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Column Fri Feb 15 2013
A Good Day to Die Hard, Beautiful Creatures, Safe Haven, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, The Taste of Money & Lore
Before we dive into the reviews, I want to alert you to a very special film festival that will be happening at the Music Box Theatre for the next two weeks. The 70mm Film Festival features a collection of nine films being screening multiple times beginning tonight until February 28, including the return of Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-nominated The Master, which must be seen in this format for you to fully appreciate its glory (of course, the same could be said for all of these films).
Take a look at this list: Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Lifeforce, Lord Jim, West Side Story, Hamlet (Kenneth Brannagh's version), Playtime and The Master. The Music Box if offering a $70 pass to see all nine movies. A full screening schedule and details on the films and purchasing tickets can be found on the Music Box Theatre's website. I'm attending just about all of these films at some point — starting with Vertigo and 2011 on opening night. Hope to see you there.
A Good Day to Die Hard
The one thing you'll probably hear a great deal about as you read reviews of the fifth Die Hard film, A Good Day to Die Hard, is that its running time is 97 minutes (92 minutes when the end credits start rolling). What you may not realize is that, while that may seem like a ridiculously short film, I want to personally thank the maker of the latest John McClane effort for not putting me through another second of this unbearable shadow of a movie. Plus, even at its abbreviated length, the film feels endless; never has 97 minutes felt like a David Lean movie, minus any hint of quality control.
The most disappointing thing about A Good Day to Die Hard (and the list of disappointments is as long as my arm) is that John McClane (Bruce Willis) feels like a bit player in this over-crowded story that includes Russian criminals, missing files, a prison break, helicopter attacks, weapons-grade uranium, and even the "truth" behind the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And through all of it, it seems as though Willis is playing catch-up with his own image. His one-liners are lame, when they can be heard over the wall-to-wall explosions that will literally damage your ears. The filmmakers have burdened us with an overly serious storyline and then attempt to lighten the mood with McClane's inappropriate behavior and comedy routines.
McClane spends a great deal of the movie complaining about how he's supposed to be on vacation, but even that tired gag doesn't make sense because the whole reason he's in Russia is to rescue his son Jack (Jack Reacher's Jai Courtney), who has been accused with murder and is on trial along with a Russian scientist (Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others and Black Book). Turns out Jack works for the CIA, a fact that John apparently never knew because he's been estranged from his son for several years. Jack has been charged with rescuing the scientist since he has evidence hidden somewhere against a major Russian underworld figure. Naturally, John McClane steps into the middle of this shitstorm, and soon father and son are evading bullets, rocket launchers, and every other conceivable weapon the bad guys can throw at them.
A Good Day to Die Hard want us to believe so desperately that John McClane is a man of the people, an ordinary Joe, who just happens to find himself at ground zero of these major catastrophic events, and those days are long gone. The biggest joke of the movie are when John and Jack attempt to reconcile and make up for years of lost time, but we get the sense that John is happiest when his and his son's lives are in great danger. In this version of Die Hard, John is a lost soul, a man who can't function in polite society. And I guess the folks who made this entry see that as an enviable trait. But really, it makes this one of the most obnoxious characters I've seen in the "hero" role in quite some time.
Willis has made some questionable role choices in his career, but between Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, I thought maybe he was turning a later-in-life corner. And I was hoping his newfound sensibility might carry over into his action roles, but clearly the opposite is true. Between the empty-headed caricature of himself he plays in The Expendables films and this (the jury has yet to be convened on G.I. Joe: Retaliation), he seems to be retreating into the familiar, or worse: the irrelevant self parody.
I'd love to put as much of the blame on director John Moore's (Max Payne, The Omen remake, Flight of the Phoenix remake) shoulders as I possibly can. The visuals of A Good Day to Die Hard are headache-inducing at best. During one early car chase involving three vehicles, it's like Moore is daring us to keep track of what the hell is going on. It felt like the action scenes were shot in close up, so you can barely tell who's shooting, who's being shot out, who's getting killed, who's driving what. You name it, and there's probably something about it that's confusing.
Look, I still think Bruce Willis is a viable, enjoyable action star. But nothing but the title of this film feels like a Die Hard movie. Something about John McClane used to be roguishly charming; now, he's an asshole without a brain in his head who has almost been rendered unable to speak by the people in charge of this franchise. He may look confident, but he feels lost in his own movie. And after watching this chaotic mess of a film, I wish I'd gotten lost going to this movie.
Your reaction to the first of what could be as many as four films in this series could depend entirely on how you respond to theatrics. If you tend to enjoy over-the-top performances, grand production design, and a general sense of the larger than life, then you might actually like Beautiful Creatures, the latest film from writer-director Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
I tend not to respond well to such devices, but what does pull me into just about any story are believable, emotionally driven relationships and an attempt at character development. And lucky for us, at the core of this tale of witches vs. Christians (with more costume changes than a Cher concert) is rock solid chemistry between the two, virtually unknown lead actors. And it was the desire to see these two personable people in scene after scene together that tipped my scale toward recommending this attempt at modern Gothic storytelling.
Young Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, who had key roles in the last two Francis Ford Coppola films) sees himself as trapped by the city limits of his small South Carolina town, where everyone knows each other's business, and if your beliefs stray even a little, you're treated like an outcast, and in some cases even an evil-doer. So imagine the town's response to the Ravenwood family, and its matriarch Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), whose extended family includes 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, the daughter of the great filmmaker Jane Campion and soon to be seen in the British drama Ginger and Rosa). The entire family are witches (or Casters, as they like to be called), who each must choose whether they are going to follow the path of light or dark when they turn 16.
Alice is tempted by dark forces in her life, especially the dark queen Sarafine (Emma Thompson) and her well-meaning but corrupted and vampy cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). But according to many, it is Alice's growing feelings for Alden that put her at the most risk of joining Team Dark on her birthday. And thus the emotional weight of their relationship goes up against the fate of Alice's soul. Alden's attempt to find a way to keep Alice from going dark by enlisting the help of Amma (Viola Davis), a type of knowledgeable spell caster and medium who pretty much understands all there is to know about witches without being one herself.
Now you're probably wondering, what the hell are three Oscar winner (Thompson, Irons and Davis) and one recent Emmy winner (the great Margo Martindale) doing in this supernatural-based teen romance? Well, they're hamming it up; that's what. To say that Irons and Thompson are chewing scenery and overplaying every scene they're in would be a gross misunderstanding of the phrase. Thompson waves her arms around so much, I thought she was directing traffic. She bobs and weaves her body, while adopting a Southern accent that no Southerner would claim as being from their region of the country. But, that doesn't mean it isn't fun to watch such a gifted performer utterly go for broke.
The special effects in Beautiful Creatures are overused and nothing special. The costumes and sets are gaudy and ridiculous, and pretty much all non-witch characters feel like one-dimensional collections of clichéd traits. But as I mentioned, the two leads have a chemistry that is hard to resist, and clearly LaGravenese saw this and used it effectively. During the editing of the film, he actually kept in entire sequences where Alden and Alice just talk. They aren't driving the plot forward; they are simply letting us get to know them as they get to know each other. At heart, these two are just the school outcasts who found love with each other, but they are also extremely good-looking kids who are drawn to each other, and who doesn't love that? But during the course of their engaging conversations, I got to learn about these characters and care about whether they ended up together.
The film gets unnecessarily complicated and sloppy in the third act as Alice's "claiming" arrives, but by then, I was already hooked into Alden and Alice's lives and wanted to know how they'd come out the other side of this kooky story. As I said, it may be tough for a lot of people to look past the playing-to-the-back-row acting being supplied by the supporting cast of Beautiful Creatures, but if you find yourself prone to camp, you may particularly enjoy the sequence where Irons and Thompson square off in a church (at least Davis seems appropriately dialed back). But the film works best when you peer through the frills and concentrate of the strong romance that keeps this film's heart beating. It's certainly a more acceptable and realistic relationship than the one featured in this week's other big romantic endeavor (also set in the Carolinas), Safe Haven.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Beautiful Creatures co-stars Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich.
There are certainly worse films out there in the world based on novels by Nicholas Sparks. Faint praise, indeed. But Safe Haven pretends to be one of the more straight-forward tales in his stable of stories usually involving damaged people finding love, usually there's a death tossed in, and always a lovely location — in this case, the seaside community of Southport, North Carolina. The film opens up with a crime. We're not initially sure what kind, but when all is said in done, a woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) is being pursued by police and there's an APB issued for her arrest for first degree murder.
Katie narrowly gets out of town when she arrives in Southport and meets local shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his two kids. It turns out the classic Sparks' dead person is Alex's wife, who died of cancer a couple of years earlier. He's just now starting to emerge from his shell, and thankfully the woman in town who keeps to herself and seems not even a little interested in him is there to distract him. The other player in this drama is Katie's neighbor Jo (The Avengers' Cobie Smulders), who gives the gun-shy Katie some words of wisdom about getting back on the horse with this new relationship. But the hunky Detective Tierney (David Lyons) searching for Katie is closing in.
The bulk of Safe Haven concerns itself with the rather mundane process of breaking down Katie's boundaries, allowing her to feel something for this man and his family. And as she did in Footloose (less so in Rock of Ages), Hough surprised me with how well she handled the weightier material, directed by Lasse Hallström and adapted by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens. Neither she nor Duhamel are exactly breaking new ground, but they don't embarrass themselves either.
The character of Jo is a little more difficult to pin down. Without exaggerating, I thought she was coming onto Katie as a lesbian in her right mind might, but as she guides Katie to go on dates with Alex, Katie turns the tables on her new friend and pushes Jo to move on past whatever brought her to this town to hide out. I'm not sure their scenes really work, but there's enough of a twist in the third act concerning Jo that her purpose in this tale gets a little more clear.
The biggest trouble with Safe Haven is that we've seen much of this before. There's nothing special about the romance aspect of the story. Hough and Duhamel make a handsome couple, and the look good in a canoe together. But the reveal of the truth behind Katie leaving and the officer pursuing her is really silly. In the end, I found the proceedings dead boring, and in a story that's supposed to generate a little romantic heat as well as tension regarding whether Katie would be going to jail or not, that's not really the goal.
There will never be another film that quite gets it as right as The Notebook, and I wish these other films based on Sparks' books would remember that quality actors and not (just) pretty faces helping that movie work. Shockingly enough, I've seen every single film based on one of his novels (and I think there was one original screenplay as well), and while Safe Haven is somewhere closer to The Notebook in terms of quality, it still ends up feeling as romantic and sexy as a loveless marriage.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
I love that writer-director Roman Coppola has made another movie. His previous feature, CQ, was an art director's dream, the performances were strange and wonderful, and the ideas were slightly scattered but always interesting. Focusing a bit more on character with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, but not quite leaving behind the bizarre way he tells a story, Coppola borrows more than a few storytelling devices and cast choices from Wes Anderson (on whose past films he has worked as second unit director; he also co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom), but the story is uniquely Coppola's.
In the film, Charles Swan III (Charlie Sheen) is a well-regarded graphic designer who is in the early stages of a nasty breakup with his most recent girlfriend Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). His drunken, philandering ways made him fully responsible for the break-up, but that doesn't deaden his very amusing pain. Surprisingly, Sheen pulls off playing a booze and cooze hound, but he also makes us feel a little sorry for Swan in the process (unlike the real Sheen). He commiserates with his best friend, the famous musician/comic Kirby Star (a fully bearded Jason Schwartzman, whose presence in any film makes it that much better), and his business manager Saul (Bill Murray, same).
What's fascinating about the film is that Swan gets lost in elaborate daydream/fantasy sequences which cast those in his life in various roles. Some are more reality based, such as him imagining who would be the most sad at his funeral. But other takes the tone of wacky dreams, including a ridiculous scenario where he, Kirby and Saul are cowboys fighting off a bunch of sexy Indians, all of whom appear to be Swan's ex-girlfriends. The film certainly comes across as one big in-joke at times, but there is something somewhat relatable about some of what is going on here.
A strong supporting cast including Patricia Arquette as Swan's sister, Aubrey Plaza as his assistant, Dermot Mulroney and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I was especially moved by the scenes with Swan and his sister Izzy and her kids. Sheen gets a chance to be more charming and sensitive, putting aside the amusingly insensitive persona that he seems to have been stuck in for the past 10 years or so.
What's interesting is that the deeper Swan digs and more he learns about himself, the less interesting he and the film become. But I never got tired of watching Sheen dig in and really explore this character in ways the actor simply hasn't been given the chance to do in a long time. Some may draw parallels between Swan and Sheen's lives, but that doesn't really get you anywhere. If you enjoy the film (and a lot of people do not), it's going to be because you don't mind entering a world where existential questions about why people live their lives the way they do aren't answered. Also, people in Charles Swan III act like idiots sometimes. It may be an exercise in endurance for some, but for all its flaws, the movie has something going on under its cowboy hat. The film opens today at the AMC 600 N. Michigan Ave. theaters.
The Taste of Money
While many of the great directors from South Korea are beginning to make their mark on these shores, one of the more interesting agents of social commentary in his nation, Im Sang-Soo (A Good Lawyer's Wife, The Housemaid), has made a fascinating if not always successful attempt to go after those with so much power and influence, they believe they live under a different set of rules. The Taste of Money is about Young-jak, the personal secretary of a wealthy woman named Madame Back, whose family fortune is in the billions, and whose husband and children run the family business like there are no limits to their finances or culpability when it comes to their employees' lives. Even when one member of the family is arrested for one reason or another, the family barely bats an eye, since they know that the judges and politicians they have paid off over the years will clear things up quickly.
Young-jak has aspirations, and after being essentially forced to sleep with Madame Back (as revenge for her husband taking up with the family's Filipino maid), she begins to give him more power in the family business. This makes him somewhat more desirable to Madame's beautiful daughter, Nami. The interpersonal manipulations in The Taste of Money are the most interesting moments. Unfortunately, a great deal of the film deals with shady — or outright illegal — business dealings between those running the company and their American business partner, who only seems to care about prostitutes and staying drunk. The not so subtle subtext about how Americans conduct business is very amusing.
The film is beautifully filmed and charged with a healthy mix of perversion and eroticism to keep things interesting. I'm not sure how accurate its depiction or commentary on the way the rich behave in South Korea is, but it sure is fun to be reminded that corruption and corporate bad practices aren't unique to the Western world. The Taste of Money isn't one of Sang-Soo best works, but it's still highly watchable and even a little insightful at times. This particular weekend, you could do a lot worse by sticking to the multiplexes. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Multi-Media.
Director Cate Shortland's delicate but tough work Lore is a film that both asks a lot of its audience but also gives a great deal in return. First and foremost, it asks that we sympathize with the children of an SS officer and his devoutly Nazi-loving wife, who have clearly taught their kids to view the German people and the Jewish people as you would expect. As the film opens, the war is winding down, and Nazi officers and party members are being arrested by the Allies. When the parents are taken away, the oldest child, 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), is left to fend for herself and four younger siblings (including an infant). They are suddenly outcasts wherever they go, as they struggle to find food, clothes, shelter and compassion, all of which are in short supply.
At one abandoned farmhouse, they meet Thomas (Kai Malina), who is extremely helpful to them but is also revealed to be a Jew recently liberated from a concentration camp, a fact that triggers built-in resentment from Lore. Before long, desperation finds a way to break down all prejudices. I wouldn't say Lore wants us to embrace or even feel sorry for these kids, but most of them are too young to really understand what it is to be taught to hate a whole group of people. Mostly what this film is about is suffering and struggling to stay alive.
The very real possibility is explored that these kids, especially Lore, might be taken advantage of in exchange for a small amount of assistance. At one point, Lore and Thomas must kill a man, and the reality of what she's done forces Lore into a complete meltdown. At times, this is a rough moviegoing experience, but in the end, it's a beautifully photographed, gripping film about Germans coming to grips with exactly what their countrymen did during the Holocaust. There are casual conversations between Germans the kids run into in which they try to convince themselves the Jewish death toll account are being exaggerated by the Allies, but there's a look in their eyes that says they know better. In many ways, Lore is a brave little movie with a pair of magnetic lead actors at its center. This might be my favorite film opening this week in Chicago. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.