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Column Fri Oct 11 2013

Chicago International Film Festival, Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, We Are What We Are, The Summit & A.C.O.D.


49th Chicago International Film Festival

I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few of the more than 130 features being shown over the next two weeks as part of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. As many top-notch, more recognizable films being shown that you might have actually heard of, the best part of any festival like this is taking a chance on something you may never get to see again. If you haven't checked out my interview with festival programming director Mimi Plauché, she has quite a few of her own recommendations. But allow me to name drop a few titles, some of which I've seen, others I'm offering up based on reputation.

Let's begin with the biggest of the bunch: the Festival Centerpiece, the latest from director Alexander Payne, Nebraska, a glorious and frustrating story about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) traveling from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, because the father thinks he's won a sweepstake. I'll be moderating the Q&A with Dern, so don't miss it. The Closing Night Gala belongs to the latest from the Coen Brothers, the musically inclined Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (who will be attending), Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, in a story set in the early-1960s folk scene.

Among the other highlights are conversations/appearances with film legends like Italian horror master Dario Argento with his Dracula 3D; filmmaker George Tillman Jr. with his film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete; Geoffrey Rush in The Book Thief; the great stuntwoman-turned-actor Zoe Bell with the girlfight horror film Raze; filmmaker Ti West and his acclaimed new work The Sacrament; and Chicago native and renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler, after a screening of his classic Chicago-shot and digitally restored Medium Cool.

Other Chicagoans making appearances include actor Pat Healy in the subversive Cheap Thrills (I'll also be moderating this); filmmaker John McNaughton and actor Michael Shannon with their new film The Harvest; Harry Lennix in H4, a take on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 &2; and Steppenwolf's Amy Morton in Bluebird.

Wildly popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) is amply represented with three offerings, including The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Wikileaks founder Julian Assange; August: Osage County, based on the play by and adapted by Tracy Letts; and the latest work from director Steve McQueen, the powerful and violent 12 Years A Slave.

A few other things to consider include Steve Coogan's work in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and opposite Judi Dench in Philomena; the latest marathon documentary from Frederick Weisman, At Berkeley; the festival favorite dark comedy Big Bad Wolves (I'll be moderating the Q&A with director Aharon Keshales); the moving three-hour lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color; the incredible revenge thriller Blue Ruin; the uplifting documentary Brave Miss World, about former Miss World Linor Abargil, who was raped just days before the competition; one of the funniest films I've seen all year, the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me; the chilling and unexpected doc I Will Be Murdered, about the politically based killing of a famous attorney in Venezuela; Errol Morris' latest doc, The Unknown Known; the solid look at teenage angst and coming of age in France, Pieces of Me; the difficult doc Tough Bond about street kids in Nairobi, most of whom are addicted to glue; the smart and biting Le Week-end, about an elderly British couple vacationing in Paris and venting about their unsatisfying lives together; and the Lech Walesa biopic from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, Walesa: Man of Hope.

In addition, there are seven shorts programs, an aggressive and mostly great After Dark program for genre fans, and spotlights on African cinema, comedy, new directors, fundraising, and so much more. I've said it before, but it worth saying again: this year's line up is one of the best in the last decade at least, and I can't wait to sample more. Get out there and support your city's big film festival, people.

Captain Phillips

I have to be honest: I have very little to say about the latest starring work from Tom Hanks except that it's expertly made by director Paul Grenegrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), had me tense almost from the first frame, and features note-perfect acting from Hanks, the men who play his crew and especially the four first-time actors playing the Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi playing their leader, Muse.

Since Captain Phillips is based on a book about the real-life, high-profile 2009 incident, most people are going to go into this film knowing the fate of at least one major character. But as he did quite beautifully with United 93, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray take a story in which the outcome is known and make the film less about the destination and more about the journey. But unlike the older film, the director makes an attempt to humanize the hijackers and give some context as to why ship-hijacking incidents shot up in this period. And while we're not exactly rooting for the hijackers to come out on top, there's at least an attempt to place these events in context.

And then there's Hanks as Richard Phillips, captaining a the container ship Maersk Alabama, the crew of which puts up a helluva defense when the pirates come. Greengrass structures the film to show us two parallel stories. One shows Phillips leaving his wife (a brief appearance by Catherine Keener) and family; there's a nice discussion about their kids before Phillips boards his ship that adds an air of normality to his life. The other shows Muse and his struggle for any amount of money, working for a crime boss who orders his men out on the high sea with inadequate boats with failing motors to target unsuspecting ships off the coast.

Once the pirates are on the ship, the film becomes something of a cat-and-mouse game between the hijackers and Phillips, whose strong combination of intelligence and being a great liar keeps his crew safe. But when he's taken by the four hijackers aboard the ship's lifeboat, the film takes a darker, more terrifying turn as the close quarters of the mini-ship drive everyone varying degrees of crazy and angry. Greengrass has the unique ability to generate a great deal of heat and emotion from a by-the-numbers approach to storytelling. And please ignore all of this "shaky-cam" nonsense. The movie takes place on the water; of course it gets shaky sometimes.

It's been a while since I've seen Hanks truly throw himself into something with quite this much vigor and commitment, to the point where you almost forget you're watching one of the most likable men in the world. Phillips is a bit of a brusque taskmaster, a boss who hovers over his crew when they're on a coffee break to make sure they get right back to work. It's fascinating to watch the subtle behavioral shifts in Phillips when fear is introduced into his life. There are a couple of brief moments when it looks like the pirates might give up (or at least Phillips hopes they will), and in those scenes, you can see Phillips' confidence return only to have it dashed when he realizes this will be more of a long-haul endeavor for him.

Not that we need our Somali pirates to be too human, but it is a welcome shift to allow at least one of them, Muse, to be a more fully rounded and articulate person, with clear motivations and no way out of this situation without coming away with millions of dollars in ransom. There's a moment when Phillips offers him $30,000 cash that the ship keeps in its safe, and the rejection of that money is telling because it's clear that if Muse comes back with only that money, he will be killed by his bosses. These four men are no innocents, to be sure, but their options for survival are incredibly limited and desperate.

The only other thing I want to mention about Captain Phillips regards one of its final scenes, in which Hanks lets loose with a powerful, almost too uncomfortable to watch explosion of emotion. Phillips is in shock and his body simply lets go; it decompresses from all of its pent-up tension and partial belief that his death was eminent. You could cynically say that the moment is his Oscar clip (it would make a nice one), but it's also the truest testament to Hanks as a powerhouse actor. Watching that scene almost makes me want to see him less in something like the upcoming Saving Mister Banks, in which he plays Walt Disney, because that kind of role is too easy for him. Hanks can create an entertaining character effortlessly, but what he does in Captain Phillips is create a person we can empathize with and worry about. It's one of his finest roles, and you may not even realize it. That's how acting is supposed to be.

Machete Kills

Robert Rodriguez is the franchise king. His El Mariachi films kicked off a DIY career that has inspired young filmmakers looking to make action films on the cheap; From Dusk Till Dawn sparked sequels that Rodriguez executive produced and now a TV series that he is overseeing; his most successful series, Spy Kids, has seen four films and made whole lot of kids want to be adventurers; I'll even toss in the Sin City movies, since a new one is on the way for next summer. But the Machete movies (two, plus a trailer for a third teased in both films) seem to have captured something with audiences and Rodriguez. It's easy to get caught up in the childlike enthusiasm for action, but the films are also ridiculously violent and overtly sexual.

The Machete movies are Rodriguez throwing everything he has learned over the past 20 years, tossing it into a blender, and setting it to liquify. And he's built up enough of a reputation as a director to get an array of actors to line up for a chance to throw caution to the wind and act crazy. It's no surprise seeing people like Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Antonio Banderas, Spy Kids star Alexa Vega, and of course Danny Trejo in Machete Kills, but then you get folks like Walt Goggins, Sofia Vergara, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Hudgens, William Sadler, Amber Heard and even Lady Gaga in her first film role. Charlie Sheen plays a womanizing president who likes to say "motherfucker" a lot. These aren't necessarily shocking either to see in a Machete film, but you see the "kitchen sink" mentality of the casting.

But the two biggest surprises are the great Mexican actor Demián Bishir playing a schizophrenic mob boss who plans on launching a nuclear missile at Washington, D.C. Bishir has long been one of my favorite actors, and he elevates this clownish character into a genuine performance of a man who switches personalities unexpectedly. Sometimes he's over the top; other times, he dials it back. It's a much better performance than it has any right to be, and he nails it. The other treat in Machete Kills is Mel Gibson as the very Bond-like villain (his first bad-guy role) Luther Voss, who seeks world domination by nuking a few select world cities; he's also a big Star Wars fan. Gibson plays Voss big but not too big. Gibson is smart enough to know that if he plays it too cool, he'll get lost in the noise and big performances around him. There's something slick and nasty about him, and it works perfectly in this cartoon world.

I think my favorite performer in both Machete movies is Michelle Rodriguez. Director Rodriguez has always portrayed women in his films as both incredible sexy and crotch-punchingly badass, and that pretty much sums up Michelle perfectly. She's someone you can't take your eyes off of (especially in the outfits she sports in this film), but something about her will always scare me.

I haven't talked that much about Trejo, whose Machete is recruited personally by the president to track down the source of these nukes and eliminate the threat. We know what Trejo can do with just a look, and I love watching his face go completely feral when he's chopping limbs off or otherwise slaughtering the badguys. Talking about Trejo almost seems pointless because he IS Machete; no one else could be. He has some great one-liners, and of course his sex scenes are the stuff of legend, but what more can you say? I want him making Machete movies until he's physically incapable of picking up a machete — the end. I'm curious to see what Rodriguez is capable of the next time he decides to branch out from his franchise comfort zone, but as long as he keeps making Machete movies, I can forgive him some of his lesser works.

We Are What We Are

It's taken me three films to realize this, but writer-director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) has a true gift for casting actors with the best faces for their roles. That may seem obvious, but in a world of making movies where most filmmakers would go with the most recognizable names or faces, Mickle wonders, "Who looks like this character?" The faces of his actors become etched in your mind. For example, I've seen Bill Sage in a dozens of film and television roles, usually clean cut, angular, but it's his portrayal of Frank Parker, the devoutly religious husband and father of three that has been burned in my brain since seeing We Are What We Are a few weeks ago.

A beard all but obscures Sages most recognizable features, and his raspy voice does the rest. It's the performance of a lifetime for this veteran of '90s-era Hal Hartley films, and because of this performance, I'll always be just a little more nervous watching him from this point forward. We Are What We Are is about the Parker family, reeling in the aftermath of the sudden, mysterious death of its matriarch. On the eve of what is clearly a big-deal religious event in the family's history, the Parkers are forced to carry out a strange and shocking ritual, which must now be supervised by the eldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers from The Master), with the assistance of the reluctant younger sister Rose (Julia Warner of Martha Marcy May Marlene).

I know some reviews are going to come right out and say what the big "surprise" of this film is, but the truth is, it's not that much of a surprise, and it's certainly not treated like one in this film. What Mickle and his constant writing partner Nick Damici (who also acts in the film) have done is taken a shocking concept and made it somewhat understandable (but not quite acceptable) in the context of religious practices. But let's make this clear, at its core, We Are What We Are is a horror film about religion, about the controlling, manipulative ways that organized religion often works and how people use religion to justify the most horrific acts imaginable. There's even an interesting flashback element to the film that shows the first time these practices were put into place, and those sequences are among the most graphic in the film.

But strangely enough, Mickle does not rely on blood and gore to make his film shocking; the most graphic element in the movie is actually a brief autopsy scene. Instead the director and Damici use terrific actors and a slow, creeping sense of dread that permeates every frame of this movie. Strong supporting work from the likes of Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell and especially the great Michael Parks only serve to underscore a terrific story. The film is technically a remake of a 2010 Mexican work of the same name, but other than the basic structure, the two films are striking (thankfully) different. I actually think this newer version is far better. There are only a couple of actual scares in the film, but as I said, this is about nerve-shattering tension and some of the best character building I've seen in a horror film in quite some time. One of the best years in horror continues with We Are What We Are. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with We Are What We Are director and co-writer Jim Mickle, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Summit

This remarkable documentary feels more like a thriller, except a feature film version of this story probably wouldn't be nearly as exciting. As the now notorious story goes, a group of 18 mountain climbers attempted to reach the top of K2 — the second-highest mountain on earth after Mt. Everest — in August 2008. Two days later, only seven of them were accounted for due to a series of bad decisions, faulty or lacking equipment, and bad luck. What director Nick Ryan's film The Summit attempts to do is re-create almost moment by moment the journey and the losses in a way that has never been attempted.

The Summit does fruitlessly ask the question about why these men and women do what they do, but I think this falls into that category of if you have to ask, you'll never really understand. They climb this and other mountains because they were placed on this earth to climb, in their estimation. But the most impressive parts of this film involve the exhausting detective work of examining photos, film and interviewing the few survivors; a few re-enactments are used to fill in the gaps, but Ryan seems keen on sticking to the facts rather than speculating.

The footage of the mountain — both from the bottom and from the summit — are beyond words and might be the best reason not to wait and see this film at home. On a big screen, these images will blow your mind and eyes. But Ryan builds the story of these tragic deaths slowly, and you can tell that it bothers him and the survivors that they simply don't know what happened to a few of the climbers; they just never returned, possibly the victims of an avalanche or just the cold. Either way, dying that way is almost unimaginable.

It's clear from the film that those who survived this ordeal do not feel like heroes or brave people; they simply were lucky enough to make it when others didn't, and that reality has clearly taken its toll on some of them. The Summit is one of those films that is almost physically exhausting to watch due to all of the discussions of the lack of oxygen and the exertion that these climbers go through to make this journey. In that sense, watching the film is almost an immersive experience, which seems almost necessary to get its point across about just how death-defying a climb like this is. Go in expecting to be a whole lot of freaked out by this story and the unknown factors that are still being dealt with and contemplated regarding these deaths. And if you're afraid of heights, stay clear of this one. Otherwise, it's essential viewing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


So often when you crowd a comedy with too many funny people, the individual voices tend to drown each other out. The latest work from director and co-writer Stu Zicherman suffers from that curse ever so slightly, but still manages to pull of quite a few humorous sequences as well as a few astute observations about divorce in the last 30-some years and the now-adult children of divorce who have been left in the wake of them.

Adam Scott ("Parks & Recreation") stars as Carter, who feels fairly confident that he's got his act together; he runs a successful restaurant and has a long-time girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who isn't pressuring him to get married. Carter's biggest day-to-day headaches come from his long-divorced parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O'Hara) who haven't spoken in years, are remarried (to Amy Poehler and Ken Howard, respectively) and are constantly attempting to poison Carter against each other, as they have since he was a kid. But when his younger brother (Clark Duke) gets engaged after only dating a woman for a few months, Carter suddenly feels the pressure to get married as well, and he begins to wonder why he hasn't made it legal with his phenomenal lady.

Carter seeks the aide of his therapist (Jane Lynch), who it turns out isn't actually a therapist, but someone who, back when he was a kid, studied the behaviors and thoughts of children of divorce, all of whom are grown up now, and she's looked to update her studies on adult children of divorce (A.C.O.D.). While he manages to fire off a few one-liners here and there, Scott's biggest accomplishment is merging the insanity around him into a coherent story, and he's a strong enough actor to pull it off. He's such a natural everyman, that it's tough to believe that he's never really been the lead in anything to this extent before.

Fairing strongest in A.C.O.D. are Jenkins, who plays the perfect asshole, self-centered dad; and Lynch, who actually goes for a kind and nurturing take on this character, but she too is after something from Carter — namely an updated look at his life to find commonalities among her subjects. In fact, at various points in this movie, every character turns into a selfish prick, and that makes it tough to like these characters for long stretches of time. Then there's the weirdly brief appearance of Jessica Alba and another one of Lynch's grown-up child subjects. She appears to Carter, they have a flirtation, and she essentially vanishes. Cutting her out of this might have been the best and easiest decision the editor could have made, but I guess her name on a poster means something.

A.C.O.D. takes a few risks by making divorce the primary subject of the humor — and the vitriolic way Jenkins and O'Hara go at each other is beyond enjoyable — but I think if you're going to take on a touchy subject like this, why wrap everything up in a nice bow and force everyone into concluding scenes that feel fake, almost like a make-good for all of the agony we've seen on screen so far? It doesn't ring true and it undercuts whatever edge this movie might have achieved. Still, Scott and company keeps things moving, funny and often smart and poignant. It's a closer call than it should have been, but I'd still say it's worth a look. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with A.C.O.D. director and co-writer Stu Zicherman and star Adam Scott.

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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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