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Column Fri May 31 2013

After Earth, Now You See Me, Before Midnight, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, American Mary & Paradise: Love

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After Earth

The ugly truth about the latest Will Smith film (he even gets a sole "Story by..." credit) is that it's not that bad, which is to say it's completely possible to sit through its 100 minutes and not want to tear your eyes out. It's certainly a good-looking movie, with some interesting future tech on display, and in a couple of scenes, director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan even gives us a sense of how things work. I'll admit, when I heard the idea of After Earth, I was intrigued. I like the idea of this big-scale science-fiction film that was really just about two characters trying to survive a couple of brutal days on a planet they know little about — Earth.

As the film begins, we soon discover that the father-son relationship between Cypher Raige (Smith, the elder) and son Kitai (Jaden Smith from The Karate Kid remake) is strained. Dad is basically king of the Rangers, the military-like branch that protects the human population forced to relocated when cataclysmic events pushed earthlings off the planet about 1,000 years ago and apparently gave everyone weird accents that come and go.

Even though young Kitai has not formally passed his test to become a Ranger, Cypher takes him out on a mission anyway, one that includes traveling in a ship with a captured space alien on board, one of a race that has been tormenting humans since they left Earth. The ship crashes thanks to a renegade asteroid belt, and the ship just happens to fall in pieces back on Earth, which is loaded with evolved wild animals, all bent on eating humans. Cypher is injured so badly that he's forced to stay on the half of the ship he and his son landed in, but in order to retrieve a rescue beacon, Kitai has to go seek out the other half of the craft. He has limited supplies, means of breathing on the poisoned planet, and all manner of creatures to take a bite out of him. So armed with mounted camera (so dad can see his actions back on the ship), Kitai heads out with dad advising him along the way.

Up to this point, I'm still with After Earth, although I'm not happy with the idea of sidelining Will Smith in a film that is clearly going to feature a great deal of action. But what's odd about this movie is that is was clearly conceived as an audition reel for Jaden, so he might get other jobs. And the kid can take a tumble or do a summersault, so I'm sure one day he'll made daddy proud and be an action hero too.

But he's also required to act in this film, displaying a great deal of emotion as he remembers back to a time when his sister (Zoe Kravitz, who has added the middle name Isabella to her credit for some reason) was alive and protected him from an alien attack as she sacrificed her life. This memory has kept Kitai in perpetual fear, something a Ranger can never show since the aliens are blind and can smell fear on a person. Jaden's main means of expression seems to be yelling. Okay, but there's more to emoting than kicking and screaming, and like nearly every film with kids in it these days, the parents tell them to do something, but they think they know better, so they do something else.

After Earth's biggest problem is that it's tedious and predictable. And its potential for drama is undercut by the fact that we know without a shadow of a doubt that Will and Jaden's characters will not die. It just wouldn't make any sense for the filmmakers to kill them off, so what's the real threat here? There's something appealing to me about the idea of this being a bonding experience between father and son, but somehow the one aspect of this film that should have worked beyond any doubt utterly fails to gel emotionally. I couldn't get it out of my head that Cypher only cared about his son's well being because the boy's success meant Cypher got to live. At one point, Cypher makes a call about the mission's future as a father, not as his superior officer, and I never once bought Will Smith's almost robotic declaration of affection for his son.

Sure, it was kind of neat to see what the filmmakers' vision of Earth 1,000 years from now was like. Larger, more evolved wildlife threaten Kitai at every turn. There are functional ideas at play here, but the key family drama at the center of this story falls so flat as to virtually tank the rest of the film. The pieces for a decent sci-fi adventure story combined with a family drama were all there, and I was eager to see that film. But thanks to some really stagnant writing and Will Smith lacking any manner of charisma (seriously, he's so dialed back, he's almost transparent), After Earth just sits there on the screen, daring us to give a shit.

Now You See Me

Let me explain something: almost without fail, magic tricks in movies are about as convincing as... well, nothing. Movie magic can be great; real magic can take your breath away; but the two can't exist at the same time. If you want to see a movie about great magic, check out the Ricky Jay doc Deceptive Practice (in theaters soon or now, depending on where you live). But that film is a documentary that handles tricks by showing them with no edits, usually in close up. In the film Now You See Me, we're dealing with magicians with four different styles combining their talents to pull off some incredible tricks and rip off some big-money institutions for the greater good.

Let's see if I can explain this without putting you to sleep. The magicians — Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco — are summoned together by a mysterious unseen ringleader (so immediately we try to guess who the mystery leader is from among the available cast) to perform together a massive-scale trick that involves a French bank president being transported from Las Vegas to Paris into a vault that has recently been emptied, while back in Vegas the money is sprinkled throughout the audience members from the rafters.

Naturally, the FBI is called in, led by investigator Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), as is an agent from Interpol, played by Melanie Laurent. In turn, they consult with a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman), who doesn't really add anything to the proceedings other than a great voice. The director is Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans), who doesn't seem happy unless he's overblowing something and basically wrecking it. And in Now You See Me, the thing he overblows are the illusions themselves by the four magicians (collectively known as the Four Horsemen, for no particular reason). In one poignant performance, the Horsemen transfer money from a rich dude's (played by Michael Caine) account into the accounts of members of the audience, until the rich guy's funds are gone. Wow, that's really an eye-popping, cinematic moment if ever there was one.

Like all examples of bad magic, this film just feels fake when it should feel natural. Even the search for the identity of the unknown ringleader is awkward. Clearly the filmmakers want us to suspect various cast members at different points during the film, but we can feel Leterrior with his hands all over us, guiding us from one suspect to the next, which of course means it isn't any of them.

Now You See Me mistakes spectacle for intrigue, it throws a sheet over our heads and tries to convince us it's a great disappearing act. This film is just plain dumb, insulting, lacking in any form of wonder or mystery. All of the things it needs to be, it neglects. I can't even point to a particular actor and say, "At least he/she's around to keep us entertained." Nope, everyone is pretty much on the same faulty wavelength here. There's a false sense of urgency in every damn scene of this movie, and nothing about what's going on here justifies it. In the end, Now You See Me will exhaust and confound you, in all the wrong ways.

Before Midnight

Is the third installment of Richard Linklater's lovely and honest series of films about a not-so-young couple truly a true look at romance? Yes and no and who cares, because it's great whatever it is. Before Midnight is about the relationship between moderately successful writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who are now nine years past the events in Before Sunset, in which Jesse apparently decided to leave his troubled marriage, stay in Paris, and start a life with Celine. That film occurred nine years after Before Sunrise, in which these two meet on a train and decide to spend the better part of the day walking and talking in Vienna, after which they separate and Jesse writes novel about their time together (along with a sequel later on, apparently).

In the last nine years, they've had twin girls, Jesse only gets to see his son during the summer and at Christmas, and the guilt of not being around his son more as he gets older is weighing heavy for both Jesse and Celine. This time around, the setting is Greece at the serene, beautiful home of an older writer and hero of Jesse's (Walter Lassally). Before Midnight wisely opens up the film to include players whom Jesse and Celine can converse with, bounce ideas off of, and just generally play with. Not surprisingly, there are alcohol-fueled conversations about life, sex, and how passion fades as one gets older.

Another couple staying at the villa has agreed to watch the twins while Jesse and Celine stay in a hotel in town, which gives our heroes the chance to walk and talk as they go into town, and a warm and familiar conversational rhythm kicks in beautifully. Credited with screenwriting along with Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are simply creating words as they go, and it never gets tiresome. Celine blurts out some outrageous thought or opinion just to test the waters, while Jesse never misses a chance to let Celine know that she still turns him on. They balance each other well, and we laugh along with them on their walk.

But it's when they get to the lovely hotel that things shift. Just as they begin to kiss in advance of having sex, a fight begins that almost certainly feels like the end of something special. It's devastating watching how quickly the tide turns and the accusations and insults begin to hurl. In this chapter of their lives, life has not always been kind, and they talk as best they can about the pressures of having children, long-delayed job plans, and buried resentments. And rather quickly, bitterness rises to the surface and a lifetime's worth of insecurities come rushing out; it's startling to watch it unfold. But even in their arguing times, there's a wonderful poetry to what is being said. Naturally, we want to pick sides and say, "She's right and he's wrong" or vice versa, but the truth is, they both make valid points about the other's behavior, and we find ourselves hoping they'll see their real selves amidst all of the raised voices.

These Before... films have been set nine years apart, with the characters in their 20s to 30s to now early 40s, and within the fabric of their relationship (they aren't actually married, we discover), we see ourselves and how we relate to our significant others. We consider how we would respond to what Celine or Jesse says, and weigh that against the response in the film. It's been a fascinating, soul-enriching journey that I hope continues. One might have accused the first two films of idealizing romance, but Before Midnight throws cold water on the love affair. This is the only one of the three films that takes a cold, hard look at the consequences of decisions made earlier in life, beginning with the events of Before Sunset.

Every look, every step, every raised or lowered voice is absolutely right in this film. It's as if we're seeing these moments as they were originally lived, and I can't think of another film or series of films where that is the case to this degree. You know what? This is the only film opening this weekend you need to see, so I'm going to shut up so you can start making plans. With something this exquisite and raw, you need to just step right in and let it either embrace you or slap you across the face — ideally both. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Aside from the thousands of classified State Department documents, emails, videos, etc. dumped on its site for the world to examine (due in large part to an emotionally volatile and gender-confused PFC named Bradley Manning), I wasn't exactly sure what WikiLeaks was all about or what its founder and face Julian Assange stood for. To say he was simply a person who believed that the world would be better place if it were transparent doesn't quite cut it, since Assange himself has been living sequestered in London's Ecuadoran Embassy trying to avoid extradition for a pair of sexual assault charges in Sweden. Few people have been trying to keep secrets with as much conviction as Assange. What master documentarian Alex Gibney's latest film, We Steal Secrets, is aiming for is something resembling a well-rounded portrait of a man who is hero to many and criminal mastermind to others.

The more you learn about Assange, the less you actually understand what his motivations truly are. The weight and significance of WikiLeaks seems as much the result of dumb luck as it was calculated decisions. After dispensing with a brief biography of Assange's childhood, years as an activist, and early career, Gibney slows things down to give us as accurate account as possible exactly how Manning got access to so many sensitive documents (it's amazing what a few legit credentials and security clearances can get you on a good day), and how he then passed them onto the WikiLeaks team, many of whom have abandoned their once-fearless leader.

I had always assumed WikiLeaks got these groundbreaking files through cunning, well-placed informants, and technical wizardry, but none of that is really true. Perhaps the most shocking thing that this film reveals is how easily everything was acquired by Manning and distributed to Assange and company. All signs seem to point to the Australian once being a legendary hacker in his younger days, but like many self-aggrandizing people, his motives and beliefs are vague and seem to serve as publicity for WikiLeaks.

And just when we're ready to dismiss the man as a vicious self-promoter who doesn't care about justice and revealing the truth, he comes under fire by the US government (not surprisingly) and his life turns to absolute shit. The aforementioned rape charges seem all-too conveniently timed and too much like a discrediting campaign and less like police work. In retrospect, the demonization of Assange was beautifully executed and should make every single person in the world very scared. As the director of the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side as well as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9, Mea Maxima Culpa and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Gibney is too much of a professional to come right out and say this, but he lays out the evidence pretty convincingly.

In the process of various news agencies and governments attempting to make Assange seem like a creep, what they do succeed in doing is making him a paranoid troll, peering out his windows. There's almost a sense that for a short time Assange feels he's the leading man in a spy thriller, but reality comes crashing in on him with such a force that he's almost knocked off his feet. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Assange's story is the level of fanaticism that surrounds WikiLeaks. His fans are vocal, tireless, and likely have the abilities to cause a great deal of havoc on your laptop.

We Steal Secrets is certainly a learning experience, and one of the more complicated single-subject docs that I've seen in quite a few years. Gibney doesn't want us to love or hate Assange — in fact, he doesn't care if you do either. But what he does want is for audiences to see how a certain type of power slipped away from Assange just as he was coming into his own. He has never really been able to regain such access because of the criminal charges. We Steal Secrets is a fascinating take on a grubby little man with a lot to say and a decreasing number of ways to say it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

American Mary

I missed this film at Fantastic Fest last years, but signs and hints of the notorious directors Jen and Sylvia Soska were everywhere, and my curiosity never fully recovered. Now having seen their feature debut as directors, American Mary, I get what people were so excited about. Although suffering occasionally from amateur-hour overacting (mostly from the supporting cast) and being about as subtle as a sledgehammer, the film is still a surprisingly eerie and creepy little number a medical student who turns to a life of performing twisted body modification surgery on willing patients.

So memorable as a werewolf girl in Ginger Snaps, Katherine Isabelle plays Mary, a broke, behind in her homework would-be "cutter" who clearly has a gift for surgery. But after a horrific drugging and assault by one of her professors at a party, she cracks and goes into her own version of private practice. Along the way, she meet and befriends Beatress (Tristan Risk), a woman who has altered her face to look like a real-life Betty Boop. Beatress wants Mary to perform a final surgery to complete her friend Ruby's transformation into a real life Barbie doll, complete with no nipples or genitals. You get the idea.

Turns out there are quite a few folks in the world in need of a medical professional who will perform these elective surgeries, and before long Mary has got plenty of money, but her lifestyle has put her in danger. The directors even make an appearance as twins who wish to be more... connected. What I found most intriguing about American Mary is that it was something I'd never seen before, and the idea of body-morph medical stuff is just gross enough to pique my interest just out of the sheer originality of the idea. Isabelle is a beautiful, engaging actor and the visual style of the film is solidly seedy. Little details someone undercut the horror aspects of the film, but nothing that kills it outright.

American Mary is a grotesque little picture for people tired of more of the same from horror films, indie or otherwise. It is at times charming and repulsive, but it never forgets to be fun and perversely entertaining. It opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

Paradise: Love

I feel like it has been far too long since I'm been able to sink my teeth into the spongey flesh of a new film from Austrian-born Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export, Dog Days), and the wait has been worth it as Paradise: Love (part of a trilogy that includes Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope, to be released later in the year) is an absolute masterwork about the humiliating lengths we will go to for something resembling human connection as we get older.

The story centers on Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a middle-aged German woman who travels alone to a Kenyan beach resort where the only thing standing between the luxury hotels and the ocean is a wall of young men selling their trinkets and baubles. Of course, what they're really selling is their companionship to these relatively wealthy ladies, whom they milk for every penny they have, claiming not only personal needs for money, but sick relatives and broken-down schools who also need cash. And the women seem to fork over the money because they don't know what else to do.

Tiesel is so perfectly stubborn that she refuses to have sex with the first man she selects, despite his pawing her and promising her love. In fact, all of the men that she has contact with in Kenya say they love her, and one can't help but wonder if these men have learned that simply repeating the word will get better results. But the real meat of the story in in the behavior and attitudes of the women concerning this nation and its readily available men. It's bordering on racist, and any resistance on the part of the men is met with awful behavior by the women.

Teresa meets a young man named Munga (Peter Kazungu), who is smart enough not to ask her for anything right away like these rank amateurs do. He hooks her with emotion and mind-blowing sex before he guilts her into handing over rolls of cash. It's a strange and sickening game that both parties play, as if money won't come into the equation, which of course it always does. Seidl has never shied away from the true nature and face of human beings. His lead actors are rarely classically handsome, he can get particularly graphic in his depiction of sex (which he does here), and he allows his actors the freedom to behave as they will, no matter how unappealing they might look. Paradise: Love is sometimes sad, funny, joyful, desperate, and on that rare occasion, even a bit kinky and erotic. It may make you uncomfortable, but it won't leave you empty.

The film opens today for a weeklong run in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Saturday, June 1, Paradise: Love will be accompanied by one-time preview screenings of Faith (at 5:15pm) and Hope (7:45pm), which will have full runs later in the year.

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

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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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By Steve Prokopy

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