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Column Fri Oct 18 2013

Carrie, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, Escape Plan, Zero Charisma, Let the Fire Burn & After Tiller


Before I dive into the week's new releases, I'd like to point you to a couple of truly wonderful events going on in the next week, both at the Music Box Theatre. The first is a weeklong celebration of the work of the great German director Werner Herzog, specifically the first phase of his career, often working with the insane actor Klaus Kinski. For those of you who know Herzog primarily as the maker of some of the most thought-provoking documentaries in the last 10 years, you have quite a lot to discover, and you'll be able to do so via "Werner Herzog: Feats of Madness," showing 35mm prints of films like Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972); Fitzcarraldo (1982) and the companion documentary about its making, Burden of Dream (1982), directed by Les Blank; Herzog's first feature, Signs of Life (1968); Kaspar Hauser (1974); Stroszek (1977) and Heart of Glass (1974). For the complete schedule, go to the official website.

And this weekend the Music Box holds its annual target="_blank">Music Box of Horrors, which begins at noon on Saturday, Oct. 19 and continues for about 26 hours until around 2pm on Sunday, Oct. 20. Special guests at this year's event include William Lustig, director of the original Maniac, Vigilante and the Maniac Cop trilogy, who will present a new restoration of Maniac Cop 2; and David Schmoeller (Puppetmaster, Tourist Trap) presenting his demented classic Crawlspace, starring the aforementioned Klaus Kinski.

Other films in the 26 hours include The Fall of the House of Usher, directed by Jean Epstein (1928); Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi (1932); The Black Room with Boris Karloff (1935); Night Monster with Bela Lugosi (1942); TerrorVision (1986), with the first screening ever of this vintage print; The Manitou (1978), with Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg; the uncut European version of Possession (1981), directed by the legendary Andrzej Zulawski and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill; the slasher classic The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), directed by Amy Holden Jones; the Chicago-shot Child's Play (1988), directed by Tom Holland, starring Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon and Brad Dourif; A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), with Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette, directed by Chuck Russell and featuring a killer theme song from Dokken; C.H.U.D. (1984), starring Daniel Stern and John Heard; and an uncut print of Twitch of the Death Nerve, directed by Mario Bava.

There's also a slot left open for a mystery screening in the overnight hours, and I have no idea what to expect. A preview of a new film? A vintage classic? Show up, stay awake, and see. I'll be co-hosting along with some of the Music Box crew, and I expect true Chicago horror fans to be there in droves. And now onto the new stuff.


Unlike many, I don't have a knee-jerk negative reaction to every announcement of a horror film remake, because every so often, someone gets it right. In fact, one of the films that got it especially right featured the star of the new Carrie remake, Chloe Grace Moretz, who had a nice, creepy turn in Let Me In, the remake of the Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In. With a nice mix of staying faithful to the spirit of the original while making small but important improvements to the pacing and plotting, Let Me In was a strong stand-alone work.

And now we have Carrie, based on Stephen King's first published novel and originally made into a film by Brian De Palma in 1976. (I'll also go on record as saying that I'm a massive fan of Angela Bettis's portrayal of Carrie White in the otherwise awful 2002 television mini-series version, written by "Hannibal" and "Pushing Daisies" series creator Bryan Fuller.) This time around, director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop Loss) is at the helm of what turns out to be a shockingly and decidedly run-of-the-mill, paint-by-number remake with very little updating and even less insight in this story that seems ripe for a fresh look. Considering bullying is a major component of this story, I'm really surprised more of an emphasis isn't placed on it, especially in the scene in which Carrie's nemesis Chris Hargensen (Youth In Revolt's Portia Doubleday) is being admonished for taking cell phone video (one of the few modern touches in the film) of Carrie in the girls lockerroom when she gets her first period in the shower and puts it online.

But this isn't the film's only shortcoming. As played by the clearly talented Moretz (Hit Girl from the Kick-Ass movies, Hugo), Carrie is little more than a bundle of twitchy nerves, so much so that we don't ever really get past that scared, fragile girl whose disturbed religious mother (Julianne Moore) has clearly scarred her for life. We get tiny hints from Carrie that she'd like to be looked at as just normal, and not necessarily something special, but there is so much wasted opportunity to delve just a little below the surface of Carrie's psyche, and it just doesn't happen. The end result is simply sitting around in the theater for 90 minutes waiting for a bucket of blood to drop on her head.

When your centerpiece moment is so much a part of horror iconography (hell, I hear that "Glee" just parodied the prom scene this season), you have to at least try to freshen up the rest of the film to keep us interested. There are actually two admirable performances in Carrie, one of which is Moore's terrifying reading as Mrs. White, who acts like a woman possessed, as likely to protectively hold her daughter as she is to smother her in her sleep. Their confrontations are the highlights of the film, if only because they feel like the only real moments of the movie (if you exclude Carrie telekinetically tossing her mother around from time to time).

The second decent performance comes from Judy Greer as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin, and while the character is substantially underwritten, Greer has enough natural talent and charm to put a little soul into her character, who is the closest thing to a protector that Carrie has ever known. Not to put down the work of Gabriella Wilde (from the upcoming Endless Love) as Sue Snell, who attempts to make amends for laughing at Carrie in the lockerroom by setting Carrie up with her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort, soon to be seen in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars) to go to prom. I'll give Elgort some credit for playing "sweet" convincingly, but otherwise, he's a generic handsome young dude.

In this day and age, it's hard not to see Carrie as a superhero origin story, although in all likelihood, she probably was on the road to becoming a super villain. But even that shift in the cultural vantage point is ignored. I think kids or adults witnessing what Carrie does in small doses in front of people in this story would react differently. I don't expect a horror film remake to reinvent its source material, but I'd at least like to see the filmmakers make it something more than pointless.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Carrie star Chloe Grace Moretz.

12 Years a Slave

I find it so strange and troubling that the talk surrounding director Steve McQueen's (Shame, Hunger) latest work, 12 Years a Slave, has been reduced to a discussion about whether people can handle the extreme violence. Let me help you decide. Of course you can't handle the violence; you aren't supposed to be able to handle the violence. You're supposed to be given some sense of the sheer brutality of the practice of slavery. Slavery isn't about working for no pay; it's about taking a human mind and body and convincing it that it is something less than human by means of physical violence, such as the eye-searing whipping that goes on in this film, or by sexual domination. More than likely, it's a combination of the two.

For those born into slavery, they likely never knew any other condition for the duration of their lives. But for Solomon Northup (played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor of Children of Men and Dirty Pretty Things), a free man living in pre-Civil War upstate New York, the pain of being kidnapped and sold into slavery must have been all the worse. 12 Years a Slave tracks Northup from owner to owner, being treated like almost an equal by some because of his extraordinary skills and mind, while others brutalized and degraded him like something less than an animal. Since John Ridley's screenplay is based on a memoir by Northup, you can probably guess how it ends, but that in no way takes away from the power of this true story.

The film is loaded with talented famous faces in even the smallest roles. If you blink, you'll miss Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry in brief supporting parts. But it's unlikely you'll miss the likes of Paul Giamatti as the man who sells Northup into slavery initially, Benedict Cumberbatch as his kindly first owner, Paul Dano as a plantation manager who gives Norhtup his first true taste of cruelty, Michael K. Williams as a fellow slave, Alfre Woodard as a rare slave who actually runs the house she lives in thanks to the master of the house falling in love with her, or Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist who takes the first step in setting Northup free.

Outside of Ejiofor, the most memorable performances belong to McQueen's frequent creative partner Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the cruel plantation owner whose twisted brand of religion (along with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson) he uses to justify some atrocious behavior, most of which is aimed at Lupita Nyong'o as the slave Patsey, whom Epps lusts after without mercy. If he wasn't so damn great as the psychotic Epps, I'd say Fassbender runs the risk of stealing this movie away from even Ejiofor. It wouldn't be hard to make a case for it, but I choose to see it as two equally strong performances existing side by side.

McQueen spares us nothing. The language will make you flinch, the attitudes about the worth of a slave's life are beyond troubling, and the severity of the violence can get damn near unbearable at times. But the cumulative impact is undeniable. McQueen is going for authenticity, not shock value. It just so happens that the reality is terribly shocking. But at the center of it all is the noble Ejiofor, who isn't tasked with playing a slave; he must play a free man pretending to be a slave, pretending to be uneducated, pretending to be illiterate. This is a man who has spent much of his adult life being able to walk down the street and have people say hello to him or shake his hand. Nothing in his life has prepared him to take on this existence, but he holds on because he firmly believes that sanity will take hold in the world long enough for him to get free.

12 Years a Slave is an extraordinary film that may simply be too much for some to handle. Yes there is violence, but I was more overtaken by the overwhelming sense of despair and the grim, unbelievable reality of the situation. As serious moviegoers (which I'm assuming you are if you've read this far), you owe it to yourselves to see the best of what's out there; this is it, folks. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Fifth Estate

Briefly seen in this week's release 12 Years a Slave and soon to be spotted in the ensemble drama August: Osage County, the man of the hour Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) now takes center stage playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the man whose outlet released tens of thousands of U.S. government and military intelligence documents that ended up revealing the names of dozens, if not hundreds, of informants' names and just generally embarrassing a whole lot of powerful people. What's interesting about Assange's story (one of the many things) is how much of a force for good he was seen as before that leak, taking down corrupt leaders, banks and other corporations. And he certainly maintains a steady fan base even today in self-imposed exile.

In The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey), Assange is looked at through the eyes of his longtime partner (some have said WikiLeaks co-founder) Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Rush's Daniel Brühl), who wrote one of the two books the film is based upon. What's fascinating about Cumberbatch's performance is that it can be read many different ways at the same time. In a single scene, he's capable of portraying Assange as a compassionate man of the people, a Robin Hood type who dispenses information rather than cash — but also an ego-maniacal control freak; a charmer when it comes to the ladies; and a brilliant, forward-thinking news man who has found a new way to give his readership something closer to the truth than they have ever seen before. Cumberbatch embodies them all, under an unruly mane of stringy white hair and a half-scowl to complete the picture.

While Cumberbach's performance is spot on, layered and often quite creepy, the film itself displays a gross miscalculation by attempting to play out as a thriller rather than a more appropriate docu-drama. While I'm sure Assange and company felt like they were in the midst of a thriller at times with some of the information they were given access to, it feels false to employ the trappings of a thriller with something this, and it makes the film feel false and overhyped. The story rarely slows down long enough to even bother explaining why much of what Assange is doing is significant; I guess we're just supposed to know.

The other frustrating element of The Fifth Estate is that Assange is only a character in his own story. As I mentioned, the tale is told from Daniel's point of view. And the only version of stories from Assange's life before WikiLeaks comes from Assange himself, who is a confirmed liar about many things. The film also barely mentions (only in a title card at the end of the movie) the sexual assault charges levied against him shortly after the U.S. correspondences were released. I think the consensus is that the charges were meant to discredit him, but it still seems unbalanced.

And then there are the subplots: one featuring Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney as high-level government types who are tracking Assange's leaks and feeling pretty confident he'll never get anything on them... until he does. And then their job is to pull as many operatives out of the field as they can. Again, every time the story gets sidelined like this, the movie feels phony. Anthony Mackie plays Sam Coulson, apparently the White House press secretary or someone advising him, who is pushing Tucci and Linney for answers. It's always good to see Mackie, but he adds nothing this movie but words.

More interesting perhaps are the editors of the British newspaper The Guardian, played by David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi and Dan Stevens. They seem to have better luck and chemistry than their American counterparts as they begin by mocking Assange and his start-up haven for whistleblowers, but soon they are cutting deals with WikiLeaks about its 21st century version of the Pentagon Papers.

If you want to see a more complete and less trumped-up version of many of these events and more, check out director Alex Gibney's documentary from earlier this year, We Steal Secrets. And while I'm on the fence about the movie as a whole, I can't imagine making it through 2013 without checking out Cumberbatch's chilling performance as the man who changed the way we gather and disseminate newsworthy information, for better or worse.

Escape Plan

All nostalgic aspects aside, one of the reasons I prefer the Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger jailhouse breakout film Escape Plan to any of the Expendables movies is simple. If you're going to put two of the biggest action stars of all time in a film together, let's actually let them interact beyond a few jokes and winks as they stand side by side. In Escape Plan, they actually talk, scheme, work together, and of course fight like a proper team, and not like guys posing for pictures to use for publicity stills. Directed by the Swedish-born filmmaker Mikael Håfström (1408, Derailed, The Rite), this film still has the Expendables version of physics-bending stunts, impossible outcomes and laugh-out-loud plot twists, but it's also ridiculously entertaining, if not always for the right reasons.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, the man who literally wrote the book on fortifying prisons, which he put together by literally arranging to get put in prisons all over the country and then busting out to exploit their security flaws. The film opens with one such escape, but we don't get to see exactly how Breslin does it until the prison's warden comes into Breslin's office (run by Lester Clark, played by Vincent D'Onofrio) and is given the blow-by-bow rundown of the complicated breakout. Also working with Breslin are his computer whiz Hush (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) and Abigail (Amy Ryan, whom I haven't seen in a film since 2011's Win Win).

When a representative of an off-the-grid prison for high-profile prisoners (mostly terrorists — domestic or otherwise) wants to bring Breslin in for double his usual salary, the team is hesitant since they aren't allowed to know where the prison is. But naturally he takes the gig and is taken almost immediately to the high-tech operation called "The Tomb." Almost immediately, Breslin knows there is something amiss when the warden he was supposed to meet has been replaced by the sadistic Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel, in extra-weasel mode) and his right-hand thug (Vinnie Jones). When Breslin becomes a target of violence by other prisoners, inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) steps in and makes fast friends with him.

The rest of the film is them plotting and failing and plotting again of the big escape. It just so happens that the warden has read Breslin's book, forcing the escape artist to be ever more clever. I won't ruin a couple of the surprises in Escape Plan, but they're pretty amusing. I loved how Stallone has to become something of a MacGyver in order to enact his plans, and I was especially impressed with Arnold's acting in this one. There is one scene where he has to pretend like he's having a mental freakout, and he starts screaming in German; I don't think I've ever found him more terrifying.

Sure Caviezel is trying way too hard to evil, and Vinne Jones (for once) isn't trying hard enough. Yes, it's weird when Sam Neill shows up as the prison doctor in scenes that feel like they were inserted months later. And maybe there are a few too many double crosses and triple crosses. But the action sequences are pretty solid without feeling overcooked, with maybe the climax as the exception. For the most part, our two leads don't spend the entire film trying to out-smartass each other. I can't emphasize enough how great it is to see these two men actually acting together. Escape Plan is a little rough around the edges, but so are its stars, and that's okay. These guys seem to play well together, and with a little encouragement, they might actually have careers ahead of them.

Zero Charisma

An Audience Winner at SXSW and recently announced as the first feature to be distributed by Nerdist Industries, Zero Charisma is the story of an angry, controlling nerd. And while the film is initially played for laughs as Sam (My Sucky Teen Romance) Eidson's Scott perfects the role as the man-child game master of a three-years-running role playing game with this tolerant friends, the more we learn about the man, the more we learn to take pity on him, even while he's throwing tantrums when he doesn't get his way and doing everything in his power to drive his friends away.

Scott is not an easy man to like; in fact, some audience members may watch the entire film and never find a reason to enjoy watching him, let alone empathize with his solitary life. He lives with his grandmother (the godsend Anne Gee Byrd), works at a taco-donut combo fast food joint, and spends hours coming up with new adventures and characters for his custom-made RPG. As his small group of friends play, Scott's true personality rises to the surface and he becomes a controlling, mocking dick. But when newcomer Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the game (after another friend leaves to save his marriage — Scott is willing to give the guy a little time to pull his shit together, but that's all), Scott feels threatened by this hip nerd, whose website gets hundreds of thousands of hits on a daily basis and actually gets to live the life that Scott has always seen himself leading.

Before long, Scott's jealousy causes him to lose all his friends, and frankly, he deserves to. But first-time feature directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews (Matthews wrote the screenplay as well) wisely allow Scott's newfound low to act as a means to see what went in to making this ogre of a man. When his grandmother has a mild stroke, Scott's absentee mother (Cyndi Williams) shows up pretending to be concerned when in fact she's looking to sell the house to pay off debts. Clearly, Scott's selfish habits did not come from his grandmother.

The most impressive thing about Zero Charisma is how it captures the geek culture without mocking it. It reveals the very real fears of these (mostly) men that they are looked upon as losers, a status they can forget when they are together arguing whether the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise is faster. They're also afraid to let each other go. When Scott's closest friend Wayne (Brock England) voices even the slightest chance that he might have met a woman online to date, Scott discourages a face-to-face meeting because she'll probably think he's a dork. Scott is a master and undermining any signs of confidence his friends might display, even for a second. I told you, the guy is a tried-and-true asshole.

Of all of the fine cast members, I can't wait to see what Eidson does next. The way he goes from zero to game-master psychotic is the blink of an eye is fantastic. He's a physically threatening presence, but something in his eyes tells us he's also never going to hurt someone else... and if that's the vibe you get, you may be in for a big surprise. Scott is indeed one of the most true-to-life examples of his kind I've ever seen in a film that takes nerds seriously, and Eidson makes him breathe real, musty air.

The other smart thing the filmmakers do is not to fully redeem Scott by the end of the film. He's certainly learned some valuable lessons, but he's far from being 100 percent supportive of anyone. The film treats all of its characters like real people, complete with a laundry list of flaws and abrasive personality traits. It even manages to capture nerd culture without necessarily promoting or discouraging people from becoming a part of it. It simply gives us examples of a few of its flagship members, and muses, "If you think you can live like this, join in." The rest is up to you, but Zero Charisma is well worth checking out even if you decides it's more of a cautionary tale about what happens when you venture into the dark and dangerous land of nerds. The film opens today at Facets Cinemateque.

Let the Fire Burn

Sometimes the proper amount of rage can be generated by a documentary by simply retelling the story as it happened — not re-enactments, no modern interviews with the participants, no revisiting the scene of the events decades later. First-time feature director Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn is an incredible documentary about the events leading up to and including May 13, 1985, when strife between the city of Philadelphia (particularly its police department) and the controversial black power group/cult MOVE exploded in the streets, specifically when the police dropped explosives on the fortified rooftop of the MOVE-occupied rowhouse, starting a fire that ultimately destroyed 61 homes and killed most of the people in that house — 11 in total, including five kids.

But the film doesn't simply retell this horrific story — which included the kicker that the mayor and others at the time made the collective decision to just "let the fire burn" and end their problem with MOVE once and for all. Not long after the incident a public hearing was launched that brought together the participants walk step by step through the day and answer for what they had done. Director Osder uses the hearing as his outline for additional footage shot live at the time, as well as some police and privately shot footage and photographs marking the passage of this day. In other words, the filmmaker has pieced together a genuine found-footage film to reveal details of not only that day, but another incident a couple of months earlier where the police and MOVE came into conflict the first time, resulting in a police officer being shot dead.

Was the May 1985 retaliation for that? Did police shoot or threaten to shoot MOVE members as they attempted to get out of the burning house? Was this simply an aggressive act of racism? None of these questions is answered definitively, but the clues are there and piecing things together isn't difficult. Let the Fire Burn is an authentically structured work whose only modern commentary are a few title cards between segments that only give historical information. It's an impressive piece of journalism with plenty of built-in drama and tragedy to keep audiences angry and mournful. This is not a film you will soon forget. The film will have a two-week run in Chicago beginning today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

After Tiller

With a cool distance from its subject matter, just enough so that it shows more than it tells, After Tiller (from directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson) takes us into the offices of the four remaining American doctors who openly provide late-term (or third-trimester) abortions. I say "remaining," because in May 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in Kansas by a man who said in court he believed he had completed his holy mission when he assassinated Tiller. The documentary interviews its four subjects and also shows them at work, both as counselors to women or couples making probably the toughest choice in their life and as doctors performing this procedure, which involves terminating the fetus and delivering it. While the film does not get graphic in any way, the descriptions of the procedures may be enough to scare some people away.

Without providing narration, the film simply observes. I was fascinated with how each of the four doctors views what it is they do. They all tend to agree that they're doing important work, especially when it's discovered that the child has a disease or condition that will result in it dying upon birth or shortly thereafter, when the mother's life is at risk, or when the woman has been raped. But one woman simply put off the decision so late that one counselor at the clinic is considering turning her away because the patient is so unsure. Hearing these stories is heartbreaking and opens up a vulnerability in both patients and doctors that is bordering on uncomfortable.

The film also shows us those who consider what these particular doctors do to be the worst kind of murder, who come out in force when one doctor decides to open a new clinic in Maryland. To drive the doctor out, the anti-abortion group's members picket the school where the office landlord's kids go to school. It's about the lowest things I've ever seen, but the landlord's father also performed abortions, and he is not so easily moved.

I'll admit to being somewhat shocked at how at least one of the doctors seemed to constantly struggle with what she does. But, as she says, in the end she relies on the women in her care to make the ultimate decision. The heart and soul of this film is these doctors, and you see them really doing great work in the pre-procedure therapy sessions, where they really go through options with these women. But they never forget that they will live every day they have this job with a target on their backs. After Tiller is a moving, eye-opening, smart, sensitive film that attempts to open our eyes to perhaps the most demonized profession in America. Whether you think they're brave or foolish, there's little doubt that this film will move you and make you consider a way of living you probably never thought you'd want to know about, but you should. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

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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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