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Column Fri Jan 24 2014
The Invisible Woman, Gimme Shelter, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Here Comes the Devil, Maidentrip & An Honest Living
Before I just into the regular reviews, I must mention a couple of special events happening in Chicago in the next week that you should take full advantage of as film lovers.
The first is a film that the recently liquor-licensed Music Box Theatre is playing at midnight this weekend (in addition to Here Comes the Devil, which I review below) and it's called Fateful Findings, a movie from director Neil Breen that I was secretly shown over a year ago in another city. Rightfully so, the film is being compared to The Room, not so much in terms of its story, but in terms of the clear delusional belief by the filmmaker that he is somehow making art and exposing the greater truth about the things that really control the way the world works. I'm not reviewing here because I don't remember a great deal about it (having seen it at about 3am) other than it's one of the most ridiculous and still hilarious films you will ever see. I will buy a copy as soon as it's available.
The other film event you might want to check out is the latest in the annual installment of the Music Box Theatre's Sundance USA event, in which a highly regarded film from the just-wrapping-up Sundance Film Festival makes its way to Chicago along with the filmmaker. This year, we get the most recent film from Drinking Buddies writer-director (and Chicago resident) Joe Swanberg, Happy Christmas, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber and Lena Dunham. I haven't seen the film, and all I know about it is that it concerns a young woman moving in with her older brother, his wife, and their two-year-old son after she breaks up with her boyfriend. I'll be in the crowd that night for sure since Swanberg will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening, which starts at 7:30pm. Check out the Music Box's site for details on the screening and to buy advance tickets (it will likely sell out).
And finally, Facets Cinématheque is playing for two consecutive weekends a fairly violent little piece called Raze, starring stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell (Death Proof). It might not be for everyone, but if you think you might enjoy attractive women beating the living crap out of each other for 90 minutes under gladiator-style conditions, you might find it amusing, and Bell is certainly one of the most skilled, badass female action stars in quite a while. I'm guessing that the film is playing Friday and Saturday around 11pm at Facets, but at deadline their website didn't have showtimes. But give their hotline a call on Friday at 773-281-4114, and showtimes will hopefully be updated. In the meantime, check out my exclusive interview with Bell and director Josh C. Waller on Ain't It Cool News.
Now onto this week's releases — but not I, Frankenstein, since it wasn't screened for critics...
The Invisible Woman
Whether or not a "based on a true story" film is historically accurate or not is almost never the point. If it's compelling, well acted and beautifully directed, a movie's closeness to the truth is irrelevant. Please allow me to introduce you to The Invisible Woman, from director and star Ralph Fiennes (the follow up to his fiery interpretation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame), a telling of the love affair between the 45-year-old writer Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), whose mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) actually seemed to condone the attachment even though Dickens was married with many children.
Dickens was already Britain's most famous living author, drawing crowds wherever he appeared, even when he was trying to go unnoticed. The Ternan family (including two older sisters) were all actresses, with Nelly being the least accomplished thanks to her mumbled delivery and rather non-existent talents as a performer. But Dickens adored her all the same, a fact which did not go unnoticed by Nelly's mother, who knew that welcoming the attention of such a renowned man might be the only way Nelly would make her way in the world. Scott Thomas' character isn't pushing her daughter into being a mistress, in her eyes; she's looking out for the least capable of her children. Such pragmatism doesn't make her actions any less strange and a little sickening, but her intentions, however twisted, are noble as well.
Fiennes' portrayal of Dickens is remarkable stuff. He's an affable, friendly bloke who also happens to be a slave to his passions. We get the sense that this is not his first mistress, and even worse, his poor suffering wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon) must be made to endure these affairs without complaint. In some instances, she is forced cruelly by Dickens to spend time in the company of these women, even encouraging the behavior by saying she's not bothered by it, which is clearly not the case. Dickens makes it clear he is no longer attracted to her, but as a consolation prize for providing him with so many healthy children, he stays married to her. There's a horribly uncomfortable scene in which Dickens walks in on his wife changing, catching her naked, and the horrified expression on both of their faces speaks volumes as to the state of their relations.
Nelly does not enter into this affair lightly. She suffers a great deal of anxiety over losing her virginity to a man who is not her husband, over having an affair with a married man, and for all the pain she is causing Mrs. Dickens. The affair is meant to be a secret, obviously, but when the London papers begin to gossip about a possible "other woman," Dickens' denial is hurtful to Nelly. Fiennes and Morgan do a credible and beautifully handled job of capturing the smothering atmosphere of the Victorian period, and how the fear of scandal seemed to be the ruling force of the era, causing stress in every corner of society. And much like today, the more famous and admired a person was at the time, the more likely the press and the public were likely to look the other way at bad behavior.
I was also quite amused by Tom Hollander's performance as Dickens' friend and fellow adulterer, the author and playwright Wilkie Collins. There's something even more shameless about his lechery, and when Dickens brings Nelly to a small apartment the two men share and to which they bring their mistresses, it's more than she can handle. It should also be noted that The Invisible Woman is technically an Oscar nominee, for Best Costumes; it won't win.
The relationship between Dickens and Ternan lasted 13 years, until the writer's death in 1870, and in fact, he only stayed married to his wife for a short time after the affair really took off. The Invisible Woman falters a bit once the couple is together, skimming over their years together with a few brief scenes (including one in which Ternan gives birth to a still-born child). So many feelings are hurt and hearts broken in the process of brining these two together that their eventual coupling is bittersweet, which is probably wholly appropriate. Despite these few missing pieces in their story, the film is pure, emotionally driven, dramatic gold, with Fiennes, Jones and Scott Thomas doing riveting work and getting to the core of each character — no matter how dark their hearts might become — without resorting to cheap melodrama to tell the story. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
In one of the stranger films I've seen in quite some time, former High School Musical leading lady Vanessa Hudgens stars in Gimme Shelter, a film that starts out being about a 16-year-old pregnant, homeless girl named Apple who runs away from her abusive, drug-addicted mother (an unrecognizable, skeeved-out Rosario Dawson) to go find the father she never knew, who turns out to be a Wall Street big wig (Brendan Fraser) living in a mansion with his wife and kids.
I say the film starts out about that because where it ends up is what I think is the true destination of the film, which is a shelter for pregnant teens run by Kathy DiFiore, a real-life person who runs a string of such homes in New Jersey, played in the film by the great Ann Dowd (Compliance). DiFiore's establishments are Christian-based facilities with a firm belief that the girls more or less take care of and police themselves, using Kathy as more of a guiding force than a leader. The result of this structure is a bond between the girls (many of whom are played by young women living in that shelter when filming was happening; yes, they shot in the shelter while it was operational) that is the closest thing to real family any of the have experienced in their lives. And Gimme Shelter is at its best when Hudgens' Apple character is at the home working out her aggression issues and learning to be a mother.
Hudgens actually shot this film long before her shocking and energetic performance in last year's Spring Breakers, but it's yet another step into true acting for a performer who has been able to rely more on her looks than actual talent in such gems as Beastly and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. But with her hair chopped short, huge circles under her eyes, facial piercings, and baggy clothes to cover her slowly emerging belly, Hudgens conveys a desperation and street-wise wild child persona that is riveting and takes a while to adjust to.
But as we navigate her unstable life, we realize the world has stacked the deck against her. Even at her father's place, his terrified wife (Stephanie Szostak) is concerned that Apple will somehow scare or harm their two small children (for reasons she never makes clear and probably doesn't know herself). Before long, Apple is no longer welcome in that home either.
What we realize when she reaches the shelter is that Gimme Shelter is actually about DiFiore and her work, with Apple serving as a conduit to reach this place and uncover the good works that go on within. In many ways, the film is a call to action, a call to treat people with kindness and compassion, and while that may sound sappy and unrealistic, in the context of this story, it makes perfect sense. The only thing that will save Apple and her baby's lives is this type of lift up. In an especially tense sequence, Apple's mother shows up at the shelter looking to take her daughter back, but we soon realize that all she wants is the welfare checks that comes with Apple and a newborn living with her, and Kathy steps in to turn the mother away, risking her own life in the process.
Gimme Shelter is something of a mixed bag at times, and writer-director Ron Krauss sometimes seems confused as to whose story he's telling. Using amateur actors gets you amateur performances, and many of the scenes in the shelter seem a little forced. Although, in a sequence where the girls break into Kathy's files on them, there's a humbling moment when they're all faced with their various mental and physical histories. Rather than get angry, they take stock in their lives before meeting DiFiore and realize they're lucky they are where they are. There's also the character of a priest (James Earl Jones), who helps Apple out and points her to the shelter, but really his character doesn't add much to the proceedings aside from a friendly face when Apple conveniently needs one.
But other moments in the film (especially at the father's house) seem a little like cookie-cutting family drama. It's hit-and-miss at times, but Hudgens' transformation from street kid to new mother is impressive. I'm curious to see if she can maintain taking on and performing well in these risky roles from here on (which clearly she did in Spring Breakers), but this is a solid starting-off point.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Gimme Shelter star Vanessa Hudgens and writer-director Ron Krauss & subject Kathy DiFiore.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
From Belgium comes this recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee by director an co-writer Felix van Greoningem (The Misfortunes) about American-obsessed bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who co-wrote the play on which the film is adapted), who falls in love with heavily inked tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens). But this is no run-of-the-mill Belgian love story. The relationship between these two wonderful characters in The Broken Circle Breakdown goes through every possible up-and-down combination, which we see, but completely out of order. Not to make it sound quite so random, but some of the film's most shocking and dramatic moments are held to the end of the film. We see the build up to and the aftermath from some of the story's emotional high points, but the actual lynch pin scenes are held back, and the impact is immense.
We see the first time they slept together long before we find out how Elise and Didier met, but it's a great moment, and there's no doubt in our minds that they belong together. Eventually they marry and have a lovely daughter, Maybelle, who gets a terrible illness when she's still quite young, and it throws the happy home into pure hell as the couple struggle with their faith. In the course of the film, we actually see the entire arc of this relationship, from beginning to end, but something about shifting the pieces around (not unlike (500) Days of Summer did, but we're made to figure out what happened before what, or if that's even important) heightens the most dramatic, substantial moments in their lives.
And then there's the haunting bluegrass soundtrack, performed by Didier's group, with Elise joining to bring a female voice to the all-male roots performances. Say what you want about the music of Inside Llewyn Davis (and I'm quite fond of it), but the way the songs are used in The Broken Circle Breakdown do so much to underscore the love and heartbreak on screen that it borders on death defying. When we start to see scenes of Didier and Elise in the aftermath of their relationship, it hurts, but when it bounces back to better times, it's almost like revisiting a great memory of a love affair gone by, and that makes it hurt all the more.
When all of the pieces are laid out in front of us finally, The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most sweeping, yet intimate, tragic love stories in recent memories — well deserving of its nominations and critical acclaim. Heldenbergh is a giant of a man with a booming voice and a sweet disposition, while Baetens is a striking, almost all-American girl (who even changes her name to Alabama at one point in the film) who throws herself in this relationship and her family. At one point she discusses how many men's names she has tattooed on her person, and how after she broke up with them, she covered up their names with something else, and we get our first sense of foreshadowing that makes us uneasy and concerned about where this happy couple might end up. It's a powerful relationship drama that will find new ways to make you smile and break your wretched heart. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Here Comes the Devil
A film I first saw at Fantastic Fest 2012 was Here Comes the Devil, from Spanish-born director Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Penumbra and a segment in the The ABCs of Death). I'd heard good things about the film out of Toronto, but I didn't really read what the story or style comprised, which is one of many reasons the film utterly floored me as it twisted my senses and impressed me with its approach to some fairly unpleasant material.
The film beings with a family of four — parents Felix and Sol (Francisco Barreiro from the original Mexican We Are What We Are and newcomer Laura Caro) and kids Adolfo (Alan Martinez) and Sara (Michele Garcia) — coming home from a vacation. On the way home, they pause at a truck stop in Tijuana, where the kids want to climb some rocks and explore the caves within. The parents are reluctant to agree, but decide to give them a little time to climb while they fool around in the car a little bit. When the children don't return, Felix and Sol begin to panic and call in the police, who tell the couple to stay in a hotel oversight so that everyone will be well rested for the search in the morning. But when the sun comes up, so do the kids, who seem strangely quiet.
Over the next couple days, it becomes clear to the parents that something traumatic happened in those caves, and they set out to discover what. Meanwhile, mysterious earthquakes, flickering lights, and other seemingly unexplainable things begin happening around the house, usually while the children are asleep. At its core, Here Comes the Devil is a film of many mysteries, all of which come back to what exactly happened to the kids (both in their early teens), and who or what is continuing to disrupt this family's life at home.
Clearly borrowing some ideas and imagery from Peter Weir's classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bogliano has essentially constructed his own '70s horror film, including sloppy zooms and pans, as well as a kind of timeless look to the clothes, settings, and production design, despite the movie being set in the present. Barreiro's performance as the hot-headed father who at one point takes the lead in getting justice for what he thinks happened to his children, but the film's real surprise is the bold, brave work by singer-turned-actor Caro, who just utterly floored me with her work here. She has a natural, sexy quality to her that is subtle but essential to this character. I can't wait to see the 30 films she'll clearly do after this.
But what Bogliano accomplishes so well with this and his other films is never letting the audience get too comfortable with what we're watching. He wants our pulses pounding or our skin crawling or our eyes wide open with some degree of shock. Over the course of about 10 films, he's become something of a master at this, while still mixing things up in terms of plot and genre. Here Comes the Devil goes into some sleazy territory, but the director's handling of it is extraordinarily careful, even as his soundscape is bombarding us with unnerving noises and music. The film is playing as Friday and Saturday midnight shows this weekend at the Music Box Theatre.
Sometimes frustrating but always awe-inspiring is the documentary Maidentrip, from first-time director Jillian Schlesinger (and technically co-directed by its subject, Laura Dekker from The Netherlands). The film chronicles two longer journeys in young Ms. Dekker's life — one is the nearly two-year journey she took around the world in a 40-foot sailboat named "Guppy," and the other is the 10-month court battle she had to endure (rightfully so) in the Dutch courts to get permission to make the journey, beginning at the age of 14 through age 16.
Naturally, the courts (and all parents, everywhere) should have been concerned about Laura's well being on the high seas, sailing solo through terrible storms and other hazards of such a journey. But if we believe her story, Dekker was born on a boat just off the coast of New Zealand and has spent her entire life sailing on vessels that got bigger as she got older. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her permissive father, whom the courts considered taking her away from in light of this journey, but cooler heads prevailed, paving the way for Dekker to stock up on essentials and begin her trip, filming her thoughts along the way.
What I liked about Dekker's approach to her travels was that she wasn't trying to break any speed records, nor was she making the trip without stopping as often as she could. This wasn't a sporting event for her; it was a chance to see the world, so the film is part travelogue as she docks her boat at various exotic locations and does a lot of exploring along the way, meeting both new people and family friends she planned on connecting with on route, including both her parents and her younger sister, who lives with mom. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is Laura's reaction to the weather. Calm seas frustrate her, because there's no wind, which means no movement and possible issues with food rationing. But horrible storms seem thrilling to her, since she's a skilled enough sailor to navigate through them, and big winds mean she's practically flying to her next destination.
What's frustrating about Maidentrip — and it's a small issue in the grand scheme of how exciting it is to watch this journey — is that Dekker is so young that her video journal entries aren't exactly probing exercises into a fully-formed psyche yet. We get a clear sense that being alone on this boat for so long has changed her. She discusses the shift in her enjoyment of other people's company — early in her trip, she loved seeing others, but as she went on, she enjoyed it less and less. We see her become moody around the press she inevitably met at her every stop on the voyage, and she even gets into scraps with her parents. Much of what we learn about Dekker's inner workings comes from us interpreting her behavior rather then her telling us what's on her mind.
That aside (and it's easy to put aside), Maidentrip is quite often a thrilling, joyous tale of how perceived reckless behavior can be the perfect release for a young person. Director Schlesinger leaves open the possibility that this trip is not the best things for a child who already has issues making friends her own age and communicating with anyone. But in the end, after Dekker has completed her excursion around the world, she opts to continue sailing and head to New Zealand, the place she now considers her proper homeland. Hell, it even looks like she gets a boyfriend along the way to travel alongside her. Maybe she's grown up more than we realize on the water. I have no doubt that in five or ten years, she'll be a fascinating person, well worth catching up with to see where she lands next. The film opens in Chicago for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
An Honest Living
This odd little documentary from director Jordan Freese is more of a series of case studies of four Chicago residents with day jobs (for money) as well as self-crafted, outside-of-work professions that often cost more than they bring in as far as funds. But in all of the cases, the after-hours work that these folks are passionate about gives them the mental fuel to carry on doing what they do during the day. An Honest Living really hit home for me as someone who had various office jobs for about two decades while doing film criticism as a second full-time job for most of that time.
The subjects of An Honest Living include the creative and sexy burlesque dancer, Wham Bam Pam, who hides her by-day financial analyst behind wigs, makeup and not much else. There's a frustrated painter, who spends most of his time teaching drawing to young art students, and a drummer who hasn't met a percussion instrument he didn't enjoy thumping upon. But my favorite subject by far is the college math professor who has a rich and sometimes bizarre history as a martial arts master and instructor at his own studio.
On the surface, the movie is about the dedication it takes to find the time to engage in creative outlets that one truly enjoys. But at its core, An Honest Living makes it clear that carving out that time can be exhausting and difficult, and for the more artistically inclined, it can be a lonely existence trying to keep two worlds spinning at the same speed. I'm sure the dream for all of them is to turn their passion into their full-time work, but none of them can quite make that happen. I'm sure director Freese could have found people that have done so, but where's the drama in fulfilling your dreams? The film concerns itself with folks who have managed to keep the dream alive — agonizingly close, but not quite within reach. There's something in their eyes that both gives you hope and allows you to feel their deep-seated frustration.
The film is scheduled to play at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 8pm, and Thursday, Jan. 30 at 8:15pm. Director Jordan Freese will conduct audience discussions after both screenings.