work as a not-always-likable guy who is both trying to protect his family and his career, but the more he fuels his creative juices with these films, the greater the danger becomes. But this is the type of Hawke character that I love — squirrelly, guilty, so sure of his own self-worth that everyone else can go to hell.
But once we meet the real villain, a figure who appears in all of the films, and eventually in the house, the deliberately paced Sinister is given a little shove into a faster-moving horror show. Some weird cameos round out the film, including former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, playing the local sheriff in a couple of scenes, and Vincent D'Onofrio, who couldn't even be bothered to show up on set and simply pops in for one truly bizarre scene via Skype. In the end, Sinister works because it's about more than simply throwing humans and supernatural creatures in a house together and seeing who wins. It's about an artist potentially sacrificing those who mean the most to him for a little bit of fame and critical affirmation. I'm not sure if a sequel would be able to capture that element of the plot, but I'd be curious to see what direction this team might go in for a follow-up.
Here Comes the Boom
Now I'm going to say some things that might not make sense or you may not like (or both), but just know that I come from a good and pure place of trying to steer you toward the good and away from the bad. So when I tell you that the new Kevin James movie Here Comes the Boom isn't that bad, you have to believe that I say it in the spirit of being true to my craft no matter how much James has burned me in the past. I was particularly dreading this movie because of director Frank Coraci's filmography, which includes James' god-awful Zookeeper from last year, as well as the Adam Sandler flicks Click and The Waterboy, and the abysmal Around the World in 80 Days. He also helmed Sandler's The Wedding Singer, which is actually quite good.
But that doesn't mean anything when the plot of Here Comes the Boom is about high school biology teacher and former college wrestler Scott Voss (James), who wants to save the school's music program by making money doing mixed martial arts in his off hours. At first he figures he can make enough money just by showing up and losing (not throwing the matches, but just fighting and getting plastered in the process). But through a grand plot contrivance that is so dumb I won't even repeat it, he must win an actual televised championship match against an overqualified opponent. He has been training, so he's actually managed to win some matches along the way, but James looks kind of silly next to some of the men he's fighting against.
A part of me believes that James' recent personal commitment to getting in shape and losing weight inspired some studio guy to think, "Hey Kevin's in good shape, let's make a movie about that somehow." It's a stupid concept that occasionally works because they never play the matches for laughs (well, almost never). The film takes the sport seriously, even if James and Coraci can't resist making the rest of the film silly. Henry Winkler is on hand playing the music teacher whose job Scott is essentially saving; he's not given much to do but cheer in Scott's corner, but it's always great seeing him around in anything. Less successful is Salma Hayek trying to be funny; I've seen childbirth videos that look like less effort. She plays the school nurse who Scott never stops asking out. But once he starts fighting and getting hurt, she starts to show an interest. What are we teaching our children, people?
I would never say James isn't a funny guy; he can be under the right circumstances, and these are the right ones about 50 percent of them time. But the film works best as a sports drama about a teacher who works hard, trains hard, does the work and becomes a contender. Is Here Comes the Boom manipulative and hokey? Sure. What sports movie isn't? But it isn't offensively so, and that surprised me. Far from James' worst work, this film has its moments more often than it bored or angered me. The mildest of recommendations, but a recommendation nonetheless. That said, there are about a half-dozen, far superior movies you should see before this one. Once you've seen all of those, you can think about paying money for watching Kevin James go Boom.
The Other Dream Team
When the Olympic basketball team from Lithuania showed up to collect their medals in 1992 Barcelona (known by many as the year of the U.S. "Dream Team"), they piqued the interest of many by wearing tie-dyed shirts featuring art work that looked suspiciously like it came from the Grateful Dead (it did). The story that led to those men at that Olympics is captured in The Other Dream Team, one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring sports documentaries I've ever seen. In one movie (from first-time feature director Marius A. Markevicius), we see how a group of extremely talented Lithuanian basketball players went from being forced to play for the Soviet Union to playing under their country's own independent flag in just a few short years. The film isn't just a sports story; it's a tale of national pride and personal freedom that most documentaries could only hope to achieve.
Featuring interviews with all of the key members of the team, the film chronicles their road from playing in Lithuania to being snatched up to play for the USSR, most notably in 1988 Seoul Olympics, marking the only time Team USA lost the gold medal. A point of constant frustration was that all of the visiting journalists thought the team members were Russian, which they were hesitant to correct. Wherever the team went, including some exhibition games in America, they were closely watched by KGB agents, who they outsmarted regularly. The team members tell great stories of buying clothes and electronics to sell on the black market on the other side of the Iron Curtain, a practice that served as their primary income since they made very little from actually being on the team.
The team members' talent and abilities were so well known worldwide that during one NBA draft, a team actually symbolically drafted one of the players (the Soviet government refused to let the player travel to the States). What's even more remarkable is the responsibility that fell on the players' collective shoulders once the Iron Curtain was torn down, and Lithuania took its independence. The nation was virtually bankrupt financially, so there was a great deal of doubt that the team would get to play in Barcelona. But a random article that ran in a San Francisco newspaper caught the attention of the Grateful Dead, who became the team's sponsor to the Olympics, thus the tie-dye warm-ups.
The team took one of the most unusual, emotional rollercoasters of a ride through history, riding in the front car and pulling its tiny nation with it. The Other Dream Team is straight-forward storytelling, but this is one helluva story, the likes of which you probably won't see again, most certainly not in a sports doc. Be sure and check this one out if it lands at an art house near you. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Music Box of Horrors
As more than a dozen years of Butt Numb-a-Thon in Austin, Texas, will attest, I'm no stranger to the 24-hour movie marathon. I also occasionally do the B-Fest event in January at the campus of my alma mater, Northwestern University, but that event is designed to play primarily bad movies so the audience can openly mock them. I'll admit, I'm not a fan of the format, but the crowd and its boundless energy make it worth it.
One fairly long-standing tradition in Chicago is the Music Box Theatre's annual 24-hour horror film marathon, which features a slate of great films and guests, with this year is no exception. But typically the marathon — this year called the Music Box of Horrors 2012 — falls right in the midst of the Chicago International Film Festival (as it does this year), making it impossible for me to ever go before. But this year, I said enough is enough, and I'll be a part of the festivities for the full 24 hours, which begins at noon this Saturday, Oct. 13 through around noon the next day. The wonderful Music Box staff and myself will tag team on hosting duties, as well as moderating Q&As of a couple of very cool guests.
First off, here's the lineup, approximate start times, and information on the special guests coming in on the first night. Additional details on every film can be found here.
Saturday, October 13
Noon - The Golem, the silent film, accompanied by Music Box organist Dennis Scott
1:45pm - Mark of the Vampire, directed by Tod Browning, starring Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan and Bela Lugosi
3pm - The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale, starring Claude Rains
4:30pm - Dr. Terror's House of Terrors, directed by Freddy Francis, starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Donald Sutherland. Long available only as a shitty pan-and-scan version, this staple of late-night British television is getting a rare Techniscope screening, in an original Technicolor print.
6:30pm - Squirm, directed by Jeff Lieberman, who will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A!
8:20pm - Satan's Little Helper, directed by Jeff Lieberman. A Chicago Premiere! Lieberman will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A!
10:30pm - Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, directed by Philippe Mora, starring Christopher Lee, Annie McEnroe and Sybil Danning. Danning will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A!
Sunday, October 14
12:15am - The Beyond, directed by Lucio Fulci
2:30am - Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, directed by Boris Rodriguez
4:15am - Phantasm directed by Don Coscarelli
6am - The Deadly Spawn, directed by Douglas McKeown
7:30am - Blood Diner, directed by Jackie Kong
9:15am - The Burning, directed by Tony Maylam, co-written by Bob & Harvey Weinstein, gore effects by Tom Savini, and they're screening the uncut version
11am - Evil Dead 2, directed by Sam Raimi, starring Bruce Campbell
And as if that lineup weren't enough, on Friday, October 12, there are a couple of very cool things going on at the Music Box to whet your whistle for the marathon. At 7:30pm, there will be a very special screening of the original 1922 Nosferatu, shown authentically in 35mm at proper silent film speed and aspect ratio, with live accompaniment by Dennis Scott at the Music Box theatre organ.
Then at 9:30pm, arguably the best women-in-prison movie in the history of the world, Chained Heat, will be screening, with all the catfights, steamy shower scenes, and deviant sexual behavior you can handle. Linda Blair, Tamara Dobson, and Sybil Danning star, with Sybil Danning appearing in person at the event, presented by Mr Skin. I don't see how you can turn either of these events down and call yourself a horror film lover. Tickets for Nosferatu, Chained Heat and the Music Box of Horrors 2012 are selling fast (I believe there are fewer than 100 seats left for the marathon) and can be pre-ordered at the Music Box's website. Hope to see you there.