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Column Fri Aug 30 2013

Getaway, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Grandmaster, Closed Circuit, One Direction: This Is Us, The Attack, The Lifeguard & Saturday Morning Mystery



I don't think I've seen a more perfect example of paint-by-numbers filmmaking than director Courtney (Dungeons & Dragons) Soloman's car-chase/heist film Getaway. Here's what I mean: I'm convinced that Solomon and his team shot one long car chase through some city in Bulgaria using their stunt teams, then they shot hours of footage of just Ethan Hawke's hand shifting gears in the Shelby GT500 Super Snake, then they shot hours of Selena Gomez (playing Hawke's prisoner/sidekick) screaming at Hawke various versions of "I hate you" and "Your driving sucks." Then probably 15 minutes of just Jon Voight's withered, villainous mouth saying variations on "Time is running out," "Tick tock," and "I don't think you're going to make it" as he taunts the former racer (Hawke), performing certain tasks for Voight so he doesn't kill Hawke's wife (Rebecca Budig).

Yes, of course I realize this is how movies are made. You film the individual parts and edit them together. No shit. But with Getaway, you can actually still see the numbers underneath the painted screen that read "Voight-mouth," "Shift," "Screaming Selena," "Bulgarian police car flips," "Hawke downshifts," and the list rinses and repeats in a pattern that is almost freakishly predictable. I bet people who are good at counting cards can predict the next six scenes at any given point in this movie. It's horribly embarrassing how this nonsense is pulled together.

The story opens with Hawke coming home (in Bulgaria?) to a wrecked house and a missing wife, who has been taken by Voight's minions. Hawke plays disgraced and shell-shocked former driver Brent Magna, and Voight claims to be his biggest fan. Sporting what I can only assume is a Bulgarian accent, Voight (whose face we don't actually sees almost for the entire film — only his jerky lips surrounded by facial stubble) gives Brent instructions on how to drive around the city in a pattern that appears to force the police chasing him to block off certain specific streets. If Brent strays from the plan, Voight will kill the wife. The baddies have cameras mounted all over the car to track the driver's movements, so a great deal of the film is viewed through these cameras.

Hawke steals the speedy, near indestructible vehicle out of a parking garage, but it actually belongs to classic car fanatic Gomez, whose father just happens to be a high-level muckety-muck at one of the biggest investment banks in the country (that would be, again, Bulgaria). At some point, she crosses paths with Brent, and Voight makes it clear that she's a part of his plan, so she can't leave the car either, which does not sit well with her.

What happens from that point is basically a variation on the Speed formula, complete with Gomez finding a way to make the car's dozen or so cameras loop an image so she and Brent can do something sneaky without Voight noticing. The car chases and crashes themselves are somewhat exciting, but after a while all the Bulgarian police cars smashing into something or flipping end over end or exploding start to look the same. I realize with films like this, you aren't supposed to analyze them or look for character development, and believe me, you won't be tempted to do either. But good god, give us something with a pulse to hang onto and give a shit about. The editing is so rapid fire that much of the time you can't tell what's happening, and I'm betting you'll have a headache.

There is one kind of glorious shot in Getaway, and maybe I only think that because it was a single, continuous take. It's near the end of the film, and Brent is driving through the city, the camera is mounted on the front of the car, and he's rapidly accelerating, narrowly missing fellow drivers and other obstacles. And it just keeps speeding up without cutting, and I'll be damned if it doesn't generate a little tension the faster he goes. Hell, every time he approaches an intersection, I got nervous because he doesn't brake for any color light. I have no idea how long the take is — maybe two or three minutes, but it felt good to have the feeling of standing still for once during this high-speed ride.

It's almost impossible to judge acting in a dopey film like this. Hawke puts on his serious face right off the bat and pretty much never changes expressions for 90 minutes. Gomez shows a bit more expression, but her rattling off specs of her or any car was about as believable as her saying, "I think my dad told me once..." before launching into some ridiculously detailed fact about the security system in her father's bank. And Bulgarian Voight Lips? Well, they're magnificent. The problem with Getaway isn't that it's implausible and stupid; my issues have more to do with being bored and not caring how things wrap up. It's pretty easy to predict who might live and die, so what else is important here? They say the destination isn't as important as the journey, but when the journey feels like someone fed a punch of scenes in an iPod and pushed "shuffle," how do you assign any value to that? I'll do it anyway: the value is zero.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The first thing you'll notice about writer-director David Lowery's latest work is how old everything looks. At first, it's tough to even establish which decade this story of two young lovers separated by a crime takes place. But even after the 1970s Texas Hill Country setting is made clear, the weathered color tones (courtesy of award-winning cinematographer Bradford Young) and well-worn look of the production design and costumes gives the feeling that Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a tale set during the Dust Bowl era or perhaps the early 1950s. Lowery wants his film to look like a faded photograph or yellowed postcard of a bygone era, and it seems entirely appropriate.

The young lovers/criminals in question are Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), who announces during the film's opening argument that she is pregnant. Soon after, the pair finds themselves in a shootout with police, and Ruth shoots young officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster, in a truly masterful performance). Bob confesses to the shooting and ends up getting a 25-year sentence as a result, leaving Ruth alone under the protective gaze of family friend Skerritt (Keith Carradine). But even more unsettling is that in the years Bob rots in jail, Wheeler becomes a frequent visitor on Ruth's doorstep as her child grows up without a proper father.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Ain't Them Bodies Saints is that, although to a certain degree we want to see Bob and Ruth reunited (if only because Bob wants it so desperately), Lowery is smart enough to plant the idea in our head that the pair probably shouldn't be together for too long. Ruth is torn between the sexy bad boy and father of her child and the safe protector that exists in Wheeler, who also presents a sound case for him being her significant other. When Bob escapes from prison and makes no secret of the fact that he's coming for his family, everyone's nerves are on high alert, and we really have no idea what Ruth will decide (although it's not a complete surprise either).

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a film that is high on atmosphere and settings that are both stark and lush, but may be slightly lacking for those of you hung up on complicated, layered plot. The love-triangle plot here is as old as storytelling itself, but there's a texture to the acting that pulls you into these lives and makes you wonder and fret about where they will land. In particular, Mara is devastating and deeply uplifting by the film's conclusion, while Foster just slow-burns his way from cool and reserved to finally revealing the depth of his feelings toward Ruth.

Before this film, Lowery was possibly best known as the editor of such recent works as Shane Caruth's Upstream Color and Amy Steimetz's Sun Don't Shine, but with Ain't Them Bodies Saints, he has decidedly made his mark as a director of quality and a writer of substance. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with Ain't Them Bodies Saints writer-director David Lowery, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Grandmaster

The latest from Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express) is a tough call. On the one hand, it's gorgeous to behold, whether it's a martial arts fight sequence (choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-ping) in the rain or a simple, lingering shot on the face of its female lead Ziyi Zhang. But Kar Wai's loosely-based-on-reality telling of the life of kung fu teacher Ip Man (played by the director's favorite Tony Leung, making this the pair's seventh film together) is so bogged down by a love story and wartime drama that it misses many opportunities to get into the master's impressive real-life story (which includes training a young Bruce Lee).

I'm hardly suggesting that a film whose focus is on martial arts can't stray into other areas, but the various styles on display in The Grandmaster (including Ip Man's Wu Ping kung fu) are impressive that you can't help but get exasperated when the movie wanders away from various fighting contests and lessons on the geography of China (apparently split into the Northeast and tropical South for these purposes) and how they dictate said styles. It's easy to get lost in Kar Wai's visual feast of a film and not notice the storytelling flaws — at least for a short time it is. There's no shortage of great acting in the film, but much like a Hollywood film with excellent performances and visual effects, you still need a functioning story to bring it all home and make it great.

The strange thing is, few directors tell such passionate, emotionally driven stories as Kar Wai, but when you have these eye-popping fight sequences pulling your attention in every direction, it's sometimes difficult to backslide into an unrequited romance between Leung and Zhang — one that I'm pretty sure has no basis in reality.

Its my understanding that this version of The Grandmaster is 15-20 minutes shorter than the international cut, and that the cuts made to this Weinstein Company release were supervised by Kar Wai himself. There are a great number of much-appreciated title cards that explain who many of the characters are and give a great deal of history, particularly when it comes to the vicious Chinese-Japanese conflict. I'm beyond curious to see if the original cut is significantly different, and if you have access to foreign DVD releases, it may be worth checking out.

When The Grandmaster sticks to Ip Man the teacher and occasional fighter, the film is magnificent. But when it detours into his fictional personal life, it suffers more than you might expect for a film from a master filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai. There are certainly a great number of stunning and exciting fight scenes, but not nearly enough to box out the miscalculations in the scripting and editing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Grandmaster star Tony Leung.

Closed Circuit

This is one of those films about a big, important subject that feels small and insulated from the real world when it should do everything in its power to be as relevant to current events as possible. The British production Closed Circuit is about a pair of attorneys representing a suspected terrorist ringleader whose sleeper cell perpetrated a suicide bombing at a crowded London market, killing 120 people. But what it's actually about is surveillance, and how impossible it is to do or say anything without some device or bit of technology recording it. The movie Paranoia didn't have nearly as much paranoia as this film does.

But screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) and director John Crowley (Kid A, Intermission) get as easily distracted from the most dramatic elements of their story as a kitten chasing a laser dot on the wall. By making the two lawyers — Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) — former lovers whose affair wrecked Rose's marriage, this immediately distracts from the fascinating procedural elements of the case that are actually that are quite different than the American way of doing things (and I'm not even talking about the wigs).

The most significant portions of the case have to do with the evidence. The reason suspected terrorist Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto) has two lawyers is that some of the evidence must remain confidential, even from the suspect and his primary attorney, Rose. Simmons-Howe is the only person allowed to review the classified evidence to defend him, so in a sense, the suspect is forced to go through two trials, one that includes the secret evidence and one that does not. The trouble is, neither attorney believes their client is guilty. In fact, they both come to the same conclusion: that their client is working undercover for MI5, and even though the two attorneys are never supposed to talk to each other while the trial is going on, they begin to dig into Erdogan's history within British intelligence.

Not surprisingly, as they uncover more and more of the truth, their lives become increasingly at risk, and they start being victims of the very surveillance that helped catch their client in the first place. Anne-Marie Duff is actually quite good as an MI5 agent assigned to keep tabs on Rose, while Jim Broadbent pops in and out of the story as the Attorney General, who slinks in whenever Rose needs a reminder of the stakes or that anyone of his friends and loved ones (including his young son) could fall victim to accidents if he gets out of line or too close to the truth. As long as we're trotting out famous faces, the filmmakers also throw in CiarĂ¡n Hines as Devlin, one of Rose's oldest friends.

One of the weirdest supporting roles in Closed Circuit is that of Julia Stiles as a New York Times reporter who pops up in two scenes, offers up no vital information, and is "dealt with" via a newspaper headline. Her appearance in this film could have been easy extracted, and it truly feels like the only reason she's in the film is to entice American viewers to maybe take a look at this film. But if having great actors like Bana and Hall in your movie isn't bringing in the Yanks, I'm not sure Stiles is going to make it happen.

The more Closed Circuit leans on its brooding love story and angst of its lead characters as it pertains to their personal relationship, the less interesting it becomes. When the film sticks to its more foreboding themes of government cover ups and intelligence agencies going after citizens of its own country, it's certainly better. Even still, the movie feels like it's taking place in a very small box, with only room for a few characters to drift in and out of each others' lives. Presumably this is the type of revelation with national and even international implications, but it only feels like three or four people give a damn. There's also a horrible, tacked-on bit of audio over the last bit of film that attempts to wrap up everything we've seen in the tackiest wrapping paper ever designed. It's a closer call than I'm making it sound, but the flaws are big and the saving graces are too few. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

One Direction: This Is Us

I happen to love music documentaries. It's one of the primary reasons I attend SXSW, because on the last few days of the fest (when the music crowd starts to move in), they play some of the best music-related docs or concert films I've ever seen. So even if I don't know the performer or style of music, I'll still check it out and see if the film makes a case that I should pay more attention to the music featured in the film. Seems like a fair deal. After seeing the Morgan Spurlock-directed One Direction: This Is Us doc recently, two things became very clear to me: first, the film is actually quite well made; and second, One Direction's music is horrible, and I say this having really never heard any song by the group all the way through ever before the well-shot 3-D concert footage featured in this movie.

While the film never sold me on the music, Spurlock (who does not appear in the movie) does a credible job of piecing together a solid case for the unique nature of the band's rocket-launch rise to popularity and tremendous record and concert tickets sales. The Super Size Me director's greatest achievement is giving the five members (Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson — and no, I could not look at a band photo and tell you who is who) a platform to show us their various personalities traits rather than as a single unit. He does this by interviewing family members about their almost-accidental fame, and we get to see the boys back in their respective hometowns on a tour break.

For those who don't know (including me), One Direction is made up of young men who didn't make the cut on the British version of the singing competition show "X-Factor." But Simon Cowell had the idea to pick five of the show's losers and put them together in a band — which still didn't win the final contest, but acquired enough hardcore fans to allow them to begin a career while watching their success multiply exponentially. Before long, the boys are touring the world, running from fans and doing what they can to lead normal lives — while having everyone want to take their pictures and rip their shirts off. And no worries there, by the way; the film features many moments of shirtless young men and the occasional group member running around in his underwear. The loudest screams from the audience I saw the film with happened during those scenes... and that was just from me.

The concert footage — shot at London's O2 Arena — is beautifully shot, and is some of the best 3-D concert material I've ever seen (the team that brought U2 3D to life had a big hand in this portion of the film. But I'll be damned if One Direction's music is about as slick and boring as anything on the pop charts now or ever. In some fan interviews featured in This Is Us, girls say that they love One Direction because they say the things in their songs that real boys won't say, and I firmly believe that is true. I'm sure those fans know that 1D didn't write the songs on their first album and contributed only slightly to the writing on their second, so more than likely it's 30-something-year-old men saying these things to them in actuality. Gross!

I'm genuinely torn by the One Direction doc. On the one hand, the raw information featured here is decent stuff, and it's interesting watching how all of the members keep each other humble and in line if someone's head gets a little too big. But, as I may have mentioned before, their music is dismal. And I'm sure I'll get a lot of angry emails from young fans, who will tell me I just don't get it. And you know what? They are absolutely, 100 percent right. I don't get it and I don't want it. If you're forced to go because your girl children need a ride, you could do worse; but I'm decidedly split on actually recommending this to the masses. But if you're not a fan going in, you're only hurting yourself if you're seeing it because you're mildly curious.

To read my exclusive interview with One Direction: This Is Us director Morgan Spurlock, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Attack

Writer-director Ziad Koueiri (Lila Says, West Beirut) has made a shocking and powerful drama with The Attack, based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra. The story zeroes in on respected Palestinian surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), who has been living with his lovely wife (Reymonde Amellem), as a highly assimilated couple in Tel Aviv society with Jewish friends. One day while working in his hospital, Amin hears and feels a massive explosion nearby, killing 19 bystanders, the result of a suicide bomber.

Shortly after the incident, Israeli police take Amin into custody and inform him that his wife was the bomber. In fact, her covered, blown-to-bits dead body was wheeled right by him in the hospital, and now he must positively identify her before being questioned and harassed for days. This is not a film about whether or not Amin knew about his wife's plan or political leanings; it's about a husband coming to grips with the fact that the comfortable, loving life he had lived for years with his wife was a lie. And he sets out to discover when and why she changed, and most importantly who put these ideas in her mind to begin with.

Suliman gives a pained and heart-wrenching performance as a man who refuses to believe his wife is guilty until the evidence is piled before him. We get brief glimpses of them in happier times, but as the film goes on, we see what happens to her right before and right after these seemingly innocent moments, which are merely a smoke screen for her husband. Eventually Amin heads out to the somewhat dangerous Palestinian territories where the wife traveled several times before the bombing, where he is horrified to find posters, banners and other images of his wife, who is being celebrated as a martyr. The Attack pulls no punches as Amin bull-charges into homes and mosques of extremist types demanding to know what they did to his wife, but the answers confuse more than clarify.

The Attack does its best not to judge the participants, but I also think it's clear who we're supposed to be sympathizing with in the story and who we're supposed to fear. The deeper Amin goes into his search for answer, the more tense things become. We get a very clear sense that the only reason these Palestinians aren't killing him is because of the work his wife did, and that makes us and him even more solemn. The acting here is top notch, especially Suliman, who drags us through his personal hell and makes us feel both the sadness and anger of his journey for the truth. This is a film you will not soon forget, nor should you. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Lifeguard

A popular theme at this year's Sundance Film Festival (and of last year's work Hello, I Must Be Going) was grown women having affairs with younger (in some cases underage men/boys). In The Lifeguard, the perpetrator of said affair is Kristen Bell's Leigh, the top of her Connecticut high school class and fairly successful New York reporter, who hasn't felt more together and happy than she did than in those teenage years, during which she also had a job as a lifeguard at the local pool. When she has a minor breakdown at work, she retreats for home where several of her closest school friends still reside, including her best friends Mel (Mamie Gummer), who works at the school, and Todd (Martin Starr), a semi-closeted gay man with identity issues of his own.

Also still back home is that old lifeguard job, which Leigh gets back, hoping for a little mental downtime. At the pool, she meets Jason (David Lambert), the son of the caretaker and a student at her old school. And for the duration of The Lifeguard, Leigh relives her younger years of smoking pot, drinking, and having sex with Jason. In fact, this might be one of the only times Bell has had on-screen sex when it wasn't meant for laughs. I'd even go so far as to say that the sex is rather graphic, intimate, bordering on erotic.

Unfortunately for the film, first-time writer-director Liz W. Garcia's script is a little fuzzy, especially when it comes to what exactly is Leigh's mental state. She seems the victim of free-floating anxiety more than an actual disturbance, which may explain why she gravitates to vacation-like activities to relax and unwind. The inclination whenever a story features a relationship of this nature is to assume the woman is somehow broken, but Leigh just seems sadly lacking in a loving relationship and finds one in this kid. It's not appropriate at all, but Garcia isn't exactly trying to sell us on the idea that it's 100 percent wrong either.

Bell breathes a great deal of much-needed heart and warmth into Leigh, as she embarks on one selfish pursuit after another, but it's not quite enough to pull the film out of its dramatic doldrums. The bigger problems rest in the subplot involving Mel finding out about the affair and being torn about whether to report it (cuz that's her job) or protect her best friend, all the while she and her husband are trying to have a baby and she's freaking about about that too. Seems like the emotional breakdown character at the center of this film should have been her. And Todd hits on one too many people who aren't interested in him, and it's just embarrassing to watch. There are portions of The Lifeguard that absolutely work, but so much of it is an emotionally fuzzy mess that borders on pointless. The film opens in Chicago today at the AMC River East.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Lifeguard star Kristen Bell.

Saturday Morning Mystery

I've heard this surprisingly effective little horror tale called a live-action spoof of the "Scooby Doo" gang, a description I couldn't disagree with more. While it's very clear that Saturday Morning Mystery (until recently called Saturday Morning Massacre) takes its cues from the story of the cartoon series (complete with a dog), the idea here is, "What if the Scooby gang actually went into a house that might be haunted and confronted things like death, gore and real scares?" While the film is occasionally funny, it works best when it pulls out the stops, hurls blood on every surface and delivers genuinely terrifying sequences that make this a great additional to that midnight movie slot at your local rep theater.

In this configuration of the familiar gang (although none of the characters have the same names or neon-colored clothes as their cartoon inspirations), the nerdy Velma-esque Nancy (Ashley Spillers) runs the operation and books the "hauntings" for her group of paranormal investigators/hoax busters to dispel. Jonny Mars plays Floyd (pulling inspiration from Shaggy), Jospehine Deck is Gwen and Adam Tate is Chad, to round out the group, which is on the verge of going out of business when they get a call from a local bank to verify that a local abandoned schoolhouse/mansion (known as Kyser House) is not the setting for any long-rumored satanic practices or other paranormal goings-ons. The bank wants to set up its annual haunted house in the building, but want it cleared of any suspicions beforehand.

With the help of a kindly local sheriff (Paul Gordon as Officer Lance), the gang hears the troubling stories of Kyser House and spends its first night wandering the place looking for any anomalies. Director Spenser Parsons doesn't waste any time scaring the piss out of us by making it clear that something is truly off about the place when the investigators begin their processes to find out the nature of what may be haunting it. It's a sometimes brutal ride, but never without a dose of fun.

As you might suspect, the film launches into a game of who lives and who dies, along with the game of what exactly is behind these nasty hauntings at the Kyser House. As much as it might seem like you've seen things like this before, Saturday Morning Mystery actually feels like something a little different with its take on ghost hunters (aside from the obvious comparison).

And the production looks and feels like it had a higher production budget than it likely did. You're not constantly noticing where the filmmakers cut corners, and that helps us settle into the proceedings and concentrate on the act of letting them creep us the hell out. And I won't lie, Ashley Spillers is cute and quirky enough to keep things interesting. I don't speculate on things like this often, but she might actually have a shot at breaking out into bigger, more mainstream works down the line if that's her goal (and no, I've never met her or spoken to her). The film is a great deal of fun, and considering I'd never even heard of it until about two weeks ago, I can add it to the list of low-budget surprises that entertained me far more than most of the big-budget films I saw this summer.

Saturday Morning Mystery is playing as a midnight movie at the Music Box Theatre this Friday and Saturday evening. Director Spencer Parsons will be in attendance for post-screenings Q&As on both nights.

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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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