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Column Fri Sep 13 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2, Short Term 12, Populaire, Sample This, The Muslims Are Coming! & Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

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Insidious: Chapter 2

It would be in your best interest, if you have an inkling to go and see Insidious: Chapter 2 anytime soon, to re-watch Insidious right before you hit the sequel. I'm a big proponent that every sequel — even a horror sequel — should stand on its own as a film and not wholly depend on what has come before, but clearly the makers of Insidious 2 don't agree. Insidious was a wonderful piece of scary, with a group of top-notch lead actors (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as husband and wife Josh and Renai Lambert) and handful of great character actors (including one of the queens of character actors, Lin Shaye) being put through the paces by ghosts being drawn to the couple's oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins, most recently seen as the kid in Iron Man 3).

We learned in Insidious that Josh actually had similar issues when he was Dalton's age but that spiritual advisor Elise (Shaye) erased the terrible memories from the boy at the request of his mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Normally when reviewing a sequel, I don't dig too deep into the storyline of the film before, but Insidious 2 actually retells portions of the first film in different ways. For example, the movie opens showing us exactly what I just described, with younger actors playing Josh, Lorraine and Elise (although I'm pretty sure Shaye's voice is still being dubbed in during those scenes) going through the motions of recognizing what is wrong with Josh (he had a ghost getting progressively closer to him every time a photo was taken) and then wiping the fear from him, as well as his ability to send an astral version of himself into "the Further," where ghosts chill out until someone decides where they should move on to.

But Insidious 2 also has the audacity to reverse engineer a major scare sequence from the first film from the perspective of the "ghost," resulting in some fairly terrifying moments for the family, even though the entity is trying to help them. It sounds more confusing than it is, and sometimes it's clever and cool, but mostly it made me laugh. The present-day part of the film picks up almost immediately after the events in the first film. Josh is not charged with Elise's death because there's no proof he did it; quite the contrary. There's evidence that a bride in black did it, but really what's happened is that nasty old bitch got into Josh's body and left him alone in the "Further," looking for a way out.

Renai is convinced something is wrong with Josh; Lorraine is too, and it doesn't help that both are still seeing ghostly creatures in the house they're now staying in. In an almost separate film, the Elise's two assistants (played by Angus Sampson and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) enlist the help of another psychic and old friend of Elise, named Carl (Steve Coulter), who uses lettered dice to talk to spirits. So what we're left with (if you're keeping score) is a story about Josh acting weird and creepy and everyone just thinking they're imagining seeing ghosts again, and a secondary tale about searching for the identity of the bride in black and how she is connected to Josh, apparently since he was a kid.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is a collection of truly terrifying moments (probably even more than the first film) strung together and loosely connected by a weak plot. The film's biggest sin is attempting to give every unknown aspect of the first film an explanation or justification; it's simply not needed and doesn't add anything to my love of the first film to know where the bride comes from, or about other victims of her horrid existence when she was living. These sequences have the scent of deleted scenes or excised ideas from the original's screenplay, but aren't nearly that interesting.

I'm fairly certain that director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring and, of course, Insidious) is the only director working today that can scare me so completely in film after film. I marvel at his setups, his use of silence, darkness, and most importantly, timing. I can literally hear the thought enter my head, "If something scary happens right now, I will lose my shit," and then he waits an extra beat before unleashing his terror upon me. If all you really care about is screaming and laughing at how loud you screamed with your friends (and that's a legitimate way to watch these films), then you might be satisfied with what Wan and Whannell have put together. But Insidious set the bar ridiculously high, and I'd like to see something that feels like they really tried something different here. Instead they resort to a great number of tired, standard-issue horror tactics that usually result in pulling us right out of the film and into boredom. Insidious: Chapter 2 never quite enters boredom territory, but predictable is a close relative.

I'd legitimately sad to report that Insidious: Chapter 2 doesn't make for an impressive second half to this story. I was really hoping Wan would exit (temporarily, we hope) the horror genre to go make Fast & Furious 7 with a mind-melting exercise in combining great actors and plot with wonderful scares. Instead we get what feels strangely like cashing in on a career highlight. It's far from a complete failure as a movie, but we've seen Wan do better. Hell, we saw him do better less than two months ago.

Short Term 12

If this story had been placed in the care of any other director, the temptation would have been to put the spotlight on the kids in this group foster home, all of whom have fascinating stories behind what brought them there and the progress they've made since arriving. But Short Term 12 writer-director Destin Cretton actually held a counselor job at a facility similar to the one in his movie, and he chooses to give slightly more weight to the only slightly older folks looking after these wayward youths — some of whom have been placed there because they may be harmful to themselves or others; some are there because there's simply no one else to take care of them.

There is still plenty of material here about the kids, but Cretton allows us to see that these counselors are there for very specific reasons, and I'm guessing none of those reason have to do with their salaries. We learn in one of the earliest scenes in Short Term 12 that Grace (the transcendent Brie Larson, most recently featured in The Spectacular Now) has just found out she's pregnant by fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and from that point forward every scene that follows is colored by that discovery. She's doesn't tell him or anyone until deep into the story, but we now realize every time she looks at him, she's wondering what he'd be like as a father, and she sees every kid in her care and wonders, "What if my kids turns out like one of them?"

On the day we meet Grace and Mason at work, we also meet Nate (Rami Malek), a first-day counselor who has an infinite number of things to learn about the work before him, and the "error" portion of his trial-and-error phase begins almost immediately. But Nate is our eyes, and a lot gets explained to us about procedures and individual kids as someone is cluing Nate in on the state of the union. Immediately, what sets Short Term 12 apart from other films about troubled kids — whether they are in group homes or mental facilities or hospitals — is the absolutely lack of sentimentality. Cretton is trying as best he can to present this place and these people as accurately and realistically as possible, and on that front he succeeds. These kids aren't a fun bunch of wacky characters; they are deeply troubled and disturbed, and they have trouble trusting anyone or even believing they are worthy of being loved.

But the film always comes back to Grace and Mason. He clearly is crazy about her, and some deep-seated, unknown trouble from her past puts a wall up around her and keeps her at arm's length from this patient (to a point) man. For much of the film, I was a little uncertain about Mason; he seemed almost like too much of a pushover, too forgiving. But the film goes on, we learn that he was raised a certain way in a home where exercising patience was a virtue.

Grace's limits are pushed with the introduction of 15-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who seems to have been bounced around by her absentee father. There's a pain in Jayden's eyes and a disconnect in her soul that Dever captures to such perfection that she may be too scary for you to handle. But in Jayden, Grace sees something familiar, and after the girl reads Grace a heartbreaking story she's written about a shark and an octopus that are friends, Grace is so moved that she casts herself in the role of protector.

But Jayden is only the tip of the traumatic lives in this facility. I was especially impressed with young actor Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who is on the verge of leaving the home when he turns 18, and while he seems to have promise as an independent survivor (he's also is a great freestyle rapper), we also get a sense that he could slip right back into self-destructive behavior all over again due to any number of triggers. A Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at this year's SXSW Film Festival, Short Term 12 is filled with one great performance after another, but its Larson's portrayal of the unstable, uncertain Grace that is the glue that holds the film together. She's in control as the home's voice of authority, dishing out rewards and punishments like a drill sergeant; while at home, she's questioning her abilities as a parent, a partner and a person.

And though you won't believe it because I realize I've just painted this film to be the heaviest, most depressing thing you've ever heard of, Short Term 12 is also really funny throughout, especially when the counselors get together and tell wonderful stories about their work to Nate. Laughter and tears: how could you want anything more? This is not only one of the true discoveries of the year, but simply one of the best films you'll see in 2013. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Short Term 12 writer-director Destin Cretton and lead actor Brie Larson.

Populaire

When I describe it to you, it's going to sound a little weird and ridiculous, and, in fact, it is a little of both. But this sly French tribute to 1950s romantic comedies, Populaire, is actually a work that both borrows heavily from the borderline feminism of the times and adds some darker corners, as the French do. When I refer to "feminism," I'm of course talking about films where women politely ask for equal treatment in the workplace, but still get lost in a handsome man's eyes. Hollywood at the time didn't want ladies abandoning their romantic ideals, even as they left the kitchen and homestead to go to be part of a secretarial pool.

Welcome to the world of Rose Pahmphyle (Déborah François), a socially awkward young woman who works in her father's store in Normandy circa 1958. She's always been a strong typist (even though she uses the hunt-and-peck, two-fingered typing style), and she finds out about insurance agent Louis Échard (Romain Duris of Heartbreaker, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Russian Dolls) in the neighboring town looking for a new secretary. Despite her unconventional skills as a typist and the fact that she's never worked in an office before, Louis hires her because of her particular charm with customers. But after a while, it becomes clear that being a secretary isn't for Rose.

But being the fiercely competitive type, Louis does want to enroll Rose is a speed-typing contest, and he insists on training her to use all of her fingers and beat both the French champion, and eventually the world champion (an American, no less). Louis is a confirmed bachelor, but Rose's beauty and charm force him to let down his guard and begin to fall in love with her. It doesn't help that Louis still has feelings for an old flame (The Artist's Bérénice Béjo), who ended up marrying his best friend. And with Louis drifting away from Rose because of his conflicted emotions, she ends up with a scheming, opportunistic man that she doesn't care about, setting her up for heartbreak and defeat.

First-time feature director Regis Roinsard has taken elements of what would have made a sweet little Rock Hudson-Doris Day vehicle decades ago and given it a few modern touches. But the production design and period-sounding score do a great job of lifting the energy and hyper-reality of Populaire. François is an absolute gift, able to express both shyness and someone with a growing sense of confidence. It's great seeing Duris, who usually reserves himself for dramas. He's still playing it straight, but watching him reluctantly fall in love is a nice change for him. He adapts nicely to the fast-talking, sharply dressed businessman of the '50s.

If you can get past the featherlight nature of the story, Populaire offers an opportunity to watch two great actors try on something a lot less severe and a bit more relaxed. It's not a challenging, layered film, but what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in fun and laughs. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Sample This

At the core of this documentary about a song that continues to serve as a backbone of many a hip-hop tracks (via the practice of sampling) is the truly weird and wonderful path of a man named Michael Viner, a music producer whose true gift was pulling together some of the finest studio musicians of the 1970s and creating something special. The percussion-heavy song in question is "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band, and several years after the album it was on went nowhere on the charts, the Bronx-based DJ Herc took the drum breakdowns from it, strung them together and created a backbeat the likes of which hip-hop hadn't seen up to that point. As one rapper says in the film, no matter what you were doing at any party, the minute that breakdown hit the speakers, everyone starting dancing.

Sample This tracks the career of Viner, who seemed to know every musician on the West Coast and was a master promoter (his soundless album Marcel Marceau's Greatest Hits actually sold a lot of records). The film spends perhaps too much time digging into Viner's role between the Kennedy administration and organized crime, which President Kennedy attempted to use to kill Fidel Castro. The sum total of this information serves only to prove just how strange it was that Viner ended up in the music industry at all.

The testimonials and song clips of music (from The Sugerhill Gang to Amy Winehouse to Missy Elliot, Jay-Z & Kanye West, Nas, MC Hammer... the list is hundreds long) are all the proof I needed that "Apache" was long a tuneful gift from the music gods. Not surprisingly, the band leader with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history, Ahmir-Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, does the best job of any of those interviewed to explain not only the path the song took to become one of the most sampled tracks in history, but also to explain what is was about this particular track that drew people to it.

I'm not sure there needed to be a feature-length film made about this subject, and there is no getting around that quite a bit of material in it feels like filler, but "Apache" might be one of the most important footnotes in hip-hop. Directed by Dan Forrer and narrated by (of all people) Gene Simmons of Kiss (a friend of the late Viner), Sample This is certain one of the more bizarre accounts in music history, and while the Incredible Bongo Band never even had a steady lineup, it managed to create at least a couple of songs whose impact is still being felt today.

The Muslims Are Coming!

While there have been films about the place of humor in the Muslim world (such as Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Ahmed Ahmed's great tour doc Just Like Us), I'm fairly certain a documentary has never been made about the role of comedy in the United States as performed by comedians of Muslim descent. And would it make you any more interested in the resulting film, The Muslims Are Coming!, if I told you these performers only played dates in dark-red states like Georgia, Tennessee and Arizona, where tolerance and open-mindedness don't always have the best track record?

Directed by two of the comics, Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, The Muslims Are Coming! features an impressive of interview subjects, such as Jon Steward, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black, Janeane Garofalo, Soledad O'Brien, Colin Quinn and Ali Velshi. But the more interesting and vital part of this experiment in open-mindedness is that this tour was born out of what the organizers saw as necessity. We've all heard the stories of hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern descent increasing immediately after 9/11, but after a decade of the number of such crimes decreasing steadily, they have skyrocketed again in the last couple of years.

Farsad, Obeidallah, Omar Elba and Maysoon Zayid devised this Bible-belt tour not just to show Southerners that Muslims can be funny, but to open up the these insulated pockets of America to what exactly the modern Muslim is and answer any questions about beliefs and practices. I particularly loved the "Hug A Muslim" campaign in Salt Lake City that began hesitantly (on the part of the Mormon population), but once it got going, the line was down the block. More to the point was a contest that involved reading a particularly violent passage and asking the players if it was from the Bible or the Koran.

In one early stop, the comics simply open up an "Ask A Muslim" table in a central location in a town and field questions. When one person asks why haven't Muslims in America come out in force to decry the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it sparks a clearly volatile discussion among everyone. The question that rises out of such a debate is, why should a person have to declare their abhorrence of such actions publicly? Why can't just living a peaceful life be the best form of protest? Do Christians turn out in force when someone commits a horrible act of violence in the name of Jesus? It's a fair question and a fascinating conversation to listen in on.

All of the comics get a chance to shine, but the funniest and most controversial material belongs to Negin Farsad (also the co-director of the 2008 film Nerdcore Rising), who talks openly about her sexual past and uses language that literally has Muslim women at the shows racing for the exits (blushing and giggling all the way, it appears). She's a paradox in a succession of cute outfits, and I mean that in the best possible way. She leads the charge in being the most fearless of the group, even in the face of death threats and other hateful statements on the tour website.

In many ways, The Muslims Are Coming! made me both proud of my fellow Americans for taking the first step toward trying to understand that which they fear and embarrassed for the eternal cycle of prejudice and reactionary behavior that sets us back every time we surge forward in the right direction. This is a film that underscores the importance of caring enough to learning about the differences that separate us in the hopes of bringing us closer. But very little about this movie feels like a vehicle for delivering a message, which might be its greatest asset. It's a movie loaded with silly jokes and odd behavior, and what better method to get people to listen and learn? The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

The two-year, rise-and-fall career of Morton Downey Jr. as a talk show host occurred while I was in college, when I wasn't watching much television, and I certain couldn't be bothered to check out a show that seemed to me to be the rantings of a right-wing screaming bully and his equally brain-dead followers. But from 1987-89, Downey was a legitimate force of nature whose followers ranked in the millions. And if he'd been able to keep his life together and not get lost in the womanizing, drinking and delusions of being a middle-aged rock star, he might have honed his opinions and rants into a formidable political voice, like those after him (Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck). But it was not meant to be, for reasons that are nicely laid out in the new documentary about Downey's unexpectedly remarkable life, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.

The most shocking parts of Downey's life have nothing to do with his show; they have to do with where he came from. If we believe the analysis of his life from friends and relatives who have known him since he was a younger man, Downey was always seeking ways to be more successful than his father, the famous crooner, who was critical of every part of his son's life. For a time, the son also attempted to become a singer, and wasn't half bad at it. More curious is that Downey was good friends with the Kennedy family, especially Sen. Edward Kennedy, which made sense at the time when Downey was a fiercely liberal thinker.

Evocateur is a little fuzzy on exactly when and why Downey's thoughts went to the right, but more than one interview subject suggest that his spoken opinions on immigration, racial injustice, crime, etc., were all an act, that Downey was playing a character the same way today's conservative pundits do. They know they'll get more viewers by being shocking and playing into the fears of working-class Americans. But it was his handling (or mishandling) of the Tawana Brawley case, in which a 15-year-old woman accused a group of New York City police officers of gang raping her, that made him a lightning rod. We have Downey to thank for stirring up racial tension in that city and the rest of America by bringing the Rev. Al Sharpton into the spotlight. Downey didn't invent the media circus by profiling that case over and over again, but he certainly perfected and fine-tuned it.

As directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, Evocateur is a great peak behind the curtain into Downey's life off the show, including a look at the relationships he had with his wives, his co-workers who barely tolerated him, and his fans. Some of the more interesting interviews in the film are with former teenage fans of the show who would stand in line day after day to get into the audience and spew hateful statements that they admittedly did not even believe, just to get a rise out of the illustrious host. Downey's sad, slow demise due to lung cancer is almost anticlimactic, but after watching him in nearly every scene in this film smoking a cigarette, you can't be surprised that's how he went out.

As someone who never fell under the spell of Downey (even ironically, as comedian Chris Elliott reveals to the audience that he did when he was a recurring performer on David Letterman's talk show), but watching Evocateur, I can see much clearer why some people did. For many, it was like watching crude performance art, and I don't think Downey would have had a problem with that. And what he left in his wake may be a little better dressed and polished, but it's still the same old fear mongering, veiled prejudice and name calling. Even after his death, Downey's influence is still all around us. His is an extraordinary story, and this film does an admirable job walking us through it.

Evocateur is having a special screening on Thursday, September 19 at 8:15pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Co-director Seth Kramer will be present for a post-screening Q&A moderated by me.

 
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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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