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Column Fri Dec 13 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Saving Mr. Banks, Go For Sisters, The Punk Singer & White Reindeer


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

It's difficult to deny that this second installment of what has now become The Hobbit trilogy exists as a more complete film than An Unexpected Journey. Having dispensed with introducing dozens of new characters (and saying hello again to a few familiar ones), director Peter Jackson could make The Desolation of Smaug into something that focuses more on solid action and even a bit of character building, both of which are good things. What is not so good is that there is still a great deal of fluff and filler in the mix; and some of what is great about Smaug is unexpected and welcome. It's a mixed bag, but one that unreservedly works far better than what came before, and gives many signs of greater things to come.

Weirdly enough, much like The Two Towers, the second film in The Hobbit series features a tremendous amount of walking. The 13 dwarfs and their recruited hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and place Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, still stubborn but less so) as the new dwarf king. The only thing standing in their way (that they know about) is a massive dragon named Smaug, who loves the treasure that sits inside the kingdom just as much as Thorin's grandfather did. Since hobbits are believed to be naturally sneak and clever, the mission is to send Bilbo into the treasure room, find the Arkenstone (the giant jewel that designates the holder as king), and get out of there without waking Smaug and getting burned to a cinder. Good luck with that.

But the dwarves, Bilbo and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) must overcome a great deal along the road the mountain, including roving bands of orcs (much like the last film), a forest filled with massive, hideous spiders, a race of elves that live in the woods and are a bit more hostile than the ones led by Elrond. In fact, these elves are led by the notorious Thranduil (Lee Pace), the very elf king who left the dwarves to die when Smaug attacked years earlier. His son is a familiar young elf called Legolas (Orlando Bloom), somewhat colder and more detached than he will become in The Lord of the Rings story, but no less repelled by dwarves. The newly created character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a welcome addition to the story as a warrior elf, with a slight crush on Legolas, and a strange attraction to the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). As much as it might seem silly to add a love story or two to The Hobbit story, the addition of Tauriel is actually more impressive for the sheer volume of action sequences she's a part of. The woman knows how to decapitate an orc's head with the best of them.

As happy as I was to see a female Robin Hood kick ass in the elven forest, I was equally displeased with nearly everything that occurs in Laketown, populated by a greedy, selfish leader Master (Stephen Fry) and his sniveling sidekick Alfrid (Ryan Gage), two of the worst written characters Peter Jackson has ever been a part of creating. I'm a huge admirer of Fry's work and existence, but there is nothing in the least bit interesting about the Master or anything having to do with the way he runs Laketown. If we've learned anything from the Star Wars prequels, it should be that politics in fantasy/sci-fi film is deadly dull. And having the Master be a one-dimensional, slimy-looking dictator who hates and distrusts the poor (which most of his subjects are) adds nothing to the mix and slows everything down to a near halt.

But Laketown does offer us one glimmer of interesting hope in the form of Bard (Luke Evans), a citizen of the city who just happens to provide the dwarves with enough help and supplies to finish their journey to the mountain. Bard also happens to be something of the town's resident revolutionary, who never misses a chance to criticize and undermine the Master. He may also be the only hope of ridding the world of Smaug, which we won't know for sure until the third and final film, There and Back Again.

As I said before, action is the name of the game in The Desolation of Smaug. There are a good half-dozen incredible sequences in this film at least, including the finest involving the dwarves getting into giant wine barrels and getting dumped into a rapidly moving river being chased by orcs and elves alike. Then there is, of course, the unveiling of Smaug, the talking, fire-breathing dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who Bilbo awakens (spoiler alert!) and attempt to negotiate with before just flat out running away with fire on his tail. The way Bilbo and the dwarves maneuver with Smaug on their heels is pretty impressive, and they even come up with a way to neutralize him that's pretty clever (it doesn't exactly work, but it is no less clever for it).

Jackson and his co-writers have also dropped in a few fun little easter eggs for fans. Look for a familiar pub setting in the film's pre-credits sequence, as well as the name dropping of a well-known dwarf character, and perhaps most importantly, the return of a familiar evil in a great sequence involving Gandalf venturing away from the group to investigate terrible goings on in the seemingly abandoned palace at Dol Guldur. We get a little bit more Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and a preview of the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a character whose importance will become clearer in the next film. Those wondering how the writers planned on interweaving supplemental material into The Hobbit films will get a better sense of that through this portion of the story. You may not like it, but I think it works nicely to fill in some gaps in several places.

The plain and simple fact is that there is simply so much more to like in The Desolation of Smaug, and with the Battle of the Five Armies still on deck (epic battles are a Jackson specialty), the excitement level for the next year will only increase. Any sign that The Hobbit films are getting closer in quality to The Lord of the Rings films makes me happy, and there are many such indications. The one thing that seems slightly odd is that Bilbo himself feels strangely absent from his own story until the end (although upon a second viewing, this seemed less true), but there's so much more to like here, and that's what counts. That being said, I can't say an extended addition of Smaug is eagerly anticipated; this one doesn't need to be a minute longer.

Saving Mr. Banks

This telling of the making of Disney's live-action (mostly) feature Mary Poppins is a whole lot of fun; there's really no denying it or yourself. If your mission is to be entertained by Saving Mr. Banks, rest assured you will be and you can stop reading here. But if you want to have any sense of history and truth telling, there's some of that here, but everything feels so bloated and propped up that a great deal of it feels phony, even when it's the truth.

At the end of the film, director John Lee Hancock does something extraordinary: he lets us listen to an actual tape recording of the real Mary Poppins author, P.L. Travers (played in the film by Emma Thompson, worth seeing in pretty much all things), in a meeting with the film's songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman, as well as Don DaGradi, the screenwriter of Mary Poppins. It's established in the film that Travers insisted on having all of the meetings recorded for legal purposes, but here it is — actual audio proof that she was as nitpicky and difficult as the legends would have us believe. It's clear she never wanted this film to happen, and she fought with the creative team and Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks, in full carnival barker mode) over every line of dialogue, stage director, casting choice (except Julie Andrews; her she liked), and song inclusion.

But here's the thing: not all of Saving Mr. Banks occurs in that room, and having those tapes makes the fact that those scenes are the best the film has to offer make sense, and why things that happen outside that office feel so much less authentic, even if they're true to history. Blessedly, Thompson's performance keeps us grounded. Sure, Travers was a curmudgeon and overly protective of her work, but she also didn't like Disney thinking he could push her around or force her to compromise on this deeply personal work by throwing money, compliments or sentimentality her way. She is clearly unmoved by Uncle Walt's tale of promising his daughters that he would make a film version of their favorite book in his lifetime. I was never quite sure why Travers eventually agreed to travel to LA after years of badgering by Disney. Most likely, it was to sabotage the production entirely, but she clearly grew to love the process (and even the music, which she initially dismisses en masse).

There are large portions of the film that deal with what are the true reasons Travers was so protective of these characters. Shown in almost magical-realism-style flashbacks, we see Travers as a young girl (real name Georgia Goff) with her parents, Travers and Margaret Goff (Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, respectively), in a seemingly blissful existence, until we realize that her father is a completely undependable, raging alcoholic, who loves his family but not enough to stop drinking. Still, the children love him without question and blame their mother when things go wrong or daddy is gone for days. When their father is in particularly poor health, "Aunt Ellie" (Rachel Griffiths) shows up with her cures, and not surprisingly, the woman bares a strange resemblance to a certain umbrella-wielding British nanny. As the true originals of Mary Poppins begin to emerge from Travers' memory, we start to root for her to see her version of this story told properly, with maybe a bit less of that old Disney magic sprinkled in.

But that doesn't make these epic battles any less entertaining, as she rebukes DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). About the only American she has any stomach for is her polite, compassionate driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti — and for those counting, this is the seventh film featuring Giamatti in body or voice in 2013).

Director Hancock doesn't know the meaning of the phrase "too much sentimentality." He squeezed as much of it as he could in films such as The Blind Side, The Rookie and even The Alamo, and they all suffered because of it, sometime enough to ruin the film. With Saving Mr. Banks, he has actors smart enough to know when to dial it back... most of the time. In an attempt that seems to mirror Walt Disney's desperation to get Travers back on track, he travels to England after she has left Los Angeles without signing away the rights to her material. And in one brief scene, he psychoanalyzes the deeper meanings of her book and gets her to sign — just like that. I don't think I'm ruining the suspense of how this ends since the film has existed for about 50 years. And even if that sequence happens exactly how it's depicted by screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, it couldn't feel more bogus in its execution, and that's a problem that crops up throughout the film.

The other, perhaps more troubling thing is that, in the end, we're not sure the right side won. Did a giant corporation pressure an artist attempting to stay pure to finally sell out? Say it ain't so! But that's kind of what happened. And yes, Mary Poppins is a wonderful film, but it's not the book, and Travers never liked the finished product.

Yet for all its flaws, I'm still recommending the film. The performances are what finally sold me on the damn thing. Thompson never softens as the abrasive Travers, and the way she micro-scrutinizes everything from the script to people's manners is fantastic. As I mentioned, the film's best moments are in the writers' room, and higher comedy you may not find in too many places this year. And not surprisingly, Hanks' version of Walt Disney is supremely winning. If we can see him manipulating Travers, it's because Hanks wants us to peek behind the curtain of Disney's charm. He could be as ruthless a negotiator as he was a creative genius, and it's nicely packaged here.

The reality of the making of Mary Poppins was probably a bit more nasty and cutthroat, but this is a Disney film featuring America's most beloved actor playing Walt Disney; I'm pretty sure character assassination was never in any draft of this script. But what's here ranges from very good to curiosity at best. I found myself tuning out during the psychobabble portions of the film, but the rest tends to work, some of it quite well. And for that reason Saving Mr. Banks gets a marginal recommendation.

Go For Sisters

Even a lesser John Sayles movie is better than 90 percent of what I see in a given year, so imagine how excited I get when one of his truly great films find its way to theaters these days. He remains the king and forefather of independent cinema, even as he makes his money doing script doctoring/polishing/rewrites for Hollywood. He has dipped in and out of the public consciousness for decades and has never lost his ability to research and know the subjects of his films — be they modern or period pieces — so completely that we feel we've stepped into another time and place when we watch his works. He never fails to satisfy as a storyteller, and that's why I'll never get tired of watching and re-watching his movies.

His latest is Go For Sisters, a harrowing tale about LA parole officer Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who must enlist the help of one of her charges, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), an old friend who was recently released from prison. Bernice needs the ex-con's help in locating her son, who is now a murder suspect apparently hiding south of the border. The pair enlist the help of Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos, in fine form), a disgraced ex-LA cop who knows his way around the criminal underbelly and police corruption of Tijuana and Mexicali — and shockingly enough, there's quite a lot of both. Suarez is also slowly going blind thanks to an eye disease, so his usefulness is questionable at best, but that also means he's working twice as hard to prove himself.

Sayles values authenticity above all else, although never "instead of" everything else, and Go For Sisters feels lived in and quite real. Fontayne is committed to leading a straight-and-narrow path after a life of drugs and other forms of bad living. Bernice is committed to finding out what has happened to her son, and she's well aware that his crossing the border into Mexico means there's a good chance he's dead.

In a conventional Hollywood version of this story, there would be shootouts, a high body count and broadly written villains for our heroes to defeat. But in a Sayles movie, he centers on characters who are thrown together by chance and spend a great deal of the film feeling each other out and forming an alliance based on both trust and need. The film still has a place for drug dealers, human traffickers and other seedy characters, but it uses them to serve a fantastic, morally complicated tale. Each character is motivated to do what they do for both obvious and private reasons, and one of the most remarkable things that Sayles does so well is give us a sense that these people were living, breathing beings before this particular adventure started.

Go For Sisters is a film of small and slightly bigger moments. Sayles isn't trying to bowl you over with sweeping scenes of drama or action. He wants you to care about these characters and their mission; a success or failure in their lives will feel like one in yours, if he does his job correctly, which he usually does. There are moments loaded with tension, but it's a manageable kind. And in the end, you'll likely wish you could spend more time with these people after the credits start to role; you'll miss them; and you'll want to know where they are in five or ten years. That's the mark of a great filmmaker, and Sayles pulls that off pretty much with every single film he's ever made. But this one is his best in more than a decade, and that is cause for true film lovers to celebrate. The movies opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Punk Singer

There's little debate that musician Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the groundbreaking punk band Bikini Kill (and later Le Tigre and Julie Ruin) had feminism at the forefront of her mind when she entered the Olympia, WA music scene in the early 1990s. From her band's music and her policy about allowing women to step to the front of her concerts and not be slam-danced into oblivion, to her role as a contributor to the Riot Grrl 'zine and eventual movement, Hanna was on the front lines of ramping up feminist causes in the punk rock scene.

Director Sini Anderson's debut feature, The Punk Singer, fills in the recent gap in Hanna's recent life, when she dropped out of music, many thought, because she had nothing more to add to the conversation after 15 years of talking. Turns out many of the reasons for her leaving music were even a mystery to Hanna, who was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for so long that her recovery was prolonged and painful.

The film is not a public service announcement about the illness, but more a means for Hanna to say that the feminist cause is still a worthy and righteous one that she still very much believes in even if she can't always be on the front lines any longer. Watching her rage hard at Bikini Kill concerts in vintage footage makes for a stark contrast to more recent footage of her barely able to gather the energy to get out of bed, even with the help of husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.

Director Anderson deals head on with what some perceived as contradictions in Hanna's early stage persona, often wearing revealing outfits, writing "SLUT" across her exposed stomach, or dancing provocatively (it also didn't help that the music press never let up on the fact that she used to be an exotic dancer). But was this behavior any less about taking control of her image and sexual expression than what Bettie Page did? Hanna was certainly more aware of her methods, and her means were different, but the impact on feminist music in particular and the cultural scene in general is still being felt. Included in the mix of The Punk Singer are interviews with powerful musicians like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Joan Jett, who all fortify Hanna's status as a major voice in rock — feminist or otherwise.

At its core, The Punk Singer isn't about a movement; it's about a person who is both strong and fragile at times. If for no other reason, the inspiration of the film and the human being is deep seeded and far reaching. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

White Reindeer

One of the strangest, darkest holiday comedies you'll likely to ever come across is writer-director Zach Clark's White Reindeer, which involves a young successful couple (he's a television weatherman; she's a real estate agent) on the verge of changing their living situation for the better when he gets a job in Hawaii, a place they've always wanted to live. Just as they start to plan their move, husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) is killed, leaving wife Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) to grieve alone, since her friends and family are terrible at consoling her.

When one of Jeff's co-workers comes to visit Suzanne shortly after the funeral, he reveals that not only did he and Jeff go to strip clubs often but also that Jeff had been having an affair with a stripper named Autumn (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) for several months. This revelation sends Suzanne spiraling down into a depression hole that borders on a complete meltdown. But rather than lay in bed and do nothing, she experiments with ways that might make her feel better, including getting involved in the swinger lifestyle of a neighbor couple (Joe Swanberg and Lydia Hyslop), excessively shopping online, and trying to become friends with Autumn the stripper (real name Fantasia) and her party girl fellow exotic dancers.

The friendship with Autumn is the heartbeat of the film, as Suzanne attempts to find out what Jeff was all about as a sexual being. The film establishes early on that the couple had a healthy sexual appetite for one another, which makes this affair seem all the more confusing to Suzanne, who simply wants to find out if she was lacking in some area of pleasing her husband. It may sound sad and desperate, but Hollyman makes us understand what she's after, even if getting an answer will probably make her more depressed and the information can't ever be used.

White Reindeer's humor is a bit on the pedestrian side. The kinky neighbor couple hiding behind the straight-laced facade has been done to death for decades, and done better. And the side story of Suzanne's fellow real estate agents pushing her to sell the house through them so they can get the commission is just plain lame. But when the film dives into Suzanne's deepest fears and insecurities about her marriage, through her new friendship with her husband's lover, it works rather elegantly as a means of digging into all of our fears about keeping a relationship fresh and interesting. I was genuinely curious to see what she discovered (if anything) out of all of this painful investigation.

The fact that the story is set during the month leading up to Christmas, coupled with Suzanne making every effort to maintain a sense of artificial cheeriness, turns the film even more dark and melancholy. In many ways, White Reindeer is a masterful exercise is walking the fine line between freakishly humorous and oppressively grim, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's a film with a deliberately fractured tone that reflects its lead character's state of mind perfectly. Don't be afraid to laugh at inappropriate times (which is most of the time) or feel the most sympathy for Suzanne when she's engaging is the most outrageous behavior. That's the point of this mischievous little film. The movie opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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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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