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Column Fri Nov 15 2013

The Book Thief, The Best Man Holiday, The Armstrong Lie, Big Ass Spider! & Running from Crazy


The Book Thief

Good intentions and popular source material can be a dangerous and risky combination. It's so clear as you watch the film adaptation of the hit Markus Zusak novel The Book Thief why this material is such a hit with young and old alike, and it took little effort to see how this story would succeed on the page. But as a film in the hands of director Brian Percival (a regular director on the "Downton Abbey" television series), drama is lost to boatloads of overly sentimental writing and certain performers playing things too broadly.

I was actually a fan of the gentlemanly voice of Death (Roger Allam) acting as our narrator; it was just a strange enough idea to work, and he delivers certain bits of startling news that shake up the proceedings in the right ways. The World War II timeframe gives us the story of a young German girl named Liesel (relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse), whose parents are killed and is adopted by provincial couple Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Hans is not getting a lot of work as a painter, partly because he refuses to join the Nazi party — this is our first clue that he's a good German, I suppose. Our second clue is that the family takes in a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose parents apparently knew Hans and Rosa at some point in the past and was told to come find them if he made it to their village.

To be clear, The Book Thief is not a Holocaust film; it's primarily a film about finding large and small ways of subverting authority and being heroic. The stolen books of the title refers partly to banned books that Liesel steals after she sees many of them being burned one night. More than anything, the film focuses on Germans turning in other Germans, and young Liesel deciding the right moment to stand up to the Nazis to help friends. Nélisse is a remarkable screen presence but her character has a bit too much fire to be believable under these oppressive conditions. Rush is simply playing things too simple and nice — not that people like that don't exist in the real world, but setting him up as a living saint for this young girl to bond with borders on cutesy. While Emily Watson is the sour-puss mother, who we soon find out is actually a teddy bear at heart.

The biggest problem with The Book Thief is its use of Nazis as a device. They aren't real people, and maybe some don't want us to consider them as such. But if you really want us to fear an enemy, make us see the human being before it turns nasty. The film uses prolonged shots of the Nazi flag and men in Nazi uniforms more as an emotional trigger than an actual plotting device, as if the mere sight of these things will enrage us or make us scared for our heroes. But for even the slightly sophisticated moviegoer those old tricks don't cut it any longer. The filmmakers act as if we're just supposed to know what the Nazis did to make them so hated in the world, but especially with young adults (the clear target of the book and, to a degree, the movie), I don't think you can assume that any longer.

I like the idea of The Book Thief far more than the execution. Another reason for the title is that Liesel swipes books from the local mayor's wife, who finds out and eventually gives the girl books to sneak out and bring back when she's done. There is more heart in the scenes between those two characters, who speak very few words to each other, than there is in the rest of the film simply because there's an exchange of heartfelt ideas between the two. The film could have used about a dozen more moments like that. That being said, the movie's final scene, set amongst the bombed-out buildings that were once Liesel's village, is quite shocking and heartbreaking, and the mere fact that is impacted me as much as it did means that at least some of what the filmmakers were attempting to achieve emotionally got through. Some did, yes, but not much.

I think I'd like to meet someone who genuinely loves this movie, because I think if I did, I'd be staring into the face of a person I have absolutely nothing in common with, and that's alright. There's just something about The Book Thief that feels disingenuous and manipulative to the nth degree. I didn't hate the experience of watching it, but I wasn't especially moved by its life lessons either, only its horrific conclusion.

To read my exclusive interview with The Book Thief stars Geoffrey Rush & Sophie Nélisse, and director Brian Percival, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Best Man Holiday

Remember when "buppies" was a thing? As if in response to a wave of successful films in the early-1990s that portrayed African Americans as gang members and/or living in impoverished conditions, such as Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society or the comedic version in Friday, a new breed of black filmmakers retaliated with works like Love Jones, Soul Food and writer-director Malcolm Lee's (cousin of Spike) feature debut, The Best Man, in the mid- to late '90s. The thing these latter films had in common was that they showed the flip side of the movies from earlier that decade by portraying their black characters as living comfortably, upwardly mobile in their careers, dressed to the nines in nearly every frame of the film and more concerned with who was sleeping with whom than the life or death struggles of South Central. As a young white dude, imagine my confusion in the 1990s. Which of these portrayals was I meant to take to heart, especially when I finally met my first black person? (I'm kidding; save it.)

Aside from the Friday sequels and the adaptation of Soul Food into successful TV series, most of these films didn't turns into franchises, although many of the actor in these films went on to bigger and most established careers. Now 14 years after The Best Man's debut, Lee (who also directed Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce, Soul Men and, earlier this year, Scary Movie V) has managed to pull together his original cast and update us on the trials and tribulations of these many characters whose lives have gone in every possible direction involving marriage, kids, health issues, successes and failures.

Catching up with everyone takes nearly the entire first third of the film. There's a helpful Cliff's Notes montage during the opening credits that shows us clips from the first film to remind us who did what with whom and for how long. I wasn't inclined to revisit the first film now, so this was extremely useful. Successful writer Harper (Taye Diggs) is married to chef Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), who is about eight-and-a-half months pregnant, after several failed attempts at having a baby. Harper is still close friends with career woman Jordan (Nia Long), who is a strong, independent woman who happens to be dating Brian, a very good-looking white man (Eddie Cibrian), who is so handsome both the other ladies approve. Lest we forget that in the first film Harper admitted to sleeping with his best friend Lance's (Morris Chestnut) wife Mia (Monica Calhoun) early in their relationship, it's still a sore spot for Lance, a successful running back with the New York Giants. He and Mia have several kids and are having all of the old gang over to their mansion for Christmas.

Other members of the group include Harold Perrineau's Julian; his wife Candace (Regina Hall); Melissa De Sousa's Shelby, a self-centered gold digger starring on one of the "Real Housewives" reality shows; and the highlight of the film, the great Terrence Howard as Quentin, a man with no filter when it comes to sexually explicit thoughts, drug use or getting into it with someone who disrespects you. He's a natural button pusher, and he has his sights set on his friends.

Much of the film's drama stems from Harper struggling to write another hit book, and his publisher suggesting writing the biography of Lance, who is about to break the all-time rushing record during the Giants' Christmas game. There's a great deal of tension between the two men, but Harper is desperate and damn near broke, so he begins to take notes and asking pointed questions to Lance throughout the weekend. Any guesses where this storyline ends up?

Whereas the first film was about these folks entering the early stages of real adulthood by getting involved in long-term relationships and settling into careers, The Best Man Holiday is about being waist deep into adulthood with financial concerns, kids and rough marriages. What undercuts any potential for anything beyond a surface treatment of these crises is the schmaltzy holiday themes. Lance actually promises a dying person to get the rushing record that night. Really!? And while we're examining cliches, there is one character who is outted as a former stripper and possible prostitute years earlier, and her actual defense is effectively, "I was young and I needed this money." That's the best you could come up with, Malcolm Lee?

I'm not usually one to complain about tonal shifts in any movie, but The Best Man Holiday is downright schizophrenic at times, going from cheesy holiday talk of forgiveness and family one minute and then some of the most graphic description of sex acts from the men and women. I'm not complaining about either of these lines of conversation, but when you put them back to back to back in a film, it's a bit jarring.

The other downside to the film is that there are almost no surprises, and predictability is the worst crime any film can commit upon its audience. Even in the performances, the actors are assigned their characters and their traits, and no one really strays from that, with the exception of Terrance Howard, who seems to be free wheeling his lines, making them cut right through everyone's bullshit into their lust-filled souls. Although he'd been in many parts on TV and in movies before The Best Man, it was that film that put him on the map with a lot of people, and he hasn't forgotten what makes Quentin a priceless addition to this cast. But one actor in an ensemble this size cannot save the movie.

So many (maybe all) of the film's emotional peaks are spoon fed and ring so false and manipulative as to be offensive. The audience I saw the film with got so sick of being toyed with in this way, they started to laugh at moments that were meant to be extremely serious. It doesn't get much worse than that. It's hard to completely dismiss The Best Man Holiday because the cast is so easy to look at and listen too. When the characters get into the actual act of conversation (as opposed to the witty zingers they trade 95 percent of the time), the film moves past being tolerable into the realm of enjoyable. But those moments are few and far between. Lee's screenplay is essentially a two-hour soap opera with all of the emotional depth of that format. It's frustrating in so many ways to see this amount of pure talent pulled together to share their shared roots in film and then watch it get squandered because of a weak screenplay.

But there you have it. If you have the uncontrollable urge to see Morris Chestnut shirtless (and who doesn't?), I have a movie for you. Otherwise, simply seeing this impressive cast back together again will only get you so far before you realize the story is beneath each and every one of them.

The Armstrong Lie

Bob Seger said it best: "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." I'm guessing master documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and earlier this year We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks). Back in 2009, Gibney was hired to chronicle what was meant to be the attempted comeback to the Tour de France of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had been surrounded by accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven consecutive tours a few years earlier. The return was meant to be proof positive that Armstrong could win the contest (or at least place in the top three) while having his every move watched and documented by cameras and medical experts alike. To this day, Armstrong said he stayed clean during that race (he placed third), but soon thereafter, he admitted to doping just as major, irrefutable evidence was about the surface confirming he had been using. The bottom line, as Gibney's narration points out, is that if Armstrong hadn't been so insistent on clearing his name, he probably would have gotten away with it. So why did he do it?

More importantly than the question of why did he cheat is, why did he make the lie too big to contain? And that's the angle that Gibney deftly explores in The Armstrong Lie, an examination of perhaps the biggest sports scandal since the White Sox threw the World Series, and Armstrong's admission may have been bigger because of the sheer number of fans and supporters who stood by him and looked to him for inspiration as a cancer survivor. But Gibney seems equally curious about Armstrong the vindictive man, who would go inconceivably out of his way to personally hurt and damage those who threatened to expose the lie. The petty behavior, the character assassinations that he unleashed will make you forget about the doping and concentrate on hating Armstrong the person, instead of the athlete.

One unique aspect of The Armstrong Lie is that when Gibney was documenting the comeback race, he admits that he probably became too friendly with his subject and started to become part of the PR machine that surrounded the event. More a cheerleader than an impartial observer, Gibney fully admits that a professional line became dangerously close to being crossed, one that would have been disastrous to his reputation and career had that original film actually come out (which it was on the verge of doing, under the title The Road Back).

Perhaps the most remarkable portion of the film is the interview Armstrong gave Gibney immediately after he came clean to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013; Gibney was literally waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on the man he considered a friendly acquaintance. Armstrong looks embarrassed, broken and ready to unload his secrets to someone he might still think would give him some degree of sympathy; it's an incredible, difficult-to-watch piece of footage. Some may quibble with Gibney being in the film at all, but his original documentary (which was torn up to make this film) was an important part of the lie and the revelation of the truth, so it doesn't feel like the filmmaker trying to insert himself into the story.

The Armstrong Lie is classic Gibney investigative greatness. While the original film was going to include a great deal of discussion on the doping allegations, the filmmakers was going to make it clear that Armstrong to this day has never tested positive of drugs. But with this recut film, the gloves are off, and Gibney talks to former teammates, acquaintances, journalists looking into the allegations — anyone who has a story to tell.

Gibney was smart enough to let the story take him where it needed to and not force it in any one direction. The result is a rare first-hand account from the front row of sports history of one of the most admired and influential athletes in recent memory. Many in sports brush off the label of "role model," but Armstrong embraced it and used it well. His ego and his vindictive spirit are what brought him down, not his lying. Like many of Gibney's films, The Armstrong Lie is a remarkable tale of someone who thought that their lie was too big to be exposed, and of a person who thought he would get away with it because of that. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Armstrong Lie director Alex Gibney (, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Big Ass Spider!

A popular attraction at this year's SXSW Film Festival was director Mike (The Convent, The Gravedancers) Mendez's Big Ass Spider!, which celebrates the monster movie sub-category of supersizing everyday critters into enormous, destructive and deadly creatures. As you might have guessed from the title, this one is about a huge fucking spider that escapes from a military lab, trashes an L.A. hospital, and eventually ends up bigger than King Kong crawling up the sides of tall buildings, threatening to lay eggs that will lead to spider domination.

The story is told through the eyes of exterminator extraordinaire Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg of "Heroes," whose comic timing saves a lot of the film's lamer jokes), who just happens to be at the hospital when the spider first attacks. He is assisted by the hospital's security guard, Jose (Lombardo Boyar), and the two take on the appropriate roles that would befit a buddy cop movie. I won't lie, Boyar's characterization of Jose as a (presumably) Mexican-American borders on uncomfortable stereotyping, but he gets off so many ridiculous one-liners that he's clearly trying to rise above some of the more culturally insensitive moments in writer Gregory Gieras' screenplay.

Eventually the source of the problem, the military, steps in to take over the hunt for the ever-growing spider. Ray Wise's Major Braxton Tanner is leading the counter attack, and like all things Wise does, he's fantastic. His second in command is Lt. Karly Brant (Clare Kramer), who soon becomes a potential love interest for Mathis. There's also a weird military scientist (Patrick Bauchau) thrown into the mix just for the creep vibe, which he provides admirably.

The first thing that struck me about Big Ass Spider! is that it's clear director Mendez has a deep love for these types of films (unlike the makers of most of the films of this ilk that end up on the SyFy channel). I'm not saying that Mendez misses many opportunities for campy behavior and corny jokes, but he also is clearly has no issues going full-on violent and nasty, especially when the spider gets large enough to start stabbing people through the chest with its legs, binding them up in its web, and eating them whole. Yum!

While it's clear the film was made for pennies, I couldn't help being impressed with many of the effects shots in the film (some of which hadn't quite been completed at this particular screening). The filmmakers only show us bits and pieces of the spider (a black widow, if I'm not mistaken) in early scenes to build suspense, but once the full creature is revealed, it's almost always kept in broad daylight so we can admire its intricate design. There's no hiding effects shots in darkness here.

I'm a huge admirer of 1990s silly and scary Arachnophobia, and Big Ass Spider! is clearly the heir apparent to that work (with bits of Eight Legged Freaks thrown in for good measure). Would the film work as well and amuse you as much if you were watching it home alone in the middle of the week when the sun was still up? Probably not. This is the kind of film whose enjoyment is fueled and heightened by laughter, applause, screams and the shared experience, whether it be at midnight viewings in rep houses or at home with a few friends. Big Ass Spider! is not a great movie, but it's a great time at the movies. The film is playing this weekend in Chicago at midnight Friday and Saturday nights at the Music Box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Big Ass Spider! director Mike Mendez.

Running from Crazy

Teetering on the line (but never quite crossing it, thankfully) of self-indulgent, celebrity pretentiousness, Running from Crazy is the frank, sincere and inspirational story of the Hemingway family, which has been plagued through the generations with mental illness and a slew of suicides that would and does make any blood relation nervous. The profile is told through the unfiltered reflections of actor Mariel Hemingway (Manhattan, Personal Best, Star 80) whose direct contact with her family's issues could be seen all around her, from her supermodel sister Margaux (who committed suicide) and artist sister "Muffet" (real name Joan, who is still alive but mentally troubled) to her alcoholic parents, including father Jack, who lived his whole life in the shadow of his father, the legendary author Ernest Hemingway, also a suicide victim.

Listening to Mariel sift through the emotional wreckage of her family is fascinating stuff, especially when it's accompanied with raw footage from a documentary sister Margaux was making about her parents and sisters, although Mariel ended up not appearing in that footage, nor was she even aware it existed until seeing a cut of this film for the first time. Mariel managed to avoid the severe mental anguish of most of her close family members, but worrying that one day it would strike provided an underlying tension to her life, which ended up making her vulnerable and open to outside influences in both her career and her lengthy marriage to her now ex-husband, who makes an amazingly awkward appearance in the film.

But coming clean about the Hemingway family story is also an exercise for Mariel in relaying previously unheard stories to her two daughters, the actress/model Dree, who rattles her mother with the revelation that she considers Margaux a role model, and burgeoning artist Langley, who admits to struggling with depression herself. The film shows mother and children in separate conversations talk about the family — past and present — as Mariel explains why she waited so long to let them in on the family's secrets.

Running from Crazy also shows Mariel Hemingway's life today, and exploring the ways she has attempted to keep her mind and body in check, trying every diet and spiritual outlet imaginable. Clearly a lifetime of watching others behave out of control had made her a control freak, with a schedule that cannot be broken (or there will be hell to pay) and a diet and exercise regimen that is guaranteed to make you feel old and out of shape no matter how healthy you think you may be.

The film is expertly directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., Shut Up and Sing), who is a master at getting her subjects to talk and be more open and honest than they probably are with their therapist. But her skills yield enlightening and wonderful material that goes well beyond the typical reality show manufactured drama that passes for a documentary these days. Mariel Hemingway is shows using the knowledge that she has collected about her troubled family over the years and turning into the spearhead of a cause she is deeply passionate about — suicide prevention. Her continuing message and goal is to remind people that however terrible they feel, they are not alone.

We all think we come from a crazy family in one way or another; Running from Crazy is an case study of one of the most famous families in American history, and even they struggled to stay sane and keep it together. The film is an exposed nerve of emotion, shame, fear and ultimately acceptance. But director Kopple never forgets to keep things interesting, informative and even entertaining. It's a delightful change from much of what I've been seeing lately, and this story is told with admirable clarity and intelligence. The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East theaters. Both subject Mariel Hemingway and director Barbara Kopple will be on hand for a post-screening Q&A after the Friday, Nov. 15, 7:15pm showing.

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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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