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Column Fri Sep 06 2013

Riddick, Afternoon Delight, The Patience Stone, Una Noche & Red Obsession

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Riddick

For those of you expecting wall-to-wall action from Riddick, you might be mistaking this film for an entry in that other Vin Diesel franchise. If you want eye-popping science-fiction visuals, again, that not exactly what this third installment in the series that began with 2000's Pitch Black and trudged along in 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. I think the elements of Richard Riddick (at least the first film — certainly the latest) that appealed so greatly to Diesel are the themes of isolation and of one skilled killer fighting against a small army of... something. In this first film, it was a scorched, seemingly lifeless planet by day and a lethal darkness at night. But this time around, Riddick is death in the dark, at least for a large part of this movie, and he seems to be enjoying the turnaround.

Kind of sort of picking up sometime after Chronicles (with an appearance by a familiar face from that film), this story eventually sees Riddick back on another sun-burnt, nameless planet, severely injured and fighting for his life against alien creatures that want nothing more than just to eat him up. The first 30 minutes or so of the film feature no dialogue (outside of a bit of narration and the flashback to how he got here in the first place); it's Riddick versus everything this planet has to throw at him. There's a race of alien dingos and a hideous set of creatures that look like a combination of lizard and scorpion. There aren't a ton of different unfamiliar wildlife featured in Riddick, but the creature design is pretty great in the way it blends the familiar with the grotesque.

Soon enough, he figures out that there's a slightly healthier portion of the planet with plants and fresh water, but when he gets there, he discovers a way station for mercenaries. Knowing he can't stay on this planet forever and that he needs a ship to get off, he uses an emergency beacon at the station to alert nearby bounty hunters to his presence on the planet, and just waits for the ships to come to him. Two groups show up — a motley crew led by Santana (Jordi Molla), and another more militaristic unit led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable). Perhaps more interesting are their second in commands, played by wrestler Dave Bautista (soon to be Drax the Destroyer in Guardian of the Galaxy) and "Battlestar Galactica's" Katee Sackhoff, respectively.

Both teams believe they have what it takes to get Riddick to show himself and kill him — the bounty on his head is worth more if he's dead. ("That's new," Riddick rightfully acknowledges.) But as always, the lone wolf sees all with his glowing eyes and he seems to know exactly what his adversaries are going to do next. There are some truly badass, über-violent moments in Riddick that will likely make you squirm and/or laugh, but they're liberally spread out over the two-hour running time, giving us time to take stock in the shocking things we've just witnessed and figure out how it changes the game in progress.

Honestly, anyone who complains about the film being too slow is missing the point. Diesel and series director (and this time, writer) David Twohy are just as interested in the between-action moments as they are the big set pieces. And I'm perfectly okay with Diesel wanting to get in a more contemplative groove with this character, who seems almost like some kind of mellow monk when he isn't chopping limbs off or mowing down monsters. When given the opportunity, Diesel can surprise us as an actor. He hasn't done it in a while, but there are a few acting choices he makes here that are genuinely interesting. Look, he's not going to win any awards for his performance, but it's distinctive in a genre that can get pretty repetitive.

Still working on a tighter budget than Diesel's other franchise, for the most part the special effects are pretty good in Riddick. There are these speeder bike sort of things with handle bars that make them look like old-school choppers that are just ridiculous, especially since many of the characters look like variations on bikers anyway. It's a rare bit of silliness in a film that seems to take itself fairly seriously. There's no winking going on here, especially from Diesel, who clearly has a great affection for this character — the one that essentially started him down a certain path as an actor. What Diesel and Twohy have done is captured the indie-movie energy and vibe that they created for Pitch Black, poured in a few more dollars, another interesting supporting cast, and a substantial amount of Diesel's inherent coolness and given us a film that about entertainment, yes, but also a fair amount of looking behind the goggles at just who Riddick is and what makes him tick. Yeah, I liked this one.

Afternoon Delight

I'm mad about Kathryn Hahn. She's one of the very funny character actors that is very often a highlight of any film she's in, but it's clear that part of her enormous talent involves having range as an actor. One of the first things I noticed her in was Anchorman as one of the ladies working in the office who is inspired by Christina Applegate's feminist stand for equality. And then she just started up in everything, either as a strong supporting player, and even a few times in a more up-front role.

Check her out in such works as The Holiday, Step Brothers, Revolutionary Road, How Do You Know, Our Idiot Brother, Wanderlust, and most recently alongside Nick Offerman in We're The Millers. She also had a regular role on "Crossing Jordan" and extended runs on "Parks & Recreation" (as Paul Rudd's shrewd campaign manager) and "Girls." She's got about four films in the can in various stages of post-production, and she's a damn gift to any film that is smart enough to hire her.

Afternoon Delight puts Hahn where she was destined to be: in a lead role in a largely serious film about Rachel, a married mother of one who seemingly has it all — except for a sex life, a career that's going anywhere, or a life beyond the various volunteer jobs at her kid's preschool, all of which she gracefully avoids at any cost. In a mostly weak attempt to put some spice back in their marriage, Rachel and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) go to a strip club where they meet McKenna (Juno Temple), who Rachel takes an instant liking to after McKenna gives her a private dance. With the hopes of saving McKenna from life as a stripper (and prostitute, we find out later), Rachel convinces the young woman to come live with them and be nanny to her kid.

If the film had been an in-depth examination into those of us who have comfortable but unfulfilling lives, there might have been something here. And certainly first-time feature writer-director Jill Soloway (who has been a writer and producer on such shows as "Six Feet Under," "Gray's Anatomy" and "United States of Tara") has a history of working on television series that explore this topic in depth. Instead what we get is a waiting game, as in, when will McKenna screw up her nanny gig? Or when will someone discover McKenna's sex worker history? Or when will Rachel get stung by sticking her nose too far into McKenna's life? Oh hell, why not give us answers to all three of those questions.

There's a wildly unbelievable scene where McKenna takes Rachel into a situation that no one in the film or watching it will think is a good idea. To her credit, Hahn is a gifted enough actor to make even that scene more interesting and engaging than it has any right to be. Afternoon Delight also features Jane Lynch as Rachel's lesbian therapist, who seems more interested in telling Rachel the intimate details of her love life than listening to anything Rachel might have to say about her crumbling life. The scenes are mildly amusing, but ultimately act as nothing but a lazy storytelling device for Rachel to discuss her inner thoughts instead of finding smart ways of working her problems into the story.

Temple has always been an actor who has never been afraid to dive head first into characters who are more sexually liberated than those around them. While usually the stripper/prostitute character is usually the one with the damaged soul, here McKenna seems to be one of the few people in the story who has her life together — at least until a sequence near the end where she gets her feelings hurt and takes it out on those who have been kind to her.

Afternoon Delight won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which is more than baffling to me, especially considering some of the competition. Still, it's a film with its more poignant moments and a tremendous amount of solid work from Hahn and Temple, who combine to elevate this material beyond its flawed screenplay. If you have a fondness for Hahn as a performer, this film is worth checking out if for no other reason than to see her stretching her acting muscles in a more dramatic direction. If you don't know who I'm talking about or don't care, you can probably take a pass on this one. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Patience Stone

The latest film by Atiq (Earth and Ashes) Rahimi is the kind of film that makes me sad, not because the movie itself is moving (although it most certainly is), but because most of you will never see it. Admittedly, a huge percentage of you who don't see The Patience Stone in theaters will not do so because the film will not have opened in a theater anywhere even remotely near you. But the rest of you will simply opt out of seeing one of the single most gripping, incredible films of the year, featuring an awards-worthy performance by Golshifteh Farahani as an Afghan wife who risks her life and the lives of her young children to keep her comatose husband alive in the middle of a war zone.

Based on a novel by the filmmaker and adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere, The Patience Stone is set in an unnamed location featuring characters whose names we never learn. In the credits, Farahani's character is simply called "the woman"; her husband (Hamidreza Javdan) is "the man." As the film opens, we believe the woman is caring for her husband because she loves him. He has a saline and sugar mixture that she must mix herself dripping into his mouth from a makeshift feeding tube.

But as the story slowly reveals itself, we find out she is a devoted Muslim woman whose sense of duty overwhelms even the care of her children. She actually loathes her husband in many ways. He was a career soldier injured in the current fighting; he was away from home more than he was around; and when he was around he was emotionally absent and abusive. She talks to her vegetative spouse as she cares for him, often wishing he had just died so she could leave this dangerous place.

Her situation is tenuous. To avoid getting raped by a soldier, she says that she's a prostitute, which disgusts him enough to leave her alone. However, another young soldier (Massi Mrowat) arrives shortly thereafter looking to give her money so he can lose his virginity. And before long, the woman actually starts to develop feelings for this sensitive young man. Farahani does an incredible job showing the complexities of her torturous blend of guilt and passion. She doesn't want her kids in the house while this is happening, so she pushes them off on an aunt (Hassina Burgan) who also happens to sleep with men for money, and is happy to give some advice on the practice.

Farahani is a lovely actor with deep, haunting eyes that at various times give us sorrow, instability, pain and angst. While the film isn't technically a one-woman show, it really is. Whenever a new scene begins, I wondered what state of mind she'd be in, and the tension from moment to moment is unnerving. During once sequence, her home ends up in the middle of a fire fight that blows out her windows, damages the outer wall, and drives her into a makeshift bomb shelter that she is unable to drag her husband into. But somehow he manages to survive.

According to the press notes, the legend of The Patience Stone says that when it has absorbed all it can handle, it explodes and destroys the world. That perfectly sums up what this woman must endure in the time we follow her. The Patience Stone is a story about a woman used to bowing to the rule of her husband and her faith suddenly being given the freedom to do and say what she wants, even it's it only to a borderline lifeless man. There's a thread of empowerment that runs through this movie that is in a constant battle with our heroine's fractured mind. The film puts you through an emotional meat grinder and dares you to come out the other side unmoved. Now all you have to do is go see it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Una Noche

The first two thirds of first-time feature writer-director Lucy Mulloy's Una Noche is pure, raw, naked neo-realism at its finest as she follows the lives of three young Cubans barely scraping by in the dense and passionate city of Havana. Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre) and Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) are twins; the third is Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), a classic womanizer who has a complicated relationship with the twins. His co-worker, Elio, is desperately in love with him, but hides behind a girlfriend he has no feelings for; while Lila thinks he's a pig, but still finds herself strangely drawn to him. And all three have their reasons for wanting to build a makeshift boat and float right the hell out of Cuba, destined for Miami, 90 miles away.

Much of the film is focused on letting us get to know every corner of Havana, from the unbelievably dense and fully-stocked black market to the nasty cops, who seem to only care about keeping the nation's "citizens" away from the tourists and the money they bring into the country. The performances by the three leads are informed by the way of the streets and all they have to offer and take away. Slowly, the two boys get the pieces necessary for a raft, but they also make foolish mistakes that has the police after them as their plan is about to come to fruition.

Every character in Una Noche has their secrets, and that keeps them from thinking straight and growing up enough to take this voyage seriously, making it all the more dangerous. Lila isn't even supposed to be part of the plan, but when she shows up on the day of the launch, she just hops on the raft at the point of no return (she doesn't swim) and never gets off.

Filmed entirely in Cuba, the film takes a drastic and somewhat terrifying turn once the raft is in the water, and what began as a somewhat critical and ugly look at Cuban living becomes Open Water on a slowly sinking boat. The love triangle storyline really comes to life out at sea, but then the actuality of any long-term relationship seems extremely limited at that moment. Una Noche features truly tense and haunting storytelling from Mulloy, on both land and water. It's a rare opportunity to get a peek at modern living in impoverished Cuba, as well as the thing that drives people to leave the country and take that dangerous journey across shark-infested and storm-ridden waters. It's a powerful, eye-opening work of art. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Red Obsession

I think the real lesson of the documentary about the outrageous prices people will pay for high-end wines is that rich people are dumb, if for no other reason than they essentially create and then destroy the very markets that they play in. This isn't exactly a newsflash, but when seen in the microcosm of the wines of the Bordeaux region of France, it seems all the more ridiculous, especially when writer that cover the wine industry spelled out exactly what happened in this region long before it happened.

Directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross, Red Obsession begins as an overview of the special nature of the Bordeaux region, and how its climate and centuries-old process have turned its wines in the the works most legendary and coveted, no more so than it was for its 2009 and 2010 vintages of such brands as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Château Latour. The critics would come in, rate the wines among the best in a century, and the manufacturers would price the wine accordingly at several thousand dollars per bottle — historically higher than ever before by as much as three and four times. These same critics who scored the vintages so high also warned that eventually a poor harvest would drive the prices down and burst the wine bubble, as it were.

But the film makes an important and unexpected (at least for me) turn to the east, specifically China, where a new generation of multi-millionaires is just starting to collect things that only really rich folks can afford to, including rare and expensive wines. And they're buying cases of the stuff. The movies makes the point that, for the time being, the previous buyer of much of this wine, America, has dried up as a source of income since our economy went south.

As if on cue, these Chinese moguls are brand hungry and sometimes don't even care if the wine is any good (most collected wine does not get opened or drunk); it just looks good on the shelf and in their portfolio. The film also notes how French wine makers are subtly catering to the Chinese market, doing everything from hosting elaborate parties at the vineyards to altering the labels to appeal to foreign markets.

Narrated with the appropriate air of drama by Russell Crowe (perhaps trying to be a part of a better wine movie than A Better Year), the subject of the film may fall into your lives under the category of "Why should I care about these rich dummies and their wine?" And there no answer I can give you beyond, "It's a really fascinating, well-made documentary about a pool I will never swim in," and maybe you don't have time to sample such treasures. But if you're curious to see how the 1 percent spend their money (think of how much your relished in the failures of the family profiled in The Queen of Versailles), if only to fuel your rage about them, Red Obsession is a curiosity well worth checking out. And if you have a taste for good wine, the film will certainly help you add to your wish lists for vintages you might like to sample if ever given the chance.

The film is playing in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Sept. 7 at 3:30pm; Monday, Sept. 9 at 7:45pm; Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 6:15pm; and Wednesday, Sept. 11 at 8:15pm. Elysabeth Alfano, host of The Dinner Party at City Winery, will lead the audience discussion following the Saturday screening. Following the Monday screening, Rachel Driver Speckan, City Winery's Beverage Director and Certified Sommelier, will lead an educational discussion, including a blind taste test of three different wines following the film.

 
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