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Column Fri Mar 21 2014

Divergent, Bad Words, Muppets Most Wanted & Nymphomaniac, Volume 1

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Divergent

There are times while watching Divergent where I felt like I needed a flow chart to keep track of all of the various factions that exist in this tiny corner of the earth that looks a lot like a run-down, grown-over Chicago, where Lake Michigan and the Chicago River have all but dried up, and apparently it's possible to zip line from the top of the Hancock Building to somewhere in the Loop. That part of the film is actually pretty cool. But basically all you need to know (and accept) about this caste system is that this existence is divided into five groups, including ones made up of the intelligentsia, warriors, truth tellers, hippies and the selfless, who are for whatever reason deemed the most worthy to be the leaders of this weirdly utopian society formed after some vague war. At the age of 16, all youngsters much choose what group they want to be a part of, and if they are rejected by their chosen group, they are cast out of society.

Most kids pick the faction that their parents are in, and then there are those who are divergent, meaning they seem to show qualities of various factions, thus making them dangerous because that's what author Veronica Roth tells us and not for any logical reason. But I'll play along with the gameboard I'm given. After being diagnosed as divergent, young Tris (Shailene Woodley) chooses to become a part of the brawny group known as Dauntless, while her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) selects the brainy group (Erudite), much to the dismay of their selfless (Abnegation) parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). While divergents are always under the gun, the leader of the Erudite group, Jeannine (Kate Winslet) is also gunning for the Abnegation followers, who she says are stealing resources, believing her clan would make better leaders.

And all of this is basically prologue to the actual story of Tris trying to prove she's worthy of being a part of the Dauntless group, fighting off naysayers and those who would sabotage her testing, including Peter, played by Woodley's The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller, as well as Jai Courtney's Eric and the mysterious, watchful Four (Theo James). Needless to say, there's a whole lot of plot and backstory to get caught up on in Divergent, which has a 2.5-hour running time and still feels like we're barely scratching the surface of this version of the world. Granted, there are two more films to come, but at some point we have to start getting into the real battles.

What I liked about Divergent are the bold messages put forth in a sci-fi shell about identity, freedom, free will, even genocide and class war. The film is getting unfairly compared to The Hunger Games, but using Roth's template, director Neil Burger (Limitless) has put together a relatively cerebral exercise in societal criticism and commentary. Sure, he's done so with a group of attractive actors and the promise of a love story to come between Tris and Four, but even that is sidelined in this film so that the participants can figure out who they are before figuring out what sparks between them. That's something the Twilight and Hunger Games films wouldn't have dared do.

Woodley possesses just the right balance of anxiety and excitement about her new life path, while James, despite his almost ridiculous good looks, also does a credible job of keeping a little mystery behind what Four's motives are with tracking Tris' progress and giving her a boost only when her life depends on it. I would be remiss if I didn't mention just how creepy, cold and nasty Winslet is. She barely raises her voice, even at her most angry, but she conveys such a sense of evil, even though we know she likely thinks that eliminating certain factions is for the betterment of civilization. Sometimes just hiring the right actor for the job is enough to push what could be a run-of-the-mill character into something special.

While the science fiction of Divergent works well, the action sequences and character development are more hit and miss. The motivation for a lot of what happens in many scenes seems to boil down to "just because" in far too many cases. And while I understand that much of that detail is left by the wayside when adapting a book into a film, it's annoyingly noticeable here. Having quality actors helps fill in some of the blanks with non-verbal cues, but there are just as many instances where that isn't the case. Still, Divergent ends up working more often than not, and with all of the characters and circumstances under which they lives finally laid out for us, hopefully the next film will give us something a little meatier to bit into with its characters and plot.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Divergent lead actors Shailene Woodley and Theo James.

Bad Words

You either find kids being exposed to inappropriate language/material funny or you're boring, and clearly Jason Bateman finds it hilarious, as his new film Bad Words seems to prove. In what is also his debut as a director, Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man with a chip on his shoulder the size of North Dakota. For reasons that are kept secret to everyone but himself, Trilby has set his sites on finding a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee that allows him to participate in the competition with the goal of stealing away any chance an actual child has of winning. In addition to his unreal spelling abilities, he also plays mind games with his young competitors that often throw them off their game and have them running from the stage.

Guy's antics would probably have gone unnoticed by everyone but the other contestants were it not for troubled online reporter Jenny Widgeon (the always-perfect Kathryn Hahn), who is following him around the country and financing his trip in an effort to uncover his motivations for his awful, dream-dashing behavior. They also occasionally have awful, disturbing, hilarious sex together that reveals more about how much Jenny hates herself ("Don't look at me!") than anything about Guy.

Begrudgingly, Guy befriends one of his 10-year-old competitors, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who played the little village boy in Lone Survivor), whose parents have decided to stay in a nicer hotel to allow him complete isolation to study. Instead, the pair have a guys' night out that includes junk food, a visit to a bar, and perhaps a prostitute (for purely scientific purposes). Also on hand to hate Guy's very existence are Allison Janney as the bee's top officiant, Ben Falcone as a commentator, Rachel Harris as another competitor's mother, and the great Philip Baker Hall as the chairman of the Golden Quill.

Bad Words doesn't overstay its one-note welcome, and it even manages to have a few mild surprises along the way thanks to Andrew Dodge's sharp but simple script. Even the turns that aren't as surprising as they think they are are still executed with the right level of dramatic confidence that it become more about the reaction than the plot twist. The bottom line, however, is that if you are bothered by kids being picked on by a grown-up bully, you're probably going to have real issues with this film, even after learning that Guy's cruelty comes from a place of deep pain within himself.

One of the most surprising elements in Bad Words is the aesthetic. For a film that is essentially the darkest of comedies, it's shot in the darker tones of a drama, using a lot of long shots with a tendency to under-light everything, thanks to cinematographer Ken Seng, who worked with Batemen in the drama Disconnect. Which is not to say the film exists only in shadows; it just doesn't pop the way most comedies do, and I'm fairly certain that's on purpose. There's an artistry at work here that is almost lost because of the cruelty of the humor, but if you find it in yourself to laugh, the film's muted visual elegance will be easier to spot.

Bateman is not stranger to playing a sourpuss from time to time, but Guy Trilby is in a class by himself — and believe it or not, he's easy to love for all of his mean jokes and willingness to let his personal vendetta get in the way of years of striving in these children's lives. In the narration that opens the film, Guy fully admits his plan is a terrible, ill-thought-out one, but he's committed to seeing it through until the bitter, bitter end. His determination is infectious, and Bad Words is actually far more than just a series of tasteless jokes and situations. Even if it were just that, it would be a damn funny film, but it's also a sly study of inner turmoil and misguided revenge executed by a man well aware of his flaws but helpless to stop himself from falling victim to them. If you can see and hear past the four-letter words, there's something really impressive going on here.

Muppets Most Wanted

The rebooted 2011 film The Muppets, scripted by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and directed by James Bobin, was a story about friendship. By comparison, the new Muppets Most Wanted (scripted by Stoller and Bobin, who returns as director) has every muppet character not even notice the very noticeable personality and voice shift in their beloved leader Kermit when he is replaced by a criminal frog named Constantine. I realize a movie fully loaded with felt-covered creatures isn't meant to be taken seriously, but there comes a point late in the story where Kermit voices his well-deserved concerns that his closest friends didn't notice his very obvious absence, so we're forced to wonder the same thing and even question these friendships, which seem fuzzy at the prospect of fame and fortune. Is that the lesson that the filmmakers intended?

Muppets Most Wanted picks up right where The Muppets leaves off; there are even body doubles for the backs of Segel and Amy Adams' heads. As the fanfare for the muppets reunion fades, the gang is forced to ask what they should do next. Cue the entrance of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), an agent who suggests a world tour for the group is in order, even though Kermit would rather perfect an act first and then take in on the road. Before long, Kermit is abducted and sent to a Russian gulag under the supervision of Nadya (a Russian-accented Tina Fey), while the criminal mastermind (and dead ringer for Kermit) Constantine takes his place and approves the tour, which is actually a ruse for he and Badguy to commit a series of robberies in various European cities. On the case searching for Constantine are Sam the Eagle (apparently working for the CIA) and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell, with a terrible French accent that results in zero laughs).

To say that the humor in Muppets Most Wanted is spotty would be a gross understatement. Most of the muppet characters are reliably, if predictably, amusing. And Fey has a few moments, if only because she's displaying some rather wonderful sand-and-dance gifts, as well as an unnatural affection for Kermit. As gloomy as it is, the gulag scenes are some of my favorite, especially once you get a look at the human characters imprisoned there, including Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta and the crazy talented Jemaine Clement, whose Oscar-winning "Flight of the Conchords" partner Bret McKenzie returns to the franchise to do the film's songs, easily among the movie's highlights. Kermit agrees to stage a musical at the prison, which leads to these burly, hardened men doing their rendition of "A Chorus Line" as an audition.

Outside of the gulag, things get a bit dismal in spots. Arguably one of the funniest comic actors working, Gervais barely gets to elicit laughs in the film, while Burrell barely registers as being funny at all. The issue, I believe, is that the makers of Muppets Most Wanted forgot that the previous film wasn't aimed at a particular audience; it was targeted at a particular emotion, a glowing joyous feeling that every age of audience member responded to. But this new film is aimed low — as in a lower age group. Despite its downer moments, the film feels squarely sterilized for kids, and while I certainly am not encouraging the use of four-letter words into this PG-rated environment, there's a knowledge about the real world that is simply absent. It's sad really because the prospects and talent are there, but the execution goes off the rails too often to fully recommend the film.

The large number of celebrity cameos add about one second each of total amusement time, but otherwise, they feel like filler, with the exception of Christoph Waltz, who does a bit so stupid, I couldn't stop myself from going into giggle fits. And with a great deal of the film taking place in London, it affords a few more interesting cameos from the large pool of great British actors. Still, it's hard to see Muppets Most Wanted as anything other than mildly disappointing but still watchable in several spots. That's not exactly a rousing recommendation, but if they kids are going to drag you to it this weekend (or you're like me, and have to see every muppet film, regardless), you could do worse.

Nymphomaniac, Part I

This warning is going out with press materials about the new Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac, which is being released in two parts over the next few weeks, with part one opening in many cities this weekend. "Note: Nymphomaniac contains graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film." The most obvious problem with this warning is that nothing Lars von Trier has ever had a hand in could every be considered "mainstream." But most importantly (and thankfully), as much as sex is an important part of the work, it's never the only thing this film has going for it in terms of watchability and artistry.

The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying on a wet, dark cobblestone street. She's bruised and battered, and when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers her, she refuses to let him call her an ambulance or doctor. So he takes her back to his house, cleans her up and puts her to bed. When she awakes, they begin a fascinating conversation about her pure lack of any self worth, which has manifested itself since she was very young in the form of a great deal of impersonal sex with men she doesn't love and barely knows. Most of the film is narrated by Gainsbourg but shown in flashback with the younger version of Joe played by the pretty but removed Stacy Martin, who is put through the sexual ringer by her own design.

At various times in her erotic history, she has played a game with a friend to have sex with as many men on a train as she can in a single trip; vowed to only sleep with a man once, then move on, often times in the same night; and had multiple long-term partners at the same time scheduled back to back down to the minute. There are also moving moments with Joe and her parents — her caring, informative father (Christian Slater) and distant mother (Connie Nielsen). There's a strange return to her first love, a lowly young man named Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf. Perhaps the most world-shattering moment in Volume I involves a married man leaving his wife for Joe, showing up at her doorstep with his bags, followed shortly by his hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) and their two kids. It's a brief but haunting and explosive sequence that reminds up that Thurman is capable of such great work.

Von Trier gets a lot of grief for being a pain in the ass interview and a mentally abusive director, but the work speaks for itself — Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, "The Kingdom" miniseries, Dogville, The Boss of It All, Antichrist, and his previous work, the masterful Melancholia. They are all exercises in pushing human emotion and the physical form to their limits, and the results are often startling and impossible to forget. Nymphomaniac, Vol. I is certainly heading down that path as well, with Joe clealy still needing to make that jump from young woman to the broken form we meet at the film's opening who consistently puts herself down as a horrible person, but one can't help but wonder if she truly believes this about herself, or is this another type of seduction she's engaging in with her host?

Despite a few flashes of real sex that required porn star doubles and even special effects, as well as plentiful nudity, the amount of sexual activity in this first half at least is fairly limited, and the success of the film's emotional journey certainly doesn't depend upon it. There is something absolutely hypnotic about listening to the conversation between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, as they debate and discuss the nature of sex, but also their own personal histories and philosophies that go well beyond acts of carnal knowledge. The true value and triumph of Nymphomaniac won't be known until the second part is watched (I believe it's on VOD now), but Volume 1 is an achievement in atmosphere, acting and depth that is rarely seen in true mainstream film, but is commonplace in the films of Von Trier. So it's okay to show up for the sex as long as you stay for the deep probing of the mind as well. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 

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Feature Mon Jun 09 2014

I Grew Up in a Big Ol' Gay Disco: an Interview with Oli Rodriguez

By H. Melt

Oli Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, photography, and performance. H. Melt sat down with him to find out more about his relationship to Chicago, the city's queer history, and how it impacts his artmaking.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jul 25 2014

Hercules, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, I Origins, And So It Goes, Happy Christmas, Magic in the Moonlight, Under the Electric Sky & Closed Curtain

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Chicago French Film Festival

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