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Column Fri Feb 21 2014

Pompeii, The Wind Rises, In Secret, Stranger by the Lake, Black Out & The Girls in the Band

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Pompeii

The one overwhelmingly positive thing I can say about the latest disaster film Pompeii is that the volcano eruption sequence is spectacular. Does anything else really matter to you? If so, you're going to likely be hating life and wishing for death by ash and fiery magma by the end of this film, which fancies itself the imperfect hybrid rip-off of Gladiator and Titanic. We have the lowly slave Milo (Kit Harington, Jon Snow in "Games of Thrones") whose parents were slaughtered when he was a child in a battle waged by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, clearly believing he's auditioning for Loki's understudy in the next Thor movie). He's spent his life becoming the perfect gladiator, with revenge in his heart.

On the road to a big tournament in Pompeii, Milo first lays eyes on Cassia (Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch), the untouchable daughter of upper-class citizens Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), who is returning after a year in Rome with her lady servant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas, from the Evil Dead remake). Cassia left Rome because she was relentlessly pursued by the creepy Corvus, who is in fact on his way to Pompeii to listen to plans from her father on improving the city with the emperor's investment. But Corvus is such a scumbag, he not only threatens to not recommend that the emperor fund these infrastructure upgrades if Cassia won't marry him, but tell the emperor that the family spoke ill of him, thus assuring their execution.

For reasons that are never quite clear on and seem utterly ridiculous, after their brief meeting, the love spark catches fire between Milo and Cassia, much to everyone's disgust (including mine — Milo is a filthy creature). But we all know what happens when you try to keep two hot actors apart. Not surprisingly, the love story aspect of Pompeii feels like the worst kind of cliche-loaded filler, a fact not helped by the fact that director Paul W.S. Anderson (helmer on many of the Resident Evil films, Death Race, and the most recent attempt at The Three Musketeers) has zero knowledge of how filmed romance works.

The more interesting chemistry happens between Milo and a fellow gladiator, the seasoned champion Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who recently played Kurse in Thor: The Dark World). He has been told that his battle with Milo will be the one that gets him enough wins to become a free man, a boldface lie that he clings to until Milo makes him realize the Romans will either kill him or keep him fighting until he dies. The two men form a bond that's actually based on their shared arena experience, while Milo and Cassia stare at each other blankly as they talk about horses.

The threat of Mt. Vesuvius erupting is a big part of Pompeii, which may seem like a foregone conclusion, but in fact it's really only a factor for the audience; the citizens of this city seem to be oblivious to the danger until it's too late. Puffs of smoke emerge from the ground, small chunks of land fall into the sea without anyone noticing, and tremors shake the land, which people somehow convince themselves is the gods commenting on life in what is essentially a seaside vacation town. It literally takes the buildings around them crashing down on their collective heads for them to gather an inkling that something might be wrong.

The unintentional laugh factor on Pompeii might be one of the biggest of any film this scale. Whether it's Sutherland's hilarious scene chewing or the cringe-worthy attempts at touchy-feely material or how our heroes seem to avoid all of the perils of being in the middle of a fucking volcano eruption but keep running into their enemies without fail is all just a bit too much to handle. I get that "so bad it's good" exists; I rarely subscribe to that categorization, but I acknowledge that many live by it. But Pompeii is not that; it's terrible as a narrative, as an experience of what it must have been like for the people that went through it, as a love story, and as a vehicle for living, breathing characters. It exists solely as a pain-by-numbers actioner with flashy special effects and one-dimensional characters that are there to either get wiped out or to annoy us with their attempts at heartfelt drama. I'll give it points for spectacle, but the rest is hollow, steamy garbage.

The Wind Rises

The second-best news concerning the latest (and likely last) animated feature from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) is that in many cities, you'll have to choice whether to see it in its original Japanese with subtitles or in an English dub with voices provided by the likes of Joseph Gordon Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy and even Werner Herzog. I haven't seen the English-language version, but since Disney gained the distribution rights to Miyazaki's films (both on home video and theatrically), its English dubs of his works are across-the-board great.

And while Miyazaki's works are often aimed at younger audiences, The Wind Rises is probably going to be embraced by a slightly older crowd, primarily because it's more a Japanese history lesson, with only slight dalliances into a more fantastical world. Based on Miyazaki's own manga comic, the film profiles Jiro Horikoshi, the man who brought the modern age of flying to Japan by taking planes out of the era where they were built with wood, and introducing aerodynamics and streamlined designs. What might be a bit strange for American audiences is that, although the film emphasizes Jiro's love of flight and design, his creations went on to be some of Japan's best known war planes during World War II, including the notorious Japanese Zero Fighter.

The film certainly does its best to distract us from the wartime implications of Jiro's career by bathing his highly fictionalized biography in a love story and many major historical events that he lived through long before the war years. The girl of his dreams, Nahoko, whom he met when they were both quite young and then reunited with as young adults, has a lingering case of tuberculosis, but decides to spend as much time with Jiro as she can rather than live out her life in a hospital. The pair actually met after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the visuals of that event in the movie are as breathtaking as they are terrifying.

The Wind Rises covers Jiro's college years, the Great Depression, and his lifelong role model, the Italian plane designer Caproni, who visits Jiro in his dreams and inspires him to continue his work. The dream sequences with the two are both wildly energetic and humorously touching, and they remind us in whose hands we are being carried through this journey. Jiro's story is also something of a testament to geeks everywhere, who long to be a part of something exciting. Because he has poor vision, Jiro can never be a pilot, so he designs these vessel of flight for others to enjoy. At one point late in the story, he makes the somewhat astonishing revelation that he's never even flown, which seems impossible for a man with his special skill set.

It's hardly worth mentioning that The Wind Rises is an elegant, gorgeously rendered hand-drawn work because we'd expect nothing less. I've seen the film twice now, and there are times where I found my eyes drifting to the furthest corners of the frame, noticing some small detail or motion that would have been disposable background in any other film. But Miyazaki and his animators fill the screen with such unbelievable detail and color that you can barely believe your eyes, and find it even more difficult to conceive that animated films are still made this way.

If this is in fact, Miyazaki's final film, it's a stunning, mature work that reminds us that even people in fields that require a great deal of discipline and relentless study were inspired by something when they were younger to pursue a chosen line of work. It's a wonderful thing to remember, and this film is an exquisite example of art, history, science and dreams coming together to make something filled with inspiration. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

In Secret

In this adaptation of Emile Zola's novel "Thérèse Raquin" that would have felt right at home on an edition of "Masterpiece Theater," In Secret is a period piece set in 1860s France about a young girl Thérèse (played as a young woman by Elizabeth Olsen), who is abandoned by her father after her mother died at the provincial home of her overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her sickly son Camille (Harry Potter's Tom Felton as a grown up). Forced to essentially take care of her ill cousin his entire life (as well as share a bed with him, which might be grosser than his constant coughing and wheezing), Thérèse is eventually forced by her aunt to marry Camille, and three move to Paris where Camille has found a job and Madame Raquin opens up a dress shop where Thérèse must work and never leave.

Every frame of In Secret is overwhelmingly claustrophobic, from the narrow, dark streets of Paris where the dress shop is located to the shop itself and rooms above where the three live and can hear everything. Even psychologically, Thérèse's world has grown so small that she nearly combusts when other people come into their world, whether it be acquaintances (played by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Shirley Henderson and Matt Lucas) dropping by for a game of dominos, or Camille's old hometown friend and current co-worker, Laurent (Inside Llewyn Davis' Oscar Isaac), who finds himself drawn to Thérèse almost instantly.

What I thought was going to be a story of forbidden, scandalous love between Thérèse and Laurent turns into something much more sinister and perilously twisted at about the halfway point. The balance of power shifts in the Raquin household, and Laurent's motives for seducing Thérèse are called into question. I don't want to give away anything important about the plot, but first-time feature director Charlie Stratton gives In Secret just the right amount of hot- and cold-running passions, leading to a few legitimately surprising turns in this nasty piece of work. Some may be turned off by the film's blanket of grimness, but I found it rather comforting to watching these superb actors dive into something so desperate.

If the film had one sizable flaw, it would be that I never bought the passion between Olsen and Isaac, but as the film plays out, I actually thought that worked to In Secret's advantage. But I've said too much. The film's most memorable performance might actually come from Felton, who plays the mama's boy fop with a certain exuberance that almost seems second nature. His terrible combover, waxy skin, and odd way of treating Thérèse (almost accidentally cruel) are sublime character traits that tell us a great deal about the way he was raised by his supremely protective mother. There are a few questionable choices on display here (Why are all of the American actors playing French people with British accents but still occasionally dipping into the French language for some dialogue?), but I got drawn into this costume melodrama slowly but surely. In Secret is not a great film, but if you're done catching up on all of the Oscar nominees and are hungry for more, it just might do.

Stranger by the Lake

Winner of a couple of key prizes at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Stranger by the Lake is a haunting, sensual thriller that also has the distinction of being truly odd in its characterizations. Set on a rocky lakefront beach in the French countryside that doubles as a nude beach and cruising spot for gay men, the film centers on Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps), a younger, good-looking guy who develops a friendship with the seemingly straight older Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), who sits slightly distanced from the naked, tanned bodies and the nearby woods where a great deal of sex is happening. Henri says he's getting over the break up of a relationship with a woman and is simply there to look at the peaceful lake view, but it's clear that he's watching the activities of the nearby men.

Frank admits that he has a crush on one of the beach regulars, Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like he's ripped right out of a Tom of Finland drawing, complete with porn star mustache, and is also often in the company of a jealous companion. But when the companion mysteriously vanishes, it doesn't take long for Frank to move in, with the dark, vaguely menacing Michel responding in kind.

I may be venturing into spoiler territory here, but writer-director Alain Guiraudie (The King of Escape, No Rest for the Brave) lets us know fairly early on not only what happened to Michel's previous lover but who did it, so the Stranger by the Lake is less a mystery and more an exercise in tension as we wait to see what happens between Michel and Frank. An extra layer of suspense is added when a local detective makes it clear that one or both of them may be considered suspects. Yet, despite the dangerous cloud that now hovers over the location, men continue to arrive and have anonymous sex, something that confounds the police. And just how closely has the nearby Henri actually been watching the goings on nearby and how much does he know?

The title of the film could refer to any number of characters, and that makes it more intriguing. Stranger by the Lake seems to make a point at saying that sexual desire in some trumps even their own personal safety and pushes people to take risks they normally wouldn't. There's an implication that Frank suspects Michel of some wrongdoing and simply doesn't care because he's in some degree of love with him. The film's final few moments (most shot in almost pitch darkness) aren't as terrifying as they could have been, and I think that's by design. Frank is running for his life, and everyone's true nature is revealed. The film is a fascinating character study of how we respond to potentially lethal circumstances when we're distracted by lust and emotion.

Not all questions are answered, not all fates are certain, and I'm guessing not all audience members will be satisfied with the way this movie ends. But even that frustration feels like it's intentional, so deal with it, and use it as a jumping off point for discussion. It's a novel idea, I know. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Black Out

Considering director Arne Toonen's first film was a sweet little family film, I'm guessing he's spent time in his native Netherlands since then watching the early, energetic crime dramas of Guy Ritchie. I'm not the first to make the comparison, and I damn sure won't be the last, but the similarities between Toonen's Black Out and Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are unavoidable, and they are in no way a bad thing, since Ritchie has basically abandoned the genre. What strikes you right away are the colorful characters, each one more ruthless and colorful (bordering on exaggerated, but never quite crossing the line) than the one before.

At the center of the action is Jos Vreeswijk (Raymond Thiry), who wakes up the night after his bachelor party with no memory of the night's events, a dead man in his bed, and a gun between them. He's getting married the next day, so he has to figure out exactly what happened, dispose of the body, and return a whole lot of cocaine to a couple of drug dealers who claim he took some from them the night before without paying. Turns out years earlier, Jos used to be a bit of a criminal, along with his partners Bobbie (Bas Keijzer) and Coca Inez (Renee Fokker), whom he hasn't worked with in years. But he enlists their help to solve the mystery of the prior evening.

As much as I'm not a big fan of amnesia as a plot device in general (especially the way pieces always seem to come back just when the protagonist needs them to), but this is a mystery worth solving and way fragments are revealed is hugely amusing and clever. Thiry (who reminds me of a young John Noble) is a fascinating guy to watch. He's not your standard-issue action hero or criminal type on the surface, but he's smart and thinks fast on his feet when the situation changes, which it often does. And I enjoyed watching this poor guy who thought he was done with the life get pulled in deeper, bit by bit, as the movie progresses.

It would be silly to try and name all of the great characters in Black Out, but let me bounce a few of my favorites off of you. Reminding me slightly of Soska Twins in American Mary, Katja and Birgit Schuurman are gorgeous and terrifying as a pair of sisterly enforcers for one of the drug kingpins in the film. Robert de Hoog's Gianni is probably the film's most twisted piece of work as a young dealer who seems to enjoy killing more than making money or living life like a normal person. But my absolute favorite character is Simon Armstrong's Vlad, another dealer who runs a bowling alley and was once a famous Russian ballet star, who has found a way to incorporate his skills as a dancer into his fighting/killing style. I've never seen Armstrong; as far as I can tell, this is his only acting credit; but he's amazing and qualifies as a special kind of freak in my book.

Black Out twists and turns and Jos and his crew attempt to steal from one dealer to pay back another. Not a single plan concocted by anyone in this film works out the way it's supposed to, and the whole work crackles as if it were powered by lightning. Based loosely on a novel by Gerben Hellinga and adapted by Melle Runderkamp (assisted by the director), the movie is perfectly paced, is filled with a logic that all makes sense by the end, and just left me smiling at how entertaining the entire endeavor was. Great performances, perfect direction and a whip-smart script combine to make a violent-as-fuck, perverse, memorable experience. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Girls in the Band

I can't help myself. I love music documentaries, especially ones about an aspect of music history I know almost nothing about. If you had asked me anything about women in jazz for the last 80 years or so, about the best I could come up with is the late, great pianist Marian McPartland, who is featured quite prominently in director Judy Chaikin's debut feature The Girls in the Band. Chronicling in great detail the long and often-undignified path the acceptance of female musicians in the jazz world, the film features some great footage and even more remarkable recordings from the likes of Mary Lou Williams, Clora Bryant, Roz Cron, Billie Rogers, Viola Smith, and even more modern players like Patrice Rushen (known more for her R&B hits).

All-female jazz bands were considering more of a novelty act in the '30s and '40s — key among them the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. But ever so slowly, individual players worked their way into bands dominated by men. The story is familiar, with the women having be be twice as good to get half the respect. Very often the women in male bands finally established respect by being great singers, composers and/or arrangers as well. But it was beyond difficult to women to find a place if all they wanted to do was play a horn, woodwind or percussion instrument (piano being the sometime exception). It didn't help that many of the early female greats were also African-American, and the limitations put on black women at the time certainly didn't make life any easier.

The Girls in the Band brings us up to the modern jazz age, where things are clearly better. I wasn't aware that bandleaders like Herbie Hancock often had women in his live shows in places of prominence and often had to deal with pissy male musicians who didn't approve. Seeing modern jazz festivals devoted solely to women is a step in the right direction, but the film doesn't make note of the fact that having women as part of a non-segregated festival might be more encouraging. Still, the music is extraordinary, the stories are often heartbreaking (some great players of the early jazz age simply quit because there was no work for women), and the history is exhaustively researched and beautifully laid out for us. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong handful of shows at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 15 2014

The Expendables 3, Let's Be Cops, The Giver, Venus in Fur, Dinosaur 13 & The German Doctor

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Chicago Dancing Festival

Wed Aug 20 2014
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