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Column Fri Aug 15 2014

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

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The Expendables 3

Well, it took them three tries, but Sylvester Stallone and his grizzled gang of tough guys and renegades known as The Expendables finally made a film that I can whole-heartedly recommend. I was not an admirer of the first two films; I saw the appeal, and I may have even laughed a couple of times as the countless dumb jokes about age and virility. But there's something a bit more lived in and knowing (bordering on sensible) about The Expendables 3. And I give a great deal of the credit to two people: new director Patrick Hughes, who made a terrific little Australian movie a few years back called Red Hill (he's also slated to do an English-language remake of the The Raid, but we won't hold that against him...yet); and Mel Gibson, who embraces his villainous personal image to play a bad guy who's actually formidable and worthy of taking on this team.

Honorable mention should go to the great Wesley Snipes as Doc (short for Dr. Death), whose opening-sequence rescue from a high-security prison (he's in for tax evasion, he says; where do they get this stuff?) is one of the best openings of any movie this summer. There's a lot of talk about how "crazy" these old guys are, but Snipes sells it better than anyone in this franchise to date. I also give credit to Harrison Ford as CIA operative Drummer; for the first time in ages, Ford actually looks like he's enjoying himself and fully embracing the idea of being an elderly badass.

Story? What story? Gibson plays Conrad Stonebanks, who is a former OG Expendable who went rogue, was believed long dead, and now is an arms dealer. And all he wants is the Expendables extinct — simple as that. After almost getting the whole team slaughtered early in the film (and near fatally wounding Terry Crews' Caesar), Stallone's Barney Ross decided that to get to Stonebanks, he must disband the old crew (Jason Statham's Christmas, Dolph Lundgren's Gunner, Randy Couture's Toll Road) and bring together a younger team, with the help of a recruiter played by Kelsey Grammer.

With significantly less personality but a whole lot of new tricks, the new team (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey, and Glen Powell) gets ready to move in and take Stonebanks. And naturally, this is exactly what Stonebanks wants, quickly turning the tables and taking the youngsters, forcing Ross to come to him and toward certain death. Needless to say, it's age before beauty, and Ross finds himself relying on his old friends to save the day, with some additional help from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Trench and Jet Li's Yin Yang.

I talked earlier about some standout performances from the new faces in The Expendables 3, but the film's true saving grace is, believe it or not, Antonio Banderas as the chatterbox Galgo, who is absolutely the funniest thing any Expendables movie has ever had. Let's face it, the level of humor these films have had in the past is someone referring to the team as "ladies." But Banderas is like a squirrel on meth, talking about anything and everything at a mile a minute, completely unaware that no one is listening. Galgo also happens to be an incredible athlete and all-around weapons master. But his greatest arsenal are his words, and he's got a million of them, and nearly all of them are quite amusing.

So what about this PG-13 nonsense? I'm guessing the only thing that would have been truly different between the released version and the eventual R-rated cut sure to be released on home video is the digital blood splatter after every knife slash. The Expendables 3 is hardly a bloodless affair and the body count is astronomical, but honestly, I didn't miss the blood and whatever gore might have been added. And honestly, I love the idea of younger kids getting to see this installment. They probably won't know who 95 percent of these actors are, but they'll still have a helluva time watching them do impossible stunts and wield the largest guns in existence.

The pure entertainment value of this series has come about as close as it's likely to get to realizing its full potential this time around, and I was genuinely excited to see the sheer volume of impossible stunts, gunfire, explosions and hand-to-hand fighting offered up here. I don't know if another installment is in the works or not. A part of me hopes they quit while they're ahead, but when does that ever happen? Still, part three is so ridiculously fun that I could almost get excited if they keep them up — dropping some characters (Bruce Willis is M.I.A. this go-round), adding new ones, and actually seeing how new and old work together, hopefully as well as they do this time around.

Let's Be Cops

There's really no getting around the fact that Let's Be Cops is a dumb movie about a couple of dumb guys doing exceedingly dumb things — bordering on dangerous. And while I don't believe in ever, under any circumstance, shutting your brain down to enjoy a film, I do sometimes enjoy a movie that involves the characters shutting their own brains off and behaving in ill-advised ways. It helps when the dummies in question are played by some of my personal favorite comic actors like Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle and Keegan-Michael Key (I'm still trying to figure out if Damon Wayans Jr. has got anything going on in the talent department, but he's growing on me).

Let's Be Cops follows two best buddies, Ryan (Johnson) and Justin (Wayans), who are both having rough lives when we meet them. Justin is pitching a new video game to his boss that involves beat cops, and he even hires a couple of actors to dress as cops to help with his presentation, which goes horribly wrong when his boss wants to add zombies and other video game cliches to Justin's simpler ideas. When the pair gets invited to what they think is a costume party, they don the authentic police uniforms and head out into the city, where they are immediately greeted with interest (from women) and respect (from men). Naturally, they grow to like the attention and decide to keep up the façade for a little longer.

Justin is never fully on board with the whole scam, which I guess makes him the voice of reason, and when the clearly mentally unbalanced Ryan buys a used cop car at auction and accessorizes it to look like a real cop car, things take many turns for the worse. A particular scene involving a "domestic abuse" situation with several sorority girls is truly painful to watch, and often quite funny.

Naturally, the film turns into a real caper film when Ryan and Justin get involved in a real case that involves organized crime (in the guise of James D'Arcy's not-very-convincing baddie Mossi) and crooked cops. Riggle (The Hangover) plays Officer Segars, a real officer who ends up looking up to Ryan's courage in the field and skills as an investigator. Let's Be Cops is at times a bit strange and sad the more you being to realize that Ryan won't let this charade drop because it's truly all he has in his life that makes him feel special. And the film doesn't sugar coat his demented condition, which makes you fearful for his life at times.

What a film like this boils down to is laughs, and director/co-writer Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Something Borrowed) provides just barely enough to keep us hanging on, hoping the next set of jokes will be bigger and better (spoiler: they rarely are). Johnson, Riggle and even Wayans seem clearly capable of filling in a great deal of the script's bare-bones plot with decent improv, but there's got to be something holding the improv together, and there just isn't with Let's Be Cops.

When the film is just about Ryan and Justin doing dumb shit, strangely things seem to work better than when the filmmakers force an actual story structure to the proceedings. Johnson and Wayans found they had enough of a comic chemistry making this film to justify bringing Wayans back to Johnson's Fox series "New Girl" this past season, and to be honest they seem way more in synch in Let's Be Cops than they do on the show, which is a plus, I suppose.

It's not exactly ground-breaking news when a handful of likable and talented comic actors end up making a less-than-thrilling comedy, but here we are again. It's tough sometimes watching people you know are funny have to struggle so hard to get a single laugh from their audience, but that's what watching this film was like. There's a foot chase that ends up in a hardware store, in which a naked man slides his full-frontal body right down Wayans face; it's gross and disturbing, and it's probably the highlight of the film. Do with that what you will.

Despite what you might have read, Let's Be Cops is not a buddy-cop spoof; it's actually the opposite of that. These two clowns are doing everything wrong, and mining jokes about how most of what they know about police work comes from TV, movies and YouTube videos. I'm more torn on this than I should be, but the truth is, the laughs just aren't happening enough in this film to warrant recommending. But the leads are enjoyable enough that you likely won't be miserable sitting through it with your idiot buddies.

To read my exclusive interview with Let's Be Cops stars Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr., and Rob Riggle, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Giver

If I never see another young adult film with some kind of choosing ceremony as part of its plot, I'll be eternally grateful. Okay, yes, I realize that author Lois Lowry's 20-year-old novel "The Giver" is essentially the template for many of the dystopian, sci-fi books with children as the central characters, but I'm not reviewing the book. As a film that comes after The Hunger Games and Divergent (to name just two), it feels like old hat as a storytelling device set in a mysterious society where, through medication, humans have been stripped of any extreme emotion, memories of the world before this modern time, or even the ability to see color. And this grand experiment in peace keeping seems to be doing the trick. But even among the elders who run this society (led by Meryl Streep's Chief Elder), there is a need to preserve at least some iota of what came before, even if it's only to remind the world of how bad things could get were emotions a part of the equation again.

Every few years, an 18-year-old — in this case Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) who shows a propensity for slight curiosity for knowledge in this world of being content and just like everyone else — is selected to be a pupil of The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the only man in society who hold the memories of the world before (our present world, in other words), complete with death, war, jealousy, envy and other bad behaviors. Of course, when The Giver starts mentally transferring these memories into Jonas (deemed the Receiver of Memories), he starts out slow, with images of sledding and hints of color. It actually kind of fun seeing someone discover color for the first time.

But Jonas becomes overwhelmed by some of what he sees, and he also grows angered that others are denied the gift of emotion. He discovers that he has a crush on his best friend Fiona (the quite good Odeya Rush of We Are What We Are and the upcoming Goosebumps movie), and he wants to tell her, but it's unlikely she'd understand. Jonas tricks his parents (in this world, babies are assigned parents who aren't their birth parents), played by Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes, into thinking he's still drugged, but his emotions are running wild and he must hide this fact or the thought police will come after him before his training is complete.

The Giver is an odd bird. While I admired its bold story elements about the lengths we would have to go to stop murdering each other on such a grand scale, it's tough to watch the Skarsgard administer a shot to a lesser-sized twin baby to "release" it and then send it down a garbage chute. I get that the book has always been controversial for moments like this, and that Skarsgard's doctor character doesn't actually realize that what he's doing is killing or even what death truly is, but for a PG-13 film, that pretty rough stuff. And its doesn't help that the filmmakers (including screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide) seems to nervously tiptoe around the sheer volume of infant and elder death that this advanced society condones.

The ideas about slowly waking up someone's mind to the way things really are isn't a new one, but it is an interesting concept. And Thwaites (who has been seen just this year in Maleficent, The Signal and Oculus) does a credible job keeping his reactions flowing from shock to amazement to horror. I think the biggest and perhaps most disappointing surprise of The Giver is that it was directed by Philip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Salt), a solid filmmaker who is slumming here, no matter how you look at it.

There's an utterly bizarre subplot/flashback involving The Giver's previous student, Rosemary, who is played by an almost unrecognizable Taylor Swift, whom he pushed too hard too fast and lost her to an emotional overload. I'm not sure how a well-placed couple of lines of dialogue couldn't have conveyed the same information in much less time, but what do I know?

The biggest issues I had with The Giver have more to do with how stiff and soulless the film seems even after emotion starts to creep into the picture. This society lives in a sort of cloud city hovering slightly over what I presume to be the ruined Earth below, but this separation is never really explained. It has become what it has beheld, and that is a colorless, lazy take on material without any effort to make it stand out in a sea of dystopian sameness. And don't get me started on how utterly bored Meryl Streep looks in her ridiculous wig. Appropriately enough, Bridges is the only one with any life in this film, but we've seen him doing this zen guru act before, so even he comes across as repeating himself. You want to give credit where credit is due, but as a stand-alone film in the context of today's YA sci-fi world, The Giver doesn't give us much to work with.

Venus In Fur

Based on the Tony Award-winning play by David Ives (which in turn was taken from the novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), Venus In Fur is an exhilarating two-person drama about sexual politics, defying expectations, role reversal, and maybe even a little bit about acting. And it should come as no surprise that this dance comes courtesy of director Roman Polanski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ives.

The great actor Mathieu Amalric plays playwright/director Thomas, who is at the end of a frustrating day in the theater, auditioning women to play the lead female character in latest play, an adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch's story about a woman who agrees to become the sexual slave of the male lead. As he's packing up for the day, into the theater walks Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's real-life wife), a slightly older actress than he's been seeing all day, who begs him to let her try out for the role. Her rough-around-the-edges ways do not bode well for her chances of getting the part, but Thomas allows her to read one passage, and suddenly the working-class accent and brash mannerisms disappear, and she turns into the sophisticated woman from his prose.

Before long, the two begin going through the whole play, but as they get deeper and deeper into the roles, the lines between the characters and the performers becomes blurred. Between readings, Vanda grills Thomas about why he chose this play and whether the male character's proclivities for sexual deviance mirror his own. Almost without realizing it, the pair meld into their characters and the tension (sexual and otherwise) builds to the point where it becomes clear that Vanda's original pushy, ill-mannered self was as much a put on as the character she's playing — maybe more so. Not surprisingly, Thomas' interest in Vanda transitions from mild amusement to utter fascination, bordering on obsession. As a result, the power in the relationship slowly begins to shift, and he becomes her psychological captive.

Venus In Fur is a wonderful acting exercise, and is easily the finest work that Seigner has ever done. She moves from frazzled to smoldering to delicate to terrifying, all in one scene sometimes. And I don't think it's an accident that Amalric's hairstyle, clothes and overall demeanor is remarkably similar to that of Polanski (this is not the first time the filmmaker has had a "stand-in" in one of his movies), but it's also not especially significant. The core of the film is the changing roles of women as objects of desire for men in power. In fact, the story can easily be seen as revenge for centuries of societal submission. It's thrilling to watch these fine actors at the top of their game do this dance, and the scenario gets even more dangerous as we get closer to seeing where they land when all is said and done. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Dinosaur 13

For Chicagoans, there's a certain amount of pride that comes with knowing that the fossilized dinosaur bones of the T-Rex known as Sue (an 80 percent complete specimen) are contained in the Field Museum of Natural History, which purchased them for more than $8 million. But after seeing the documentary Dinosaur 13, we may question whether Sue is housed in the correct setting and why she isn't in the hands of the South Dakota team that discovered her, paid money to own the fossils, and meticulously recovered and preserved the remains.

Fear not, the Field Museum is not painted as the villain in this story. In fact, most of the parties involved are happy that Sue ended up in a proper natural history museum and not in some private collection, where it just as easily could have landed thanks to a 1997 Sotheby's auction, in which the land "owner" where the fossils were found sold Sue after already having sold it to the Black Hills Institute, whose members (including Sue namesake Susan Hendrickson) discovered the bones in the first place in 1990.

The interviews with the original Black Hills group, led by paleontologist Peter Larson, about that initial discovery are thrilling, and the looks on their faces as they tell of the meticulous dig are so full of hope and promise, you tend to forget what happened two years later when overly armed FBI agents stormed the Institute and took not just Sue but pretty much every fossil in the meticulously organized facility. What followed were custody battles for Sue, laughable courtroom accusations of thievery from government lands, money laundering (by the loosest definition imaginable), piracy, you name it. And when one layer of red tape is conquered, three more take its place in one of the most flagrant example of headline-grabbing bureaucratic nonsense you'll ever see documented.

Director Todd Douglas Miller chronicles the years-long battle with lawyers, museums, Native American tribes, the government, landowners, and even the reputation of some paleontologists as money-grubbing fossil sellers. The film is based on the book Rex Appeal by Larson and freelance journalist Kristen Donnan, who is now Larson's ex-wife, and while it would be fair to question her biases, the research and documentation seems to cover all of the bases of both the initial discovery and the mind-numbingly detailed courtroom/ownership issues through the final sale, which netted the original land owner (the land was actually be held in trust by the government) millions of tax-free dollars.

While I'm still not sure who legally owns Sue, I tend to see it as where she might have done the most good for a community. Chicago has certainly done a wonderful job providing a home for her, but the small town of Hill City, SD, could truly have benefitted from having her at the Black Hills Institute. The emotions still run high among the participants and the townspeople, but I suppose the day the government gets anything right on the first try is the day filmmakers will stop needing to make compelling films such as Dinosaur 13. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The German Doctor

Part family drama, part medical horror story, The German Doctor is an odd yet fascinating duck indeed. Set in the Patagonia Mountains circa 1960, the film focuses on an Argentine family new to the region to restore and reopen a hotel in the snowy region that seems strangely populated by German expatriate, who still seem loyal to the Fatherland of 15-20 years before, which should (and will) clue you in to some degree about where this story is headed.

Into the family's life comes a doctor (Àlex Brendemühl) who latches onto them in fairly helpful ways, including financially when he insists that he be their first guest and pays them many months in advance. He takes a particular interest in the couple's 12-year-old daughter, Lilith (a fantastic Florencia Bado), which makes her father Enzo (Diego Peretti) slightly nervous. Lilith suffers from being too small for her age, and the doctor (clearly a researcher of some kind) offers up an aggressive form of treatment that he believes will help her grow. When the mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) gives birth to twins later in the film, the doctor is indispensable to them, but it's clear that his interest in the newborns is more scientific than genuine concern.

The German Doctor is filled with whispered conversations, and I don't think I'm even spoiling anything to say that the film's understory involves the search for Nazi war criminals. Anytime there's a TV on in a room, there's a story about how the Israelis have captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and whisked him away to Israel for trial. This news seems to make the doctor quite nervous and plans for him to be taken away are afoot.

The film never asks us to see the human behind the doctor — if you haven't figured out who he is by now, you need to bone up on your Nazi history — but at the same time, it does attempt to show a bit of the charisma he was known to have. Although it becomes clear early that any interest or kindness shown to this family was done strictly to get close to and experiment on these children. Directed by Lucia Puenzo (who wrote the novel the film is based upon), The German Doctor is an intriguing and tense little film that gets under your skin just enough to keep you captivated by its creepy story and disturbing titular character. The performances are across-the-board riveting, and one of my favorite elements about the movie is that I could never see where it was going (even if I did have the identity of the doctor figured out early on). If you're seeking out true alternative programming this weekend, this is your monster. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 

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Culture Tue Nov 04 2014

7,550 Miles from Home, Chicago's Ethiopians Build a Cultural Museum

By Danielle Elliott

Some 7,550 miles separate Chicago from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. For the 10,000 Ethiopians living in Chicago, that distance seems a lot smaller due to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Nov 14 2014

Dumb and Dumber To, The Theory of Everything, Rosewater, The Better Angels, The Overnighters, Altman, The Invisible Front & Bad Turn Worse

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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