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Column Fri Oct 04 2013

Gravity, Runner Runner, Parkland, Muscle Shoals, Bad Milo! & Docs at the Box



My first thought after seeing Alfonso Cuarón's latest masterwork, Gravity, remains the one that has stuck in my brain for the last three weeks. I've seen the film again more recently on the IMAX screen, and the thought is only amplified. And it's a simple way of describing it: I've never seen anything like it in a movie theater in my life. I suppose there are many ways of interpreting that statement — some even negative. But let's not be silly or cynical. Gravity is one of those benchmark films that stands alone in its greatness, elegance and seamless means of blending the real with the artificial to make it all look genuine in its portrayal of space travel in all its beauty and danger.

So naturally, set in the vast emptiness of space, Cuarón (Children of God, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has chosen to tell the most intimate and personal story you'll see all year (with the possible exception of the Robert Redford-starring All Is Lost, which I've seen; that film — about a man stranded at sea attempting to survive — shares a remarkably similar premise and execution in many ways). But take away all of its how-did-they-do-that visuals, and Gravity still exceeds as a simple story about medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is using the vastness and silence of space to escape her somewhat troubled life back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois (a Chicago suburb). That little detail got a big laugh in both screenings I attended, primarily when her spacewalk partner and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) asks Stone what she might be doing on a typical day at 8pm in Lake Zurich. Both screenings were at 7pm, and this question hit at about the 7:30-7:45pm mark. It's the small things...

Despite the endless stream of effects, Gravity is an exercise in minimalism, punctuated by some of the most terrifying destruction ever committed to the big screen. A simple spacewalk (if there is such a thing) to repair and add an experiment to the Hubble telescope is cut short when debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is sent hurtling toward the astronauts' shuttle and International Space Station nearby. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie appear to be a single take with no edits, during which the mood goes from light and jokey to complete chaos. Clooney is particularly good at both keeping things funny to deal with the boredom and keeping people calm when anyone in their right mind would be panicking.

I won't go into too much plot detail, but one of the big early, tension-fueled scenes has to do with Dr. Stone running low of oxygen and attempting to get through a hatch as she's dizzy from breathing pure CO2. I'm not ruining anything by telling you that there's a moment where Bullock pulls off her space suit down to a t-shirt and briefs, and floats into a fetal position as she bathes in oxygen. The film belongs to Bullock, and even those of you who have issues with many of her films in the past, you're going to have a tough time faulting any choice she makes in this movie.

We'll give Cuarón some of the credit, but Ryan is a tough character to capture, because she exists in a mindframe in which giving up has its appeal for reasons I won't go into. Dr. Stone is not a natural fighter; she tells us she likes space because of the quiet and that back home in Lake Zurich, she used to take long drives after work just to not have to deal with the painful quiet of her own home. I'm not sure how she passed NASA's psych exam, but there are a few things about her training and her mission that are called into question in the beginning of this movie, and deliberately left unanswered.

I don't mean to downplay the special effects. At times, they are enormous, almost too much for the eye to take in. If you see the film again, it will be because you want to see the pattern of destruction that Cuarón maps out. And rest assured, there is more than one disaster that must be dealt with during the course of Gravity. But I was equally mystified by the pattern of salvation that is laid out before us (by screenwriters Cuarón and son Jonas), and the chances of success of each new task — let alone ultimately surviving — seem too infinitesimal to even comprehend. That's the true gravity of the title; it's the weight of the stakes, the responsibility for human life, even if the only life involved is yours. The pressure of carrying on is heavy here. I should add that since there is no sound in space, watching these disasters unfold in silence (outside of the devastating score by Steven Price).

However you chose to watch Gravity — as a literal survival adventure or as a metaphor about the perils of simply living — it all works, even the small touches like having Ed Harris be the voice of Houston's Mission Control, a clear nod to the now-second-best, reality-based look at space travel Apollo 13. I should add that if you have the chance to see this film in IMAX, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't do so. Seeing it in 3-D is a given; it might be not just the best, but also the most appropriate use of 3-D in the last 10 years. But the IMAX 3-D combination adds so much to the experience; I can't even imagine watching this at home — it would be such a lesser thing. The bottom line is, at this point, if you aren't chomping at the bit to see Gravity three or four times in the next couple of weeks, nothing will convince you, and you're a cynical bastard who hates movies and living. As for the rest of you right-thinking, wonderful people, have at it in all its magnificence.

Runner Runner

I think the lesson we've learned about smart college kids through movies is that they love to gamble and/or cheat at gambling. Whether it's hipster mathletes in 21 or Princeton grad student Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) trying to pay his tuition through online poker and losing it all in Runner Runner, these kids today just don't believe in earning an honest living by selling drugs on campus or something along those lines. But Furst discovers that the gambling site he has been using cheated him, and he flies to its base of operations in Costa Rica to meet the founder/owner Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) to alert him to the problem. Furst isn't even in Costa Rica 24 hours before Block offers him a top position in his company, partly because he's smart and partly because Furst came to Block with the information and not the media of message boards. And that all happens in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie.

The problems with Runner Runner are legion, and it's rare that I'll ever say this, but the biggest issue I had with the film is that it feels rushed. It's not in any way difficult to follow, but with a running time of 90 minutes, you really do wish the film would slow down a little to take a breath and let us get to know the players just a little bit better. Another problem is that we never trust Ivan Block. I never doubted for a second that he was behind the cheating or that he hired Furst for honorable reasons. And what's even more bizarre is that from the minute Block hires Furst, he starts acting suspicious of him, even though Furst is up front about topics ranging from his feelings for Block's sometime girlfriend and higher up in the company, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), to his dealings with an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) trying to get Furst to turn on his boss.

Making out the best in the film is Timberlake, who does the lion's share of pushing the story (from a screenplay by writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote Ocean's Thirteen) toward its inevitable conclusion. The entire production feels like director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) had to trim the film down for time and just made sacrifices left and right in terms of character development and a more nuanced plot. But if that's not the case, then shame on him and the writers for shortchanging us every chance they got.

It's tough to believe that in a 90-minute movie, there could be wasted moments, but the couple of scenes with John Heard as Furst's gambling-addicted father are a total disaster and could easily have been excized from the film. Even when Block has him taken as leverage to get Furst to do something for him, it barely registers as a source of tension or drama. He's taken in one scene and a few scenes later, he's in good hands. Be still my heart.

It's funny, now that Timberlake seems to have thrown himself back into music for the time being, I'm all the more eager to have him jump back into acting. I'm pretty sure the Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is the last thing of his we haven't seen yet, and I liked having a backlog to look forward to this year. I'm still having a tough time figuring out who Runner Runner was made for exactly. It's a bust as a character-driven drama; the tension is undercut by its painful predictability; and while the acting is okay, it's not exactly anyone's best work either. The film features a bunch of artificially amped-up performances barely able to hold up a structureless story; if that's you're idea of fun, you'll be in heaven. The rest of you, you've made a wise choice avoiding it.


This is a strange little nugget that feels like outtakes and extended scenes from Oliver Stone's JFK. Not that Parkland is interesting enough to include conspiracy theories and such, but it is a faithful recreation of many of the events leading up to and immediately after President Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The title refers to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was taken and pronounced dead (and eerily enough, so was his presumed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, two days later), and the film's intent seems to be to show us the microcosm of people in and around Dallas at the time who had to deal with the repercussions of this national trauma.

Perhaps more of a footnote to JFK, Parkland's first third is actually quite extraordinary as it attempts to recreate the nightmare in the hospital as Kennedy is brought in, along with Jackie Kennedy and a massive security detail that did little but get in the way. The extended sequence is bloody, graphic, loud and exhausting. Among those in the fray were Nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden), Dr. Charles Carrico (Zac Efron), and Dr. Malcom Perry (Colin Hanks). Hovering around the action are the Dallas head of the Secret Service Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) and other agents (Mark Duplass, Tom Welling). The last person called in is Father Oscar Huber (Jackie Earle Haley). With all of these famous faces, it may seem like less of a series drama and more "Night of 100 Stars," but actually being able to identify these actors made it a lot easier to keep track of who was who as the number of characters grew.

Perhaps the film's best work (not surprisingly) belongs to Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm footage of the assassination remains one of the most gruesome bits of footage available in the world. And it's fascinating to watch this account of how the footage was handled, processed and screened in the days after it was shot. The re-creation of the first screening of the material is powerful stuff thanks to Giamatti's performance.

More creepy than informative is the coverage given to the family of Oswald, including his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) and ridiculous mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver), who had to deal with the consequences of suddenly having the most hated name in America. I will admit the difficulty the family had finding a place to bury Lee made me feel for them, but every word out of Marguerite's mouth is so hateful, you get over it quickly.

One familiar name from JFK that comes up in Parkland is that of James Hosty (Ron Livingston), a local FBI agent who actually had contact with Oswald not long before the shooting. In fact, Oswald walked right into the FBI offices, making Hosty an unpopular man in the bureau. There's nothing offensively wrong with Parkland as a whole; in fact, there are some individual moments that work nicely. But first-time feature writer-director Peter Landesman seems more interested in turning these stories into short history lessons and less into small human dramas borne of a larger event. Certainly, as an acting exercise, Parkland has a few powerful moments. As mentioned, Giamatti goes well beyond what is on the page and gives us a sensitive Zapruder, who is so shaken by what he filmed that his life never quite got back to normal after the assassination.

Thankfully, the faces of the dead president, the first lady, vice president Johnson, and a few other key historical figures are rarely seen straight-on enough that you can tell whether the unknown actors playing them look the parts. But once you get past the opening hospital sequence, there's little in Parkland to whole heartedly recommend beyond the ever-reliable Giamatti. The film just exists on the screen with little purpose or significance. The attention to detail might draw some people in, and I certainly appreciated it, but it's not enough to sustain this slight work.

Muscle Shoals

It almost seems like an embarrassment of riches to have to such fine documentaries in one year about legendary recording studios. Early this year saw the release of Dave Grohl's Sound City, which profiled the famed Van Nuys, California, studio best known for its Neve mixing board and being the perfect place to capture a particular type of drum sound. And now we have Muscle Shoals, a work more about the small Alabama community that became a hub for recording classic soul and rock classics in one of the town's many studios. But in all fairness, the idea of turning Muscle Shoals into a place where both black and white musicians (often playing together) could gather to record began at FAME Studios and its owner and founder, producer Rick Hall.

Honestly, this documentary could have just been a series of still photos of the artists who recorded there and clips of their music, and it still would have been a decent film. Thankfully, first-time feature director Greg "Freddy" Camalier has more patience and talent than that. Hall pieced together an all-white house band to offer artists the opportunity to have a band waiting for them at the studio, and by doing that, he created what is known as the Muscle Shoals sound, which can be heard in early recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin (who recorded much of her I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You album either at the studios or with the musicians who resided there), Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Etta James, Clarence Carter and many others.

Hall is a great storyteller, and not only does he relay tales of the music royalty that recorded with him but he spins stories about great family tragedy that he was forced to overcome as a youngster. The fact that he was able to achieve so much success after life trying so hard to bring him down is borderline miraculous. But FAME suffered a great loss as well, when the band left FAME to form their own studio, soon to be known as Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and open for business just in time for a wave of British rockers to arrive to capture the community's raw, earthy, funky vibe. The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, and later Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Staple Singers and a little-known band called Lynryd Skynyrd — the list never ends. At one of the two main studios, Southern rock was born and the Osmonds' fame was sealed.

New interviews with people who recorded in the region — Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Franklin, Pickett, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Cliff — join the likes of Bono, who seems just around because he loves the Muscle Shoals sound. When you think of the list of classic songs recorded in the area, your mind is rightfully blown. The fact that the backbone of so many great R&B hits of the time were performed by a bunch of white guys should melt a few brains a well. While some may find the side-stories about Hall's family unnecessary, the film doesn't carry nearly as much of a sense of significance without them. And watching Hall go through one of his perfection-driven recording sessions is fascinating stuff.

I have high expectations for music docs in particular. I want them to educate me on musicians and music trends that I know nothing about or to convince me that the artist being discussed is worth making an entire doc about. Muscle Shoals meets and exceeds those expectations and delivers a film that forever seals the place in music history that this region holds. You're going to sing along, want to own the soundtrack, and wish the film was twice as long so you could hear twice as much of the phenomenal music. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Bad Milo!

I'm digging the trend that the Music Box Theatre has been featuring lately of playing newer or rarely screened films as part of its weekly midnight programming (speaking of which, you should absolutely check out the 1992 never-released-theatrically, restored director's cut of Mindwarp, starring Bruce Campbell, playing next weekend), in addition to the more traditional midnight selections (many of which are shown in 35mm, I should add). And this week is no exception, with the Chicago premiere of director Jacob Vaughan's horror comedy Bad Milo!.

Ken Marino plays Duncan, a timid office worker with a nervous stomach whose boss (Patrick Warburton) is setting him up to take the blame for emptying the company's accounts and those of their clients (I was never quite clear what kind of company they worked for). Duncan's life has never been easy, nor has his digestive tract been stable. His mother (Mary Kay Place) has re-ignited her sex drive thanks to a pompous younger man (Kumail Nanjiani); his father (Stephen Root) abandoned the family when Duncan was young, for reasons unknown); and his loving wife Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) is putting pressure on him about work and having a baby. All of these stressful situations are triggering massive intestinal distress for Duncan, for which he goes to hypnotherapist (Peter Stormare, in full whackjob mode).

It turns out that there's a small monster living in Duncan's body that exits and enters him through his ass, in one painful episode after another. Once his life becomes so stressful, the creature finally is set loose and murders the offender. Duncan does his best to stay calm, so as to keep the demon at bay, and he even tries to befriend it (starting with giving it the name Milo) to stop it from killing folks when it does get out, but that doesn't always work.

I believe this is director Vaughan's second feature, but he's best known for being an editor (his most recent work can be seen in Black Rock). To understand a bit more about the tone of Bad Milo!, please note that filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass are listed as executive producers on the film. While the goal of the film is always laughs, there are also some rather grown-up pressures being dealt with (or not) by Duncan. The film leans pretty heavy on the grotesque (blood and guts and other bodily excretions), and that may put some people off, but since I didn't find the humor all that successful, the gross material was largely what was keeping me afloat.

Not nearly as well known as he should be considering the number of films and series he pops up in and/or writes in a given year, Marino is pretty solid (pun intended) in Bad Milo!. I felt his pain and strain, and he played both perfectly. But those around him seem to all be swinging for the comedy fences here, overplaying, thinking that yelling their lines makes them funnier. But having Marino as the force that binds it all together certainly helps make more of Bad Milo! work than it would have with anybody else in the role.

Its position as a midnight offering seems completely appropriate, and it may require a couple of drinks to find parts of the movie tolerable. But there are a lot of talented people in this film, not doing their best work, granted, but keeping the ship afloat just long enough to tell its story, after which is simply lets out its gas in a slow, silent but deadly leak. As I mentioned, the film is playing in the midnight slot Friday and Saturday at the Music Box Theatre.

Docs at the Box

I'm an absolute fanatic for great documentaries, and now the Music Box Theatre is putting on a weeklong film festival (Friday, October 4-Thursday, October 10) made up entirely of docs, some of which will be released for longer runs later in the year. For others, this may be your only shot at seeing them on the big screen in Chicago. The complete schedule for the "Docs at the Box" festival (including the incredible Morton Downey Jr. doc Evocateur, which I reviewed here a couple weeks back) can be found at the Music Box Theatre's website, but let me tell you about a few I've seen or heard about:

The entire time one watches this documentary profile of social activist-turned-FBI informant Brandon Darby, you can't help but wonder: Why would he submit to these interviews and this level of scrutiny? For someone who paints a picture of himself &mash; with an always-armed home security system, along with a small cache of guns &mash; as a man with a target on his back, putting your face and story of becoming a federal sntich out there seem like he's only enlarging the size of said bullseye. But Darby is, if little else, a complicated man, and the film about him, Informant, from director Jamie Meltzer, is far from a straight-forward biopic.

The first thing an audience must realize about Brandon Darby is that most of the interview footage we see of him in this film was gathered recently, so the subject has had time to formulate his version of how he went from one of the South's best-known social justice activists, who many believed was plotting to take down the government one grass roots effort at a time. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Darby and his fellow Austin-based anarchist Scott Crow came into the area under the banner of the relief organization Common Ground and immediately began fighting against police abuses, government crackdowns on the poor and overall neglect of the largely voiceless residents. As one Ninth Ward resident puts it, "This community would take him back even today; the activist community would probably shoot him."

But for reasons that are still murky at best, as Darby's role in Common Ground lessened, he began to associate with activists that he said wanted to attack the incompetent and ineffective government more directly &mash; through acts of violence and property damage, culminating in staging a surge at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2008. At that point Darby had been working as an informant for the FBI for a while, promising to infiltrate a group that was believed to be plotting a Molotov cocktail attack on the convention and the police protecting it.

Director Meltzer is smart enough to realize that no story in Informant should only be told from Darby's point of view, so he's gathered many of his former Common Ground comrades and others with whom he was an activist for testimonials that often directly contradict Darby's claims. Depending on who rings the most true, Darby could be seen as a professional liar, manipulator, paranoid delusional or sociopath. One thing he will never admit to is being wrong, probably one of his most infuriating traits, no matter whose side you take in this tale. Darby repeatedly says that his primary reason for turning traitor was because he couldn't stand to see people hurt or killed during these acts of domestic terrorism, but that doesn't quite explain the lengths he goes to to see them in custody.

One of the film's most curious artistic decisions is to re-create some of Darby's more pivotal moments, many of which are played out more than once with slight variations, depending on which interview subject is telling the story. In an odd bit of "casting," each re-enactment features Darby playing himself, and let's just say the man isn't the greatest of actors, even when it comes to being Darby.

So back to the original question: Why could Darby allow his story to be told through such high-profile means? The answer may be revealed in the film's final act, during which we discover what happens when a former left-wing activist begins turning in his own kind to the very people he used to consider the enemy. He becomes a hero to a political movement that believes in less government and that America needs to be taken back by Americans. That's right, Brandon Darby has become a quite popular public speaker at Tea Party gatherings, where he teaches members how to use Common Ground-style grass roots efforts &mash; once used to aid under-served communities &mash; to build the party's numbers.

Informant may help bring some focus to the type of charismatic and complex man Darby is, or it may simply confound viewers even more about his actions and motivations. Part confession, part justification, and probably part fiction, the story that Darby weaves won't likely earn him any new admirers outside of the Tea Party, but it is fascinating storytelling, whether you judge him as an ethical or ethically compromised creature.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
Directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, Plimpton! tells the story of writer, editor, amateur sportsman and friend to many, George Plimpton. Using the man's own narration &mash; along with thoughts and stories from friends, family and contemporaries &mash; the film is a joyful celebration of a life lived fully, richly, strangely, and, at times, a life that is hard to believe was actually lived by just one man.

Shepard & Dark
Directed by Treva Wurmfeld, this film profiles Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, who met in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and, despite leading very different lives, remained close friends ever since. Shepard became a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and an Academy Award-nominated actor, while Dark was a homebody who supported himself with odd jobs. Nevertheless, he and Dark wrote to each other, amassing hundreds of letters.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
From director Bill Siegel, this Chicago sneak preview covers the explosive crossroads of Ali's life. When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, his conversion to Islam and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War left him banned from boxing and facing a five-year prison sentence. Ali's choice of belief and conscience over fame and fortune resonates far beyond the boxing ring, striking issues of race, faith and identity that continue to confront us all today. From his Louisville roots, through his years in exile, to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the film traces Ali's path from poet to pariah to global ambassador for peace. At each stage, the challenges Ali faces go far beyond the boxing ring and ultimately encompass issues of power, race, faith and identity that confront us all. The filmmakers are expected to attend this event.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power
This sneak preview focuses on Anita Hill, who, in October 1991, was thrust onto the world stage as she sat before a Senate committee of 14 white men and with a clear, unwavering voice recounted the repeated acts of sexual harassment she had endured while working with U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill's graphic testimony was a turning point for gender equality in the U.S. and ignited a political firestorm about sexual misconduct and power in the workplace that resonates still today. Directed by Freida Lee Mock.

Bettie Page Reveals All
Through narrating her own life story in this work from director Mark Mori, Bettie Page recounts how her unabashed sexual expression and sexually provocative fetish poses set the stage for the 1960s sexual revolution and ushered in a modern era in fashion and pop culture. As a woman in an era when women were second-class citizens, Bettie Page was continually knocked down throughout her life. But, by her strength of character, she always picked herself back up to become the world's greatest pinup model and international sex icon.

The Punk Singer
A audience favorite at this years SXSW Film Festival and directed by Sini Anderson, the film profiles Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre, who rose to national attention as the reluctant but never shy voice of the riot grrrl movement. She became one of the most famously outspoken feminist icons, a cultural lightning rod. Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. Through 20 years of archival footage and intimate interviews with Hanna, the film takes viewers on a fascinating tour of contemporary music and offers a never-before-seen view into the life of this fearless leader.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
Directed by Havana Marking and playing out like a noir thriller spiced with cutting-edge animation and shocking real surveillance footage, Smash & Grab is an exclusive all-access pass into the mysterious world of international jewel thieves.

My Father and The Man In Black
Before there was Johnny and June, there was Johnny and Saul. Secretly recorded audio diaries and telephone calls with Johnny Cash from the 1960s and 1970s reveal a brand new side of the legendary singer. An intense personal adventure that just happens to feature one of 20th-century music's greatest icons, the film tells the inside story of "bad boy" Johnny Cash and his talented but troubled manager, Saul Holiff, whose unexplained suicide leaves a son (director Jonathan Holiff) searching for his father in the shadow of a legend.

Free the Mind
Brain scientist Professor Richard Davidson sets up his mind to conduct an unusual experiment: He will teach American war veterans and children meditation and yoga. Directed by Phie Ambo, the film asks, Can veterans through meditation and yoga ease their pain and nervous system, find happiness and be more peaceful and get back to a life more like the one they had before the war?

Our Nixon
Throughout Richard Nixon's presidency, three of his top White House aides obsessively documented their experiences with Super 8 home movie cameras. Young, idealistic and dedicated, they had no idea that a few years later they'd all be in prison. Directed by Penny Lane.

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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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