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Column Fri Apr 12 2013

42, Trance, The Company You Keep, Upstream Color, Disconnect & Bert Stern: Original Mad Man

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42

The reason it has taken Hollywood so long to put together a Jackie Robinson bio film has nothing to do with racism or anyone questioning Robinson's groundbreaking achievements, both on the field and in history, as major league baseball's first-ever black player. The problem is that Robinson led a pretty dull (at least cinematically) life off the field, at least as far as anyone is willing to say on record, including his widow and his fellow players. So how do you make a film about Robinson interesting? You can't just fill it full of moments on the field, although there are so many to choose from.

Truthfully, you have to take some of the movie version of Robinson's life away from him and give it to the people around him — the white members of the Brooklyn Dodgers ball club who had to get used to a new kind of attention at their games; the fans, who slowly began to realize that Robinson was going to succeed or fail on his own merits and not because of his race; and perhaps most importantly, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (played in the new film 42 by Harrison Ford, who seems more awake and alive in this part than he has in quite some time), who made the decision in 1946 to bring Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on board as much for money and publicity as any kind of statement about equality.

No pun intended, 42 covers the bases of Robinson's professional life, without digging too deep into his pre-baseball existence. We see him come up through the ranks of the Negro League, the minors, and eventually into a Dodgers uniform. We get a glimpse of the whirlwind romance that led to his marriage to Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and how she served as a stabilizing force in his life. But since Robinson was never at the center of any scandal in his personal or professional life, the only source of drama in his life came from fans, players, coaches and the times, all of which booed him on the field and hurled the worst names at him day after day.

In one of their first meetings, Rickey tells Robinson that he has to be strong enough not to fight back, to be the perfect gentleman all the time, and never let this overwhelming discouragement get him down or angry in public. One of the great appeals of Boseman as an actor is how reserved he plays Robinson. The hurt, frustration and anger are there in his performance, but you have to watch his eyes to see it. In the film's most important sequence, Robinson is verbally brutalized every time he gets up to bat by Phillies coach Ben Chapman (played with shocking venom by Alan Tudyk). After one particularly nasty barrage of insults, Robinson goes into the tunnel to the locker room and destroys his bat in a rare moment of rage, away from the public eye. I don't think anyone knows for sure if Robinson did this ever, but of course, he had to have moments where he wanted to.

42 does a slightly better than surface level job of showing the changing attitudes among Robinson's fellow players and coaches, with particularly strong performances by Chris Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca. As coaches in any sport often do, writer-director Brian Helgeland focuses on the fundamentals. Perhaps he believed that rather than invent motivating forces or false moments in Robinson's life, sticking to the facts and trusting that the power of the achievements and focus on the forces that Robinson had to overcome would combine to give a complete picture of the man. His theory is mostly right, and he delivers a serviceable biography that you'll wish was something more extraordinary, but maybe could never be.

Helgeland is a smart writer (Green Zone, Mystic River, Man on Fire, Conspiracy Theory) and a sometimes-great director (Payback, A Knight's Tale), and maybe the better approach would have been to give more of a sense of the impact Robinson had on the times and how he served as an inspiration to black kids (and likely a few adults) around the country. There are a few asides cut into 42 showing people listening to games on the radio and cheering on, but that doesn't quite drive the message home the way it could. Buoyed by some really strong performances by Boseman, Ford and the supporting players, 42 succeeds without truly excelling. It's a great history lesson without giving us life lessons we can cling to and learn from. It's a closer call than you might think, but it still left me wanting to know more about what motivated Robinson and kept him from crumbling under such enormous pressure.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with 42 star Chadwick Boseman.

Trance

After taking a little time off from filmmaking to direct a staggeringly great version (actually two versions) of Frankenstein for the London stage and act as ringleader for a little event known as the opening ceremonies of the London Summer Olympics, filmmaker Danny Boyle (127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire) has returned to movies with Trance, a classic piece of mind-fuck entertainment that will leave you with your head spinning, eyes wide and jaw gaping. I'm not really sure Boyle is going for smart, but I'll be damned if this film isn't clever and a total visual blast.

I should also add that Trance is going to be damn difficult to write about because there are layers to what you should know going in. Ideally, you'll know nothing. But realistically, it's probably OK to know a little plot so that you can focus more on the different layers being operated on and peeled away as the film goes on. What is perfectly safe to tell you is that James McAvoy (Wanted, X-Men: First Class) plays Simon, who works at an auction house that specializes in fine art, including a particularly rare Goya painting that he plans on stealing with the help of a small group of thugs led by Frank (my current favorite French actor, Vincent Cassel of Black Swan, Eastern Promises and Mesrine) who have paid off Simon's massive gambling debt and expect the crime to be the payback.

The only problem is, during the heist Simon is supposed to get into a scuffle with Frank (for appearances' sake) before Frank grabs the painting from him. But Frank gets too rough and clocks Simon on the head with his gun, putting Simon the hospital with a bad case of memory loss. It turns out that Simon took an extra precaution when he swiped the painting and hid it somewhere only he knew about, so now the damn thing is lost. The gang tortures Simon for a while to get the location of the painting, but this results in nothing, so they decide to pick a hypnotherapist at random to hypnotize Simon and retrieve the memory. The therapist, Elizabeth Lamb, is played by Rosario Dawson, and she's very good at her job, so much so that she realizes pretty early on that Simon is in trouble, and she wants to help him.

And that's as much plot as you need to know, but that's only about the first 30 minutes of Trance, which takes turns being trippy, grotesque, erotic (not surprisingly, Simon finds ways to work the lovely doctor into the deeper recesses of his fantasies), and often very funny — whether that's intentional or not is irrelevant. It's insanely entertaining, even if Boyle is winking at us at times. I prefer to think that's his way of saying, "You're taking this seriously? Shame on you."

The story almost dares us to get comfortable and think we know what's going on. It stacks manipulators upon manipulators, and double-crosses occur as frequently as alliances are formed. Despite the many scenes of hypnosis, the film rarely has us doubting what is real and what isn't; you always know where you are, but best of luck attempting to unravel the meanings of all of Simon's visions while he's under. Trance has wild, messy bursts of violence, and in its climactic moments Boyle even manages to piece together a gorgeous and beautifully choreographed bit of action that manages to be lovely as it defies the laws of physics, space and time. I'm not sure if I want to applaud or slap writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, but if their script can inspire Boyle to get this creative, I guess I'll let them slide... this time. I'm not sure I could pass a test on Trance (although one more viewing ought to make that possible), but I know that it held my interest and sometimes made me giddy, and that counts for a lot.

The Company You Keep

After directing the sadly misguided history lesson about those who planned and executed President Lincoln's assassination, The Conspirator, Robert Redford makes a welcome shift into more recent history with The Company You Keep, which covers the aftermath of important US events that actually happened in his lifetime. In this case, it's the domestic antiwar group the Weather Underground, who bombed buildings (usually empty, but not always) as a way of calling attention to the thousands being killed in Vietnam, or so was their thinking. The film opens when one former member, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), is picked up by the FBI just as she was on the verge of turning herself in.

In doing simple background research on the story, Albany reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) finds out that local public interest attorney Jim Grant (Redford) got a call to possibly represent Solarz — an offer he turned down. But being the jackal he is, Shepard doesn't let go of the connection and soon discovers that Grant is also a former Weather Underground member wanted for murder in connection with a bank robbery 30-some years earlier. Grant can tell that his cover is about to be blown, and after he deposits his young daughter with his estranged brother (Chris Cooper) in New York City (almost getting caught in the process by an FBI team led by Terrence Howard's Agent Cornelius), he sets out on a cross country journey. We assume he's simply on the run, but it becomes clear to Shepard that Grant is out to clear his name somehow.

Based on the Neil Gordon novel and adapted by frequent Steven Soderbergh writer Lem Dobbs (Haywire, The Limey), The Company You Keep doesn't hold too many genuine surprises or twists. The film's biggest reveal, having to do with the parentage of one character, is so obvious, it's a little embarrassing. But what the movie lacks in suspense, it makes up for with some sharp writing and great performances from a superb multi-generational cast, including Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott and Julie Christie, as another former WU member with a lingering connection to Grant that he needs to exploit to achieve his goal and get back to his daughter.

It's always great to see Redford back in the acting saddle. He makes it look easy, and this film has many opportunities for things to get tough. The only problem with casting himself in this role is there was never any doubt in my mind that he didn't do the crime he is accused of. But watching him go on a type of personal odyssey through his past, reconnecting with old friends and a few not-so-friendlies, was fascinating to behold. I was also equally impressed with LaBeouf's portrayal of this deeply flawed journalist, who never fails to see the angle but rarely notices the damage he leaves in his wake. Even a potential relationship between him and the daughter of a source is scorched because of his ambition. LaBeouf's mannerisms and fast-talking style suit his manipulative character well.

The Company You Keep ends with more of a thud than a bang, but short of killing most of the main characters, even that seemed rather inevitable. The film is strangely critical of '60s and '70s radical ideas and thinkers. Perhaps this is Redford's way of acknowledging that those who committed acts of domestic terrorism were no better than those who sent young men off to war. He's certainly not apologizing for '60s ideals, which I'm sure he thinks altered the course of history, but he may be saying that not everyone with long hair and a strong opinion was on the right side of things. The film is a curiosity, to be sure, but one that is highly watchable and front-loaded with great acting. The Company You Keep opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Upstream Color

It's been nearly 10 years since writer-director Shane Carruth became the tiny pebble that sent giant influence rings across the great lake of cinema with his brain-bending time travel film Primer. And while that work took a few viewings to really understand all that was happening in it, the story was decipherable. His latest, Upstream Color, is a little less so, although the plot at the core is fairly simple; it's the implications that's seem enormous and obtuse. I feel fairly certain Carruth wants his new effort to be a jumping off point — the film that launched a thousand conversations, if you will. Allow me to broach a few of them.

There's a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is snatched by a ne'er-do-well who puts a small drug-secreting worm in her system that makes her do exactly what he says, including removing pretty much all the money she has in the bank and handing it over to him. As this process is unfolding, the worm inside Kris is growing inside her to the point where she can see it crawling around under her skin, and she tries to cut it out with a huge kitchen knife, unsuccessfully. She meets a pig farmer (called "The Sampler" in the credits and played by Andrew Sensenig), who somehow has the medical knowledge to remove the worm in the grossest way possible.

Not long after this traumatic incident, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), and two fall in love. The only bizarre thing about Jeff is that he keeps telling her stories about his life that are actually stories about her life that he has absorbed into his own history. It's annoying, sure, but it's not like he cheats. Meanwhile, The Sampler seems to have the ability to listen in on people's most intimate moments by simply sitting right next to them without being seen. Those are the basic plot point, but really they're just a means to getting to some deep, dark topics, such as the fragile nature of love, the elements, faith and how those things all seek to control us... or do we let them do so?

Carruth has a real gift at making Upstream Color incredibly watchable with intense, sometimes grotesque imagery and hypnotic, tension-laden music It should come as no surprise the Carruth is his own cinematographer, co-editor (with David Lowery), and he scored the film. And he's a captivating actor who forms a perfect bond with Seimetz; both characters seem like damaged, but not broken, souls in need of what the other brings to their relationship.

Some people like their science fiction spelled out for them; I am not one of those people. Films that people are meant to discuss and debate after viewing (a key distinction, since the trend lately seems to be debating a film's merits before seeing it) are too few and far between to dismiss, and with just two films, Carruth has become something of a master of manufacturing such work. There are no right or wrong answers about Upstream Color's meaning.

I feel confident that its maker's primary purpose was to create a love story, one that has the ability to heal powerfully. But then there's all that other strange and wonderful stuff that surrounds our young lovers; and it's in those moments that Carruth makes his mark and soars. And Upstream Color isn't a work about two people happy and smiling in love; it's about two people so much in love that it scares them and causes deep anxiety and mental anguish. God, I miss college. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre.

Writer-director-star Shane Caruth will be on hand for a Q&A after the 7:30pm screening of Upstream Color at the Music Box Theatre, and will then introduce his previous film Primer. Although this event is completely sold out, the Music Box has added a 5pm showing of Upstream Color, with a Caruth Q&A following (but no Primer screening). Purchase advance tickets here.

Disconnect

The tagline on the poster for the new ensemble drama Disconnect is "Look Up." If I told you that the film was about how everyday technology — phones, tablets, computers — is eating away at our lives and our humanity, you might get the line's significance; it's not subtle. It's also not the worst advice. If the film had come out five years ago, it might have had something to say that we hadn't seen or figured out on our own.

As it stands, Disconnect is a decent attempt to show how technology has made it easier to depersonalize each other, through stories about cyber-bullies starting up a fake romance with a sensitive high school kid, whose parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis) are oblivious to their son's life, until he tries to kill himself after being humiliated to his classmates. Another stories involves a couple (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton) who lose all of their money and credit through identity fraud; they decide to seek revenge on the man they believe did it (Michael Myqvist). It just so happens that the father of one of the bullies (Frank Grillo) in the first story is the cyber-crimes investigator for the penniless couple in the second story. You see how the interconnectivity works.

An almost unrelated third story concerns an underage online sex show worker (Max Thieriot) who becomes the centerpiece of an investigative journalism profile by a reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who naturally finds herself weirdly attached to her subject. As I said, a few years ago, these stories might have been eye opening to an audience, even shocking to some. But I feel like all of these tales have been made into episodes of "Law & Order: SVU," some more than once.

The acting here is actually what saves Disconnect from complete disaster. Bateman is actually quite good as a largely absentee father, whose eyes are opened wide by his a son's cry for help. At one point, one of the bullies starts to feel guilty about what has happened, and he shows up at the hospital where the boy's family is gathered. There's a conversation between the boy and Bateman (who doesn't know who this kid is) that is just staggeringly moving. I was also impressed by Grillo's performance as a single dad trying to raise a good kid, who has just done a terrible thing. He's protective but he wants his son to do the right thing. With outstanding recent work in Mother's Day, Warrior, End of Watch and The Grey, Grillo (set to play Crossbones in the Captain America sequel) is fast becoming one of my favorite faces in movies. He's often cast as the resident tough guy, but then he brings something a little deeper that adds dimension to his parts.

The story with the reporter and the teenager is the least interesting, but former-child actor Thieriot owns every scene he's in thanks to a sexual magnetism that all the ladies and men that enter his gravity seem to respond to. Other than that, Riseborough's behavior as a journalist is utterly unbelievable, bordering on laughable. Disconnect is an average film punctuated by a couple of strong scenes and solid performances. You could do worse, but this weekend in particular, you could do a whole lot better.

Bert Stern: Original Mad Man

Several years ago, I saw a tremendous document of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival called Jazz on a Summer's Day, and watching it is a joyous experience. I knew nothing about its origins or its filmmaker, Bert Stern, one of the greatest portrait photographers (especially of beautiful women) who has ever held a camera. Called the original "mad man" photographer (meaning he partied hard, bedded many of his models — famous and otherwise — and just generally behaved irresponsibly and selfishly), Stern is probably best known for his infamous "last sitting," semi-nude images with Marilyn Monroe, taken just before she died and published the day after she was found dead. (Stern re-created the shoot with Lindsey Lohan not long ago, and was universally chastised for doing so.)

Listening to Stern detail the Monroe sessions in this eye-opening and honest documentary on Stern's life is a fascinating exercise in seducing your subject without sleeping with her (not that he didn't want to), but he convinced her to wear very little makeup, and she went for broke with transparent veils and a confidence that she rarely showed in such intimate settings. When you see a collection of Stern's work, you'll recognize many shots that have become iconic, such as his Lolita movie poster image (heart-shaped sunglasses and a lollypop) for Stanley Kubrick, whom Stern met when the two worked together at Look magazine early in their careers. Stern literally invented vodka ads in America (Americans were not drinking vodka in the early 1960s) with a series of wonderful photos that appeared in campaigns for Smirnoff.

What is somewhat strange about the film is that the director is model/actress Shannah Laumeister, who is currently in a relationship with Stern, but she's brave enough to interview several of his ex-lovers and even his ex-wife, who has both very fond and shockingly bitter stories of her own. But I don't think a true outside observer would have gotten Stern to open up as much as Laumeister does, and while she occasionally overwhelms the film with her personal stories (and a whole lot of nude images of herself, taken by Stern), I think her access enriches the final work.

As much as Stern frequently likes to tell us her loves women, it's clear from his stories of lusty photo sessions that he more enjoyed conquering them. And he had the looks, power, and certainly the talent in his younger days to make that a fairly easy accomplishment. In fact, there may be people who think he's a pig; certainly some of the women in the film do. But there's no denying that his images are lasting, significant, and true art. Come for the seedy stories, but stay for the often-breathtaking photos of both celebrities and other lovely creatures who he seduced with his talents. The doc paints the portrait of a man who is willing to be open but not quite all the way. Yet somehow, we never feel shortchanged by Stern or the film. He never held back when it came to his work, and that's what is most important.

The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. And as a wonderful bonus, the Film Center is also showing Jazz on a Summer's Day a few times during the next week. You get a discount if you buy tickets to both, which you absolutely should.

 

James Patrick Schmidt / April 12, 2013 7:21 AM

I'm calling shenanigans on paragraph 3. That pun was intended.

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Sat Aug 23 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, If I Stay, When the Game Stands Tall, The Trip to Italy, The One I Love, Land Ho! & The Possession of Michael King

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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