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Column Fri Nov 08 2013

Reeling Film Festival, Thor: The Dark World, Dallas Buyers Club, How I Live Now, The Motel Life, Great Expectations & Il Futuro


Reeling 31: The LGBT International Film Festival

Reeling, the second-longest-running LGBT film festival in the world and a Chicago cultural institution for more than 30 years is back with another slate of films that showcase not only diversity within the queer community but also diversity in the range of possibilities within film itself. The 31st edition of Reeling began on Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 14.

Reeling's main venue this year is The Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.) , with the fest's home base at Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.), which will also host screenings. Satellite screenings will take place at the Block Cinema at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art (40 Arts Circle Dr., on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston), the DuSable Museum of African American History (740 E. 56th Pl.), Sidetrack (3349 N. Halsted St.), and the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library (1210 W. Elmdale Ave.).

Reeling wraps up on Thursday, Nov. 14 with three closing night selections — one gay, one lesbian and one transgender — Ludwig II, Reaching for the Moon and Ian Harvie Superhero. Ludwig II is the story of "Mad King Ludwig," the gay 19th century Bavarian monarch known mostly for his lavish fairytale castles and his solitary nature, who has been elevated to almost mythical status. Co-directors Peter Sehr and Marie Noëlle give the life of King Ludwig II an epic treatment while also managing to understand the emotions that drove him.

Reaching for the Moon is an English-language, 1950s period piece that recounts the star-crossed love affair of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo (Gloria Pires) when she left America to live and write in Rio de Janeiro.

In his debut comedy concert film, directed by Liam Kyle Sullivan, Ian Harvie, the world's first FTM transgender stand-up comedian, takes a sex positive look at his transition from his own unique perspective. Taped before a live audience, the laugh-a-minute Ian Harvie Superhero was produced by one of Ian's biggest fans, Margaret Cho.

A closing night reception will be held at the Stan Mansion (2408 N. Kedzie Ave.), only blocks from The Logan Theatre.

I've seen three of the films playing at Reeling this year, and they're all well worth checking out. I Am Divine, director Jeffrey Schwarz's definitive biographical portrait of the great John Waters' player that encompasses the legendary underground superstar's rise to infamy and delves into the emotional complexities of its subject. It's a moving and loving tribute to Divine, and fan of hers or Waters should miss this doc. I Got Somethin' To Tell You is a Whoopi Goldberg-produced biography of the groundbreaking comedy pioneer Moms Mabley, with testimonials from such comics as Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Kathy Griffin and Goldberg herself. It's one of the funniest films you'll see all year. Finally, Interior. Leather Bar. is the already notorious 60-minute collaboration between James Franco and Travis Mathews that ruminates on the missing 40 minutes of explicit footage from director William Friedkin's Cruising. The effort may be slightly amateurish, but the themes of tolerance, feeling secure/insecure in your own skin and with your sexuality, and peer pressure are sometimes fascinating.

Dozens more features and shorts will be screened over the week. For more information and a list of all movie titles, visit the festival website (where advance tickets may be purchased), call 773-293-1447, or follow @reelingfilmfest on Twitter.

Thor: The Dark World

I've already started to see the lists, and they seem rather pointless. I have no interest is comparing the new Thor film to any of the Iron Man movies, the Captain America or collective Avengers outings, or the Incredible Hulk either. The only film you should maybe compare Thor: The Dark World to is the original Thor film, and on that more or less level plane, The Dark World is miles better. (And yes, I accept that The Avengers is kind of a Thor movie, since its follows up on the tag featured in that film and features Loki as its primary villain; I just choose not to.)

But since I'm not much of a fan of comparing sequels to their previous chapters and choose instead to judge it as a stand-alone film (as much as one can in the Marvel cinematic universe), I'm going to try and stick to that plan. You notice almost immediately how much more lived-in things in Asgard feel. They're still incredibly majestic and polished, but something about the way director Alan Taylor approaches this material makes things feel warm blooded.

The combat sequences, in particular, seem more brutal as he opts for hand-to-hand combat and familiar weapons at the ready rather than just beams of light emitting from scepters and such. Yes, there is the presence of what appear to be spaceships being piloted by the film's primary villainous force, the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (the great Christopher Eccleston), a creature from before recorded history that has returned to claim a strange fluid energy called the Aether, which threatens to throw the known universe, including Earth, into total darkness. I will admit, there is something refreshing about Malekith's approach to revenge — he simply comes into a room, says "I hate you and your kind" to Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and starts kicking their ass. It's a streamlined way of dealing with your enemy that you have to admire.

A lot of smart people are going to offer up their ideas about what Thor: The Dark World is really about. Some will say it's a love story couched in an action movie, and there's certainly some of that in there. I'm still not sure I get the attraction between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), especially when her baggage includes the most annoying creature in all of the Nine Realms, Kat Dennings. Of course, the far more interesting love story is of the unrequited kind, between Thor and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who would seem to be his natural companion and certainly seems to be drawn to Thor. There are a couple of really nice, quiet moments between them here that feel like they're leading to something, maybe good, maybe bad.

If my timelines are correct, The Dark World takes place on the heels of the events in The Avengers. Loki is still in chains and being brought to "trial" before his father, Odin, and mother Frigga (Rene Russo), who sentence him to the dungeons for the rest of his life. And this relates back to my comment about what the film is really about. This is the story of Thor and Loki trying to find stable ground where they can trust each other again; this is a film about brothers looking out for each other. Without giving anything away, there comes a point in the story where Thor must release Loki so that he may show his brother a secret way out of Asgard and back to Earth, and in the process, the two find themselves fighting side by side against the Dark Elves. It's one of the highlights of the film watching the Thor's brute strength weaved together with Loki's sneaky tactics.

What's most exciting about Thor: The Dark World is that, with all of that pesky establishing material out of the way in the first film, all of the characters seem to have more to do here. Sadly, some characters the filmmakers couldn't find much to do with, especially poor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who is reduced to a pants-less clown, suffering from the ill effects of having Loki in his head for too long. Very few of the earthlings set aside for comic relief (and little else) are particularly funny or interesting. And outside of a climactic battle sequence that jumps from dimension to dimension, very little that happens on Earth is significant either, which is how it should be. Asgard is a far more interesting place, in case you didn't notice, and setting so much of the film there and in other equally fascinating and mysterious realms was the right decision.

Perhaps the element of the film that has improved the most in the last two-and-a-half years is Thor himself. Hemsworth has found exactly the right balance of pompous, thoughtful, light-hearted, humorous and heroic, and I don't remember enjoying him quite this much in Thor or The Avengers. And then there's the glorious Tom Hiddleston, who likely wouldn't play Loki again and again unless he was the most interesting character in the Marvel universe. Even in the various ways he wears his hair, there's a story hiding behind everything he does. He shows a vulnerability that we haven't seen prior, but he's also got a plan a-brewin' that we likely won't find out about until the third Thor movie.

Thor: The Dark World is more than just a placeholder to get us from one film to another (as the first one felt to me). This is its own, action-oriented ride that also bothers not to short-change us on character development (with a few exceptions). That alone is cause for celebration in the world of comic book movies. Needless to say, don't leave until the final credit has rolled; there's double the end credits fun in this one. The film is fun for those who love that it's part of a bigger world and set of story lines, and it works for those of us who just plain love action-fantasy-science fiction fare. Keep 'em coming, Marvel.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Thor: The Dark World star Christopher Eccleston, director Alan Taylor and producer and President of Production at Marvel Studios Kevin Feige.

Dallas Buyers Club

After a stellar, revelatory last couple of years (The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Bernie) and still more to come in the next few months (Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and the HBO series "True Detective"), those of us who enjoy the hell out of watching Matthew McConaughey work probably thought they had a pretty good idea what the actor was capable of. And then along comes Dallas Buyers Club, in which McConaughey plays real-life Texan Ron Woodroof who had unprotected sex with an army of women and did every type of drug available at the time. He was also an unapologetic homophobe, who in 1985 was diagnosed not just HIV-positive, but as having full-blown AIDS with a life expectancy of 30 days.

When he makes the mistake of telling one of his fellow rednecks that he has the disease, his friends immediately shut him out; Ron retaliates by spitting on them in a bar. That's the kind of guy he is. But Woodroof was also amazingly resourceful and charming (he didn't get all of those women in bed with him because he was rich), and as he grew more and more frustrated with his lack of treatment options — it was clear that the original AIDS medication AZT was only poisoning him — he used his vast knowledge of how to acquire drugs illicitly to seek out alternative treatments from all over the world.

After a few months, Woodroof had not only beaten the 30-day death sentence but had also begun to regain his strength and get his T-cell numbers back to more manageable levels. Now Ron being an entrepreneur, he saw an opportunity. If he could get these non-FDA-approved drugs into the country in mass quantities, he could not only keep himself in good shape but others too... for a price. And so he founded the Dallas Buyers Club, which not surprisingly put Ron in close and constant contact with a gay clientele whom he was disgusted by. Thankfully, this telling of Ron Woodroof's life does not involve Ron suddenly becoming a compassionate man who ejects all forms of hatred and prejudice from his life; that would by too convenient and phony.

But what French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) does instead is gives us the gift of a character named Rayon, an HIV-positive transvestite played by Jared Leto, who reminds us what an powerful and death-defying actor he can be. Rayon not only is a handsome woman, but she essentially doesn't give Ron a choice but to enjoy her company. They meet in the hospital where Ron first gets his diagnosis, and they bond through their mutual friendship with the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Ron is repulsed by Rayon, but this is nothing new to her, and with a combination of a slight Southern drawl and a good heart, Rayon wins the day.

Dallas Buyers Club is one of the most perfectly American stories I've seen in quite awhile. Ron Woodroof is a go-getter, knowledgeable in the ways of cutting out the middle man and working his way around molasses-slow government bureaucracy. Not everything he's doing is illegal, but that's only because the FDA was too narrow-minded to think of it. Woodruff was able to use his skills to keep himself alive without having to give up too much of what he believes in and despises. He's smart enough to know that insulting his clients would cause him to lose business, so he stashes the bigotry for cash. You don't have to like Ron to appreciate what he did or this film.

The film is also one of the strongest statements I've ever seen for patient advocacy — taking control of your own treatment, doing your own research and making decisions about the medication combination that works best for the individual rather than the masses. But that message is secondary compared the one about forming friendships in the strangest places in times of crisis. Looking at the emaciated McConaughey, basically stripped of his youthful good looks, is only part of the experience of watching this film. And I genuinely feel that the world is a slightly better place because of Leto's performance as Rayon, Ron's most protective defender and an angel of mercy to hundreds of people that Ron sees as customers but she sees as fellow travelers and hopeful survivors.

There's not a hint of sentimentality in Dallas Buyers Club; if anything, director Vallee tends to swing the other way and makes the hard ways of the world seem too hard to bear. The endless battles Woodroof endured with the government, the FDA and others that would seek to shut him down are exhausting just to watch, so I can only imagine what it was like to go through it while still trying to stay alive. Ron doesn't apologize for what he is and thinks, but he's a classic case of better the devil you know than the one you don't know. He's not an evil man, but I'm guessing he said and did a lot worse than the movie tells us. The film asks us to accept that Ron's work for the greater trumps all, and that's probably a safe statement. It's impossible to watch Dallas Buyers Club and be unmoved, and in the end, despite yourself, you may end up liking Ron Woodroof after all. Trust me, there are worse things.

How I Live Now

Part science fiction, but mostly a coming-of-age story set during a fictional World War III in which a nuclear device is set off somewhere in the UK, How I Live Now is the story of Daisy (Saorise Ronan of Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Hanna and probably the upcoming Star Wars movie), an American teen who is forced by her father to live with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside, where she is miserable because there's nothing to do. Most of her cousins are just children, but then she meets the painfully shy 17-year-old Eddie (George MacKay), who seems to enjoy staring at her. And after a while, Daisy begins to see the benefits of provincial life.

Daisy's aunt (Anna Chancellor) is rarely seen as she is locked away in her office trying to negotiate some sort of peace treaty with an unknown enemy of the nation. When things seem especially bad, she must take her leave of the children and fly to the continent to continue negotiations, but not long after she departs, jets go flying overhead and a massive explosion can be felt and barely seen that knocks out all power and leaves the kids terrified.

Their township is evacuated but the children decide to stick together and hide out and fend for themselves against roaming soldiers intent on collecting them and sending the boys to the military (no matter their age) and the girls god knows where. At one point Daisy and Eddie are separated, and the rest of the film is a harrowing tale of Daisy searching for the boy she barely knows but has nevertheless fallen in love with, perhaps out of desperation for her life.

Based on the Meg Rosoff novel and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void, The Eagle), How I Live Now is a bit of a slow-burn endeavor energized slightly by some solid performances from the younger actors. But many of the dangers that the kids face end up making the film feel like an episode of "Revolution" than anything that justifies making this into a film. The film has a handful of truly violent or otherwise awful moments that warrant its R rating, but even those suffer from being predictable.

The purpose of How I Live Now is to show the trajectory of Daisy's journey, from apathetic, selfish teenager to loving, nurturing person who cares about saving the lives of the younger kids while seeking out and rescuing her new love. As far as that story goes, the film succeeds primarily because of Ronan's remarkable ability as an actor to find the bitter core of her character (her mother died when she was born; her father would rather live with his new wife alone than with her) and transform her into someone capable of feeling for the first time. It's not an easy or complete journey, not should it be, but Ronan is a capable performer who saves the film from being a collection of moppets in peril. Not a great film, but a serviceable one.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Thanks to tireless research that uncovered a great deal of previously unseen material, director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) has assembled a tremendous documentary about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali's painful battle to transition into the Muslim religion under his mentor and hero, Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. The pain Ali experienced as a result of this had nothing to do with becoming a full-fledged Muslim, but rather it was the reaction from the media and public, many of whom refused to call him by his new name.

Things were only amplified when Ali refused to accept his draft notice to serve in Vietnam, instead choosing to a conscientious objector based on religious principles, which resulted in him getting stripped of his championship boxing title, being banned from boxing, and eventually getting a five-year prison term (although he never went to jail). With no money coming in and a new wife and children to take care of, Ali was forced to go on the lecture circuit when he was ill-equipped to do so. Although he was a charismatic talker when doing interviews, as a speaker spouting religious doctrine and hate speech about the white man, his first few engagements were painful.

The most detail-oriented and illuminating portion of The Trials of Muhammad Ali has to do with the Supreme Court's hearing of his case. An interview with a former clerk of the Court explains how the judges went from a split vote to a unanimous one using some truly obscure case histories that could easily be thrown out if ever challenged again.

Interviews with the late Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan about Ali's role in the Nation of Islam (even after X's split from Elijah Muhammad) are without a doubt illuminating, but no less so than listening to Ali's brother discussing the old days growing up in Louisville, as well as the first fights that got Ali to his championship title. It is only after seeing those earlier bouts and how lively and engaged Ali was in the ring do you really begin to understanding how much of a loss he suffered by being cut out of boxing.

But you can't really understand Ali without understanding what his faith meant to him, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali sheds some light on this period in his life that is perhaps the least documented. Director Bill Siegel makes remarkable use of archival footage — both familiar and unkown — to tell this story about a man used to special treatment because of his celebrity have the tables turned on him, and a government eager to make an example out of someone so well known. It's enough to make you distrust the powers that be. The film is a learning experience interesting enough not to feel like homework.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. After the Friday, 8pm screening, there will be a post-screening Q&A will be Khalilah Camacho-Ali, former wife of Muhammad Ali and star of the film, director Bill Siegel, producer Rachel Pikelny, and editor Aaron Wickenden. From 7 to 8pm, there will be a pre-screening reception with beer, wine and snacks in the lobby; after the Q&A, there will be a dessert reception as well.

The Motel Life

Loaded at times with a sickening atmosphere and other times with a somewhat hopeful essence, the directing debut from producers (The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) turned directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, The Motel Life is the story of two down-and-out brother living in Reno who still manage to spark a creativity between them that results in some wonderful escapist storytelling and animations to go with it. And while the pair lose themselves in their fiction, their tragic lives spiral out of control after a hit-and-run accident leaves one man dead and the brothers on the run.

Frank (Emile Hirsch, playing the kind of desperate creature he seems to excel at playing) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) are at the center of this strange genre blend of what often feels like a filmed play, with its mostly indoor locations and emphasis on dialogue. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, The Motel Life also incorporates elements of modern Westerns and hillbilly noir as the brothers envision a better life for themselves after they strike it rich publishing their stories with accompanying artwork. In search of friendly faces on their escape, the brothers cross paths with family friend Earl (Kris Kristofferson), as well as Frank's ex-girlfriend Annie (Dakota Fanning), a woman who has experienced a great deal of suffering since things with Frank fell apart. It's one of the most haunting performances Fanning has ever given.

It's difficult not to get excited about a work that encourages creativity as a means of expression and escaping the painful truth of reality, but Frank and Jerry Lee can only push aside the truth for so long. The reality of Jerry Lee's deteriorating health and Frank's feverish need to find his connection with Annie once again make it impossible for the boys to continue running. As good as Hirsch is here, it's Dorff who steals the show in an almost recognizable performancem during which he rips opens his soul and exposes thoughts so gut-wrenching and dark about family, loyalty and broken dreams that Sam Shepard might take note.

The Motel Life is a touch uneven at times, but for a first-time feature, it's surprisingly sure-handed and beautifully rendered by its directors and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov. And if you know what's good for you, you never miss a new film with Emile Hirsch; you probably already missed Prince Avalanche, and you should be ashamed. Don't make the same mistake twice in one year. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with Chicago natives and The Motel Life co-directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Great Expectations

Like any source material that has been done for film or television dozens of times (hello, Mr. Shakespeare), the question of whether one production is any good or not really comes down to the performances and a bit to the directing (you'd have to be an appallingly incompetent director to get many of these much-produced works so wrong that it's noticeable). So when you hear, for example, that there's a new film version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations in theaters, in all likelihood your first question is "Who's in it?" possibly followed up with "Who directed it?"

The answer to the second question is a hopeful, since Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Prince of Persia) is a solid if not especially visually inventive filmmaker who knows how to keep a story moving at a nice clip — even something as dense as Great Expectations. Using some Harry Potter alumni in supporting roles (Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Robbie Coltrane as lawyer Jaggers, and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch the convict), Newell tells the often-grim story of orphan boy Pip (Jeremy Irvine of War Horse plays the older version), who goes from abject poverty to apprenticeship to inherited wealth very quickly, all the while trying to win the heart of Miss Havisham's ward Estella (Holliday Grainger of "The Tudors"), who has been molded since childhood to frustrate men who are in love with her.

Most of the performances are top notch, although Bonham Carter is basically just adjusting the crazy dial from her work with Tim Burton. Certainly the art direction of the film is impeccable, especially Miss Havisham's crumbling estate, to match her tattered wedding dress. Fiennes is particularly creepy as the criminal with many secrets, to whom the boy Pip pays a kindness of food and means of escape. Less showy and far more interesting are Joe and Mrs. Joe (Jason Flemyng and Polly Walker), Pip's guardians as a boy. The relationship between Joe and Pip is a lasting one that the film treats with the proper amount of significance.

While director Newell isn't breaking tremendous ground here, he is putting forth about as unglamorous a version of Great Expectations as has ever been attempted. And lest parents think of bringing their kids to expose them to Dickens' work, you may want to reconsider. There are a fair number of truly scary moments and one or two grotesque ones (including one moment where a person graphically catches on fire). If you're one of those filmgoers who is content with watching great actors sink their teeth into familiar characters and stories, this should suit you just fine. The filmmakers aren't simply going through the motions; there's a spirit and enthusiasm for the material that translates to the screen quite nicely. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Il Futuro

One of the strangest, sexiest and most interesting films I've seen this year is Il Futuro, from Chilean writer-director Alicia Scherson (adapted the Roberto Bolaño novel). The story begins in Italy, after a horrific car accident in which the parents of Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) die, leaving the older sister to take care of her younger brother and somehow make enough money to keep their home. Eager to grow up fast and lose his virginity, Tomas makes friends with a couple of shady trainers from his gym, whom he invites to come live in his home.

Not surprisingly after a while, the two trainers scheme to rob an old, blind former bodybuilder whom they've trained with before (a former Mr. Universe and b-movie actor played quite elegantly by Rutger Hauer) and are convinced has a tidy sum of money hidden away in his mansion, which he never leaves. Knowing the hermit (named Maciste) has a taste for young women, the trainers convince Bianca as live bait so she can sleep with Maciste and then canvas his place looking for a safe or other hiding places for cash. But the more time Bianca spends with Maciste — talking about his career, his adventures, his theories on life — the more she starts to develop feelings for the old man who can't even see her.

As the film settles into its routine of Bianca visiting Maciste and coming back night after night with no sighting of a safe, tensions begin to get heated, and Il Futuro develops a sense of immediacy and sexual energy. It's clear early on in their sexual entanglements that Maciste is a great lover, and Hauer is mesmerizing as the one-time internationally known celebrity who made a series of films as Maciste (clearly modeled on the old Hercules series). As the film began, I was fully prepared to watch an interesting story about two young people trying to survive in a world that makes few accommodations for those ill equipped to do so. But when the plot takes this 90-degree turn into this almost-gothic love story, I was hypnotized by the intensity of the raw emotions at play.

Il Futuro is a lushly atmospheric work that is fueled by both realistic performances by the younger actors blended seamlessly with Hauer's otherworldly presence. It may sound a bit bizarre on paper, but if you thrive on seeing something like nothing you've seen before, this might be your best bet in quite some time. 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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