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Column Fri Apr 05 2013

Evil Dead, The Place Beyond the Pines, Room 237 & Jurassic Park 3D

It seems strange yet appropriate that I spent much of my Thursday writing reviews, all of which I happen to love. Roger Ebert, the man who taught me the most about loving film and expressing that passion through writing, died on Thursday. He's the reason I do what I do, the reason I live in Chicago, and he was my friend and supporter for nearly 15 years. I wrote up a lengthy remembrance for Ain't It Cool News yesterday. Feel free to peruse my emotional ramblings there; for those who don't know, I write as Capone for the site, so you have to scroll down a little bit. In the meantime, I'm going to honor Roger by reviewing four movies I really liked this week. Go see something good this weekend, in Roger's honor.

Evil Dead

People forget that while the stories about the making of the original 1981 The Evil Dead are quite hilarious, the film itself is quite serious, and I remember being utterly terrified by it when the 14-year-old me watched it home alone in the middle of the day. The silliness that some associate with the Sam Raimi-directed, Bruce Campbell-starring series didn't enter the picture until Evil Dead 2. So in that respect, this Evil Dead relaunch (not so much a remake since the curse may be the same, but the story and characters are completely different) is similar in tone to the source material.

As directed by newcomer Feder Alvarez, Evil Dead ups the gore and the sheer brutality several notches, and that doesn't bother me because it also maintains its roots in being plain-old scary, too. And while there are several nice touches in this new version, there's also something missing — some might call it a spark or a quirky element that made the original film stand out from the horror crowd of the early '80s. While the film is technically very well done — especially the filmmaker's devotion to practical special effects — it's missing that special quality that would make me want to revisit it time and time again to energize me about the state of modern horror.

That being said, there's still quite a lot to like. The story is largely the same, but with an interesting twist. A group of 20-somethings head to a cabin in the woods, not for vacation, but because one of the group is an addict and needs a good bit of detoxing, even if it's against her will. Jane Levy plays the strung-out Mia, a troubled soul whose friends are trying to look out for her; this is no romantic weekend or vacation outing for the group. By casting Mia as an addict, this puts her mind in a vulnerable place and makes people less likely to believe her when she starts to say she's seeing things in the woods.

While exploring the cabin, the gang stumbles upon a book that appears to be bound in human skin with crazy, horrific, ancient drawings inside, some of which are defaced with a very modern-looking pen. Naturally, one of the group (Lou Taylor Pucci's Eric, the film's throwback character, who looks like he stepped right out of the original) goes through the book page by page, eventually reading a passage that sets the hounds of hell upon our helpless crew, beginning with Mia, who is literally sexually assaulted by the woods, in a sequence that is both very familiar and quite different from a sequence in the original film. The event seems to have impregnated her with "Deaditis" that she brings back into the cabin.

The remaining characters are a bit more forgettable and interchangeable. Jessica Lucas plays Olivia, Eric's pretty girlfriend, who has one memorable scene in the bathroom with a piece of glass. There's no denying it's one of the most impactful moments in the film, but it's an ugly, grotesque scene that doesn't really tell us much about the evil that is beginning to possess the people in this cabin. We also have Shiloh Fernandez as the somewhat cowardly David, as well as Elizabeth Blackmore, who has a limb-severing event in the film that might draw cheers from fans of the original films, but beyond that she's utterly unmemorable.

The scenes that truly horrified me were the less gory ones. Everything in the notorious cellar was classic scary stuff. Any sequence where things got quiet had me plugging my ears in anticipation of the screams to come. Evil Dead has plenty of sort-of callback moments and elements that are kinda-sorta like the original, but then don't fully commit. When a chainsaw comes into play late in the movie, I'm sure audiences will cheer, but when it doesn't really result in anything especially nutty, it's a bit of a letdown.

I applaud the makers of Evil Dead (including original producers Campbell, Raimi and Rob Tapert) for committing to doing something new, but gore for gore's sake isn't that scary. It's fun and gross, but it doesn't stick with you and leave the theater in the recesses of your brain the way a good scare might. I was mightily impressed with the performances of Pucci and Levy, and it helps that they're playing the most well-rounded characters of the bunch, thus the ones we wanted to see not die. The makeup and effects are pure bloody perfection, and as an outlet for sheer Hollywood artistry, I can't fault the film.

But there came a point where I wished the film had more going for it in terms of originality. The "drug as inner demon" metaphor vanishes as soon as the real demons come into play, which is such a colossal missed opportunity. I think the bottom line with Evil Dead is that I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I think most people will, especially people who have had no exposure to the original work. But I'm not totally convinced that people that know the first film inside and out are going to respond any better to the ugly qualities of this version.

Read my exclusive interview with Evil Dead star Lou Taylor Pucci on Ain't It Cool News.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Calling the latest work from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) a film is a little misleading; it's actually three films. More precisely, it's about three moments in time in the lives of two families. Most importantly, The Place Beyond the Pines is an earth-shatteringly great drama, epic in length (nearly 2.5 hours) but so intimate and precise in its portrayal of the messy, fractured relationship between parents and children. We're three months into the year, and this unexpected wonder is easily the best film I've seen in 2013 because of how thoroughly it rattled me at points.

It's even a tough film to summarize without giving too much away. In the first segment, stunt motorcycle performer Luke (Ryan Gosling) discovers that he has a son by Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he had a brief relationship with while he was in town about a year earlier. She has moved on and lives with a gracious new man, but clearly still has feelings for Luke, who very much wants to get to know his infant son and is willing to do anything he can to provide for him. The man he's working for at an auto body shop, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), concocts a plan to rob banks using his skills on the motorcycle. So he goes into a bank with his helmet on, grabs the cash, hops on the bike, and rides it to a nearby truck. The plan is so brilliant, it's bound to implode.

And sure enough, Luke gets greedy and wants to jack two banks in one afternoon. But the cops eventually show up a little sooner than expected and chase Luke around town, with rookie officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) leading the charge. As he often is, Gosling exudes an electric charge when he's in this zone. He's effectively taken many of the traits from his Driver character in Drive and put them on a motorcycle. He's quiet, often with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and he is prone to emotional outbursts. And you can't take your eyes off the guy, mainly because you're afraid you'll miss something if you do. It's a riveting performance.

Cooper really gets to shine in the film's second section, which focuses on the early part of his career as a police officer (after getting his law degree, but deciding he is needed more on the streets) and a husband (to Rose Byrne) and father to their infant son. This is by far the best performance of Cooper's career, and I'm including the solid work he did in Silver Linings Playbook. There's nothing flashy about Avery, and when he discovers major corruption in the police force (the greatest perpetrator being a nasty detective played by Ray Liotta), he immediately goes to his superior officer at the risk of alienating himself in the eyes of his colleagues.

Pines' last section jumps ahead many years has to do with Avery's delinquent son AJ (Emory Cohen), who is always in trouble, but thank goodness Avery is now district attorney and can't afford to have a misfit son running around as he is running for a public office and is in the middle of a major campaign. AJ finds a kindred spirit at his school, Jason (Dane DeHaan), a boy his age with similar trouble-making tendencies. In addition to being about familial ties, The Place Beyond the Pines is about the connections we have with each other that, often, we don't want.

Some will complain (ridiculously so) that the film is trying too hard to cram too much plot and emotional components into one film. The one thing I will never fault a filmmaker for it being too ambitious, but ambition doesn't mean the resulting work is any good. It just so happens that director Cianfrance is an impressive visual stylist who isn't afraid to let things go into the realm of hyper-reality. He also sometimes (but not often) allows the visuals to overtake the story; again, if I had issues with that, I'd never be able to make it through a Terrence Malick film. I'm not comparing the two filmmakers directly, but if Cianfrance continues on his present course, maybe one day I will.

If I had to fault the film at all, it's for its third act with the boys. Cohen's thuggish performance as AJ seems almost too Dead End Kids. But beyond something that specific, this section of the film doesn't pack either the emotional or visual wallop that it needs to. It's still pretty impressive stuff, but compared to segments that focus on Gosling and Cooper, it doesn't quite match up. That being said, DeHaan (Chronicle, Lawless, Lincoln and set to play Harry Osborn in the Amazing Spider-Man sequel) continues to be one of my favorite young actors. Jason's issues are more about what's missing from his life than being overindulged by two loving parents.

The Place Beyond the Pines feels like deeply personal filmmaking, and it's all the better for it. It's a work of great beauty, even when it's focusing on some fairly low living. And it's questions about moral choices and consequences offer no easy answers by any standard. This is a film that will have you thinking and wanting to converse with others about the dilemmas on display, and that should be the end goal of every great movie.

Room 237

There was a time when cinephiles were not content with film reviews that simply told you whether a movie was "awesome" or "crap." In-depth analysis was the name of the game, and it wasn't uncommon that a critic might watch a movie several times before offering up an opinion about its worth. In fact, the pure entertainment value of the work wasn't always a part of the conversation. Film writers would dig deep for the meaning of the film (hidden or otherwise), sometimes picking up on visual clues or vague references in the dialogue. Sometimes, their theories sounded preposterous; but every so often, a thesis had a ring of truth and accuracy — or at least enough to keep us reading to the end of the writer's conjecture, suppositions and educated guesses.

Welcome to the asylum of Room 237 (subtitled "Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts"), the first feature-length work from director Rodney Ascher, which collects five radically different theories about the deeper meanings of Stanley Kubricks's 1980 The Shining, loosely adapted from the early novel by Stephen King, who was never a fan of the film, due in large part to Kubrick's injecting strange, seemingly unrelated ideas into his haunted house story. But what were the nature of these new elements that Kubrick was so keen on making a part of this and many other of his later works? Some think it was his statement on the Holocaust, while other believe it was Kubrick's commentary on the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. Still more believe it was the notoriously enigmatic filmmaker's covertly commenting on his role in the faking of the first moon landing. Maybe it's an exercise in subliminal messaging, as Kubrick had a documented interest in hidden sexual messages in advertising. The list only gets more obtuse from there.

The five subjects of the film are never seen on camera; their disembodied voices simply float over film clips of both Kubrick's work and other movies that illustrate some of their points. A few of these "experts" specialize in noticing and interpreting small details in the background of each scene: a poster or photograph; the design or color of the walls or carpet; or props that are there one second and gone the next. These folks never met a continuity error they didn't love or one to which they couldn't assign a great deal of value and meaning. But as Room 237 progresses, some patterns do appear to emerge that more than one of the commentators mentions — bigger-picture themes about the cruel and violent nature of humanity, the restorative power of sex, and the value of family. Of course, The Shining is also about insanity, murderous rage, and elevators full of blood, but all of these have multiple interpretations provided to by these five.

What's most amusing about Room 237 is how sure the subjects are that their version of what The Shining is about is the correct one. Phrases like "It's obvious!" pop up more than once. But a favorite statement is, "How did I see this and nobody else did?" And while some of the experts' observations and wild-guess interpretations are little more than intellectual exercises, a few are downright fascinating.

One of the more interesting experiments performed on The Shining — at least none of the subjects tries to pass it off as Kubrick's intended means of viewing it — is the famed "Forwards and Backwards" experiment, in which the film is shown as originally intended, but a second projector shows the film from back to front, creating some admittedly eerie juxtapositions. While this means of display holds about as much water as playing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" over The Wizard of Oz, it's still a surprisingly watchable experience.

It seems appropriate that the focal point of The Shining's climax is a maze, with passageways that lead to dead ends and others others that may actually take you somewhere more to your liking. As one interviewee correctly points out, one of the many facets of post-modern film criticism is that author intent is only a part of the story of any work of art, and that the meanings these five people have assigned to this film are there, whether Kubrick intended them to be there or not.

Kubrick was among the most deliberate stylists ever to have worked in cinema, so there's little doubt that visual cues were a big part of his repertoire. Absolutely, he is manipulating our acceptance of visual information, but that doesn't mean there is a hidden image of a minotaur in a poster that is clearly a photo of a guy skiing and nothing more. Still, all of this speculation and peeling back the layers is part of the great game those of us who love movies play in the darkened theater when we become fixated on a film we love and admire. It's difficult to fault such undiluted passion, even if it seem a bit nutty.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, where there will be a Skype Q&A with Room 237 director Rodney Ascher and myself on Friday, April 5 after the 7pm screening.

Jurassic Park 3D

There's not much to tell you about the film itself. It's still magnificent, in case you were worried. There are sequences in Jurassic Park that are so perfectly constructed that they rank among director Steven Spielberg's finest. The first T-Rex attack still blows my mind, both with its structure and the flawless special effects. But the featured attraction this time around, 20 years later, is that this landscape-changing film has been wonderfully converted for viewing in 3D.

I've been quite vocal about how lousy post-conversion 3D looks on the big screen. My biggest complaint has always been that the darks get so much darker, you almost can't see the image. And every time I griped about some new film made 3D in the post-production timeframe, usually rushed, I would get email from very wise technicians who work in post-conversion labs saying that if studios would give them the time, the image would look so much better. And you know what? They weren't lying. Recent 3D retrofits like Pixar and Disney films, Titanic and most recently, Top Gun, all looked fantastic. Hell, even The Phantom Menace looked great. And Jurassic Park is no different. In fact, it might be the best of all in this new wave of older films being transferred.

I won't go through scene-by-scene what looks the best. It all looks pretty great. Anything shot from a helicopter almost made me airsick as I watched the horizon dip and rise. The raptor feeding sequence is great, especially since so much of it is shot through plant leaves. Wayne Knight fleeing the compound in the pouring rain is all the more messy and wet. Samuel L. Jackson's bald spot is so much more pronounced and vast.

But this is a film about dinosaurs living in the modern world, and my goodness, do those creatures look great in 3D. Sure the attack sequences are great, but even in more serene moments — like when Sam Neill's Dr. Allan Grant is feeding a tree branch to a towering brachiosaurus — the spacial quality of these scenes is immense. Is it necessary to appreciate the material? Of course not. Should be be jacked up for extra cash to see a movie you know inside and out just because this 3D element has been added? No way. But if you're feeling like you've got 20 bucks or so burning a whole in your pocket, Jurassic Park is absolutely the best movie in theaters right now, and I'd like to think that still means something.

As far as I can tell, nothing has been changed in this version. No effects have been updated, for example. And I'm still in awe about how well the film has aged, with the exception of the computer technology that keeps the park running; that shit is old. What always struck me about Jurassic Park is that in so many ways, I identify it with the films of my childhood more than I do films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. I was always a monster guy. And as the cars roll under the main gates of the park and Jeff Goldblum says, "What have you got in there, King Kong?", in my head I think, "Essentially, yes."

The film showed us something we had never seen before — realistic-looking dinosaurs interacting with modern humans. What kid or adult wouldn't be entertained and terrified at the prospect? The cinemaniac in me is saying spending the extra dollars to see Jurassic Park in 3D. It's tough to imagine you won't get something out of it.

 
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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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