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Column Fri Sep 20 2013

Prisoners, A Single Shot, Salinger, Thanks for Sharing, Good Ol' Freda, Wadjda, Money for Nothing, Cutie and the Boxer & Sole Survivor

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Prisoners

This tale of child kidnapping is a tricky little monster that wonderfully dodges being pigeonholed into a single genre, and instead claws and fights to be something much deeper as a statement about the terrible side of human nature. It's also a mystery, a thriller, drama in its highest form, a police procedural, and a character study about a handful of neighbors in a sleepy, dreary New England community that you may regret ever meeting.

I don't mean that as a criticism of the new film Prisoners; quite the opposite. I mean that we get to know so much about these desperate people — what makes them tick, what makes them fall to pieces — that you almost might feel you know too many intimate details, and that makes things eye-avertingly uncomfortable. And quite frankly, I can't remember the last time I saw a film with a high-profile cast such as this that made me feel like I was watching real human beings display so much raw, ugly emotion. It's a rare and welcome experience, but Prisoners goes into some truly dark corners before it comes out the other side (if it truly does).

The time of year is Thanksgiving and the Dover family — Keller (Hugh Jackman), Grace (Maria Bello) and their three kids, including young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) — is heading to the home of their best friends, the Birchs — Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis) and their kids, including youngest daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul). When the two youngest girls head back to the Dover's home for something, they never return, and everyone starts to get worried. When it's decided that they have either run off or been taken, they call in the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).

The first suspect brought in is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, outcreeping all of his other creepy roles), a mentally slow man who owns an RV similar to the one the girls were playing on earlier in the day. There's no trace of the girls in the van and Alex doesn't appear to know anything about them, so the police let him go into the custody of his mother Holly (Melissa Leo). But Keller isn't convinced of his innocence, especially after a quiet remark Alex makes as he's being released that apparently only Keller heard.

What happens next is probably going to separate those who embrace this film and those who absolutely reject it. Keller kidnaps Alex and chains him up in an abandoned building that Keller's late father left him to renovate. Filled with the worst kind of anger and fear, Keller proceeds to beat Alex until his entire face is swollen and he is nearly dead; this goes on for days. And it's clear even from his police interrogation that Alex shuts down when he's scared, so words aren't coming to him as Keller yells questions at him about the whereabouts of the girls. That's assuming he even knows, which seems less and less likely at the police continue to investigate.

From French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose Incendies got an Oscar nomination not long ago for Best Foreign Language Film) working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Neighbors is an exercise in watching all social values and norms crumble in the face of unthinkable acts. The town of Brockton, Massachusetts, in this case, stands in for much of America, willing to put aside human rights to save lives. The question is raised, "What would you do if it were you child?", and I think most of us know the answer. Keller isn't painted as a villain in the movie; he's just the one person willing to push aside what he knows is right and wrong in the short term for hopefully long-term positive results. But his deepest flaw comes when he begins to realize he probably has the wrong man, and he's essentially gone too far to stop.

But Prisoners isn't just about Keller; it's also just as much about Detective Loki. What's fascinating about him are his layers. According to those who know him, he's never not solved a case. So when he's forced to deal with understandably irrational, emotion parents, we catch him rolling his eyes at them and saying, "Aw shit" when he sees one of them coming toward him yet again. This is Gyllenhaal at his absolute best; I haven't seen him dig into a character like this since Zodiac, and this might be an even more impressive performance. He's a simple, meticulous man, who knows that if he's left alone, he can do his job. Hell, he even inadvertently solves another case while he's looking into the whereabouts of the missing girls. But he also makes mistakes — one major one, in fact, that leads to a tragedy that plays out right in front of him.

Prisoners runs right around two-and-a-half hours, and that may simply be too much misery for some, but I think most of you are going to be too impressed by this collection of some of the most reliable, strong actors working today. You don't put Davis, Bello, Leo and Howard together in a single movie and expect something bland. Thankfully director Villeneuve also doesn't allow it to become a case of actors trying to out-emote each other. For every moment where Jackman gets to explode at anyone who comes in his line of sight, there are twice as many scenes where characters are expressing their raw emotions by dialing it back a bit. It's an impressive balance that strikes just the right note in almost every shot.

The central mystery about where the girls are, whether they're still alive, and who has them runs slightly in danger of becoming less important as the film goes on, and I more or less had a few things figured out long before big reveals started happening. But I see too many movies, so I know how even the best-written mysteries tend to play out. The story is complex without getting complicated, and above all else, it's satisfying and yes, even entertaining. Prisoners is about people making bad choices and the devastating consequences that inevitably follow. And I promise that if you make the choice to see it, you will be devastated. I think awards season may have just kicked off. God help us. Although in truth, this is strong opening salvo.

A Single Shot

There's a small but proud tradition of taking what feels like a film noir storyline (often reserved for city living) and placing it in nature, such as the woods, mountains or deserts. Sam Raimi did it with A Simple Plan and the Coen Brothers did it with Blood Simple and John Dahl did it with Red Rock West, to name a few. You could even throw the more recent Winter's Bone on the pile. And now you can include the little bit of perfection known as A Single Shot into the mix, a film that's with seeing if only because it's one of the best Sam Rockwell has ever given, as bearded hunter John Moon, a man whose life was already a piece of shit before he accidentally killed a woman while he was poaching deer in the mountains where he lives.

Directed by David M. Rosenthal (Janie Jones) and based on the mid-'90s novel by Matthew F. Jones (who also wrote the adaptation), A Single Shot is awash with majestic and moody settings and a host of redneck characters — some of them colorful, believe it or not — to play out this tension-filled story of a man who sees the path to a better live thanks to some found cash. But what actually happens is nothing but bad news for him and his estranged wife and son.

Crossing paths with Moon are the very nasty rightful owners of said money (Jason Isaacs and Joe Anderson), Moon's double-crossing lawyer (William H. Macy), his drunken best buddy (Jeffrey Wright), and the man (Ted Levine) who owns Moon's old family farm and offers him yet another way to dig his way out of his sad state by both offering him work and the opportunity to find love again with his daughter (Ophelia Lovibond). That sounded creepy, but it's actually very sweet.

A Single Shot also has one of the single greatest endings in recent memory, one that caps off a twisting, turning series of coincidences, mistakes, and old-fashioned bad decisions, all drizzled in criminal behavior and pine needles. Cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the whole world look misty and grungy, and it all adds up to a truly different and slightly other-wordly kind of crime story. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the AMC River East theaters.

To read my exclusive interviews with A Single Shot director David M. Rosenthal and actors Sam Rockwell and Jeffrey Wright, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Salinger

I'm guessing that people's reaction to this exhaustive and thoroughly researched documentary on the reclusive author J.D. Salinger may be right in step with their feelings on his most famous work (one of the world's most famous novels, actually), The Cacher in the Rye. If you hold it dear or loathe it, you may think this documentary on the author's life either doesn't get it right, or you simply don't care; therefore, you won't like the film. But if you're somewhere in the middle (as I am), you'll likely find Salinger a somewhat eye-opening, somewhat tiring examination of the man, his influences and his limited published work, since as you should know, Catcher was his only true published novel.

Rather than go through the chronology of his life with you (you can see the movie for that), I'll point out a few rather interesting and lurid details. Director Shane Salerno (screenwriter of such films as the Shaft remake, Savages and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) has no shortage of famous faces and Salinger experts to choose from when compiling his list of folks to interview. Everyone from the great authors Rom Wolfe and Gore Vidal to celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, Edward Norton, Danny DeVito (!), Judd Apatow and Martin Sheen step up to let their thoughts on Catcher be known. According to the press notes, more than 150 interviews are represented in Salinger. But it's the talks with people who knew him, either from his days in World War II or acquaintances in New York City or folks who lived near his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, that I found most informative.

Perhaps most revealing are the talks with and details about the young women that he often communicated with later in life, including young writer Claire Douglas, with whom he got married. The filmmakers don't make outright accusations about Salinger's proclivity for young women (sometimes underage), but there's an air of sleaze to the film when it broaches the subject, and perhaps rightfully so. But there are far less scandalous elements to the writer's life that the film dwells on as well, having to do with his upbringing, his time in the war, his struggles to get his short stories published initially, and his road to solitude after The Catcher in the Rye became an international sensation.

One of the more humorous stories involves the contract he had regarding Catcher that would never allow it to become a movie without his permission (and many directors tried approaching him in person to secure permission). I'm not sure why we should care so much about photographers' adventures in trying to secure a photo of the famously hidden-away writer. Salinger establishes there are few images of him for use in projects such as this film, but for every useless bit of information there are quite of few telling bits, including the startling revelation about a small number of unpublished novels Salinger left behind when he died in 2010, all of which are on track to be published over the next few years, per his instructions.

The real trouble with Salinger is that it doesn't feel nearly as significant as the author himself. By de-mystifying J.D. Salinger, they have inadvertently lessened his accomplishments. Sometimes taking the mystery out of something means undercutting its magic and alure. At the same time, there is some vital information and incredibly rare footage on display here, and as a historical record, the film is an interesting endeavor. And there's no denying that Catcher's impact on the culture exists, even if it's at the hands of assassins and would-be assassins. Undoubtedly, there are facts in Salinger that will be new to you, but that's not the same as saying you'll learn something. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

WRITER'S NOTE: Salinger's distributor, The Weinstein Company, announced that the film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on September 6, will have a special edition debuted for its national release on September 20. The film will feature new, never-before-seen material about Salinger's life, his complex relationships with young women, and footage of the iconic author added for its 62-city theatrical expansion. TWC also announced that they are partnering with the film's director/producer, Shane Salerno, on developing a feature-film adaptation of the documentary.

Thanks for Sharing

I'm not going to lie: when I saw that singer Pink (real name: Alecia Moore) had a role in first-time director Stuart Blumberg's (the Oscar-nominated co-writer of The Kids Are All Right) film about recovering sex addicts, I grew curious... that didn't come out right... neither did that. And when someone treats the subject seriously (as writer-director Steve McQueen did with Shame), there can be eye-opening results. But Thanks for Sharing has a cock-eyed tone (I'm on a roll!) that feels sometimes like it wants to be a romantic comedy and other times a deathly somber look at what is shaping up to be the funniest addiction (just ask the makers of Choke), because it's the toughest to explain without sounding ridiculous.

To its credit, Thanks for Sharing does a terrific job explaining just how bad a sex addict's behavior can get. Mark Ruffalo plays Adam, several years sober, but on the verge of gathering the courage to get into his first relationship in years when he meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a smart, beautiful woman who happens to like mildly adventurous sex, something that sends Adam in a slight panic. He doesn't admit to her right away that he has this issue, even though she has made it clear she's had problems with substance abusers/addicts in the past. But once he does confess to her, she willing to work with him to have a normal, healthy sex life.

That's the A Story. The B and C stories involve friends of Adam and fellow sex addicts Mike (Tim Robbins) and Neil (Josh Gad, continuing to improve his game after his work in Jobs). Mike is Adam's sponsor and is having a tough time with his more-than-patient wife Katie (Joely Richardson), who has had to endure years of cheating and even STDs thanks to her husband's uncontrollable desires. It doesn't help that their son Danny (Patrick Fugit) feels like he's being judged and attacked every time he makes an appearance on the home front.

Neil is a doctor and his appearance at his 12-step program is court ordered, probably after rubbing up against the wrong woman on some subway or something similarly gross. He's having a tough time getting rid of all the triggers in his house (porn, homemade up-skirt videos, etc.) and he even lies about being sober. But he becomes friends with Pink's Dede, and as much as they may feel the need to connect with no clothes on, they also inspire each other to resist the urge. Their friendship is one of the few things about Thanks for Sharing that feels genuine.

Ruffalo is a tremendous actor who can handle tough material with the best of them, but I'm not sure how serious he was taking this role. And while he and Paltrow (both veterans of the Marvel universe) have a certain chemistry, they don't really get to show it to us since they seem at odds more often than they get along. We have to care about them as a couple, so we can later feel regret when things appear grim for their future together. The Robbins-Richardson subplot is garbage that devolves into a father-son clíché of immeasurable magnitude. Robbins seems to have gone the grumpy-old-man route, and should soon enjoy fielding the same sorts of roles that Clint Eastwood has been taking lately. Maybe he should stick with directing as well.

These and other reasons, Thanks for Sharing never quite pulled it together enough or gave me anything I hadn't seen in this arena to make me care more than I do in the course of a normal day (which is never). I'm always ready to watch great actors give performances that rise above the material, but here, they never really do more than match the quality of the gobbledegook screenplay. If this had been a close call, I might have given it a pass, but this is a no-brainer failure to due its subject matter justice. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Good Ol' Freda

It helps when the subject of your film is naturally gifted storyteller. Such is the case with this wonderful documentary about Freda Kelly, who as a young woman was plucked from a typing pool by Brian Epstein and asked to be The Beatles' personal secretary and eventually head of their immense fan club. She wasn't always there for the band's most important events, but she was there for some of them, and not only knew them very well, but also was immersed in the lives of their families. From director Ryan White, Good Ol' Freda marks the first time Kelly has ever told these stories, and her devotion and loyalty to the band is almost unheard of in this era of people with cell phones turning over footage for a little cash.

Not getting too lost in Beatles lore, the film focuses squarely on the trials and tribulations of Kelly during her 11 years with the group. What's more remarkable is that the film actually has Beatles music in it, alongside original versions of songs that The Beatles covered in their early years. In many ways, listening to Kelly's story is like listening to the birth of the music fan club done right. She's asked the band members' families for bits of clothes, trying to grant request from the thousands of fan letters they'd get every week. Good Ol' Freda is an supremely cool look at The Beatles from a slightly different vantage point.

Clearly, Beatles fanatics will find her stories fascinating, but I think even the casual fan will be impressed with Kelly's access to certain events and memories of how things played out. For those looking for insight into recording sessions or the early days of touring, this is not that movie. While Kelly helped set the tour schedules, those highlight-reel moments aren't a part of what she saw. Prepare to be charmed, surprised and enlightened. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with Good Ol' Freda subject Freda Kelly and director Ryan White, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Wadjda

Here are a few facts to Wow you with right off the bat. The new film Wadjda is the first Saudi Arabian movie to ever have been directed by a woman (Haifaa Al Mansour), and it will be the Kingdom's first film submitted for Oscar consideration — and seriously, it might win. If the film were junk, these facts would still be impressive. Thankfully, it isn't. It's the enriching story of 10-year-old Wadjda (newcomer and unbelievably charming Waad Mohammed), living in Saudi Arabia's capital of Riyadh, dreaming of becoming a great bicyclist, so much so that she covets a particular bike on sale at a local shop she passes to and from school every day. Wadjda is a bit of a rebel, often forgetting her head scarf when out in public and being a terrible reader and interpreter of the Koran. Her biggest concern is her mother's behavior whenever her largely absentee father comes around. The father is contemplating a newer, younger wife, but he still visits the old one (the beautiful Reem Abdullah), who is literally obsessed with getting him to see her and remember that he loves her. It's a tough life for a child, but with her mother often distracted, Wadjda gets away with a lot.

Since girls don't ride bikes, Wadjda can't ask her mother for money to buy one for her, so she decides to enter a contest dealing with the Koran. The winner gets more cash than Wadjda even needs to buy the bike, and she studies her head off and plays the part of a studious conservative, impressing her teachers and school administrator. Meanwhile, a young boy in town helps train Wadjda to ride, first with then without training wheels. Again, the idea of an unrelated girl and boy would be considered beyond scandalous in Saudi Arabia, but displaying only the most harmless signs of puppy love, these two are adorable together.

Wadjda is a sneaky little film. It slips in subtle forms of social criticism into it's tale of the perks of being a good, pious woman, but the structure of this society clearly doesn't sit well with the filmmaker. In one scene, one of Wadjda's classmates is caught in school with photos of her wedding from the weekend before that no one knew she was even a part of. The other girls giggle, but clearly the idea of a wedding between a pre-teen and a 30-year-old man is not unheard of or in any way scandalous. In so many smart ways, Al Mansour simply allows the culture to show itself for the dated thing that it is. She doesn't have to comment on it; she's aware of what the outside world will think of it, so she just lets it be. Wadjda is a lovely, subversive, defiant film hiding behind a featherlight story of a precocious girl in need of a bike. The film informs and uplifts and offers hope for change; the fact the this film ever got made proves change is happening. What an experience watching this was. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Money for Nothing

Nothing says excitement like learning all about the misuse of power exercised by The Federal Reserve pretty much since its inception. But I'll be damned if director Jim Bruce doesn't make sense of all of the bad and good decisions the Fed has made since its inception in 1914, and what its ever-changing role in society has been for the last 100 years. But the real reason to check out the film is that one of its renowned interview subjects is one Janet Yellen, who looks on deck to replace the disastrous Ben Bernanke, king of the Wall Street bailout.

Sure Money for Nothing feels a little bit like school, but with lecturers like Yellan and former Fed Chair Paul Volcker (the voice of reason before Alan Greenspan began his near-20-year stranglehold as Chairman), you might accidentally learn something useful about the way the world works. The brain power alone might make the film worth checking out, but if you seek out another film that's making its way around the country (in Chicago, it opens next week) called Inequality for All that puts more of a human face on the nightmare of the last few economic years. Still, Money for Nothing gave me an insight and understanding of the Federal Reserve that I simply did not have before I watched it. I'm not sure what I should do with all of this newfound knowledge, but I like that I possess it.

Money for Nothing opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Director Jim Bruce will appear in person on Friday, September 20 for a Q&A after the 4pm and 7pm shows.

Cutie and the Boxer

I'm not sure many screenwriters are capable of writing such a tumultuous love story as the one on display in the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, the story of a 40-year marriage of Tokyo-born artist Ushio Shinohara (living in New York City since 1969) and his much younger wife Noriko, who had ambitions of being an artist as well when she met Ushio when she was 19 years old and agreed to give it up to become his assistant and essentially caretaker, since he has been a loud, overbearing drunk for most of their marriage.

Meeting them at this end of their relationship, Noriko has finally taken up painting again, drawing stories that resemble comic strips of characters named Cutie and Bully, clearly based on her and Ushio, whose "boxing" style of painting is probably what he's best known for. The drawings are a release for Noriko, who paints the sometimes painful courtship and marriage in a story of a young girl who sets aside her dreams for her man, who took her for all of her family's money, threw elaborate parties for his friends, and drank away their funds and happiness. Today, Ushio's name is somewhat recognized in certain circles, but they still struggle for money, and their alcoholic son, Alex, can't be trusted anywhere near liquor.

There's a look always present in Norkio's eyes that is a combination of a dream realized and years lost to sacrifice and an unfulfilled life. Director Zachary Heinzerling (who has done many sports documentaries up to this point) has a real eye for capturing sometimes-unsettling, silent moments between Norkio and Ushio. There are times where I genuinely believed she was just going to stab him in the eye with her paintbrush, and she wouldn't have been without cause. But deep below the surface, we do see what it is that binds these two so tightly; they do have a connection through an unshakeable belief that art is the most important thing, even more important than their happiness.

Cutie and the Boxer may be too much of an endurance test for those who don't get a rise out of watching couples really rip into each other (I'm guessing there might be a few of you), but there is something functional about how these two artists work together and separately in their small space. I'm not sure I'd say their relationship was inspirational, but it's certainly inspired and I suppose it works for them. Either that, or Norkio's newfound rediscovery of her talent may through their entire world out of orbit. I'm curious to see where they go from here. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Sole Survivor

There have only been 14 sole survivors in the history of worldwide commercial aviation. A sole survivor is that one person who lived through an otherwise completely fatal airplane crash. And with that designation, the survivor must bear the guilt of the living. "Why did I live when the person right next to me, or in front of me, or behind me, did not?" Director Ky Dickens (Fish Out of Water) tracked down four of the survivors, most of whom were children when their crashes occurred, with the exception of Jim Polehinke, who was the co-pilot on the flight he survived, and upon whose shoulders part of the blame for the crash was placed.

Sole Survivor is a balancing act, to be sure. Dickens must get to the emotional core of her subjects, but without making it feel exploitative or sensationalistic, and I think she accomplishes this, managing to capture the cauldron of thoughts and feelings that only 14 people in the entire world have ever felt. One of the film's more forthcoming subjects is George Lamson, whose survival of a Reno-to-Minneapolis flight when he was still a teenager (his father was killed) made news around the world because he was barely harmed thanks to being thrown from the crash upon impact. In one sequence, Lamson returns to his home town in Minneapolis to meet the relatives of some of those that didn't make it, and instead of being greeted by a host of angry faces (as he'd expected), he's met with grateful tears and hugs by people just happy to meet the one living connection they still have to their loved ones.

Cecilia Cichan was only a baby when her plane went down, and she was called a "miracle baby" almost immediately. Her entire family was killed, and her wise aunt and uncle who raised her kept her out of the public spotlight her entire life. This film represents her first time speaking about the incident and her feelings. The most recent member of this unfortunate club is young Bahia Bakari, a shy girl whom Lamson reaches out to and she grateful takes the opportunity to meet someone who might be able to relate to her specific set of powerful, confusing emotions.

Polehinke's circumstances were so specific to his flight since he was the co-pilot that he makes it very clear that it would have made more sense in so many ways if he had died as well. Grief and depression are common among this group, and Jim had the added pain of losing a leg in his crash. But nothing hurt quite as much as being told that pilot error was the determination of his crash, a conclusion not at all substantiated by the evidence at hand. I found this portion of the film fascinating but also frustrating because it strays too far from the real thread that holds this delicate film together. For many, these interviews were the first time they got to express their thoughts and feelings on their circumstances, and I understand that the "pilot error" determination only added to Polehinke's grief, but it feels off track somehow.

Sole Survivor represents a massive undertaking, a taking on and responsibility for other people's most sensitive thoughts and expressions, and director Dickens gets it right most of the time. Thankfully, the film spares us most of the gory details, but the emotionally messy outcomes are unavoidable. The director does a solid job putting us in the headspace of these four people and makes us realize that living with those thoughts is a full-time challenge. The film will play in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, September 21 at 8pm (which I believe is sold out), and Thursday, September 26 at 8:15pm.

 
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By Nancy Bishop

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