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Column Fri Jun 27 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction, They Came Together, Third Person, Ivory Tower, Jackpot, The Internet's Own Boy & On Approval


Transformers: Age of Extinction

If you've already decided a) "All Michael Bay films suck and I won't go see any of them ever," b) "All Michael Bay films suck, but I can't stop going to see them," or c) "I love Michael Bay and/or Transformers movies," you can probably step away from your computer for a little while, because I don't think I'm going to change your mind on any of these opinions. I guess I'm aiming my sites at the undecided voters with an open mind who are willing to take every movie on its own merit, and don't see or discuss movies simply to show how witty they are and how many clever ways they can find to shit on a film they're too cool to enjoy.

Now make no mistake, I'm not here to defend or endorse Transformers: Age of Extinction; there's just too much wrong with the movie to encourage all but the diehards to see it. But I'm of a firm belief that anyone who dismisses the film with a single sweeping "it sucks" gesture, made up their minds about the film long before they stepped into the theater.

Set five years after the epic Battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the world (and by the world, I mean the United States of America) is a different place. Where once human and alien robots lived in a somewhat balanced alliance, now all Transformers — good and bad — are being secretly hunted and killed by a black ops CIA team run by Kelsey Grammer's Harold Attinger and his lapdog Savoy (Titus Welliver, wearing a lovely, flowing black trench coat). The robot parts and technology are being shipped primarily to the research facility run by tech kingpin/wizard Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who is intent on creating manmade versions of Transformers that humans can control — "a fully automated army."

But I'm jumping ahead. Did you know that in addition to the first manned moon mission finding the remnants of Transformers on the moon, the "creators" of the Transformers also somehow wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth millions of years ago? It's true. What that's important, I'm not sure, but I'm guessing sequels will provide the much-needed answers.

Jumping ahead a few million years, failed and broke Texas-based inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has found the remnants of what was once Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen), and he manages to get him back into working order just in time for the feds to show up at his doorstep and threaten to kill his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) if he doesn't reveal Prime's location. And then the heroics and explosions begin, as you'd expect. These early scenes reveal one of the biggest problems with these films: neither writer Ehren Kruger (on board since the second film) or Bay know what to do with humans in these movies, aside from making them the connective tissue that brings the robots together. They are either in peril, putting others in peril, or about to do one or the other.

That being said, casting Wahlberg as the world's worst single dad (his idea of parenting is telling his daughter she can't do [fill in the blank]; and that's it) is a vast improvement over the clown that Shia LaBeouf became by the last couple of films. Seeing Wahlberg wielding an oversized alien gun just visually makes far more sense. While Age of Extinction hasn't been completely swept clean of the awful humor (another major weakness in the writing) that permeates these movies, there's a lot less of it. Even the presence and constant riffing of T.J. Miller as Wahlberg's junk shop partner is, um, cut short early in the film, as if to say, "This ain't that kind of movie," which isn't entirely true, but it's certainly more tolerable. Then there are a couple of scenes with Thomas Lennon as the White House chief of staff, but he barely registers as being a part of this movie, so depending on your outlook, that's either good for him or bad for us.

I'll tell you what else is pretty great. Pretty much every sequence shot in and over Chicago. Yes, the rebuilt city offers up a few more great moments, including a stomach-turning (in a good way) high-wire walk by some of the characters from an alien spaceship and the top of the Willis Tower. I saw this in IMAX, 3-D, and if you really want to experience this extended sequence properly, that's the way to go. There's also a more traditional but still thrilling aerial chase sequence above the streets of Chicago that also works quiet nicely.

So much is made about the Battle of Chicago from the last film that a big part of me wished the films would have ended there (which would have made it only about two-hours 20-minutes long), with the humans successfully making a stand at the city the robots destroyed five years earlier. Alas, Age of Extinction has a lot of Chinese financing to deal with, so Tucci relocated his robot experiments from Chicago to Hong Kong, which offers up some lovely visuals and about 25 more minutes of sheer chaos (with parts of Chicago and Detroit doubling for HK), which takes the film from "long" to "too long."

The Hong Kong sequence gives Tessa's racecar driver boyfriend (Jack Reynor) a chance to show off his skills behind the wheel, including an entire scene in which he drives backwards to avoid a shower of debris.

I haven't really talked about the robots in Age of Extinction, most of which are either new to us or have been redesigned to reflect newer-model vehicles. There's something truly weird about hearing John Goodman's voice come out of a robot that looks overweight and is chomping on a giant machine-gun shell like a cigar, and something mildly racist about Ken Watanabe voicing Drift, a shogun-looking Autobot. Why do robots have accents?

The bad guy robots are led by Lockdown (Mark Ryan), who seems intent on delivering unto humans something called "The Seed," which will apparently turn everything in a very large radius around it a metal Joyce has dubbed Tranformium, which will help him build more of his robots, but Lockdown has other plans, courtesy of the mysterious "creators." And then there is the much-anticipated appearance of the Dinobots, who show up under the guise of ancient warriors in the Transformer universe and are apparently so well revered that the Autobots ride them like horsies. And then they're off.

I don't usually talk about product placement, but a huge part of the humor (intentional and otherwise) is how awful and blatant these moving advertisements are in the middle of Age of Extinction. I get that studios use these placements to offset the costs of their bigger films, but if these moments pull you right out of the movie, you're shooting yourself in the foot. Wahlberg's hilarious Bud Light truck spill, leading to his popping the cap of one and downing it, literally stops the movie to get its "proof-of-logo" moment. Tucci also drinks some sort of Chinese beverage during a rooftop break from the action. Not to mention the car-porn shots of these admittedly gorgeous machines, which at least have something to do with plot of the damn movie. Logos are omni-present in all Transformers movies, but there are points here that just feel like commercials in the middle of the film.

If you tend to get headaches during Transformers movies, go see your doctor. You probably have a brain tumor or need new glasses. But if you don't know if that's a possibility for you in these films at this point, you have no one to blame but yourself. Other than its impossibly long running time, Age of Extinction isn't any more or less appealing than the first or third in the series (we will not speak of Rise of the Fallen). It has nearly all of the same flaws (although there aren't nearly as many slow-motion sequences as in previous Transformers movies), while ramping up the still eye-popping special effects, blaring sound design and really great 3-D. Bay is one of the few filmmakers who gets that 3-D doesn't work in dark settings, so pretty much this whole movie is bright and sharp and makes great use of all of the dimensions.

As for the dialogue, which ranges from silly to stupid to offensive with stereotypes and sexism, I'll make no apologies. It's the anchor that pulls these films down and keeps them from being true escapist entertainment. The performances are certainly better than what we're used to in these films, but they still aren't great. I actually liked Grammer embracing his role as one of the kings of the Hollywood Republicans, and just spitting in the face of civil liberties and committing acts against American citizens in the name of national security. And Wahlberg's performance sold me on him being a concerned parent, even if his dialogue doesn't give us that.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is an overcrowded mess that feels a bit like Michael Bay playing with all of his toys at once, rather than taking his time to enjoy each one for its own merits. I know in his mind he feels he's giving us our money's worth by throwing everything at us, but if we're missing half of the cumulative experience because there's too much to focus on, we're still getting screwed. It's simple math.

They Came Together

It's one thing to parody the conventions of a particular genre, but it's quite another to take those conventions and lovingly stomp them under your boot heel, essentially guaranteeing that nobody in the film will work in that genre again. Welcome to the screamingly funny They Came Together, a film that re-team director and co-writer (with Michael Showwalter) David Wain and his constant on-screen representative Paul Rudd, along with their Wet Hot American Summer co-star Amy Poehler.

The story on paper seems simple enough and horribly familiar (which is exactly the point), as candy shop owner Molly (Poehler) meet-hates Joel (Rudd), and they can't stand each other. That's until they run into each other at a book store and discover their unlikely mutual love of fiction books. Joel just happens to work for a big candy corporation (run by Chris Meloni) that would like nothing more than to see Molly's shop go out of business, and he is caught between his job and his strong like for Molly. He's also more than a little hung up on his hot, unfaithful ex-girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), which causes problems in the relationship as well.

While a lot of this may sound like a fairly standard-issue romantic comedy, They Came Together is actually embracing the conventions of rom-com to such a degree that it's actually squeezing the life out of them. And the film's deliberately phony sweetness is often peppered with out-of-nowhere foul language and inappropriate behavior that it's as shocking as it is really damn funny. The entire story actually a flashback being told by Joel and Molly at dinner with friends played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper, who are threatened with violence if they try to leave before the tale is told.

The film jumps from being fairly conventional to being utterly grotesque and surreal in a matter of seconds, and while that may seem jarring, Wain thrives in this environment as Wet Hot American Summer and Wanderlust (plus the countless TV series he's been involved with) have proven. Just as you get comfortable in a certain kind of laid-back comedy, something extreme happens to upset the balance. No rom-com trope is left untouched, including the film closing "big speech" moment that brings the couple back together, and even that sequence is fraught with shock and surprise and a bit of violence.

They Came Together is literally overflowing with pretty much every member of Wain's old comedy troupe The State (Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and even Wain himself), as well as an array of other familiar faces, including Jack McBrayer, Michael Murphy, Melaine Lynskey, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield (quite good as Joel's brother) and Jason Mantzoukas. Thankfully, this is not one of those comedies that crams in great talent only to squander it on weak material. The film is loaded with laughs and deserves to be seen with a packed audience of people who like to laugh, which you'd think would be everybody, but we all know better. Just be prepared for something unlike anything you've ever seen based on material you've probably seen far too much. You'll love it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Third Person

Paul Haggis is one of the movie world's most successful writers of high drama (Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers) and even some actiony stuff (Casino Royale), but he made his biggest impact to date with his first film as a writer-director, the Oscar-winner Crash, a work that audiences (and Academy members) seemed to respond to, while many critics butchered its manipulative ways. For the first time since that movie, Haggis has returned to telling a multiple-story feature with somewhat connected plotlines in Third Person, a clearly more personal work about award-winning writer Michael (Liam Neeson) and his painstaking process at his laptop.

There are three primary stories being told in Third Person, each one taking place at a different point in the respective relationships. Adrian Brody plays Scott, an American businessman in Italy who stumbles upon a woman in need (Moran Atias) who may or may not be conning him. The relationship in transition is that of Michael the married (to Elaine, played by Kim Basinger) writer and his mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring journalist hoping Michael will help her kickstart her fiction-writing career either with advice or contacts. The two fight and make up with such ferocity that it becomes clear this is how the are all the time; this is their most effective method of communication, and it's truly messed up. The couple that is dead in the water already is former actress Julia (Mila Kunis) and artist Rick (James Franco), who have long broken up after an incident involving their young son, during which he almost died due to Julia's negligence.

Haggis takes us in and out of these three stories rather effortlessly, but there is always an undercurrent of tension even in the most relaxed moments because something about the whole film seem unstable. The filmmaker is guiding us through the minefield that is the modern relationship, filled with some truly glorious, romantic moments, coupled with pain, tears, and soul-crushing personal violations. Without giving away too much, we begin to realize that most of the action being shown on the screen is being guided, both by Michael and Haggis, who has drawn dialogue and situations from his own life. The film bounces, sometimes a bit too drastically, between quite believable scenarios to ones that seem highly unlikely in any country.

Two of the three dramas take place in European nations, and if these characters were speaking a language other than English, we might actually be able to put aside these questions about authenticity and just explain away the strangeness as "European." But with this largely American, English-speaking cast, it's more difficult to let the magical realism take hold the way Haggis likely wants us to.

Third Person is nothing if not ambitious, and there are definitely days when I'd rather see a failed ambitious project than a work by a filmmaker who simply doesn't give a shit (plenty of those to go around). Still, it's tough to get past the idea that Haggis seems to see women as the damaged goods at the root of all relationship problems. Sure, there are plenty of demons plaguing the men in this film, but if they didn't care so much about these ladies, their worlds would be so much easier. Nope, sorry. Can't sign off on that worldview. It's overly simplistic, treading that thin line toward offensive. 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 Third Person writer-director Paul Haggis.

Ivory Tower

It's been too long since I felt true outrage on a subject thanks to a well-researched documentary, but Ivory Tower came very close. If I had kids about to go into a college, I'm sure my head would be on the verge of exploding right now. Ivory Tower is actually about several things related to the college-going experience, and very little of it has to do with actual education. The film reminds us that there was a time not that long ago when getting a higher education was a right, not a privilege for the rich or those willing to go into six-figure debt until they day they die. In recent years, the nation's student loan debt surpassed the country's credit card debt, and the film asks how this happened and whether college is worth it, both as an expense and as a means to a better post-grad job.

Directed by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), the film examines various college experiences from party school Arizona State to the free art/design college Cooper Union as it, for the first time since its inception, starts charging tuition despite its late founder's insistence that no student should ever pay. One interesting schooling experience is the all-male Deep Springs, located on a ranch in California, which essentially asks its students to drop out for two years and guide their own education by asking questions, self improving, and figuring out new ways to provide community service.

Ivory Tower also takes a look at the far more affordable state of community colleges, and the growth in popularity of online learning — both free and paid. But the sad fact is that colleges are in a tremendous amount of debt as well, due to a constant state of building up and modernizing facilities to compete for students' dollars. And since out-of-state students pay more in tuition, guess who has a better shot at getting into your home state's schools? It's a vicious cycle that most experts in the film believe will collapse just like the housing market, the dot-com bubble, and financial institutions.

With billionaire college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs seemingly suggesting that a college degree isn't necessarily the key to success, the value of such an education seems to be more difficult to define and justify. Ivory Tower presents many sides of the argument clearly, succinctly, and in a manner that even makes it interesting. It's certainly a film that all parents of growing kids should take a look at and really consider. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Based on a story by Norway's leading crime writer, Jo Nesbø (who also wrote Headhunters), comes Jackpot, a down and dirty, bloody mess of an affair about how greed dissolves the friendship formed between three ex-cons and their factory supervisor Oscar (Kyrre Vellum). Using what appears to be a scam system, the four men, who all work at an artificial tree factory whose employees are entirely ex-cons, enter a soccer pool and win millions, causing the three ex-cons to begin to vie for the winning ticket in Oscar's possession.

Directed by Magnus Martens, Jackpot opens in a porn store/strip club loaded with dead bodies, including that of a stripper who has landed on and concealed Oscar from the police. When he's finally caught and brought in for questioning by master interrogator Det. Solør (Henrik Mestad), he weaves a story of the pool, the money and a great deal of killing. The film has the sort of joyous appreciation of a good crime story, soaked in blood, that old Coen Brothers films used to have. Nearly every character double- and triple-crosses each other at some point, until Oscar realizes he can trust no one but himself. And we soon realize that our narrator might not be that trustworthy either.

Jackpot doesn't twist and turn to excess, and the story is relatively easy to follow and enjoy as a cleaver curiosity. At times, the film can be quite brutal and bloody, but it's also highly entertaining, full of unexpected turns, and it's darkly humorous, with a twist of vintage perversion for added flavor. It's a great b-movie in a time when there aren't nearly enough of those in the world. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music BoxTheatre.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

A truly eye-opening and gut-wrenching experience, The Internet's Own Boy is the harrowing and tragic story of the brilliant internet activist Aaron Swartz (a Chicago-area native), creator of Infogami, Open Library, and a co-founder of Reddit, who at the age of 26 killed himself after being the target of government prosecution and persecution. The film tracks Swartz's humble upbringing in a supportive family (all members of which are interviewed for this documentary), where he was able and allowed to excel and become a true technology prodigy.

But as early as his preteen years, Aaron was beginning to look at social and legal issues regarding the internet specifically and society in general. Concerns about privacy, copyright law and social justice plagued him, and his opinions on the subjects as he got older earned him the respect of academia, legal minds and the media, as is illustrated in the film, which uses Aaron's own video blogs and countless other interviews he did throughout his young life as the narration for most of the film. Director Brian Knappenberger fills things in with some terrifically insightful talks with Swartz's friends, colleagues and those inspired by him.

It's clear the federal prosecutor was set to make an example out of Swartz, who had been indicted for illegally downloading academic journals, most of which contained research results paid for with tax dollars and were being sold back to the public at exorbitant mark-ups. Aaron was a massive proponent of freedom of information, and there were certainly bigger criminals in the world, especially considering he'd had a history of committing such acts for the purposes of turning the data back over the institution to show where its security weaknesses were. But the overwhelming pressure the charges caused him and his perilous fear of losing some part of his reputation were too much.

The film walks us through Swartz's final days and mounting pressures after a two-year legal struggle, and it's one of the clearest cases of the government pushing someone to such a degree that paranoia and depression are the only response. It's a work that manages to capture Aaron's spirit, his place in the technological world, and the supreme sadness that come with his death. It's a tribute to his life and a condemnation of the forces that caused his death — a truly remarkable film, which is opening today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Robert Swartz, father of Aaron Swartz, will appear for Q&A following the 3pm screening of The Internet's Own Boy on Sunday, June 29.

On Approval

If you're looking for a truly unique film-going experience in the city of Chicago in the coming week, you owe it to yourself to check out the rarely seen British farce On Approval, from director-adaptor-star Clive Brook. The film was a fairly recent rediscovery, and the 35mm print being shown was made from a nitrate fine grain at the British Film Institute (the movie played at a TCM Film Festival to sold out crowds, I'm told).

Based on a 1927 plays from Frederick Lonsdale, the jokes and insults come rapidly, as you might expect from a cast that includes Brook, Googie Withers, and the quite famous stage actress Beatrice Lillie (who was rarely seen in films). But what makes the film so odd and special are moments like the introduction, which seems to welcome us into this filmed play as if we're seeing it on stage for the first time. There's a brief wartime remembrance (World War II ended about a year after the film was released) that seems injected into the film as a reminder of the world outside, from which the audience watching was escaping.

There are also surreal dream sequences that seems so out of step with what was going on in the UK at the time, and I love them all the more for that. The plot centers on two broke but respected gentlemen who are both pursuing two rich women in their early 40s (or so they say). The four agree to take a holiday at one of the women's country home in Scotland (so scandalous is the group of unmarrieds staying in the same house that the servants all quit). In his only directing effort, Brook stars as the 10th Duke of Bristol, a man with a great title and no money, who conspires to seduce an American heiress Helen Hale (Withers), while his kind pal Richard Halton (Roland Culver) has his sites set on the widow, Mrs. Wislack (Lillie), who treats him horribly to test whether he truly loves her or is only after her money.

The way Brook plays the utterly self-centered Duke is both remarkable and hilarious in its believability, and even more so when he pretends to be selfless to improve his image with Ms. Hale. The film has a great deal of sly digs at cultural elitism, sexism and the class structure, but its main objective seems to be as a showcase of Lillie, who is willing to have cracks made about her age and looks in a way that only the most confident actress (or actor) could endure. She's a wonder here, and it's especially great seeing her more than 20 years before her most well known roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Around the World in Eighty Days.

The writing is wicked — at times even malicious — and the acting matches it note for note. But none of that takes away from the charm and delight that emanates from every frame. The print being shown is quite beautiful, although I would argue that Brook's technical savvy as a director wasn't his strongest suit. Even still, unless you're a ravenous film historian (professional or otherwise), you've probably never experienced a film quite like On Approval, and it's always good to try new things, especially when they're this delicious.

The film screens twice at the Gene Siskel Film Center: on Saturday, June 28 at 3pm, and again on Tuesday, July 1 at 6pm.

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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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