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Column Fri Dec 27 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Her, Grudge Match, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Ms. 45 & Cold Turkey

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The Wolf of Wall Street

Sometime the less-is-more adage just doesn't do a story justice. I can't image a subtly told version of The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who isn't best known for dialed-back stories or performances, but is certainly capable of them. The truth is, like all great directors, Scorsese knows how to temper the tones of his films to the material. This may seem like an obvious ploy, but you'd be surprised how often the two don't mesh as they should. But the director of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed clearly had a few ideas about how to approach the book by the film's subject, New York strockbroker Jordan Belfort (the screenplay was written by Terence Winter, a showrunner of Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire" as well as a frequent writer on "The Sopranos"). He goes about as far and as fast as you can go without your head exploding.

A word you're probably already hearing a lot of in connection with this film is "excess," which is indeed appropriate to a point. The film epitomizes a culture where an almost unlimited supply of cash is at hand — most of which is legitimately gotten under the financial laws of the time — and what can be done with it is limited only by imagination. But what is perhaps more terrifying about this story is that the true source of excess isn't money; it's that there is almost no one in the world (government, law enforcement, etc.) telling these clowns "stop" with any credible means of making them do so. I don't mean to imply that simply saying the word would make them cease and desist, but it would have been nice to no someone was trying to put a stop to what they were up to or at least closing the loopholes they were doing swan dives through to take money from trusting clients.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an embarrassment of riches, not just in terms of how many great performances are featured in it, but just how many chances the performers take in their portrayal of greedy assholes and the people who work with them. Beginning and ending with Leonardo DiCaprio's no-holds-barred take on Belfort, a man who never envisioned himself as anything but disgustingly successful. But there are moments where the typically reserved DiCaprio just loses his shit and gives us something death-defying. A particularly hilarious sequence involving a drug-fueled trip to and from the hospital where he's literally moving in slow motion is sheer comic perfection. And make no mistake, this film plays best as a comedy — not the kind with punchlines, but the kind with acts so outrageous and situations so unbelievable, they could only take place in the real world.

I don't know how you can watch Jonah Hill in this film and not want to smack him across the face for being so good as Donnie Azoff, a man who quits his sales job to join Belfort when he was just selling penny stocks, and goes on to become his right-hand man and an even bigger drug-fueled douche than Belfort. Whereas Belfort is great with people (especially when it comes to separating them from their money), Azoff hates people, especially those with less money than him. There are a couple of nasty exchanges between him and a character named Brad (Jon Bernthal), a low-level but integral part of the operation, where Azoff shows so much contempt for this man that he deserves a beat down, and you'll likely want to be the one giving it to him. It takes a great deal of talent to play a character so loveably despised, but Hill pulls it off effortlessly.

When Belfort founds the brokerage firm of Stratton Oakmont (a name selected essentially because it sounds classy), that's when things begin to go from suit-and-tie investment house to a version of a Roman orgy on a daily basis. The lengths that Belfort would go to to keep his troops motivated and compensated were limitless, but expect to see more strippers, hookers, blow, alcohol and just general devastation than you've likely seen in any movie in your life. A complaint that has arisen about this film is that it repeats these excesses over and over, but I think overkill is part of Scorsese's plan. So much high-volume, high-energy partying would knock any normal human being on their ass. But the employees at Stratton Oakmont were superhuman when it came to intake and tolerances.

A list of the film's more pleasant surprises has to be topped by a breakthrough performance by Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife, Naomi Lapaglia, a stunning and smart model who works her way into his life as if it were meant to be. I've only ever seen the Australian actress in the short-lived series "Pan Am," but she's tough to forget and she goes toe to toe in a film populated by alpha-male characters. Solid work also comes from Kyle Chandler as Agent Patrick Denham, who is investigating Belfort's possible criminal activity. There's a sequence on Belfort's yacht with the agent that features a great back and forth between the two (including a veiled bribe attempt), and the more Belfort tries to seem like he's not afraid of the authorities, the more he clearly is terrified of them. The most brilliant diamond in this sea of chaos is Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, Belfort's early boss who lays out a work ethic over a multi-cocktail lunch that will likely make you sick to your stomach and hopelessly entertained.

It's easy to forget while watching The Wolf of Wall Street that much of what we're seeing occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because the corruption and power running unchecked seems so timely. Scorsese and Winter are no dummies; they're fully aware of the phenomenon of history repeating itself and show us just how true that is and how recent history can be. The key to Belfort's success was not by being conniving; it was by convincing those he was selling to that they could get a piece of what he had and do no actual work to earn it. That has become the American Dream, and Belfort saw that and exploited it. Is it, by definition, corruption if those on both sides of the table are complicit? That is what this film wants you to think about, and I haven't been able to stop since I saw it.

Scenes will repeat themselves in your head. They'll get in there because of the nudity and sex and partying that surrounds them, but they'll stay there because there's something else going on, and bigger questions and issues being raised. It's a remarkable film that frankly needs its epic length (three hours, folks!) to drive its poignant themes home and give room for these remarkable performances to breathe and grow to grotesque proportions. This film is so strong, it makes me scared at how much better Scorsese might still get.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Based on the classic James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about a daydreamer, and very little about that sounds especially cinematic. So what Ben Stiller (who directs and stars as Mitty) and screenwriter Steve Conrad have done is added in a couple of action sequences that are meant to show us that Walter is a man in search of high adventure outside of his job for LIFE magazine as the receiver and processor rolls of films from adventuring photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). In addition to wanting to be a man of action, Walter also wants to be a man of passionate love; he has a crush on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), and he's powerless to make his feelings known or even ask her out.

The very spark that is missing from Walter's life is also missing from the film about him. There are a few truly nice, touching moments, but more often than not, it's just a series of contrived moments to bring the real-life version of Walter more in line with the fictional one in his head. It's a great concept, but a limp execution.

I can't imagine the trumped-up action sequences are going to work for anyone, especially the one involving Walter essentially snowboarding on a piece of asphalt down a New York street, zipping between cabs. Walter has been sent what it turns out will be the image for the final print edition of LIFE, which is being shut down by corporate lackies, led by Adam Scott's bearded Ted Hendricks, who is just pure overdone villainy, especially in the way he looks down at Walter and his place in the organization. But Walter believes he has lost the negative, and in a rare moment of inspiration and divergence from his life of routine, he hops on a plane and heads for where he thinks O'Connell will be, a journey that takes him to Iceland. One of the film's best fantasy-based moments involves being in a rundown bar in Iceland where Walter sees a vision of Cheryl singing to him from the stage, which inspires him to hop on a helicopter piloted by a blind-drunk pilot to head for a ship where O'Connell might be. In fact, once the fantastical moments become more tempered (and eventually non existent), the film gets better.

Intermittently throughout the film, Walter receives calls from a customer service rep for eHarmony (voiced charmingly by Patton Oswalt), who wants to see if he can beef up Walter's profile and make him seem more appealing. The sequence are the most grounded moments in Walter's life because they make him come to terms with how shamefully stilted his life has always been. But as the film progresses, these calls become easier to deal with since his adventures are mounting, and the question of interesting places he's been in his lifetime becomes easier to answer. Walter's lifelong predicament is not entirely his fault as he has been the only truly stable one in his family — sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn) and mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) — and he's had no choice but to be caretaker (emotionally and financially) for both of them since he was in his late teens.

Connecting with Penn's character isn't the end of the film, but it is probably the best sequence and one I wish could have been more built upon. In fact, the actual conclusion to the film is so lacking in sizzle or emotional satisfaction that I barely remember it. What I do recall is how breathtaking The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks, thanks to some truly awe-inspiring cinematographer from Stuart Dryburgh. There are times when I wish I could have turned the sound off and simply enjoyed the view. But then Walter is forced to run away from an erupting volcano, and it ruined my fun (that is not a fantasy sequence, by the way).

I'm probably not making this seem like as close a call as it was for me. Once Stiller the director and Conrad the writer peel away the big-budget-visual-effects moments of daydreaming, the film tends to work more often than it doesn't. I realize this is a film about a man who daydreams, but Walter's escapist moments are so overblown, it seems like Stiller is trying to impress us with how much money he was given to spend on what is essentially a simple, intimate story about a man breaking out of a world that is smothering him to death. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about a man coming to realize that no one is going to save him from his life of self-imposed misery but himself. But he soon comes to realize that he doesn't have to be a superhero to do so. It's a solid life lesson, I guess; benefitting who, I'm not quite sure.

Considering that the original Thurber story is only a few paragraphs long, Conrad's resulting story is actually pretty good stuff, from the lamenting over the death of print magazines and negative-based photography to the exotic settings that make up Walter's journey/escape to the possibility of romance, the film is peppered with good moments, some bordering on great. But so much of what Stiller is doing, in both performance and direction, feels like he's holding back what could be a pure emotional wallop about the human condition. What's most frustrating about the film is that you can almost see greatness materialize, but much like Walter's daydreams, they evaporate just as you are about ready to grasp them.

Her

Last week in my review of Inside Llewyn Davis, I made the point that a lot of what people see as the deeper meanings scattered throughout that film have a great deal to do with what the individual critic or audience member bring to it. Of course, personal history informs the way we look at all forms of art, from films to music, television and theater. And Her, the latest masterpiece from writer-director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are), is no exception. Jonze's great talent as a filmmaker is wrapping a creative, often humorous shell around a deep emotional truth and then placing that package into an even more impressive story that is never straight-forward but always easy to follow.

From my vantage point (and I think many others will agree), Her is about finding happiness again after a particularly painful divorce. Set so slightly in the future, it might just be a matter of a few months rather than years, the film tells us the tale of an emotionally complicated soul named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who isn't so much sad because his wife (Rooney Mara) has left him as he's in full-fledged mourning, deep in an devastating funk that has left him broken as a person with little hope of recovery. Theodore is a professional letter writer — a man who composes beautifully written letters from one person to another for a price — and he's quite good at his job, even in his present state. He has friends both at work and outside of work (you'll enjoy the very funny banter from co-worker Chris Pratt), but Theodore is a man alone. He tries sex chat message boards (featuring cameos by some very amusing, familiar voices), but even that leaves him empty. His one occasional salvation is neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), but she's not a romantic possibility since she's married to a condescending jack-ass (Matt Letscher as Charles).

Early in the film, Theodore crashes and burns during a blind date with a slightly off-kilter woman played quite convincingly by Olivia Wilde, who has had a heck of a year between this film, Rush and Drinking Buddies; hell, I'll even give her points for being interesting in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Wilde's rapid decent into crazy would almost be a treat to watch if it didn't mean such terrible things for poor Theodore. All of this occurs just as our hero purchases a new operating system for his computerized life, one that is said to be an artificial intelligence, using intuition to make interactions more friendly and user specific. In other words, the OS gets to know the user inside and out. Theodore's OS is named Samantha, voiced with the right combination of knowing and curiosity by Scarlett Johansson. And as this unlikely pair get to know each other, they begin to fall in love, or something quite like it.

The wonderful trailers and commercials for Her might lead you to believe that this building love affair (which does include some quite intimate moments between the happy couple) is the end game of the film, but the truth is they start to realize how strong their feelings are about 30-40 minutes into this two-hour movie. The falling in love is only the beginning of where Jonze wants to take us. He poses the most interesting question possibly of the year: Since relationships between two emotionally complex human beings so often leads to disaster, would removing one human and replacing it with a more emotionally adjustable being make relationships any more successful as a practice? Or would one set of problems simply be replaced by another? It probably doesn't take months of couples counseling to figure that one out.

And lest you think Samantha is some complacent, agreeable creature, think again. As she learns and grows and attempts to approximate human emotion to go along with you curiosity, he begins to question Theodore's feelings, decisions, and asks him to examine why his marriage didn't work. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Theodore's involvement with Samantha is that it's not unique. We find out that men and women are falling in love with their OSs with an alarming regularity, and it has become almost commonplace and acceptable to do so in this version of the future, whose most defining feature seems to be the high-waisted pants without belts that everyone is wearing.

The wonderful and shocking truth is that I loved watching Theodore and Samantha go on dates and get to know each other. He pops his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera pointed forward to the world, and they go for walks so that she can see the world as he does. She brings out the best in him by always wanting to know more, laughing with him and noticing even the slightest changes in his mood. And there's no way you won't put yourself in his position, even just for a moment and imagine how you would respond to that much devotion. But we are clued in early on that the more she learns — about Theodore and the world — the more she'll want to grow beyond the confines of their relationship. She disappears briefly to read and research things she becomes interested in, and even meets other OSs to discuss what they have learned.

At the height of Theodore's bliss, he has lunch with his not-quite-ex to sign their final divorce papers. When he reveals to her the status of his love life, she unleashes a series of hard truths that make him and us question his motivations. It's an ugly moment in the film, but not one that isn't loaded with things to contemplate as the film moves forward. Is this just the bitter exit of a wife who once felt special and now feels betrayed, or is she right that Theodore's desire to be the center of attention in a relationship has finally been met the only way it truly could be? And there is Phoenix wearing each accusation like a bruise on his face. He's absolutely flawless as Theodore, and it's impossible to imagine any other actor of his generation capturing the hurt and joy quite like he does here. He's an actor capable of big moments — as he did repeatedly in last year's The Master — but he devours the screen with small, insightful nuances.

For those who think Her is about our evolving relationship with technology, I guess that's in the mix too, but honestly that could not have been further from my mind while watching this film. Samantha is as much a creature of flesh and blood as any in the film, so much so that she comes up with the idea of hiring a sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday) for Theodore who provides a silent body for Samantha's seductive voice. Again, apparently this is an accepted practice in this version of the future, but that doesn't make it any less creepy for Theodore.

Bringing it back to the idea that Her is about breaking through the pain of divorce (or the end of any long-term relationship, I suppose), Theodore's plight and eventual newfound bliss is about making a connection. He's desperate to find something in his life that won't hurt him like his ex-wife did, and the odds seem to be in his favor that a computer is just such a thing. Little does he know. But Jonze is an eternal optimist; he's a spirit guide through a great deal of pain, but he usually brings us out of such a gauntlet with some amount of hope, if not outright happiness. Her is a magnificent story of a kind of love; it somehow manages to be utterly original, while clinging to conventional romantic ideas about soul mates, desire and the resulting bliss. There's an immaculate grace to the film that will both haunt me and fill me with joy every time I watch or even think of it. Prepare to be moved.

Grudge Match

I'll admit, there was something mildly appealing about the prospect of seeing Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta go head to head, even if it is just in doctored video images made to look like younger versions of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro (as fictional fighters Bill "The Kid" McDonnen and Henry "Razor" Sharp) in the new film Grudge Match, from director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Get Smart, Anger Management). In the film, the pair were the best the fighting game had to offer back in the early 1980s, and when they finally battled each other, they had two bouts, with each taking one win apiece. Then just as the decisive third match was about to happen, The Kid retired from boxing for unknown reasons, killing both of their careers in the process.

Jump ahead 30 years, with video games blowing up, boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) has a way for the pair to fight again via motion-capture suits, shot separately and put together in a game. Naturally, Razor wants to settle a score, so he shows up during The Kid's motion-capture session and they start to tussle, with some technician recording the whole thing on his phone. Shortly the clip goes viral, and now there's actual demand for a real fight in the ring between the two men, both of whom could use the big payday.

If that were all there was to Grudge Match, it might have made for a solid 90-minute comedy about two old guys training, with a pretty great boxing match to wrap things up. But for whatever reason, the filmmakers (including screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman) didn't have enough confidence in that story alone to just roll with it. I really enjoyed watching The Kid pair up with his old trainer Louis "Lightning" Conlon (Alan Arkin, coming armed with an arsenal of wisecracks), while Razor asks his newly found son B.J. (Jon Bernthal, also seen tearing it up in The Wolf of Wall Street this week) to help whip him back into shape. Sure, the rediscovered son angle is completely corny, but when they actually set their mind to training and talk less about how Razor abandoned B.J., the film stays on target.

But the filmmakers can't leave well enough alone and clutter what is shaping up to be a decent sports movie into one about a 30-year-old love triangle, hurt feelings and other sentimental crap that drags it down like the heaviest anchor imaginable. Kim Basinger is on hand as Sally, a woman Razor was in love with back in the day, who did something to hurt him bad and cause him to drop out of that famed third fight. And guess what? I don't care. Neither the big mystery about what caused him to exit the bout, nor the romantic outcome for The Kid in the present day is a real shocker, so why waste so much time on it?

There are some aspects of the final big fight that are absolutely ridiculous, bordering on unintentionally hilarious. But excluding those, a great deal of Grudge Match gets the job done, once the lead actors move past the obvious age jokes and other forms of childish squabbling and get to the business of beating the snot out of each other. It's a close call, and probably the reason I'd give the film a pass is because there were moments when you almost can't believe that they got Stallone and De Niro to do this movie in the first place, given their history in boxing movies. What isn't there in the script, these two pros inject into the film through better-than-expected performances and even a bit of energy. It's far from a great film, but sometimes you get a kick out of watching professionals do their work well. Much like the final fight, the film ain't pretty but it gets the job done.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

On its surface, this featured based on the life of the recently departed Nelson Mandela (based on his 1994 autobiography) is a passionate but fairly by-the-numbers account of arguably the most famous man in the world for a time. A filmmaker does not have to stretch the truth to make Mandela's life more interesting; it's all there for the telling. And I'm not implying that director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, The First Grader) has significantly changed any part of Mandela's life to make it more dramatic or interesting. I saw Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shortly before Mandela died, and I looked at the experience as one of learning. I certainly knew a great deal about his life (I had just seen the lesser work, Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard, a couple of months earlier, so I had something of a refresher on his trials and tribulations fairly recently), but Long Walk to Freedom is a far more complete telling.

What impressed me most about this work was the scale and authenticity. Clearly shot in many of the same places where events first took place, Long Walk to Freedom takes us from Mandela's younger years, through his early years as a successful South African lawyer (often putting him in courtrooms with judges and other attorneys who didn't recognize his right to even be in the room with them), to a young man in love, through his years as an activist, prisoner of conscience on Robben Island to president of his nation when he was well into his 70s. Idris Elba plays Mandela at nearly every age (his old-age makeup is actually quite good), and while he doesn't look exactly like the man he's playing, his voice and way of carrying himself almost make you forget that.

Much like his book, the film doesn't shy away from moments in his life when Mandela made mistakes. By sticking to his guns as a prisoner and never breaking ranks with his fellow detainees, he was kept separate from wife Winnie (Naomie Harris, mostly recently seen as Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall), something that drove a wedge between them politically and personally, to the point where she was leading and instructing small gangs of followers to commit atrocities that Nelson could not be associated with.

But more interestingly, the film reveals the details of Mandela's release from prison after nearly 30 years. While many around the world remember that remarkable day in 1990, but it turns out, he was in constant negotiations with the de Klerk administration to be released on terms that would benefit them. This was especially important because the nation was on the verge of exploding into chaos. During these talks, Mandela was allowed to live largely outside the prison in a comfortable home where he could see his family. Such treatment was looked upon with disdain by some of his former inmates, but Mandela took advantage of the position he was placed in by both blacks and whites in South Africa.

Director Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables) does a great job of making clear what is going on in these sequences, and how Mandela insisted that the black population maintain the peace during this transitionary period rather than launch into all out violent retaliation. It's a fantastic re-creation of both the time and mood, with Elba at the center reminding us that Mandela's first priority was peace and establishing democratic elections that he would likely win. "We cannot win a war, but we can win an election," he said in what is arguably his most important speech.

Some may complain that Long Walk to Freedom doesn't do its subject justice, but I think the greater injustice would be to glorify him (or worse, deify him) to such an extent that he looks somehow superhuman. Elba's performance may be too subdued for some, but he's right in assuming Mandela didn't live every moment in full bellowing speech mode. There are times when the film seems to jump from major moment to major moment without taking time to give us a few simple, humanizing moments in Mandela's life. There are even a few moments near the beginning of the film when violent acts are committed on his behalf without much in the way of condemnation from him.

But for all of its shortcomings, the movie is more than simply a textbook brought to life. Elba and Harris are both acting powerhouses who make watching them a crucial part of enjoying movies. I feel like the makers of this film did the best they could by wishing to stick to as many of the facts as possible. Part of criticizing a film is contemplating (even if it's just in your head) what might have been done better, and that's not an easy question to answer with Long Walk to Freedom. Certainly the passion and intention are there, as well as the spirit that Mandela inspired, and a lot of what is in this film will inspire people, especially younger audience members who may find it difficult to believe that a man such as this ever existed. Let's hope that by the end of the film, they believe something different.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom director Justin Chadwick.

Ms. 45

If you haven't seen the second feature from filmmaker Abel Ferrara (after Driller Killer), strap yourself in and prepare for a trip in time, where gender roles were more distinct and the means of revenge were apparently a lot more clear. Ms. 45 is the story of Thana (Zoë Tamerlis, who also wrote and co-starred in Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, under her married name, Zoë Lund) a wallflower, mute seamstress for a fashion designer in New York City who is sexually assaulted not once but twice is a single night after work. Her already fragile state is pushed over the edge, and she kills the second man who attacks her in her apartment, takes his gun (a .45 caliber), and saws him up into more manageable sizes she can dispose of throughout the city.

What follows is one of the more memorable rape-revenge movies of that particular unsavory genre, with Thana dressing more and more provocatively to attract potential predators and then gunning them down the minute they step in her direction. The problem with her plan occurs almost instantly when a homeless man attempts to return to her one of the bags she disposed of, and she shoots him in the head before she realizes he's not attacking her. The film's most telling moments occur in Thana's workplace, populated by young women, all of whom are so used to being ogled and catcalled by New York men that they've toughened up and starting fighting back (mainly with words). But their boss is a condescending asshole, who is always encouraging Thana to do more to fit in (such as going to an upcoming Halloween party), when really he's trying to take advantage of this disabled woman.

Ms. 45 is perhaps most twisted because almost none of the men that Thana shoots are potential rapists; they're just a series of alpha males or men who think they can seduce women with their god-awful rap. The one time she doesn't shoot would-be attackers is in one of the film's most memorable sequences in Central Park where she marches in fully made up into the darkest corner of the park where a whole gang of men surround her ready to pounce. Her gun, with its unlimited supply of bullets, takes care of them in short supply.

If you were to believe the depiction of New York in Ms. 45 (which was released in 1981 and written by Nicholas St. John, or "N.G. St. John"), you'd probably never go there, although it probably showed a version of it that was true to Ferrara's experience — low-life citizens, shady situations, and every male some degree of scumbag. It borders on a nightmare depiction of a time, place and deviant attitude that feels authentic, even with some of the actors giving us exaggerated depictions of these creatures of the city.

The film has gone through a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) restoration and is being re-released by Drafthouse Films, and the transfer is pretty solid. Some of the darker scenes are a bit blotchy (at least judging by the screener sent to me by the distributor), by overall it's a clean-looking endeavor and shows some of the early signs of Ferrara's craftsmanship as a director. The climactic sequence at the Halloween party, in which Thana dresses as a sexy nun, cannot be topped as a sideway slap in the face at the Warhol crowd, which I'm sure Ferrara both loathed but still wouldn't have minded being a part of, if only for research purposes. For those who live and breathe grindhouse works, it doesn't get much more important or influential than Ms. 45, and it's nice to see it treated with the respect it deserves. The film opens today in Chicago as Friday and Saturday midnight shows, exclusively at the Music Box Theatre.

Cold Turkey

White people, I swear. It's true: Caucasians have all the problems, especially the ones with money and influence. And filmmakers will not stop making movies in a desperate attempt to make us realize that folks from pits of despair like Pasadena have issues that are driving them into deep wells of anxiety and depression. Poor, poor white people. Case in point: the new dark comedy from writer-director Will Slocombe, Cold Turkey, which shows us the trials and tribulations about a trio of spoiled, grown siblings whose lives have all managed to turn to shit despite being raised with money and pretty much every advantage thanks to their father Poppy (Peter Bogdanovich), who has long been on wife number two (Cheryl Hines), after dumping his first wife and mother of his two daughters Lindsay (Sonya Walger) and whack job sister Nina (Alicia Witt), who hasn't been home in 15 years.

As Thanksgiving approaches, this messy family are attempting to gather as a whole unit for the first time in quite a few years. The fifth member of this pity party is half-brother Jacob (Ashton Holmes), the sole offspring of the second marriage and a professional fuck-up who throws his money away on terrible investments and online gambling primarily because Poppy keeps giving him the money to do so. Now he needs a tremendous amount of money to dig himself out of debut with loan sharks, and he bides his time to pick just the right moment to ask his father, who is perpetually drunk for the entire movie. In fact, all three siblings need cash on this fine holiday, and they pelt him with their pathetic tales of woe with their hands out, as I'm sure they all have done repeatedly in the past.

There are stories of failing marriages, infidelity, substance abuse, hell, Nina even brings her truck driver boyfriend (Wilson Bethel) home with her for Thanksgiving. Oh, the troubled life she has led. Nina is meant to be a source of chaos and humor in the film, but she just comes across as someone who runs her mouth all the time and can't keep a single secret, which makes you wonder why anyone would trust her with one. I'll admit, it's rather amusing to watch the great director Bogdanovich play such a disaster of a character; he's always been a solid actor in smaller parts throughout the years, but this is something a little more substantial as he's asked to move between being a government international affairs advisor and a delusional alcoholic. He's like a woozy Jack Benny without the violin.

Cold Turkey is one of those indie films that feels the need to drop an entire family history in your lap in the span of less than 90 minutes. As a result, we get conversations that would never take place in real life, just so the characters can unload every major sock in their dirty laundry for our benefit. The end result is an endless litany of whining and griping that makes you want to drive the truck driver's semi straight through the living room window. There's nothing appallingly wrong with any of the performers — many of whom I'm great admirers of — which I guess means the greatest flaws in the film are in its screenplay, which is simply overwrought white misery and angst in its purist form.

All of this being said, I was never bored watching Cold Turkey. It's so gloriously overwritten, and the actors seem to be gleefully indulging in delivering every line of dialogue with maximum WASPy attitude that you can't help but be mildly entertained. Still, it's tough justifying anything resembling a recommendation when its near impossible to care — let alone sympathize — with this annoying, miserable bunch and their self-made problems. In the end, they all made me sick. The film 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

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A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
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Editor: Nancy Bishop, nancy@gapersblock.com
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