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Column Fri Nov 29 2013

Oldboy, Frozen, Homefront, Black Nativity, Philomena, Concussion & Contracted

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Oldboy


I'm going to guess that roughly 75 percent of the people that saw Chan-wook Park's 2003 adaptation of the Japanese manga comic Oldboy and loved it already hate Spike Lee's version based solely on the fact that it exists, sight unseen. If you're in that camp, I'm not talking to you during this review. Continue living in your world of knee-jerk reactions to remakes and let the rest of us judge a film based on its own merits. As for the rest of you who are rightfully curious about what Lee brings to his telling of this truly messed-up revenge story, I'm perfectly willing to respect that you might genuinely dislike the film after having seen it. There's no getting around the fact that Lee's version of Oldboy has issues and flaws, but I think it's one of the his most visually interesting, and it's great seeing him take chances like this so deep into his career.

The most fascinating aspect of Oldboy is what Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich chose to leave the same and what has changed, because when something is altered it is deeply altered here. Even the length of time ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) spends in solitary confinement in a prison that looks like a motel room. In the first version, the character as held 15 years; in Lee's version, it's 20. It's not a huge difference, but it's Lee's way of saying, "This is not exactly the same; pay attention to the differences." Doucett is not a good man, and there are many suspects on his list of enemies that might want to torment him like this. He finds out by watching a TV in his room that his ex-wife has been killed, he is the prime suspect and his daughter is now lost to him probably forever.

And then he is released, like a caged animal into the wild, as inexplicably as he was snatched up in the first place, and he goes on a hunt to find his captive and his daughter. Along the way, he enlists the help of old friends (Michael Imperioli as Chucky, a friend since private school) and new ones (Elizabeth Olsen as social worker Marie, a woman who is willing to act as as Joe's conduit back into the modern world). Joe has become something of a solitary, primal creature, and both Chucky and Marie work to get their friend's head on straight so he can achieve his goals and clear his name.

The biggest hurdle Oldboy has to face is that if you know the big moments and twists of the original film, some of the mystery and inherent drama of the story is lost. Joe's show-stopping rip down a hallway full of adversaries armed only with a hammer and 20 years of pent-up rage is here, and it's magnificent. The one place Lee never cuts corners in this film is with its violence; my god, is this movie bloody and beyond gory. The use of blood and guts is done sparingly, but when the time comes, there's really no turning off the faucet.

Perhaps the film's biggest change is in the character of the person that is actually pulling the strings of Joe's imprisonment and release, a man known as Adrian (Sharlto Copley). Whether or not you like or hate this version of Oldboy may rest squarely on what you think of Copley's really odd, eccentric portrait of a man who has plotting out the most elaborate revenge fantasy in the history of man. You'd have to be mostly insane to have that kind of patience, and Adrian is well past insane. I found Copley's measured performance to be equal parts terrifying and hilarious, whether it was meant to both or not, I'm still not sure. And Protosevich's revised script gives Adrian more of a backstory into his motivations for what he does to Joe, with losing any of the intrigue and mystery into his background.

Lee brings his strength as a storyteller who isn't afraid to dig a little into his character's psyche in Oldboy, the same way he did with other genre pieces like Clockers, Inside Man, Summer of Sam or 25th Hour. But it's clear that the visual experimentation that the psychological aspects of the story allow him to try are what he's having the most fun with. Even if you loathe the film, there's no way you won't be impressed with its look and fractured atmosphere. This is a story told from the perspective of a man who has been broken by another man, and the camera work from director of photography Sean Bobbitt and haunting score by Roque Baños (who also recently scored the Evil Dead remake) reflect that mental break.

It's not your job to walk into the remake of a beloved film without thinking of the original favorably, but I find it helps. And the thing that you have to remember is that it's not a contest; there doesn't have to be one that is better than the other. The winner doesn't get a trophy (usually). But one of the key things any remake must do is justify its existence by coming at the material from a new and interesting angle, and Spike Lee and his team without question pass that test, but it isn't the only criteria for it being a great movie or not. There are lapses of judgement and logic in this film that are often questionable and sometimes unforgivable. Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal of the "warden" of Joe's prison isn't nearly as interesting as he thinks it is. And the handling of the story's big reveal is dragged out for so long that it will likely ruin the surprise for those unfamiliar with the material.

Still, I liked what I saw. Nearly all of the performances are fantastic; the film's motif will keep your eyes happy for days; and the story elements are enhanced, reduced or left the same in just the right proportions to keep audiences clear on and entertained by the twisted plot points. As long as you don't have an aversion to exploding heads and hammer-based violence, you should find Oldboy pretty damn interesting. Hell, there's even a chance you might like it quite a bit.

Frozen

Before a single frame of the new Disney Animation Studios (aka not-Pixar) feature Frozen is shown, you'll probably have an inkling that something special is in store when the Mickey Mouse short Get A Horse begins. A flawless re-creation of some of the earliest black-and-white Mickey cartoons (complete with "film" blemishes and a warbly soundtrack (including snippets of Walt Disney's own Mickey voice work), the short goes places that no old-school animation ever went and few modern 3-D works would dream of going. The short's purpose is to remind us where it all began and that the imagination that came up with a talking mouse as a corporation mascot is still alive and well. Of course if the feature that follows doesn't hold up, that message could be lost as quickly as it was delivered.

Thankfully, Frozen works on just about every level — as a lavish spectacle, a catchy musical, and a reminder that being different has its place in the world. The story centers on two young sisters: Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and the older Elsa (Broadway star Idina Menzel), who discovers at an early age that she has the sometimes uncontrollable ability to make everything around her ice up. At one point it happens so much that Anna is hurt, filling Elsa with such guilt that she secludes herself in her room and the two almost never see each other.

When they get older, it is time for Elsa to have something of a coming-out part as an official princess, and while she thinks her powers are under control, she eventually unleashes them and the entire kingdom of Arendelle ends up under what could be a never-ending ice age. The deep freeze was triggered by the impulsive Anna telling her sister that she wants to marry a strapping young man named Hans (Santino Fontana), who she's just met that same day. Elsa disapproves, and her anger gets the better of her, causing her to panic and leave the kingdom for a self-made palace of ice far up in the mountains. Feeling responsible, Anna hightails it after her, meets up with now-out-of-work ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff of "Glee") and his faithful reindeer Sven (who does not talk, thankfully).

All the while, both princesses sing and dance (to new songs by the team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) amid the most stunningly rendered animated snow and ice I've ever seen. The ice palace is a massive crystalline marvel that reflects light so intensely and in such glorious patterns that you sometimes have to remind yourself to pay attention to the story at hand or get lost in the production design. As strange as it may seem, one of Frozen's riskiest elements is a snowman named Olaf, a creature that the sisters made as children, and who has been brought to life with some magic and voiced amusingly by Josh Gad ("The Book of Mormon"), whose sung testament to the glories of summer is one of the film's highlights.

There is something both utterly unique and so completely Disney about these characters that it's hard to know which aspects of them I love most. Anna is such a strong-willed person, convinced that she can talk her sister into undoing the damage she's done that even those who complain about Disney princesses would have a tough time complaining about her worthiness as a role model. Bell embraces the character with the perfect blend of childish spirit and adult responsibility, while Menzel brings a set of pipes that makes the song "Let It Go" fly right off the screen and into the pantheon of great movie musical numbers.

Directors Chris Buck (Surf's Up, Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (a screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph) have taken this story loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" and turned it into a beautiful lesson about leaning on family, friends and self when times seem their most bleak. At some point Elsa realizes that she can't undo what she's done, and that sends her into an emotional tailspin that nearly destroys everyone she cares about. It's a terrifying display (maybe the only one in this film that might make the little ones antsy), but an incredible movie moment, especially when she comes out of it.

To call Frozen a return to Disney form is too easy. I was a fan of Tangled when it was released, but that seems lightweight compared to this latest work, which feels like a story with something at stake besides whether the princess ends up with the handsomest fella. I'm not sure yet if Frozen is the best animated film I've seen all year (it's certainly in contention), but it's the one I was most happy to see turn out so damn well.

Homefront

I make no apologies. I loved this dopey little backwoods action movie, and no one is more surprised I'm saying that than me. Originally conceived many years ago as a Rambo movie for Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the screenplay), Homefront has been reworked as a Phil Broker story (based on the book by Chuck Logan) about an undercover drug enforcement agent (Jason Statham) who goes into semi-hiding with his daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) in Louisiana after a bust goes sideways and his cover is blown.

Things seem to be going alright for the pair (Broker's wife died years earlier) until Maddy gets into a fight with bully and kicks the bully's ass. Turns out the bully's parents (Marcus Hester and an almost unrecognizable, gross-looking Kate Bosworth) are connected with the criminal element in town and demand revenge for this minor infraction against their son. Broker tries to apologize, but the wife's brother, Gator (James Franco), is a sizable drug dealer in the area, and while he doesn't like being dragged into this stupid squabble, he looks into Broker and discovers his buried past and knows exactly who's looking for the ex-agent. Winona Ryder is also on hand as Gator's unreliable squeeze and resident swamp trash. The film also features some meaty performances from the likes of Frank Grillo, Clancy Brown and "Under the Dome's" Rachelle Lefevre as a teacher in Matty's school and maybe the only person being nice to the Broker family.

So what are all of these better-than-you'd-expect actors doing in a Jason Statham movie? Having the time of their lives, it looks like. Not to imply that anyone is overplaying their parts, but this script has layers that I was not expecting. Watching Gator's disinterest in bothering Broker on his sister's behalf turn into something nasty is kind of wonderful. Gator is not a fighter. In fact, when he does come face to face with Broker, he's dropped pretty soundly. So he must rely on his smarts to outwit the man with the training and basically stay far away from him for as long as he can. But my favorite performer is Bosworth, working with no make-up and greasy hair, coming across as a real bitch on wheels, willing to transfer her loathing of her loser husband and kid into spite for this stranger who just happens to have a tough-as-nails daughter. What's interesting about her, however, is when she sees her brother start to endanger Maddy, she begins to regret her choices and works to protect the girl.

Homefront works so well because the action stays within the realm of reality. There are no physics-defying stunts or gigantic explosions that seem completely out of place in a film about low-level criminals chasing a man with few weapons but a working knowledge of how to turn a meth lab into a timebomb. No one in this film feels like they're slumming by being in it, but it's still wild seeing Franco and others elevating a b-movie story into a film that is a great deal of fun mixed with enough character development to make me care about what happens to these people. Hell, Jason Statham actually smiles in this movie... a lot, and we know why because enough of a person has been created for us to understand his state of mind.

Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, Kiss the Girls, The Express) is not a director that likes to relay on special effects and major stunt work, so it's not surprising that he's keeping things low key (relatively speaking). I don't mean to imply nothing happens in Homefront; a great deal of action is featured throughout, and it's expertly directed. It's just nice to see actual people on both sides of the fight and not just cartoon characters. There's almost a '70s vibe to the proceedings, and that might be what I love most of all. If you're predisposed to enjoying the works of Statham, I think this one is going to really surprise you. If you're not, well, I think the same thing. I wouldn't go so far as to call this a thinking-man's Jason Statham movie, but this is movie where brains and brawn are treated with equal reverence.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Homefront director Gary Fleder.

Black Nativity

I couldn't swear to you that Black Nativity even counts as a movie. I mean, it was shot on film, so I guess it does. And was directed by a solid filmmaker, Kasi Lemmons (Talk To Me, Eve's Bayou), whose screenplay was adapted from a play by celebrated writer Langston Hughes. But beyond that, the evidence is slim.

Playing another single mother who abandons her child temporarily (as she did in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete), Jennifer Hudson must ship her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore) from the mean streets of Baltimore to the seriously improved streets of Harlem to stay with her parents, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), neither of whom she speaks to any longer. Being a preacher's house, there are rules, none of which Langston refuses to follow. Langston might be the brattiest, most spoiled impoverished child ever in a movie. He yells at his mother for not having enough money to take care of them one minute, then bitches at her the next for sending him to his grandparents so she can work extra shifts to make money.

Oh, did I mention that Black Nativity is a musical? Oh, yes. Young Mr. Latimore has a lovely singing voice. And this isn't just a musical where people sing in church or when they're caroling; they sing their feelings on the street, in their rooms, on the bus, everywhere. And this being a Christmas-themed event, there's even an angel character, played by Mary J. Blige, who is always a delight to hear sing, but what the hell is she doing in this dopey movie? Not to mention the presence of rapper Nas (credited here as Nasir Jones) as a "street prophet." And then there's actor/singer Tyrese Gibson, taking a break from the Fast & Furious movies to sing a little and play a street-wise thug with connections to the Cobbs family that aren't tough to guess after about five minutes.

Langston is determined to get home to his mother, but once he falls asleep in church during Christmas Eve mass and has a vision of Joseph and Mary trying to find shelter in Harlem so her baby can be born, he decides that he should reunite his mother with her loving parents, who disappointed her when she got pregnant young and out of wedlock. But there are so many strange and awful things about Black Nativity, it difficult to isolate just one awful thing. There's an extended sermon that Whitaker gives that might be the single most boring one a black preacher has ever given — and it never ends and never gets to the point. It's designed to be the reason Langston falls asleep, but if we beat him there, how will we know that?

Whitaker and Bassett are the best things in this movie, but even they don't seem to really be giving it their all. And after seeing them do such fantastic work in both The Butler and "American Horror Story: Coven," respectively, in recent months, this seems like a tremendous step down. Watching Black Nativity not only hurt my head, but I believe it hurt my soul and may have caused a slow leak in my belief in a higher power. Everybody involved in this film is capable of more, and they know it. I'm willing to forgive and forget if they are. Amen.

Philomena

Actor and Philomena co-writer Steve Coogan has convinced me that a road trip with an elderly woman would be the most fun a man in his 40s could possibly have, especially if the woman in question is Judi Dench playing a Irish woman and devout Catholic who had decided to go in search of the son she gave birth to in a convent when she was a teenager 50 years earlier and whom the nuns gave away for adoption to American parents without telling her. Yes, that would be an adventure.

Even if this sounds like the last film you'd want to see because it sounds potentially schmaltzy or overly sentimental, consider the participation of Coogan, who co-wrote the film with famed TV dramatic writer Jeff Pope and is one of the UK's funniest human beings, thanks in large part to his cynical characters and natural gift for looking down at those he deems lesser than him. He pulls that off in his characters better than just about another other actor, comedic or otherwise, and that sums up Martin Sixsmith, a real-life former BBC reporter who worked for the government for a while before being used as a scapegoat for a small-scale scandal. This was his state of mind when he was approached at a party with the story of Philomena Lee (Dench), a human interest story tailor-made for the tabloids — evil nuns, baby snatched away, young women working as slaves in the convent laundry, and a tale bound to either end very happily or very sadly.

And so this unlikely pair end up traveling to the convent in Ireland, over to America, and eventually back to Ireland in search of this man who Philomena (also very much a real person) has dreamt about for decades, worrying he was homeless or dead or obese (she only worries about this last one when she discovers he's been living in America). But the story is as hilarious as it is maddening and moving. Coogan is interested in entertaining you in equal measure with teaching his audience about this particular national shame. He peppers in humor that rings true coming from either Philomena or Martin in reaction to the other's knowledge or lack thereof. And the pair form a protective bond with one another that goes beyond the story. Martin is about outrage and confrontation; Philomena just wants to find her son and forgive those who took him away and kept his whereabouts a secret with fabricated stories of lost records.

There are quite a few shocks and turns in the search that I certainly was unaware of, so Philomena becomes an unexpected mystery to be solved as well. Laughing through tears and crying through laughter is the territory that director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity) exists most comfortably within. Although his last couple of features have been less worthy of his talents, Philomena is a perfect story for this exceptional filmmaker to maneuver us through and make us feel like we have a stake in the outcome. There are quite a few excellent films coming out this week and in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, but few of them match the compact perfectness of Philomena in terms of tone, acting and that fully satisfied feeling you'll have as you leave the theater on your way tell everyone you love to go see it. Trust me on this one. The film opens this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Philomena star, producer and co-writer Steve Coogan.

Concussion

The only thing I didn't like about the new indie drama Concussion, from first-time feature writer-director Stacie Passon, is how it begins. The films opens with 40-something Abby being rushed to the hospital after her young son accidentally hits her in the head with a baseball. Played by the always-great Robin Weigert (The Sessions, "Deadwood," "Sons of Anarchy"), Abby is a seemingly happily married lesbian mother of two who makes a decent living flipping condos/apartments, while her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) is a divorce attorney representing high-end clients. They're as much a part of their community as any straight couple around, they know all the other parents at their children's school, and do all of things suburban couples do.

What bugs me about the opening of the films isn't the concussion itself, but what it apparently triggers in Abby. It somehow releases some pent-up sexual desire in her that makes her realize that she is substantially under-serviced in her relationship. Abby works out like a fiend and is clearly proud that she's kept herself fit and appealing, triggering nothing in Kate. On a whim, she hires a female prostitute and has a horrible, somewhat demeaning experience. But instead of swearing off such encounters as a result, she tells her business partner and friend Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), and he recommends a much better service, the use of which opens up Abby even more to the idea of random sexual encounters with pre-screened partners.

Before long Abby decides to switch roles and become the sexual service provider and work for Justin's girlfriend (known only as "the girl"), having sex with exclusively women, only after she vets them over coffee. The experience seems to open up Abby's mind and release a great deal of her pent-up frustration with her own marriage. The scenario gets a bit more complicated when a woman hires her whose kids go to the same school as Abby's. Her name is Samantha (Maggie Siff, also of "Sons of Anarchy"), a married woman who seems to have a healthy relationship with her husband who adores her. The sessions with Samantha are clearly the ones Abby is most passionate about (she had a crush on Sam long before they met), and this further underscores the friction in Abby's marriage.

I guess what troubles me — although not enough to discourage anyone from seeing the film — is that we could, if we choose to, decide that Abby's change of behavior and attitude about fidelity might not be the result of a blow to the head. Her seemingly slow, incremental shifts into the life of a high-priced sex worker are far more poignant and fascinating if they seem organic and inevitable because she's a smart, passionate woman who wants a lover in her bedroom and not just a roommate. Deciding they are more the result of minor brain damage seems like a cop-out. It may be a small point, but it's one that keeps Concussion from being all it can be as a thinking person's examination of sexual behavior. One element of the film I did like is that all of Abby's trysts occur in a condo she's rehabbing, and the more the unit seems put together and nearing completion, the more she seems clear on what she wants out of her life, especially her marriage.

We certainly can anticipate some of the more dramatic moments the longer Abby keeps seeing clients, and then comes the realization that she'll eventually have to sell the condo. Concussion is not a film that dwells too much on the sex part of Abby's work; it's more about the conversations before and after, and we soon come to see her as more of a sexual surrogate for these women of all ages to explore their fantasies or, in one case, to have their first sexual experience, with a woman or at all.

Weigert is such a stellar actor that she sell me as just about any character, but as written by director Passon, Abby is a completely realized character, and I say that even thought there are huge parts of her past and present life that we know nothing about. Enough clues are given to this gifted performer for her to fill in the blanks completely and perfectly. The film isn't purely a gay story, but it certain opens up the possibilities of what one can be. It's just a great exploration of an unsatisfied life that still has the potential to be redeemed; I'm sure many of us can identify. The film is opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Contracted

People get particularly squeamish at body horror. Don't believe me. Just ask lovers of David Cronenberg's works why the magnificent director isn't more famous and respected. Perhaps, he wouldn't have it any other way, but it's still a shame. When filmmakers turn our bodies into the instrument of horror, there are some folks that think that somehow crosses the line into a type of scare film that ought not to be shown in polite company. A few years ago, a little film called Teeth came out that turned the myth of vagina dentata into a reality; the film was a clever take on the folk legend and a cautionary tale against taking advantage of trusting young women.

Today we have Contracted, a take on promiscuous or otherwise reckless sex. I saw someone recently say the film is about "slut shaming" and an offense to women. But it seemed pretty clear to me that this film wasn't specifically saying women were prone to the particularly nasty STD that ravages Samantha's (Najarra Townsend) body over the course of three days. Samantha is being stood up for the umpteeth time by her lesbian lover, Nikki (Katie Stegeman), and she gets loaded at a party, only to end up sleeping with a mysterious man (whose face is cleverly kept from camera by tricks of focus). Almost immediately, she starts showing signs of some pretty gross disease coursing through her body. She gets rashes, she goes pale, her eyes get bloodshot and hazy; and in the days to follow, her fingernails start and teeth start to fall off/out.

While this is happening, she's attempting to patch things up with Nikki, fend off advances from both a female and male friends, convince her mother (Caroline Williams) she isn't back on drugs, and work a waitressing job, which seems to be going great until fingernails start landing up in salads. Because Samantha is selfish and afraid of appearing unappealing, she hides her condition as long as she can, running the very real possibility of infecting everyone she comes into contact with. At one point, she even lets the male friend have sex with her with grotesque results.

What we find out by the end is that writer-director Eric England (Madison County, Roadside) has given us a clever twist on a familiar genre, while turning Samantha's disastrous life into a metaphor (and not a morality tale about sleeping with strangers or being a lesbian) for self-centered behavior. If the girl had stayed away from others as her doctor instructed, things wouldn't have turned so horrific by the end... sort of. I feel fairly confident England wasn't trying to attach any deeper meaning to his fun little scare movie, but instead was looking for a way to combine sex and horror in an unusual way. It's a one-note premise to be sure, but England is smart enough not to wear out his welcome by keeping Contracted to a running time of less than 80 minutes.

The film is mildly sexy, wildly nasty and a great deal of midnight movie-style fun for those who see a great number of horror films per year and want something slightly more original. Contracted isn't reinventing the wheel with new ideas, but creator England is at least trying to deliver an experience that you'll remember for being a cut above the dozens of indie horror offerings that land in our lives every month. The film is screening three times only this weekend at Facets Cinémathèque, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 29-30 at 11pm; and Sunday, Dec. 1 at 9pm.

To read my exclusive interview with Contracted writer-director target="_blank">Eric England, go to Ain't It Cool News.

 
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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

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