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Column Fri May 02 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Fading Gigolo, Locke, Blue Ruin & NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I don't care about Peter Parker's parents. I don't care if they're alive or dead; if they're traitors or patriots; if they're spies or scientists; if they work for Oscorp or Donald Trump; if they're human or alien. I didn't care about them in the comic books, and nothing that's been presented about them in two Amazing Spider-Man movies has made me care about them any more. I'm a great admirer of other performances by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, who play Richard and Mary Parker, but they do nothing for me in these films. And no, simply eliminating all scenes and references to them in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't come close to solving the problems I had with it, but it would have shortened an overlong movie to a more suitable length and made what doesn't work seem far less painful.

And the worst part is, director Marc Webb didn't have a choice but to deal with these characters substantially in this second installment of this new incarnation of Spider-Man, because the first film painted him into a corner. And that's a shame because Webb gets a great deal of Spider-Man right on the money, especially the interpersonal material between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, still the best version of this character who has ever done it) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In this second film, the parameters of their relationship are beautifully established. She's the fixer, the caregiver, the protector, while Peter is a bit all over the place, desperately in need of someone to keep his head in the game. They aren't the same person, quite the opposite; but they work really well together, and their banter and affection for one another feel genuine, even if Peter's guilt about telling Gwen's now-late father he'd keep her out of danger threatens to tear them apart (actually, it does for a time).

But for those of you who don't care about the mushy stuff, there's a great deal more action in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and a lot of it looks like an actual comic book brought to life. The opening Spider-Man versus Russian thug Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) battle is an absolutely perfect realization of a Spider-Man comic book battle, or at least the best I've seen. Late in the film as well, Spider-Man comes face to face with Sytsevich again, this time in the armored guise of The Rhino, and again, the film elevates itself all too briefly to remind us of one of the many reasons this character is so popular. Here's a guy who loves being Spider-Man; he's not some angst-ridden hero who's constantly questioning why he does what he does (even when he has reason to). He knows that he was put on this earth and given these gifts to help people.

That's one of the most noticeable differences between this film and most other superhero movies is that there are a great number of shots of Spider-Man saving individual people from falling debris or other hazards. One of those saved is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an uber-nerd and gifted electrician who is obsessed with Spider-Man even before they meet and the hero declares Dillion his "eyes and ears" on the street. For a brief moment, an invisible man is noticed and made special by his idol, and Max (clearly mentally unstable from the start) loses his grip on reality and starts lashing out at those who don't treat him with respect.

The problem with the Dillon character is that he's more of a caricature of a nerd, hitting every stereotype of nerd-dom — oversized glasses, terrible combover, funky teeth, and a goofy voice that seems only necessary as a means to contrast with the deep, sinister voice he uses when he is transformed into Electro, a human battery that sucks up and shoots out energy in a seemingly limitless capacity. Like Spider-Man, Electro is a product of an accident at Oscorp, apparently the only company in existence in New York City, and it typifies one of the many problems with these new stories. The filmmakers seem to believe that everything has to be connected somehow, either by design or coincidence. Sure, it makes the storytelling simpler, but having Oscorp for the center of all things seems silly and worse, lazy.

Feel free to lay some of the blame at everybody's favorite genre screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who along with Jeff Pinkner came up with a story that feels more like an in-between movie, transitioning this new Spider-Man in the last movie to the already-announced expanded universe of films to come. Nothing but Peter and Gwen stays on the screen long enough for us to grasp onto and care about, and that includes Electro, whose ultimate motivations for turning villain are just asinine, and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), Peter's old childhood friend (and son of Oscorp founder Norman — the connections never stop), who is suffering from a debilitating disease that forces him to takes chemicals that turn him into fan-favorite The Green Goblin.

Dopey motivations aside, the villains aren't bad in Amazing Spider-Man 2. I liked the look and approach that Foxx assumes for Electro, and DeHaan is outright freakish in his Goblin attire, which does away with the plastic-mask look from Sam Raimi's version, and instead makes him look like the worst kind of junkie, with his eyes blazing and hair spinning up into the air. Giamatti's Rhino resembles a tank set upright and given legs, and that works for me. The problem is, he's barely in the film — a huge flaw among many.

The film finds slivers of time for hinted-at characters who might be more important in future films. Felecity Jones shows up as Harry's assistant "Felicia," while another Oscorp big wig Donald Menken (Colm Feore) shows up, possibly to become The Vulture in future films. Sally Field returns as Aunt May, but her main function seems to be to almost catch Peter in his room while he's still got his Spider-Man suit on, clearly a metaphor for masturbating.

There are so many transitions in this film that feel like there's scene missing to take us from one plot point to the next. It's not just the villains' motivations that make no sense; almost no major decision or turn is fully explained or sensible. If anyone buys the friendship between Peter and Harry, I have a bridge in New York I'd like to sell you (so Spider-Man can spin a love note on it).

I'm not going to talk about the film's major, climactic development here — I have interviews for this film that I'll post on Ain't It Cool News early next week that will have plenty of those — but I do want to emphasize the even in that moment, the film doesn't feel quiet like it's earned the emotion that should go along with it. That being said, many people in the screening I saw it with were bawling their eyes out, so maybe I'm just dead in the heart, but I'd like to think that's not the case.

What works in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 works so well that it should tell you something when I say that what doesn't work drags the film down so far that I can't bring myself to fully recommend it. Much like after watching the last film, I feel like what will come next will be better, but I think the odds of that actually happening are unlikely. I get that Spider-Man stories have always had humor as a major component, but I'm fairly certain that it's preferable to have the audience laughing with you rather than at you.

To read my exclusive interviews with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 star Jamie Foxx, go to Ain't It Cool News, and keep an eye out in the coming days for interviews with director Marc Webb and star Emma Stone.

Fading Gigolo

Why haven't these two spring chickens paired up in a movie before? I think they really have something. In the past John Turturro has made several films (Mac, Romance & Cigarettes) about passion, big sweeping emotions, noise and heart. But his latest work is the more modest, quieter and frankly more meaningful Fading Gigolo, which sounds like a comedy about two old friends, a florist Fioranvante (Turturro), and a book store owner Murray (Woody Allen), whose establishment is about to go out of business, and he's concerned with his future income. Together they come up with the strange idea that Murray will drum up business from some of the older female friends looking for a little male companionship, while Fioranvante will become a sensitive gigolo whose reserve is his sexiest trait.

As silly an idea as Allen playing a pimp might sound, the whole arrangement works and makes more sense when you see it executed. The first client is Murray's married dermatologist (Sharon Stone), who mentions that she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are considering doing a threesome, but first she wants to test the merchandise out and she ends up getting a bit hooked. And before long the business arrangement nets Murray and Fioranvante a great deal of money.

But the film's most interesting moments come when another client, Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), comes into the picture. She's the widow of a well-regarded Hasidic rabbi in the neighborhood where Murray lives, and she's clearly suffering because she misses not just human touch, but any kind of connection. There's a Hasidic cop (Liev Schreiber) who is attempting to become closer with her, but she seems more interested in looking outside the limiting confines of her faith. Murray brings her to Fioranvante, who engages in some non-sexual behavior with her that clearly has an impact on them both. Their encounters border on the erotic, even though there is no nudity or actual sex.

At its core, Fading Gigolo is about reinventing oneself in the face of a changing world. It's not so much a nostalgic look at the recent past, but more of a pining for simpler times, knowing full well that if they don't take a good hard look at modern living, they may get left behind. I don't think I ever thought Fioranvante and Avigal would end up together, but they use each other to find the humanity in their feelings of disconnect with everything around them. The film is delicate, almost fragile, and Turturro taps into what is most gentle and charming about himself to make his character authentic.

Naturally, Allen carries the bulk of the comic relief, but even he is working on a more subtle, less jokey level at times, and he really pulls off one of his best acting roles in decades. What might have been truly cringe-worthy in other hands turns out to be a touching glimpse at two lonely souls that find a brief bit of companionship, which in turn inspires them to move forward with their lives. It's a lovely, amusing and heart-affirming work. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Fading Gigolo writer-director-star John Turturro.

Locke

Well, now I know what it's like to stare at a bearded Tom Hardy (Bronson, Warrior, Dark Knight Rises) for 90 minutes. It's actually kind of fantastic. For those of you who believe you could listen to Hardy read the phone book and be utterly captivated, prepare to have that belief verified. In all seriousness, his performance in Locke probably isn't the kind that gets remembered come awards season (or even Best of the Year season), but it's not a film you'll soon forget if only for its utterly unique approach to storytelling and tension building.

Told more or less in real time, Locke is the story of Ivan Locke, a construction site manager who is on the eve of the biggest concrete pour he will ever be responsible for. He's got the organizational skills to handle the job; he's got a notebook full of lists and contacts to triple check with; and he's about to drive away from it all because of an ill-timed phone call that single handedly destroys his entire life. So all the film is is Locke's drive from his job to a hospital about two hours away. On the way there, he must make a handful of largely painful phone calls, both personal and professional in nature, that he will attempt to run through with minimal pain and suffering. I'm not sure if you've heard this, but things don't always work out the way you plan them to.

Writer-director Steven Knight (who wrote the screenplays for Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things and Amazing Grace) gives us 90 solid minutes of Hardy trying to play it straight with each and every person he talks with, even if a white lie or omission might work in his favor. It's as if Ivan has decided that on this day, he will be honest to a fault. He uses words like "practical" and "reasonable" during conversations that are clearly unspooling rapidly. His wife (voiced by Ruth Wilson) is losing her mind, his oldest son (Tom Holland) is scared for the future of the family, his boss is furious that he's abandoned his position, and his second in command is fast on his way to getting drunk while Ivan is attempting to walk him through what he'll now be in charge of the following morning. And then there's the woman at the other end of this drive, Behan (Olivia Colman), who is slowly revealing just how unstable she is as Ivan gets closer.

You may have noticed, Ivan isn't being chased; there are no life-and-death calamities at play here; there are no bad guys in the film (unless you count Ivan's invisible father in the backseat, whom he rants against as he drives). This is a story of an ordinary man plunged into an unenviable situation of his own making, and he's simply trying to do the right thing by everyone. He has an ironclad plan, and the film has a sadistic kind of fun watching it fall to pieces.

Hardy's Richard Burton-esque Welsh inflections make every word he says come out so perfect enunciated that you can't help but wonder if he's trying to make himself crystal clear after his turn as Bane in Dark Knight Rises. Whatever the reason, it makes every situation he finds himself in and maneuvers himself through that much more interesting and captivating. There are many hiccups on the construction site as his right-hand man, Donal, begins to work his way through the checklist, and for all of the technical language that Ivan uses regarding the concrete delivery and pour, you get what it is he's talking about.

The film takes place entirely at night, which only adds to Ivan's feeling of isolation. You never see the faces of the drivers in the cars around him on the motorway. All of the phone calls are from disembodied voices, most of whom are in various stages of panic or anger toward him. This is a man utterly on his own in the world. Locke's simplicity in story and trust in Hardy to hold our attention with a mesmerizing performance is makes it so successful and gripping. I hope Knight has found the secret passage away from conventional filmmaking and plotting, and continues to find unconventional ways to make movies from now on. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Locke writer-director Steven Knight, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Blue Ruin

If you're tired of tales of specially trained men or women (many of whom are in retirement) suddenly having to call upon their instinctual abilities, often in defense of a loved one, then Blue Ruin is the film for you, because in all likelihood the central character, Dwight (Macon Blair), handles his brand of revenge and justice a lot like the rest of us would.

Dwight is a hapless drifter, stealing food, baths and sleep from empty vacation homes going from place to place in a beat-up old Pontiac (thus the film's title). We get a sense that Dwight was made this way because of some devastating event in his life, and before long he is informed by the police that one Will Cleland is being released from jail, at which point a feral look comes across Dwight's face, and he sets out to murder this man for unknown reasons, becoming an ad hoc assassin of the ex-con. And while in many films, the revenge is the end of the film, for Blue Ruin, it is only the beginning of this story.

It doesn't take long for Cleland's family to figure out who murdered their kin, and before long they are after Dwight. The rest of the film is a brutal and surprisingly moving chase story, with Dwight attempting to protect what little family he's got, while picking off the Cleland family one by one before they get to him. Blue Ruin is an award-winning film that took prizes at Cannes among other festivals, and it's wonderfully effective at generating suspense while it adds a bit of depth and substance to the revenge genre. All the while, the true backstory of these two families begins to come into focus, forcing both sides to come to terms with what they've done over the years.

Blue Ruin is small but powerful gut-punch of a film, in which nearly every act of violence comes with real consequences. The situations may be familiar, but the way each scene plays out often is unexpected and shocking. Saulnier's skill as a screenwriter, director and even cinematographer are all on full display, and I bet that after a couple more films under his belt (this is his second feature, after 2007's Murder Party, also starring Blair), he'll become one of those directors whose work you eagerly anticipate. He's taken one of the most familiar (some might say overused) story set ups in filmdom and done something and exciting and new with it. That alone should earn him high praise.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier will be taking part in a post-screening Q&A after the 7pm show on Friday, May 2. Following the Q&A, there will be a reception at Cullen's Bar and Grill (3741 N. Southport Ave) sponsored by Fandor, where the first 100 people to trade their film tickets in will receive a free drink.

NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage

I don't think it's a coincidence that nearly 20 years ago, actor Kevin Spacey appeared in Looking for Richard, an Al Pacino-directed documentary that examined the fascination that surrounds Shakespeare's Richard III — the play and the most evil of his characters. A couple years ago, Spacey and his American Beauty director Sam Mendes embarked on one of the most ambitious stage productions in history: they gathered a group of British and American stage actors and put up a production of Richard III (with Spacey as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, naturally) that toured the world, totaling nearly 200 performances and resulting in several dozen exhausted performers and crew members.

Director Jeremy Whelehan does a tremendous job capturing what it was like for many in the troupe to be plucked from obscurity (with the exception of the great Gemma Jones) and sent on this whirlwind trip around the globe, which eventually landed on Broadway. The scene during rehearsals and backstage during a production is a blinding mixture of chaos and controlled mastery of the craft. There are a few instances where we follow an actor as they leave the stage, watch them move around the cramped backstage halls, change costumes, and head back behind a stage door until it is time to enter again. Those of us who aren't actors probably have never seen this before, and it's thrilling stuff.

When the interviews focus on the obsession surrounding the play or the choices Mendes and Spacey make in staging this particular production, NOW is a revealing and insightful document of the creative mind, and Spacey reveals that the film world had grown tiresome and not especially challenging, making him seek out new ways to challenge himself as an actor (such as taking on the series "House of Cards," which ramped up after this show ended). The film only lets us down a bit when it allows the actors to indulge in the obligatory talk of how great it was to work with everyone and how no one ever fought. If that's true, who cares? If it's not true, it's only mildly more interesting.

The travelogue part of the movie is fairly enjoyable, especially when the group (known as the Bridge Project) travels to exotic lands in the Middle East or China. But I found myself far more captivated by the backstage excitement. There are a few moments where director Whelehan catches Spacey mentally preparing for his next entrance, tuning his mood and emotion until it's just right, and then launching on stage. It almost feels intrusive, but you can't avert your eyes because it's a rare opportunity to watch a great actor earn his reputation.

Meeting the rest of the actors is hit and miss. Some are very actorly and have very little to say about their work; others have contemplated their place in the production and the acting world in general and have a great deal to add to the conversation. It essentially comes down to who you'd rather hang out with and who you wouldn't. But it's the discussion of the play that drew me in the most.

Richard III is a sublime, self-hating monster who Shakespeare still attempts to make us feel a bit sorry for in the end. And it's ones of literature's finest and earliest examples of delving into the brutal past of a character to explain his behavior in the present. And Spacey has picked apart this character's nature until it becomes his own, and his thoughts on the play and character are funny and heartfelt, much like the film itself. Nitpicking aside, the journey chronicled here is extraordinary and beyond entertaining. In addition to a limited theatrical run, the film will be available for download at NowTheFilm.com starting May 2. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, May 3.

Actor Kevin Spacey will be present for audience discussion moderated by Chris Jones, chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, on Saturday, May 3 at 8pm. Tickets for the live Q&A in Theater 1 are sold out, however tickets for Theater 2, where the Q&A will be streamed live, are still available. Go to the Gene Siskel Film Center's site to pre-order tickets.

 

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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 18 2014

Sex Tape, The Purge: Anarchy, Boyhood, Wish I Was Here, Dormant Beauty

By Steve Prokopy

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