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« Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie: Addressing Colorism and Classism Chicago Film at SXSW »

Column Fri Feb 14 2014

RoboCop, About Last Night, Endless Love, Winter's Tale, Tim's Vermeer, Camille Claudel 1915 & In No Great Hurry

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RoboCop

Perhaps the biggest thing the new RoboCop film has going for it is that is largely abandons the plot of the first film and uses certain elements of the 1987 source material to make it its own monster. Hey, if you're going to remake a great movie, you might as well try to make it your own rather than a dim copy. The job at hand is still to make the streets of America safe for both citizens and police officers. In order to do that, the robotics company OmniCorp has devised various types of mechanized law enforcement robots, including ones that have a vaguely humanoid form. The robots are already used in cities all over the world as a police force, and by the U.S military in the ongoing war on terror instead of soldiers. But because Americans don't like the idea that the robots don't have more discerning human characteristics and would shoot an 8-year-old holding a knife because it's programmed to, there's actually a Congressional ban on robots keeping the peace.

So OmniCorp chief Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and its top scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) come up with a way to put a human face on their robots... literally. When Detroit undercover cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blown to bits by the bad guys who have figured out he's police, the scientists take over and manage to save his head, esophagus, lungs and one hand (I'm not making this up) — just enough to build a body around him that makes him the perfect, thinking mechanical cop. But OmniCorp soon discovers two things: a partly human robot is slower than a full robot because it hesitates before it shoots, and a robot with a human brain has nightmares and violent flashbacks to his near-death experience. To cope, Dr. Norton must "adjust" Murphy's brain to make him more robot, thus eliminating any emotions he might have, partciularly about his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son.

The old themes and questions of the original RoboCop are still there. Is a man who is this much robot still a man? Is this a fate worse than death? What are the ethics involved in making a man think he is in control of his artificial body, when in fact when he enters combat mode, the machine takes over? One of the most disposable portions of the film are these god-awful talk show moments with conservative mouthpiece Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), who is imploring America to let robots be their protectors and asking asinine questions like, "Is Congress pro-crime?" These wedged-in scenes don't feel real or necessary. We get the point and don't need a hammer across the forehead to understand what the debate is.

More to the point of the ethical dilemmas of the story are a couple of conversations between Oldman and Keaton that really get to the heart of how much human can be eliminated in Murphy to get him to perform his job efficiently and without mental collapse. The good doctor is the only one whose motives aren't purely driven by money, and he's still can't resist the appeal of being the first to break this ground. When we meet him, he's using his advanced robotics to help amputees walk, run and even play guitar again. But the seductive power of the chance to build a whole man are too much for him to resist, especially with OmniCorp marketing and public relations strategists (played by Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) whispering in his ear.

Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer and Brazilian-born director José Padilha (the two great Elite Squad films and the suspenseful, award-winning documentary Bus 174) have done a solid job recasting the original film into a work that doesn't reject the idea of science intermingling with humanity, but the idea here is to do so with some degree of dignity and safety, and make it less about pure greed. Kinnaman is the undisputed highlight of the on-again/off-again series "The Killing," and he does a respectable job as a gritty cop, a tortured soul trapped in a metal body, and a cold, emotionless robot who can ignore his wife's pleas to come home. I especially liked his response when he first sees how little of his body is left to build a robot around.

But even with a decent script and a great cast (which also includes the likes of Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams and Marianne Jean-Baptiste), RoboCop can't really get beyond being aggressively average, which I guess is better than being awful, but that's not saying much. The special effects are flashier and more realistic, but that doesn't make them better or help get past the screenplay's many shortcomings. The biggest problem I had with the film was that nearly everyone who isn't earnestly siding with Murphy is a corrupt bad guy. If the thought even crosses your mind that someone might not be on Team Murphy, you're probably right. When the film is literally cluttered with villains, why should we care if one baddy is slightly more bad than the rest?

As for the PG-13 rating, it doesn't truly make a difference. The filmmakers still find ways to be creepy without needing to get over-the-top violent; shots of Murphy's "body" inside the armor are legitimately disturbing, not to mention a couple of choice shots of his exposed brain while Dr. Norton adjusts his behavior during surgery. Ick!

I'll admit, I wasn't quite prepared for such a touchy-feely version of RoboCop, with a lead character whose love for his family pushes through billions of dollars of precise programming and allows him to regain some of his humanity. It's not the worst idea I've ever heard; hell, it's not even the worst remake of the week. What's missing from this film isn't the splatter that would have pushed it into R-rated territory, but intensity, a bit of character development to allow us to care about the fate of any of these people, and subtlety. One need only look at the fantastic pre-credits sequence here for proof that director Padilha knows how to do an action scene — there's no disputing that — but he's still a filmmaker in search of characters with a bit of depth. The few that do — Oldman's doctor, Williams as Murphy's partner — are the best things in the movie. Everything else feels cut from the same old action movie cloth, which is a shame because this one almost got it right.

About Last Night

It's no secret that we get our fair share of remakes in a given year — usually one or two per month on average. But I can't be the only one who finds it the strangest of coincidences that we have three remakes of classic (in the loosest sense of the word, in at least one case) 1980s films in the same week. The cynical among us may see these redos as simply a cash grab based on a famous title, but those who actually pay attention recognize that some of these movies are actually solidly done, whether they strip the original down to the studs and rebuild, or if they remain fairly faithful to the source material.

The original About Last Night... film, starring Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, directed by Edward Zwick, was itself based on the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity In Chicago. Both were sexual frank, honest looks at modern relationships in which the two lead characters, Debbie and Danny, could never quite meet in the middle (except in bed). The film was released in the summer just before I left my mid-Atlantic hometown for college just outside of Chicago, so the story of this couple seemed to me like both a blueprint for how to begin a healthy relationship and a cautionary tale illustrating all the ways you could really screw up a good thing.

Leaving all the names and some of the dialogue intact, but relocating to Los Angeles, this new About Last Night (minus the ellipsis in the title) is largely faithful to the spirit of what has come before, but makes the risky choice of turning Debbie (Joy Bryant, currently on "Parenthood") and Danny's (Michel Ealy, currently on "Almost Human") respective best friends (Joan and Bernie, played by Regina Hall and Kevin Hart) into a second couple, used for even more for comic relief than Elizabeth Perkins and Jim Belushi, who were more like fierce rivals in the first film.

Enough comparing to the original movie. This About Last Night strikes a nice balance between portrait of a mostly compatible couple on the rise through enough rough patches that threaten to tear them apart before they really settle into each other. Ealy and Bryant are a damn handsome couple, but they're also versatile enough as actors to handle some truly heartbreaking moments that are occasionally difficult to watch. Neither is made out to be the good one or the bad one, but I'm guessing men and women are going to choose sides rather quickly as tensions build and people make mistakes (or nearly do). Director Steve Pink (Accepted, Hot Tub Time Machine) shows he can handle the more serious materials, something he's never really had to in his previous works, and he treats the drama here with as much respect and credibility as it deserves. If you're in a relationship now, rest assured: this film will likely result in a few discussions on the car ride home.

As I mentioned, the biggest shift from the source material is turning Joan and Bernie into a volatile, on-again/off-again couple who are as vicious when they are at war as they are freaky in bed when they are in lust for each other. A veteran of the Scary Movie franchise and several other broad comedies, Hall is one of the few comedic actresses I've ever seen go toe-to-toe with Kevin Hart in terms of both words per minute and raw number of jokes that land. She, Hart and Ealy are all veterans of the surprise 2012 hit Think Like A Man (they also star in its sequel, coming in June), and that was really the first time Hall and Hart displayed something of a deft touch for getting the heart of relationship pain using their comedic gifts. I'm not sure exactly what we're supposed to learn from Joan and Bernie in About Last Night — beyond proof that opposites attract — but they are good together.

The only thing I truly question about About Last Night is its setting. Mamet's play and Zwick's film were not just set in Chicago, but in so many ways embodied a Midwestern approach to dating, which always felt more organic. It was more about hanging out than going out and being seen. As portrayed in films at least, the dating scene in Los Angeles always gave off a more polished, flashier vibe. In Chicago, Danny and Debbie go to sports bars; in Los Angeles, the clubs and bars look are immaculate and the clientele are flawless and sparkly. That being said, I liked that none of the four leads worked in the entertainment industry.

In the end, About Last Night fails or succeeds based on two things: the chemistry of the two couples, which is there, and the relevancy of the insight into relationships, which works less frequently but still manages to dish out a few keenly observed revelations, thanks to a probing screenplay by Leslye Headland (Bachelorette). If nothing else, the film is a prime example of a smart, talented group of actors taking a serviceable script and elevating it to a place where both men and women may benefit from its musings, making for a more bearable date night.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with About Last Night stars Michael Ealy and Regina Hall.

Endless Love

I'm not great fan of the 1981 Franco Zeffirelli-directed Endless Love, so don't look here for any comparisons between that version and the one opening in theaters this week from director and co-writer Shana Feste (Country Strong, The Greatest), except to say that they're two of most miserable experiences I've had in the theaters in my lifetime.

Based on what I hear is a quite wonderful book by Scott Spencer, I had always assumed that part of the reason the story was so scandalous/popular was that the girl was 15 and the boy was 17, and that the "wrongness" of their ages was a big part of the plot. But in this version, they're both high school seniors (I believe she's 17 and he's 18), so that's not even an issue any longer. What seems to be the driving force behind this relationship is that she just happens to decide to come out of her self-imposed study hermitage at the exact same time he gets up the nerve to talk to her after four years of crushing hard. They don't even really meet until graduation day, but before long Jade (the almost 25-year-old Gabriella Wilde, most recently seen in the Carrie remake) and David (the nearly 24-year-old Alex Pettyfer, best known for being Channing Tatum's troubled charge in Magic Mike) fall instantly in love, endless love.

David isn't even much of a rebel. He had a little trouble as a kid, punching out a guy for a perfectly acceptable reason. In fact, he's the perfect gentleman, kissing up to Jade's parents (Bruce Greenwood as Hugh and Joely Richardson as Anne) and becoming best buds with Jade's brother Keith (Rhys Wakefield, the smiley masked bad guy from The Purge). Jade's entire family is still reeling from the death of the oldest sibling not too long before these events. Hugh still keeps his dead son's room like a shrine to the boy and holds his other kids up to the impossibly high standards the oldest child set. As a result, Hugh comes across as something of a dick toward David, who has no plans to go to college and seems content just working with his dad (Robert Patrick) in the family garage and loving their daughter.

Every challenge and obstacle David and Jade face seems like it's ripped right out of the "Young Lovers' Handbook." And every time David does something right, another drama crops up to make it tougher for Jade and him to sneak off in the night and take a trip to the boneyard. And who am I to say they shouldn't — they are literally the two best-looking human beings on the planet and they deserve each other. Perhaps the strangest thing about Endless Love is that what appear to be important pieces of information that crop up during the film rarely pay off by the end. David finds out something about Hugh that could destroy him and his family but nothing comes of it. There's a car accident in one scene that everyone apparently walks away from with no lasting injuries. So, why have it?

And don't get me started on the way Hugh flip-flops on his opinion about David repeatedly throughout the film. Everyone in this film is a living, breathing, walking, talking cliché. All of the couple's friends from high school exist solely to drag them into behavior that will get David in trouble, forcing Hugh to flip or flop, depending on the weather. Not surprisingly, the film get tiresome after a while. Not that there isn't chemistry between the leads — that's actually one of the few things in Endless Love that works. I firmly believed that these two pretties were capable of passionate, PG-13 sex.

Nearly every plot twist and turn is telegraphed about 20 minutes in advance, and what is unpredictable is also pointless and deadly dull. Pettyfer is an interesting duck, because I've seen him do good work. But he has to be pushed and challenged by a great filmmaker and/or co-stars for that to happen, and sadly director Feste is not that person. Greenwood is a grump, while Richardson acts like she's on happy pills in every scene. By the time Endless Love was done, I couldn't help by think, "I'll have what she's having."

The film's greatest flaw is that it tells us far more than it shows us when it comes to this love affair. Montages of romping through fields or swimming in a lake rule supreme, when an intelligent, affectionate conversation might have convinced us one or both of these chuckleheads actually had the capacity to form an original thought on the subject of love (I would have accepted a mildly clever comment on the subject of ice cubes). Simply telling us how unbelievably smart Jade is over and over again isn't going to cut it, especially when she makes a series of very stupid decisions just because her lady parts got lit up. I not going to tell you whether or not you should see Endless Love, but if you do, know that I will be very disappointed in your behavior, young man/lady.

Winter's Tale

The movie is nuts, and rarely in the good kind of way. Part religious fable, part fantasy, part children's story and all kooky, Winter's Tale marks the directing debut from Oscar-winning writer Akiva Goldsman (who has adapted such source material as A Time To Kill; A Beautiful Mind; I, Robot; I Am Legend and the Dan Brown books The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, which is the only explanation why there are so many big-name actors in the cast (at least one major actor appears uncredited, and if you ruin the surprise for yourself or anyone else, you're an asshole).

This funny farm of a film also features talk of miracles, a winged white horse, a Sleeping Beauty-style bed meant for a dying girl to be placed on and kissed by a prince, a baby in a tiny tall ship, Satan, demons, angels, dead souls becoming stars (as opposed to going to heaven), and perhaps the most incredible detail of all — a newspaper editor who is well over 100 years old. Adapted by Goldsman from a book by Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale is the story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), a floppy-haired thief living and stealing in New York City, circa the early 1900s. He gets into trouble with his boss, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who everybody apparently knows and accepts is a demon working for Lucifer. When Peter crosses Pearly, he escapes from his boss' thugs by hopping on a white horse, who just happens to grow wings when it needs to. To make a little money, Peter decides to do a little stealing before he leaves town, and the horse leads him to the home of newspaper editor Isaac Penn (William Hurt — this is not the 100-year-plus-old editor I spoke of earlier), whose oldest daughter, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay, formerly Lady Sybil on "Downton Abbey"), is dying of consumption. Naturally, the two fall madly in love with each other instantly.

For reasons I'm not quite clear on, apparently Peter has the ability to grant one miracle to someone, and it's Pearly's job to stop it from happening (I guess he earns points with the devil if he does). He thinks it's his job to stop Beverly from dying, but she dies anyway. Peter is captured by Pearly's men, he gets tossed in the Hudson, and is believed to be dead. Instead, he crawls out of the water with no memory of who he is and what happened to him, and simply drifts around the city for 100 years, never aging. (we're spared that little piece of his life). If anyone who dares an attempt at making sense of this film can tell me why the amnesia portion of the film is important (or even necessary), you're a better person that I am.

In 2014, Peter meets food writer Virginia (Jennifer Connelly) and her ailing daughter Abby (Ripley Sobo), and she helps the aimless man rediscover where he came from and how he ended up in their life. There is a lot in this film that people just take for granted or don't question. A flying horse is interesting, but no one seems especially amazed by it. The fact that Peter hasn't aged in 100 years barely phases Virginia three seconds after she figures it out. There's a barely touched piece of Peter's life about growing up in a small room in the ceiling of Grand Central Station that barely registers with anyone. Again, I have to wonder, if you're not going to make more of a deal about these details, why include them?

I'm fairly certain that Goldsman was attempting some form of magical realism here, but I can't imagine any younger people being impressed about this grim, overlong, sometimes-violent story. Even the iconography seems confusing and muddled as spirit animals cross paths with demons in the context of a fairy tale. Perhaps the idea was to say that all miraculous things — good or bad — come from the same place, but at about the halfway point of this new-age gobbledygook, I stopped giving a shit. Farrell does his best to convey a sense of wonder at the life he gets to lead, but there's only so much whimsy one can muster when he clearly has no idea what's going on around him. Crowe's scarred Pearly is about as menacing as a Looney Tunes villain, and not nearly as cleverly realized. And as for the actor playing Lucifer, well, at least he had a day of fun shooting that.

Toss in random appearances by Graham Greene, Eva Marie Saint and a few others, and you've got... a big mess of a movie that isn't even the interesting kind of crazy. I honestly can't believe anyone in this film read this screenplay for Winter's Tale and agreed to appear in it as anything more than a favor to the esteemed Goldsman. If you do decide to check it out, be prepared to go partially bald from all of the head scratching and hair pulling you'll do.

Tim's Vermeer

As the title might suggest, this documentary is about two individuals: one is quite famous and long dead, and the other is Tim Jenison, the Texan who made roughly a gazillion dollars creating post-production video tools and visual imaging software. So what else would a man who has more money than God and nothing but time on his hands have as his hobby? To figure out how the 17th century artist Johannes Vermeer was able to make photo-realistic paintings 150 years before photography was invented. And I feel confident that Jenison does exactly that to the point where he may have inadvertently proven that Vermeer wasn't a "painter" at all, by the strictest definition of the word.

After years of research, invention and experimentation, Jenison created a device that I couldn't begin to explain, but it's something of a combination of a box camera and an elaborate system of mirrors that makes it possible to render any real image in front of the artist into a flawless reproduction on a canvas. Rather than simply try to re-create one of Vermeer's actual paintings, Jenison spent months in Delft, Holland (where Vermeer's studio was) recreating Vermeer's workplace and the objects in the studio down to the tile on the floor, the woodwork and the patterns on every stitch of clothing his models would wear. Even the way the light came into the room was reproduced. And then he spent the next year painting his own Vermeer painting line by tedious line, discovering in the process imperfections in Vermeer's original that had never been noticed and practically proved his theory.

Tim's Vermeer is narrated by Penn Jillette, which may seem a slightly odd choice until you realize that the film's director is his partner in magic and crime Teller. Lest you think the film is some elaborate joke or hoax, it most certainly is not. The film took eight years to make and features Jenison seeking out the advice and verification of his methods and results from art scholars around the world. Even skeptics are forced to question what they've believed their entire lives.

Whether it was Teller's intention or not, the film transitions back and forth from a film about an artist's techniques to a case study of a man obsessed. If Jenison had never come up with this device that can transform someone like him, who had never picked up a paintbrush in his life, into someone of Vermeer's caliber, I believe he would have gone slowly insane with frustration. But when you see him after hundreds of days in a row attempting to reproduce the thread pattern in a piece of cloth for his painting, you realize he's possessed by both his love of art and the spirit of creativity — a force that has clearly driven him his entire life. Tim's Vermeer is a sometimes startlingly great doc that brings you inside the mind and behind the eyes of two geniuses that somehow ended up at the same place hundreds of years apart. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Camille Claudel 1915

Sometimes you just watch a movie to behold what an actor does best. In the case of Camille Claudel 1915, the latest from director Bruno Dumont (Humanité), we watch it to see Juliette Binoche in an almost constant state of mental anguish as the title character, the lover and student of the French scultor Auguste Rodin, and by all accounts an accomplished sculptor herself. For reasons that aren't explained in the film (because they aren't what this work is about), we learn that Camille's family had her committed to an mental hospital for most of her natural life. She believes it was Rodin's jealousy of her work that got her placed there, but there are plenty of indications that paranoia, depression and other ailments of mind were the reasons. The real question is, did those conditions set upon her brain before or after being committed.

There is no real story to Camille Claudel 1915; it's more of a slice-of-life piece that covers the few days leading up to her brother, poet Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), visiting her in the asylum. A devout Catholic, Paul delivers a sermon of sorts to a priest before visiting Camille in which he makes it clear that her insanity is a way for God to test her and the family, so that portions of their minds will be opened further to the holy spirit.

(If you're looking for more of a complete biography of this character, I would highly recommend 1988's magnificent, Oscar-nominated Camille Claudel, from director Bruno Nuytten and starring Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gérard Depardieu as Rodin.)

But most of the film consists of Binoche examining her conditions in the institution, surrounded by people who truly belong in such a place for their own safety (many played by real mental patients, a fact that did not sit well with some on the festival circuit and in markets where the film has opened already). The film certainly does not exploit these people, but the way Camille talks about and to them at times makes certain scenes in the film beyond uncomfortable, which I guarantee was Dumont's intention. The film observes Camille going through her daily routines of being bathed, making her own food (she feared being poisoned), attending church, and standing in a corner sobbing uncontrollably on a regular basis.

The film reaches its emotional pinnacle when brother and sister finally do come together in the film's final scene, and it's as if they pick up a conversation that left off minutes earlier. He spouts of religious rhetoric, while she breaks down into a rant about coming home and Rodin's crimes against her heart and mind. And while there is talk about her leaving the facility, we can tell from Paul's reactions to her that this will never happen. Not surprisingly, Binoche is more than up to the task of playing such a person, but even as I almost take for granted her abilities, she floored me with this performance, floating violently from defiance to sorrow to surrender. Camille Claudel 1915 is not a film meant to make you feel better by the end; you certainly won't. But how can watching an actor so completely lose herself in a character not give you a kind of charge? The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

In No Great Hurry

As something of an addendum to the recent documentary on street photographers, Everybody Street, comes this 2012 release about the great Saul Leiter, whose work dates back to the 1950s and includes some truly inventive fashion-based work for Harper's Bazaar, as well as some stunning early color photography that made the everyday seem to pop and amaze. UK-based filmmaker Tomas Leach gets intimate access to Leiter, spending a great deal of time simply listening to the self-effacing artist (who passed away in November 2013) sit in the living room of his apartment and talk endlessly about all manner of subjects — most often trying to convince the filmmaker that he was not worthy to the be the subject of a film.

Leiter is just as interesting when talking cynically about subjects unrelated directly to art as he is attempting to discuss his style and what he saw or liked about a particular subject or group of images he took. The films also gives a look at a great deal of his largely unseen work as a painter. Some of the most devastating moments involve Leiter going through one room that seems to be devoted to housing the personal belongings of one of his dearest female friends.

If for no other reason, In No Great Hurry (subtitled 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter) is a valuable asset because it collects so much of the great photographer's works in one place and exposes his importance and influence to an audience likely unfamiliar with him. As much as Leiter himself would like to be seen as curmudgeonly, with director Leach's help, he reveals himself to be a warm, darkly funny and ultimately embracing man whose eye for the extraordinary ordinary was unrivaled. The film will play for a handful of dates in the next week 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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