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Column Fri Jan 17 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Ride Along, The Best Offer, Big Bad Wolves, The Square & Old Goats

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I have a fondness for the adventures of Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's many novels about the CIA analyst-turned-operative. One of my fondest memories is of my grandfather, a WWII Navy veteran, giving me his copy of The Hunt for Red October and telling me what a great read it was (and he was right). And I continued reading Clancy's books (the ones he actually wrote; not the ghost-written ones) for quite some time after that. And certainly the first three films based on his works (October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) are easy to like; the fourth, The Sum of All Fears, not so much. The fifth film featuring Ryan (with the fourth actor to play him) is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and it's an attempt at reaching back into Ryan's backstory to the point in his career where he shifted from government desk job to working undercover for the CIA on Wall Street to uncover the financial hiding places of terrorist organizations, to running around Moscow with a gun and carrying out secret missions.

I actually like how this film begins, with Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek films) as a young college student abroad in London when the attacks on the World Trade Center happen (clearly any sort of continuity for the Clancy stories has been thrown out the window). Inspired to action, Ryan joins the Marines, and after several heroic missions, he's severely injured in a helicopter crash to the point where there is some doubt if he'll ever be able to walk again. In the physical therapy hospital, he meets pretty young nurse Cathy (Keira Knightley), and when he exits the facility able to walk, they begin to date.

Some of my favorite scenes in Shadow Recruit involve Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper — whose job title, I suppose, is Shadow Recruiter — as he offers to pay for Ryan to finish university and go work on Wall Street to uncover shady money trails. There's something appropriately knowing and sly about Costner's performance. He's certainly not winking at us in a "I'm-a-spy" manner. Instead, he keeps his words and explanations to a minimum and simply expects Ryan to listen and do as he's told, which he pretty much does. In a perhaps more evolved world, Costner would have made a great older Jack Ryan.

Before long, Ryan believes he has uncovered mysterious accounts belonging to a Russian company run by Viktor Cherevin (played by the film's director, Kenneth Branagh), and he plots a trip to Moscow to look into it. Neither Branagh's directing nor his acting are really the problem, but it's at about the time his character is fully integrated into the story that Shadow Recruit begins to unravel, going from a stripped-back, toned-down spy drama to a stampeding pack of bears that charge from Russia to New York, where yet another terrorist attack on the city's financial district appears to be at hand. There literally comes a point where both Ryan and Cherevin are together and are fully aware of what the other is doing, yet neither do anything but run away from each other.

Far better are moments such as one where Ryan is attacked in his luxury hotel room by a man who is supposed to be his body guard. Their tussle utterly trashes the place. But with one phone call and and a walk around the park, the man's body (Ryan's first kill for the CIA) is gone, and the room is returned to its former opulence. When Shadow Recruit is more of a procedural, it's actually a somewhat passable endeavor, but for the film's final act, action rules the day, a fact made all the more annoying by the presence of Cathy in Moscow. She shows up to surprise her boyfriend, and stumbles in on his secret life, which she can't know about until they're married (or so they say).

Nearly every scene between them feels like the screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp are trying to force us into caring about this relationship, and it just never happens. Instead of painting Cathy as a strong woman, capable of being emotionally sturdy enough to be the potential wife of a CIA operative, she comes across as paranoid, jealous and whiny. Of course, so does Ryan at points, especially when (surprise, surprise), the bad guys kidnap Cathy, which leads to a high-speed chose through Moscow's streets. Boy, does he scream her name like a little girl who's just had her blanky taken away.

I'd really like to see Jack Ryan continue to be a force in the movie world. He isn't the American James Bond at all. He's a numbers man with a military background. He's not comfortable around politicians, and prefers the solitude of a desk and his home. The Jack Ryan in the beginning of Shadow Recruit almost gets it right, but by the time the story makes its way back to New York, the film loses all sense of what makes it or the Ryan character unique. It's generic-ness turns into stupidity, and we're left with a predictable conclusion. Even the way the film's villains are dispatched with seems ill conceived and clunky.

Pine isn't the problem with Shadow Recruit, but he's not exactly part of the solution either. In the right hands, he's good a sitting back and letting a character be painted on him by a strong director. But left to his own devices and instincts, he tends to default into smarmy mode, which is certainly not the case here. As Jack Ryan, he's actually pretty convincing as someone meant to be both brainy and tough. But once the film becomes pure action, any subtleties in his performance — and the film — are gone forever. It's a closer call than you might think. What Costner brings to the film almost redeems it; if he'd been on screen more, it might have. If you can endure the silliness in certain parts of the plot, as well as the mindless action, it's not inconceivable that you'd have a good time. But in all likelihood, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit will leave you wanting more.

Ride Along

The buddy-cop film seems to be as old as time itself, and really the only reason one might be better or worse than another is that the two actors paired as partners have a decent chemistry and at least one of them is screamingly funny. The latest entry into the buddy-cop pantheon is Ride Along, starring the often stoic, joke-free comedy stylings of Ice Cube (Friday, Barbershop, 21 Jump Street), whose main source of humor is derived from the fact that he used to be one of the hardest hardcore gangsta rappers on the planet. Here, he plays James, the tough cop brother of Angela (Tika Sumpter), whose annoying boyfriend Ben (Kevin Hart) has just been accepted into the police academy and thinks this will finally make him seem worthy of Angela in James' eyes.

James decides that the only way to eject this clown from his sister's life is to take Ben on a ride along for a day and have the dispatcher feed him only the most annoying, tedious calls that no other cop wants to make the job look about as lame as possible. But Ben is a committed videogame player, and he has convinced himself that becoming an expert on Call of Duty has prepared him for the dangers of being a police officer. This is one of the more amusing gags in Ride Along, especially when knowledge Ben picked up gaming offers up clues in a case James has been obsessed with for years, and is on the verge of giving up on forever.

I happen to think Kevin Hart is one of the funniest stand-up comics working today, and he's proven himself to be quite adept at playing with others in films, using improv effectively and just generally being a decent actor (you'll see a lot more proof of this last point in his next movie, the About Last Night remake, out in mid-February). But when Hart senses that a scene isn't going well and probably won't get big laughs from audiences, his knee-jerk reaction is to go big, loud and obnoxious — something that happens quite a bit here.

Director Tim Story, who has worked with both of his leads in other films (Ice Cube in the superior Barbershop and Hart in Think Like a Man and its upcoming sequel), and he has a true gift for getting Hart to dial his insanity down just a bit. And for the most part, Story is successful. I'm 99 percent sure we're supposed to be rooting for Hart to get Cube's blessing to marry his sister, but Hart gets so loud and screechy so often that that audience support might take a lot longer to arrive.

The big-picture case that James is working on, inadvertently involving Ben in the process, seems so superfluous and distracting that you almost wish it wasn't there (although it does get us a weirdly funny appearance by Laurence Fishburne). Watching this pair simply get shuttled from one ridiculous case to another is the root of the best comedy in Ride Along, so any attempts to make this movie a bigger deal than it is seem foolish and ill advised.

That being said, one of the more amusing aspects to this film is that it successfully mimics the action-oriented portions of buddy-cop films, and makes them part of the joke. A climactic shootout turns into a funny sequence when Ben starts looking for replacement ammo on the ground, like his precious videogames, and actually finds some, much to James' shock and frustration.

Supporting performances from the likes of Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, "SNL" regular Jay Pharoah, and comic Bryan Callen come and go with little consequence and leave the burden for the laughter to Ice Cube and Hart, who use up their reserves well before the end of the movie. Ride Along is not void of laugh-worthy moments — far from it. It's problem lies in the fact that after about an hour, we understand everything and everyone; hell, if you've ever watched a TV cop show, you can probably guess what happens to the bad guys. Still, Hart and Cube do have something resembling chemistry (at last by the end of the film they do, which I guess is the point), and when the secondary storylines and characters failed to deliver, watching them poke each other with sticks did make me laugh. It's a close call in terms of recommending it or not, but if you weren't already planning on checking this one out, you can probably skip it.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Ride Along co-stars Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.

The Best Offer

The latest work from Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malena) is being sold as an unusual romance between a buttoned-down, always-gloved art authenticator and auctioneer and a new client of his who likes to hide behind the walls of her palatial mansion. But at its core, The Best Offer is about forgery and how there can still be great value in something that isn't the genuine article. Of course, this is part of Virgil Oldman's (Geoffrey Rush in top form) job: authenticating paintings and other precious artifacts. But apparently in the art world, there is some call for forgeries of more valuable paintings, since some of them were painted by lesser, but still known, artists of the time.

Being a collector of a certain type of painting himself, Virgil is involved in a scheme with his silent partner (Donald Sutherland) in which Virgil will de-value a piece's true value so that the partner can bid on it and then sell it back to Virgil. We get a glimpse of the secret room where Virgil has stored and displayed dozens of the works he has acquired this way, and we realize that all of the paintings are portraits of women looking at the artist. Virgil has no real female companion to speak of, but he seems to take great comfort sitting in a comfortable chair surrounded by these ladies.

But then Virgil is contacted by an heiress names Claire, who owns a vast estate and is looking to catalog and pare down her collection (really her family's collection). At first, she communicated with Virgil only by phone, but after apparently just missing being in the same room with her a few times, he discovers that she suffers from agoraphobia and has since she was a child. Not only does she never leave the house, but whenever someone else is in the house, she retreats to a hidden room behind the walls. It's not like she's some feral creature back there; she has the internet and apparently makes money writing books under assumed names. But Virgil becomes intrigued by her, and one night he pretends to leave the house when in fact he stays behind to catch a glimpse of what turns out to be a lovely young woman with slightly ragged hair (likely the result of her self-cutting it).

Of course, the whole idea of a beautiful woman gazing at Virgil from a hole in the wall falls right into Virgil's fantasy of the women in his paintings, and before long, he's hooked and the two start an unlikely romance as he slowly coaxes her out from her hidden chamber. Virgil seeks advice from a few unlikely acquaintances, including a mechanically inclined younger friend Robert (Jim Sturgess), who helps piece together a really cool automaton, the pieces of which Virigl has found scattered throughout Claire's home. And then there's the mysterious dwarf (Kurina Stamell) in the bar across the street from Claire's mansion who seems to possess a flawless mind for numbers and a photographic memory to boot.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that I'm fairly certain Tornatore wants us to be slightly suspicious of Claire and her motives. She seems custom-designed for Virgil's own view on life and love, and what is too good to be true often is. But there's something so hopelessly frail and meek about her that the audience will absolutely be root for Virgil to enter her life and make it more livable and pleasant. There's a truly lovely, lush score by Ennio Morricone that plays perfectly as the soundtrack to their love.

Rush is in rare form in The Best Offer, and after missing his mark in last year's The Book Thief and playing a clown in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies for so long, I'm glad to see him inhabit one of his classic, eccentric roles so completely. This is my first time seeing Hoeks, an actress who hails from the Netherlands, and she seems perfectly suited to this part. Since she's an unknown quantity to most English-speaking audiences, she doesn't bring any baggage along with her performance, so we have no idea what her intentions are beyond the stated ones. We don't know if her bizarre demeanor comes from her lack of human contact or something else, and it's that mystery that propels the film and lifts it into being something fun and strange. The focus on and backdrop of the art world is also one that never gets old, and the scenes of Rush running an auction are a lot of fun. The Best Offer is worth checking out just to see Rush in what feels like his natural element, and the story is smart enough that working your way through its layers doesn't feel like work. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Big Bad Wolves

I've been fortunate enough in recent years to take in quite a few new films from Israel, but I promise you, no Israeli filmmakers are making movies like the writing-directing team of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (who made the fantastic 2010 horror offering Rabies), whose latest offering is Big Bad Wolves. These filmmakers have a subversive, smart, sometimes viscous streak running through their work that is sadly lacking in so many films from their part of the world, or any part of the world for that matter.

The film opens with three children playing a game of hide and seek in an abandoned building in the woods. When the game is over, one of the little girls is still missing, and before long the police are called in. We're told this is the latest in a series of horrific child disappearances in the community (which eventually leads to a body found days later), with the chief suspect being local teacher Dror (Rotem Keinan, who looks so much like a kid killer/rapist that there's no way he could be the guy — too obvious). When a particularly aggressive cop named Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) is assigned to follow Dror, he decides to enlist the help of some off-the-books "interrogaters" to help snatch the suspect instead and acquire information in other ways about the missing girl, whose father is friends with the local police chief.

Not long after the torture of Dror, an anonymous tip tells the police the location of the girl's body, which, like the other victims, is missing her head and has all the signs of being horribly sexually brutalized. Miki is immediately taken off the case for spooking the suspect and possibly forcing him to kill the girl sooner for fear of being discovered. But that doesn't stop the cop from continuing to follow his prime suspect anyway. What he doesn't realize is that someone else is following him as he tracks Dror.

Pretty soon, both Dror and Miki are taken prisoner by an unknown third party that turns out to be the dead girl's father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), who enlists Miki in upping the extreme methods of questioning. He believes the only thing that scares a maniac is another maniac, and he devises a plan to do everything to Dror that was done to his daughter. Did I mention that the film has quite a few darkly comedic moments, and that it wouldn't be much of a stretch to call the film one of the darkest dark comedies in recent memory?

Earlier in Big Bad Wolves, we sees Gidi buying a cabin in a remote part of the woods, surrounded by Arab villages, with residents who tend to keep to themselves. At first, before we know his identity, we suspect him of being the actual child murderer, and on more than one occasion, the film does force us to doubt our beliefs as to the guilt or innocence of a couple of characters.

When the three men arrive at Gidi's soundproof cabin, the real work in finding his daughter's missing head begins. Combining brutal interrogation techniques to extract information with somewhat funny dialogue from the two captors (and later from Gidi's elderly father, played by Dov Glickman, who arrives unexpectedly) may not seem like the most obvious choice for a comedy, but the filmmakers have a keen sense of when going too far can be funny and when it can be distasteful. They also keep us guessing whether Dror is in fact a serial child-killing monster. Most impressive is the way Big Bad Wolves ends, and the absolute sinking feeling the conclusion gives us. I'll say no more.

Big Bad Wolves is a ruthless mind-fuck of a film that tests our limits, and makes us question under what circumstances (if any) this brand of torture is appropriate. It also kept me completely enraptured, wondering where the hell this ride was going to take me. Lines are drawn and erased; others stay firmly in place. Blood runs freely as time goes on. The film, like its characters, is unhinged in the best possible way. I can't wait to see this movie with a crowd again to hear the audience react, to see who makes it to the end and who abandons ship. You've never seen anything quite like this before, but I'm hoping it's the start of something new. It sure feels that way. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Square

Just nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar yesterday, director Jehane Noujaim's (Control Room) lates, The Square covers the nearly three years of the Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of a handful of revolutionaries all of whom met in Tahrir Square and became allies in the initial push to get then-leader Hosni Mubarak out of office and a more democratically chosen government in place. But what happened instead is that while the leadership might have changed (the military took over governing the nation), the policies of detainment, torture and killing citizens continued, forcing the revolutionaries back into the streets and the square. In the interim, the military found a way to turn this city of many religions united to oust Mubarak into a nation divided by cutting deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and turning Christians and those practicing Islam against each other.

The focal point of the films is the charismatic Ahmed Hassan, who walks us through the struggle and keeps in touch with all of the other players in this situation, including noted actor Khalid Abdalla (United 93, The Kite Runner, Green Zone), who returned to Egypt to help give a voice and face in this struggle for the Western media. Also prominently featured is Magdy Ashour, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and switches sides on the issue of leadership, while still trying to maintain a friendship with Ahmed. The sense we get is that he's towing the party line but isn't committed to the military being in charge, especially since he was tortured under Mubarak's rule.

This is a fascinating journey that director Nougaim premiered at Sundance a year ago and then went back to Egypt to update the ongoing story. (I believe the most recent footage in The Square is from August 2013.) We watch the intensity of both the events and the convictions ebb and flow, and sometimes we can spot the exact moment where fear becomes a deciding factor as to whether a revolutionary keeps up the fight or drops out. One subject is a popular singer in Egypt who is very open in singing about his disgust with the current rulers, but he his arrested and beaten severely, causing both a crisis of body and conscience.

There's a true sense of immediacy to The Square as well since nearly all of the footage is taken from right in the heart of the massive protests to which millions showed up. It's clear that some holding cameras were hurt or otherwise caught up when the police or military shows up to disperse the crowd, and the danger seems almost overwhelmingly real. Less a history lesson and more like watching history as it unfolds, The Square is a tense, breathtakingly immediate and searingly important work that deserves not only its nomination but your attention.

The film opens today in Chicago for weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Jehane Noujaim will participate in an audience Q&A via Skype following the 8:15pm screening on Friday and the 7:45pm screening on Saturday.

Old Goats

I don't know the entire story behind the utterly unique film Old Goats, but I'm almost afraid that finding out would ruin all that I loved and found so moving and funny about this story of three elderly men living in coastal Washington state, whose friendship helps each of them in different ways make the transition into their golden years. From first-time filmmaker Taylor Guterson, the movie focus on Bob, Britt and Dave (Bob Burkholder, Britton Crosley, David Vander Wal), all of whom are playing versions of themselves (rather convincingly, I might add). Dave is seemingly the most normal of the bunch, with a wife, solid golf game and a plan to spend half the year in a newly purchased condo in Palm Springs. But there's a dark side to Dave that comes out in small, dark moments, usually sparked by his wife's demands about how he should spend his retirement.

The oldest of the bunch is Bob, who is quite the ladies' man, but still relies on the kindness of others to drive him around. Bob has also written quite a revealing tell-all memoir that he is in the process of self-publishing with a shady publisher. And finally there's Britt, who opens the film with a plan to sail over the Asia in his house boat, but he chickens out and is slowly pulled out of his shell by the other two men so he can enter the terrifying world of cell phones and internet dating.

Old Goats is more slice-of-life than linear storytelling, and the men in the film are working within fictitious events, even though they are essentially playing themselves. Still, they all come across as so absolutely authentic, capturing older-aged men in a way that is so believable. They still crave the idea of living the life of younger men, but experience has taught them to be cautious, and they each find ways to break free of these self-imposed restrictions and still find room to grow and be moderately adventurous. Watching Britt rise up out of his hermit-like state in his houseboat is almost too painful to watch; his fear of entering the dating scene again almost pushes him into a coma, especially when the woman he starts seeing pushes him to sell his boat and move in with her. His simple comment, "I like sleeping on my boat," is the ultimate cry for help.

Watch this film simultaneously made me fear growing old a little less and worry about it a little more, both for different reasons. Dave's tiny ways of undermining his wife's plans for his future are so sad and petty that it made me fear that growing old is about burying your dreams to make someone else happy, while Britt's fear of all technology is practically upon me already. But watching Bob live his life as full as he ever has is quite encouraging, despite the fact that he can't hold down a relationship and is always in need of someone driving him somewhere. Old Goats isn't searching for big, sweeping revelations on living your life as an elderly person. It's more about letting you know that it's okay to get scared as long as you're willing to work through the fear, and find ways to express yourself and not settle into routines. "Inspirational" might be too strong a word to describe the film, but it certain odds a bit more hope into the idea of getting old. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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