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Column Fri Jul 19 2013

RED 2, The Conjuring, Fruitvale Station, Turbo, Girl Most Likely, Only God Forgives, Crystal Fairy & Terms and Conditions May Apply

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RED 2

I wasn't much of a fan of the first RED film about middle-aged/over-the-hill former CIA operatives (mostly assassins) who are forced out of retirement to take on both the agency and other assorted bad guys. The primary reason I disliked the film is that, with the exception of Morgan Freeman's character and maybe Helen Mirren, none of the retirees were that old. But as the film went on, the truly aggravating parts of the film involved Bruce Willis' harpy, would-be girlfriend Sarah, played by Mary-Louise Parker. Thankfully, the makers of RED 2 have seen fit to dial up the action quite a bit (a good thing), introduce more interesting characters in the form of Anthony Hopkins and South Korean superstar Byung-hum Lee (also good things), and made Sarah the single most annoying character to have populated a film this year.

But even more irritating is that once again in a mindless action film, the fate of the free world is at stake and people are trying to save friends and loved ones rather than concentrate on, I don't know, saving the planet. Maybe I'm cold blooded, and I apologize if you are someone who is close to me, but if it comes down to saving you or saving the world, kiss your ass good-bye. The needs of the many and all that shit...

But my God, I didn't think this franchise could make Sarah more grating. All she wants to do is go out on missions with her sweetie bear Frank (Willis), but when he does include her, all she does is fuck up and put lives at risk. I guess that's funny, but any self-respecting assassin would have done away with her years ago. She's a horrible creature, and Parker adds that extra layer of nails on a chalkboard to really seal the deal. But she's not the only terrible thing about RED 2, oh no.

Seriously, if this series was only about Frank, his buddy Marvin (John Malkovich, acting weird even for him), and maybe Helen Mirren's Victoria (for class), it might be really interesting. But Frank saddled with domestic prospects just isn't as funny as the filmmakers think it is. Tossing in Byung-hun's Han Cho Bai is a great touch; he's agile, funny and adds some energy to the proceedings. I'm always a fan of seeing Neal McDonough in anything; here, he pops up as Jack Horton, who is tracking down a nuclear device that was apparently brought into Moscow from the US piece by piece during the Cold War, assembled, but never used. I'm not sure how killing these former CIA agents fits into his plan, but I'll go along since the film also has a nice extended cameo from David Thewlis as The Frog, who also serves as one of the pieces to this over-complicated puzzle.

All roads seem to lead to Bailey (Hopkins), a scientist who has been locked away for 30-plus years and seems to have lost in mind during that time. But he's the only one who apparently knows where the bomb is hidden, so the team must drag another goofball into its unfunny adventures. I'll admit, I held out some amount of hope for this film because it was directed by Galaxy Quest helmer Dean Parisot, but my optimism was misplaced. Adding to the obnoxious factor is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Russian agent who used to have a little lust thing going on with Frank. And guess how Sarah reacts to that bit of news. Or should I say, guess how she overreacts? God, she's annoying.

There is a great deal of CG-assisted action in RED 2, only Mirren and Malkovich don't utterly humiliate themselves during the course of this film. The laughs are almost entirely low brow, and by the end of this agonizing film, I was kind of hoping the portable nuclear device would get set of, if only to put me out of my fucking misery. But even with all of this being said, I found this film more enjoyable than the last boring, stupid entry. You may be able to glean that I'm not a fan of the RED movies. I'm certainly a fan of most of the actors involved, and I like the idea in principle, but the execution makes me hate the world. I've never read the DC comic this series is based on, but I'm guessing it's a lot more tolerable than these sloppy, dumb movies. If you choose to see this instead of the 15 better movies out there (both in wide and limited release), you're either old or you hate movies; the choice is yours.

The Conjuring

Why has no one turned the paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren into a television series, preferably on cable, so things can get really scary if they need to (for whatever weird reason, The Conjuring is R rated, just for being that scary, I suppose since there's no blood, nudity, swearing, drug use or even smoking)? This couple went into the Amityville house, and they were (Ed died some years ago) considered the nation's pre-eminent folks in their field for decades. Usually they were disproving or debunking an occurrence, but every so often, they'd hit upon something unexplained that only they were qualified to investigate and deal with. The Conjuring is an account of one such case, and it will likely be the most scared you will be in a movie theater this year.

The Warrens were called to visit a house in Harrisville, RI, recently purchased at auction (so the details of the home's past were not revealed to the buyers) by the Perron family, consisting of father Roger (Ron Livingston), mother Carolyn (Lili Taylor, reminding us what an acting goddess she is), and their four daughters. The symptoms of a troubled house come, at first, in the form of moving objects, doors opening and closing, strange noises, even a few blurry sightings in mirrors. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes do a nice job building suspense rather than tossing the big scares at us right off the bat; true modern horror master, director James Wan (the original Saw, Insidious, Dead Silence), quite simply has his pulse on what makes people scared, and he rarely uses cheap tricks to make us squirm in anticipation or jump out of our seats.

Outside of its smart script, the real key to the success of The Conjuring is this great group of actors, including Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens, who live with their young daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins) in a house that includes a room devoted to possessed or otherwise creepy trinkets from all of their cases, including the notorious Annabelle doll (a Raggedy Ann doll in real life, but not in this film), which is said to be possessed and unnecessarily factors into this story. Taylor's performance as the devoted mother Carolyn is so good in this film, especially as a particularly nasty force that haunts her house (one of many ghosts in the dwelling, but the only one that is dangerous) slowly begins to corrupt her. There are times when Taylor is called upon to unleash in a way I've never seen her do, and she's so convincing that it genuinely freaked me out.

I was also quite moved by Farmiga's take on the spiritually tuned-in Lorraine, whose most recent encounter with a possessed person left her somewhat fragile and damaged; Ed is a constant protective force in her life, and barely allows her to take part in the Perron's once they figure out what they're dealing with. But the Warrens are good, God-fearing people who understand that they must use their abilities to help others the same way they themselves would want to be helped if the tables were turned.

Through good old-fashioned library research, the Warrens unlock the events that took place in the Perron home since the 1800s that have led to these spiritual issues. As ghostly and frightening as things might get, The Conjuring attempts to stay low key and practical when it comes to the way the hauntings manifest themselves. Director Wan knows that the more rooted in reality the scares are, the more we'll have trouble sleeping at home that night; what a bastard. And for the record, Wan will make you petrified to walk into your unfinished basement for the rest of your life.

Much like his last film Insidious, The Conjuring isn't just a solid scare movie; it's a genuinely fine film in any genre. And the power of great actors adds a layer of heart and empathy to the characters that actually makes us care about what happens to these poor people. Why don't more people who make horror films get that? Having your lead characters be simply young and good looking isn't enough; usually characters like that are portrayed as assholes, and we root for them to die, thus eliminating almost all of the suspense from the equation. But when we like and feel for the characters, we see ourselves in their situation and how horrible it would be to have our lives derailed in such a way. It ups the ante, and gives us so much to be scared about. I hope now that Wan is moving on to direct the next chapter in the Fast & Furious series, he doesn't leave horror behind him just when he's getting so damn consistent. So if you don't have an aversion to being scared, The Conjuring is your only choice this weekend.

Fruitvale Station

The first thought I had when I watched Fruitvale Station, the remarkable work from first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler, had nothing to do with racial equality, social injustice or even the case against George Zimmerman. Certainly, thoughts revolving around all of those subject eventually worked their way into my mind, but the very first one that continues to plague me today has to do with death. This account of the last 24 hours in Oscar Grant's 22-year life reminded me that we never wake up knowing that a particular day is the day we're going to die (unless we're on Death Row, I guess).

Coogler doesn't load up Grant's final day on Earth — the first day of 2009 — with significant moments and prophetic events. There are a few eerie hints as to what may happen that day, but none of them are specifically about death at the hands of an over-eager Bay Area transit cop. Coogler does open his film with the real-life grainy cell phone video of Grant's murder at the BART Fruitvale station, but knowing what's coming does not in any way undercut the low-level tension that seeps into every frame of the movie.

The filmmaker makes no attempt to paint Grant (played by the remarkable young actor Michael B. Jordan) as a man without flaws — quite the contrary. Oscar has just recently gotten out of jail, he's lost his job for being late every day, and he's still dealing pot to make ends meet for himself, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Sophina recently found out Oscar was cheating on her, so we can add that to the list of Oscar's many bad deeds. But in the plus column, he is trying to get his life back on track and stop dealing drugs. He still has a hair-trigger temper, but with the help of those closest to him, especially his mother (recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer), he's even learning to reel that in somewhat.

The one time Fruitvale Station strays from its 24-hour timeframe is a brief flashback to one year ago when Grant was in jail, and his mother comes to visit him. The scene is there to set up a confrontation later in the film, but what it really does is show you how far Oscar and his mother have come in just one year. In the jailhouse sequence, Oscar accuses his mother of never having his back, a statement that seems utterly false, but that doesn't make it hurt any less. It's a relatively short scene, but the amount of information that we gain from it immeasurable and devastating.

Coogler's mission is not to attach any kind of special status to Grant's life; to him every life is equally important. His goal seems to be putting a face to the name, attaching specifics to a young black man who might have otherwise been a statistic were it not for the brazen nature of his killing and the photographic evidence of the crime. The filmmakers is keenly aware that when white faces are killed so maliciously, that is big news, politicians step forward and calls for gun control and "Stop the Violence" soon follow. But when it's a black victim from the wrong side of the tracks, the death is added to a tally for the year, and people move on.

That's the true message of Fruitvale Station, a film that is as important, relevant and vital as any that will be released this year and likely this decade. Coogler doesn't stand on a soapbox and declare his message. He simply allows the well-documented events to play out, and puts a face to the bullet. It's a painful, necessary work to watch, but Jordan gives us a performance that marks not only a turning point in his acting career but also paints a complete portrait of a man trying to do better, sometimes succeeding, other times failing — like all of us. I know many of you will read about this film and decide "Not for me," and you'd be wrong. Fruitvale Station is for all of us, because it's about all of us.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan and writer-director Ryan Coogler,.

Turbo

The latest film from Dreamworks Animation might come the closest to the attention to detail that Pixar is typically identified with, but with the added bonus of embracing the concept of taking creatures that most would consider unappealing and making them funny and charming to a wide audience. The creatures in question are snails, and the film is Turbo, from first-time feature director David Soren, whose previous works include a couple of Madagascar shorts and television specials. Of course, some might not consider the practice of injecting said snails into the world of Indy car racing a huge risk.

The film follows a group of garden-variety snails (literally — they live in a vegetable garden) that includes Theo (voiced quite nicely by Ryan Reynolds), a snail who loves watching Indy car racing and dreams of himself in the drivers seat on day, and his more practical brother Chet (Paul Giamatti), who simply wants the two to perform their snaily duties and not get in trouble doing it. These duties seem to consist of grabbing rotten fruit from the vines and either eating it or depositing it in a place where the snails can compost it. A freak accident involving lightning supercharges and tricks out Theo's shell, but more importantly, it gives him the ability to live his dream of being super fast. What are the odds?!

Partly by design and partly by accident, Theo finds himself miles away from his garden home and ends up being discovered by a pair of taco truck owners, Tito and Angelo (Michael Peña and Luis Guzman), who just happen to race snails (usually the slower variety), but when Theo shows them what he's got, Tito sees his new friend (who renames himself Turbo) as his taco business' ticket to fame. Again by complete coincidence, Turbo meets a group of like-minded wanna-be racing snails, including ones voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Snoop Dogg and Michelle Rodriguez.

And through a series of contrivances and rule technicalities that could only happen or be legal in the world of a kid-friendly offering like Turbo, the young snail ends up racing in the Indianapolis 500 (much to my chagrin, Turbo does not drive a car; he just uses his super-charged shell to propel him at more or less the exact speed as his fellow racers). When you add voice actors like Bill Hader (as driver Guy Gagne, Turbo's primary human competition), Richard Jenkins and Ken Jeong, the one thing you can't say about Turbo is that it lacks a talented cast, all of whom have the right level of energy and skill to keep things moving and engaging.

While some may dismiss Turbo as simply a movie for kids, I think there are some really interesting lessons and themes happening that parents and other adults will appreciate. I love the way the two sets of brothers (the snails and the humans) are divided into one who is a dreamer and another who is more practical, and the way the dreamers help each other realize their ambitions is a great story of cooperation and friendship. Peña and Guzman are particularly funny, even if their being cast as taco salesmen treads dangerously close to stereotyping. The actors playing the snail racing group are really enjoyable too, and I was especially surprised how great Rodriguez was at voice work. People like Hader, Schwartz or Jeong seem like they'd be naturals at this kind of work, but Rodriguez is expressive and impressive as well.

As for the animation itself, there are times during the racing sequences when the photorealism of the track and cars is mind-blowing. Of course, I thought the same thing about Cars seven years ago, but just because you've seen something once doesn't mean it can't floor you a second time. The nature of the race is so outlandish that you'll either find it too ridiculous, or you'll give yourself over to the goofy circumstances and just enjoy the hell out of the race and subsequent accidents.

The scenes I found the most contrived and forced were the ones with Theo and Chet bickering. Theo behaves like a ADD-addled child, simply doing what he wants and blowing off his important role in his community. Meanwhile, Chet is so buttoned down and controlling, why wouldn't Theo rebel? Their squabbling gets old fast, and it's really only in the first 15-20 minutes of the film. I cheered when Theo bolted for freedom and set out on his own, whether he meant to or not.

Still, Turbo is a real easy film to settle into. It breaks just enough new ground to keep you interested, but it certainly takes advantage of some tried-and-true formulaic elements as well, both in terms of its story and animated technical achievements. It helps that about half of the film is taking place at a couple hundred miles per hour, so it actually feels like things are going somewhere. But like a real Indy car race, Turbo never quite lets you forget that it's covering familiar ground each time around. I liked it enough to recommend, but I doubt I'll be revisiting it any time soon.

To read my exclusive interview with Turbo star Michael Peña, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Girl Most Likely

With the exception of their adaptation of American Splendor, co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcici's films all have something in common: they're all just okay. Take a look at more recent works like The Nanny Diaries or The Extra Man, and you'll certainly find elements, scenes, fragments to enjoy. But more than likely, you'll come away from them feeling something important is lacking, and that something is greatness. Sadly, the latest offering from Kristen Wiig, Girl Most Likely (from a screenplay by Michelle Morgan), easily slips into that template of falling short of greatness as well, and what we're left with is an abrasive work front-loaded with characters that are simply too pathetic or like being assholes too much to enjoy anything about it.

A failed playwright before she even wrote her first play, Imogene Duncan (Wiig) was a younger woman full of promise, but nothing in her upbringing prepared her to be good at anything. She and her socially messed up brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) were told their father died when they were young, and their irresponsible, gambling-addicted mother (Annette Bening) is a special kind of trampy. When her rich boyfriend dumps her for a younger model (literally and figuratively), she fakes a suicide attempt, which includes what is apparently a very well-written suicide note that convinces psychiatric doctors that she needs to be under constant care for at least a few days, forcing her to move from her New York apartment to her mom's house in New Jersey. Ick!

Mom is living with her boyfriend George (aka The Bousche, played by Matt Dillon), who says he's a spy for the CIA, as most spies will tell you. This, of course, explains his long absences from the household... because he's traveling... on secret missions. Stick with me; this might turn out to be true. Also currently occupying Imogene's childhood room is a renter named Lee (Darren Criss from "Glee"), a singer in a Backstreet Boys cover band, part of a casino's '90s retrospective show.

The film bounces around quite a bit, and unwisely decides to take care of everybody's problems at the same time rather than just focus on one person's life and construct something realistic in the process. Imogene is now looked upon as an unstable force in her snobby friends' lives, and for whatever reason, she wants back in. Brother Ralph is afraid to leave the confines of their boardwalk community and even more terrified of talking to a girl he likes (Natasha Lyonne) without his sister's help. Mom's life is still a mess; Lee wants to be a real singer; the only thing missing is a heart for the Tin Man. Actually, the brother is so scared of the world, he's actually built a human-sized hermit crab shell that he can crawl into when things around him get scary. This movie doesn't know the meaning of the word "subtlety."

This is that version of Wiig who is mousy, timid and unsure of herself. It's not that far removed from who she played in Bridesmaids, but just a little more unhinged. Someone tried to convince me that she wasn't that crazy, to which I countered, "Yes, but how crazy do you have to be to think a suicide attempt is going to get somebody back?" Girl Most Likely has some funny and even a few moving small moments. If the film had focused more on Imogene trying to recapture some of her lost potential as a writer, I might have been on board. Instead, the filmmakers resort to cheap laughs and one humiliating moment after another.

When Imogene attempts to reinsert herself back into her old group of friends, the results are catastrophic. But we should be more on her side in that moment, and we simply aren't because a blindfolded person could have seen that coming. I'd kind of like to meet the person who is genuinely enthusiastic about Girl Most Likely, because even if you like it, I find it really tough to believe you'd recommend it to anyone. It's not bad; it's just okay, bordering on pointless.

Only God Forgives

I'm not typically at a loss for words after watching any movie, but I'll whole-heartedly admit that I sat kind of stunned for a few minutes after watching the latest from writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson), who has re-teamed with his Drive lead actor Ryan Gosling for a very different style of film in Only God Forgives. Set in the only part of Bangkok I'm familiar with — the underbelly — the story is a complicated tale of revenge, in which we feel pretty sure no one is going to come out at the end better than they were at the start.

Gosling plays Julian, a drug kingpin and boxing promoter who doesn't speak much but has a lasting connection with a local prostitute whom he doesn't even have sex with, if we can believe what we see here, and I think it's safe to say not everything we see on the screen is meant to be real. When Julian's brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and murders a 16-year-old girl, the girl's father exacts his revenge at the urging of a local gangster. Before long, Julian begins his quest to exact the most brutal kind of revenge on the men who murdered and ordered the murder of his brother, and he does so at the urging of his ruthless viper of a mother, Crystal (a blanched-out, absolutely brilliant Kristen Scott Thomas).

Then there's a measured, mesmerizing and violent-as-all-hell police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who seems to prefer staring over showing any emotion. In fact, the film seems to specialize in characters who like to stare as they are bathed in red or blue or gold light. There's no getting around that the Only God Forgives is a visually stunning exercise, but I'm not sure it really goes anywhere as a narrative or an acting endeavor. I don't need a film to have a straight-ahead, sensible story, nor do I have to like any or all of the characters, but I need something to latch onto and help me find an entry point into what's happening. Refn really hasn't given us that. I admired the rhythm of the piece as it goes from meditative to violently explosive in the blink of an eye. Body parts are lopped off, entrails are dumped on the floor, and spilt blood is like currency to these people.

Only God Forgives is never boring, and I'll give it a great deal of credit for that. But I never really cared what happened to these stagnant characters, which is not the same as saying I didn't enjoy seeing where they took me. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this one; it's clearly a case where style won out over substance, which makes it tough to just flat-out recommend, but there are elements you might be intrigued enough by to carry you to the end with a somewhat satisfied feeling. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Crystal Fairy

I bet the story behind how this movie got made is almost as interesting as the film itself, and I happened to think Crystal Fairy is an great little movie. This Chilean production from writer-director Sebastián Silva follows the bizarre journey of an American tourist Jamie (Michael Cera) who wants to road trip to San Pedro to track down a specific type of cactus (coincidentally called the San Pedro cactus), who can be turned into a tea and becomes a powerful hallucinogen that opens up your soul and makes you realize all sorts of shit about yourself and blah blah blah. The stuff gets you high; that's all you need to know.

The night before Jamie and three local brothers (all played by the director's actual siblings, Agustin, José Miguel and Juan Andrés Silva) hit the road, the American gets stoned at a party and invites a wild girl named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), who's a bit of a flake, but Jamie thinks she might sleep with him. By the next morning, he's basically forgotten her, but she calls him and ends up on the trip, much to Jamie's annoyance.

Like most road films, the important stuff is in the journey not in getting to a beautiful beach and getting stoned. When the group finally makes it to San Pedro, the pains they must go through to get even a small chunk of cactus is hilarious and entertaining. The guys soon find out that Crystal Fairy has very few inhibitions and tends to be very cool getting fully naked in front of them, and it's about the least sexual thing for any of the parties involved. As he did with more outrageous results in This Is the End, Cera once again taps into his inner ugly American as he endlessly tries to stick to a schedule he set up and get furious when things delay their trip.

But as the film progresses, Crystal Fairy's appeal and unbridled kindness begin to have their effect on Jamie and the rest of the group, and by the time they've reached their destination beach with cactus in tow, the true nature of all five characters begins to take hold as secrets are spilled and judging each other is set aside. Crystal Fairy is a surprisingly moving examination of this fledgling friendship in this far-away location, which is as much of a character in this film as any of the actors. It's also a beautiful film, and it's no surprise that it won the Best Director Award-World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The shifts in Crystal Fairy are small and subtle, but the results take it from being a silly, lightweight road trip movie into something more substantial and emotionally powerful. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Terms and Conditions May Apply

I've decided there are three types of documentaries: those that are informative or educational, such as biographies or works about movements or trends in the world; those that are a call to action, often focusing on a political or social movement that threatens our very way of living; and those that simply make us paranoid. Now, of course, there are more types of docs in the world, and there's no reason a single film can't incorporate more than one of these styles. Case in point, the fantastic, eye-opening work from director Cullen Hoback Terms and Conditions May Apply, which examines what exactly we're agreeing to when we click that little "Agree" button on iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, an email provider or whatever other internet service agreements we blindly enter into on a regular basis.

In the bigger picture, the film is about the rapid decline of true privacy in the world and how Terms of Privacy statements basically all say that your information will remain private unless someone (the service provider, the government, etc.) decides it won't any longer. If you believe the film, one of the biggest forces in the desire for less privacy is Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who seems particularly perturbed when his privacy is invaded but has no trouble making the default privacy settings on Facebook offer the public outside of your chosen "friends" have access to your Facebook pages, photos and information.

Not surprisingly, 9/11 was a big turning point in privacy rules and electronic surveillance changes. As we now all know, the government is monitoring phone calls, emails, texts — any type of communication that you likely think is personal. According to the filmmaker and those he interviews, things in this arena have actually gotten worse since President Obama took office. Indeed, after Terms and Conditions makes us insanely paranoid, it becomes a call to action and give options about where things should/might go from here. While there are those in government who believe that if you're not doing anything wrong, these gaps in privacy shouldn't bother you, that isn't really the issue. In fact, the government doesn't even make a good case that we're safer as a result of this intrusions. It's a film that should spark much discussion and debate; it does what a good doc should always do, which is stay with us long after the film is over.

Terms and Conditions May Apply will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, July 20 at 5:30pm, and Tuesday, July 23 at 8pm. Director Cullen Hoback will be present for a Q&A after the Tuesday screening.

 
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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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