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Column Fri Mar 29 2013

The Host, Wrong, The Sapphires, Starbuck & Gimme the Loot

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Hey, everyone. First a quick note about a couple of films that won't be reviewed this week. First off is G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film that I think looks completely badass but unfortunately screened for press in Chicago while I was out of town. The other films I missed due to a scheduling conflict was the Japanese animated work From Up on Poppy Hill, written by the great Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro. It comes from the great Studio Ghibli and opens this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, so it's a good bet you should go see it immediately. And just so I'm fair to all the films that I was unable to review this week, Tyler Perry's Temptation was not screened for press at all, but I'm sure it's wonderful. Alright, onto the stuff I did get to see.

The Host

Simply reading or hearing the statement "from Stephenie Meyer, worldwide bestselling author and creator of The Twilight Saga" may send many of you running for he hills, but I'll admit I was more than a little curious about The Host, based on Meyer's most recent novel of the same name. I wanted to know if this woman who seems to have tapped into something in the teen psyche could transfer that "gift" to a science fiction story in which alien beings are injected into human hosts and take over their minds in the hope of creating a better society. (I know it sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it's not exactly since the human bodies aren't destroyed in the process.)

I also held up some hope that The Host might be decent because I'm a fan of both director-adaptor Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time) and actor Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna). Alas, with source material this threadbare, there's nothing much for either to really grab onto and build upon. Ronan plays Melanie Stryder, a member of the resistance to the alien takeover, who is taken captive while saving her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury). She's injected with a wispy, shiny alien, her eyes change color, and she becomes a right-thinking/acting being with one small defect — the alien in her brain (whose name is Wanda) can still hear the human Melanie, who is resisting her at every turn; normally the inhabiting alien can suppress the host's memories completely.

I'm sure in a novel, the idea of a voice within a character's head reads better than it translates into a movie. In The Host, Melanie just sounds like a grumpy teenager fighting with her parents. Eventually Wanda forces Melanie to lead her to the rebel hideout, a cathedral-like cave, led by her uncle Jeb (William Hurt). But rather than report the location to the alien leadership, Melanie convinces Wanda to let herself be taken captive and learn about the people who live there. The story itself is not inherently bad, but the way it's executed and the choices made in how the audience gains access Melanie's thoughts are dreadful. And we haven't even gotten to the love triangle...

Check this out: there are two handsome young men in the movie, Jared (Max Irons) and Ian (Jake Abel); and if you asked me which was which, I'd be hard pressed to care enough to tell you. One was Melanie's boyfriend pre-alien and one is slowly falling in love with Wanda. Come on! So while Wanda is contemplating kissing her gentleman caller, Melanie's voice is saying things like, "Ew, gross. Stop it, you bitch," while trying to physically stop the alien from making out with the stud. In other moments, Wanda allows Melanie's mind to come to the foreground for really no other purpose than make out with her dude. Because this shit is important when trying to change the fate of the earth.

In the meantime, a "Seeker" (Diane Kruger) is out searching for Wanda, in hopes of finding the rebel camp, and it is eventually revealed that this problem of two voices in one head is not as rare as everyone thinks. I guess somewhere buried deep in this tale is a message about not becoming part of the flock and keeping your own mind, don't do drugs, say no to premarital sex, how the hell should I know? Ronan and Hurt are actually good together, doing what they can to pull some kind of convincing performance from this achingly poor story. Truth be told, I get more out a bad episode of "Revolution" than I did out of The Host, both of which seem to have similar production values. This might be a good weekend to check out your local art-house options, because The Host has has about as much substance as the dandelion-like aliens in its achingly poor story. I won't tell you what to see, but don't see this.

Wrong

I had a wonderfully visceral reaction to writer-director Quentin Dupieux 2010 feature Rubber when I first saw it. The tale of a murderous tire, rolling around the desert in search of victims while an audience on onlookers watched the proceedings was both surreal and mind altering. I wasn't on drugs while I watched it, but I felt like I was. Dupieux's latest opus is only slightly less altered states, but filled with much more heart and a relatable story that at the very least it will pull in dog lovers the world 'round.

The story involves a rather pathetic little man named Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) whose dog Paul goes missing. His demeanor before the canine goes AWOL is pretty disengaging, but he manages to strike up a conversation with a young woman who works at a pizza restaurant, and they bond over the logo of her business. But when Paul is gone, it's almost like something awakens in Dolph, and an affection for his dog comes to life in a way it probably hasn't before. Dolph sets out to look for Paul, and along the way he crosses paths with an odd array of characters, including said young woman (Alexis Dziena), who turns out to be quite beautiful and beyond intrusive; his gardener with a French-Mexican accent (Eric Judor), who I'm pretty sure dies and then comes back to life; an investigator (Steve Little) who specializes in missing animals; and the enigmatic Master Chang (the mind-blowingly great William Fichtner), who is actually the one who arranged for the dog's kidnapping for a very specific and well-intentioned reason.

Words cannot bring to life just how weird and brilliant Fichtner is with his long, flowing ponytail and his measured accent that could be European or South American or Eskimo, but I choose to believe it is all of the world's accents in one perfect voice. Chang has written several books about pets, including one featuring a chapter on the psychic bond between dogs and their owners, a phenomenon that Dolph attempts to utilize in the search for Paul. Chang is about lessons and teaching, and he attempts to impart some of his vast wisdom on Dolph while his dog is being searched for. You almost find yourself groaning with disappointment whenever Chang is not in the scene, but the entire fabric of Wrong is so damn creative and original that you can easily find something to enjoy about every sequence.

If you aren't into the weirdness, Wrong may not be for you, and the truth is I get tired of films being weird just for the sake of being weird. This is not that. Wrong enters its world of strangeness honestly and to enhance its more emotional moments. Dolph's agony over his missing dog is genuine and heartfelt, but in the context of the film's bizarre nature, it stabilizes certain aspects even as, for example, Dolph argues with his unhinged neighbor about whether the guy jogs or not. He does, but for some reason he can't admit it to himself and anyone else. Why? Who the hell knows, but his anxiety about the subject transfers and enhances Dolph's own grief. If you have ever said to yourself, "Self, movies are too normal and predictable," then I may have the answer to at least one of your troubles in the form of this truly wonderful little movie. The film opens in Chicago today at Facets Cinémathèque.

The Sapphires

In many ways, the musically inclined Australian film The Sapphires reminds me of the works from down under that I loved in the 1980s and early '90s, which always seemed to feature larger-than-life characters, lots of music and a solid emphasis on laughter. Although the film begins with a rather serious introduction about Aboriginal children being swiped from their families by the Australian government and placed with white families to be "raised white," the film quickly turns down the road that it stays on for the duration — the true-life tale of four Aboriginal girls who long to sing.

At first, three of the girls (Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman) focus on doing old-school country music circa the late 1960s. They enter a talent competition where the white audiences hurl the worst kind of insults at them as the drunk piano player/emcee Dave (Chris O'Dowd) plays for them and is the only one for miles to recognize their talent for singing (if not for picking are appropriate material). He suggest a change to soul and R&B music and refashions the girl into a proper girl group singing largely the Motown hits of the day. He gets them a gig entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam, and they pick up a long-lost cousin (Shari Sebbens), who is one of the black children raised white, and while there are some initial conflicts, they are dubbed The Sapphires and head into combat.

There is a lot in The Sapphires that works, and much of that involves O'Dowd (Bridesmaids, This Is 40, "Girls"), whose just naturally charming and funny. He gets more laughs with a throwaway line than most of the other humor supplied by the always-griping girls. O'Dowd is also a key player in the film thanks to a romantic entanglement between him and eldest sister Gail (Mailman), who make great adversaries in the beginning of the film and love interests as the film progresses.

Some of the film falls into a pit of obvious war-time scenes. Each girl has her own encounter with a potential male counterpart soldier (it's the girls' first time out of the house, so what do you expect?), but when the music and choreography kick into high gear, The Sapphires gets great, which might be the biggest cliché of them all, but I doubt you'll care. Weirdly enough, the film's story is so unique, I can see someone trying to refashion it into a stage musical one day. The familiar music, various love/lust stories, and the exotic locales seem to be the perfect kind of theatrically splashy. The Sapphires is a crowd pleaser that gets it right most of the time. You'll tap your toes and laugh your fool ass off. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Starbuck

I haven't heard as much, but if someone told me that this French-Canadian comedy was in line to be remade in English by a Hollywood studio, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Considering the original version is nothing to crow about, I wouldn't be that enthusiastic. (OK, I just looked it up, and sure enough, the US remake — with the same director — is coming out in October with Vince Vaughn in the title role. Ugh.) What's really the problem here is a misdirected focus. In this story about David Wosniak (Patrick Huard), a man in his early 40s who is a slacker and screw up in his job as a meat delivery man for his family's butcher shop. One day he comes home to find a lawyer in his apartment, representing nearly 150 20-somethings, all of who have one thing in common — they are all the children of David.

David was a crazed sperm donor when he was younger ("Starbuck" was the name he donated under), and the clinic accidentally used only his samples for fertility treatments, resulting in 533 children, 142 of whom are attempting to sue the clinic to give up Starbuck's real name so they can meet him. At first, David says no, but he's left with a stack of profiles of each of the 142 and he gets curious about they turned out to be. He even decides to visit some of them, or at least observe them without giving himself away. One is a professional soccer player, another is a drug addict, another is a struggling actor, another is bi-sexual man who meets with many partners a day. In other words, they turned out to be a nice cross section of the world, and for some of them, David becomes something of a guardian angel.

Naturally, this gives David a chance to not only present himself as a more mature and stable partner to his own on-again/off-again recently pregnant girlfriend (Julie LeBreton), but it gives him a chance to improve his life and become more responsible. Of course, the situation lends itself to some humor, a few touching sequences involving the grown kids who simply wanted to meet Starbuck, and even a courtroom drama where a judge decides whether to force the clinic to give up the man's name.

Starbuck's biggest flaw is that the idea of David inserting himself into some of his children's lives is a great one. Unfortunately, the film veers away from that idea for too many long stretches and instead gives us a cliché-driven story about a guy that screws up all the time and is plagued by loan sharks, and has a barely qualified lawyer friend representing him in the case. The film has literally dozens of opportunities to tell us interesting stories, and it gets hung up on David's far less interesting previous life. I never cared about the relationship he has with his own family, because we know where that's going from frame one. It's the story of this vast, extended new family that is so much more intriguing, and while we get that in bits and pieces, there could have been so much more.

I hope Vaughn and writer-director Ken Scott try out some new angles with their remake (called The Delivery Man), but I suspect if anything is altered it will be to make Vaughn more of screwup to get the big, broad laughs. The audience I saw Starbuck with seemed to love it, and it certainly has large handfuls of crowd-pleasing moments, but the potential for something more substantial is left right there on the screen. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Gimme the Loot

Winning multiple awards on 2012's festival circuit (deservedly so), Gimme the Loot, the first-time feature from writer-director Adam Leon does something that few films of any size ever get right. It takes its time getting to know to extraordinary characters (the type to rarely be given any screen time in any movie) by simply letting them talk to each other for extended stretches, thus making us care about what happens to them in the process. Their personal dramas become ours, and their small victories seem much larger to us because we feel invested in the outcome. Imagine that.

Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tahinana Washington) are two teens living in the Bronx who have aspirations of being accomplished graffiti writers (if not artists). Their master plan becomes to tag the Big Apple sign that is exposed anytime a Mets player hits a homerun at Shea Stadium. They even have an in, apparently, when they find a security guard at the stadium who says if they pay him $500, he'll sneak them in. Sounds easy, but the bribe amount might as well be $5 million for these kids. Through some wheeling and dealing, petty crimes and not so petty ones, the pair spend a whirlwind two days trying to scrape together the cash, all the while giving us a tour of their neighborhood in all of its gritty glory.

Malcolm agrees to help an acquaintance sell drugs to a rich white girl (Zoë Lescaze), who he not only thinks he might be able to sleep with, but her expensive necklace might hold the key to making their graffiti dreams come true. But Gimme the Loot is much more than the tale of two criminally inclined urban youth; it's also something of a love story. There's a protective, bordering on flirtatious way that Malcolm and Sofia interact that combines the fine art of trash talking while still encouraging the other to be something more than they are. When Malcolm has eyes for another girl, Sofia doesn't exactly hide her jealousy. But she saves face by almost daring Malcolm to make his move, probably because she knows he'll fail. I could spend days listening to these two smart, good kids playfully put each other down.

Gimme the Loot is a film that uses modest means to achieve its lofty ambitions. Leon uses the neighborhood and its people to flesh out his characters and let us know that what we might consider a dangerous situation might just be another day at the office for these kids. His no-frills, realistic approach reminds me of the earlier works of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), and the resulting impact sneaks up on you and delivers an unexpected power.

As relatively new actors, Hickson and Washington do a remarkable job making their characters both aggressively street smart but completely likable. Against my better judgement and despite my firm belief in the criminal justice system, I was rooting for them to tag that damn apple, and I think you will too. But this film isn't about the graffiti artist community (I think we only see these kids tag anything maybe two or three times), it's about people who also happen to excel in this particular art form. And most importantly, when Gimme the Loot ended, I desperately wanted to know where these kids will be in five or ten years. I think the same about director Leon, and can't wait to see what he comes up with next. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Gimme the Loot writer-director Adam Leon.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

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

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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